Mark Charan Newton was born in 1981, and has worked as an editor for imprints covering film and media tie-in fiction, and later SF and Fantasy. His first novel, Nights of Villjamur, is published by Pan Macmillan (Tor UK), and will be released in June 2010 from Random House (Bantam Spectra).
In a previous life, I worked as an editor of tie-in fiction for properties of 2000AD and New Line Cinema â€“ further adventures, not merely novelisations of screenplays. It was an immense amount of fun. The books were entertaining, the stories possessed many facets, and the authors were great to work with. They handled the job as seriously as any other writers Iâ€™ve met, and took immense pride in their work. For many, it was a stepping stone to getting their own work published. For others, they developed their craft in worlds belonging to others, exploring aspects that couldnâ€™t be covered on the screen.
Iâ€™m now a writer of original fantasy fiction, and Iâ€™ve been hugely lucky in the reception to my work, and this difference in attitude between original and tie-in fiction has interested me, and even shocked me.
So, meet Dan Abnett. You might have heard of him. Heâ€™s sold over 1.2 million books â€“ a staggering number. One of his Warhammer 40,000 novels was the 8th bestselling SF and Fantasy title in the UK in 2008 â€“ overall for the year. He writes popular comic strips for Marvel. He writes further adventures for Dr Who. He writes audio adventures. As well as recently releasing Triumff, an original novel, heâ€™s the undisputed king of tie-in fiction. But, I can sense from some of you out there that by mentioning the phrase tie-in, youâ€™ve automatically lost a little enthusiasm.
Why? Thatâ€™s what I want to explore with Dan. We had a conversation about tie-in fiction, work for hire, and original fiction, the stigmas associated, and why such snobbery only seems to exist in genre fiction. I really hope that we can change peopleâ€™s opinions about what seems to be the black sheep of the literature family.
Mark Charan Newton: You see it frequently these days â€“ a literary fiction star such as Jonathan Lethem wanting to write a comic strip for Omega the Unknown, or Jodi Piccoult writing a Wonder Woman series. There’s a sense of reverence and pedigree involved. It has cool factor. But those authors are writing for a franchise that is not creator-owned. It’s not their world; the characters are often not their own. But let’s go the other way. For an author to write tie-in fiction â€“ that is, fiction connected to a franchise or character, that isn’t technically owned by the author â€“ it is still treated as a gaucherie by the majority of genre fans. The books suffer by not getting proper review coverage, and sometimes they are not even considered as â€˜realâ€™ works. Why do you think tie-in fiction is treated as the second-class citizen of the genre world? I mean, the same could often be said about the treatment of genre fiction and the literary world. The situation reminds me of this sketch on class, with John Cleese and the Two Ronnies.
Dan Abnett: There are any number of contributing factors, and many of them are inevitably contradictory. Letâ€™s start with a basic assumption: if you write as a hired gun, you must be in it for the dosh. You donâ€™t really care what youâ€™re writing. Therefore (obviously), youâ€™re just crapping it out, words per square inch. In other words, tie-in fiction MUST by the very nature of its manufacture, be poor, disposable and second-rate.
Itâ€™s possible that an awful lot of people think this. They may not even mean to think it. Thereâ€™s also a possibility (actually, a very high probability) that an awful lot of people in what Iâ€™m happy to refer to as â€œmy line of workâ€ believe thatâ€™s what other people think.
I think itâ€™s worth getting this out of the way right at the start: writers of tie-in fiction may, sometimes, involuntarily, feel slightly guilty. They may be, involuntarily defensive. They know what the perception can be, and it contaminates them slightly. Tie-in writers can be their own worst enemies.
Having made that admission, we should reflect that just because youâ€™re paranoid, it doesnâ€™t mean that people arenâ€™t out to get you.
Mark: It’s interesting you mention the money as a perceived incentive, and you’re quite right. But I suppose without naming names, there have been writers who have been strapped for cash and wanted to do tie-in fiction because they thought it was easy money. Hang around at a convention bar and you’ll hear those stories. So, as an aside – you’ve written both original fiction and tie-in fiction, so which do you find is easier?
Dan: I actually think itâ€™s harder to write for franchises in many ways, as youâ€™re constantly checking (or you damn well should be!) that youâ€™re remaining true to the source, in terms of detail, fluff, character and style. Itâ€™s quite demanding to be so engaged, so â€˜onâ€™, permanently policing your actions within the boundaries of someone elseâ€™s property. In your own work, you only have to check with yourself about where the edges are. This labour is OF COURSE counter-balanced by the creative efforts involved in original invention – let me just say that before anyone has an indignant spasm. It is, however, worth pointing out that in many franchises (and Warhammer 40K is one of them) there is an immense amount of creative elbow-room for a hired gun, despite the quantity of IP already generated. I know Iâ€™ve generated as much new stuff, concepts and other fallout in my 40K books as I would have in an original piece of combat SF. Naturally, the same isnâ€™t true of a very â€˜tightâ€™ franchise like Who or Trek. Maybe that creative variation is something we can come back to.
Anyway! What Iâ€™m basically saying is that if a hired gunâ€™s doing his or her job properly and responsibly, it should be hard graft. Youâ€™re obliged to understand and work within an established universe, and create something that is both completely appropriate and sympathetic, while also being creative and innovative, without breaking the furniture or staining the carpet.
So people do that for money. Itâ€™s nice to be paid to write a Doctor Who story, but for many of us, itâ€™s also nice to write a Doctor Who story. Thatâ€™s a big part of the appeal, and perhaps one of the reasons that â€˜namedâ€™ authors such as you mentioned at the start are drawn to this work. Itâ€™s fun. Itâ€™s cool. Thereâ€™s a considerable geek thrill to be had from legitimately working on a franchise that you might have admired or even loved for years. You want to do a good job no matter what the level of remuneration (and, letâ€™s be fair, the likes of Jodi and Jon probably got paid a better than scale rate for their work. Probably. I donâ€™t know, Iâ€™m just guessing).
Isnâ€™t it interesting how the top end is swinging around just now? In the last year, weâ€™ve had a â€˜newâ€™ James Bond, a â€˜newâ€™ Hitchhikerâ€™, a â€˜newâ€™ Pooh, and a â€˜newâ€™ Wild Things, all by writers who were hardly unheard of beforehand. What was it that appealed to them, do you think? Did they get that electric geek thrill of legitimate participation that said youâ€™ve got to be part of this because you love it SO much, or were they hired guns in the bad old sense of the phrase? To paraphrase the classic Mrs Merton interview question, â€œWhat was it that first attracted you to the multi-gazillion selling franchise of Douglas Adams?â€
Mark: That’s one of the things many folk forget – that you can create as much in a franchise as you can in any SF novel. And how prescriptive are some SF novels these days? You have very similar check-in points: the singularity, or FTL travel – an unspoken set of rules to which a writer might adhere. It could be argued then, that in many respects, there’s little difference between original SF and franchise fiction, except for the brand or the built-in fanbase. There are rules for each. There is originality in both. There is room, in both, for talented prose and show-off art, and thereâ€™s plenty of scope for thought-provoking stories.
Excellent point about the new Bond and Hitchhiker novels. Perhaps they were very rare opportunities – one-offs – and authors thought, “I MUST write that book, I simply must.” But those are major properties, and bring with them a rise in author profile, certainly – not that Sebastian Faulks needed it. Bringing a prestigious author to a franchise certainly makes the industry take notice. The cynic in me thinks there were clever marketing types behind the scenes. But you’re right, there is a sea change.
I’ve never known tie-in novels receive so much fanfare and review coverage as those examples: because that’s the other bizarre thing – franchise fiction tends to be ignored by reviewers, especially in major genre magazines. They treat it as a lesser product, and hate to give it air time. I’ve heard some talk that, because it’s assumed tie-in fiction always involves a one-off payment and no royalties, the author gets little benefit. That’s certainly not the case for several franchises, and Some tie-in books make careers.
Sometimes I find that genre magazines are ignoring the very â€œbrandsâ€ that sell hundreds of thousands of copies – brands, therefore, that readers want to know about. Some reviewers might suggest that tie-in fiction doesn’t need the coverage since lots of people buy it anyway, but that could be said of, for example, the new Wheel of Time novel. Have you personally noticed much difference between coverage of your tie-in work, and that of your original fiction?
Dan: Yes. I have. Triumff is my thirty-sixth published novel, and my first original work. Creatively, it was a different experience in many ways, but as basic labour, it was largely the same in terms of man-hours, effort, necessary inspiration etc. I have had the experience of â€˜writing a novelâ€˜ on thirty-five previous occasions, and this felt like a close enough match. Already, however, itâ€™s being mentioned and reviewed all over the place. Thatâ€™s brilliant, of course itâ€™s brilliant, but itâ€™s startling to see how readily acceptable a book without the franchise tag is. Iâ€™ve been fortunate enough to have some good review coverage for my 40K books over the last few years, but the breadth of that coverage has been restricted. Iâ€™ve also written several best-sellers. The first one was Border Princes, the Torchwood novel. That was in the national top ten for something like six weeks, depending on which chart you read. Several major newspapers made no mention of it (or its two wingmen – the first three Torchwoods hit the charts together like sailors on shore leave). The top tens of these papers, week in, week out, omitted all tie-in and franchise titles. I also remember, when I was starting out and Iâ€™d written my first two or three novels, I taught myself to cherish the (genuinely intended) compliment â€œit was much better than I thought it was going to be.â€
I donâ€™t mean to sound bitter in the slightest. Do I sound bitter? Iâ€™m really not. Iâ€™m just pointing up the differences. Iâ€™ve been a freelance writer for two decades, and I started out in comics. Writing comics – for Marvel, for 2000AD – still represents about fifty percent of my working life. In comics, and letâ€™s use an American publisher like Marvel or DC as an example, the goal is to write an established character. Iâ€™m talking about the mainstream. There is fierce competition and honour involved in becoming the regular writer on, say, Captain America or Batman, in securing an X-book project or a Justice League mini-series, essentially in achieving tenure on a well-established character or team and making your contribution. The Dark Knight Returns is considered to be one of the best mainstream comic works in the medium. Itâ€™s simply Frank Miller giving us his version of Batman (yeah, I know, â€œsimplyâ€… you know what I mean). In comics, being a â€˜franchiseâ€™ writer (or artist) is the gold standard. Itâ€™s not simply that thereâ€™s no stigma attached to being a hired gun in the wonderful world of comics, itâ€™s positively encouraged. There is no pejorative association whatsoever.
Mark: Well you’re a better man than me – I think I could certainly be bitter with such a situation! But those last sentences really hit home – work for hire for comics has no stigma attached, work for hire in franchise fiction does. It’s as simple as that.
What do you think about the world of short fiction, or even serial fiction throughout history? Writing stories in a pay-per-word environment could, potentially, (and I really am playing devil’s advocate here, because this isn’t the case for the vast majority of writers), encourage purple prose, waffle and a tangential approach to narrative, yet because it’s original work, it will always be assumed it’s of a higher calibre than, for example, a tightly edited, quality piece of franchise fiction.
Do you think there are many similarities between the incentive to write short-stories, and the incentive to write tie-in fiction? (Properties aside.)
Dan: I think if someone is genuinely writing prose by the yard just to fill up a word count quota and get a pay-cheque, then more fool him, and more fool any readership that tolerates it. Or, come to that, any commissioning editor who accepts it. Despite the odd and inevitable case of the Emperorâ€™s New Clothes, surely readers can tell if somethingâ€™s good or not by their gut response? They can tell if someoneâ€™s just banging it out and their heartâ€™s not in it? Canâ€™t they? Please tell me they can!
There are writers from time to time, (and this goes for artists in other fields like movies and music), who seem to have a bulletproof aura about them. No matter what they do, they are regarded as touched by the genius stick. Sometimes itâ€™s baffling. Despite all evidence to the contrary, a piece of work can be hailed as the Best Thing Ever, simply because Someoneâ€™s name is attached to it and itâ€™s cool to say you like that Someone. Does that last? Do people see through it eventually when their love affair with [name of cool author here] fades in the light of repeated disappointment with their ACTUAL PRODUCT?
Thereâ€™s something refreshingly no-nonsense about tie-in fiction by comparison. It keeps your feet on the ground. It is, I suppose, easier to judge whether a tie-in author has done a good job. For example, a Star Trek fan will generally be able to tell if an author has written a good Star Trek novel. Does it get Star Trek IP â€˜rightâ€™? Has it hit the marks? Have fluff and character and continuity been respected? Tick all the boxes that make a good Star Trek novel a good Star Trek novel AND been able to successfully carry the book to a new level and do something fresh and exciting and unexpected that is STILL Star Trek? Iâ€™m thinking, just for example, of Peter Davidâ€™s Next Gen books, where he gave the readers everything they could want of a Next Gen book, plus his trademark zinging dialogue. The dialogue and repartee was often streets ahead of the show, but it was entirely in character and never threatened the IP. They were books that Next Gen fans wanted to read because they were great Next Gen books AND great books.
I suppose what Iâ€™m saying is itâ€™s hard to fool a tie-in reader with smoke and mirrors. If you do a particularly good job, theyâ€™ll tell you so, and your book will sell. If you do a bad job they will let you know by not buying it. They will never pretend to enjoy your book and/or understand, it just because youâ€™re the writer itâ€™s cool to say you like at the moment. They keep you honest. Shockingly, slap-in-the kisser and down-to-Earth-with-a-crunch honest. Which is good, right? ;)
Mark: Yes, that’s an accurate point about writers’ reputations. Perhaps that’s inevitable, and an ironic, benefit of tie-in work – that the fiction is noticed (when it is at all) more than the author. It also strikes me as that’s when criticism and reviewing is at its most honest, too.
But the fan reaction â€“ now thatâ€™s something else isnâ€™t it? Fans for tie-in fiction are a lively bunch, to say the least. Theyâ€™ll argue over the finest details. Theyâ€™ll be in awe at certain scenes and references. How cool is that for a writer, to get a huge spectrum of responses from passionate, caring readers? In an age where the death of literature is declared with predictable regularity, seeing so many fans react so vigorously is something else. Is that some consolation to the lack of review coverage in “established” venues?
Dan: Itâ€™s a great shot in the arm. I think the reason they can be so passionate is the very â€˜shared universeâ€™ aspect of tie-in fiction. An author of original fiction, no matter how beloved, can present him or herself to the readership as an aloof and unassailable master of his world, but a good tie-in writer is considered more like a trusted guide or an enlightened devotee. The universe in Triumff is mine: it comes out of my head and Iâ€™m god there, but the universe of Warhammer 40K is a thing separate to me, itâ€™s something both I and the 40K readers have a creative communion with, which means thereâ€™s greater equality between me and my readers. It is assumed, rightly most of the time, that tie-on writers are electrified by the worlds they have been given the keys to. We are as subject to the rules and laws of the world as the regular fan or reader; we cannot, through whimsy, mistake or simple disaffection, overwrite or overthrow the IP of the universe weâ€™re writing about. We may have been granted greater powers and greater access than the average reader, but we are still standing on the readersâ€™ side of things, sharing their enthusiasms and considering their speculations. We are sharing their experience, and they to want to talk to us about it.
Mark: So hopefully by now we’ve persuaded people to consider tie-in fiction as an equal of original fiction. In addition to this, I guess what a lot of readers don’t know is that high-profile authors of original fiction have written tie-in work in the past. Christopher Priest (of The Prestige fame) wrote a tie-in novel to accompany the David Cronenberg movie eXistenZ. World Fantasy Award winner Robert Holdstock has written tie-in fiction. James Blish novelised Star Trek. Jack Yeovil was a pseudonym of Kim Newman, who wrote many well-received Warhammer books. The list goes on…
There are some good books out there. So to finish off, which would you recommend to those who may still frown upon tie-in fiction?
Dan: Well, me for a start ;)
We could, between us, produce a long, long list: Iâ€™ve already mentioned Peter David on Trek, youâ€™ve just added Blishâ€™s Star Trek, and Kim Newman, then thereâ€™s Alan Dean Fosterâ€™s Star Wars and Trek books (he allegedly ghost-wrote the original Star Wars novelisation). In fact, Foster should have been mentioned before. A good case could be made for the fact that, with Star Wars, Alien and others, he set the bar for modern tie-in writing. Itâ€™s easy to underestimate what a good writer he is: heâ€™s incredibly readable and always brought extra meat to the bare bones of whatever IP he was working on. If thereâ€™s a general failure of tie-in writing, itâ€™s most commonly that â€œbare minimum syndromeâ€, usually brought about by over-harsh IP control. Anyway, in the seventies Foster thoroughly embraced the commercial prospects of the tie-in novel, cocked a snook at the associated stigmas, and did very well for himself, thank you. I have many literary heroes, but itâ€™s fair to say that Foster is one of my real professional heroes.
Where was I? You know what, I think if youâ€™re going to savour the works of the worldâ€™s hired guns, it ought to be done in the spirit of tie-in. Donâ€™t choose by author, not to begin with. Chose by property. Pick an IP you like. You enjoy Doctor Who? Go choose a Doctor Who novel that appeals. You like Dune? Etc etc. I think youâ€™ll soon figure out who you like reading. Itâ€™ll be the ones who get it like you do.