The Difference between Writing Tie-In Fiction and Doing Your Own Thing

For as long as I can remember, video games have always been a playground for my imagination. Science fiction and military simulators were always my favorites, and my lucky break as a writer began when I fell in love with EVE Online. “Fan-fiction” is a derogatory term in gaming channels, but that’s what ultimately got me published. Through EVE, I found an outlet for my creative tendencies, and a passion for participating in deep, immersive worlds. I wrote a few short stories for the game, and before I knew it, I was participating in the development of its virtual world and intellectual property. Luck and timing just happened to align for me, and I found a way to contribute to the brand when it was young and full of potential.

Without question, the greatest single joy of writing tie-in fiction is working alongside the artists, programmers, animators, actors, artists, and composers and sound designers who make the things you wrote about come to life. You learn something from them each of them. To this day, the original painting created for my first novella hangs from my office wall. It was a privilege to watch each of those incredibly talented individuals compose art on their own canvas, and follow how they expressed their art from the vision of the world you helped to create.

As a solo writer, your words alone must inspire the vision in the minds of your readers. The upside is you’re in charge of the world building, every stone of it, from the ground up. The downside is that you’re completely in charge of the world building. At CCP, the publishers of EVE, I worked with a content team who were devoted lore experts and designed missions for the actual game. They helped me with everything, from constructing major plot arcs for the game’s storyline to creating personas for the world’s NPC figureheads.

Writers stand out in crowds because they’re the ones mumbling to themselves on subways or weeping in bars next to empty bottles of gin. I can’t speak for other authors, but for me world building is hard work, and in my opinion is what really differentiates sci-fi/fantasy writers from other genres. The interaction between your characters and the world is where plots emerge. If any one part of it is inconsistent, immersion is broken, and the story falls apart for the reader.

When the world already exists, you will still mumble and drink, albeit for completely different reasons. Now there are rigid boundaries that your imagination must operate within. There’s a plan for the game and an intellectual property to respect. Your skills were sanctioned primarily to help advance the success of those entities. Except in the rarest cases, it is not a license to reinvent the franchise. That’s not to say creative freedom is completely inhibited, but you may find yourself devoting time to achieving buy-in for your ideas and lobbying for changes that you feel unlock more of the lore’s potential, rather than actually exploring the edges of your imagination.

You may be given a “corner” of the tie-in world to write freely in, where the tale you tell is contained, and all but partitioned from the world that players or fans interact the most in. Or, you can be embedded with actual franchise development in games, television, or any other medium, in which case your plot, characters, and everything in between has to align perfectly with the business objectives of the IP and the vision of creative directors. There is a process, there are deadlines, and there is the art of managing people and expectations. Bear in mind, creative teams are universally aligned in their desire to achieve “awesome.” It’s just that there’s often disagreement on what exactly that means.

No matter which writing arrangement you find yourself in, there will be good moments and challenging ones. There will be indescribable rushes of achievement and low moments of despair. If I can impart any advice, it’s to remember that no one creates anything that is all things to all people. When it comes to creative decisions in a collaborative setting, the rule of thumb whenever there is an impasse is that everyone is right, and wrong. Every work has its detractors. Every step forward is rejected by someone who is offended by change. That said, I do think working in this field can put more pressure on the tie-in author, because there are expectations from a fan base that is extremely protective of their world.

Find the resolve to stay the course. Whether it’s tie-in or proprietary work, write for the audience you know you can connect with the most. The best way to achieve that will always be to tell a great story. If the narrative is compelling, the fans will by and large overlook inconsistencies with prime fiction and lore bibles. You can see so many instances, especially in cinema, where directors took some creative liberties in adaptations of established works. It’s a stretch to make the comparison with tie-in fiction, but it’s impossible to not appreciate the epic success of The Lord of the Rings, or the Avengers films, or Game of Thrones. Granted, the directors of these productions carry a lot more weight than lowly authors like me, but the example here is how wonderfully they managed to balance adherence to the prime fiction constraints of their respective IPs with their refusal to be cornered by the details of each one.

I’ve given most of this advice from the perspective of having just been a tie-in writer. Now, being on my own, the slate is blank and the world of Orionis and the Tabit Genesis are brand new. The experience of writing for EVE definitely prepared me for this—what to do, what not to, how to learn from prior mistakes. The work will be judged in isolation, hopefully without the perspective or contrast of EVE. Not that I’m ashamed of my writing history—quite the contrary. But the fact that The Tabit Genesis is entirely my own creation is an incredibly rewarding feeling. That is the greatest difference of all.

Tabit Genesis by Tony Gonzales will be published by Gollancz, 21st May

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About Tony

TONY GONZALES is a former world developer at CCP Games where he helped to create the Eve Online Universe and published two novels based on the franchise: EVE: THE EMPYREAN AGE and EVE: TEMPLAR ONE. The books have sold more than 30,000 copies so far. Tony is now a full-time writer pledged to the TABIT series, and lives with his family

in New Jersey
GS Guest Blogger:Tony Gonzales

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