Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Guest Blogger Ari Marmell on writing media tie-ins

My client Ari Marmell is the author of the recently published fantasy novel The Conqueror's Shadow (Bantam Spectra) and the forthcoming fantasy Goblin Corps (Pyr Books). He's also a veteran media tie-in writer and a writer for RPG player's guides. We recently had an interesting discussion about media tie-ins and the belief that many writers have that tie-ins aren't "real writing". But the truth is, writing media tie-ins may actually be able to help you become a better writer. But I'll let Ari tell you more about that...
The Tie-Ins that Bind
by Ari Marmell
It's a common belief amongst readers--so much so that, at least in my experience, it's pretty much accepted as a given--that authors would rather be writing their own “original” novels than working on tie-in materials. Tie-in fiction, so this belief maintains, is something that we do to pay our dues, or to pay our bills, while we're working toward what we'd rather be doing.

I won't pretend that there isn't some truth to that, for me at least. I've been writing (and trying to publish) my own fiction for over a decade, and the publication of The Conqueror's Shadow is one of the high points of my career, and even my life. If forced to choose one over the other, yes, I would pick original fiction over tie-in.

But only if forced. See, to me, the tie-in fiction I've done wasn't just a stepping stone, it wasn't just something I had to do in order to “make it.” It was something I wanted to do. It's something I still want to do, and I'd love to have tie-in novels intermixed with my original stuff for decades to come. But perhaps more importantly (and what I want to talk about here), doing tie-in fiction has made me a better writer in general, to the point that I would actually recommend that most sci-fi/fantasy writers dip their toes into the waters of tie-in fiction at least a couple of times in the early years of their careers.

Let's leave aside the more subjective benefits, such as being able to play with your favorite characters or settings, and focus on why tie-in writing is good for the career.
1.] Audience
Unless you're dealing with a relatively new property, any tie-in novel already has at least something of a built-in audience. You know there's already a market (even if only a niche market) that's going to look at your book, and--unless it's absolutely awful--probably a set portion of that niche market that's almost guaranteed to buy it. It certainly never hurts to get your name, and your work, in front of people who, if they like you, might just follow your to other properties, including your own.
Now, I need to clarify that this isn't as big an advantage as you might think. A surprisingly large portion of the tie-in audience doesn't pay much attention to who's writing the next in their favorite line; they're buying for the property, not the author. You have to really grab their attention to make them care enough to follow you outside that property. But it's still an opportunity to hook some of them, and it's more than you'd otherwise have had.
2.] Creative Stretching
The reason writers need to try different things, and that some of us take courses, is to stretch our creative muscles. If you keep doing the same thing over and over, you stagnate. The more you try, the better your writing is going to be--even if you then return to the familiar.

Working on tie-in fiction is a creative endeavor with requirements you won't find in original fiction. It's not just about creating a story, but creating a story that works with these specific characters--or perhaps creating your own characters, but characters that work in this specific setting. You might have to include a plot element or a character mandated from the property owner that you otherwise wouldn't have used, and you've got make that element fit smoothly. It can be limiting, yes, but that's the point. Learning to work within these limitations makes you a better writer even when those guidelines and borders are removed. It makes you a sharper plotter, a more flexible and adaptable writer; you're more able to view plot or character issues from different angles.
3.] Taking Feedback
Learning how to absorb feedback--positive and negative--is a skill that every writer must have, but few of us ever entirely master. (Nobody's skin is tough enough to completely ignore it when someone hates part of our work. Well, maybe Steven King, but he can just write a brand new novel over breakfast the next day. I swear, there's got to be at least three of him…) From editors to online reviewers to the husband or wife, we need to learn to take whatever's meaningful from any given response to our book, and to give it real consideration, even when our first inclination might be to dismiss it. Feedback is the only way we know how to improve.

You know what's a really good way of learning to accept feedback? Being in a position where you have no choice. When you're dealing with tie-in fiction, the property owner is final arbiter. If they come back and tell you “We're not crazy about the talking rabbit in chapters four through seven,” you don't get to ignore them. You might argue your case, explaining how the rabbit is essential to the plot and serves as a metaphor by which the reader understands the soul of the world, but ultimately, if they can't be budged, the rabbit goes. And if that means rewriting the entirety of chapters four through seven, well, guess who's rewriting chapters four through seven? (Hint: Look in the mirror.)

Yeah, it can suck. It can be remarkably unpleasant; I've done mandated rewrites on that level (though not for a talking rabbit), and it's rather like pulling your own wisdom teeth with pliers--rectally. But it's also educational. Because once you've been forced to adapt, and to rewrite around someone else's preferences, then you're in a much better place to do so on your own, to a much lesser extent, when your editor or your beta-readers object to something in your original manuscript. You already know how to do it, after all.

4.] Voice
It's not hard, for most writers, to stay in the voice of their main character throughout a book. It's your creation, and odds are it's got a lot of you in it, so of course the voice remains more or less consistent.

But what about for more than one book? What if you--as I did, with The Conqueror's Shadow and The Warlord's Legacy--come back to a character you created years ago, in order to write a sequel? No matter how easily the voice came to you the first time, it can be something of an effort to pick it back up after so long.

It's easier, though, if you've already spent several books writing voices for characters that you didn't create. Both of my prior tie-in novels, Agents of Artifice and Gehenna: the Final Night, required me to put words in the mouths of characters that had existed before I ever touched the property in question. And both were written for fans who were going to know pretty quick if a voice was wrong, and wouldn't be shy about letting me know. If I hadn't written those books, and learned how to capture a character's voice, then neither The Warlord's Legacy, nor even the rewrites/late additions to The Conqueror's Shadow, would have come out nearly as well as they did.

In fact, I'd posit that even if you're not worried about coming back to a character after some time apart, learning how to write other people's characters will still make your own better, because it makes you more aware of nuances of dialogue and behavior. Since you must study such things for some tie-in characters, you begin to examine them automatically when it comes to your own. And any sense a writer has on how to make Character X distinct from Character Y, any instinct to recognize when Character Z wouldn't say/do that, can only lead to a better book.
The big debate about tie-in, of course, is whether the material is, as many people seem to think, innately inferior to original fiction. Obviously, I think that's absolutely not the case, as I imagine everything I've said so far implies. But even if you think it is, if you're an author--and especially relatively near the start of your career--you could definitely do worse than to give it a shot. Even if you find that it's not your thing, you'll be a better writer for the lessons you take away from it.


Sharon Mayhew said...

Ari--Wonderful post and best wishes with your newest book. :)

Furious D said...

I've always believed that such work should be viewed as an essential challenge. Any writer needs to occasionally step outside their own comfort zone once in a while, and doing a tie-in is perfect for that.

It's the modern equivalent of the pulp magazines of the 1930s, with many of them having "house characters" like Doc Savage, etc., that compelled hungry young writers to challenge themselves by creating something new out of the already familiar.

Amanda J. said...

Wonderful post, and thanks for sharing! But how exactly does one go about getting a job writing tie-ins? Do you get a hold of the people in charge of the series? Do you write up a proposal? How exactly does that work? It's all very interesting stuff. :)

Ari Marmell said...

Amanda: To my knowledge, there's no single "universally accepted" way of getting involved in a specific tie-in property. The ways by which I've done it, or seen it done, are these:

1) In the case of the gaming tie-in I've done--for the Vampire: the Masquerade roleplaying game, several Dungeons & Dragons settings, and the Magic: the Gathering game--I was able to get those because I'd already done other sorts of work for the companies in question. I've spent years freelancing for RPGs, and in that time I've contributed to rulebooks for both White Wolf and Wizards of the Coast. So I was already in a position to learn about and take advantage of any fiction opportunities that opened up in those lines.

2) Have an agent. I know that quite a few agents have connections with publishers that do tie-in lines, and they can put your name forward as a candidate. There's no guarantee anything will come of it, of course, but Colleen and I have spoken about several properties that I hope to be working on in the future.

3) Invitation. If you're already out there as a writer, sometimes the owners of a property will come to you. I know, for instance, that some of the big name authors who have worked on the Star Wars line were approached and asked to do so.

I'm afraid that, to the best of my knowledge, there are few if any opportunities for fans to simply submit unagented proposals out of the blue. But just because I'm not aware of them doesn't mean they don't exist.

Ari Marmell said...

D'oh! I forgot one--kind of a major one, given the slant of my guest blog. :-}

A lot of tie-in properties, especially smaller ones, are often looking for skilled authors who can help build the line--and whose career they, in turn, can help build. So if you're an author with a few books out, it's sometimes possible to simply contact the people involved in the line and say "Hey, I'd be interested." It's not nearly as effective as going through an agent, and you do already have to be published (even if only a little), but it can work.

That Rebel with a Blog said...

Ari, great post, thanks!

DeadlyAccurate said...

Does it make me the ultimate geek that when I saw your name I immediately thought, "Isn't he Mouseferatu?"

Great post.

Ari Marmell said...

I don't know if it makes you the ultimate geek--but it certainly makes you my kind of geek. ;-)

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Anonymous said...

Ari-Interesting post. I've always looked down on tie-in writing, but you've made me think about it in a different way. Thank you for articulating your thoughts on this matter.

stacer said...

Depending on the publisher, just sending in samples of your writing and saying you'd be interested in writing for a particular line works as well. I'm a former Mirrorstone editor (Wizards' children's line) and we periodically changed what lines we were looking for writers in on our submission guidelines.

So look for submission guidelines and follow them. They usually ask for a sample of your writing that shows you can do the kind of writing they're looking for, and preferably that you know how to finish a book, and to do it on deadline. This matters a lot, because the books are often contracted on outline, so it's helpful to show them that you've successfully done a book before.

I know that sounds like a chicken-egg thing, and what Ari says about having had a book or two published before really does help. But I've also worked with first-time authors (meaning this is the first time they've been *published*) who had good "shelved" manuscripts that just hadn't sold yet. That is, it's possible to get tie-in work if you've never been published. It depends a lot on timing and on what the editor is looking for in any particular property.

stacer said...

I forgot to add that when you send in that sample, what happens is that it gets put in a big old file of people who want to work for that line. Then as the editor needs a new writer, she'll parse down who in that pile has what she's looking for, and get in touch with the most promising candidates. So "slush" can be your friend in tie-in publishing if you follow their submission guidelines.

Anonymous said...

So what's your opinion on fanfiction? Outside of the obvious legal issues of "publishing" it.

It doesn't do much to build your career, but a lot of the people who read it are just as vocal in their opinions as tie-in readers, and it does have the benefit of writing within more constraints than usual.

Matthew Rush said...

Great post, thanks for sharing Ari and Colleen.

Ari Marmell said...

Stacer: Thanks for chiming in. I didn't know that any of the various IP fiction properties had submission rules or slush piles these days; good to know some of them are still offering that sort of opportunity.

Atsiko: I'm not personally that fond of fanfiction, but if the writer is taking it seriously--and by that, I mean trying to write professionally, accepting and considering feedback, struggling to make the character voices accurate, and trying to actually tell a story, as opposed to just writing about Harry hooking up with Snape ;-)--then the experience can certainly be just as educational as any other sort of writing.

But anyone who wants to be a professional writer also has to know when to move off of fanfiction and start writing stuff they can actually attempt to publish. Fanfiction can be a step toward learning to be a better writer, but only a step.

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