My Secret (Failed) Media Tie-In Past

A question in e-mail that I’ve been meaning to get to for a while:

I know you don’t do media tie-in novels, but have you ever been tempted to? I think a John Scalzi Star Wars novel would be really cool.

Heh. I’ve noted before that given how frequently I’ve flayed the Star Wars franchise (and George Lucas’ writing and directing thereof), the chances of the LucasFilm people even thinking of approaching me about writing in their universe is about as likely as Admiral Ackbar enjoying the calamari platter at the Olive Garden (“Oh! My brothers! Did you not see it was a trap?”). So I wouldn’t get my hopes up for that one.

I’ve been approached in the past to do media tie-in work and have largely turned it down, not because I think it’s below me — I think I’ve been pretty clear in the past that I think the class snobbery regarding tie-in writing is pretty bogus — but because I have my own list of projects to get to, and that list is fairly extensive. If and when I do work with someone else’s property, I want it to be something so very cool and special that it’s worth taking time away from my own personal slate of projects. Basically, I’m picky.

That said, I’ll tell you a story. Probably about 12 years ago I wrote an e-mail to John Carmack of id Software, explaining to him why he should really let me write a novel based on the Quake games, with a long list of rationales that in the end pretty much boiled down to “because if you did, dude, I promise you that novel would f’n rock.” I never did hear back from Carmack, which is of course not at all unexpected, because 12 years ago I was not a published novelist, I was some random member of the Quake-and-Cheetos Brigade going all squeegious on John Carmack. Think how often John Carmack must have gotten e-mails going “dude, you don’t know me, but you should totally trust me with your intellectual property.” I suspect Carmack read the e-mail, went okay, then, Mr. Fanboy McCrazypants, and dumped it straight into the trash bin. He would have been right to do so.

That said: Dude, if I had written a Quake novel, it would have been so very awesome. Because I loved those games, man. It hurt when I had to admit I liked Unreal Tournament more than Quake III Arena. It was like me saying that Pepsi One is a superior taste experience to Coke Zero. Which it isn’t and I would never say it was. But you see what I’m getting at, here. All other things being equal, what makes a media tie-in novel work is that the person writing it says to him or herself, Hey, I get to play with this thing I love so very much? And they’re paying me for it? Coooooool. And then goes off and has a ball.

So there it is: my sole attempt at media tie-in-ery, so far.

48 Comments on “My Secret (Failed) Media Tie-In Past”

  1. Orin:

    They’ve already got some fine writers on the SG:U novel beat.


    If it’s “Automan v2: Son of Automan: The Quickening” I’m totally in.

  2. Doctor Memory:

    I don’t know that I agree with that. I think UT 2004 was the peak for that series, actually, and I still replay the heck out of it. UT III just didn’t do it for me, alas.

  3. What if instead it was something like the estate of an author who had written a famous series that wanted you to continue it (such as Bova/Brin/Benford’s continuation of Foundation).

    Obviously it would depend on the series to be continued, but if the Bova/Brin/Benford continuation hadn’t happened and the Asimov estate came to you and told you how much they loved your work and that you were the guy to finish off the Foundation books, would you be a little tempted?

  4. John @ #6 – As long as it’s not Kevin J. Anderson. He may be a great guy for all I know, but his novels are painful to read.

    As for Foundation? I dunno. I think it peaked *with* foundation. The Foundation and Empire books dragged on for me. I do think some F/SF universes can get a good reboot, though. Borderlands is coming back, which is awesome.

    So that’s a side question – is there a shared universe would you want to play in, John?

  5. Josh Jasper:

    No. We built the world together and then wrote separate stories in it and showed each other our work as we wrote it keep them all integrated.

  6. Wow. I’m just admiring the word “squeegious”.

    I remember Unreal — you start in the same goddamn dark tunnel, with the same goddamn blinking lights, and you walk down the tunnel and are suddenly OUTSIDE, and it’s bright, and the sky has clouds streaming by, and you can see EVERYTHING.

    Amazing piece of work. I could even hear the CPU fans spin up to max. Beautiful.

  7. Confession: Back in the day I wrote for the “Quake Literary Guild” on PlanetQuake, working on the imaginatively titles “The Quake Story”, trying to make sense out of the twisted mix of level/world themes, as well as an origin for the flying spitting Wizard enemy.

    Mercifully, PlanetQuake hasn’t kept that site up for a loooong time.

  8. I remember UT. UT2k4 was the best UT, but Quake III was always my favorite multiplayer FPS. Then again, I was 17 when Q3 came out, so I was just the right age to love it as the über twitch-fest that it was. Quake 1 was what got me into FPS games, and Raven did an amazing job with Quake IV. (Quake II didn’t catch me as much, but I’ve been meaning to get the client working on my 64-bit Linux box to go give it another go. I have a copy, of course.)

    Finally, I’m a big enough quake fan that I still have Q1 installed on my computer, and I go back and play it regularly. I also watched the full Seal of Nehahra Movie… (Aight, everyone start screaming “Dork” now…)

  9. @Ryan Greene: I had an idea for a giant non-linear Quake total-conversion that did explain all that. It involved expanding the menagerie and grouping them into different warring factions from different areas of the world on the other side of the quake portal. They all, ultimately, followed Shub Niggurath, but yeah. It would have been so cool, and I’m just not nearly good enough at level design or modeling to have ever finished it. Oh well. (Also, The Demon King beat me to it, anyway, if not in scope, in style. Worth a play through if you have Quake 1 sitting around. It’s quite fun.)

    Dude, if you let me at your IP, it’ll be like totally awesome! Yeah. Or something.

  10. As someone who loved the TIE Fighter PC game, my media tie-ins have media-tie ins. (The far better than average X-Wing: Rogue Squadron book series)

  11. “squeegious” is an excellent word which should be propagated to fandom at large. I intend to do my part to make it so.

  12. AirWolf, the A-Team, AutoMan, Manimal, Street Hawk, Viper, Handi Man, and Vincent from ‘Beauty and the Beast’ team up to fight … oh, I don’t know. Let’s say Brak and Zorak. To the pain!

  13. Let’s reverse the question though: which contemporary (or past, for that matter) SF/F writer would you be comfortable with, writing a novel in the OMW universe? If any?

  14. So, when I read OMW for the first time and thought to myself that at least some of the inspiration to all this came from playing first person shooters, was I correct?

  15. Raz Greenberg:

    You are correct! One major element on which video games had an influence: The MP-35 weapon, which was my answer to video games allowing their characters to run around with ten different very heavy weapons.


    I think there are any number of writers who could write in the OMW universe, but I think it’s best for now to have it be my sandbox to play in.

  16. John,

    As a media tie-in writer, I’m pleased to hear you’ve considered taking the plunge at least once. You’re right, the fun of getting to play in someone else’s sandbox is pretty cool when you think about the people who blazed the trail ahead of you, both on screen and in print.

    As a member of SFWA, I get really tired when the old guard continually tells me, “Well, you’re not really a SF/F writer because you do tie-in work.” It get really tough to keep a (semi-)civil tongue when dealing with them, especially on panels in front of an audience.

    And, yes, I think you’d have done a great Quake novel.

  17. John you should Try Team Fortress 2. I think you would have fun. It’s pretty much replaced UT2K4 for me.

  18. Guess:

    Generally speaking, yes. But they often (not always) are paid more upfront, and some (not all) media titles sell in sufficiently large numbers that the writer can (but not automatically will) make more than if he or she were writing original work.


    I’m one of those people who prefers to play with bots over real live people (because being randomly matched with other people online is a pain, and I don’t want to have to make appointments to play with friends), and I’m also not hugely thrilled with player classes, so TF2 doesn’t trip my trigger. I love the Valve “Meet the…” videos, though.

  19. What kind of advance do you get for a media tie in? Do authors tend to spend less time writing them and just try to punch them out?

  20. As I don’t write them, I can’t speak to how other people write them, Guess.

    You do ask a lot of questions, the answers to many of which can be found through the magic of Google or other search engines. Do try those; it’s not that I don’t like answering your questions, but that just about every comment you post has them, and I don’t have the time to answer every one, especially as they just lead to more questions.

  21. Hey, I get to play with this thing I love so very much? And they’re paying me for it? Coooooool.

    That’s pretty much spot on, and I know several people who have had the opportunity to write for an IP they love. They love the IP so much, they work very hard to make sure they do a fantastic job and stay true to the world/setting. (Apparently George Lucas doesn’t actually love the Star Wars IP.)

    And John, I’m still fucking waiting for that OMW FPS video game. Damnit. (I think I’ve mentioned that a couple times now. And even though I know several people in the video game industry, I haven’t been able to convince anyone to do it. WANT!)

  22. I got over any such media tie-in snobbery long ago, when I realized that the difference between, say Thieve’s World, Star Trek, from an IP propriety standpoint, was just about zilch. I’m also more tolerant of fan fiction, as well, but bear in mind, I’m speaking in terms of IP propriety as opposed to the quality of the fiction, 90% of which, is, well, you know.

    From the department of shameless plugs, I should be doing a panel at Lunacon, about shared worlds and the creative commons where I plan to speak to those points.

  23. And John, I’m still fucking waiting for that OMW FPS video game.

    Me, I’m waiting for the Ender’s Game one. I hear it’s going to be incredibly convincing.

  24. mensley @17 wrote:

    Electra Woman and Dyna Lubricant Girl!

    Fixed misspelling in text cited above.  HTH, HAND

  25. Being a hardcore Quake fan since 1997 (still playing today on a daily basis), and being an absolute fan of the Old Man’s War series, reading that you *could* have written a book about Quake almost makes me want to cry because of the awesomeness it would have been :) I mean, the only serious stuff we’ve got on the Quake/Doom subject was a half-baked (but relatively funny) movie.

    Hey, John, id Software released Quakelive recently (well, nearly one year ago now) and it’s truly giving the game some real momentum back. Why not contact Carmack again? ;)

  26. Cool to find another Quake player!

    Quake 2 was the last computer game I played seriously online. Quake 2 just had that magic *something* that made it a blast. I remember buying a big new shiny graphics card just for the purpose of playing Quake (the only time I ever bothered upgrading a graphics card without just buying a new computer), and my glee at how awesome it made the game look.

    I think the only reason I stopped playing was that I started getting annoyed with the quality of people online… not their gaming ability, just people acting like idiots.

    Now I’m mostly a console gamer… I have both a PS3 and 360, a generally don’t go online for either one, except to download content and updates. Especially for the 360… it’s against my religion to pay a monthly fee for something like that. I’d rather play with friends who are in the room with me, or just against the computer, and not have to deal with the a-holes.

  27. “It hurt when I had to admit I liked Unreal Tournament more than Quake III Arena.”

    I am SO there with you. I played Quake 3, tried to love it like I loved Quake 2. And then I played UT. And I tried to pretend I didn’t love it even more than I loved Quake 2. I’m still not certain where I stand on the UT vs. Quake 2 debate (nothing can beat Vanilla CTF!) but UT sure was amazing and dream-crushing to us hardcore Quakers (not to be confused with the other Quakers who believe in peace ‘n stuff).

  28. Oddly enough, I wrote a letter to John Carmack expressing the same about 11-12 years ago. I’m sure his reaction was the same. However, I settled for a huge partial conversion (Nehahra) and a 4-hour quake movie.

    I still play Q1 from time to time, usually it’s not for fun but playtesting, unfortunately. Where the franchise went after Q1 I wasn’t pleased about, probably because I was so taken with the original.

    Jeff: I would scream “dork” at you, but it would probably be improper, considering I created Seal of Nehahra–albeit under an alias. It’s so very geeky that I probably ought not to admit it, but among this crowd, I’m probably safe

  29. Loved this recollection, John. I remember trying to figure out how to get them to let me write a Hexen novel–I mean, it already had a few different viewpoint characters! Romero thought it would be awesome but nothing ever came of it.

    But I’ll never have a better tie-in experience than the Gadget novel, The Third Force. My one experience was a peak experience.

  30. Marc:

    Heh. I’ll have you know you’re the reason I’ve never thought about doing a Half-Life novel; I figure, well, jeez, Valve’s already got a novelist on hand, and he wrote the thing.

    Incidentally, I name-checked you in today’s AMC column.

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