Other People’s Properties, that is.
I don’t play in other folks’ sandboxes very often. I feel it’s more productive to spend my time on my own properties, and to be honest, in the long run it’s more rewarding. There are times, though, that an invitation comes along that sounds like a lot of fun, and it can be a good opportunity to gain a little more exposure.
Off the top of my head, I can think of three times I’ve had something published featuring properties that belonged to someone else: I visited Brian Keene’s zombie apocalypse world of The Rising with “One Night in August”, I wrote a Phantom short for Moonstone’s The Phantom Chronicles, and most recently I got to play with Tim Seeley’s Cassie Hack in Hack/Slash Trailers Part 2.
Again, that’s published. I had one short story I submitted but never heard about again, another short I stepped away from, one I knew I would never finish in time, and another that was just accepted by the editor and is awaiting approval from the property owner. Oh, and one I ghost wrote, which is all I can say about it.
The experience itself is a mixed bag.
In almost every case above, I was invited by the editors or the property owners to submit a story. This is flattering, whether it’s because the owner trusts you with your work or because the editor trusts you to handle the property with respect and/or thinks you can bring something to the table. (Writers love having their egos stroked.)
It’s also a lot of fun, especially if it’s a property you’re already a fan of. Even my kids dig the Phantom, and they were excited when I told them I got to write a story about him. (Of course, they were then disappointed that it wasn’t a movie or comic book.) It’s all the better when you get email from fans of those properties telling you they enjoyed your take on the character, and they will then be seeking out your other work.
Fortunately I have yet to have any of those fans tell me I screwed up. That would suck a lot of the fun out of it.
I have, however, had a creator tell me I don’t understand their character. I agreed to some rewrites, but after the third time around I finally decided I wasn’t going to make this person happy and I backed out. I’d love to have published a piece about the character in question, but if the creator wasn’t happy, chances are the fans wouldn’t be, either.
That extra scrutiny is a lot of work. The same process happened with The Phantom Chronicles: my story had to be approved by the licensor, King Features Syndicate, as well as the editors at Moonstone. The edits in this case were fairly light, but I had to go through two separate rounds of them several weeks apart.
You also have to do your homework. If you’re lucky, you’ll be given a series bible. If you’re smart, you’ll read previously-published material and learn it. If you’re lucky and smart, the property owner will send you previously-published material and you’ll read all of it. Depending upon the property’s history, this can get tedious if you’re not already a huge fan.
The easiest work-for-hire projects are the one where you just play in the other world, but you create your own characters. For example, with “One Night in August”, I was told “The zombies look like this, this is what happened with the world, you can’t use any of the characters from the novels.” So tell a zombie story with this kind of zombie? Done.
Imagine, though, working in the Star Wars universe where everything is meticulously recorded and checked for continuity. You really have to know your stuff. Writing for Marvel or DC is probably a bit better because there are so many characters and there’s such a rich history to mine, but a big frustration I hear is many characters are tied up in other books and are off limits.
Also, the fans are bigger critics than the editors, so be ready for backlash. If you don’t have a thick skin, don’t bother. (Of course, this can also be said about writing in general.)
I’m not going to tell anyone they should or shouldn’t do it. Sometimes it can be rewarding, either financially, emotionally, or both. For me, going forward it’s going to come down to whether or not it’s worth my while.
In the case of the piece I just had accepted, it doesn’t pay a ton of money but I know the creator, I like the character, and this character has a fairly solid fanbase. If the publisher takes notice of my story, even better. In the case of Hack/Slash, it was a four-page piece and took no time at all, plus it was done to help the creator. I’m down with that.
Would I work for Marvel or DC given a chance? Hells yes. They pay well and they get your work in front of many thousands of eyeballs. I’d have to give a lot of thought to something like Star Trek, though. I know a few guys who do very well writing those books, but I just don’t have the passion for the source material. Same for the Buffy books. It’s not a series I got into. (For the record, though, I’d write the shit out of Firefly. That’s some Whedon goodness I can get behind.) As professional as I would be if they wave a check in front of my face and I take the job, and no matter how hard I busted my ass to do the research, I’m sure I’d have a lot of sleepless nights worrying an editor would tell me “It’s just not working out” and I’d have wasted a lot of time and have to give that fat paycheck back.
And that wasted time can really kill your own properties.
Look, I know a guy who wrote a novel based on an obnoxious TV show for tweens. It’s about as far removed from his usual work as you can get. However, he told me what it paid, and he was then able to claim a bestselling novel in his credits. I sure as hell wouldn’t turn down a job that would pay off a third of my mortgage.
Here’s what you do turn down:
1) Stuff you hate or just don’t want to be associated with. This should pretty much speak for itself. I’d write porn for a buck, for example, but my wife would kill me and I’d probably lose my job. (Though some may say this is what pseudonyms are for…)
2) Stuff that has no established fanbase. If there’s nobody reading it, there’s nobody going to be reading what you contributed. Either the editor/creator wants to cash in on your name, or they just can’t get anybody else to do it. Either way, run.
3) Stuff that doesn’t pay. This usually goes hand-in-hand with 2, but some people just want a free ride. I know of a big name in television who flirted with a friend of mine to write some spec scripts for a television show they were developing. They jerked him off for a while, and pretty soon he realized he wasn’t going to get paid. Why should he bust his ass to put money in someone else’s pocket? Again, run.
4) Favors. Nobody likes to turn down their friends, but chances are if it’s a favor, 2 and 3 are involved and you have the additional heartache of them assuming you’ll be cool with their asking for three rewrites and their getting pissy when you don’t stick to their vision. Respectfully decline, then run.
It boils down to this: every writer has their own product. Your product represents you the best, and there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing your own product succeed.
Raise that baby and put it out into the world.