from the archives: writing tie-ins vs. writing fanfic

This is a piece I wrote on my LiveJournal in April 2015. After I mentioned my Stargate SG-1 novel Kali’s Wrath on Twitter, Alana Dill asked me how I wound up “in a position to be paid essentially 4 writing fanfic.” I couldn’t answer that in a tweet, so I replied on my blog. I’m running it again seven years later, as it still applies…

First of all, there’s no good way to answer the question of how you break into writing, whether it’s writing tie-ins, writing mysteries, writing newspaper/web site articles, or whatever. There’s no “right” way to do it, there’s certainly not one way to do it. You ask any ten writers how they broke in, you’ll get a dozen answers.

However, in the interests of answering Alana’s question, here’s how I broke in: as an editor.

From September 1993 to May 1998 I was on the editorial staff at Byron Preiss Visual Publications and Byron Preiss Multimedia Company, and then I went freelance, continuing to work for Byron on and off between May 1998 and April 1999. One of the projects I worked on for Byron was a series of novels and short story anthologies featuring Marvel superheroes. The project kicked off in the fall of 1994 with a Spider-Man novel (The Venom Factor, first of an eventual trilogy by Diane Duane) and a Spider-Man anthology (The Ultimate Spider-Man, which predated Marvel’s “Ultimate” line by six years).

For the latter, we had the cover done before any of the stories even came in (it was kind of a rush project), which featured Spider-Man and four of his foes. We had stories featuring three of those four foes, but we did not have a Venom story. I should explain that the process for every media tie-in work is as follows: the writer comes up with a story first, and that story outline has to be approved by both the editor at the publishing company who has the rights to the property and (more importantly) by the people who own the property, in this case Marvel Comics. The person at Marvel doing the approving was an assistant editor in the Spider-Man office, and he rejected six different Venom proposals that we sent in by six different authors. It’s now past the eleventh hour, and we need a Venom story because a) the character’s on the cover and b) Venom was by far Spidey’s most popular villain in 1994. In desperation, we ask the editor in question what he wanted to see in a Venom story. He gave us a sentence.

Now for this project, I started out as the assistant, working for John Gregory Betancourt (guru of Wildside Press, among other things). John left Byron in late 1994, and I took over the project solo, but he and I worked together on those first two books. At this stage, it’s too late to even hire another writer, and I offer to write the Venom story. I do a draft in two days, give it to John, he takes it, rewrites it from the ground up, gives it back to me, I rewrite it from the ground up, we both take a final look at it, and the end result is “An Evening in the Bronx with Venom,” and that’s how I broke into writing media tie-in writing.


Being an editor also helped me with my other early sales, mostly because the job put me in touch with people in a position to hire me to write stuff. Besides doing other work for the Marvel line (which was always edited by another of Byron’s editors on staff, either Steven A. Roman, Ken Grobe, or Howard Zimmerman), my talks with the upstart company Wizards of the Coast about possibly hiring some of their artists (which never actually came to fruition) led to me pitching a story to a Magic: The Gathering anthology, my hiring Andrew Lane to write a few short stories (including one for The Ultimate X-Men) led to me pitching a Doctor Who story to him that wound up in Decalog 3: Consequences, and so on.

(My favorite was Greg Cox calling me because he couldn’t find Dean Wesley Smith’s phone number and he wanted to hire Dean to write a movie novelization. But Dean was working on a novel for me at the time and I knew he wouldn’t be able to fit it in his schedule, so I offered myself in Dean’s stead. Dean forgave me when I finally told him later on, as he really couldn’t have fit it in his schedule. In any case, that was how I wound up novelizing the FOX TV movie Gargantua in 1998 under the pseudonym “K. Robert Andreassi.”)

That should answer Alana’s question — except it doesn’t, really, because what she asked was how I got to be paid for writing essentially fanfic.

And I’ve never ever been paid for writing fanfic, and neither has anyone else, because fanfic by definition is unpaid.

I’ve been down this road before, and I stand by what I said on the subject eight years ago. I’m not writing fanfic, I’m writing media tie-in fiction. That doesn’t make what I do better, necessarily, but there is a difference between the two, which is why they have different names. *wry grin*

Fanfic, besides being nonremunerative, is also completely freeform and not beholden to anyone — including the readership. If a fanfic is read by four people or four thousand, it’s of little consequence to the writer and doesn’t necessarily have any impact on whether or not the writer continues to write. If a tie-in isn’t purchased by enough people to make a profit for the publisher, more tie-ins won’t happen.

Fanfic can take any shape or form — drabble, vignette, scene, eight-million-word novel, whatever — while tie-ins are in a proscribed format — novel, novella, short story. Fanfic doesn’t have any kind of oversight by the owners of the intellectual property while tie-ins must have every step of the process approved by the IP owner. Fanfic also doesn’t have any kind of editorial oversight required, where tie-ins are professionally edited (this doesn’t mean that there aren’t excellent beta-readers of fanfic and this doesn’t mean that there aren’t tie-ins that are poorly edited, but the general principle remains the same that professional editing is better than not having that, for the same reason why when my toilet breaks I call a plumber rather than try to fix it myself). Tie-ins have to appeal to a mass audience of viewers of the show (not, I hasten to add hardcore fans of the show, as if you just appeal to the hardcore fanbase, you don’t have enough people to support a mass-market book), while fanfic only really has to appeal to the person writing it, and if other people like it, awesome!

And fanfic is illegal, for all that most IP holders turn a blind eye to it (especially as long as no money is changing hands at any point), tie-ins are legally licensed.

None of the above is meant to show that fanfic is superior to tie-ins or vice versa, merely elaborating the many differences between them.

Kali’s Wrath is not fanfic. MGM has to approve it (they made copious notes on the outline), Sally Malcolm at Fandemonium Books has to like it, and the readership has to buy it and like it. Oh, and I have a contract that says that Fandemonium will pay me a certain amount of money once MGM approves the final manuscript.

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