Writing Good Tie-In Fiction: Put every writing advice survivorship bias caveat you’ve ever heard here

I love writing tie-ins. My licensed Star Trek and Alien books are some of my favorite works. However, writing advice requires me to be blunt. Please remove your fan hats and t-shirts for a moment if you choose to see how the sausage is made. I don’t want to get stains on your merch.

Let’s start with the ugly truth: my goal as a tie-in writer is career recognition. Say what you will, I’m literally doing this for exposure. Tie-in contracts simply aren’t as lucrative: they pay half as much and I get half the time to write them, so I must be strategic about what I write and for whom.

How can I stand out when tie-in novels are considered the mass-produced, lesser sibling of noble original fiction? Licensed books exist to commodify and extend the story for further monetization, and there’s little recognition in it. The major spec fic awards don’t even have a category for licensed fiction, and they have some pretty esoteric ones. How can I distinguish myself as a raindrop in an ocean?

Don’t try to write the perfect brand experience.

At the heart of every book is a goal. On the surface, the goal of a licensed Trek book might be, “Make the missing episode of my favorite series.” That sounds reasonable. It’s easy to build those sets in my mind, and I can work in the fan favorites: transporters, phasers, Earl Grey tea and hot.

But then, everyone already saw all that stuff. It’s table stakes.

For Alien’s horror, which relies on violating expectations, this disadvantage is even more pronounced. No one will be surprised when a guy peering into an egg gets facehugged. Oh, the British android turned evil? Who could’ve guessed that was coming?

If I try my hardest to make that lost episode of a favorite series, and I succeed, it’ll be tossed into a bin with all the other extruded products. Relying on the brand identity to be my plot identity is a great way to be swept under and forgotten. Did you know there are more than 850 Star Trek novels?

My goal is instead to replicate the moment you truly fell in love with that licensed property. How did you feel the first time you saw a chestburster? Shock? Disgust? Fascination? How old were you when you first saw the Enterprise? What possibilities did you imagine?

A great tie-in novel will be both familiar and new. It’ll capture the wonder and depth of your love from a perspective you’ve never seen, turning all your predictions on their heads until you stop guessing and enjoy the ride.

Take risks.

It feels like a privilege to have the keys to a major licensed property. It’s a storied place full of sacred wonder for many lifelong fans. The studio that owns it has put a lot of money into it, and they’d like it if I returned it like I found it. However, and I really can’t stress this enough:

One is not privileged to work for a major corporation.

Let me say it again. It’s cool to work with my favorite characters. It’s cool to entertain the fandoms. It’s nothing special to be in the employment of the megacorps.

I’m generating content for their machine, one which can be guided by averages and pocketbooks instead of vision and love. There’s pressure from fans and brands alike to be “apolitical,” which is a word that has worn out its welcome in the politicization of everything. I guarantee, if I write a story about good versus evil, there will be some fascist frothing at the mouth, claiming I’m writing about them.

And sometimes I am. Not sorry.

I can’t be cowardly because it’s some multimillion-dollar property quivering beneath my pen. The world can be a dark and painful place, and some people deserve comfort. Others deserve to have a mirror shoved in their faces. I’ve been lucky to have the support of fantastic editors to protect my works against meddling.

Let the hatred flow through you.

Sometimes our favorites disappoint us. If you’re a fan of any large endeavor, it contains elements that you thought were less than perfect. Maybe they were boring, foolish, or problematic. I’ll tell you what the fanfiction world figured out a long time ago:

If you hate a story, you can write something to fix it.

Readers are always asking me what I loved about the show or movie that inspired my books, and the answers are frankly embarrassing. I wrote The Cold Forge because I thought Carter J. Burke was an ineffective heel, and the situation would be terrifying if he was even a little good at his job. I wrote Revenant because I thought that Jadzia Dax got shortchanged in her interactions with Curzon.

These are complaints. My stories come from gripes half the time.

And honestly, this doesn’t just apply to tie-ins. Sometimes I’ll see a television show do something I despise, and I’ll think, “What an interesting plot. I’m going to scrub off the serial numbers and write a book about that.”

Be an auteur.

This is probably trite, but always be yourself. I aim to leave an indelible stain on my tie-in novels, like graffiti on the studio wall. No matter what property covers it, no matter what brands we filter it through, my writing should always be mine. If I try to work in the style of another person, it’s clunky and obtuse. The natural feeling of the prose goes away.

That’s why I don’t take assignments with too much plot work done beforehand. If an editor calls me with, “We have a specific story we need you to write,” the answer is usually, “Thanks for considering me, but no.” It’s hard to write someone else’s plot—far easier to create my own.

The only way for me to achieve my goal is if you remember my name when you’re done. I’m here to create support for my own endeavors. Who wants to work in the worlds of others when they have their own?

One piece of parting advice: never compromise quality. Write your heart out, every single time.


Originally published in Grimdark Magazine Issue #31.

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Alex White

Alex White

Alex White was born in Mississippi and has lived most of their life in the American South. Alex is the author of the Starmetal Symphony Trilogy and The Salvagers Trilogy; as well as official novels for Alien (THE COLD FORGE, INTO CHARYBDIS) and Star Trek (DS9 REVENANT). They enjoy music composition, calligraphy, and challenging, subversive fiction. They can be found on Twitter @alexwhitebooks, and Instagram as @the_alex_white, along with their website at alexrwhite.com.

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