Though I’ve a couple of stand-alone novels out from Baen (Shooting the Rift, a wide screen space opera, and A Fistful of Elven Gold, which quite clearly isn’t), the vast majority of my twenty-something books to date have been tie-in fiction for Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 franchise. Given that I use a pseudonym on them, a bit of bad advice I got from a former agent who thought that sort of thing was a bit downmarket, I now find myself in the slightly odd position of being considerably less well known than my alter ego, Sandy Mitchell, who has a large and enthusiastic following.
Working within a franchise certainly isn’t for everyone, but I’ve found it both creatively and financially rewarding, and still have enough enthusiasm for the process to be embarking on the eleventh volume of the adventures of Commissar Cain with genuine pleasure. He and I have been through a lot together over the years, and I owe him a great deal; in fact I’d go so far as to say that without him I wouldn’t be nearly as good a writer as I am. His first outing, For the Emperor!, way back in 2003, was the first full-length novel I ever had commissioned, and the exceptional editorial support I got made the learning curve a lot less steep than it otherwise would have been. Working in a pre-existing universe gave me the chance to concentrate on character without worrying too much about the world-building, although the 40K background is so huge and diverse it leaves plenty of room for individual flourishes.
And that, I think, is the key to playing successfully with someone else’s train set. Find something you can do within the established background that no one else can, and stake out your own corner of it. In my case it was bringing overt humour to a setting that’s generally regarded as unremittingly grim, but in a way which respects the existing IP rather than working against it. Cain is essentially Flashman in space, an idea that had appealed to me for a long time, but which I’d buried in the metaphorical bottom drawer for years because the amount of world-building necessary to set up an idolised military hero who’s actually a self-serving fraud on a galactic scale would crush the entire conceit. Plonking him down in the Imperium, however, short-circuited all that, and made the stakes satisfyingly high, as the consequences of discovery would be too terrible to contemplate.
The other advantage of working in a well-established background is that there’s never any risk of running out of story ideas. All I have to do is leaf through a sourcebook or two, splice a couple of background details together, wonder how Cain would react to the result, and the outline practically writes itself.
And let’s not forget that starting out in a franchise can be a springboard to success in your own projects too; a chance to try new techniques, and develop your own unique narrative voice. I like to think my own, tongue-in-cheek, dryly humorous, would have taken a lot longer to arrive without Cain, if I’d ever discovered it at all.
As I said at the outset, writing for a franchise isn’t for everyone, but if there is one that appeals to you, it’s worth checking out the possibilities. The worst that can happen is you have a little fun, and get paid for it. And the best? You have a whole lot of fun and get paid for it!
Alex Stewart has been writing professionally for over thirty years, during which time he has produced novels, short stories, comic strips, audio dramas and television scripts. His most recent books are Choose Your Enemies, the latest instalment in the Commissar Cain series of Warhammer 40,000 tie-ins, and A Fistful of Elven Gold, a tongue-in-cheek fantasy adventure about a bounty hunting gnome, the mass market paperback edition of which is due out from Baen books in April. He has an MA in Screenwriting, so watches far too many movies ‘for research’ when he ought to be working.