Media Tie-In Books & Stories: Knowing is Half the Battle

By J.J. Hensley

By the time I had turned eleven years old, I had mastered many major life lessons. I knew, without a doubt, that I should never give my address to strangers. I should tell the truth. No matter how great the peer pressure, I needed to listen to myself. If a friend were to pass out, I could attend to him or her with expertise. Most vividly, I remember being taught to never, EVER, pet a strange dog. These are lessons I have carried with me throughout my entire life. After all, my life coaches were the best team of all time. Of course the squad I am referring to is G.I. Joe. For the record, I still never pet strange dogs. They have to be perfectly well-adjusted and must pass a comprehensive psychological evaluation.

Anyway, as a writer I often have wondered what it would be like to somehow revive the characters I remember from my childhood through the act of creating a story or novel. As a lover of great television shows and movies, I often have wondered what it would be like to be able to take the personalities and actions that play out on the screen and morph them into original stories. While I simply have wondered, jack-of-many-trades Jon McGoran has been busy doing those exact things. While his primary interest is writing his own original novels, Jon has a proven knack for adapting, collaborating, and creating in pre-existing worlds, as well: from writing a tie-in novel based on the hit show The Blacklist, to contributing stories to a book of X-Files stories, and—yes—even a G.I. Joe anthology. Wow, he is a busy guy. But he still took the time to answer some questions for The Thrill Begins.

Can you explain to us exactly what a media tie-in is? Is that different than a novelization?

A media tie-in work is one that is based on the world, characters, etc. of a movie, TV show, video game, comic book, etc., but is a new story in that world.  A novelization is where you write a novel that is basically a retelling of a specific work, usually a movie.

What media-tie projects had you been involved with thus far?

The Blacklist TV show is the first media tie-in novel I have done. I have also done several short stories and novellas for anthologies published by IDW, the comic book company, including X-Files, Zombies Vs. Robots, GI Joe, and one of my favorites is a story in an upcoming anthology based on my good friend Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger character. That one comes out next year. There are some great authors involved in that, and Jonathan thought it would be a hoot to tie-in with some of our own characters, so my story features Joe Ledger together with my character Doyle Carrick. Scott Sigler, James Ray Tuck, Jeremy Robinson and Dana Fredsti also brought in characters from their own books. It should be a blast.

How did you get involved with the media tie-in world?

I first got involved in media tie-ins through Jonathan Maberry and IDW. They invited me to do some novellas for anthologies based on IDW properties. It was a lot of fun. As for the novels, those came through my agent.

Do you find media tie-in work to be more challenging or less challenging than starting a project with a blank slate?

 A bit of both. Starting from the blank slate can be the most rewarding and challenging part of writing a book. It can definitely be easier to start with a cast of characters and a world that is largely known, but you do have to make sure you know those characters and that world as if they were your own. And while it is a lot of fun working with other creative people, and playing in their sandbox, it can be difficult figuring out exactly what they want (or don’t want) and making their ideas work in your story. You also have to resign yourself to the fact that sometimes your great ideas are going to go by the wayside due to branding or other considerations that might not be directly about the story or even the source material. But I think it is good exercise as a writer to write within those constraints.

When taking on a media tie-in project what other kind of parameters do you have to operate within?

With a media tie-in, you are working with the publisher and the creator of the original content, and they might not be the same people or have the exact same goals (although they are obviously greatly overlapping), so you are working with those two sets of interests. It greatly depends on the project itself how constrained you are.  If you are using pre-existing characters, you are obliged to make sure you depict them in a way that is absolutely consistent with how they have been presented in the past, and that is the same with any aspect of the previous work. Unless it is some sort of reboot or alternate universe, you can’t contradict or undermine what has already been created. One of the more interesting limiting factors is that you might find yourself prevented from doing something in a tie-in story because that might preclude other ideas the creators of the original property want to keep open for future work of their own. A grossly simplistic version of this would be that you cannot kill off a character who has a future in the source material. Similarly, you might find that an idea you have is too similar to an idea that the original artist is already exploring for future work. I can totally see how, from their point of view, it would be a nerve-wracking experience to having another writer create narratives in your universe, with your characters. Some projects can be more adjacent to an existing narrative — existing in the same world, but not involving the same characters — in which case you might run into less of that sort of conflict.

It sounds like one would have to do a great deal of research on the source material (characters, setting, etc.)  How time consuming is your research process and what might it involve?

Yes, there is a great deal of research. It varies from client to client how much information they have packaged for you, in what is called a “bible.” Some give you elaborate materials – bios, background info, images, etc. – and some don’t offer anything other than the property itself (all of which may not even be available as you are preparing to write the book). For me, the research is very much focused on material directly related to the source material. So, if a show takes place in Chicago, I’m not going to do as much research on the city as I would if I were writing a book of my own set there. I am more concerned with being faithful to the representation of the city presented in the source material than in real life. My own books tend to require a lot of research, so I probably spend less time doing research for a tie-in project. 

It seems the target audience for a media tie-in based on a comic book or animated series might be much different than for a prime-time drama (ex: Blacklist). Do you find it challenging to adjust the tone of the work to fit a particular audience?

For me it is much more important that the tone be faithful to the original material itself than the material’s medium. Especially with the extent to which some of these properties cross media – movies, TV shows, games, comic books, novels – I think by far the most important thing is that it is faithful to the world in which it takes place. I think the audience that is most likely to follow a property or story world from one platform or medium to another is more interested in further exploring that world and those characters than in thinking, “I like comic books, so I want to read a book that captures the feel or experience of a comic book.” There is some of that, sure, but I think it is more that they want to explore in different and maybe even deeper ways this world that has captured their imaginations. 

Thanks to Jon for explaining the fascinating field of media tie-ins.

Now we know.

And knowing is half the battle. 

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Jon McGoran is the author of the Doyle Carrick thrillers Drift, Deadout, Dust Up, and the novella Down to Zero, from Tor/Forge Books, as well as the forthcoming YA science fiction thriller Chimerica, from Holiday House, and The Blacklist novel The Dead Ring – No. 166, coming March 2017 from Titan Books. His short fiction has appeared in a number of anthologies, including media tie-in stories in the world of the X-Files, Zombies Vs. Robots, G.I. Joe, and Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger series. Writing as D. H. Dublin, McGoran is the author of the forensic thrillers Body Trace, Blood Poison, and Freezer Burn.

To learn more about Jon McGoran’s latest novel, click on the cover below:

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J.J. HENSLEY is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.  He graduated from Penn State University with a B.S. in Administration of Justice and has a M.S. degree in Criminal Justice Administration from Columbia Southern University. Hensley’s works include the novels Measure Twice and Resolve; the latter was named one of the BEST BOOKS OF 2013 by Suspense Magazine and was a finalist for Best First Novel at the 2014 Thriller Awards.

To learn more about J.J. Hensley’s latest novel, click on the cover below:

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