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Adrian Tchaikovsky’s world building journey.

November 7, 2017

Dogs of War

Adrian Tchaikovsky  is a remarkable fantasy and science fiction writer in terms of his imagination and breadth of subject matter. His worlds are immense, but the characters inhabiting them can be far from a simple variation on that of the familiar humanoid. Animals and insects have provided some intriguing and engaging stories. His output is phenomenal and yet he maintains very high standards with regards to quality of writing. This is something he has worked hard to achieve as this interview reveals.

You’ve been writing stories for some time, or at least creating them in your head.

I’ve always been an inventor of my worlds. I did a lot of imaginative play when I was a kid. In my teens this turned into role playing games (RPG), like Dungeons and Dragons. That’s where most of my creative energy was going at that time. This is something I do recommend as a proving ground for character and world building for anyone who wants to do science fiction or fantasy writing.

About the age of sixteen or seventeen I discovered some books called the Dragonlance Chronicles, which were published by TSR who were the children’s publishers of the time and someone writing up the campaigns of their role-playing games. I was struck with the idea that I could do that and I could write books and get them published. Although I had done all this creative stuff in my head I’d never considered the possibility that it might go anywhere. So, from that point I tried to get myself published.

Did you start with short stories or whole books?

I began writing books, but they were very short because I had no idea of how long a fiction book was supposed to be. As I had no idea what I was supposed to do with the book I would send it to the, no doubt, rather puzzled people at TSR because I asked them whether they would like to publish a book which had nothing to do with the role-playing games they were putting out. After a while I began to understand the way things worked and that there were such things as the Artists’ and Writer’s Yearbook.

I then cycled through writing about a book a year and sending it out in its fairly raw form to all the agents and publishers I could get a hold of in the Yearbook for about the next 15 years. The type of stuff I put out in that time was utterly terrible. I didn’t have any concept of editing. Because I was convinced of my own genius I used to send typo-filled, unproofed nonsense out and was very surprised when they didn’t want to publish it.

When did you begin to feel you might be able to become a professional writer?

Eventually, towards the end of my twenties, I began to get a bit more interest because I’d had a few short stories published in magazines where your reward for sending in the story and getting it published was maybe you would get a free copy of the magazine. Then I started to get the type of interest where people wanted to see the whole manuscript.

Although this was very exciting it also went nowhere for years. Eventually I got to the point where wanting to be published and not being published was starting to have an effect on my mental health, because I wanted it so badly but couldn’t understand why it wasn’t happening. Most of the time it wasn’t happening because the stuff I was sending in wasn’t good enough. But I was going a bit nuts because I would think things like “Is it the wrong font?”. “Is it because I have a Polish name”, which is why I would send the manuscript in under different names. You just start indulging in all these weird superstitions. This is when I got a grip of myself and said, “If I haven’t got anywhere by thirty five I’m going to give up”.

Empire in Black and Gold

This frame of mind had a rather interesting effect on your output.

Because I’d told myself this, I decided not to just write one book, but a series of them. The logic behind this was that I thought if I wrote book one and it was rejected, I would never write book two. So, this was the beginning of ‘The Shadows of the Apt’ series. Then I submitted the first one to all the usual suspects. The internet was still relatively young and there was none of the online help you can get now, so the Artists’ and Writers’ Yearbook was still all I had to go on. Self-publishing also did not exist as it does now. The manuscript finally got picked up by the agent about two weeks before my thirty-fifth birthday. Even then it took the agent a year to get it placed with Pan Macmillan. The rest is history.

Did you notice a particular turning point in your writing that got you to the stage where people began to take notice of you?

I don’t think there was a single event. I’ve just gone through my old writing to see what I can salvage. Some of it has been salvageable, but I got to the point where some is not. I think honestly what happened was that my prose style just improved to the point where it was readable. I’ve always had the ideas, but what I haven’t always had is the ability to put those ideas in an appealing manner on paper.

The reason my prose style improved is simply because I was not only writing all the time, but I was also reading as well. When I got the first bite of “Let’s see the full manuscript, because the first few chapters are interesting” I was very much writing in the style of authors I was reading. That’s not a good way of getting published, but it’s like your journeyman pieces. You’re learning from the authors you’re reading and you’re working out how they do what they do. By that I don’t mean I was consciously sitting down and thinking “They use this many verbs” and so on. It was more a process of what I was absorbing, bleeding into my style. So, there were bits of various authors, all of which improved my own style.

How did the editing process make a difference?

It worked in several layers. With Black and Gold, my agent had some fairly sweeping structural changes, mostly because when I wrote it I had a lot of small sections skipping backwards and forwards with the characters. He said, “Let’s amalgamate this to make them into larger sections and less bouncing about.” I then realised I would have to do this myself for the other books I had written. This is how I wrote from then on.

I had the benefit of having one of the last old-fashioned editors, who was the editor of Pan Macmillan at the time. He would go through the paper manuscript with a pencil, annotating in detail with all sorts of suggestions and changes. This really improved my prose style, although it’s still improving. I’m certainly writing better now than I did in 2006 when I wrote Empire in Black and Gold (the first in the Shadows of the Apt series). The reason I’m writing better is because I had that attention early on. The more I wrote the less I needed of this line-level editing because I’d learned those lessons. This type of editing brought the final, finishing touches to my style of writing where a publishing house would be happy to be seen with their logo on it.

You had decided to write more than one book before you submitted to an agent. Yet contracts can often be for as little as two books at a time.

“Shadows of the Apt” is a ten book series, but the first four form an arc. There is a definite conclusion to the fourth book, so if it hadn’t gone any further than that it would still have reached a satisfactory conclusion for readers. But before the first book had come out I had already written the fifth because at that point I was pretty naïve. I didn’t understand the pressures of publishing and assumed I was now “in” and would just keep writing these books.

Yes, you can see a number of series have finished before the series is concluded. I now realise I was insane thinking I would get a ten book series published. Empire in Black and Gold did well, but it wasn’t a huge New York Times bestseller. It did very nicely for an epic debut fantasy novel in a market that was saturated at the time. I think the series picked up momentum with the first book because people followed it, so I was allowed to keep writing them.

I look back and feel as if I was walking on a tightrope, but I didn’t know I was doing that at the time. I think if I’d had a more realistic idea of the dangers and uncertainties of publishing I would have bottled out at some point.

Is this not the insanity of a writer, that you believe you can get published?

I think you can go too far either way. If you’re too concerned about failure you’ll never try. I think that given the quality of the early stuff I was submitting it was a good thing that there wasn’t a self-publishing market at the time because, quite frankly, I would have put that stuff out raw, unedited and bad. That would have been my total output because I would have stopped submitting to regular publishers and I would have been terribly indignant about why I was being rejected. That’s not a reflection on what people are actually self-publishing, but more of the sort of person I was at that time and what I thought of my own writing at the time.

Is “Shadows of the Apt” heavily influenced by your RPG experience?

Yes. I ran a campaign in the early 1990s when I was at university, which was set in that world and involves some of the characters who turn up in the books. The reason this became the books was because I was doing the final push to get the books published.

I had a couple of options, but decided to take the world I really liked, felt comfortable with and knew a lot about. It was going to be the insect Kinden or another RPG setting I had designed. I’m not advocating turning your RPG into a book, because although that worked really well for the Dragonlance authors, that’s not what I did. If you take this approach and don’t get the balance right it’s going to be so full of stuff that’ll mean something to you, but not to your readers, so it’s not going to be a satisfactory reading experience

But turning your role-playing world into a book means you know that world very well. Because of the RPG, the “Shadows of the Apt” world had been built in my head and I had a very good feel for the whole gestalt of that world. Probably better than a writer would normally do because you have to have that world ready for the player who can then go to all sorts of places that a standard book plot might not. That’s the reason why I was able to get ten books and eventually four collections of short stories out of the “Shadows of the Apt” world and still with places to go. I had already nursed all the stuff that made that world unique, which is the strong point of that series, so I didn’t have to sit down and tinker with it. I was able to just decide what story I wanted to tell. I already had some characters, but what I had to do was think about what I would work with the new characters who were going to be the main protagonists.

What specifically did you take from your RPG world?

In the original world you have the insect Kinden and the political setup mostly with the Empire and Collegium. You have a certain amount of the history, some of the characters, Stenwold (Beetle-Kinden statesman and spymaster), Tisamon (Mantis-Kinden weaponmaster and Stenwold’s friend), as well as Stenwold, and Scuto the thorn bug in the early books and some of the places in the later books. I was also able to use some of the ideas I was going to put in the game but never got the chance to. So, the Shadow Box in books three and four would have been a scenario for the RPG – the Shadow Box is a box and an ancient artefact, which is slightly too big to be held in one hand, and is made of black wood, with carvings of insects, flowers and vines on it –. There were a lot of places that were there but I didn’t get to deploy, but offer possibilities for stories.

Thinking about the tightrope of writing the “Shadows of the Apt”, some of the locations I go in it, for example on water as well as other places in the middle few books, could have made three little standalones before the last three books bring in their own plot arc. That’s where I would have expected the whole thing to fall apart on looking now at how these books go. Thinking about some of the stuff and things I’m bringing in at the last book, they were still kicking about as ideas back in the 1990s. One of the things I’m good at is holding onto ideas and finding places to use them later on, if I don’t have an immediate outlet for them.

What particularly have you enjoyed playing with in your world building?

After the fourth book I knew some places I wanted to go and took the story there. The details of what happens and what the characters do arose organically out of the previous books. The best example of this is the air war at the beginning of the final run of books. All the stuff in the air war, the backwards and forwards and the technology really amounted to me sitting down and watching the characters get on with it. I had a good enough grasp from the previous books and the RPG before that of what the wasp empire was doing, but I wanted to explore their weaknesses and strengths and how these strengths were going to deal with their weaknesses.

This was something I had a lot of fun with, especially those last two books, which echoed twentieth-century history of World War One and World War Two, in which you get very similar problems, but very different solutions, because their technologies are different. The Empire is basically bringing the Blitz to Collegium. As with the start of World War Two they don’t have radar. How would an insect know the enemy was coming? You can relate this to how an insect detects a bat. They basically have specialist ears that are tuned to that particular frequency. So, we have the Collegium picking up the plane sounds in a similar way to the early warning system sound mirrors used between 1916 and the 1930s on the south and northeast coasts of England. A lot of stuff that doesn’t work as well for us works much better for the insects and vice versa.

Children of Time

I am told you know all sorts of fascinating things about insects. So, it’s probably not surprising insects feature heavily in Shadows of the Apt and in Children of Time.

For Children of Time I came across some research that had been done on Portia spiders which demonstrated its ridiculously complicated problem-solving ability, in that it’s a spider with 100,000 neurones serving as a brain. It can do forward planning, solve three dimensional problems in space and has object permanence –understanding objects exist even when they cannot be observed in any way –. It takes humans a while to develop object permanence before they can work out they can go out of sight of something on a different path so they can come round on it and ambush it.

In the first chapter of Children of Time you see the spiders doing this stuff before they evolve. All of that was based on actual recent research. David Attenborough’s latest series had a spot on the Portia spiders. This demonstrated how intelligent these spiders were. So, what if they had the opportunity to evolve?

The evolution of the spiders really made a gripping story. Because of the period of time over which Children of Time was set there was a massive story arc. How did you work out the complicated plot?

There was a certain amount of organic development. I work best when my story settings work to their own logic. So, I had a fairly loose plan about the general arc of the spider and human civilisations in the human ark ship. But most of the details came either out of my research or just things that had previously happened.

One of the things you have is a satellite going around the planet, which is broadcasting to the spiders. I wanted that to be a major factor later. I had a thing where the spiders discover the concept of radio very early in their development. In order to get them to that point involved bringing in a lot of stuff. This effectively took the plot and ran with it. The events with the spiders and the ants arise out of that. That in itself has huge ramifications which have an effect later with the development of what I think are the really cool details which arose very serendipitously.

As a case in point, about a third of the way in there’s a whole section where the spiders are working with a species of beetle called Paussid beetles. This had come about because of my visit to the Natural History Museum to talk to them about the logistics of giant arthropods. I spent an afternoon talking to the entomologists, which was invaluable. One of the people I was talking with had just come back from an expedition where they had been collecting Paussid beetles and were able to explain how the ants did, or did not, react to them. This solved a looming plot problem I had about how the spiders were going to interact with the ants at that particular point. This came about just because of a chance conversation I had and guided the narrative of the book.

The Bear and the Serpent

Your latest fantasy series the ‘Echoes of the Fall’, seems a long way from your science fiction writing. Are there any similarities in your writing approach to these different genres?

I think I have a certain rationalist approach to my fantasy. What I don’t try and do is pin down the magic so it’s working too explicitly to rules. The way my worlds work is that they all have a consistent internal logic. The rules of the “Shadows of the Apt” and Children of Time have a similar logic to the “Echos of the Fall”.

“Shadows of the Apt” and “Echoes of the Fall” follow a traditional fantasy narrative shape. This is not by any means universal but fantasy narrative frequently works in a circular manner so that everything is lovely and the dark lord arrives and causes mayhem, then is put back in his box and the true king is restored. It’s a very conservative, restorative and anti-progress narrative. Generally speaking science fiction has a more arrow narrative, in that it’s about a development or change. About something happening so that at the end you can’t just put everything back in the box. These are the most common structures although there will be variations.

What I tried to do with the “Shadows of the Apt” was to do an arrow narrative. There is runaway technology and an arms race, national boundaries shifting, political alliances changing, and new states arising, then throwing off their chains, then being enslaved. This means the world at the end is very different to where it started. You’re patently not going to be able to get back to that innocent time.

In the “Echoes of the Fall”, anyone who has got to the end of the second book is going to see there is a colossal change in the amount of “kicking over the bucket” going on. It’s clear that amount of change is not just going to be quietly resolved.

The concept of people being able to change into animals and then back into humans in “Echoes of the Fall” is a really interesting idea. How did you come up with this?

I had that idea kicking about even before I was writing Children of Time. But it took a while to piece together the logistics. One of the things about the “Shadows of the Apt” is that you have the Art which allows people to do insect related things like fly and sting and grow blades out of their arms to fight with. But it’s not magic because it’s not considered magic. It is a perfectly normal way the world works. That’s a huge part of what makes it a fantastical world, because all these things are normal. It’s a Middle Ages type of world, only there’s some magic in it which is secretive. People don’t understand its principles. But if you think about it, this is how we view history. Certainly, if you look at how people were thinking of magic in our Middle Ages it wasn’t in a very scientific way.

With “Echoes of the Fall”, everyone is a shapeshifter, so you’re weird and the odd one out if you’re not. Their world view is that all the events there are wrapped up in the fact that if you belong to a particular tribe you will turn into the animal of that tribe. This gives them a relationship with the animal world that the insect Kinden would not have. Although they are drawing power from the insect archetype, they wouldn’t turn into those insects.

The idea of just having a level of the fantastical that is just accepted as fantastical is the way I see these worlds. So, there is a certain amount that is just accepted as a normal part of that world. This makes the world so much more interesting because if you have a secret, weird magic in your medieval-type world it doesn’t actually have to change much. You frequently find the minutiae of everyday life is not that different to what Medieval Europe would have been because that magic is strange and off to the side. If you have a world where everyone is doing something weird, it changes everything. It’s a really enjoyable thought exercise for me to go through that process where I think “Do they do this?” and “Do they even need to do these other things?”

If you can turn into a wolf to go hunting, what sort of level of technology do you need to develop if you have all those tools because you have access to an animal’s inbuilt tools rather than having to create them yourself. It does have a considerable impact on what those people do or don’t have to make. In the same way, the insect Kinden are quite a clinical society and have no concept of religion or spirituality. Whereas the people in “Echoes of the Fall” have a much closer and more interactive exploitative view of the magic in their world.

You used the shape changing in an interesting way in “Echoes of the Fall”, particularly in the fight scenes. Fight scenes in a book always interest me because if they are not done well they become monotonous and boring. How do you keep the flow of the fights scenes going and make them interesting?

I use the shape changing during the fight scenes. I have good visualisation and a certain amount of practical fighting experience. From the beginning of Empire in Black and Gold I’ve written fight scenes that people seem to like.

The fight scenes for “Echoes of the Fall” were very challenging to write, because the shape shifting is instantaneous, unlike in Werewolf in London where there was a long transformation scene. The people in “Echoes of the Fall” snap in and out of their forms as they seem advantageous. You see this particularly in the second volume The Bear and the Serpent. There are very weird combinations, for example a fight between a serpent and a wolf is particularly tricky because the serpents can change size. They can be very small or the size of a huge anaconda. One of the memes currently going around is “don’t turn into a giant snake it doesn’t help”. Hopefully I have now dispelled this, because in the world of “Echoes of the Fall”, turning into a giant snake is really useful If you’re one of the Serpent tribe.

It was a challenge, but I always knew it would be there and I had an enormous amount of fun thinking through the moves of the fight. One thing I have become good at is turning the logistics of the fight into an actual engagement. So rather than the bare bones, I can put the flesh on it so the fight becomes more than a series of moves. But it means that each of my actors have a whole set of extra things they can do.

Did you spend a lot of time researching the ethnography of “Echoes of the Fall”?

A lot of the stuff fell into place quite naturally for me when I was putting the world together at the beginning. One of the things I did want to do is get away from the Middle Ages and Europe. So, I read quite a bit about non-European cultures, especially pre-Columbian New World cultures, hopefully without being exploitative, because I’m aware that I am from a different culture. I hope there is a reasonable spread of influences there which don’t just tap into the usual suspects for my kind of world design.


What projects do you currently have on the go?

I have a couple of science fiction books coming out towards the end of the year. A special edition novella called Ironclads, published by Solaris, which is very near-future, military sci-fi. I also have a novel called Dogs of War, published by Head of Zeus, and is also relatively near-future sci-fi, but touching on similar themes to Children of Time, because it’s about human interaction with non-human intelligence. In this case bioengineered animal soldiers and what happens when they get off the leash, lose contact with their chain of command, and have to start making decisions of their own. This is not just about problem solving, but also moral decisions.

I am just starting the planning phases for a sequel to Children of Time, because I’ve finally got enough of the ideas together to do something worthy of a novel that has been really well received, which is quite intimidating. But the ideas are there now.

  1. Juno Waterhouse permalink

    There are so many memorable points in this interview, I don’t even know where to start! The questions were well thought-out and Tchaikovsky’s answers were thorough and insightful (the detail he goes into in some of his responses made me fan-girl a little). It was exactly what a good interview should be. I enjoyed reading this a lot!

    • Thank you, for your kind comments. Adrian was wonderful to interview as he was not only eloquent, but also someone who really expressed his craft brilliantly.

  2. Juno Waterhouse permalink

    Yes, that really comes across in your post ^^ Congratulations on a wonderful piece.

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