This article is by Frank Cavallo.
A few years ago I published my first novel. Nothing major, it garnered a small advance, with a relatively small print run at an up-and-coming indie press. Hardly JK Rowling territory, but as I’m sure all of us can relate, it was something I’d been trying to do for years. It felt great to finally get over that hump.
It was a great ride. I did the usual, some book signings, a festival booth or two, etc. But one small press novel does not a career make, so to speak, and after everything kind of ran its course, I found myself looking for a way to follow up.
It wasn’t exactly smooth sailing though. I’m not a full time writer, so the demands of my day job always came first. Work on my next novel stalled. Time went by. Whatever little momentum I had maybe built up with the debut book was fading, and I was still a long way from even finishing, much less publishing another one.
I woke up one day and realized that a couple of years had gone by. I was starting to feel like my one novel was going to be my only novel. I started to get nervous. Getting published had felt like a victory, now I was feeling like I’d dropped the ball.
I needed a way to jump start things, to re-boot, but I was nowhere near publishing anything. I turned to some writer friends for advice. One of them had written a Star Trek novel. I mentioned that to another writer I corresponded with, who suggested that writing for an established company like that, what they call “work-for-hire”, was a good way to get back in the game.
Initially I was reluctant. Admittedly, some of that was pure snobbery. I would have probably told you back then that I thought writing for hire was the literary equivalent of playing in a cover band—you might be a killer musician, but you’d always just be playing someone else’s music.
After some gentle encouragement however, I agreed to give it a shot. I searched around a while, and submitted some sample pieces to a couple of publishers. A few months later, the folks at a fantasy gaming company contacted me, asking if I would like to do some work in one of their universes.
I jumped right in, and ended up writing for them for about two years, off and on. By and large I’d say it was a good experience. What I’d like to do here, for the benefit of anyone considering this too, is to outline everything I wish I’d known going in—what I liked and what I didn’t, so that you’ll have an idea of what to expect.
So with that in mind…
To be perfectly honest, there are a few downsides to writing work-for-hire, and I’ll begin with those.
First and foremost, you won’t own your material. The copyright belongs to the company, so everything your write is theirs. You’re getting paid, and usually right away, but you’re basically being paid to sell them your work “lock, stock and barrel.”
When I go back and look through my hard drive every now and then, it always strikes me as a little weird that there are files on there that I wrote, which I conceived and nurtured and labored over—and which I don’t own.
Lots of other artists work this way, but most writers don’t generally “sell off” their work completely, so it may require a little bit of adjustment to get comfortable with that.
Another thing to consider is that your freedom is a little constrained. As great as it is to let loose in a pre-existing fantasy world, writing in-universe fiction means that any major changes to that world aren’t likely to come from your pen, and in the rare case that they do, they’re always originating with the bosses. You can have a lot of fun and you can write a great adventure, but a good part of the time, the folks in charge aren’t going to let you make any changes of consequence to their universe or their characters.
This creates a unique challenge. One of the core elements of good writing is the exploration of character, and this usually comes about through some arc or change to that person over the course of the story. To use an example everyone probably recognizes, Luke isn’t the same person at the end of “Empire” as he was at the beginning. He knows more about himself and he’s matured as a character. Imagine sketching out a story set in that world that takes him on just as interesting a journey, but leaves him more or less unchanged at the end. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
The biggest negative I found is related to that. Namely, despite the inherent limitations and the probable marching orders from above, it will still be your name on the finished product. This is something I never considered before doing it and probably the thing that gave me the hardest time.
No writer likes getting bad reviews or (let’s be honest) even lukewarm ones. But there is a whole new layer to it when it’s work-for-hire. Case in point, I was once in the middle of developing a project when the bosses switched editors on me. The old editor and I had seen eye-to-eye on everything, but the new one decided to revamp the entire story. We butted heads (and never worked together after that) going back and forth for months over plot points. I felt that a lot of the changes undermined fundamental elements of the characters, including one major change that I thought readers would simply reject out of hand. In the end, the editor basically won—because you’re writing their work, so they get the final say. I managed to keep out the one big change I disagreed with, but all the other little things went against me. The finished product was something that had my name on it, but wasn’t at all my “vision” for how that story should have played out.
When a reader or a reviewer is giving his opinion on your work though, they’ll never know about that internal process. They will assume that everything they’re reading is your creation—and yours alone. If they like it, great. But you can guess how frustrating it is to read a review that points out all the things you told your editor weren’t going to work, and which blames you, the writer, for doing them.
In short, your name is going to be on a product that isn’t entirely yours, and you should be prepared to deal with that.
Ok, those are the negatives. What’s the upside?
They pay. Plain and simple, if you want to make money writing, this is a reliable way to bring home some dollars. You’re not going to get rich off of it, but if you’re used to getting a small advance and then waiting a year for potential royalties to trickle in, this is a much faster way to turn a profit. I don’t know how every company handles it, but the folks I worked with paid by the word, so there was a definite figure associated with everything I wrote. After years and years of writing entirely “on spec” it’s nice to sit down at the keyboard knowing that every few dozen words you type are another dollar in the bank.
In fact, I made more money from some of the short stories I wrote than I did from some of the novels I published later with small indie presses.
You can really have some fun too. If you’re like me and you found yourself writing fantasy after gobbling up every bit of it you could as a kid, then this provides a unique opportunity to really “come home.” What I mean by that is, you’ll never have a better chance to delve as deeply and as fully into all the elements of fantasy that you know and love, than you will when writing in-universe fiction.
For one, you don’t need to set the stage. The world is already there, and you get to play in it. I know a lot of the enjoyment in fantasy comes out of the world building, and I love that too. But there’s a lot to love about working with a well-established universe. You don’t have to worry about explaining all the backstory or the rules. Your readers will already be as well versed as you are. Everyone will know what a basilisk can and can’t do or what spells a wizard has at his disposal.
It lets you really concentrate on just having fun with the story.
On another level, doing some work for hire can also make you a better, more marketable writer. Having a regular stream of projects to work on will get you writing and keep you writing, and the more you do it the better you’ll get. It also proves a few things about you as a writer. It shows you can write professionally, that you can meet a deadline and work with an editor to produce a product that people are willing to buy. If you’re looking to build a resume or establish some fantasy writer bona fides, going this route will certainly help you.
In the end, I drifted away from the work for hire stuff, and for pretty much exactly the reasons I’d hoped to—because I had started to generate interest in my own independent projects and those began to occupy my limited writing time.
Looking back though, I really enjoyed doing it. Some of the most fun I’ve ever had writing fantasy was when I was writing work-for-hire. Sure, there were definite negatives, that’s almost always the case with anything you set out to do, but on balance, I’m happy to admit that my initial snobbish reluctance was misplaced.
It was a great experience, and it helped me improve as a writer. So if it’s something you’re considering, certainly give all of this some thought, but my advice to you is—give it a shot.
About the Author:
Horror and dark fantasy author Frank Cavallo’s work has appeared in magazines such as Another Realm, Ray Gun Revival, Every Day Fiction, Lost Souls and the Warhammer e-zine Hammer and Bolter. His latest novel, Eye of the Storm, was released in August 2016 by Ravenswood Publishing.