Original Fiction: A Terrifying Freedom
Writing original fiction is like riding a bike without training wheels for the first time—it’s both terrifying and exhilarating.
I’ve been writing novels for the past ten years. I’ve written for Eureka and Exalted, Star Trek and Stargate, WarCraft and StarCraft and Warhammer. But all of those are licensed properties. This year, for the first time, I released original fiction—my first original novel, the space-opera The Birth of the Dread Remora, came out electronically in January and in print in March. My second original novel, the humorous science fiction novel No Small Bills, is slated for release in August. And I’ve discovered something I always suspected was true—
Writing original fiction is frightening.
Not that writing for a property isn’t difficult, and challenging, and scary. You’re playing in somebody else’s sandbox, after all—you have to be careful to treat their toys right or they’ll take them away from you and kick you out of the sandbox and possibly the playground altogether. You have to deal with licensors and editors both, which means you have double hoops to jump through, and sometimes those hoops are set at right angles—the editor’s concerned with making the book the best story it can be but the licensor needs to make sure you stay true to the brand, and those aren’t always the same thing.
At the same time, writing for a license provides you with a support network. When I wrote for Star Trek, I knew the movies and the TV shows and the novels, and all of those formed a background for my own stories, informing them and providing them with context and even some characters. With Eureka and Stargate I was already a fan of both TV shows, so I knew the characters and their worlds and found my own stories to tell using them. When I wrote for WarCraft and StarCraft I was actually novelizing the games, so I had the major characters and even the major events handed to me—all I had to do was flesh out that those in-game missions and the background events they hinted at and stitch them all together into a coherent and consistent story. I even had screenshots of the various characters and settings, so I could match my descriptions to the existing materials. Tricky, yes—and satisfying to get right—but there was a lot to work from.
When David Niall Wilson, Steve Savile, and I sat down and came up with the idea for the Scattered Earth saga, however, things were very different. We were building from scratch. Anything was possible. There wasn’t anybody to tell us, “No, sorry, we don’t want to take stories there,” or “sorry, that character would never be involved in something like that,” or even “No, we’re not interested in having a world like that.” It was all ours and we could do anything we wanted. But at least we were working together, bouncing ideas around, cooperatively creating the overarching story and setting. Once we’d built that framework, however, we each came up with our own world and characters and story within that, and though the other two were happy to offer feedback, ultimately creating the Dread Remora was all down to me.
And that’s frightening.
Building the world, and the ship, and the characters, I found myself plagued with self-doubt. “Is this any good?” I kept wondering. “Does this make any sense?” And the big one, “Will people enjoy this?”
The initial storyline fell into place as I developed the rest, building from where the Remora had started and where it was going and what had to happen to it along the way. Even so, I kept waiting for an invisible licensor to reach over my shoulder and straighten some element or remove some plot hook and say “there, that’s better—now it will fit.”
But it didn’t have to fit anything. It is its own creation, with no outside restrictions. I was free to do anything I wanted.
Writing the novel was the easy part—for me, the doubts always build beforehand but vanish the minute I start typing. Once the story is flowing, I know it’s going to be fine, and I can roll along with it and enjoy telling it and watching it unfold.
But I’m used to having a licensor read the novel afterward and tell me “okay, we need to change this bit because the character wouldn’t go there” or “sorry, we need to save that location for a later story/game/movie/episode, so you’ll have to cut it and have him get there some other way.” Nothing like that happened here. David and Steve read the book and gave me their feedback, but that was just about whether the story worked, not about whether it was true to a license.
And that was exhilarating.
Suddenly, I discovered the amazing part of writing original fiction—no one can tell you no! It’s your world, your characters, your story, so you can do anything you want with them! If the story leads to one character’s death, that’s fine—you don’t have to find ways to keep him alive just because the licensor needs him around in a later season. If the characters wind up in a particular place, that’s fine, too—there isn’t anyone to tell you not to reveal that location yet.
It’s all up to you.
Of course, after I finished the first Dread Remora novel and turned my thoughts to subsequent stories and novels, I was stricken again. I didn’t have anyone who had to approve those story ideas, which meant I could again write anything I wanted. But how to decide what to write? Especially now that the Dread Remora was loose in space, its origin told, so I didn’t have anything I had to get done in a particular tale?
But then the story ideas started popping into my head. The first Dread Remora novella, “Crossed Paths,” more or less wrote itself—I had a notion that formed the backbone of the tale, and then other elements crept in and wove around that to create the finished piece.
And recently, the idea for the second Dread Remora novel hit me, almost fully formed. I knew exactly where to take the space-pirate ship next, and what they would encounter, and how that would affect them.
And I could tell that tale, because there wasn’t anyone controlling the license. No one but me. For a change, I was the licensor—I own the property, and no one can tell me what to do with it, or which stories to tell in it. I can tell the stories I want to tell.
It doesn’t hurt that, after only a few months Dread Remora is outselling Stargate in e-books, and is on track to earn me more than I’ve made on any of my licensed work. Clearly I should continue writing my own stories, telling my own tales, being my own licensor. Deciding for myself what I’m going to write, and how.
Which is an astounding amount of freedom. And, just like that first time you ride on two wheels, terror has given way to utter exhilaration.
Aaron Rosenberg has written more than a dozen tie-in novels, for properties including Star Trek, WarCraft, Warhammer, and Eureka. He has also written young adult novels, children’s books, and roleplaying games. He’s won awards for his game work, his novels, and his young adult books, and has been a Scholastic Bestseller. His first original novel, The Birth of the Dread Remora, is available from Crossroad Press. His second original novel, No Small Bills, will be released by Crazy 8 Press in August 2011. You can follow Aaron on Twitter @gryphonrose, or on Facebook, or visit his website at www.gryphonrose.com