Toy Stories

I remember walking into the rainbow-colored coffeeshop down the street during the late summer of 2016 and finding my friend Sarah already there, hard at work on her new novel. I asked her how it was going, but somehow we ended up spending nearly an hour talking about how much we loved season one of Stranger Things. Little did I know that less than two years later, I’d be signing on to write the first official novel tied to the show, a prequel about Eleven’s mother.

There is a pleasure known to nerds of all varieties: that moment of connection when discovering you and someone else share a love for something, whether it’s a movie or a show or a book (or a painter or a poet or a restaurant, almost anything, truly). But let’s stick with stories. A world filled with characters that someone or a team of someones conjured out of their imagination and figured out a way to share. That moment of connection makes you talk faster, it makes you glow. Telling the person why you love this story or character, hearing why they feel the same or differently and unpacking it all together, that’s special. Then there’s the flip side. There’s the shared dismay when it feels like a story world goes careening off the tracks of what made you love it—whether fans are right or wrong, you can trust they’ll be passionate in their opinions.

Writing what we commonly refer to in the publishing industry as IP, standing for Intellectual Property, as in it belongs to someone else instead of you (and also called tie-ins, licensed fiction, work-for-hire), is all about living in this shared space. I’ve done two major IP projects to date, the novel Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds I already mentioned, with publisher Del Rey and licensor Netflix, and a YA trilogy about the iconic DC comics character Lois Lane, with publisher Capstone and licensor DC/Warner Brothers. I’m working on a third, as-yet-unannounced now. So I thought I’d talk about what it means—for me—to write IP, what the process looks like, and what I’ve learned from doing it. Again, I want to note up front that I’m only talking about my own experience. There are many, many kinds of IP projects and many, many ways to write them.

Is how I approach writing IP different than my original work? Well, yes and no.

I get asked all the time how to get work like this, whether I come to the publisher or licensor with the pitch or…? This is a tough question for me to answer without sounding obnoxious, because in my case they’ve always come to me with a concept and asked if I want to take it on. (My Stranger Things editor did answer the question of how she chooses writers on a recent panel we did together. She said, basically, she looks for someone who has built up a body of their own original work, has a collaborative spirit, and can meet tight deadlines. From my perspective, this is exactly how it’s worked for me, so start there.) To say yes, I have to love and understand the IP in question enough to feel as if I can add something. I have to believe there will be some freedom. The only way I can take on a project is if I can bring my whole heart to it.

Because you never know. I’ve been extremely lucky, but have heard plenty of stories about IP projects that sound like absolute hell to write. I have to be invested in the property enough to know that if things go sour, my love for it will see me through the frustrations. There’s a tremendous privilege in getting to work on the kind of IP projects I’ve been able to, and I am keenly aware that there are many other writers who would love the opportunity. I take the responsibility to bring my best very seriously. But no matter how much freedom I’m promised, it’s not my story world. I’m agreeing to play in someone else’s sandbox, with their toys. If I create new toys, they have to stay in the sandbox, belonging there in perpetuity. So it’s not about me… but it kind of is about me.

I’m a long-time comics reader and fan, and I bring that sensibility with me. In comics, the best creators, the ones I follow, bring their voice with them to every character or group of characters they write, whether they own them or not. I’m not looking to disappear as a writer when I do IP work. I assume I’ve been asked to do it in part because of my voice. From a career standpoint, it has to make sense for me and my readers. My fans may only be a fraction of the readers another media fandom will bring in, but I’m always hoping the types of work will cross-pollinate readerships. That’s only going to happen if the IP work and my other work give the same kind of experience. The question becomes what can I bring to the story that’s consistent with the core elements of the property but also still uniquely me as a writer? Because every writer has their own voice, a way we view the world and tell its stories, where we focus the lens.

The process itself is different. When working on your own things, you can outline or not outline up front (mileage may vary, depending on whether you present concepts to your publisher or write full manuscripts). You can make giant changes along the way. You can set your work schedule. If you’re writing fanfic, your freedom to write whatever and however you want is absolute. Not so with IP work. The first stage involves creating a detailed outline—the more detailed the better. Why? Because if you can flesh out the story you want to tell in great detail, everyone knows what they’re getting. Everyone in this case being your editor at the publisher and at least one additional set of eyes at the licensor. The outline helps you sell your vision for the story, but it also protects you. Surprises are not usually a good thing in this type of project. Deadlines are tight; of the IP novels I’ve done, all of them were written and published within the same year. That is much faster than the average novel publication schedule, where sometimes books can take years to write and/or to come out. If you get an outline approved and then write something completely different, it might work out fine, but at a minimum someone at the publisher is probably going to tear their hair out over whether the licensor will be okay with it. You want to avoid making people tear their hair out. I’ve also learned that a good outline helps me. On days when I don’t trust myself as a writer (and those days are plenty during drafting), I trust the outline.

The first questions I ask myself once I agree to a project is: what are the core elements of this character/story world that define it? What are the things that if they’re missing, it won’t feel right to fans? What are the things that haven’t worked in the past? I treat the outline like I’m telling the story to myself, intensely focused on figuring out character arcs. With such a detailed outline, there must be less revision, right? It’s still writing a novel, so there will always be revision. The editor at the publisher will give notes that may be property-specific, but are definitely about the larger story. The licensor may give larger story notes too, but much of what they send back will be property-specific. If the outline was solid and I stuck to it, hopefully there are no areas of major disagreement to work out at this stage and I get to focus on trying to make the novel better. Revision is my favorite part.

But if there were to be major disagreements? You get zero precious diva moments. The final call is not yours. And you have to be able to put your head down and work without letting the pressure of getting it right and not letting down fans paralyze you. It can be nerve-wracking, but it’s also tremendously fun. There’s the support team at the publisher and the licensor, working with you along the way. And all of you know that these are stories that make up our culture. They’re our shared mythology, points of connection, and getting to be a part of that and add to it is a wonderfully rewarding thing.

It’s difficult to overstate just how surreal it is to realize that I got to decide (with approval) who Eleven’s father is, that I got to create new characters for the Stranger Things universe that other people now write fanfiction about. Or that when you read Lois Lane’s suitably lengthy Wikipedia entry, my books are part of her story. It’s also been rewarding on a career milestone level: Suspicious Minds is my first book to hit the New York Times bestseller list. I don’t believe in setting goals for things out of my control, but I dream for them and that was one of my dreams. But the coolest thing for me is the knowledge that things I made live as a potential point of connection for other fans.

Doing IP has also been deeply rewarding for me on a craft level. While, yes, other projects of my own get set aside temporarily to do this work, they also buy me more time to spend on writing my other novels. This work has also helped me understand my own voice; it has helped me be able to decide more quickly which of my ideas are ones I should pursue, because I will have something to say beyond a cool concept. They’ve taught me how much I love building and writing ensemble casts. But they’ve also helped refine my process.

I’ve often bemoaned the fact that the constrictions of IP sometimes make it feel easier to execute—having a target to hit, as opposed to writing to figure out what the target is and then how to hit it—but I realized recently that there’s no reason I can’t employ that same “what are the core elements of this story?” principle to developing my original work. I always know roughly what I want to do, but in the past have written my way around it first, tracing every circle around that middle bull’s-eye. IP has helped teach me what I need to know, to have in place, to write a relatively clean first draft. I’ve even started using new-to-me techniques across types of projects. For the Stranger Things revision, for the first time ever, I made a giant wall of index cards in the office, one scene per card, with what happened and any necessary changes. Right now, I can look over at the index card outline on the wall for the original YA novel I set aside to write Suspicious Minds, and which is almost done now. I put a sticker on each card as I finish the scene, a tangible way to mark progress. IP has helped me be able to see the course I’m plotting. But the biggest rewards are still the intangible ones.

I was lucky enough to meet Margot Kidder, my first Lois Lane, at the Superman Celebration the year before she died. I got to tell her that I didn’t think my life would be the same if I hadn’t seen her as Lois Lane when I was a young girl, and to thank her for that performance. Ultimately, being a small part of this continuum of stories that are cultural touchstones is why so many of us want to do IP work and find it worthwhile. These stories are life-changing; we know that, because they’ve changed our lives.

Gwenda Bond

Gwenda Bond is a The New York Times bestselling author of many novels. Among others, they include the Lois Lane and Cirque American trilogies, and the first official Stranger Things novel, Suspicious Minds. She and her husband author Christopher Rowe also co-write a middle grade series, the Supernormal Sleuthing Service. She is co-host of Cult Faves, a podcast about the weird world of cults and extreme belief. Visit her online at gwendabond.com or @gwenda on Twitter.

Photo credits: Sarah Jane Sanders, 2016

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