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How to get published by BL

I don’t have a lot to blog about at the moment regarding my own stuff. I’m immersed in all things Space Wolf at the moment, and enjoying every minute of it, but it’s a long time before any of that will see the light of day.

I’ve been thinking for a while about blogging on the craft of writing, and the things I’ve learned since starting out as a neophyte with BL. Gav Thorpe beat me to it, though, and as he’s been at this game a lot longer than me, I reckon it’s best to defer to experience. Good advice on that blog, there.

However, BL have recently changed their submissions policy. It used to be that the only way to get a commission from them was to be hand-picked by their roving talent scouts or win a place in the regular open anthologies. That appears to have changed now – there’s a submissions window for book proposals that currently runs from May to July – for more details, have a look at the guidance on the website.

Since the change, there’s been a fair bit of chat on the forums about what BL are after, and how you might improve your chances of picking up a commission. As someone who’s fairly new to this writing gig, and can still remember those first faltering steps, here are a few thoughts that might prove helpful.

Pitch

This is the most important bit of a novel proposal. It’s your sales pitch, the bit where you convince your editor that you’ve got something worth pursuing. People seem to get very hot under the collar about this, and there’s a lot of uncertainty about what works here. My advice is to keep it short and snappy – think of it like a newspaper headline: you need to keep the editor interested, and stop him throwing the rest on to the slush pile. Don’t write it ‘in-style’, with all the verbiage you might out into your actual prose – strip it to the bare bones of the story. If you can’t do this in 500 words, are you sure you actually have a decent story? In essence, almost all plots are in pretty much the same format: The Marines Synopticon are really cool because of x, y and z; here’s what happens that places them in massive jeopardy; here’s how they address it using their unique characteristics, and what happens in the end. Try taking your favourite BL novel and giving in the synopsis treatment – what are the really basic story elements?

Synopsis

If you’re pitching a novel, BL are going to need reassurance you can sustain a story over 100,000 words. That means maintaining pace and structure, not letting the action flag, and getting the balance right between jeopardy and pauses for breath. Many fantasy writers got their first bug for writing from massive books like Lord of the Rings. Now, I’m as big a fan of that as the next guy, but it’s a terrible guide to writing tightly-plotted action-based fantasy/SF. If your chapter breakdown has large sections where the heroes are travelling from A to B (albeit with lovely descriptions of the lower Reik valley or the nebulae around the Eye of Terror), then you’re failing. Every chapter should advance the story in some way – there might be a decisive battle, or a revelation about a key character, or a major twist. If each of your chapters takes up a paragraph in the synopsis, think about what’s driving the story in that paragraph. If there’s nothing there except ‘The Marines Synopticon advanced slightly closer to the Planet of Death’, then it’s failing again.

Characters

The most important bit. Lots of fan-fic (which I often like a lot) gets this wrong. It assumes that we’re interested in the Marines Synopticon, whereas we’re actually interested in Brother Bolterhead of the Marines Synopticon. Tie-in fiction in the Warhammer world can give the impression it’s about types of warrior or unit. But that’s just the background – it’s characters that readers care about. Over the course of a book, your lead characters should be fully fleshed-out, and they should develop. A great example of this, and so much else, is Helsreach – read that to see how to draw differentiated characters, and how to show their progress as events march on around them. And then read it again, just because it’s awesome.

Technical stuff

Final thing – get your technical stuff right. That’s grammar, spelling, formatting, and fiction conventions. Some might say that this isn’t important, and that a good story can shine through ‘idiosyncratic’ delivery. They’re wrong. Having good grammar won’t ensure a good story, but having bad grammar will ensure a bad one. Learn how dialogue is formatted, how scenes are broken up, how punctuation works. It’s dull, but it’s essential. Only once you’ve got that down can you really start to play with style and find your own voice. That’s as true for your synopsis as it is for the full novel.

So that’s it – my lightning guide to pitching. Some of you might have read some of my books, of course, and seen how far short some of them have been of these goals (What, characters? In Masters of Magic?). Yeah, well, we all take time to learn these lessons. The only hope for any of us is to keep reading and keep working at it. But it’s a lot of fun, so good luck, and keep at it.

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  1. Jack
    14 June, 2010 at 21:14

    Cheers Chris – great post. Like you said, there’s a wealth of really useful stuff on Gav Thorpe’s blog – it’s always great to get advice from more than one source though, so this is most welcome.

    Half way through ‘Sword of Justice’ at the minute. Enjoying it muchly! On the subject of character, you’e nailed Schwarzhelm as far as I’m concerned – Helborg too. Looking forward to seeing what develops throughout the course of the rest of the novel and then on into ‘Sword of Vengeance.’

    And now a question or two if I may – has your approach to writing synopses/pitches changed as you’ve begun to establish yourself as a BL author? Do the Powers in the Towers start ‘trusting’ an author’s pitches a little more once they’ve got a novel or three under their belt? And how easy do you find it to ‘see’ your characters from the point of view of other characters? For example, Schwarzhelm and Helborg aren’t exactly bosom buddies – how easy/difficult is it to tap into Schwartzhelm’s irritation at Helborg and vice versa?

    That’ll do for now, I’ll give you some more feedback on Ludwig et al fro the perspective of a long-time Empire player once I’ve finished ‘Justice’ – preliminary verdict’s looking good though!

    Cheers matey!

    • chriswraight
      15 June, 2010 at 08:35

      Hey Jack,
      Ta for the comments on SoJ – hope you continue to enjoy. To answer your questions, my approach to pitching hasn’t really changed since getting a few books under my belt. I’d like to think I’m a bit better at proposing stuff that BL will want, but doing a detailed pitch is really helpful for me in terms of planning, so I’d do one for myself even if it wasn’t required for a commission.

      In terms of ‘seeing’ characters in terms of other characters, I guess that’s part of the basic writer’s craft. You’ve expressed the issue well in your comment – I think any writer will try to get inside the head of the major characters, and see the Warhammer world through their eyes. To be honest, Helborg and Schwarzhelm are such fantastic characters in the established setting, I found it very easy to see things from their point of view. Whether that comes across in the book is another matter, of course!

  2. Xhalax
    22 June, 2010 at 08:07

    Woo hoo! Space Wolves.

    Sorry….couldn’t help myself.

    • chriswraight
      22 June, 2010 at 09:43

      Don’t feel bad. I say it most mornings, before I’ve had a shave.

      Do I give too much away on here?

      • Xhalax
        22 June, 2010 at 18:23

        Personally….I feel you can never have too many Space Wolves….except when they leave a mess.

  3. Angie
    22 June, 2010 at 08:40

    I love that you started your synopsis guidelines with

    “The Marines Synopticon are really cool because of x, y and z”

    It’s so easy to say ‘here’s Our Guy and he’s in This Specific trouble’, and completely miss that there have to be reasons that we think he’s cool too! 🙂

    • chriswraight
      22 June, 2010 at 10:02

      Hi Angie – welcome to the blog.
      Yeah, I think that’s one of the nice things about the BL universe – there are factions with very distinctive attributes, which can be leveraged into cool plot ideas. Marines are an interesting case – due to gene-seed, every marine in a Chapter will share a set of very unique characteristics (I’m thinking of some of the more characterful Chapters here in particular – the Wolves, Salamanders, Raven Guard, etc.). Despite the huge amount of SM fiction out there, I reckon there’s space to explore some of the lesser-known guys too. If you read Steve Parker’s excellent short story Headhunted (in one of the recent anthologies), this is showed off to amazing effect.

  4. Liz
    22 June, 2010 at 09:46

    Hi Chris – this is a fantastic write-up. The advice is straigh-up and true. Not just for BL as such, but for writers in general. Advice is advice!

    • chriswraight
      22 June, 2010 at 10:02

      Cheers Liz – glad it was useful 🙂

  5. Donel
    22 June, 2010 at 13:30

    This is really well done and nicely outlined. I have written a couple of novels, but never thought about publishing. I write for my own entertainment, (yeah I am selfish like that. lol) but if I am going to publish this certainly helps. Thanks Chris.

    P.S. Blood for the Blood God!

  6. Austin
    29 June, 2010 at 20:22

    Chris – Thanks so much for posting this blog. As someone who is daily banging away preparing to make his first submission to BL, your insight is extremely valuable.

    As part of the submission process BL is asking for a chapter by chapter summary. This is the only bit that seems to be eluding me and I’m just curious how you personally go about this. Do you just generally outline the basic action in each chapter or do you showcase the details and changes in the characters as you go along? And how do you choose how many chapters there will be in advance? I realize that BL’s 100,000 final word count helps, but as a writer I’ve always placed the end of the chapter where I felt there was a natural stopping point. Or on a cliffhanger so hopefully the reader won’t put the book down.

    Hope this wasn’t too much to ask and thanks again for the advice!

    • chriswraight
      4 July, 2010 at 09:01

      Hi Austin,

      Sorry for the late reply – I’ve been away for a few days.

      This is a tricky one. Different authors have different styles here. I’ve generally always planned to have about 20 chapters per book, and tried to fix the story around those reference points. In practice, this has usually ended up being a bit more flexible – as you say, the story will dictate the natural breaks in the narrative.

      In terms of the chap-by-chap breakdown, don’t worry too much about the numbers. Write out a short paragraph for each of the important developments in your novel in sequence. When you’ve finished, see how many ‘chunks’ you have. Are they all equally important? Do they all advance the story? If you have different plotlines, do you give fair time to your important themes? I tend to spend a fair bit of time cutting and pasting chunks of the story, arranging the various scenes until I think the story flows well and captures all the important stuff.

      Also, keep it brief. The synopsis is where you outline your interesting plot ideas – the chap-by-chap is a whistle-stop tour of what happens. It’s your blueprint, the technical side of what you’re doing. I think my breakdowns are normally around two-three pages – anything more than that, and your editor is going to get weary of reading it.

      Finally, remember that the chap-by-chap is as much about helping you as it is about selling a pitch. Don’t treat it as a chore that needs to be done to please some other guy – see it as an essential part of planning your story. When I’m writing the real thing, I have a copy of the chap-by-chap open too, and use it like a road-map. Things change during the writing phase (they always do), but you can’t take a detour if you don’t have something to detour from…

      HTH.

      • 16 July, 2010 at 19:01

        “Finally, remember that the chap-by-chap is as much about helping you as it is about selling a pitch. Don’t treat it as a chore that needs to be done to please some other guy – see it as an essential part of planning your story.”

        I definitely agree with this – I tried pitching a novel with an unstructured synopsis, broken down by general “parts” of the novel rather than chapters. If I’d broken the synopsis down by chapters, I think I would have had a much better sense of pacing, not to mention the A -> B -> C of plot.

        Chris: Many thanks for the blog post. Invaluable stuff.

  7. 3 July, 2010 at 20:31

    I’m looking forward to the answer for this one too.

  1. 5 July, 2010 at 19:17
  2. 12 July, 2010 at 11:43

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