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Interlude: Franchise novels, my writing process and why I self published my writing manual

Charlie said I would talk about self publishing. He also mentioned something about "shameless plugging". So, let me also tell you about writing a metric tonne of franchise fiction, my really very rapid writing process, and why I self published my book Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic. I promise it won't be all sales pitch, except for the very last paragraph.

This time last year, I was recovering from having written four short (40K words; about the length of an old 1970s Lin Carter paperback ) franchise tie-in novels at a rate of roughly one every four months. Since each novel had to fit the setting, one of those months went on research.

These days, franchise novels, that is novels "tying in" to an existing story world, typically belonging to a video game, aren't disposable trash (if they ever were).

They're part of both the franchise's brand and that of the author, which is another way of saying that reputations ride on their quality. Not just reputations; nobody sane becomes a writer or an editor unless they like getting books right - there's no point in being (comparatively) skint and if you're not going to have fun!

Many, many, good writers mix franchise with original fiction. Two examples you might have missed are: Paul S Kemp, Star Wars fablemeister who also writes the exquisite Egil & Nix books  (which I will get to in part 3 of my Defence posts); and Howard Andrew Jones who writes Pathfinder adventures, but is responsible for the amazing Desert of Souls, basically Arabian Nights fan fiction and a good example of non-western Fantasy.

There are good reasons for writing for hire.

Though they own your story - because they own your story - franchises pay solid advances upfront, and usually have a royalty system to give you a stake in marketing the thing. They can also have satisfyingly fast turnaround times. When Charlie writes something, it can take years before it appears in print. Franchise writers can see our work in mere months - nice for building that presence. Finally, it's rather fun. It's like a writing exercise where you have some givens then work around them, especially because you don't have to justify or set up the underlying world - for my Frostgrave story I had great fun planning out the fight using the spell list.

So there I was going from "Would I like to write a book about The Wars of the Roses/William Marshal/Vikings? - Egad/God's Teeth/By the Beard of Thor...YES!!!" to "Here is the finished manuscript plus a reminder of my bank details" inside four (4) months, and each book had to be a proper novel with themes and characterisation and all the other things that got my old English teacher excited (but not in the Oglaf sense (ewww)). 

Oh, and this was working 20-hours a week, the rest spent house-husbanding, raising and ferrying kids, with twice-weekly sword fighting.

As you might imagine, there wasn't much space for angstily wandering the hills moodily contemplating the Horror of the Blank Page. Nor did I have time to think about my process. Like the Allies in the final stages of WWII, I had to go with the (intellectual) technology I had.

Unlike Charlie, I am a committed outliner (though sometimes I suspect he outlines but inside his gargantuan brain...). 

One of the bizarro things you find online is religious wars developing between "pantsers" (those who write on the fly) and "outliners" (those who plan using outlines before writing) with each typically characterising the other side as respectively (I paraphrase) "flaky" and "crushingly pedantic" -- for example, I once saw one pantser praise another for her "impassioned defence of creativity".

I, however, am an outliner precisely because I am flaky.

As you'll have gathered from my earlier blog entries, I'm a big picture person given to vague but intense vision, much arm waving, and sweeping statements. Meyers Briggs tests generally nail me as "extroverted intuitive". (I say this with no particular pride. Often it's an inconvenience, for example when defending a position, I often have to work backwards to recall the now-internalised and forgotten evidence that created the world view that put me there.)

So for a good proportion of my life, my brain was a jumble of ideas and my hard drive a repository for first six chapters. I just couldn't get from, "Rah dragons! Rah ninjas in flying saucers!" to 100,000 words of narrative. Or even 6,000 words. (My friend Scott Oden has a good blog entry that describes the experience of being stuck.) To people like us, the advice, "Just write!" is about as  useful as an alien screaming at us, "Just use your r'tkost organ and you will be able to fly like us!"

Fortunately, I once had one of those jobs that were a bit like a Swedish prison but with Internet access; due to an internal market, nobody wanted to pay for my technical authoring services out of their budget, so I had months on end with nothing to do but think about story in order to write my way out of the hole in the manner of Edgar Rice Burroughs escaping his clerical job. I also had Charlie and Hugh just a short walk up the road for weekly lunchtime coffees that set my brain whirling. 

I didn't actually write my way out of that hole, but in working out how stories worked, I did discover (drum roll) the... Power of Outlining!

The short of it is that (for me) story is fractal: The elevator pitch unpacks into the over-coffee narrative, to the chapter outline to the scene outline to the actual text. Each level has to read like an actual story, with a conflict to drive it, and a rhythm of clash-complication. 

I can (now) wave my arms and enthusiastically and tell the story at whatever level I know it. Take:

"Rah dragons! Rah ninjas in flying saucers!"

OK... how about,

"Transdimensional Dragons rampage through our world. However, Ninjas break into Area 51, steal a flying saucer, and take on the Dragon Queen."

(My daughter, 7, just walked in and said: "Daddy can I tell you something; Ninjas in flying saucers is Just Wrong!")

So, essentially, my kind of writing is like remembering backwards.

Partly through GMing, I also developed a diagramming technique for exploring and depicting the conflicts that drive such a plot

Infested with some old programming methodologies I picked up at college, I always had this sense that once I were a really good writer, I would always compose top down. However, that aspiration didn't survive contact with the reality of writing four novels in a row; Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Each time, I found myself iterating through the different levels of my outline. 

Once the dust had settled, I sat down to debrief myself. How on earth had I produced quite so many complete stories in such a short time, given that the preceding decades had been marked only by the debris of crashed literary schemes?

The answer was that rather than an A-to-Z process, I had a set of literary tools. 

I always grope for a metaphor for this, but think of an army at war. It might start off with top-down plans, but as the campaign progresses, decisions and outcomes at the lower levels affect decisions at the higher levels, and new intelligence breeds new plans.

So the different levels of outline, the diagramming system, the way of formulating story questions (sorry, didn't mention that); they were all tools for engaging with the novel from a particular perspective. The beauty is that they don't imply a set of rules for what a novel should look like, other than There Shall Be Conflict. We all know what we like. The trick is having a way to see our novel so we can respond to it creatively.

For example, sometimes I might free write an opening chapter, then look at what conflicts I had found, then outline the whole novel, then... other times I might start off with something vague like "Ninjas versus dragons", or, real example, "Wars of the Roses: GO!"

Meanwhile I was - and still am - part of an extended community of aspiring writers, many of whom are intuitive arm wavers like me, and thus have trouble going from Very Big Idea to Completed Narrative. Being an extrovert, I found myself trying to explain my approach, and in doing so, generating a lot of word count.

One day over coffee with Hugh, I pondered; Why not write the thing up properly and sell it on Amazon?

Why not? Because instant imposter syndrome. Who me? Little me? Minor writer...

Hugh didn't exactly throw me through a pile of chairs this time, but he did remind me to go and do my research.

There are a lot of well regarded writing books on Amazon where, if you click through the author's name, you just find more how-to books. Further investigation often reveals that the credentials are things like an MFA and/or being an editor and  "Writing Instructor". Now, these books obviously help people -- they often have lots of 5-star reviews, and people recommend them online. However, I realised (gulp) that my credentials were both different and often as equally valid as long as I stuck to: "This is what I wrote, here's how I did it, some of my tools might work for you."

So I went through the painful detail-orientated business of writing up my tools, editing the text with the help of several friends including Geoff Hart (techwriting and editing guru).  Hugh made me a cover for the hell of it, and there it is on Amazon (gulp).

This one was always going to be an indy publishing venture. 

Partly, it was simple economics: a trickle of money now versus the possibility of a bit more money much later; and, the idea that as my career develops, that book will always be there for those readers who like my stuff and are interested in writing.

Mostly, though, it was because publishers are unlikely to be interested in a one-off and I have no intention of "positioning" myself as a writing coach or anything like that (though I don't mind taking the odd teaching gig since I enjoy doing that). 

Simply put, I don't have much more to say about writing than's in that book. 

A lot of the basics like characterisation and pacing are intuitive if you can only see what you are doing - which is the point of my toolset. 

I'm also not experienced enough to pronounce on a particular genre, or on story and the profession in general - at least not in a paid-for book; blogging is different, so no chance of a series of monograph style books. 

I suppose I might want to talk about how to do research and worldbuilding from the same perspective, but that feels like a chapter I might just add. 

Then there's the whole Overcoming Writers Block thing. I know Steve Pressfield has built a small empire based on The War of Art. It's a great read, but not only does it feel rather un-British, I also have this suspicion based on experience as a writer and martial arts instructor that success is the best motivator (and Vegetius agrees with me). 

Sure, some people have problems with self sabotage and insecurity, and for them his book must be a godsend. But for most aspiring writers, dealing with angst is a distraction from dealing with its source; not knowing how to write the thing that's burning a hole in your brain. If when you sat down, the words flowed, then there would be no talk of needing to get motivated. Nobody posts online about, "How do I motivate myself to finish Civ 5?"

So, Storyteller Tools was always going to be a one-shot deal, and that, plus commercial reasoning, led me to self-publish it.

What's it like self publishing?

As simple as pushing some buttons and its up there.

As terrifying as running naked across a crowded market place while yelling, "Look at the size of my willy!

You have to handle all the niggly details yourself, or rely on kind friends, or cobble together the funding to pay for them: editing, copy editing, cover... and self promotion, which, honestly, is excruciating. Stick your head up over the parapet and you suddenly become the Somebody who is Wrong on the Internet.

But that's what I've done, and I suppose it's been a growth experience, even if it means being wracked by self doubt and chronic embarrassment, with only the surprisingly regular sales for validation...

You can, of course, help to make all this pain and embarrassment worthwhile  and learn how to finish that novel that's been gnawing on your mind for the last few years. Hop over to Amazon and and buy or borrow Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic (UK, Amazon-free Epub ). Me? I'm going to go and hide my head under the covers right now.

25 Comments

1:

The trouble is that neither quality nor readability transmit
particularly reliably, and I rarely find franchise works worth
the effort. On the other hand, I have read franchise works,
enjoyed them, and found the originals unreadable. And I have
found a few well-managed franchises readable as a whole. Are we
back to Sturgeon's rule again? :-)

My impression is the key is that the franchise operator MUST put
the effort into selecting authors for compatibility, and setting
up the ground rules. If not, like any unplanned project, failure
is almost inevitable. Would you agree?

2:

Apropos of this post the Atlantic just did a big spread about the original franchise production line. Hardy Boys & Nancy Drew.
http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/05/hardy-boys-nancy-drew-ghostwriters/394022/
Certainly plenty of kids get a kick out of those because they enjoy the familiarity of the setting and characters (kids can be strangely conservative at times).
I also have a fond regard for guys like Dan Abnett who took certain franchises and injected quality as well as the required quantity and adherence to the pattern.
Props to you Harold for hanging your process out there. Haters are always going to hate but if your book helps even one person produce a work of note then we are all the richer for it.

3:

Thanks for the nod, Martin! On the issue of "writer's block", you might be interested in an article I published on the subject a while back:
http://www.geoff-hart.com/articles/2012/writers-block.html
This is a bit different from the traditional article on this subject in that I tried to come at the problem from the perspective of *why* the block arises; different causes have different solutions.

My biggest block tends to come from not knowing the characters or where I want to go with the story. The issue of outlining vs. seat of pantsing is relevant here, since I find myself blocked most often when I don't know where the story should go; an outline helps in that case.

More generally, I think this is a false dichotomy that arises from a human tendency to insist on binary categories. (One wonders what computers would be like if humans thought in terms of A, B, or A/B simultaneously or none of the above. Faster and buggier, probably.)

Different approaches work for different people; I fondly remember a long-ago panel discussion with Tim Powers describing his rigorous research and outlining process, while Steven Brust shook his head in incomprehension and explained how he just dropped Vlad Taltos into a cesspool and watched him climb out. (My words, not Brust's, and I'm probably elaborating on what really happened after all these years.) My approach tends to combine the two extremes: I come up with an outline that describes the story I want to tell and the key tourist traps I want readers to visit along the way, complete with what these traps mean for character development. Once I have a sound structure for the story (at a minimum, my elevator speech in less than 200 words about what happens and why), I then turn my characters loose and see whether they'll follow the itinerary I set out for them; sometimes they've got a better idea, and sometimes they've got a better idea but I won't let them choose it. Like a marriage, it's a bit of a balancing act sometimes.

4:

> The trouble is that neither quality nor readability transmit
particularly reliably, and I rarely find franchise works worth
the effort.

It does depend who it's by. The Halo books, for example, are just good MilSF. Travers's Republic Commando series transcends the setting.

I wrote my Paradox books pretty much as I would if they were original fiction -- in fact they were original fiction in the sense that the games themselves were plot-free beat-em-ups, so really the brief was "Write and action adventure in era X".

The Foreworld books tie in with the Mongoliad and are more of the shared world variety. I've read some of those by fellow authors and they read like straight historical action/conspiracy fiction.

5:

I think genre fiction as a whole is better at quality than it was. Thanks for your kind words.

6:

"It does depend who it's by."

Very much so. The franchise works I have enjoyed without (first)
reading the original have been by authors I knew could write a
decent story. All too often, I have found that the merit was
primarily in what that author did with the setting, and the
original was tedious or worse.

7:

Sorry to be the one who asks the awkward question: Your writing tools book sounds great - is there a way of buying it that doesn't involve Amazon? (I'm morally opposed to giving them money, but your tools do sound as though at least some of them might work for me.)

8:

Just an echo to the earlier comment about possible ways to obtain your book other than through Amazon? I don't have any objections to authors who wish to work with that emerging curatorial book monopoly any more than I would about whatever gender someone preferred to bed with. However, I do object to my making "purchases" of books which may be removed from my reader without warning or recourse by the party who "not sold" it to me.

9:

Just for you, I rushed forward my plans to sell epubs on lulu (and thus on iStore etc etc.) I haven't had time to double check the output, so if you find any bloopers, please drop by www.mharoldpage.com and let me know. (And if you find it useful, please write a short review on Lulu)

http://www.lulu.com/shop/m-harold-page/storyteller-tools-outline-from-vision-to-finished-novel-without-losing-the-magic/ebook/product-22116953.html

10:

See upthread ^^^^

That's epub. If you want PDF, let me know.

11:

Hah. Oddly, since you are a semi-panster, my other tools might be more use to you: conflict diagram and story questions. Character is conflict.

12:

M Harold Page said: But that's what I've done, and I suppose it's been a growth experience, even if it means being wracked by self doubt and chronic embarrassment, with only the surprisingly regular sales for validation...

You did exactly what you needed to do; described your process.

In the mid 90s I could tell anyone, in detail, the 90% they needed to know to get up to speed writing. The other 10% was what you bring to the page. Decades later all I can offer is Zen koans and fortune cookie comments, so I usually recommend two books. One is a step-by-step process, and the other is a massive overview of the many writing tools available.

The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray
(You need to get the first edition from 1993, used. The later editions destroyed the clarity of his process.)

Writing Fiction For Dummies by Randy Ingermanson

~

Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world.
Today I am wise, so I am changing myself. -- Rumi

13:

Robert J Ray and Randy Ingermanson are both actually card-carrying writers, which is a point in their favour. Ray looks like he's a product the 1960s, so will be quite interesting.

The two I always recommend, other than mine which is short and speaks to the geeky writers, are Dwight V Swain and of course Stephen King. Some other recommendations (mixed with snarks) here: http://www.mharoldpage.com/why-most-books-on-how-to-write-a-novel-arent-very-useful/

14:

You don't have to spend money to see the core of Rachel Aaron's book on writing. It is one of those books from a real full-time writer, and the full ebook is cheap enough to be worth a look. It's an interesting idea about the value of an author's enthusiasm for writing to identify the stuff the readers will enjoy. but I think we have varied enough tastes to be wary of that. A key part of the book is about keeping records and identifying what works for you.

I'm probably limited by my typing speed. One of my great-uncles routinely advised new Policemen to learn to type properly, in the 1920s.

15:

Ah yes read her. I tend to worry about average wordcount more than daily wordcount.

16:

Even Sturgeon did franchise work. The "Ellery Queen" novel The Player on the Other Side was one of his. (Avram Davidson and Jack Vance also wrote novels "by" Ellery Queen.)

17:

I have looked at a few of those books, and none of them address
main problem I have when trying to write fiction, which is how
to ensure that there is enough 'human interest' to stop it from
being a degenerate descendent of Utopia (which is not an exciting
read). I just don't think in the right way but, being who I am,
I could also judge my own writing fairly dispassionately. Yes,
I would find it unreadable! Now, changing the way that you think
is possible, even in old age, but (having done it several times
in various other contexts), it's not easy and it's not quick.
I was not and am not prepared to put the effort in, so the world
is saved from my (very bad) fiction :-)

My interest was much the same as Moore's (and many people after
him) - to disseminate innovative social and political ideas
using fiction as a medium. One of the reasons that I like
science fiction and fantasy is that some authors include some of
that, though most of them are rather pedestrian or use magic
or technology as a solution in itself. That's naive ....


18:

> to ensure that there is enough 'human interest' to stop it from being a degenerate descendent of Utopia (which is not an exciting read)

I had a similar problem, but it was more to do with being a miserable adolescent wanting somewhere nice to escape to!

My approach therefore addresses this directly - story is conflict is plot is character is conflict. Given any setting, I sit back and imagine what people might fight over, and who those people might be, THEN I plan the story.

It's not guaranteed to produced interesting results. That's down to your storytelling instincts. However it's a lot easier to assess ideas for quality and pick the good ones than it is to come up with one good idea out of the box.

(And, the whole approach is probably influenced by software design methodologies that design the user interface *first*)

19:

Blogs like this remind me of the great granddaddy (or at least godfather) of the franchise novel - arguably the one who started the "rot", and who incidentally was one of the major reasons I started reading SF&F in the first place at an everso tender age. for Alan Dean Foster, who if I'm not mistaken has both the first Star Trek and the first Star Wars tie ins under his belt, as well as writing his own works that range from the ridiculous to the sublime. Circle that round to the present day and I've most recently read Quantum Mythology by Gavin G Smith, who dabbles in Crysis novelisations on the side.
I've never read the crisis novels as my kindle lacks the power to run the novel at full resolution and 60fps.

20:

One of my first serious attempts at writing, twentyish years ago, was an idea for a well known movie franchise with a now large Expanded Universe. It was really more of an in-universe story with little to do with canon characters except for starting it off. I got three short chapters into it when I finally learned that the policy for the books was "Don't call us, we'll call you." and having some publishing history. Which was fine, since I never had much of a story, and I'd been losing interest in it. It was at least useful as practice writing, and I learned a bit more about the business. And I've done better work than that would have been. Now if only I could work up the nerve to sell something...

21:

The first ADF novel I (and my sis) ever read was the novelisation of Star Wars (in 1979).

The earliest tie-ins I ever read (or saw) were Star Trek novels (there was only one Star Trek back then) or possibly Doctor Who story novelisations.

22:

The first Foster I read was his novelization of "The Thing", a rather gruesome book for an 11 year old, but I liked it a lot at the time. It was this cover that sold me. I later read his first two Star Wars books, and that was it for him, never had any interest in his original work.

As for the history of franchise series, I'm wondering how far back they go. Hardy Boys and Ellery Queen have been mentioned. But further back you have the Tom Swift books, and I imagine earlier dime novel series probably had multiple writers. That may be getting off-topic.

23:
Often it's an inconvenience, for example when defending a position, I often have to work backwards to recall the now-internalised and forgotten evidence that created the world view that put me there.)

This! So very much this.

I also hate when people ask me to repeat point 3 of my awfully clever and staggeringly inventive ten point plan to save the world... and they wont even give me a hint what it was I said!

24:

I suspect personality type differences probably explain 95% of flame wars! Perhaps everybody should append their Meyers Briggs to their user name...

25:

Point 3 is of course the shiny distraction to occupy the small minded while you enact your ten point plan!

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This page contains a single entry by M Harold Page published on May 30, 2015 10:12 PM.

In Defense of Fantasy: #2 The Imagination's Sandbox was the previous entry in this blog.

In defence of Traditional (Eurocentric Quasi-Medieval) Fantasy: #3 It's the Archetypes, silly! is the next entry in this blog.

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