Tuesday, March 12, 2013

What's it like writing work-for-hire? Part I

I've noticed some threads and blog posts lately about work-for-hire writing and whether it's evil and manipulative or just good business. One blogger even wondered on her blog how I felt about working with Paper Lantern Lit. With their blessing, I'm going to answer a few of the most commonly asked questions. Keep in mind these answers are specific to me. A lot has changed at PLL since I began writing Venom and your experience with them or another development company could be completely different.

1. Wait. I'm already lost. What's work-for-hire?

Basically, work-for-hire means that a person or company hires another person or company to make something for them. Normally the copyright/licensing rights for a product remain with whoever made it, but not necessarily in the case of WFH. WFH can be corporate (if you discover the cure for cancer while you're working for a drug company, the drug company is going to have the rights to your medicine) or freelance (if a TV studio hires you to write the script for a weekly episode, the network will own the rights to the script once you are finished).

In the case of WFH and books, it is often a book development company or packager who comes up with an idea they want to see developed into a book. Sometimes the idea is generated by the writer and then adapted and edited by the company. Some of the major book development companies are Alloy, Working Partners, Paper Lantern Lit, The Inkhouse, and Full Fathom Five. (Note: if you prefer not to find out that some of your favorite books were packaged, you might not want to click those links). Lately it has become more common for publishers or editors to develop ideas and for publishers to hire WFH writers directly. I know of WFH authors developing intellectual property for imprints of Penguin and Random House and I'm sure there are plenty more. Occasionally a TV or movie studio (as in the case of the bestselling Richard Castle books) will hire a writer to develop books based on a story they own. 

2. How did you find out about Paper Lantern Lit?

I actually took an online writing class taught by Lexa Hillyer, one of PLL's founding partners. She mentioned the company during the class and once the class was over invited me to audition.

3. What was the submission process like?

I was not a slush baby, but regardless of where PLL 'finds' you, once you are offered a chance to audition, the process is the same. I was given a short document that was an idea-spark--I think it was one page--along with a one-page chapter outline. I turned their one-page outline into a 15-page chapter. They then gave me feedback about what they liked and didn't like in the form of a revision letter and asked me to revise. I was a finalist with one other writer. They felt my revised chapter was a better fit for the project so I was selected and offered the chance to develop a 60-page proposal for their agent to sell. Unrelated, but cool: the girl who was my runner-up found me online and we are really good pals now. She is going to do amazing things :)

4. What made you want to write for them?

First and foremost, I learned so much from Lexa in my online class that I would have paid to have her critique the rest of my WIP. Getting paid to work for her just seemed like a no-brainer. I saw it as an apprenticeship--a way to improve my craft, learn about the industry, and get a chance to work closely with Lexa, Lauren, and a publishing house editor. Also, I tended to write 1st person, present-tense contemporary stuff, so writing a 3rd person, past-tense, historical novel seemed like a fantastic way to stretch unused writer muscles and explore a new genre. I had recently been to Venice and my mind started brainstorming ideas as soon as Lexa mentioned the words "Venice", "murder mystery" and "romantic entanglements." Finally, I was working a day job that was psychologically crushing me and the money from the PLL contract was enough that I could go down to part-time. What was to lose? My one concern was that my own writing would get back-burnered for PLL but I just refused to let that happen. I wrote 6 books in 2.5 years while working and/or going to school and 5 of them are sold. I feel pretty good about that :)

 5. How detailed are the outlines that you're given?

Word-for-word from PLL's website. "Like architects we envision, design, and layout all the basics of a book, but it's our writers who inhabit them and bring them to life." My original outline for Venom included short character descriptions for the main characters, some notes on the setting and a longer plot outline. As the series progressed and PLL gained confidence in me (and I gained confidence in me!), the outlines got shorter and my overall creative input increased.  I should also add here that PLL did require me to complete a handful of homework assignments including longer character sketches, character interviews, and analyses of horror books and movies to determine what it was about them I found scary. 

6. Must you follow the given outline point for point, or are you allowed to go "off script"?

Heh. For the first few weeks I was kind of starstruck by the whole process and sent all these emails every time I wanted to change the tiniest detail. But the answer was always "go ahead and let's see what happens." Since PLL reads your draft and sends edit notes every 2-4 chapters as you are writing, you can't veer too wildly out of control without them realizing it. By the middle of Venom I was mostly just adapting the outline as I saw fit during the writing process. Honestly, I went back to review it before writing this blog post because I was going to ask PLL if I could post an excerpt to show you guys, but it is pretty much unrecognizable next to the end product. By the beginning of Belladonna, I felt comfortable deviating from the outline as needed. Only once in the writing process for the trilogy did I write a chunk of pages off script and have it all get cut.

Come back on Thursday for the second part of this Q&A


  1. Great info, thanks so much for sharing. I had so many of these same questions as I hope to work with Paper Lantern in the future. I had to have a giggle (at my own expense) on #3 where you mention your runner-up contacted you. I had auditioned for the Venom project too, and honestly thought I had been the runner-up (at least according to my agent). LOL, I guess I was further down that audition chain than I thought. Oh well. Thankfully enough time has passed not to stress over it. We writers do stress over everything, don't we? :)

    1. No, you totally could have been #2. Maybe there were more runners up than I was led to believe :) The funny thing is, me being a total cynic wondered if there were any other contenders at all, or if they were just feeding me a "we're deciding between you and one other person" story so that basically I had minimal leverage to negotiate the contract. I was unpub'd and unagented at the time so it's not like there were a lot of chips I could play, but knowing they had another equally qualified candidate basically meant I had no negotiating power whatsoever.

      Anyway, nice to meet you, Anon :) You should follow my real name author self on twitter @pstokesbooks and someday we'll meet at an event and have a laugh about this.

  2. LOL, no, I definitely sampled! I love that you had just been to Venice, it must have helped so much with the mood and culture infused into the books. There is no substituting for the real thing. I've only read Venom so far, but the others are definitely on my to be read list! Great job with it. I'm going to hop over to Twitter and follow you right now!

    BTW, aren't you glad they called the book Venom and not the "placeholder" name they were calling it back then? *grin*

    1. Well, that name was a bit spoilery for the Falco subplot, but it was kind of campy and hilarious--perfect for a Monty Python type book :)

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