Love what you write.
I say it a lot. It is the single piece of advice I always offer when asked what tips I would give to young writers (young of age, young of career). And I believe the advice is sound. Love what you write means a few things. It means love the process, love the act of creation, because writing is hard and isolating and, for most of us, not very profitable. It means write the story that burns in your soul, the story you ache to write, because if you write a story for which you have little passion in the hope of matching the market, chances are you will write an inferior story (and still miss the market, which is a moving target). And it means take time to appreciate your achievement in completing a story, in writing a great scene, in creating something entirely your own, because, as I say, writing is hard, and so is the publishing business, and we need to recognize our own successes.
But here’s the thing: We can’t always love what we write, and we certainly can’t always write what we love. Writing is an art, of course. It is creation. It can be fun and thrilling, soothing and healing. It can feed the soul.
It is also a business, a way of making a living. I am happiest when writing stuff that excites and nourishes me. Writing the Radiants books and the Chalice War trilogy was incredibly fun, and also a balm in a time of emotional turmoil. In the past, though, I have also written not for joy but for a paycheck. That is part of what I do. I have written media tie-in books that I would never, ever have written if not for the promise of money at the end of the process.
That may sound crass. So be it. I am a professional, which can mean a lot of things, some of them positive and dignified, some of them mercenary. I bring this up today, because I am on the verge of signing a contract for new work-for-hire writing. I can’t talk about the particulars right now. At some point, I’ll be able to. But I can discuss the process in general terms and even give some tips for dealing with this sort of work.
The thing about work-for-hire writing and media tie-in projects is that they are, in many instances, not necessarily what we would choose to write if left to our own preferences. Obviously this is not always the case. I have several colleagues who spend a good deal of time writing in the Star Wars universe, or the Star Trek universe, or some other genre franchise. And they love the work. They enjoy playing with characters they have grown attached to over the years, much as I enjoy playing with Thieftaker characters in new situations.
But the media work I have done in the past wasn’t like that. Back in 2009-2010, I wrote the novelization of Ridley Scott’s movie Robin Hood, starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett. The movie wasn’t out yet — I worked from a script — and I didn’t know whether or not I would love it. (I didn’t.) In 2018, I wrote a novel that tied in with the History Channel’s Knightfall series about the Knights Templar. In this case, I got to see all the episodes of the first season before the series was aired. I liked the show well enough.
In both cases, though, I always felt as though I were playing with someone else’s toys, which made the writing a bit challenging. I didn’t have the freedom I feel when working on my own stories in my own worlds. So, how did I make the work tolerable? DID I make the work tolerable? Good questions.
1) Look for something — anything — that allows you to take ownership of the project. This was particularly tough with the Robin Hood book, because the studio with whom I contracted maintained a death-grip over every element of the story. I could not add or delete ANY dialogue or scenes from the screenplay. I was utterly at the mercy of the script and the shoot, although the studio heads were so secretive, they would not allow me to see the movie!! I had to work from stills and from a couple of two minute movie-theater trailers. That was it!
So how did I take ownership? Point of view. I was in the minds of the characters, and since no internal monologue can be scripted, I could do with those passages whatever I wanted (to a point). There is one scene in the book of which I’m particularly proud — it’s written from the point of view of an old and fading Richard the Lionheart and I believe I nailed it.
With the Knightfall book, I had a good deal more freedom and control, and so I enjoyed the process much, much more. But still I was mostly writing from the viewpoint of someone else’s characters. There is one point of view character, though, who I made my own — a child who appears later in the series as an adult. But her childhood POV was mine and gave me that sense of ownership, of personal investment in the book.
2) Take pride in what is yours and acknowledge the limitations placed upon you by what is not. Put another way, write the best book you can given the flaws inherent in the larger franchise. Robin Hood is not a great book. Robin Hood was not a great movie (though I believe it was better than many critics said). I believe I did as much with the book as I could under the circumstances, and that is all I can ask of myself.
3) Accept that work-for-hire makes possible the stuff we WANT to write. There is nothing wrong with writing for money. Hell, that’s what nearly all of us strive for when we begin this professional journey. When people ask me which of my books are my favorites, I never mention Robin Hood or Knightfall. But I don’t shy from talking about the experience of writing the books. I’m not ashamed of having written them. I’m a professional writer, and in both cases the media work provided a necessary financial bridge between personal projects. Without Robin Hood, I might not have written the Thieftaker books. Without Knightfall, I might not have written the Islevale Cycle.
Media tie-in, work-for-hire — call it what you will. This sort of work is part of the business, and while it may not be my favorite sort of book to write, it is part of what I do to maintain my career and to pay a few bills. If work of this sort comes your way, jump at the opportunity. The money is good and the publications bring exposure and possibly more jobs. Just remember to make the work your own in some way.