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Are Tie-In Writers Hacks?

A Question-and-Answer session with some of the top authors writing tie-ins and novelizations today. For their bios, please visit the About the Authors page.

QUESTION: I was talking about the tie-in business with some friends of mine at a mystery writers convention. One of them said “but aren’t most novelization and tie-in writers cheap hacks who do the job because they aren’t good enough to write or sell an original novel?”

I have a feeling his take on the writers in this field isn’t a unique one, which is probably why those of us who do this work get so little respect for it. So, at the risk of offending all the fine writers here, how much truth is there to that stereotype? Where did that stereotype come from? What can we do to change it? Is that stereotype also held by editors and publishers?

Steve Perry: Might have been the case, once upon a time, but most of the writers I know who do tie-ins got the job because they had a body of original work that indicated a basic level of skill. Most of them also got their books in on time, which is a selling point for work with built-in deadlines.

I suspect three things here: One, there was a time when tie-ins were considered necessary evils, but the licensors didn’t think much of them and didn’t care about the level of quality, so anybody with a typewriter was acceptable as a writer.

Two, a lot of writers who do only original material consider themselves more artist than craftsman — the different between a fine arts painter, say, and a commercial artist. They can produce a great novel, but at their own speed and without any editorial direction until after they are done. I’ve had writers tell me they can’t conceive of writing to somebody else’s outline, or fleshing out a script, because it is too mechanical for them.

And there *is* less creative work in a shared universe for the writer, since the background and often characters have been done by somebody else. Plus there are constraints, and you must observe them.

The third thing is, much of the tie-in/shared-universe work is based on movies or television, and the general perception of these media among book writers (and others) is that the ideas and writing in those areas is less than inspiring to start out with, so a book based on them is one more remove from something that maybe wasn’t so hot to start out with. Consider that you might write a novel, based on a TV series, which was based on a theatrical movie, which was based on a comic book
— you are a long way from the original creative thought, which might have been pretty simple and not particularly realistic from the get-go. Guy wearing red and blue tights, from another planet, who can leap tall buildings at a single bound? A billionaire who dresses up like a bat and beats the crap out of criminals?

We aren’t, as is sometimes said in TV-land, doing Ibsen here …

Hack, as we use the term, comes from “hackney,” which is a horse let to hire. Over the years, the term came to mean working for hire, and also unispired or trite. A hack was somebody who wrote strictly for money, and who put in minimal effort for so doing. No doubt there is still some of that going on.

Frankly, these days, I think some of the tie-in are much superior to the source material, and I’m not alone in that thought. The original Buffy movie was … okay. The TV series was better, better-written, better-acted, and found a deserving fan base. The books based on the series were written by fans who liked the show and who were good writers. I know a well-known writer who did a tie-in for Highlander
because she adored the show. She got maybe a tenth as much money for it
as she did her own stuff, but it was a labor of love.

Here’s one way to improve our standing. If you read tie-ins and novelizations, how often do you nominate them for awards in your field? When’s the last time one made a final ballot in SFFWA or MWA? When the people who write these things don’t consider them “real” books, then why would anybody else do so?

Cary Grant never won an acting Oscar, neither has Harrison Ford — because a movie is fast and funny, voters in the Academy generally don’t consider it worthy of notice. They like to see the scenery being chewed …

Welcome to the club …

Kevin J. Anderson: General perceptions often lag behind reality by several decades, and this is an example.

Back around the seventies or so, novelizations and tie-in books *were*, for the most part, execrable and often written under pen names for a quick buck. That’s just the way the business used to be.

Nowadays, any tie-in writer with that attitude of scorn and contempt for anybody who would read a crappy book based on a crappy TV show (words I’ve heard used by one such author), will not last very long in the field. Today, big name authors are falling all over themselves to write for Star Wars and other successful franchises. But, “general knowledge” still hasn’t passed the perception of the bad
quickie books from the past.

Neal Barrett: Those writers who lend their talents to good novelizations do the best job they can whatever they are writing. I never thought I was a “hack” when I took on one of these projects. I gave it my best. The image of the novelization writer as a hack comes from two things: One, ignorance, and Two, the fact that a lot of books in EVERY field are badly written. Not much we can do about that.

Dean Wesley Smith: Tie in writers are hacks? Of course not. We all do the best job we can with the project and limitations we have on each project. I find this
kind of thinking funny at times, mostly because it comes almost exclusively from other writers and a few want-to-be failed writers turned reviewers. It all means nothing to the fans and the readers. They just look for good books, but we writers look for acceptance among other writers. I honestly don’t much care what other writers think of me, but I do care very much what the readers think of my work (the
editors along the way being the best readers to see the work).

In the medical field, there are doctors who spend years working slowly on research, testing and retesting every detail before they would ever take a procedure or new medicine to a human being. Then there are doctors who work in emergency rooms, under tight, life-and-death deadlines, doing the best they can with what they have in front of them. When an editor comes to me because some other writer failed and
they need me to fix their product and hit their deadline, or they need a tie-in book under tight deadline, in a way I am an emergency room writer. Life and death for the project only, but still important in our field and to the health of the publishing company.

Education will solve this perception problem among writers given time, in my opinion. How much time is another matter.

Nancy Holder: In my opinion, there is more creative room in tie-in work that is not
always present in non-tie-in. For fans (reader), the intellectual property has taken on a life of its own, and readers seek to experience as much of that life as possible. So we tie-in writers have a vaster field of emotional depth and range to explore in print: just as there are occasional one-off episodes in TV series–the funny episode, the
death of a character episode–so, too, are there arcs spanning several episodes, seasons, and even whole series. Because of the richness of many movie universes, the same is also true. Thus we have opportunities to do funny novels, capers, quests, short stories, novellas, and trilogies (to name a few of the forms I have used for tie-ins) that other authors don’t. In addition, because most readers already know the characters and their universe, we have more real estate–more actual text space–to explore other things. I find it tremendously freeing to write tie-in work, rather the converse.

Steve Perry: I know writers who are adept and professional at the biz, but who cannot write to order. I liken good tie-ins to good commercial illustration. There are some wonderful fine artists out there who can paint terrific pictures, but who, if you asked them to draw a horse in front of a firehouse, couldn’t do it to save their lives.

Norman Rockewell was considered throughout most of his career as “only” an illustrator. For my money, if you can draw a picture that looks better than a photograph, “only” is not a word that applies.

You might not, if given a short deadline and crappy material, be able to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but you could make a damned fine sow’s ear purse. And from where I sit, if you can do that on a tie-in *and* write your own books? You’re ahead of the game.

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