Back To The Crusade

My current 40K novel, The Fist of Demetrius, is starting to shape up. I am about 25000 words in. An ominous cloud of intrigue looms over Macharius as he reaches the absolute zenith of his power at the height of the Crusade. The Dark Eldar are moving across the event horizon. Multiple conflicts loom, with the xenos, with ambitious generals and corrupt Imperial politicians. Macharius ,although he does not know it, is about to experience the pivotal event of his life, a confrontation with something that will turn him from the golden reflection of Alexander the Great into the dark, ruthless fanatic we know from the background texts.

Slowly, a bit at a time, a book is coming into being. It’s fun to watch and at the same time frustrating, because writing always happens slower than you want it to. I have all these exciting scenes in my mind. I want them written down. NOW! I want the story rolling along. I want to see how it all works out. And yet it is arriving in the only way stories do, one phrase at a time, over a period of minutes and hours and days and months.

I keep going back and rewriting earlier sections in the light of what has been revealed by later events, working in foreshadowing and even just bits of knowledge I did not have then. All sorts of strange connections emerge. One of Macharius’s adversaries, an enormously powerful Imperial bureacrat was once his tutor.That just came out in conversation so now I have to go back and figure out what that means.

I could just take out the bit of dialogue, of course, but it’s interesting, and it has the appeal of a puzzle, and I have to trust that the character said this for a reason, even if only my subconsciousness knows why at the moment. In part I know it’s a reference to Alexander who was taught by some of the brightest and best of his time, but how in the name of the Emperor did a famous philosopher become a corrupt Imperial administrator?  Still, it makes him a very distinctive character. It makes him different and more real. It gives the villain and the hero a personal connection which is always useful.

So far it’s been a book where my subconsciousness has been running ahead of my plotting, or rather interacting with it. A Rogue Trader walked on stage in one of the earlier chapters and I wondered why the hell I was putting so much effort into describing a character who did not even appear in my outline. I stuck with it though and today I realised that the Rogue Trader might not have been there in the plot synopsis, but a powerful ship was, one that was needed to carry Macharius on a secret mission and, hey, a Rogue Trader could provide that. Even better, the mission took Macharius to a lost world on the fringes of the Crusade and who better to provide guidance than one of these Imperially sanctioned merchant adventurers?

Do these sort of connections always work out? Of course not.

Sometimes they are simply dead ends and mean nothing. Sometimes they just end up lying there on the page, an extra bit of detail that does not contribute anything to the ongoing storyline but makes a character or a place or a situation more real. Orwell once said that it was the unnecessary detail that characterised the work, specifically the descriptions, of Dickens. As with so much Mr Blair wrote, I find myself agreeing and disagreeing at once. I usually try and remove anything that does not advance the story, inform the reader or develop character. It’s the thing writers are always told to do, and in general it is good advise but there are times when sometimes the strangeness of the unneeded detail provides an echo of the very real strangeness of life and that seems to me to be a good time to leave it in. And sometimes that seemingly unnecessary detail actually does provide some insight into the character or the world and at that point it ceases to be unnecessary and becomes just a detail.

And now I am going back to worrying about how Macharius’s tutor became his enemy. I might have worked this out by the time Black Library Live rolls around on Saturday. Maybe I will see you there.

Also I would just like to remind you that Blood of Aenarion is on the long list for the David Gemmell Legend Award this year. You can vote here.


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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.

Rewriting

I am taking time out from my busy schedule today to announce that I won’t be writing a blog post because I am doing the rewrite of Angel of Fire. Oh wait– I am writing a blog post, in the grand tradition of writers skiving off work everywhere.

Right now I am just going through Angel tightening things up. I wrote an action-packed, ork-stomping prologue that frames the story and now I am working my way through the manuscript, taking out some scenes, tightening up others and adding new ones where they are needed to clarify the action. I am doing this in response to the comments of my esteemed editor Nick Kyme and in line with my own feelings, having had a short break from the actual writing over the past few weeks.

I’ve mentioned the importance of such breaks before. They are very useful. They give you a bit of distance from the manuscript and let you come at it fresh. (An editor’s bracing comments tend to have much the same effect. Other people see things that you won’t because you are standing too close.) By taking a break you are effectively putting yourself in the position of another person, one a few weeks older and not quite so involved in the actual creative process.

I don’t know about you but I tend to find editing and rewriting a very different thing from writing first drafts. First drafts are all a frenzied attempt to wrestle the words and images in my head on to paper. I usually try to keep up my momentum and keep the story rolling forward come what may. I want to get to the end and see how things turn out and, of course, reassure myself that I can actually get to the end. There are times when you are in the belly of the beast when that feels like it is never coming. You would think that after 20+ novels, I would know this but it never really changes. There are often the same strains and doubts. Experience tells you that you’ve been here before, but your emotions say something different…

Once the first draft is done, I go through the manuscript and tidy things up to the best of my ability. I look for the logical holes, I try and make sure everything makes sense. I do this in Scrivener. After that I usually go through a print-out because somehow that makes it more real and I notice different things when I am sitting on the sofa with a pen in my hand. Once that’s done, I’ll input the changes and while I am doing that try and tighten up the manuscript some more. Eventually, usually when there is a hard and fast deadline smacking me in the face, I will let the thing go and send it in to Black Library then I take time off or I go and write something else, which is what I have been doing recently.

Once the manuscript comes back from editing, it feels different. For one thing, there are comments in it. These can be both positive and negative and the emotional impact is…interesting. Nobody likes to be told their work is less than perfect. Well, I don’t. Sadly, after the intervening cooling-off period, logic and reason and my own two eyes usually let me know that it is, in fact, the case. And, if I am honest, editorial comments often point out to me the flaws that I have come to realise were there anyway. They also tend to point out more than a few that I didn’t. In the case of Black Library there is usually a chat on Skype where Nick and I talk through the problems and toss back and forth solutions.

I have to say in the case of Angel of Fire, this was fantastically productive, leading to the introduction of one or two developments which took me by surprise but were actually oddly logical. At times like this I can believe Steven King’s hypothesis that a writer is like an palaeontologist uncovering the fossil outline of the story from the rock in which it is already buried. (Usually I see myself as more like a carpenter building the framework of a wooden house.) To incorporate these developments, which will have ramifications throughout the trilogy, I need to do a little more rewriting than usual but I am happy to do so. I was going to introduce an Imperial Assassin in Book Two of the trilogy anyway, but these developments allowed her to sneak into Book One in an entirely logical way. Stealthy creatures Assassins, they can even infiltrate your books.

Anyway, to return to the process of rewriting, once I get the manuscript, I usually go through it again, implementing the minor changes indicated by the comments, such as removing word repetitions and making sure the gear is correct, etc,  and usually making a few of my own as well. While I am doing this, I am thinking about the big picture changes that need to be implemented and how I will do them. Making the minor changes gives me a chance to re-familiarise myself with the manuscript in depth as I do so.

At the moment I am doing the big picture stuff, altering some scenes, making changes to the presentation of characters, adding new scenes to shed light on events, making alterations to fit in with the framing device established in the prologue and generally adding a coat of polish to the whole thing.  And if you will excuse me, I had better get back to that now!

 

The Angel of Fire

I thought I would say a little about the work in progress today.

The Angel of Fire is a story of the Imperial Guard during the Macharian Crusade. It follows three friends, Leo, Anton and Ivan, part of the crew of a Baneblade, who by a series of strange accidents and the occasional bit of heroism end up saving the life of Macharius himself. It also involves huge armoured battles, urban combat in the streets of a Hive and a particularly nasty bunch of pyromaniac Tzeentch cultists.

It’s been a lot of fun to look inside the 41st Millennium from the first person point of view. It places a different focus on things from the third person. It’s more idiosyncratic. All of the action is on a much more human scale than the Space Wolf books. Looking up at a Space Marine through the eyes of a common soldier is a lot different from looking out of the eyes of a genetically engineered berserker. Plus I’ve been describing massive tank battles in a post-Apocalyptic wasteland, a thing I find very enjoyable indeed.

Some of the characters have reached that interesting stage where they are taking on a life of their own. I am particularly pleased with one officer in particular who was all set up to be the cowardly glory-grabber who gets our heroes into all sorts of trouble. Instead, he is transmuting himself into something altogether darker, stranger and oddly heroic. I am not sure where this is going to go but its fun to watch. It’s one of the great pleasures of writing.

I am working my way through it at my usual slow but steady rate of 2000 words a day. It’s surprising how quickly how the word counts stack up over the course of a month, but some of the scenes will end up being dropped from the final work and there were doubtless be a lot of rewriting involved. Still I am happy with the way things are going.