Posts Tagged ‘ a thousand sons ’

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.