On Shared World and Traditional Novels

 Jeff Grubb is a game designer and writer living in Seattle.  He’s worked in a wide variety of shared universes, including Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Guild Wars, Marvel, and now the Star Wars Expanded Universe.  His Star Wars novel Scourge came out in late April of 2012.

There are two glasses of clear liquid on the counter over there. One is tonic water. The other is gin. But until you cross the room and taste them (and hopefully smell them first, if you are wise), they are apparently identical.

Similarly, there are two novels on the shelf. One is a self-contained story, unique to itself. A traditional novel. The other is part of a shared-world universe. But until you investigate, they are identical. Schrödinger’s books, if you prefer.

This is not to say that one type is superior to the other (that water from the previous example may be pristine or crawling with nasty microbes, and that gin may be gentle or toxic), but merely that that there are two different processes that lead to the same point – just as there are marsupials that evolved into niches held by placental mammals in places that are not Australia and thereby show similar traits. Two different thought processes bring these similar-appearing volumes, containing words and thoughts, bound along the long edge with pages that turn. Yet each tend to have marked differences in origin.

[And as I continue this, I’m going to use the words “tends to” when I mean to say “often is the case, though I don’t doubt that you can come up with an exception”. So let the exceptions test this general rule].

The traditional novel (and by that I mean the one you normally think about as being that type of book, be it Moby Dick, Tom Sawyer, or the Hobbit) tends to come out of the writer’s mind like Athena springing from the forehead of Zeus. Such a novel tends to be a completed work before it sees the interior of a publisher’s office, or even feels the gentle caress of an editor. It may represent a lot of work on the part of the writer without recompense for his time. It may be rejected numerous times, or be written without a clear idea of who will publish it (an editorial friend once noted “It is called the SUBMISSION process for a reason”). The traditional novel may see transformations in the journey to print, but it tends belong to its own universe – Dickens set many novels in England, but each one belongs to its own version of England. The origin of most of that universe is hatched from, or at least strained through, the writer’s mind.

[And I can think of specific examples that cross each one of those above points, but none that invalidate all of them. For example, sequels abound among traditional novels – Huckleberry Finn and Lord of the Rings comes to mind, but they still from that same origin point of the author’s private universe.].

The shared world or licensed novel has a different heritage. It has a universe already in place when the writer of the book approaches it. Indeed, the WRITER tends to be approached for a book about a certain concept in that world, as opposed to author generating that concept. The shared world novel tends to have a predetermined delivery date, and may often have a cover already in the works while the writer is in the process of writing. And the shared world novel has something that seems much rarer in traditional novels – at least traditional novels by previously unpublished writers – money up front. The writer is doing a recognized job, at a particular word count and deadline, and is being recompensed (through an advance on eventual) for that work. It is a little more secure in that way.

But the big difference is that idea of origin. A traditional novel has but one parent powering its genesis (though it may have a host of well-meaning aunts and uncles trying to transform it from duckling to swan). A shared world novel has a number of other authors, all contributing at the same time, and the genus of control shifts from behind the writer’s eyes out into a cloud of individuals, bibles, previous continuity, and the well-meaning aunts and uncles.

The shared world novel has numerous advantages. You get the power of a brand behind it. In raw marketing terms, if you are writing a Werewolf Musketeer novel, you get to stand on the shoulders of the previous Werewolf Musketeer writers. Their success feeds into your success. You didn’t write the previous ten novels, but your initial sales (and popularity) would be higher than if you were launching an original novel by a talented newcomer (or even an established professional). The brand holds strength.

A shared world also has someone else doing the heavy lifting at worldbuilding. Major characters, locations, and items may already exist. Someone else may have established the core ethos and ethics of the universe. You get a big toy box to root around in, as opposed to being given a block of wood and asked to carve away everything that doesn’t look like a race car.

The big disadvantage for shared worlds comes from the name – you have to SHARE them. There are other creatives. There are other worldbuilders. In many cases, there are fans who knowledge of long-running series will outstrip both your knowledge and that of everyone you will ask while writing the book (“I cannot believe that the author had the Werewolf Musketeer reach for the wine glass with his right hand. Everyone who read the 14th novel in the series knows that such a gauche action is cause for immediate banishment”). Your creative universe is a little more tightly constrained.

Finally, shared worlds are treated as ugly stepchildren, looked down upon even in genres that regularly rebel against being looked down upon themselves. Lacking both the journey of the traditional novel and benefiting from established (and often monitored) setting, they feel a little bit like cheating, and their success comes from marketing tricks as opposed to real suffering on the creatives’ parts (though there is suffering there).

The thing you haven’t seen me argue here is a difference in quality between the two. There are great novels in the traditional format and horrible ones. You can find excellent writing in a book from a shared world and execrable manglings of the English language in books of the same series. To say that one type has the inside track on the other is problematic at best, though for literary crimes a traditional novelist may disappear, taking his world with him, while in a shared universe, that particular volume gets excised and the rest of novels proceed.

And all of this is “inside-the-beltway” – worrying more about the process than the result. It is entertaining, no doubt, but in the end it is the quality of the writing, the characters, the plot, and ideas within a novel which gives it its shine, not the provenance of its origin. In the end, you, the reader, are looking at two similar glasses of clear liquid from across the room.

So what is it going to be. Gin? Tonic? Or a perhaps mixture of both?