The Fan Fiction Investigation, Part Two

Graham talking to me about religion. The man hands out knowledge like MacDonalds hands out burgers.

In my last article, I delved into fan-fiction with Eric Nylund, picking his brain about what he thought of the medium, and his personal experiences with writing. This time, I’m doing it with an author who didn’t just entertain me as a teenager, but continues to do so well into my third decade on this rock; Graham McNeill. He’s just released “A Thousand Sons” (another Horus Heresy novel, and my personal favourite GW tie-in novel), which not only helped him knock the horrendous amount of vampire drudgery off the top of the British sci-fi and fantasy charts, but also made him a New York Times Bestselling Author. Somehow, I even feature on his blog (he’s very in touch with his fans, and even the press – it’s nice to not always be chased with pitchforks and torches, guys).

Graham’s been writing fiction for a long, long time, ever since he realised he didn’t really fancy spending his life as a Planning Supervisor in Glasgow, and got the hell out of heavily-accented dodge (much like myself, though I’m sure we both still think about visiting from time to time). Since then he’s been producing stellar novels and content non-stop for Games Workshop, and was one of the many Black Library authors that maintained a strong link with his audience through both his blog and the Black Library Forums (rest in peace).

Graham’s answers are massive and in-depth, and I can’t in all good conscience cut any of them down without losing the meaning, so you’ll get the full text of the interview. Onwards, friends.

Me: When working with the Games Workshop universes, and indeed other popular sci-fi franchises, is it sometimes a disadvantage to be too fond or too familiar with your subject matter?

GM: My knee jerk reaction is to say that of course it’s better to be fond and familiar with the universe, but thinking back to the process on I, Mengsk, my Starcraft novel, I found it quite useful to be a little bit unsure. It meant a lot more work getting up to speed, as the fans of the game are devoted to the lore to say the least, but it paid off in making sure I didn’t make any assumptions about the background. Not knowing that universe as much as I knew the Warhammer ones, meant I needed to be absolutely sure of my facts, I couldn’t just wing it. There’s a danger of assuming you’ve mentioned something or that you’ve been clear in what you’ve written when you know a universe inside out (or think you do). It’s easy to overlook the fact that you know what you’re saying, but that maybe you haven’t communicated that well to the audience. It’s often a good idea to get someone who knows nothing about the universe in which you’re writing to be a test reader, as they’ll be the ones to pull you up on things that aren’t clear or where you’ve assumed knowledge.

Me: Did you write any fan-fiction before being published?

GM: Not really. I mean, before I worked for Games Workshop I wrote a bunch of short pieces of fiction to link the 40K battles we were playing, which grew into a massive, sprawling behemoth of a story. I also wrote a 40K novel for myself and had it bound into a hardback book, which I keep on my shelf as a reminder of my earliest dreams of getting a novel published. But I’ve never published anything online as fan fiction. Back in my formative writing years, the internet was a mysterious, half-mythical thing you could only get onto in university labs, so I don’t the idea of fan-fiction posted for all and sundry to see had really taken root yet.

Me: Do you think working at Games Workshop gave you a better grasp of the difference between fan-fiction and ‘canon’ literature?

GM: Absolutely. The difference is often one of restraint. Fans love what they love and want to include all they love into what they write, so most of the fan-fiction I’ve browsed has far too much going on; Eldar and Space Marines are fighting on an Ork world and Necrons rise from the ground as a Tyranid hive fleet attacks…  ‘Canon’ literature, is almost always much simpler. It has a core idea and there’s a focus that’s often lacking in fan-fiction. Stick to a few things and do them well, as opposed to do lots and cover it poorly.

Me: That being said, do you think there is a difference between the concept of game novelisations and fan-fiction, ignoring the fact the former sits on a bookstore shelf?

GM: Yeah, I do. I read Liberty’s Crusade, the novelisation of the Terran campaign in the Starcraft game, and while you could see the missions of the game, it was still a pretty decent read. Fan-fiction tends not to have the focus of a novelisation or a novel set in a shared universe. It tends to serve the needs of the individual gaming group or gamer, and often doesn’t have the broader appeal that needs to be present in a book that’s expected to sell loads of copies. The writer of fan-fiction has the luxury of his own little niche and it doesn’t matter if only one person reads it. The writer who’s hoping to get paid doesn’t have that same luxury.

Me: If you could suggest one method of crossing the gap between fan-fiction and writing licensed tie-in fiction, what would it be?

GM: Well, looking at what we’ve talked about above, I think there’s some good pointers. Tie-in fiction suffers from a broad brush that paints much of it with the same poor quality brush, though I think that’s slowly changing as the calibre of writing and writers improves. Fan fiction is the same, I’ve read some really nice little pieces, but I’ve read a lot of crap too. Guess which one is in the majority. It’s worth skimming the fan-fiction pond though, as there are some real gems to be found if you look hard enough. But to cross the gap would be hard. I mean, folk ask if the Black Library books are canon for the Warhammer universes, so I think fan-fiction’s got a much tougher leap to make – if it’s even possible. Or, come to think of it, even if it should be. I mean, isn’t one of the joys of writing free from the constraints of ‘canon’ that you can do whatever the hell you want? Telling stories where you don’t have to worry about everything being correct, where you can ignore what’s gone before and make the stories your own, that’s what storytelling is all about. I guess that’s why fan-fiction exists, so folk can make the universes they like theirs.

Me: Finally, how would you feel about people exploring your mini-universes through fan-fiction (i.e. a story about Uriel Ventris landing outside your chronological novels)?

GM: I’d love it. Several folk have e-mailed me through my website to ask if they can do that very thing, and I’ve always said to go right ahead. It’d be great to see what stories other folk would tell of Uriel’s adventures…

-fin

Thoughts…

Graham’s a fascinating brain to pick at. When I met him in London for the Thousand Sons book signing, I couldn’t resist launching into a long and far-reaching discussion about a short story I’m sure you’re aware of – The Last Church. It’s my favourite piece of short fiction (and as an English graduate, I’ve read a lot of short fiction, trust me, more than you would want to, even if you were PAID), and it was great to have someone explain to me exactly what they meant by certain bits of prose. Had I met him in person AFTER I’d read A Thousand Sons, I think I’d have struggled to leave the store, as it raised so many questions – to memory, the words I used in my email to him were along the lines of “Shakespearian” and “best ever”.

I wish him the best of luck in his career, and will let him know this won’t be the last time I’ll harass him with questions – he’s just far too entertaining in his responses. Ah, and before I forget, as I did see the little tyke in the store that day – congratulations on Evan, sir. Your message on the inside cover to him was touching.

To another 28 thousand years of great tie-in stuff! Then we can compare it with real life and see if we have space marines. Fingers crossed, everyone. Fingers crossed.

The Fan Fiction Investigation: Part One.

Fan-fiction is often something we laugh at, even deride openly as a pathetic attempt to get to grips more with a medium we think we’ll never be able to write for, professionally. However, there are some (me included) that occasionally have the pleasure of reading fan-fiction that deserves to be published just as much as the novels sitting on the shelves in Waterstones and Games Workshop.

I wanted to delve into the idea of videogames and their relationship with tie-in fiction, not to mention other types of games as well, from roleplaying to tabletop strategy. So I caught up with two writers that I consider extremely special people in my history as an enthusiast of tie-in material; Graham McNeill – he who wrote the wonderful Starcraft novels, not to mention his wealth of novels for Games Workshop’s Black Library imprint – and Eric Nylund, the very special gentleman who wrote The Fall of Reach as a prequel to the famous Halo: Combat Evolved.

Let me give you a little background on my literature-centralised relationship with these two authors, first. Eric was my sounding board for the Halo franchise. At first, it wasn’t my thing, outside of four-player Blood Gulch with some friends when I was only just emerging into my teenage years. The single-player campaign didn’t interest me much, as I was never a fan of first-person-shooters as a kid. I’d like to think Nylund’s The Fall of Reach helped me into the Halo universe. He knew Master Chief inside out, and helped to portray his journey from John-117 into the suited and booted badass mother we know him as now.

I caught up with him via email – obviously, he’s a really busy man, as his involvement with Master Chief’s super-accelerated pubescent years have turned him into the ideal fellow for the job when it comes to helping sculpt a certain game not out yet that I can’t mention out of respect to Eric, but I’m sure anyone into his work can guess what it might be about. I assumed he must be a fan of the games, to want to write so passionately about covenant and assault rifles for hundreds of pages, but I was curious – when writing tie in fiction, was this a disadvantage?

“I think any writer needs a certain degree of fondness for their subject matter,” he said, “or they’re not going to have any enthusiasm in their writing. At the same time being TOO fond of the subject matter can cloud your objectivity. That’s a problem with any writing – getting [an] objective view of your work and knowing when to edit it.”

He’s not wrong. I think the main problem with fan fiction tends to lie in the fact that we’re all to keen to have Master Chief and the Arbiter participate in the ultimate chilli cook-off, and when we have to edit it out to make room for the big fight against the Flood at the end of our EPIC Halo 3 novelisation, we get grumpy. Writers are always going to suffer when rewriting their drafts before submission – if you’re not willing to cut your leg off, you’re going to remain trapped under that boulder for a long, long time. It may hurt like all hell, but at least you’re going somewhere (hopefully to the police/hospital, in this bizarre metaphorical example).

That being said, there’s nothing wrong with being too familiar with your subject matter, says Eric. “In fact, what usually happens is you do a heck of a lot of research, world building and character planning… and only use a tiny fraction of that stuff.” There’s nothing wrong with building an entire wiki simply for use with your upcoming tie-in bestseller, and this goes for amateur science fiction as well. If you’re willing to make the effort to really delve into the subject matter, the other loyal fans who’re likely to sift through your fan-piece are going to appreciate you more for it. It’s easier to rise through the ranks as a respected enthusiast than a cash-in artist.

When I asked him if HE ever wrote any fan-fiction prior to going pro, he responded in the negative. “I was one of those rare creatures who came late in life to writing, started actually in graduate school and before that took the absolute minimum of English classes. I found I loved writing!” His love paid off, as he sold his first novel, Pawn’s Dream, way back in 1995, and has been writing ever since.

If there’s any message this sends, it’s not to worry about starting to write fiction past the age of twenty, or thirty, or forty… if you’re lacking in passion, starting at the age of twelve is still not going to get you anywhere. Skill at writing is, of course, a natural talent to a degree, but that doesn’t mean successful authors didn’t sometimes get to where they were simply by overcoming that handicap with a lot of practise and perseverance.

Eric does wonder about the legal side to fan fiction, however. “It’s a sticky legal subject, that’s for sure… As an author who represents a franchise, even commenting on fan fiction can be construed or misconstrued as tacit approval of fan fiction , and thereby erode its protective copyrights. This  hasn’t happened with Halo, or any of my works, but it has happened to a fair number of authors.”

It’s tough, being at the top. Many tie-in authors often get bombarded with requests asking them to read someone’s four hundred-thousand word manuscript about a Grunt and a Jackal embroiled in a passionate affair only to be discovered by Master Chief as he rolls past their reclusive spot in a fully-armed Warthog, and the ensuing events. As hilarious as it sounds, professional writers do have to keep their distance when it comes to endorsing a medium that – to be honest – takes business away from them and their franchise, and edorses moving away from the canon material. Not that everyone wouldn’t read that book, anyway. I would.

Most people write fan fiction simply for enjoyment. However, a few do it with the express purpose of graduating from that level to the ranks of professional – and most importantly, paid – tie-in authors. I asked Eric to suggest a few tips to those aiming to make it to the big leagues. “Getting published certainly helps. I was approached to write the first Halo novel because people in the franchise division of Microsoft were familiar with my novels. And as far as getting involved with game narrative — one of the things that probably got me in the door at Microsoft Game Studios 10 years ago was a writing sample that consisted of my fifth hardback novel, Signal to Noise.”

However, he does end up wondering if fan fiction writers may simply be far happier creating their own worlds, when I asked him about what he thought of fan-fiction relating to HIS novels. “What I would do instead is encourage fledgling writers to explore their own worlds and write their own short stories and novels based on intellectual properties of their own devising.  It’s intoxicating and addictive!”

Eric is currently about to release his latest novel, titled All That Lives Must Die. You can find his blog and ton of information (and even writing advice – treasure this, it’s a rare online resource) at his website.

If you’re curious…

…as to the lack of content for a good couple of months, if not more, then your answer is this: I actually have a job, as of today. I’ll be writing away at my new position, as well as working on my first full-length manuscript, and I’ll return to the blogosphere at some point in the future, though possibly not to this particular blog. I thank you all for reading, and for now, adieu.

The Sun Might Come Up.

Tomorrow, I go for a job interview, for Money Marketing.

This comes after two days of nine-hour conference learning sessions on financial journalism, fifty applications to various companies for various positions, forty-eight rejections, and far too many hours spent watching people mill around the Job Center Plus in north London like someone has just died.

Whether or not I’ll be successful, I’m not entirely sure. But this time, this time I know my content really well. I know my limits, my weaknesses, my experience, and of course, my portfolio will be 80% games journalism, because I think it represents me at my best, at my most passionate (I am aware of the irony of putting that word in italics, rest assured).

If I get the job, I will learn. I will improve. I will finally be able to show people that I can report news and investigate with the best of them, without having to desperately post things on an aggregate site just so five people can ignore the link and comment on my bad choice of relevant pictures because they lack nudity and/or Bayonetta (though both subjects share many traits).

I am scared, obviously. I’m terrified. I want this job because I want to prove myself. Do myself proud. Do Lex proud. Do my Dad proud – and most importantly, do my grandfather proud because it’ll prove him right – I got on with my studies, and I will be rewarded with the work I deserve.

I think I’ll always be a journalist, whatever my job title may change to over my lifetime. I’ll always look at events, even in my own life, in terms of news and tabloid gossip. I’ll always cringe at spelling and grammar errors in bestseller crime novels in Waterstones. And I’ll always silently fume when people choose the one game on the shelf that got bad reviews across the board because they think it’d be fun for their kid. It’s sad, really – we tell the parents of 2010 not to buy GTA IV for their 13-year-old, and yet – all the games for his age bracket are, well, shit.

Ahem – moving on. Tomorrow will be scary, and I’ll be nervous. But I’ll be damned if I won’t be determined. Hoo-rah, and all that.

The Big Bad Woolf

Virginia Woolf is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most over-rated authors in the history of English literature. No classical, theoretical or any other variety of bias could ever hope to defend the utter horror that is working your way through the muddled fiction she creates. English students around the world are assaulted by her rambling stream-of-consciousness writing style every year, and I feel it is only right to defend their pleas against writing about this woman’s failed attempt at inspirationally original literature in some way or form.

Today, I attempted to tackle the literary mess that is Mrs Dalloway. Within a few sentences, I began to develop the same feeling in the back of my mind that I had experienced in 2006 when attempting to comprehend To The Lighthouse. Quite simply, she’s a terrible author. Rather less simply, I shall expand on this, as I feel a failure to recognise a false icon in literature, to this degree, constitutes a failing by the ruling classes of academical literary criticism, and is simply comprised of bored professors punishing students by attempting to get them to tackle “real” literature.

To read Mrs Dalloway, as I did, with the theme of trauma and its disruption of literary narrative firmly in mind (I find if you explore books by pursuing a certain theme, they become less boring literature and more the English nerd’s version of a CSI episode), is a rather ironic experience. This is due, pretty much, to the trauma you yourself will undergo in an attempt to decipher what exactly Woolf is trying to say to the reader at any given moment. Call me blasphemous all you like – I am no author of the Great English Novel, by any means, but the woman uses more semi-colons in a paragraph than I will in a year. I find the acid test for whether or not a sentence is too long, and either needs to be cut in half or simply saturated with the correct punctuation to maintain the flow of prose you are attempting to construct, is to read it out loud and see if you can reach the end without running out of breath.

In her case, I wager I would asphyxiate approximately eight to ten times, per page. However, when reading it out loud, this is very much a problem. Thankfully, as a Londoner who enjoys relative silence on a daily commute, people don’t generally read out loud in contemporary Britain, and thus we are spared the swathes of dying literary sycophants.

*comes back to this post, six days later*

Frankly, I’m done with this woman. She’s a horrible novelist, and writing about her is like writing about the village fair – it’s quaint, and everyone accepts its existence, but ultimately, the only ones who accept it as a force of all that is good and whole in the world are either fifty-five or think videogames are for mental patients.

I think I’ll wait until Bioshock 2, and imagine every British-accented splicer as Woolf herself. The manic laughing, deranged outfits and bizarre syntax fit just right.

That being said, after a novel’s worth of literary analysis, so do embedded bullets. As an optional fashion accessory, of course.

Wed Dead: No Redemption.

Official complaint by the wives of Rockstar San Diego employees.

Even if you have the best job in the world, it means nothing if there’s no one at home at night to share your successes with. C’mon guys, stand up or walk away.

All I want for Christmas, is two.

I’m completely serious. What I would have liked to see out for the Christmas break, was not only the long-awaited sequel to Mass Effect, but Bioshock 2 in addition. Why the hold-up? I’ve got a fairly damn good idea why we’re waiting until late January/early February.

Fear.

Why fear? Well, it’s long been said that an artist’s greatest fear is the first creative work he engages in after his stunning début, be it four years into his career or four days. Imagine how Dan Brown felt after (some would argue, anyway) catching lightning in a bottle with the ridiculous appeal of The Da Vinci Code, only to realise that The Lost Symbol needed to be an improvement?

It was, of course; but mainly due to the fact that The Da Vinci Code, when compared to the stellar Deception Point, Angels and Demons and Digital Fortress, was horrendous, predictable and not all that exciting. But with videogames, are we seeing a major difference in what is required? It’s not just about a better narrative, or one that solidly connects to all the plot points of its predecessor. We need new achievements (or rather, less that involve doing the same fucking thing four hundred times in a row), better graphics, a better engine, and of course more DLC than the last title had.

Did I mention the DLC must also be cheaper?

All right, so I’m ranting a bit. The fact still stands that, for what it’s worth, the sequel to a game I love comes out on the 29th of this month, and I’ll be damned if it’s not an improvement. But the fear, the raw anticipation the online crowd exudes is comparable to a pack of wild, rabid dogs awaiting several bloodied steaks due to cascade at any moment over the barbed-wire surroundings of their violent existence.

These dogs, or fans, if you will, are no more than amateur critics. Of course, Shephard will still be nimble in combat, but turn like a god-damn Panzer when simply strolling around the Citadel (or, in this case, Omega Station – props to those who read the fiction). Of course, the level cap will be lower – was the “level 30” Power Gamer achievement not enough indication of this? Why should we need to get to level sixty when the skills screen clearly shows we could maximise almost everything in less time, with a less complicated attempt to get Shepherd’s big number to go from one to the hallowed two?

With Bioshock 2, I feel somewhat more apprehensive. The multiplayer is all very well – it’s been written into the lore (hilarious, as by validating this odd multiplayer world, 2K are essentially validating third-party content as a part of their own mythology, damning those millions of modders who spent hours upon hours tweaking Fallout 3 to display just the right amount of nudity – in most cases, full-frontal). But the concept of it to someone who’s already worried about Levine’s lack of involvement?

It’s blasphemy, I tells you.

Why should we forage for reasons to pander to the multiplayer masses? Let them have their Call of Duty, their Halo, their StarCraft. Stay away from the single player experiences that we hold dear to our hearts. In terms of contemporary gaming, it’s bad enough we’ve got collectibles in almost every game, excused by the pitiful reasoning given by the developers in the form of “but they work so well with gamerscore!” Modern Warfare 2 is mainly a multiplayer game, ridiculous and slightly offensive short campaign aside – but there are no achievements for the online content. Why? Because your reward for engaging in multiplayer, as it were, is social interaction. Us lonely bastards, us single player enthusiasts – we need those achievements. Give us ten missions, and let us turn the difficulty to “easy” and have fun. Don’t make me play NINJ4ST4R99 fifty times for ten gamerscore I could’ve gotten by healing for the first time.

It’s clear, however, that 2K have no desire to ever return to the narrative space that made the idea of a trilogy so exciting: the war between Fontaine and Ryan, before Rapture’s fall from grace. To see those streets, immaculate and shiny in their below-the-surface, 1950’s wonder would have been an experience to cherish. But alas, they are forging forward chronologically, and no doubt the battle for control and development in Rapture will one day surface as a sub-par RTS title for consoles, relegating the idea’s originality to the bargain bin and stealing from us the ability to experience Rapture properly.

I’m aware the appeal of the broken down, the destroyed, is in the vision of the environment as it once was. To see “New Year’s Eve 1959” banners draped on the floor and covered in soot, blood and other miscellaneous detritus that points to an apocalyptic war, is heartbreaking. If only they’d reached the 60s – it would’ve all sorted itself out, maaaaan.

Sequels are becoming more and more frequent – some of them necessary to continue a sturdy, popular narrative – and I look forward to every single one of them. Have the developers learnt? Has the franchise grown? The protagonist married who? He has how many kids? All of these questions motivate the franchise-committed gamer to lay down his wallet in an attack of new IPs. But for how long? Eventually, even the Land Before Time got shunted into straight-to-VHS format. Will the same happen to Gears of War?