Off social media at the moment to get some work done, so instead I’ll link to HachiSnax’s review of Hollow Beginnings right here.
When writing for a big line with a lot of output it can sometimes feel like your work is getting lost in the deluge, so it’s always appreciated when someone pays attention.
I introduced Anvindr Godrichsson and his pack of Space Wolves in the short story In Hrondir’s Tomb three years ago, in Black Library’s emagazine Hammer and Bolter. As part of Black Library’s annual Summer of Reading campaign, where they release a new piece of fiction every weekday, that story has now been re-released as a standalone ebook. If you didn’t buy it in the original issue of H&B, or in the H&B Year Two e-compilation, or in the print Best of Hammer & Bolter volume 2… well, here’s another chance.
As part of the same campaign Anvindr and his pack return, some years later, in Hollow Beginnings. If the previous story hinted where I’ve been going with these characters, then this one outright states it. The title’s a bit of a giveaway.
I like writing Anvindr. As a Space Wolf he sees himself and his pack as legendary warriors engaged in a mythic battle, and being a Space Marine he’s pretty much right. But there are many ways to fight a war, especially a war for the survival of humanity, and Anvindr experiences a constant unease when dealing with branches of the Imperium with less honourable tactics than the Wolves. It’s the tension between his loyalty to the Emperor and his dislike of some of the Emperor’s other servants that makes him fun to write.
Speaking of which, I’ve been quiet for a while on here, and will probably be quiet for a while longer. We’ve had the Beginnings, now someone needs to finish the Rest Of.
New standalone eshort version of In Hrondir’s Tomb can be bought for £2.49 here.
Follow up eshort Hollow Beginnings can be bought for £2.49 here.
Oh look, I haven’t updated the blog in ages. Two updates in 2013! That’s competent. Never mind.
In my defence, I’ve been busy. Last year I wrote the longest book I’ve ever written, 150,000 words, and that’s just winding its way through the editorial process, so I have no idea when it’ll be out.
I also wrote a novella, Dead Stop, for Abaddon’s Tomes of the Dead zombie line, which will be coming out as an ebook soon? I think? You can keep an eye on that here.
There are a couple of things of mine you can go and read right now, both ebooks that came out in December and which I didn’t promote as much as I should have in the pre-Christmas carnage.
First up I contributed a new Doctor Who story to the charity anthology The Twelve Doctors of Christmas, a spin-off from the recently revived fanzine Cygnus Alpha. The collection was edited by John Davies with art by Simon Brett and others, and is a great collection of talent. My story is called Gaudi Night, a pun I’ve had back-pocketed for years, features the Fifth Doctor as played by Peter Davison, and sees the Doctor facing off against one of his oldest and greatest nemesises. You can pick up either the whole collection or just my story as an ebook via the donation page here.
Secondly, December also saw tw0 linked Warhammer 40,000 Imperial Guard stories by me appear as ebooks. The Siege of Fellguard and The Hour of Hell overlap, but not only can you read either of them individually without missing anything , but if you do read both together you’ll see certain events from different perspectives, with hopefully minimal repetition. As well as ensuring the stories could be read either apart or together, there was also the separate challenge of adapting both from background text provided by Games Workshop, so the Fellguard stories were an interesting project to work on. I’ve always wanted to try doing an adaptation, and I think this one went pretty well. They’re not microshorts – together they’re over 20,000 words, the length of a short novella – so should provide a pleasingly hefty read.
Aside from the technical side of things, I hope people enjoy the Fellguard stories, which feature colourful characters having terrible things happen to them in the grim, dark 41st century. There’s a lot of action, some repulsive Chaos baddies and quite a few horrible deaths. Something to lift the spirits in the post holiday lull, I hope.
OK, back to work on the next thing. Happy New Year!
With that in mind, here’s my charmingish daughter modelling The Best of Hammer and Bolter Volume 2, which she finds fascinating, mainly because it’s such a big book. True! At a rodent-killing 896 B-format pages its by far the biggest book I’ve been involved in.
My story in the book, In Hrondir’s Tomb, is a bit of a lead-in to my next 40k project, which I’ve just delivered a first draft of.
If you know every word of the timelines in the main Warhammer 40,000 rulebook then you might be able to guess which.
I’m very, very excited to be able to say that my first Warhammer 40,000 novel is out today as an ebook premiere: Iron Guard. You can see the cover on the right, complete with my name in a delightfully big, bold font, and buy the book directly from Black Library here.
I approached Black Library about the possibility of writing a full length novel after finishing edits on my short story Sanctified, and was asked to pitch something for their Imperial Guard line, war stories about the human forces of the Imperium in the 41st century.
After knocking proposals and outlines back and forth between myself and the editors, we eventually settled on the Mordian Iron Guard as my protagonists. Although the Mordians are well established in the 40k universe, the specific regiment and individual characters are all original, and I was given great leeway to fill in any gaps in Mordian culture.
As the book only came out this morning I won’t talk about the plot beyond saying that it takes a relatively green Mordian recruit from the sunless world of Mordian to a deserted mining world, where he discovers first hand the full horrors waiting out in the 40k universe, ready to prey on unwary humans.
Having read through the book very recently while proofing, I’m very pleased with how Iron Guard turned out, and look forward to hearing from readers.
Iron Guard is available as an ebook for £6.50 from Black Library, right here.
Hammer and Bolter #20, the latest issue of Black Library’s monthly fiction e-magazine, is out now, and contains my story In Hrondir’s Tomb.You can buy it from the Black Library site here, for the wonderfully low price of £2.50.
Hrondir is my second published Warhammer 40,000 story, although the third written after [REDACTED], which will hopefully be coming to a release schedule near you at some point soonish. (OK, strictly speaking [REDACTED] is a [REDACTED] but you get what I mean. Or maybe not.)
I’ve previously played around the periphery of the 40K universe, with a member of the Adeptus Mechanicus in Sanctified (still available as an ebook here, folks) and the [REDACTED] in [REDACTED], but In Hrondir’s Tomb is my first go at writing for the big stars of the Imperium, the Space Marines.
Not just any Space Marines, either, but Space Wolves, one of the more popular and unique chapters who had already starred in a long-running novel series of their own, and recently been given a new spin by Dan Abnett in the New York Times bestselling Prospero Burns.
So, no pressure there, then.
The story introduces Anvindr Godrichsson and his pack, Grey Hunters of the Fourth Company. They’re on the world of Beltrasse to fight the Tau, but find something entirely different deep beneath the ground of Beltrasse, in the tomb of Hrondir.
I wrote the story at the end of last summer. The attic where I used to write was in the process of being redecorated to become my daughter’s bedroom, and I wrote a lot in the evenings, sat with the laptop on the bare wooden floor. Occasionally, Georgina would be around to ‘help’, as the accompanying photo shows.
In spite of such challenges, it was a fun story to research and write, and while being an entirely self-contained story it sets up characters who could be revisited later. Fans with an encyclopedic knowledge of the 40k timeline may spot a name that appears in the existing background, and have an inkling where this might be going… but that would involve a whole load more redactions, so let’s not think about it right now.
I enjoyed putting a pack of Space Wolves in a situation different to the battlefields and savage wildernesses they’re most comfortable with. I hope people enjoy the results.
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.
[The nice people at Microcon kindly asked me to speak at their event this year. This is my script for the talk I gave, tweaked to fit with where I remember cutting or adding bits off the cuff on the day.]
Hello, thank you all for coming and thanks to everyone involved in organising Microcon for inviting me. Apologies if my delivery is a little stilted, I haven’t done any public speaking in a while and haven’t had chance for a runthrough, so I’m reading from a script.
Anyway, please feel free to interrupt at any time with questions, although there’ll be time for discussion at the end so if you’d like to engage in a heated debate on something it might be better to wait ‘til then lest I completely lose my thread, such as it is.
My name’s Mark Clapham and I’m a writer. While I’ve written plenty of reviews and non-fiction stuff, my most substantial work has been writing books for ongoing series where I am one of many writers involved. Most notably I’ve written Doctor Who books for BBC Books and I’m currently working on Warhammer 40,000 novels for Black Library, the publishing arm of Games Workshop.
These books are part of bigger fictional worlds, shared universes which are gradually created and changed by the contributions of many writers, artists and other creative people.
They’re not necessarily the most literary and respectable part of SF and fantasy, but they’re a significant one, at least partially because they often appeal to younger age groups – there are very few fans of serious SF or fantasy who did not start out reading Star Wars comics or Doctor Who books or some similar mass market version of SF.
Beyond the fact that these series tend to be a genre gateway, as well as trading on the strength of an established brand name, I do think their nature as shared fictional universes gives them a different flavour. Even the most prolific writer has limits on their output, even the most diverse talent can only do so many things.
Whereas a work from many hands, a fictional world built by many creators, can have a complexity and possibility for contradiction that the more focussed SF produced by an author with a mission can’t attain. For many readers, this can be an appeal in itself – that a big shared universe has more backwaters to explore, more obscurities to uncover and, should it remain popular, can continue to grow beyond even the death of its original creators.
Today I’ll be talking about Who, about Warhammer 40K, and diverting into chatting about Judge Dredd and a few other things as it suits me. The title of this talk is –
‘Optimism and Cynicism in pop-SF shared universes’
– because I had to call it something.
I should really have put the word ‘British’ in there as well, but that would have been a ridiculously garbled title.
Anyway, optimism and cynicism.
I picked those two themes because they’re useful in gauging the tone of a shared universe, and tone, although an opaque concept at the best of times, is often the key to the appeal of a shared universe setting. Characters and creators may vary, plots may span different genre tropes, but there’s a tonal quality that distinguishes, say, a Doctor Who story from other stories that may feature time travel or aliens.
Tone is different to authorial voice. What, to me, distinguishes a shared universe from your average licensed property or spin-off is the ability for creators to contribute to that universe, for their own voices to emerge but for individual stories to lock together. No-one writes like Stan Lee any more, but we have a feel for what kind of universe the Marvel comic books he created are set in.
By contrast, it’s hard to imagine Buffy the Vampire Slayer sprawling out into a true shared universe, because Joss Whedon’s writing style is imprinted on every facet of that series, and too much variation from that house style feels wrong.
But I digress. I mentioned Marvel, and there are few multi-author narratives like the major superhero comics that have been running continuously in the US since the 1930s, and Doctor Who is one of them. Although there’s a sixteen year gap in the middle of its fifty year broadcast history, that gap in TV production was filled with books, radio plays, and comic strips.
I wrote one and a half novels along with a short story during that period, and managed to get out of the Doctor Who business just before it became profitable again when the TV series restarted in 2005.
But that’s enough about my credentials. Suffice to say that there’s not been a year since the series’ creation in 1963 when new Doctor Who stories haven’t been created and consumed, and for at least two decades a month hasn’t passed without new Who.
Obviously people like reading about the Doctor Who universe, and writers like me and Mr Walters* like to add to it. So what makes this rolling, ever expanding pop-SF shared universe its appeal?
I know that the chances of anyone here not knowing the premise of Doctor Who are slim to non-existent, but it’s worth reiterating the basics just to provide a context for what I’m about to say.
So – the series is about an alien time traveler called the Doctor who travels in a time machine called the TARDIS with a number of friends, usually humans. The Doctor is a Time Lord, and this alien background allows him to regenerate into different actors, allowing for infinite recasts and for radical changes in his personality over time. The Doctor has had eleven different faces and personalities.
Generally Doctor Who stories are adventures, where the Doctor and friends will turn up on a planet or in a period of Earth’s history to find something nefarious going on, often of an alien or monstrous nature. There’ll be action, some scares, and eventually the Doctor will win out.
There are no rock solid rules to the loose science-fantasy universe the Doctor inhabits, beyond it never drifting into an outright fantasy world of magic and ghosts. Pretty much anything can happen, providing it can be covered by some generic technobabble. Science can do anything, every SF cliché is available for use, and various races including the Time Lords themselves are practically god-like in their capabilities.
Doctor Who is a curious example of a shared universe because there’s no ‘essential’ quality that you can point to which cannot be contradicted:
- You’d think the Doctor and TARDIS were the bedrocks of the show, but there are episodes where the Doctor doesn’t appear and whole serials where his time machine, the TARDIS, isn’t used at all.
- The Doctor is generally considered to be a character who fights monsters and villains, but there are stories with no clear antagonist, or few SF elements beyond the mechanism of time travel.
- The Doctor is also largely seen as a character who abhors violence, but there are plenty of counterexamples where he engages in physical combat or even picks up a gun.
- Sometimes the show majors in the time travel aspect, with a strong historical bent, at other periods the series has just bounced between alien planets and versions of a generic space future, barely dipping into history at all.
Now, if Doctor Who really was a do-anything fictional universe with no consistency whatsoever, an empty space that can just suck in any type of story and where everything is up for grabs, it wouldn’t inspire the level of devotion it does, because there would be no recurring elements to inspire such loyalty.
So there must be recurring themes that set the Doctor Who universe apart, even if there are none that are absolutely universal and applicable to every story.
Which brings me, finally, back to my central theme. There is a strong aspect of pessimism to the Doctor Who universe. It is full of threat. We know this because of the basic terminology with which we discuss the series: while other SF universes have alien races, the Doctor Who universe has monsters. Virtually every story has a strong antagonist and a deadly threat, whether that be a monster or a villainous plot. For most of its history it’s been an action adventure show, with constant peril.
Really, while the Doctor and his human companions profess to love the freedom of exploring all of time and space, and there’s certainly an appealing, imaginative quality and diversity to the idea of having a vast universe and the entirety of history to explore, it’s a wonder anyone leaves the house in the Doctor Who universe, because you can’t go anywhere without something terrible trying to kill you in a horrible, albeit gore-free and family friendly, way.
But if the format of Doctor Who requires that the lead characters be threatened with deadly danger the moment they step out of the TARDIS into a new time period or alien world at the start of the story, it equally requires that such threats be neutralised before our heroes depart at story’s end.
This is the fundamental optimism built into the Who universe: that there may be many problems, but they are all soluble with good intentions and intelligence. Unspeakable horrors may run rampant, killing off minor characters, but by story’s end they are banished or destroyed and a pleasant normalcy is restored.
That normalcy, no doubt deeply undramatic as various backwater human colonists get back to their futuristic farming or whatever, is allowed to come into existence because of the way the series shifts focus at the end of every story. Gotham City can never be cured of crime because that would give Batman nothing to do, but planets in Doctor Who can be entirely cleansed of evil influence because there’ll be a whole new world of trouble to explore next time.
In this sense there’s something of the classic western narrative to Doctor Who, just transferred to a far wider, more imaginative dramatic canvas. Just as the cowboy rides into a troubled town, shoots the outlaws then moves on, so the Doctor visits small community after small community, ridding them of aliens and bad guys before flying off to deal with the next problem.
This is a very comforting and reassuring form of storytelling. Compared to a real world full of difficult, complex problems the Doctor Who universe is a very straightforward place where bad things are sorted out quickly by good people being good.
While it has the trappings of science fiction, favouring technology and biology over magic and demons, the mechanics of how things happen are largely irrelevant: the conflicts are moral, rather than technical. The technology and technobabble are dramatic props: while much is made of the Doctor’s intelligence as a scientist, it is his strength of character that allows him to defeat his enemies, not his academic qualifications.
While the series is capable of doing political allegories, and there are plenty of satirical parallels littered throughout Who stories in all media, one of the strengths of Doctor Who is that it’s not tied to a specific agenda, or at least not one that can be clearly defined. Its core values are those of a fairy tale, where tyrants and ogres are bad and those who fight the bad things are good. It’s a supremely uncontroversial agenda.
I mentioned earlier that there’s nothing in Who that you can hold up as an absolute of the series that can’t be roundly contradicted by evidence from elsewhere in the series, and this contradictory nature adds to its appeal, providing a reflection.
The series has a general open-mindedness that makes the occasional mean spirited story seem jarring – for the benefit of long term fans I’ll name and shame the anti-peace movement ‘The Dominators’ and the proto-tea party anti-tax rantings of ‘the Sun Makers’ as examples. This is often taken as being a left wing agenda, and indeed there have been specifically politically motivated stories and conscious liberal strains within the series, such as the deliberate inclusion of gay characters in recent TV series, a steady normalising that will probably do more to change the attitude of the next generation than any number of serious documentaries.
However there’s also an element of fusty conservatism at the series’ heart. The Doctor is old, knowledgeable and virtually always right. He comes from a position of authority and seniority, and there’s something almost colonial about his position as the traveling English gentleman, traveling the universe to sort out all the problems space-foreigners can’t resolve for themselves. It’s a paternalistic worldview, one where only the Big White Man can solve the universe’s big problems.
These contradictions are both inclusive, as they allow viewers and readers of all stripes to see something they can identify within the complex character of the series, and add some crunch to a universe that could otherwise be overly simplistic. While the ‘good vs evil’ conflicts are straightforward enough, Doctor Who has room for complexity, room that allows writer after writer to contribute their own feelings and thoughts to the greater tapestry of the series.
The Doctor Who universe is a place we want to have access to. You just wouldn’t want to live there. But in British popular SF, it’s one of the nicer shared universes.
Of late I’ve been writing for Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 universe, and that’s a really nasty place to be, although a fun one to write and read about.
In the far future of the year 40,000, humanity is in a mess. Besieged by merciless alien races and demonic forces that threaten to drag the universe into an actual hell, the human race is ruled by the Imperium, a militaristic dystopia that mismanages a total war of us against everything else in existence, a war that humanity is losing. The doomsday clock is perpetually half a minute from midnight.
The desperation of the situation justifies a society that’s entirely militarised, fascistic in the broadest and most insane way, where human life is entirely disposable and free will is a long forgotten luxury. If you’re lucky, you just die. If you’re less lucky, you are driven mad by the forces of Chaos or mutate into something terrible.
While the Doctor Who universe is a dangerous place where good always wins out, the Warhammer 40,000 universe is a lethal place where the good guys are only marginally better than the monsters, and any victory is only a temporary blip in the advance of encroaching, absolute horror.
Now, SF is full of dystopias, and understandably these bleak futures are quite depressing, apocalyptic scenarios where humanity is dying due to war, environmental catastrophe or disease.
The year 40,000 is simultaneously worse than all of those, but a lot more fun. It has a very British quality of black comedy and gleeful horror, one which can be seen in the many bleak futures of Judge Dredd and the other characters in 2000AD, but here pushed as far as it can go.
If the bleakness of the scenario is pushed to an extreme, so is the scale: not only is the universe big, but virtually everything in it is oversized. Populations are measured in billions not millions, buildings are the size of continents, the frontlines of war sweep across entire star systems. Timescales are measured in millennia rather than years. It’s a big canvas, in every sense.
Warhammer 40K (as it’s generally known) has different constraints and freedoms to other shared universes, mainly because of its background: it’s based on a game, a tabletop wargame to be precise. The dystopian nature of the universe is built around creating a narrative context for wargames, and for making those games fun by raising the stakes as high as possible. It makes for an inherently dramatic backdrop for SF adventure stories, one where any extremity can be justified.
Games have rules, and so many aspects of the 40k universe are mechanically locked down, as official fiction needs to respect the integrity of the game system it’s based around.**
The abilities and equipment of the various warring factions in the universe are quite tightly proscribed. Fictional weaponry has to work consistently. While it’s not hard science fiction by any means, it is a kind of science fiction where consistency is paramount.
While these constraints do exist, the 40k universe also has freedoms. For a start, while there are major characters operating in the universe, Generals and Warlords, heroes and villains, it’s a very big universe and most stories will take place on previously unseen worlds with casts of entirely new characters.
Writers are not constrained by writing for a fixed set of characters whose fates cannot be tampered with, and this creates a greater sense of variety and danger to the universe for readers: virtually no-one is safe. Stories can, and due to the nature of the universe often do, end horribly.
While there is a great freedom in the stories that can be told, they do accumulate and build off each other. There’s a geography to the universe, timelines that can be built upon and added to. If a shared universe’s appeal can be measured in its intricate consistency, then the Warhammer 40,000 universe is a good example of that.
Just as Doctor Who has prospered in comics and books while the TV series has been off the air, so the Warhammer 40,000 fiction has an appeal that reaches beyond the fanbase of the game itself. The popularity of the game alone cannot entirely explain the interest in that background as a source of stories – after all, if participation in a game translated into book sales, football novels would be a bestselling genre.
No, there is an appeal to an epic, violent dystopia like Warhammer 40,000 that transcends its basis as a background for gaming and draws in a wider readership, and I think that appeal is rooted in its gleeful bleakness.
Although sensational newspaper headlines may try and convince us otherwise, the western world in the early 21st century is a relatively safe place. Societies are generally orderly, military conflicts are distant and contained, and wars conducted in our name are done so by a professional military. Since the end of the second world war the chances of the average British citizen being called up to fight in armed conflict have steadily decreased.
Yes, crime and tragedy can strike, but these events are relatively rare. Most of us will, hopefully, live fairly contented, untroubled and undramatic lives, with everyday problems.
The bleakness of Warhammer 40K’s pessimistic vision presents a distraction from our everyday concerns, and a cathartic look into a world where there are no minor problems, only massive life threatening ones. Death may be a constant presence, but the beleaguered subjects of the Imperium of Man at least die as part of sweepingly important events. We can be both glad to not live in such a dangerous, dramatic universe, but also slightly envious of the scale and drama of it all.
Doctor Who offers a similarly threatening universe, albeit with more light and shade to appeal to a wider audience, and especially a younger one. While relentless horror may be fun for adolescent boys of all ages, and I include my 35 year old self in that, most people prefer a little hope in there hopelessness, and Doctor Who sugars its sense of danger with a reassuring message that the horrors may come close, but they can be driven back.
There are many other examples of SF shared universes of course, and I’ve just been talking about those I know best. What they do show, I think, is that for one of these shared fictions to grow it needs to provide a tone that suggests new stories and inspires and the open space for creativity, but while having an identifiable character that binds the stories into a whole, and creates something distinctive that draws people in. A universe can be more optimistic, more pessimistic, but that balance of light and shade needs to be clear and fixed.
It’s by knowing what kind of place a shared universe is that allows us to decide whether to keep revisiting it.
* Fellow Microcon guest and fellow BBC Books Doctor Who author Nick Walters.
** I seem to be suggesting here that the novels are entirely led by the game, which was what I believed at the time. Since giving the talk I read this excellent article by Aaron Dembski-Bowden that makes clear that, to use Ben Goldacre’s favourite phrase, it isn’t quite as simple as that.
About ten days after my last post, a little something arrived. A little something that has since evolved into a fully functioning prodigy, solving quadratic equations and reciting the works of Shakespeare in Urdu, from her own translation. This child genius is called Georgina Joan Halliday and now looks like this:
OK, genius may not be quite the right word.I may have exaggerated the extents of her talents.
Anyway, as anyone with children know, life gets busy when they arrive, and something has to give. With more pressing online commitments and other writing to do (see below) it ended up being the blog that ground to a halt.
However, as we approach the end of the wife‘s maternity leave we’re beginning to re-establish some kind of normality, and I’ve got some ongoing and upcoming things worth mentioning, so I’m back. Kind of.
Let’s see if I can manage, oooh, one post a week for the next couple of months. FINGERS CROSSED!
Anyway, what I’ve been up to:
Shiny Shelf, for which I write and edit, continues to grow nicely. A lot of articles in the last year have gone down really well and picked up interest all over the place, and with new things like Eddie’s webstrip Asterix & Obelix we’ll hopefully continue to grow. If you’ve not visited the site in a while, please pop over and take a look. You’ll find new items pop up in the column to the right —->
Over at Game People I’m still writing my weekly Story Gamer column (also on the right —>), which continues to be a really fun gig, albeit with some unintended side effects. Writing a weekly review column means there’s a constant churn of new titles to deal with (I know, I know, it’s a hard knock life) so perfectly good games find themselves neglected after the deadline has been hit. It can be difficult to find time to go back to games that I want to persevere with and finish, because there’s always something new to get on with, especially with titles which are good, fun, but not triple A epic.
For example, I got back to Assassin’s Creed 2 and completed it because it’s an absolutely stunning game, but smaller fry, perfectly good but not spectacular games like War for Cybertron and Splatterhouse sit around neglected, the poor things.
I’m doing one or two longer Story Gamer reviews a month at the moment for titles that warrant the attention, the first being Dead Space 2 and the next one going live this Monday, and those allow me to go into a bit more depth. In between those longer pieces I will continue to have pithier reviews where I kick various bits of half-arsed shovelware in the face, so there’s no need to worry if you prefer me spitting bile.
So those are my ongoing web commitments. In print, following my story in Fear the Alien (as mentioned here) I’ve been doing more Warhammer 40,000 work for Black Library, with one book already written and a second proposal under discussion with the editors. It’s been a really enjoyable process so far: Black Library’s editors have been enthusiastic, friendly and very tolerant of my non-hobbyist 40K rookie mistakes. They also work well ahead of schedule: I started writing my first novel for them in spring 2010, and it’s still not got a publication date! In some ways this is odd compared to the, hmmm, more hectic deadlines I’ve dealt with in the past, but it’s given us plenty of time to polish the book.
If I don’t give a title for that first book, it’s not me being coy but rather the fact that it still doesn’t have one. At Microcon (see further below) I jokily ascribed this to an ongoing argument with BL’s marketing, but that’s entirely unfair: it’s been a long and polite process of me suggesting titles which were too weak, or became irrelevant as the book evolved. After being relatively successful with titles in the past, I’m finding coming up with suitably bold, 40K-appropriate titles, with even Sanctified (the FtA story) having a couple of previous titles before settling on that. Hopefully we’ll agree something soon.
I’ll update the Bibliography with the 40K book, and the new Bernice Summerfield story I wrote last year, in due course.
Finally, I’m starting to get out of the house a bit and attend events, some of which have been kind enough to let me speak. I’ve been attending Exeter university’s Microcon on and off for the last few years, and they kindly invited me to be a guest this year. I’ll put up the full text of my talk as the next post.
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.