Around the halfway point of 2011, I started getting offers to write things based on other people’s concepts. I wouldn’t own the finished product, but I’d be paid for the work to put it together. It was sort of novel, because although on the one hand I’m paid to write all the time in my day job, I hadn’t really been paid to write fiction before. There have been three projects so far, and while none have gone all the way through to the end, they’re all different enough from one another that it seems worth writing about my thoughts thus far on the whole concept of writing someone else’s stories for money.
(Note, none of these projects are big company-owned superhero work-for-hire stuff, a la Spider-Man or Batman. I’ve only barely dipped into those waters, and I’ll save a post on those experiences for another day.)
So, we’ll call these projects A, B and C. Here’s a very brief summary of what they’re about:
Project A: A science fiction thing about a famous cultural/mythological location. I was asked to write a treatment for a graphic novel that would hopefully transition to a feature film. Assuming the treatment went well, I would also write the graphic novel script.
Project B: A graphic novel project commissioned by a client who wanted the story to tie closely into a particular locale. It also needed to incorporate the various personalities working for the client as characters in the story.
Project C: Treatment to graphic novel about a famous historical personage, now deceased, for a client with rights to tell stories about this person.
Here’s how it’s worked out so far. Project A seemed like a layup. The guy who brought me on is an old friend and a fan of my writing, and knew my exact strengths and pitched me based on those. I wrote a treatment, which the client liked. It was about 7-8 pages long and approached the central myth in a fashion I thought was refreshing and cool. It was a story I would enjoy scripting, and it wouldn’t require a ton of extra research (as I know a fair amount about the setting already.) I presented the treatment, and it was well-received (and I was paid for it – not a lot, but something.) I had a meeting with the client to discuss – seemed like that went well too. Then, a bit later, I was given a greenlight to proceed with a revised treatment based on some significant alterations to the story, after which I would write a script for the graphic novel. The new treatment (because that’s what it would be, really) would be unpaid work, and the page rate on the script was… audacious (in a bad way.) It was also unclear whether I was expected to ghostwrite this, or if I’d get real credit. After looking at everything I have to do right now, not just Projects B and C but also my various creator-owned scripts, screenplays, day job, family, occasional social schedule, etc., I decided that I couldn’t spare the time (at least not for that compensation/possible lack of credit) and I passed. It was a weird feeling, to think that I would turn down someone who wanted to pay me to write their story, but honestly, there was some relief in there as well. Two writer friends had warned me off working with this company, and one even went so far as to say that if I did the job, I’d be a moron, as they were clearly planning to use the script/graphic novel to get a movie deal (and were positioned to do so – it wasn’t like they were guys off the street; they have a Hollywood pedigree), which wouldn’t involve me. Anyway, that was Project A.
Project B is set in a city that I really like, despite many reasons not to. The project was a chance to research the city and figure out a cool story involving many of its iconic locations, like a love letter to a place that really doesn’t get much love these days. That was the main draw to the project for me. The story also has to involve the clients’ store, and its founders have to be characters – those were some of the weirder elements – but it’s a challenge I was willing to take on because of the chance to write a book about the city. This one actually came together really easily. I did my research and thought about it for a while, then came up with a draft almost in one go. I did a ten-page, detailed treatment. It needs to pass three hurdles of review before it’s greenlit to script – the guy who brought me on, a sort of middleman, and then the guys at the store. So far, the first hurdle has been crossed, and I’m waiting on the other two. Funny thing about this one is that I don’t get paid unless it goes to script (although it has an excellent page rate). So, I’m hanging out in the wind a little bit, but I’m not too bothered. Even if it gets negged, the worst that comes of it is that I spent a few days tooling around this city I love so much, doing “research.” Not so bad.
**UPDATE – since I posted this, the second hurdle was crossed, so now it’s on to the guys at the shop. If they like it, we’re off to the races.
Project C is the most challenging. It’s supposed to be a story about a fairly well-known person, who I actually didn’t know that much about when I got the gig. So, I’ve been doing a lot of reading and research to get a grasp for who this person really was, and how they might function as a character in a story. The problem is that as far as I can tell, she was about as two-dimensional as a love interest in a Transformers movie. Like a magazine cover. I know there’s more – there has to be – and I’m fortunate in that the client has a large archive of information I can access. I feel like I just haven’t cracked it yet, but I hope that I’ll find a way into the character that will give me a way to hang a story on her. An interesting thing about this one is that I know another writer who also worked on this project, and had similar issues to mine. I consider him to be significantly more talented than I am, and if he couldn’t make it work then I don’t know how much of a chance I have. I haven’t broken the story at all – I have an opening scene, and a few ideas, but nothing more. I have to deliver a treatment in less than a month, though, so time’s running out. It’s a real challenge, and it would also pay quite well if it goes father, so I’m hopeful. We’ll see!
My feeling about work-for-hire is that I’m lucky that it’s happening at all. The idea of being paid to write is still pretty awesome. That said, I think I’m also lucky that I don’t need writing money to pay my bills. It’s certainly great, because it offsets some of the costs of the creator-owned stuff, but I also have the leeway to say no to a project without wondering how I’ll keep a roof over my head. So, for me, right now, I guess work-for-hire needs to have something more than just money involved for it to make sense.
To put it another way, in the immortal words of Nomi Malone, “I’m a dancer!”
And now, back to work!