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..?