Three Things I Learned About Writing Media Tie-In

Today, I’m going to talk about writing media tie-in fiction for tabletop gaming companies. I actually know a thing or two about that because I’ve worked both sides of that particular fence. My last position in the industry was as a managing editor for a media tie-in fiction line, and I still write a lot of media tie-in for my former employer.

If you’ve never heard the term media tie-in, it’s fiction based on a pre-existing IP whose primary expression is in another medium, with movies, games, and comic-books being the most common. So Star Wars novels, Dungeons & Dragons novels, novels based on comic books, etcetera, etcetera. I am drawing a distinction between writing fiction for tabletop RPG and miniature war games over writing fiction for something like movies, comics, and video games. The reason is simple. I have a lot of experience with the former and very little with the latter. There are certainly similarities, but there are also big differences, which I am not qualified to talk about. I’ll stick to what I know.

My aim here is to clear up a misconception or two and provide a little advice on how to get into the gig. One quick caveat: even though I have a fair amount of experience in this area, what I’m about to say is still based on my personal experiences primarily with Privateer Press. Some tabletop miniature and RPG publishers might and probably do conduct things differently. As always, take this post with a grain of salt, and do some research.

Okay, here are three things I think you need to know about media tie-in fiction.

1) It’s not fan fiction. Let me begin this by saying I have nothing against fan fiction or the folks who write it, and fan fiction and media tie-in are cousins to some extent, BUT there are major differences. I think there is a misconception that fan fiction authors are essentially doing the same thing as media tie-in authors for the same IP. And while there might be some crossover, the goals of fan fiction and media tie-in are often miles apart.

In fanfic, the author writes what they WANT to happen. In media tie-in, the author writes what the publisher NEEDS to happen. Those two things generally don’t line up. In fact, the subject of much fan fiction is directly at odds with publisher interests and goals. A fan fiction author might write about a character death or two dire enemies becoming allies or even a romantic relationship between characters, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, the publisher almost certainly has different goals for the characters and the setting that correspond to plans reaching YEARS into the future. These are things no one outside the company would know. In fact, the information contained in current and even new releases of models, books, and so on is often just the tip of the iceberg. So, even though killing a character, for example, might make for great fiction, it doesn’t work for the publisher if the next three years of releases are built around that character.

In my experience, fan fiction is not a direct path to writing media tie-in. This is not to say that fan fiction authors never get published by the parent IP, but there are reasons why this is rare (see above), some of them legal. So if you want to write media tie-in, take a look at the next point. It might be a better approach.

2) It helps to already be a published writer. Let me explain why. When I was running the fiction line at Privateer Press, my deadlines were SUPER tight. Because of that, I felt more comfortable with authors who had a proven track record of meeting deadlines and, more so, who already wrote media tie-in and understood what to expect.

Here’s another thing that might be surprising. I didn’t care if the author had zero experience with our IP. If they did, great, but it wasn’t necessary. Here’s why. Veteran media tie-in authors are adept at absorbing the exact amount of information they need to complete the project. I’d provide them with setting information and what we needed them to write. They’d get acquainted with that information, write an outline, which I would then mark up and maybe provide additional reference material if necessary. Then the author would write the first draft, which the editorial and continuity team would mark up so the author could make necessary changes to fit setting continuity and the like. This is a skill set developed over time, and, generally not a skill set a new writer possesses. For example, if I need an author to write a short story about Cygnar (a faction in WARMACHINE), I don’t need them to be well-versed on the ancient lore of Cryx (another faction) because Cryx is not in the story. I need them to know enough about the nation of Cygnar and the relevant Cygnaran characters to get the job done. Sometimes, if we had a specific story in mind, I’d even provide the author with a short outline myself. That made both our jobs easier, especially when the author was new to the IP.

But if you are a new writer, and you want to write media tie-in, how do you get started? I can only tell you what I know from my experience, but my advice is to seek publishing elsewhere first. Write and publish short stories, preferably ones in the genre of the media tie-in you want to write. For WARMACHINE, that’d be steampunk, fantasy, and sci-fi. Then, keep an eye out for open calls from media tie-in publishers you know and like. For example, Games Workshop has put out a number of open calls, and that’s a great place to start. GW open calls are pretty cool because they don’t require any previous publishing experience (though I’m sure that doesn’t hurt). It’s never a bad idea to check a publisher’s website and see if they’re hosting an open call or if they’re open to inquiries about writing year-round. Some might be.

Another thing you can do is put together a short writing resume and attend conventions where the publisher has a booth. At Gen Con, for instance, I often had people approach me to inquire about writing for Privateer Press. When they showed up with a short writing resume, I tended to give them more consideration. If you’re going to go this route, make sure you know who to talk to. Go to the publisher’s website and find out how makes decisions on hiring writers to the best of your ability (it’ll likely be someone with the word editor in their title). Then go to the publisher’s booth and ask for them. If they’re not around or busy, ask if you can leave a card and a resume for them. Don’t be offended if you’re asked to come back when it’s not as busy or if you’re asked to submit a resume via the publisher’s website or the like. Be polite. Be professional. Make a good impression.

3) It’s not your IP.  When you’re writing for yourself, be it short stories, novels, or the above-mentioned fan fiction, you’re in complete control of the characters, the setting, and the style and tone. You own it. If you want to write media tie-in, you need to get used to the fact that it’s going to be a collaborative effort from the start, and you are essentially going be told what and who to write about. The main characters will usually be established and important to the setting, and they need to be written a certain way to maintain setting continuity. The same goes for setting elements. For example, when I’m writing WARMACHINE fiction, I might think it would be cool to create a brand new warjack that runs on primitive gasoline instead of coal, but if I did that, it would absolutely be called out by the publisher because it violates existing canon. Even if Privateer Press also thought it was a cool idea, the amount of work that would go into implementing it into the Iron Kingdoms is not something that begins in the fiction.

Now, this is not to say you have no creative freedom. You’ll get some leeway when it comes to secondary characters and the expression of game mechanics in the narrative. The latter does have some limitations, though, and you cannot have a character do something that is completely outside of their tabletop rules. For example, I can’t have an established warcaster in WARMACHINE use a magical ability that is not reflected in their rules. Both publisher (and players/readers) would rightly call that out. Again, the amount of freedom an author has likely differs from publisher to publisher, and authors with more experience writing for the IP are given more latitude when it comes to story and characters.

The most important thing to remember here is that you absolutely cannot be precious about your writing if you want to write media tie-in. Whatever you write is likely going to be heavily revised and changed to suit the publisher’s needs. That might change as you become more familiar with the the IP, but even then, expect to see a fair amount of red on your manuscripts.

So there’s my two cents on writing media tie-in. Again, this pertains to my own experience as and editor and writer for a tabletop miniature game. Take what I said here with a grain of salt as other publishers may operate differently. Do your research, look for open calls, and work on getting published elsewhere. That’s the best advice I can give you.

Thoughts or questions about writing media tie-in? Let me hear it in the comments.

If you’re wondering if I’m currently working on media tie-in, I am. Here’s an illustration by Andrea Uderzo of the character I’m currently writing, Kapitan Ilari Borisyuk. I’m having a blast with him, and it’s always great to work with all my old pals at Privateer Press.

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Kapitan Ilari Borisyuk and Winter Korps by Andrea Uderzo for Privateer Press.

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