Why Tie-In Writers Need to Play at Home, Too

(Originally featured in the newsletter of the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers.)

Been out to the sandbox lately?

As Tie-In writers, we get to play in the coolest sandboxes in the world. I’ve gotten to play in Gary Gygax’s sandbox, in George Lucas’ sandbox, in Eastman & Laird’s sandbox, in J. R. R. Tolkien’s sandbox, in Edward Stratemeyer’s sandbox (sometimes known as the sandbox of Franklin W. Dixon), in Stan Lee’s sandbox. . . . The list goes on and on, and I’ve had a great time playing in each and every one of those sandboxes.

All of those tie-in, work-for-hire experiences were cool, and some of them were amazingly cool. Eastman & Laird, for instance, not only invited me over to their house to play, they also let me play with all their best toys and do almost anything I wanted with them. Sometimes, they even let me create my own toys while I was at their place, and then take those toys back home with me at the end of the day. (How often do you get to do that?)

And I loved every minute of working with Peter & Kevin’s company, Mirage. They had a truly great sandbox!

But do you notice something about all those play dates?

All those sandboxes belonged to someone else; each and every one was at someone else’s house. At the end of the day, even when I had a really great time playing in an amazingly cool sandbox, I still had to go home. And, like most freelancers, I pretty much never got to bring home any of the toys I played with.

Which is not unusual. Even as a kid, you know that when you’re invited to someone else’s house to play, you’re not going to get to take home any of their toys. Tie-in writers know that as well (at least, we should – it’s in every Machiavellian contract we sign).

We know that when we write for Star Wars, for instance, we’re not going to take Chewbacca home with us. We know that no matter how many Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics we pen, we’re not getting Eastman & Laird’s royalty checks – not even if we write the TMNT Universe entries for the Turtles themselves. (Which I did.)

Those are the rules of the game – the rules of the sandbox.

Unfortunately, a lot of us tend to get so caught up in playing with other people’s toys that we forget about our own toys. We forget that we all have – or should have – a sandbox of our very own. So . . .

How big is your sandbox?

Remember, I’m not talking about Stan Lee’s sandbox; we all know how big and cool that is. I’m talking about the sandbox at your house, the one you own and can go back to anytime you want without asking someone else’s permission.

Chances are that – like me – while you were busy playing at other kids’ houses, your sandbox has been neglected. Mine looks a bit weedy and shabby around the edges. It’s smaller than I remember it being, too. When did that happen?

It happened while I was having all those really cool play dates.

All of which is to say that while we freelancers are busy doing our own tie-in/work-for-hire stuff, we need to remember not to neglect our own work.

My favorite saying about this is, “No one ever got rich working on someone else’s farm.”

No matter how well I do my job, it’s never going to be “Stephen D. Sullivan’s Dragonlance.” Heck, it’s not even Tracy Hickman & Margaret Weis’ Dragonlance. Just because you create it, doesn’t mean you own it when you’re doing work-for-hire. (Not unless you’re working for Eastman & Laird.)

The chances that any of us, through sheer dint of great work, can wrestle our favorite characters and settings away from the multi-national conglomerates that own them are vanishingly small. If Tony Stark – Iron Man himself – has trouble controlling Stark Enterprises, what chance do we non-fictional folk have against MEGACORP?

Someday, sooner or later, no matter how long you play in your favorite sandbox, the owners of the place are going to send you home. And they’re going to keep your sandcastle, too.

Because we’re writers – and tie-in writers at that – there’s no use me asking “What color is your parachute?” We don’t have parachutes. (We’re lucky if we get kicked up to Business Class.) But we do have sandboxes.

And the great thing about having a sandbox of your own is that you can make it as big as you want. You just need to put the time, imagination, and effort into building it.

Which is what I’m recommending you do. Not matter how much time you devote to the latest cool tie-in project you’re working on, remember to take time out and work on your own stuff. If you don’t, the chances of you owning the next Dungeons & Dragons is nonexistent.

But if you take that time . . . If you devote just a couple of hours a day to something you own and love . . . Then maybe all of us will be over at your house one day, playing in your very cool sandbox.

Time to pick up that pail and shovel, take them home, and start building.

Stephen D. Sullivan, creator of adventures and monsters, continues to build his own sandbox at If you come and play in Steve & Jean Rabe’s Blue Kingdoms sandbox, you can even take your toys home with you! And while you’re visiting, why not sign up for Steve’s mailing list? He promises not to spam you or sell your address to pirates – or MEGACORP. Adventure guaranteed. (Monsters optional.) Click here to sign up for Steve’s FREE newsletter.

About Steve Sullivan 411 Articles
Stephen D. Sullivan is an award-winning author, artist, and editor. Since 1980, he has worked on a wide variety of properties, including well-known licenses and original work. Some of his best know projects include Dungeons & Dragons, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Dragonlance, Iron Man, Legend of the Five Rings, Speed Racer, the Tolkien RPG, Disney Afternoons, Star Wars, The Twilight Empire (Robinson's War), Uncanny Radio, Martian Knights, Tournament of Death, and The Blue Kingdoms (with his friend Jean Rabe).