Today we have a first timer here at The Book Pushers. I’d like everyone to extend a warm welcome to a dear friend of mine, Marcy Rockwell. Marcy is here to talk to us today about a different kind of fantasy that we have yet to showcase here at The Book Pushers: tie-in fantasy. Take it away Marcy!
MAKING IT YOUR OWN
Hello, Bookpushers! Thanks so much for letting me take part in your Fantasy Celebration! My name is Marsheila (Marcy) Rockwell and I’m here to talk to you today about a type of fantasy fiction you may not have tried before – namely, tie-in fiction.
Okay, first off – what is tie-in fiction? In technical terms, it’s fiction that “ties in” to some other media property, like a television show, movie, video game, or role-playing game. But put more simply, it’s the two entire bookcases in the science fiction and fantasy section of your local brick and mortar bookstore that are filled with Star Wars, Buffy, Warhammer and D&D novels. That’s the section where you’ll find my most recent book, The Shard Axe, which ties in to the world of Dungeons & Dragon Online (DDO).
You may have heard that tie-in fiction is nothing more than glorified fan fiction – usually from people who’ve never actually read any, or whose last foray into the field was during the Carter administration. I’ve rebutted that argument elsewhere, so I won’t waste your time with it here. Suffice to say that, when you have Hugo and Nebula Award winners writing tie-in fiction, the idea that it’s somehow of lesser quality than “original” work goes flying out the window faster than a sparkly vampire about to be caught stalking his underage girlfriend (heh).
So, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I’d like to focus on a question raised by Bookpusher’s very own MinnChica. Namely, how does a writer make tie-in fiction his or her own? As a tie-in writer, you’re writing in a setting someone else created, often using other people’s characters and/or plot lines. You might think those constraints would leave little room for creativity and that it would be harder to put your own stamp on a story because of them, but you’d probably be surprised to learn that it’s really no harder than doing the same thing with original (i.e., creator-owned) fiction.
With creator-owned fantasy fiction, the setting, character and plot may all be yours, but you still have constraints. For example, if you’re writing urban fantasy set in our world, then your Chicago has to resemble our Chicago, or you don’t get to call it that (at least not without annoying your Windy City readers). Things like gravity and the laws of physics have to work the way we expect them to, unless you’ve come up with a logical reason why they don’t – preferably a reason that’s integral to your story. Even when you’re writing in your own made-up world, you will still have rules you need to follow, and follow consistently. If magic exists in your world (and it probably will, since we’re talking about fantasy here), then it has to follow a set of rules that don’t change from situation to situation. And if they do change? You guessed it – you have to have a reason for it. And that reason can’t be “because it sounded kewl,” either, because readers aren’t stupid. They know when you haven’t taken the time to think out how your world works, and few things will make a fantasy reader throw your book across the room faster. After all, if you don’t care enough to build a consistent world, why should they care enough to try to make sense of it? Likewise, your characters have to have believable reasons for what they do, or else they ring false to the reader and – whoosh! Book across the room.
The same constraints hold true for tie-in fiction. If, say, the heroine of The Shard Axe (Sabira) spends a lot of time in the DDO city of Stormreach (and she does), then the Stormreach in the novel had better match the one in the game. If characters can’t fly in-game, then I can’t suddenly make Sabira sprout wings and jump off a cliff to escape danger. If I do? Book, meet wall. The only real difference with tie-in fiction is that the rules writers have to follow aren’t ones that they also had to make up.
And just as the story-telling constraints are the same, regardless of whether a book is tie-in or original fantasy fiction, so too is the way in which a writer goes about making a story stand out within the bounds of those constraints. For The Shard Axe, I chose to set a large portion of the story in a part of the world that hadn’t gotten much attention, and to focus on a race that had similarly been largely underutilized – namely, the dwarves and their homeland. I chose to tell a type of story that hadn’t been seen yet – the hunt for a serial killer, complete with some courtroom drama. I chose to add elements to the story that aren’t typically considered a staple of D&D novels, like a romantic subplot and an urban fantasy-type heroine who is equal parts snark and heart.
Now, granted, I had more freedom in the tale I wanted to tell in The Shard Axe than the person who writes, say, Criminal Minds tie-in fiction, but even that person (Max Allan Collins, aka the Tie-in God) is able to make those stories his own. How?
By doing the same thing any writer does, whether they’re putting out tie-in fiction or creator-owned work. Look for things that haven’t been done before, or new ways of presenting old ideas. Mix genres – The Shard Axe is fantasy noir with an urban fantasy feel and a murder mystery at its core. Give characters motivations readers can understand, and make the stakes matter. Sabira is driven by guilt, duty and a sizable gambling debt to accept a mission she doesn’t want, protecting a dwarf she can’t forgive, in a city full of memories that won’t stop haunting her. I’m biased, of course, but that’s a storyline that I would find compelling no matter what universe it was written in.
And that’s probably the most important answer of all. How do I make a book stand out, be it tie-in or creator-owned? By telling a story I want to read. And hopefully, if I’ve followed my own advice, it’s one that you’ll want to read, as well.
Marsheila (Marcy) Rockwell is the author of the forthcoming Dungeons & Dragons Online novel, Skein of Shadows, a sequel to The Shard Axe (Wizards of the Coast, 2011). She has also written another unrelated novel, Legacy of Wolves (Wizards of the Coast, 2007), set in the same universe. Her creator-owned work includes a female-centric series of Arabian-flavored sword & sorcery stories, Tales of Sand and Sorcery, put out by Musa Publishing. The first two installments, “Shaala, Made of Stone” and “The Jade and Honey Harlot,” are available now and the third, “Both,” releases in May. In addition to her fiction writing, she is a poet, editor, engineer, Navy (Seabee) wife and the mother of three wonderful sons. She lives in Arizona in the shadow of an improbably green mountain with her family, the requisite black lab, a sizable collection of Wonder Woman figures, and far too many books. You can find out more about her latest projects here: www.marsheilarockwell.com/.
Marcy is offering one copy of The Shard Axe to one lucky winner. Just leave a question for Marcy about tie-in fantasy, or tell her your favorite tie-in fantasy book to be entered. Open internationally and ends April 19th. Good Luck!