Ever wonder what it's like to write a book in a shared universe, like Marvel or Star Wars? Novelist Sela Carsen shares her experience.
Writing is a solitary endeavour, by necessity. If you’re talking, if you’re chatting, if you’re engaging with other people, you’re not getting words down on your manuscript. And if you want to put out a finished book, that’s what counts -- getting the words down.
But there are instances where working with others provides a framework for something bigger than just your own story. One of those instances is taking part in a shared world.
There are a few ways that shared worlds work. This is one of the most common: You’re invited to participate in a world that someone else has already built and populated with their own characters. You can’t change things about the canon, but you can work inside it to your own tune, as long as you don’t mess with established storylines. Think of the many Star Trek novels here.
I did this with the Nocturne Falls universe, run by Kristen Painter. In order to meet the demands of her ravenous readers, she invited about a dozen authors to write in the cozy, sweet, paranormal, small-town world she’d built. The rules were limited:
- Set it in the town. We could build new places, but they needed to fit logically with the rest of the setting.
- We could connect with the canon characters, but not change their storylines (i.e. we couldn’t decide we didn’t like the relationship that had already been written, and write in our own hero or heroine instead).
- And we had to stick with the tone of the stories -- no gory violence, no swearing, no sex on the page. Actually, that wasn’t so much a rule as a guideline, and it was more about appealing to the readers who already loved the original stories. They were “clean” romances (yeah, no one actually likes that word, but it’s the keyword that readers know) so if we wanted to tap into her readership, that’s what they wanted.
The rest was up to us! People wrote cozy mysteries and young adult and straight PNR and the readers loved it! She ran the project for two years, and her readers ended up with more than 30 new Nocturne Falls stories, in e-book, in print, and even in audio.
There’s a call out right now for a shared world based on a contemporary romance series that’s already out. The call actually states “The … World is comprised of original works of fiction written about the … series characters and/or in the story settings. Writers may maintain the original authors' characters and settings or add their own.”
I’ve asked whether that means authors can take those original characters and change the canon stories from the series to include a different hero or heroine, but I don’t know the answer yet. The world is also accepting stories written in different romance subgenres, including historical, paranormal, and mystery.
Another approach might be: a physical world is established as a framework, and authors can write whatever they want inside that world as long as it doesn’t break the physical rules or the overall concept. Maybe it’s a town, maybe it’s a motorcycle club, maybe it’s a sci-fi galaxy.
This is the kind of world that often works well for a “band of brothers” series and storyline. Decide on the basic rules for the group, and if there’s an overarching storyline that everyone needs to touch on, then let ‘em run.
It also works for broader strokes. I’m currently working on a brand new sci-fi romance series set in a galaxy called the Obsidian Rim. It started with two authors who came up with the historical background of the post-apocalyptic galaxy, the new geography of the “Salty Way” and the physics by which humans can travel there.
There are about eight of us involved now and the closer we get to the first set of release dates, the more interesting the details become. We don’t have to use each other’s worlds as touchpoints, but we knew up front that being able to reference other stories in the series was something that readers would enjoy. If they read about another author’s planet or characters in my story, they’ll seek out those books. And if another author has her characters visit Gizem Station (my world), then readers may find it intriguing enough to look for my books.
As a variation, I encountered one shared world (a magical university/older kids Hogwarts sort of thing) where the authors were ALL up in each other’s stories. The entire concept was to so tightly entwine the stories and characters that readers would need to read the series in its entirety to see the whole world and how all the pieces came together.
Any way that people decide to come together to build a world can work as long as everyone is clear on the rules beforehand. But no matter what the world is, you still have to do your own writing!
Sela Carsen is an award-winning author of paranormal and sci-fi romance — with or without sex and dead bodies. Your pick. She maintains a permanent nerd-on for fairytales and mythology, and openly hoards reference books about obscure folklore. Born a wanderer, she and her family have finally settled in the Midwest. Until they move again, at least. Find out more at http://selacarsen.com