Playing With Others: Shared Worlds

Before I wrote stories for a living, I had a list of misapprehensions about as long as my arm. Like “if you sell a book, you can quit your day job.” Or “the really hard part is writing the book.” I’m getting over my naivete, but it’s like alcoholism: an ongoing process of recovery.

One of the longest standing illusions was that writing was an essentially solitary job. The author sits in her high castle, consults with the muse, a couple first readers, and that’s about it. Turns out, not even close. At least not for me.

The fine folks here at Tor.com have allowed me to come in and do this little guest blogging gig, and when I started thinking about what sorts of things I’d want to chew over with all y’all, I kept coming back to issues of collaboration. So, with your collective permission, I’m going to hold forth on and off for a few weeks here about different kinds of collaboration and how they’ve worked out (or failed to work out) for me.

Some of this is gonna be a little embarrassing.

I’ve done a lot of work with other people—co-authoring books and short stories, doing comic books, critique groups, working with editors and agents—but I’d like to start off by telling stories and gossiping about the biggest, messiest, strangest collaborative project I’ve ever been part of.

Let me tell you about Wild Cards.

I came to Wild Cards first as a reader, because it started in 1987, more than a decade before my first professional sale. It was a shared world series like Thieves’ World, only with superheroes. It was headed up by George RR Martin, who was at that point the guy who wrote for the new Twilight Zone series and the Beauty and the Beast show with the lady from Terminator. It had stories by Walter Jon Williams and Roger Zelazny and a bunch of other folks. And its superheroes were folks like Golden Boy who failed to stop McCarthyism and Fortunato, superpowered pimp. This was the same era when Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns were changing the face of superhero fiction. Wild Cards was right there with it, and fresh from high school and heading for college, so was I.

There’s a middle part where the series goes for 15 books over the next decade or so. I’m going to skip that. Then there was a book called Deuces Down where I got to write a story. I’m going to skip that too.

When time came for George, who was now wearing his American Tolkien drag, to put together a new triad, I was invited to come play. Because of that Deuces Down thing I did last paragraph, I’d already signed an inch-thick wad of legal documents and become part of the Wild Cards consortium.

It went like this.

We were going to restart the Wild Cards story, not by rebooting it a la Battlestar Galactica, but by getting a stable of new characters and new story lines and writing the books with the express intention of making it something that anyone unfamiliar with the previous 17 books could read (yes, it was up to 17 by then). Call it Wild Cards: The Next Generation. So George opened it up and we started throwing characters at him. Sometimes they were well thought-out, with character arcs and carefully planned backstories. Sometimes they were sketched on the back of a napkin. (“He can make people sneeze by looking at them.”)

Some characters made the cut, some didn’t. After a huge meeting in a secret location deep in the heart of rural New Mexico, we started getting an idea of what the story of the three books was going to be. The central conceit of the first book came from a throw-away line in one of Carrie Vaughn’s first characters. The character didn’t make, but the reality show American Hero did.

This is the first place—the only place, really—I’ve ever “pitched” a short story. Usually, I write them, and either an editor someplace likes it or they don’t. This was my first real hint that Wild Cards wasn’t really like writing a short story. Or anything else. In it, we said what story we wanted to tell along with an idea of how it would fit into the overall book.

George picked the starting lineup, gave us some ideas about how to make the stories fit together (moreso to me, since I got the dubious honor of writing the “interstitial” story—sort of the mortar between the bricks of other stories), and we were off.

Imagine a race where all the runners are blindfolded and the layout of the track is described to them. We called each other, asked questions, tried to coordinate. (“So, what’s the last line of your story?” “Okay, in your story, are these two friends? Because in mine, they hate each other.”) And in the end, we delivered up our manuscripts to the man.

They were a mess. Of course they were a mess. Some fit together, some didn’t. Some stayed in, others didn’t. George sent us wave after wave of notes. Slowly, the whole manuscript came together until each of us had a story that didn’t quite meet our first dreams for it, but added up to something bigger even if we couldn’t see it yet. And we were done.

Except of course we weren’t.

Shared world projects are unlike anything else I’ve ever seen in that the writers are encouraged to play with each other’s characters, make connections, create a sense of civilization with all the messy, complex relationships that carries. But playing well with others isn’t easy, and one of the hard-and-fast rules of the game is that when you use someone else’s character, they have to approve it. (Just this week, I looked over a scene David Anthony Durham wrote using a minor character I created—the one who can make people sneeze, among other small, sudden biological spasms.) So we tracked down everyone whose approval we needed, negotiated with them to make the characters true to their visions of them. And then we made the corrections, sent them to George, got another round of notes.

And even then, we didn’t really know what the final product was going to look like until George had cut things up, rearranged them, and put them all together again. And then, once the book was done, the whole thing started over again, with new pitches, more characters, and another lineup for the next book carrying through some plotlines, finishing up others.

Like me, Carrie Vaughn was a fan of the series before she was a writer. She said that the hardest thing about being in the magic circle of the project was seeing all the cool things and nifty ideas that didn’t make it into the book. For me, the hardest thing was working on something where I could make out the limits of the final project.

The best metaphor of shared world collaborations is something like a rugby scrum. Everyone pushes in their particular directions, sometimes pulling together, sometimes against each other, but always with tremendous effort, and the rough parts are just as interesting, productive, and important as the ones that go smooth. Plus sometimes you lose a tooth. I think that if you asked the other writers who were in the books I’ve done in this project, they’d report an entirely different experience from mine, or each other.  There are so many people and perspectives and styles and visions, there could be a dozen different and apparently mutually exclusive reports, and all of them true.  Which is a lot like the Wild Cards universe we wound up writing.

Next up: Co-writing a novel with one (or two) other writers.


Daniel Abraham is the author of the Long Price Quartet (A Shadow in Summer, A Betrayal in Winter, An Autumn War, and The Price of Spring, or, in the UK, Shadow and BetrayalSeasons of War) as well as thirty-ish short stories and the collected works of M. L. N. Hanover.  He’s been nominated for some stuff.  He’s won others.

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