What You Need to Know about Shared Worlds


 Erik Scott de Bie is a speculative fiction author and game designer who has been working in shared worlds since he started publishing in 2005. His latest Forgotten Realms novel is Shadowbane, about a vigilante paladin in a city of thieves, and the sequel, Eye of Justice, comes out this fall. He can be found at his website erikscottdebie.com or on Twitter @erikscottdebie.


Shared worlds are everywhere. From serial fantasy novels to decades-long comic book franchises to long-running TV shows and wildly successful movie dynasties, there are certain characters and worlds that people just love to experience. Fans love to see new spins on iconic characters that honor the old continuity. And yes, fans love to hate shared world writing that diverges from the established canon or takes a beloved character in a strange and unexpected direction.



Why do authors write in Shared Worlds?


For one thing, it’s awesome, particularly if you’re a fan. I’ve been reading and gaming in the Forgotten Realms since grade school, so I jumped at the chance to write novels and sourcebooks in it when I grew up. If you’re a particular fan of Buffy, or Star Wars, etc, writing for the IP is a major win.

Second, if you don’t have the time or energy to build your own world/setting, or if world-building just isn’t your thing, a shared world gives you a proven framework in which to set your story. The flip-side of that is that it’s easy to dismiss your work as derivative or unoriginal, because it’s based on a pre-existing setting.

Third, there’s the money to consider. Shared Worlds usually have their own built-in fanbase, and when you publish a novel in one of those settings, you already have an audience. For this reason, shared world pieces tend to bring in more money than the majority of non-shared world pieces. On the flipside, your audience is also somewhat limited, as shared world fans tend to follow in-world writing. If and when you want to craft original fiction, you’ll probably have a limited fanbase that follows you.


How does one write Good Shared World fiction?

Every piece of shared world fiction is sculpted by two distinct and opposite forces: the drive to create and the drive to incorporate. When writing in a shared world, you as an author find yourself constantly walking a fairly tight line between the two impulses, and hitting the proper balance is how you get the best stuff.

‘Creating’ implies making up your own story with your own characters that just happens to occur in a shared world. This usually requires distance from the rest of the world, so as not to cross canon. R.A. Salvatore is famous for setting his iconic Icewind Dale series as far as possible from anything else in the Forgotten Realms to avoid stepping on toes. Star Wars: The Old Republic takes place long before the popular series so as to go whatever way it wants. The downside to this impulse is that established fans of the setting aren’t necessarily going to achieve the setting recognition you’re looking for, and you’re susceptible to the “this doesn’t feel like the IP” criticism.

‘Incorporating’ implies that you are taking as much established lore about the setting as possible to tell a story that is shaped by the story of the IP. Ed Greenwood’s classic novel Spellfire was written specifically to showcase the Forgotten Realms, crafting a story that incorporates as many villainous organizations, intrigues, and NPCs as feasible for the book. The movie Watchmen stuck really close to the source material (Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel), refusing to take much license with the characters. The downside to this impulse is threefold:

1) It’s often a LOT of research (the Forgotten Realms, Star Wars, Star Trek, etc., have literally hundreds of novels/TV shows full of canon), 2) You open yourself to the criticism of “not being creative enough,” and 3) If you get it wrong, fans are going to eviscerate you on the internet and in reviews. Also, if your story is too idiosyncratic, and you need to be a hardcore lore wonk to understand it, it’s not going to have popular appeal.


So what’s a writer to do?

Find a good balance. Tell a story that stands on its own, but stays true to the canon. The lore should be there for hardcore fans to pick up, but also subtle enough that newbies can ignore it and roll with the narrative. Honor and embrace what else is going on in the setting, and let your story grow organically from the established lore without shoehorning your own story in.

Generally, respect the shared world, do your research, tell a damn good story, and you’re golden.

Congratulations to Robert Jackson Bennett for Winning the Edgar!

The staff at BookLifeNow are pleased to congratulate one of their own, Robert Jackson Bennett, on his recent Edgar win for Best Paperback Original. The Company Man, a sci-fi noir published by Orbit, is his second novel.

Bennett’s official response at this time is:


Later he responded with “Druuuuuuuuuuuunk” but when asked for an expansion on that comment, he replied, “Well I certainly don’t remember that email.”

His recent novel, The Troupe, a coming-of-age fantasy set in the vaudeville era, was released in February of this year. We are eagerly awaiting his next book, A Sexual Experience American Elsewhere.

Congratulations, Robert!

Why Is Writing a Memoir So Hard?

A former editor and reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, San Antonio Express-News and St. Petersburg Times, John Jeter is the author of the novel The Plunder Room (St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne, 2009) and the forthcoming memoir Rockin’ a Hard Place (Hub City Press, 2012). He lives in Greenville, South Carolina.

I’ve been writing a long time–since I was six, and I’m old as hell now–but it’s only recently that I learned about the brutality of writing a memoir. Writing about anything so close, personally, emotionally, spiritually, even geographically, is about as much fun as working in a morgue every day, only the body you’re working on is still breathing, and the body happens to be you.

What could be so hard about exhuming a dead body and making it interesting and attractive?

Why start one then?

More than a year and a half ago, I was toying with the idea of a book about the concert hall that my wife, Kathy, my brother, Stephen, and I opened in 1994 in Greenville, SC, a venue called The Handlebar. While thinking about what a cool story that might be, I got to wondering how I would go about pitching it to literary agents. One night, though, I was pondering the project aloud when, fortunately or otherwise, the director, editor, publisher, founder and all-around dynamo behind Hub City Press in nearbySpartanburgoverheard me.

Next thing I know, she told me she wanted the book.

Then things got pretty damned hard, real fast.

A year before that, see,St. Martin’s Press had published my first novel.

The novel was a walk through the park. That process started one day when I was in the shower, where I do most of my best thinking and a lot of my best writing. The story for that book simply exploded into my brain, the entire manuscript complete right before my naked eye(s). Feverishly, I typed out the story that God had just written for me, and the whole thing was done in about three months. All told, I have written seven or eight novels like that, all of them in about ninety days. (I say “seven or eight” because at least four of them are painfully crappy and happily forgettable.) The stories just tell themselves, and I just type them.

But as soon as Hub City’s editor got her hooks in me and started creating things like deadlines, I found myself facing the impossible: a story that refused to tell itself because, for one thing, the story was still ongoing and, secondly, the story was about a character who was simply too close to me: me.

I remember once interviewing Russell Baker, the great New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Growing Up. Mr. Baker’s writing resonates with the gentleness of Thurber, the poetry of Rilke and the quiet wit of later Mark Twain. His countenance fairly resembles a beagle’s, so he gives off a sadness that’s somehow adorably optimistic.

I asked him about Growing Up, about how he wrote it and how he managed to pull off such a grand piece of work about things so intense and intimate: his boyhood and his relationship with his mother. After telling me that he had rewritten portions of the book fifty times (no small surprise there), he then added: “That boy I wrote about, that boy is dead.”

So I tried to follow my editor’s advice and, to some extent, Mr. Baker’s: Write about yourself as a character in a story that started 18 years ago, as if that “person” doesn’t exist anymore

The only trouble is that that person not only exists, but turning him into a character—that is, a distinct, separate being that you as a writer can look at the way a scientist studies a bug under a bell jar–is about as easy as studying a bug under a bell jar.

Not only that, but the entire “memoir” exercise runs contrary to all my journalism training. I learned a lot about nonfiction in journalism, which is sort of like saying that doctors learn a lot about medicine at medical school. The trouble is that when I left newspapering to write novels, I found that the switch was much like a divorce: ugly, painful, endless, with continuing demands from the Ex (Journalism) along with even more claims from my much needier trade-in spouse (Fiction). In “creative-nonfiction memoir” you find yourself mediating between the two. Both want to know: “Okay, big guy, what’s really true here?” Journalism asks: “What kind of bug is that?” And Wife No. 2 asks: “Did that bell jar ever belong to Sylvia Plath? Any way you could you write it so that it might have?”

With so much internecine internal warfare, it’s nigh impossible to get any work done. I spent the next fifteen months flapping like hell, mostly getting nowhere in futile exhaustion. I delayed, I scrambled, I crunched, I did everything I could to avoid peeling back the curtain of memories, some of them painful, some of them funny, some of them both.

As things turned out, the chapters that I wrote in the first year were so bad and so messy, for lots of reasons, that when deadline got frighteningly close, I stopped, took a deep breath and started from the beginning. I wound up pushing the entire thing out in six weeks.

Why is writing a memoir so hard?

Because it requires you to open your veins and tell your life story and intimate secrets to complete strangers in ways that fiction simply doesn’t (always) demand. On top of that, the whole self-absorbed, narcissistic feeling that flows from writing about yourself becomes more tedious than working in a Chinese gizmo factory.

It all comes down to details: What to leave in, what to leave out? What words to use, what language to avoid? What makes sense, what doesn’t? What’s the reader going to care about—or not? How much is really true and how much is almost true and what difference might any of that make? And what kind of structure should you use, though that should be patently obvious: life is linear, so a story about a slice of it should be, too. But stories about slices of life aren’t told with such linear ease. Stuff happens here, then here, but not always in the order that the memoir needs them to happen.

These are issues that fiction doesn’t have to worry about. You have a story. It has a beginning, middle and end—a plot. It has a theme. If the story’s good, it writes itself, and if you type fast, it writes itself quickly–at least, it does for me when God’s got my back and I’m just anxious to Get The Damn Thing Done.

So memoir? I’d just as soon talk about a recent crash on my bicycle or the car wreck that broke my ankle. As my friend points out, talking about writing a memoir is just another form of memoir, and writing a memoir is about as pleasant and safe and entertaining as climbing up a circus trapeze and flying with both hands tied behind your back with no net underneath. Fun for everyone else to watch, maybe . . .

All that said, I think this piece may be the last memoir I’ll write—unless I’m in the shower one day and a story about a slice of my life knocks me over the head. Only next time, if there is a next time, I’m going to make damn sure that the character I write about has been dead for so long that making him interesting and attractive would be almost easy as simply making him up from scratch.

How to Get Booksellers to Love You (And Sell Your Book)

Erin Haire is the manager of the Hub City Bookshop, an independent bookstore run by the Hub City Writers Project.

As a retail bookseller, one of the most exciting aspects of my job is interacting with authors.  The relationship between authors and booksellers, ideally, is mutually beneficial.  We have a common goal: sell some books.  As a bookseller, I’m much more likely to do that with an involved and enthusiastic author.

In the spirit of continued goodwill between authors and booksellers, here is some advice from a fairly successful independent bookseller to authors who are getting their start.

1.  Be nice.  Do you really catch more flies with honey than with vinegar?  Absolutely.  This is the most important and least frequently heeded advice I give to authors, especially those just starting out.  A good attitude and friendly demeanor will open a whole lot of doors when dealing with retail professionals.  When you work in customer service, you have to deal with some unhappy, rude folks.  It’s just comes with the territory.  If you make it your business to avoid the ranks of the disgruntled masses, my gratitude will get you one step closer to having your book on my shelves.  On the other hand, if you get me on the phone and tell me that you don’t think I was raised right because I haven’t had time to review your memoir, I’m not stocking it.  Period.

Once your book is in the store, there is nothing that makes me happier than selling books by authors I know to be genuinely nice people.  Most other booksellers I know feel the same way, so be nice to them.  Also, be nice to the reps at your publisher, because they’re the ones selling the books to us.  Generally, just be nice.

2.  Make sure your book is available.  This sounds like a no-brainer, but the easier it is to get your book the better.  If you know the name of the sales rep I should be dealing with at your publisher, put his or her phone number in the packet you send.  If it’s available from a wholesaler like Baker and Taylor or Ingram, make that clear up front.  If you’re self-published or with a very small publisher, I strongly recommend making sure that at least one of the big wholesalers carries your book.  If the book sells and the only way I can get more is to call you directly, it may or may not be worth my time to get a hold of you.

3.  Include all pertinent information when you make first contact.  Did you go to high school two blocks from my store?  Has your family lived in our town for a hundred years?  Do you teach at a local elementary school?  Is your cover art a photo of a local landmark?  If so, please tell me!  Mind reading is not an ability included on my admittedly impressive resume of personal skills.  If there is a particular reason you think your book will do well in my store more than others, lead with that.  Well, introduce yourself first, and then tell me about your mother’s book club that meets down the street and has a hundred members that are all dying to buy your book.  Remember, I like selling books just as much as you do.

4.  Get on Twitter.  This might sound like silly advice and you might think it’s not for writers who are serious about their craft, but get over that attitude quick.  Yes, Jonathan Franzen doesn’t like Twitter, but he doesn’t need personal contact with booksellers to ensure we stock his book.  After you win the National Book Award, maybe Twitter becomes a bit redundant.  In any other case, it can be an invaluable tool.  Twitter allows you access to a community of people who successfully work in the book business.  Publishers, editors, agents, bloggers, booksellers, and authors are all represented.  Participating in a community of like-minded people will feed you creatively and professionally, and Twitter is a very easy way to get involved.

Hopefully these tips will offer some insight into the minds of independent booksellers.  I think that the folks who make an effort with booksellers without a doubt have more successful events, more publicity for their books, and higher sales.  We love books, and we are constantly looking for the next fantastic piece of literature to champion and the next great author to get excited about.  Be committed to your work, because we’re committed to books. Also, be nice.