Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

  • How do I get into writing my favourite franchise fiction?
    Franchise fiction is more commonly known as licensed fiction or "tie-ins" - you come up with the creative stuff, but the copyright remains with the owner of the franchise. Stories where the universe is yours are known as creator-owned or own-copyright; I hate the term "original" fiction, because much "original" fiction is far from original, and much franchise fiction is more original than creator-owned stuff. The difference is, crudely put, who stands to make the big bucks from it. It's about ownership of copyright, and not much else. As I've written both creator-owned critically acclaimed stuff (i.e. the stuff the lit snobs don't mind being caught reading) and tie-ins (the stuff the lit snobs never read but diss anyway) I hold the professional/moral high ground.

    And yes, I regard all the books like resurrections of Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming, and others as franchise fiction too. They're all set in another person's universe. No amount of avoidance of terms like tie-in changes that underlying reality.

    Any writer or lit professor who dismisses franchise fiction as requiring less creativity is a fool, and doesn't actually understand the craft of writing. Creatively, it's harder, because a lot of what you do is turning fairly dodgy basic material (movies and games can get away with inconsistent characters and plots that make no sense) into something coherent enough to make sense as a novel. And you're as locked into continuity in your own original fiction as you are in someone else's sandbox. Once you commit something to the page, then you're stuck with making everything else fit, although you're at least spared the random changes imposed by IPs because they want to make changes in the primary product. The big difference, as I say, is that you don't make the money from your ideas in the same way that you would if it was your own copyright.

    Anyway, every week, I get mail from fans of various franchises who want to write tie-in books professionally. Some have even finished novels and want to know how they go about submitting them to publishers. What follows makes specific reference to Star Wars, but it applies to pretty well any universe you might be a fan of.

    How did I first get into tie-ins? Because Del Rey approached me out of the blue on the basis of my first novel, City of Pearl. I didn't know anything about SW and I certainly wasn't a fan. I didn't even know what a tie-in was, to be honest, but I knew how to write a novel, and they could see that because I'd just sold a series to a major publisher. The best advice I can give a would-be writer is not to write stories set in their favourite franchise, but to concentrate on creator-owned fiction and get a name for that, and then the franchise might approach them. All the franchise work I've done has come up that way; editors called me because they knew what they were getting. They'd seen what I could do and what my strengths were, and they knew I could do it very fast, too.

    Now I'll explain that advice.

    If you've already written a tie-in novel without being asked, and you want to get it published, I'm afraid it'll never see the light of day except as fanfic. There's no point writing a novel if you haven't been contracted to do one. And there's no point sending franchises your ideas, because they're all drowning in them, even if the quality of their output might make it look as if they haven't had an idea in ten years. They know what they want, to a greater or lesser extent. And not only do they not need unsolicited ideas or manuscripts, they generally don't even want to see them for legal reasons -- because from time to time, fans or would-be writers accuse franchises of stealing their ideas and take them to court. It's easier not to even look at the stuff in the first place.

    Franchises and the publishers who buy the right to produce books under that "brand" commission work from writers. Generally, they decide broadly what they want – "how the war between the Thargs and the Grollies pans out" – and then ask a writer if he/ she wants to do it. If you're offered a work-for-hire contract, sometimes you get free rein to do pretty well what you want within very broad parameters they give you (like the Republic Commando books, where my brief was just making it "about a squad") and sometimes you get something like a movie novelisation where the story has - obviously - already been decided. (But even then, some franchises will let you ski off piste while others want the writer to stick to the script, word for word.) It can also be anywhere in between. But, by and large with tie-ins, the owner of the franchise picks the very broad subject area, and you come up with the story, or if they already have a more specific idea, you submit proposals within that for them to choose from. That's true for most if not all major franchises. I know of only one franchise that would look at unproven writers, and even that was a closed process, not a case of being open to submissions from anyone.

    Okay, I got a lot more leeway when I wrote tie-ins. Franchises discussed things with me and asked me what I thought would be a good direction to go in. Mostly I got to do what I wanted. But I only had that freedom because I'd already proven I knew what would add value to a franchise, and my sales track record speaks for me. I'm a very safe bet and I've demonstrated that I know exactly what I'm doing. But if you're A. N. Unknown, you won't walk straight into that situation.

    The only way to get asked to the tie-in party is to be a published writer to start with, by which I mean you need to have your own books published and in the bookstores, either by a traditional publisher or self-published via something like Kindle, because if you've done okay via self-publishing then a sensible editor will be able to check out that book and see if they think you're competent. What editors need to know is that you can also meet the "invisible" professional standards, though. The powers that be approach professional writers because pros have demonstrated they can produce material to a certain market standard and understand the disciplines and deadlines of the job. There's also a group of specialist tie-in writers already out there, writing across a wide spectrum of genres. It requires a certain mindset that not all professional authors can manage, and it requires speed. You won't get years to write a book. In many franchises, it's weeks.

    The biggest potential stumbling block for fans who want to be writers is that work-for-hire demands that you accept that the franchise is the boss, for good or ill. There's no point telling the guy who owns the copyright that he or she is wrong and the fans know what's best -- which seems to be a common thread in fandoms. (I'm not saying all franchise are right all the time, but they do hold the legal ownership all the time, and that's what you need to understand.) Some franchises are a joy to work with and treat you as a valued professional; some are frankly vile and treat you like dirt; and some are quite nice folks but frustrating as hell because they're chaotic, can't make decisions, won't give you the information you need to do the job, can't manage their own content, miss all the deadlines you need them to meet, and so on. In short: you have to be able to grit your teeth and take stuff that you would never have to put up with if you owned the copyright yourself. I'm guessing that a lot of fans would be painfully disappointed if they ever got to work for the object of their affections, because they'd hit the rocks the first time the franchise wanted something that didn't fit the fan-writer's personal vision of their beloved universe -- or they'd just be horrified by how disorganised and badly thought out some of it is. (Like any industry, but at least a rolling cock-up in publishing isn't like a rolling cock-up in the nuclear industry or your local neurosurgery unit... )

    This is one reason why I say it's a bad idea for a writer to be a serious fan of something -- if it's only a job to you and you're not emotionally invested, you can do what needs doing and just look at the nuts and bolts of the craft, and write a good book, comic, or script. If you don't get the tools and spare parts you need to do that job (or you don't get paid, or the franchise or publisher is too much of a pain in the arse to work with) then you move on and forget all about it. But if the franchise is a tender part of your psyche, you'll be too wedded to the stuff, and you'll find that the creative decisions made above your head will hurt and may even destroy your love of the franchise. Be careful what you wish for, fanboys.

    Now to my other main reason for saying fans shouldn't write pro books, and it's about the customer, not the writer. It's always hard to say this to people who want desperately to write books in their favourite universe, but being a fan is seldom the best qualification for writing it. Fans think that because they love a particular franchise and think they know a lot about it, that'll automatically mean they can write good books. Alas, that's not the case, because a successful book is about the depth of the characterisation and the way it's written - not the plot, the subject matter, the continuity detail, or even a love of the universe concerned. In fact, that love can make it much harder to write, as I've said above, because a fannish writer might not be happy to let go of favourite ideas or kill off characters if they're told to, and they might write material that only means something to serious fans, not to the vast majority of casual readers on whom the industry depends.

    In fact, if you write a franchise book that requires the reader to have some knowledge of the universe before they can understand or enjoy it, you've failed at your task, with a cap F. Books - all books, actually - have to stand on their own and be accessible, without needing "qualified" readers or accompanying handbooks. (Science fiction generally is notorious for alienating the general reader or viewer with its barriers of insider-understood tropes.) My benchmark is that anyone should be able to pick up one of my tie-ins and get into it, even if they know nothing about the franchise. I did that by making the characters come alive, not by making the stage they were on too esoteric.

    And it's not only would-be writers who can fall into the fan trap. Even if you're a pro, if you're also too much of a fan you won't be giving the customer your best. Deep down, you may want the reader to love something the way that you do, even if you don't realise that. You'll shy away from showing the warts and grey areas that every fully-fleshed character should have. You need to be willing to take brutal risks with your sacred cows, or you won't hit the emotional nerves that a good story needs. That's tough to pull off if your heart is tied up in that universe.

    If you want to make a full-time living at writing, being solely focused on Star Wars or Halo or any other franchise that you love isn't the way to do it. You'll need to have a much wider scope than that, and unless you're exceptionally lucky with your own-copyright fiction, you'll have to do other tie-in work, which you have to approach that with the same passion that you would your beloved franchise. That's the hard bit. Few professional writers can do it, which is why there's a core of specialists who can turn their hand to any universe. We have a way of finding something in any franchise that can generate enough enthusiasm in us to get a good book out of it, even if we'd never so much as look at that universe in daily life. Liking the subject matter to start with is not required -- nor is knowing a lot about it. In fact, the less I knew about a franchise to start with, the better the job I made of it, so I wouldn't touch a franchise that I was familiar with as a customer. I wouldn't have been able to view it as a writer.

    It's the difference between a hobby - fanfic - and a job. If all you want to write is SW, or Trek, or Halo, or BSG, then chances are you won't make it professionally because your personal motivation is too narrow and you're not coming from a storyteller's perspective. You've got to have more stories than that inside you waiting to be told. If you don't feel equally passionate - or at least enthusiastic - about writing a wide range of stories outside your particular fandom, then you won't write well, and that means you won't get a crack at the stuff you want to do anyway.

    One final thought: the only name on a book is yours. No matter how many franchise logos are plastered over the cover, you're the only person named. For good or ill, you take all the bouquets and brickbats. Pick your franchise carefully. If it's one with a great reputation, all well and good, but if you get linked with one that isn't so terrific, it doesn't matter how good your own work is; you're inextricably linked with the primary product, and that can taint you for the rest of your career.

    ©Karen Traviss 2008