This is the second in a series of interviews regarding “The Drifting Isle Chronicles” shared world project. In this interview, we meet one of the collaborating authors, Charlotte English and learn what attracted her to the project.
You’ve already self-published two novels and an anthology set in your original world, Draykon. You’re also writing for the online comic, Spindrift. The Drifting Isle Chronicles is your first shared world project – what prompted you to take an interest in sharing the same creative sandbox with other writers?
Joe’s idea intrigued me right away, and I think there were a few reasons for that. For one, I was immediately struck by the possibilities when multiple different people pool their imaginations and creativity. It has the potential to produce truly original worlds with a wide variety of ideas on a scale I’ve never experienced before. So far that’s exactly what’s been happening with the Drifting Isle project, and it’s exciting to be part of it.
In addition to that, I’m hoping and planning to keep writing novels for many years, and there are pitfalls to be avoided with a long creative career. There’s a real danger of falling into habits and writing the same things over and over. When I volunteered for Joe’s project I was hoping to be pushed out of my comfort zone somewhat, as I think that’s the best possible way to avoid stagnation. The resulting world-so-far comprises many things I would never have thought of myself, so it’s proving invigorating.
While each novel in the Drifting Isle world will be a standalone story, they must conform to a common, shared world. How is writing a novel in a shared world different from working on the Draykon and Spindrift projects?
Working in a shared world is a unique experience. It’s a blend of the autonomy we enjoy as individual authors and the collaborative demands of producing a story with someone else. That does lead to a wholly different creative process, because I can’t just let my imagination run away with me as I usually do.
I’ve heard it said somewhere that restrictions actually promote creativity, because they force a person to be imaginative in unusual ways – to think outside the box, so to speak. And that’s the case here. The storyline I come up with has got to work with the other four, and it has to fit within the confines of the shared world. That forces me to think differently about what I’m doing, in a really good way. But I’ve also got the freedom to turn my story in the direction that would be most entertaining to me as an individual. It’s a great mix.
Did you take a different approach for your Drifting Isle novel (e.g., used an outline when you normally don’t)?
My approach has changed a lot on this project, yes. Ordinarily I’m not a meticulous planner; I often come up with my best ideas when I’m actually writing, so I stick to a reasonably detailed outline and let the rest unfold as I go. While I can still do that to a certain extent, I can’t get away with it entirely because I need to be sure that the story will dovetail suitably with the other four books. So I’m obliged to plan more than normal.
This is also proving to be the case with characters – perhaps even more so. I’m quite fond of working up a fairly loose character profile at the beginning and letting the personality develop on the page. But with Drifting Isle, we’ve been looking for ways to bring in characters from each other’s books for cameo appearances. In order to do that, all the major characters have had to be created and largely finalized early on. All of this pushes me to work out what I’m doing well ahead of the writing, and in much more detail than I’m used to. I think it’s good for me to be pushed into changing my methods and trying new ways of crafting a story.
It’s still early in the Drifting Isle project. How are things going with your novel?
I’m happy to say things are going really well. Almost scarily well. When we got started with this I was expecting more complications – after all, there’s a degree of mess to be expected when five people create a world together.
Somehow that hasn’t happened. I think it has a lot to do with Joe’s democratic process: whenever we have a decision to make, on anything from names to major plot points, we all submit ideas anonymously and Joe creates an informal poll. Then we vote on it, a decision is made and we move on to the next thing. It works beautifully: we don’t get stuck in discussions for days on end and everyone’s ideas get used some of the time.
We only started a few weeks ago and yet my novel is already outlined, my characters are ready to go and I’m due to start writing any day now. We have great communication within the group, so the story-planning process has been straightforward and hassle-free.
A lot of creatives emphasize story first and warn about the dangers of letting worldbuilding distract from telling a solid narrative. How are you finding the two separate but related activities of storytelling and worldbuilding unfolding for Drifting Isle? Did you find yourself making worldbuilding decisions based solely on the story you told, did you always put worldbuilding first, or was it more of a mix?
I’m going to start by saying that I’m wary of pronouncements on the “right” way to produce a book. Focusing on the story is very important – but it can be just as dangerous to focus exclusively on plot as it is to spend too much time on the worldbuilding. A strong story set against a weak, hastily filled-in backdrop is just as disappointing.
With the Drifting Isle project we’ve ended up taking a mixed approach. One of our earliest decisions involved picking a big, world-shaking event that will kick off all five of the novels. That’s pure story, but the idea that we came up with has dictated quite a few of our worldbuilding decisions.
On the other hand, some areas of our worldbuilding have heavily influenced the story (at least in my case). This is good, because neither the world nor the plot exist as separate elements. They’re bound up together, as they should be; it would be impossible to tell the same story if the world was different, and vice versa. I think you need that mutually reliant relationship in order to tell the best stories.
Do you think the sci-fi and fantasy genres are easier for use in shared worlds compared to other genres (say, romance or mystery)?
In some ways yes, and in others, no. If you’re writing, say, mystery novels, then you have the option to agree on a given framework setting – London in the 1930s, or 18th century France – and the geography, social rules and politics are all there already. Sci-fi or fantasy typically require a lot more fabrication before anybody can start writing.
On the other hand, sci-fi and fantasy offer much more freedom. The fact that you’re building a world from nothing can provide great scope for incorporating lots of different ideas across a group. Which approach is easier or harder probably depends on the interests of the group in question, and what you’re most interested in achieving.