Being a Hack: Writing a Shared-World Novel- Erin M. Evans Guest Blog

erin evans

At the end of most science fiction and fantasy sections is a shelf that is plastered in logos: Halo, Warhammer 40000, Forgotten Realms, Eberron, Warcraft. Shared world fiction. It’s a section that admittedly, I didn’t stray into until my mid-twenties. It seemed daunting, as if one had to be admitted via a complicated test. I certainly never thought I’d see my name on the shelf—that world was an alien one where I didn’t belong. Yet here I am. And while shared world fiction—fiction that uses a pre-created setting—has a lot in common with nonshared world fiction, there are also a lot of ways in which it’s pretty unique.

Like anything, it starts with having an idea. Non-shared world fiction can be sparked by anything really, and the same is true of shared world. However, the best stuff—and the stuff that was easiest to write—is borne out of the world you’re working with.

One analogy I’m fond of is that if writing fiction were like writing poetry, writing tie-in fiction would be like writing a sonnet or a haiku. There are a lot of parameters around what you write, and for some people, that’s just too much and they end up with a jumble of fight scenes and bad metaphors. But for others, much like with poets, those restrictions stir up their creativity in new and interesting ways.

My short story “The Resurrection Agent” was inspired by the spells that exist in Dungeons & Dragons to revive your dead character—really useful for a game, really annoying for fiction. Death doesn’t hold the same power if there’s (an albeit expensive and high-level) spell that undoes it. But, I wondered, what if someone exploited that spell? What if someone hired a spy expressly to get herself killed in action and later resurrected them to find out what was really going on? More importantly, what if you were that spy and then your benefactor died? What do you do next? What’s your new relationship with your mortality like? When you start creating within the boundaries of the world, it’s easier to stay within the boundaries when you start to write. Which is terribly important.

Starting to write shared world fiction usually requires two things that non-shared world doesn’t: an outline and a contract. I can’t speak for every publisher, but the ones I know of don’t look for books written on spec. Maintaining copyright necessitates doing all fiction as work-for-hire. As an editor, I’ve seen way too many submissions for our shared world novel lines that have to be rejected right away—we can’t even read them. If you want to write shared world, you have to dazzle an editor with your own stuff (and I’ll leave that to someone else to write about).

The outline is for similar reasons, and it’s a step I get the most trouble from authors I work with—some people are very invested in their non-outliner status. But if you’re writing shared-world you’re working closely with an editor (and possibly licensors), and they want to know what you’re doing and how you’re going to do it. Having an outline means your editor will stop you from doing things that aren’t allowed in the world before you do them and have to find a way to weed them out of your story. It means if you’re doing something that makes the story clunky, your editor will be able to find a new way for you to do things. And it means if other authors are working on books in the same shared world, your outline will set out your territory.

Staying within the rules of the setting isn’t as much of a challenge for non-shared world writers. After all, we’re all pretty familiar with the way the world works, and if you’re writing speculative fiction, hey, the rules you invent are half of what makes your story! Shared world means lots of research. In my case, to write my novel The God Catcher (Feb ’10), I usually had all the core Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks from both 3.5 and 4.0 edition, 3.5 Monster Manual V, a bible on Waterdeep, and both editions’ Forgotten Realms Players Guide and campaign settings within reach. What are the limitations of the dragonward? What’s the name of the street that runs alongside Waterdeep’s market? What age would a blue dragon be if she’s old enough to have a clutch of eggs, but not old enough to start looking aged? What’s Waterdhavian slang for a prostitute?—all questions with answers established. If you’re going to fit the world, you need to match details.

More than following the rules, you have to write it so it doesn’t look like you’re following rules, so that it looks like you’re just recording something interesting that happened. My wizard might fail to cast fireball, but I haven’t told a good story if anyone goes “Oh. She rolled a 2.” The same way as non-shared world, the world-building should be crafted into the story.

Unlike a lot of non-shared world fiction, with shared world you’re on a tight schedule. Your book might be expected to come out alongside another product or fill a month’s expected revenue. The publisher didn’t buy the book completed, so hitting your due dates is critical (authors who miss their deadlines are my utter bane as an editor). If you can’t work your way through a writer’s block, this isn’t the field for you. Nor is it a field for you if you have a very loud, insistent inner editor. Learning to shut mine off was a big part of finishing The God Catcher. When I started, I started at my normal, non-shared world pace. I finished 10, 000 words in three months. That might sound like a lot if you haven’t written longer works, but it meant I had three and a half months to write the last 80,000 words I’d committed to. I had never in my life written that fast. But there weren’t any other options: I had to learn to trust myself to write the story and leave editing to the second draft. And in my case, that’s pretty much what I got—two drafts (plus a proofing pass I’ll admit I took advantage of). I genuinely think it worked better for me.

In the end, there are two last, distinctive differences between writing shared world and non-shared world fiction. Shared world means you’ll definitely get paid, but you almost certainly won’t own the rights. Once again, the publisher or licensors need to maintain their copyright. However, you’re entering into an already existing audience, which means your sales are a little less of a gamble.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that shared world fiction doesn’t exactly shower the author with respect. You’re not going to win a Hugo. You’re not going to get reviewed by Publisher’s Weekly. I’ve actually had people I’ve only just met at parties tell me that all Dungeons & Dragons fiction (the books I edit and write!) are inherently crap. When I protest that the speaker can’t have read every one (or indeed in some cases, any) and by the way that’s my job you’re talking about, the response is a patronizing smile and reiteration that they are indeed crap, and everyone knows it.

But, things are changing—slowly, but demonstrably. As blog reviews become more mainstream, more shared world fiction is getting reviewed—and lo, and behold the reviewers like it! Dungeons & Dragons Insider recently started releasing short stories from authors like Paul Park and Mike Resnick—and other authors who, wouldn’t you know it, like writing in the Dungeons and Dragons worlds.

Even the excellent Halo series recently picked up Greg Bear as its newest author. Who would have expected that Greg Bear is a hack?

– originally published 1/25/10

ERIN M. EVANS got a degree in Anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis–and promptly stuck it in a box. Nowadays she uses that knowledge of bones, mythology, and social constructions to flesh out fantasy worlds. She is the author of The God Catcher, and she lives in Washington State.