The Intriguing World of Graham McNeill
Graham is another author I met at AltFiction last year, when I was helping out as a volunteer. I was given the task of making sure he had everything he needed for a workshop in writing battles. It turned out to be one of the most useful workshops I had attended in a long time. The principles, as you will read further on in this interview, are no different to writing any story you want your reader to become engrossed in. I have read Graham’s books and liked them, although I became particularly incensed when he killed off a character in his first novel Nightbringer, who I had become particularly attached to, but that’s the art of telling a good tale, isn’t it?
If you were to describe yourself as an author in a particular genre, what would you say you wrote?
I would say I’m an author that writes science fiction fantasy and horror, usually in a tie-in fiction that’s based on an existing franchise. By this I mean Warhammer or 40k (board games from Games Workshop) science fiction, or Arkham horror (based on the fiction of HP Lovecraft).
So there are a lot of subgenres within this arena?
Yes. In a way science fiction is almost a redundant term, because there are so many variants within it. You get hard sci-fi, Steampunk, all different styles of fantasy, high fantasy, and lots of gritty stuff. So it’s one of these things where the genre itself is a many splendoured thing. Saying you write just one aspect of that genre is very limiting.
You write for The Black Library, which is part of the world of the tabletop games of Warhammer and 40K. The general impression of someone, who’s not a fan of these games, might be that you’re just writing about toy soldiers.
Yes. A lot of people would think that. It’s true the books spring off the games of toy soldiers that the gamers collect and so on, but the universe those games are set in has been growing, developing and been added to for over twenty-five years. This has resulted in an incredibly rich, dense, complex universe that was, in its initial iterations, a grab bag of stuff appropriated from, or a homage to, writers like Moorcock, Tolkien and other classic fantasy/sci-fi writers of the time. But over the years it has really grown into something with its own unique identity.
The important thing to realise is that I do not write the stories for these books with any less care, love and attention than any other writer would write any other story in other genres, such as contemporary young adult fiction and literary fiction. I put as much into these stories as anyone else would. The same goes for all the writers who also write for the Black Library. They are crafted to be exciting adventures, requiring all the attentions usually given to writing a compelling story.
What sort of people read these books?
The readers have grown up with these worlds. Back when I first started and had my first book published, I would say the readership was between sixteen to early twenties and largely boys. That readership has broadened quite a lot. Very few of the people I see at signings now are below twenty and many are the same age as me, or older.
The success of series such as the Horus Heresy has attracted a lot of people into the medium who have no interest in the hobby and collecting toy soldiers, because they’re damn good books. The calibre of the writers and the quality of the writing has reached a level where people with no interest whatsoever in Warhammer, are being drawn towards reading the books.
Does the gaming drive the books or have the books begun to create new scenarios and characters for the gaming?
Games Workshop is the driver of creation for the rules and terms of how the world develops and the roles of the characters. The Codices, the books where all the military information is presented, are there as a limit to how much you can put in to a game, but also provides a base for the books.
The novels allow us to broaden the worlds and bring out what you wouldn’t see on the tabletop. The books are all about bringing the army to life and giving scope to explore the fights, the weapons they use, and the personalities. The books look at what goes on in their heads on the battlefield and develops the world by describing the events before and after the battle as well as in it. Obviously, as you’re writing in this genre you have to have a battle in it, but it shows us the reality of the world.
One of the great things about working for a franchise like Warhammer, is that you can invent stuff and The Black Library has become an absolutely integral part of Games Workshop. So that a lot of the stuff we do helps to drive new products and ideas that are coming out from Games Workshop. For example one of the branches of Games Workshop, Forgeworld, are doing the Horus Heresy rule set and a lot of the driving influence for the background for that comes from the novels. So it’s primarily Games Workshop as a whole that supplies the basic material and the whole universe, but it’s the authors that define what gets written within it. As time goes on and The Black Library increases in popularity and profitability, the more impact the novels are likely to have.
How did you become a writer?
I think on some level I’ve always wanted to become a writer. From the earliest age I remember, I’ve always be writing my own little comic strips or changing the comics I bought because I didn’t like the endings of them. I used to Tippex out the dialogue in the bubbles or captions and write my own bits in them. I also used to change the stories to the way I thought they should be.
I wrote little short stories in primary school, and high school. Then I tried to write some novels with a couple of friends. When I was university I wrote what turned out be the first part of a novel, which probably explains why I’m not an architect, which was what I was really at university for. So I have always told and written stories, and always wanted to, but never thought I was capable of actually doing it for a living, because it was not a path I ever really thought was open to me.
I was actually working in an architect’s office in Glasgow when I saw an advert in the Games Workshop hobby magazine, ‘White Dwarf’, for a staff writer in the Design Studio. I applied for it and was lucky enough to get the job, so I moved to Nottingham in 2000 to take up the post of a staff writer.
This was a role that was originally envisaged as much more journalistic, reporting on tournaments, painting articles, that sort of thing. I ended up, most of the time, writing background articles for ‘White Dwarf’ or the army books. That gradually developed into writing more of that kind of stuff, such as the full background of the armies in the army books, developing rules for them and so on. A few years later I was a fully fledged games developer.
I had kept my writing up on the side. I’d written a few short stories, so I took them to The Black Library people, who were conveniently in the office downstairs from where I worked. I gave them to the then head of library, Mark Gascoigne, saying ‘tell me what you think of them’. They were mauled and savaged at first, which was probably a good thing, because it was that sort of ‘tough love’ feedback that Mark was very good at. It was very helpful because it gave me an eye opening time where I thought ‘Right. I can’t dash of what I just think’s cool, without thinking about what works in a story’.
So I did all my re-writes and got my short stories published. They seemed to go down well and not long after that, Christian Dunn from The Black Library came to me in Bugman’s Bar at Games Workshop headquarters where I worked and asked me to write a novel for them. (Within the cavernous gaming area at the world headquarters of Games Workshop, in Nottingham, there is a licensed bar). I said, ‘Yes’
My first novel was Nightbringer, which I wrote in just about three months. That was a series of frantic weekends and evenings where I worked non-stop. It was an ordeal because I’d never written a novel properly before and it was a massively over bloated, overlong thing which again, with Mark’s feedback, was chopped down to a manageable size and is much better and leaner for it.
It did very well, so I began to write one novel after another. By the time 2006 came along I’d got eight novels under my belt. At that point I left Games Workshop to become a full-time, freelance author. At the time I’d been there for quite a while and thought ‘if I don’t do this now, I’m never going to be able to do it, because I’ll want to stay comfortably where I am and I’m never going to make that plunge’. So I took the plunge and six and a half years later I’m still doing it. Now I’m up to twenty five novels, three novellas and god knows how many short stories, comics and graphic novels. Yes it’s been an unusual route, but one that worked out very well for me.
You did a short story with two of the main characters that you developed as a prequel to Nightbringer?
Yes. The first short story, or one of them, was ‘Chains of Command’ which introduced a veteran sergeant of the ultramarines, Uriel Ventris. He has since gone on to become one of my most popular characters. He’s the lead character in six novels to date and in three more still to come.
Tell me about Mark Gascoigne, as he seems very influential in your writing career.
‘Chains of Command’ was one of the first stories I submitted to The Black Library. Normally Mark’s feedback would be filtered through one of the other editors. In this instance, however, I saw the unadulterated manuscript with all his comments on it, which was a sobering experience for a first-time writer. It was harsh but fair and once I’d gotten over the horror of all the red pen on it and the awful voice in my head that said ‘you’ll never be a writer’, I actually got down to writing properly. I’ve found it one of the most useful documents I’ve ever seen. I still have the bits of paper as a reminder of where I’ve come from and how I’ve grown up as a writer over the years. It’s a salutary reminder that you’re always learning and you always will be, no matter how much experience you’ve got.
One of the great things about living in Nottingham is that I can pop in to have a word with my editor face-to-face, which is so much more productive than any other means of communication.
So what you’re really saying is that writing for The Black Library is a serious business and more than just big blokes leaping around with big guns and being very macho and that it demands the subtleties required by any type of mainstream novel writing?
Our books are based on a war game, so there will be battles in it, with scenes of fighting, but that’s not all there is to it. Writing a battle is not all about ‘bolter porn’ (the large rifles the soldiers use are called bolters). It’s not just about guns blazing, axes and swords flashing. If there’s a battle in any of my books, it’s there for a reason. It’s there as part of the plot and to develop the characters, to highlight some aspect of some faction of the book, or a particular character may react in a certain way to the battle. Everything in a book should serve a purpose, otherwise why is it even there? A battle scene in a book is no different to any story. It’s a mini story in a larger story. Yes you can get books where there’s just one battle after the other, but the majority of Black Library books aren’t like that. A lot have fighting in them, yeah, but that’s by no means what these books are entirely about and if it does have fighting in it then that fighting is always an important component of the story.
In that case how do you write a battle scene?
It’s a question of scale. It depends on a lot of things. It depends on you as a writer, as to what you want to get out of that battle scene and what you want the reader to take away from it. If it’s just excitement then you can jump about all over the place. Like most things in books, you want to give the reader enough of a picture of where the characters are within the scene. So you want to get spatial relationships between people and things within that scene where they can feel in the thick of it, feel the blood the sweat, the fear, the exhilaration.
You can change your scale. Essentially pulling the camera back to watch the battle from afar, by describing the movement of the troops flanking, or surrounding a forest, or going down to the one-on-one confrontation of the guys facing each other across a battle line and so on; pikes can be thrusting back and forth. So you can change the level of immediacy in a fight to give it a sense of tension and release through the course of it. So again you structure it with variety. You give the reader enough information to figure out what’s going on and you immerse them in it.
How do you work when you’re writing?
When I first started writing, I tried to write two novels at the same time. I took a lot of advice from another Black Library author, Dan Abnett, who told me how his days were structured. He would work on one project in the morning, something else in the afternoon and maybe some editing in the evening. He always has lots of things on the go at one time. I tried that for a while, but I ended up just not doing enough of either project. I’m really a monolithic, Soviet seventies-built train, barrelling along on one track. I work on one project at a time. But there’s always compartments in my brain that are percolating ideas away for the next two projects, or just another one for random ideas that make something else.
I do roughly know my schedule for the next few years. It will all change as time goes on, but I work best when I know what I’ve got coming up and how much time I’ve got to do each particular project. And whether I can fit it in and how my time’s going to be set.
As far as actual work on projects goes, I try to work as if I work in an office. I get up in the morning, take the kids to nursery, have my breakfast. Then I’ll start by doing my e-mails, go round a few work-related websites then I’ll start writing around half nine. I’ll stop around lunch-time for an hour, have some food, watch a TV show or something I’ve recorded. Then I’ll get back to work and finish up more or less around half five. I like to be home when the kids get back from nursery, or if I’m working out of the house, I’ll make sure I’m back so I can spend some time with them before they go to bed.
Because I don’t work in an office, I make sure I structure my day as if I do, because when you’re a freelancer it’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking ‘I can work any time I want. I can work in the middle of the night if I want to. I can start later and make hours up at the end of the day’, but I certainly don’t want to do that when I’ve got two little kids. It’s just not an option. I try not to work in the evenings because I want to spend time with my girlfriend. I’m fairly disciplined. I spend my days as if there is a boss standing right over my shoulder looking at me, ready to crack the whip.
You were talking about other projects. How do you compartmentalise those? Do you do that as you’re working, or do you do it while you’re out walking or doing something else?
Oh yes I keep about three or four notebooks, little notebooks, on me, one for Warhammer, one for 40K, one for the Heresy series. If I’ve not got them with me then, I’ve got a phone with me that’s got a notepad on it. I’m an inveterate note taker and I collect names if I see things or hear interesting turns of phrase. I’m always collecting stuff.
A lot of people ask ‘how do you turn this sort of thing on’. The answer is, it never gets turned off. Turning it off is actually the hardest part.
So there is compartmentalisation, in that I’m concentrating on what I’m writing at the moment. But if I’m not thinking about the next piece of writing I’m going to be doing, then I get to the end of one project and have a problem building up the momentum for the next. So when I get about three quarters of the way through a project, I’ll start physically writing up my ideas. I’ll take an afternoon out from my current piece of writing, so I can do some writing up on, for example:
- How I want the next book to start?
- What themes am I going to explore?
- What’s going to happen to the characters in it?
- What new characters am I going to have to invent?
- What do I want this book to achieve?
- What do I want to get out of the end of it?
So that by the time the current project is finished, I’m up and ready to hit the ground running. I have to get straight into it because the deadlines we work to are very tight. So to not be at that level of preparedness is not good.
That’s the ideal, but there always some lag time starting up something new, because I’ve just finished something that’s taken a very long time. I know it sounds as if it’s more regimented than it actually is, or perhaps more precise than it actually is, but it’s still a pretty organic process and if it happens it happens, because you can’t force it as such. But ultimately it’s discipline that makes the whole writing process come together more easily. Also the more practice you get, the more easily it happens.
The way a writer works is an interesting phenomenon. I was in Canada a little while ago for the Black Library Expo just outside Calgary and one of the questions we got asked on the panel was ‘what is your author’s daily life like? All three of us (myself, Jim Swallow and Aaaron Dembski-Bowden) had different answers and I’m sure the others (there were six of us out there) would also have given a different answer. There really is no right or wrong answer. It’s just whatever works for you.
The most important thing about being a writer is hitting your deadlines, be professional and be nice.
If we go back to the Horus Heresy series. How did you come to be involved in writing this?
The Heresy series came about because the Black Library wanted to try a new series that they hoped was going to be a big success. And I think they realised, or came to the conclusion that the quality of the writing and the stable of writers that they had, were now at the level where we could tackle it and do it justice. So it wasn’t a decisionI came to, Black Library made it and approached its writers.
All the authors of the Horus Heresy series were Black Library writers, who were there at the beginning. So it was decided to call in all the authors and have a big discussion with us about what the Heresy is, what it’s all about, how we tackle it, what themes are there and what stories, how it should be, how should we do it, what it should be like.
We spent a few days having brain storming sessions of all the things we wanted to achieve.
Dan (Abnett) did the first book, I did the second one. It’s just spring-boarded on from there. Now several authors have contributed to the Heresy series and it’s been phenomenally successful. Several of the books are ‘New York Times’ bestsellers.
So although it wasn’t anything I initiated, as soon as I knew the Black Library wanted to do it, I was beating down their door saying ‘I want to do this. I want to be part of the biggest event in 40K history.’
It’s like someone who publishes World War Two novels finally deciding that they want to do a series on the Normandy beach landings. I’d certainly want to be doing one of those books. So yes, it’s something we’re all very keen to do. The ideas we’ve got coming up for the next batch of arcs are very exciting, because at the end of the day the writers are fans of the series too, or we wouldn’t have kept writing it for as many years.
I love writing Warhammer, 40K and the Heresy fiction because it’s great fun. We’re experiencing the story as much as the readers and the revelations and plot twists and developments we are coming up with, are just as exciting to us. So it’s the dream project really.
As the Horus Heresy series has so many different writers involved in producing the books, I was wondering whether each of them is allowed to be very individual, or is there consistency?
We should all be individual, because we all bring something different to the mix. Having said that consistency is paramount. It’s such a popular and closely knit series that consistency is something we are very hot on.
After that first big meeting we had, when we discussed the overarching themes and the story, we still get together around every four months at Black Library and talk about stuff we’ve done, stuff we’re doing, and how we maintain that consistency. We all share ideas and develop the next arcs of stories we’re going to tell.
Black Library produces an in-house document from questions we’ve asked, or things we discussed. It answers, for example, queries, such as how something works, or what it looks like and so on. We also know each other and we get on very well. Not only do I work with most of these guys through Black Library, but they’re also people I would hang out with even if I didn’t work with them. So we e-mail each other and talk on the phone sometimes.
One of the editors at Black Library, Laurie Golding, is (according to his e-mail signature) a pedantic corrections goblin. He’s massively hot on consistency and has a very a sharp eye for things that have been said in one book that are contradicted by another one, or doesn’t match up with what has been said. There can be issues with the timeline, when you’ve got a character on a particular world, but it was established in another book that he could not be there at that particular moment. We also self-police. It’s not in our interest to break the background. It’s in our collective interests to keep the whole thing cohesive and reinforce that barely visible connective tissue between the books that makes it all feel like a living, breathing universe, where actions have consequences and things that happen in one book have ramifications in another. There may also be a situation where a character might walk in and out another author’s book. So we were very keen to maintain that level of consistency.
This is why we meet up regularly, to ensure we’re still singing from the same Inquisitorial hymn sheet and working to the same initial parameters, but having said that we’re all individuals. We do bring our own voice to the table. We bring our own vision of the stories we want to tell, and each of us are quite different in what we want to achieve in them. But they all generally point in the same direction and we’re all making sure that what we do all plays to the same themes. We also send each other our synopses for novellas, short stories etc. for feedback from each other, just like peer reviewing to make sure we’re not treading on each other’s toes.
Is there room for new writers to come in?
Absolutely. What Black Library usually does is have an open submissions window and in that time anyone can send in material. The guidelines on the website tell you what to send in and when. So anyone can and should send stuff in if they want it to be considered. The Black Library is always looking for new talent. Some of the people who are working for the Black Library now are people whose submissions were selected and developed. Submitting this way is a great opportunity to get your work in front of a publisher.
The thing to remember about the submissions guidelines, and this is true for any publisher, not just Black Library, is that if there are guidelines on a website telling you what you should submit and how you should submit it, and I will say this in block capitals: ‘FOLLOW THEM TO THE LETTER’. If you don’t, you’ll just end up with your stuff chucked in the bin. The guidelines are there for a reason. Anyone who thinks they know better and sends in their 150,000 word magnum opus, thinking everyone’ll love it, will find it’ll not be looked at.
Do you take reader feedback into account when you write your novels?
I don’t often go onto forums and look at comments. The Internet is a place where the people who shout the loudest have their opinions heard the most on forums. But I do a lot of signings and events where I talk to people one-on-one, because what someone’ll say to you face-to-face is very different to what someone who’s behind a keyboard will say to you. Feedback’s the lifeblood of any writer. Whether it’s feedback in the process of the writing or after the thing’s written. It’s one of the reasons I love going to events, because I get the chance to talk to people about the stuff I’ve written, good or bad. I’ve had both, and both are useful. Although it’s always nice to hear people say ‘I loved your book’, ‘it’s great’ and they loved a particular character. It’s equally useful to have someone say ‘I didn’t get what was going on here’ or that they didn’t see why a character did something.
Hearing what the people who paid money to buy your book and read it, have come to talk to you about, is phenomenally useful. I write the books I want to read and I write the books I want to write, but you cannot be ignorant of your audience. There are certain things that a 40K or Warhammer book have to do, or at least nod towards, like having a battle in it for example, which is usually a good thing in a 40K or Warhammer book.
Writing by its nature is a very solitary occupation. It’s basically you sat at the computer creating your story on the keyboard. So to actually get out and talk to the people who are reading your books is brilliant. It’s great fun and I’ve had some great feedback as far as things the readers like and the stories they like, stories they want to see less of, or more of. This also goes for the characters. Or there might have been a twist they didn’t see coming or was too obvious. That’s the best kind of feedback.
The readers are the ones who ultimately decide whether your book is a success or not. I might think I’ve written the best thing since sliced bread, but if the readers don’t agree then something’s wrong, so speaking to them is the best way to find out.
The Horus Heresy: Angel Exterminatus is out on 24 January 2013