Earlier this week, Ellen Million, founder of Ellen Million Graphics and creator of the shared world, “Torn World,” was kind enough to share her thoughts on collaborative storytelling, her experiences with Torn World, and the rewards of shared story worlds.
What was your motivation for deciding to explore collaborative world building and storytelling?
I come from a fanfiction background, and part of what I loved about my experiences there was writing things with other people, and twining our stories and characters together into a larger picture than any of us would be able to attain individually. Writing is, largely, a solitary pursuit, and being able to turn it into a community activity is a powerful thing.
What were/are some of the factors that influenced your decision to take a collaborative approach to world building and storytelling?
It was a tough decision. I’ve been writing and creating in Torn World since 1997, and it took me more than a decade to close in on a method of sharing the world. I didn’t want to lose my own creative rights, but I wanted to leave them open to other creators at the same time. In the end, it really came down to wanting to share it, to give other people the opportunity to enjoy it at a creative level.
What was a pleasant surprise you had with Torn World?
Probably the nicest surprise was the inception of the “Muse Fusion” events. This is a mostly-monthly event where our writers and artists make direct contact with our audience and ask for prompts to do a focused creative jam. The events started out at 8 hours but have evolved to span an entire weekend, from noon Friday to noon Monday. They are tremendously rewarding – a good chunk of our short stories have spawned from the fusions, and several pieces of artwork.
What’s more, our authors and artists are making money at them!
I encouraged the creators from the beginning to explore crowdfunding methods with their work (in addition to the credits system on the site, more about that below!). ‘Sponsorship’ has been a popular option, especially at the Muse Fusions: the audience can ‘sponsor’ a story (written to their prompts or not!). The author then makes it public at the site (otherwise it would be reserved for subscribers) and lists the sponsor as a patron. Multiple sponsors can be tagged to a single piece, if several contribute. Creators can also put out a paypal donation button for general donations, and artists can do ‘paid progressive’ pieces, where the audience can pay to see more time put into the sketch (usually getting the option to dictate certain details as they go!).
It’s not making anyone rich yet, but several folks have earned good pocket change for their day’s work, and it seems to be generally increasing as we go along and build our interactive audience.
What was an unexpected challenge you had with Torn World?
In a group of diverse people trying to lay down groundwork for a whole world, you’re going to end up with personality clashes, and cases where things that two people write independently are going to conflict with each other. I was prepared for this, at least theoretically, but I was unprepared for how hard and how stressful it would be to be mediator in some cases.
Fortunately, this has been a very, very small part of the process, and nearly all conflicts have been easily smoothed over. I’m constantly on the look-out for ways to minimize the chances of overlapping work, and encourage folks to post their works in progress to our private forum so we can work collaboratively, rather than spending a lot of time fixing things.
The other major challenge I ran into was presenting the sheer amount of material we were producing in a manageable fashion. It can be very intimidating for a newcomer to jump in with us and get up to speed, and we are continually trying to improve the interface so that it’s not an insurmountable leap.
How much of Torn World‘s content is available for free (and how is paid-for content accessed – subscription? work-basis?)?
Right at the moment, we’ve got 96 public stories and 34 reserved for subscribers, 33 public poems and 9 reserved for subscribers. You can see a list of the work for subscribers only here. This is subject to change, because I allow the authors to choose for themselves whether or not something is public or reserved! I generally try to keep about 10-25% of the material reserved for subscribers – enough to tempt in new subscribers, but not so much that a free user feels excluded.
Subscriptions can be purchased, either as blocks of time or as monthly auto-subscription through paypal.
Subscriptions can also be earned! Our creative contributors collect ‘karma’ for their submissions of artwork and fiction, as well as for their participation in the site, promotional work and comments at the site. This karma can be cashed in for subscriptions, or to purchase a peek at individual reserved stories.
How can people participate in Torn World?
We’ve got a number of levels of participation.
The very casual visitor may choose simply to read our public work, without even registering.
A registered reader gets access to spicy and adult content, and may leave comments for our authors, earning them karma! A registered reader may also adopt a character, either with karma or with a paid subscription. Character ownership allows them to dictate what happens with that person in-story, even if they aren’t a writer themselves.
Authors, artists and creators of all kinds may go one step further and apply as contributors. They must be 18 or over, and agree to the terms at the site. This gives them access to more in-depth world-building information (some of it ‘secret’ from our audience!) and allows them to submit fiction and artwork. It also allows them to profit from their Torn World-based work, both through the site and off-site.
Can contributors make money? If so, how?
Torn World stories may be sold for publication in magazines and anthologies, privately sponsored, or otherwise shared with the world. These rights sold off-site must be non-exclusive, because I want to archive all of the Torn World material at our site. I do give the author the option to delay publication so they can sell first printing rights, and am generally willing to work with outside publishers to make everyone happy.
Artists may sell prints or merchandise of their artwork, and license it elsewhere. Again, I do require archive rights.
Additionally, the site itself is set up to funnel all subscription funds directly back to the contributors. Subscribers get a large part of their subscription fees in ‘spending-only credits.’ These credits are actual dollars, that they distribute to the contributors they choose. They can tip those users who have done big projects, like help build our language, or program the site, or they can tip at individual stories or artwork that have made a big impact on them, or they can tip another contributor who has been particularly helpful and welcoming. Tipping specific stories or artwork encourages that contributor to do more in that style, or with those characters, and helps shape the storylines and artwork that get more attention.
Contributors can cash out their earned credits at any time it’s over $10.
Can a contributor’s derivative work be used by another contributor?
Once a piece of any kind is accepted for ‘canon’ publication at our site, it is an integral part of our continuity. Other contributors are welcome to use those characters, reference those events and use those established details in their own work. This is very distinct from being allowed to ‘copy’ or ‘remaster!’ We see events from multiple points of view, sometimes, but they are always in the writer’s own words, or the artist’s own vision. This leads to a very rich and thorough experience of events!
The exception to this is character use – once a character has been adopted, that owner has the sole right to approve any work featuring that character. Approvals for this kind of use must be cleared with the character owner before submission to the site.
How do you view the relationship between world building and storytelling? Does one drive the other?
They are very closely entwined. There have been several times when a meta-fiction article has spawned fiction, and likewise, a mention in a story of a particular animal or plant or person often leads to a meta-fiction exploration of that casual idea. Which begets more stories. Which begets a piece of art. Which begets another article. Which begets a character, until you’ve got one loooong string of causality that’s sometimes impossible to unwind all the way back to the beginning. That’s part of the beauty of it.
What have you learned about storytelling through collaborative world building?
It’s easy to let it get out of control! We’ve only been open about 15 months now, and we’ve got dozens of cultures, locations and a large number of diverging (and converging!) storylines.
It has been a challenge to keep some of the overriding plots moving forward, rather than spinning in circles, and I have learned an enormous amount about getting writing done to a deadline – with the Muse Fusions, in particular.
What were some of the inspirations for creating Torn World?
How far back should I go? I’ve loved the idea of made-up worlds since I first read The Hobbit! Torn World was not the first that I developed, and it probably won’t be the last. It is influenced by Anne McCaffrey’s Pern, ElfQuest, the worlds of Mercedes Lackey, various steampunk and historical fiction, dystopian fiction, and even fairy tales.
It also draws from my personal experiences; the northern landscape in particular bears a resemblance to the Alaska wilderness I grew up in. Current events often reflect in the themes and events, and last, but not least, it borrows a lot of ideas from cool science in the real world; many of our sea monsters are based on real earth creatures, and some of the weird temporal features are based on theoretical physics and alternate reality postulations.
What were some of the website design considerations you had to incorporate as a result of Torn World being a shared world?
The website is the anchor of our world, and evolving rapidly to keep up with the membership and massive amount of work being supplied. It is not easy to jump into a world that’s already got more than 100 stories, dozens of characters and reference articles, a wide variety of very disparate cultures and some seriously bizarre temporal oddities.
A ”Start Here!” page became necessary almost immediately. We also added tours, and had to add sorting and browsing options to the characters. The story review and editing is all done at the site itself, with powerful review tools for our editing team. The stories and articles are in line for better searching and browsing tools, and we’ve got an entire language to show you – the database is in beta testing now! Improvements are added almost weekly, and the website has come a tremendous distance in the last 15 months.
As the sole programmer, I’ve had to learn a lot of new tricks to manage the sheer amount of data we have, and I’m continually adding to my coding toolbox.
Can you describe what happens to a submission? What’s the review/editing process like? How much editing does Torn World do on submissions?
Contributors have options when they submit their work. If they are not interested in having their submission edited at all, that is their choice. However, even minor world continuity problems or typos mean their submission is posted as non-canon – reserved for registered readers only and clearly marked as NOT part of our world continuity.
Most contributors choose to accept either minor or major edits on their stories.
After their story is submitted to the site, the canon board checks it over for continuity with the world, grammar, spelling and overall quality. If the author has invited major edits, they also make comments regarding structure, style and flow. Once three (or more) editors have looked it over, it is returned to the author with any outstanding reviews. (In some cases, there are none, and it can be posted directly) We also check the characterization of the adoptable characters used, to make sure they match their character sheets.
The author may then make the suggested edits to the piece, dispute the edit, or agree with it (and ask us to make the change).
It is reviewed again with those edits, and posted to the site. Sometimes, the edits stir up new problems and we have to do a few rounds.
We do judge for quality – stories should have natural flow, interesting characters and be engaging. But we’re more than willing to help writers get to our milestones, and many of our members have expressed delight in our careful and helpful editing. I can personally say that I’m a better writer already for going through this process, and many of my stories – on and off the site! I owe a great deal to the editing process at Torn World.
What advice would you give regarding the submission/review/editing process to someone starting or managing a shared world?
Have an easy-to-use platform for communication, well-defined expectations and find people with enthusiasm. You will fail without all three.
What are some of the more popular or interesting storylines happening in Torn World?
The overriding background story is the upcoming clash between the small, peculiar society of the snow-unicorn riders and the vast, rich Empire to the south. They have a lot to offer each other, but it’s going to be challenge to get past their very different cultural views and reach a mutually beneficial arrangement…if they even can! The world itself is a dangerous place, filled with invisible anomalies and vicious sea monsters, and it’s threatening to become even more deadly.
Within that overall plot, there are more personal journeys that are being unwoven now:
In the north, we’re learning about the background of several key characters, including Fala, Birka and Anler, age-mates who will play important roles in the coming clash. A young woman, Jrilii, is currently chasing a small herd of fabled ‘wild snowies,’ which could save the slowly dwindling herds of domestic unicorns. A fire has destroyed one of their villages, and many of their scarce resources, promising hardship for the coming winter. And Empire explorers in this north country are struggling with that same coming winter, not aware that they are poised to meet the inhabitants of this harsh land.
To the south, we are following the love story of two men, Lalya and Dini and the very strange gender and legal customs that they must work around, the blackmail of License Master Baison by the silky, sexy Olarali, and the mysteries of strange destructive events that a team of scientists are struggling to explain.
Also worth a note, May is going to be Sea Monster month at Torn World. While not a single storyline, I expect to see a lot of fun stories and artwork on the topic, and people are getting excited about it!
How do you balance internally-generated content (that keeps things interesting/dynamic but can dramatically alter the world) with the need to provide contributors a relatively stable world foundation? How do you not pull the rug out from under someone who’s writing a novel and needs weeks or months to complete it?
Ah! The big stumbling block of many shared worlds and collaborations.
The biggest key is communication. I can’t stress that enough. At Torn World, we have an area of the forums specifically for contributors only, where we can brainstorm ideas, post works in progress, and make sure the plots we’re working on won’t conflict. They still do, sometimes, and I won’t say that it’s been completely smooth sailing, but for the most part, we’re able to find work-arounds, and prevent problems from happening by making it clear to each other what we’re working on and what our plans are for the future timeline. It’s undoubtedly useful that we’ve got the big north-south clash so clearly set up to happen, and several key timeline points are available to our contributors to work around.
We have a dedicated ‘canon board’ – particularly active members who keep tabs on what’s going on around the world, and even if someone wants to keep something private from other contributors, we ask that they keep us in the loop, so we can do our best to prevent overlap and big world shifts that unseat the work someone has already done.
The other advantage we have is the concept of isolated cultures. It would be quite easy for an individual creator to pick up one of our defined cultures and explore one of them specifically, without having to tread too far out into the rest of the world and worry about conflict, especially if they set the work back in history a little ways.
What mediums would you like to see in Torn World (or see more of)?
I’m greedy – I want more of everything!
I would very much like to attract a better map-maker than I am. I’ve had to teach myself a lot of skills, and while our map is functional, I have much bigger and better ideas for it that my skill level doesn’t match. I’d also love to get some folks interested in vidding involved; I think our cinematic plots and gorgeous artwork would translate well into video clips.
What is your view about the future of collaborative commercial entertainment? Has it changed since you started Torn World?
Collaborative commercial entertainment is already creeping into the forefront, and it’s going to do so even more in the future as the Internet comes into its own.
In my own time, working on Torn World, shared and collaborative work has progressed from strictly snail-mail (sooooo slow!) communication, through email (wow! zippy responses on dialup connections!), to wholly independent webpages that act as virtual communities.
We now have an unparalleled platform for communication and collaboration, and I foresee projects like Torn World becoming a big part of the entertainment landscape. Our format won’t appeal to everyone, with its non-instant gratification and literature-based delivery, but it will definitely hold its own, particularly among serious readers and creators who like depth and the act of crafting entwined stories and worlds.