Adam Christopher: Everything I Learned, I Learned From Fan-Fiction


Adam Christopher is a deviant and a murderer and must be — *checks notes* — wait, that can’t be right. Oh! Ah. Yes. Adam Christopher writes some of the most delightfully fun books I’ve read, and in addition, I’m pleased to call him a friend as well as my fellow co-writer of the upcoming reboot of Dark Circle’s THE SHIELD comic. So, anytime Adam wants to stop by here, he’s welcome — this time, he’s swinging by to talk about the intersection between fan-fiction and tie-in-fiction, just in time for the release of his new tie-in: Elementary: The Ghost Line.

* * *

Storytime.

In 1985, I turned seven. That same year, Television New Zealand began a repeat season of a show my parents — who had seen it back in the UK — thought I would like.

That show was Doctor Who, and from the first night of that repeat run (a double-bill of The Mind Robber parts one and two), I was most certainly hooked.

No, more than hooked. Doctor Who was an interest that turned to obsession when I discovered my school library had a huge collection of Doctor Who Target novelizations. For several years—quite possibly to the dismay of parents and teachers alike—I would read nothing else.

I also began to write.

My favorite Doctor Who author was—still is—Terrance Dicks. He wrote most of the Target books, and by coincidence, had been script editor on the exact period of the show I was then watching on TV. His books were journeys of pure wonder, and the weekly adventures of the Third Doctor on the small screen sent my imagination into a spin.

Back then, writing was actually part of every school day. We wrote whatever the hell we wanted. No rules, no restrictions. This class of seven-year-olds was told to let rip.

I still have a couple of journals from that year and, with rare exception, everything within is Doctor Who. If you step back and hold them up and squint a bit you might be generous enough to call them “original”, but really they’re a bizarre mash-up of whatever episode was on TV that week and my own wild tales of space adventure.

But it was a start.

Flashforward (cue the montage). Interests and ambitions waxed and waned. Exciting adventures with Daleks, Cybermen, and the last xerophyte survivors of Zolfa-Thura were hardly suitable for creative writing in high school English, but my love of the show endured even if my fiction output (thankfully) broadened in scope.

Then one day I discovered there was a New Zealand Doctor Who Fan Club. The fan club had a fanzine. The fanzine published fan fiction.

So I sat down and wrote a short Doctor Who story. I wrote another, and then some more. I submitted. I was rejected. A lot. I kept writing. I kept submitting. I kept getting rejections but those rejections started coming with editorial notes.

Then I was accepted. I kept working on my craft, and soon the acceptances began to outnumber the rejections.

My first published fiction was Doctor Who fan fiction. Writing that fiction taught me… well, it taught me everything. It taught me about storytelling, about plot, about characters, themes, voice. The whole shebang.

Thirty years after those first steps into creative writing, I’m a professional writer. I’ve had five novels published, another five or six under contract, a couple of comics on the boil, and I’m doing what I love to do.

I think my seven-year-old self would be pretty pleased with how things turned out.

TIE-IN FICTION IS DOESN’T HAVE TO BE FAN FICTION…

According to Wikipedia, a tie-in is:

“… a work of fiction or other product based on a media property such as a film, video game, television series, board game, web site, role-playing game or literary property. Tie-ins are authorized by the owners of the original property, and are a form of cross-promotion used primarily to generate additional income from that property and to promote its visibility.”

Those Target Doctor Who novelizations I devoured as a kid are one of the best examples of the tie-in — they even say they are TV tie-ins, boldly and, I think to like, rather proudly, on the back cover. I read them because I was a fan of the TV show, but the TV show wasn’t enough.

I wanted more.

Perhaps that’s a defining feature of fans: we want more. Whether it’s Doctor Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, Fringe, Supernatural, South Park, World of Warcraft, Pacific Rim or Beverly Hills: 90210, there is a chunk of the audience—a sizeable chunk—who want to go beyond the source material. Tie-ins are an important part of collective fan experience.

But there’s something which tie-ins are not.

They are not fan fiction.

And I don’t mean they’re not fan fiction because they are officially approved and legally published, and the writer gets paid professional rates to write them. Tie-ins are not fan fiction because it unreasonable—even impossible—to expect the writers to be fans of the property in question.

Sure, the writer needs to know the property. If they don’t, it’ll show, with disastrous results. And if a writer doesn’t like the property, then it’ll be a miserable experience for everyone—writer and reader alike.

But writers are professionals and tie-in fiction is one of the different kinds of jobs available to us. The writer must therefore fulfill the brief to the satisfaction of the license owner, and they have to craft a story that people want to read.

But hey, we’re professionals. That’s all part of the job.

All of which means: the writer doesn’t need to be fan. A property can be learned. Help is available too—script, story bibles, development notes, concordances. And there’s the source material, of course—the film that is going to be novelized, eighty-nine episodes of the TV series, the console game and the art book. All of this material is available to the writer, and part of the job of writing a tie-in is to study it, and study it well.

Let’s go back to Terrance Dicks. I’m lucky enough to have met him—my seven-year-old self can’t stop grinning from ear to ear—and when I did, I learned one important thing.

Terrance Dicks is not a Doctor Who fan.

This is a man who has written more Doctor Who than anyone else, who has shaped the childhoods of millions of people like me. When I really boil it down, I’m a writer because of Terrance. I owe him everything.

But… he’s not a fan. He’s a professional who was doing his job, and doing it well. He has an in-depth knowledge of the show. He knows what makes Doctor Who tick. He has an untold wealth of experience from working on the program itself.

His books are the best Doctor Who books. They were my favorites when I was growing up, and they are my favorites now.

But Terrance Dicks is a professional, not a fan, and that’s the primary qualification requires to write tie-in fiction, because tie-in fiction is not fan fiction.

…BUT IT DOESN’T HURT IF IT IS

This year, my first official tie-in novel comes out. It’s not a Doctor Who book—that particular ambition is still high on the bucket list—but an original novel based on the CBS TV show Elementary, which stars Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu as Joan Watson in a modern interpretation of the Holmes mythos, swapping 19th century London for 21st century New York City.

I’m a professional writer, and this was another book contract. It also just happened that, Doctor Who aside, Elementary is my favorite TV show. The program sunk its claws deep into that particular part of my brain from the very start.

In fact, you could call me a fan.

Being a fan has some advantages. Elementary is a show I know inside-out and back-to-front. I know the universe, I know the characters, I know the stories. More importantly, I know how these three factors come together to create something unique to the show.

Knowing what makes Elementary tick gave me a hell of a head-start on the novel. Sure, I had all the help I needed—all the episodes at my fingertips, scripts, the top-secret story bible. These were valuable assets, but they weren’t a crutch. They were there when I needed them—and I did need them—but I was able to get to work straight away, with confidence and excitement.

Being a fan of a property will show in the finished work, and while this is a good thing, it can also be bad.

The good thing is that the tie-in should feel like the real deal. This is the most important thing about tie-ins. There are tie-ins where the book bears little resemblance to the show or movie the reader loves love, despite using all the right characters and all the right locations and all the right plots. If a fan knows the property, they’ll know how the property should feel. If the reader isn’t a fan, they’ll still be able to pick it up, even subconsciously.

The tie-in will feel right.

But being a fan can be dangerous. Fans can get carried away, the resulting work being indulgent and conceited, packed with every reference and obscurity imaginable. That’s when a tie-in truly becomes fan fiction—fiction that only a fan can read, or even understand.

I’ve read a few of these. They aren’t pretty.

TIE-IN FICTION IS EASY

The characters are ready-made. The universe is provided, fully-furnished with en suite bathroom and sea views. The story fits a formula, a template carefully constructed by the creators.

All you have to do is write. You know how it all works. You know what makes Stargate: SG1 Stargate SG:1 and Murder, She Wrote Murder, She Wrote. Get it right, understand the property, and it writes itself. All you are doing is transcribing the wild adventures that you can see in crystal clear 4K UHD in your mind’s eye.

Writing tie-in fiction is a piece of cake.

TIE-IN FICTION IS HARD

…but if you get it wrong, you’re in trouble. Star Trek fans want to read about the continuing voyages of the Enterprise or, erm, Voyager, and they want to see what their favorite characters will do and how they will tackle whatever diabolical obstacle course the writer has carefully laid out for them.

Listen, very carefully. This is important.

We’re in some very treacherous waters here, because what we’re talking about here are favorite characters. Fictional creations, brought to life on the screen by talented professionals in performances that people not only love and have loved for decades, but feel they own themselves. It could be Harrison Ford as Han Solo, William Shatner as Captain Kirk, Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor.

Which means one thing: the writer has to get it right.

Plot and story is largely incidental, so long as you’re within the boundaries of the property. Story may be King, but with tie-ins, character is God-Emperor.

And make no mistake, capturing the essence of a character that has been long-established by someone else—whether it’s another writer or showrunner or actor—is hard work. It requires study. It requires the writer to be at the top of their game.

Writing a good tie-in novel is damn hard work. Immensely rewarding, fantastically satisfying, and the best fun ever.

But, boy, it ain’t easy.

SAY HELLO TO YOUR NEW AUDIENCE

Some writers make their break in tie-in fiction, but often they’ll come in with their own steadily climbing back catalogue of “original” fiction. That back catalogue—and that writer—will have their own readership, their own fans.

Tie-in fiction comes with its own audience—the audience of the show or the film, the readership of the last two hundred novels in the series. While an author will bring their own readership to the property, they also be introducing themselves to a whole new audience.

That audience might be huge. Tie-in novels frequently appear on the New York Times bestseller list. It’s possible for the writer to reach many new readers; if the tie-in is in a genre they haven’t previously written for, that potential pool is even bigger.

New writers, new readers. Tie-in fiction is an opportunity for both sides to discover something new and wonderful.

It doesn’t get more exciting than that.

TIE-IN FICTION EXISTS IN A WEIRD TWILIGHT ZONE 

Tie-ins have been around forever, and in the past they’ve been overlooked, even sneered at. They’re not real books, some would argue. They’re not original novels, they are a lesser form of fiction and they are easy and lazy because most of the work has been done for the writer. The writer doesn’t hold the copyright, doesn’t get paid that much, the royalties are terrible—if there are royalties at all.

There are exceptions, but tie-ins don’t usually appear on This Year’s Most Anticipated Books That Will Save Civilization As We Know It! lists. They tend to be skipped over for Last Year’s Books That Blew My Mind And Changed My Life Forever! lists. They don’t win awards. They aren’t even considered for them, unless there is a specific tie-in category.

For the writer, there is a strange period of quiet prior to release. There are no Advance Reader Copies and there are no advance readers. There are no early reviews. The day the book is on the shelf in the store is the day that anyone will be able to get hold of it.

In a way, this means that tie-ins are genuinely books for readers. They come with no preconceptions, no baggage. Only a sense of excitement and anticipation.

…BUT TIE-IN FICTION IS STILL ORIGINAL FICTION AND, Y’KNOW, JUST AS WORTHY

Look, let’s quit with the literary snobbery. Tie-ins are not some “lesser” form of fiction. That’s ridiculous. Tie-ins are “original”. There is no flow-chart or algorithm to follow, no random number generator that will fill in the plot while the author merely pilots the pre-existing characters through it with one eye on the clock.

A tie-in novel is exactly that: a novel. It’s the blood, sweat and tears of the author. It’s the work of the writer trying very hard to write the best thing they ever have. It’s long hours and late nights and office walls covered with post-it notes.

Just like any other novel. And just like any other novel, a tie-in is something a writer should be proud of. This is creation out of nothing, art out of thin air. Yes, with a tie-in the writer is supplied with a toolkit and a few blueprints, but the novel is theirs, the story is theirs. 

BUT ABOVE ALL, TIE-IN FICTION IS HELLA GOOD TIMES

Tie-in fiction is a celebration. Tie-in fiction is the opportunity for a writer to work—and play—in an amazing world that is beloved by millions. It’s a privilege and an honor to be given the keys.

Tie-in fiction is the chance for fans to explore new horizons, new stories, to see their favorite characters face new challenges and defeat new enemies.

Tie-in fiction is hands-down, pedal-to-the-metal fun. It’s a real joy, for the writer and the reader both. Tie-in fiction is for readers who want more, and there is no way on Earth that can be a bad thing.

I love tie-in fiction. I grew up with it. My home is filled with shelves of it. And now I’m writing it.

Seven-year-old me would be very, very happy.

ELEMENTARY: THE GHOST LINE

A summons to a bullet-riddled body in a Hell’s Kitchen apartment marks the start of a new case for consulting detectives Sherlock Holmes and Joan Watson. The victim is a subway train driver with a hidden stash of money and a strange Colombian connection, but why would someone kill him and leave a fortune behind? 

The search for the truth will lead the sleuths deep into the hidden underground tunnels beneath New York City, where answers — and more bodies — may well await them…

Adam Christopher: Website | Twitter

Elementary: The Ghost Line: Excerpt | Amazon | B&N | iBooks 


27 responses to “Adam Christopher: Everything I Learned, I Learned From Fan-Fiction”

  1. Happy release day, Adam!

    I admit that I don’t read a lot of tie-in fiction of any stripe, and felt “guilty” for years when I did read a Star Trek novel, or the Total Recall novelization. I felt it was “lesser”, somehow.

    On the other hand, when high powered SF authors are writing novels based on Doctor Who, or HALO, or say, Elementary, that guilty is really, really silly.

  2. Many sales to you! I love Elementary as well so this is going to be a *must* addition to my library!

    I’ll never have a bad word to say about fanfiction because it’s how I found my husband – I started writing X-Files fanfiction WAY back in the 90’s when Usenet was all the rage… and a lovely fellow wrote me a fan letter and I wrote back and… seven years later we got married and now I write fiction full-time with ten books published to date!

    Fanfiction rules!

    😉

  3. Whovians unite! I loved this post. It seems to me that if you want to write, it doesn’t matter what it is. If you love it or are paid to do it, then you are still getting to do what you want and for me that’s a win. Great post.

  4. OMG, this sounds like me in so many ways. I re-discovered the original series Star Trek as endless re-runs to be found on TV any time of the day or night when I was growing up. This lead to my devouring the James Blish novelizations, and then all the available tie-in novels, and when I ran out of those, I began reading any and all sci-fi I could get my hands on. Bradbury, Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov… You should have heard the high-pitched dolphin squeals of the solitary fangirl when I realized that the ST episode Arena was in fact, originally a short story by Fred Brown.

    I’d heard of fanzines that took stories, but I didn’t have access to them. I still wrote them, though. Hundreds of dreadful self-insert stories that I kept in shabby spiral-bound notebooks.There was a waiting list among my friends to read them.

    Flash forward a few years (okay, like maybe twenty), and I discovered online fandom archives. Operating under the principle of “If you write it, they will come”, I cut my teeth on fandom. A million words later, I began writing my own original stories, and eventually got up the courage to submit something for publishing. To my everlasting astonishment, it was accepted. (I am still waiting for the knock on the door, and the Writing Police to say, “No, no, we we’re just kidding–gotcha!”)

    There is so much to what you are saying here. How fanfiction is a little like one of those paint-by-numbers kits in the sense that it provides the scaffolding and world-building and lets you as the writer cut to the chase (and the heart) of the story. It’s so much more than that, though. Your drive to write these stories is so strong because you love these characters that much–and it is strong enough to overcome any self-doubts you have as a writer. I owe fanfiction a great deal.

    I never appreciated before, however, the challenges that face a tie-in writer. You’re allowed to play in the universe, but with a stricter set of rules than the fanfic writer. I think that’s an amazing challenge, and I can definitely see the appeal, both as a professional writer and a fan. I’ll confess, there have been times when I’ve read tie-in novels that have made me say, “Have you even ever watched this show?”, so I’m excited about the idea of reading a tie-in that was also written by a fan.

    I also see nothing shameful or ‘lesser’ about such works. People read these stories because they want more, more, more of their favorite characters, and if even *one* die-hard young fan eats up your story with a spoon and then goes on to read every Sherlock Holmes story ever written, then another life-long reader is born. And that is *nothing* to sneeze at!

    Congratulations on the new release. I’ll be checking it out!

    • What Sarah’s conveniently not self-promoting is that she’s also running a seminar in how to transition from fanfic to pro writing, and I can’t think of a more talented, compassionate and insightful person to teach that. I’ve known Sarah for years, and it was her amazing fanfic stories and original fiction that inspired me to try my hand at getting published as well. I want to ditto everything she says here — I cut my writerly teeth in fandom, I would not be where I am today without it. <3

  5. Happy release day! Tie-ins are so much fun. I never considered how they differ and are similar to fanfic before.

    I am pretty firmly ensconced in the “fanfiction = GOOD” camp. Fanfic (for that *other* Sherlockian modern adaptation) got me to start writing again a decade after I’d given up on a career writing SFF (which was good, because I write terrible SFF). Fanfic got me excited about telling stories again. And fanfic literally got me back into a pro writing career.

    Not only did it help me re-hone my skills and learn new ones, but I found my agent–or rather, my agent found me–via my fanfic. All it took was one “hey, if you have any original fiction you’ve written, I’d love to read it” from her, and I was off.

    I now write contemporary romantic suspense, which it turns out, is a much better fit for me than SFF.

  6. My first published story, The Assassin’s Dilemma, is fan-fiction and tie-in fiction. Still proud! http://www.blacklibrary.com/all-products/the-assassins-dilemma-ebook.html

    Writing that was an interesting experience. My story was accepted as part of a Black Library forum contest along with one other, to appear in the Death & Dishonour anthology. The initial submission was a pitch that I developed into a full story. I was asked for some fairly significant edits on the first draft of my full manuscript, and I think my third draft was the one deemed acceptable for publication.

    After the short story was accepted I was asked to generate a pitch for a book in the Empire Army line of novels. Every book was based around a unit of wargame figures and I was asked to pitch on Pistoliers (horse-mounted pistol-packing squires). Unfortunately I was a bit out of my depth, and by the third revision my editor let me know Black Library was canceling the series after five books and mine wouldn’t be needed. A short time after that my editor left the company and I was left out in the cold, so to speak.

    A couple years later Black Library uploaded their back catalog as eBooks, and included The Assassin’s Dilemma as its own eBook. So technically I am earning royalties on a short story (this was not spelled out in any contract I ever signed – the original deal was a straight 210 pounds of work-for-hire pay), but I’ve only earned 25 cents so far and Black Library pays out in $25 increments. So I may see a check before I die!

    And since I’m shilling a bit anyway, my old editor Alex Davis is running an independent press called Boo Books out of derby. They’ve got some anthologies out now, have a look: http://boobooks.net/2013/03/27/welcome-to-boohoo-books/

  7. Thanks for this! I’m so glad to be living in a world where fanfic is coming out from under the rocks. I’ve loved it since I was a young girl, and even as a pro author now I still love it. Often, I’ll read fanfic for shows/movies I don’t watch simply because I love the writers’ work. There is amazing stuff being written out there in fanfic land!

    I’m currently drafting up a book “Fanfic Academy” which goes into everything I’ve learned from transitioning from amateur to professional author. And I think the primary lesson is the one you make here, Adam: it’s a great way to learn EVERYTHING, in a way that’s not quite as overwhelming as original fiction can be.

    And thank you too, Chuck, for being on the leading edge of this issue. Fanfic is nothing to be ashamed of!

  8. I wish more of our classrooms would entice our youngsters to “let rip” with creative writing. I wonder how many wonderful authors we’ve missed simply because they were never encouraged?

    • That’s something I often think about, actually. Creative writing was a daily part of my primary school life from (I think) about 1985 to 1988 (ages 7 to 10). When I think about it, I’m amazed that it was part of the curriculum. I wonder if it is today? I wouldn’t be surprised if the answer is, sadly, no. (I don’t have kids, so I have no experience/knowledge of current school subjects)

      • I have daughters. 16, 14, and 9. The only writing they do is on the specified assignment subjects. Aside from the Kindergarten/First Grade “What I did this summer” type of thing, they’re never encouraged to just spread their creative wings. It’s a bummer.

        And thanks for making me feel old, by the way. I graduated from high school in 1988. 🙂

    • I’m one. Well, I don’t know about wonderful, but I know my writing at home was actively discouraged, and I don’t recall ever being encouraged t write as I went through the Los Angeles City School system. This was back in the ’60s and ’70’s, I don’t know what it’s like now

  9. I have read tie-in fiction that was terrible. The author clearly didn’t actually like the original source material, and didn’t seem to know it all that well either. Meanwhile, amateurs were churning out some of the best, most tightly plotted, perfectly characterised and elegantly described fiction I’ve ever read, for the exact same series. It was very irritating, but hey, it was cheaper than buying the books.

  10. I love this. I read tie-ins, but after repeatedly finding horrendous mistakes (wrong eye color for Skinner with X-Files made me throw the book away), I was very frustrated. Fanfiction filled the hole I had. The Dr. Who books were the exception, rather than the rule.

    One tie-in novel for NCIS:NY that had paid attention to the details (thank you Keith DeCandido!), and a few others, kept me reading tie-ins. Tie-ins written by people who love the shows and the characters are better.

    I look forward to your Elementary tie-in!

  11. I love fan fiction and I love tie-in fiction, particularly the Dragon Age tie-in novels. I’m sorry to say that the negative attitude toward tie-in fiction is still alive and kicking in the spec fic community, perhaps the one place you’d expect it’d be accepted. I distinctly remember stopping by Borderlands, the much-loved SF/F/Horror bookshop in San Francisco, a few ago and asking whether they carried a particular tie-in novel. The guy behind the counter (I know who it was but don’t want to put him on blast) rather unkindly and dismissively told me they don’t carry “those kinds of books”. I haven’t been back since then and don’t participate in the SF/F community much for reasons such as that. :shrug:

    • Shoot, I can’t edit my previous post. I want to amend it to say that Elementary is fantastic and I can’t wait to pick up your tie-in novel, Adam!

  12. I cut my writing teeth on fanfiction from about 2000-2005, mostly anime and a bit of Harry Potter on Fanfiction.net. I learned a lot about my personal writing style and just the craft of writing in general. I loved that there were no rules; that you write as closely to canon as you wanted, or let loose and go completely Alternate Universe and Out Of Character. Some of the best writing I’ve ever read was fanfiction.

    I also learned how to interact with fans (being ‘accessible’) and form relationships with other writers, by doing collabs and signal boosting each other’s work. I was just doing it for fun back then, but I can see how invaluable that knowledge is now, with the advent of self publishing.

    I find it discouraging that some popular authors discourage young writers from practicing fanfiction. One of the most important things I learned was how to write within a confine. I wrote closer to canon, so I knew that there were certain things that my characters could believable do, based on their personality and their environment, and that’s helped me tremendously in making my own characters consistent.

    I’m not a big tie-in novel fan, I must admit, but my husband absolutely *loves* Star Trek novelizations, especially those by Anderson.

    All the best with your sales! And I’m so happy to see someone speaking up for fanfiction.

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