Interview with John French

After much faffing around here is the awaited interview with Black Library writer John French, just as we leave March allergies and April foolery.

Courtesy of The Black Library

Can you tell us about your novel Ahriman: Exile? The story and characters, specifically Ahriman. Is it action-oriented or slow-paced?

Ahriman: Exile is about Ahriman (of Chaos Sorcerer infamy) in the time after his banishment from the Planet of the Sorcerers. It starts with Ahriman in a very different place to what most people would expect. He has watched his Legion be destroyed by the Rubric he cast to save it. For once he has seen the limits of his knowledge, and seen that there are things that are beyond his grasp. The novel then follows his rise from that state to… something else.

How did you go on with writing for a famous Codex character such as Ahriman? Did Black Library approach you with the idea or was it your idea all along? I know that Black Library writers have favourite characters they want to write about.

It was an off the cuff remark that started it. I was trying to pitch another novel, and my editor was lukewarm about my idea. I said something like ‘well, I will just do an Ahriman book instead,’ and my editor blinked, then said ‘Ok, what would you do?’. It was not the response I was expecting, at all. At the time I thought that the Thousand Sons and Ahriman were being worked on by someone else. I also was fairly sure that they would not let me roll straight into such a key character. But there I was, with a big open ‘what you’ll you do?’ waiting to be answered. Luckily an idea came along just in time for me to reply. It changed a bit as I flesh it out, but the essence of that first idea became Ahriman: Exile.

What was the writing process for the book? Can you describe how you go about working on a novel?

I tend to start with a single event, character or circumstance. I prod that first concept around in my head. Then I talk to people about it (editors, friends, other writers), and see if their eyes glaze over. If I get that response then I start again. I am lucky in that I have very inspiring friends and colleagues, who are not short on opinions. The best reactions are the negative ones, the times when they think that I have missed the point, or ignored something important. That’s the really good stuff, because it adds layers and hard edges to bounce off.
After that I write the idea down in as few words as possible. Can the idea be expressed simply and directly? Yes – good. No – start again. I plan. Bullet points and key story beats are hammered out.
I realise that I need an extra subplot because otherwise the whole thing is going to be like head butting through breeze block walls. I change the plan. I start writing, and try to hit key milestones by set times.
I realise, yet again, that the plan is just a map to save me if I get lost, and will have to be changed
Characters come and go, change names, change gender, change their role in the plot, and generally cause trouble on the page.
Eventually – after all the ups and downs of thinking its going well, knowing it’s not, believing it’s great, and being convinced it’s not – a rough draft turns up.
My long suffering alpha reader gets to batter through my mistakes. I redraft, moving big chunks of text around, scrapping scenes, burning word count down, adding stuff in and chopping it out.I put together a reading draft that looks close to the finished deal. The reading draft goes out to my beta readers (thanks, guys). I wait in a state of nervous tension for them to tell me it’s dull, or makes no sense, or that the bit that I really like is, in fact, pointless. The comments come back. I read them, alternating between joy and despair.I redraft again.
It goes to the editors, and the nervous tension starts again. Comments come back. More drafts appear. It goes to the copy editors and proof readers. More drafts.
Print galleys appear – ‘last chance to change that hideous typo you spotted on page 76…’ And then, at long last, like a dust covered traveller riding through a city’s gate, it’s printed, and becomes real. Simple, no?

Is Ahriman a favourite character of yours?

So much hubris, so much self delusion, and so much power… Yeah, he is a lot of fun to write.

Did you draw inspiration from any outside influences such as films, books and music?

Music more than anything. Books and stories often have a song that just ends up bonding to them, and I suppose influencing the feel of the story. The Last Remembrancer and a song called Sanvean by Lisa Gerrard are linked in my head. For Ahriman the track Surface of the Sun from the soundtrack to Sunshine got played a lot.

Can you mention your favourite parts and least favourite of the book? The ups and downs?

I am fairly convinced that the bits which writers like about their own work are not the bits that others like, and it’s same with the stuff that writers don’t like. What I like or don’t like is really bound up with the writing process. For example I was so tired when I was doing the last sections of Exile, that I always flip back to feeling less than good when I think about them. On the flip side of that coin, I really enjoyed doing the cross cutting between characters when they are on the dead Astropath station.

What do you prefer to write, action scenes or character driven stories?
I love writing dialogue. For me that’s really were you see characters emerge, but if I didn’t like writing action 40k would be a hard setting to work in.

Writers have different patterns when they’re involved in their writing. Is the writing process for you a lonely one or do you become more social?

It’s essentially solitary for me. I write on my own, with the internet shut down, listening to a long playlist of music on big headphones. So… yeah, I shut the rest of the world out as much as I can. Having said that, when I am not at the keyboard I develop ideas by talking them through with other people.

What made you write for Warhammer 40k? Was it by chance or was it intended all along? If so, are you a big 40k fan?
I am a lifelong fan. I think I wanted to write professionally for 40k ever since I first encountered the setting.

Do you have any plans writing for Warhammer Fantasy in the future?

It would be interesting, but no plans at present.

Will you continue writing Arkham Horror novels? Do you see any similarities writing Lovecraftian horror and 40k fiction? Are they part of the same for you?

The Lord of Nightmares trilogy was a complete blast to write. In particular because I got to collaborate with Alan Bligh. It was also a great change of gear to write in the (well maybe a version of) the real world.
I think they are both very distinct worlds. I suppose there are common threads of horror, and the supernatural, but 40k has such a strong style that it is difficult to put it in the same pool as anything.

As a big Lovecraft fan I have to ask : Short fiction or novels, which one do you prefer?

The short fiction, no doubt. But I have to confess that I prefer Chambers and Clark Ashton Smith.

Can you remember what it was like when you started writing, and do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Professionally, or in general? In general, hmmm, not really, I wrote stories when I was young enough that memory gets a bit blurred.
Professionally, oh yeah. I still have the commissioning paperwork. I was so excited, but I was also terrified that I now had to actually deliver.
Advice…
Get proper, harsh feedback, and listen to it. You don’t have to follow it, but you should always listen to it, and spend time considering it. Get to know yourself as a writer, good and bad. This thing we do is a craft first and an art second; learn your craft. Don’t do things by accident.
Keep going.

What are your biggest influence in your work? Any films , novels, music, people?

Everything and anything.
But seriously, it’s difficult to pin down because some of the strangest and tiniest things might be the seed of an idea. I got the some of inspiration for the details of the summoning scene in Ahriman: Exile, from watching a video of people releasing lantern kites. Sometimes I think it would be cool to take a chapter from a book, and get a writer to do a big exploded multi-media mood board, showing some of the things that nudged into their mind as they wrote it.

Can you tell us about your interests?

I have a fairly varied set of interests, including a poor taste in music, running, history, a bit of philosophy, gaming, eating, sleeping, talking, and generally being a bit of an intellectual butterfly.

It seems that many fans of Black Library started reading fantasy as young children. Can you name your favourite books from your childhood?

Tricky…
Depends how young, but if you take a large chunk of time running from when I started to read books that just had words (or mainly words) to about 13, and in no particular order:
The Hobbit, Watership Down, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I was completely obsessed by Agatha Christie for two years somewhere around the 10 year old mark… Asterix and Obelix, everything by Terry Pratchett, all of the Sharpe books, The Witches, The Wooden Horse, The Lord of the Rings, I, Claudius (yes I was a bit young for it, but it’s a hell of a book), The Chronicles of Narnia (the demon god in The Last Battle left marks in my mind I am sure)… err, probably a quite few more that have slipped my mind.

Favourite music?

The choral Music of Thomas Tallis, most of DJ Shadows work (particularly Entroducing), any film score by Hans Zimmer, The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, Bruce Springsteen, Portishead, Faithless, The Portico Quartet, almost anything with Daniel Hope playing a violins in it…Yeah, you weren’t expecting that to make consistent sense were you?

Bestest food?

Pizza. Food of the gods.

Chaos or the Emperor? Describe why.

Chaos, because it is everything.

Best replies in my opinion, pizza and Chaos couldn’t be a better combination. Many thanks to John French for having patience with obsessive fan questions. Images courtesy of The Black Library.

Interview with William King

Today we interview one of the Black Library fandom’s favourite authors, the legendary William King. He’s responsible for creating the iconic Gotrek, Felix and Thanquol characters in Warhammer Fantasy, and for writing the Ragnar series in Warhammer 40,000 and more recently the Tyrion and Teclis and Macharius series. He’s also written a number of stories in his own settings. William King

Your latest novel Bane of Malekith, the third in the Tyrion and Teclis trilogy, is out now. What was the writing process for the book? Can you describe how you go about working on a novel?

The second question is tricky to answer since the process varies from book to book. The Tyrion and Teclis trilogy was probably a unique case among all the books I have written. They were done one after the other in the space of about nine months and then revised in about another 5 months.

The trilogy was in many ways the easiest thing to write I have ever attempted. I set myself the goal of writing a minimum of 1000 words EVERY day come rain or shine and I pretty much stuck with that until the books were done. I even spent an hour writing in a Costa coffee house in Qatar in the middle of the night to keep up my unbroken run.

I spent many years brooding on the story which probably helped make things flow. I wrote the original outline for it way back in the early 90s in the first High Elf army book so I was pretty clear what I wanted to write. The characters themselves have been pretty strongly defined and mostly I just wanted to show how they became who they are today. I wanted them to be believable as heroes and still sympathetic.

Bane of MalekithAs for my usual writing process, it’s pretty simple. I almost always work from an outline – which is handy since Black Library requires me to send them one before they will issue a contract. This outline provides a guide for the actual writing. I don’t try to stick to it religiously. Some things that look great in the outline don’t actually work when you come to write them and conversely there are always things that take on a life of their own as they escape from your brain onto the page.

As I go through the first draft, I tend to stop and go back occasionally and rewrite things the light of what has happened since I wrote them. I put in foreshadowing, bits of stuff that I now know will be important to let the reader know about and so on.

Once I have written the first draft, I go over the book a number of times, trying to make sure everything is consistent. Sometimes there are large changes needed at this stage as flaws become evident. Eventually the thing is done, sent to the editors. More changes are often required at this stage. There is a backwards and forwards process until the book is done.

Are there any parts of the book that were a particular struggle to write, and any you are now especially pleased with?

As I said above this trilogy was probably the easiest thing I have ever written, with the possible exception of Daemonslayer, which was written after a similarly long gestation period. It was an enormously pleasurable experience. There are lots of things in the books I like – in particular the depictions of Aenarion, Caledor, Malekith and Morathi. In Bane of Malekith I like the way Malekith comes across. I also like the final set of duels between Tyrion and Urian and Malekith and Teclis. I am pleased with the opening chess game between Caledor and Death as well, which is, as I am sure many people will have spotted, a reference to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.Gotrek and Felix

Do you have any particular literary influences or sources you draw inspiration from in your writing?

Robert E Howard, Roger Zelazny, Michael Moorcock and Tolkien all spring to mind. Less obviously Lawrence Block, George Orwell and, this is going to sound bizarre, Charles Dickens. He had a brilliant way with creating memorable characters.

Readers sometimes comment that you have a great ability to portray details of character or setting with just a few well-chosen words. Is this an element of your writing that you’ve consciously developed, or has it always come naturally?

See my comment about Dickens above. He has a knack for giving characters memorable mannerisms (Orwell comments on this in his essay on Dickens). It’s one of the things I try to do—like Gotrek running his thumb along the blade of his axe as he ponders violence. When creating a character I try and come up with three really memorable things—a look, a mannerism, an attitude and I build on it.

With settings, it’s the same. I try and find small details that will be convincing to the reader. I look for the sort of things that make me nod and think, yes, that’s how it would be.

How do you approach character development? Do you prefer to see how the characters evolve as the story progresses, or do you tend to plan out character arcs before starting to write?

I tend just to let the characters run from where they start. My basic philosophy of character creation is find characters you like and understand and then torture them. By this I mean cause them difficulties, take away their stuff, pick on their loved ones etc.

Again though, when I pause to think about things, I would need to add that this varies from book to book. Sometimes I have a definite aim in mind. With Tyrion and Teclis I wanted to show how they got to be heroes. With Gotrek and Felix and Grey Seer Thanquol, I just ran with what was happening in the stories and left the characters to their own devices. You can see what happened.

Writers seem to have different patterns when they’re involved in their writing. Is the writing process for you a lonely one or do you become more social?

I’ve never been the world’s most sociable man. I enjoy being on my own. I think it helps. On the other hand, it’s easy for me to say since I have a very supportive family.

You’ve been writing now for over twenty years. How have you found that the world of publishing has changed in that time?

It’s a different world now, completely and utterly. The single biggest change has come in the past five years with the rise of indie publishing and Amazon’s Kindle store. I have sold something like 40000 indie books in the past couple of years. The royalty rate on those books is something like 10 times as much as those on a conventionally published book so that’s a significant shift.

I think the whole industry is in turmoil. We’ve seen giant bookstore chains close shop and more and more people shift to e-readers. The process has only just started. That said, I do think Black Library is incredibly well-placed to weather the changes. It has its own loyal audience and control of at least part of its distribution chain

Fist of DemetriusCan you remember when you started writing, and do you have any advice for aspiring writers now?

I can remember it like it was yesterday but the world has changed so much that nothing I learned in terms of the business side of things would be useful today. On the other hand, some advice never goes out of fashion. Write what you love. Write the best stories you can. Read a lot. Write a lot. Don’t expect to be an overnight success. Learn to manage money. I know those all sound like clichés, but there’s a reason for that. They are all true and will most likely remain so for as long as people write books in the hope of selling them.

You did a lot of work on developing the Warhammer setting as a designer. Do you find that has made it easier or harder to write fiction set in the world, and has that changed over time?

It was easier when I started but it has gotten harder as the Warhammer world had been changed and expanded and so many more books have been written.

You’ve written in a variety of settings. Do you prefer working in an original setting of your own or with somebody else’s IP?

It depends! (You’ll notice a trend in my answers here as once again I sit on the fence.) In some ways writing in somebody else’s IP is easier because the world has already been created and you have very clear guidelines as to what is expected.

In some ways, writing your own stuff is easier because you don’t need to worry about what other writers may be doing. When I am writing my Kormak sword and sorcery novels or my Terrarch gunpowder fantasies, I am free to do pretty much as I please, up to and including blowing up the world if I want. I am pretty certain I could not get away with doing that (in Warhammer fantasy at least, in 40K there are a lot of worlds).

In Warhammer as more books are written by more writers, the number of things you can write about tends to narrow because somebody else may be doing something you would like to do.

Also, if I may introduce a note of crass commercialism into matters, if you are working in somebody else’s IP there is usually some certainty that there is a market for it and that you will be paid. If you are working on your own stuff, unless you are already a well-established writer, that is not a given.City of Strife

Who would you say is your favourite character among those you’ve written?

It’s really hard to make that choice, I like them all.  Gotrek and Felix come first but as a team!  If I absolutely had to pick just the one character, probably Grey Seer Thanquol. He was pure fun to write.

In your heart of hearts, do you prefer Dwarfs, or Elves?

Elves. Most of the time. Although I would probably rather go out drinking with dwarves.

After the conclusion of the Macharius trilogy, do you have plans for any more novels we should look out for?

There are some things being discussed but I am not allowed to talk about them at the present moment. Sorry about that!

Profound thanks to Mr King for taking the time to answer our questions! For more of his thoughts, see his blog at williamking.me

Interview with Steve Parker

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We interview Steve Parker about his latest novel Deathwatch. This is our longest interview so far, a fascinating, in-depth view into the writing process. Take notes, aspiring writers!

Can you tell us about your novel Deathwatch? The story and characters specifically. Is it action-oriented or slow-paced?

Deathwatch is the first Talon Squad novel and follows the origins, formation and first deployment of a Space Marine anti-xenos kill-team under the auspices of an Inquisition ‘handler’ known only as Sigma.
I guess the best way to describe it, or at least to describe what I was shooting for, is special-forces action in the 41st millennium – a kind of Tom Clancy or Duncan Falconer in space, if you will, but very solidly grounded in the 40k milieu.
The story is told via multiple viewpoints, but is mostly centred on Lyandro Karras, First Codicier of the Death Spectres Space Marine Chapter, who is sequestered to the Deathwatch alongside Siefer Zeed of the Raven Guard, Maximmion Voss of the Imperial Fists, Ignacio Solarion of the Ultramarines and Darrion Rauth of the Exorcists, all of whom eventually deploy with the dreadnought Chyron Amadeus Chyropheles of the Lamenters. Unfortunately, they don’t all get on very well.
I think it’s fair to say the book is definitely action-oriented, but action is nothing without slower-paced suspenseful elements that set it up. Hopefully I struck a good balance between action and suspense.

What was the writing process for the book? Can you describe how you go about working on a novel?

Deathwatch was announced rather a long time before it was completed, but that was nothing to do with any issues in the actual writing process. Truth be told, my life circumstances got shaken up a fair bit between signing the contract with Black Library and actually handing in the completed manuscript. I was never in any doubt about finishing the book, though. It was something I really wanted to write from the first moment my editor ran the notion up the flagpole.
Given the existence of the two short stories before the novel, I already had my characters, but I found myself facing a slight problem in that I didn’t want the novel (nor any future Deathwatch novels) to be bound by what transpired in those shorts. I mean, no one on the kill-team is immortal. If they make a big enough mistake, someone is going to pay the ultimate price. If one assumes the shorts take place quite a while after the origins story, it would seem that Talon Squad is going to be pretty safe for a long time. Nothing could be further from the truth. Don’t go thinking that because the kill-team is at full complement in the shorts that anyone is bullet-proof. They are most definitely not. Not all these guys are going to make it through. That’s just a reality of the Deathwatch.
So, to that end, I decided to treat the novel as a reboot. The short stories are what they are – brief, explosive action adventures based around a single mission and meant to be read in a single sitting – but I’d like readers to think of them somewhat in the same way as a Marvel Alterniverse story. If you’re not familiar with those, it’s where an established character like Spidey, for example, has adventures that don’t really fall within the accepted main story arc. They’re fun, but they don’t reflect actual canon, more just a chance to play with ideas. For me, the Talon Squad shorts were as much about prototyping my kill-team and working out the dynamics of the group as anything else.
In terms of the process I use for any novel these days, I work almost exclusively in Scrivener, which I know some other Black Library authors – William King to name one – also espouse. Scrivener is heavily geared towards authors and makes Microsoft Word all but obsolete due to features like the excellent corkboard. I find it a genuine joy to work with, though I’m still learning its ins-and-outs to a degree.
I spend a lot of time in the planning phase of a book and make copious amounts of notes. I’m not a ‘pantser’ who just jumps into the writing and sees where it takes him. I tried that. The results were a bit messy and tended to call for pretty massive rewrites along the way. That’s not for me. I’m firmly in the ‘outliner’ camp now.
I tend to write three drafts. The first is scrappy and as fast as I can make it, just getting it down without too much thought to the language and focusing on discovering story problems I hadn’t anticipated in the planning phase. The second draft is about fixing all those problems and fine-tuning the pace and the story beats, the interactions, how the action plays out, stuff like that.
The third draft is the spit-and-polish phase where I focus on turn-of-phrase and other ‘cosmetic’ issues. After that, my editor gets it, reads it, makes comments of his own, gathers feedback from proofreaders, and then it comes back to me for a final tweak before it goes off for publication.
Writing a novel is extremely labour-intensive and long, and yet an author is always hoping that the book will be a smooth read that fans will get swept up in, devouring in just a day or two.

Was there any outside inspiration for the book, such as films, books, music?

I’m sure I was subconsciously inspired by a great many things. It all counts. Conscious inspiration, though, was mostly drawn from my own reading and a couple of video games I’m fond of.
In terms of books, I’d have to list Rainbow Six by Tom Clancy as one influence, but also the works of Frank Herbert, whose Dune books were the reason I ever wanted to write in the first place.
Games that influenced me included the Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six series, but also a broad list of other modern military ‘shooters’. The risk there is in telling yourself, ‘I’ll just play the game for a little research,’ but actually, you end up getting into the challenge of it and don’t stop where you should. Gaming is probably my greatest weakness.
Music? I listened to the Predator 2 and Alien 3 soundtracks over and over again while drafting. I also like the Space Marine and Gears of War soundtracks. The Alien 3 soundtrack in particular was a good fit for writing the novel, I think.

Can you mention your favourite parts and least favourite of the book? What was a struggle and what just kept pouring into the pages?

I have a lot of favourite parts, to be honest, because I initially planned the book to satisfy what I personally wanted from a Deathwatch novel (hoping along the way that readers would enjoy all the same things). To that end, I included lots of things that appeal to me directly, from the extreme and unusual training at Watch Fortress Damaroth to the shadowy activities of Inquisitors and agents who operate on a need-to-know basis. The chapters featuring the Puppeteer were a particular joy to write, but so were the scenes in which I had an opportunity to bring the Death Spectres Space Marine Chapter to the fore. I also reveled in writing the interactions between the kill-team members. Those are some pretty messed up team dynamics.
What was a struggle? I’m not sure there was a particular struggle that stands out. Writing isn’t ever truly easy, at least for me, but the Deathwatch novel was a fairly even experience as these things go. That might be because of the work I had already done on character establishment in the short stories. I’m hoping it’s indicative of future novel-writing experiences.

Writers have different patterns when they’re involved in their writing. Is the writing process for you a lonely one or do you become more social?

I’m not a very social being, even at the best of times. It’s my habit, and something of a preference, to lock myself away and live like a recluse whether I’m writing or not. I’m probably even more reclusive when I have a novel to write. Is that good or bad? They say no man is an island, but I dispute that. I’m North Sentinel Island, 400 miles southeast of Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal, and the tribe that inhabits me kills intruders on sight.

You’re a fan favourite despite not having an extensive Black Library bibliography. Does that influence your writing in any way or does the story always come first, the readers second?

Which fan said that? Was it my mum?
I don’t think serving the story and serving the readers can be separated all that much. There’s a certain level of mutual dependence there. A writer is an entertainer. Readers know what they like, and a writer working in an established universe needs to take that into account. I like to think that the readers and I want the same things from a Warhammer 40,000 piece. I’m a reader, too – in fact, I’m the first reader – so if I manage to satisfy myself (which can be pretty difficult), we’re probably all good.
I hesitate to say there’s any direct or specific influence from fan input, because that’s not really how I work, but a while back, I did ask readers to suggest kill-team compositions on my blog, mostly just for fun, but also because nobody knows Warhammer 40,000 like the fans. They’re so invested in the milieu. No matter how much reading I do, I doubt I’ll ever match the breadth and depth of knowledge some of them display. So, it’s nice to throw something out there sometimes and see what kind of replies you get. The kill-team discussion brought to my attention a number of Chapters I knew little about or had never even heard of before, so it was definitely interesting.

What made you write for Warhammer 40k? Was it by chance or was it intended all along? If so, are you a big 40k fan?

I am a big WH40k fan, but I don’t come at it from the table-top, where my only real experience is Space Hulk. I was always attracted to the artwork, the models and the richly detailed background, but all my recreational gaming in my teens tended to be done on computer or console. So I largely lost touch with WH40k for some years. It never occurred to me that there might be opportunities to write stories in this particular milieu. As an author, I started out writing original fantasy and dark SF stories set in Japan. It was only after my first two story sales to US magazines that I discovered Black Library and the Inferno magazine. I think I had been prompted to check for Warhammer 40,000 fiction after finishing the awesome Dawn of War computer game. Sadly, Inferno had ceased publication by then. I was kicking myself for not discovering it sooner until I came across the call for submission to the Tales from the Dark Millennium anthology.
Six days of frantic catching up later, I had a story proposal featuring the Dark Angels and the Ordo Malleus. Happily, I got the go-ahead to write the story, and The Falls of Marakross was my first outing in the Warhammer 40,000 universe.

Can you remember what it was like when you started writing, and do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Hmm. Well, something I read recently really struck me, because I tend to be very hard on myself at the beginning of a book, and I typically trip myself up by incessantly editing as I write. Don’t do this. I think I do it because my expectations for the first draft are foolishly set way higher than they ought to be, which ends up causing me a great deal of self doubt and worry. This is something for aspiring writers to watch out for – don’t listen to the inner critic on the first pass. Just keep rolling.
The quote in question went something like this:
“Remember, everything great started out shit.”
Think about that. Think about your favourite book. Do you have any idea what it looked like after only one draft? You probably don’t, but chances are you wouldn’t have paid good money for it at that stage. You may not have liked it at all.
A first draft should, by its nature, be pretty scrappy, even deliberately so. Working from your plot outline (while still remaining open to anything new that suddenly occurs), try to write fast and free (and I’m painfully aware as I type this that I really need to follow my own advice). The faster you get the story down, the sooner you can start making it great, but that first draft has nothing whatsoever to do with quality. It’s all about getting the ideas on the page and discovering new ones along the way. The best ideas often come to you when you’re right in the middle of the work itself. From there, at the end of the first draft, you can really go to work on it and incorporate all the revelations you made while writing.
A lot of writers spend hours trying to make a perfect opening to a book right at the beginning of a project. I should know, since I was one. But you’ll do yourself a far bigger favour by just getting down a quick first chapter and jumping straight into the rest of the story feet first. You can refine that first chapter as much as you like when the time is right, but that time is not at the beginning of the first draft.
Once you have a completed first draft, print it out or copy it over to your e-reader (I prefer the latter myself), and read it start-to-finish, taking all the notes you’ll need to make it better in the second draft (I use a voice recorder for this). Again, don’t worry about literary cosmetics here, just focus on making it the best story it can be in terms of plot, scenes, characters, all the fundamentals. What would make each chapter or scene cooler and more exciting? What can you throw in to shake things up for the reader? Work up your second draft with all the changes you’ve decided to make, then sit down with that and, finally, start to think about the prose itself. Polish it up. Add your own narrative voice or style. Make it shine. Then finally submit it.
Other than that, be sure to study the craft of writing. The Writer’s Digest ‘Elements of Fiction’ series is great overall and does an excellent job of introducing all the aspects of story on which good fiction depends. There are some fantastic recent e-books on the craft of writing, too, which even experienced writers may get a lot out of. Amazon has literally oodles of them. Check the reviews before you buy, though.

Can you tell us about your interests besides writing?

A lot of the usual stuff like reading, movies, games, etc. No surprises there. I’ve no doubt that most of my favourites are also on the lists of the people reading this.
Since I was about sixteen years old, I’ve had a deep interest in martial arts and physical training. It hasn’t dissipated with time. I’d normally list body-building as one of my foremost interests, but I’m too far from my 2010 peak right now to say that and not feel a bit self-conscious, so I’ll just say weight-training instead and promise to do better next year.
Animal rights and wildlife conservation are really important to me, too, so I do what I can in the time I have available, whether that means signing petitions, copy-editing content for event organisers, designing posters or joining demos.
That’s about it, really. I like travel well enough, too, but I don’t get to do enough of it. I’d love to visit the Middle East sometime, or the ruins of the Aztec and Maya cultures. I’m also toying with the idea of becoming a slightly sympathetic super-villain and trying to obliterate (or at the very least sterilise) mankind. I think I’ve got the chops for it, but I lack the resources.

What are your biggest influences?


Literary influences? Definitely Frank Herbert, Clive Barker, JRR Tolkien and David Gemmell, all of whom still make me want to write despite the appalling money on offer to professional authors these days. Also, I don’t think there’s a 40k writer alive who hasn’t been influence at least a little by the great Dan Abnett. Aaron’s work, too, is so good that it’s surely having an influence on people in the same way now. I just read The First Heretic and enjoyed it immensely. I can imagine just how much insanely hard work went into it to make it read so well.
That said, no matter the influence, each writer needs to have his own voice. Influences ought to inspire, to bring ideas and techniques to your attention, but your voice has to be your own.

It seems that many fans of Black Library started reading fantasy as young children. Can you name your favourite books from your childhood?

I was really into the Fighting Fantasy and Sorcery! series in my primary school days. I still have the complete Sorcery! collection, including the spell book, and I love to look at all that awesome, quirky John Blanche art.
Then there was The Hobbit when I was about ten years old, though I didn’t tackle The Lord of the Rings until I was in my mid-teens. When I did, it completely blew me away.
After that, I started reading science fiction a little more than fantasy – Herbert, Gibson, Card, Bear, Clarke, etc.
Other than that, throughout my childhood, I was into just about anything featuring ghosts, monsters, aliens, demons, spaceships… I was a very easy sell to anything with a good cover painting back then.

Favourite music?

I mostly listen to two types of music depending on my mood or needs. First, when I’m training or out walking around town growling at worthless humans, anything that makes me snort and twitch like a bull rhinoceros in mating season will do, so Sabaton, Powerwolf, Battle Beast, stuff like that. Music that gets my blood up and makes me want to charge through a brick wall or flip over a car Hulk-style, meaning metal for the most part.
When I’m feeling a bit more low-key and, perhaps, quietly brooding over how to destroy the abhorrent human race, certain movie and game soundtracks hit the spot. My recent go-to soundtrack is from the movie Zero Dark Thirty. I could listen to that all day, every day. I’m not sure why, but it just suits me.
I also use something called Skyrim Atmospheres to help me get to sleep sometimes, since I have some sleeping issues.


Bestest food?

I’m firmly into the whole ‘plant-strong’ thing, so anything vegan that complements my training goals and is ethically sound is best. Daily staples for me include beans, nuts, wholewheat/wholegrain breads, brown rice, tofu, fresh fruits and veg. All very basic (I can’t cook worth a damn, after all). The recent hit movie ‘Forks Over Knives’ was a pretty big influence on me, but I’ve been fairly regimented in my eating since my mid-teens when I started physical training. If you love stories about Space Marines or Catachans or any type of fictional character who is pumped up and combat capable – Wolverine, Hulk, Batman, whatever – why would you not go to the gym and try to emulate that? You’d be surprised at what you can achieve and the positive changes it will make to your life in the long-term.

Chaos or the Emperor? Describe why.

There was a time when I would have immediately replied Ave Imperator to that and made an Aquila over my chest, but I’ve recently decided both sides can literally go to hell. They stink of corruption and self-interest. So I’m signing on with the Tau and dedicating myself to the Greater Good… until they do something I don’t like, at which point I’ll go rogue and start assassinating corrupt Ethereals.
My name is Steve Parker and I am a flight risk. Good night.

We like to give Steve Parker a big thanks for taking the time to reply to our fan questions.

Coming this Thursday is the review of Malodrax by Ben Counter.

“Marching Time” Author Thoughts

And now, a special anthology interview with some of the writers of Marching Time.

Literary leader, Mark Steven Thompson.

Literary leader, Mark Steven Thompson.

Mark Steven Thompson:

I didn’t need much inspiring to have a go at writing a time travel story, particularly one which focused upon its use in war. The idea was just too cool to pass up. In hind sight however I can see now that taking on such a concept was massively underestimated by me in the sense that it’s just such a difficult premise to get your head around. I spent countless hours pondering what-if scenarios before I could even put pen to paper, or rather, finger to keyboard. I have a folder on my PC with several unfinished attempts to crack the theme of time travel. I think the single biggest inspiration for me personally was the fact that my work might end up in a published anthology.

This gave the whole project a sense of professionalism and made me ‘up my game’ as it were. I think the Bolthole forum has really created something special here, and I’m not just talking about this book. They’ve created an exceptionally friendly, nurturing environment for new writers to find a voice and feel supported. That’s a major inspiration to me and I’ll certainly be looking forward to contributing to their next offering should I make the cut!

In the end I suppose the inspiration for Ultionem Lapsis came from a dark place in the back of my mind where I’d taken a ‘what-if?’ and asked myself if I was Gideon, what would be the worst thing that I could imagine happening to me? For Regicide, it was simply a piece of music that I have on my writing playlist. As it played I just couldn’t shake the idea of a guy from the future wading into war in a medieval era.

I don’t want to give anything more away than that because I like my tales to have a sting in the tale, a sudden twist that takes the reader somewhere they weren’t expecting to go. Sure, my ideas are often dark at times, but there’s often a message in there too which is what writing or story telling is really about.

Mastermind Jonathan Ward

Mastermind Jonathan Ward.

Jonathan Ward:

When the theme for the second Bolthole anthology was announced, my only real problem was deciding which idea to go with! A collection of short stories themed around time travel and war was a tremendously fun concept, and I knew the writers were going to come up with a huge variety of tales.

In the end one idea kept coming back to me: the question of how battles would be fought if time machines existed, and tactics could be tried then edited out of existence if they didn’t work?

Combine that with my love of stories set on distant worlds in the far future, and Ripples was born.

Story master, Mark Grudgings.

Story master, Mark Grudgings.

Mark Grudgings:

I’d like to think that writing for the Marching Time anthology changed my rather jaded opinion of time travel entirely.

I was very much of the fixed mindset that sees time travel as either A) A lazy plot device B) An easy-out for script writers C) An over saturated media format. When I see ‘time travel’ as a movie sub-genre it makes me wince, wishing for someone to look slightly outside of the opportunity simply to get a re-use from that damned period drama set.

Give me linearity and formula any day. Characters rather than character.

And yet, when viewing our editor Ross’ carefully worded recruitment poster that emphatically stated; “we want war stories” I felt the pocket of bile that I’d reserved for said topic dissolve into my intestine with nary a pop nor poke. Perhaps this was how to dissolve my disaffection. Perhaps now that time travel was a far less significant part of the story would I enjoy writing around it, rather than against it.

So I sucked up my own reservations and pitched a story. Thanks to the editors everything went well.

Mister plot twister, Griff Williams.

Mister plot twister, Griff Williams.

Griff Williams:

I think it’s common practice for parents, teachers and other well-meaning adults to take aside any child who has started to show an interest in writing, that two great lessons might be imparted. Never end your story with ‘then he woke up and it was all a dream’, and stay the hell away from time travel. And I think I understand why: there are a great many ways for a time travel story to go wrong, and very few ways for it to be pulled off.

There is the risk of the deus ex machina on one end of the spectrum, and absurdly convoluted rules, regulations and temporal bureaucracy on the other. So going into my project for Marching Time I was treading very, very carefully. If there was one inspiration guiding me, it was fear – fear of being right back in that primary school classroom and making the rookie mistakes all over again.

A large part of Hero of Magong‘s development was therefore my attempt to deal with this major concern, and the fact that the editors were looking for a primarily character piece was a definite life-saver. The time-travel really became more of a background element – the complication at the start of the story, not the solution at the end – with the bulk of the narrative instead focusing on the consequences of traveling.

From the beginning I wanted to do a story where the protagonist is forced to literally confront himself, or at least a younger version. How much more ‘character piece’ can you get? On top of that core I spread a generous helping of World War Three, using a NATO-Chinese conflict for both the source and destination of the time travel. With its scale, technology and underlying nuclear threat, it was about as pressing a reason for tearing great chunks of the space-time continuum a new one as I could imagine. I didn’t want protagonists returning from some pristine far-future with only a distant interest in events; this was going to be dirty, close-quarters time travel with personal stakes.

Finally, because I love working weird and blasphemous designs with narrative, I twisted some of the tenses around so the reader would get the disjointed, unnatural, stranger-in-a-strange-land feel of a time traveler’s perspective. Then it was just a matter of bashing my head against the keyboard and a brick wall alternately.

The rest is history. For now…

Writing warlord Lauren Grest.

Writing warlord Lauren Grest.

Lauren Grest:

As with most writing, it was about 50% inspiration and 50% cold calculation. I knew I wanted to use time travel as a sort of take on post-traumatic stress disorder as I think in a very pedestrian way, most of us go through periods of being depressed time travellers.
We mentally relive and revisit unpleasant events in our life far more regularly than going over our triumphs.

I knew I wanted to take it further and have people actually physically revisit these sort of events and get ‘stuck’ in the past. So that was my starting point. I also had an image of someone whose scars would disappear, which sparked the idea for the nocturnal battles with the protagonist and her veteran father. Which brings me to the calculation part. Those who have read the story will notice that it is quite small scale/domestic compared to some of the others which are more epic story arcs.

This was partly to cover up my poor knowledge of military history/ warfare (sorry) but also to suit the limitations of a short story.For me it was far easy to keep the word count down by stripping down the cast to a minimum and having a first person narrative.  I also decided to make time travel an inherent ability, in part because of the relationship between the characters but in part to cut down pages of explanation about how a time machine might work.

I think my favourite element of how the story turned out is down to the input of Ross. He suggested I change my initial idea to have my main character become a soldier too. I was reluctant at first (see lack of military writing experience) but in the end it really added something to the relationship between daughter and father, allowing some character development as the daughter gains an understanding of her father’s behaviour. We also see her recognise similarities with him when put under the pressure of military life.

Overall, I enjoyed the experience of writing something new and out of my comfort zone but I have to say that time travel is a hard theme to work with… Throughout the writing process I would tie myself into knots trying to get my head around the many, many potential plot holes opened up by time travel. I’m not sure I’d rush back to time travel but I’d definitely be interested in pitching for other Bolthole anthologies.

Dinosaur riding cowboy, C.L. Werner.

World crafting cowboy, C.L. Werner.

C.L. Werner:

My story for Marching Time is an idea that has been kicking around in my head for at least  a decade at this point. The Lost Blitzkrieg grows from two of my great passions: WWII  history and old monster movies. Bringing the two together felt especially exciting and in plotting out the story I wanted to not only be true to the setting but also to evoke the feel of all the films and pulp stories that inspired it.

I was less concerned with current scientific theories and more on the fictional creations of men like Ray Bradbury and Ray Harryhausen – the menace faced by the characters in the story isn’t meant to match up with what you’d see on the Discovery Channel or a BBC documentary, but rather a crackly black-and-white movie or in the mouldering pages of some forgotten issue of Unknown or Amazing Stories. It is escapist fun, after all, not education!

I will admit to being a good deal more judicious in my presentation of the German Wehrmacht in the early days of WWII. I’ve read many memoirs from soldiers of the era and viewed copious amounts of documentary footage, including the Nazi films Sieg im Westen and Stukas which really helps to delve into the Fall of France from not merely a German perspective but the German perspective as these events were unfolding.

One of the big challenges for any writer is to get inside the heads of his characters, to present them in ways that are accurate for both who and what they are. In resisting the temptation to abuse the authorial voice and allow the actions and thoughts of the characters themselves to illustrate the time they live in, I think a writer both challenges himself and encourages the reader to look at the story with a more insightful eye.

The old mantra of ‘show don’t tell’ is never more important than when it comes to philosophy and history. The lens of time inevitably distorts the image, but I hope I’ve created a vision of that moment which is at least vibrant enough to be engaging.

Interview with Josh Reynolds

Our final interview of the month is with an author who hold one of the longest bibliographies you will ever see. With 13 novels, over a hundred short stories and even some non-fiction under his belt, not many can claim to have accomplished what Josh Reynolds has done. And that list is only going to get longer. But first, he has a few words for us.

Josh Reynolds. It's still possible to read everything he's written in this life time. But you better get started...

Josh Reynolds. It’s still possible to read everything he’s written in this life time. But you better get started…

He2etic: What is the writing process like for you? If you were to describe the process in one word, what would it be?

Josh: I treat it like a job. I set a word count goal for a particular project, I reach it, I move on to something different. Sometimes that’s research, sometimes it’s working on another project, sometimes its promotional stuff.

If I were to describe it in one word, it’d be ‘mechanical’. I get up, I write, I have some coffee, I write some more, I have some coffee, etcetera ad nauseum. It’s all very boring, unless you’re me, and then it’s awesome.

He2etic: How do you approach character development? Do you prefer to see how the character evolves as you go, or do you put more planning into it beforehand?

Josh: It depends on the character, and the type of story it is. Some characters have evolved, some I’ve had to plan. I generally err on the side of having a basic personality-type in mind, and then letting the character work out his or her own voice as the plot unspools. It’s easier than it sounds.

“When in doubt, have a man with a gun come through the door. If that doesn’t work, try a monkey with a switchblade.”

 

He2etic: You’ve written work primarily set in the Warhammer fantasy universe. In ideas as to what you’d do in the Warhammer 40,000 setting?

The Whitechapel Demon, by Josh Reynolds! Coming soon.

The Whitechapel Demon, by Josh Reynolds. Coming soon from Emby Press.

Josh: Lots. Mostly involving big dudes in power armour hitting each other or other, smaller dudes. At the moment, I’d really love to write a Space Marine Battles book, just for the experience.

Or something with a Necron as a protagonist, because why the heck not, right? I bet I could get a series out of Trazyn the Infinite just wandering around the galaxy, stealing stuff and leaving sarcastic notes. Eight, nine books easy.

He2etic: If you could cast anyone to play the roles of main characters in your work, who would you pick?

Josh: Honestly? I’d pick the person(s) who could guarantee the biggest ratings/box office draw. I want that sh*t to do well opening weekend, you know?

He2etic: Do you have any long term projects for writing? For example, do you intend to someday spin your own franchise or complete a long novel series?

Josh: Oh several. I always have a number of long term projects on the go. Franchise-wise, I’ve already got the makings of a good one in the Royal Occultist series, I think.

“Don’t argue with the editor, unless you know you’re right, and not even then, unless you absolutely have to.”

 

The Royal Occultist is the man or woman who stands between the United Kingdom and dangers of an occult, otherworldly, infernal or divine nature. Whether it’s werewolves in Wolverhampton or satyrs in Somerset, the Royal Occultist will be there to confront, cajole or conquer the menace in question.

There have been many Royal Occultists, and there will be many more, thanks to the strong British sense of tradition, bloody-minded necessity and the ridiculously short life expectancy for those who assume the post.

Knight of the Blazing Sun, by Josh Reynolds.

Knight of the Blazing Sun, by Josh Reynolds.

The current Royal Occultist, Charles St. Cyprian, is basically Bertie Wooster by way of Rudolph Valentino. His assistant, Ebe Gallowglass, is Louise Brooks by way of Emma Peel. He’s the brains, she’s the brawn. He likes to talk things out, preferably over something alcoholic, and she likes to shoot things until they die.

I suppose the stories could be called ‘urban fantasy’, or even ‘historical fantasy’, what with them taking place in the London of PG Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh. That’d be the 1920s to you or me. The ‘Inter-War Period’ as historians call it. If that sounds interesting, you can find out more.

The first novel-length Royal Occultist adventure, The Whitechapel Demon, will be released sometime in the next two months by Emby Press and I’ve sold close to thirty short stories about St. Cyprian and Gallowglass since I wrote their first adventure, Krampusnacht, in December of 2010.

Several of these stories are available for free at the website above. There are also several audio versions of some of the stories available, which can be found here with more to come in the near future, and there’ll be graphic (i.e. comic) versions of one or two of the short stories coming some time in 2014.

He2etic: Who are your favourite characters amongst both those you’ve written, and by other authors?

Josh: Okay, lessee…

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki the Ghost-Finder, John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport, Caitlin Kiernan’s Dancy Flammarion, Manly Wade Wellman’s John Thunstone, Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise, Derrick Ferguson’s Dillon, Chester Himes’ Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, Richard Stark’s Parker, more, lots.

I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. If you enjoy it, own up to it, unless it could get you arrested, in which case we shouldn’t be talking about it.”

 

I really dig series characters, so I’ve got a lot of favorites. More than I could comfortably list here.

As to those I’ve written? I think my top three are Mr. Brass, the American Automaton, John Bass, the Ghost-Breaker and St. Cyprian and Gallowglass, from the Royal Occultist stories. Mr. Brass is, in essence, ‘steampunk Robocop’ set in a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen world. That’s the high concept pitch.

John Bass is a darker character—a crotchety old farmer who fights ghosts and evil spirits in the Depression-Era southern United States. And Charles St. Cyprian and Ebe Gallowglass, as I mentioned above, are occult adventurers who fight monsters, magicians and madness-inducing entities in Jazz-Age England.

Neferata, by Josh Reynolds. Coming soon from the Black Library.

Neferata, by Josh Reynolds. Coming soon from the Black Library.

He2etic: Are there any books, movies, television series or even games that you think are mandatory viewing for struggling writers?

Josh: All of them? If you’re writing in a particular genre, it behooves you to read widely in said genre—old stuff, new stuff, indy stuff, popular stuff. Read all of it.

Television is good for helping you with dialogue and condensed plotting, especially sitcoms or family dramas—they’re not to everybody’s taste, but think about how little time the average sitcom has to tell a story, and how they go about doing it. That’s a lesson worth learning.

Movies are good for helping you understand how to plot longer form stories (or how NOT to, depending) and how to set mood and scene, if you’re attentive.

Basically, if you think you can learn from it, go with it.

He2etic: Is there anything you consider to be a guilty pleasure? Something that is trash, but you love reading it anyway?

Josh: I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. If you enjoy it, own up to it, unless it could get you arrested, in which case we shouldn’t be talking about it.

Also, don’t try and rationalize the problematic aspects of said pleasure in order to make yourself feel less guilty about enjoying it. That never works out. But to answer the question, I love me some sitcoms. I will devour whole DVD box sets of everything from Leave it to Beaver to Amen, the latter starring the irrepressible Sherman Hemsley and lasting five glorious seasons.

He2etic: Any advice for new authors?

Dracula Lives! by Josh Reynolds.

Dracula Lives! by Joshua Reynolds.

Josh: Write everything. Try your hand at every genre, especially ones you don’t like. Don’t argue with the editor, unless you know you’re right, and not even then, unless you absolutely have to.

Embrace formula, cliché and stock characters. They’ll make your job easier, when you start out. When in doubt, have a man with a gun come through the door. If that doesn’t work, try a monkey with a switchblade. Everybody writes something a bit crap on occasion. It happens. Move on, do better next time. Last but not least, always get paid.

A giant thanks to Mr. Reynolds for his time! Follow the Bolthole at @BLBolthole. And follow Josh Reynolds @JMReynolds.

Interview with James Swallow

He’s written for Warhammer 40,000, Stargate, Star Trek and Doctor Who. He’s worked on Deus Ex: Human Revolution. A BAFTA nominee and a New York Times best selling author. Today, James Swallow has a few minutes to tell us about some of the work he’s done and his thoughts on writing.

James Swallow. Because the world is his (to create).

James Swallow. Because the world is his (to create).

He2etic: What is the writing process like for you? If you were to describe the process in one word, what would it be?

James: That’s a difficult question to answer. You know, I can’t describe it in just one word. There are so many aspects to the job of being a writer, it’s not just the act of putting a pen to paper.

There’s also the research, the “brain time” required to let your story percolate, the whole act of losing yourself to the narrative involved.

He2etic: How do you approach character development? Do you prefer to see how the character evolves as you go, or do you put more planning into it beforehand?

James: A bit of both, really. You have to have an idea as to who a character was before you let them step onto the scene. But, at the same time you can’t put everything in there straight away because they have nowhere to go.

“The problem of being a writer is that there is not a shortage of awesome ideas to write about.”

 

You can have a character begin in one place, but you also have to give a character a direction toward an endpoint. It is a really bit of both. They have to evolve and fill their role naturally, but sometimes you realize you have to make the character move in the right direction for the needs of the story.

Red Fury, by James Swallow.

Red Fury, by James Swallow.

He2etic: If you could cast anyone to play the roles of main characters in your work, who would you pick?

James: I originally modelled Rafen after Daniel Craig, but now, I’d probably choose the late Andy Whitfield from the TV show Spartacus: Blood and Sand. For his brother Arkio, a younger Rutger Hauer from the movie Flesh & Blood.

He2etic: Sometime back, a question was posted your way about what kind of Imperial Guard regiment you’d like to write about and your answer was ‘The
Framlingham Rifles.’ Is that still true? How would you envision them?

James: I picked them because there was no background about them!

I like the name because it has a kind of Old English feel to it. If I could, I would use something that has not been done before. I’d try to do something new, a new theme. It would probably be very British, like something from the era of the Raj.

“I can’t pick [my favorite] from my own characters. It’s like picking out your favorite child.”

 

He2etic: Do you have any long term projects for writing? For example, do you intend to someday spin your own franchise or complete a long novel series?

Peacemaker, by James Swallow.

Peacemaker, by James Swallow.

James: Yes! Many projects. Lots of different things. I’ve been working on a thriller novel, a contemporary action adventure story for a while. And have been doing some work on a science fiction project too. The problem of being a writer is that there is not a shortage of awesome ideas to write about!

He2etic: Who are your favourite characters amongst both those books you’ve written, and by other authors?

James: I can’t pick from my own characters. It’s like picking out your favourite child. But from the rest of the Warhammer universe?

Horus Lupercal is a great character, and so is Erebus. We have so many good books, and so many great writers. I always want to see where the other guys want to go with their stories – Dan Abnett with Ibram Gaunt, Honsou in Graham McNeill’s novels, Sandy Mitchell with Ciaphas Cain, Sarah Cawkwell’s Silver Skulls…

Beyond that, I enjoy William Gibson’s characters from Neuromancer, the work of John Brunner, Harry Harrison… If a character is compellingly written, if he speaks to me as a reader, that’s a good piece of work. I’m always going to try and do the same thing, make a connection to my reader and engage them.

Flight of the Eisenstein, by James Swallow.

Flight of the Eisenstein, by James Swallow.

He2etic: Are there any books, movies, television series or even games that you think are mandatory viewing for struggling writers?

James: In terms of good writing on television, I’d mention about The Sopranos. Hill Street Blues, Firefly. The Twilight Zone is a great example of really short compact stories with great characters.

I’d recommend a book about how to write rather than fiction. J.Michael Straczynski’s The Complete Book of Scriptwriting and Ben Bova’s work on writing science fiction.

He2etic: You had an opportunity to work on Deus Ex: Human Revolution, designing the story for the game. What can you tell us about that and some of the themes that went into it?

James: I worked on that project an external writer, developing the characters, the core narrative and the game world along with a team of other writers. I also worked on the mobile phone game Deus Ex: The Fall and the DLC pack The Missing Link. I also wrote a novel, called Deus Ex: Icarus Effect, that spun out of that.

The themes of Deus Ex are all about human augmentation, about allowing people to become more than they are. We talk about cybernetics, neural implants – how do those things change the way people see you? We touch on a kind of “cybernetic racism”… It’s all about how society is changed by technology.

He2etic: Do you consider Deus Ex: Human Revolution to be post modern?

Deus Ex: Icarus Effect, by James Swallow.

Deus Ex: Icarus Effect, by James Swallow.

James: It’s not post modern, it’s modern! We thought it was sci-fi when we started writing the storyline, but over the four years during the game’s development, a lot of the things we wrote about began to come true.

The prosthetic technology that has become so common, the limb replacements for veterans of the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan and so on… It all reflected back on real issues of the time.

He2etic: When it comes to reading, do you have any guilty pleasures? Stuff you know is trash but read anyway?

James: I’m guilty about nothing! I like chunky thriller novels from the 70s and 80s, the Tom Clancy-style techno thriller about jet pilots, guys in submarines or tank crews – all that military hardware pornography! That and classic pulp sci-fi would be the closest!

I don’t like it when people say something is a “guilty pleasure”. If you like to read something, you should just embrace it, don’t worry about what others might think of it! At the end of the day, if you enjoy reading a book, that’s the most important thing.

A huge thanks to James Swallow for his time today! You can follow him @JMSwallow. Want more news and updates? Follow the Bolthole @BLBolthole.

Interview with Gav Thorpe

I had the honour of meeting Mr. Thorpe at the first Black Library Weekender in November of 2012. To this day, Thorpe’s Last Chancers omnibus is actually still one of my favourite books. Not just of the fiction from the Black Library, but of every book I’ve ever read. Today, Mr. Thorpe shares some insights in the field of writing with us.

Literary Lord, Gav Thorpe.

Literary Lord, Gav Thorpe.

He2etic: What is the writing process like for you? If you were to describe the process in what word, what would it be?

Gav: Inconsistent.

He2etic: How do you approach character development? Do you prefer to see how the character evolves as you go, or do you put more planning into it beforehand?

Gav: Main characters have their fate set from the beginning most of the time – it’s their story I’m telling and a story is about how they change and don’t change.

Secondary characters are more interesting for this reason, as they are much more likely to surprise you. It’s one of the dangers to avoid – secondary characters being more interesting than the main characters because as a writer you end up having more fun with them.

He2etic: You have a long list of Eldar and Elven works to your name. From what do you draw your inspiration for writing about these races?

Gav: There are two main sources for both of these, though interpreted slightly different and to altering degrees. Whether fantasy or future, the pointy ears combine myth with classical history. The Eldar verge more towards the mythical, while the Elves are at the classical civilisation end of the spectrum.

“40K is the huge sandbox… [stories] can be ephemeral; grandiose but never gaining traction in the wider galaxy because the setting is so big. It’s hard to make an impact, I guess.”

 

I try to think of it as writing a novel about the ancient Greeks as if their beliefs about the gods and heroes were real – that’s the substance of the Eldar and elves. Obviously the pantheons and the societies draw from many different cultures on top of this basic premise. There is a lot of Celtic influence as well as nods to myth and worship from Babylon, Sumeria, Carthage and the Phoenicians.

Empire of the Blood, by Gav Thorpe.

Empire of the Blood, by Gav Thorpe.

All of this is blended with an ultratech anime style – immensely powerful weapons and beings that are emotionally fragile.

He2etic: You’ve written books set in both Warhammer universes. Do you find yourself preferring one universe more than the other in anyway?

Gav: No, I like them both for different reasons.

40K is the huge sandbox, in which you can create and destroy whole star systems. The good thing is that you can create massive stories against a never-ending backdrop.

The downside is that the universe if so big often stories don’t touch the sides. They can be ephemeral; grandiose but never gaining traction in the wider galaxy because the setting is so big. It’s hard to make an impact, I guess.

This is where Warhammer wins out. It has a much more defined geography and chronology, so it is easier to use ‘real’ events and characters as a backdrop and make it seem that characters and stories of your own devising are just as important as what is published in the army books. The more contained scale makes the stories bigger by comparison.

“In terms of fiction I don’t think there’s anything you can read, watch or play that’s going to help you come up with anything other than a clone of whatever you are reading, watching or playing.”

 

He2etic: If you could cast anyone to play the roles of main characters in your work, who would you pick?

Gav: I’m really bad at this sort of thing because firstly I don’t really think about characters in that way when I’m writing them, and secondly I am awful at remembering the names of actors. The closest I’ve come really is that when I first started writing Lieutenant Kage I pictured a young Bruce Willis, or perhaps even Vin Diesel (amazing some of the similarities to Riddick, eh?).

The Last Chancers, by Gav Thrope.

The Last Chancers, by Gav Thrope.

He2etic: Do you have any long term projects for writing? For example, do you intend to someday spin your own franchise or complete a long novel series?

Gav: I already have a trilogy out with Angry Robot. The Empire of the Blood omnibus has just been released. As well as that I’m just taking some time in my schedule to start just that sort of project – an opening novel of what i hope will be an open-ended series of books. When I started writing full-time everybody in fantasy was talking about world building and its importance. I had just come out of fourteen years at GW where I had basically been world building for a living. I wanted to concentrate on narrative instead, which is where The Crown of the Blood came from.

Now that I’m a bit more settled, I like the idea of creating more setting-based fiction. This is more of a Discworld sort of approach than A Game of Thrones. In other words, the setting might subtly change over the course of the books as things happen, but there isn’t an all-conquering meta-narrative driving the setting. I can dip in and out with characters and stories whenever and however I like (and perhaps other authors too…).

He2etic: Who are your favourite characters amongst both those you’ve written, and by other authors?

Deliverance Lost, by Gav Thorpe.

Deliverance Lost, by Gav Thorpe.

Gav: Kage is still one of my favourites and I had a lot of fun writing Alith Anar – though Malekith and Morathi were great fodder for drama too. In terms of other writers I don’t particularly get hung up on specific characters like some people – I enjoy the whole roundness of stories when they are told well. I grew up with Dredd and Johnny Alpha and always have a soft spot for them but in terms of books there isn’t anybody I am clamouring to read “The Further Adventures of…”  I’m not sure if that makes me broken in some way.

He2etic: Are there any books, movies, television series or even games that you think are mandatory viewing for struggling writers?

Gav: Depends on what they are struggling with…

Struggling to get published? Read The Career Novelist by Donald Maas. He runs the Maas agency and the book is available for free from the website (or was, I haven’t checked in a while).

Struggling to write? I suggest Chuck Wendig for some incredible and succinct writing advice. Even us old pros need kickstarting now and then or just reminding, and he’s the one I’ve turned to of late. Lots of swearing though, so be warned if you’re offended by that sort of thing.

The Sundering, by Gav Thorpe.

The Sundering, by Gav Thorpe.

In terms of fiction I don’t think there’s anything you can read, watch or play that’s going to help you come up with anything other than a clone of whatever you are reading, watching or playing.

A broad spread of storytelling experience helps, but my greatest inspirations come from the source – history. The problem with focusing too much on other people’s fiction is that you end up just trying to recreate what someone has already done.

We’re all going to be influenced by what we like and we’re exposed to, so going out-of-genre – reading biographies, diaries, history – ensures that the influences are broad.

Once you’ve absorbed loads of stuff, that’s when you can really get writing. Put it away, work from the memory and the sense that’s left behind rather than the specifics.

I say the same of research too most of the time – you need the gist not every detail. You have to look at the things you like – and don’t like – with a writer’s eye as well as the reader’s. How narrative is moved along, how your favourite authors write action, the sorts of dialogue and description you find appealing or off-putting. read your favourite novels again and work out why you find them gripping, tense, exciting or whatever.

The Curse of Shaa-Dom, by Gav Thorpe.

The Curse of Shaa-Dom, by Gav Thorpe.

The same applies to trying to write for Warhammer and 40K. Read the style of stories that get published but don’t focus on any one series or author over the others.  There’s plenty of authors already writing in the worlds of GW so finding something that adds to the mix, a particular take that sets a new writer apart will be difficult. The ‘feel’ of a Black Library novel can be elusive, so concentrate on that more that the specifics of the background.

A giant thanks goes to Gav for his time today! He can be followed @DennisHamster on Twitter.

For more updates, news, interviews and announcements, follow the Bolthole @BLBolthole.

Editor’s Note: During the crafting of this interview, a mistake was made. The article incorrectly asserted that The Treasures of Biel-Tanigh was written by Gav Thorpe. This was an error, Andy Chambers was the author of that story. Thorpe wrote The Curse of Shaa-Dom, which is a tie in story to Chamber’s tale.