5 Tips on World-Building Through Collaboration

Sometimes, working closely with a friend means that you’ll see both their genius and their foibles more distinctly. With all that in mind, here are five tips for world-building collaboratively and successfully.
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by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell

The idea of collaboration often evokes a certain starry-eyed fascination for writers. The opportunity to work with someone else, to not feel alone in the creation process, the promise of camaraderie, fun, maybe an inside joke or two, and of course, the sense that you’re doing something together, with shared purpose—all of it is a rare and heady feeling for a writer. And all of those things are true of collaboration. Collaboration is fun. What’s not to like about more brains and more ideas when devising a fictional world? What’s not to like about stories and world-building that are more interesting, spiky and strange than anything that a single individual could come up with? And there is, without question, a pleasure in working with another person instead of all alone.

That said, there are pitfalls. We’ve seen friendships end because of collaboration projects. Feelings can be hurt. Sometimes, working closely with a friend means that you’ll see both their genius and their foibles more distinctly. With all that in mind, here are five tips for fostering a good collaboration project.

1. Choose your collaborators carefully.

Here are some questions to ask about your future collaborators: Do you like them? Are they team players? Do you respect their writing? Do they have high standards? Do they bring things to the table that you can’t? Do their values about storytelling and art mesh well with yours? Why do you want to work with these particular people?

Much like a relationship, you’re going to be connected to these people for a long time after you start collaborating creatively—possibly forever if the story or world you’re creating is one that turns out to have legs.

So before you go rushing into a long-term relationship, make sure that you really want to be connected to that other person, or people, forever after. The more you enjoy the company of your collaborators, the more you respect the artistry of their work, and the more you trust that they’re reliable co-workers, the better chance you have of having a good collaboration experience.

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2. Make sure that you’re all on the same page creatively.

Take time to figure out what each of you finds most interesting about the project, and discuss openly what you want to accomplish, whether that’s story elements or themes, or details of the world you’re creating together. What are the things you love to write about? What do your collaborators love to write about? How can you make sure that you’re all getting to tell the kinds of stories that you find creatively satisfying?

When we were developing the world of THE TANGLED LANDS and writing, we used Skype and Google docs to collaboratively build a hit-list of ideas that we wanted to work with. We talked over everything from how Khaim functioned as a city, to how magic would work, to the gods, to plots that we wanted to see, and each of these topics opened up points of conversation, as well as discussion about what we thought worked, what we liked, and what we wanted. It’s fun to brainstorm, but it's important to make sure that the world and story you’re building is one that satisfies everyone. You have to make sure you agree about the fundamentals of how the world works at the start, or there will be tension later.

3. Be clear about how work is going to be divided.

Is one person drafting, and the other person re-writing? Is it a shared world where everyone will contribute stories, and then critique one another’s stories, but not rewrite or touch one another’s individual prose? Will one person write one chapter and the next person write the next chapter?

Be clear and up front about how work will be divided. And be equally clear about what will happen if someone isn’t doing the work that’s expected. We’ve seen collaboration projects bog down because one person or another suddenly lost interest, stopped delivering work, refused to revise, or simply flaked and stopped communicating. One collaboration team we know decided to draw up a contract between them so that their work responsibilities were clear, with clear contractual consequences if one of them stopped writing chapters. At that point, the other person was entitled to take over the project entirely, and would take ownership of the rights as well. It might sound harsh, but they wanted to have clear rules because they’d seen other collaboration projects fall apart when one person stopped being willing to work.

4. Create a contract that specifies how decisions about money get made.

Our agents very quickly sat us down and walked us through why we needed a contract that specified very clearly how we made decisions about what publishing offers to accept. At the time, it seemed a bit alarmist, but after reading a few tales of creatives who fell out over money, the reasons for having a straightforward framework became clear. We needed to define how we would mutually say yes or no to opportunities and how any money made off the world-building would be shared. We valued our friendship, and while signing a contract to protect that sounds weird, it was important.

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5. Have fun!

Always remember that you decided to do this because it sounded like fun to work with someone else. Deadlines, revisions, the complexities of sharing work instead of having total control, can all put pressure on a project. For us, in the moments when things got difficult, it was good to step back and reevaluate what we were trying to accomplish, and to focus back on the elements that were most fun. Whenever we got together on Skype or in person to bounce ideas around we had a blast. Whenever the fun faded we would let the project sit a bit. In the long run, this has meant that we can keep coming back to the world we built, still eager to spend time collaborating, and continuing to delight in working with a partner.

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Paolo Bacigalupi is the New York Times bestselling author of The Windup GirlShip BreakerThe Drowned CitiesZombie Baseball BeatdownThe Doubt Factory, The Water KnifePlump Six and Other Stories, and The Tangled Lands. His writing has appeared in WIRED,High Country NewsSalon, OnEarth MagazineThe Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. He has won the Michael L. Printz, Locus, Hugo, Nebula, Compton Crook, and John W. Campbell awards. Website: windupstories.comTwitter:@paolobacigalupi 


Tobias Buckell is the New York Times bestselling author of Halo: The Cole Protocol and The Tangled Lands. His other novels and more than fifty short stories have been translated into seventeen languages. He has been nominated for the Hugo, the Nebula, the Prometheus, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Author. He lives with his family in Ohio. Website: tobiasbuckell.com Twitter: @tobiasbuckell

Online Course: World-Building in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing

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In this original workshop, The New York Times best-selling author and veteran editor Philip Athans, author of The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction (Adams Media 2010), gets into some detailed techniques for creating worlds for fantasy and science fiction stories, novels, screenplays, and games, and how those elements can best serve the most important aspects of your writing: characters and story. Learn more and register.

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