Author Marsheila Rockwell blogs about writing tie-in fiction.
You’ve seen them in the bookstores and supermarkets. Movie novelizations, or books based on your favorite TV show (or, maybe, if you’re of a geekier bent, based on your favorite game). You may have thought to yourself, “Nice work if you can get it.”
Well, it is nice work, and you can get it. I know, because I did, and I’m here to tell you how. But first, a little background.
Those movie-, TV-, and game-based books are what is known in the business as tie-in fiction, or work for hire. Unlike fanfic, which is unlicensed fiction that uses someone else’s characters and setting (and can get you sued, especially if you try to make money off it), work for hire is fiction that has been solicited and paid for by the license-holder. Sounds a little dirty when you say it that way, I know. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the image a lot of people have when they think of tie-in work – fiction written by seedy hacks who need a quick buck to make the rent.
In all fairness, back in the seventies, tie-in fiction was the purview of those who wrote with more speed than craft. But that hasn’t been the case in a very long time, and nowadays, the list of tie-in authors is star-studded and award-rich, including such luminaries as Greg Bear, Vonda McIntyre, Elizabeth Hand, and Terry Bisson. And, really, that makes sense. These are multi-million dollar properties – Star Wars, Star Trek, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). It’s not too likely they’d let any hack off the street come in and devalue those properties with shoddy writing, is it? Quite the contrary; license-holders are in the business of making money, and that comes from hiring writers who can write both fast and well, and who know a property inside and out – usually, because they are fans of it themselves.
That’s how I got my start. I’d been playing D&D since the third grade, and writing and submitting my work seriously since college. So when the opportunity came to submit a proposal for the 2003 open call Wizards of the Coast (WoTC) had for a book in their Forgotten Realms “Priests” series, I was all over it.
This next bit is probably the most important part of the story: I didn’t win. But, I didn’t let that stop me.
My writing was good enough to get the attention of the WotC editors, and I continued to submit (and submit, and submit) to them over the next several years until one of my proposals finally fit their needs, and they offered me a contract. That book (Legacy of Wolves, 2007) became my first published novel; I have since written two more for them (The Shard Axe, 2011, and Skein of Shadows, 2012).
Writing tie-in fiction isn’t for the faint of heart, or for those writers who languish dramatically in their chaises, hands to foreheads, waiting to be visited by an alabaster Muse. It is, first and foremost, a business. Tie-in writers have to be able to work under tight deadlines, absorb a lot of information quickly, take criticism without internalizing it, and abide by strict and often byzantine rules. It’s also largely an invitation-only business: you get work based on the work you’ve already done for other properties.
That doesn’t mean a newcomer can’t break in, however. Though open calls are rarer now than they were ten years ago, they still happen – Warhammer has one every year, for instance. Don’t expect it to be your first writing gig out of the gate, though. Get some publishing credits under your belt first, preferably in the same genre as the tie-in work you want to do – I had a good friend get a tie-in contract because an editor read a short story of hers online and loved it. Go to conventions where tie-in properties and their editors and/or writers are featured, listen to what those editors and writers are saying, and if they give you advice, do yourself a favor and follow it. Professionals remember two types of newcomers – those who are willing to learn, and those who think they’ve already learned it all. Since a surprising amount of tie-in work comes through referrals, you want to make sure you’re remembered – for the right reasons.
The above pointers aside, keep in mind that getting the opportunity to submit something for a tie-in property is just the first step, arguably the easiest one. Once you have that opportunity, you have to make the most of it. How?
Well, the good news is that the answer to that question is the same regardless of whether you’re writing tie-in or creator-owned fiction. Look for things that haven’t been done before, for settings or characters that haven’t been used. Mix genres, juxtapose elements, twist things the way only you can twist them.
For example, I love dwarves, and I love crime shows. So, in my tie-in novel The Shard Axe (which is set in the world of the MMORPG, Dungeons & Dragons Online), I combined those two loves to tell a type of story that hadn’t been seen yet; namely, the hunt for a dwarven serial killer. I also added elements to the story that aren’t usually a staple of D&D novels, like a romantic subplot and a deeply flawed heroine who is a master of both snark and axework. And I gave her motivations readers could understand and relate to – Sabira is driven by guilt, duty, and a hefty gambling debt to accept a mission she doesn’t want, protecting a client she can’t stand, in a city brimming with bad memories and worse enemies. Personally, that’s a storyline I’d find compelling regardless of the universe it was written in.
And that’s the secret, really. Write stories you want to read. Be focused, flexible, and professional. If you do those things, pretty soon you might find your tie-in book on one of those supermarket shelves. Hey, it’s nice work if you can get it.
Marsheila (Marcy) Rockwell is an author, poet, editor, engineer, Navy wife and cancer mom. In addition to her tie-in work for Wizards of the Coast and others, she has an original series of Arabian-flavored, female-centric sword & sorcery stories out from Musa Publishing, Tales of Sand and Sorcery; the latest installment, “Shaala and the Tiger’s Daughter,” was just released in November. She’s also penned dozens of short stories and poems, and several articles on writing tie-in fiction. You can find out more at http://www.marsheilarockwell.com/.