I’m not sure if there are as many ways to write as there are writers, but I do know that there aren’t as many ways to write successfully as there are writers, so that narrows things down a bit.
I also know that there are those who believe it is possible to teach a person how to write. I think it’s possible to teach a writer how to do certain practical things better, but I don’t think there’s any way on Earth to teach a person how to have talent.
If someone says, “I want to be a writer; how do you have an idea?” It’s very difficult for me to say anything other than, “I’m terribly sorry, but you’re not a writer.” A writer would be much more likely to say, “I want to be a writer, but I’m not entirely confident about how to marshall my ideas; how do you go about doing that?”
Do you see what I’m driving at? Good.
I’ve been thinking a lot about IP, recently.
Some of the work I do requires that I know IP. I’ve worked with all kinds of IP over the years, from well-established kids’ comic-book stuff to gaming material to... Well, you name it, really. Most of this stuff has little or no interest for me outside of storytelling, and a small proportion of it wouldn’t cross my path at all if it wasn’t for the industry that I work in.
That makes me unusual as a tie-in writer.
Take the Black Library, for example. I have a long and lovely relationship with the wonderful men and women at Black Library Towers; I even count some of them, past and present employees, among my friends. They’re a fabulous crowd, and, as I’ve said before, writing in the Warhammer World or the Warhammer 40K universe gives me the opportunity to tell tales about death and gods and monsters: three of the four greats of storytelling. (I’m not sure which millennium they think they need to be in to include sex on the roster, and complete the tetrumvirate, but that’s for others to decide... And yes, I did just make up a word, and I know I don’t do that, and I tell you lot not to do that, but come on! It was, at least a little bit clever.).
Anyway, as I was saying... Writing for BL allows me to tell tales containing three of the great elements of storytelling, and that’s why I do it.
Lots of Black Library writers do it, at least in the first instance, because they start out as gamers. Lots of BL writers do it because they already understand Orks and Elves, and Dwarfs, or Imperial Guard and Space Marines, and Chaos and the Warp. They do it because they’ve already read the rule books, and they understand the stats, because they know the difference between a las-gun and a bolt pistol, and because they stood at a gaming table in a GamesWorkshop store for hours during their misspent youths rolling dice and measuring the distances between their armies.
I didn’t do those things.
In theory, guys like Graham McNeill and Gav Thorpe, Dan Abnett and Aaron Dembski-Bowden have a huge advantage over me... Well, of course they do! Look at that line-up! I’m not going to compete with that lot any time soon, now am I?
In theory, those guys don’t need to study IP; those guys don’t need to spend hours, days, weeks even researching all the things they don’t know about the worlds and universes they’re writing in, and I do... Right?
Another writer might research another way. Another writer might choose a more immersive route to dealing with studying IP. Another writer might think he has to read everything ever written on, say, the subject of Space Marines. Another writer might think it’d be a damned good idea to read every statistic ever compiled about the Space Marines; he might feel he had to memorise the chapters and their insignia, home worlds, chapter masters, special weapons, characteristics and so on. Another writer might feel it was worth reading, say, Graham McNeill’s Ultramarines novels, as being an exemplar of the form. He might also think it well worth dipping into the first two or three Space Marine battle books.
That all sounds pretty reasonable, doesn’t it? Well, of course it does! It also sounds like a lot of work, and it bloody well is. Have you any idea how many words have been written about Space Marines, even in, say the last couple of years? No? Well... Me neither.
There’s also a glaring problem with this type of research as far as I’m concerned... OK, several glaring problems. a) There’s no way I’d hold all that information in my head. b) some of the research is absolutely bound to be contradictory. c) by the time I’d finished, more new material will have been generated so I’m never going to be current. d) It could be very easy to feel overwhelmed by the volume of stuff and everyone else’s talent and be utterly put off by the whole thing before I’d even begun to write. e) I’ll end up, essentially being a copyist rather than a novelist.) Well... I could go on, but I’m sure you get my gist.
I studied History, and I apply the same criteria to researching IP that I was taught to apply to researching for historical accuracy. I go back to the source material.
It works like this.
You want to find out about Auntie Mabel. She is your starting point, and her history is what you want to research. Any number of family anecdotes about Auntie Mabel are wonderful, true or not, and you could spend a great deal of time talking to family members about your Auntie. They all had different relationships with her and will remember different things. They might tell the same stories about her, but all from their own points of view, so they will all be subtly different. They might, of course, all be terribly interesting; on the other hand, they could generate quite a lot of confusion, lots and lots of repetition, and very little insight into the real Mabel.
On the other hand, you could begin with the records office. You could check out the census. You could dig out birth, marriage and death certificates, and ration books and mortgage documents and decrees nisi and house deeds and deeds of name change. In short, you could put in order the properly notorised documents of all sorts that will tell you your auntie Mabel was in fact your grandmother. You might not have found that out anywhere else, and that is the wellspring of all new stories.
|Tomb Kings Codex|
When I wanted to write Skaven, and I bloody love Skaven, I read the couple of pages in the Warhammer Manual and off I went. The source material immediately grew to indelible life in my imagination. It really was as simple as that.
When I wanted to write Tomb Kings... honestly, it took a little longer. I read the text of the Tomb Kings Codex, concentrating on areas of particular interest, and then I read it again. It didn’t immediately sing in my head... Not the way the stuff about the Skaven had. I needed something else. That’s when I decided to do some secondary study in sand. It was the sand that really got me there, but I still didn’t expand my research away from actual source material. I never step away from first principles. I never reach for the game and I never reach for anecdotes or for other writers’ words.
There’s more than one way to do the job that we do. I’m never going to be Graham McNeil or Gav Thorpe, or Aaron Dembski-Bowden, and I don’t want to be... And, honestly, I don’t think they’d want me to be, either.
I will let you into a secret, though... I suspect that Dan Abnett operates a little more like me than you’d think... Just don’t tell him I said so.