Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Guest Article: Dan Abnett on "Changing Hats"

My guest this morning needs very little introduction - Dan Abnett is absolutely beloved by geeks across the board. He's written numerous novels, been involved in comics and is a popular face at conventions. He is here to tell you a little more about the projects that have been on his mind over the last few months!

Books are like buses sometimes. You spend all year (or more) labouring over them, and then they all turn up at once.

Autumn and spring are the big seasons for publication, so projects that were entirely separate entities during the working year end up appearing in the shops side-by-side. Because self-generated promotion is absolutely expected by all publishers of their authors in this day and age, writers can find themselves having to blog, and chat, and answer interview questions, about different things all at once.

This is not a complaint, it’s just an odd place to find oneself. I have two new novels out this autumn. One is Salvation’s Reach, the latest (thirteenth!) volume of my long-running military SF series for Black Library, Gaunt’s Ghosts. The other is The Silent Stars Go By, the Christmas Doctor Who novel.

In my head, these are entirely separate things. Entirely separate. I’d go as far as to say, in fact, that the author-me wore different heads, Worzel Gummidge style, during their respective creations. The books are out now, so I find I’m talking about them both. I have to rummage around in a hypothetical attic to grab the right head: I have to wear the Warhammer 40K head when I’m talking about Gaunt, and the TARDIS head when I’m talking about Doctor Who.

In some key respects, the novels are actually very similar. They’re both licensed projects. They’re both (dare I speak the dread words) tie-in novels. Though I have written original fiction (such as the SF novel Embedded, out from Angry Robot earlier this year - you see what I did there?), and a considerable quantity of comic-books besides, I am particularly known as a tie-in writer. Publishing owes it to readers and writers alike to find a better, less pejorative term for this strand of fiction: there is always an inference that tie-in is dirty, cheap and commercial, that it’s somehow not ‘proper‘ books.

Don’t get me started. That’s a rant for another day. The audiences for Warhammer 40K and Doctor Who (and any other franchise - another unfortunate word! - that you’d care to mention) are huge, active and enthusiastic. It’s a pleasure and an honour to write for them, and I try to do the best damn job I can. I never think, “Oh, it’s just another commercial gig, I can tear this out in no time.” A novel is a novel, as far as I’m concerned: if you’re going to pay money to read it, I’m going to put the full measure of effort into writing it.

As franchise fiction goes, Warhammer 40K and Doctor Who are pretty different experiences. Yes, they both require me to understand a pre-existing “universe” and a set of characters, and then create appropriate new adventures for them. But the processes are different, and the enjoyment comes in different ways.

I was invited to write the Doctor Who book. I’ve written some before, along with Doctor Who comics, original audios, Big Finish dramas... I’m an unashamed Doctor Who fan, and my association with the various incarnations of the Doctor, as a writer, goes back twenty years. I was unable - due to deadline clashes - to write one of the first Matt Smith novels when the gig was offered to me, so when the BBC came back and offered me the “Christmas Special” (a tradition of big hardback releases in the winter, begun last year when the incomparable Michael Moorcock wrote one), I could not refuse. It’s a big deal. I get the current TARDIS crew of Matt Smith, with Karen and Arthur, and I also get to invent my own (in continuity) story.

I wanted to do something Christmas-y without it literally being a Christmas story. I wanted to write something that would be spooky and exciting and cosy to read at the fireside over Christmas, but still enjoyable all year round. So I created a story that was full of Christmas elements, except it wasn’t actually set at Christmas. Then I picked the Ice Warriors to be my monsters. Ice.. Christmas... geddit? Now, the Ice Warriors are classic monsters, right up there with Cybermen and Sontarans, but they haven’t yet been seen in the revamped show. BBC approvals went very quiet. It turned out, the powers in Cardiff were deciding if THEY wanted to use Ice Warriors, and whether I would be stepping on the TV show’s toes at all.

In the end, they let me do it. My pitch, with one minor plot tweak, was approved, and I went to it.

There are lots of things you can do, creatively, inside a tie-in project, but you MUST NOT CROSS THE STREAMS. With Doctor Who, I had to remain perfectly inside the remit of what the TV incarnation of the characters would allow. I couldn’t suddenly reveal that Amy had a secret tail, or have the Doctor marry Rory...

It was enormous fun. The BBC loves it (they tell me) and I hope readers enjoy it. I’ve tried to make the Ice Warriors exactly embody the deliciously lumbering big-men-in-rubber-suits from the TV (it was Bernard Bresslaw, no less, chasing Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines back in the sixties), while depicting them as realistically alien creatures; strong, capable, martial beings. There are also a couple of decent laughs along the way: once you get into the mindsets of the Doctor, Amy and Rory, it’s hard not to unleash your inner wisecracker.

I wrote Salvation’s Reach immediately before the Doctor Who book. It’s based on the Warhammer 40,000 Universe, where I’ve spent a lot of time working this last decade or so. It’s military SF, set in the ‘grim darkness of the far future, where there is only war’. Like Doctor Who, you’ve got to know the material. Unlike Doctor Who, I’m not being asked to focus on three well-known characters from TV.

The Gaunt’s Ghosts series is my invention. The setting is the Games Workshop Universe, but the characters and situations are mine. I’ve written almost a million and a half words in the Gaunt series so far, and the (very large) cast of characters is becoming quite complex and requires a lot of supervision. Each book is another ‘shooty death kill in space’ mission, featuring the Ghost regiment, and fave characters are killed off with alarming regularity. But there is also a sense of it being an ongoing saga, almost like a soap opera. In the latest few books, some of the most important things that have happened have been character-defining moments, not big explosions. I think the fact that I have written thirteen novels in the series shows that I am entirely involved with the fates of these characters: the interplay, the friendships and rivalries. Hand-on-heart, I don’t think I could have written thirteen of these books if each one was just another hundred thousand words of explosions and shooting, featuring interchangeable grunts with guns. I think that’s why so many people keep reading the books: they love the adventure, but it’s the human drama that keeps them coming back. After all, what’s more interesting: a spectacular planet-shredding explosion, or a spectacular, planet-shredding explosion that effects the lives of characters you really care about?

I learned that the hard way. I killed off a beloved character early in the series and then was actually physically threatened by an upset reader. I STILL get asked about some of those early character deaths. I figure if people care that much, I must be doing something right.

So, two books, two vastly popular franchises, two creative experiences. I loved doing both, and I’m pretty confident that both books are worth reading. And, yes, they’re both tie-in fiction, and both required use of largely the same set of ‘writing muscles’. But they could not have been more different to write.

Which is why, when people ask me what I’ve been up to recently, I have to remember which head I’m wearing before I answer.

Dan Abnett
Maidstone, September 2011

Thanks so much for taking the time, Dan!

Which of these two novels are you readers looking forward to the most? Do you have a favourite Abnett property?


  1. Well met, Dan. I think in the case of Gaunt's Ghosts, though it's part of the 'tie-in' of the 40k Universe, the fact that you've written so much on the series means that you've created that little universe yourself. A stand alone novel, it might be argued that it's merely part of the franchise, but the Ghost's series has become so much more.

    I'll keep an eye out for the Doctor Who novel this Christmas, but for the moment I'm plowing through the first Eisenhorn novel :D

  2. I read the first book in the Gaunt's Ghost's series and it was great. Can't wait to read the rest of the series, makes me a little giddy that its up to 13 books now. Thats a lot of reading.