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Collaborative working - Weaving This Twisted Earth

This week I'm joined by Dion Winton-Polak, editor of This Twisted Earth, a shared-world anthology I recently enjoyed very much. I asked him along to talk about creating - and managing - such a project.

Weaving This Twisted Earth.

‘A mountain of brightness piled behind her now; a myriad threads of all that might be. The Moirai took up their work once more and, satisfied, resumed their collaboration.’
-from The Fates, Disarrayed (Anon.)

I must have been mad.

What other explanation could there be? I’d already learned that I wouldn’t make any money putting out a small press book, courtesy of last year’s royalty cheque. (It didn’t cover the cost of the brain cakes. Don’t ask.) It’s one thing to get back on the horse – gaining experience, building a c.v. – but who in their right mind decides that their second ever book should be an open-subs shared-world anthology where All Of Time has become tangled up? I mean, all the wading, the brain-freezing breadth of concept; the sheer logistics of the whole operation… And to try to make it feel like a single cohesive world instead of a themed bunch of disparate stories? Utterly bonkers.

Hell, it’s been fun though.

The idea for This Twisted Earth came to me as a kid. Eleven or twelve, maybe? Ach, you can read about its genesis in my Introduction should you ever pick the book up. The main point is that it all felt too much for me. I could fit aspects of it into my skull but not its size. Every time I crammed a bit more in here a bit more squeezed out over there in a bid to escape. The scale overwhelmed me. I had never quite gotten into the habit of writing so it never felt like I’d be able to do the thing justice. Rotten coward. It seemed too good a concept to ditch though, so it floated around my imagination for years (smacking me with the guilty-stick every so often, and occasionally stabbing me with the pointy end) until I eventually got myself in a position where I could do something about it. You can add the Wayne’s World wibbly-wobbly flashback sound-effects here, if you like…if you like…if you like…

A couple of years ago I tried my hand at putting together an anthology of short stories for KnightWatch Press. The learning curve was steep, the workload was tremendous, but Sunny, with a Chance of Zombies was a book I could be proud of. Damned proud. So I panicked, naturally. I couldn’t stand the thought of slumping back into normal life, which meant I immediately started pitching for more gigs. I had a few fun ideas to throw at the wall but the (patiently foot-tapping, gently coughing, and eventually frying pan-Whanging) Twisted Earth concept decided that Now was its time. I tossed it out there casual-like and the publisher snapped it up. So that was it then. I was screwed. Except I wasn’t. I mean, I might not have the stats to write it myself, but Sunny showed me a myriad of keen authors out there who could be inspired, and the talent pool was vast. This Twisted Earth…Open submissions…It suddenly seemed the most natural solution in the world.

How to make it a shared world, though? It was important to me, this notion that all these pulpy adventures would be happening in one place. Over the years I’d spent so much time imagining what it might be like, how it might ‘work’ as a secondary world, that securing of this element became fundamental to its success. Facebook offered me something of a solution with its Group function. I needed a bit of a run-up before things really got going but the more I talked to people about the project – approaching various writers groups, talking up the concept online, pitching it through Geek Syndicate and suchlike – the more people joined. I had some very definite ideas about certain aspects of the world, and these were laid out from the start as a rough framework. The rest could be woven from communal discussion, passing the threads to and fro between us. I invited others to question, challenge, expand upon, and generally investigate both practical and narrative possibilities, and This Twisted Earth became a shared world in a different kind of way; a product of genuine co-creation.

We set up a couple of spin-off Groups to give folks with different focal points the space and freedom to dig into their interests. The ‘World-Breakers’ tested how This Twisted Earth might work, positing different scenarios and debating how far we could take things. Meanwhile, our ‘Creative Play’ area provided a safe space to experiment with narrative threads, plot possibilities out, and be a commonplace book to scribble poetry, songs, or whatever into. Some people got very involved with the groups but many others merely watched from the side-lines, presumably making copious notes and only occasionally popping their heads up to ask for clarification. When Adrian Tchaikovsky got involved he requested a World Bible to be set up, and that’s when things seemed to kick up a gear. If I did it all again that’s the first thing I’d get into place and, as I navigate my way towards future volumes, I think that updating and expanding upon this document will be key to mapping out our narrative insanity for newcomers and old hands alike.

The cohesive factor took a little finessing in the editorial process, talking things through with the authors to avoid inter-contradictions and to help solidify certain aspects. I also seized upon some serendipitously similar imagery to start working up a piece of shared history which will be expanded upon in the next volume. It would never have existed if not for the hive mind! I wound up writing a stack of story snippets, lyrics, poetry, and the like myself, to slot in between our main stories. It felt…right to do so. This was my means to help draw connections between the narratives – my warp to their weft – layering in Twisted Earth lore to give the world more texture and depth, and tying things together. I hope to continue this structure in future volumes, perhaps using contributions from the Creative Play group when appropriate.

How well did it all work? I’ll leave that for others to judge, but I now have a book on my shelf which I’ve dreamed about for decades. Early reviews are complimentary and all speak well of how wide the scope is, yet how it still manages to hang together. (Job done!) My authors seem happy and are raring to give it another go. In fact, a few of them have kindly chipped in to tell you how they found the experience:

‘Having never played in a shared-world sandbox, I had no idea what to expect. The practicality of it all, though, was made seamless and easy by the editor’s thoughtful direction.’
-Dave de Burgh

‘I was drawn to the project by chance, browsing a liked Facebook post of a friend. It was the premise that hooked me.’
-Jacob Prytherch

‘Once I found the world-builder page and saw comments from so many other people, I enjoyed being a part of something. It was a bit different to writing on your own.’
-Drew Bassett

‘It really helped to get an idea of the kind of things people were thinking about for the universe. The editing experience was a good cooperative creative experience.’
-Matt Lewis

So, that’s my story then – well, one of them – but it’s also kind of a pitch to you all. Do you think you’d like to get involved? Join our Twisted Earth Facebook group and start asking awkward questions? There’s nothing quite like poking things with a stick to get things moving after all, and Volume 2 isn’t going to write itself. Drop me a line if you like. I’ll send you an invite. Got your own ideas or best-practices for how shared-world projects can be run successfully? I’m all ears and happy to make new acquaintances. Feel free to grab me on Facebook and Twitter, or post your comments below. I look forward to meeting you.

Thanks for reading.

Dion Winton-Polak

This Twisted Earth - which I very much recommend - can be found at:

Dion balances his dedication to Geekdom with his family, his full-time day job, and his freelance editing work.  He hosted a podcast and wrote reviews for Geek Syndicate in his spare time until he realised he no longer actually had any. He lives in Wales with his wife, his daughter, and two murderous cats.