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.
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.
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.