I got this letter by email the other day. As you can imagine, I get a lot of mail, most of it through this site. A lot of it is positive feedback for my books and comics, which I’m grateful to receive. I try to respond to everybody personally, even if it’s just a casual thank you.
Sometimes, people write to take me to task over something and generally tell me how wrong I am, or how bad, or how mistaken, or simply how crap. This is pretty much par for the course in this business we call Write, and I’m grateful for it too, no matter how odd that might sound. It’s not pleasant to be told you suck, but sometimes it’s useful. A writer needs to learn how to use negative criticism as free ammunition (to make him think about his own work and perhaps improve it) and not feel wounded. Either that, or never stick his head over the battlements.
I’m not invulnerable, and sometimes I feel dejected because of the things people say to me about my books despite the fact that, quite often, I don’t even think they mean to be hurtful.
Anyway, a hot button topic, positive or negative, is usually the death of characters (what a surprise). It crops up about as often as the other FAQ - writing advice. Ryan’s letter typifies the sentiment of much of my positive mail, but I found it a particularly stirring example. He’s given me permission to publish it below, so that rather than answering his request for tips privately, I can do it in public for everyone’s benefit.
Dear Mr. Abnett,
We met once, eight years ago at the 2002 Gamesday in Baltimore,
Maryland. I was just fifteen years old then and my father was with me. He had bought your Eisenhorn trilogy for me, which you signed, and I left untouched on my shelf all these years for fear of damaging actual signed copies. I finally did read the Eisenhorn and Ravenor trilogies just this past year, great stuff, the dialogue between Frauka and Carl when they're waiting in the lander and the thug gets the drop on them in the origin story about Patience had me laughing so hard I nearly fel out of my chair.
When you were signing them, I brought up how I was angry when you
killed Bragg. You asked me why I was angry and I gave you a rather offhand comment about how I liked the character. You nodded and went back to signing. Truth is, I was rather intimidated at that moment and my answer was a cop-out. Plus, my real answer was rather more long-winded so I figured it wasn't proper etiquette to tie up your time with it. It has always nagged me since then (silly, I know, right?) that I never got to tell you my real answer.
So here it is. It was not so much that you killed Bragg that upset me, but how he was killed. If he had died in war, slain by some agent of Chaos or what-have-you I do not think I would have felt much disappointment because he's a soldier and that is what you expect to happen. But having Cuu kill him really got to me. It made me so angry I couldn't even sleep after reading it. And it was because the Ghosts had been a family. The original Ghosts from Tanith, we had gotten to know them over a few books before the influx of the Vervunhivers. Here was this Vervunhiver betraying and killing off one of the original Ghosts, an outsider coming in and destroying the family. That's what made me so angry, and that's the answer I would have liked to have given you back in 2002.
Since that book, you've killed off many of the main characters,
and every one made me feel sad at their loss. It is for that very
reason that whenever I am asked my favorite author, my answer has
always been, Dan Abnett. I actually feel something when a character dies. They're fictional, not real, no one was actually harmed in the writing of your books, and yet I can still feel sad after putting the book down like I just lost someone I cared about.
I definitely do not have the gift of a storyteller, in fact my
stories usually fall flat when I tell them, but perhaps that is
another art altogether from the written story. But something in me wants to write stories, for no other reason than for myself. I have always wanted something more from life than what is possible. To me life is really all just variations of the same pattern. We get an education, we choose a career, we start a family, and we see things through to our end. But that doesn't hold much meaning for me.
What I find meaningful can only be found in stories. I want to go
slay a dragon, be a hero, save Middle Earth, clash lightsabers with a Sith, pour lasgun shots over a sandbag bunker, I think that pretty much conveys the idea. Sure, I try to satisfy this desire with reading, Warhammer, with video games, movies, TV shows, etc but my thirst is never really sated.
The only way I can experience all these fantastical things would be to live vicariously through the stories I create. Even if my
written stories fall flat and are as trash as I anticipate, at least they'll serve their purpose to me. I have no formal training, I never had a creative writing class in my life, I don't fancy myself a writer of any kind.
I just wanted to perhaps hear some advice from you on the subject of writing. You signed the word "Repent!" into my Eisenhorn books so perhaps that is really the key behind all things, but if you had any more elaborate answers that would be lovely. Another author made a comment about how whenever he's approached by people who say they want to write, his first question is, "What do you like to read?" because reading is a great way to improve writing and I agree with that.
When I do try to write, I have plenty of ideas for characters and
scenes and dialogue but it all gets lost in translation between my
brain and the screen. Honestly, I don't know how to start.
Perhaps working inside a universe that has already been created, like Warhammer or Star Wars, or Warcraft where the general framework of the universe has already been established and I can work off that framework rather than from scratch would be easier?
Anyways, thank for you providing me with endless stories to enjoy
since the day I picked up First & Only.
Take care and thank you for your time,
Thanks for your email. The subject of Bragg’s death has come up time and again since The Guns of Tanith came out, and I’m sure my comments to you back in 2002 were a variation on what I usually ask: “Did you care?”
This is what matters to me, and this is why I ‘did’ it. I try to create character-driven stories that are so compelling they inspire gut reactions in a reader - even if that reaction is to hurl a book across a room in outrage. If I kill off a character and the readers utter a resounding “meh” then I don’t think I’m doing a bang-up job.
From your letter, I get it. You may not have been able to express it in 2002 (though you could have held the queue up for a few minutes, nobody would have minded), but your letter does it really well. I’m glad, it’s the response I wanted, because it’s a response. I’m flattered.
I think it’s important to realize that while I am in control of these books and characters, I’m not a cruel and vengeful creator. I am very engaged with them, and it pains me, really pains me, to do anything remotely unpleasant to any of them. I go where the drama takes me, and sometimes (though this will sound terribly poncey, so forgive me) it’s the characters who decide what happens next, and who lives or dies. To give you two non-specific examples, there’s one Ghost book where I knew a main character was going to die but only in the writing of the ‘death’ scene’ did I realise that it wasn’t going to be the one I was expecting it to be. In another Gaunt book, a Ghost died when I wasn’t expecting one to at all, unplanned. It just made sense. It wasn’t nice sense, but it was sense.
I’m glad this matters to you, and I’m glad and honored that it seems to matter to a lot of readers.
As for storytelling, I get asked for advice a lot, and I’d like to take this opportunity, in this post and the next few that follow, to set out some basic pointers as they appear to me. They are not infallible, and they are neither right nor wrong. They’re are just what they are. You can learn an awful lot from formal writing classes or informal advice from authors but, in the end, writing is just one of those things that are unquantifiable.
This post is now running too long, so I’ll end for now with a couple of comments. One is to pick up on the reading thing. It is the primary way to develop your writing and write better. Look at what other writers do and consider how they do it, how they achieve (or fail to achieve, heaven forbid) what they’re up to. I also believe that if you aren’t an eager reader you won’t make an eager writer. It’s like trying to be a great chef but not liking food much.
I also believe reading and writing enjoy a relationship that’s akin to the fuel in/fuel out principle. I’m not talking about plagiarism here; I just know that if I don’t read for a few days, if I don’t pour words into the fuel tank, I can’t write well. And it can be anything - a classic novel, a newspaper, a gossip magazine.
The second thing is just an idle aside. I agree that fiction is a marvelous escape, perhaps the greatest and purest route of all, but I think real life has a little more going for it than you suggest. Balance in all things.
Nice talking to you. I’ll post more soon.