Literary scifi authors from Vonda McIntyre to Jeff VanderMeer and Thomas Disch have written "works for hire" - tie-ins to movie, TV, or game franchises. Now authors tell io9 why they did it - and no, it wasn't for money.
Of course, money is part of it. But as Tobias Buckell told io9, "All my novels put food on the table, I write for a living!" It's not like his original fiction isn't making money. So what made the author of the top selling Sly Mongoose do a Halo tie-in called The Cole Protocol? Buckell told us via email:
My best friend Josh Smith had an 360 and raved about Halo for so long that when my PS2 died, he talked me into switching systems so we could play online together. Eric Raab (one of the editors at Tor where my books come out from) contacted me and asked if I would be interested in writing a Halo book, as Bungie/Microsoft was looking for someone to write a new one.
He already knew I'd played the game, because we'd talked about the gameplay earlier. I also had told him about the fact that I used to use Halo in lectures about common SF-nal tropes that had been picked up by the game, as a way of talking to high schoolers about the sort of stuff we liked to play with in the book side of things.
So I was very much on board when they approached me about doing it. I flew out to Seattle with definite ideas in my head that came from my playing the game and wondering about stuff. Stuff that I got to fill in when I got the go ahead. Which I thought was pretty cool.
Jeff VanderMeer, author of the critically-acclaimed Ambergris series, including recent book Finch, cited similar reasons for doing a Predator tie-in novel recently, Predator: South China Sea. He liked the film series, and he felt that he got to experiment with a lot of themes he deals with in his literary work. He told io9:
My Ambergris stories and novels feature quite a bit of fungal technology and strangeness associated with that. For my Predator novel, I included a fungal disease the Predator brings with him that infects one of the characters. And I used the Predator novel as "practice" with less leisurely cuts between scenes for next original novel, Finch. Although the Predator novel trades more in action film clichés than an original novel would, it definitely has some similarity thematically. What is heroism? What does transformation mean?
Buckell echoes VanderMeer's sentiments:
I felt I got to play with many of the same themes that always interest me in fiction. When I wrote The Cole Protocol, I was really interested in taking a look at the Insurrectionists a bit closer, as well as the civilian population caught up in the larger conflict. I'm always interested in the fallout of war, not just the glory part, having grown up in a country recovering from one.
As someone who brings a lot of the Caribbean I came from into my work, I also took the opportunity to take the name of the destroyed planet I used as a backdrop, and extrapolate why it had a hispanic name by giving the survivors Latino heritage. My interest in showing that cultural diversity has a fun place in action and adventure was not at all unconnected.
Vonda McIntyre was an award-winning author of classics like Dreamsnake and Superluminal when she was approached to write the first Star Trek novel, The Entropy Effect (she wrote about her experience on io9 today). And she loved the experience. But she also found that people tended to be judgmental about writing work-for-hire:
A few of my colleagues felt that I had "polluted my precious bodily fluids" and advised me to get a morally acceptable (to them) job. I did find it somewhat irritating to be told the acceptable ways of making my living (which I've made entirely from writing fiction since I finished school in my early 20s) by people who did not actually have to worry about making a living. I ignored them. But I was still irritated.
Thirty years on, it seems that many fans have realized that there's nothing "polluting" about doing work-for-hire. Buckell says:
Most people seem pretty enthused that I'm doing something I seem to genuinely enjoy. I've gotten more support than negativity. People are pretty awesome. I think we all have things we love or enjoyed in some media variation (some people I know love Star Wars, or Star Trek, or something like that), and so I think people recognize someone geeking out and having fun like I've been, even if it isn't their love.
Adds VanderMeer, "I think if I did lots of them it might begin to be an issue. But I put 110 percent into it, and had a lot of fun, and learned a lot about my own writing."
Another author who writes works-for-hire is Karen Traviss, who has penned a number of bestselling Star Wars novels as well as Gears of War tie-ins. She's also known for her original series, The Wess'har Wars. In a blog post last year, Traviss explained that fan reaction isn't the worst thing that can happen to an author who writes works for hire. Sometimes the franchise owners force you to take your books in a direction you don't want. She addressed her readers in her blog when she quit writing Star Wars books last year because there were sudden plot changes that she didn't think fit with her vision of the characters:
All I can say is that I was given enough of the detail in January [about changes in the storyline] to realise that changes in continuity were such that I wouldn't be able to carry on as originally planned with the storylines you were expecting to see continued in my books . . . It would have required a lot more than routine retcon. Some changes we choose. But some happen to us and have to be faced head-on. Tie-in work is, by its very nature, subject to a lot more unexpected change than other writing - it's someone else's copyright, and the writer has to live with that. It goes with the territory. That's why professional tie-in writers don't get emotionally attached to what they're working on. It's not that I take the task casually; but it's not my property, and the stewardship of it is always temporary. A pro has to be able to shrug, move on, and say: "Okay, nobody died, and the cheque didn't bounce - result! Next?"
But as a writer, I have a moral deal with you, the reader - if I hook you with a story, my part of the deal is to follow through and give you a satisfying outcome. If changes beyond my control mean I can't give you that, then I won't do a half a job. You deserve better than that. And in five, ten, twenty years time, nobody picking up the books will know that the stories suddenly changed direction because the canon changed in the middle of it. They'll just see books that went off-course for no visible reason and didn't deliver what they promised at the start.
Traviss continues to happily pursue original fiction, as well as work for hire in the Gears of War franchise. McIntyre says she's finished writing Star Trek books, and no other franchise has captured her heart. "Besides," she adds, "At the moment, I'm wrestling with a long and complicated novel of my own."
In between working on multiple books, VanderMeer is still mulling over work-for-hire possibilities:
I would like to do a totally revitalized and perhaps heretical Aliens novel set in deep space and involving a couple of strangely conjoined generation ships. But I think I can actually do that idea in an original novel. I did have an idea for a sequel to my Predator novel set in Romania, but since my editor at Dark Horse moved on I don't know if either idea would fly.
Buckell says he's busy with original projects, but there's one franchise he'd be willing to tackle:
My favorite property has always been Wolverine. Even better: Wolverine vs zombies. Yeah. I know they had a zombie Wolverine in Marvel Zombies, but I think a straight up Wolvie vs. zombies would be dope. Even if I don't get to write that, I'm just sending that out into the universe, right? Because I'd love to read it.