Thursday, March 14, 2013
The Worst Job There Is
When it comes to jobs, what could possibly be bad about writing? You work from home. You set your own hours. You can put in your eight hours or whatever on the back porch or in front of the TV or in bed in your jammies. Sure, the pay might not always be the best and it’s kind of hit or miss. Weigh that against having to deal with bad bosses and back-stabbing, gossipy co-workers and money pales in comparison. You get to do what you love in your own time and in a place of your choosing and not have to work for or with jerks. If you work hard and luck runs your way, you can even make a living at it. That’s a better deal than WalMart offers.
Along with all the genre fiction I’ve read over the years, media tie-in books have found their way into my to-be-read stack on more than one occasion. You know the ones I mean; you’ve seen them on the shelves. Star Trek and Star Wars predominate, and even have whole sections of their own. A lot of popular (or at least cult favorite) TV shows have tie-in novels available. (In the case of Castle, the books are supposedly produced by the show’s writer protagonist.) Some cancelled shows, like Buffy and Smallville, have continued their storylines in comic books. No more dealing with actors demanding raises, and the budget’s limited only by the artist’s imagination.
Now that would be the job to have, if you’ve got a favorite show. No world building, no creating characters. All the heavy lifting’s been done. It would be like writing fan fiction, except you get paid for it. Somebody’s gotta produce these things, right? Why not you and me?
It can turn out to be a lucrative gig. Some publishers consider these books work for hire and only pay a flat fee, but others offer standard advances and royalties. With a built-in fan base and guaranteed sales, even mediocre writers can come out ahead. Your books will reach the shelves and readers’ hands, and money will reach your bank account.
And the books don’t have to be routine, by-the-numbers crap. I can name several Trek novels that are just as well-written and exciting as an original universe book. Timothy Zahn’s initial Star Wars trilogy stands out in this regard. For comic book readers and Buffy fans, I recommend the Angel and Faith series. I was never that big a fan of either of those characters, but I’m enjoying this run even more than the current Buffy comic series. (Summary: Giles is dead. Angel’s trying to resurrect him. Hijinks ensue.) As with any form of fiction, it’s all in the execution.
Then you have the downsides. A lot of these tie-in novels are routine, by-the-numbers crap. That’s not necessarily the writer’s fault. Remember, when you’re playing in somebody else’s sandbox for pay, you have to abide by the homeowner’s rules. That means no slash, you Destiel shippers. No Spock or Data suddenly developing emotions, unless they return to normal by the end of the story. No introducing permanent love interests, or killing main characters, or doing anything that can’t be reversed before the final page. You need to leave the status at quo for the next writer. This can lead to a lot of bland books. I know; I’ve read them.
Back in my SF writing days I briefly had an agent. It didn’t work out in the end, but that’s another blog. While it was working out, I asked him about the possibility of writing a Star Trek novel. I was really into NextGen at the time and had some plot ideas.
His professional advice: okay, if that’s what I really wanted. However, I should make the plot as generic as possible because there was only one market, and if they turned it down I’d have spent a lot of time and effort for nothing. Therefore, I should write a book that could easily be converted to an original-universe novel in case I had to recycle.
That would explain the general suckage of the Trek tie-ins of that period. Also the introduction of so many original characters interacting with the Trek casts. Somebody needed to grow and change and learn by the end of the book, since that was off-limits for the regulars.
You think that’s bad, try writing a book, or a comic series, while the TV show is still on. Months of writing and dramatic buildup can be negated by next week’s episode. I saw this happen a couple of times in DC’s Star Trek comic series. The early Marvel Star Wars comics had it even worse. No Luke vs. Darth confrontations or exploring the Luke-Leia-Han triangle or any good stuff like that. No anything until after the next movie came out. Somehow Marvel and DC managed to put out entertaining comics under creativity-smothering circumstances. I sure wouldn’t want to be that writer, though.
And that’s why I feel being a tie-in writer tying in to a still-running series has to be the worst job out there. You can’t do anything to shake up the world or the characters, which is the heart of fiction. Every idea you come up with has to be approved by the copyright holders, the studio, the lawyers, and who knows who else. You could see your whole plot air on the CW the night you type The End, or have your book rendered obsolete by the next episode’s plot twist. Or one of the main actors leaves the show (I see a lot of X-Files fan heads nodding out there). Depending on the deal you get with the publisher, the money might not even be that good. That’s assuming you even get a deal. If you don’t, you’re stuck with an unsellable novel. Writing in your favorite TV world may be fun, but you have to ask yourself: is it really worth it?
Luckily for us media fans, there is a way to have our cake and eat it too. That’s fan fiction writing. It’s unsanctioned because no money’s involved, so you can do anything you want. If you make it AU enough, you can even rewrite it as an original book, self-publish, build a huge following, and get picked up by a major publisher. Hasn’t happened to me yet, but I hear it can be done.