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Guest Blog: David Niall Wilson

I was able to hunt David down and ask him to answer a few simple questions about the difference between RPG novels, tie-in novels and personal novels. Boy, did he give me (and you guys) an awesome answer:

There are two different writing trails that have drawn their share of novelists over the years.  One is the traditional, original novel trail, and the other leads down the road of tie-in novels and licensed work.  I've walked both roads over the years, and so, I have a few insights on the similarities and differences between the two.  When I was asked to blog on this subject, the original request separated RPG novel writing from licensed and tie-in novels, but in my experience, there's little difference.  In both cases you must abide by the rules of the licensed property.  In both cases the work is "for hire" and no longer belongs to you once you've turned it in.  In both, the pay is more a function of the fan base and marketing research than the name of the author – though there are exceptions to this.


It would be easy to say that the difference is that writing tie-in work is somehow less important than writing original fiction, but I don't believe that.  Any time I sit down to write I try to reach the same level of concentration.  If you are writing a novel for Star Trek there is no reason it can't be a great novel, individual to your own style, and still fit into the universe.  In fact, it's harder to do, and can be very rewarding.  Writing, like other forms of art, delivers what is invested in it.


On the nuts and bolts level, there are more points to ponder.  If you can get into the world of licensed novels with a contract in your hand, you have some things going for you.  You know up front what to expect.  You are probably, unless you really blow it, guaranteed publication and might even know before you start writing when that publication will be scheduled.  You can find out the normal sell-through on the novels in question and get a good idea what your royalties might be.  You have a set of characters that you have, presumably, become very familiar with.  You may even have a word limit you aren't allowed to exceed.  You will probably have to turn in a detailed outline or a very long synopsis of the book for approval by editors and often, beyond that, by the company holding the rights to the franchise in question.  By  the time you get ready to write, most of the heavy lifting is already done.


In other words, both your financial gain and the book itself will be more structured.  A lot of your creative work will go in up-front to produce a pitch and outline that meets your own standard of something you want to write, and at the same time makes the grade for the client.  The down side of this is, of course, that if you have an epiphany halfway through and want to go an entirely different direction, this is often not possible, or, at best risky.  The work has to read with a familiarity that will captivate the fan base, and that is no simple matter.


My own process for approaching licensed work has led to the revised process in which I approach my stand-alone novels.  I've now done Star Trek, White Wolf, Stargate Atlantis, and Room 59 (under a pseudonym and ghosting for another writer – long story).  That's quite a lot of licensed work.  I've also written a great number of my own novels, and have recently leaped into the world of series characters and urban fantasy.  This latter has more in common with the licensed work than stand-alone novels do – at least as far as preparation and structure is concerned.  Assuming you succeed with the early books in the series to create a fan base for your new series, you are then bound by the rules you have created yourself, and you can bet they will come back to haunt you if you don't write them down and pay attention.


I used to write from the hip.  All of my earlier stories and novels were launched without much planning or an outline.  The last novel I recall writing without an outline was Deep Blue, which I consider one of my best, but which I'm also fairly sure might have been easier to complete with at least a rudimentary outline in place.


Once I start the actual writing of a thing, I don't like to be distracted or derailed.  When I do a chapter outline I force myself to confront the main twists in my plot.  When I do this ahead of time, a lot of pitfalls are avoided, and sometimes amazing new twists occur.  I almost never follow that outline through to its end…but that's not the point.  The discipline and structure that this applies to my projects up front frees me to be more creative down the stretch.  I have learned that from the necessity of adopting that very strategy working on licensed material.


There is also the matter of deadlines.  Unless you are a very famous author with a high demand on your books, you probably write first and sell later.  That means that if it takes you a couple of extra months to smooth your novel out, you haven't shaken up anyone's schedule but your own.  Licensed work will come with a deadline.  Sometimes the deadline will be crazy.  I was approached once for a White Wolf novel with the question – can you write this in thirty days?   Not being rich or sane enough to say now, that's what I did.  Every licensed or tie-in novel I've ever written came with a deadline, and none of them were long.  It means you have to set yourself to a schedule and hold to it, and no amount of crying about your creative process gets you out of it.  Fans are waiting, and these books come with numbers.


Generally licensed and tie-in work does not pay as well as stand-alone work, with the following caveat.  Stand-alone novels are seldom sold up front.  When they are, there's a lot of negotiating and hemming and hawing, and when the book finally comes out, it can tank and leave you with your advance in hand and not much else.  Tie-in and licensed work, work for hire, comes with built-in, boilerplate payments.  Unless you are a very well known person doing the work because they asked you to, you are going to get a set amount.  When I wrote for Star Trek I got a good advance, but that advance was based on the number of copies of ANY Star Trek book they felt they were likely to sell.  My White Wolf novels had much lower advances, but better royalties, and over time paid steadily and well.


It's kind of  like setting up your own start-up, or going for the hourly day job when you look at it from a money-only point of view.  Most writers don't do that.  Most of us look at the whole picture, how will writing this affect my career, will I get stuck doing this, will the numbers affect how I'm viewed by other editors for other work.  The answer is that it's always shifting and always changing, and in the end the quality of the work and the persistence of the author are the two most important factors.  I still believe that.


The bottom line is, writing is writing.  If your mind loves to build things with blocks that are already in place, then getting into licensed and tie-in work might be perfect for you.  If you choke up at the first sign of someone controlling you, you're better off avoiding it.  If you, like myself, fall somewhere in the middle, I recommend giving both roads at least a cursory try.  There's a lot to be learned wandering down both trails, and if you keep foremost in your mind that your work has your name on it, and that – this being the case – it needs to represent you at your best, you'll grow from both experiences.

In keeping with the two trails topic, I'll mention that my current novel, Vintage Soul, is the first in a series of Urban Fantasy novels featuring book collector, mage, and private investigator Donovan DeChance.  It was just released in December.




I also have a licensed novel due in February (though since MGM hasn't yet okayed it, the book may be delayed again).  This one is BRIMSTONE  - a Stargate Atlantis novel.  I wrote it with the love of my life, Patricia Lee Macomber, and we had a lot of fun with it.




And in the not too far off future, my next stand-alone novel, Maelstrom, will be published by Bad Moon books.


I also have a novel released exclusively as an e-book, the Religious Thriller "On the Third Day," which is also my entry in to this year's Amazon.com Breakthrough Novel contest.  You can get this in Kindle, Mobi, .PDF or EPUB formats at my website : http://www.macabreink.com/store (along with a lot of my books) or you can find it in the Amazon Kindle Store.


Thanks for reading.


David Niall Wilson






( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 10th, 2010 10:16 pm (UTC)
Great guest blog. Thanks for sharing this. :)
Feb. 12th, 2010 03:59 am (UTC)
You're welcome
I hope a lot of people saw it and got something from it.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )