World’s Collider – Building the Apocalypse
From the very beginning, World’s Collider was a tough sell. The idea bounced around at least four small presses before landing a home as one of Nightscape Press’s debut trio of horror offerings. In its initial stages, it was simply an outline on a piece of paper, and was then called Unto The Breach. Here’s the original brief.
The anthology begins with the Large Hadron Collider on the border between Switzerland and France, ten years in our future. Experts have told the doom-mongerers that there is zero risk of experiments causing “dragons to appear and eat us up”. But what if the nature of the experiments progresses from observing the basic components of creation to trying to manipulate them?
Given that science is pushing into the unknown, and nobody knows for certain what will happen in the future if this machine is used for riskier experiments, I envision a short story collection that depicts the worst case scenario. The machine explodes, flattening a large chunk of central Europe, and opens a massive rift – known simply as the Breach – into somewhere unknown. All sorts of unimaginable horrors tumble out. They don’t all come through at once, and they won’t be just demons and creatures from hell, like Buffy’s Hellmouth. How about new diseases? Could the souls of those who have died under mysterious circumstances be drifting through? Maybe alien gasses leak into our atmosphere and cause environmental catastrophe. Perhaps dragons really are waiting on the other side, eager to eat us all up. The imagination of the writers is the limit here.
This will not be a series of isolated “what if?” stories, each taking the experiment as its starting point and then pressing the reset switch at the end. Instead, the stories will build on each other, so the writers will work together with the editor to make their ideas fit into a common narrative. Some stories might have global impact and will strongly influence the rest of the collection. Others might be smaller scale and won’t directly affect anybody else. Perhaps the “leaks” into our world are subtle at first and nobody realises the damage the machine has caused. During a ten year period, events will build to apocalyptic levels of chaos. Earth will be changed forever and humanity is on the brink of extinction. The second half of the anthology will be set in a post-apocalyptic world, culminating in the closing of the Breach by the last human survivors. Perhaps they even pass through…
The plan is to invite 30 to 40 writers to pitch ideas for stories involving creatures or things or concepts that might come through the Breach and then to select about fifteen for inclusion. An internet mailing list will then be set up to discuss ideas and link stories together. Writers will need to be flexible in adjusting their stories to fit in consistently with this new world being constructed, but the result will essentially be a novel written by many voices, complete with a common, evolving setting and recurring characters and themes.
In retrospect, the final anthology ended up a lot like the brief describes. I put out the call and received around eighty story ideas, far more than I was expecting. At this stage, none of these submissions were linked together or had anything in common beyond what was in the original outline. Pitches ranged from a paragraph to a detailed outline of every scene in the proposed story. At this point I realized I had set myself an impossible task and was facing the first of many giant hurdles.
Some stories could be rejected right away due to the quality of the pitch itself, the nature of the storyline being something that didn’t appeal or could not be adapted to the shared-world concept, or the writers didn’t follow the guidelines. But most of them were amazing, really interesting, compelling ideas, which made my job much more difficult. Some were from “name” writers, some from friends and other less-well known writers who were known to me, and many were from total strangers. The temptation was to fill the anthology with friends I could trust and names who might help sell copies, but that would have meant rejecting some terrific ideas that ended up being integral parts of the overall story and great stories in their own right.
The exciting part of all this for me was that, as the brief describes, the ideas weren’t mine. I wasn’t storyboarding some grand master plan and telling people what to write. Just as I had hoped, mashing together the ideas and characters from all these talented folks allowed me to shape an overall storyline.
My final selections fell roughly into four categories. The first were lynchpin stories, ideas that worked so well in and of themselves that I didn’t want to make significant changes to them. These stories tended to generate major characters which then made reappearances, or earlier appearances, in other stories at my request. James Moran’s Innervisions was one, which introduces the anthology’s main character, Scott. Jordan Ellinger’s The Last CEO is another, as story introducing the anthology’s main antagonist: soulless killer Joseph Tern.
Other chosen stories were fairly self contained. I reused elements of them in other stories, but the ideas stayed pretty much intact from outline to final story. The Rise And Fall Of The House Of Ricky by the endlessly talented Kelly Hale was one such example, a story that wasn’t suited to being adapted and changed to fit with others, but which had such a delicious idea at its centre and such a brilliant writer who I knew could pull it off, that I couldn’t say no. Trent Zelazny’s Black Whispers is another, a story with few links to the rest of the anthology but a great story from a writer whose distinctive voice fit perfectly with the feel of the anthology.
The third category of stories did much of the heavy lifting with regards to the plot. I took elements of the original outlines and changed things up, asked the writer to switch out their main character for someone else from another story, but tried to allow these writers enough space to explore their original ideas. Displacement is a piece that follows the same storyline as in the original brief by Aaron Rosenberg, but was tweaked to introduce the same psychopath antagonist who features in several other stories, including The Last CEO. Simon Kurt Unsworth graciously allowed me to reconstruct his storyline for The Coming Scream into something that worked with our main character in a role that showcases his unique relationship to the rift, while incorporating the original idea of a terrible sound that passes into our world through the breach. A brilliant story idea about a scientist who thinks her dead daughter is on the other side of the Collision forms the backbone of Pete Kempshall’s Closure, but much changed with the introduction of another recurring character, Natalie Murphy, a military woman who makes it her mission to close the rift.
The last category were special commissions. These were stories that became the glue between all the others, filling in important gaps and plot points, while being exciting stories in their own right. Dave Hutchinson’s Beyond The Sea is a terrific story, which reads at a breakneck pace. It’s all the more astonishing to know that Dave wrote the story in two weeks, from a detailed brief I provided, to provide a middle-of-the-book encounter between our main protagonist and antagonist, which would then kickstart the second half of the storyline.
Then there was the final story, undoubtedly the most challenging of the bunch to write. Pity poor Steven Savile, a prolific and highly successful writer, who agreed to pen the final chapter. Tying up all the threads and producing a coherent and satisfying ending was a Herculean task, especially when the clearly-bitten-off-more-than-he-can-chew editor kept changing his mind, or adding more elements he’d forgotten to deal with earlier, or switching the structure of how the book had to end as he continued to wrestle the various plot threads across all the stories. Then Steven went and broke his arm, which threw a wrench in the works somewhat. Thankfully Steven’s friend and previous collaborator, Steve Lockley, stepped in to help, and between the two of them they managed to wrangle a thrilling barnstormer of a final story, with just enough resolved and just enough threads still hanging loose so as to satisfy this very picky and rather flaky editor.
Once all the stories were in, the late nights began. With a regular anthology of stories that might be entirely unconnected, or share a common theme, the editor needs to ensure the running order works (do I have two long, downbeat stories back to back? Am I kicking off with a great story that really showcases the theme?), he or she needs to edit the stories for internal consistency, (ensuring the writer hasn’t transposed a character name incorrectly, or jumps location without warning), along with cleaning up any awkward sentences, proofreading for typos, checking verifiable facts – all these types of things (and many more) are the job of an editor when putting together the manuscript. With World’s Collider, there was a much bigger and more complex task ahead of me.
When you edit your own novel, it’s tricky enough to keep all the characters consistent, ensure you are revealing enough to the reader without giving away too much too soon, excising or combining passages that drag, and a thousand other considerations big and small). But in this case, I had a novel-like story written by multiple authors. When it’s your own work you can chop and delete at will. When it’s someone else’s, you have a duty as an editor not to steamroller a writer’s voice with your own. When they came on board the project, all the writers said they were happy to have me rewrite their work as necessary to make the overall plot work. Even so, the strength of this anthology is the combination of styles, voices and ideas into a (hopefully) coherent whole, so if I as editor just rewrote great chunks of each story, that unique element would be lost and I would end up with a novel by Richard Salter.
So it was a balancing act. Yes I edited an awkward sentence here, a small mistake there, but any sizeable changes I made tended to be specifically to serve a character’s ongoing development or to move an element of the overall plot ahead, or to bring two stories into synch where they shared story elements.
For example, Megan N. Moore’s awesome story, Lead Us Not, is almost entirely her own work with just a handful of minor edits on my part. The last section was written entirely by me, and features two of our recurring characters investigating the events of the story sometime after the fact. I wrote that last section and showed it to her to make sure she was happy with this appearing at the end of her story. She suggested a few changes, and we were done.
Making everything work together was tough, very tough. It took me a good number of very late nights reading and re-reading various stories and keeping elements together in my head so I could ensure we weren’t contradicting each other, and that the right balance was held between mystery and reveal, and that the plot was progressing well.
I don’t remember specifically what it was, but I do remember waking in the middle of the night and realizing that at no point in the book did we mention a vital piece of information about our main character. So vital was this detail, that without it a significant portion of the ending would make no sense. It would come out of nowhere and leave readers scratching their heads. In the end, I put that detail into two different stories, to firstly introduce it and then to reinforce it, so that when the reader gets to the end it all makes sense and there are none of the “wrong kind” of surprises in the book.
Eventually, it was all done, a finished manuscript, a novel by twenty writers.
For the cover, we had intended to use a wonderful painting created by artist Carolyn Edwards, of a ruined Eiffel Tower. We still did use it as a cover image and for the first page of each story, and I still love that image very much. However, Steven Savile put us in touch with a cover artist named Lukas Thelin, who did us a cover that really captured what the book had become. I went back and forth between the images but eventually decided on using Lukas’s cover. Carolyn was very gracious about it because she’s a professional, and I highly recommend her work to anyone in need of an artist. You can find her at http://carolynedwards.blogspot.ca/
When Nightscape Press launched the book as one of the imprint’s three debut releases, it seemed to find a receptive audience. It was exciting to see the Amazon rankings soar on those first couple of days. When the reviews came in, people really seemed to get it. There’s no greater feeling for a writer or editor than to deliver a work to the public and have them understand the intent and appreciate the result.
World’s Collider was a lot of work, but I would love to do it all again. Maybe a sequel, or a completely different scenario, but whatever it is I intend to follow the same process and produce another shared-world anthology. If only I had the time!