Friday, March 05, 2010

Answers, and the return of Gaunt

Having got my work room re-arranged, I thought I should christen it (and generate some proper headspace momentum) by switching to an entirely new piece of work, so I got stuck into the new Gaunt story I’m writing for The Sabbat Worlds anthology.

It was a smart choice. Not only is the story shaping up nicely (no, I’m not going to give too much away about it), but it, and the change of aspect and environment, has thoroughly re-energized me for everything else I’ve got to get on with. I’ve come through the last six months of tests and hospitals remarkably chipper and positive, but I don’t think I had properly realised how much I’d... curled up in a defensive ball, so to speak. Creatively, my gears were a little jammed, I think, like there was something wedged in there.

So add that to the list of writing tips, folks. If you get stuck, change your environment, or change the thing you’re working on, or both.

That excuses why I haven’t answered any of the questions I solicited, so we're going to catch up with that right now:

Philip - what makes interesting characters? Almost impossible to answer, I’m afraid. I think you just know, as a writer or a reader, if a character is compelling. The yardstick would be, I suppose, the same as the one you might use to measure the interesting-ness of a person. Not that anyone would do that, not out loud. As far as their 40k-ness goes, they’ve got to conform to the setting, and that means not just in their behaviour, but in the way they are clearly a product of their cultural mileau.

Shadowheim - I don’t plan them out. Sometimes I plan where I will need a character, and what kind of character it should be, but otherwise it’s mobile alchemy. And even then, it’s sometimes name first, traits and personality second, or the reverse. I am nothing if not erratic.

Chilon - Shared universe stuff is harder because you have to keep refering to, and being aware of, the root material, which means constant fact-checking and consulting, and then stress-testing your own work to make sure you’ve not broken anything. Own universe stuff is harder because you’re the only cop on the beat, and it’s up to you to police, archive and examine your own work. As far as things not to do go, I’d say the key one was not to waste your time working out the stuff you won’t need. In a shared universe, other people will have done a lot of the leg-work for you. In your own world, devise out the stuff you’re going to need, and the details THAT ACTUALLY MATTER. Do not waste your time inventing (say) the exchange rate in the southern continent that doesn’t get visited this book, or the colour of the beach towels in a resort you never go to. Leave that kind of thing to the book where THAT matters.

Sarah - the line between ‘descriptive’ and ‘over-flowery’ is almost impossible to spot in your own work. An editor or a very good, trustworthy first reader helps a lot for this. Be prepared to cut ruthlessly. As a rule of thumb, however, more than one adverbial or adjectival modifier is excessive, unless you’re going for some kind of beat or tempo. None is even better.

Kane’s Dad - Like many of my projects (the Gaunt books, sustained runs on comics like Legion of Superheroes and Marvel’s cosmic books, Sinister Dexter etc), I don’t tend to have planned a long way in advance. I’ve started off small, but with the hope and ambition to run and run, so I’ve left dangling loose ends as I’ve gone along. That way, if something gets recommissioned or extended, I’ve got plenty of connective tissue and plot-lines I can revisit and graft more stories on to. I try to do this in a seamless way, so it appears that it was always my intention ;) Once something has been running for a while, like Gaunt in the second and third arcs, I begin to have the confidence to block out the future in bolder strokes. The real trick, I believe, is the ability to think on your feet, to adapt and improvise when the time comes. You can plan a four book arc, but two or three years later, when you’re executing a later stage of it, times will have changed and new ideas (and interests) will have rooted inside you. Be flexible enough to incorporate them in order to keep things fresh, and keep the job satisfying. If that means altering your heading, do so. You’re the captain.

Sredni - both and neither (actually, some names just ‘cry out’ to be villains, and some names just obviously fit in one universe rather than another. I try not to make character names too cartoon-y unless, you know, I’m writing a cartoon).

Sometimes a specific, secondary or hidden meaning determines how I use a name, sometimes I just like a word. Sometimes I just invent a word. I do collect words. I have a list here. I look at it sometimes and think, “someday, I’ll use that. I wonder what it will be for.”

Rob - I think location, especially in SF, is more crucial than character visuals in establishing an immersive environment, which is probably why I spend more time doing it. We notice our surroundings more, and they determine our behaviour. A few deft strokes can set up some telling character traits. I imagine (it’s not deliberate) I spend a little more time on the Ghosts because they DO all wear the same clothes.

SteinarH - I think that tropes site is brilliant and highly amusing (I’ve seen it before), and it’s good to be aware of tropes and cliches, but I don’t really consider them SPECIFICALLY during the writing process. With enough wit, one could turn any storyline into a trope. Sredni echoes my sentiments about it.

David - thanks for the invite.

cavyguru - writing for any shared or tie-in universe is different in application to writing for one’s own invented universe, but I would disagree that it is ‘quite different from writing generic sci-fi fantasy’. The same levels of rigour ought to apply. In your case, I would urge you to proceed with caution: unless you are writing fan fiction, your are writing 40k tie-in work that hasn’t been commissioned. The Black Library is the only place that can publish it. You say you’re already writing it, and it’s ‘kinda big’. I’m not sure what the BL writer submission guidelines are at the moment (can any BL lurkers help me out?), but you need to find out what they are, then either fit what you’re doing to them, or ‘un-40K’ your story so it becomes your own fiction.

BigWill - Grey Knights are certainly very attractive. Aaron D-B thinks so too.

Justin Hill - I brainstorm for every project, at the start and many times during the run of it. I also collect (in notebooks, usually) stuff through daily life. “Harvesting” those notebooks and clippings feeds into each brainstorm, and I think I’ve got pretty good at recognising what idea scraps, kernels, nuggets, names etc go with which project, so I sort them into different files. So... both. I gather raw material all the time, so I’ve got fuel (or ammunition, or whatever you want to call it) when I need it for the brainstorming.

Okay, I think that’s everyone caught up. Now where was I..?


narrativium said...

BL Lurker standing by... last word I heard was, BL will be introducing an open submission window on at least an annual basis. During this interval prospective new writers will be able to pitch short stories or novels - not complete manuscripts: samples and synopses, the exact format and length of these still to be determined.

More news when the BL site returns, we hope.

Shadowheim said...

Narrativium is spot-on. I'm considering pitching once they reopen the submissions. I've done so much writing but had nowhere to submit it. Gutted.

And thanks for your reply, Dan - your advice on character development is all very useful stuff indeed!


Ben said...

Have you had much activity from the Hussar recently??

Xhalax said...

I almost feel bad for not even vaguely aspiring to be a writer. But then again....all you budding writers may be in need of me soon....the faithul reader.


And more Gaunt's Ghost, even in short story form....*squeals in a very girlish way*

Been discussing Gaunt and his Ghost of late and I've come
to realise how much I miss them all, despite the fact it's only been a handful of months since Blood Pact. 12 books can do that too you.

BigWill said...

Where were you?
I believe you were really going to take your own advice and work on something different.

mechanicalhamster said...

"Sarah - the line between ‘descriptive’ and ‘over-flowery’ is almost impossible to spot in your own work. An editor or a very good, trustworthy first reader helps a lot for this. Be prepared to cut ruthlessly. As a rule of thumb, however, more than one adverbial or adjectival modifier is excessive, unless you’re going for some kind of beat or tempo. None is even better."

Ran into this in a big way with a very overworked opening chapter. I thought it was kind of poetic - editor described the whole thing as having a repetitive tumdy-tumtum, tumdy-tumtum tempo, and when I read it out loud it was so obvious...

I think I must have cut at least twenty adjectives and adverbs out of those opening paras!


Shadowheim said...

If I EVER get published, Xhalax, I would like a reader like you if you are as faithful a fan as you are to MrA and MrMc! xD

And it's good to see even esteemed writers such as Gav Thorpe have "issues" so to speak when it comes to writing. A problem I often find is that I start with a floursih, then get lazy and all the poetic, descriptive stuff slowly drops off and it ends up like a five year old's writing. Of course, re-reads sort that out!

Oh, and forgive me lord for I have sinned - I do not yet own Blood Pact! :-O

Matti said...

Found your blogg and got all happy finding out you are hammering away at a new Gaunt story!

Now, I struck me that when reading the second omnibus that people had found Straight Silver less pleasing than the others.
I for myself really liked to see the Ghosts put into a WWI style trench war and you captured the atmosphere of the trench war really well. I hope to see more trench action for the ghosts in the future!

David (Commissar) Ploss said...

in regards to publishing and the Black Library. Here is some information that i pulled off of to which i currently subscribe.

with the BL website being down for the most part, this is all we really have to go by when it comes to submission guidelines.

How To Contact: Submit through agent only. Accepts queries by snail mail, e-mail. Include brief bio, list of publishing credits. Send SASE or IRC for return of ms or disposable copy of ms and SASE/IRC for reply only. Agented fiction: 5%. Responds to mss in 3 months. No unsolicited mss. Considers simultaneous submissions, e-mail submissions. Rarely critiques/comments on rejected mss.

hope this helps someone.

Xhalax said...

BigWill - But Gaunt is something isn't Heresy. But yeah....more Eisenhorn would make me dance a
merry jig rather than headdesking like I did at BL Live.

Shadowheim - As a reader, if it's good, I'll read it and give praise where I feel it fits. So if you do get published and I read what you're written and enjoy it, a similar service from me shall be rendered.

And there are other BL authors work that I read and enjoy. Mr. Thorpe there writes a jollu good yarn. Mr. Dembski-Bowden has entertained me greatly too. Mr. Lee, alongside Mr. Abnett with Malus and on his own with Nagash and not to forget Mr. Swallow with his Blood Angels and Heresy work. Mr. Kyme's Salamanders are compelling characters too.

BigWill said...

See Dan,you can get Xhalanx to do jig.
And I do one hell of a Robot.

I understand you might not want to get sucked in to the trilogy right now,so I guess you will have to work on the E&F anthology.

McKennsy said...

Here's another question for the next time you do one of these posts.

You've spoken before about the drawbacks and benefits of writing within an existing universe. I was wondering if there is any universe sci fi or fantasy that you would like to write something in, e.g. Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica etc.

Xhalax said...

BigWill - I headdesk better than I dance. Though that's not to say that I'm complete adverse to shaking my ass.

Big said...

My Dancing is kick ass though

timkenyon said...

Tell you what - Xhalax's dancing is not a patch on her sex noises while reading a particularly gripping passage.

Xhalax said...

Big - Wouldn't argue with you there.

frieslander said...

Nice to hear that you are doing a Gaunt story fo the SW Anthology, though it would be impossible to think of such an anthology to exist with out you writeing something for it.
I do have on question though. Is this a one of or dose BL want to expand the scope of the SWC by getting more writers involved ( orcourse leadind to the odd stat where a number or authors are writing in someone elses univers, which is ofcours has already it's self been writen into some one elses univers (lol).
Concidering that the 2nd SWC has now been considered big enough by GW to be encluded in the IG's cronology, it's and that the Gottek and Felix novels are now being written by some one else and the is now two further series from that part of the WW being written by 2 further authors it's not someting I'd discount.

BigWill said...

I used to think I was a decent dancer,until I was at the a club one night.
Now mind you I was two sheets to the wind,
I see the worst dancer ever,I mean someone who has real nerve being on the dance floor.
Imagine my horror when I relise the opposite wall was a giant mirror and the Dancing tool is me :o

Xhalax said...

When I dance I go for it and don't care if I look like a right
muppet....I'm having too much fun dancing. Much like the other night at a gig. I danced as much as the cattle pit and about 10,000 people would allow. My moves were better than the people in front, who didn't move at all. And at least I was going with the beat, unlike the gay guy behind me who was off and kept hitting me.

But it was still AWESOME to just go made with almost 16,000 other people. God I love live music!

frieslander said...

BigWill - I once had an epifany concerning dancing. The short of it is that we [the guys] can't do it at all. Oddest thing to realize whilst watching a Tarrentino movie (Pulp Fiction, three guesses as to which bit of the film I was watching when I came to this realisation).

sredni vashtar said...

Xhalax: what the hell kinda gig were you attending where people at the front weren't moving??

I consider the ticket price wasted if I don't come out of the pit with at least half a dozen bruises...

Xhalax said...

sredni - I think that those two were the only two people out of the 16,000 present that didn't move. Yeah, they knew all the words, but they could have saved the £30 and just stayed home.


Oh, and just in case anyone here isn't keeping an eye on Mr. Abnett on facebook....seemingly he committed character death before breakfast yesterday. And the facebook fans immediately jumped to the conclusion one of the Ghost has bought the farm.

Any thoughts?

frieslander said...

Xhalax - Dorden, because of all the stuff that was said at the end of Blood Pact?

Xhalax said...

That's only if it is a Ghost....Mr. Abnett writes more than just Gaunt's Ghosts.

Added to the fact that if it is a Ghost and it is in the short story....there's nothing as of yet that says that it's definitely going to be chronological. There is the 2 years they spent on Balhaut to consider. As well as the aftermath of Blood Pact.

Also, there are enemy characters there's no pointers to be being a Ghost. He just said 'character death' and technically anyone who gets named and/or mentioned could be classed as a character.

Plus, isn't that a huge mega spoiler frieslander?

cor said...

It just had better not be Shoggy or Rawne or Kolea or Daur or Hark or....
who am I kidding I love all the ghosts and each time I pick up a new Ghosts book i dread to think who wont be around come the end :(

Xhalax said...

Cor - I know the feeling, though there are some characters I could deal with dying. Oh and I don't like I hope it's him.

frieslander said...

Oh a**e I keep forgetting everyone who hasn't read the book yet. Sorry.

Phil Brennan said...

Thanks for the Character dev information, but the thing I struggle with most is DIALOGUE. It is hard to make dialogue believable and not sound over-contrived or even cheesy.

And using dialogue to impart setting information is a no-no to me, especially after reading a trilogy from the Exalted Universe and this Raven God verbally imparts a LOT of background information about the Dragon-Blooded Realm to the hero and it just sounded poo.

That sort of information should be imparted just by the way the world is written and little pieces of information here and there as and when needed, not is one big conversation that led the reader feeling like he is being spoon-fed stuff.

So already I have given a dialogue tip when I am asking for them myself - avoid using dialogue to impart large amounts of setting information coz that sounds cheesy.


Big said...

Im worried about who we are gonna lose, not to painfull please Mr Abnett, take it easy! remember those agressive alpha feelings are coming from your Idd being opened to all that Wolf madness, the Ghosts must not suffer !

Xhalax said...

Big - Who's death could you manage without it feeling like a gut punch?

Big said...

Ever said something in a joke that then became a great idea?

W.R.Young said...

I'm glad to hear your getting another Gaunt book together.Was very sad at how "Only in Death"ended.I hoped you would not let the Ghosts end this way.Will we be seeing Milo again? You've pretty much killed of all my Favorite Caricatures.But that's war.

Rob said...


Thanks for remembering! I promise I'll get my copy of Blood Pact soon so you can speak a little more free.


I originally trained as a playwright so dialogue comes easy to me, while description can be a chore. The best way to build up your characters' jaw muscles is to actively listen in on strangers' conversations. (You're too used to the way your friends talk for it to make a significant impact.) Try to listen to different kinds of conversations- two work friends talking shop will sound different than strangers haggling, which will be entirely distinct from a couple arguing over what movie to see. The trick is to listen to the cadence as well as the words.

Try reading plays and screenplays, too. They're almost all dialogue, and are meant to be spoken aloud, meaning that they have to be both lyrical and fairly realistic.

Xhalax said...

Big - Nope. I rarely joke and I talk nothing but utter crap all the time.

Anonymous said...

1) Dont no what to say!
More Gaunt Ghosts - full books! Thats for start!

2) You make 2 promises! We knew about your health problems and very sorry to hear that, but you promised to write one new Gaunt Ghosts book each year after Blood Pact. And hearing about Sabbat Worlds Anthology with your short storie its not a full novel!

3) Second promise was in long 2007 - we hear about Double Eagle 2. And now 2010. We saw Brothers of the Snake, Titanicus, Legion, in future damn Prospero burns - but what about one of your most interesting titles.
Write it already!

Anonymous said...

1) Dont no what to say!
More Gaunt Ghosts - full books! Thats for start!

2) You make 2 promises! We knew about your health problems and very sorry to hear that, but you promised to write one new Gaunt Ghosts book each year after Blood Pact. And hearing about Sabbat Worlds Anthology with your short storie - and its not a full novel!

3) Second promise was in long 2007 - we hear about Double Eagle 2. And now 2010. We saw Brothers of the Snake, Titanicus, Legion, in future damn Prospero burns - but what about one of your most interesting titles.
Write it already!

Shadowheim said...

Whoa! Bossy boots!

...and Xhalax, thanks, but it's unlikely that my stuff will ever get published. >.<

cor said...

calm it mate schedules get changed and then theres the health problems plus I never remember Dan promosing an exact date on those books most are good ideas that will very likely become books once he has time, i like variety and a mix of Dan Abnett books each year not jsut the Ghosts otherwise theyd get boring pretty quickly

Randy Sizemore said...

Before we start...YES that is really my name. I never thought it was that funny until I was stationed in England. For six months I got slapped whenever I introduced myself...It was nearly as bad as being known as Fo Fo Fobios...Fo Fighting...Fo Fo For...The Golden Thorn (Still funny). Speaking of which, I just finished Blood Pact and I am really looking forward to the next installment. Got a date in mind?
Randy (slap) Sizemore (Slap, slap).