The Engine World Commandments (For Writers in the Dream Engine‘s Open-Source Fiction World)

The-Dream-EngineOne of my favorite things about Fiction Unboxed and the novel it spawned (The Dream Engine) came out of nowhere, as part of our funding the project through Kickstarter.

We decided that the world our book took place in wouldn’t just be an open story world in which others could write … but that it would actually be something we call “open-source fiction”: a system in which any writer, anywhere, at any time, within any genre, could write and sell a book within the world without asking permission or owing us royalties of any kind.

Now, because dozens of writers are already hopping in to write stories, books, and full-on series in this world (what’s better baseline marketing than joining a world that already has fans?) and we only expect that number to dramatically grow over the years, ballooning further with every book we write. It would be impossible to keep up with it all.

We can’t read it all, and we definitely can’t (and wouldn’t) try to ensure that our “canon” books agreed with every single person’s stories.

Necessarily, as with fan fiction, the direction of authority in this world had to move in one direction: from canon works outward.

That means that stories written in the world, if they’re to be taken seriously and enjoyed by readers, should be consistent with canon works … but that canon, as it expands, can’t worry about trying to be consistent with everything else has been written in the world.

Still, we and our fellow world-builders (the five authors who joined us at the WorldBuilder session of the Story World Summit) didn’t want to leave all of you out there hanging, with no idea what we might write and discover in future books! So we decided on a halfway solution that establishes some ground rules … without hamstringing our creative process as we proceed.

We decided to write down some commandments that we can all agree to follow. 

Let’s begin, starting with a bit of administrative stuff before getting into the nitty gritty of story.

COMMANDMENT#1: The Story World’s Name Is “Engine World”

Not “Dream Engine world” and not even “the world of Alterra,” as we’ve been saying up until this point. Jack Worr was, to my knowledge, the first person to cross the finish line and publish in the world: The Very Last Days of Mr. Greyand Jack emailed me with the excellent point that books describing a world called “Alterra” are all over the place. Just search for it on Amazon and you’ll see.

We don’t want your books to get lost in a flood of unrelated books, so “World of Alterra” was a terrible choice — doubled because “Alterra” is just Eila’s country, and there’s an entire planet beyond the Fog.

We’ll get to this in just a few commandments, but there are actually several other Blunderbuss-type machines strewn throughout the world. Only the Alterran machine is called “Blunderbuss,” but its nickname (the “dream engine”) is echoed in the machines on other continents.

Africa’s is the “spirit engine.” Asia’s is the “Zen engine.” So they’re all engines. Hence, “Engine World.”

COMMANDMENT#2: If You Want To Link Your Books To Other Books In Our Shared World, Tag Them As Part Of The “Engine World” Series

Most booksellers allow you to designate a series name for your book or story. If you already have a series name in mind, then knock yourself out and use that (i.e., if you’re going to write in this world, but are planning several related books in your own series).

Please do not label your book as being part of the “Dream Engine” series.

You’re writing in our world, but you’re not a book in our series, so that would be silly.

SO: if your book does not have a series name of its own already and you want to “join a series” as a way of linking your books with other, unrelated authors writing in the same world (i.e. people who are not you but are writing in the same world as you), then insert “Engine World” as your series name.

Now, obviously, the Dream Engine books and books written by others in the same world but tagged as being their own dedicated series names DO STILL take place in the Engine World. But you can’t designate books as being in two series at once, so for books with their own series names (like ours), their connection to Engine World will have to be handled via a note in your product description (which we recommend), also-boughts recommended by booksellers, and so on.

Dragon1COMMANDMENT#3: There Are Only 8 Canon Authors In Engine World 

Basically, don’t worry about your books’ facts needing to be verified as in-world gospel. You’ll want your story to agree with the commandments here and any canon works you’ve read, but otherwise don’t sweat the necessity to get every little detail right because you may derail other authors.

Engine World works are several large steps above “fan fiction” (and you can actually sell it and keep all the proceeds, assuming you’re cool about not ripping off our core characters) but fan-fic rules still apply. Stories in the world will be enjoyed with the understanding that they are not canon, and hence do not need to all agree.

The writers whose works are considered canon those who attended the WorldBuilder Session of our 2014 Story World Summit this September: Me, Sean, and Dave of course, plus Amy, Matt, Kalvin, Monica, and Garrett. (I’ll let them decide how fully they want to out themselves in terms of full names and whatnot when we release a box set next year.)

So that’s the admin. Now, on to the fun story stuff!

COMMANDMENT #4: The World Currently Has 10 Engines 

‘Nuff said. I’ll elaborate a bit about the ones we’ve defined further down.

COMMANDMENT#5: The Planet Is Called “Terra” And (Mostly) Uses The Real Earth Map

Yes, the world is called “Terra.” Yes, the people in Alterra named their country (which uses the UK map, minus Ireland) what they did because they think they’re King Shit of the world. But by and large you can consider “Terra” to be Earth. Ireland is even still there; it’s just outside the Fog.


COMMANDMENT #6: North America Is Pretty Much Gone, And Its Citizens Are Adrift

The one exception to “Terra is Earth” is North America. Turns out the North Americans, whose region we named “Nova,” used their machine’s power to mine the living hell out of their continent sufficient to cause it to disintegrate and more or less sink, leaving something like an archipelago named The Badlands, which is like “steampunk western.”

See, each of the machines produces something and consumes something, but all of the continents have used their machines differently. The Nova engine seeps raw materials from the ground to build. After enough time, the ground under the Novans’ feet grew sick of this and got the hell out of there.

By The Dream Engine’s present timeline, Nova has become a nomadic people who cruise the globe in enormous seaships and airships. What happened with humanity in Battlestar Galactica is an apt analogy. Except that they’re the major power in the world excepting only their inability or unwillingness to pierce the Alterran Fog and have established many colonies.

COMMANDMENT#7: Alterra Itself Has A Map!

One of the most fun things we did at the WorldBuilder Summit was to draw a map for Alterra. Two of our canon attendees, Amy and Monica, will write works that take place within Alterra itself. So we sketched out a UK, added locations, and then posted it on Twitter. S&S faithful awesome fan Anita then drew this amazing map for us.

Alterra map

COMMANDMENT #8: Alterra Is The Only Place With A Fog … Partly Because They’re The Only Place Whose Engine Still Works

The people inside of Alterra (minus some government higher-ups) don’t know there’s a world outside the Fog, and if you read the book, you’ll know that the Fog is basically composed of all of their mental waste, fantasy horrors, and nightmares. But the rest of the world’s machines have inexplicably ceased working a long time ago, and hence no longer generate waste.

The people outside the Fog know that Alterra exists behind its wall of terrors, but the machine’s continued functioning keeps them from trying to broach it. The sole existing engine in the world makes Alterra extremely powerful and potentially dangerous.

COMMANDMENT #9: The World’s Engines Are Connected Through The Rooms That Appear To Be Inside The Convenience

Remember how Eila walked down through the huge waste management machine in the Doer district on her way to Pavilion? She saw all sorts of odd rooms in there as she descended. We haven’t worked out all of the mechanics, but in short you can consider that central space, with all those rooms, to be “connections” between the Alterran Blunderbuss and the world’s other engines.

COMMANDMENT #10: Only Canon Works May Define The Location, Origin, Or Function Of The World’s Engines, Which Are As Follows:

A lot of this is still quite malleable, but here are our currently defined engines:

1. The engine in Australia (called “Kona”), initially to be explored by our canon worldbuilder Matt, converts energy between life and death. All non-Alterran engines no longer function, but this one in particular has “gone sour.” Think of the ground in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary and you’ll have the idea. Kona is ruled by death cults and has created a culture of “reapers.”

2. Africa, now called “Biafra,” has an engine that used to be able to transfer the “essences” of animals into people for a period of time. Kalvin is the groundbreaker in this world, which he calls “Nigerian steampunk.” (Oh, the possibilities!)

3. Garrett’s series chronicles the engine in Asia — a continent now called Kazmier. This machine is fully dead but has spawned a group of guardian monks who pretty much just sit around it all day waiting for occasional “coughs” as the thing sparks back to momentary life. This has something to do with pianoforte events in Alterra.

4. The North American machine (an area I’ve already renamed here: “Nova”) sunk with the rest of the majority of their continent. Before going BSG-nomadic in their giant air- and seaships, the Novans developed rather extensively in a microchip-based, sci-fi direction, leaving nothing but wasteland (western steampunk) behind.

5. The remaining engines are currently still undefined, but this commandment says you’d do best to stand back and wait for us to define them before going too far down rabbit holes in those regions.

COMMANDMENT #11: Prior To The Rise Of The Fog, All Of Terra Traded Globally (With Many Alterran Colonies)

If you read very closely, you may remember mentions in The Dream Engine of things that shouldn’t have been there. They drink coffee; they use sugar; they understand what a “monkey” is. None of those things exist inside the UK.

The culture knows what it knows because it once traded with the world (beyond the earliest memories of present-day citizens) and because somewhere, somehow, underhanded trading still happens.

Note: The fact that Alterra also used to be buddy-buddy with the rest of the world but is now all snooty and isolationist behind its wall of monsters probably hasn’t improved global impressions of and moods about the place today.


COMMANDMENT #12: Nobody Actually Understands The Engines

They think they know what what the engines do, but they don’t.

Without being all heavy-handed and thematic, one of the key things we want to say in this series has to do with human shortsightedness, sloth, and greed. People want things easy and they want them now, and the engines are excellent at giving them what they want via what should seem a bit like a classic “monkey’s paw” gambit. It’ll work for them, but it makes no judgment about what negative consequences may or may not accompany the “obviously correct” function of the machine.

We know that all of them once did or still do convert energy from one form to another and that they produce waste. But it’s not necessarily apparent to its users that there is waste, or what that waste looks like. If they see it, they surely turn a blind eye and ignore it.

Nobody really gets what any of the machines are or knows where they came from. They have “always been” in the minds of the citizens of Terra. Nobody knows how they’re interrelated (or that they are) or even necessarily that there are other machines in existence beyond the one/ones they know.

COMMANDMENT #13: Non-Canon Works Should Not Use Canon Characters Except As Mentions 

Our core characters are all we have, and we can’t have a bunch of unknown hands changing them as we go. Please stick to only “walk-on” mentions if you choose to mention them at all.

These 13 Commandments will all be included in the World Docs 2.0, which will be available sometime in November.

So that’s it! That’s all you need to know. Now go out there, pen your masterpieces, spread the word, and have fun!

We’ll go into much, much more detail about the world during the upcoming Fiction Unboxed 1.5 project, where we’ll be writing The Dream Engine 2 with all our story meetings and raw words captured live. It’s a lot like the first Fiction Unboxed, but with a cleaner day-by-day structure that wasn’t possible the first time around.

If you’d like to participate in Fiction Unboxed 1.5, you can click here to join. If you’re already a Sterling & Stone Platinum Reader (formerly Sterling & Stoner), then the 50% off discount coupon is already in your Members Library!


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. Clarifying question:
    Are we using this hand-drawn approximation of the UK and NOT the actual coastline/shape of the UK?
    (distances and details/nuances of the shape and all are different between the actual country this)

  2. I love this post! I’ll read it again and again, to let every little detail sink in.
    Thank you 😀

    I’d love to do a better world map, if I can have some pointers to what should be there, what should not and with some general instructions. The fanart was made from the map you made at the Summit, so it’s pretty basic. As discussed briefly with Johnny earlier, we could make the map in layers, so we can add new stuff over time. Let me know if it’s something you’re interested in, and if so, I’d love to see a rough sketch pointing out differences from our world to this world (new names, regions that doesn’t exists etc). I’d probably want to do it in vektor, which will be a bit more time consuming for me, but also be the best way to ensure that it could be printet, if we wanted to do so, and we could “zoom in” and show countries separately too. Anyway, – you know where to find me 😉

    Question 1:
    “…somewhere, somehow, underhanded trading still happens.”
    Is this an opening for me to use? 😀 I so want to write about fog pirates, and as I read all this, there’s no reason that I can’t do it. That I can see… so am I missing something, or would that be okay? I have 4 projects in mind (all for children), but there will be cross-overs from each project, and the fog pirates are one of the projects. They would not be known to many in Alterra.

    Question 2:
    Do we know where the other engines are located? Roughly? I assume there won’t be an engine in our France, since Alterra has one, right next door.

    Question 3:
    Who handles/developes Europe? Sean, Johnny & Dave?
    Do we know what our France will be called?

    Question 4:
    The characters that could be added by the FU participants are not mentioned here. Will those be canon or open to visit for our own original characters? If yes to the latter, will they be part of the World Doc?

    I’m so excited about this world! 😀

    • (I love how thorough you are 🙂 )

      • I love how this world has evolved from the Summit.
        You all did a great job 😀

        Which reminds me, that I forgot something.

        Question 5:
        Will there be info from the each of the canon writers about “their” part of the world? Perhaps you know this, Amy?

        • I have not been asked to provide anything specifically, but of course I’m only half way through writing the first draft of my first book, so who knows how the World Docs will evolve in the future

          • Johnny B. Truant says:

            Hey Anita!

            Honestly, the idea of the ten commandments is to give people an idea how to stay close to canon without creating a comprehensive bible, for one simple reason: we can’t commit on what we haven’t yet thought about. So we haven’t named France and there’s no thought of an engine there… but that doesn’t mean there won’t be later on. With a world this big, it’ll be impossible for us to stay up with what other writers are doing. So basically, you CAN name France or anything else you don’t see specifically mentioned in the commandments, but we might contradict you later and it’s way too jumbled to try and communicate those consistencies outside of the core, canon group (the Summit attendees and us).

            So I’d consider the commandments to be the things you should definitely follow, but we don’t know (and can’t/won’t yet commit, as it binds the creative process down the road) a lot that’s beyond it. Nature of the beast, but that’s okay, I think. This isn’t fan fiction, but the same rules apply. People will understand that your work isn’t canon and it’s unrealistic to try too hard to ensure that we’re all always consistent with each other.

            I think that any writer outside canon who wants to write in the world should consider reading canon works available at the time of their own writing and say their work is “consistent as of now.” That may change with new books, but again… nature of the project.

            I don’t see any reason not to write about fog pirates, but again, as above … we might contradict you later because it’s still clay. 🙂

            And the characters from participants will be in the World Docs 2.0!

          • Thanks, Johnny. That was a perfect answer 🙂

            I will just go with the commandments as they are presented here, and create my own little world from that. I agree, that it would be impossible to make everything align, simply because you might add things later, that will invalidate my choices/story. I’ll perhaps avoid naming France for as long as I can, and hope that a canon writer will do that before I need it (or live with the fact, that my name isn’t following canon).

            I really like the commandments. Shouldn’t be too hard to follow for any of us 🙂

            Well, – then I’m only waiting for me. Haha 😀

    • LOVE the idea of fog pirates!

    • Crissy Moss says:

      Question #1… I was thinking of some of those Nova ships, and how they trade under the fog. Why wouldn’t a few of them go rouge? LOL

      • Johnny B. Truant says:

        I think trade across the Fog happened in the PAST, but again, the commandments are all we’re willing to commit to for now. 🙂

  3. Cathy Pelham says:

    In Chapter 17 of The Dream Engine, Like Infection from a Wound, there is a mention of Thestic. On the map, it is listed as Thestric. I have used Thestic in my short for the anthology, and would like to be accurate. Which is correct?

  4. Blaine Moore says:

    Awesome progress! And reminds me, I really need to submit my character for the world docs…need to dig up that survey…

  5. This is all sorts of awesome! Love this post, I feel like I need to re-read it again. I’m really digging the sounds of these other Engines and how they are used.

    Glad to see Commandment #13… there was some question about this for the anthology. Johnny has said using the canon characters is a no-no, but happy to see it captured here formally.

    Also – I love Anita’s map!

    Thanks for creating this amazing world and opening it up for all of us to play within. Can’t wait for Fiction Unboxed 1.5. 🙂

  6. Wonderful and exciting stuff!
    Everyone is doing such a great and over-the-top job 🙂

  7. Hey everyone!

    This is a VERY ROUGH map and so new that Johnny’s not even seen it. I deliver beats to him tomorrow. There is no France because the world history is different. It’s just a lot of regions. Here is what it looks like:

    • Awesome! So France is a region of Athenia?

      • No … something very terrible happened to Athenia.

        • So France is an unamed region belonging to no country?

          • Johnny B. Truant says:

            No, it’s just not defined. We’re only committing on stuff we actually need now and the commandments, leaving creative room for everything else.

          • Okay. I have my second draft finished without the name, and it works fine 🙂

        • And that will be included in the upcoming world docs?

          • Johnny B. Truant says:

            Which? The world docs contain a LOT, but to my knowledge the name of what is France in our world isn’t among that info.

        • And right here is where I become desperate to find out what happened to Athenia.

          Will that be discussed in one of the upcoming novels, The Historium or by one of the other canon writers?

          Also, LOVE the names you’ve chosen. Why no name for Antarctica? Has this been discovered? Or has something dreadful happened to that too? Damn… this map has just raised more questions than it’s answered 😀

          • Johnny B. Truant says:

            Yep, the answer for Athenia is in the world docs AND the Historium! I’m super amazed with all Sean did to craft the history of the world.

  8. Btw. the first commandment 8 should probably be commandment 6.

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