Two Different Paths

I have been experimenting with writing 2000 words of new fiction every working day since the New Year. This is in addition to outlining, planning, revising and producing new ebooks. It’s led to some interesting (for me, at least) consequences. Right now I am working on two different projects and my methods are about as different as I can possibly imagine.

The first is The Fist of Demetrius, my second Macharius novel for Warhammer 40K. This started off last year as a simple first person narrative and mutated into something else as it progressed. The second project is my sword and sorcery novel The Stealer of Flesh about a monster hunter named Kormak.

The Macharius book is part of a series within a greater series. It fits into Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40000 universe which has an enormous amount of background lore and shared storylines. It tells the tale of the great Imperial hero Lord High Commander Solar Macharius as seen from the point of view of his various subordinates. It needs to be slotted into a background that is already familiar to millions of readers and at the same time reveal some new facets of that mythos.

The Kormak novel is something I am writing for my own amusement. It has grown out of short story I wrote many years ago The Guardian of the Dawn. When I began work on that I had a vague idea that I would develop the world and the series through the writing of it. I would not set down too much background. I would explore the world as I wrote, seeing it through the eyes of the hero as I went, and hopefully, gain some sense of revelation and wonder through the process.

With Fist of Demetrius I am following my usual method of planning everything in outline and then executing the storyline afterwards. The story arc has already been implied from Book One and is generally known from the background of the 40K universe. All I am required to do is flesh it out. There are some technical problems that need to be resolved and some issues of structure that need to be addressed but there will be no great flights of improvisation except in the smaller aspects of the story. One odd thing is the structure of the narrative itself; it has a meta-structure.

As is made clear in the very first line of Book One in the series, Angel of Fire, this is not quite a simple first person narrative. The assembled text is actually documentary evidence for a two part investigation being conducted by the Imperium to consider the canonisation of Macharius as an Imperial Saint and the prosecution of High Inquisitor Drake for heresy and treason. The piece of first person testimony we are reading is actually an autobiographical fragment set down by an Imperial Guard Sergeant by the name of Leo Lemuel who, as becomes clear from his testimony as we read, knew both Macharius and Drake. Leo’s is not the only narrative in the book. There are two conjoined storylines from the point of view of Drake, one consisting of his reports to the Imperium, and the other being a very different set of extracts from his personal journal that make it clear that Drake is a man with his own agenda quite different from that presented in his official reports. Rounding out the book are other pieces of corroborative evidence such as casualty lists and other official documentation.

Obviously the book is a novel. It tells a story and I hope an exciting one, but there is another implied structure here. All of this data is being assembled by someone, and with a very specific purposes in mind. The reader is being placed in the position not only of reading the narrative but of scanning the Imperial reports and reading between their lines. This is a deployment of  multiple unreliable narrators as they are known in the trade. The narrative is made doubly ambiguous because we know that a case for prosecution is being presented here within the assembled documents. I hope also it allows for the presentation of multiple, partially contradictory points of view of Macharius and adds an air of historical realism to the whole proceeding.

In Book Two this is going to be developed. There will be more reports from eye-witnesses including Leo and Drake but also some from the point of view of an Imperial Assassin, a very dangerous woman called, perhaps, Anna, who we first encountered in Angel of Fire. The other point of view is that of an as yet un-named Dark Eldar. This is quite a rare thing to tackle in the 40K universe. When I started working on the Black Library fiction line many, many years ago there was an actual proscription against telling stories from the point of view of non-human characters because they were simply too alien to be handled realistically. I plan on getting round this in Fist of Demetrius by the use of a simple device which fits into the established background of the series. What we will be seeing are more Imperial records, this time transcriptions from Dark Eldar memory crystals by an Imperial Psyker who has since gone mad. We will get the Dark Eldar point of view as mediated through the mind of a loyal Imperial citizen. I like this idea and I think it is something that the book really needs since the Dark Eldar provide the main opposition in the book and I would at least like to try and show their side of things. Obviously all of this is will require precise plotting and a lot of thought. The case for the prosecution continues to unfold as the story does.

At the same time as I am preparing all this, I am writing the Kormak novel in an utterly different fashion, by winging it. This book started out as a short story, The Stealer of Flesh, which grew into a novella. By the time I had finished it, I realised that it was actually the climax of a series of stories about the hunt for a body-switching demon, so I went back and wrote the first story in the sequence, Shelter from the Storm, in which the demon lord is freed and the chase begins. Since then I have written another story in the sequence, The Wolves of War, set in a balkanised land where some werewolves are doing a bit of ethnic cleansing.

Right now I am at work on the fourth story, tentatively titled Drinker of Blood which opens up with Kormak riding across a icy lake full of frozen bodies in the company of a female Old One who seems to be a cross between a vampire and a Japanese fox spirit. The astonishing thing (for me at least) about all of these stories is that I usually have no idea what they are going to be about when I start them. Sometimes I have an image in mind, like the frozen lake, or a vague idea such as ethnic cleansing werewolves or the idea that this is the story in which a demon is going to be freed. I know where the overall storyline is going because I have already written the last story in the sequence and I know all of these stories are going to have to build on one another and get me to that destination. And that is all I know.

In the end I want to release the whole collection as a book. I also know that each story has to be readable as a standalone work.  For a writer such as myself who believes in planning this is something of a departure. There is a tremendous amount of freedom with all the possibilities both for success and failure that brings. It’s been a very long time since I wrote so many short stories one after the other, and I find I am enjoying it. To add to the fun I am revising Mask of the Necromancer, another Kormak book at the same time and I have to keep rewriting it as new bits of information are revealed.

It’s all a tremendous challenge and a lot of fun. Hopefully we’ll see some of the fruits of it in the not too distant future.

6 Replies to “Two Different Paths”

  1. As said in twitter, the whole Macharius book seems pretty impressive, but, reading now how you’re writing it, I must admit that I’m hyped. The novels with several layers of information, some contradictory, some consistent between them, implies that the reader must build the story, maybe re-read chapters and forge his own opinion. Very, very interesting.
    Thanks again for the updates 🙂

    1. Thanks, mate. This is a sort of historical novel set in the 40K Universe and I wanted to see what I could do to give it a sense of history within the future history. We’ll soon find out if it has worked :).

  2. “In the end I want to release the whole collection as a book.”
    You big tease! The Kormak collection sounds like a perfect remedy to a sword & sorcery craving. THE WOLVES OF WAR has a particularly nice ring to it. Until then, guess I’ll have to resort to last century fiction and Guinness.

    1. It’s been an interesting experience, mate. The short story/novella is in some ways the definitive form for the sort of sword and sorcery I grew up reading: Howard, Leiber, Moorcock’s early Elric stories, Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane, and on and on. It feels like the right length for the Kormak stories. It also takes me back twenty odd years to when I was first writing Gotrek and Felix. Their early careers were all written in 7K and 14K stories. I think a lot of modern fantasy fiction is very padded to get to a certain marketable length. Writing short stories strips everything down to the basics and gives the stories the sort of vigour and energy those old stories had. At least I hope it does!

  3. Coming late to your blog and working my way through all things Macharius. The description of your approach sounds very interesting and exciting. It must have been a good creative challenge to set yourself. I am really looking forward to these books.

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