Just Add Writer

You can sharpen your genre-writing skills as a work-for-hire novelist.
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In the publishing community, the phrase "work for hire" often conjures images of laborers toiling in someone else's field, earning very little pay and even less recognition. The term means that you're contracted by a publisher—usually on the basis of an outline and sample chapters—to write a novel using pre-established characters and settings. These projects often are called "tie-in" work or "media-related" novels because they relate to an existing product, such as a movie, TV show, comic book or game. Authors receive advances and royalties on these projects, but the creators of the original properties—often movie and TV production companies—own the copyright to the finished work.

Work-for-hire projects are sometimes perceived as "pre-fab" creations in the publishing world. After all, if the characters and settings already exist, what's left for the writer to do? And because the writer doesn't retain rights to the book once it's completed, work for hire is seen by some as exploiting authors. But such attitudes often come from editors and writers who've never been involved with tie-in novels.

In fact, there are plenty of arguments in favor of this kind of work. I've written 10 novels: four original and six media-related tie-ins. While not every book is equally near and dear to my heart, I'm proud of them all. Let's take a look at the potential pitfalls with writing tie-in novels, as well as the often-overlooked benefits—especially for writers of genre fiction.

Playing by the rules

I find it fun and challenging to work with a given set of elements—kind of like directing a play or writing a script for a TV series. I think of the project more like creating a collage than painting; it's innovation rather than invention.

Michael A. Stackpole, an award-winning game designer and author, agrees. A writer of Star Wars-based novels and other media-related properties, he rejects the notion that his work is creatively limiting. "Every writer is limited by the constraints of the world in which he writes," Stackpole says, "be it the real world or a world he's created."

Christopher Golden, bestselling author of The Ferryman and Strangewood, has written "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"-related books, and novels based on the "Angel" TV series. He's witnessed first-hand the problems some writers—even good ones—have constructing a story within someone else's guidelines. "I've also seen a lot of god-awful tie-ins," he says, "which would seem to indicate that some writers think it's a lot easier than it actually is."

Stretching your creativity

In my own experience, licensed work-for-hire projects have helped me broaden my genres and subjects. I've written an erotic mystery, a medieval vampire novel, a sci-fi action-adventure, even a Nightmare on Elm Street novel. Only time and reader reaction will tell how well I succeed artistically, but I've gained experience working in genres that I never would've gained on my own—experience I can apply to any other projects, including my original fiction.

Stackpole likens the challenge of writing in different genres to learning how to play golf. "If you play on one course, you'll get good at that course. It's only when you head out to play others that you're going to hone skills that might not have been needed before."

Not only does writing media-related novels sharpen your genre-writing abilities, but you're also forced to think up fresh ideas for well-developed characters and situations. When characters have appeared in several TV seasons, a series of films or hundreds of comic books, says Golden, it requires focus to examine relationships and foundations existing within that property. Those efforts pay off when writing your original work, too, because you'll look at your own efforts with greater scrutiny. "As long as you're passionate about your project," Golden says, "it can take you into genres and worlds you wouldn't have otherwise considered."

Building an audience

There's a myth in the industry that there's no crossover success between tie-ins and an author's original works. But Stackpole bears witness to the results. "I've spoken with other authors who've seen the readers following them, and I've got years of royalty figures to prove it." And while the crossover might be modest, it's worth it. Stackpole pulls in about 2 percent of his Star Wars readers. While this might not sound substantial, it means an extra 15,000 readers have made the effort to read his original material.

Stackpole warns that while tie-in books can sell anywhere from four to 20 times what a beginning author could expect on an independent novel, it's wise to keep things in perspective. "Any writer who believes these expanded sales are purely because of his talent is going to get a rude awakening when his own work doesn't do as well," he says.

A writer also has to keep in mind that the audience has certain expectations. For one thing, tie-in readers are very loyal to their property. "I keep in mind that I'm writing for the reader who's wearing Star Wars pj's, sleeping on Star Wars sheets in a room covered with Star Wars posters," he says. "If I can't show that reader that I know and love the Star Wars universe as much as he does, he'll hate the book. He won't blame the publisher or Lucasfilm for the book's failure; he'll blame me and will never buy another one of my books."

Getting feedback

As with writing nonfiction articles, the proposal stage allows the writer to collaborate with editors to shape the project into something the editor wants. I enjoy this collaborative process and find it stimulating rather than stifling.

Tie-in novels go through an additional layer of editorial feedback, the complexity of which depends on how the property holder deals with things, Stackpole says. "With my Star Wars novels, I ended up footnoting the books to help with the continuity checking, which made the approval process very easy."

Stackpole recalls a couple of incidences where story questions have clearly come from someone in the legal department or someone else trying to be helpful. But by and large, he says, editors and property holders, in an effort to get the best product possible, will give you a certain amount of freedom to keep things the way they are or to find another way to get certain effects.

Finding tie-in work

Editors of work-for-hire projects are usually looking for writers who, if not necessarily well established, have published before. So before you do anything else, make sure you're writing at a professional level and have published at least some short fiction, if not a novel or two.

The best way to begin the hunt for work-for-hire projects is to identify an already-established and ongoing series that interests you—visit the publishers' website and carefully read the writers' guidelines. They'll tell you what editors are looking for, how to contact them and what sort of sample materials they might wish to see.

Also, check out local writing conferences to meet editors who handle work-for-hire projects. Larger conferences, such as Worldcon, World Fantasy Convention and Gen Con, often feature panels and workshops conducted by editors of work-for-hire projects. Attend these panels, listen attentively and learn. Afterward, don't be shy about introducing yourself to an editor and asking if she's looking for new writers to work with. Who knows, you might wrangle yourself an invitation to submit a proposal.

Publishers sometimes have special contests or open calls for work-for-hire projects. Pocket Books, White Wolf and Wizards of the Coast have done tie-in novels in the past and will likely do so again. You'll want to check their websites regularly for updates.

Once you've written your tie-in novel, it's a good idea to let a professional handle the business details. Margaret Weis, author of the Dragonvarld trilogy and co-author of the Dragonlance Chronicles, advises writers to have an agent negotiate and review any contracts. Weis also credits tie-in novels with her success. "They led me to The New York Times bestseller list!" she says.

And maybe they'll lead you there, too.

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