from the archives: how to be a media tie-in novelist in six easy steps

This is an article I wrote for in 2000. Twenty years later, the article is no longer on that web site, but I still have the article here. A friend of mine found a printout she’d made of it years ago, and mentioned it on Twitter, and I figured I’d throw it back out there. While two decades out of date, the advice is, to my mind, still sound.


1. Be a fan

The worst tie-ins are by people who don’t have affection for the source material. If an author is writing a Star Wars novel for the money but never liked the movies all that much, it will show and readers will reject the story. On the other hand, if you’re a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and write a Buffy novel, the readers will be able to see your fondness for the characters in how you write them.

This ensures that you get the voices of the characters right, also. When you’ve created your own characters, you know how they talk, but with tie-in fiction, speaking patterns and mannerisms are already established. It is critical to make sure that what you’re writing resonates with the characters the readers know.

2. Establish yourself elsewhere

It is extremely rare for a person’s first novel to be a tie-in. Tie-ins are almost always schedule dependent–either it’s a series that has to have a new book every X number of months, or it’s tying into a specific event and so must come out to time with that event. Either way, editors of tie-ins prefer to have someone who has a track record–someone who has already been published, and who understands deadlines. There is enough agita producing a line of tie-ins without the added problems occasioned by walking a newbie through the process.

Occasionally you will have someone who breaks in that way–I did, as it happens. I was lucky that the program I broke in through–the Marvel Comics novels–had anthologies as well. That program used the anthologies as a breeding ground for novelists: successfully selling a short story, and turning it in on time, meant that you a) knew the characters and b) could hit a deadline. I had stories in three Marvel anthologies before I was given a novel contract. In addition to that, I spent many years as an editor of assorted novels (tie-in and otherwise) in the genre, a job that enabled me to make numerous contacts. This is not a bad route to take, if you don’t mind long hours, hard work, and crummy pay–but hey, it’s worked for plenty of others besides me…

3. Don’t listen to those who say you can’t develop characters

The biggest argument against writing tie-ins is “you can’t kill anyone, so obviously you can’t advance the characters.” The logic of this argument escapes me, as there are plenty of other ways to advance characters. Even if you can’t effect permanent changes to characters’ status quo, you can effect temporary ones, and that still leaves plenty of room to mess with their heads. Just view it as a challenge instead of a limitation.

4. Don’t grow too attached to your ideas, keep a thick skin, and choose your battles

The reasons why a tie-in plot can be rejected are legion, and many of them have nothing to do with how good it is. You could be doing something considered verboten, or that they’re planning to do in the near future, or that is already being done in another novel. If a plot is rejected, just move on to the next one. Also remember that many plots can be re-used in another venue.

In addition, the manuscript itself will often be changed by licensors and/or editors for reasons that have to do with the established canon and/or characterization. While there will be times where you will wish to fight these changes, do not fight each and every one of them. First of all, nobody is above editing. Second, you don’t own this, the licensor does, so they get final say. Thirdly, there will be times where you feel really strongly about something and will want to go to the mat for it. If you’ve established yourself as a malcontent who moans about every alteration to your precious prose, you won’t win those battles; on the other hand, if you’re an easygoing person, when you do fight for something, the novelty of the situation will aid in your cause.

5. Love your outlines

Every stage of the writing process has to be approved, so you not only have to learn to write outlines, you have to be good at it. This has advantages: it means that you generally don’t find yourself at Chapter 10 and wondering how the heck you’re going to end this thing. While many authors hate writing outlines with a passion, it’s a necessary component of the tie-in process.

6. Do it right

Generally, the publisher will have some kind of reference material for you to check if needed. But a familiarity with your source material will make life much easier. You can count on the licensor to catch any inconsistencies you might have missed, but it’s better to find them yourself. If nothing else, the fewer changes have to be made, the faster it’ll be approved and the faster you’ll be paid. (Plus people whose manuscripts are clean tend to get more work…) This also applies to other types of research–the “I don’t have to look stuff up, it’s just a tie-in novel” argument is fallacious. It’s still your name on it, and you should take pride in your work. So if your Star Trek novel involves a sun going nova, learn everything you can about a sun going nova. If you get it right, most readers won’t notice, but if you get it wrong, they will, and they will let your publisher hear about it.

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