Other People’s Sandboxes

Every time I turn around, I see more shared worlds popping up. What used to be a fairly limited market dominated by media and RPG tie-in novels (Star Trek, Star Wars, Dragonlance, etc.) is going mainstream. I suspect this is partly because the changes in the publishing industry make it possible for more shared worlds to come to market, partly due to the rising popularity of the shared worlds embodied by comic book properties, and partly because long-form, depth-centric serialized fiction on television (Mad Men, Lost, etc.) has hit the mainstream. Hell, even the popularity of fan fiction proves that there’s a hunger for complex worlds built with a multitude of voices.

I can’t help but think this is a good thing. Writers are solitary folk, and it isn’t always a good thing. Playing in the same sandbox with other writers is a sociable act, and working under unconventional constraints is creatively invigorating.

Last year, I got six invitations from friends and colleagues to join shared worlds anthologies. Two of them I said “yes” to, the others I said “no” to. One of them, Thomas K. Carpenter’s Mirror Shards, Volume 2, is more of a concept series than a shared world series. The other, John Mierau’s Walk The Fire, is a multifaceted fantasy world based on an interesting form of interstellar/interdimensional travel. There were a lot of reasons I said “yes” to both of these, and “no” to the others, but the biggest reason is this:

The Series Bible.

A series bible is a quick guide to the rules and parameters of the shared world. It includes rules of the magic system and/or advanced science and tech (if any), names and positions of major characters and whether or not they may be used, the political and economic situation of the world (if relevant), a description of the milieu, any important names, forces, and philosophical concepts, and anything else that someone writing in your world would need to know in order to produce a work that interfaces smoothly with everything else. Think of it as a Wikipedia for your world, with all the most important parts in bold on the front page.

Without exception, every other request I got said “you’ll find everything you need to know by reading [x foundational work of the world].” Sometimes that was a short story. Sometimes that was a novel. Sometimes it was a previous anthology in the world. Sometimes it was a series of novels. If you’re a writer opening up a shared world, the appeal of this approach is obvious: You’ve already done the foundational work. Why duplicate it?

The trouble with this is that what’s obvious to you in your work isn’t obvious to me. What are the important parts, what aren’t? What things are metaphorical conceits, and which are allusions to parts of your world you intend to elucidate later? What’s off limits for other writers, and what’s not? What is the spark that makes your world what it is? These are things that are non-obvious to all but the most obsessive fans (assuming a large body of canonical work). Your series bible makes these things apparent at a glance, so those of us playing in your sandbox can get on with building sandcastles.

In other words, you need a series bible even if the writer you’re approaching is a huge fan of your work.

Both Walk the Fire and Mirror Shards had series bibles. Tom Carpenter led with his, John Mierau furnished one upon request. They also had good contracts that were favorable to the author (this is important, as is pay, but neither are the subject of this post). Chris Lester’s Metamor City has an amazing series bible, which is why I’ve got a story for him I’m poking at (no ETA on it, but I keep poking at it between books, and one day it’ll catch fire). None of the other shared worlds I’ve been pointed to or asked to join had a series bible on the submissions page, none of the editors could furnish one on request.

The thing is, only a fool sits down at a game without knowing the rules. I, for one, like to play in a lot of different sandboxes–but I can’t play with you if you don’t give me a rulebook.

For what it’s worth.

Bookmark the permalink.

9 Comments

  1. Kitty NicIaiain

    “The trouble with this is that what’s obvious to you in your work isn’t obvious to me. ”

    So true, and also something that should be plainly obvious to anyone who has been in fandom long enough to witness the heated disagreements over how exactly Gallifreyans reproduce, or why warp 10 behaves differently in the Delta Quadrant.

  2. Shared worlds are a writing phenomenon that has been coming and going from SF&F for quite some time. Earlier shared worlds did get started following the great rise of fan fiction in the 70s and 80s.

    It can also see some roots arising from the tabletop role-playing games like Traveller, Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons which provided much of that same crucial information as the series bible that you mention.

    Some of those early shared worlds like Robert Asprin’s Thieves World or George RR Martin’s huge Wild Cards series were very successful on their own and set a very high standard that newer series can aspire to.

  3. JR –

    A lot of good examples, for sure!
    -Dan

Comments are closed