Building Our World at the 2014 Story World Summit

15274115575_d760ea450d_k Two years ago, I told Sean and Dave that I couldn’t ever imagine how two writers could write a book together.

Who does what?
How do you keep a storyline straight when two brains are working on it?
How do you make sure that one person doesn’t step all over another?

At the time, I’d written one big book and a couple of small ones by myself. The idea of sharing that creative process was baffling.

Two years later, Sean and I, working together, have churned out somewhere between 2-3 million words of collaborative fiction.

But still, even after learning how to work with another writer, I didn’t understand how a group of writers could work together. You see these rooms full of writers assembling TV shows, so I knew it could be done. But how? Who did what? How did they keep storylines straight when so many brains were working on them?

So when Sean, Dave, and I met with five other writers in Austin, Texas for the WorldBuilder Session of the Story World Summit a few weeks ago, I knew the idea was for all of us to build a story world together. But really, secretly, my Plan B — and how I figured things would actually happen — would be us teaching the attendees how to do stuff … like how to create compelling characters, build compelling story arcs, create outlines quickly and in compelling fashion, and so on. We’d instruct; they’d absorb.

Boy was I wrong.

How Sterling & Stone is Like Pixar

15087653608_40944dd77e_zOkay, so maybe we’re not like Pixar. Maybe nothing we do will ever be a household name.

But it was hard to be in that small, well-appointed room with eight people bouncing exciting ideas back and forth and not recall the stories you hear about companies like Pixar, when they were brand new, when nobody had heard much about them, when Toy Story was an insane idea in some crazy person’s head.

Plenty of small brainstorming meetings turn out to be nothing, of course. But a few turn out to be landmark events that the people involved look back on later and point to and say, “That’s where it all started.”

No matter what ends up happening — no matter whether the “open source fiction” story world that began with Fiction Unboxed and The Dream Engine blows up or flops and vanishes — that was exactly the mood in the room at the WorldBuilder Session September 13th and 14th.

When you’re an independent storyteller, it feels good to think big. It feels good to get those creative juices flowing, and to be around smart, highly driven people who push you forward. That’s what we all had going for each other. Everyone in attendance was smart, and the quality of the ideas they all brought was kind of astounding. The ideas we all created together were a planet past that. It turned me around on the idea of higher-number collaboration, making me a firm believer that while 1 + 1 can equal 5, 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 (and so on) can equal much more.

We didn’t have a glorified seminar, conference, or meet-up.

It was a mastermind, and it created a whole new world.

The New and Improved World of Alterra (and Beyond)

The whole point of the Summit was to create “rules” for the shared story world that we and any other writers who choose to write in it will need to obey. We were there to establish the world’s canon and get everyone on the same page. A world must have boundaries, a map, laws, rules, a history, key figures, and so much more. We had to establish that history, write those laws, and be able to give future writers a kind of “Ten Commandments” to follow.

We’ll have a formal list of those commandments soon, in the form of a revised version of the world documents Sean already sent out, I assume. For now I’ll give you a taste of what we decided.

And because I like to repurpose content, I’ll do it by pasting the body of an email I just sent to someone who asked, “Can you explain the world of The Dream Engine to me?”

My answer:

The Dream Engine is a steampunk young adult novel that we think of as “Steampunk Lord of the Rings,” but the WORLD isn’t YA and can include just about anything. We wrote the first book inside a fictional version of the UK called “Alterra,” and Alterra is surrounded by “the Fog” in which all sorts of nightmare fantasy creatures live.

The Fog is actually all of their own mental waste, because they have a whole dream-rape economy going on wherein the population’s dreams are mined for ideas that the Ministry of Manifestation then creates for the society to use. Anything that isn’t useful (nightmares, dark fantasies, incomplete and unarticulated thoughts, dragons and elves and trolls and shit) gets shoved out into the Fog. But people don’t know that; they think it’s just how things have always been.

The citizens don’t think there’s anything past the Fog (except “the ocean of Heaven”), but of course there is. At our “Story World Summit,” we had five attendees working closely with us to build their own stories into the world’s canon. We basically divvied up the rest of the earth, and put other “dream machines” (Alterra’s machine is called the Blunderbuss) on other continents for others to use. The other machines don’t work anymore, though, so everyone is after the one in Alterra, though the Alterrans don’t know this.The fun thing is that everyone else in the world has used their machines differently (nobody knows what they truly are or where they came from… we suspect they might be alien tests put here to fuck with humanity), so the other parts of the world are NOT steampunk.Australia is founded around a death cult, where the machine does weird shit with people’s souls when they die, turning some people into reapers.Africa’s swaps the essences of animals into humans.

Asia’s … I forget exactly what it does. But there’s monks and shit. (Sorry, Garrett. I know it was awesome but have too much in my head. Feel free to elaborate in this post’s comments.)

And America’s does something with mining the ground’s resources to build things, but that made the North American continent sink into the ocean, so they’re now a nomadic population in MOTHERFUCKING CITY-SIZED SPACESHIPS ala Battlestar Galactica. The North Americans have the most power in the game, with tons of sci-fi firepower at their disposal. The Dream Engine actually ends with our heroine coming out through the Fog to find a huge ship just floating above the ocean like an occupying force.

15273754982_4ab2f80242_zJust by reading the above, you start to see what we crafted in Austin. You start to see how big the world is becoming. Hopefully, if you’re a writer, you’re starting to get an idea of what sorts of stories you might write in the world. Anyone could write anything. Pretty much any genre, for any audience. It’s wide open.

Two of our WorldBuilder attendees (Amy and Monica) are writing stories that exist within Alterra’s borders, but the other three are writing out in the world. Here’s the buffet of what’s coming, all of which will be canon to the world:

Amy is writing about the Ministry of Decorum a handful of years in the past. Decorum is the ministry that Juliette, Eila’s mother, will eventually head. We’d mostly considered Decorum to be about making things pretty, but Amy’s twist turned it into a government body thick with espionage and conspiracy — something that will weigh heavily into Sean’s and my second and third books in the central Dream Engine series.

Monica’s series is, like ours, young adult. It centers on Joffrey Columns, the asylum we collectively decided would reside on an island that, once we’d decided Alterra was an alternate U.K., would be on our world’s analogue of the Isle of Man.

Kalvin is writing about the African continent and its machine, where the essences of animals and people are swapped, and where powers struggle to obtain the machine’s power.

Garrett is writing about the Asian machine. Their machine enhances human chi, but at a horrible cost to the planet, disrupting weather patterns and wreaking havoc across the land.

Matt is writing about Australia and its cult of reapers who harvest souls. He’ll most likely be writing his world of Kona as a serial, and his ideas so far are thoroughly haunting.

And Sean and Dave will be writing a Collective Inkwell book in the world. Of course Dave found a way to make it about misery and torment — lost loves being warped and born, brought to life in nightmares each night, then left to long in the daytime. The book’s audience is definitely not young adults due to the horror and general soul-twisting nature of CI’s work.

If all of those stories sound interesting, hang tight. We’ll be bundling all of the first books in those series with The Dream Engine and offering the bundle for free. Because all series will continue, and we want this world to be as huge and as compelling as possible.

Join Us …

15274130805_3250c9f664_zIn what I’ve just described, there are six new series beginning in the Alterra story world. That’s in addition to the core Realm & Sands Dream Engine series, which will continue with books 2 and 3 next year.

Amy is curating a short story collection in the world right now, in which nearly 20 writers have already leapt in to add their voices to the shared world.

We’ve heard from dozens of other writers who will be adding their voices to the world. As for every book in this world, those writers didn’t have to ask for permission or approval, and are free to publish and sell their books without paying us a cent in royalties. All profits are theirs to keep.

This is our experiment in open source fiction. We’re not controlling the world, nor are we asking for payment. It’s not our world (Sean and Johnny); it’s OUR world (everyone’s, working together). We’re doing this because we believe that the greater the number of people writing in the world, the bigger the collective benefit.

It’s not just about me and Sean writing our series of YA steampunk novels.

It’s not just about the eight people at the WorldBuilder session of our Story World Summit, collectively writing what will constitute the world’s canon in a handful of genres, serving different ages and demographics.

It’s about all of us. A giant room full of story. An unlimited group of writers in that big story meeting, all adding our voices to the mix. All pushing for the world to get bigger together, because when any of us win, everyone wins.

If you’ve already Unboxed, there’s no reason to wait. Get started with your stories now. The world will be constantly growing, and getting bigger and bigger. Sean is plotting out The Dream Engine 2 and 3 right now, and we’ll be writing those back to back, starting with The Dream Engine 2 (obviously) for Fiction Unboxed 1.5 this November, in conjunction with NanoWriMo.

Fiction Unboxed 1.5, it’s going to be a blast. It’s “broadcast only” this time, but that means that we’ll be able to be more linear, with an agenda ahead of time. We’ll be posting that soon, and sometime in November, during Unboxed 1.5 we’ll also have more information on The Colonist Session. We’ve yet to pick a date or location, but do know it’ll be in Spring of 2015, and that we’ll have a second World Builder Session in late summer or early fall.

If you’d like to participate in Fiction Unboxed 1.5, click here to join. As always, thanks for being here.


About Johnny B. Truant

Johnny started out as the writing everyman, barely managing a novel a decade. From there, he has become a storytelling superstar, pounding out a novel a month. He's the co-founder of Realm & Sands, as well as the host of the Self Publishing Podcast.


  1. AWESOME. I have been waiting for this post 🙂

    Also, here’s the link to the collection of short stories releasing in maybe 3 or 4 weeks. You can get on the email list for release news and it will be free:

    I didn’t curate it, but I developmentally edited every single story involved. All the authors are *super* excited to be writing in this world!

  2. God, I’m so excited to read all of those series! The DE world is going to ROCK!

    Are we going to have a name for the overall world? Alterra is the name of one piece of the world, but what is the world itself called?

    And what label will the cannon have that links them together? Something like: “[world name] Chronicles” or whatever would be sweet.

    • Johnny B. Truant says:

      The world is Terra, and yeah, the Alterrans were pretty much cocks for saying they’re the AL on TERRA to be more awesome. And the series is called “Engine World” as the largest categorization. Post coming soon about it all!

      • Blaine Moore says:

        Heh, nice.

        Looking forward to reading the canon books, and contributing more substantively after reading about all the new possibilities. (I’ve got a really short included in the anthology coming out, ~1k words.)

  3. I’m also really excited to see this up! I was just working on my short story for the anthology today and getting energized to get back to my outline for the longer series.

    My story starts at the Joffrey Columns but it will likely leave that area and explore more of Alterra (and hopefully, they will leave Alterra soon, too). Joffrey will play a huge part in the series though, in terms of flashbacks and explaining character motivations. I’ve shared the story with a few readers outside of our little group and they like the world a lot! Hopefully they’ll pick up TDE and get started with it.

    I can’t wait to read every single one of the stories that we discussed at the summit. Each one sounded very, very cool. So, so excited for next March!

  4. So excited to finally hear news about the world 🙂
    Sounds really great with the different continents.

    About the name for the world… Engine world is fine, but it’s kind of vague, and there’s a lot of competetion on Amazon for that search. Checked out some different searches on Amazon:

    1 result for Books : “Alterra Chronicles”
    6 results for Books : “Blunderbuss World”
    40 results for Books : “World of Alterra”
    8,412 results for Books : “Engine World”

    And I would love to move on with my book, but it’s still on hold, because I’m waiting for the 2.0 World Docs and the commandments. Do you have any idea when they will be available? And when they are available, will they include the other parts of the world too? Can’t wait to see them 😀

    And I’m very much looking forward to reading both the upcoming anthology and all the new canon books, when they come out. I think it’s a really great plan to bundle them and give them away. Such a great entry point for any new reader!

    • Johnny B. Truant says:

      I totally hear you on this, but check this out:

      Jack Worr pointed this out to me… there’s apparently a huge usage of the world “Alterra” in the story world out there, and we thought we’d get lost. And yes, “Engine World” will pull up books for sure, but look at them:

      The second one there is Jack’s, tagged as being in the “Engine World” series. The rest are loosely associated and would drop away beneath a popular shared series using that exact-match term.

      So in other words, although “engine” and “world” will end up pulling a lot of books, anything that’s exactly “engine world” is going to pop up to the top, because the others are incidental matches. Alterra, by contrast, isn’t just a match… it’s a match IN THE WORLD OF FANTASY FICTION. It will be much harder to not get lost in there.

      (BTW, I know that adding quotes and doing exact-match searches for phrases like “world of Alterra” narrows the field, but nobody searches that way. They’ll just plunk in Alterra. Or they may remember that the world is called Alterra, and one of their friends will say, “Oh, I know that series!” and send them to one of a dozen wrong Alterra series.)

      The commandments are coming TOMORROW on the blog and I believe the 2.0 world docs are soon to follow afterward, though Sean will need to be the one to say for sure on that one.

      • Hey Anita, if you have any questions at all, let me know and I’ll be happy to answer them. You’ll get a lot of stuff as 1.5 starts on 11/1, then full beats by the end of the month as I’m mapping out DE3. There’s a LOT of world stuff in the latest beats, but they’re a bit written in Jell0-O through the draft and I hate the idea of changing them on everyone if stuff gets shifted through the DE2 draft, which it undoubtedly will.

        • Hey Sean,

          Well, my questions are basically the same as they were before the Summit, so you can find them in the forums 🙂

          I’d prefer to write as close to canon as possible, but since I’ll be exploring the french coastline, I have nothing to build on, other than things that would NOT conflict directly with the 1.0 World Docs + DE1. And all my ideas did in fact not conflict with anything from my current knowledge, but they could easily conflict on almost everything from the 2.0 World Docs + all the new canon books.

          I know, we can never be 100% sure, that we won’t write something that will conflict with something written in the future from the canon writers, but it would be great to not conlflict five minutes later 😉

          And thanks for the offer.
          If the new World Docs will be available within the next month, I should be fine. I’m doing client stuff right now, and have another personal project that’ll keep me busy until then. I mostly want to read it all yesterday, to start working on it when my brain goes idle 🙂 I have had a dozen ideas since I wrote my first draft, but I don’t want to spend more time adding things, that I might just have to delete again, because it doesn’t fit the world.

          I’m just so excited for the world, that it’s hard to play the waiting game – lol 😀

      • There’s only 162 books if you search in the Kindle store. But if you search in books, you’ll get more than 8.000 books. I hope you’re right with all of this, though I’m not convinced.

        Let’s say I want to point someone to most of the books on Amazon. If all books in the world were tagged with “Alterra Chronicles”, and I did a search for that, and gave that link to someone, they’d see nothing but books from the world. If I do the same for “Engine World”, they’ll see SEO books, books about planes, trains and whatnot.

        Again, I really hope you’re right.
        If you’re not, we’ll still be able to point to [plug][/plug], where we’ll do our very best to list every book that will be published in the world 😉 But it would be kind of nice, to also have the books tagged with the best possible phrase on Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble etc.

        And yay, for the commandments being posted tomorrow! Best news since the Summit for sure 😀

        • Johnny, forgot to mention… you assume they’ll write “Engine World” as a phrase, but only write “Alterra”, instead of “Alterra Chronicles”/”World of Alterra”?

          Engine is just such a… used word. For all things with engines, not to mention the horrible SEO that will compete with it. Not horrible for what they do, but horrible, because those who write about SEO, will most likely be better at ranking stuff than us. I hope. Or they’re in the wrong business.

          If we look more broadly, then do a Google search.

          “Blunderbuss World”: We have an overwhelming presence at page 1 on Google for that term. Click on images, and behold the Blunderbussworld Twitter icon as the first image (with a fine ad for The Dream Engine incorporated). Number 7 is Jack’s book.

          “Engine World”: Ehm.. engines. No SEO, surprisingly, but real engines. Business sites about engines.. Jack’s book is not there. Can’t see it when I click images either. I do see a bonus image about the vagina being the most powerful engine in the world though.

          “Alterra World” is not doing much for us on Google right now, and it DOES compete with the excisting Alterra book series, which I will give you, is a pretty good reason to avoid that phrase. The same for “Alterra Chronicles” (there’s a Facebook page for that already, too).

          So, that would lead me back to the obvious choice – the same choice I made when I created the website to showcase the world and the books. I tested it on Amazon, googled it and looked up domain names. Blunderbuss World was a pretty clean slate, which means it’s easy to dominate on most fronts online. I can’t help it; I simply love that.

  5. I’ve been waiting for this one too. 🙂

    And I immediately contacted Garrett, since my Chinese monk-based story 1000 years ago is in the Beyond the Gate anthology too. Garrett, Let’s Talk.

  6. Australia has a death cult of reapers who harvest souls..?! Good thing we’re so isolated! I have a feeling once I read that story, I’m never going to sleep easily again,

  7. Dylan Perry says:

    I really need to read the Dream Engine. The world and the upcoming stories sound really great.

  8. Cathy Pelham says:

    This is so exciting. I know Johnny and Sean, you mentioned several times during Fiction Unboxed that the world would be open. But I did not realize how committed Sterling and Stone was to an open source community. I have read all of the short stories from the ‘Beyond the Gate’ anthology, and was so impressed with the inventiveness and unique voices of the anthology authors. Now your description of the stories coming from the canon authors is intriguing. I just want to read it all. Thanks for everything you have done for the Fiction Unboxed community. Can’t wait for 1.5.

    • @Cathy, you’re so welcome!

      @Anita, that’s a good argument. I don’t love how Blunderbuss World sounds, but I do think you’re right about domination. We’ll talk this over.

      • Engine World can work too, although I still feel it’s a bit vague. It will probably work well on Amazon, for all books with it in the title.

        But there will also be a lot of series, I presume, and then we will rely on search terms that are hidden, right? Since I’ve yet to upload a book to Amazon, I have no idea how that works, so perhaps it makes no difference whether it’ll be in the title or just tagged with the phrase.

        As said before, there is more than 8000 books coming up, when searching for that term, so we can hope, that they’ll search in the Kindle store alone, where there’s less competition.

        And about searching phrases. I do believe, that people actually will search whole phrases, when looking for something specific. If I look for Harry Potter books, I don’t search for Harry. I search for Harry Potter. The same will go for Engine World. In fact, that could be an advantage to that name, since no one will search for “Engine” and expect to find books relating to the world. They’ll definitely search the phrase. And if we’re all tagging with that exact phrase, there could be a good chance to dominate on that.

        Not sure if it’ll be likely to dominate Google with it in any way, but time will tell.

        I read Johnny’s reasoning for the name, and it totally made sense. And since there will be a place to point to, where all books (that we know of) will be showcased, then maybe you should just go with Engine World, for all the reasons that Johnny stated in the 13 commandments post.

        Should the world be really big, then perhaps we’ll have a shot at showing up on Google too. It’s far too early to say right now.

        I assume you haven’t tagged DE with it yet, since it doesn’t show up on Amazon, using that term?

  9. *Sees the first photo* *insert audience sound effect* AWWWWWW!!!
    You guys have me crying over here….I’m so glad you got to meet…(and it looks like Sean dwarfs both Dave and Johnny for some reason…maybe it’s just me).
    I’m looking forward to watching your worlds unfold and expand.
    “Everything is Awesome* from the LEGO movie plays in her head while she reads the article*
    *Signs up for Fiction Unboxed 1.5*

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