Tuesday, May 21, 2019

What’s Different about a Romance Set in the Far Future? By @CarmenWBuxton

By Carmen Webster Buxton

One of the main reasons I enjoy writing love stories set in the far future is that I can create my own cultures.  If I wrote contemporary or historical romance, I would have to stick to what exists now or what has existed in the past; but by setting my story a thousand or so years into the future, I can make my own rules for what constitutes reasonable behavior.

In my made-up cultures, gender roles can be whatever I want them to be. I can make up societies in which men and women are totally equal and have been for centuries, and cultures where women are subservient to men. In my book Tribes I created a world where there is no marriage because everyone’s loyalty is to his or her tribe, which is always all female or all male; in that world, the people on the very bottom or the legal and social ladder are men with no tribe.  In Saronna’s Gift, the story takes place on a world colonized by religious fundamentalists and consequently, women are chattels of their fathers or husbands. 

And because I’m writing so far into the future, where technology has conquered distance, I can populate many worlds, and then throw characters from different worlds and different cultures into one story. That’s where the fun really starts, because characters with radically different frames of reference can have a hard time understanding each others’ thought processes and motivations. A woman who has been taught that God created men as women’s keepers might have a difficult time valuing her own abilities, especially her ability to think for herself. A man who knows men and women to be equal in rights and talents might not realize how deep a contrary conviction was ingrained in a woman’s thinking.

I can even take their differences one step further and create aliens with totally different histories and cultures. In Alien Bonds, Wakanreans are a species very similar to humans in all their biological systems except for a fundamental difference in how they pair off. Throwing humans into the mix has some interesting results, both for the world and for the characters.

And yet the best part about any far-future love story is, it’s still a love story. Some things never change, and I think the fundamental human emotion we call romantic love will always exist so long as humans exist. My characters fall in love in spite of coming from very different backgrounds, in spite of each of them having a different frame of reference, even in spite of the two of them not being the same species.

To be interesting, a story needs conflict. A love story needs problems to exist between the lovers, and for love to happen in spite of all obstacles. In a far future story, those problems can be wildly unfamiliar, but love can still conquer them. This is what makes reading science fiction romance satisfying for me.


A voracious reader since childhood, Carmen Webster Buxton spent her youth reading every book published by Ursula LeGuin, Robert Heinlein, and Georgette Heyer. As a result, her own books mix far-future worlds, alien cultures, and courting customs.

Sometimes a specific event from real life will trigger a story idea for her, but she always works it into a science fiction or fantasy setting. When her parents divorced after 28 years of marriage, this led her to ponder the nature of marriage and create a species that mated for life, in her novel Alien Bonds. But most of her books began merely as an image in her head of someone in a specific situation—a thief selling stolen goods to a fence, a man hunting game in a forest, or a young woman walking behind her father while he looked for someone to buy her. The urge to find out who those people were and what happened to them would almost always result in a book.

Carmen was born in Hawaii but had a peripatetic childhood, as her father was in the US Navy. Having raised two wonderful children, she now lives in Maryland with her husband and a beagle named Cosmo.   


Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The Hard Work, Challenges, and Rewards of a Shared World Project By Maggie Lynch and Jessa Slade

By Maggie Lynch and Jessa Slade

In Fall 2018, Jessa and Maggie were on a writing retreat. At the end of the week, with our dedicated words completed, we waxed philosophic about the state of indie publishing, how the market has changed—particularly on Amazon—and what was working and not working for each of us. We both love writing science fiction and romance but had approached our careers in different ways.

One of the things Jessa shared, that had been providing a fairly consistent income stream, was her involvement in shared world projects. She had participated in several with both fantasy/paranormal and SFR titles. Maggie had taken a different approach with her SF titles, focusing on short stories and stand-alone novels. However, she was looking to launch a series and thought that a shared-world project might be a good vehicle for that.

When we researched shared-world projects, through interviews and data analysis, we extrapolated that the most successful were ones that contained: obvious ties between books because of a tightly controlled concept; strong cover branding; and had consistent releases in the series on a three to four week schedule. The less successful were those that: had a theme but not a significantly developed shared world; had an inconsistent release schedule; and appeared to have no specific agreement or accountability for cross-marketing among the authors.  In one project we studied, a combination of the above failures led to a complete breakdown of the project for the entire year.

We both were interested in participating in a shared world project that was SFR based but with an equal emphasis on the science fiction and the romance. We needed to create something that was tightly branded and had a shared world concept that was simultaneously closed enough to get books that would pull readers from one author to the next, yet open enough that authors could find a place for the stories they liked to tell and that could excite them to create at least three books in the series.

Our goal was to aim for ten authors producing a minimum of two books in 2019. Our acceptable minimum was six authors producing two to three books. We wanted to work toward a bi-weekly release schedule to push discoverability on all vendor sites and in search engines. Whether we could meet that accelerated schedule would depend on the number of authors committing to the project and their ability to meet their deadlines. We also agreed that neither one of us were willing to coordinate it alone. We divided the coordination responsibilities based on our strengths.

Choosing a world concept and rules based on market viability

SFR is a big genre with a lot of diversity, ranging from shape shifters to vampires and earth-based time travel to intergalactic adventure. In studying the market and where there were the most opportunities in SFR we landed in the space opera/adventure part of the spectrum. With the combination of movie releases in the Star Wars saga, along with the continued rise of extreme interest in galaxy-spanning universes such as Star Trek, Firefly, and Interstellar there seemed to be a good opportunity for capturing a wider audience. The significant increase in women readers and movie-goers who have come to Science Fiction is our target. This audience tends to skew toward educated women in the 30-55 year-old range who love grand adventure with some nerdy science, but also want a character driven story that includes embedded relationships that make the difference in resolving the high world-ending stakes.

Using K-lytics we found that though romance still commands the top 100 rankings on Amazon, it is also the most volatile genre in the 2,000 to 1,000 range. This matched our own observations of many authors experiencing the inability to maintain consistent income without releasing faster and faster. On the other hand, Science Fiction, as a genre, is consistently high in the 200-400 range and doesn’t experience those same huge fluctuations that romance does. Furthermore, it seems that science fiction adventure involving galactic exploration or non-earth worlds dominates the top spots. This solidified our belief that aiming our SFR stories to skew toward the science fiction side while contain a solid romance core was the best approach for our project.

We also learned that the sweet spot for this combination of SF and romance appeared to be in the short novel range of 40-60K words. Though many SFR authors make good money with novellas, we again wanted to differentiate ourselves from those and to have space for providing more of the science fiction side of the story.

Our research, combined with our own intuition and desire to write galactic space adventure guided us toward building a specific world that met all the criteria of our research. In addition, we made some decisions about the types of books we wanted to see in this shared world before we began recruiting authors.

·       Insist on equal parts SF and romance, with the SF based on, or extrapolated from, science principles (a middle ground between hard science and “hand-wavy” science)

·       Focus on the far future where galactic travel had already happened; and we specified a technology for faster-than-light travel for those who needed to use it.

·       Create an environment where there is no going back to the known (e.g., earth or the solar system) worlds that so many current SFR books have covered. To do that we destroyed the center two-thirds of the galaxy before our books begin.

·       Put all the inhabited spaces (planets, planetoids, space stations) in the outer edges of the galaxy to force more of a pioneering or new society experience among those who survived; yet allow for a diversity of ways authors might conceive those worlds.

·       Character and adventure driven plotlines are required—whether that is on one planet or in one sector, or a galaxy spanning adventure.

·       Aliens do not exist in this world. This was a very specific rule, again to differentiate us from a lot of SFR that currently exists. Also because authors tend to use advanced civilizations and their knowledge to swoop in and save the day. We wanted to force the humans to figure it out and save their world, their community, what’s left of their galaxy themselves.

·       Sex scenes would be at a flame level of 3 or less and not the primary driver of the romance story. To capture those crossing-over from traditional science fiction, the expectation is significantly less sex with a focus on the relationship based on a combination of attraction, shared values and/or complimentary skills. Those cross-over readers want to see the relationship build throughout the book based on the protagonists working together (or against each other) to survive and thrive.

Next we developed a world based on all of the above. It is called the Obsidian Rim. We provided some history and a backstory that gave a starting point for authors to create books in that world. We began recruiting authors in January and February. That timing turned out to be a little late as many authors already had their 2019 writing and release schedule worked out. 

However, we do have eight authors participating. Four are doing three books in 2019 and the other four are completing two books. All eight of the authors intend to complete a trilogy in the world. That means we already know we are continuing into 2020. We have 20 books scheduled for release between May 7th and December 4th 2019.

The Challenges of Coordinating and Writing in a Shared World

Our primary concern was that once we had the author line-up half of them would end up not producing the book or not getting it done in time. We have both witnessed this in other multi-author projects. As this is the first year for this project, having a 50% drop rate would be devastating to the launch plan and keeping the release schedule consistent throughout the year.

A secondary concern was that the stories wouldn’t provide options for tying one book to another and/or some of them simply wouldn’t meet the level of action, adventure, and romance we were aiming to achieve. A final concern was that marketing would be inconsistent due to each author’s comfort or non-comfort with what to do in marketing their book.

We tried to alleviate those concerns with five requirements: 1) Non-refundable buy-in; 2) Shared story synopsis and/or book blurb required a minimum of two weeks in advance of the due date; 3) Uncompromising due dates; 4) Control of the front-end publishing process; and 5) Author assistance with marketing materials. Initial coordination has been done using Nuclino—a shared Wiki environment; and a private Facebook Group.

Buy-in: We decided on a non-refundable buy-in to immediately weed out those authors who were not fully committed, at least in principle, to the shared world we created and to writing the book in the timeframe allocated.

Shared Synopsis/Book Blurb: This has provided us with information about the direction of each book well in advance of release, and has been a catalyst for writers to get started thinking about their own books. It has also provided a rich opportunity for the entire group to look for ways to tie in with another book in the series. For example, when Jessa and Maggie shared their synopses and blurbs we realized we both had plot points that could intersect with a little tweaking. Maggie’s protagonists meet on a planetoid Jessa developed for her primary story. Maggie’s male protagonist interacts with Jessa’s male protagonist in two critical scenes in the beginning of her book. Maggie’s characters then leave Jessa’s planet four chapters later. Those initial scenes in Maggie’s book became backstory for Jessa’s male protagonist and an inciting or inspirational incident for her revolution.

Another writer has developed an Earth Conservatory—a place that brought seeds and some animals in a generational ship to the Rim. This sets up many opportunities for authors to have interactions with this group (positive or negative) as it is a source of earth-based food sources. Every interaction we can include to tie the world more tightly together provides more opportunities to get readers to want to read beyond one particular author’s books.

Due Dates: We created three specific due dates in 2019. May 1st, July 15th, and October 1st. For each round, all manuscripts due to release in that round have to be delivered on the due date no matter when the actual release occurs. This allows for us to complete the front-end publishing processes and marketing materials in advance of each launch for each round; and to tease later released books in that round.

Front-end Publishing Process Control: Electing to control the publishing aspects of cover design and formatting (part of the buy-in funds) ensures consistency among titles, as well as alleviating those concerns of busy authors who might consider doing it on their own or hiring it out with vastly different results. We hired a single cover designer who is doing all the covers in the series with a specific template. Giving her all the work brought the per-title-cost down significantly. Though authors do work individually with the cover designer, to get the look they want within the template and branding rules for the series, we handle all payments.

We also have a single formatter who is formatting all of the manuscripts in Vellum using a consistent interior design for every book. This allows her to also tease the next scheduled release and to link the entire series in back matter of each book. She will return fully formatted files in MOBI, EPUB, and Print to each author to upload to the distributors they like to deal with. We are committed to not being exclusive, and have a minimum distribution requirement for each author to distribute to Amazon, Kobo, Apple, and Nook. Anything beyond that is up to individual authors. Authors are free to distribute direct or use an aggregator, or some combination of both.

Marketing Assistance: We are providing suggestions for categories in distributor sites and for targeting ads to assist authors who may wish to do their own ads beyond our initial push. We are generating two branded teaser images for the series, and two branded teaser images for each author’s individual books. In addition, we are providing options for use of dozens of promo materials for each author’s book. All of this takes a lot of coordination and work, but so far it has been met with a combination of kudos and relief from the participating authors. We hope this will make it easy for authors to post often and endorse not only their own books, but also promote the series as a whole along with other authors individual books.

We’ve budgeted for paid Facebook ads for each book launch as well as for the series as a whole. We are providing information for authors who are willing and able to do Amazon ads and/or Bookbub ads as well. All authors are encouraged to do any additional marketing they can manage. We also encourage each author to share whatever marketing they are doing with the group, as well as the actual results of those efforts,  so that others can learn or use similar processes.

The Rewards of Working in a Shared World

As of this writing, April 25th, we haven’t launched the first book yet so we don’t know results in terms of sales or reader excitement about the series. However, we are already seeing some personal rewards for all the work every author has put in.

The dynamics of brainstorming ideas and continuing the world building together has been exciting and motivating. With so many authors writing their stories at the same time, we are seeing a lot of great sharing of new technologies, social hierarchies, nuances of how things are used in their particular stories. This helps all others, who are using similar details, to create a more rich and descriptive environment for their individual books. Those who are forging ahead offer models for those who are struggling. Those who are struggling with a plot point or an idea have others willing to offer options. We believe this has helped to keep everyone on track and moving toward the deadlines.

To date, all first round authors have completed their manuscripts and sent them to their editors. This bodes very well for all of them meeting the May 1st deadline. Furthermore, the authors in the second round have already submitted synopses and/or blurbs for their books, where the completed manuscript is due on July 15th. Those second round authors are actively writing now and participating in the roll out process of the first round. At this time we truly believe there will be no fall out of authors or missed deadlines  in 2019. It is a great reward to see their productivity; and it keeps both Jessa and Maggie motivated to keep consistent with our coordination efforts, while completing our own stories in the series.

The shared excitement for the launch is palpable. Authors have already been prepping their own readers. We have begun posting teasers to a public-facing Obsidian Rim Facebook page. Other authors are sharing those posts to their own networks on a variety of social media platforms. There will be a coordinated newsletter launch with authors the second week of May, so that the combined messaging to each author’s email list will multiply the potential readership faster than any one author alone.

Releases are scheduled two weeks apart. So, instead of a single author launching a single book, with a combination of trepidation and hope lying only on her shoulders, each author now launches knowing that each book coming before and after her can contribute to her own success.


In six months, we will have launched eleven of the twenty books scheduled in 2019. At that point we will take a couple days to do some deep analysis of our successes and where we need to improve.  We will put a plan in place for those improvements and determine if we want to recruit more authors for 2020 rounds or not.

We are truly excited for the May 7th launch of the first book and have high hopes that we will see a lot of interest from authors and readers alike in the 2019 releases. We invite you to take a look at the Obsidian Rim and take from this post what is useful should you decide to coordinate or participate in your own shared-world adventure.

SFR Brigade Bases of Operation