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?

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  1. Some very good points.

    Allow me to share this one back with you. http://pyroriffic.wordpress.com/2011/06/28/oh/


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