Behind the Scenes: Writing a Predator Tie-in Novel
Inasmuch as I'm known as anything in the writing world, it's as a "literary fantasist". In fact, my last novel, Shriek: An Afterword, was about as literary as you can get and still be published by a large New York publisher. So it came as a surprise to some of my readers that this month Dark Horse has published Predator: South China Sea, written by yours truly. This novel is unabashedly action-adventure with a SF veneer. It's my idea of the ideal third Predator movie, preferably as directed by the ghost of Sam Peckinpah.
The Dark Horse edition (art by Stephen Youll), the Romanian edition from Millenium, and a joke "limited edition" (John Coulthart)
Why did I take on this project? First of all, I like the Predator movies quite a bit. I think the second one is underrated simply because it has a very outdated sense of fashion. I also welcomed the opportunity to invert my normal ratio of action and experiment with cutting scenes and creating tension in ways different than in my other novels. I knew my next novel, which I'm completing now, would be a mix of fantasy and noir mystery, with an intricate plot. Doing the Predator novel would teach me a lot. Finally, the contrast to Shriek appealed to me--I hate doing the same thing twice.
As it turned out, I had a lot of fun writing Predator: South China Sea. It features a battle-tested Predator against an island full of ex-military men, spies, crooks, and pirates. I managed to reveal a little more about Predators generally, which should appeal to the core fans, and I added touches that are specific to my original work: like a fungus-based invasive species that comes to Earth as a result of the Predator's sloppy hygiene. It's got shoot-outs in ancient temple ruins, fights with 28-foot-long African crocodiles, double and triple crosses, and characters I grew very fond of by the time I'd finished writing the novel.
I got so immersed in writing this novel that I remember that about six weeks before I was supposed to turn it in, I went out to my car to run an errand and was relieved to see I had a flat tire. A flat tire meant I couldn't leave the house. So I went right back in and kept working on the novel. I didn't have the tire fixed until six weeks later. I only left the house on weekends, with my wife driving her car. I converted one room into a gym and did my weightlifting in the mid-afternoons before going back to writing.
When I finally emerged from this "Predator prison," it was to go visit my barber. By then, I had a full-on beard and my hair was getting pretty long. I think this guy was the first person I'd seen besides my wife for over a month. "So," he said, "what've you been up to?"
Half an hour later, I had stopped babbling. But not before telling him the entire story of my novel and everything associated with it. Like some kind of madman. From the look on his face, he was clearly conflicted about whether he was glad he'd asked...
Sometimes projects are like that--they grab hold of you and you're all in. Sometimes, too, they lead to other projects in ways you didn't expect. While writing the novel, I wrote a blog entry about the experience called "How to Write a Novel in Two Months." In it, I talked about tricks of the trade when you have a limited time to write a book, things that help add depth and polish. I thought maybe a few people would comment. So imagine my surprise when the post got picked up by Boing Boing and a hundred comments later I realized I'd written one of my most popular blog entries ever. About my Predator novel. A month after that, Tachyon Publications called and offered me a contract for a writing book centered around that blog post. Next year, Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st Century Writer will come out, and the book owes its existence almost entirely to my willingness to take on writing a tie-in novel.
Also, in part because I featured a Romanian in the novel and named him after my Romanian editor, Horia Ursu, there's a Romanian edition--the first time a Predator novel has been translated into that language.
Predator: South China Sea is now out and so far it's gaining acceptance both from core fans and from the fans of my other books. In fact, BookSpotCentral is running a contest right now where you can win a signed copy of the book and a Predator figurine.) Everyone at Dark Horse, including senior editor Rob Simpson, has been wonderful in support of the novel. None of the horror stories you hear about writing tie-in novels has applied to my experience--no heinous edits, no changes made to protect franchise turf, and a pretty generous contract with regard to royalties.
My feeling is that the pervasiveness of pop culture has made tie-in novels somewhat more acceptable. Creators are working on all kinds of media, doing all kinds of projects. The line between commercial and literary, between genre and literary, is blurring more and more. Where's the evidence? Brian Evenson, creative writing director for Brown University, just had an Aliens novel come out from Dark Horse. With a title taken from a book by Sartre. (Here's the ultimate inside info: Brian's a friend and he's the one who told me Dark Horse had an extra slot available.)
The fact is, I may find working on my own original work more personal, but doing the Predator novel was a lot of fun. So much fun that if Dark Horse asks me to do an Aliens novel next, I'll no doubt say yes...