Writing a Tie-In Novel

Writing a Tie-In

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

QUESTION: When you take on a tie-in, how do you approach it? Assuming it’s a show you are already familiar with, do you re-watch episodes? As you screen the shows again, what elements are you paying the most attention to?

As you write your books, what do you think your main responsibilites
are? Is it to capture the essense of the characters and the tone of
the show… to make the book as close to an episode as possible? Or
is it create a book that stands alone as a novel in its own
right…while still evoking the flavor, the characters, and
the “mythology” of the TV series? How flexible are you about adding
elements, and making changes, to the characters and the “franchise”
to suit your own needs as a novelist?

Lee Goldberg – I think my responsibility is to be true to the series…to the characters and voice of the show…but to go beyond that, creating an experience that’s deeper and more satisfying than an
episode would be.

I think my first DIAGNOSIS MURDER book, for example, is the weakest because it too closely resembles an episode of the series in structure, pacing, and tone. I’ve tried in the subsequent books (seven so far) to stay true to the series…but go to places, emotional and geographical, that an episode never could. I try to dig
deeper into the characters and their motivations without violating what we already know about who they are…and, if possible, shed light on aspects of their personalities that were never revealed before. I don’t want to write episodes in book-form…but books that satisfy the reader in the same way an episode of the show could…and then offer something more lasting. I want the books to work first,
and foremost, as books… I want to write them in a way that someone who is totally unfamiliar with the TV show could pick one up and feel they’ve read a good book, not an episode of a TV show in book-form.

The advantage I have with DM is that I was the executive producer and principal writer (with William Rabkin) of the show for many years…so I knew the characters inside and out… and knew how far I could go in new directions without violating what made the show special. I also knew what I wanted to say, and what aspects of the characters I wanted to examine, that I *couldn’t* get away with (for
a variety of reasons) on the show. It wasn’t difficult for me to capture the voices of the characters because I’d already written literally hundreds of stories with them before.

I’ve just taken on MONK, another tie-in series. On this one, I also have the advantage of having written for these characters before (having scripted several episodes of the show) but I don’t feel that they are mine to anywhere near the same degree as the DM characters were.

Also, unlike DM, this series is still in production and is a big hit, so I have to be careful not to step on anything they are doing or might reveal about the characters down the line. Luckily, I have a great relationship with the showrunner and his support and encouragement to try new things with the “franchise” and the
characters. I already know the voice I’m going to use for the book, the point-of-view I’m going to take, and that approach is already a big change from the TV series (and an approach the showrunner agrees with).

Kevin J. Anderson – I try to do an “episode” that they could never afford to do on the actual show. After all, as a writer, you have an unlimited special effects budget. Thus, my X-FILES novels took Mulder and Scully to places that could never have been filmed in Canada!

Max Allan Collins – In the cases of all three TV tie-in properties I’ve done, I’d never seen the show when I was approached — NYPD BLUE, DARK ANGEL and CSI.

I asked to see episodes before saying yes, and sampled the shows, looking to see whether the material was sufficiently interesting to engage me creatively. In all three cases, editors knew my work well enough to know that I was a basic good fit with the material.

With a fresh, professional eye — as opposed to an enthusiast’s approach — I feel I could analyze the shows from a creative standpoint, and come to understand what about the show worked, and what appealed to viewers.

In two cases, I chose to write prequels as the first novels – essentially movie-length non-existent “first” episodes. With NYPD BLUE, whose first broadcast episode began at the end of a botched trial with the Sipowicz character about to careen into huge problems, writing the story that led up to all that made sense and was great fun, rewarding for me and (I hope) readers.

With DARK ANGEL, a good deal of backstory was only briefly sketched in, in the first episode, and I was given freedom to really add to the
characterizations and even the premise. From a practical standpoint, I was approached when the show was starting its second (and as it turns out final) year, and they wanted a book yesterday…so the idea of doing a prequel meant I didn’t have to plow through an entire season of episodes to know what was going on. Basically, I just watched the first episode numerous times, then as I wrote the book, watched an episode or two every evening after I was done writing.

With CSI I follow a similar course: I tend not to watch it, but record it, and then watch a number of episodes in the days leading up to my starting the book, and then keep watching one or two a night during the writing. That immersion in the characters and style of the show is extremely useful.

David Bishop – I’ve written four Doctor Who tie-ins, one for Virgin and three for BBC Books, all published during the 16-year interregnum while the science fiction series was off-air. With the BBC novels I deliberately set out to evoke the relevant style of the show in which the story was set. My most recent effort featured the fifth
Doctor (as played on TV by Peter Davison) and one of companions, Nyssa, so I sat watched as many of the TV stories featuring these characters as possible, to get the voices of the actors in my head. If I can hear Peter Davison’s voice in my head, how he says his lines, I find it makes writing dialogue easier. All my Who novels need to be enjoyable, entertaining reads in their own right, while evoking the flavour of the show.

The novel I wrote for Virgin, Doctor Who: Who Killed Kennedy, broke all the rules. WKK was written in the style of a first person exposure by an investigative journalist, with the breathless prose of non-fiction tomes like The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. It gave an outsiders perspective on the effect events seen in Doctor Who during the early 1970s would have had on the real world of the period, how governments would have covered up all those alien invasions and the like. It was published outside the regular Doctor Who publishing schedule, in a style utterly at odds with the TV show and – at one point – was almost published without the Doctor Who logo. WKK was also notable for being the first time anyone had killed one of the Doctor’s travelling companions in print.

Nancy Holder – When I get a job, I’ve almost always been watching the show as it was broadcast to start with (or I wouldn’t take the job) or, in the case of my first tie-in, which was Highlander, it’s a show I have wanted to watch but for some reason haven’t been keeping up with. For Highlander,I watched three seasons’ worth of episodes in a week, plus two broadcasts daily. I was up to date on Smallville, and worked as I watched new episodes and reruns. For Buffy/Angel I’ve watched all the episodes many, many times, but I always watch as many as I can before I start a new project, especially to make sure I’m within continuity. For example, I’m working in Season Two right now, so I watched all the episodes that took place before my story (title is CARNIVAL OF SOULS.)

One of my tricks is to watch the episodes with the sound off. I catch a lot of visuals that way, things the DP/costuming/production designer
planted, which helps with theme and characterization. Smallville is one of the most beautiful shows I have ever watched that way. The colors are vibrant and startling, and the actors are luminous.

Greg Cox – I’ve been lucky in that I’ve seldom had to write for a franchise that I wasn’t already a fan of. As an editor, I really do think that the best tie-ins are often written by writers who also fans of the series. Besides, I can’t imagine spending a month or more of my life writing characters who didn’t interest me; that sounds like torture!

In terms of the capturing the feel of the show, I think the top priority is to make sure the characters’ voices and personalities come across just as they do on the show. Nothing seems to knock tie-in readers out of a story faster than some line of dialogue or character bit that doesn’t ring true. “Picard would never say that!”

What requires the most adjustment is the pacing. A typical one-hour tv episode just doesn’t have enough plot to sustain 70 thousand-plus words or so. They’re more like short stories. A novel needs a whole lot more plot.

I actually ran into trouble with my first ALIAS book because I was trying too hard to capture the breakneck pace of the tv show. I had to force myself to slow down the pacing in order to avoid using up my entire plot in 150 pages! (I also had to add a subplot involving the heroine’s sister, just too pad things out.)

Overall, though, I think readers will cut you a lot of slack just so long as the characters sound like themselves.

Andy Mangels – When I work on tie-in fiction, whether comics or novels (the latter with co-writer Michael A. Martin), I do my best to research the material to the best of my ability. This includes watching all television episodes or films and taking notes about things as minor as car types, house numbers, and all character names and/or ranks. Reading comic books can be helpful, although other tie-in novels can be difficult to read in a timely fashion depending on the number of books.

When writing Roswell, for instance, we checked with several of the other tie-in writers to see if our story points intersected with anything they had written, or if there were any conflicts. On some projects, we’ve even corresponded with a few uber-fans to see if they knew details or character information that might be helpful.

The result of this careful attention to detail – and seeding of a lot of continuity touchstones/”Easter Eggs” – is that our books have been lauded by fans partially because they’re so carefully researched.

The characters are much easier to get than the details, at least for us. For instance, we have seven seasons and several movies of knowing how Will Riker acts and reacts, but maybe only once or twice has it been mentioned how many family members he has, or what his previous postings were, or etc. But as the devil is in the details, we make every effort to make certain to have those facts just as correct as the characterization, dialogue quirks, and flavor.

Also, when writing, I often will play soundtracks either from the project in question, or that is evocative of the story and mood.

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