February 17, 2009 11:12 PM   Subscribe

It's a tough life as a media tie-in writer. Vonda N. McIntyre, early pioneer in the field and author of the Star Trek film novelisations, blogs about how she started the Star Trek novel franchise with The Entropy Effect, despite suggestions that maybe she do something more respectable like be a waitress instead. [via io9]
posted by Artw (31 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I guess there are so many things wrong with the world that I don't have a lot of vitriol left for tie-in writers. I sort of feel like a lot of those are getting people who otherwise might not read a lot to read something, at least, and I feel that's a good thing.
posted by Caduceus at 12:08 AM on February 18, 2009

I remember that novel; she was really into Sulu, as I recall.
posted by Poagao at 12:52 AM on February 18, 2009

I don't think it's morally unacceptable, but I do think it's a sad waste when a talented writer does tie-ins instead of writing something original. Vonda McIntyre's Dreamsnake is a bit of a classic: I doubt her Star Trek novels really stand up to it.

K.W. Jeter is another talented writer who we seem to have lost to tie-ins. Jeter's original books had a great deal of cynicism, violence and sex: I doubt he can really express himself in Star Trek and Star Wars novels.

I don't blame them from needing to pay the rent, and it must beat waiting tables, but it's a shame they can't make a living creating original universes and characters, without the restrictions of a franchise.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:36 AM on February 18, 2009

This is great. Those tie-in novels (especially Wrath of Khan, Search for Spock and Entropy Effect) got me reading actual adult novels for the first time instead of watching more insipid TV like 21 Jump Street or reading another Beverly Cleary Ramona-fest.
posted by infinitewindow at 4:35 AM on February 18, 2009

I devoured Star Trek novels as an adolescent. I read them so fast that I eventually found myself forgetting which ones I'd already read. I loved them, and I'm all for anyone who can write a good Star Trek Novel. Vonda McIntyre is certainly one of those.

And if tie-in novels keep some writers from writing original works, well, I'm okay with that because Star Trek is better than most Science Fiction.
posted by Shohn at 5:44 AM on February 18, 2009

As a long-time reader of sf I used to be very scathing about tie-in novels: derivative, unimaginative and hackwork are probably some of the nicer things I said about them.

Then a friend of mine with a good reputation as an sf critic surprised me by thrusting a Star Wars spin-off in my direction, Karen Traviss' Hard Contact. Not only was this a spin-off, it was a video-game tie-in. If it had been recommended by anyone else I'd have laughed, and as it was I expressed considerable scepticism but promised to give it a go.

It was very, very good indeed.

Why? Because it quickly became clear that Traviss had taken most of the often-valid criticisms of spin-offs and subverted them. Rather than write about long-established characters (often with detailed continuities not leaving much space for development) she wrote about minor parts of the franchise, in her case the clone troopers of the Prequel Trilogy. She subverted the readers' expectations by not indulging in hero-worship of existing characters, to the extent that the Jedi as a whole get a long-overdue kick where it hurts as anti-democratic arrogant jerks. And she took her own military experience to write about credible soldiers, with some interesting added twists about what it might be like to be brought up from birth amongst identical brothers to know nothing but training for war - and then encounter the real world (or worlds, I suppose).

In short, I had to eat my hat, if not most of the stock of the local hat store. The three sequels were just as good; I'm almost surprised Lucasfilm sanctioned them, seeing as how they could well be described as 'the unsanitized truth about the Clone Wars that Jedi mouthpiece George Lucas wouldn't want you to read.'

Does this mean that all spin-off novels are good? Hell, no. Does it mean that they are not, contrary to common prejudice amongst 'literary' sf fans, all bad? Most definitely so, and I am prepared to admit that in previously thinking so, I was wrong.
posted by Major Clanger at 5:56 AM on February 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

There are thousands of nerds writing crappy fan fiction, why should we hate the ones getting paid for it?

Wait, I do eff'ing hate the shelf space it wastes in bookstores, and how it demonstrates low standards of the drooling masses. Hatred restored!
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 5:57 AM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Matthew Stover is the other example who is often brought up with Traviss. I've not read Stover but I have read Traviss and she didn't strike me as much of a counterexample.

It is getting sort of more respectable though. Even Jeff Vandermeer is in on the act.
posted by ninebelow at 6:03 AM on February 18, 2009

There are thousands of nerds writing crappy fan fiction, why should we hate the ones getting paid for it?
Because Vonda McIntyre isn't just a "nerd writing crappy fan fiction". The most prestigious awards in SF are the Hugo and Nebula awards: before she took up tie-ins she won two Nebulas and one Hugo

The problem is that since then, the "mid-list" (books that sell middling amounts) in publishing has been relentlessly squeezed. Publishers either want blockbuster bestsellers they can hype, or niche sellers written by people in their spare time.

Intelligent SF has generally been in the mid-list, and so has been hit very hard by changes in publishing. The result is that good writers have to write stuff that pays the bills rather than books they would choose to write.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 6:09 AM on February 18, 2009

I remember going to the beach one summer and reading The Entropy Effect while lying in the sun and trying to ignore my parents who kept nagging me to "put down the book and go for a swim!"

And now that I'm reminded of it, I think I read Enterprise, too, but until just now, I had forgotten that book ever existed.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:14 AM on February 18, 2009

To put the finances in perspective, a decent midlist advance for a science fiction novel is in the neighborhood of $7500 to $15000. If you write full-time, you might be able to put out two novels a year (but they'd better be different enough so that you're not oversaturating the market; see Elizabeth Bear, who started with the near-future cyberpunkish Jenny Casey books and followed them up with the urban-fantasy Promethean Age books.) Or you can write under a pseudonym. But even if you do put out two novels a year, that's $15000 to $30000, before taxes -- and you have to pay self-employment tax on top of regular income tax.

The point is that science fiction writers cannot afford to make writing their full-time job unless they're selling way better than midlist. And it sucks that a writer as good as Matt Stover is writing tie-ins, but -- they pay the bills.
posted by Jeanne at 7:03 AM on February 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

It isn't just science fiction writers who cannot afford to make a full-time living. Fiction writers of all stripes have this problem. Add to this the fact that one of the two major book distributors in the US is going under, and the problem gets a lot worse for those who are not Stephen King.

This fact is going to drive a lot of writers into the wilds of print-on-demand and other forms of self-publishing, which they formerly pooh-poohed. Then the issue becomes marketing as well as distribution. Writers' collectives may be an answer, but it's a bit too early to tell how well that will work. Writers like to critique each other's work in workshops... but pulling together to publish and distribute their work will be an entirely new challenge.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 8:01 AM on February 18, 2009

It's not just science fiction writers, no, but I know at least a dozen young adult writers who have gotten a reasonable year's pay as their advance for their first novel, just within the past year or two. I don't really know about other genres; it could be that YA is just doing a lot better than other genres because of a few mega-blockbusters; but the amount of money involved really is different among different genres.

(Not that I think that science fiction has it worst, mind you; the kind of literary fiction that only gets published by university presses no doubt pays worse, but then, if that's what you write you can fit it into a career as a university professor...)
posted by Jeanne at 8:10 AM on February 18, 2009

I haven't read a tie-in ST novel straight through since I was an undergrad, when my ST fannishness was at its height, but I remember being impressed by both MacIntyre's novels and the late John M. Ford's. I still think that Ford's The Final Reflection (told from a Klingon POV) may have been the most interesting of the early tie-ins.
posted by thomas j wise at 8:14 AM on February 18, 2009

This Trekkie begs to differ w/regard to the OP's assertion that "she started the Star Trek novel franchise"; James Blish, who wrote the adaptations of the original Star Trek episodes (and was, as well, an accomplished SF author in his own right) wrote Spock Must Die!, a fairly bizarre story that used the ever-popular transporter accident trope. There were a few other novels and short story collections in the seventies before STII came out.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:16 AM on February 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Wait, I do eff'ing hate the shelf space it wastes in bookstores, and how it demonstrates low standards of the drooling masses. Hatred restored!

Without products like these, there might not be any bookstores at all.
posted by orange swan at 8:20 AM on February 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Huge Vonda N. McIntyre fan here. I love all her books that I've had the opportunity to read and was unaware that she wrote as many Star Trek tie-ins as she did! This story is typical of her outstanding writing and I thank Artw for the post!

posted by Lynsey at 8:53 AM on February 18, 2009

With very few exceptions, media tie-in SF outsells original SF, often by a significant amount. Now, we can argue about why this is and whether this is a good thing for the genre or not, but at the end of the day, it's a fact and it's something authors give serious consideration to, in terms of its value to their overall career.

Let me put it this way: If someone came up to you and said "I'd like you to write a book for me that's guaranteed to be in every single bookstore in the nation and all but guaranteed to land on the New York Times bestseller list, thus allowing you to put 'New York Times Bestselling Author' on every single one of your books from here on out and I'll pay you an advance worth more than you usually get for any three books you've written up to this point, and words get you to put into Yoda's mouth, and you know you've always wanted to do that," would you not give this person some serious consideration?

Maybe you say you wouldn't, but, you know, that's easy to say when you're not an actual full-time SF writer, looking down the barrel of a mortgage (or rent, or kids' doctors visits, or whatever) while working in a genre where seven cents a word is considered a decent wage. It's exceptionally difficult to make any money at all writing fiction, much less science fiction, and even in the golden days of science fiction, most SF writers -- even the famous ones -- did something else to make money (or starved). Ask SFWA Grand Master and multiple Hugo winner Robert Silverberg about his soft-core porn writing days, for example, after the SF market collapsed in the late 50s/early 60s. I'm not aware of him having any shame about it -- work is work.

Another thought to consider is that this snobbery against tie-in work is specific to medium. If I told people I was writing a script for Battlestar Galactica, I would get congratulations up and down the block; if I said I was writing a BSG tie-in novel, people would wonder why I was lowering myself. And yet the novel is by a substantial margin the longer and more complex work and in both cases one has to abide the rules of someone else's universe. The assumption that tie-in novels are all hackwork is just that, an assumption; I challenge anyone to read a Karen Traviss or Matt Stover-penned Star Wars novel and say that they were not better works, in terms of story, character devolopment, and audience involvement, than any of the prequel films. Yes, this is a low bar. But if you were to switch it around and say that any new Star Wars film had to clear the bar established by Traviss or Stover, I'll you what: The next Star Wars film would fucking rock.

I don't write tie-in SF for my own reasons, but it's not to say I wouldn't if the right project came along. I have quite a number of friends who do or have written tie-ins, and you know what, when all is said and done they're generally getting paid well to do work they love in universes they're fans of, for audiences who well appreciate their efforts. Maybe some people want to crap all over that and call them hacks. I heartily raise a middle finger at them.
posted by jscalzi at 9:27 AM on February 18, 2009 [25 favorites]

I'm put in mind of something one of the latter-day Conan novelists said re: his inspiration for said books (and here I paraphrase wildly): "This one I like to think of as Conan and the New Swimming Pool...over here we have Conan and the Hour of My Daughter's First Year College Tuition...I could be prouder of Conan Versus the Mortgage, but it sure gets the job done..."
posted by kittens for breakfast at 9:53 AM on February 18, 2009 [5 favorites]

Rats. I can't find the panel anywhere online. OK, here goes.... A visitor is just inside the door of a spacious studio, stopped dead in his tracks, and is looking up with an expression of utter dismay. The room is filled with chilly, inaccessible, abstract sculpture and the artist is perched on a twelve or fifteen foot high scaffold, completing a gigantic, heroic, representational statue of Abraham Lincoln. Pausing, hammer and chisel still in hand, he looks down and declares "A man has to eat."
(Apologies if I mangled Charles Addams' cartoon.)
posted by Kronos_to_Earth at 12:09 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

...and that man was ALAN DEAN FOSTER!
posted by Artw at 12:30 PM on February 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

kfb, my favorite anecdote re: doing it purely for the paycheck has to do with Michael Caine, who was asked if he'd ever seen Jaws: The Revenge, which he was in: "I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific."
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:40 PM on February 18, 2009 [4 favorites]

Maybe some people want to crap all over that and call them hacks.
Well, I'm not really seeing any particular hatred of tie-in writers in this thread.

The reason Star Trek tie-ins sell better than original SF novels is that there are lots more Star Trek fans. That probably applies on Metafilter as well as everywhere else.

To a Star Trek fan, writing the forty-seventh tie-in novel is a far nobler act than writing some dumb-ass original novel where a reader would have to go through all the tedious effort of learning about a new universe and new characters.

To a non-SF fan, it's all just stupid nerdy sci-fi crap, all pretty much the same anyway.

So don't worry jscalzi, there's little danger of anyone thinking original SF writers are any better than tie-in writers...
posted by TheophileEscargot at 12:42 PM on February 18, 2009

there's little danger of anyone thinking original SF writers are any better than tie-in writers...

There's actually a hell of a lot of that sentiment floating around, going back at least 20 years. Witness the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers feeling obligated to answer Are Tie-In Writers Hacks?
posted by Zed at 12:58 PM on February 18, 2009

I’d say "yes", but some of my best mates are hacks.
posted by Artw at 2:48 PM on February 18, 2009

Vonda McIntyre's Dreamsnake is a bit of a classic

I got her to autograph a copy of that for me at my first (of maybe 2 or 3 I went to) sf convention when I was like 12. Damn, that was a long time ago.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:03 PM on February 18, 2009

Maybe some people want to crap all over that and call them hacks.

By definition they are hacks. This isn't a criticism though, they are doing it for the money and there is nothing wrong with that.

there's little danger of anyone thinking original SF writers are any better than tie-in writers...

Sorry, most tie ins are, in fact, bad. Of course, most SF is bad too but the percentages for spinoffery are even worse.

Speaking of Allan Dean Foster, he wrote the novelisation of Alien but apparently before he signed on JG Ballard wasapproached to write it. That would have been awesome.
posted by ninebelow at 7:43 AM on February 19, 2009

Heh. No way JG Ballard could take on The King.
posted by Artw at 7:52 AM on February 19, 2009

Foster was the god of my youth... I read the Star Wars novelisation 14 times.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 12:16 PM on February 19, 2009

Until recently I was thinking he wrote the first “proper” book I ever read – The Return of the Jedi novelization- but it turns out it was Joan Vinge.
posted by Artw at 1:55 PM on February 19, 2009

Nader Elhefnawy has just written a detailed review of Gears of War: Aspho Fields by Karen Traviss that is interesting in the context of this thread:
The result is that Traviss offers a surprisingly lightweight drama against a thinly sketched backdrop. The result is likely to satisfy game fans for whom any writing about this universe will have an intrinsic interest, and who may be happy to see any elaboration of the characters and world, however limited. It may also entertain military science fiction fans content with a brisk, pulpy read. However, those expecting to finally see a video-game-based novel as good as any other print science fiction will be let down.
posted by ninebelow at 6:02 AM on February 23, 2009


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