Guest post: Being a half-arsed God
In my first guest post, David Thomas Moore, commissioning editor at Abaddon Books (and therefore my editor, the poor bastard), talks about running shared worlds, and the magic - not to mention bafflement - that can happen when multiple authors write in the same setting. Along the way we'll meet Macbeth as a lich king, and Frankensteins galore.
When Nate said he was going to be hosting guest blogs, I threw myself bodily at the task, since I figured it would make a change to have him edit me for once. Given my work, he asked me if I could write something on shared worlds, and that seemed as good a topic as any.
But what the heck is a “shared world”? As the name suggests, it’s where a fictional world – the setting, cosmology, history and overarching plot – is shared by several creators writing their own stories.
Sometimes the stories overlap and intersect, forming large-scale stranded narratives; more often they stand alone, or in short sequences within the larger canon.
You’re likely most familiar with them in the context of franchise (or “tie-in”) fiction: books based in the world of a movie, TV show, game or comic (Star Wars, Doctor Who, and Warhammer 40,000, for example, have all spawned scores of tie-in novels by dozens of authors over several decades). Franchise fic is hugely attractive to dedicated fans, who get to see the implied and invisible parts of their favourite worlds fleshed out and expanded upon, and learn the histories of their favourite characters.
But not all shared worlds are franchise fic! Abaddon Books, my imprint, was founded by Jon Oliver in 2005 as “franchise fic without the franchise”; we would create and develop our own worlds, and invite successive authors to build on them over the years. To that end, we’ve established more than twenty shared worlds over the past decade, ranging from steampunk (Pax Britannia) to space opera (Weird Space) and post-apocalyptic (The Afterblight Chronicles) to urban fantasy (Gods and Monsters). A few of our worlds have been visited by a dozen or more writers; several of them have only ever seen one. We’ve dipped our toe in franchise (as part of the Rebellion group of companies, we’ve published stories set in the worlds of 2000 AD and the Sniper Elite video games) and stretched the definition of “shared world” (the Tomes of the Dead series, to which Nate’s mad, brilliant Schneider Wrack books belong, are really only thematically linked), but by and large we’ve kept to this formula.
And, of course, one of the biggest challenges with managing shared worlds is continuity. In an ideal world, all of my authors would read every single other book in a series and memorise them before putting pen to paper – and some, to my delight, do exactly that – but in many cases, they’ve only read one or two titles, and perhaps have a shaky memory anyway. So we get manuscripts that forget the rules of the setting, or add new rules; that move cities and borders, kill (or revive!) core characters, radically change the tone or outlook of a setting or worse. And my job, as commissioning editor since 2012, is to fix things; to correct inconsistencies, smooth out niggles and remember obscure details that no-one has the time for, so that all these stories somehow fit together.
It’s a bit like being a slightly shit God. God, we’re told by those who claim authority in these matters, is all-powerful, omniscient and omnipresent; He answers every prayer (even if the answer is often “no”) and has a plan for all of us. Well, I’m all-powerful, as far as the poor schmecks of Abaddon’s many worlds are concerned, and broadly omnipresent, at least in principle. But I’m only spottily omniscient, and most of my plans extend to what I’m having for lunch. What I’m saying is, sometimes shit’s allowed to slide.
At its best, it’s easy; even fun. In the run-up to their respective third novels, two of the Afterblight authors – Scott Andrews and Paul Kane – actually went out to the pub together to plot out each of their storylines, work out areas of intersection and overlap, and plan suitably satisfying climaxes* for their books, with characters crossing the boundary both ways. All we had to do was a bit of cross-checking and tidy-up.
Sometimes we’re on the ball. Four of our series (to my recall) have reasonably thorough and up-to-date “world bibles” covering important setting details and story beats, that I can refer to (or simply send my writers before they start work), and which have proven invaluable in keeping things in order. Another three have more sketchy efforts, that at least stop us embarrassing ourselves. When Malcolm Cross wrote Orbital Decay he read the entire series – ten books in a week, bless him – and pulled out relevant quotes, and we built a world bible together; and we did a similar job from scratch when launching Extinction Biome (and when Anne Tibbets stepped in to help with the production, she joined in with gusto).
Sometimes the effort of coordinating can produce unexpected delights. When planning Monstrous Little Voices, I got all five authors together and gave them a basic write-up of the premise, and we spitballed plots and details from there. The idea had always been that the stories would be based in a common Shakespearean world (where Romeo and Juliet’s Friar Lawrence had once studied alongside The Tempest’s Sycorax, for instance); I’d envisaged coordinating some overlapping events and characters, but not necessarily trying to tease together a single narrative. Adrian Tchaikovsky came up with one of the more left-field ideas (that MacBeth was still alive, five centuries after his reputed death, as a sort of horribly sustained lich-king) and supplied what would turn out to be the unifying device of the whole collection: a cursed knife. Jonathan Barnes, providing the most left-field idea of the collection (a sort of parallel-universe backdrop) inspired the explanation of where the knife came from (and you can read the secret/bonus origin of the knife here on the blog). So the effort of establishing and enforcing continuity can yield wonders.
It can also uncover some unfortunate blunders. Jonathan Green’s Pax Britannia universe, like most steampunk settings, revolves around a British Empire indefinitely trapped in a sort of heightened Victorian age, where great steam-powered machines dominate the world and villainous moustache-twirling industrialists seek to overthrow the sainted Queen.† When Al Ewing joined the series, sensibly deciding to stick to another continent and avoid stepping on Jon’s toes, literally the only thing he knew for sure about steampunk was that there is no electricity and everything is steam-powered. Except that’s not true, of course – Farraday’s innovations in electricity generation date to the 1820s, and most steampunk features electricity alongside more esoteric power – and Jon’s books had electric lights and other details from early on. It wasn’t until I was working on Jon’s sixth book, Anno Frankenstein, in which the Nazis were re-animating dead soldiers using power from a hydroelectric dam, that I discovered our error.
Al gamely announced that the El Sombra trilogy is set in Pax Britannia’s “Universe B,” and even wrote in a device in his third book, Pax Omega (the entire plot of which revolved around the mysterious absence of electricity) to explain the dichotomy.
So it’s a mixed bag. It’s eminently satisfying, if you’re a bit of a details-obsessed nerd like me, and can be frustrating (if entertaining) when you encounter fuck-ups, and it’s its own form of creativity and something a little like design or project management; and it’s essentially the core of shared world management.
*Yeah, that was totally deliberate. I’m a fucking child.
†Okay, it’s actually a bit more nuanced than that.