Someone Else’s Sandbox

October 4, 2018

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Tim Waggoner has published over forty novels and five collections of short stories. He writes original dark fantasy and horror, as well as media tie-ins, and his articles on writing have appeared in numerous publications. He’s won the Bram Stoker Award, the HWA’s Mentor of the Year Award, been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the Scribe Award. His fiction has received numerous Honorable Mentions in volumes of Best Horror of the Year, and he’s twice had stories selected for inclusion in volumes of Year’s Best Hardcore Horror. He’s also a full-time tenured professor who teaches creative writing and composition at Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio.

The first “book” I remember writing was a version of King Kong vs Godzilla, drawn as a series of pictures on a stenographer’s pad. I can’t remember how old I was at the time. Eight or nine, maybe. I’d never seen the movie, only stills from it, published in Famous Monsters magazine, and the idea of two monsters battling each other fascinated me, so I created my own version. In a sense, you could say that my first novel was a media tie-in. I’m fifty-four now, and of the forty or so novels I’ve published, roughly half have been media tie-ins. There’s an attitude among some writers and readers that tie-in writing is a lesser form of fiction. Workmanlike and serviceable, perhaps, but nowhere near the realm of Art with a capital A. But I’ve found artistic satisfaction in writing tie-ins, and while it might be a different kind of satisfaction than what I get from writing original fiction, it’s no less valid to me.

In the publishing world, a tie-in is an officially licensed product based on an existing property, such as original novels set in the Star Trek universe. This is what makes tie-ins different from fan fiction, if not artistically then in terms of legality: officially licensed. The author is engaged by the publisher to produce a work for hire, the IP holder must approve the final work, and the author does not own the finished work: the IP holder does. Writers may have less freedom in this arrangement, but there’s still a lot you can do within the framework you’re given.

Years ago, I was on a convention panel with author Michael A. Stackpole. I forget what the panel topic was, but an audience member asked Michael if he approached writing tie-in fiction differently than his original fiction.

“It doesn’t matter what kind of fiction I write,” Michael said. “If my name’s on the cover, then it’s my book.”

I’ve never forgotten Michael’s words, and I’ve tried to approach my tie-in writing with the same attitude. I take tie-in writing as seriously as writing my original work, and whatever I write, I strive to do the very best job that I can. This attitude has made me a better writer overall—more, it’s made me a better artist.

Modern tie-in writers are hardly alone when it comes to writing stories about characters and settings they didn’t create. Telling stories that are shared by a culture is probably as old as our species. Stories featuring gods, heroes, or fabled leaders. Stories depicting events from history—exaggerated for maximum entertainment value, of course. How many novels, films, and comics have been created about King Arthur? About Robin Hood? Today, when fictional characters such as Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, and H.G. Well’s unnamed time traveler have become public domain—when an individual or company no longer owns them, but the world does—writers and filmmakers are free to tell their own stories about these characters. These writers have greater artistic freedom than tie-in writers since they’re not constrained by the requirements of an IP holder, but they’re still working with characters and ideas they didn’t create. The basic artistic impulse of working with someone else’s characters, settings, and stories—reimagining them and adding new details, insights, and perspectives—is a common aspect of storytelling. Humans find a deep satisfaction in telling, reading, and watching stories based on shared characters. We have an inborn need for these stories. They connect us.

We love new stories that reflect older ones so much that we created fictional forms called genres in which writers use tropes originated by others. The hardboiled private eye novels of Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane. The cozy mysteries of Agatha Christie. The epic fantasy of J.R.R Tolkien. The grimdark fantasy of George R.R. Martin. The robot stories of Isaac Asimov. The cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft. The small-town American horror of Stephen King. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Writers (and publishers) are so influenced by these works that they want to create their own versions. In a sense, all genre fiction ties in to the work of other writers. As with writing about culturally shared characters, there’s more artistic freedom working in a genre than when doing a straight tie-in. Constraints are still there, but they’re more elastic, the boundaries more easily pushed against and expanded. But the element of using other writers’ creations remains, sometimes loud as a shout, sometimes quiet as a whisper, but always present.

One of the most important benefits I get from writing tie-ins is relief from the darkness of my original fiction. Most of my original work falls into the horror genre, and while I love writing horror, it’s nice to take a break from it now and again. Even the horrorish tie-ins I’ve written, novels based on Supernatural and Resident Evil, aren’t as dark as the more personal horror I usually write. If writing horror for me is like diving down into cold, dark ocean depths in search of a story, writing tie-ins is more like swimming the warm, sunny waters close to the surface. Once I finish a tie-in project, I feel recharged and ready to tackle something dark again.

Writing tie-ins comes with its own artistic challenges. You need to capture the tone, style, and overall feel of the original property. There’s also an awareness that you’re writing for a community of fans—perhaps a very large, passionate, and opinionated community. You need to discover ways to meet their expectations of a story featuring their favorite characters and world, while at the same time providing an effective piece of fiction that is also your story.

As I mentioned before, you have boundaries in place when writing tie-ins. Some writers refer to this as “coloring within the lines.” Boundaries are, by their very nature, limiting, but they also present a challenge to the artist. What can you do within these boundaries? How far can you push the limits? Writing tie-in fiction is like being a poet and trying to write in a prescribed form, such as a sonnet or haiku. The challenge itself can be creatively stimulating.

There’s also an interesting collaborative aspect to writing tie-ins. You tend to work closely with editors and people who represent the IP holder and approve (or not) all licensed properties, including books. But the collaborative aspect goes even deeper. If you’re doing a novelization, you’re collaborating with the scriptwriter. If you’re doing an original novel based on an existing property, such as a book set in the Alien universe, you’re collaborating with the creators and scriptwriters of the franchise, and if you’re working with established characters, as with Supernatural, you’re also collaborating with the actors who’ve brought those characters to life. It’s a long-distance, one-way collaboration with people you’ll most likely never meet, let alone speak to, but it’s still collaboration. If you approach writing tie-ins with this spirit of collaboration, it can be quite rewarding.

Writing tie-ins, at least in my case, has led me to try genres I might never have explored on my own. My tie-in novels based on the Defender videogame and the Stargate: SG1 TV series allowed me to try my hand at science fiction, a genre I was always too intimidated to attempt on my own. I wrote a couple shared-universe spy novels for Gold Eagle that were never published. (The line folded before the books could come out, but hey, at least I was paid.) I also novelized the film xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, which is an action-adventure spy movie. I got to earn as I learned to write in these genres, and I’m confident that I can write an SF or spy novel if I want to—because I already have.

One of the things I like to do when writing tie-ins is to include subversive commentary on whatever property/genre I’m writing about. I try to be subtle about this so the commentary doesn’t seem too heavy-handed for readers, and so it doesn’t catch the attention of editors and licensors who might make me remove it. (I also do this with my original fiction, but don’t tell anyone.) At this point in my career, I’ve written six tie-ins for Supernatural, and one of my favorite things to do with this property is explore what it might really be like to be Sam and Dean Winchester. For example, Supernatural: The Roads Not Traveled is an interactive novel, meaning that at different points in the story, readers are presented with options to choose from before proceeding. Not only did I get to kill off the brothers in various “bad” choices, in one of them I wrote that Dean slipped on ice and broke his leg, and the brothers had to abandon the hunt to take Dean to the hospital—something that would never happen on a TV show where heroes are far more resistant to injury than in real life. I sometimes poke gentle fun at the overwrought emotional melodrama the characters on Supernatural go through, and I comment on the absurdity of characters who have repeatedly stood up to both God and Lucifer having their lives threatened by a garden variety ghoul in the next episode.

When I write tie-ins, I comment on pop culture in general, too. I wrote a Nightmare on Elm Street novel called Protégé, and I was able to make subtle commentary about Freddy, who began as a figure of terror in the original film but had become a wise-cracking antihero over the course of the sequels. I provided a reason in my story for why Freddy wore this less-threatening mask to disguise the insanely terrifying darkness that was his true self.

Does anyone ever notice this commentary in my tie-in fiction? I have no idea. But writing it satisfies me as an artist, and that’s enough.

When you write tie-ins, you get to add to the body of work about established characters and their worlds. Maybe your contribution is small in the overall scheme of things, but it exists. I’ve written tie-in fiction about Supernatural, Doctor Who, X-Files, Grimm, Xena the Warrior Princess, Stargate: SG1, A Nightmare on Elm Street, V-Wars, Kingsmen, Resident Evil, Transformers, Dungeon and Dragons, and more. My work is now part of the pop culture legacy of these properties, and that’s pretty damn cool.

Art is a work of self-expression that contributes to the artist’s community, culture, and profession. Tie-in writing may not make as great a contribution as other types of fiction, but it’s not the soulless hackwork that some view it as either. At least, it doesn’t have to be, and I hope mine isn’t. Because they’re my stories—every last one of them.

© Tim Waggoner

1 Comment

  1. P Diane Schneider

    Thank you for the enlightening description of tie-in as contrasted with fan fiction and genre literature.

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