Return to the Old World

So, a new year and a new book. I’m writing again after a short break, which is a good state to be in. It’s back to Warhammer Fantasy for me, and the Old World once more. After my detour to Fenris, it feels a bit like coming home again. I’ll keep the subject of the new story to myself for now, but as soon as something’s announced by BL I’ll no doubt put the news up here.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to Sword of Vengeance coming out next month, and hoping it proves a fitting sequel to its predecessor. As I posted last year, I’ll be attending BL Live at Games Workshop HQ in March, which will be a great opportunity to get a copy signed, or just chat about the story and the thinking behind it.

And, speaking of events, I’m also slated to turn up at the SFX Weekender in February in the esteemed (and slightly intimidating) company of Dan Abnett and Nick Kyme. If you’re headed that way, do come over and say hi. I’ll be the one gazing around, looking a bit lost.

As for the rest of the year, well there are some very interesting things coming up. Nothing I can talk about yet, or the Inquisition will be knocking at the door, but I’ve got high hopes for another year of Warhammer/40K goodness. As ever, you’ll read it here first…

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Goodbye 2010

It’s been a busy year, BL-wise, so I’m slightly sorry to see it go. Still, there are some exciting things coming up in 2011. I’ll be at BL Live in March, and possibly some other events/signings too, so keep an eye out for announcements here when dates are firmed up.

In the meantime, a couple of quick things: Sword of Justice has ended up as Team Preston’s Fantasy book of the year, which is great to read – see the blog entry here for more.

Also, I couldn’t let a recent post on Dan Abnett’s blog go by without mention. Normally, blog posts are fairly mundane things, but every so often you come across a gem. Nik Vincent, Dan’s partner, has penned a wonderful piece on the pressures of deadline day. It’s beautifully written, and a real insight into the pressures of writing for a living. Dan’s blog is pretty unhelpful when trying to link to specific articles, so you’ll have to go to the main page and scroll down to the post titled ‘A matter of life and deadlines’. Definitely worth a read.

Right, off now to start the final proofing for the typeset copy of Fang. This will be the last post of the year before all is lost in a whirl of turkey and mulled wine, so I’ll take the opportunity to thank Nick, Lindsey, Alex and Christian, my editors at BL, for all the work they’ve done this year on my stuff, plus all the rest of the BL team for their sterling efforts in putting the books together and getting them out there. But, most of all, thanks to everyone who’s read the blog over the last twelve months or posted a comment or two. I’ve enjoyed reading them all – here’s to more in 2011.

Until then, have a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!

A rare lull

It feels like I’ve been writing more or less constantly for about eighteen months. That period has produced Sword of Justice, Sword of Vengeance, Feast of Horrors (a short story released at BL Live 2010), Runes (a short story for Victories of the Space Marines), and Battle of the Fang. I make that almost 400,000 words, if you include my short story for the Heresy Anthology, Age of Darkness. The first draft of that went in today, and I’ll wait to hear what Christian makes of it when he’s had a chance to read it.

So, for the first time in a long while, I’ve not got a big project to launch straight into. I’m sure that will change once the edits come back for Fang, but until then I can work on some other things, such as the maps that will accompany that book. I’ve had drafts of these on my desk for many months, and have used them extensively when planning the battle scenes, but they now need updating before being sent off to some proper artists who can turn my scribbles into something you’d actually want to find in the middle of a book.

The relative calm has given me the time to enjoy reading of Aaron Dembski-Bowden‘s ascent into daemonhood the New York Times bestseller list. It’s great to see his fearsome talent being rewarded, and I’m sure this accolade will be the first of many. Aaron joins Graham McNeill and James Swallow in the hallowed ranks of BL’s NYT mafia, and with Prospero Burns heading our way soon, any bets on a certain Mr Abnett joining that brotherhood in the New Year?

In other news, there’s a cracking review of Sword of Justice over here. Ta very much!

The road from Earthsea

The other day, I was thinking about how I ended up being a writer of fiction. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for about as long as I can remember, but it’s only in the last few years that it’s become, essentially, my career. It could have been very different. Though I’ve always loved reading, and have always been moved and excited by books, there’s no immutable law that makes readers want to be writers. But I did end up wanting to write, and one trilogy of stories in particular was responsible for it.

As a child and a teenager, I read a whole range of science-fiction and fantasy literature: everything by Tolkien, the first Dune novel, Asimov’s Foundation trilogy (as it was), John Wyndham’s classic British SF, Narnia (surprisingly clever and brilliant when read as an adult), as well as lots of lesser-known titles which mostly deserve to remain obscure. All of these kindled an interest in fantastic worlds and story-telling, though none allowed it to bloom quite as much as the Earthsea trilogy by Ursula Le Guin.

These books are loved by thousands. A quick and unscientific look at Amazon uncovers over four hundred reviews for the first book in the original trilogy, A Wizard of Earthsea, with more glowing five-star scores than all the other ratings combined. This, on the face of it, is odd. The Earthsea books have always been marketed as ‘high fantasy’, which must lead many readers to expect all sorts of beast-slaying, sword-swishing, and epic-scale action. Earthsea has none of this. Its central characters are laconic, gentle and restrained. Magic runs through all the stories, though on the whole it’s a very subtle business. The more powerful a wizard becomes in Earthsea, the less he uses his gifts, mindful of the need to maintain equilibrium. Le Guin’s metaphysics is influenced by Taoism, a spiritual discipline placing emphasis on harmony with the structure of nature, and Western academic psychology, with its rich treatment of the unconscious mind and its symbols. The resulting combination is a deeply satisfying, nuanced vision of how a magical world might work.

Other aspects of Earthsea are also beautifully realised. The stories all take place across a collection of small islands, dominated by the sea that surrounds them. Le Guin writes in an elegant, spare style, using a few choice words and phrases to conjure up a wholly convincing ecosystem. Her world has a mixture of cultures, climates, political systems and social mores that are every bit as complex and rich as those of reality. Interestingly, the dominant race on Earthsea is non-white, and the most barbarous islands in the archipelago are inhabited by blond, pale-skinned warmongers. For the Fantasy genre, dominated as it is by Anglo-Saxon types in a quasi-European setting, this detail is refreshing. In fact, everything in Earthsea is refreshing. There are dragons, wizards, warriors and haunted tombs, though in Le Guin’s hands each of these stock elements takes on a new and surprising life.

For me, as for many others, the first three books, written between 1968 and 1972, are the most successful. Le Guin went on to write several more in the 1990s, but evidently felt that her earlier vision was deficient and changed some of the central ideas. I can understand why she did this, but the resultant stories were, as far as I’m concerned, far less likeable. Nonetheless, this doesn’t detract from the achievement of the earlier books, which between them constitute a beautiful, strange and moving whole. In particular, The Farthest Shore, which won the US National Book Award in 1973, is a poignant and sophisticated tale that matches up to any novel I’ve read since, whether children’s or adults’, fantasy or non-fantasy.

Of course, writing action-packed tales set in the Warhammer world is somewhat different to this, and I’ve never tried to emulate Le Guin’s style or goals in what I’ve done. I don’t think she’d like Warhammer at all, and I fear she’d be horrified to learn that her work has helped produce blood-soaked tales of treachery and corruption in Averheim. Nonetheless, she remains an inspiration to me as a writer. No one else can summon up such a rich imaginative vista with such simple, restrained language, and no one else has produced quite such a coherent, sympathetic and wholly original fantasy world.

Re-energised

Games Day logo

Well, it’s the morning after Games Day, and I reckon I’d better post while things are relatively fresh in my memory. It was only my second GD, so I’m still newbie enough to get excited about it. If I’d been less of a newbie, I might have remembered to take some photos. But I am, so I didn’t.

The more I reflect on the day, the more I’m convinced that such events are pretty much essential for an author’s sanity. Most of the time, writing is more or less an isolated existence, with only the uncertain medium of the internet to give you an idea how your stuff’s being received. While this can be helpful – getting a good review is still a buzz – it’s no substitute for readers coming to chat, in person, about the books they’ve enjoyed and why. And it was also great to have some time with the other authors, artists and the BL publishing team on the Saturday night. As I’ve noted here before, for a bunch of people who spend their time writing, editing or selling books mostly concerned with large-scale violence and mayhem, everyone’s really very nice.

Anyway, the day was spectacularly well managed from my point of view. Thanks to Alex for deftly sorting out the hotel bookings and transport, to Mal and Caroline and everyone else who masterminded the organisation of the day, and to Vince who looked after our fragile artistic egos during the signing. I’m sure that leaves out many people at BL who worked very hard, but all efforts were much appreciated.

With no brand-new releases on show this time, the actual signing portion of the day was pretty quiet for me this year, but that did give plenty of time to have a chat with those hardy souls who’d bought Sword of Justice or Iron Company. Thanks to everyone who came by to get a sig, or to comment on a book they’d read, or just to say hi. One guy said that Sword of Justice had actually rekindled his interest in Fantasy again, while plenty of people who enjoyed the book expressed a burning desire to find out what’ll happen in Part II. That was all very cool, and made those long nights hunched over the keyboard seem worthwhile.

I remain hugely impressed by – and slightly scared of – everyone who made the effort to dress up (particularly the Titan menials, who were all superb). And it was also good to put some faces to internet names, and to get re-acquainted with some readers I remembered from GD09. My sieve-like memory will no doubt let me down in the future, but I will try to remember names!

So, re-enthused and re-energised, it’s time to get back to the actual writing. Fenris calls!

Dealing with feedback

For anyone interested in writing and the issues that go along with it, I’d really recommend Mark Charan Newton’s blog. Mark’s a member of the BL team, but he’s also the author behind books such as City of Ruin for Tor, so knows what he’s taking about from both the author’s and the publisher’s point of view. I came across this post on reviews a while back, which gave me some food for thought.

As my current project progresses (slowly), I’ve naturally been keeping an eye on the reviews for Sword of Justice. Recently I posted a link for a blog review where the reviewer loved it; today, I came across one where the reviewer hated it. Like, really hated it – looks like he didn’t get very far into the book before giving up (which I guess raises its own questions, but hey). In the interests of balance, here’s the link.

It’s an interesting experience, trying to make sense of very different views on your work, particularly when there are some polarised opinions out there. It would be nice, perhaps, to be able to remain entirely detached and approach every bit of feedback with cool equanimity. Sadly, though I’m sure it indicates some kind of deep character flaw, I find it almost impossible to do – my instinct on reading a negative review is to become instantly defensive and try to find reasons why the criticisms aren’t fair. Of course, that’s not going to get you very far. Anyone who’s spent good money to buy a book has a right to say what they thought of it, and there are plenty of times where the criticisms pick out something that really has gone wrong.

So Mark’s post struck a chord with me. There’ll always be a spectrum of responses, and reading novels is an irreducibly subjective business – there’s no book written that hasn’t been hated by someone (and loved by someone too). The key thing is to try to take what you can from the reviews, and use them to make your stuff better. I guess the ultimate zen-like state to aspire to is when you can receive praise and brickbats in equal measure, taking on board the useful stuff from each.

In other news, much progress has been made on my latest 40K project. There’s a fair bit that’s ended up on the cutting-room floor, and there are some difficult episodes up ahead, but – thankfully – the halfway point looms…

Hard graft

I love my job. Really, I do – it’s an enormous privilege to be paid to tell stories about cool characters in the GW universes. But sometime the words don’t come easy, and the last couple of weeks have been a hard grind. I’ve been testing the patience of my editors with deadline slippage, which is never something that’s good to do (however, as ever, the support from BL has been fantastic). So, I’ve been getting my head down and wringing out the words every day this week, gradually shaping something like a story. Finally, I seem to be getting somewhere, and some recent edits have helped me see where I want to get to.

The key issue I’ve been grappling with is pace, the timing and placing of events within a novel. Black Library books are like Premier League games – they should be fast-paced and frenetic, matching the war-torn nature of their environments. But as the best recent BL novels have shown, that doesn’t mean they need to neglect the proper character and plot development that’s at the heart of all good novel-length stories. I’ve been reading a lot of the latest 40K and Heresy output to help me get immersed in the grimdark world of the far future, and I’ve got to say there’s some cracking stuff in the pipeline. It’s hugely inspirational – and also a high bar to match.

So, the work goes on. It’ll be worth the sweat and tears when the final product emerges. As I work my way into 40K, it’s been massively encouraging to see the warm reception Sword of Justice has got so far. Here’s a wonderful review from the Team Preston blog. I’ve been reading this blog for a while, and the guy knows his Warhammer, which makes a positive verdict all the more heartening.