Black Library just published the third and final book of my Dark Eldar ‘path’ trilogy, Path of the Archon. I finished Path of the Archon a little over a year ago and, if I’m perfectly honest, I have been so busy with other projects that I’ve not given it much thought since. The release made me think that this is a very silly thing to do so I thought I’d like to share a few thoughts about it. You see although I’ve written books, games and articles a-plenty over the years (even a novel but we’ll come back to that in a bit), Path of the Archon represents the culmination of a really major solo and sustained writing effort for me. It’s like I’ve been doing sprints and relay races all my life before deciding that one of those marathon thingies would cool to try out – after all that’s just a load of sprinting put together, right? Right? Wrong. It’s been tremendous fun and an absolute honour to contribute something to the 40K universe again, but I have to confess now that I look back at it the thought of writing all those words brings me out in a bit of a cold sweat.
Why? It’s close on 400,000 words in total for the Dark Eldar trilogy once you include the short stories and a spin-off novella I wrote around it. It’s certainly given me a great deal of respect for real authorship – those guys and girls with ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty novels to their names, I salute you. Those who hold down full-time careers, raise families and write novels in their non-existent free time certainly deserve our unadulterated worship and adoration for their dedication to the written word. The key here is that you’re well and truly on your own writing a novel.
Sure an editor might make helpful suggestions, if you’re very lucky you might have friends and colleagues to point you in the right direction, but once you start you’re the only one that’ll be making all the running (dammit I used the running analogy again, sorry, I’ll stop now). Designing games is very different, you reach a consensus, slap something together that vaguely works and then change it (often a lot) based on playing it and feedback, you expand, contract and detail portions as it shapes up. You divvy up the work to make sure everyone gets to do things they’ll love while making sure that everything gets done.
Not so much with the old novel-writing as it turns out, you’ve just got a big pile of words to write, (hopefully) you’ve a story to tell and you’re off to the races (dammit!). Anyway, waah-waah, big, scary, daunting etc. I figure the best and most useful thing to bring from the experience is to talk about it and give other aspiring writers out there some ideas on how I went about it. I had some very good advice from masters of the craft like Graham McNeill, William King, Nick Kyme, Andy Hoare, Phil Kelly and Gav Thorpe (who I also had the pleasure of collaborating with on some short stories). I also read lots of the sort of writerly articles and blogs that writers link to each other (kinda like this one I guess), so you can probably see all these notions explained better in other places. The methods I ended up using are probably not the best or smartest approach in the world, but these are the ones that worked for me.
- Have a plan (and don’t stick to it)
Every single time I’ve written a novel I’ve regretted not planning it out more thoroughly from the outset. To put that in perspective a little; the usual process involved first making a short, literally two or three sentence, pitch about what the novel would be about. No secrets here, no hidden reveals that come only if you read the story – the editor cares nothing for your veiled mysteries at this stage. ‘Two explorers find a mysterious ruin on planet X with a powerful artefact hidden inside. One of them turns out to be a shape-shifting alien who’s the original owner of the artefact and has manipulated the other man to help him get it back. – A clichéd sort of pitch but you get the idea. Once the pitch is approved I move on to writing a synopsis comprising an expanded summary of the story (a short paragraph or two now, based off the pitch, no more), a list of characters (just name, couple of lines of pertinent background information/personal traits/ motivations, maybe a physical characteristic or two: ‘thin-faced’ ‘wears black’ that kind of level of detail).
The meat of the synopsis is a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of what happens to who, where and when in as much or as little detail as you want – in my case at least a paragraph each. The synopsis goes back to the editor for approval and this is also a good stage to get others to take a look and tell you what they think as well. The synopsis might go back and forth several times, undergo changes, reflows, introduction of new ideas and deletion of old one. Do not despair, or be disheartened as this is all for the good. Even if your story idea is utterly brilliant and original (and it probably isn’t) it will only benefit from another pair of eyes giving it scrutiny. Observation will not rob your fledgling creation of its uniqueness and beauty, it will only prevent it turning into a self-absorbed monstrosity living in the bowels of the underearth. The plan is-all important because once you start writing you will very likely go off ‘into the weeds’ and find yourself writing about things you didn’t plan for. That’s ok and desirable and very writerly in many cases, but the synopsis is your road map/blueprint/compass for finding your way back on track.
- Daily word counts
So the plan’s in place and you make a good start knocking down thousands of words towards your goal (roughly 100,000 words for a novel, 50K for a novella and around 8K for a short story as a guide). A few days or a week in things start to slump a bit, you’ve got a dull or unpleasant part of the story to write, or you find yourself suddenly painted into a corner, or a friend came in from out-of-town, there was an earthquake or whatever. You stop writing for a bit and then writing becomes a chore as you struggle to start back up again and find your focus and enthusiasm for it. Repeat ad nauseam. The first novel I wrote, a novel based in the Necromunda setting called Survival Instinct often became mired this way and took far longer to complete than it should.
While I actually kind of like the story and characters some parts of it are a chore to read basically because they were a chore to write. For me the only answer to this has been to have a daily/weekly and monthly word target to work towards – ‘it’s done when it’s done’ doesn’t work for me, I need a sense of progression. So targets of 1500 words/day, 7500 words/week, 30,000 words/month is what I work to. For a proper writer these are laughably easy goals. You can write 10,000 words in a day if you’re minded to, but the point here is consistency and a big slice of tortoise and the hare mentality. I often struggle even to write 1500 words a day (pathetic, I know) but having daily/weekly/monthly counts stops me from getting to the end of three months and finding I’ve got less than a third of the novel actually written. It also provides a useful stick to beat myself with to stop navel-gazing and rewriting the same paragraph sixty billion times.
- Do other stuff/Read to write
I wrote the Dark Eldar trilogy over the course of three years so perforce there was a break in between writing each novel. Looking back at it I can only feel that this was a good thing for the maturation of both the story and my ability to write it. The time helped mature the plotline and stories in my head while topping up the idea tanks. When it comes to ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ the answer is that I steal them. I steal them from history books, I steal them from fiction and movies or from things that happen in everyday life. Note that I’m talking about stealing here, not copying. I always remember Bill King telling me a supposed quote from Picasso: ‘Students copy, artists steal.’ That always sounded very apt to me, because copying an inspiration is simply reproducing it faithfully, but stealing it is about making it yours. As well as conscious theft I’ve found that input influences output, so if I read books about a subject that subject will infuse what I’m writing about almost in a sort of Brownian motion of ideas (WTFf is that? Go here.). In other words to make the Dark Eldar feel like an ancient, entitled, treacherous aristocracy I read about thing like ancient Greece and Rome, Alexander the Great, the Assyrian Empire. I especially recommend Plutarch’s ‘Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans’ if you’re looking for that kind of thing, as well as Arrian’s ‘Conquests of Alexander’. These are good because the ancient writers were obsessed with the past like we, in the modern age, are obsessed by the future. Plutarch and Arrian believed that everything that man needed to know was revealed by the actions of their glorious antecedents – a very fitting mentality for any writer engaging with the 40K universe.
- Get someone to read it all
One of the nice things about writing a Black Library novel is that you get to put a dedication in the front of it. All of my dedications include my wife, Jessica, because she’s had the infinite tolerance to read my half-finished works and give me feedback on them, as well as proofreading the final text. I can’t begin to say how important that was for me, every writer should be their own worst critic and having another pair of eyes to reassure you that things don’t completely suck is really important. That doesn’t guarantee my novels don’t suck by the way, you might hate them, but my wife loves me and she’s a good enough liar that she convinced me to keep going and actually finish them. After Jessica there was also Nick Kyme at Black Library, the hard-pressed editor of a dozen other tales, who gave me more feedback and called me out when things got too hand-wavey or simply didn’t make sense. Once again, the writing part is very solitary, but a story matures under scrutiny. There’s a natural shyness about showing work to people you know, especially when you may feel it’s unfinished. Crush that queasy sensation unmercifully. The danger is not that the people you know will be too cruel, it’s that they’ll be too kind.
Looking back at writing my first trilogy the thing that surprises me most (aside from actually having done it) is that it’s also a snapshot of a period of my life. There’s a scene featuring Asdrubael Vect haranguing his Archons set against a backdrop of a mighty storm shaking the city of Commorragh to its foundations. I wrote that in a hotel room in Indiana on the night before Phil Kelly’s wedding as a deadly storm passed overhead and the place shook to its foundations. Path of the Incubus includes a lot of wandering the webway, lost and homeless, for two of the protagonists. That coincides with the point when me and Jessica moved back from the US and were trying to find our feet back in the UK. The storm scene was conscious inspiration, the wandering about was me unconsciously acting things out in words. Brownian motion again, I guess.
Finally (and forgive me this has got way too long, booyah if you made it this far) a hoary old adage that I keep coming back to is worthy of a mention here. The story goes like this; A man a man enters a medieval town and sees some people hard at work. He asks the first person what they are doing. ‘I’m hauling rocks’ comes the reply. He asks the second the same question. ‘I’m making a wall,’ comes the reply. He asks the third person, who’s gazing up into the empty air and apparently doing nothing what they are doing. ‘I’m building a cathedral,’ comes the reply. As well as old style dead tree varieties (all with gorgeous covers by Neil Roberts) Black Library now publishes all my Dark Eldar trilogy stories together in a single eBundle.