by Mary Anne Mohanraj
This is only partly a blog post about Wild Cards; it’s as much about
Ellen Kushner’s Tremontaine, which is the OTHER shared world series I
write for. The experiences of writing for both were so different, I
thought it might be interesting to compare and contrast.
Tremontaine is part of Serial Box, a new project to bring serialized
fiction to life, modeled on the tv episode format. A group of writers
hang out together in a writers’ room, and together they come up with
characters, setting, and a pretty tight plot, that works its way over
thirteen ‘episodes,’ each a long story, but the whole making something
kind of halfway between a novel and a tv series. For Tremontaine, we
already had the setting, since the series is jumping off a set of
books by Ellen Kushner, set in Riverside and its environs, a land of
swordfights, gay repartee, and political maneuverings.
When I first joined Tremontaine, in its second season, I actually flew
out to New York to do a long weekend intensive workshop with the other
writers – then we wrote our parts separately, but with lots of online
collaboration (through Slack). There was much reading of each others’
drafts, much commenting, much rewriting to make things mesh together.
It’s not a process that allows for a lot of ego, because you need to
be constantly willing to amend your ideas (and even your favorite
characters) to make things work for the rest of the group.
Wild Cards, by contrast, is more individualized. Certainly the
original concept was tightly woven, and while I wasn’t involved in the
first dozen books, my impression is that there was plenty of
collaboration. There still is – we use each others’ characters
constantly (and are encouraged to do so by our esteemed editor), and
in some of the more mosaic novels, intersecting plots are tightly
intertwined. Others have a main throughline story, what we call the
‘interstitial,’ and then a sequence of individual tales that intersect
with the main interstitial story.
That takes quite a bit of editorial work too, but there’s a very
different feel to how the project goes; the main responsibility for
making sure all the parts sync up lies with the writer of the
interstitial, and of course with George R.R. Martin, who is carefully
editing all of our individual pieces, and then making sure they work
with the rest of the book. George is the one who holds the entire
universe in his head, and makes sure that new characters we come up
with don’t simply duplicate powers seen a few books ago. He (along
with assistant editor Melinda Snodgrass) also pushes us to simply make our
stories better – to go deeper, avoid the easy answers. Sometimes I
can be a little too kind to my characters; I want to give them happy
endings. George and Melinda – well, they don’t have that weakness.
I wouldn’t say either method is better – but they feel very different,
and I think they end up creating different kinds of worlds. There are
many other ways you could build a shared world – one traditional
epistolary form involves simply exchanging letters to a friend in
character, discovering the characters, the world, and the story as you
- You can plan everything out in advance, you can make things up as
you go along. If the world gets big enough, I do recommend keeping a
series bible, where you keep track of all the details of names and
places and other significant matters, because eventually, it’ll
probably get too big for anyone to hold it all in their head at once.
At Wild Cards, we do a lot of consulting with each other to check
details – “Hey, in 1957, what exactly was happening in Sri Lanka in
the Wild Cards world?” Like that.
A shared world isn’t, I think, for anyone who is too protective of
their own characters, their own words. The joy of it is in part from
seeing what other writers can do with what you created. Occasionally
you’ll want to exert a little authorial control, “No, Natya would
NEVER speak that way. She likes women too, remember?” But mostly, I
think shared worlds work best if you let your characters roam a little
bit, take on slightly new shapes and forms. People evolve over time,
after all – so should characters, and stories. I’m looking forward to
seeing where Wild Cards takes my characters next.