So, at the end of summer 2009 I wrote my first Warhammer 40,000 short story, ‘Sanctified’, for the anthology ‘Fear the Alien’.
(You can read a bit about how that happened here.)
The one-line pitch was simple enough: Die Hard on an Imperial spaceship, with a member of the Adeptus Mechanicus fighting off Dark Eldar who are attempting to hijack the ship and spirit it off into the webway.
Oh, and the Adept has a morbid fear of all things alien, and has to overcome this crippling xenophobia to save the day. A nice simple character arc that fit the title of the book snugly.
(That’s a minor writing tip for anyone pitching to a collection or series, by the way – treat every aspect of the overarching project, even the title, as a ticklist to work through with your pitch, and try to get as many (if not all) of those boxes ticked in as thematically a cohesive way as possible.)
As I’d had limited contact with the universe of Warhammer 40,000 since dabbling in 40K as a teenager, I needed to do some catching up. Thankfully there are a lot of 40k resources online, and the official Black Library site contains lots of pdf extracts of books that can be downloaded for free, so I could get an overview from those.
However, there’s no substitute for actual in-depth reading of the source material. Here’s my stack of ‘Sanctified’ related stuff, as piled up in a flat I moved out of 18 months ago:
Up top, ‘Mechanicum’, actually set 10,000 years earlier than 40k during the Horus Heresy, is to my knowledge the only book BL have put out to date (or at least, still have in print) to focus on the Adeptus Mechanicus almost exclusively. So, although the 30K setting means that this is the Brotherhood at their peak rather than in their cranky, degraded 40K state, it was still a useful crash-course in what the organisation is all about.
The other three are all books that feature the Dark Eldar (including only one book in the Soul Drinkers Omnibus, the last one). Considering the tight deadline, I didn’t read all of them all the way through before submitting the story, but they were all useful in their own way. In terms of the way I needed to treat them in my story, as a barely comprehensible, fast-moving threat, action sequences early in both ‘Brothers of the Snake’ and ‘Dark Disciple’ proved very handy.
Later sections of ‘Dark Disciple’ and the Soul Drinkers book (the name of which currently escapes me) feature the DE in more detail, expanding on how they act around each other and towards humans, which wasn’t really necessary for ‘Sanctified’ (where they never speak to the hero) but which was interesting background nonetheless.
Not pictured was the middle book in Dan Abnett’s ‘Ravenor’ trilogy, which I picked up for something like 50p of store credit at a second hand book place I used to frequent (last of the big spenders, me) in the exploratory, ‘do I actually want to do this?’ phase before starting serious thinking about my story.
That book convinced me there was a lot of fun to be had with 40K and that I should push full steam ahead, and I’ve since upgraded to a nice shiny new Omnibus of all three ‘Ravenor’ books, which is sitting in my ever-expanding stack of 40K research by my bed. It’s a very fun kind of research, even if the growing stacks of books do constitute a minor health and safety hazard that I occasionally kick over in the dark.
I slipped the cover up on to the blog when it was released, and various online listings included me in the list of authors way back, but I decided I wasn’t going to bother talking about this until closer to publication, partially because there’s nothing duller than someone hyping their own stuff for months in advance, and partially because it was a bit of a long story.
Well, I guess the time for that long story is now.
It started one week last summer. I was having a fairly bad week, and I spent part of a dull weekday afternoon browsing through the cheap bins in WH Smith. Now, I love nothing more than wading through stacks of cheap paperbacks, as the bulging shelves of our house will attest.
Amongst those cardboard trays of cheap books I found a fat paperback Omnibus, The Vampire Genevieve by Jack Yeovil.
And that took me back, way back, to reading an extract from the first book in that Omnibus, Drachenfels, in White Dwarf way back in 1989, when it was one of the first three full-length novels to be published based on Games Workshop’s Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 worlds.
At the time I’d not bought the book – I remember it was hugely expensive for my 13-year old’s pocket-money budget, certainly compared to most of the kids books I’d been reading – but the extract had stayed with me, the description of the necromancer Drachenfels in his castle.
I had gone through a White Dwarf/Warhammer/Games Workshop phase as a teen, so I was not unfamiliar with the Warhammer Fantasy setting in general, and had a lingering fondness for both that and its far-future counterpart, Warhammer 40,000. I’d gone halves with a friend on the Warhammer 40,000 rulebook, and I remember him having the amazing painting of the Emperor from that book on his wall, an image which has stuck with me for two decades since.
In spite of really enjoying the background, painting Space Marines (badly) and so forth, I was never much of a wargamer, not really having the disciplined mindset required for such things – I distinctly remember a friend looking at my Space Marines laid out over an old Metroplex toy and pointing out that I didn’t really wargame, I just played with my marines, which stung at the time but was totally true – but I always really, really liked the worldbuilding of those universes.
Anyway, with those fond memories, the fact that I was in the mood for some pulpy reading, and the fact that I knew Yeovil was a pseudonym for Kim Newman and therefore a pretty good guarantee that the book would be worth reading, how could I not throw down a quid to buy a fat book like that?
It was fairly obvious within pages of starting Drachenfels that not only was this the sort of book I like to read, it was also the kind of book I would love to write.
So I went to have a look at the website of the publisher, the Black Library, and read a few extracts from more recent books. Now, as a jobbing hack I had of course been aware of BL and their output for a while, but I’d never dug deep. Now I did, and I liked what I read.
As no doubt many long term BL readers are thinking at this point, Drachenfels was a very early example of Warhammer-related fiction, and the line and the lore has changed a lot since then, through a couple of publishing false-starts before the hugely successful Black Library took off. Indeed it has, but I found that a lot of what I liked about the early book was present and correct in more recent publications, that these were action-based pulp fantasy and SF stories without most of the elements of those genres that I disliked.
There was also a contest running to get a story into a forthcoming book called Fear the Alien. I’d missed most of the contest and there was only a week or two ’til the deadline, but the initial stage of the contest only required a short synopsis and a short prose extract, so it wasn’t a colossal slab of work to get done in the time, providing I could think of an idea.
It was Warhammer 40,000 (40K from here) rather than Warhammer Fantasy (WHF), so even Drachenfels wasn’t helpful research and I had a lot of catching up to do.
But it sounded like a fun challenge. I threw myself into it, coming up with a basic premise that I constantly needed to correct against every bit of lore that I bumped into as I read up on the range, scoured various online reference works and generally tried to get myself up to speed with a complex, ever-changing fictional universe that I’d not thought about much since I was fourteen. I read the official site, wikis, FAQs, forum posts, as well as bits of relevant books in the series.
I enjoyed it. A lot. Writing can be slow, boring work, while this was fast and furious, a bit sleep depriving and hairy. Good fun.
I got my entry in on time, and waited.
A couple of weeks later, I got a very nice email back from editor Christian Dunn saying I was through to the next stage of the contest, and could I write up my story in full over the next month?
Of course, I said yes, that would be no problem.
I was editing a short story book myself (Secret Histories, still available to buy here), in the last few weeks of my full-time job and preparing to relocate from London to Exeter but goddammit this was a contest and I wanted to win it.
It was around this time, incidentally, that I discovered that as a previously published author I could have just contacted BL via email without going through the contest at all, a detail that had totally slipped me by in my excitement at the whole contest business. But by this stage it was a bit late to bring that up, I knew from a couple of forum posts that I wasn’t the only entrant who had been published before, and yes, I was really enjoying the whole contest aspect of the process with rounds to go through and so forth.
I mention this because I know that fan writers sometimes consider previously published authors to be unfair competition. To a certain extent this is fair enough, and it’s why a lot of these contests (e.g. the recent Pratchett-related novel contest) exclude previously published authors. On the other hand, if you want to be a published writer then guess what, you’ll be competing with published writers to get published. That’s the nature of the business. Unless you’ve reached that blessed stage where publishers come knocking on your door, elbowing each other out of the way to get your next project, it’s a constant hustle for the next job. Opportunities need to be seized, whether you’ve been published before or not.
Anyway, I submitted the full story, left my job, moved house (and city!), finished some other writing gigs, and then moved on to the next stage, which involved notes from Christian and the rest of the editorial team. I worked through those, re-submitted the story, and had another bit of a wait before getting confirmation that yes, the story had been accepted for Fear the Alien.
A flurry of paperwork later, and I was a fully signed-up Black Library author, albeit with one short story to my name.
I’m very pleased with the story, I really enjoyed working on it, and I hope the vast BL fanbase enjoy it too. This post is, more than anything, for their benefit – having seen on the blogs and forum threads the passion with which they bring to the books, the games and the hobby as a whole, I thought it would be worth explaining, as a newbie BL author, my history with these universes and how I came to end up writing in it.
From my childhood, reading about Drachenfels in White Dwarf, to adulthood, on the verge of being published in the vast line of books that those three advertised books eventually created. And all it took was twenty one years.
So there you go.
Fear the Alien is published in September 2010 by Black Library.
I’m about to go up North for a few days, to visit family and go to Thought Bubble in Leeds, so for now here’s a couple of images. This first one you know about:
Secret Histories is out in December! You can pre-order it by clicking here.
I was amused to find, flicking through a copy of Simon Guerrier’s comprehensive Inside Story book on Bernice, that the premise of the framing sequence of Secret Histories is mentioned when I’m talking about books I’d have proposed if Virgin had kept the New Adventures going. Well, I got to it eventually – it only took ten years.
So, Secret Histories: A Decade In The Making. Surely worth an investment on that basis alone?
The next one will be new to virtually everyone, is for a collection I’ve just been told I’m contributing to, and I’ll explain it a bit more in a later post. For now, I’ll just let it stand for itself: