The Next Big Thing

I received an invitation from Alec McQuay to answer a selection of questions about my current writing workload. Behold the horror…

What is your working title of your book?
There’s actually a couple of projects I’m working on. I’m just sticking to short stories because it’s easier to finish up. I may start my first novel next year.

But for the time being, I’m working on a short story for Narrativium’s Marching Time anthology, simply titled Ragnarok for now. I am also pitching two new stories to Cruentus Libri Press. I can’t tell you about the new one I’m hacking away at, but the latest submission is a horror piece set in World War I, between the French and Germans.

Where did the idea come from for these stories?
For the Marching Time piece, I really can’t remember. No one had called out vikings, so I decided to do that. But then somewhere, I got this idea about how to make it a hero epic piece. For some reason, I really relished the chance to do the olde tyme thick epic, so I got started.

As for the WWI piece, that took considerable evolution. It originally began as an alternate history horror piece set in WWII. America was invaded by a hodge podge army of zombies. I can’t tell you more, but there was more depth to the tale than endless and pointless fighting. This WWII was started for a different publisher, but I changed my mind towards the end and wrote a mad scientist piece set during the storms of Dustbowl. It was a slow, building story that wasn’t particularly pulpy.

After the mad scientist piece was rejected, I returned to the original idea. During this time, I was getting ready for a trip to England, and was brushing up on my French and German with a girl who knew both. Somehow, this inspired me to try a WWI story, with several twists on the original tale. The zombies were removed, but I added a different foe. It’s called On Ne Passé Pas! but that title is subject to change.

What genre does your book fall under?
For the Marching Time piece, there are elements of sci fi and medieval style war in it. I tie large, important themes of Norse mythology into it, but I must remind the reader that during the Viking age, this was a religion and a few concepts of faith. All of this is very central to the story.

My other stories are primarily horror. Horror has been a great starting niche because it generally gives a lot of freedom, and horror literature lovers by no means expect feel good endings. But horror by itself isn’t a great genre. The best horror tends to blend itself with another genre. Horror fantasy (Berserk), horror crime, so on. A really important thing to remember when writing horror is that the horror elements should be hinted at or introduced early. Readers do not like last minute genre-bending, like Steven Spielberg’s A.I. They hate it, and I’m no fan myself.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I’ve given no thought whatsoever to who I’d want to play my character for the Marching Time story. I would be open to no name actors, particularly from Swedish cinema. A few Swedish movies and shows have started making their way to the states, either original or remade. And they’re pretty good!

As for the WWI piece, this is going to blow your mind. I’d be open to having Sacha Baron Cohen for the lead role. I know, I know. You probably know him for his low brow comedies, like Borat, The Dictator and Brüno. But he’s also done somewhat more serious roles, like Hugo. And he has a part in the upcoming Les Misérables that I’m looking forward too. Sometimes, certain comedians are actually outstanding actors underneath the comedy mask, like John Leguizamo.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Ragnarok: When the gods march to their doom, for whom will you fight?
On Ne Passé Pas!: They have surrendered in droves to escape their own country…

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Ragnarok: To be honest, neither really describes it. It is technically self-published, but it was a large, group effort by just under a dozen talented individuals. It’s our first effort together and I really hope we can do it again soon. Just like The Black Wind’s Whispers.

On Ne Passé Pas!: If Cruentus Libri Press accepts it, they will. If not, I may put it on the back burner and figure out what to do with it later.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
For the MT anth, it’s still being worked on. The writing is thick and requires considerable care. For the other story, that is debatable. Its first real draft took only a week, but the idea evolved over several previous iterations over the course of six months. 

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Beowulf comes to mind for Ragnarok. The plot, I’m trying to think if and where it has been borrowed before. Probably from elements of historical acts involving religion.

For On Ne Passé Pas!, I really wanted to draw inspiration from the movie All Quiet on the Western Front. But there was a lack of trench warfare to it. I’d say more came from The Dirty Dozen.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
For Ragnarok, it might have been Dan Abnett with the 40k book, Prospero Burns. The Space Wolves, a group in the 40k universe, have been stereotyped as barbarians, but there’s more to them than that. Real life vikings, on whom the Space Wolves are based upon, have many similar misconceptions and falsehoods about them. I don’t know how much of an eye opener Ragnarok is going to be, but if I can set the records straight on a few historic facts, I will.

On Ne Passé Pas! was inspired by a woman who has helped me with my French and German, and a dash from my high school history teacher. Who, according to other students, was certifiable.  

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Because I’m not in charge of these books overall, I’m really not sure yet. I’m helping as an editor for Marching Time, so when first drafts start pouring in, I’ll have a better answer.

Here are a few other author’s (and links to their blogs) you should watch carefully.

Alec McQuay

Sarah Cawkwell

James Swallow

Kim Krodel

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Black Library Weekender

Friday night, I arrived at the Belfry hotel. Having checked and taken a seat at the bar, I noticed Sarah Cawkwell talking with friends and family. Another gentleman looked familiar, and after a drink and a though, I realized it was William King.

Brother Jhonas here was actually quite chill.

I let them be for the time being, waiting for fans to show up as I read Fear to Tread and sipped on beers. Soon, other fans started showing up. It didn’t take long to identify each other. I wasn’t the only American there, about three others showed up that I know of, probably a few more.

Then the gold tickets showed up with the other Black Library authors. I recognized faces immediately. Dan Abnett, James Swallow, Aaron Dembski-Bowden, Graham McNeill, Andy Smilie, Chris Wraight. Sarah came over and we chatted for a bit. Then Clint Werner showed up and I had a chance to meet the man face to face.

The BLW hadn’t even started and it was already awesome.

Saturday morning, everything was set up. An Ultramarine statue was in the lobby. Rachel (known on the Bolthole as “Raye Raye”) worked with several other staff members to sell various merchandise, ranging from the most recent novels, art posters, hardback chapbooks and novellas. Before going crazy, I decided to get some breakfast.

Although not all meals at the Belfry were equal, the breakfast was fairly good. A buffet offered many basics, ranging from cereal to fruits, baked goods (the croissants with the filling were most excellent). Various meats and items were available which I tried including the black pudding (not to my liking) and a special salami (very much to my liking.)

Now, I would love to burden your eyes with photos of the various seminars and events they had. Truth be told, the lights that were over the speakers and authors gave them an overbearing shadowy look that did not come across well on the camera.

I’ll have to ask Cawkwell what she calls this pose later.

But the seminars were impressive and information. There was the “Writing for the Black Library” bit, where we covered a range of basic do’s and don’ts. Although I had done some strong research into writing for them, I learned several new things about submitting my work. There was the “Space Marine Battles” feature, where we had a chance to dive into the critical differences between regular Space Marine tales and these particular events. I scored an autograph from Gav Thorpe, though I wish I brought my copy of The Last Chancers.

There was Q&A with Dan Abnett. Signatures with Swallow, Werner and Sarah Cawkwell. That night we had an amusing quiz session with teams of the authors which, of course, the audience won.

I skipped the pitch proposal, where fans had sixty seconds to shoot a story idea.  I wanted to play, but a combination of jet lag and homesickness struck, so I sat at the bar and just drew for a while.

On Sunday, we were invited to one final presentation before the BLW came to a close. By now, the cat is out of the bag, but the announcement was the new Horus Heresy Musical, directed by the Coen brothers.

I kid.

A mix of the Bolthole crew.

The Horus Heresy graphic novel. During the conference, we heard one of the editors talk about how expensive it was to produce the art. That prose is so much more cheap than art. Apparently, they had to say a lot of things in order to side step and not give away the big surprise.

But the surprise is fairly big. A 100 page graphic novel of the Horus Heresy, at least the first we’ll receive. It may not be a movie or a Horus Heresy game, but it’s definitely something far more visual than the books and audio we’ve been receiving.

It was great to put faces to names, hang with fellow nerds and chat a bit with the creative minds who write such awesome fiction. Given the cost of traveling to England, I probably won’t be able to do it again for sometime.

So I’m going to end this blog post with a straight gallery of various pictures I took below. I’ll do a ‘cut off’ for the slower machines, so it’ll be up to you to see the rest if you want. But I hope every Warhammer fan gets a chance to attend the BLW someday.

Continue reading

Prospero Burns

I'm not certain it was cold on Prospero when they destroyed it..

I'm not certain it was cold on Prospero when they destroyed it... just sayin'.

I waited far too long to read this. As much as I love the stories of the Horus Heresy, I need time to relax my mind, write my own stuff and read other, often classical or historical, literature. Maybe I’m not a good fan for that reason. Or maybe in doing so, I get a perspective or a view that is somewhat different than most.

Prospero Burns was the counter story to A Thousand Sons by Graham McNeill. Such two authored tales run the risk of creating contradicting stories, and I admit a growing desire to re-read A Thousand Sons to ensure that my recollection of it was accurate.

Still, I’m not writing to talk about McNeill’s piece, but Abnett’s. The story is great. On so many levels, it’s entirely different than the tone set by the rest of the Horus Heresy series.

The story revolves around Kasper Hawser, a gentleman who volunteers to record the stories and events of the Space Wolves. The sons of Russ, of course, do not play by the same rules of the rest of the legions. Never have, never will.

And as you might imagine, this gives rise to all kinds of new terms and phrases that go into what I personally refer to as the Abnettionary.

The most important of these phrases, to this book anyway, is skjald (which I believe is pronounced like sk-yahld). You see, the Space Wolves do not seem to have bothered with Remembrancers like the rest of the legions. But they do have a role for story tellers. They desire individuals who are willing to memorize and tell their tales. They refuse to have them recorded in writing or cameras.

And that is the role for Kasper Hawser, aka Ahmad Ibn Rustah. Hmm, if that name sounds a touch familiar, it might have been inspired by the actual Persian explorer. I also wonder if the story draws some from Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, or the better known movie The 13th Warrior with Antonio Banderas.

Other ideas to be borrowed may be in the form of Ursula L. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, in that names give power over individuals and things. But such an idea was long in the Daemonhunter’s codex, mentioned in a wargear item called the ‘Grimoire of True Names.’

Finally, there are the anthropological questions about the marks of aversion. This one stumps me. My knowledge of ancient and primitive cultures is limited. While I’m reasonably confident that this idea may have come from another, more historic source, I can’t guess what. Well, as they say in the book, ‘I recognize my failing and will be sure to correct it.’

So as you see here, an awful lot of study and brain work seemed to have gone into creating this book. And it shows. But as much as I’d like to mention the plot and story details, I cannot do so without risking giving away some serious twists and turns. Kasper Hawser is something of an unreliable narrator.

But Prospero Burns is a proud piece, one that satisfies yet leaves us hungry. It is both intelligent and detail oriented, and yet full of action and intrigue. I started the book with an unimpressed vision of what the Space Wolves were like, and finished it with my opinion changed. The ending is a mixture of curiosity and wonder, and while one can never call a Warhammer story a truly ‘happy ending’, there is an uplifting aspect that will make Prospero Burns stay with you.

P.S. My buddy, Rob P, mentioned something called the ‘Eye of Horus’ or ‘Wedjat.’ You can check out its Wikipedia article, but basically it’s one strong example of those marks of aversion. It’s meaning very firmly connects the fictional source to the historical one.

Writing Action Scenes

What’s the difference between my action writing and that of a professional?

This video from Sherlock Holmes is a great example. Simply put, my writing is like the scene from 0:00 to 1:00, while a professional’s writing is more like 1:09 to 1:40. And before you ask, yes. I am excited about Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Robert Downey Jr. may yet save the 2011 movie year.

Cue music. The reason I bring this up is because my action-writing is slow, explanatory and overly detailed. Where as the professional tends to hit us with the WHAM! CRUSH! KA-POW! of the original 1966 Batman series starring Adam West. The pro uses fast paced, quick words that hit the reader like a blow to the stomach. They use active words while I use passive ones. Which is not good.

In the rejection letter I received from Every Day Fiction, one of the editors made it quite clear that he did not like the long action descriptions. Another stated that they read the entire scene in bullet time. Reading such long details slows it down. It’s fine from time to time, like Sherlock Holmes’ thought out fight sequences. But to have all the action like this is akin to filming an entire movie in slow motion.

This needs to change. I took my latest short story to my friend, Lord Lucan, for some editing on the back-to-back horror and action scenes. My story isn’t finished, but I decided that asking for corrective thinking now would allow me to practice writing fast paced sequences in the draft. If I understand what I need to improve on, I can try to write that way rather than wait for editors to rip me apart.

I took almost all his small suggestions. But I rewrote his rewritten sentence suggestions. On one hand, I know I need assistance and I’m not too proud to ask. But on the other hand, I don’t want an editor doing all my rewrites.

When comparing active to passive words, publishers financial love active. Explained, it’s more concise. Publishers often pay per word, so less is more.

Taking this one step further, I brought three books with me today. The first is Blood for the Blood God by C.L. Werner, the second is Helsreach by Aaron Dembski-Bowden while the third is The Guns of Tanith by Dan Abnett. Here’s what I noticed.

The Guns of Tanith: Forget the use of a thesaurus, the words are clean and clear. Red is red. Scenes involving sneaking and maneuvers start out descriptively but concisely. The closer the characters get to the action, the shorter the paragraphs get. Eventually it boils down to one, sometimes two sentence paragraphs. Sometimes the action becomes little more than two words in a sentence, reliant on the reader’s imagination to describe the how.

The point is clear. Not everything needs a description and it respects the reader’s imagination to let them fill in some of the blanks. However, this style of writing likely works better with the sci-fi military action, where people can die instantly from a stray shot.

Blood for the Blood God: Paragraphs are longer and far more detailed. Every move gets more focus, such as wide swings and reactions. Sentences are separated by one or two commas; action, supportive description or result. As I read the sentences, part of me wants to mentally rewrite them to make them more concise, but then I second guess myself as I realize that some of the idea maybe lost doing so.

Some sentences seem to mix active and passive words. The effect forgoes spur-of-the-moment action for more epic story telling. This story is fantasy however, which is probably more open to passive words.

Helsreach: A combination of the two, though on the leaner side. Occasionally, some sentences are separated by multiple commas. The one I’m looking at actually has five commas in it. This story, I realize, is a pretty good combination of the previous books’ genres. It’s sci-fi military action with plenty of fantasy style melee combat. For many reasons, it actually strikes me as middle of the road.

While the words he uses are simple, he tends to accent the sentence with a single or couple of more extravagant words. Such as personification of a bolter, describing it as ‘starved’ when it’s ammo-less.

Keeping things shorter and sweeter can be a challenge when my mind demands the entire scene be told. But no one said this would be easy.

Horus Rising

"Onward! Rock for the rock god!" -Warcry of the Facemelters Legion

"Onward! Rock for the rock god!" -Warcry of the Facemelters Legion

There is pulp fiction, which we read to be entertained and sometimes become the stuff of our day dreams. It’s just for fun.

Then there’s the intelligently written pieces, which we read and we walk away feeling as though we have learned something. As if we have made some discovery.

And then there are the philosophical pieces. And in my opinion, these are the deepest and most powerful pieces. The books we read that may offer a coalition of ideas, views and perspectives that threaten to permanently change one’s frame of mind.

So which of these three is Horus Rising by Dan Abnett?

When I first learned that the Horus Heresy was going to become a new book series, I knew that it had to be something special. The worlds of Warhammer 40,000 have been devised and built around this one colossal event, that brought the Great Crusade to an end and started a darker age of decay.

Anyone with any knowledge of the lore knows that this is a horrendously tall order. Warhammer 40k has been around for decades, and the hype surrounding this cannot be easily understanding among the fans.

Horus Rising is nothing like the usual fare we get from the Black Library for many reasons. First, it’s a stage setter. Nothing major happens in the book, with the exception of a few tiny details that effect things to come. The entire purpose of the book is to set the stage for the rest of the Horus Heresy itself through the events of the Great Crusade and the politics and thinking of the time.

Another great aspect, and the reason Horus Rising is a great tale, is the philosophies behind it. Throughout the Legions, Remembrancers (artistically minded historians) begin to try and captivate the the memories of the Great Crusade in their work, while Iterators pushed to spread the Imperial truth throughout the universe. Their stories add a missing human element that makes the book great, while at the same time shedding light on the world of differences between an Astartes and a human.

Speaking of Iterators, Kyrill Sindermann almost instantly became my favorite character in the Horus Heresy. In the introductory conversation Sindermann has with the protagonist Garviel Loken, my mind almost immediately puts the face of Alfred Molina on the Iterator. The conversation reveals not only the character but the underlying thoughts and philosophies of the Imperial truth, which are not without wisdom. The phrase that has remained with me was Mol- I mean Sindermann’s statement to the effect of, “It is right that makes might, and let us hope it is never the other way around!”

Sindermann and thinkers like him separate this book as an intelligent, thought stirring piece from the rest of the pulp fiction out there.

One might worry that my next phrase may give away plot spoilers, but like episodes I through III of the Star Wars trilogy, we all kind of know what’s going to happen eventually. But the book ends on an innocent seeming note when Loken casually admits that they are going to the moon of Davin. In my mind, I hear that mischievous oboe play three notes, a low, then high, then the same low one. Someone out there is up to no good.

Atlas Infernal

Books about Inquisitors are a different kind of beast. They are less about fighting and the clearly black and white themes we often see, and are more about the muddling grey, and adventures and discovery. Audiences don’t see many books about Inquisitors, the majority of them coming from Dan Abnett‘s Ravenor and Eisenhorn trilogies. The rest of the time the Inquisition makes appearances on the side lines of other stories, adding to the intrigue while never really becoming the star of the show.

"Now that there's one damn fine coat you're wearing..." -Marv

"Now that there's one damn fine coat you're wearing..." -Marv

For that reason, part of me worried if the book cover summary of Atlas Infernal by Rob Sanders gave away a little too much information about the plot. But personally? I suffer from the exact same problem when I describe my stories to other people. How much should I give away? I feel like I cheated a potential reader if I give away plot twists just to get them to read it in the first place. On the other hand, explaining very little of the story risks people putting it down without reading it at all.

When I first picked up the book, I was tired and hungry while waiting for the bus to take me home. Try as I might, I got a few pages and put it down.

I tried again after some rest and food, and this time found the book incredibly difficult to set down. It kept chugging along at a fine pace, mixing rest and illumination with the action and discovery. I found myself snappy when I had to set the book aside.

I have to take a moment to laugh at two descriptions in the book that I found hilarious. About 99% of the writing was good, but that 1% was memorably bad. The first was “chunky bolter.” My peanut butter is chunky, my bolter is bulky. The second is when Rubric Marines are described as being “death defying silent.” That was a horrible description. The words may sound pretty but sometimes, they just don’t make sense. But I guess 60% of the time they work every time.

The tale was addictive and imaginative, and in some ways the characters were and weren’t as well. Bronislaw Czevak, the main character, was an amusingly intelligent and eccentric man. But it wasn’t until I glanced briefly at other reviews that someone made a connection in similarity between Czevak and the famous Doctor Who. You see, I have rarely ever watched the good doctor although I have friends in both the United Stated and Britain who do, but from what little I’ve seen I have to reluctantly agree with the commentator who said as much.

The other characters were much the same way. They were unique and likeable, but there were aspects of them that felt like templates built off of someone else. James Hoare over at SciFiNow mentioned that the characters felt like they had come from the codex descriptions published by Games Workshop. While I don’t like to draw from another reviewer’s words on the matter, the fact is that Hoare’s words proved nigh impossible to remove from my mind once he made the connection. Still, I found myself liking Father the servo skull and Saul Torqhuil, the Relictors Tech-Marine and the rest of the cast, despite any building blocks that Sanders may have relied upon.

As the book came towards it conclusion, I found myself looking back on old sections again and again, trying to draw some connections that I may have missed. I surmised I knew what happened. But I felt like between Czevak’s induction into the Black Library and his reappearance among the Imperium, I missed something. Because the story is told out of order, there is some mental chronological restructuring that any reader has to partake.

In conclusion, despite the weaknesses in the book, I find myself hungering for a sequel. Not a trilogy, mind you. It’s very possible that if another book is written, Sanders could overcome the weaknesses in his characters and that side splitting 1% of bad descriptions. But if the second book is worse than the first, I probably won’t bother with a third.

Gaunt’s Ghosts: The Founding

I think it's... dashing.

I think it's... dashing.

So let’s say you’re new. You want something that is considered a classic, a must read. Something that despite being years old, you can always find fans who are excited to talk about it. And just for kicks, let’s say you don’t have too much money to spend.

Well, for the latter problem I would advise you to check out the omnibuses. Usually these crunch three books down into a single, massive book and then add a short story or two for a price range of about $15. That’s pretty solid value. If you’re willing to get it used, you can even get it for less.

As for the former issue, I’d advise you to read almost any of Dan Abnett’s older stuff. But in particular, to read The Founding.

True to its name, The Founding is about the creation of the first and only Tanith Ghost regiments. The series spans more than a dozen novels with no signs of stopping anytime soon. It would be a little difficult to jump into the series mid way because many stories relate back to one another sooner or later as well as a very large cast of characters to meet.

Let’s talk about the setting for a moment. The story takes place in the midst of the Sabbat Worlds Crusade in the Segmentum Pacificus, located ‘south’ of Terra. For an idea of where that is, check out this 40k star map and look below Terra. To bring you up to speed, Chaos has taken a vested interest in the region, which has resulted in a very, very long and ongoing war. Being an extremely large chunk of the Imperium at stake, a lot of the war is fought man to man. You won’t see too many Space Marines of either variety, because even the application of the Astartes, though welcomed, would not immediately turn the tide of war. Instead, most of the war is a meat grinder for the Imperial Guard and the Lost and Damned Legions.

The backdrop and heart of the Crusade was Warmaster Slaydo, a powerful but somewhat enigmatic figure who died just before the book series began. Not long before his death on Balhaut, Slaydo had called together forty eight officers to take a Blood Oath. One of the officers was a young Commissar by the name of Ibram Gaunt, who is sent to the forest planet Tanith to collect a tithe of three regiments for the war effort. An unfortunate oversight by the Imperial Naval defenses however permitted a Chaos fleet to attack and destroy Tanith. Commissar Gaunt takes the reins as a Colonel and evacuates the planet’s Guard regiments. The survivors are consolidated into a single regiment, known as the Tanith First and Only. Top sniper Hlaine Larkin is credited with the Tanith regiment’s nick name, “Gaunt’s Ghosts.”

It's rare that the third is the best of a trilogy these days.

It's rare that the third is the best of a trilogy these days.

First and Only, the first book of the trilogy, discusses the regiments founding while also explaining some of Commissar Gaunt’s family baggage. The second book, Ghostmaker, is completely different. Instead of the usual story telling method, Ghostmaker is an anthology of short stories about important individuals within the Ghosts. These stories eventually tie together into the final arching plot. This is actually my least favorite of the Gaunt’s Ghost series, but it’s still decent.

But Necropolis, the third book, is my favorite. In my opinion, it is the best of the Gaunt’s Ghost series in general and one of my top stories not only among what the Black Library publishes, but also among all the books I own.

Necropolis takes place in a hive city under siege by one of its neighbors. At first, the nobility believe the war to be another trade war with their neighbor Ferrozoica Hive city, things turn sinister when the hand of Chaos is clearly at work. Reinforcements and aide are summoned from the Imperium, resulting in the Tanith regiments appearing alongside several allied units.

The rest of the story weaves back and forth from the individual struggles of squads and their characters to the behind the scenes politicking and the fight to keep morale up against the sheer hopelessness of the situation. There are times when the story reads like a very dramatically told historical piece, mentioning the sacrifices made for victory. As you read, your mind just cannot help but to play dramatic music.

So if you’re fresh to the world of Warhammer or an old hand looking for a classic to reread, turn to the The Founding.