A few days ago I stumbled on a promising new shared universe project being led by Joseph Robert Lewis, a prolific self-published author.
The project is called “The Drifting Isle Chronicles,” and while it’s technically not a shared story world (Joseph is working with a small group of authors and is not accepting outside submissions), I was taken with Joseph’s enthusiasm and just-do-it attitude about tackling the challenge of collaborative worldbuilding. Plus, many of the challenges of shared universes apply to shared story worlds.
Joseph kindly invited us along for the ride and agreed to share his trials, tribulations and triumphs over the next year as the project progresses. Expect more interviews with him and the other Chronicles authors!
What’s this shared world project all about?
In January of this year, I made a list of all the different sorts of writing projects I wanted to do (my writer’s bucket list), such as a graphic novel and a movie screenplay. One of those items was to create a collaborative series with other fantasy authors. And I thought, gosh, there’s no reason not to try that one right now!
The concept was to assemble of team of like-minded fantasy writers to design a new fantasy world together, and then each write our own novel in that world, with some ongoing team-work to tie our different stories together. The goal is to produce a complete fantasy series of five books in less than one year. Each author only has to write one book, and then instantly has the support of four other books and authors to promote the series.
We’ve already succeeded on many fronts. We’ve assembled our avengers, I mean, authors. We’ve discussed and voted on a number of key items, such as our fantasy sub-genre, our setting, and our world-changing event to kick-off our stories. And we have set up a private wiki site where we can each post tons of notes about the shared world and our individual books for group reference.
I’m very excited about the world we’ve created, and I’m tremendously proud of the progress we’ve made so far. In fact, we’re planning to begin drafting our novels later this month. (I’ve actually already started mine. Shhh! Don’t tell my team mates!)
Wild Cards was probably the original seed for this idea, but instead of combining chapters or short stories into a book, I wanted to go all-in and combine complete books into a series. One reason for this is that, as independent authors, it is best if we can each publish our own work and profit from it directly. If we combined our work, someone would have to serve as Managing Editor and royalty distributor for the rest of our lives (plus 70 years from beyond the grave!).
I knew there was a fair chance the entire project could fall apart at any time for personal or professional reasons, and the remaining group members would be left with some half-finished stories. By aiming to produce our own complete novels, we would all still be able to salvage and publish our own individual work, just without the support of the series. So either way, the effort could lead to a finished, publishable book for each remaining writer.
Lastly, by putting together a unique team of writers, I knew we would produce a totally unique world and series. No individual and no other team would ever produce what our team produced. So that was an added bonus for me as a writer.
I hear the word “cat-herding” tossed around a lot in reference to these kinds of projects. Why, after all of your independent writing, did you decide to complicate things by inviting other authors to collaborate with you?
Because I’m crazy. No, I kid, I’m only a little crazy.
One reason to try this is the old Everest reason: “because it’s there.” The opportunity to experiment with new ways of writing and publishing has just fallen into our laps with the advent of ebooks and legitimate self-publishing tools and stores. And since I am a pretty fast writer, I didn’t think it was much of a sacrifice to spend a few months on an experimental book.
In that vein, I specifically asked the writing community for experienced, published writers who could produce a novel in 3 to 6 months. As working professionals, we needed to be on the same page, and I’m thrilled to have found four writers with the same basic work style. We all know the routine of planning, writing, and polishing a book in a short period of time, and I believe we will all produce great books for this series (on time!).
I also wanted to create a shared world so I could spend time interacting with other writers and letting other people take control of different parts of the project. When you work alone as an author, you have the benefit of total control, but you also have the responsibility for doing all the work. By working as a team, we can share the burden of some of the creative work while also inspiring each other with new ideas and different perspectives to keep the writing from getting stale or predictable.
I was surprised that a number of writers attacked me for even suggesting this project on various discussion forums, telling me it would fail, or that I was being too ambitious, or that no one could write that fast, which is obviously false. I simply asked writers to look at my proposal and apply if interested. The sudden negative backlash to the mere suggestion of the project really shocked me.
Why wouldn’t people want to try new things? Because it could fail! And to that I say, “so what?” You learn and you move on. That’s life. I think it’s ridiculous to be afraid of writing a failed book. Most books fail. You’d be in good company. And the real bottom line? No one in the world would care about yet another failed book, except you.
Luckily, there were many more voices of support and lots of great applications from writers eager to join the project. Unfortunately, I couldn’t include everyone. Not everyone’s style would have worked well together, and having too many authors would have made the collaboration extremely difficult to manage. So I’m very happy to report that we have a solid team of five experienced fantasy writers with similar interests, but different voices and perspectives to keep the series interesting (adventure, romance, mystery, etc.).
Basically, there were five reasons to try to do this. If the project succeeds, then I get to (1) make friends, (2) write a book, (3) publish a complete series at a fraction of the effort, (4) make a little money, and (5) be a real ebook pioneer, just like Daniel eBoone and Davy Kindlett.
And if the project fails, then I can still publish my own book as a stand-alone story. No real risk, from where I’m standing.
What is your hope or your goal for this project?
From a business point of view, I hope to publish a book that instantly becomes part of a popular series and makes me rich and famous before Christmas. That would be swell. My daughter has expensive tastes in toys.
From a creative perspective, I hope to learn a bit about writing from my team mates, write a great book with their help, help them create great books, and publish a new series we can all be proud of. (Yes, it is okay to end a sentence with a preposition. The Oxford dictionary says so.)
Also, I’d love to prove the value of this sort of team project so other writers and artists will experiment in the same way. I doubt you could ever do something like this with traditional publishers. Could you really get five authors with five agents to be pre-approved on a five-book deal, to release all five books at the same time? Maybe. But I doubt it.
When will you have a name for this shared world so I can stop referring to it as “this project?” : )
Good news, everybody! We recently took a team survey and completed two rounds of voting (we are democratic fiends!), and we now have a series name: The Drifting Isle Chronicles.
What is the Drifting Isle, you ask? And how are we seamlessly blending steampunk fashion and technology with mystical objects, magical songstresses, and secret societies? What is ichor? And what happens when you put it in an autogyro? Who was the second man on the grassy knoll? All will be revealed! (Except for that knoll business.)