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