Submission Tips: Canon versus Home-brew

A new year is just around the corner and for a lot of people here on the Bolthole and a few on the other Games Workshop/Black Library fan forums, that means it is going to be time to start working on a new set of submissions, whether they be novels or short stories. Of course, some people like yours truly have already started on it.

Given that, I thought I would discuss something that I know is relevant to a lot of people out there. At the outset, I would like to say that my post here is only the tip of the iceberg and that there is more to it than just the words that are going to follow but I intend this post to be a somewhat introductory one. Hope you all enjoy!

Space Marine Chapters: Canon v/s Home-brew

One frequent question, or rather concern, that I see come up every now and then, whether it is on the Bolthole or elsewhere during submissions time, is which is best – to use a Space Marine chapter of your creation (particularly the name) or use a chapter that already exists in the canon? It is a rather tricky issue, and one that I struggled with myself this year with my Raven Guard successor chapter I was calling the Sons of Corax. There was a short, but informative discussion on the forum regarding the issue in general and the end result was quite clear with a couple quotes thrown in courtesy of the editors themselves.

The (paraphrased) verdict: Use the existing chapters first, of which there are many, and once you have been published (the fine print says: a few times) then you can explore writing about chapters of your own creation.

When you start to consider it, that is a very pointedly smart verdict for two main reasons.

The first one, as I already mentioned, that there are already so many chapters that currently exist in the lore and have nothing more than a name and a few lines of text from both old and new sources. Some have only a name and that too only because they were printed as part of a list! So the sandbox is fairly big for you to play with to your heart’s content. The only thing that you would have to change in a fair few cases when making the transition is getting used to a new chapter name. That is all. Of course it gets trickier when you like a name but don’t like the colour scheme or when you like everything about said undeveloped chapter but then there is that niggly line of text about them that runs counter to what you had in mind. Well, that’s when you start to make choices about what you want to do and how you want to do it.

The key thing to remember, most importantly for those of us who are unpublished, is that we have yet to prove ourselves and therefore we have to write within the confines of the lore, using what already exists rather than adding to it.

The second reason, tied intrinsically to the first, is that these chapters are so underdeveloped. Now, I realize that this means I am just saying there are two things when there really is one thing, but stay with me a moment. Consider this: whenever you talk to any of your fellow aspiring writers and ask them which chapter they want to write about, what are the names of the chapters mentioned right off the bat? Space Wolves? Raven Guard? Blood Angels? Black Templars? Dark Angels? Crimson Fists? Notice something common here?

They are all chapters who have established, and in majority cases, fairly well-detailed background that any writer can draw upon. The groundwork is already laid out for you and you just have to build upon it. Of course, I realize that this is rather simplistic of me to say and that this is not quite as easy as I am making it out to be, but it is rather undeniable. The vast majority of people go for chapters that are famous and well-known. When was the last time you heard someone mention that they wanted to write about the Widowmakers or the Imperial Harbingers or the Red Wings or the Knights of the Raven?

And that is precisely why the editors want us, the looking-to-get-published crowd, to write about these chapters. These are the chapters which are, for a lack of a better and more nuanced word, ignored. A line here, a line there; a word here, a word there. Like before, the sandbox is extremely roomy and you have a lot of leeway in working with what already exists.

Going with my own example, after talking to a few folks here on the Bolthole, I decided to rename my Raven Guard successors and after a lot of searching and cross-referencing and what not, I settled on the Angels of Retribution. The name fits perfectly with the background I have already written for them and I do like the name quite a bit, even though it gives me no small amount of headache when I do sit down to write about them. There is only the most minimal information available on them outside of a name and a one line mention in an outdated Codex: Assassins. I took the name and merged it with my own background and voila, I am ready to sell the Angels of Retribution to Black Library.

I did the same with another chapter I have submitted pitches about, an Ultramarines successor chapter originally called the Praetorian Legion (I am not that good with names incidentally if it wasn’t obvious) but they were later changed to being the Invictors. It can actually be a lot of fun to hunt down the right names because it gets you involved with doing some good research and what not and these names can even strongly inform the background of the chapter when you sit down to write it.

So that is all there is to that. The underlying lesson is to use the tools you already have been provided rather than create your own. We don’t have the luxury of such rampant creativity because we have yet to prove ourselves. And this applies not just to Space Marines/Chaos Space Marines but also to the wider lore for both Warhammer 40,000 and for Warhammer Fantasy. Dwarf holds, Dark Elf clans, Knight Orders of the Empire, Xenos races/species, Eldar craftworlds and much more.

At this stage of your career, when creating such new factions always ask yourself this question: is the story served better by being creative with the name or using something that already exists. Eldar Craftworlds are a rare commodity in 40k, and the same goes for Dwarf holds in Fantasy. Why not use the ones we already know of? If everyone was allowed to use their own names, the basic idea behind these factions and especially the “rare” ones would be gone. It would dilute the setting somewhat if, for example, a dying race like the Eldar suddenly has hundreds of craftworlds. In some ways it is easier to write about them because there is a nice layer of work already done for us which means we spend less time on the creativity itself and more on getting actual writing done.

Guess what, it is not your background that is going to be printed in a novel or a short story, it is going to be the story itself with that background sprinkled in as appropriate.

And that’s that. Feel free to discuss the topic in the comments!

Before I sign off though, small reminder that I have started a thread on the forum titled “BL Submissions Support 2012” where I will keep a track of how many submissions people on the bolthole are going to be working on this coming year, as well as occasional tips etc. This year’s thread was, in my humble opinion, quite a success, especially since the editors also joined in a fair few times. Looking forward to another great year!

– Shadowhawk

8 thoughts on “Submission Tips: Canon versus Home-brew

  1. Great article. This is something I imagine a fair few people slip up on.

    It’s generally a good idea (if not mandatory) to submit a story that:

    – Uses established lore (no original races or amazing new tech)
    – is human/astartes point of view
    – is enjoyable in plot/action/character development rather than because of some fantastical plot device

    When considering the sort of stories BL are after the ‘of the Space Marines’ short story anthologies are worth a read. The stories written by the non-established authors in those anthologies provide a good insight as to expected depth of plot (or lack of) and use of lore.

    Whether right or wrong, that’s my extended thoughts on the matter.

    • I’ve read some great stuff from new authors where they use fantastical plot devices. Sarah’s Primary Instinct comes to mind.

      And I would say that using non-human/Astartes POVs is fine as long as you actually pull it off. Eldar, Tau are good for this. Orks and Tyranids obviously are not. Even daemons can work. Of course, when going with WHF, you can pretty much use any of the races, even teh Orcs I think because they are quite different to the Orks. – Shadowhawk

  2. Shadowhawk – I think you may have a point, but I am strongly of the opinion that BL are unlikely to accept first submission work from a non-human POV. Even Herr Werner’s excellent Ork POV story in Fear the Alien was barely what we (or at least I) would think of as Ork POV.

    I do agree that the transition from a human perspective to Tau is not necessarily difficult. I am not so sure that the same can be said of the Eldar. There are a few ways that you can play the Eldar and without studio input (or LL’s connections to the Laughing God) I suspect it possible to get them very wrong.

    Whilst it may seem boring, the message we have been getting from BL for the last few years is ‘go for the safe bet’. Stay in the box. You can take basic elements like IG + Orks + Siege and play it in a multitude of ways that don’t have to be boring. The ingredients are what you make of them.

    Also, and importantly, i’m not saying that you can’t do interesting things, but ordinarily they shouldn’t necessarily be at the fore or plot affecting – at least not in the first instance.

    • But that means that the editors don’t want to see interesting things, which I know for a fact that they do. I acknowledge the fine line between a safe bet and being creative but I still believe that there is enough wiggle room there. I am sure the editors don’t want to read 2000 pitches that have Space Marines/Inquisitors/Imperial Guard as protagonists and the various xenos races as the antagonists. The “safe bet” refers to keeping things in the box and that box being defined by what you find in the armybooks, the codices, the rulebooks and the expansions. You are free to experiment as you want as long as your end result stays within the confines of what is already out there. Again, I point out Sarah’s first short story Primary Instinct as a great example of this. Or even the short story with the Dark Hunter in the Legends anthology. – Shadowhawk

      • Okay, okay – I oversimplified it with IG + Orks + Siege, but I don’t actually consider your two examples as uses of ‘fantastical plot devices’. I think we only differ on the interpretation of ‘fantastical’. I certainly agree that the content of the rulebooks ought to be the extent of the ingredients that make up the story – just add: plot, characters and a twist (of lemon).

        I also agree that it doesn’t all have to be Imperium vs Xenos. The actual war element doesn’t even have to be at the fore; it can be the backdrop to the story. You can have ‘brotherly bonds are tested when x, y and z occurs on Orphelia VII’ or ‘the war ended swiftly, but is all what it seems at HQ?’ or ‘some sort of astartes initiation trial’ or whatever.

        By fantastical I mut refer to one of the stories that was released in the early days of BL. I specifically recall a story in which a space marine was trapped inside a computer combat program (like the Matrix) by Chaos. The whole plot of the story – whether good or bad – relies on a fantastical plot device that, if disliked by the editor, causes the entire story to collapse.

        I think it’s fair to say that anything with more than a passing reference to no go areas (eg Squats, 30k, outside the known lore) is extremely unlikely to get published.

        • If definition is the point of contention then I would clarify that I don’t mean things like the story you mention, which I have actually read, and which I found to be something extremely illogical and unrealistic. Compare that to Primary Instinct with the relations between the two xeno races and suddenly its all more sensible. Or compare to Chris Wraight’s Space Wolves story, also in the Victories anthology. Or with Nick Kyme’s short story in the Legends anthology. Or Ben Counter’s short story in Victories. They all take very different approaches to what you already find in the lore but they turn them out to be something much grander and more relevant to the characters.

          And as I said before, the safe bet or the box is defined by what you already find in the lore and what you currently see being published. Stories about Sororitas or Arbites or Inquisitors are just as likely to get accepted as ones about Space Marines. -Shadowhawk

  3. This issue is one that is right at the surface of my own thoughts at the moment; I am gearing up to develop my novel pitch for the 2012 window right now, and (somewhat) as the result of the discussions on the Bolthole and opinions picked up from interviews etc, I have decided to shelve the novel I was going to pitch (shelved in a box marked ‘Once I am Through the Door’ – its a big box) and come up with something new.

  4. I should mention that this was precisely the inspiration for the Silver Skulls. Rather than building a ‘fan chapter’, we set out to pick a chapter which already existed in the lore, but had very little background, and expand on it, filling in the gaps.

    The point was to allow us to create a shared background for stories, but without preventing us from getting those stories published due to BL’s reluctance to include innovative material from new authors.

    We had a lot of fun creating the background, and the ‘expand rather than invent’ process turned out to be sucessful (or at least not unsuccessful), as evidenced by Sarah’s Primary Instinct making it through submissions and into print.

    Of course, the expansion process in itself is a form of invention. What I think is important there is to remember that small details can let you ‘flavour’ your story to personal tastes whilst fitting into the required genre, whereas hanging your submission off a ‘unique’ perspective or element risks a lot.

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