I’ve written a guest post for the gaming blog over at The Shellcase site.
Thanks also to my friend Carl Brown for some suggestions, check out his blog at A Thousand Hats.
Sixteen hours of commuting to do? Or perhaps a bit of entertainment during the next few painting sessions?
I am very happy to announce that The Crown of the Blood is now available to download from Audible. This unabridged audiobook clocks in at less than $2 an hour, which makes it better value than a movie, even from this modern t’internet thingy. Plus it has giant cats in it, which most movies don’t. If you’re already a member, why not make this your book of the month for even better value? And if that doesn’t tempt you and you’re not a member of Audible yet you can get it for free by starting a one-month trial! I challenge anyone to find more hard bastards riding giant cats for that kind of outlay.
Not sure? Here’s what some reviews have said:
“I tore through The Crown of the Blood in one long sitting… This is a properly high fantasy world – rock people, dark sorcery, landships, riding panthers and (of course) dinosaurs – but all of it is introduced naturally and casually… his book is hairy, gory, sweaty, shameless… and perhaps even a little bit thoughtful.”
“there’s plenty to keep you turning the pages… An intriguing ending promises something different for book two”
- SFX Magazine
“The Crown of the Blood should really have a warning sticker on the front (Angry Robots take note) it’s one of those books that are almost impossible to put down, so much so that you find yourself unconsciously continuing to (try to) read after getting up to make a brew / go to work / go to bed (delete as applicable and don’t try this at home kids). The novel also stands out with a very strong opening scene and excellent end, with a genuinely unexpected twist.”
“Fantastic characterisation, intriguing world-building and an ending that makes your jaw drop, The Crown of the Blood is an excellent novel that is a must-read for any fantasy fan.”
- Shadowhawk at The Founding Fields
Listening to the extract, it’s plain that Paul Thornley has done a great job. Having performed readings of this opening chapter myself, I instantly regretted calling the otherworldly beings the eulanui, and even more that one has the near-unpronounceable title of huoyakuitaka, but Paul pulls it off with aplomb (though I suspect he may have read that and cursed my name).
“This is one of Thorpe’s best novels. The setting and story are well thought out and are remarkably logical for a fantasy novel. If you enjoy military or historical fiction, you will enjoy The Crown of the Blood. Action, intrigue, conquest, and charismatic generals are waiting for you here!”
- James Atlantic Speaks
“The Crown of the Blood (Gav Thorpe) is an old-fashioned sword and sorcery romp. There’s not a great deal of sorcery, but there’s lots of fighting and plotting and planning to conquer… it’s a fun book. This book is for readers who want a blast from the past; who want their hour of adventure in a strange world.”
- Gillian Polack
“This is an absolutely fantastic novel; I recommend it.”
- Daniel’s Thoughts
Five years ago the first Black Library Live! event (the ! was essential back then) took place at Warhammer World at Games Workshop’s headquarters in Nottingham. This Saturday sees the latest such gathering, and a timely but brief look at why I really love these events.
For the general public it might be difficult to appreciate the importance of that first Black Library Live! For many previous years, Games Workshop events had been geared towards gaming and miniatures. There was always Games Day, a celebration of all things GW-related, but other events were tournaments, campaign weekends, painting competitions, modelling workshops and the like. When BL Live! came around, and sold out in good time, it showed that the fiction of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 could hold its own as part of the bigger Games Workshop offer.
That first BL Live! was something special. It had a very different feel to the Black Library stand at Games Day. There was a genuine sense of community, of creators and fans sharing and enjoying the event equally. I don’t think any of us had known what to expect, but the sincere enthusiasm of the fans gave us a day that flew by, leaving me with a warm glow by the time I headed home.
This social aspect has been the hallmark of Black Library events going forward. There are the pre-releases, the chapbooks, the special editions, the posters, t-shirts, underpants and whatever other exclusive materials are available; there’s the chance to get stuff signed and quiz your favourite authors. Most of all these events give readers of the Black Library the opportunity to come together with each other. The pre-event games and meets in Bugman’s, the conversations in the seminar queue and the debates over lunch, and the post-event wind down with a drink or two are every bit as important to many folks as the scheduled signings and seminars.
The Weekender and Horus Heresy Weekender have taken that one stage further by adding a residential aspect to the socialising. The Saturday night fun, and games and the chats in the wee hours of the morning, as well as bleary-eyed conversations over Sunday breakfast, are an essential component to the success of these gatherings.
And as an author I take great pleasure in meeting up with the other Black Library writers and artists and staff. The sense of community that pervades the fans is also there amongst us creative types. It is lovely to catch up with well-known acquaintances and to welcome new faces. The banter in the ‘green room’ is as lively as any badinage during the seminars, which while not wholly unique to Black Library is something different to other conventions I’ve attended. It feels as much like a family get together – especially when the some of the authors bring their next generation with them – as it does a work outing.
As usual the Black Library are keeping me busy all day, so here’s my schedule for those that want to do a bit of planning:
10:00 Guardian of the Unforgiven Q&A (Seminar 2 – 50 minutes)
Let’s talk Dark Angels, including perhaps a few titbits about what to expect from Master of Sanctity and the First Legion in the Horus Heresy. They’ve put me up against Graham McNeill’s one-on-one in this time slot, so I expect all of you to choose me over him. I will take it personally if you don’t. I mean, my reputation has already been tarred by being put in the smaller seminar room, but it’s limited to 40 tickets which you’ll have to pre-book on the day, so it’ll be more exclusive than McNeill’s free-for-all scrum.
11:00 The Sound and the Fury Audio Q&A (Seminar 2 – 50 minutes)~
Black Library audios are one of the biggest success stories in recent years, so come and see what we’ve got planned in the coming months. I think I’m doing this with a Smiley Frenchman. Did I hear that right?
Mmm, sandwiches and pop. You’ll have to get your own.
13:00 signing in Sales Area (50 minutes)
You bring it, I’ll sign it. This might be a good chance to talk about Warhammer-related reading.
14:00 The Remembrancers Speak (Seminar 1 – 50 minutes)
The Horus Heresy. To be honest, Dan Abnett is not around this year so the rest of us might get a chance to answer some of your questions… (Love you , Dan x)
15:00 signing in Sales Area (50 minutes)
Except live animals and children. Never work with children and animals.
17:00 Closing Ceremony
I suspect some kind of flag lowering and musical act will be involved.
And if you want to see more BL at events, check out their page here: http://www.blacklibrary.com/Events/events-calendar.html
2013 ended on the best note possible, the arrival of our Son Samuel, and so the early weeks of 2014 have been a whirlwind of nappies, sleeplessness and many moments of sublime cuteness [I have objective evidence that little Sammy rates a 9.8 on the fluffy-puppy-squeezability scale]. Blog updates were not exactly coming thick and fast before then (for reasons, read on) and I think it’s safe to say that it’s going to take a while for things to settle down.
So I’ve grabbed a moment just to let you in on what’s happening in case I don’t get another chance in a while.
Shortly after Samuel made his debut, I also received a nice couple of parcels in the form of the Sails of Glory game that I backed on Kickstarter. I’ve always wanted to do age-of-Nelson naval gaming and with a slick combat system, pre-painted models and a following wind this will hopefully see the light of day soon. Soonish. The production is fantastic (unlike my photography skills) and I’m sure the gameplay will be of the same quality. When I get a chance to play I’ll post my thoughts or maybe even a battle report.
Just before Christmas I sent Black Library the first draft of my next Time of Legends novel. Entitled Doom of Dragonback, it takes a look at the ancient ancestors of the Bugman family, and dramatic events in the mines of Ekrund in the opening years of the Goblin Wars. Its been great fun to get back to the Dwarfs; keep a look out for more information, extracts and whatnot later in the year.
I’ve also been working on some short fiction, including a story called Rise of the Secret King for the second Raus! Untoten! anthology from Fringeworks. I’m putting together a one-off fantasy short that I hope will make an appearance in a follow-up Legends anthology from Newcon Press. Edited by the absolutely grand Ian Whates, I’ve really enjoyed the first collection and I think my contribution to the second volume will be a fitting homage to an author that had a huge influence on me when I was younger. (Just after I wrote my first ever short story – Birth of Legend – I attended a David Gemmell signing of at Nottingham Waterstone’s. I was going to mention my own authorial debut but chickened out, a moment I keep in mind every time I’m on the other side of the table these days.)
There will be plenty of Black Library stuff, of course, including the release of Master of Sanctity, book two in the Legacy of Caliban series. And more Horus Heresy fun, both in print and audio, as well as some exciting Warhammer work that will be announced later in the year. And I should – bearing in mind the reaction to the first HH graphic novel Macragge’s Honour – be working on the script for a second title, returning to the cataclysmic events on Prospero…
There will also be some games design stuff thrown in – the release of Open Combat, a skirmish game I’ve been helping a friend with (when he can get it finished), and maybe even a Kickstarter project or two if I can get organised. There will also be another pretty durn big announcement of a different kind that currently an NDA and army of lawyers prevents me talking about, but let’s just say I had a great time last summer doing some world-building stuff for a big project with an exceptionally talented group of individuals working at a rather major company.
And I’m hoping to complete the first draft of my next non-Warhammer novel, the first of an exciting, open-ended venture.
Oh, and there’ll be the whole raising a son thing too…
Let’s rock on, 2014!
My brain is full of pitch goodness. And badness. Let’s be clear, I’m talking about the process by which an author (or another creative generally) attempts to get someone interested in their idea, and not the tarry black stuff that can be set on fire. If you’ve had any interest at all in writing you will have heard about ‘pitching’, and it’s a sad fact that many an otherwise good writer has fallen at this vital stage.
Why am I thinking about this now?
I have embarked upon a new original fiction fantasy novel and at some point next year will be looking for an agent and/ or editor.
Angry Robot have announced their latest open submissions window.
Black Library also blogged about possible open submissions windows.
I spent Friday with the Black Library Weekender Golden Ticket holders helping them with writing stories, including the pitch process.
So it’s in my mind at the moment, right? Whether it’s thirty seconds in an elevator with an editor (don’t pitch in the toilets, please) or a written inquiry to an agent, at some point even the most successful and established writer has to sell their latest idea.
I’ll be up front and say that there’s absolutely no reason to listen to me on this subject at all. I have been so exceptionally lucky, with Black Library and Angry Robot, that my pitching experience in the real world is minimal. I am a stranger to the slush pile agony experienced by most writers.
On the other hand, I’ve only ever had one story pitch rejected by Black Library in all my days writing for them, and AR picked up my trilogy so I must be doing something right.
Really, Do I Have To Pitch?
Yes, you really do.
But worry not, this isn’t the hackneyed verbal pitch to a bored TV or film producer as portrayed in print and screen so many times, in which you’ll be stared out of the room in five seconds. Most of your pitches, at least the ones that really count, will be non-verbal. You might be in the privileged position of doing a full-on pitch in person to an agent or editor but it is highly unlikely. Even if you get the drop on them at a con and they are genuinely interested, the chances are high that they’ll say “That sounds good, here’s my email, send me your pitch” or words to that effect.
You’ll be pitching even when you don’t realise it. When you’re sending in the opening 10,000 words to an agent with a cover letter? Don’t be fooled by the ‘submissions’ banner on the webpage, it’s a pitch. In fact, wherever you see ‘submissions’ for a magazine or website, just mentally replace that with ‘pitch’.
The truth is that you must engage someone’s interest to sell your ideas. It helps if an editor or agent can see your intent as well as the actual piece, especially if you’re new to this. If you just send in a story or novel without any explanation you’re leaving it entirely up to your prose to sell itself. Of course when it hits the reader that’s all you’ll have, but at this stage you can actually give pointers to the potential reader. A magazine editor, for example, might like the idea but not the execution, or vice versa. They can tell you that the story was great but not their thing, or that the story was bad but your writing is good, or the other way around – you can write but the plot didn’t work, etc, etc. Make it easy for them to give you better feedback and keep the relationship open. If you send a story and nothing else, they can judge you only by that.
“The Crown of the Blood Book Plan
The Crown of the Blood is a fantasy version of Rome. Family infighting and powerful factions vie for control of a growing empire. It charts the ever more ruthless methods of its ruler, Ullsaard III, to maintain his reign; a combination of political drama and military spectacle against a backdrop of fantasy mysticism and magic. Oh, and the titular Crown contains the spirit of Asqland’s founder, the mighty Asqos, who constantly tries to possess Ullsaard and reclaim his empire.
Book one – Establish characters and setting. Ullsaard takes the Crown instead of his brother. Asuhas resentful. The bastard child of Ullsaard and Peritia born. Anglhan’s rise to prominence. The awakening of the eulanui.
Book two – Kariq makes his move, eventually crushed by Ullsaard. Anglhan plays both sides and takes power in Salphoria. Peritia raises her son in secret.
Book three –Asuhas makes his claim for the Crown backed by the mystical Brotherhood of Asqos. Division between Ullsaard and the Brotherhood. Henry VIII style dissolution of the Brotherhood, Ullsaard turns to the eulanui instead, sacrificing his brother for victory. Anglhan becomes governor of Salphoria in his place. Asuhas escapes retribution.
Book four – Rebellion in the provinces. Ullsaard distracted by war in the provinces and Asuhas’ rabble-rousing. Anglhan learns of the bastard child and raises him as a figurehead, turns Salphoria against Asqland. Three-way contest for the Crown. Ullsaard bankrupts the Empire to get Nemuria on board to win the war. Asuhas hunted down and executed. Salphoria pushed back to Magilnada. Bastard child sacrificed to the ealanui, sealing the deal from book one.
Book five – The eulanui return. Salphoria attacked. Ullsaard refuses to help despite threat to Asqland. Eulanui overrun Salphoria. Provinces truculent to help, Ullsaard must grant new independence for them to help. Greater Asqland is no more. Eulanui triumphant, Ullsaard forced into in exile.
Book six – The exiled Asqlanders come upon new shores. Guided by Asqos, Ullsaard takes over and a new Empire is born and the cycle begins again.”
The Crown of the Blood original pitch idea – this changed completely – three books for a start… This was for me alone and was revised heavily afterwards.
What’s In A Pitch?
A pitch breaks down into four parts. The first part is you. A simple paragraph about yourself introduces you to the editor or agent (obviously not necessary if you already know them, as I do with BL, although it might be funny the first few times…). Don’t get too shy with this – if you get published there will be a bio of you somewhere. Write that bio now.
After that is the one-line summary, although this might actually be a couple of lines, don’t be too pedantic. For The Crown of the Blood, the teeny-tiny summary was basically “It’s HBO’s Rome, but epic fantasy.” At this point you’re thinking that your idea cannot be rendered down to such a crass level. Oh yes it can, and if it can’t you need to work on it until it can.
The agent or editor knows that this is not the be-all-and-end-all of your story. They know how this process works, they just need to see that you do too. Don’t get too much in love with jargon, but if you do know there’s a trope or archetypical plot that you’re using, don’t be afraid of it. The story will hide it, but the pitch has to admit to it.
“A fish out of water story with a dwarf stranded on the isle of the elves.”
“Two space marines on a buddy mission inside a Tyranid Hive Ship.”
“A bildungsroman of Napoleon in an alternate history in which he was born on the Isle of White not Corsica.”
“Two supercomputers in a story that blends Wargames with the Odd Couple.”
After this you get to do more of an overview. This should be no more than a page (for a pitch, but see synopses, below). Get in, describe the main characters and the bulk of the plot and then get out.
Keep to the plot and any major sub-plots, not every in and out of what happens. Stick to theme, not just events. If you think your story is too complicated for summary, take a good look in the mirror right now, ask yourself “Really? Is it really?” and then get over it. You can summarise your tangled web of intrigue, sex, a donkey sanctuary, Martians and solar power and you will.
Sometimes it helps if you think of this like the blurb on the back of the book: what is that going to say? Obviously the marketing people will put something completely different on the actual book, but it’s a good exercise to go through for your own clarity.
The premise underlying the series is of unearned reward. Many of the characters take shortcuts to wealth and power, building castles on the sand that later collapse. This works on several levels, from the nature of the Asqland empire itself, to the ambitions and achievements of individuals. In the end, not only those characters that took the short-cuts are affected, the fall-out destroys the lives of those around them.” From my pitch for The Crown of the Blood.
A synopsis is another name for an overview but in this context I think of it as a more detailed breakdown of the story events – chapter-by-chapter sometimes for a novel, but not always. I would only include this if you’re not sending any sample work – so this is sort of what I would give to BL, for example.
There is no hard and fast rule for a synopsis, but I would say that this should be no more than 10% of the length of the actual piece, and the longer the piece, the shorter the pitch in relation to its length (particularly since your novel pitch will be including the ten thousand words of the opening chapters, right?). Ten thousand word story? 1,000 word pitch. Max. 100K of epic sci-fi goodness? Maybe seven or eight thousand words. 5,000 word audio? A couple of paragraphs probably. Even if your outlines for yoturself are longer (and some can be very long) try to trim it down for the ease of your editor.
If necessary, include very brief character bios for the major players up front. Discuss psychology and motivations, not physical properties (unless that is important to he plot, like being able to fart fireballs or something).
There are sample synopses from some of my older work if you look at the links on the right. They aren’t pitches as such, but they do give you an idea what to aim for. I’ll try to put up a couple of more recent short stories too, since that’s what BL look for mostly these days.
The truth is that the more you have been published and worked with an editor, the more willing they are to commission on something vaguer with a few return comments – they trust you to deliver in the prose and rewrites. If you’re starting out you have to prove yourself in the synopsis too.
What is my Pitch Trying to Achieve?
The pitch is trying to do whatever your story is trying to do – intrigue, captivate, move a reader. Make the editor care about the characters; grip an agent with the depth of the setting and plot; make them love this story or novel as much as you do.
Think why as much as how, what, where and whom. The less questions the recipient has to ask about the characters or plot, the more successful the pitch will be. The only question you want the reader to have is, “When can I have it?”.
Let’s be honest, editors and agents want to find good writers. That’s what they get paid to do. If you have a good story and aren’t a complete nutjob (or are a complete nutjob but have an absolutely amazing story) they want you to get in touch.
Do not be timid, do not sell yourself short and do not give them excuses not to like you or your work. These people are, drunken performances at conventions and online notwithstanding, professionals. They can literally read between the lines (though if you send it with 1.5 or double-spacing it helps). Make your pitch personal, pertinent and punchy.
Do NOT send them everything but the ending. That results in a different sort of punchy. Get them excited and then give them the payoff, just like you would the reader, but in abbreviated form. Come on, you’re a storyteller, you know how to weave this stuff, just do it with less words…
When Do I Write My Pitch?
Normally first-time writers or writers starting a new project (like me) will write the pitch after the piece is finished. However, if you have an ongoing relationship with the editor(s)or its for a particular IP then often the pitch will come first, before you spend all that time writing something you can’t then ship around to other interested parties.
There’s a whole other topic of planning and using outlines, but the pitch can be a useful exercise either at the start, midway or end of the writing, depending on your personal writing process. After writing something it’s useful to either try to condense it into a pitch, to make sure you have a decent theme and a solid plot amongst all the words; or to compare what you’ve written with the pitch you planned (or actually sent!) If you really, really can’t summarise your story for a pitch, perhaps it isn’t about anything at all and needs more work!
Stuff changes, so don’t feel beholden to the detailed synopsis one hundred per cent, but be sure you’ve stuck to the story in the broader pitch, or otherwise revise the pitch so that it suits. If you’ve already had the work commissioned and it’s straying off the outline be sure to have a conversation with your editor. They’ll probably be as excited by the new direction as you, but don’t dump it on them without warning.
If you are planning a series of two or more books or stories, give a very brief overview of the series and a detailed pitch for the first piece. Think of it as though you were pitching two slightly separate stories – the big one and the first one.
When Do I Use My Pitch?
Whenever you’re submitting something in writing, include the relevant pitch parts in a covering letter for your manuscript (if the editor/ agent asks for manuscripts that is).
Be prepared for success. This is why it’s often useful to pitch only once the story or book is written. An editor may ask to see more, and if they have to wait six months while you write it their enthusiasm might wane. Similarly, if it took you three years to create Book One of your trilogy and an editor likes it, get ready to write Book Two a lot quicker!
Keep an eye out for open submissions windows, as well as seeking the right sort of agents to approach. If nothing else, practise will improve your pitch-writing as much as it helps your storytelling and you’ll get useful feedback even form the failures hopefully.
Know your one-line pitch and the summary so that should you find yourself at the bar next to a willing editor or agent (the bar, not the toilets!) you can pitch like a pro. Don’t forget the bit about yourself – act like a human.
“Hi, I’m Gav Thorpe. I’ve had some books published already and I’m wondering if you’re open to me telling you about my next project?”
“Would you like a drink?” often helps…
If they say no, don’t be disheartened – say thanks and part company but don’t fret about doing it again. It takes nerve – often more nerve than I have – but a modern readership won’t let you cower behind that keyboard all day anyway so might as well get used to talking to people face-to-face, amirite?
Be ready for questions. If something throws you, just say so. “I hadn’t thought of that,” and “I’ll need to think about that,” are far better than whatever random crap you’ll spew out on the spot. Make a note and actually think about it before you pitch again. Be engaged with the feedback you get there and then.
Be concise in your answers, but show enthusiasm. Be proud of getting this far, but not arrogant. You are selling yourself as much as your story – this is the potential start of a career relationship not a one-night-stand. By that token, figure out if you can work with this person – just because they might want your story doesn’t mean they are actually the best fit for you or your work.
Remember that although they will actually be judging you and your work, they’re professionally inclined to give you a good shot, unlike the readers you will be getting later. Make the most of their indulgence.
And I will end with one final piece of advice: Read The Career Novelist by Donald Maass. (
Free PDF Bugger, he’s taken it off the agency website. There are PDFs around but I can’t vouch for their legality or anything.) Don’t be so desperate for acceptance, affirmation and recognition that you accept any old offer. You’ve gone to the trouble of selling that novel, make sure the price is right too and you’re happy with the commitment to you from the other side.
It’s also worth checking out the blogs of agents and editors because they go on a lot about what they’re after in a story and a pitch. Even if you don’t have a pitch handy but have time to chat to one of these people, it’s a useful conversation to have, and keep an eye out for panels on the subject at conventions.
Not to be confused with an armed altercation for control of the Bulgarian capital Sofia, the Battle of Sophia is a fund-raising event taking place soon in Oxfordshire, UK to send a little girl with cerebral palsy for an operation in the US. As well as getting to make up cool stories, create cool worlds and meet cool people, one of the cool things about being a writer is contributing to efforts like this. (Occasionally working in your underpants or dressing gown is also cool.)
Usually it’s just publicity I can bring to the party but by a quirk of timing and family geography I was able to make a more worthy addition to the cause this time. I’ve raided the samples boxes in the garage and dug out armfuls of novels for the organisers to raffle and auction off. Everything is signed by me, you’ll find out the details in the coming days, and be assured that there’s one or two things in there that money (almost) can’t buy.
To learn about this great event, and to support either the forces of light or the forces of darkness with the Winds of Magic and in other ways, read more here:
You can also keep track with #battleforsophia on Twitter.
It’s happening this week, so get involved! The family have already raised a good amount, but another £5,000 will seal the deal. Let’s show folks just how great the wargames community can be.
You can share the news with the press release – 130830b_press_release_battle_for_sophia- even if you can’t afford any financial support. Get the word out there.
Thank you so much for your time and attention.
As I promised on Facebook, here is a little extract from the bonus short story that will be appearing in the Eldar Path omnibus.
“I had no kabal,” Kolidaran replied softly. “Not even the scraps from an Archon’s table to feed upon. My first memories are of Low Commorragh when my mother, a slave-bitch who escaped from the corespur, gave her life to protect me from a prowling Ur-ghul. I strived, Jurathi, and fought tooth and claw just to elevate myself to the slums of Sec Maegra. I feasted on the decayed fruit of Khaides to survive.”
And while I have your attention, don’t forget that another omnibus is coming out soon…
Donald Featherstone is dead.
If you don’t know who Donald Featherstone is, it’s hard to explain why this news is a real kicker for me. Rather than link to his Wikipedia entry or to interviews, I’m just going to say who Donald Featherstone was to me.
I never met him but he occupied a very special place in my adolescent years. My only contact with him has been through a handful of his books but I regard him as an inspiration and a role model. One of those books is probably more responsible for why I am here today doing what I am doing than any other individual, with perhaps the exception of JRR Tolkien. If the professor ignited in me an utter love for fantasy, Donald Featherstone sparked my passion for wargaming and toy soldiers.
Stevenage Library, sometime in the early eighties (probably 1984ish). A young me discovers this book on the Hobby shelves:
Some context. I created my first wargame aged around ten (that would be 1984, actually, so maybe I found this in ’85-86). This game involved crawling around on a friend’s bedroom floor with some Airfix soldiers and taking it in turns to move and shoot one man. Later we added dice – a roll of six was a hit, machine guns rolled three dice.
To discover that this was an actual thing, that a grown up had actually written a book about it blew my little eleven/twelve-year-old mind. Not only that but apparently you could do it with Roman legionnaires and Napoleonic armies, and there were skirmishers and cavalry, and… and… and…
Wow, even now it chokes me to think how damned exciting that felt. Just seeing that cover makes me want to do all of that stuff just as much as it did back then. I want to recreate Austerlitz and the Afrika Corps versus the 8th Army, and model a table of Nijmegen and maybe besiege a crusader castle on the Levant, and… and… and…
It’s fair to say that my love of history started with a love of wargaming rather than the other way around. That is down to Donald Featherstone, so I have that to be grateful for as well.
And then I came across this book a few weeks later. Not only could I do all of that cool stuff, I could link all my games together and fight the entire Peninsula campaign and recreate the conquests of Alexander, and… and… and…
And that’s my point. Donald Featherstone opened my eyes to the possibilities that wargames present. Endless permutations of scale, period and rules. I started to think about painting my models. I dreamed of one day owning my own sand table to recreate battlefields on a whim. Donald had already pried open my brain with his genuine love of scale modelling, history and wargaming, and I was ripe and ready just a year or two later for when I was exposed to the splendour of Warhammer and, a bit later, Warhammer 40,000 (and other fantasy and sci-fi miniatures, including Mithril’s range of LOTR figures).
All that toy soldier goodness combined with fantasy and sci-fi? Braingasm!
So, though I only played a few games using his rules, and I haven’t yet got around to using the matchbox campaign system to recreate the breakout from Normandy, I want to say a huge Thank You to Donald F Featherstone.
Having earlier covered Friday and Saturday of the Nine Worlds Geekfest, as night follows day (or rather as a day follows another day) we come to our gadding about on Sunday. We were, it is fair to say, a little bit more wearied on Sunday than Saturday, but we were determined to make a whole day of it if we could before the drive back to Nottingham. Breakfast was as superb if nor superblier (yes, that is a word, trust me, I am a writer you know) than the day before and it was just as well we carbed up because we had a busy day ahead of us.
Fans, Fans and more Fans
We managed to gulp down out brekkie quickly enough to only be a few minutes late for the ‘What Makes a Fandom’ seminar, in which the participants were Jim Swallow, Danie Ware, Iona Sharma and Adrian Tchaikovsky moderated by Paul Wiseall. We came in a little late, as I said, so we must have missed the part where they let on what you need to do to get thousands of adoring fans instantly. Instead we got to take part in an interesting discussion that looked at two main points.
Firstly, what differentiates a fan from the casual enthusiast? What is it that means someone wants to get more out of a particular thing, be it a hobby, show, book series, movie? I’ve remarked on one particular fan trait before – The Thing About fans is... – and I think that what holds true the most over all of the reasons discussed is that fans brings passion. If, as a creator, you elicit a passionate response, be it love for a character, or hate, or perhaps an association with a concept or ideal then you have a chance of creating a fandom.
It is this that I have been thinking about recently. As I plan some time into my schedule to write another non-Black Library series (no news yet, still just ideas) I have combined what was said in this panel with what I took away from the ‘Cake or death?’ seminar. A range of characters that different people will identify with, each surviving just the right amount of hardship and earning enough ‘cake’ during the story to make the readers happy, are your basic elements needed to create fans. A cool setting and interesting plot will help along too, of course. In fact, in the matter of setting it was raised that fans like to be able to add their own space. Obviously 40K is huge on this, and Warhammer to a slightly lesser extent, ensuring there is plenty of sandpit left over for fans no matter how much playing the designers and authors do. Hinting at a wider universe, almost expecting the fans (daring them even) to go and explore over the hill makes them feel like they can get more involved and own a piece of the universe and characters for themselves.
For many fictional worlds this is fan-fic, but actually with a hobby like gaming this is essential. Again and again I have to point out to people that the Warhammer world and the 40K galaxy were created not for the designers to tell stories but as a setting for everybody else to collect miniature armies and play out their battles. Too many newer settings start out dictatorial and I have no interest in them; I want a creative relationship not a purely consumer one.
The second thing, after that detour, is the idea of a fandom as a single entity. A fandom is a community, and once established it will display its own particular social norms and behaviours. Certain individuals, aside from the creators, might rise up into ‘gatekeeper’ positions by running a successful blog or being moderators on a big forum. This community will develop unique jargon, archetypes and tropes.
One of the downsides is that a firmly established fandom can become insular, intimidating to newcomers either overtly or simply by the complexity of the community that has arisen. I have read some comics, but that does not make me a comics fan and I would be unprepared for a debate about Hulk versus the Thing in any circumstances. You see this sort of thing again and again, with newcomers often mocked or at least ostracised simply for their newness.
There are two ways to combat this and ensure that a fandom does not stagnate and eventually die. The first is down to the creators ensuring that they have an accessible product, be it games, movies, books or whatever. They need to engage equally with die-hard fans and the noob and weight their opinions equally. Too often, particularly in gaming, creators listen overly much to the ‘veterans’ and end up destroying the broader appeal of what they produce, suffering a death by committee fate.
Also, fan communities should openly embrace new blood. Fandoms rarely get official backing so they have to be self-supporting, and sometimes that means making sure the new guy or gal gets a voice. Hobbies and fandoms that do well are inclusive and it does us all good to remember that dim and distant day when we were just starting out and didn’t know the different between Jack and shit. It’s like the bloke (it’s usually a bloke) that complains about learner drivers, as if he somehow magically appeared behind the wheel of a car with full driving knowledge and faculties. We all start somewhere and if we want our fandoms to survive in the decades to come (I’m looking at you RPGs and historical games…) someone has to be recruiting and helping people start out.
Anyway, these are my thoughts mainly, but prompted by that good discussion.
Back in the Room
After that, we attended a talk on Cults by Alice Herron who, after years of participation and membership of an organisation, came to the realisation that she was in a cult. It was a fascinating story, and though I would have liked to have learned a little bit more about the psychology of cult-building and membership, as an anecdotal narrative it was very interesting. What intrigued me most was the slow swing from avid member of the organisation to suspicion to wanting to leave. Alice admitted she had doubts almost from the outset, but even as they continued to grow over the years the plusses she thought existed (and some did exist – she was definitely very healthy in mind and body, if not skepticism) outweighed the downsides for a long time. Even now, after everything, she still looks back with some fondness at what happened and th e people she met – having not been personally involved in some of the more scandalous activities – and can see the ridiculousness of some of the things she ended up being asked to do for the cult’s leader. Unfortunately not everybody gets out of such situations as intact as Alice, and I wonder if those who were used in sexual liaisons and forced to have abortions are quite as sanguine about events.
As equally intriguing is the (albeit assumed rather than proven) decline of the cult leader, who seemingly started out with a genuine desire to help other people but whose narcissistic personality took over once he started gaining authority and followers. It all tallies nicely with the idea of Chaos in Warhammer and 40k, and a lot of fiction in general; nobody wakes up one morning and declares ‘I am going to be evil from now on!’ Even the most twisted individuals have a journey to take.
Discworld Science Gurus
We were next lined up to a double-header of Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, joint authors of the Science of Discworld books, separately rather than together. I was looking forwards to both ‘The Deterministic Monkey Theorem or Chaos in L-Space’ and ‘The Design of Alien Ecologies: The Invention of Reality-based Aliens.’ You can tell that they are both academics by the length of the talk titles!
Before the second panel, the talks being in the other hotel, we tried to hunt down some food. Mickey D’s was too busy and what followed was the most infuriating twenty minutes I have had in a long time at the coffee and cake stand in the Radisson. I’ll not bore you with the details but when it takes twenty minutes (with no queue) to get a cup of tea, a cup of coffee and a couple of cakes, you can imagine the depths of terrible customer service that were plumbed. And that made us late for our next panel. No fault of the organisers, all the fault of the hotel/ restaurant management. Even getting our drinks for free at the end was small compensation for not throttling someone.
Anyway, the L-space talk was very good, although bits of it went right over my head, it being very high levels maths, though no sums were hurt in the process. It was basically Big Numbers stuff with monkey jokes (or ape jokes) and suchlike.
A little more useful was the exo-biology stuff from Jack Cohen. The talk broke down into two parts really, the first being the establishment of life on our planet in our ecologies (‘cos they change, right?) and the second being a few extrapolations of what that might mean via the medium of old school 50′s and 60′s sci-fi covers… Short version: there are ‘universals’ that have developed time and again in different strands of evolution, like wings and eyes and hair and stuff. Different solutions, but all for the same problem. These are likely to appear in xenomorphs. On the other hand there are ‘parochial’ traits that have only evolved once, here on Earth, and so are unlikely to be replicated by an extra-terrestial. The chances of similar mutations giving rise to a parochial again and again are nonsensical.
And the biggest kicker of this? Being vertebrate is parochial! All those spines we see in the world all come from a single common ancestor species, which gave us vertebrate fish and later moved on to land to create all the land vertebrates. And spines have only evolved that one time… So the odds are massively against them ever cropping up again in an alien species. Biggest piece of advice from Jack Cohen, then, is if you want a good start designing an alien, don’t make it a vertebrate and you’ll be off and running.
You can, of course, cheat like the 40K mythology by having an Old One creator species that meddled with everybody’s development to make them all share certain traits. Hey, it’s a fudge, but at least it’s an explanation…
I’m Tired and I want to go to Bed
We were both flagging by this point, and Kez’s brain was dribbling out of her ears a little (and mine wasn’t far behind). We managed to get ourselves to one more panel – another science-y one. ‘The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets’ was, at its heart, Simon Singh‘s pitch for his new book. It was entertaining and informative – who ever knew there was such a clutch of maths nerds writing for The Simpsons and Futurama? It took us through the maths-inclined writers behind the jokes and a few of the best maths-related gags in both series, passing through such areas as Fermat’s Last Theorem and a proof that no matter how many people are in a group that have swapped brains and can’t swap back you only need to add two people to untangle the mess.
We thought about staying for a live recording of The Pod Delusion but by the late afternoon we were proper done in and still had a two-and-a-half hour drive to go. With a few last farewells, we packed up and left, tired but very, very happy.
Another Time, Thorpe
If you think that spending your time listening to creative types waffle on, hanging out with fellow fans, maybe even pitching your ideas to a willing audience and generally getting your geek on sounds fun, why not come along to Birmingham next month for the Andromeda One convention. I’ll be there with a host (a host of hosts!) of other authors and genre folk.
Oh, and in case you didn’t click through the links, I wouldn’t want you to miss Guy Haley‘s audition tape…
Having ensured we got a full night’s sleep (see the last instalment) we were up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to get showered and breakfasted before another full day of fun adventures through Geekdom. (There was a chap at the event who was literally bushy-tailed…) A quick aside at this point: the buffet breakfast at the Renaissance was probably the best I’ve had on this side of the atlantic, and all the better for being included in the discounted room rates that came with booking via Nine Worlds.
After filling up wholeheartedly at brekkie (the packed schedule was making lunch plans vague) we started a Saturday that was mostly spent Being Skeptical.
First on the agenda was Sleep Paralysis. We approached this from different angles, Kez as an occasional sufferer, myself with an eye to narrative potential. We were first presented with a short film by Carla MckInnon Devil in the Room, which was fifty per cent informative and fifty per cent outright creepy as hell. Luckily there were no youngsters present but it really should have come with a bit of a warning. Kez was deeply affected by some of the imagery although she has not suffered the worst sleep paralysis symptoms and as there was an unsurprisingly high proportion of sufferers attending it seemed to chime with a lot of their experiences. With Carla was Dan Denis, who has been conducting research with her for the Sleep Paralysis project. He took us through the ins and outs of various myths and the science behind sleep paralysis, to which I could only conclude that once again our brains have some truly devious ways of going wrong and messing us up. I also left with some story ideas about an agent/ hero/ self-made hero who combats the beasts that appear during sleep paralysis by way of astral projection, although perhaps that’s just Nightmare on Elm Street without all the slashy bits…
Our next session was also in the Skeptics room, dealing with ‘Alien Mummies, Monsters and Mermaids’ and delivered by the highly entertaining Paolo Viscardi of the Horniman Museum. After taking us through the basics of creature identification (including several unlikely objects that turn out to be very mundane that he has been asked to identify and a story about picking up roadkill and carrying it to work for the taxidermist…) he then had us trying to identify other cryptids that have been in the news over recent years. The concluding part of the talk was a nice trek through the foggy history of mermaids, from folklore to Ripley and P T Barnum. As well as the fun of all this, there was also the important point raised to question why the media, and some individuals, love to propagate these modern myths when even some cursory research proves them to be utterly explicable. Many quote ‘experts’ without citing their actual source, with such experts being entirely fictional or utterly useless at their jobs if, for instance, they can’t see the Montauk Monster is easily identified as a raccoon.
How to be a Millionaire in Four Dozen Easy Steps
I’m a fairly recent convert to Kickstarter and crowdfunding – in fact my first Kickstarter project as a backer was Nine Worlds itself back at the end of february. Since then I’ve dropped more money than is possibly advisable on a couple of really cool-looking games, but what really interests me is the people that have decided to go down the Crowd-funding route. This talk, with Jan Wagner of Shadowrun Online and Alex Harvey of the Tangiers project wrangled by Tomas Rawlings from Call of Cthulu: The wasted Land, focussed on how to make a successful Kickstarter. The bit they didn’t mention was having a cool idea, but I suppose we all think we’ve got that before we start…
They did, however, make it very obvious just how much work it took, in preparation and particularl in community relations. And, contrary to the belief that crowd-funding means your project has paid for itself before it even starts, the likelihood is that although production costs can be sourced from your backers, a lot od design and research is going to initially come our of your own pocket. Perhaps the most telling quote (paraphrasing here) was “Kickstarter folks are professional backers these days, looking for professional projects. This may be your first Kickstarter, it isn’t theirs.” I wonder, and this was not addressed in the talk, if other crowd-funding sites and sources are more suited to the arty-cottage-industry-one-person-with-a-vision sort of projects these days, or if Kickstarter has basically cornered all of the crowdfunding juice to the detriment of that initial goal.
After that, and an impromptu talk with lady who had self-published some novellas (and taken the very wise step of hiring an editor and copy editor for her latest editions) we went on the hunt for food. McDonalds turned out to be the most convenient and cost-effective choice, and since this meant leaving the hotel we left for the other venue a few minutes’ walk up the road. Yes, Nine World was occurring over two hotels, with the gaming-related streams taking place in the other venue. We had brought some games with us for ad-hoc fun but all we managed to fit in before our next scheduled talk was a quick game of Hera and Zeus. It says something when there’s not enough time to play games! Next year, maybe, we’ll be able to indulge the gaming side of things a bit more.
While Kez had a nap (she is growing another lifeform so that’s excusable) I hung out at the bar and chatted/ stared into distance overwhelmed with ideas, and then attended the Fact Hunters panel back with the Skeptics. It wasn’t my favourite panel, despite initial appeal, and as well as turning up a bit late I left early, a little bit bored with thedescent into cod-philosophy discussions of what constitutes a ‘fact’. Not from the panel, I add, but too many audience members trying to make their own obscure points, I’m afraid.
I should have gone to the ‘Mary/ Sue’ panel on writing female characters instead. Oh well.
After that the party started. And by started, I mean launched with a sing-a-long of the musical Buffy episode One More With Feeling. I don’t really have to explain this, you can see it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G5MrkRd9R-0&feature=youtu.be
Kez and I are in shot for just a couple of seconds and you are fortunate not to be able to hear my atonal bellowing, though she has a lovely voice.
Fun. Pure, geeky fun. I wasn’t bothered about the discussions of the ins and outs of the Whedonverse, the feminist subtexts of his characters, or anything else Joss Whedon-related, but you can’t ignore a good sing-a-long, can you?
The rest of the evening was spent in quiet repose and conversation with various people. In the bar. With drinks. i was, however, sober. Pretty much. I promise. All-in-all a day well spent, into the wee hours of Sunday morning.
Coming up in Part 3 – Will we regret our late night shenanigans? Will breakfast be as good? Why isn’t a vertebrate skeleton the universal we think it is?