On Writing Tie-in Fiction – It varies!

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The Erevis Cale TrilogyA follow up to some thoughts I posted on Twitter.  This is based on my own experience, obviously, as limited as that is.  I’m not sure how coherent all this is (I’ve been fighting a terrible cold) but here goes:

First, I write tie-in fiction (I write original world fiction, too, but I broke into the business writing tie-in).  I’ve written in the Forgotten Realms, Star Wars, and Warhammer. I was contracted to do a movie-novelization once, but that fell through, though I did get a sense of what that might be like before the book was cancelled.  So, long and short:  I have some experience in this area.

Second, the term “tie-in fiction” essentially means fiction connected to some intellectual property (probably) better known for its presentation in another medium.  So, this could be fiction based on a movie or movies (e.g., Star Wars), a television show (e.g., the X-files or Doctor Who), a video game (e.g. Mass Effect or World or Warcraft), a tabletop roleplaying game (e.g, Warhammer or the Forgotten Realms), or even a trading card game (Magic: The Gathering).   And even those categories have subcategories.  In the movie category, for example, fiction might be based on a movie setting (e.g, most of the Star Wars “Expanded Universe”) or it might be an actual novelization of a movie (e.g., the novelization to which I alluded above, which was for the Green Lantern movie).

Third, I’ve long held the view, and still do, that the ratio of excellent to mediocre to bad fiction is exactly the same among tie-in fiction as it is among non tie-in fiction. This view, and my willingness to express it vocally, makes me unpopular in some circles.  I’m glad for that, because those circles suck. As a general rule, the view that tie-in is qualitative different than non tie-in has its origin in the same place — insecurity — as does the view among “literary” writers that literary fiction is superior to genre fiction. It’s all nonsense and reflective of hierarchically-minded primates scrambling to point at something and say, “But what I do is at least better than that.”

Fourth, sometimes folks (agents, critics, bloggers, etc.) talk about tie-in writing even when they have essentially no idea what they’re talking about.  Welcome to the internet.  So, let me address a few things I commonly see among those purporting to discuss/critique tie-in fiction (and again, this is based on my own experiences only):

1.  Tie-in writers are told what to write! 

As a general rule, this is incorrect, though the degree to which one can write where the muse leads is variable.  Here are some examples to show the variability:

For my first Star Wars novel, Crosscurrent, the editor said, “What do you want to write about?”  I made my pitch, they liked it, and off I went.

For Resurrection, the sixth book in a long series set in the Forgotten Realms, I was told how the book had to end (with X happening to a particular character), but it was left to me to get there as I wished.

For my Erevis Cale stories, I’ve always just pitched what I wanted and off I went.

For the cancelled Green Lantern novelization, I had very little flexibility, working, as I was, from a script.

The upshot is that sometimes you’re given tight constraints on what to write, and sometimes the constraints are loose or non-existent (and in that latter case, it’s basically just shared world writing, in a similar vein to the Thieves’ World anthologies).  Obviously, the creative demands vary considerably depending upon where things fall out on this continuum.

2.  Tie-in writers don’t even make up their own characters.

As a general rule, this is incorrect, though, once more, the reality is variable.  Sometimes you’re writing with pre-established characters (imagine doing an X-files novel, for example, where you’re writing Scully and Mulder), and sometimes you create your own (Zahn’s Admiral Thrawn, from Star Wars, or my own Erevis Cale, or Bill King’s Felix and Gotrek from Warhammer). Again, there are degrees.  A few more personal examples, which show how this can vary:

For my Erevis Cale stories, I created essentially all the characters from whole cloth.

For my Star Wars stories, Crosscurrent and Riptide, I took a character that more or less existed in-universe in name only and gave him all of the things you give to a character created out of whole cloth (back story, psych profile, motivations, etc.).  Ancillary characters in this story were my creation.

For Deceived, I was given some back story and details about Darth Malgus, upon which I built some additional details to make the characterization fuller.

Something else to keep in mind here is the amount of homework tie-in writers need to do to get things right.  Fandom parses these books.  If you’re writing in the Realms, or in Star Wars, or you’re writing beloved characters (Scully and Mulder, say), you need to get the setting details and the voice of the characters right. No mean feat, to be honest, and something that non tie-in writers don’t face (or at least don’t face in the same way).

3.  Tie-in writers don’t even make up their own worlds!

In general, this is true.  The setting is usually (but not always) a given in a tie-in, but (and this is a big but, about which I cannot lie, you other brothers can’t deny….) the setting is often large and only broadly detailed, such that there’s a lot of space for individual authors to elbow out their own room, detailing (for example) the intricacies of a city in the given setting, or a planet or moon in a given setting, or whatever.  The point is, while the larger setting is a given, as are some of the rules of the setting, the smaller “sub-settings” in which the events of a tie-in novel take place are often left to the imagination and creativity of the writer.  In that respect, the exercise in “world building” doesn’t differ all that materially from the non-tie-in situation (and, having done both, this squares with my experience).  It just might be citybuilding instead of worldbuilding.

All that said, some tie-in settings put constraints on your ability to do some things. The magic system in FR is a given, for example, and I can’t deviate from it without a good reason and explanation.  But in my experience those constraints have been easily managed, at least so far, and haven’t affected any of my tie-in stories in any meaningful way.

Oh, and tone is another constraint you have to keep in mind.  Star Wars has a tone (mostly optimistic and with a focus on the heroic) and I need to be mindful of that when writing a Star Wars novel.  In my Realms fiction (and certainly in Warhammer) I can go a bit darker.

4.  Tie-in writers have to write these novels under really tight deadlines, making the quality suspect!

Here again I’m limited to my own experience, but with only a single exception the amount of time allotted to me to finish a tie-in novel has been the same as that allotted to me for my non tie-in novels.  The exception was Resurrection, but that’s because the author initially scheduled to write the novel withdrew, resulting in a scramble, so the publisher needed me to work faster than normal.  And I think that’s indicative of the general situation. I know a lot of other tie-in writers and they seem to work on a typical timeline, except where some unusual exigency requires them to work more quickly.  Seems a rarity.

5.   Tie-in writers are paid a flat fee.

I’ve never written a tie-in book for a flat fee, but I know writers who have.  Advances and royalties (in the case of non flat-fee contracts) can vary widely across the various properties.  For example, one property for which I write pays a very large advance but has a low royalty rate, such that it’s hard for me to imagine the books I’ve done in that line earning out anytime soon (but then the advance was large by industry standards, so there you go).  Another line pays an industry standard advance and a reasonable royalty rate, and all of the books I’ve written for them have earned out.  So, it varies.

6. Tie-in writers don’t make much money doing tie-in.

Well, this varies (notice a theme here?) and I can only speak to my own experience:  My tie-in books earn far more than my non tie-in books (so far) and the amount that they earn is pretty solid (measured by what little I know of how much other, non-blockbuster authors make).  This year I’ll earn between $75-100K USD from my fiction and the vast majority of that will come from royalties and advances for tie-in work.  That’s not shabby, I think.

7.  Tie-in writers do it only for the money!

Every tie-in writer I know writes tie-in because they love telling stories, they love putting those stories in the hands of readers, and they love the setting in which they’re writing.  For my part, I’ve turned down lots of tie-in work over the years because I didn’t love the setting (obviously I do love FR, WH, and SW, which is why I write in those settings).  Earning money from your writing is no sin, of course, but I don’t know any tie-in writers who do it only for the money (and the same is true of non tie-in writers).

8. You don’t own your characters or story!

In theory this can vary by contract, but in general this is true.  Most tie-in work is “work for hire” as a legal matter, which means the writer doesn’t own the story, characters, etc. Does this mean that any derivative rights associated with the story or characters can be sold by the franchise owner without compensating the writer?  Well, it, uh, varies.  :-)Many contracts provide for payment to the writer in the event certain sub-rights are sold (so I’m paid for foreign translations of my WotC novels, for example).  But they don’t cover everything (I would receive nothing for Erevis Cale toys, for example).

Still, I have no legal claim to Erevis Cale.  WotC could, in theory, have someone else write a story featuring Cale. It’s hard for me to imagine that happening (because the author who wrote it would be one with zero professional pride and I don’t know any authors like that), but it could.

Anyway, I suppose that’s it.  If you have questions or comments, fire away.  The takeway, though, is to remember that things vary greatly.  Writing tie-in is no more a uniform experience than is writing non tie-in.  So anytime you read something by someone on the internet purporting to tell you this or that fact about writing tie-in, just take it all in while reminding yourself that it varies.

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11 thoughts on “On Writing Tie-in Fiction – It varies!

    • It was very interesting for me, as I’d never seen a Hollywood script before. Struck me as odd how bare bones it was, and made me appreciate the work actors, directors, and everyone else does in converting the paper to film.

  1. That is a very educational look at the Tie-in/Non Tie-in Fiction Writer. I hope to do a bit of both, and this is sound reasoning, giving the field. It has always been my dream to write various stories and books to share with the world so your input on this subject is very welcome here. 🙂
    Thanks Paul

  2. Before I met (in a virtual sense) I had very different (and erroneous) ideas of what tie-in fiction and their authors were like. I’ve come to understand some of what you outline here, but its useful to get things on the record. Thanks, Paul.

  3. the only real difference I note between tie in and otherwise is that for non Tie in books to be really great the writer needs to pay a lot of attention to detail, as far as history the events of the place the flora and fauna the energy. Tie in stuff has some of that already created that the reader is probably already familiar with and likes and therefore will be more readily digestible. Absolutely love every thing you’ve written paul… imo you blow all other fantasy writers today out of the waterin regards to egil and nix vs cale and riven I like the later but probably just because theres more to read about them maybe? SO WRITE MORE EGIL AND NIX ALREADY! !! I promise the next time I’m in Michigan I’ll bring you some good single barrel goodness

  4. So I’m familiar with the process one is supposed to take for traditional, original-world fiction, but could you elaborate on how one breaks in with tie-in fiction, how you did?

    Writing something and submitting it to the IP holder?

    • Brian

      In the case of the Realms, I submitted to an open call (WotC did open calls then). In the case of Star Wars, I queried the editor of the line after I was introduced to her by a colleague.

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