Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn: Genius Wrapped in a New Uniform

Cover art by Two Dots. Copyright © 2017 by Lucasfilm Ltd.

If you know anything about my deep, abiding love for Star Wars, then you know that I’m more than just a fan of lightsabers and starfighter battles. I also adore some of the clever things that the saga has produced, such as sympathetic Imperial characters like the infamous Grand Admiral Thrawn. Thankfully, he’s canon once more, and his original author, Timothy Zahn, has graced us with a new novel that ties into the closing run of the animated series Star Wars Rebels. It’s also a great opportunity for us longtime fans of the old Expanded Universe to see how Thrawn made his mark and climbed the ranks of the Empire as an alien.

In the early years of the Empire, a task force comes across a lone Chiss warrior in the wilderness, one claiming to have been exiled. When Mitth’raw’nuruodo (better known to the galaxy at large by his core name “Thrawn”) crosses paths with a young Ensign and translator named Eli Vanto, their destinies become intertwined. Together, between Thrawn’s military genius and Eli’s number-crunching, they’ll ascend the ranks of the Empire and prove a thorn in the side of both the High Command and the rising tide of insurgent groups. As Thrawn works his way to becoming Grand Admiral, he has his own agenda to pursue, and standing in his way is an equally devious opponent, orchestrating one encounter after another under the alias “Nightswan.” In this foe, the Chiss warrior has finally found his match.

Eli Vanto is a nice addition to the series. He’s a relatable protagonist, since Thrawn is more the main character with his career arc laid out before him. Eli has to make more critical decisions in relation to the Chiss warrior and in terms of his own principles. On the one hand, he’s very much the Watson to Thrawn’s Sherlock Holmes. But on the other hand, Eli is his own guy. He’s a loyal Imperial who’s fighting his status as a backwater rube destined to be a low-level supply officer—something he originally wanted to be, before our blue-skinned friend came by.

And speaking of characters who aren’t Thrawn, I was surprised to see Arihnda Pryce (the female Governor from Star Wars Rebels) make an appearance here. She’s basically the B-story in this novel, but it doesn’t diminish the book. Compared to Thrawn and Eli’s plot to maneuver the military chain of command, Pryce makes her own course on the civilian side. She’s earning and claiming favors in the political arena, fighting betrayals and stepping over others to get to the top rung of the ladder on Coruscant and Lothal. In effect, what we see here is the midpoint between Thrawn and Eli’s characters: another person from a backwater planet in the Empire, but one with enough political cunning and ruthlessness to snatch victory from every defeat.

I’ll also say that reading through Thrawn as a novel makes me appreciate the new canon in the Star Wars saga. Whereas the old Expanded Universe (now known as “Legends“) was a lot more disjointed and tried to cobble every story under the sun into the same timeline, the new canon is more streamlined and better constructed. Things are set up to tie into every other piece of media, from animated shows like Star Wars Rebels to movies like The Force Awakens and Rogue One to other novels like the Aftermath series. And it’s always a treat to see what Legends material authors like Zahn get to bring back, such as the Chiss Ascendancy and side characters like Voss Parck. I know those names don’t mean much to casual Star Wars audiences, but they help flesh out the universe a little bit more, blending the old with the new.

If I have one complaint about the novel (and really, it’s only one), it’s that the ultimate reveal and payoff of Nightswan didn’t thrill me like I hoped. I appreciated the connection that Thrawn had to this individual, but ultimately I was hoping for it to be a more established character from the franchise showing off their strategic prowess. Even so, this book is worth the price just to see Thrawn play intergalactic three-dimensional chess with such a worthy opponent, because that’s our Grand Admiral does best.

Star Wars: Thrawn is available for purchase from booksellers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and Books-A-Million.

Bibliography: Zahn, Timothy. Star Wars: Thrawn. New York: Del Rey, 2017.

Flash Fiction: “George Washington and the Pencil War”

I wrote this story for my friends last month, and it was well-received. You can also tell by reading this like I listened to a lot of the Hamilton soundtrack around that time, given how many lyrics I try to slip in here not so subtly.


George Washington and the Pencil War,

by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 633

The fairies were coming at sunrise. In the predawn light, the terrain was a rocky, deforested surface, long ago harvested to satisfy some ancient custom. Everywhere one looked, all that could be seen were trenches and barricades. Hundreds and thousands of pencils, stacked tight row by row, fully sharpened and ready for attack.

And who else should be standing on the front lines but the general himself: George Washington.

And his right-hand man, George thought to himself. He turned and smiled at his aide Hamilton. Of course Alexander had chosen to follow him through that magical portal while crossing the Delaware. He’d said something about “not throwing away his shot” at the time. George, at least, was glad to have him along for the adventure.

“Sir! Sir!” A young corporal came running up. He saluted and almost knocked the tricorner hat right off his head.

George saluted back. “Yes, Ticonderoga? What is it?”

“Fairies, sir! Tons of them!” The pencil-shaped man pointed toward the gleaming horizon. “They’ve come for the Stone, sir!”

Ah, yes. The Stone of Memories. No larger than a man’s head, but cut like a diamond. The royal family of this peculiar land had been very eager to show it off to their guests from another world. Long ago, they’d said, it’d been hidden in Pencil Land to stop anyone from erasing people’s memories. Essentially, they’d become that world’s ruler. And if the good people of Pencil Land knew anything, it was the value of a good eraser.

George smiled and leaned over to Hamilton. “Well? Let’s not keep them waiting.”

Hamilton grinned back. “Til the world turns upside-down, sir!”

“You can say that again,” Washington replied.

Some days, he missed being back in America. In the wilderness that he’d explored as a youth, or roaming the streets of fine old towns like New York and Lexington. To stand beside his men—real men—instead of these pencil-carved duplicates. But if he wasn’t going to be the one to save his strange land, then who would?

Meanwhile, dozens of fairies came soaring through the air. The Pencil Army opened fire, unleashing wave after wave of sharpened lead and eraser stubs. Both sides clashed in a vicious snarl. Scores of fairies came crashing to the soil in a spray of glitter and a cacophony of windchime screams.

And all the while, pencil soldiers threw up their hats and cheered, “General Washington! General Washington…!”

Then George felt a hand nudge his shoulder.

“General!” Hamilton shouted.

Washington sat up in his chair. He blinked and rubbed at his eyes. The weight of his forty-five years kept him rooted in place. With dismay, he looked around at his changed surroundings.

He was back in his old, weather-stained tent. The fairies were gone. The pencil soldiers were, too. Instead, George was clutching at a blanket draped over his lap and staring up at the stricken young face of his aide-de-camp Hamilton.

“Sir!” said Hamilton. “The troops are ready.” His hand twitched at his side. “They’ve been ready for some time now.”

Washington blinked and nodded. Confusion dissolved, and he let the familiar weight of his soldier’s mind settle back into place. Ever a mission to complete. That was what he liked best. He rubbed at his head and threw off the blanket.

“Very good,” he said. “Tell them… I’ll be right there.”

As Hamilton left his tent, George stood up. He was surprised, however, to look down and see a handful of pencils strewn by his feet. And beyond them, only a few inches away, an ordinary-looking stone. Some rock plucked from inside a river, like the kind he used to collect as a lad near Pope’s Creek.

George laughed and dropped the stone into his pocket. At least, he knew, the fairies couldn’t get it there.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

How to Write for Your Ideal Reader

If you’re going to be in the business of telling stories, you need to know your audience. Maybe you write travel articles for a living. Maybe you want to pitch your screenplay to a movie studio or TV network. Maybe you’re writing the Great American Novel. Whatever the case may be, you still need to know who’s going to be reading your work. You need to sell them on why they should want to read your work after Page One.

I’ve spent a few posts on this blog on how to write good stories (just check out the tag “writing advice” for more details). But I haven’t really talked about the other side of the storytelling process: the Reader.

If you’ve ever read Stephen King’s book On Writing, you know that he likes to write for one person. Namely, his wife Tabitha. Many other authors do the same. They’ll write for their spouses, for their parents, for that one childhood friend, or for that kid hanging out by the comic book store after school. It helps to imagine your Ideal Reader. To picture them in as much detail as you can, even if they’re not a real person like Stephen King’s spouse is.

So, if you’re curious about how to start, let me tell you about Sam.

Sam isn’t real. She’s someone I created as my Ideal Reader. Here’s what I wrote down about Sam.

Sam, a woman in her late 20s who’s big into books and digital tech. Maybe she’s a freelance writer and too burned out to even consider writing in her spare time. Maybe she’s handling research or video editing for some multimedia company. In either case, she’s looking for a break. For an escape. That’s why she’s a fan of science fiction and fantasy stories, or books that delve into different cultures. She just wants something she can sit and read during lunch, or a nice Web series that she can crack into at the end of the day. Sam has her own life to live, her own love interests and friends outside of work, but she’s into this world that I’ve created. It’s a cool, safe outlet for her brain. Because, dammit, she wants to think and feel something new, and not just what’s trending or what she’s been assigned.

Now, let’s break this description down. These are questions that you should ask yourself when you’re crafting your own Ideal Reader.

1. How old is Sam?

“Late 20’s.” That tells us she’s young enough to know about the big franchises of the late 1990s and beyond. So it’d be safe to reference stuff from that era.

2. What kind of work does Sam do?

“Freelance writer, research and video editing for some multimedia company.” So, Sam is someone who works with the media. She writes and edits Web content. She’s probably familiar with the latest platforms and trends.

3. What kind of stories does Sam like to read?

“Science fiction and fantasy stories, or books that delve into different cultures.” This matches with what Sam wants from her media: an escape. She doesn’t want James Patterson novels. She’s looking for exotic, colorful worlds.

4. How much time does Sam give herself to read or watch?

“During lunch” and “at the end of the day.” The time Sam has when she’s not working is limited, so she wants to make the most of her lunch breaks and her weeknights. If she’s got a book at lunch, then maybe she’d like to get through a chapter in under half an hour (and a similar amount of time for TV with dinner).

5. Why does Sam want to read my work?

“Because, dammit, she wants to think and feel something different.” This says just about everything you need to know about Sam. The other details are useful, sure, but this is the heart of the matter. Anyone can read a story that’s just passing time, but if you’re going to read something and enjoy it time and time again, then it needs something to pull you back. In this case, Sam wants to break away from her writing and editing duties. She wants to put herself inside someone else’s brain for a chapter or an episode.

That’s the kind of experience that I, as a writer, have to deliver for her.

So how about you, dear readers? Do you know what the Ideal Audience in your head looks like? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.


Flash Fiction: “The Dealership Driving in from the Cold”

Another story about time travel, but with a twist. Enjoy.

The Dealership Driving in from the Cold,

by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 775

In the eastern corner of Japan, somewhere around Yamanashi’s fertile fields, all was still and quiet. A heavy white layer of snow, gleaming like diamonds in the early daylight, covered the ground for miles in utter tranquility.

And disturbing that peace was Timothy O’Higgins. Sales rep for the third-largest Toyota dealership in South Milwaukee. Expert in selling pre-owned sedans of every make and model. Now slowly freezing to death in nothing but a kimono and his boxer briefs. In retrospect, he’d had one too many glasses of sake back at the hotel. Wherever that was. He presumed it was Tokyo and that he was nowhere near it now. Tim was pretty sure there wasn’t supposed to be this much snow and wide open space inside a metropolitan area.

Oh, man. Dave from Management was going to have his head for this.

Tim didn’t know when he passed out. But he awoke to several shouts.

Blinking away flakes of snow, he found himself staring at several large Japanese men. Some wore samurai armor. Others wore kimonos like him. All of them had their hair tied back in topknots. They all carried swords, too. And no one looked pleased to see him that morning.

The more Tim’s eyes adjusted, the more clearly he could see the the village behind them. Simple wooden houses and cherry trees that had yet to bloom. Plumbing the depths of his hangover-impaired memory, Tim recalled some fragment of an excerpt from a travel brochure. Lots of these historic villages were supposed to dotting the Japanese landscape, weren’t they? Or had he had somehow stumbled through a breach in time and wound up two hundred years in the past? He was starting to wonder if it were the latter, since the wood on these houses looked brand-new. As did the swords and armor these guys wore. Not your gaijin-style replicas.

“Get up!” one of the samurai barked at him. An older man, with graying temples and a pencil-thin beard. The katana in his grip quivered.

“Uh, okay?” Tim blinked. He sat up in the snow, shivering from head to toe. “Hey, um, what year is this even—?”

He stopped when a sword appeared next to his throat. Maybe confused English words were a bad sign around here, he thought.

“Up. Now.” The elder samurai glowered, as Tim stumbled to his feet. His soles ached from the exertion. “The Shogun will want to see you.”

“P-please,” Tim begged. “C-can I get something for my feet at least?” He gestured to his blue, frostbitten feet. Of course he’d been too drunk to wear shoes or sandals. “S-something… any k-kind of snow shoes you have!”

“Oh, that won’t you save you now,” a mocking voice called out.

Tim watched the row of samurai part. He watched a man in golden robes appear from inside one of the houses and walk over to the near-dead foreigner. And he could not believe what he was seeing when the Shogun arrived.

“Dave?” he asked.

“You bet, buddy,” his manager said. He flashed Tim that obnoxious perfect smile, with dental work that he’d gotten done at some Santa Monica clinic. “Who else would be in charge here?”

Nothing seemed real now. Maybe this really was another tourist trap. Tim struggled to stay on his feet, for reasons beyond the mere frostbite.

“A-are we in Tokyo?” he asked.

“What?” Dave snorted. “You still haven’t worked it out, have you? Christ, no wonder everyone at the Milwaukee office hates you. Quick on the sale, slow on the uptake. That’s our Tim.”

“What?” Tim couldn’t say anymore than that. He couldn’t feel anything after that. The cold was inching up his whole body. Blurring his vision. Slowing his heartbeat. A low, constant throb that almost drowned out everything else.

Almost. Dave’s voice rang clear and true.

“None of this is real, buddy. You’re still in the snow.” Dave chuckled. “You’re just losing your mind. Now, why don’t you click the heels on your ruby slippers and go back home, Dorothy?”

The next morning, a search-and-rescue team from the Tokyo Metropolitan Police found Timothy O’Higgins’s frozen body. He’d made it almost six miles outside of the capital.

A small funeral was held back in Milwaukee two weeks later. Tim’s co-workers only showed up for the free food being offered at the reception afterward. Meanwhile, his manager Dave Plitsetsky was kind enough to give a eulogy on his behalf.

“All in all,” Dave said, “Tim was a kind man who went off in his own direction. Much like how Toyota’s new line of Priuses, now with improved gas mileage, will take you anywhere you desire…”

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

5 Things I’ve Learned From Joining a Weekly Writing Group

If you’ve been following my Flash Fiction entries over the last year, then you know that I’ve been getting a lot of good material out of Write It Up! This weekly writer’s group is a pretty amazing circle of friends and aspiring authors, with none of the critique or competition that you might find in other groups.

The way our group works is like this. Every week, our organizer will hand out Post-It Notes to everyone at the table. Then we each have to write down a short prompt on our note, pass it to the person on our right, and write down another prompt. We repeat until every Post-It has a unique setting, character, object, story challenge, and genre written on it. Then, using whatever random series of prompts we get, we each make up a story from those prompts within the span of 45 minutes to an hour. It’s a great way to stimulate the imagination and break out from the comfort zone.

Being with this group for over a year now has helped me grow as a writer, and not only in how many hours I’ve put into writing with them. Here are just a few lessons I’ve picked up from my group.

Connect the dots between random ideas.

That’s what writing stories is, isn’t it? We’re taking the weird random nonsense of real life and putting it into a neat package, with a clear beginning, middle, and end.

So, at this group, sometimes we give each other wild prompts like “Paris,” “lumberjack,” “snowglobe,” “getting robbed,” and “romantic comedy.” Imagine if you were the lucky soul to get all that as your prompt for a story. Scary, I know, but it can be done. In fact, a lot of my stories start out like this (just check out my Flash Fiction page). All it takes is a tiny spark of inspiration, like picturing a lumberjack in Paris, and letting your imagination do the rest.

Work with a deadline.

At this group, we usually don’t go beyond an hour for writing up our short stories. Let’s be honest. Which would you be prouder of: that half-finished manuscript sitting in your hard drive or a genuine story that you wrote and read to your friends within an hour?

Get to know your audience.

One of the great immediate benefits to having a writer’s group is getting immediate feedback to any story you write. You’ll hear which lines or jokes stood out. You can see in real time when they’re paying attention, because boy did that scene not go where they were expecting. And who better to give you criticism and useful notes than a room full of fellow, experienced artists and friends?

Don’t wait for perfection.

When you have only 45 minutes to an hour to write up a good story, you can’t sit there and worry about whether or not it’s perfect. You only have to make it good. To get your friends in the group to hear and appreciate what you’ve come up with. So maybe you have one or two typos. Maybe you’re not the best at dialogue, but you can at least nail it on narration and character action. Whatever it takes to get your premise into a story with a beginning, middle, and end, as carried out by characters you like to write.

Enjoy yourself whenever possible.

If you’re not having fun, then why write? Yes, yes, I know that writing is a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. So is every other profession or hobby if you put enough work into it. But there’s something enjoyable about coming up with a story for someone you like and getting to hear their reaction to it. It’s one of the best feelings in the world, hands down.

So, readers, it’s your turn. Do you have any experience being part of a weekly writer’s group? Any lessons you’ve learned from those groups? Share your stories in the comments below.