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All Tied Up: Three Writers Discuss Media Tie-In Work

By Ed Gorman

This article originally appeared in the Fall Issue #91 2005 of MYSTERY SCENE magazine and is reposted here with their permission, for which the IAMTW is grateful.

In LEE GOLDBERG’s new DIAGNOSIS MURDER novel The Past Tense, I learned an agreeable amount about forensics and an even more agreeable amount about medicine and medical protocol as defined by a large hospital. And I got a whole bunch of fun glimpses of present-day Los Angeles.Most of all, I was entertained. A murdered young woman washed ashore in a mermaid’s outfit? And an autopsy that reveals she had a digital camera memory card in her stomach? And all this rendered in tart, taut prose that never forgets that dramas are best played out in well-defined social circumstances, which, in this case, means LA experiencing the kinds of rains and flooding that gave Noah such a bad time.

Goldberg’s sardonic voice informs every scene and that’s what makes his people work. Nurses sometimes pull rank on doctors. Grown men steal sandwiches from poor little tots. And a character named Drake Arnold gives all humanity a bad name. He has “a bag of Cheetos in his lap and a six-pack of beer on the nightstand beside him. He wore two days worth of stubble, a loud Wal-Mart Hawaiian shirt, and a wrinkled pair of ten dollar cargo pants. His eyes were on an X-rated movie that played silently on the TV.” He later modestly admits, “The babes can’t get enough of me.” What parent wouldn’t want him for a son-in-law?

This is Lee Goldberg’s best DIAGNOSIS MURDER novel yet. He can plot and write with the best of them.

Lee Goldberg is one example of an established author who write media tie-ins in addition to his own work. I think the term we’re looking for here is making a living. Tie-in work was considered unholy until a few years ago when everybody from Edgar winners to Hot New Things started taking it on. Since I’ve never written a tie-in as such, I wanted to talk to writers who’ve had experience with media-generated novels.

ED: Do you approach tie-ins differently from your own novels?

GOLDBERG: I do and I don’t. I write them as if they are my own novels, but I am careful not to stray from the tone and style of the TV shows they are based on. In this regard, I have been very lucky since the two TV shows I write about are shows I also worked on. Most tie-in writers are writer-for-hire who have no previous involvement with the movie or TV shows they are writing about. I was the executive producer and principal writer of DIAGNOSIS MURDER for several years. During that time it was my show. Although I didn’t create it (Joyce Burditt did), I was in complete control of every aspect of the writing and production for 100 episodes. The DIAGNOSIS MURDER books are an extension of what I was doing on the show and reflect the tone, the style, the storytelling and all the other decisions I made during my tenure on the program. I feel as if the characters are my own, even though they aren’t, because they were under my stewardship on TV for so long and I had such a decisive role in shaping them. In my DIAGNOSIS MURDER books, I am staying true to the characters, and the show, that I produced and letting them evolve from there. The TV show I produced was my own-in as much as any TV created by someone else can be-and the books are the same way.

In the case of MONK, I wrote two episodes of the show and worked closely with the executive producer/creator Andy Breckman. My job on the show, and in the books, is to articulate his vision of the characters and to use his approach to telling mysteries. Within those limitations, I make the character my own. I made the decision to write the books from the first-person POV of Natalie Teeger, MONK’s assistant. That decision, more than anything, set the books apart from the show and gave me a unique opportunity to tell the stories in a different voice, one closer to my own.

Andy paid me a wonderful compliment after reading the first MONK book… he said it was like he was a singer/songwriter and I’d just done a cover version of one of his songs. It was his song, but different. He recognized his tune and his words, but I brought my own unique voice and interpretation to it. And he really liked it. He’s encouraged me to make the MONK books my own… and recognizes that my version of Adrian MONK, by virtue of the book-form, will be different from his Adrian MONK, the “TV” MONK so-to-speak. But he keeps a close eye on things. I run every story past him and he reads each manuscript before publication.

All those things considered, I write my tie-ins the same way I would a novel that was entirely my own creation. I may be borrowing the characters created by someone else-but it’s my name on the cover. I want to be proud of the work. I want it to be as good as anything else that I do. So I give the books the same effort, attention, and passion that I do with anything else that I write.I write them in “my voice,” informed by my experience, my humor, and my view of the world. I can’t help it. That, in itself, makes the books my own. But I also don’t approach tie-ins as hack work (even if that is the pay scale). I write them as if I’ve been given a million-dollar contract. I don’t think of them creatively as something to toss off quickly-even though I only have, by contract, 3 months to write each book. To me, each book is a labor of love not labor. That’s the key.

ED: Are there special difficulties in writing tie-ins? How do you make them your own?

GOLDBERG: The challenge is making the book feel like an episode of the show without it feeling like an episode of the show. Sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it? It is. It’s a precarious balancing act. If the reader thinks he’s just reading an episode, he won’t bother reading the next book. He can save his money and just watch the TV show. So the book has to deliver what the show does-and more. You want to give the reader the same satisfaction he gets from watching the show but take him places emotionally and creatively that the TV show can’t. You want the reader to recognize the characters…but at the same time flesh them out in ways that haven’t been done before. You want the reader to recognize the story as something in line with the TV show but offer possibilities for adventure or revelation that a typical episode won’t provide.

In the case of a tie-in of a cancelled show, that’s easy. You are providing the only new stories for those characters. It’s your book or reruns. In the case of a show that’s still-on-the-air, it’s far trickier. You have to provide some kind of added value but within the limitations set for you by the studio.

(I should also stress that there’s a big difference between an “original novel” tie-in and a novelization. The first is an original book but a novelization is taking a screenplay and adapting it into novel form.) More information about Lee Goldberg is available at www.leegoldberg.com.

NANCY HOLDER is a highly acclaimed writer of fantasy and science fiction. She has worked in several other genres as well and is a prolific-and exceptionally good-writer of short stories.

ED: How many tie-ins have you written?

HOLDER: I’ve written about four dozen tie-in projects, including novels, novellas, short stories, and companion guides to shows. My first tie-in was a novel for HIGHLANDER: The Series, and my most recent is a BUFFY novel I’m in the middle of writing.

The pleasures of writing tie-ins are many. I have been a fan of every “universe” I’ve written for, from BUFFY to HELLBOY to WISHBONE. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve watched each episode of BUFFY. I love the minutiae. I spent an aggregate of a month on the BUFFY lot, interviewing the actors, the producers, even grips and background actors. I watched a stunt woman go up in flames, she told me that the only man in Hollywood allowed to set her on fire was her ex-husband. I was invited to a special showing of the last two episodes of HIGHLANDER, complete with a champagne banquet. Adrian Paul fixed my camera and posed with my baby. On the set of BUFFY, I interviewed Joss sitting in Spike’s crypt in the dark and asked him if he thought of himself as an auteur. He laughed.

ED: What are the pitfalls of writing tie-ins?

HOLDER: I did tons of research in preparation for a JUDGE DREDD project that got canceled. A lot of tie-in work is “hurry up and wait” and “now do it and turn it in tomorrow.” There’s often a breakneck deadline involved. People who are not writers think I’m a workaholic. They have no clue what this job is like.

Then there are the fans who get angry if what I write doesn’t conform to their vision/version of the show-which may actually be wildly divergent from what is on the screen. When a show is still in first run, I can’t reveal things I know are going to happen later, so sometimes the fans assume I’ve got it wrong…and say so, very vocally, all over the net.

ED: Do you feel they help you grow as a writer or are they a restrictive form?

HOLDER: I was speaking on the Media Tie-In panel at Comic-Con about the freedom that comes with writing tie-ins. Consider just about any popular series: there are very serious, heavy episodes; goofy episodes; bizarre one-off experimental episodes. So it is with writing about well-defined intellectual properties. One book can be a serious, emotional journey; another, a caper. A third, something completely different. So in that way, I feel there is more freedom in tie-ins than in stand-alone books. The emotional range can be wider because the fans want to read all sorts of stories about their favorite characters. Also, because I’m working in an established universe, where the setting and characters are so well known that I don’t need to spend a lot of time describing them, I can use the space and effort I would have expended on that to concentrate on something else-better transitions, clearer prose. It’s like being in a skating competition-I know what the compulsories are, so I can concentrate on my free-skate program. Plus I love working in these ‘verses, so there’s the same feeling of anticipation when I start work every day that comes with hunkering down to watch a favorite show.

ED: What was your best experience with tie-ins?

HOLDER: The high I had when Chris Golden and I walked onto the set of Sunnydale High School for the first time is indescribable. The producers of WISHBONE get the highest marks for welcoming me to the family: I received an astonishing amount of material to help me write Ivanhound-colored maps, diagrams of each set, extensive show bibles, a gorgeous WISHBONE doll, and a set of WISHBONE poetry magnets for my refrigerator.

ED: Do you plan to write more tie-ins?

HOLDER: Not only do I plan to continue doing tie-ins, but I am actively seeking more work.

MAX ALLAN COLLINS , author of THE ROAD TO PERDITION and numerous Shamus winners and Edgar nominees, is considered by many to be the most successful practitioner of the tie-in craft. His other work includes the private eye historical novels featuring Nathan Heller.

ED: Do you like being called King of The Tie-ins?

COLLINS: I take it as a compliment, though whether it’s true or not I can’t say. Though I’ve done a wide range of movie tie-ins, from SAVING PRIVATE RYAN to MAVERICK, I feel somewhat typed-there are non-suspense, non-male-oriented projects I’d like to be considered for. I’d have killed to do Serenity, the Firefly novel, but I’m only occasionally offered science fiction, even though Waterworld and the three Dark Angel novels were bestsellers.

Clearly, I’m a pop culture junkie, and I enjoy being part of that mix. Getting to do The Pink Panther, for example, was a real treat-first, because I got to do comedy, which is I think perhaps my greatest strength; and second, I was able to tap into an enthusiasm for the Clouseau movies that dates back to high school.

ED: What are some of the pleasures and pitfalls of writing tie-ins?

COLLINS: The pleasure and pitfalls are pretty much an even draw. The worst example was when I volunteered to do the novelization of ROAD TO PERDITION, from the film based on my own graphic novel. As the creator, I did 100,000 words, staying faithful to the screenplay but filling in and around with the backstory and expansion only the creator could accomplish. DreamWorks licensing decided that just because I was the originator, that held no weight-they made the unusual (and actually fairly rare) decision (and after the fact) that nothing could be in the novelizaton that wasn’t in the film itself. They cut it to around 45,000 words. And before they cut it-actually, I cut it for them-it was one of my best novels. Not best novelizations-novels. I hope someday it will be published in full.

The pleasures come from dealing with bigtime pop culture items like CSI and NYPD BLUE and MAVERICK and THE MUMMY franchise; nice to be associated with high-profile projects like those. And, where my own work is concerned, I am doing primarily historical crime fiction, and tie-in work gives me a chance to exercise my versatility.

ED: Would all the work you and Matt do on the CSIs be an example of serious way you take your assignments?

COLLINS: I keep myself honest by using my own byline. (I have only used a pseudonym once in my career, although my wife and I are starting to use a collaborative one-Barbara Allan-which will be an open secret.) I take this work very seriously, these are real books to me. With the movie tie-ins, the goal is to create the novel that will seem to be the book the film was based on. Many of my readers assume my novels came first; any number like the books better.

The CSIs are extremely hard to do and require a solid three months work each, though a good share of it is accomplished by my collaborator on those novels, Matthew V. Clemens. The process is this: I come up with the premise for a novel, then Matt and I brainstorm it into a synopsis (which we both work on); then Matt does the forensics research, which is considerable; after that, Matt writes a story treatment, a sort of short rough draft, perhaps half the length of the novel; from that document, and staying in close touch with Matt, I write the novel itself. Because I share the money with Matt, the financial rewards aren’t as great as some might assume; but the end product-solid novels in a series I can be proud of-makes the trouble and expense worth it.

Ed Gorman is a well-known novelist, anthologist and short story writer. Ed can be reached at ejgorman99@aol.com or on his blog www.EdGormanandFriends.com.

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