Writing with One Hand Tied to the Death Star: Award-Winning Authors and Media Tie-In Fiction
Peruse the genre section of any bookstore and you will see a large chunk of shelf-space bending under the weight of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer novels. Lucrative and popular, media tie-in fiction is a sub-genre all to itself. It even has its own professional organization, the International Association of Media Tie-in Writers. At the same time, tie-in fiction has a reputation for being hackwork, a mercenary-gig writers do for money for a pre-set audience, creating fiction that doesn’t require much more skill than those of the pulp forefathers who gave it birth.
So it may be surprising that many award-winning genre writers have also tried their hand at tie-in fiction. Some have done it for money, some for love, most for both. Jeanne Cavelos (World Fantasy award, editor) wrote four Babylon Five novels. Bruce Holland Rogers (Pushcart Prize, Nebula, Stoker and World Fantasy award winner) wrote a novel based on the card game Magic: the Gathering. Jeff VanderMeer (World Fantasy, Rhysling award) just completed a novel based on the Predator film franchise, and the experience led him to produce the writing book How to Write a Novel in Two Months. And Elizabeth Hand (Tiptree, Nebula, World Fantasy) has published more tie-in fiction then the above combined, from the popular Star Wars franchise to the universally panned Catwoman flick. Bruce Bethke’s (Philip K. Dick award) is unfortunately best known for the novelization of the box office disaster Wild Wild West.
This is not a screed for or against tie-in fiction (if you love or hate reading the continuing adventures of anybody-who-is-not-real, great!), but instead a sample of experiences of award-winning authors writing for worlds not their own. Some experiences were good, some were bad, and some were downright fugly.
THE TIES THAT BIND
You don’t have to be a fan of tie-in fiction to write it, but it helps. Jeanne Cavelos adored the well-regarded tie-in fiction James Blish had done for Star Trek (eleven volumes from 1967-1975). While a senior editor at Dell Publishing in the 1990s, she also became a fan of the SF series Babylon Five (B5), in part because it seemed smarter than your average TV series in its attempt to use a novel structure for the series. After securing the rights to have Dell publish B5 novelizations, she left editing to pursue her own fiction, only to have Dell ask her to write a B5 novels. She did both a stand alone (The Shadow Within) and trilogy (The Technomage Trilogy). She pitched her novel idea to B5 creator and chief writer/director J. Michael Straczynski, which he loved. For the trilogy, she worked from an outline Straczynski provided. “Joe’s outline had as its centerpiece a great revelation about the techno-mages,” Cavelos said. “My heart jumped when I read it. That was a thrill, to be handed material like that.” She was thrilled to be adding to the story of a show she respected.
Jeff VanderMeer was also weaned on Blish’s Star Trek work. When the opportunity arose to write a novel based on the Predator franchise, he grabbed it. He’d enjoyed the films and this was a chance to write a different kind of fiction than his usual fare. “I love Joyce and Nabokov, but I also love action-adventure movies and really good thriller novels and pulp noir. So this just seemed to me like exploring some aspect of my tastes I’d never worked on in fiction form before. It’s bloody, violent, has some sex in it, and it’s amoral. Period.”
Rogers had gone to Wizards of the Coast to pitch an original novel and instead was offered the opportunity to write a novel based on the new and massively popular Magic: The Gathering card game. He loved the game, thought it would be an intriguing challenge, and the money was good.
Elizabeth Hand, however, had no interest to explore but the bottom line. “I’m a working writer,” Hand said. “I don’t teach or have a tenured position anywhere, or a pension, or a 401K. This is my day job, and doing media work has been a way to help pay the bills and underwrite my serious fiction. Period.”
STRUGGLING AGAINST RESTRAINTS
Tie-in fiction is largely defined by its limitations. You can’t just kill Captain Kirk or give Chewbacca a sex change, no matter how awesome a story might result. Your work must be consistent with the original source material, and this consistency is referred to as the “continuity.” Depending on the property, continuity can be light or heavy, and such limitations can be a pillory box for creativity. “I would blow my brains out if I had to write in the Star Trek or Star Wars universe,” said VanderMeer, “ . . . they have such a huge bible and backstory, I wouldn’t have the patience and I personally would feel horribly claustrophobic.”
Both VanderMeer and Rogers worked on properties whose continuity had few limitations. VanderMeer had a few Predator movies and novels, but otherwise was left to create the story he wanted for Predator: South China Sea. The approach was the same as his other work “write for myself and hopefully people will like it.” Still, he needed to keep in sight what “the core Predator audience would like.”
For his novel based on a card game, Rogers had almost no narrative to work with. “I actually saw this as positive . . . As long as I wrote fiction that used creatures, settings, and props from the game world, I could tell pretty much whatever story I wanted to tell.” The result was Ashes of the Sun, written under the penname Hanovi Braddock, a fantasy novel that found appeal with the gaming and non-gaming fans. Normally a slow writer, Rogers felt he could just “write and write without deciding on every detail. The editors might want to change everything I did, in any case, so I might as well commit to the first ideas that I thought of. As it turned out, the editors wanted minimal changes. And the novel was pretty good.”
Cavelos, on the other hand, dealt with the breadth and depth of B5’s continuity limitations. “I wrote my first B5 novel, The Shadow Within, while the TV series was still on the air. Major revelations about my main character, Anna Sheridan, and the novel’s antagonists, the Shadows, were forthcoming on the show, though I didn’t know this. I only found out when some B5 fans in the UK (where the show aired about a month ahead of when it aired in the US) emailed me. This forced me to make a bunch of 11th-hour changes once I did get the information. Luckily, these changes were generally minor, but chasing down the information caused a lot of anxiety and extra work.”
For Cavelos, writing her B5 novels was “harder than writing my own fiction in many ways.” Her original plots smacked against the continuity of the B5 universe, and again she had to scramble. But in the wake of this aggravation, she found ideas that were significantly better. “The limitations forced me to be more creative, to not go with my first thought (which was usually a familiar plot device) but to come up with something better. I feel that, in many ways, the more limitations I have, the better I write.” But Cavelos conceded that her B5 experience was also exceptional. Other properties are jammed with rules. “At some point I think the rules can become overwhelming.”
Even in the continuity-thick Star Wars universe, Hand found some room to breathe. “The four Boba Fett juveniles were all original books that I wrote, with original storylines and some original characters. I might receive directions to have various Star Wars characters make an appearance, but that was it. So it was fun. I wrote Hunted as a Jack Vance juvenile and had a great time with it.” George Lucas and the Gang were generally supportive, great to work with, and hands off. Not like Chris Carter, who demanded all the adjectives and adverbs be removed from her X-Files movie novelization. She also had the unenviable task of translating the awful script of Catwoman into something readable, only to have several more versions of the script arrive at her door, each with a different ending, each forcing her to do a re-write of a bad story that kept getting worse and worse.
Still, such frustrations were water off a duck’s back. For me,” Hand said, “tie-in work is work for hire and nothing more. It’s hack work, and I’ve never pretended otherwise . . . I have no emotional investment in media work, and no artistic investment save that I try my best to produce something worth the cover price.” While never substandard work, it wasn’t her best.
FROM GOOD TO BAD TO UGLY
All these complaints pale compared to the tsunami of ruin that accompanied Bruce Bethke’s efforts to novelize the film The Wild, Wild West. This cautionary tale is fully recounted at his website, so here is a summation of his self-described Faustian bargain. Bethke, the man who coined the word cyberpunk in 1980, had won the Philip K Dick award for his SF novel Headcrash in 1995. While acclaimed, it had mediocre sales, so when Bethke attempted to sell his next original novel, his editor said that while she loved the book, they could only make an “insultingly low” offer for it.
But, if he wrote a bestseller, he’d have more stroke with the publisher, and his future work would likely get a lot better advances. The editor said she had a tie-in project that would do the trick, the novelization of an action/comedy film staring Will Smith that would guarantee sales of an estimated 250,000 to Smith’s large fan base.
Bethke respected the original script and signed on to do the project so he could do his next novel with the promise of a solid advance. In doing so, he walked into a creative and imaginative bramble bomb. The original scriptwriters were fired, and a rotating door of replacements was brought in. Plot, character, setting and tone changed monthly as new scripts arrived. Eventually, Bethke was receiving faxes on a daily basis regarding script tweaks, and was expected to change the entire book at the same pace. The deadline approached before final script approval was made and the book went production with many continuity breaks from the final movie.
Then, the film tanked. Warner Brothers lost $180 million. The book sold in the mid 30,000. The film’s failure was a tar-baby that glommed onto Bethke’s name. When he pitched his next novel to Warner, he received a letter saying they could no longer afford to buy novels from him at all.
Ten years later, the experience still stings. Yet, the field is not all doom and gloom. “I’ve talked this business over with a lot of writers over the years,” Bethke said, “Dragonlance writers, Star Trek writers, game spinoff writers, screenplay novelization writers -- and in the end, I have to conclude my experience with Wild Wild West was exceptional.” He also noted that many people can write good and fun media tie in work, and novelizations have many more restrictions and headaches attached to them.
Still, he warns against tie-in fiction if your real heart in fiction is to compose original, compelling work. “In the long run [tie-in fiction] will only anger and disappoint you, and sap the energy you need to chase your idiosyncratic vision, whatever it may be.” In short, stick to your original-fiction guns and “don’t quit your day job.”
Jeanne Cavelos, Elizabeth Hand and Bruce Holland Rogers have largely given up writing tie-in fiction, each one feeling their time is precious and best spent on their own fiction. VanderMeer may or may not take up another property in the future. And Bethke won’t touch one with a ten-foot clown pole. Each one looked at the sub-genre a bit different than when they started, for good or ill.
VanderMeer had his expectations challenged. “I’m on record as saying I think tie-in fiction is crap. But it’s easy to say that if you haven’t written one . . . Would I have thought to do a Predator novel without luck and chance? Would I have done one without being paid up front? No. But from the beginning I thought of it as an interesting challenge . . . All I can really say is, like always, I tried to write an honest book and to invest it with the sense of beauty and horror I find in the world. And that it truly gets stranger and stranger as it goes along. You’ll find many VanderMeer signatures.” Plus, it has a Predator in it!
Jeanne Cavelos acknowledges the field has problems. “While there has certainly been plenty of bad tie-in fiction (and I mean plenty), there has also been some great tie-in fiction. It’s sad that tie-in novels are dismissed by critics and by many writers of ‘real’ fiction. A writer of a tie-in novel is doing the same job that a writer of an episode of a TV show is doing. The writer of the TV show episode can be celebrated, can be awarded an Emmy. The writer of the tie-in novel can’t even get reviewed . . . We could value [their work] a bit more.”
Rogers enjoyed his experience, but won’t dip back in. “At this point, I’m not sufficiently motivated by money to be interested in any work but work that is entirely my own.” Hand has given up writing tie-ins, focusing on her own work. She never pretended tie-in was anything other than hack work, though she had no problems with writing it, nor disdain for anyone else who takes up the work, whatever their motivation. “I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve kept the two streams of writing separate in my own professional career, but I’ve never written under a pseudonym, or denied having done media work. Still, I prefer not to. It takes time and energy from the work that matters most to me.”
Bethke concurs. Despite his experience, though, he offered this final does of pragmatism. “There are good media companies to work for. There are insane idiots who treat writers like migrant bean-pickers. The best advice I can offer to any writer who is thinking of tackling this kind of work is, do your due diligence. Contact other writers who have written for this media company before. Don’t believe the hype, ever. Try to get some sense of what you’re getting into before you sign anything.”
Writers come to tie-in fiction for different reasons. Some dig contributing to a mythos they love, adding their unique voice to the existing choir. Others desire a fistful of dollars and just get the job done. Most are stuck somewhere in between, just as the work itself is caught between the large and enthusiastic demands of readers and the disdain of the sub-genre from those outside its boundaries. Wherever you fall in the spectrum, tie-in fiction is too popular to die. Just like Spock!
Jason S. Ridler is a writer, improv actor, and historian. He is the author of A Triumph for Sakura, Blood and Sawdust, the Spar Battersea thrillers and the upcoming Brimstone Files series for Night Shade Books. He's also published over sixty-five stories in such magazines and anthologies as The Big Click, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Out of the Gutter, and more. He also writes the column FXXK WRITING! for Flash Fiction Online. A former punk rock musician and cemetery groundskeeper, Mr. Ridler holds a Ph.D. in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. He lives in Berkeley, CA.