A Shared-World Education

A while back, Jeremy Jones wrote to ask me a few questions about shared-world writing. I thought you might enjoy the results of our conversation, which transpired over a slew of e-mails.

JJ: I am a high school English teacher trying to encourage my students to read and write in a shared worlds of their own making. I am wondering if you’d be willing to answer a few questions designed to help my students understand the process better and to help me draft an article on using shared world writing in the classroom.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing in a shared world?

MF: The best part about writing in a shared world is that someone else has done much of the heavy lifting for you. Many of the details about the setting and how it works are already set in stone, and you don’t have to worry about constructing these things.

The biggest disadvantage, of course, is the other edge of that same sword. Since many things about the world have already been decided, there are constraints you have to live within. You can’t just do whatever you want.

JJ: What advice do you have for someone who hasn’t written in a shared world before?

MF: Learn as much as you can about the setting before you begin. This will save you lots of time and frustration down the road. There’s little worse than coming up with a great story and then realizing you built it upon premises that are flat-out wrong.

JJ: Do you think creating and writing in shared worlds is a productive classroom venture for students? Why or why not?

MF: It depends on the setting. It could be an educational way to pick apart a setting and see what makes it tick, to help the students figure out why the original authors chose to do things a particular way. It can also be a great exercise in creating something as part of a team rather than as a solo author. Plus, it’s always fun to work with characters and places you already know you enjoy.

On the other hand, many students may wish to try their hand at not just writing a story but creating the setting that wraps around it. Using a shared-world setting could rob them of that. There’s the issue of copyright and trademark infringement to consider as well, which isn’t a problem with creating original works, but if your students are coming up with their own world to share, that shouldn’t be an issue.

In such a case, it’s great to hand various bits of the setting off to the people who like those parts best. Perhaps one writer likes politics and is happy to create the place’s political system. Another might enjoy geography and prefer to draw up maps of the various locales. Yet another might want to work on the technological or magical systems the setting employs. This way, everyone gets to stick to things they like while they all enjoy the fruits of each other’s labors.

JJ: What are some particularly successful examples of shared writing that you’d recommend reading?

MF: All of my books. 🙂

Seriously, the Thieves’ World anthologies are great. They were one of the first such settings to get lots of use by a wide cast of top- notch authors usually known for their original work. For a classroom setting, they’d provide an easy means of reading lots of such stories without having to digest entire trilogies written by separate authors.

You can find similar anthologies for Star Wars, Vampire: The Masquerade, Dragonlance, and the Forgotten Realms. There’s one coming out for Eberron shortly too. [Tales of the Last War is on shelves now!]

If you have younger readers, I’d recommend the Knights of the Silver Dragon series I launched with Wizards of the Coast in 2004. Many of the books in the series are written by different authors, although they all share the same main characters and the same setting. Reading them, you can see how different writers tackle the same ideas each in their own way.

JJ: If a lot of the setting is done for you, does it force you to focus more on the characters and the story? Is this another of the double-edged swords or just a good thing? It seems to me that you couldn’t really hide behind world-building and would have to focus on what YOU bring to the world and not on the world itself. Something like that.

MF: A good writer should always pay attention to the characters and the story, so working in a shared-world setting doesn’t force you to do so as much as it frees you. It gives you back the time you’d otherwise spend on world building.

JJ: Okay, so I am halfway through making a connection here. If writing in a shared world FREES you to focus on character and story, why then does shared world writing get such a bad rap by so many people? It seems to me that character and story are not only the most important part, but also the HARDEST part of writing (yet shared world, game-based, media tie in fiction all gets treated as second class citizens of the literary world). Seems to me, maybe, a lot of people are missing the boat…

Also, in a way, this very freedom could serve as a crucible‚Äîweak story and weak characters can’t hide. So bad writing is very apparent in a shared and good writing… well, good writing often gets ignored by the snoberati, but that’s a different story 😉

MF: These are all great points. The International Association of Media Tie-In Writers (IAMTW.org) just started up last year with the ambition to help change minds about books like these. There are a slew of articles posted there that can help answer your question.

One of the reasons I think tie-ins get a bad rap is that the community of dedicated fans in most genres prefers to read things new and different. It’s only natural, as these people spend a lot of time reading and know all the tropes of their chosen genres, front and back. So they focus on what’s novel in novels rather than just reading good stories well told.

Check the sales figures, though, and you’ll see that most tie-ins outsell most original work. There are lots of reasons for this, not the least of which is the trust that people have in the brands those shared worlds have built. The readers, who vote with their dollars, seem to know what they like.

JJ: Which of your books would you say is the best introduction to your work. I’ve got a 25-person fantasy lit class that gobbles up a book a week and I want to have them read one of yours.

MF: That’s very cool of you. Secret of the Spiritkeeper is a great introduction, but it’s meant for readers eight and up, so your high school students may want something more sophisticated.

The next obvious choice would be Marked for Death, but I’m the first to admit that it doesn’t stand well on its own. Also, the second book in that trilogy, The Road to Death, is a better read. If your students don’t mind jumping into the middle of a story, I’d try that one.

Blood Bowl is a fine standalone book, but it’s hyper-violent and humorous, which makes for a strange mix, maybe too much for a class. Still, it’s a lot of fun and turns some of the standard fantasy tropes on their ear. My apologies for not having an easy answer, but thanks for the support!

JJ: Capturing the right tone seems to be crucial when working in a shared world. How would describe the TONE of Eberron, and since you did work so early in the series, what did you do to be sure that you had captured it… I mean, tone is so, well, so subjective‚Äîyou know it when its right and know it when it off, but it’s hard to nail down…

MF: My editor Mark Sehestedt pounded this one into me. Eberron is pulp fantasy, D&D mixed with Indiana Jones. To get that across, it’s cliffhanger, cliffhanger, cliffhanger. In my Eberron books, there are all sorts of twists and turns, and the chapters are all short and punchy, each ending with some kind of cliffhanger.

JJ: Well, when you put it that way (a pulpy mix of D & D and Indiana Jones) it seems like there’s no way the Eberron novels can be anything but awesome. Yet, it looking through the amazon.com reviews it seems like reviews are mixed for all the Book One’s and very strong for the Book Two’s… Was this expected? A surprise? Growing pains? Is it a case of readers becoming more comfrotable with a new world or with the world finding settling in or what?

MF: Probably a combination of all those things. In the case of both Keith and me, our first Eberron novels were our first novels of that length. (I’d written a Knights of the Silver Dragon novel, but it was less than half as long as Marked for Death.) I’d like to think both of us improved as writers with our later books. I’m certain I did, although I haven’t had a chance to read Keith’s second novel yet.

Also, when Keith and I started writing our novels, the Eberron Campaign Setting hadn’t been published. The first I saw of it was as a 12-page brief. Although I’m sure Keith knew a bit more about the world than I did when he started writing, there were still huge gaps in the setting at the time, things we had to try to avoid stepping into without really knowing where they were. This made the process that much more challenging. With the later books, we stood on firmer ground.

JJ: So then did the first two novels contribute to the expansion of the campaign setting? I’ve heard tell of shared worlds having a ‚Äúbible‚Äù that the authors draw on to maintain consistency. What, ideally, should a bible contain? What sorts of things should we include as we draft our own bible? Any advice on dos and don’ts?

MF: These days, the Eberron Campaign Setting serves as the line’s primary bible. When Keith and I started writing, we didn’t have that to refer to, so it often felt like dancing in the dark, trying hard not to step on anyone’s toes.

The first novels and the setting were developed in parallel, but the RPG book always took precedent. I suspect as time rolls on that the RPG authors will incorporate some of the elements from the books, although they’re not obligated to do so.

Wizards has since developed a writers’ guide for Eberron that features details not included in the ECS. It’s packed with things like proper punctuation, information about the moons, and other helpful bits of information.

When developing a bible, you need to make clear the basics of the setting, the scope, the tone, and so on. If there’s no central arbiter of what’s right or not, you need to have some means of resolving conflicting ideas too.

As you build the bible, you’ll discover what questions need to be answered. A lot of it depends on the writers’ intent for their stories. With some writers, the kind of currency doesn’t matter, whereas with others it’s a vital detail. You could do worse than to pick up an RPG setting book and modeling your bible on that, although that may bring you more detail than you care to deal with. It’s easy to get carried away on the creating of the world and forget about getting down to writing the actual stories.