Plotting Out the Novel

Plotting a novel is an endeavor in and of itself. In the past, I have not done much detailed plotting before starting to write. For most of my previous works I had a good idea for the concept, characters, and ending, but left most of the details fairly mutable, without a detailed outline or a very specific plan.

This approach worked very well when I was writing for the sake of writing, allowing a certain element of mutability to enter the stories and often serving to enhance the original concepts, but it also has its pitfalls. It is harder to maintain a consistent tone and flow of narrative when the story is defined only in vaguest terms at the onset of writing. And while most published novels go through significant changes between the first draft and the version that sees print, building an outline during writing may result in lack of focus unless the writer is exceedingly careful. Furthermore, writing without a well-defined outline lends itself to very linear type of writing, in which a scene has to be written in the order it would appear in the narrative. This may result in particularly powerful scenes envisioned early during the writing process to die before the writer has a chance to write them, since they may not have any relevance to the continuously evolving plot.

So, for my current project, I am going to do something different. This time, I expect to write out a reasonably detailed outline, along with specific notes on characters, novel universe, philosophies followed by the major factions, and the points I would like to make (which may warrant another post at a later point in time). It should help me with keeping the novel tight and focused, and hopefully will aid in creating compelling, consistent universe and characters. Moreover, it should help with weaving several major narrative plotlines into one cohesive whole.

This also points to another thing I will attempt – writing out of order. In the past, I have sometimes written the endings of my previous novels early in the writing process, but wrote the rest of the novel in linear order. Here, I will attempt to write scenes out of sequence, as long as they fit into the overarching novel outline. This should not tie me to linear flow of narrative, and would allow me greater freedom on what section to write at any given time, no matter where it falls in the novel.

With this in mind, I officially designate today as the first day of this new process – Day One of outline, scene writing, novel plotting, and what not. While I will not begin counting my daily word minimums until the basic outline is complete, I will still attempt to write scenes for their eventual inclusion in the novel, and will make best faith effort to deliver at least reasonable word counts every day. And as I have more of this novel written, snippets will follow for your reading enjoyment. What’s not to like?

Announcing New Project / Dystopias

Deciding on a next project is a hit-and-miss endeavor. There are no guarantees that it will automatically elicit interest in prospective readers, and in some cases, it may go against the conventional wisdom of what is big in the marketplace at any given time (as evidenced by success of many “young adult” fiction novels). When it comes to writing science fiction, all bets are off, since it runs the gamut from certain crowd-pleasers (military science fiction genre, which has a healthy and dedicated fanbase) to more experimental and sometimes less accessible works.

The reason I am bringing this up is because I have decided on my next novel-length project. Not surprisingly, it will be a science fiction novel, and space travel will feature prominently. But this time, I would like to explore another element of science fiction in the context of a future universe – the concept of dystopia.

I must admit, I am a sucker for dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction. One of the reasons for my appreciation of settings such as Warhammer 40,000 (one of many sources of inspiration for this project –the actual novel will have nothing to do with that setting) is their dark, gothic, dystopian atmosphere, which makes for very different kind of stories and characters. A character living in a bleak, hopeless world will have very different motivations and perspectives from a character living in a more idealistic or hopeful universe. I find it fascinating to write characters such as these, not only because my writing style tends to work well with them, but also because they are so different from both myself and the people I am likely to run into in the real world.

Writing such characters forces a degree of immersion in the fictional universe in order for them to come to life. A dystopian character who realizes that he or she is living in a less than ideal world, and that there is not much hope for it to change any time soon, is unlikely to become a proverbial knight in shining armor, or a paragon of virtue. Adversity may have different effects on people, but if adversity is all he or she knows, the character’s outlook will be very different from my own, and probably from that of my readers.

So, what makes for a dystopia? Some authors use exaggerated concepts of real-world concepts to make a point. Orwell did that in 1984, creating a modern classic while simultaneously making a political statement. Some other authors use dystopian settings to provide a gritty world in which values dissonance is utilized as a narrative tool. For example, the aforementioned Warhammer 40,000 setting, or the Fallout series of games both utilize dystopian, dark worlds, but instead of making political or social points, those worlds are used as contrasting settings to our own, aiding with the reader’s or the player’s escapism and creating a deeper sense of immersion into a universe with divergent values.

In order for a fictional dystopia to work, it must be convincing. There must be a good reason for why things are the way they are, and why they are not improving. It can be an external threat such as unreasonably hostile entity or environmental danger, or it can be a social structure that makes life miserable for the majority of the population. In order for the suspension of disbelief common in science fiction to succeed, there must be compelling reasons as to why things just cannot get better.

Truth is, many dystopian societies in fiction do not stand to Occam’s razor. Their survival and continuation usually relies on static thinking, repression of alternatives, and lack of credible internal or external threats. It is hard to believe that Stirling’s Domination of the Draka could have developed into a massive global threat without the rest of the world taking notice and cutting it down a few notches long before it ran rampant through Eurasia. One would think that even the repressive Imperium of Man from the Warhammer 40,000 setting could, in theory, enter a renaissance with just a small amount of good management and rational thinking. The real-life examples of dystopian regimes are isolated, and are usually incapable of surviving on their own without external support – even the worst theocratic or totalitarian regimes don’t have a very good track record for longevity without a powerful and wealthy state sponsor or two.

As such, writing a dystopia is challenging precisely because a writer must come up with valid reasons on why it cannot be changed. If any reader can point out logical inconsistencies (“what stops someone from rediscovering old technology or ideas and applying them? How can an inefficient economic system support a repressive system without reform for thousands of years? Why can’t these people come up with an alternative way to deal with extremely hostile environment?”), a dystopia rings hollow. Therefore, the reasons for the dystopia must be ironclad, and must prevent any action a rational, thinking person would be able to take towards fixing it. After all, the point of a dystopian story is not to tell a story of the protagonists overcoming the Evil Regime (or what not). The point of a dystopian story is to create a setting that is so thoroughly negative that its very existence makes a point about human nature, or frames the types of stories that can be told effectively within it.

With this in mind, I am setting forth to write a dystopian, dark science fiction novel. True, some of my past works had dystopian elements in them – “Flight of the Locust” was set in a rather unpleasant future, and “The Keys of Death” took place in a post-apocalyptic, dying world. That said, salvation and seeking a viable future for humanity was a major theme in both. This time around, I am planning on exploring a world where there is not much hope, and the characters seek mere survival as opposed to triumph.

That, too, may reveal more about the aspects of human nature that we find difficult to comprehend. What is hope, and what would happen if hope was lost, not just on individual level, but by the entire society? What kind of culture would emerge, if it only seeks to make it through one more day, equating continued survival with triumph?

This coming project is a study of dystopia, a tale of characters seeking to come to terms with it and to understand both hope and despair. It is a story of things that are lost in a struggle for survival and of how individuals and societies prepare for their inevitable demise. And in the end, it is the examination of human spirit, and what it means to be human, both for the more conventional characters, and for the more exotic protagonists whose connection with humanity is frail and often awkward.

As I move further along the path of plotting out the novel structure and writing bits and pieces thereof, I will post bits and pieces for my readers’ enjoyment (or, as the case might be, derision). I am approaching this project with only two expectations – to write a novel that I would want to read, and to utilize everything I have learned as a writer to result in a story others can enjoy. And if it ends up reaching a wider audience through professional publication – well, that is the end goal, right?

Decisions, decisions…

So, I was thinking, a typically dangerous event. For the past several months, I have been focusing on trying to push my existing works, intentionally refraining from any large-scale new projects. Well, there is one proposal I am trying to put together, but it is largely complete, and is in the advanced stages of revision (not to mention it is geared for a specific publisher, and may therefore have limited appeal).

Now, as much as I am proud of my past works, a writer can only get better by writing more, and every finished story or novel increases the chance that a prospective publisher picks it up. With this in mind, I am thinking about starting my next project sooner rather than later. The million dollar (or, at any rate, the important) question is, what shall it be?

I have fairly detailed notes for a science fiction epic (of sorts), a stand-alone novel dealing with the questions of human aspirations, religion, meaning of life, and existentialism. I am confident that I can do the concept justice, but there are also several downsides to it. The concept is big enough to warrant a very long book, and is introspective in nature, meaning that action in large parts of the novel will be limited. An adventure novel, it is not. And since one of my primary goals at this stage in my writing career is to become published and to give myself a greater chance at eventually having a novel like that picked up by a publisher, a good track record would be necessary before I can push my more ambitious projects out there.

Then, there are sequels. Two of my current novels are written as first entries in their respective series, and one already has about 20,000 words of a sequel written (and set aside for other projects). It is tempting to consider writing second and third books in those series, since the stage is already set, the plot lines already exist, and the characters have been set on the course that would bring them to the series’ inevitable conclusions. But I am hesitant to start on these projects, since the first entries in both series are still under consideration at prospective publishers, and may or may not be picked up. It makes me wonder if writing second and third entries in the series would be the best use of my time if the opening series novels are yet to be published.

There is always another topic dear to my heart, alternate history. My very first attempt at a novel, abandoned at around 50,000 word mark with the option to resurrect it at some point, was set in an alternate history scenario in which the Byzantine Empire did not suffer reverses of the XIth century, and went on to become a dominant, if oppressive and somewhat technologically backward, power in Europe and the Middle East. Sometimes I wonder if an alternate history novel would be a worthwhile next project, as there are many alternate scenarios that could result in compelling stories. While alternate history is, by definition, a somewhat niche genre, it can cross over into more traditional science fiction, fantasy, or a mixture of both, creating many possibilities for a story, from urban fantasy and young adult fiction to more traditional adventure and high fantasy stories.

Finally, there is my first love (in terms of writing), space. I have always been enamored with space opera scenarios, and have written several novels taking place in universes where space travel is the norm. Combined with my love of the dramatic and dark settings, I would greatly enjoy writing a dark, extremely dystopian space opera novel that has nothing to do with Warhammer 40,000 (for the uninitiated, Warhammer 40,000 is a science fiction setting which thrives on dystopian themes taken to eleven). Dark fiction does tend to be well suited to my writing style, but I am a bit concerned that I might be writing too much of a same kind of story.

With this in mind, I hope to make a decision in the next week or two, and start working on my next novel in May. Any thoughts and suggestions are, of course, welcome!

Ozzy Osbourne, Narrative Voice, and Vince Neil Fronting Slayer

For the last couple of days, I have been on a Black Sabbath kick – the old Ozzy years in particular. It is interesting to think that the music I am listening to now was written and recorded long before I was born, and yet still manages to sound powerful four decades later.

There is something to be said about Ozzy Osbourne’s singing. Even in the days when he was known for being the Prince of Darkness rather than a confused, incoherent reality TV character, he was never technically the greatest singer to ever grace the planet. If anything, his voice on its own might be an acquired taste, unique and instantly recognizable for sure, but hardly conventional.

But does it ever fit the music!

As an aspiring writer, this is an observation I took to heart. A story tends to require a specific voice that works right for it. It encompasses things like sentence structure, point of view, method of narration, narrative tense, and just about everything else one can think of. Dan Abnett’s “Know No Fear” works well precisely because it is written entirely in present tense, painting a picture of an unfolding disaster. The same narrative style would not have worked in most other books, just like Ozzy’s voice would have sounded a bit out of place fronting Queensryche or Metallica.

One of the hardest tasks in creating a story, at least for me, is to find the right kind of voice to tell it with. I have experimented with first person narration in “Samael”, third person in most of my other works, and a mix of two in “The Keys of Death”, in which one particular character’s pieces are told in first person. But it goes far beyond the mode of narrative, since each character must have a unique voice that makes him or her distinct from the others. Just like the best known singers are instantly recognizable, characters must feel right and different from one another with respect to their manner of speaking, consistency of actions, descriptions, and other defining characteristics.

The hard part is, therefore, deciding on those factors from the beginning, or letting them develop on their own.

Here, I must defer to my experience of singing in bands. I doubt that Tony Iommi and company set out with the knowledge that they had to have a singer sounding exactly like Ozzy Osbourne. Although Iron Maiden and Judas Priest were defined in part by the vocals of respectively Bruce Dickinson and Rob Halford, both bands had written their early material with other singers. While some bands such as Queen or Megadeth had specific vocalists incorporated into their sound from the very beginning, many others did not find the definite voice behind the microphone until later in their careers.

Characters and narrative voices are like singers. Some are decided upon before an author puts a single word to paper. Others just force their way into the story, ignoring all reservations and making the writer pay heed to their demands. In both cases, the challenge is to make them fit the story, to make the characters likeable (or despicable, if that is the goal), and to make the narrative voice flow just right.

After all, as fascinating as it would have been to listen to Vince Neil front Slayer, it just would not sound right.

Jobs and Writing (and Other Things)

Last Friday, my band had its comeback show, and, as these events wont to do, it brought up some material to reflect upon. Twelve years ago, I had started Midgard at the tender age of 19, hoping for a bona fide music career. At 31, I have found myself in a very different place – MBA, reasonably successful career, family. As much as I still love playing and writing music, it had become a side part of my life now, instead of its main focus.

From there, it was easy to make a connection with today’s topic: jobs, writing aspirations, and how the two can coexist.

Now, wait a second, you say. What does writing have to do with musical aspirations of a teenager and the reality of a thirty-something man realizing their folly? To me, the answer is expectations.

Let’s be honest here. Degrees in Business Administration and Finance don’t exactly prepare one for a writing career. And jobs in the investment industry are about as far from the glamorous life of a bohemian author as it gets. And then, there are all other things to keep in mind: bills, rent or mortgage payments, kids’ school and entertainment, you name it. In this day and age, it is almost a necessity for any aspiring author to have if not a true backup plan, then at least some reliable means to get by.

Of course, it is more appropriately “bohemian” to write down one’s observations on human nature while soaking in cheap alcohol in a smoke-filled café (or at least it was the case before such establishments became non-smoking here in Colorado). The literary world is full of stereotypes of brilliant, eccentric, and no doubt troubled authors that fit this bill perfectly. The problem is, what happens a decade or two later, when their lungs and livers begin to give out, the only career options available are questionable at best, and the field remains as crowded as ever with other writers who have the same idea.

Many well-known authors will say that luck plays a big part in who gets a big break and who does not, and it is hard to argue against that. There are big name writers out there with only middling writing skills, and there are many unpublished authors whose abilities and talents far surpass their more esteemed colleagues. Even the very successful authors had to persevere before a publisher took a chance on their works. And while skill and perseverance are largely dependent on the writer’s own efforts, luck is the element of chaos that makes or breaks careers.

This is why Plan B becomes of utmost importance. Unless a writer has reliable sources of financial support (such as scholarships, grants, supportive significant other, family, independent wealth – you name it), a solid career is a must.

There must be several stipulations to that, of course. One of the reasons I have brought up music earlier in this post is that the current level of my involvement with the band can be maintained without sacrificing my professional career, family, and writing endeavors. As music can be a very time- and money-intensive business, it is sensible to select a realistic level of involvement. The same goes to every other endeavor, including both writing and a career outside of it.

As such, discipline in writing is absolutely necessary. If the amount of time a writer has available is limited by other commitments, that time must be put to best use possible. Thus, an author must work around his or her full-time non-writing career while having sufficient time to write, and developing efficiency in writing.

The other stipulation to external career is that it must allow for sufficient time to pursue literary endeavors. While writing involves much hard work, a disciplined author will have an advantage, because he or she will be able to utilize time more efficiently. A less efficient author may be hampered by a career that requires high commitments of time and concentration, especially if he or she is unable to “switch gears” or get organized quickly enough in time available.

Finally, it is important that the more conventional career provides for the writer’s needs while he or she seeks that elusive big break. In my case, my career had allowed me to not only support my family, but also to release music, and to have most of the conveniences of modern life as needed. There are many blogs out there that provide more detailed financial advice to aspiring authors, but it suffices to say that smart money and resource management, combined with a solid non-writing career, can make a difference in quality of life and in one’s ability to eventually transition to writing full-time, if it ever becomes a realistic option.

Almost any writer dreams big. It would be patently false to claim that all I want is to see my name in print; while it would be a very desirable outcome, I would love to see the level of success enjoyed by some of the more prominent writers (J.K. Rowling and Stephen King, I am looking at you!). Someday, I would love to have an option where my income from writing is large enough to consider it as a full-time career, and the financial prospects from that career are at the very least comparable to my current means to make a living. But until the big break happens and it becomes an option (which I may or may not take at that stage – the inherent lack of stability in freelance work is an argument to keep the conventional career even after it is possible to abandon it), I see many more years in the office. And it is not a bad thing.

Short Stories

As I am counting down the hours until my band’s first show in eight years, I find myself strapped for time trying to get everything ready. There are things in the office that need to be finished before the weekend. There are pieces of gear, guitars, cabinets, and all sorts of other items to load into the car. There is a drive across the entire metropolitan area through the immediate aftermath of rush hour traffic.

Time, it seems, is everything, and it made me think of today’s topic, namely, writing short stories as opposed to novella or novel-length pieces.

Personally, I have always found short stories to be much harder than longer pieces. Not only do you have to have a great idea, the idea must be big enough to fit in the story, but not so big that only a longer piece would do it justice. It must have some kind of a hook or a premise that makes the story interesting, but it must also not rely entirely on gimmicks to be effective.

A short story must say a lot with fairly little. It demands brevity and focus, because a writer does not have the luxury of space to make his or her characters likeable, the plot interesting, and the premise effective. It is not about making the word count and taking as much time and space as the Big Idea requires. It is about intentionally limiting the size of an idea to something manageable within the format while still giving it the depth it deserves.

A classic science fiction story, “Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov, is a great example of a Big Idea wrapped into a short story format. It asks a question: what would a world be like if it had no night, no stars, no way to relate to the natural phenomenon we take for granted? What would happen if for the first time in thousands of years, the night fell?

The story does not have a massive cast of characters, and it does not create extensive histories for them. They serve as the tools of the narrative, getting the point across without getting sidetracked. As much as the story is at its heart about human condition, it is not focused on the two characters’ condition, because that is not its focus.

The Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, a perennial favorite of mine, work precisely because they focus on a small cast of characters, and are always centered on a particular problem Holmes and Watson have to solve. Taken individually, they relate to a world known to the readers, and when a particular aspect of that world is brought into focus, it is only because that aspect is relevant to the story as a clue for Holmes.

Compare that to “Dune” with its cast of characters. Frank Herbert gets into the heads of the major players in the series, giving them personal ambitions, struggles, aspirations, philosophies, and goals. He uses the expansive scope of the books to give detail to both his protagonists, the side characters, and the universe at large. Similarly, “Lord of the Rings” novels follow the same path, affording the Middle Earth enough space and playing with a number of interconnected themes. In both cases, the authors can afford to include side plots, minor characters, notes on the history and the background of their literary universes.

This is why I have always considered writing short stories to be a difficult endeavor, not in the least because the slightest slip in focus may rob the story of its effectiveness. In a novel, a writer can succumb to the temptation to develop a potential story thread or to develop a secondary character, to write a treatise on the history of the world the characters inhabit or to give detailed descriptions of the environment. In a short story, such literary detours are rarely useful, unless they are of direct relevance to the narrative. Or at least this is what I think. It would be interesting to see the opposing viewpoint from authors who find it easier to write short stories than longer pieces.

Inspiration on Demand

Inspiration is a tricky thing. Some say that it is the defining line that separates an artist from a craftsman, a fickle yet essential mistress of any creative soul. Others point to the business side of creative process and make a case for learning to draw upon inspiration on demand. Therefore, today’s post is on inspiration, and, more specifically, on finding it in most circumstances.

Many professional writers live by word count. It is tempting to imagine word count as a cold, unfeeling tyrant of sorts, demanding allegiance through the threat of deadlines. That said, it is a great motivator and a tool of the trade. A writer who can produce consistent amounts of prose will, in time, craft a larger portfolio than the one who does not, and will have a greater number of works ready for publishing.

Of course, writing speed and ability to get to a certain word count no matter the circumstances are irrelevant if the end result is mediocre or worse. It is relatively easy to fill a page with words (as Jack Nicholson’s character in “The Shining” so aptly demonstrates), but will the result be any good? It seems that a writer needs to put himself or herself into the frame of mind that ensures the output is up to his or her standards, and that in itself is one of the largest issues many aspiring writers face.

The real question for all of us poor schmucks aspiring to write professionally is this: how do we push ourselves to write consistently, and without sacrificing quality?

Last week I have spent some time talking about music as a part of the writing process. In my opinion, it is a good aide to writing and setting appropriate mood, but music alone does not create inspiration. In fact, it may be a significant distraction for a writer too lost in a song to meet the challenge of the blank page (or, as the case may be, the blank word processor screen).

Now, the one method I have found useful is taking time in between writing sessions to think about the plot developments, characters, setting, and everything in between. It is a perfect cure for the lengthy drive to and from work, or for the few minutes when there is genuinely nothing to do. What it does for me is create enthusiasm for the piece I am writing, give me an idea on where to take the story next, what scenes to write, and how to make it good and entertaining. By the time I sit down to write, I am relatively organized, know where the story is going, and how the next section is going to fit into the overall story.

Another thing that works for me is my method of writing. Some writers obsessively plot out their stories in advance, making sure that every scene and character are documented, and that the outline created at the beginning of the project is adhered to. I tend to shun from this approach, and employ a more free form writing method, which allows for more malleability in my fiction. At the beginning of the project, I tend to have a rough mental outline encompassing the setting and the primary dilemma or conflict at the heart of the story – but that is it. Usually, I have a very good idea on how the story will end, which primary characters I want to employ, and what major twists or plot points will be utilized. That said, the details are usually filled in during the writing sessions, and thinking of such details provides me with an infusion of enthusiasm for my project in between the sessions.

Additionally, I often see my stories as a collection of interconnected scenes at their core. Some might be longer, some might be shorter, and some might be seen from multiple points of view over the course of the same storyline, but all serve as building blocks for the story. I find it easier to build the story from such blocks, and to write a full scene during each writing session, as time allows. In my opinion, it is much easier to finish a scene at once while maintaining the appropriate feel and character (or narrator) perspective than it is to stop after reaching certain word count, potentially breaking the flow of the narrative. Also, by seeing each scene as its own microcosm feeding into the greater story, I can use my conceptualizing time to fill in the details which will make the scene work.

Once the scene concept is sound, it is much easier for me to sit down and write it without struggling to find the right words. As the scenes connect to one another to form the overall story, I attempt to maintain my enthusiasm for the story concept without sacrificing the details. In this way, I believe that I can create a ready-made supply of ideas and concepts that make all writing sessions reasonably productive without sacrificing the quality of the final output.

So, there is my story. If there are any writers reading this blog, what is yours?

Writing Music

Music. We all have our preferences, favorite artists, genres, and what not. One would think it would be out of place on a writing blog, but it is a topic frequently addressed on message boards and in writers’ Q&A sessions. Specifically, what kind of music aids writing?

Before I continue, I should point out that I am an unashamed metalhead. I have been a fan of heavy metal in most of its forms since my teenage years, and have played in a number of bands ranging from quite melodic to fairly extreme. So for me, the answer to this question is pretty clear: I listen to metal when I write.

That said, I have seen many writers state that music containing lyrics is a distraction during the writing process. For that reason, some prefer movie soundtrack music, while others tend to listen to instrumental music in general. Some others may prefer silence as the means to concentrate on the topic at hand. The one impression I got was that many writers tend to focus on music that gets them into an appropriate frame of mind for the type of stories they are writing, and that does not distract them from accomplishing their writing goals.

But can the right kind of music elevate a writer’s proverbial game? Does it generate the creative flow that aids in getting the right feel for the story, for the characters, for the worlds they inhabit?

My personal answer is that it helps, but then, I also do not write for a living (although I would definitely like to write professionally sooner rather than later). While I am happy with the word counts I consistently achieve, I do my writing mainly during leisure time, and as such, the only deadlines I have are those I impose myself. Someone who has a looming deadline may dispense with the music and worry more about getting that chapter finished, completing the draft, or performing changes suggested by his or her editor.

If there was an easy question as to the kind of music that stimulates quality and quantity writing, the writers’ productivity and output would probably be impacted. I can imagine it now, a sudden spike in record sales due to aspiring and even professional writers loading their iPods or equivalents with the dulcet sounds of (insert artist or genre here). All contemplations aside, it does seem that the “writing music” is a tool in a writer’s arsenal more so than anything, indicating that it may not cover the breadth of the writer’s usual taste.

So how much of the “writing music” can make it into the stories? I can only bring up my own experiences, but in my case, there had been definite impact. No, I am not going to write a novel detailing the exploits of Judas Priest’s “Painkiller” character, or have a sudden urge to write an epic Tolkienish fantasy quadrilogy after a Rhapsody song comes up in my playlist. Just because my mood at the moment may lead me to older Carcass albums does not mean that I will strive to write in a particularly gruesome scene (well, Nickelback might have that effect, but for an entirely different reason). That said, the overall feel of stories is often impacted by what I listen to at the time, affecting the pacing, the mood, even some of the character interactions. And occasionally, I may even write in a small nod to my favorite artists, hopefully in a way that does not detract from the story, but provides a welcome “Easter egg” for the readers of similar taste in music.

I would be very interested to see what other writers may think on this topic.

Tie-in Fiction

As I am working on polishing a story submission to a prospective publisher, I could not help but reflect on the concept of tie-in fiction, and the literary market dealing in it. What do these things have in common, you ask? It is simple: the story I am pitching is set in a certain prominent science fiction universe, with all the advantages and the pitfalls contained therein.

Wait, you may say. Wouldn’t this fall somewhere between blatant plagiarism and misguided attempts to submit fan-fiction for professional publication? Not quite, it turns out. After all, there are numerous science fiction and fantasy universes out there, some better known than others, that have fiction published by affiliates of the intellectual property owners. And while every science fiction writer probably dreams of creating the next Dune-verse, Foundation-verse, or you-name-it-verse, in truth tie-in fiction represents a viable market for aspiring and prominent authors.

The advantages inherent in the tie-in market are many. First, there is already a preexisting consumer base for tie-in fiction. A new novel set in a well-known universe such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Forgotten Realms or Warcraft is bound to sell at least some copies regardless of its literary merits.

Second, many tie-in fiction authors have their work cut out for them. The world is already defined at least in rough terms, and its technological/magical foundations are more or less decided upon by the intellectual property owners. It is not necessary to spend large sections of the story explaining just who the (insert name of the faction here) are, why they are interested in the Sacred Macguffin, and why they hate Orcs/humans/unicorns/Pittsburgh Steelers.

Third, premade universes tend to present an abundance of plots, conflicts, or situations that can be turned into a story. An author can write a “faction” story, focusing on one of the many denizens of a fictional universe and relating the tale of their struggles – perhaps a novel of Star Wars Imperial Stormtroopers, or Warcraft Night Elves, or some other faction. Perhaps there is a famous in-universe event that can be explored in detail, or a setting that begs to be given life.

And then, there are the downsides.

Anyone can write fan-fiction, and in fact I wrote a few fan-fiction pieces as well (which is perhaps a good topic for another post). The hard part is taking the concept of fan-fiction to the level of fully realized tie-in fiction designed to be submitted to appropriate publishers.

There is a reason most tie-in fiction does not make it past the submission editors – most of it is simply not that good. Some tie-fiction is little more than wish fulfillment with varying degrees of creepiness (“shipping”… a shudder-worthy concept, and I am not talking about postal delivery), while some tie-in fiction takes excessive liberties with universe canon. Sometimes, in-universe fiction may be technically good, but may not fit with the overall feel of the universe, especially when the narrative is expected to convey a certain mood.

As such, writing in an existing universe can be a challenge. Not only do you have to conform to the existing (and often very extensive) lore, but you have to cover the events or factions that appeal to the fan base. Most of all, you have to compete with hundreds or thousands of other aspiring writers, all of whom are enthusiastic about the universe they are writing about, many of whom cut their teeth writing fan-fiction, and many of whom probably have very extensive knowledge of the universe.

So, why do it? I raise one up on that question – why not? Personally, I am interested in writing in certain existing universes because I am a fan. It can be a potentially lucrative source of writing work (relatively speaking – we are not talking Stephen King or J.K. Rowling here), and it can appeal to the geeky fanboy in me (because let’s face it, if I was not one, I would not be seriously considering it). And even from a writing perspective, there are some unique challenges.

A tie-in fiction writer has to get a lot of things right. All details need to be accurate, and woe be to him who confuses a drow with a tiefling, or who describes Adeptus Astartes using multilasers. And the preexisting nature of the fictional universe is no excuse for bad writing. While the universe may be premade, a good tie-in fiction writer will have to write in a lot of detail, both conforming to the existing lore and yet making the characters and the locations feel just right. Finally, a tie-in fiction writer must be ready for enthusiastic and passionate fan base who will point out all the little inconsistencies and details, and not always in a flattering way.

That said, the challenge appeals to me both as a writer and as a fan. The tie-in market is as viable as original universe fiction, and I see little reason to shun it, both for the challenges it presents to me as a writer, and for the satisfaction I get from appeasing the inner fanboy. And if it leads to professional publication, well, that’s the end goal, right?