In 2018 I was offered a chance to join a growing Small Press, Shadow Alley Press, and contribute to a world I already loved reading, Viridian Gate Online. I jumped at the opportunity, and off took my author career with the care and guidance of my new team.
It took nearly 9 months to write the short story for the anthology “Side Quests” and the three books in the series; Firebrand, Embers of Rebellion, and Path of the Blood Phoenix (shamelessly adding links to all of these so you can see how beautiful the covers!). In that time, I learned so much, and I can’t wait to share it all with you, but today we’re specifically going to talk about Collaboration.
So, I joined the team and was instantly thrown into a world I understood fairly well at a reader level, but there was a lot more beneath the surface in the Viridian Gate universe, and another three authors who were also jumping in to contribute. Communication became essential, and collaboration was indispensable.
BUT, collaboration and communication are both hard. In the beginning, there were times I would be working on a game mechanic/feature for the series that I thought was completely harmless, and once I shared that information with the group at large, realized I was wrong. There were many times I shared something that contradicted someone else’s rules that they’d set up, and thus, a deep discussion was born around who’s feature/mechanic would win out and be adopted in the Universe as truth.
The most important factor here in keeping us all aligned were a few simple ground rule laid out by the Primary Author, James A. Hunter. I encourage that you adopt something similar if you plan on allowing other authors into your universe.
1. Create the most rad thing you possibly can, and have fun doing it
Rule #1 is simple. You have to enjoy what you’re doing, and you have to be excited about what you’re creating, or the reader will know. They’ll feel your dislike, or apathy, throughout the work. It is so important that we first create something we love, and second make sure we can make it fit into the bounding boxes of Universe and Genre rules. Making something you love will make it easier to follow rule #2
2. Bend the rules, and if you can’t, just wave your hands
If you’ve got this thing that you love, and it’s amazing, but there’s an established rule that prevents you from doing that thing, it’s time to get the team on board for bending the rule. Create a new game mechanic, add a new ability, make up a minor deity, open a dimensional rift where time passes more slowly… Do whatever you can do to make your awesome thing come to life, without breaking the rules.
The character I wrote for, Abby Hollander – fire slinging badass game developer, was with the Primary Author’s character all the time. It was SO hard for me to develop her own story, because her path intertwined with the main character from the primary series so much. I resorted to many of the above things I listed, including the “dimensional rift” where time passes more slowly and creating new deities (four to be exact). This was all in service of getting out a story that I really loved, every step of the way.
Wave those hands
When I couldn’t bend the rules, I was forced to wave my hands. **MINOR SPOILER ALERT FOR THE BOOK SERIES – SKIP ALL THIS IF YOU WANT TO READ AND NOT BE SLIGHTLY SPOILED***
In the primary series (MC=Jack), Abby and her companion Otto take off for this giant library, and, according to Jack’s story, they spent FIVE DAYS in the sewers trying to escape the city because the bad guys caught up to them. That would’ve been a VERY boring book. No. I couldn’t write that. So, I didn’t, and then when it came for the characters to meet back up and admit how they were lost in the sewers for forever, I just said “We filled him in on the details of our trip, and how Carerra’s goons caught up to us,” so I didn’t at all have to LIE about what Jack’s book said Abby did, and what Abby’s book said Abby did… I waved my hands and got away with it. Literally no one, even people very familiar with the primary series, did not call that out.
3. Use every tool anyone else has developed to your advantage
There were many a times I would go to our group slack channel and ask “Does something exist for the tailoring talent tree” or “Does anyone have the light cloth armor bonuses.” It is a BIG universe, with lots going on, and James Hunter did not want all of us reinventing the wheel every time we wanted to go for a spin. In this case, collaboration was key. If there was something in progress, we’d work together to tailor it to fit our needs. If something was already created, often times I’d leave the things I didn’t need to use quite vague (like the talent trees for the 3 other sorcerer classes that Abby did not choose to go down). That particular example came quite in handy when another contributing author, N.H. Paxton, needed a specific type of ability to be available for a specific character. We were able to tailor the Frostlock (ice sorcerer) talent tree to fit those needs, and let him use the rules to his advantage instead of having to bend them, or wave his hands.
4. Don’t be a butthole
Fortunately, we didn’t encounter many issues collaborating and compromising on incomplete features, and I think it was because of how strongly Shadow Alley Press believes in this rule. If you’re a butthole, you don’t get to join the team. If you act like a butthole once you’re in the team, you get a talkin-to, usually by the very person you were a butthole to, because we’re all open and honest with one another about what’s going on. In every case I was aware of where butthole behavior occurred, it was the standard “I am a human and have bad days and sometimes I get upset” problem. No one was actively trying to prevent anyone else from getting to do the things that made them happy, and made their story awesome, because we knew that Rule #1 was so important to Shadow Alley Press’ mission.
So, that was a small snippet of my journey from self-pub to small press author, joining a huge universe, and making three amazing stories that I love.
There were so many other moments throughout the process where I got to work with the other authors, and help them develop their own stories, and get great input from them on mine… and I even got to write in an awesome crossover with N.H. Paxton that tickled me purple with delight.
That’s NOT to say the whole endeavor was sunshine and rainbows.
It was the hardest writing thing I’d EVER done, and one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. Communicating is hard, and never perfect. You can’t know when you’re going to need to tell someone something, what they’re doing, what they’ve done, until you read their book and understand it. I think going forward, if I were ever to participate in another huge universe collab like that again, I think weekly meetings with the authors of “here’s the new things I changed from the outline, here’s an important tidbit, and here’s an idea I’m thinking about adding” would be instrumental in ensuring we’re all doing the talking thing good.
Obviously I’m all out of words at this point. Writing is hard. Communicating is hard. Trying to do both is REALLY hard, but if you follow some good rules and everyone respects them, you can make something amazing.
Peace out kiddies.