Jeff VanderMeer and I have been pretty busy preparing for Shared Worlds 2011. As Jeff has mentioned on his blog, we received a grant from Amazon.com in the fall, we are seeing more early-enrollment than usual, and our Amazon.com visiting writer Nnedi Okorafor was just nominated for a Nebula Award.
The Shared Worlds camp blends many creative endeavors. Students at the camp spend two weeks world-building, collaborating, and writing (alone and together). And they do much, much more… One element of the Shared Worlds camp is shared world writing–writing in a setting that has been created by and shared by a group. It occurred to me, however, in answering some interview questions elsewhere that some people might have questions about how shared world writing actually works.
Below, Thomas M. Reid offers up an essay about his experiences with shared world fiction. This essay grew out of an e-mail exchange Reid and I had back when the Shared Worlds camp was still a classroom experiment. I’d contacted Reid because I’d enjoyed his books even though, at the time, I wasn’t familiar with the shared settings he was writing in. I later discovered that Reid has a vast and varied past working with game-related Intellectual Properties (IPs).
Reid has been a freelance writer since leaving Wizards of the Coast back in 2001. He started his professional writing career as an editor for TSR’s Dragon magazine and, after TSR became Wizards, Reid worked his way up to Creative Director. For ten years he headed up the Dungeons & Dragons, Forgotten Realms, and Star Wars role-playing games lines. In addition to short fiction and magazine articles, Reid has written eleven novels in a variety of shared settings. His recent Forgotten Realms novels include the The Empyrean Odyssey Trilogy and The Scions of Arrabar Trilogy.
Again, shared world writing is an important part of what we do at the Shared Worlds camp, but not the only thing. Future posts will discuss some of the other elements, such as creative collaboration and world-building.
And without further ado, here’s what Thomas M. Reid has to say about his experiences with shared world writing.
Thomas M. Reid: Obviously, my experience in shared-world fiction writing is limited to one particular industry, that of roleplaying games. However, I think what I have share with you and your class carries over to other genres of writing. Before I get started in describing how my own process works, though, let me offer up a few additional thoughts on shared-world writing in a larger context.
In many ways, every kind of writing is a shared-world experience. We all have something of a common frame of reference when we read something. No one can write material in a vacuum; what you put down on paper must be believable to someone else reading it, which means it must seem plausible given their own real-world experiences. Thus, for example, if you write fiction set in World War II, you are, in effect, writing in a shared-world genre. You cannot simply write about a battle that never happened, or about a general who didn’t exist, nor can you describe an engagement that did occur but completely ignore the facts of the conflict in favor of your own storytelling. The rest of the world will scoff at your ignorance and promptly discard your work (unless you are writing a “what if” alternate history piece). You must research all the details and understand completely the facts of the event, then work your story in a believable way in between those facts. There are countless armchair historians who are going to know you cheated if discrepancies appear in your work. Even something as trivial as the number of rounds a weapon could fire or the prevalent weather conditions during a specific battle can trip you up if presented incorrectly.
Writing in fantasy intellectual properties works much the same way. Although fictional, a world such as the Forgotten Realms from the D&D game—which is where I do most of my writing—has a rich tapestry of detail already built into it. As an author, I have to be just as meticulous in my research about those details as I would if I were studying actual historical events. Characters that appear in my novels had better be “true” to the world or my readers will call me on it in a heartbeat. If one of my protagonists appears in the throne room of a nation’s ruler, I’d better be accurate with the descriptions of the throne room, the ruler’s clothing down to the color of his shoes, and even the names of the ruler’s subordinates, or dedicated fans will be put off by my “sloppy inaccuracies.”
Now, that doesn’t mean that working in shared-world fiction is one giant headache that is more drudgery than creative thrill. In fact, in a lot of ways, it’s just the opposite. Because there is already so much detail existent in the setting, I find myself constantly inspired with story ideas. In fact, oftentimes, when I’m researching for a particular portion of a novel, I’ll stumble across some obscure bit of material that provides me with the twist I need to run the story in a completely unintended direction, making for a much stronger plot.
Obviously, with creator-owned material, you have more freedom to do whatever you want, but you do have to work a little harder to fill in all the details, since it has to be made up whole cloth. With shared-world work, you can actually cheat a little bit by assuming that most people have already been exposed to some of the background details in other works (though you want to be very careful about this, as there’s always someone who gets their first taste of an intellectual property by reading your book).
So, on to the nuts and bolts of writing shared-world fiction. First, the process. It works a bit differently for every intellectual property (IP), and differently for every author, and even differently for every new project. But in general, these are the constants of crafting a new novel. First off, you need to develop a plot idea. Sometimes, this comes from the author in the form of a cold-pitched proposal. Sometimes it comes from the editor, who is looking for a specific book. Either way, the author has to sit down and figure out the setting and the characters and then put together an outline for the work. Then the editor goes through that outline and examines it for A) inconsistencies within the IP and B) conflicts with other books. In the former, I mean what I was talking about in the previous paragraphs, where the author must stay true to what’s already been written. The second part of that is actually more of a business issue than anything. If the publisher has already put out a bunch of stories about dark elves, for example, they may be reluctant to see new pitches with dark elves as central characters. If they’ve done a “find the epic magic item that will save the world” plot to death, they don’t want to see another one.
Unless an author is cold-pitching an idea, this isn’t usually an issue, but even so, it does happen. What it means is that the author must be prepared to revamp and restructure an outline, even when the original idea is solid. For the Realms, I actually get a list of “no-nos” from my editor before I sit down to work. This list contains anything the editor wants me to avoid. “Don’t do any characters who are dwarves hunting for the Dwarven Dingus of Yore—we’ve got two short stories and a novel about such characters already. Don’t set anything in the Desolate Desert of Doom, because we have a novel set there coming out next quarter.” The list isn’t too long, but even when it does run a page or so, it still leaves plenty of room for other ideas, and it helps me avoid rewriting later.
Once I get an outline approved, I write a first draft, which the editor looks at for a number of different things. Most important is the strength of the story, but he also considers potential conflicts with other material that didn’t appear in the outline (it’s inevitable that stuff like that gets introduced during the actual writing). He writes up whatever changes need to be made, and I put together a final draft that cleans up those issues.
One of the real thrills of writing in a shared world is the sense of community you develop. This occurs with the fans, certainly, but it also happens between the various authors. There have been numerous times when I’ve pulled something out of an old work and included it in one of my novels, only to have the author of that original work come to me later and say, “Wow. That was really great. Thanks for doing that.” Often, whatever I grabbed was almost throw-away material that got included to fill space. In many ways, the authors all feel like we’re in on an inside joke together because we write in the same shared universe.
Of course, you also have to show some professional courtesy to one another. It’s not too proper to meddle much with another author’s prized characters. At most, their “babies” should only show up in your work in cameo appearances, and you should never, ever do irreparable damage to another author’s characters. Quite often, in fact, certain regions of the Realms are sort of “staked out” so that other authors shouldn’t even be writing material set there, just to avoid this kind of danger.
As for examples of good shared-world material… to be honest, I don’t read as much of it as you might think. I’m sure that the Star Wars and Star Trek lines are great examples of such, but I also am personally very fond of the old Thieves’ World short stories. It was interesting, because those authors often broke the rule of “don’t play with another author’s character” and did things to each other’s protagonists. You could see clear differences in interpretations of characters, too. But it still worked.
Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly. He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC. He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.