Answers to writing questions I am often asked

Posted: October 19, 2013 in Features and opinion, Fiction, Random wifflings, The Black Library
Tags: , , , , ,

I am once again at a period where the amount of work I have isn’t quite enough  to induce some sort of brain infarcation, so I’ve been topping up my load by posting more frequently, especially as I’m still trying to get the majority of my journalism onto the web. But here’s a new post I’ve been meaning to write, like oh so many others, for some amount of time.

The below are answers to some of the most common questions I’ve had this year about writing.

Do you plan your novels?

Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t. I usually do, but the amount of planning varies. I wrote about this a few weeks ago:

Planning books always seemed wrong to me. But I had to plan out my first BL book – Baneblade – in great detail, and actually I found it really helped. Now, I tend to produce a chapter by chapter plan, including within cool/important scenes I might need, sometimes even short stretches of book text. It’s not very detailed, the whole thing might stretch to three sides of A4 in 12-point text, and I don’t stick to it too slavishly.

And here’s the rest of that post, which covers off some of my other working processes.

I don’t always, however, (Crash, for example, was not planned in-depth). The texture of a planned book is different to one that is not planned. Both methods have their utility.

What difficulty is there in portraying non-human creatures?

There are several difficulties, especially in relation to creatures originally created for games.

  • I’m human. All my experiences are human. Moreover, they are male, white, straight, British, Yorkshire, middle-class, late 20th/early 21st century experiences. This colours every thought I think and every word I write.
  • All aliens/races/creatures are based on widely known SF/fantasy standards.
  • All those standards are archetypes drawn from a narrow range of human behaviour. By making the characters from one race different to one another – as you have to – or add other aspects to their base character, you run the risk of making them too human and losing what makes them what they are in the first place.
  • But they still have to be human enough to empathise with, or you’ll turn off the reader completely.
  • There’s the further problem of stasis in gaming worlds. This can make the depiction of realistic histories tricky – this is less a problem in 40k, whose physical territories are vast and the relative immobility of history there has a solid narrative reason – than in Warhammer, where the boundaries of each faction’s territories are set in iron, and whose histories are repetitious in direct opposition to both that world’s themes – chaos, technological advancement, constant war – and its inspiration of 15-18th century Europe. This is a problem with ALL universes which, for whatever reason, have to forgo dynamic change.
  • You have to avoid making said standards too much like someone else’s take on them. Warhammer dwarfs and D&D dwarfs are both versions, ultimately, of creatures from Nordic legend modified by Tolkien. They are therefore very similar, but you still have to make them different to one another.
  • And even then, you can fall foul at the last hurdle when the reader decides your interpretation of the race in question doesn’t match his/hers!

The space to work in is therefore very tight, and success easy to bypass.

Writing non-human characters of my own invention is easier, but we’re still left with the fact that I’m human, and that the character has to be understandable and sympathetic, and that I as a writer draw on all the same sources and inspirations as everyone else. It is impossible to write anything completely original. But that is all part of the challenge of it.

What do you most like about writing BL books?

The single most enjoyable thing for me in writing Black Library novels is taking a bunch of stuff from disparate codexes and thinking “Right then, how would that actually work in practice?” I really love that, and often some fantastic story ideas come out of it.

Do you go back to the original inspirations for 40k factions when writing?

Not much; the danger there is that they’ll then become more like the inspiration than the unique Warhammer creatures you know. All things have their roots elsewhere, but Vostroyans are Vostroyans, not Cossacks or Janissaries. If I researched Cossacks, then they’d take a shift towards being Cossacks and away from being Vostroyans (note, this is an example, I am not writing about Vostroyans at the moment). I do most of my 40k research in-universe, there’s loads to read anyway, and it makes sure that the Warhammeriness – that unique Games Workshop flavour – is preserved.

However, although I shy away from specific research, I will research broad topics (eg, weapons crafting, astrophysics, or whatever) in order to bring realism. I like to try to make my books feel real, because the fantastical is at its most effective when it is rooted in reality. More fact = more license to make weird shit up, or a “gimme” as Graham McNeill calls them. It’s been said that I bring an element of hard SF into my 40k books. This is very pleasing to me, as it’s completely my intention to do so.

How long does it take you to write a novel?

About a week to prep it, six weeks to write, another week to do a redraft (this is for a BL book). My first novel, which I never finished, took me the best part of a decade. My last one took about seven weeks all told.

It takes me longer for an original work. There are more false starts and the need to rethink things in my own work, because I’m often creating aspects of the world on the fly, whereas with a BL book I can reach for a codex or other novel if needs be for the correct information.

Which is more satisfying, writing your own fiction or GW fiction?

Tough question. Dan Abnett once said to me that you have to approach everything that you write with the same level of commitment. You owe it to the readers. They are paying you, and they’ll know if you don’t.

There’s a certain cachet I think in writing your own, completely original work. Writing something from scratch allows you to stand back and think “I did that all myself”. When I started writing, spin-off fiction was looked down upon (although BL material isn’t strictly spin-off fiction. See Why I Like Writing for the Black Library for more on this). It’s not the case so much now, not that I care overly much. Being part of something I’ve loved since I was young is really very exciting, and it reaches a wide and appreciative audience. I’m lucky to be able to do both.

Which is easier?

Depends. In your own fiction, you can write your way around a problem, or remake the entire universe. You can’t do that in a 40k/WFB book.

But writing for the Black Library, you don’t have to invent whole worlds. You’re working within a predefined sandbox, and that makes it easier. With your own fiction you have to build the sandbox first, and fill it with sand (why did we ever adopt this metaphor wholeheartedly? Surely, as a Brit, I should say “sandpit”. That’s right. Lucky American children have boxes to play in, our kids just have pits). That’s part of the fun of original fiction, as playing with all the cool GW toys is part of the fun of writing BL stories. Different, but equal in all regards, I’d say.


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