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April 2019

Guest Voices: Writing in a Shared World

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:

  1. Set it in the town. We could build new places, but they needed to fit logically with the rest of the setting.
  2. 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).
  3. 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

It's a Disney Day

With the final Endgame trailer, the long-awaited announcement of the Disney+ launch and the hotly-debated Star Wars IX trailer, it's pretty much a Disney Friday. 

Yell all you want about the Mouse, the fact is that they're making entertainment that the vast majority of the U.S. (and much of the rest of the world) desperately wants to watch.

Disney's stock jumped up 11.5 percent in one day after the announcement of the programming lineup and price of Disney+, the long-awaited streaming service that will shift all of the Marvel movies, traditional Disney animation, the 500+-film movie library, the Disney Channel backlog (Mouse help us), the ever-widening Star Wars universe, the Pixar films and National Geographic for $6.99 a month or just under $70 a year.

Am I the only one who didn't know NatGeo was under the Mouse now? Look, I can't know everything. Grad school. Yeah, that's my excuse and I'm keeping it. Meanwhile, Disney owns all or part of Hulu and ESPN, so be looking for a possible bundle deal if those are important to you. 

Variety's got the full list, so check it out here. They really didn't need to indicate that Disney's upcoming movies would be on it - seriously, duh - but the Loki series, the live-action Star Wars series, WandaVision, Rogue Trip, and some of the other original offerings look interesting. Disney is investing $1 billion in this thing - that's like one whole Marvel movie! - and since this is pretty much the way entertainment is going, pay attention, folks.

Netflix dropped 4.5 percent, but I'm not worried. They're still the streaming 800-pound gorilla, and the day of the announcement was going to smack them regardless. Still, bad timing to announce they're raising their prices AGAIN on the same week. AT&T, YouTube TV and Sling have all increased prices - guys, remember we have actual choices now. This is not cable, where we were all trapped by whatever the hell they wanted to charge us and we had to take everything (plus or minus premium) or nothing. 

It's not like it was really a question - my family is so Disney that our subscription was inevitable. But the fact that it's so frigging affordable makes it a definite yes for us. 

Then there's the Endgame trailer.


Frankly, I liked the second one better; it gave more of a sense of history and of the prior 22 movies or so coming to this moment as well as Black Widow being badass and Tony (almost) being human. But really, honestly: they made sure to include Captain Marvel smiling! 

No, I don't have my tickets yet, because I don't have $15,000. (Seriously, people, it's going to be on for a while. You'll catch it.) I appear to be the only one....

Fine, let's talk Star Wars. No, I'm not going to analyze every frame of the thing and speculate about whether the title means Rey is actually the daughter of Mara Jade (give it up, guys) or whose voice is laughing at the end and I'm just gonna say HELLO LANDO and hand over my money, okay? 

I'll be unhappy if they retcon some of the startling, groundbreaking changes made in the series by Last Jedi - no, Rey doesn't need to be descended from anyone special in order to be awesome. And "No one is ever gone" is kind of the whole point of nine movies (plus other schtuff) about The Force, right? 

And the less said about the incel assholes the better. A woman's holding the lightsaber now, get the hell over it. 


In the meantime, Hamill's gonna be himself. And may the Force be with him.


Guest Voices: The Love That Hears Its Name Whispered, With Laughter

(Note: As they sometimes say on NPR, the following is by no means explicit but does acknowledge the existence of sex.)

I had a great idea for this entry. I was going to talk about the way pop culture, from movies to TV shows to popular music to comic books and more, has a gender disparity in the way masturbation is portrayed depending on whether the person engaged in the act is male or female. It could be summed up in what the activity suggested about the person as a social animal: If the character is a female, this is an empowering act that shows “she doesn’t need a man” to have a satisfying sexual life, but if it the character is a male, the act is humiliating proof that he “can’t find a woman.”

(Apologies for the heteronormativity and gender binary-ness of it all.)

The thesis fits the pop culture I’m most familiar with. And therein lies the flaw at the heart of the experiment: a pitifully small sample size, even though some people think of me as a walking encyclopedia.

Thankfully, you and I have been rescued from a likely embarrassing outcome by someone else with the time and resources to actually do the research correctly: Australian academic Lauren Rosewarne’s Masturbation in Pop Culture: Screen, Society, Self (Lexington Books, 2014) is a soundly researched look at the phenomenon using more than 600 instances as its evidence base.

And now I will say a novel thing you never hear online: I was wrong.

To the extent that masturbation is talked about, it’s often in the sense of an “everyone does it, but we don’t talk about it” talk from parent to child. But the “caught in the act” scenario applies to men and women, the “sad and lonely and looking for release” depiction goes both ways, and there are even examples like Michael Winterbottom’s NC-17 indie film 9 Songs where not only is the character involved with someone, they might even be in the same bed.

Rosewarne’s book is a fascinating read, though it’s priced as a college textbook, so reader be rich (sic). So instead of going off on a bunch of anecdotes — which would not constitute data — I’ll instead leave you with one anecdote and a recommendation, not in that order.

* The Recommendation: Chynna Clugston-Flores’ indie comic Blue Monday (available in collected editions from Image Comics) is a must-read for anyone who likes post-punk and New Wave music, manga aesthetics, and the high school comedies of John Hughes and his imitators, or preferably all of the above. But John Hughes is now problematic, I know, so I’ll add that those problems are not on evidence here.

 Volume 4 of the series, Painted Moon, has a riotous sequence in which the core group of friends discovers that two of their own have never learned to manage their tensions, so to speak, and peer-pressure them into (separately) getting in touch with themselves. Queue up the Buzzcocks’ punk classic “Orgasm Addict” as hijinks ensue and Bleu, our aquamarine-tressed heroine, suddenly starts getting a lot of bathroom passes.

The whole series is a delight, but this installment of the series turned the “horny boy/shameful girl” stereotype on its ear to hilarious effect.

* The Anecdote: I don’t know why I didn’t know until … more recently than I care to admit … that Cyndi Lauper’s hit single “She Bop” was an empowering anthem about masturbation, but I’m absolutely positive that neither of the junior high teachers who used the song for a unit on verb conjugation knew anything about that, even though the song was one of the reasons records eventually got labeled. (Cyndi Lauper, Guns ’n Roses, Sam Kinison, 2 Live Crew, they were all alike, right?)

In the same way that Bleu Finnegan or Drew Braverman of TV’s “Parenthood” may have loved themselves a little too much and too often, that song was bored into my brain as we tortured the rhyme scheme with such verb tenses as “they shall have bopped.”

(The voice of Cyndi Lauper was also present for a more poignant and strange moment in my high school years when I was picked to play the color Green in a teacher inservice about a possibly pseudoscientific personality model called “True Colors.”

I love Cyndi Lauper now because I am not history’s greatest monster, and I hope she got some royalties for those bits of strangeness. But 30 years after its release, if I hear “She Bop” coming on the radio, I’m still changing the station.

Jason Tippitt is a recovering seminarian and mostly recovered former journalist living a few miles beyond that place you stop to use the restroom off Interstate 40 between Nashville and Memphis.