Archives for July 2011

Your Moods Are Your Enemies

Your moods are your enemies.

At least they are if you are writing. This is something you should always bear in mind if you want to write professionally. There are people who say they can only write when they feel inspired. I think they are making a mistake. Here’s why.

Your mood has nothing to do with what you write.  The way you feel has very little to do with the way you put sentences together. It’s about the way you feel, end of story. The two things are not connected. The way you feel about what you have written is particularly dangerous because you get feedback between your overall mood and the way you feel about your writing.

To give an example, let’s say you are hungover (what are the chances?) and this leads to you feeling a little depressed and slow when you sit down to write your daily 1000 words. Chances are you will look at the text you have written and think, by God this is awful, where did I leave the paracetemol? You are likely to feel the same way if you are depressed by the way the bills are piling up on your shelf, your significant other fails to appreciate your genius and for many other reasons.

On the other hand, you may be having a lovely day. You may have just fallen in love. You may just have reached your goals in dieting or got a promotion at work or thrashed your regular opponent at Warhammer. This will colour the way you look at your text. In none of these cases will the judgement be a fair  or an accurate one. The time to judge what you have just written is not when you have just written it. It’s a few weeks or months down the road when you can come to it cold and look at it as if it was written by somebody else.

I’ve written stuff that at the time I was writing it I thought was trash. I’ve written stuff I thought was brilliant. When I came back to it later, it pretty much always bore a strange resemblance to my normal daily ration of prose. Who knows why I felt the way I did about it at the time of writing? Maybe I had bellyache. Maybe someone had written a nice review on Amazon. It does not matter. What matters is that the writing got done and is published.

My advice is simply to set yourself a target and set aside judgement. Write. Write whatever mood you are in. Write when you feel sick. Write when your heart is broken. Write when you’ve just won the pools. Write and don’t judge till at least a month later.  If you still think it sucks, by all means, bin it then. You don’t have to be inspired. You just have to do the work whatever mood you are in.

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Building a Hive

What does the future smell like?

I spend a significant chunk of my working life thinking about this. To write fiction set in the 40K universe (or any other) you need to know how things look, sound, feel and smell. You need to convince your readers of the reality of the world your characters are moving through. You need to stimulate their imaginations with small, telling details that help them to believe in the place. You need to be able to describe how things feel, how they smell, how they sound if you are going to conjure up vivid images in their minds.

Games Workshop’s artists and sculptors have given us a very good idea of what the 41st Millennium looks like, but for the rest of it, you have some work to do.

Right now I am writing a story set in the Hive city of Irongrad; a vast, multi-layered urban mountain with the population of a modern country. I need, at least in my imagination, to walk its streets, and come back with a description that convinces. It’s a form of intellectual time and space travel. Once that’s done I need to be able to relate what I find to physical stimuli that readers can grasp.

How do I do that? By relating my descriptions to things that already work for me.

Let’s think about a Hive – what is it? Irongrad is a huge multi-level urban sprawl, a skyscraper the size of London that has grown organically over thousands of years. So there we have our first image; London but a London with another London stacked on top of it, and then another and then another and so on.

What does that suggest to you?

To me, it suggests something overpopulated and claustrophobic. The rich live literally on the top, in the spires. The class structure is reflected by the structure of the Hive itself. At the top, things are newer, there is more space, more light, more freedom.

Outside the world is a deadly volcanic hell. Inside there are hundreds of millions of people packed too close together. The life-support systems are over-loaded. Many of the people are armed and desperate. Most of them are over-worked and downtrodden. It’s the Middle Ages meets the Industrial Revolution — both very useful things to keep in mind when describing the 41st Millennium.

Think of being on the bottom of that Hive and feeling all of that weight pressing down on you. What if the ceiling collapses? Given what we know about the rickety systems of the 40K universe, it almost certainly happens.

Actually, in a horrible way, for a writer’s purposes, that’s kind of cool. There’s a unique sort of natural disaster implied there – a sort of Hive quake, where things collapse and whole sectors of the city are destroyed. That’s something for our characters to witness.  Morbid I know—but, hey, we’re talking about writing Science Fantasy set in one of the darkest universes ever created here.

It also gives some interesting imagery. Think of areas which have already collapsed or are under repair, or are full of warning signs, and support trestles and huge hydraulic presses that hold up overloaded ceilings. Think of areas with broken treatment pipes in the roofs where sewage falls on those below like rain, literal shitstorms. Let’s make that sound a bit more 40K, let’s call them cloacal tempests. OK—I think we have seen too much evidence of my fetid imagination in action here. Let’s move on.

So we have a huge city with a lot of people. It is a controlled environment. The vast majority live in tiny apartments, stacked one on top of each other. Many don’t have kitchens. (This was the case in Victorian London. It is the case in many densely populated cities now.) People eat out in massive communal kitchens at their work-places or at vast open air food courts as people do in the tropics.

The air smells of too many people and too many overloaded systems, of sewage and trash and cooking food. What do people eat? We need to know that so we can describe how it smells. Mostly synthetic foods, I think, so there is a chemical tang.

How about fresh meat? What sort of meat are you likely to get in a Hive? Let’s leave aside the obvious answer. No. Wait a minute. Let’s not! The rich eat fresh meat. They can afford it after all. That makes meat a status symbol of sorts. There are those who might acquire a taste for human flesh. There are those in the lower hive, who, Sweeney Todd like, acquire meat for their luxury pies in nasty ways. At very least there will be urban myths about this stuff. At worst, our heroes will be encountering cannibal cultists soon.

Let’s file this stuff away for future use. Back to meat—how about rats or other vermin? This is 40K so these can be big. Maybe they are kept like pigs in pens in the streets. Maybe they are left to shuffle through the streets eating garbage as once they did in cities like London and New York. Why not? It’s an interesting detail. We have skewers of rat-meat barbecued in the street. It’s a luxury because it’s fresh meat. There is a telling detail. Eating rat is a luxury. A bit of cliché but what of it. I can spice it up by describing various dishes involving tails and paws and choice cuts of prime Grubb Street rat.

In Bangkok once I saw a cockroach that looked almost the size of my foot, scuttling up a dark alley. Maybe my imagination made it bigger than it was, it was dark and I was drunk,  but hey, not here. In the 41st Millennium cockroaches are whatever size I want them to be. In goes cockroach stew. What does it taste like? I am guessing crunchy. (Before you go ew gross, there are apparently condiments that use extracts from roach glands—who said reading about Warhammer could not be educational?) Anyway, there’s a couple of smells to describe as our heroes move through those giant street markets.

There’s an implied ecology here —scavengers that live on refuse and which in turn are eaten themselves. They might even have been engineered for such things in the Dark Age of Technology. And all of this implies an ecology of trash.

Think about all those people, all consuming stuff, all tossing it out. The systems cannot deal with it. It builds up. There’s a smell for you. There’s also another implied economy—in Victorian London there were people who made a living picking through the trash. In modern Cairo they are still there. In this world, this is why they call some skavvies skavvies. Again, it’s 40K and everything is on a huge scale. Let’s have mountains of trash, piling up along the sides of buildings. More rich, pungent aromas to be described.

What about diseases? Surely this must be very unsanitary. Indeed. This fits right in with the medieval, plague-ridden feel of the 41st Millennium. We can make these diseases spectacular and horrible. Our beggars might look like mutants, their diseases look so bad. And there will be beggars, it’s the Middle Ages meets the Industrial Revolution, remember. Ramp this up to eleven, armies of beggars, swarming outside the temples, hobbling through the streets in endless processions.

Anyway, you can see the sort of thought experiment that gets us to the smell of the future.

So far we’ve been talking about a sort of generic Hive. I need a specific one, the one in my story. This is a city that has been under the control of a nasty heretical cult for thousands of years. The 41st Millennium is a religious age and the heretics are a very religious people. There is sacred imagery everywhere. The heretics worship the Angel of Fire. There are images of it all over the place —on public buildings, in public places. These statues are very striking. They have wings of fire—literally. Flaming gas jets emerge from the statues in the shape of wings. Is this technically possible? I have no idea. It is in the 41st Millennium.  The people all wear holy symbols depicting the Angel. They have little statues of it in their homes. Somewhere in almost every work of art, there is a picture of the Angel. Wherever you go, it is there. There is no escape. It is as omnipresent as Big Brother.

I want another image—something bad is happening is this city. An evil is about to erupt. The shape of a generic Hive has always reminded me of a volcano. I want this Hive to suggest that specifically. How to do it? Well the core of the Hive is hollow, it has a caldera, a huge gaping mouth at the peak. Seen from above, from a distance this suggests a volcano about to erupt.

Why is the core hollow?  The empty space is for an enormous Cathedral dedicated to the Angel of Fire. Symbolically the Cathedral rises from the very base of the Hive and emerges from the mouth of the volcano. The Cathedral is tipped by a statue of the fire-winged Angel the size of the Empire State Building. Seen from the distance it looks like a fire-winged god is emerging from the mouth of a volcano. It’s an image I like.

Back to the smell, to something specific. There is a gassy smell everywhere, small leaks bring it. This is something I remember very vividly from the gas cookers of my childhood and from living in bedsits with gas-fires in my youth. I remember the way it used to make the back of my throat tighten and dry out my sinuses. There’s a couple of physical symptoms right there I can describe. They happen when our heroes take off their rebreather masks. It’s a small but telling piece of physical description to tantalise the reader with.

This also gives me another detail of the architecture. There are huge gas-pipes everywhere. This is 40K, so they have to be on a monstrous scale and they have to a gothic religious feel to them. Lets have monster pipes climbing up the sides of buildings like metal ivy clinging to the sides of an ancient church. Lets have huge pipeways running between buildings. Hell, let’s put some buildings on top of them like there used to be on London Bridge and there still are on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. We can have technical adepts crawling along their underside doing repairs with sacred power-mallets. And there’s another thing from my youth, gasometers, the tanks that held reservoirs of gas. They were huge metal things and looked as if they would be right at home in the 41st Millennium. They also occasionally exploded—the sort of disaster that fits right into a 40K story. Let’s dot them about the city. Gasometers and high powered military weapons will make for some interesting explosions at some point, I am sure.

This leads us to other stuff—giant pipes that run to the Cathedral and power the huge wings of the main statue and the literally tens of thousands of statues that perch on its side like an army of fallen angels.

Anyway, I think you get the picture. Good question to ask at the start of a new project; what does the future smell like? What are the telling details? Back to the 41st Millennium for me now.



A New Hope

So the great e-book experiment thunders on and my sales have risen to an average of 3 a day. The sunlit uplands of selling 1000 books a year sweep into view. This makes me very hopeful and not just about the prospect of my rent getting paid. It makes me hopeful for publishing and genres I love and for lots of new and experimental writing in general.

I know — you’ve heard that self-published e-books are the death knell of good writing. Without the gatekeepers of mainstream publishing aren’t all lovers of literature doomed? How can I be hopeful as the mongol tide of sub-literate, self-pubbed scum rapes and pillages its way across the pristine landscapes of mainstream publishing and sets fire to the ivory towers of excellence?

Glad you asked. As part of that mongol tide I would like to thank you for the opportunity of giving you my answer.

Let’s talk about Death’s Angels. This book was bounced by editors at every major UK SF publisher and not a few in the States. Mostly it was knocked back for the usual reasons (“I don’t love it” etc). One or two editors did like it but sales and marketing did not. And I can understand why. Death’s Angels is a hard book for me to describe in a nutshell and I am the author. It’s a gunpowder military fantasy about a world ruled by racist elves. It’s a tribute to the great and not-so-great pulp fiction I loved in my youth: Sven Hassel, H P Lovecraft and Karl Edward Wagner in particular. It is a Cthulhoid horror story. It’s not an easy book to pigeonhole for a 30 second sales pitch to an overloaded bookseller.

I am not even sure that there is a large audience for this stuff. I wrote it because I really, really wanted to. And people always tell you to write what you love. People also always tell you they want to see original fantasy and I thought; this is pretty original, surely, it will find an audience.

It didn’t. Not in English anyway.

My German publishers decided they wanted it. So did my Spanish publishers. So did my Czech publishers. I signed contracts for a series. At this stage my agent had not yet exhausted the English language publishing options and I thought surely somebody will come on-board when they see  that its a series and all these other people are buying it. I was wrong.

My writing career took a very weird turn for the next few years. I was a very published writer– just not in English.

Let’s wind forward a few years, when I started hearing about this thing called the Kindle and all these people e-publishing and having great success. I looked at the numbers: 35% royalties! Wow! (This was before the agency program and 70% royalties.) When I first talked about Death’s Angels a lot of my fans had said, “I want to read that”. I thought: here’s an opportunity.

With my usual lightning speed and decisiveness I leapt into action and in only a few years was ready to publish. My wife approached Jan Patrik Krasny, the artist who did the beautiful covers of the Czech version of the series, and he, very generously, agreed to let me have the English language e-book rights for a nominal fee. And so we now have the English language release of the book.

My apologies for the digression, my basic point is this; it wasn’t that Death’s Angels couldn’t find a publisher in English because it was “unworthy” of being professionally published — it was professionally published elsewhere and by people who had to pay good money to have it translated. It just did not happen to be what English-language editors were looking for at the time it was submitted to them. Since the book very possibly has a limited audience, those editors made an absolutely correct decision from a purely commercial standpoint.

Given the economics of mainstream publishing, a book like Death’s Angels might not make back the money needed just to get it printed and editors have to really, really love a book before they will take a risk like that. The way the Kindle currently works, it was completely feasible for me to publish the book myself. A book that was too risky a proposition for a mainstream publishing house is now in print. I have made some money from it. My fans finally get to read it. It’s win/win.

There is lots of writing out there that is too experimental to be published commercially, that does not have a guaranteed audience. There is lots of writing that simply does not fit the current preferences of editors and/or marketing departments. That does not mean its bad writing or that it will not sell. Because of e-publishing, some of that writing now has a chance to find an audience. Some of it will explode into the popular consciousness, become genre-changing. E-publishing is a weird, alchemical lab where lots of hybrids will be created. Most of them will be still-born. Some of them will be the bestsellers of tomorrow.

And there are audiences out there that may be small but are very dedicated. I believe a writer could make a living writing Sword and Sorcery in the classic style of Robert E Howard if they wanted to now. The internet lets you reach an audience like that and the Kindle lets you publish to it and the margins are such that you do not need to sell in gigantic numbers to make a modest living at it. Hell, you might even make a more than modest living at it, if you have a breakout success or the audience turns out to be bigger than anyone suspects. E-publishing will allow a few brave souls to prospect for those hidden audiences.

And you know what? This will be good for commercial publishing. It will give the big mainstream publishers a chance to see what is selling and cherry pick from the best of it. Its totally free market research for them of the very best sort, the sort that tells them what people are actually willing to pay for. The smarter publishers have already started taking advantage of this with Amanda Hocking and John Locke. There will be more. Locke has already proven that you can sell Westerns, a genre most everybody believed to be moribund. Maybe someone will come along and do the same for hardcore Sword and Sorcery. I hope so because I love that genre.

In the end this is why I am hopeful. Something new has arrived, something that changes the game. It’s going to very painful for some of the incumbents to adapt but they will. And the opportunities are immense on all levels. The glass is half-full.



So Here We Are In E-Book Land

It’s been an interesting weekend. Like every other proud publisher of a Kindle book I have done more than my share of checking my sales figures. I am pleased to report that I have sold an average of two books a day since Friday.

Pleased, I hear you cry? Two books a day does not sound like a lot, Bill. Particularly not for a bestselling Warhammer writer like yourself.

It’s not a huge amount, true. But if you consider my publicity and marketing has consisted of an email to 4 of my test readers thanking them for their help and one tweet to my 6 twitter followers alongside  an announcement on this blog (which I had blocked to search engines until Friday), I can safely say I am happy with the results. And I can equally safely say I would be happy for sales to continue at these levels.

By now you are probably thinking, you are mad, Bill!  You would be happy selling 730 books a year?

Happy? From a purely financial point of view, I would be bloody ecstatic. The royalty structure of Kindle Direct Publishing means I get 70% of the purchase price of every book sold. That’s $3.50/ £2.10 at present exchange rates. 730 books a year translates into $2555/£1533 a year.

Look at the traditional paperback royalty rates. These vary from 4% to 8% depending on a number of factors. Let’s say for the sake of argument you are getting 8% on a a $9 paperback. That means you are collecting 72 cents and chances are you will be lucky to get that. Those 730 books translate to the rough equivalent of selling 3500 paperbacks at the top rate. Believe it or not 3500 sold would be a pretty good result for many modern paperbacks.

In case you are wondering my Warhammer books do sell a lot more than this per year, sometimes an order of magnitude more, but the potential earnings on e-books are still a not inconsiderable sum as far as I am concerned. Furthermore this is a book that will not go out of print and which can keep earning year in, year out. And let’s not forget I have already written this book so the only work involved is formatting it and uploading it to Amazon which takes an hour or two.

Now obviously I am not going to get rich from this, but, seriously, if you chose to become a fantasy writer with the idea of getting rich, boy did you ever pick the wrong profession! It does mean that if I can continue to sell at these rates, and put the remaining five novels I have sold in other languages than English up on the Kindle, I could be earning $15000 dollars a year. That would pay my rent and then some.

Leaving aside the financial stuff for a moment, I am also really happy that this book might have a chance to find its audience. It’s a book I am proud of but it was always going to be a hard one to market for any publisher that picked it up. It is not in any sense a conventional fantasy novel. It has elves, but it also has muskets and Lovecraftian monsters. The hero is not an innocent young farm boy gifted with god-like powers and a secret destiny to be master of the world but an amoral thief trying to get by in a very dark world, one where the beautiful and the powerful are not  wish-fulfilment fantasy persecuted outsiders but the ones doing the persecuting. It’s a return to the realpolitik sword and sorcery of my youth.

Obviously it’s early days yet. 3 days are not enough data points to extrapolate anything from. It’s possible that sales might dry up today or they might explode. In any case, it’s exciting and nerve-wracking to watch.

I’ll keep you updated as more info comes in.

Death’s Angels on Smashwords

In a fit of unusual industriousness for me, I have uploaded Death’s Angels to Smashwords which means that hopefully, at some point in the next few weeks, it will become available on the iPad, iPhone and Barnes and Noble Nook as well as the Sony eReader. All this being subject to the approval of the good people at Smashwords.

And by the way, a big thank you to whoever it was who bought Death’s Angels on today. I still have not got notice from Amazon that the book is officially live! Whoever you were you are my first e-book sale on the Kindle, possibly ever.

Death’s Angels

Today I uploaded Death’s Angels to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing system. It is still going through the approval process as I write this but I have to say I am thrilled. It’s been a long strange journey to see this book come out in English. It’s taken almost six years. The book has already been published in German, Spanish, Polish and Czech but never found an English language publisher. In the end I have released the book myself with, it has to be said, considerable help from others.

So I would just like to take this opportunity to thank Angela King for editing and proof-reading and Jan Patrik Krasny for his lovely cover. I also owe a strong debt of gratitude to Michael Mooney, John McLintock, Vince Rospond, Jeff Rubinoff and Eve Bloom for reading and commenting on the early drafts of the story. Lastly I would like to thank my wife Radka for putting the cover together as well as putting up with me. Ok- that’s my Oscar moment over. Normal service will now be resumed.

Deaths Angels

This is the first book in the Terrarch series. The basic premise is that a thousand years ago the world of Gaeia was conquered by the Terrarchs, cruel and beautiful alien invaders, masters of sorcery and intrigue. They have ruled humanity with a fist of steel inside a glove of velvet ever since. For a thousand years, ancient daemons have slept, waiting for the moment of their return. Now the stars are right. Old and evil gods are wakening. New revolutions are being born. A genocidal war that will destroy civilisation sweeps ever closer.

The story follows our hero, the half-human, half-Terrarch, Rik. Rik starts out as a common soldier but he is the inheritor of a strange and terrifying secret. In Death’s Angels he and the rest of the Seventh Infantry stumble on an terrible conspiracy to awaken the loathsome Spider God Uran Ulthar and must stop a cult of evil sorcerers before the demon god can be summoned.

The books are set in a world of gunpowder and magic. I was aiming for a hybrid of HP Lovecraft and Sharpe: military fantasy with a very strong undercurrent of Cthulhoid horror. If you would like to find out whether I succeeded, you will, hopefully, soon be able to check out the book on Amazon.