Archive for the ‘ Interview ’ Category

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…



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.