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.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

#Askagent: The unvarnished truth.

As some of you who follow my Twitter feed know, I host a very impromptu, sort-of-monthly, sort-of-regular and always-unscheduled Twitter chat called #Askagent.

What is #Askagent? #Askagent is agent/editor/writer free-for-all, where a group of agents, editors and other book industry pros open themselves up to questions from writers for a couple of hours or until they drop from sheer exhaustion. It's a lot of fun, and always draws hundreds - sometimes thousands - of participants. And we can have as many as twenty agents and editors answering questions all at one time. Some of the regulars who join me in co-hosting #Askagent are agents Jennifer Laughran from the Andrea Brown Agency, Elana Roth from the Caren Johnson Agency, Jason Ashlock from Moveable Type and former Bantam editor Juliet Ulman. It's a great group!

When is #Askagent and why isn't it scheduled? Quite honestly, it isn't scheduled because those of us who co-host it never know when we are going to have a big enough chunk of uninterrupted free time every month. Also? The spontaneity of #Askagent is one of the things that makes it so much fun. When I have the time, I'll shoot an email off to my group of regulars (the agents, editors and other book industry pros who may be available to answer questions) and let them know when it will start (usually after 10:00 PM EST) and ask them to let me know if they be able to join us. And then I'll start throwing some tweets out into the wild to let the rest of the Twitter-verse know. I can always count on a handful of folks who read my Twitter feed to pass the message along at the speed of light, because most writers who have participated in #Askagent want to come back for more!

#Askagent moves fast, and sometimes questions need repeating because they move through the Twitter feed so quickly that we miss them, but we try to get to everyone as best we can. And not all of us have the same answers; one of the great things about #Askagent is that you get the feedback from more than one agent at a time, so that you can really start to understand just how subjective a business this is, and just how differently we operate. (By the way, we recommend using Tweetchat to follow #Askagent; much easier!)

There's only one rule at #Askagent: NO QUESTIONS ABOUT QUERY LETTERS!

Because, let's face it: one can only be asked "How can I write a better query letter?" so many times before one's head explodes in a Scanners-like organic veil of blood, brains and gore.

I admire agents who can repeatedly answer this question with grace and good humor. I, however, am not that agent.


I said it.

I don't want to talk about your query letters. I don't want to hear you to talk about your query letters. I don't care if anyone ever talks about query letters ever again in my lifetime. THAT'S how sick of the subject of query letters I am. My chat, my rules!

So... if you're going to join us in an #Askagent session - and I encourage you to do so! - please use that time to ask more productive questions of the book industry pros who are offering up their time for free. Ask about how coop works. Ask about marketing and publicity. Ask about non-fiction book proposals. Ask about platform building. Ask about how to build a relationship with your editor. Ask about the language in your contracts. Ask about anything other than query letters.

Because there's more to your writing career than your query letter.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Guest Blogger Alan DeNiro hits the road for a good cause: Mercy Corps!

My client Alan DeNiro is hitting the road down South for his book Total Oblivion, More or Less. He'll be appearing at the prestigious Virginia Festival of the Book through March 21st, and then moving on to Richmond, Chapel Hill, Charlotte and Asheville. (Check out the full list of appearances here.) Alan asked me if he could talk to Swivet readers a little bit about how his tour ties into fundraising for a cause that he is extremely passionate about, the amazing organization Mercy Corps. But I'll let Alan tell you all about it...
Thanks, first of all, to my super-agent for allowing me to post here for a little bit. I'm really excited to be hitting the road for an extended period of time in Virginia and North Carolina. So if you are in Charlottesville, Richmond, Chapel Hill, Charlotte or Asheville (or thereabouts), check out my appearances page for dates and drop by my reading!

One of the great things about giving readings, among many, is meeting people where they live, in their communities. I know personally that I can lodge myself in front of a computer for ungodly amounts of time--both in my day job and my "nights and weekend job" (i.e., writing). But to get out there in the literal and figurative sunshine can be huge recharge and recentering experience. It sounds pretty basic but can have huge dividends for one of the key benefits of writing and publishing: making connections between different human beings.

One other thing that I wanted to do is a real-life extension of what I've been doing online and that is fundraising for Mercy Corps. This blog post talks a little bit about the online efforts, but essentially: Mercy Corps is a fantastic organization that works all around the world to better the lives of ordinary people. (In particular, you can read about what Mercy Corps is doing in Haiti.)

And since Total Oblivion (albeit in a fabulist manner) has a great deal to do with displaced people and refugees in crisis, I wanted to use the tiny platform of the book to perhaps make a real-life impact.

So anyone that happens to come by one of my readings and makes a donation of at least $5 will receive an impromptu micro-story written for them--then and there!--set in the world of Total Oblivion, More or Less.

I'll also take requests--if you want a few sentences about your uncle, your dog, whatever... I can do that. And you don't even need to buy a copy of the book (although if you DO, I'd be more than happy to inscribe it in the pages therein).

Of course I'm still fundraising online as well, so if you can't make it you can still participate and I will send you a little story either by email or postcard!

Thanks all and have a wonderful spring!

-- Alan DeNiro

Monday, March 8, 2010

Academy Award Winning Movie Trailer. With Endless Cliches!

The best movie trailer of all time for a movie that doesn't exist! Seriously, if this doesn't make you laugh, you have NO SENSE OF HUMOR! Either that, or you have never watched an American movie trailer...enjoy!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Random House forms new IP Creation and Development Group with Keith Clayton to head.

Don't know how we missed this news yesterday but...

Random House - which has always been smart and forward-thinking in the way they handle licensed media - has formed a brand-new transmedia intellectual property group. Transmedia is a catch-all term for story content that can be accessed through multiple media sources including video games, social networks on the web, mobile platforms, in print and on film, etc.

The new IP Creation and Development Group will be headed up by my good friend Keith Clayton, currently Random House's Director of Creative Development.

From the press release:
The group will also offer editorial services to media companies that will enhance the world-building and storylines of their already existing IP.

Utilizing its vast experience in bestselling storytelling and, in particular, the Del Rey imprint's extensive expertise in game-related genres such as science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, and horror, the new Random House IP group is in a unique position to create complex storylines set in original worlds with fully imagined characters, world histories and geographies.
I'm thrilled for Keith and excited to see how this new way of looking at content will open up unexplored frontiers in storytelling.