Wrote up a dramatis persona list for my Horus Heresy novella Promethean Sun yesterday. I got quite a tingly feeling from doing it because, barring ‘Forgotten Sons’ from Age of Darkness, this is my first HH outing; certainly, it’s my first proper ‘go’ that just has my name on it. Oh, and I also got a sneaky peek of the WIP (work in progress) front cover… saaaaweeet! It’s definitely a first for the Heresy.
There’s more Heresy talk on the horizon too, but I’m hush-hush on that as Christian will hurt me badly if I spill. I am pretty stoked with what’s in the pipe, though.
Writing for the series certainly comes with prestige; you’re essentially being ranked alongside Black Library’s bright and best, but not only that; science fiction’s bright and best. These novels, this series in fact, has achieved a bench mark that no other tie-in series ever has; not at least with the same consistency. Having been on the fringes of this particularly crowd, outside looking in, I am thrilled and honoured to be a part of it.
Prestige means pressure too (what was it Uncle Ben said: ‘With great power comes great responsibility’ – you’re not wrong, mate!). I’ve wrapped up Promethean Sun now, a very respectable 32,000 words in a really lovely novella format (keep watching the BL site for a release date, as this one is bound to fly given the nature of the subject matter). I agonised a lot of this project – A LOT. It’s a different blend writing for the Horus Heresy and there are different strains on you as a writer. In the euphoric aftermath of handing my first finished solo piece in and getting very positive feedback from my editor, I’ve noted some of these ’strains’ and ‘pressures’ down:
1. Standing on the shoulders of giants
When I wrote ‘Blueblood’ for Sabbat Worlds it was a huge test for me. Would my work, my writing hold up against the likes of Graham, Aaron, Matt et al (even Dan)? It had Dan Abnett’s name on the front – in BIG FOOKIN’ LETTERS. I needed to do something that stood out but not in a bad way. Now, I like telling action stories. My childhood was steeped in action movies: Die-Hard, Aliens, Lethal Weapon this was a golden age of action for me. As I was last through the gate, I knew that a bunch of the other authors were doing more cerebral stories. That wasn’t for me then. I remember discussing the story over the phone with Dan Abnett (I was pitching to Dan Abnett – man, that was scary) and him saying ‘layer it up, layer it up’. He was right, of course, and there was more to the story than just the action – it said something too, about the characters and the Sabbat Crusade and war and soldiers. There was even an homage to Ghostbusters II in there, but let’s not dwell on that too long.
As terrifying and exciting at the same time as writing ‘Bluebloods’ was, the Horus Heresy is a different beast. I really am standing on the shoulders of the greats here, of guys that I’ve admired for a long time who I know have to try and consider as my peers. Writing about Salamanders in the context of your own series is one thing; doing them in the HH matched alongside the stellar work of great authors is another.
So, pressure number one – my work will be judged alongside what’s gone before. It has to stand up; I think it does.
2. It’s not 40K
One of the key things to get right with Horus Heresy is that it isn’t 40K. Sure, it has Space Marines and bolters and all sorts of motifs that translate directly to the 41st millennium but there’s no getting around it – this is a different beast. 10,000 years separate these two epochs; stuff will have changed or no longer exist. It’s tricky, especially when you’ve been steeped in 40K lore for such a long time, to get your head into a 30K mindset. The chaps writing the HH now can do that; they can do it really bloody well. It feels familiar, yet new. There are primarchs and organisations don’t work the same because they didn’t need too during the days of the Great Crusade. It’s a lot to think about – you can’t just wade in and see what happens; you really have to think about it first, and not just on a story level.
Getting 30K right, so that it feels like 30K – that’s pressure number two.
3. Writing style
Bolter-porn as it’s sometimes know is not that hard to do. Sure, you can suffer from ‘Marine Grind’ where you feel you’re telling the same battle over and over just with different adjectives and body parts getting maimed, but cerebrally it’s not too bad. With the Horus Heresy, the expectation is higher. There needs to be depth, strong themes, commentary about the nature of the universe and the human condition even. It’s going back to those layers again that Dan mentioned earlier. How do you get into the mindset of a primarch? What makes them different to one another? What’s more, how can I convey this in a lyrical, interesting and complex fashion through the execution of my narrative? It’s not about using ‘big words’, that’s bullshit and any fool with a thesaurus can perform that monkey trick; that’s not writing, it’s substitution through a handbook. But the demands of a complex, deeper story can only truly be met with a more complex and deeper writing style. You have to set yourself different challenges in conveying the epic themes, the weight and gravitas of the period.
So, that’s pressure number three.
4. We already know how it ends
Everyone, I think, who is reading the Horus Heresy series is waiting with baited breath for the Siege of Terra. It’s like watching Titanic or something – we already know the end so it’s the journey that’s exciting. This dynamic comes with its own opportunities and drawbacks. Anything you do has to have meaning and relevance, especially if it’s something that you’re telling for the first time. The obsession within the hobby community for what is canon and what is not is definitely something to pay attention to. There’s a pressure here to not only tell a great story but also tell a story that means something, or reveals a key facet about a certain character or sheds new light on an event we already thought we knew and by doing so enhance our appreciation and understanding of it. It’s all about relevance – why should I read this and what does it mean to as a fan? It’s the art of taking what is there in terms of the story you want to tell and then looking forward and back, so it not only echoes but resonates too.
That’s pressure number four.
5. It’s a big damn story
At, what, 16 novels and counting, not to mention everything written in Collected Visions and elsewhere in the extant volumes of canonised Horus Heresy literature there’s a shed load of material to get familiar with. Of course, it’s impossible to commit every memory to detail; we’re writers not savants. Even as I sit here with my grubby writer’s mits on an early printers copy of Age of Darkness I kind of balk at how much information is even in that single volume. Then I look at the backlist inside the front cover and I’m getting ready to change my trousers. Continuity is a killer for any series. Get it wrong, especially something important that you might have overlooked and it’s either time to get creative and do something really clever to smooth out the wrinkle or get out of the game entirely. Forgiveness is seldom given for such heinous crimes; certainly, it’s not forgotten. A story this big has so many potential pitfalls in it, especially for a writer new to the game, that you need a pretty detailed map just to avoid them. And that’s before you’ve even figured out what new ones you’re going to add for future generations. Community is key here, I’m talking about the group of writers that make all of this happen and are creating history in the process. We have certain methods, checks and balances if you will that enable us to mitigate potential screw ups and also to foster ‘cleverness’ . Milestone characters is one. You’ll find them in most books – the cool guy that does something awesome and survives but his story isn’t totally resolved; the one in the background who waves, makes you pay attention to him and then leaves. These are milestone characters, the big ones like Loken, Garro and Ahriman, but also the minor players like Bion Henricos or my own humble Arcadese (both of which are in Age of Darkness). The conversation goes, ‘I need an Ultramarine character to do action X in story Y’, or ‘Has anyone established what happened to character A in novel C, as I could use him in my latest story in this cool way’. It’s holographic story telling – all the threads spin out and weaved in and around each other to create a lattice-like narrative that feels incredibly complex and clever. In it’s way, it is but it can only be achieved through leaving open certain doors and a monstrous amount of cooperation between writers.
So, that’s five and it was a biggy. I think I strayed into some extraneous territory there but it all informs part of the same discussion. Despite all of these pressures, the excitement generated , the sheer enthusiasm for doing something as complex and, well, big as this is simply awesome. These are big toys we’re playing with and some we don’t even have to put back into the novel. It’s creation on a level you seldom get with tie-in fiction, even extremely high end tie-in fiction like the Horus Heresy.
Like I said at the top of the post, there’s more to come from me. You’ll have to wait to see it/read it but it’s coming.