Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Friday 22 March 2013

A Comment on Handling Intellectual Property part ii

Yesterday, I talked about researching IP for writing tie-in fiction. I gave the example of Warhammer and Warhammer 40K for those lovely folk at the Black Library, but the principles apply across the board.

Some people read the blog, as usual, which was jolly nice, and some people commented... Not here, obviously, because people seldom comment over here.

I’m not sure why it is, but people who have an immediate reaction to something I’ve written about on the blog tend not to want to leave a permanent comment. They tend to want to have a little conversation, and will come to find me on FaceBook or Twitter and make a comment on one or other of those sites. That’s absolutely fine with me. I will just say, though, that all comments left here are fed directly through to me by  e-mail, so it’s as quick to post here as anywhere else, and I don’t restrict who posts or what is said. There are, essentially no hoops through which to jump; I’d rather simply delete spam comments than make anyone identify himself or type in codes just to leave me a three word message.

Right, back to business. These were the tweets that ensued from yesterday’s blog:

Its funny, I was actually just about to ask you guys how you get started. WH is dense; I figured you just created whole-cloth...

... And then try to smooth out the rougher (non-conforming) parts on the second go-round through the draft.

And this was my answer:

Nope. You really do have to 'get it' from the outset. IP is critical. It's just how you go about assimilating the stuff.

Available now from BL
On re-release from BL
If I could say one thing that might make a difference to any writer getting any job in tie-in fiction it would probably be that this stuff IS NOT GENERIC! It is absolutely imperative that, whichever company a writer works for, she must buy into the worldview, or, more probably universeview of that company, take it seriously, get the tone right and enjoy it. 

Perhaps that’s why hobbyists, gamers and enthusiasts for Warhammer and/or Warhammer 40K represent the greater proportion of Black Library’s writers than do middle-aged women. You absolutely have to suspend disbelief and buy into the whole thing. I take The Warhammer World very seriously, and I love it. In fact, for me, it is not so very difficult to take it seriously for the very simple reason that it is so grim and so dark. It would be much more difficult for me to write for a World where the magic came with glittery wands and pretty witches with fancy, floaty dresses and waist-length, flowing locks. I like to be able to see the muck under the nails of my protagonists, thank you very much.

I’ve seen very good, established writers approach the Black Library and write samples for them, but not be commissioned to write novels, purely because they can’t quite deal with tone. When it comes to writing for the Black Library, it’s not OK just to grasp the nettle, you’ve got to really throttle it! And, anyone who thinks he can come in and be clever, ironic or tongue-in-cheek, is bloody well going to leave with a flea in his ear, no matter who he is or how big his reputation in the real world of SF or Fantasy. The Black Library is right on that score, too. Bravo! them.

Can I just say one small thing about the real world of SF/F, by the way. The Black Library is now the fifth biggest publisher of SF/F on the planet, people, and you don’t get much more REAL than that! Writers for the brand are regularly popping up on the New York Times bestseller lists, both for genre and, even mass market, and they’re being nominated for, and winning, awards. There is no shame in writing tie-in fiction, in fact, there’s a good deal of pride. What remains in the rest of the industry is the remnant, the merest whiff of misplaced snobbery.

So, once a writer has bought in to whatever world or universe he happens to be writing in, and once he’s done his research, and he’s set the tone, what has he got?

Well, he’s got a great big, gorgeous toy box full of some of the most fun toys he could ever wish to play with. There’s just one small catch...

He’s going to have to put them all away, safe and sound, at the end of the day... No, he really is.

Think about it... No one’s going to let him kill Batman, or Nathan Fillion’s Mal in a Firefly tie-in novel, or Matt Smith’s Dr Who, or Roboute Guilliman. There’s a pretty good chance no one’s going to let him raze Middenheim to the ground (at least not permanently), or take out Terra, either. 

Well... Where’s the fun in that? you ask.

I’ll tell you where the fun is in that. As a writer, the fun in that is putting Batman or Mal or Doctor Who or Roboute Guilliman in real danger, in the kind of danger that the reader genuinely believes could lead to his demise. The real fun is in convincing the reader that anything could happen when, in actual fact, everyone knows that it probably won’t. The real fun is in making the reader care about the red shirts*. The real fun is in writing really good, really compelling red shirts, in loving them and in investing them with personalities, and in feeling genuine pain when the time comes to kill them off. The husband has written red shirts that have lived and loved and fought and played through any number of books before they have met their ends. The husband has been devastated by those ends. 

For the writer, everything has to be possible, and he has to be able to convince the reader that anything can be possible, and that’s where the fun is.

There is an upside, though. There is an upside if you get really, really good at this stuff, if you stick around for long enough, and if you show enough respect, get the fans to love you, and play nicely for long enough.

The upside to all of this is that, eventually, you might begin to feed the beast. The upside is that one day, if everything goes well, you might begin to have some influence. The husband has been working for the Black Library, writing novels, for fifteen years. When the husband began writing, with the Gaunt’s Ghosts novels, there were a great many gaps between the gaming universe and everything else... everything that could appear in the stories. Some of those gaps have begun to fill over the past fifteen years, and some of the gaps that have begun to fill, have begun to do so because of the stuff that the husband has written about. Some of the husband’s vocabulary, for instance, is now used by gamers everywhere, including, if you can believe it, some of the swear words. The husband invented terms like vox-caster and data-slate that are used all over the Warhammer 40K universe, becoming an intrinsic part of the whole, inseparable. 

So you see, for those who stick around long enough, and are any good at what they do, there’s even the possibility that they might begin to influence things... Little things to begin with, but very, very real things.

Right, now that I’ve got that off my chest, I’m going to go away and have some of my brand of fun... I’m just not allowed to tell you exactly what brand that is on this particular occasion. I do hope you’ll like it when it’s done, though.

* The term red shirt is used by writers everywhere, and alludes to characters that are fed into the text so that there are people to kill off as required. The term derives from all those extras in all those early Star Trek episodes.


  1. Sacred feth, I didn't know that about vox-caster or data-slate. By the Throne, that's awesome!

    See what I did there. :)

  2. What's this? Insightful and well-reasoned discussion, on the internet? Allow me to pick up my monocle, for it has fallen onto my camo-cloak!

    Seriously though, as the person who tweeted the comment referenced in this post *humblebrag* I was seriously concerned with coming off as offensive. That was not my intent, but rather, I wanted to know how someone that has dealt with a range of IP can differentiate and understand those different IP, categorize them and potentially produce outstanding works based upon that IP, but not have each work bleed into each other. It's a difficult feat, and one that you have experience in accomplishing.

    My original idea was that you would 1) obtain a project, or decide to start work on a project, 2) you would set your outline for what your project would entail (beginning, middle, end, character names, worlds, time period, so on...) 3) you would start on the broad strokes of that project (plot, story progression, character interactions) 4) you would be happy with your "skeleton", and then add on the "flesh" (details decided upon in step 2, and the descriptive prose). I believe a quality work of fiction can stand alone from all detail as "a good story", and the actual detail, the fine lines, are what make it really interesting, and therefore, exemplary.

    I have read some works by yourself, some by Dan Abnett and some by Graham McNeill, and in doing so, found that, if the names, locations and situations were tweaked, each one of those novels could be applied to any number of wars/battles/skirmishes/situations that could have taken place throughout history. It was the human connection and (I completely agree with you, Nicola) the tone that had me hooked. The scenarios (while important and essential) became a backdrop to the story that was being told and the relationships being explored.

    I guess I was thinking of it in a more mechanical fashion than I should have been. I was certain you didn’t just churn out cookie-cutter stories that sat in a file until you were given an assignment, and then, like magic, you plop in different names, dates, locations and detail and you have a finished masterpiece. But now I see that, rather than my original idea above, it’s a complete process, rather than several smaller steps. And that definitely helps me, because it allows me to appreciate your work and the time you put into it on another level.

    I hope I clarified a bit about what my original intentions. I think your work is fantastic, and I apologize for the long comment!

    1. Please don't apologise, and You are most welcome. I'm tempted to do another blog like this, perhaps doing a breakdown of how I might write a story like, for example, "Cell" from the Sabbat Worlds Anthology. I wonder if anyone might be interested?