I’m often asked how what I do—writing media tie-in fiction—differs from writing “fan fiction.” There’s been a slight increase in this sort of thing in the wake of Simon & Schuster’s announcement that they’re reviving their Star Trek: Strange New Worlds writing contest, which was an annual competition for a decade beginning in 1997. At least a few of you may recall that my so-called writing career was launched thanks to this contest, way back when.
Some news sites and individuals have incorrectly described this as a “fan fiction contest,” and I have to respectfully disagree with that labeling. I’m not trying to diminish fan fiction, or make any sort of judgment toward anyone who writes it. Instead, I simply feel the need to distinguish between fan fiction and writing for a licensed property such as Star Trek, Star Wars, or any other film, television, gaming, or other media entity you’d care to name.
“But aren’t those novels just approved fan fiction?” someone might ask, and I suppose it’s true to a certain extent. After all, I’m a huge Star Trek fan (read: “nerd”) and I write a lot of Star Trek fiction, so sure, one level what I do could be considered fan fiction.
'However, the way I see it, the main differences between fan fiction and licensed fiction boil down to two questions: 1) are you paid to write it; and/or 2) is it subject to oversight by a property owner, such as a film or TV studio, game company, and so on. Fan fiction doesn’t have to worry about meeting either of these criteria, and licensed fiction does.
That’s it. Neither of these measures is intended as a value judgment so far as the quality of a story, be it fan fiction or licensed material. After all, there's a lot of great fan fiction out there, some of the best stories date back decades. Will writing fan fiction lead to an opportunity to write a licensed novel or other product for a tie-in property? Most likely not, but “never” is a word I tend to use with great caution, particularly in this business.
Also, those interested in writing for licensed properties aren’t entirely without options. Amazon has taken an interesting lead in this department, with their “Kindle Worlds” concept, which offers several media and author-owned properties to which authors can contribute stories. Ever want to write a G.I. Joe, Pretty Little Liars, Vampire Diaries, or Veronica Mars tale? Now you can, and get paid while doing it, and there are dozens of other “worlds” which also are available, covering a broad spectrum of genres. Again, as with the larger entities like Star Trek, Star Wars, Disney, Marvel, and so on, the writer gets paid, and these stories are managed and approved by an editor and the owner of the property in question.
So, if you’re itching to play in someone else’s literary sandbox, this might be a way to do it. There certainly are worse ways to have a bit of fun and maybe get paid to do it, after all.