Shared World Does Not Equal Fan Fiction
Whenever I mention that I write shared world fiction, somebody says "But isn't that just fan fiction?"
Or, better yet, the more dismissive "well, that's just work for hire."
Because, heavens, who would want to be paid to write about haunted houses, ambulatory skeletons, topiary dragons, ghost-possessed librarians, smart gals who use their brains to battle villains, small dogs, and ladies in armor?
Oh, right, that's me! I tried to convey the excitement of working and writing in this field during interviews and at panels. Since I recently jumped back into media tie-in writing (as my current publisher calls it), here's a few of my favorite answers to frequently asked questions about what it's like to write in other people's worlds.
What is the difference between writing media tie-in and fan fiction?
For the novels and stories that I write, I have a contract with the creator or the rights holder for that world. In short, I have legal permission to play in their sandbox and I get paid for the work that I do. People who write fan fiction don’t have contracts and are doing it for love rather than money. I love what I write, but I like getting a royalty check too.
Where do shared worlds come from? How many are there?
Shared worlds come from many places. Usually, for science fiction and fantasy, the original world was created for a television series, movie, video game, or role-playing game (RPG). Sometimes they can be a book series begun by another author. Sometimes it is an idea put together by a publisher or book packager. A shared world doesn’t necessarily have to be fantastic: think Nancy Drew or the Babysitters Club. There are literally hundreds out there. Currently, I'm working in Arkham Horror, a media tie-in based on the board and card games published by Fantasy Flight Games
Don’t you have to do a lot of research?
It depends on the setting and your story. Think of writing shared world fiction as being similar to writing historical fiction. Writers do need to do research, but they learn to focus it on the period and the place where they want to set their story. Shared world novels don’t generally cover every single aspect of the world. In fact, I think the more tightly focused that you can be, the better story you can tell. Currently, because my media tie-in is set in 1920s Hollywood (a real place!) as well as Arkham (not a real place but it is 1920s too), I had to do both game background research as well as deep dive into the world of 1920s silent movie making for the first novel. Subsequent novels let me research women in aviation and the start of radio broadcasting networks.
But don’t you have to sound like everyone else writing in that world?
No. You can develop your very distinct voice. I was known these days as the quirky one among the many Forgotten Realms authors. My characters aren’t super high-powered, they don’t save the entire world on a daily basis, and they often have pretty mundane concerns, like fixing the barn roof or moving out of the family home. I had great fun creating offbeat plots about characters in the Forgotten Realms and other worlds that may or may not include small pets, topiary dragons, and vast libraries.
For Arkham Horror, my books are more "cozy" than other authors. You can find out what I mean by cozy horror elsewhere on this website.
Why do you call them “your characters” and “your plots” – aren’t you handed all that by the publisher?
As a fellow media tie-in writer and I chorused at a recent con: “Oh, we wish.” Actually what we are usually handed is a short sentence or two. Or one word. My first Forgotten Realms novel needed to fit into the series title theme “Dungeon,” or, as the editor explained in response to my plaintive query to know more: an adventure that took place underground in either a known or previously unknown place. That became the Crypt of the Moaning Diamond. For the second novel that I wrote for Wizards of the Coast, who publish the Forgotten Realms books, I was asked to come up with a story set in a newly rebuilt city called Waterdeep. That led a story about a family who live next to, and maintain, the city’s big spooky graveyard: City of the Dead.
My most recent novels are set in the world conveyed by the Arkham Horror board game and card game. In the Mask of Silver, a few of the "investigators" from the game interacted with my movie crew. The folks at Fantasy Flight Games, who own the license, read the books prior to publication. Then FFG editors return red and green comments to my editor: red for "nope things don't work that way" and green for "yay we love this and may use it in game some day." Luckily I received very few red comments (one character name had to be changed in the first book to avoid confusion with an already existing investigator) and lots of green. In Deadly Grimoire, one investigator became a major character at the request of FFG. In my most recent Arkham Horror novel, The Bootlegger's Dance, I sent one character bouncing through time to interact with nearly a dozen investigators.
Still, don’t you want to create your own worlds?
Sometimes I do. I’ve worked on several projects where I was part of the initial group of authors writing stories about a world that was in the process of being built. One recent project was notable for the series of questions sent out by the publisher that we as authors needed to answer. As we did, we filled in the details, the color, and the life of that world. What’s fun is we got to riff off each other’s ideas or strike off in our own little corner.
I’m involved in one shared world, Cobalt City, that works like an artists’ collective. We take certain characters, details, or bits and build our own worlds within that world. But it’s all interconnected and gotten complicated enough that our lead author, the original creator, has built a Wiki to track names, dates, and other goodies.
But doesn’t somebody else then own your stuff?
Again, that depends on the contract. For some media tie-in fiction, the creator or the rights holder may own all aspects of your story, including the right to give other people leave to write about characters that you have created or plots that you began. Think about DC or Marvel, two huge shared worlds of superheroes. You can write a Batman mystery for DC or Spiderman dust-up for Marvel, but you won’t own those characters, any new villains you throw up against them, or the plot twists you bring to their tales. On the other hand, who wouldn’t love to write a Batman or Spiderman story? It’s up to you what you are willing to accept.
So you own some of your stuff?
Yes. I have contracts for certain shared world projects where the rights revert back to me for my stories after a certain date or when the project goes out of print. Then I can sell them elsewhere. Which is why I try to write every shared world story in a way so that it is complete without the reader knowing anything else about the world. I love it when the fans of a certain world write to me and say that they enjoyed giving my books to their friends to hook them into the world. That’s a great compliment.
OK, since this does sound fun, how do I sell a media tie-in story? Write fan fiction?
Actually fan fiction, while a great way to practice telling stories set in a shared world, may not be the best route to go. Many creators and right holders are advised by their lawyers not to read fan fiction. So they can’t or won’t scan it for new writers to recruit. I’ve never been a writer of fan fiction.
How do you break in?
Look for media properties that you like and find out if there is any fiction being published for it. Then find the publishers. Check their websites for their submission guidelines. Even if closed, check back in a few months, as various properties open and close. Conventions and writer groups can be a good source of open calls. That happened for me with Wizards of the Coast and the Forgotten Realms. I broke in when they were doing open calls and announced that at a Seattle convention. I received my contract with Aconyte and Arkham Horror answering an open call for writers, which a writer friend alerted me to.
While some publishers and properties require you to have an agent, many of these properties are open to writers working on their own. I negotiate all my contracts and haven't worked through an agent (yet).
Writing in shared worlds or media tie-ins is like any market. It’s constantly changing. But do think of working for the larger publishers as applying for a job. Be prepared with your very best resume and writing clips to impress the editor. Just gushing how much you love the game or movie probably won't get you the gig.
One source of leads for many people is the gaming convention GenCon. It takes place every August. They run a very big writers workshop for writers of shared worlds and game developers.
And for your viewing pleasure, a video done by a friend for my first Forgotten Realms novel. I still have soft spot in my writer's heart for my very first media tie-in novel with its crazy adventurers: