Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Rosemary Jones: Writing In A Shared World

In Robert Asprin's Thieves World, Harlan Ellison's Medea, Eric Flint's 1632 (Ring of Fire), the shared world project has a distinguished lineage in fantasy. I actually wrote a story for Thieves' World once when it was still brand new and almost made it in, but short fiction isn't really my forte. Rosemary Jones, on the other hand, has become an enthusiastic—and successfulparticipant who will tell you.

Writing In A Shared World Lets You Tell Many Stories

Every year, I’m asked to discuss shared world writing at a convention. I love writing in shared worlds and have found the opportunity to tell the stories as varied as the worlds themselves. But I also find there’s some basic misunderstandings that crop up around the topic, largely because shared worlds often are confused with fan fiction.

When I give talks about this, the following questions always end up being asked. So here’s my answers, based on my experience of telling stories based in the Forgotten Realms, Cobalt City, Foreshadows: The Ghosts of Zero, and The Awakened.

What is the difference between writing in shared worlds and fan fiction?
In shared worlds, for the novels and stories that I write, I have a contract with the creator or the rights holder for that world. In short, I have legal permission to play in their sandbox and I get paid for the work that I do. People who write fan fiction don’t have contracts and are doing it for love rather than money. I love what I write, but I like getting a royalty check too.

Where do shared worlds come from? How many are there?
Shared worlds come from many places. Usually, for science fiction and fantasy, the original world was created for a television series, movie, video game, or role-playing game (RPG). Sometimes they can be a book series begun by another author. Sometimes it is an idea put together by a publisher or book packager. A shared world doesn’t necessarily have to be fantastic: think Nancy Drew or the Babysitters Club. There are literally hundreds out there.

Don’t you have to do a lot of research?
It depends on the world and your story. Think of it as writing shared world fiction as being similar to writing historical fiction. People who write that do research, but they learn to focus it on the period and the place where they want to set their story. Shared world novels don’t generally cover every single aspect of the world. In fact, I think the more tightly focused that you can be, the better story you can tell.

But don’t you have to sound like everyone else writing in that world?
No. You can develop your very distinct voice. I’m known these days as the
quirky one among the many Forgotten Realms authors. My characters aren’t super high-powered, they don’t save the entire world on a daily basis, and they often have pretty mundane concerns, like fixing the barn roof or moving out of the family home. I’ve had great fun creating offbeat plots about characters in the Forgotten Realms and other worlds that may or may not include small pets, topiary dragons, and vast libraries.

Why do you call them “your characters” and “your plots” – aren’t you handed all that by the publisher?
As a fellow shared worlds writer and I chorused at a recent con:  “Oh, we wish.” Actually what we are usually handed is a short sentence or two. Or one word. My first Forgotten Realms novel needed to fit into the series title theme “Dungeon,” or, as the editor explained in response to my plaintive query to know more: an adventure that took place underground in either a known or previously unknown place. That became the Crypt of the Moaning Diamond. For the second novel that I wrote for Wizards of the Coast, who publish the Forgotten Realms books, I was asked to come up with a story set in a newly rebuilt city called Waterdeep. That led a story about a family who live next to, and maintain, the city’s big spooky graveyard:  City of the Dead.

Still, don’t you want to create your own worlds?
Sometimes I do. I’ve worked on several projects where I was part of the initial group of authors writing stories about a world that was in the process of being built. One recent project was notable for the series of questions sent out by the publisher that we as authors needed to answer. As we did, we filled in the details, the color, and the life of that world. What’s fun is we got to riff off each other’s ideas or strike off in our own little corner. I’m involved in one shared world, Cobalt City, that works like an artists’ collective. We take certain characters, details, or bits and build our own worlds within that world. But it’s all interconnected.

But doesn’t somebody else then own your stuff?
Again, that depends on the contract. For some shared worlds, the creator or the rights holder may own all aspects of your story, including the right to give other people leave to write about characters that you have created or plots that you began. Think about DC or Marvel, two huge shared worlds of superheroes. You can write a Batman mystery for DC or Spiderman dust-up for Marvel, but you won’t own those characters, any new villains you throw up against them, or the plot twists you bring to their tales. On the other hand, who wouldn’t love to write a Batman or Spiderman story? It’s up to you what you are willing to accept.

So you own some of your stuff?
Yes. I have contracts for certain shared world projects where the rights revert back to me for my stories after a certain date or when the project goes out of print. Then I can sell them elsewhere. Which is why I try to write every shared world story in a way so that it is complete without the reader knowing anything else about the world. I love it when the fans of a certain world write to me and say that they enjoyed giving my books to their friends to hook them into the world. That’s a great compliment.

OK, since this does sound fun, how do I sell a shared world story? Write fan fiction?
Actually fan fiction, while a great way to practice telling stories set in a shared world, may not be the best route to go. Many creators and right holders are advised by their lawyers not to read fan fiction. So they can’t or won’t scan it for new writers to recruit. I’ve never been a writer of fan fiction.

A better way to break in, I think, is to look for shared world publishers who are accepting open submissions. That happened to be Wizards of the Coast and the Forgotten Realms a few years ago. I broke in when they were doing open calls. They are not doing that right now, but there’s similar publishers out there, like Paizo, who are open to new writers. It’s like any market, it’s constantly changing, but you can usually find submission information on their websites. There’s also a huge gaming convention, called GenCon, that takes place every August. They run a very big writers workshop for writers of shared worlds and game developers.

Many smaller fantasy and science fiction conventions across the country run at least one or two panels in their writing symposiums on shared world writing. There you may meet agents and freelance editors who specialize in working with shared world projects – that can be a good way to break into newer, not yet announced worlds.

Also Amazon launched Kindle Worlds in July. That lets you have a contract with the rights holders, publish your own work about their world, and be paid. Which is some of the good parts of writing in a shared world but lacks the personal contact with the editors or creators that I like. The Amazon venture is very new. But it will be interesting to see how it develops.


More about Rosemary Jones

Rosemary Jones has sold shared world stories, novellas, serial adventures, and novels set in the Forgotten Realms, Cobalt City, Foreshadows: The Ghosts of Zero, and The Awakened. She’s also the author of numerous short stories appearing fantasy and science fiction anthologies, several nonfiction books about book collecting, and more. An active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), she is a frequent speaker at Northwest writing conventions and lurks in Seattle coffee shops plotting adventures with other shared world writers. You can find out more about all her writing activities at


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