Archives for September 2011

Sven Hassel and Death’s Angels

I know this is a bit late but what the hell! One of the most popular parts of this site has turned out to be the Author’s Notes for each of the stories. Somehow back in the day, I neglected to provide them for Death’s Angels. I am rectifying that omission now.

If you are a British man of a certain age (OK, my age) you probably remember Sven Hassel. He was the author of a series of pulp paperbacks that were passed around under the desks of the classrooms of my youth. They featured the soldiers of a German punishment battalion fighting on the Russian front in World War 2 and were, by the standards of the day (and even today), quite brutal. They followed the adventures of a particularly seedy and unheroic bunch of misfit warriors across the frozen landscapes of Russia and beyond.

Reading a book told from the German point of view was a novelty (my parents’ generation had fought in what was always referred to as THE War as opposed to the Great War and remembered it quite vividly) and any indiscretions committed by this array of shirkers and convicts was partially explained and exonerated by the fact that they were foreigners. (The 70s was a different and more prejudiced world. I am not defending my teenage self’s point of view, merely saying what it was. I grew up on a Council Estate in 60’s and 70’s West Coast Scotland. It was not a hotbed of Guardian-reading, liberal tolerance.)

The characters were funny and realistic in a very dark way and their adventures while grim were certainly enthralling. The books have lived in my memory for near 40 years so you can judge the impact for yourself.

There was something else about them too. For all their flaws, the characters seemed like real people, not square jawed heroes of the variety I was familiar with from the Victor and other comics of my youth.  There was something about Tiny and Porta and the Old Man and the others that rang a bell, a gallows humour that I have since realised is quite common among the real world soldiers of my acquaintance.

At the time I was about to start Death’s Angels I was looking to do something different. I had enjoyed pretty huge success with a tale of two wandering sword and sorcery heroes with Gotrek and Felix but I was a bit burned out after seven books.  I wanted to do something that was not at all a traditional fantasy novel. I knew I definitely did not want to write about a world that was full of elves and dwarves and innocent young swineherds gifted with god-like powers and a mighty destiny.

I had been travelling in South Africa and, for some reason, I kept coming across Sven Hassel books. Something clicked in the murk of my brain. I decided I wanted to write gritty military fantasy with a very dark sense of humour set in a very unconventional fantasy world.

So I began this tale of a group of seedy misfit warriors, fighting for a regime that they don’t agree with in a vast landscape not unlike the Russian Front, only with Lovecraftian Elder Gods and Nazi Elves.

Oh yes, the Nazi Elves! In some ways the Terrarchs are Tolkien’s Elves but they lack the cosmic righteousness that the Eldar of Middle Earth possess. They do speak the language of righteousness. They make all the claims that a Galadriel or an Elrond might, but they live in a world much like our own. They have no conduit to the Undying lands and the supreme creator. It does not stop them from claiming that they do. Indeed such claims are one of the planks on which their mastery of humanity rests.

The Terrarchs are beautiful people gifted with awesome powers and near immortality. Unlike most such people in fantasy novels, they are not an outcast minority persecuted by the mundane majority they secretly protect from great cosmic evil. They are the ones doing the persecuting.

The Terrarchs are a Master Race and they know it.  It is their destiny and their right to rule lesser beings and they feel completely justified in doing so. After all they are smarter, better educated, far more beautiful and gifted with great powers. If God had not meant for them to rule, things would not be this way. It’s an old argument, used by every aristocracy and every winning side in history. Unfortunately for them, in their world things are changing. Gunpowder has altered the way wars are fought and introduced a great equaliser to magic on the battlefield. Ancient powers are stirring again as well.

Yes, these would be the Lovecraft-style Elder Gods. Sven Hassel was not the only 70s pulp that influenced Death’s Angels. Back when I was a lad, sword and sorcery was a lot more common, and, as I have remarked elsewhere, it was as much influenced by H P Lovecraft as it was by the Norse fantasy of Tolkien.  So some siblings of Cthulhu managed to sneak into the story as well. The nightmarish spider people and their daemon god, Uran Ultar would be right at home living next door to sunken R’lyeh and happy to pop in and borrow a cup of sugar.

All this being the case, it was only a matter of time before our heroes found themselves dabbling in forbidden lore. Unlike the doomed heroes of a Lovecraft story, when the soldiers of the Seventh Infantry find a book full of terrifying ancient secrets they don’t read and summon a fate worse than death upon themselves; they try and sell it to the highest bidder, an action which has equally nasty consequences and ends up with them marching into the mouth of a particularly nasty hell.


Elves and Imagery

Your high school English classes probably left you somewhat suspicious of all talk of imagery and I don’t blame you. I have memories of having poems and stories dissected in front of my eyes by my own teachers. Often it was like being present at a surgical operation where the patient died on the table while the surgeon pulled out his internal organs and explained their function.

All of which rather misses the point. Imagery is an integral part of story and its purpose is very simple. It reminds readers in a subliminal fashion of the ideas that the writer wants them to be reminded of. It can be used to comment on the narrative, to make a point, and in an odd sort of way to provide a structure.

In the very wonderful Death Is No Obstacle, a series of conversations between Michael Moorcock and Colin Greenland which I recommend you get your hands on any way you can just as long as you don’t try to borrow my copy, Moorcock mentions the fact that he uses imagery to provide coherence to the narrative, a sort of non-linear form of organisation. Basically imagery ties a book together on a subliminal level.

I bring all this up because the Tyrion and Teclis books are absolutely saturated with imagery, a good deal of it not mine. A lot was created by the great Jes Goodwin back in the day. I can still remember sitting in GW’s old Design Studio back in the early 90s and looking at his concept sketchbooks with amazement. There was everything in there— the very first maps of Ulthuan, sketches of costumes and armour and banners and weapons, iconography and images. Jes was meticulous and brilliant and he thought about all this stuff. I remember him talking about Tyrion and Teclis as archetypes rooted in ancient myth. Tyrion is a solar figure, bright, strong, aggressive, powerful, associated with war and kingship. Teclis is a lunar figure, associated with magic and mystery and the night. You can see it on the detail of the original figures: the Moonstaff of Lileath, and Tyrion’s armour.

This sort of thing is an absolute gift to a writer. It provides a different sort of structure to the book from the one that plot provides. I tried to emphasise it where I could in the text. Most of Tyrion’s big scenes take place during the day, most of Teclis’s at night. It’s simple but you can see F Scott Fitzgerald doing the same sort of thing in The Great Gatsby if you look. Wherever I could I tried to work what I could remember of Jes’s ideas into the narrative.

It affected the characters of the protagonists as well. Tyrion is a brilliant, lucid and logical thinker, a strategist who looks at every situation as if it were a game. Teclis, for all that he is the cleverer of the two is more intuitive. The twins are brothers but they are very different as well. In some way they represent the dichotomies of the Elvish character which are central to this trilogy.

These are books about the conflict between the Asur and the Druchii, the High Elves and the Dark Elves. These are two seemingly very different peoples. The High Elves are noble, wise and idealistic. The Dark Elves are savage, decadent and cynical. And yet, these two nations are actually the same people. They are expressions of the two sides of the Elvish character.  All elves are descended from the same folk; their ancestors all came from the same homeland. One nation has evolved in the bright sunny lands of Ulthuan under a sophisticated, pluralist political system. The other emerged in cold, dark Naggaroth under the savage tutelage of Malekith and Morathi.

The High Elves are a semi-democratic state with functioning institutions for electing their leaders. Their military strength rests on the consent of their citizen armies rather like in many of the city-states of the Classical Period. The Dark Elves come from a feudal-totalitarian nation ruled over by two immortal tyrants possessed of virtually unlimited power. It is a conflict that has been there since the time of Aenarion, a manifestation of something central to the Elvish character. They are a people who have the potential to be either Dark Elves or High Elves. Sometimes it comes down to a choice. They recognise this in themselves. Tyrion is aware that within himself there is a psychotic killer. He keeps that under control, most of the time. He is, to use Martin Cruz Smith’s lovely phrase, a beast leashed by his own hand.

I seem to have digressed from my discussion of imagery however. I chose images to reinforce these ideas and placed them through the book where they seemed natural. Where I could I emphasised dualities, dichotomies and mirrored conflicts.

That’s why these books are littered with chess-sets. A chess-set is an image of exactly the sort of conflict that the two Elf nations are engaged in. A chessboard is a mirrored setup where two balanced forces, one light, one dark fight it out. In the book many of the major characters are chess-players, some better than others. The first time we see Tyrion he is playing chess with his father and then Korien Ironglaive. By the time we reach Book Three the ghost of the Archmage Caledor is playing chess with Death in a game on which the fate of the world hangs, as does the fate of the Great War between the High Elves and the Dark Elves.

Then there are mirrors. These appear everywhere in the books as well. They are there for a lot of reasons. The first and most obvious is that Elves are a very vain people, greatly concerned with their own appearance. The second is that magical mirrors are the means by which Malekith communicates with his agents in Ulthuan. When the great spy and assassin Urian looks into a mirror the image he presents to the world, that of a noble High Elf, is transformed, first into a version of himself in his own memory, and then into the image of his master Malekith. It’s a reminder to the reader as well as himself that the Elves are not what they seem.  Characters in these books are often looking at reflections and not seeing quite what they expect.

Characters are paired with each other too. It’s a recurring image suggested initially by the fact that the central characters are twins and repeated to the point where it becomes a motif. Urian is in many ways the anti-Tyrion, his mirror image. He is a Dark Elf transformed by magic who has spent so long in Ulthuan that he understands the High Elves better than they understand themselves. The oddest thing is that he has come to like and respect them even as he kills them. Morathi and the Everqueen are mirror images, one ancient, decadent and wise, the other eternally self-renewing and in some ways innocent. Where Aenarion and by extension the Phoenix Kings are fire, Malekith is ice and is always shown in cold places such as frozen caverns and chilly keeps. And on and on and on!

Anyway, I am in danger of belabouring the point in the way my teachers once did with me so I will shut up now.

The Ossuary at Sedlec

At the weekend my old friend Barry was in Prague. He wanted to see the Ossuary at Sedlec so we headed out there on what was the hottest September day I can remember. It’s been a long time since I visited the Bone Church, maybe 15 years, and I had forgotten quite how strange a place it is.

King Ottokar of Bohemia sent Henry, the Abbot of the Cistercian monastery in Sedlec to the Holy Land in 1278. The holy man returned with what was believed to be earth from Golgotha and  sprinkled it over the abbey cemetery. This made the graveyard a very fashionable place to be buried indeed. During the Black Death in the mid 14th century and the Hussite Wars in the early 15th century, thousands of people were laid to rest there. Around 1400 the Gothic Church of All Saints was built in the center of the cemetery. The lower chapel became an ossuary to hold the bones exhumed from the graveyard during it’s construction. In 1870, the Schwarzenberg family hired  František Rint to organise the bones of the 40000 people in there. Rint was a man of considerable talent and rather odd humour as you can tell from what he did.  He turned all those bones into some rather remarkable and strange works of art; chandeliers, coats of arms and altars.

IMG 3981

The crypt is pretty large and, as you would expect, full of skulls and bones and the things Rint made. It’s hard to describe the effect this has. At first, it all feels like a stage-set, one of those things that you see in horror movies or Indiana Jones. Slowly though as you wander around it sinks in; these are really human bones. These were once real people just like you. Then it becomes a bit disturbing. The skulls and bones seem smaller than you would expect. I’m not sure whether that’s because people were smaller back then or just because skulls really are smaller than you would think. Anyway, it’s an interesting place. I would like to thank my wife Radka for letting me use her pictures here.


Bill 3976Bill 3978Chandelier 3962Coins 3957Bill 3980

Writing the Tie-In Novel: Structure

So how do you go about writing a novel then?

Well, I don’t know how you do it but here’s how I go about it. I start by writing a very simple synopsis. This can be anything up to 1000 words. It covers the basic flow of the action, names the main characters and settings. That’s it. There’s no description, no dialogue, no bits of business of any sort. It’s just the bare bones of the story set down in the most basic way.

Once that is done, I go through this very basic outline and I start expanding upon it. I add a bit more detail and I break down the action a little bit more. I keep working away until I have reached anywhere between 2000 and 5000 words. This will provide me with the skeleton of the story.

In the old days, I would then switch to the outline view in Microsoft Word and begin breaking this into chapters. I would simply insert a level one heading with a chapter number between the bits of text until I had broken the outline up into the requisite number of chapters. This would normally be anywhere between 25 and 40 chapters for a standard size novel. I would generally aim for each chapter to be roughly 3000 to 4000 words and I would try to make sure that each chapter ended on some sort of cliffhanger to give the reader motivation to move on. I would italicise the body text for reasons that will become clear later.

Once this basic chapter outline was done I would go through it and extract the names of all the major characters and settings. I would add more sections to the outline giving each a level one header with the characters’ or settings’ name in it. I would then add detailed descriptions of each character and setting so that I would have something to refer to as I was writing.

At this stage I would often be ready to actually start work on the book itself. If I was not ready to begin yet I would go through each chapter in the outline adding more and more detail; bits of dialogue, bits of description or bits of action. I would keep doing this, adding more and more stuff until I felt I had enough in there to begin writing the actual book.

As I was doing the first draft I would refer to the notes in each chapter section. Sometimes I would keep the outline bits in italics so that I could refer to them as I was going on. Sometimes I would simply delete them as I completed each chapter. It would depend on how I felt at the time. This tends to apply a lot when I am working.

These days I use Scrivener which simplifies this process enormously. It is very easy to write an initial outline in Scrivener and then go through it and split it up into sections use the Apple Key + K key combination. Scrivener even automates the process of transferring these bits of outline to note cards which you can then use to give you a very broad overview of your story. It keeps them in a separate window in the Inspector so you can refer to them as you write and there is no need to delete them as you complete a section.  It also makes setting up separate sections for characters and settings an absolute breeze. These days, in Scrivener I tend to break my outlines down one step further, into actual scenes within the chapters. Aside from this extra level of detail the process of outlining remains essentially the same.

When I am writing books for Black Library there is an added stage which involves discussing the book with my editors. This happens before I begin the initial outline. It consists of discussing what the book is going to be about in the most general terms. By this I mean which characters in the Warhammer setting it is going to feature and roughly what they are going to do. After this I will probably send in a very basic outline at some point. This is the first stage synopsis referred to above. This will provide a reference point for further discussion. I will almost certainly need send in the chapter breakdown with a list of characters and settings before contracts are exchanged for the book.

This is a very basic and simple system for sorting out the architecture of a book. Normally, the outline will be modified by the actual writing but at least it provides me with a structure and signposts along the way. This is the actual method I have used for writing most of my 20+ novels. The only exception to this that I can think of was a detective novel set during the Victorian period that I wrote a few years ago. I did this without any sort of outline at all. The reason that I could get away with this is because a detective novel, particularly one told in the first person singular, carries its own structure within it. A crime is committed and must be investigated. This implies a structure of interviewing suspects, visiting crime scenes and reacting to unexpected events. It is often easier to write about such things if you have no idea that they are coming until your sub-conscious mind springs them upon you.

Sometimes other things affect the structure as well. When I was writing the Tyrion and Teclis books, the broad outline of what was going to happen was already there. I knew this because I happened to write most of it in the High Elf army book almost 20 years ago. When you’re doing something like this, it becomes much more like writing a historical novel. You know that certain events happen in a certain order and that certain characters are going to be in certain scenes. You then need to work out the structure of your novel to make sure that you fit all of this information in and organise it in a dramatically satisfying manner. I still use basically the same method of outlining the novel in this case. I just have to make sure that I take into account all of the background details.

Thanks to Phillip Calvin for asking the question on Facebook that prodded me into writing this post.


Living In Writer’s Time

Just like deadlines some special occasions sneak up on you. It’s Gamesday in a couple of weeks and Blood of Aenarion is going to be released there and yet somehow, while wittering on about writing and Macharius and short stories, I have forgotten to talk about it. You’re probably wondering how that is possible. I mean it is a major hardback release with the most astonishingly beautiful cover and it features some of my favourite characters ever. It’s also my first new book for Black Library in what– 8 years? (Bloody hell!)

How did this escape my notice?

The secret, young padawan, is that, like most writers, I live in a different timestream from the one you see. Most people connect to writers through their books and they can only do that through the ones that are available. (Well, duh!) The latest release seems new because it is new for the reader when they pick it up. For me though, the whole Blood of Aenarion experience took place two years ago. I wrote the book while wandering through South East Asia with my wife and son at the start of 2010. I revised it in Prague when we got back a few months later. It got dropped into the great production engine at Black Library and it is rolling off the conveyor belts of the Temple Factory even as I write this.

For me, Blood of Aenarion is a long way in the past, written under very different circumstances from the ones I live in now. I’ve lost a brother, moved home, been to Japan, gone through a few other changes in the meantime. Right now, Blood of Aenarion is like looking at a supernova in the sky. The actual event happened years ago. The light has just taken a long time to reach here. That’s the way it is with writers and readers and books. What you have yet to see was a fair while back for me. By the time you read it, I’ll be somewhere else, working on something else.

All of which makes it easy to lose track of things. Blood of Aenarion was four books ago. In between then and now there’s been Sword of Caledor, Bane of Malekith and The Angel of Fire. For me these are real books. For most everyone else they are just names. Like most people I tend to get lost in the day-to-day and focus on what’s in front of my nose. Of late, that’s been Macharius and this blog and Kormak and the Terrarch books. I sort of lost sight of Tyrion and Teclis there for a while. Looking at my plane tickets to the UK this morning made the release real. It brought some stuff back to me.

I’ll be talking about it over the next couple of weeks.

Revising Macharius

This is the part I always enjoy. The grunt work of writing the first draft is out of the way and I am now going through The Angel of Fire in Scrivener with an eye to improving it. I took a short break away from the book last week so I could come to it cold for the rewrite. In an ideal world this interval would be longer than a week, but even that small amount of time has given me some distance. Since it’s been several months since I wrote the earliest parts of the book, I have plenty of distance from them. Now its time to get down to revising.

What does this process actually involve? Pretty much what you would expect. I am going through the manuscript and re-reading it and making changes where needed. I will hopefully notice some of the sloppier bits of writing and have a chance to tidy them up. Of course, I won’t find all of my clunkers — no one ever does — but at least I get to weed out some of my more obviously bad sentences. I will also hopefully notice some of the structural glitches; the bits where scene transitions are very abrupt and jarring, where strange things have happened to the tension levels of the story while I have been dragging scenes around in the initial draft and so on.

This is the time for bringing things into focus. I try and tighten up the characterisation, sharpen up the dialogue and heighten any drama in an individual scene. Is Macharius commanding? How can I make him more commanding? Is our narrator frightened? How can I convey this feeling to the reader in the most effective fashion? Are people arguing? How does this advance the story? Are the characters really arguing about the thing under discussion or is this a manifestation of some deeper conflict between them? How do I make this clear?  I try to make sure each action, each bit of dialogue, each bit of description advances the story or conveys character or, ideally, both. (At some point I will need to do a blog post about how to do this stuff but not today.)

I try to cut out all the stuff that is not needed. I tend to put a lot into the first draft that let’s me get a handle on the story. Often I think it’s good stuff when I am writing it but revision reveals it’s not what the story needs. Then there is usually a lot of cutting of redundant dialogue and scenes that don’t actually add anything to the storyline. Sometimes these can be excellent scenes in and of themselves, they are just not relevant to the project in hand.

In my recent Tyrion and Teclis book I cut out entire swathes of narrative seen from the point of view of the Archmage Caledor. These were scenes which told you his life story and the theory behind the creation of the Vortex but they were not stuff that the reader desperately needed to know– so out they went. They did contribute interesting fragments of information to scenes in which Caledor’s ghost appears so I’m glad I wrote them. They were not a waste. A lot of writing consists of this sort of fumbling in the dark. It’s not pretty but it is necessary.

Sometimes I will notice that there really needs to be a scene where there isn’t one, to explain something or clarify something or to foreshadow some future event, so that will go in, but mostly this is a time for taking stuff out.

While I am taking all of this stuff out on the macro level, I am usually putting stuff in on the micro level. I try to make sure there are enough eyeball kicks. This was a term used by the early cyberpunks. It refers to the sort of small, telling detail that lets you know you’re somewhere else — in the far future of 40K, for instance. The most famous example is probably Heinlein’s the door dilated.

In the case of 40K, putting in eyeball kicks consists of using a sufficiency of the background material in an interesting way. Courtesy of the artists and miniature sculptors, we all know what a las-gun looks like but what does it feel like to use? What does it sound like? Does it get warm in your hand? Does it crackle when it’s overloaded? Does the barrel burn you when you accidentally touch it after you’ve been firing it for a long time?

I go through the sections where people are actually doing stuff with 40K artefacts and I try and make sure that the reader gets some sense of their reality. My goal, in an ideal world, is to sneak an eyeball kick on to every 250 word page. (Scrivener makes this very easy to do by allowing you to view custom page setups.) I don’t do this mechanically though. One eyeball kick per page is a rule of thumb (which, incidentally, are the only rules you can ever apply to writing). Sometimes there may be many eyeball kicks, sometimes none. You get a feel for this sort of thing in the end. At least I hope you do or I’ve been doing it wrong all these years.

This is a time for a certain amount of wariness. Scrivener makes it very easy to write in a mosaic fashion. You can write scenes in almost any order and move them around to suit yourself. There are some dangers to this. It’s very easy to keep chopping and changing and moving things around till you lose sight of things, and you get jarring transitions between scenes or even scenes that are just drifted out of place in the narrative. It’s something you need to watch for. Hopefully there won’t be too much of this with Angel because I wrote the narrative in the first person singular and in chronological order. Of course, the time when you think you don’t need to bother is usually the time it’s easiest to trip yourself up.

Anyway, I think that’s enough talking about revision. It’s time to go and actually do some.