Combat Phase Podcast

Just a quick update to mention I was interviewed on the Combat Phase Podcast about my involvement with Warhammer, Black Library, Tyrion and Teclis, Gotrek and Felix, the Horus Heresy and all manner of other good stuff. You kind find the full interview here. Thanks to Kenny Lull for having me on the show and putting up with the interference of the Powers of Chaos.

Another Day, Another Year

It had to happen sooner or later, my birthday falling on a blogging day. As an inveterately lazy man, I am tempted to just make my excuses now and go in search of cake, but there are a few bits and bobs I thought I would mention before I do.

First up, Black Library has just released a huge part of its backlist onto the Kindle in the UK and Europe. Hurrah for that, and about time, I say.

Among the many great ebooks you’ll find my seven Gotrek and Felix novels and my four Space Wolf books. It’s really nice to see these books out there. Black Library have done their usual magnificent job of production. I guess I really will have to get round to writing up the author’s notes for them now. The good folks in North America are going to have to wait until January.

Secondly,the first six of my Kormak novels are finally available in print. I laid them out a couple of years back, and then with my usual astounding efficiency sat back and did nothing. Eventually a random brain cell misfired and reminded me that I really should bring them out just in time to miss the Xmas sales rush. You can order them from Amazon or your local book store.

Thirdly, Armageddon Protocol, my Judge Dredd meets Starship Troopers style cyberpunk military SF novel first mentioned back in January, is almost ready to go. I am just putting the final touches to it now. I’ll stick up a sample chapter in a week or two.

If you’d signed up for my newsletter you would already have been able to read it. Assuming all goes according to plan, the book should be out before Xmas. Here’s Trevor Smith’s brilliant cover. I am really pleased with it.

ArmegeddonProtocolFinalSmallTitle 2

Trevor is already at work on the cover for Extinction Event which promises to be even better.

And that’s it for the moment. I am off in search of cake.

If you’re interested in finding out when my next book will be released as well as in getting discounts and free short stories, please sign up for my mailing list.

Writing Fantasy Heroes: Tyrion

It’s Writing Fantasy Heroes week here so I thought I would chip in with my two cents worth about one of fantasy heroes I have worked on recently. I’m going to use Tyrion, one of the two main characters in my ongoing High Elf trilogy, as an example.

This process of developing Tyrion was a little different from creating a character from scratch, since Tyrion already exists as part of the Warhammer universe. What I’ll be talking about is how I put flesh on his bones and hopefully turned him into a well-rounded and complex character as well as a believable hero.

In epic fantasy, the word hero obviously has two meanings. There is the one that we apply universally, an individual who either possesses extraordinary courage or performs extraordinary deeds or both. Then there’s the meaning in the narrative sense, an individual who is the protagonist of the story. In more realistic fiction these two don’t necessarily go together but in this genre, they tend to.

As authors, it’s our job to make the hero believable and to a certain extent sympathetic. Being believable doesn’t mean you have to fill the reader in on every minute of the hero’s backstory, or show how he got to be how he is (although it does feel that way in a lot of modern fantasy). It just means the hero needs to be convincing when he walks on stage. If you want examples of what I mean by this take a look at David Gemmell’s Druss, Robert E Howard’s Conan or Michael Moorcock’s Elric. These are all fully formed when they walk on stage. They are convincing because of the way, they act.

Since the character is also the hero in the narrative sense, he is going to have to be somebody we can root for. Hopefully the audience can, and certainly the writer must. If you’re going to write a book or a series of books about a character, there has to be something that motivates you to do so. You’re going to be spending months or years in this character’s head and there needs to be something that keeps you going back there.

It helps if there’s something about the character you can like or admire, preferably both. My basic formula for fiction is create characters I like, admire and/or sympathise with then torture the bastards. By this I mean put them through the emotional and physical ringer. Threaten them. Cause them harm.  I have built a decades-long career on this simple formula.

Anyway, let’s look at Tyrion. Tyrion is an elf prince of the line of Aenarion. He is arguably the greatest warrior of his people in the current age of the Warhammer world. He is honourable, courageous and heroic. Fair enough– but what I need to know is how did he get to be that way? There must be a reason for it. As I said above, normally I would not feel compelled to show the reader any of this. I just need to know it and be able to allude to it in the story. In this case though I was commissioned to write what was basically an origin story for the character so I will need to show the reader all of this stuff. 

Physically, it’s easy enough. He is of the line of Aenarion, a descendant of the super-humanly powerful demigod who originally ruled the elves. This is already an established part of the background. Tyrion bears a resemblance to Aenarion and has quite obviously inherited some part of his power. He is more than mortally quick and strong, with a natural understanding of weapons and combat. That’s the upside. The downside is that all of the descendants of Aenarion may share his curse. It’s something that will make him suspected by his own people in the long run. There’s a point of attack when it comes to causing the character problems. When writing fiction this is invariably a good thing. The more trouble you can heap on a protagonist the better.

Psychologically we need to find out why he is the way he is. In part, it’s because of the culture he comes from. The High Elves of Ulthuan place a premium on things like nobility, keeping your word etc. They live the chivalric ideal. Even the worst of them pay lip service to it. The question is what makes Tyrion outshine the typical High Elf.

The place I chose to start looking was the logical one– his childhood. Tyrion was brought up far from the great cities of the elves, by his aloof widowed father, with only his sickly crippled brother and the servants for company. He grew up reading and believing all the great heroic epics of the elves, and dreamed of getting away from his dull home life and taking part in such things. He felt his father, a wizard, despised him for not being intellectual, scholarly and wizardly. He mistook his father’s protectiveness of his sickly twin as a preference for his brother who was, after all, more like his father. He actively sought an arena in which his gifts will allow him to shine. When his father’s old friend, the warrior Khorian Ironglaive, came along and offered him a chance to find a place in the world as a warrior, he jumped at it.

Tyrion’s childhood also provides another invaluable insight into his character. He is close to and protective of his sick brother. They were each other’s only real companions during a formative period of their lives. This gave Tyrion a genuine sympathy for the weak, unusual among elves who typically despise anything less than perfection. It also gives him another vulnerable spot. He is in the habit of sticking up for his brother, which often gets him into trouble. It’s a habit of behaviour that gets transferred to other people in need of protection. Emotionally, Tyrion is already programmed to defend the weak.It is one small keystone in the foundations of his heroism.

It has already been established that Tyrion is semi-immortal, handsome, charming, rich, brave, powerful. He is a perfect wish-fulfillment fantasy figure. There’s a major problem. As described, he is too sickeningly perfect. There’s nothing there that I can particularly identify with. There are no flaws. We all have them, and once we’re beyond a certain age we tend not to believe in characters who don’t have them. Even in the greatest of heroes there has to be some shadow to balance the light. Without it, you don’t have a real person.

Let’s take a look at his background again. Tyrion is an archetypal elf as portrayed in the Warhammer world. This means among other things he is arrogant and more than somewhat self-centred. These are not particularly attractive flaws but at least he has some to be going on with. They’ll do as a start. We’ll get back to them.

With heroes, there’s always the problem of motivation. Why do they put their lives on the line? In real life people usually become heroes in answer to circumstances. They rise to the occasion, often because they have no choice.  In fantasy series, heroes put themselves on the line again and again. It’s always possible they do it for selfless and noble reasons. In fact, if they are heroes they ought to, but they ought to have other reasons as well, sometimes darker ones. The problem of motivation is compounded for Tyrion. He is an elvish prince. The chances are he will live for millennia in the greatest luxury his world has to offer if he does not put himself in harm’s way. We must ask ourselves what would motivate someone like him to do such a thing?

The easiest way to do this is not to give him a choice. He lives in the Warhammer world so enemies will always come looking for him. This is, in fact what happens in the first book. He has inherited not just some of Aenarion’s power but also one of his enemies as well, the mighty demon N’Kari. In addition, there are always the people he loves to threaten as well, friends, family, lovers; it’s a time-tested way of forcing action heroes into action.

That typical elvish arrogance can be used as the basis of a pride that will force Tyrion into action when called for. He is proud of his lineage. He feels the need not to let down the family name (if you want to see how powerful a motivator that can be, take a look at the Roman Republic which was built mostly by competing families of patricians seeking to enhance their family reputations. Since I was using the late Republic as a partial model for how the High Elves are depicted, bringing this in allowed me to tell the reader something about the society Tyrion comes from as well. That’s a bonus.)

He needs something more though, something darker, something less admirable, something to add real shadow to all that light. In Tyrion’s case this can be achieved by one simple change. He enjoys combat. He enjoys the thrill of triumph. But in particular he likes to kill. It’s the ultimate marker of victory. He takes a visceral pleasure in it.

In a way Tyrion is a monster behind a hero’s mask. And he sometimes feels himself to be so. He is not only a great warrior he is also very clever. He understands what he is. He understands too that it’s a huge disadvantage in the society in which he lives. He keeps himself on a leash and only let’s himself off it in circumstances that will do him some good.

He is also genuinely noble in his way. He is ashamed of what he is and he feels that this killing lust may be the way the curse on the bloodline of Aenarion manifests itself in him. He wants to be a hero but he feels it would be all too easy for him to become a villain. There is a war taking in place inside him between his better side and his worse side, and it makes him interesting to watch. Hopefully he has gone from being a cardboard cut-out to something more rounded and believable.

To finish up, I would just like to remind you that there is still a chance to win a copy of Jason Waltz’s very fine book Writing Fantasy Heroes. If you’d like to learn about how Steven Erikson writes his epic series or how Brandon Sanderson writes his compelling fight scenes, here’s your chance. Just read Jason’s post and leave a comment. 

Black Library Weekender: the Report

So I am finally recovered enough to report on the Black Library Weekender. I had a fantastic time and would just like to say a big thank you to everyone, fans, fellow authors and Black Library staff who made it such a pleasure.

The hotel was very pleasant and, I was surprised to discover, not too far from the neighbourhood in which I used to live when I worked for GW in Nottingham. En route from the airport I passed my old chip shop and local pub as well as the corner shop where I used to buy my newspapers. That provoked a fit of nostalgia, I can tell you.

The convention itself was small, intimate and conversational. I spent a lot of time just chatting away to people in the bar and dining room. The venue was just the right size for encouraging this. There was also a lot of sitting around and shooting the breeze in the Green Room with such good people as Jim Swallow, Clint Werner, Sandy Mitchell and Sarah Cawkwell. I also met Ray Swanland for the first time and got to burble to him for a bit about how much I love his artwork.

Unfortunately, at one point, my megalomania took over and I annexed the Green Room in the name of the nation of Bildonia. The new government consisted of Josh Reynolds as Prime Minister, Lindsey Priestley as Treasurer, Dan Abnett as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Nik Vincent-Abnett as Minister for War and Entertainment. Sadly I was desposed from my position as Absolute Benefactor in an overnight coup. I must say that Dan and Josh did a particularly fine job of singing my praises in verse before I was removed from office. Following the overthrow of my firm but benevolent rule Bildonia collapsed into a welter of splinter-states (such as Danistan) while Josh absconded to Miami with the treasury. It was a terrible warning for all about the dangers of meddling in politics.

My one and only panel was scheduled opposite a Horus Heresy panel. I figured no one would show and I would get a chance to put my feet up on the desk and catch up with some sleep. Much to my surprise a small crowd of very pleasant people showed up to hear me reveal many of the hidden secrets of my career, such as the fact that I am, in reality, Grey Seer Thanquol. I also made public my master plan for dealing with an orcish invasion of the panel chamber (which was to shout at the audience, “forward my brave stormvermin, to inevitable victory,” while diving out the rear window, just in case you were wondering.) There was a lot of very positive feedback for the Tyrion and Teclis books and Angel of Fire which pleased me. My apologies to the audience for my general incoherence. Nearly a year as a new father has left me even less capable of rational speech than usual.

Sadly I must now turn to serious matters and unveil the details of what shall, no doubt, forever afterwards be referred to as the Karaz fiasco.

At the Weekender, the BL team ran Pitch-factor, a version of the reality TV show format where writers pitched to a team of editors, the prize being publication of their story. For the record this panel consisted of Graeme Lyon, Rob Sanders and Laurie Golding, names that will live long in infamy and quite possibly be written into the Book of Grudges. 

You may have heard that Gav Thorpe and myself entered the contest and were shot down in flames. I would just like to give our side of that story, the one that shows we were quite clearly victims of a biased panel with its own anti-Dwarf agenda.

All day Gav and I worked on our entry until we were a well-oiled pitching machine. (It is just possible that in Gav’s case he was lubricated by something other than finest grade Dwarven engine oil. Unlike some people I could name, I cast no aspersions.) We decided to pitch Karaz, a 20 book multi-generational dwarven epic and set ourselves to plot the first volume, a pretty tough ten minutes work over lunch in the Green Room.

Our concept was straightforward. We would follow the fortunes of the Ewingsson family of the Dwarven City of Karaz, as two rival brothers fought for control of the ancestral brewery in the aftermath of the disappearance of the clan patriarch Ewing Ewingsson. Jorri, possibly the most black-hearted dwarf who ever lived, would try and wrest control of the Black Gold by a program of wicked schemes and treachery and be oppossed at every turn by his not-too-bright but noble and handsome brother Borri. Soon we had an epic tale of beards, beer and betrayal presented by two giants in the field of dwarf lore, and felt we were at least in with a shout.

We prepared ourselves with answers for any questions that the judges could possibly ask. Rather than troubling ourselves with detailed responses, we contented ourselves with three all-purpose replies with which we could parry any inquiry. For the record these were:

1) The pitch made that perfectly clear.

2) Gav saying: He’s Bill King and me saying: and he’s Gav Thorpe.

3) Are you stupid? The pitch made that perfectly clear. (This last to be used only under extreme provocation.)

Anyway, come the evening we climbed on the stage and gave our pitch which climaxed with a literally all-singing, all-dancing rendition of the theme from Dallas that left many observers open-mouthed with amazement and admiration. (Josh Reynolds was kind enough to report that the person sitting next to him’s jaw dropped when he witnessed it.)

Once the fevered roars of approbation had subsided, the judges revealed their biased agenda and refused to buy it.

Such small-minded criticisms as “the pitch was supposed to be for a 1000 word short story not a twenty volume multi-generational epic” were raised. The fact that Gav won’t get out of bed in the morning for less than a novella was simply not taken into account.

Laurie Golding claimed that we used cliches, but I prefer to see our carefully honed words as unimprovable classics.

OK– it’s true that Gav may have forgotten a few of his lines and I may have corpsed with laughter trying to prompt him but what of it? I flatly deny the rumour that this was all brought on by Gav having consumed a couple of barrels of Bugman’s Extra Strong. I can, with hand on my heart, swear in any court in the land that I have never seen that man drink more than twenty pints at a sitting.

Some have claimed that my habit of arguing with the judges and flagrantly disregarding the rules of the contest (such as no singing), along with my rock star leap from the stage at the end, may have come across as a bit arrogant, but, as ever, I rise airily above such petty-minded niggling.

I think all fair-minded people can agree with me when I say that it was nothing more than anti-Dwarf prejudice that caused the judges to turn down what has been referred to elsewhere as possibly the greatest epic in the history of fantasy. However, justice will be served. Gav and I will be back next year, most likely sporting horned helmets and long beards, to make our pitch again.

(In all seriousness, I was awed by the willingness of people to get up in front of several hundred people and a trio of harsh judges and make their pitch. I could not have done this. Well done, everyone who took part and in particular, congratulations to everyone who made it into the final group, I salute you.)

The next day there were more signings, more conversations and the revelation of the  awesome new Horus Heresy comic by the mighty Dan Abnett and Neil Roberts, a fitting ending to a great couple of days.

The Weekender was an absolute blast. I will be there next year. Hopefully, if you are a fan of Black Library, you will be to.



Black Library Weekender

I am just packing to fly to the UK for the Black Library Weekender this weekend. Just wanted to remind everyone that there are still a few tickets left and to say that I am looking forward to meeting those of you who will be there. Come over and say hello! 

Writing Blood of Aenarion (Part Four)

I am sometimes an idiot. Last time I was talking about how I came to the solution of how the Elves of Ulthuan figure out N’Kari’s plan. I fully intended to discuss that in this post then I realised it was, in fact, something of a huge spoiler so, apologies if I got your hopes up. I won’t be doing that today. Instead I shall  talk some more about the process of writing  Blood of Aenarion. Hopefully I will get to the end of this saga before this series of posts becomes longer than War and Peace. 

Having solved most of the technical problems of plotting and structure, the actual writing of the books was a pure pleasure. I am sorry to disappoint those of you who feel that writing should be like opening a vein and bleeding on the page (a la Hemingway) but I confess that most of the time, I find writing to be an absolute pleasure. It was even more so this time because I was combining writing with another of my life’s great pleasures, travel.

I moved on from Kuala Lumpur back to Georgetown, a place that has always been very fond of. I have written several Warhammer books there over the years. If my itinerary seems pretty random that’s because it was. I tend just to move on when the mood takes me. While I was there, I pushed on with the tale. I was aiming to get to 75000 words before my family arrived in Singapore to join me for the next phase of my trip. 

I was alternating between staying in hostels and writing mostly in cafes. This gave me the advantage of being able to think about what I was going to write for the day when walking to them, and then ruminating on any problems that had arisen when walking back. I am someone who finds walking very helpful when I need to think things over.The Romans had an expression for this solvitur ambulando. (Writing in cafes also gave me access to an endless stream of coffee.)

In quick succession the twins entered the deadly social whirl of Lothern, and the reader was introduced to some major characters including Malekith and his principle agent in Ulthuan, Urian.

I was pleased by the way this pair turned out. Malekith, in particular, was not quite what I was expecting. He was every bit the terrifying Dark Lord but he had a sinister sense of humour which I rather liked. I managed to to foreshadow his encounter with N’Kari in Book 2 and hint at the reasons as to why it happened. While all this was going on the Keeper of Secrets itself was slaughtering its way across Ulthuan in a spectacular series of set-pieces which showed quite how depraved it and the followers of Slaanesh really were. 

While all this was going on I was sketching in Lothern, it’s politics and streets, and it’s general atmosphere. I showed the way the human trading colony was starting to expand as Finubar (at this point we are very early in his reign) started to encourage global trade. I had realised that one of the advantages of the century-long gap between the action of book one and book two, was that it gave me a chance to do some interesting stuff. By book two I wanted to show the Elves really looking outward, Lothern becoming fantastically rich from trade and in some ways becoming a very atypical Elvish city-state. Here was a chance to show the city before the process really started so the reader could really see the contrast. By book two Lothern is a city on a scale and of a type comparable to Elizabethan London. In book one it is an altogether sleepier place, becoming important because it is the home city of a new Phoenix King.  

I filtered a lot of my memories of Rome, it’s hills and warmth and omnipresent ruins and statues into my descriptions of Lothern. Rome was on my mind for a lot of reasons. One of the influences on my ideas of the politics of the High Elves was the late Roman Republic, a place where a number of Patrician houses competed for influence in a state where the consent of the ruled was still seen as necessary. I was starting to think of Malekith and Morathi as in some ways like Tiberias and Livia. I talked more about this in my essay on Morathi.

As an aside, I just realised that in many ways the weather patterns of the book reflect my trip. As I was travelling from winter in Northern Europe to tropical South East Asia, our heroes were travelling from cold mountainous Cothique to the Mediterranean warmth of Lothern.

In any case, I was reaching the home stretch on my first draft. The book was heading towards its climax with our heroes about to be sent for their own safety to the sacred precincts of the Temple of Asuryan and N’Kari coming right for them. Me, I was heading back to Singapore. 

Hopefully, I will conclude this next time!