Games have changed a lot over the years, and fiction about games has changed with them. Going all the way back to H. G. Wells’s Little Wars in 1913, game fiction started out as snippets of text that you read in either the tabletop rulebook or the video game manual. It wasn’t until 1978 that we saw Andre Norton’s Quag Keep, a novel based on the author’s experiences playing Dungeons & Dragons with Gary Gygax. It took another 16 years until the first official D&D novel appeared, Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman.
Today, though, shelves and bestseller lists everywhere are jammed with books based on games. They cover everything from Halo and World of Warcraft to Warhammer and All Flesh Must Be Eaten. They’ve become an integral part of both gaming and fiction, a means of broadening the game’s brand into other media and giving the game’s characters and world a deeper examination than you could cram into any cutscene.
Tie-in novels – as such novels are called, whether they’re based on games, movies, TV shows, or any other sort of media – have become a huge part of the fiction business. Just about every major publisher in America has dabbled with tie-ins at some point or another, and many of them have huge lineups of tie-in books. It’s become a big business, and like any other business, it’s developed certain standard and procedures over the years.
I’ve written more than a dozen gaming tie-in novels over the past six years. Here’s how it usually works.
Unlike with most novels – which begin with the author – the process starts with the publisher, a company filled with people who not only know how to create books but how to get them on shelves and sell them. The publisher puts up all of the money for the book and then pays everyone involved out of the book’s sales.
For gaming tie-ins, the publisher either owns the game in question or has picked up a license from the game’s owners. Wizards of the Coast, for instance, publishes its own novels based upon its own games, mostly Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering. Games Workshop does the same through its Black Library division, which publishes fiction based on Warhammer, Warhammer 40K, Blood Bowl, and its other games.
Simon & Shuster, on the other hand, doesn’t publish games. For the Guild Wars novel I co-wrote for them with Jeff Grubb, they had to obtain a license from ArenaNet. Doing this usually involves paying a chunk of money up front as an advance against a promised royalty. This is over and above what the publisher needs to pay the author.
Once the publisher has the original game lined up, one of its editors formulates a plan for its tie-in novels. This involves details like how many titles to publish, when they will be published, and so on. Then the editor goes out hunting for authors.
Most acquiring editors – the ones who sign the authors as opposed to the copyeditors who check spelling and grammar – know a lot of authors. They’ve worked with them on other books, met them at conventions, and so on. The community of tie-in authors isn’t that large, and many of them are members of the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers (IAMTW) or other professional organizations. Many of them also have agents with whom the editor may have worked before.
It’s possible to break into novels as a tie-in writer, but not easy. I managed it, but it was a fluke and I’d already been writing tabletop roleplaying game books for over a decade at the time. Most editors hesitate to give a novel contract to someone who’s never written a novel before. Lots of people would love to write novels, but the number of them who manage to finish a novel is a small percentage of that. If the writer has some short stories published and has established a reputation as a trustworthy person who can deliver a good tale on time, some editors may be willing to take a chance on him then, but many editors prefer to stick with the tried and true.
No matter how the editor comes up with a list or writers, he winnows down a list of prospects and approaches the ones that seem the best bets for this project. He discovers if the writer has the time or interest to write a book based on the game. If so, the editor usually asks the writer to pitch a story idea.
A story pitch is often only a page or so, sometimes just a couple paragraphs, that gives a rough idea of the scope, tone, characters, and plot of a possible novel. Some writers hone in on a single idea with the precision of a laser and work it up. Others take the shotgun approach and come up with a lot of short ideas, hoping that one of them hits.
Once the pitches arrive, the editor reads through them to see if any of them seem like a good match for the book. Sometimes this involves consulting with the game’s owners to make sure they like the author’s ideas too. If there’s a solid winner, the editor contacts the author (or the author’s agent) to offer a deal.
After the details have been worked out and the contract has been signed, the author gets to work. If he’s not familiar with the game in question, he has a lot of research to do. It’s terrible to have to play games so you can do your dream job well, but someone has to do it. The author probably did some initial research just to be able to put the pitch together, but to write a full novel requires a bit more depth of experience.
Once the author understands the game inside and out, he sits down to write an outline. This can be a simple story treatment of two to four pages, or it can be a chapter-by-chapter outline of the entire book. The description of any chapter only needs to be a few sentences long, just enough to show what’s going to happen at each point.
The author submits the outline for approval, and once he gets that he digs into the actual writing. This is normally done to a strict deadline. Many times, the release of the novel is timed to support the game in the best way possible, and if the book is late this can cause problems for everyone.
Gaming tie-in novels come in at anywhere from 80,000 to 100,000 words, with the majority tending toward the top end of that range. Most of these books are written over the course of months rather than years, and that means the writer needs to focus on getting the work finished. After the writer is done, he submits the book to the publisher for approval. If he’s followed the outline, there’s normally little to worry about, but sometimes better ideas spring up during the writing process. Getting those changes through on a tight schedule can be tricky, but if the author knows the game well enough the improvements these make are often apparent.
Usually the editor comes back a few weeks later with a list of requested revisions. Some of these may be negotiable, but often others are not. Because this is a tie-in novel, the author does not own his work. Instead, the novel is considered work-for-hire, and it belongs to the company that owns the game upon which the novel is based. When it comes down to the revisions, the owners get the final say. The only recourse a recalcitrant author would have would be to give back any money paid or to insist that his name be removed from the book. Fortunately for all concerned, this rarely happens. As an editor, James Lowder has led the charge on showing how writers and companies can share the rights involved, but so far this has mostly involved anthologies of short stories and essays.
Once the novel is approved, the author’s work on the book is done, but his involvement with the promotions surrounding the book has just started. It’s rare to see a book tour for any but the top-selling authors today in any field, but interviews, conventions, podcasts, blog tours, and more help authors and books at all levels and have a much better rate of return on the time spent.
The editor takes over the book from there and guides it through a gauntlet of printers, editorial boards, public relations, sales staff, and more. Eventually, the book goes to press, and it hits shelves – and e-readers – around the world a few weeks later. Then fans can snatch it up and devour the work of months in a scant number of hours. By then, if the book has shown promise of selling well, there’s already another book in the works, waiting for its chance to make those same readers happy.
Next time around, I’ll back up a bit and cover how writing a novel for a released game differs from writing the same novel for a game that’s still in development. Each has its own plusses and pitfalls.
Matt Forbeck has been designing award-winning games professionally for over 20 years and has also written over a dozen tie-in novels. His next novel – Guild Wars 2: Ghosts of Ascalon, co-written with Jeff Grubb – hits shelves on July 27. Visit Forbeck.com for details about his current projects.