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Issue #127 - March 2006

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Sprinting the Marathon

By Karen Traviss

So whatís a nice respectable girl like me, a writer of serious intellectual SF, doing in a sleazy joint like media tie-ins?

Thatís one way of asking the question. The other way ó and I get this from people who think theyíre flattering me ó is: "Why are you writing this rubbish when you could be doing more Wessíhar books?"

The word they use is almost always "rubbish," and when I challenge these folk ó who really do think theyíre being nice to me ó it always turns out they havenít even read my Star Wars novels. The other comment I get is that, because "rubbish" like tie-ins is clogging the shelves, "real" books don't get into bookstores. Thatís a belief that takes no account of the market realities of why the "real" books arenít on the shelves in the first place. But I digress.

I write media tie-ins for Lucasfilm as well as my own "original" fiction, and I realize that bewilders a few people. I always slap inverted commas on the word "original"; it's a meaningless term, partly because nobody can define originality, and partly because everything ó absolutely everything ó has been done before. A bookís worth lies in its execution and the impact it has on the individual reader. So letís call it creator-copyright. Thatís the only hard line between the two.

On examination, my critically-acclaimed Wessíhar series is as much set in a shared universe as any tie-in. Itís a world of long-established tropes like everyone elseís "serious" fiction: aliens, interstellar space flight, culture clashes, colonialism, armed conflict. Those are shared elements across SF. So why should similar shared elements in the form of continuity render a tie-in beneath contempt? You can, if you want to, take as fresh a look at that shared universe as you can your own. Lucasfilm let me question the heroic image of the Jedi and show them as a morally compromised elite whoíd taken their eye off the spiritual ball. Some readers were unsettled by it. Most, though, leapt on it and said it was a question they always wanted to see asked.

From the writerís point of view, media tie-in fiction is harder and actually requires more original thought and creative effort than creator-copyright ó provided you treat it and the readership with the respect both deserve.

The only people who believe it isnít harder and requires less creativity are those who havenít actually done it, or perhaps those who think they can coast on tie-ins and just phone it in. But readers can spot lack of effort a mile away in thick fog, believe me, and theyíll never let the writer forget it.

The craft involved is more difficult. Having a foot in both camps, I can tell you that itís very easy to create your own characters and story arcs; the only holes you find yourself in are those of your own making, and if you need to kill off a major character or blow up the universe to fix them, you can do it.

In tie-ins, you donít always have that option. You often inherit characters (not always, because I have a complete Star Wars strand thatís entirely made up of my own creations) and they have a life of their own because of the surrounding continuity into which youíre parachuted. You canít kill Luke Skywalker without George Lucasís consent, of course, or explore Yodaís origins: but thatís a very small corner of a vast universe, and you can certainly push the limits in other areas.

Some characters have been portrayed a certain way for years: do you stick with that? No, you can look at them anew. You can ask why some of the Jedi are hypocrites. You can look at Boba Fett as a two-dimensional Mr. Cool with a jetpack, or dig deeper and see him as a very damaged man utterly alienated from normal society by a bizarre childhood and brutal teenage years. It depends how much effort you want to expend. And the more effort you expend, the more readers appreciate it.

At the nuts and bolts craft level, tie-ins are still not an easy ride. Basic techniques you fall back on in your creator-copyright world almost without thinking donít always work in the shared universe. There are no oranges in Star Wars, for example, so all the million-and-one little phrases that you've become used to in your own world ó like orange-peel surfaces ó are simply not in the tool box anymore. Youíre kicked outside of the comfort zone of your own unconscious writing and forced into the cold: the sense of writing by the seat of your pants can be overwhelming. The best I can liken it to is borrowing someoneís Ferrari and not knowing if youíre a good enough driver to take that hairpin bend. After finishing a tie-in novel, I sink gratefully into my seat and start work on one of my creator-copyright books for a rest.

Working with established continuity isnít always the uniquely limiting issue that some readers (and writers) seem to think it is, either. Continuity straightjackets you whether you create it yourself or George Lucas and your colleagues do it for you. My Wessíhar series is now six books, so itís as hard for me to navigate through its continuity Ė and even remember detail - as it is for me to operate within the Star Wars landcape ó except I donít have a content manager like the excellent Leland Chee at Lucasfilm to ask what canon says on a certain detail. That really would be handy, I can tell you.

The only practical difference with tie-in continuity is that it isnít solely in your hands. What makes it complex isnít the volume or the need for Lucasfilm approval: itís the state of constant and simultaneous flux. While Iím writing one tie-in novel or a short story, other authors and artists are adding their own components and twists to the shared universe. At any given moment, we have no idea if what weíre creating will cut across anyone else, however closely we stick to outlines. Itís common for writers to ask each other to accommodate changes to enable a certain storyline to take place, but it still needs constant vigilance because the devil really does dwell in those details. That takes craft. And, as sure as eggs are little oval cracky things, any slip in continuity will be seized and dissected by readers.

Another reason why I feel tie-ins require more technical writing skill to get them right is that the plot fixes and great ideas that hit you out of the blue have to be shared and approved. In your own universe, you can do as you please and probably not give it much thought, but changing an agreed outline in a tie-in impacts a lot of other peopleís work. You have to be hyper-aware of the building blocks of your story. You have to think things through much more thoroughly. Using the driving analogy again, itís the difference between driving on a deserted airfield and negotiating a six-lane motorway.

Does all that make tie-ins stilted and mechanistic? No. It just means that you have to apply conscious lateral thinking to what you do. And thatís what makes me a better writer for having been through the School of Franchise Fiction: being forced out of my cozy corner of writer habits, I know that if I pull out into the wrong lane I might get hit by a truck if Iím not concentrating and checking my mirrors.

From the readersí viewpoint, another big difference might appear to be the time it takes to write a tie-in. But for me, there's no difference whatsoever. I put exactly the same thought and effort into any book or short fiction, and I happen to be a fast writer, so at the end of five or six weeks (I write full-time now) thereíll be a novel of 150,000 words regardless whose copyright is on it. Inputs donít relate to outputs in fiction, and I like using my Wessíhar series to prove to people that a six-week book is as good as a six-year book; itís all about your natural speed, and thereís no right answer. The only constraint is that no publisher can wait six years for a tie-in. So media work favors the fast writer.

Now, hereís the question that really ends up getting people choking on their latte: is tie-in work less demanding intellectually than copyright-creator stuff?

No.

I say again: no.

In fact, it opens doors to issues that you might not even touch in your own universe.

A publisher asks you to do tie-in work because they like the way you write in your own world. They want to capture that certain something and use it in tie-ins. My particular groove is military and political fiction and the politics of identity. (I have a reader at MIT to thank for that last label.) So I took that outlook across to Star Wars and I didnít have to "dumb down" one bit. In fact, I found myself forced to go further in terms of examining ethics than I ever had before.

It was cloning that did it. In my Wessíhar universe, I make as much use of tropes as anyone. (Ironically, itís hailed as fresh and original.) But even I would never have used cloning in my series. Boring, boring, boring: everyone else had been there so many times that I thought there was nothing new to say about it.

I was wrong. There was plenty. Freed from the environment of hard SF - forced out of it screaming, to be frank ó I found a lot more.

I was asked to write a novel to accompany a game, usually regarded as the ultimate act of prostitution by the literati, and my brief was simple: it had to be about a squad of cloned soldiers with one member stuck behind enemy lines at some point. That was the whole brief. The rest was up to me, and Lucasfilm gave me carte blanche to write what I liked. When I signed on the line, I knew nothing about Star Wars beyond seeing the films. I didnít even know if I liked Star Wars or not, but I knew that as a brand new author, Iíd have my name in front of hundreds of thousands of readers in the same year my debut novel (City of Pearl) was published. That could only be good for me.

Outside the Lucas universe, Iíd have done my hard SF thing and shown what a disaster cloning was ó high failure rates, developmental difficulties and all the problems inherent in cloning and raising a human army. But I couldnít do that because the movies said that the cloned army worked just fine.

So I looked beyond that to what it meant to be a cloned soldier in the service of the Republic. The hermetic, brutal, loveless upbringing. Being disposable. Being a slave. Being bred to die. And all that with the complicity of those ultimate good guys, the Jedi. Now, dear reader, look me in the eye and tell me that there wasnít an intellectually demanding and harrowing story to be examined there.

Fuelled by class outrage and righteous loathing for those elitist, spoon-bending, lightsaber-wielding, funded-by-the-taxpayer Jedi bastards, I wrote from the gut in a world that was utterly new to me. My tie-ins are aimed at an adult audience, but they still have to be suitable for young adult readers, so I couldnít fall back on my usual soldierly dialogue of profanity. But I maintained a lot of solid science, and dealt with issues like rape, atrocities, shooting prisoners, and all the other ugly areas of war. Nothing was off limits. I ended up with a book (Republic Commando: Hard Contact) that, heresy of heresies was a source of more pride to me than City of Pearl, which was nominated for the top awards in respectable SF.

And that effort was rewarded. While Iím of the school of thought that says fiction is entertainment, and the journalist in me deplores sending polemic messages to readers, the issues in Hard Contact provoked fierce and complex moral debate on the fan forums about cloning, servitude, and the nature of orders and compliance in war. I canít write without posing questions for the reader; and Star Wars readers ó be they 10 or drawing their pension ó really latch on to them. Moral dilemma is central to the myth. Itís one of the reasons they like Star Wars. They donít all want soothing predictability. They enjoy a good ethical wrangle, and some of it gets into areas that are frankly uncomfortable. The latest debate I had with a reader was about what makes a person human, and whether itís ever acceptable to talk of sub-humans. No cozy fantasy tropes there, I can tell you.

By the time I wrote the sequel thatís just been published, Republic Commando: Triple Zero, I was deep into areas of the politics of terrorism and exploitation that were far more extreme, and so more demanding, than the rigorously real-world plot of my Wessíhar series.

Readers who find me via City of Pearl and take the risk of catching tie-in cooties from touching a Star Wars novel say that the books feel just as intense and heavyweight to them. They get the same experiences that they do from the Wessíhar series. I even use the same style: a minimalist, plain-English form of reportage, very tightly from the character's viewpoint ó because that's what I use in my Wessíhar books to make them accessible to as wide an audience as possible. I donít just want to sell truck-loads of books: I want readers to understand them and be stimulated by the ideas, and I particularly want the reader who might be daunted by "serious" fiction to feel comfortable with them.

Itís all about the characters. About the story. Iím a storyteller, and I want to communicate. I donít believe in a static piece of art with a single interpretation that requires hard work to comprehend.

For me, the line between copyright-owned and tie-in is an artificial distinction. Adjusting to its framework and settling into each characterís head is now the same process for me, whether theyíre of my own sole making or whether theyíre created by George Lucas and scores of other writers and artists. If anything, tie-ins deserve more effort: they're going to be scrutinized by hundreds of thousands of readers ó tie-ins sell more copies than anything except the megastar big-hitters like Brown and Rowling ó and you know what itíll do to your reputation if you screw it up. A lot of my Wessíhar readers came to me from Star Wars. If Iíd treated their universe like a pin-money job that didnít matter, theyíd never have trusted me again.

So apart from the fact that it can be a lot harder for the author, thereís no fundamental difference between writing a tie-in for any franchise and a creator-copyright piece. It still has to stand the tests of good fiction, except that itís got to be done fast, itís got to be done right, and itís got to be done despite changes, deadline shifts, studio diktats, or ó hereís the real white-knuckle ride ó trying to fit in with an ongoing TV series thatís still being written, as many of my colleagues do. Those whoíve novelized movies tell me stories of not being allowed to take scripts away home, and having one chance to read them with a security guard standing over them: and a movie script makes a novel of about 20,000 words. Adding another 80,000 words without deviating from the film takes real talent. Tie-ins are not a job for the faint-hearted or the dilettante.

One of the questions Iíve been asked is how people treat me when they know I write tie-ins. Short answer: like a celebrity. Regular people think itís fantastic. The stigma implied in the question has been placed upon tie-in writers only by a very, very small group of snobs among authors and readers, who seem to see tie-ins as a threat to civilization ó the kind who tell me to my face that tie-ins shouldn't be on the same con dealerís table as "real" SF (no, I didn't throw a punch...) or that they take me away from writing "proper" books.

Letís get one thing straight. If people donít care for Star Trek, Buffy, Monk or CSI, or any of the many franchises that spin off into written fiction ó and theyíll only know that for sure if they actually read them, of course ó then they don't buy them again. Thatís their right. But launching attacks on tie-ins (and on the people who read them) tells me a lot more about the insecurities of the attackers than it does about the merit of tie-ins. Let me go on writing my tie-ins in peace, please, and I wonít stop you reading what gives you most pleasure. I love writing Star Wars and Iím not ashamed to say that.

Itís also sound business practice. It pays me good money to piggyback on the marketing of the most successful franchise in the world: and without the sudden visibility that Hard Contact gave me, Iím certain I wouldnít have the readership I now have for my Wessíhar series. My Star Wars titles are best-sellers. Thatís a win-win in anyoneís book. In cash terms, royalties are very small compared to creator-copyright, but the advance is bigger, so while the two balance out over the years, a front-loaded advance enables me to plan a few years ahead instead of sweating on sales to make up my income in royalties, which take literally years to reach my bank account and, of course, are never guaranteed. All my financial plans take place without any assumption of royalties. That way, the only surprises I get are pleasant ones.

Star Wars also entertains me and stretches me. I get to work with talented people from other fields, the composers, artists, designers, software creators that Iíd never even meet in the course of my other books. I have the pleasure and commercial advantage of being a name to hundreds of thousands of readers, who know what they like and are smart enough to appreciate the genuinely challenging themes wrapped up in their favorite shared universe. And I have the privilege of the support of Star Wars fandom ó the kindest, most generous, and friendliest people Iíve ever met. Thatís a greater reward for me than you could possibly imagine.

I find tie-ins harder work than creator-copyright, yes. But in return, I get a lot more in payment than just money. For a storyteller ó and thatís what I am ó thereís no greater reward than a big, enthusiastic and vocal audience. This is showbiz, baby. It has to appeal to a wide range of readers, and that takes skill, not some imagined low-lying common denominator. Itís a test of every craft skill.

As one of my tie-in colleagues, Max Collins, puts it: "We are not sprinters. We are not long distance runners. We sprint long distances."

And sprinting a marathon makes you pretty fit.

[I recently did an interview with Karen Traviss, talking mainly about the political background to her wessíhar books. It is due to appear on Strange Horizons on Monday March 27th. - Cheryl]

Hard Contact - Karen Traviss - Orbit - mass-market paperback

Triple Zero - Karen Traviss - Del Rey - mass-market paperback

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
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