Friday, 5 March 2010

Guest Blog! (Graham McNeill)

Things aren't as bad as they used to be but I still get the feeling, every now and then, that tie-in fiction is a sub-genre that people look down on for a number of reasons. My view has always been that if it's a well written book then it doesn't matter whether it's tie-in or not and I thought it would be great to take a look at things from the perspective of someone who writes tie-in fiction.
Proving that all Graemes (and Grahams) are wonderful people who will drop whatever they are doing and turn out a blog post, Black Library writer Graham McNeill very kindly agreed to write a guest post for the blog. Thanks Graham!
Here's what he had to say for himself...

Another day, another blog…

Not long ago, Dan Abnett and I were the guest hosts of the Borders Sci-fi blog at Babel Clash. You may have seen us there and joined in the chat. And to continue the theme of writing on other people’s blogs; here I am again. Thanks to Graeme for inviting me over and allowing me to sprawl on the sofa of his blog with a free hand to ramble.

To Tie-in or not to Tie-in?

One of the topics on Babel Clash was whether it was easier to write in your own universe or a shared one. I’m going to take a step sideways, and look at that question from the reader’s point of view, asking whether you should bother to read tie-in fiction.

My answer is simple. What’s stopping you? I don’t pick things to enjoy based on any affiliation (or lack thereof) they might have. If I did, I’d never have read the Eisenhorn trilogy, enjoyed a Dr Who novel or gone to see Pirates of the Caribbean. After all…that film’s based on a ride at Disney, yeah? What could be lamer than that…? All those people who went to see The Dark Knight…were they ALL comic book fans who loved Batman. I doubt it. I’m sure there’s many reasons folk went to see that film, but I’m sure a great many of those cinemagoers had never picked up a Batman comic in their life. I’m sure most people went along because they’d heard it was a great film and that it was worth parting with their cash for a ticket. The point is that it’s best to judge things on their merit, not whether you think they’re lesser or somehow inferior for being part of a franchise or based on a game/comic/ride.

The Secret of Success

And whether books are a tie-in or set within an author created universe, they all need to have one thing in common if they’re going to succeed. They need to be good. Simple as that, really. Hey, I never said this was going to be rocket science or Advanced Literature. If something is good, then it’s good. It doesn’t matter whether the author slaved to create his own world or if they worked within the realms of an existing one. Sure, a writer of his or her own universe can be lauded for invention and vision, but can’t the tie-in writer also be admired for their own inventions? Just because a book’s set within a shared universe doesn’t mean its invention is restricted. In fact it’s the opposite. Being tie-in drives the need for ever more creativity, since you have to stay within the playground while doing ever more imaginative things with it to keep things fresh and exciting.

Fiction books are read to entertain. Sure, they can deal with weighty themes and have deep subtexts, but any novel that doesn’t entertain along the way, either through great writing, interesting characters and unexpected plots – hopefully all three – has failed and won’t get finished. Any book is capable of doing this, and with the quality of tie-in books getting better and better all the time, it’s time to take a plunge into the franchise pool and see what the water’s like.

To take a current example, take a look at the Horus Heresy books charging out the gates of the Black Library. With their striking cover design they look like classy pieces of work, and they are. The stories that fill their pages are as at least accomplished as those written by authors working in their own invented universes. They’re complex, layered and driven on by some great writing and exciting plots. You should try them; you’ll like it I promise. Lots of people, well over a million in fact, have already climbed aboard the Heresy train and found it an exciting ride. And in a seamless segue, hearing that A Thousand Sons is this week’s number 1 bestseller in Science Fiction and Fantasy, I guess plenty more are starting to see that.

As a shameless aside to that, when George Mann, the head of Black Library, told me the news that A Thousand Sons had done so well, it took a day or so for it to really sink in. I looked at the e-mail on the Tuesday night, though that it was pretty cool, and then went to bed. The next day I received a LOT of texts and e-mails from friends who’d heard the news. Then it began to sink in that this was kind of a big deal. And then they told me that A Thousand Sons had knocked Charlaine Harris and her Sookie Stackhouse novels off the top spot. That’s when it really hit home. Number 1, man! The smiling started around then, and it hasn’t stopped yet.

Fan turned writer

I’m not only a writer for Warhammer; I’m also a fan. I played the games way back in the day and still get a kick out of moving toy soldiers around a tabletop and rolling dice. I remember reading the 40k rulebook when it first came out in the Rogue Trader days, and something about the dystopian, gothic horror of the Imperium really fused parts of my brain. I don’t think they’ve ever recovered, as I’ve been writing stories set there ever since then. My desire to write 40k fiction came out of that moment. I’d gotten into a rut with sci-fi and fantasy fiction, and the grim darkness of the 41st millennium really set a fire in my head. I needed to see stories of the battlefield, but I didn’t want to see only the fighting. I needed to know what went on behind the scenes of warfare, to see what drove the characters into such horrendously dangerous situations and how they faced the horrors of a hostile galaxy. That’s what I love about 40K and Warhammer fiction, it goes beyond the tabletop into a fully-realised world that’s been in constant development since the 80s. It’s as deep and wide as any other universe out there, and it has lots of dark spaces for all manner of stories to take root.

I read most of the Black Library’s output. Not all, because let’s not get into the realms of make-believe. Some of them just don’t appeal to me. Not because of their nature as tie-in books, but because their subject matter doesn’t do it for me. Pretty much like anyone who browses a bookstore shelf, really. I read all sorts of books, and the one thing they have in common is that they have nothing in common. There’s tie-in fiction (Rynn’s World), ‘original’ fiction (The Unicorn Road) and non-fiction (The Age of Wonder). All three are very different, but I’m sure I’m going to enjoy them all.

So if you’ve never tried a tie-in fiction book, there’s never been a better time to try. As more and more folk discover that they’re actually pretty damn good, more and more talented writers are being attracted to write them. It’s an upwardly moving trend that can only been good for readers and writers alike. So go on, give it a go. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much good stuff is out there. More and more readers are discovering this, so isn’t it about time you did too?

Tie-in and beyond…

As much as I love writing tie-in fiction, I also have ambitions to write a novel set in a world of my own invention, one that’s not linked to any shared universe. On the surface that might appear hypocritical given what I’ve been saying above, but I don’t think so. To venture into new pastures is something every good writer should want to do. Not because they don’t like the worlds they write within, but because they have ambitions and stories that don’t quite fit there.

And there’s no reason you can’t have your cake and eat it too. I’m sure I’ll enjoy writing stories in my own universes just as much I love writing in shared universes. The trick, as with most things, is variety. As a reader you need to vary your input so you don’t get bored reading the same thing over and over again, and it’s the same for the writer. You need to stretch different muscles in different worlds to stay fresh and enjoy the ones you come back to. That’s why I skip merrily from Warhammer, to 40k to Horus Heresy and beyond. I keep myself fresh by exploring different things and immersing myself in new kinds of stories to stretch my imagination in strange and unexpected directions. As a reader you owe it to yourself to do the same.

Graham McNeill


James said...

Personally I enjoy tie in novels more than stand alones. I read the Drizzt novels and continue to because I played D&D in the forgaotten realms. I read all the 40K novels because I play 40k. I don't read the fantasy warhammer novels because I don't play fantasy. I read lord of the rings and the Belgariad because of the authors. Same with anything by RA Salvatore, Howard, Moorcock,Hienlin. Now Abnett, McNeill, Swallow and Robersson could write books on cooking and I would read them because of their tie in work with 40k. Side note. ALL Black Library books need to be converted to EBOOK....NOW. Or I will send Sgt Rafen to take you out.

Adam said...

I couldn't agree more with what Graham said, all work needs to be judged on content not by some form of loose classification. I personally believe that there is merit in both original and tie in, after all the tie-in product had to originate somewhere, the child of someones imagination. Sure the tie-in stuff has a set of rules that need to be followed in order for it to do exactly what it suggests and 'tie-in' but to use a rather bizarre analogy, everyone has a skeleton, that dosen't mean we are all the same or any less individualistic. I'm a huge fan of the HH series and to see these talented and passionate authors explore this aspect of the 40k universe, to give personalities to characters we think we know based of only a few pages of text, is very satisfying. Can't wait for the next read...

Anonymous said...

As someone who's never played Warhammer 40k I saw False Gods on the shelve and thought the blurb made it sound like a book I'd enjoy, which I did. Due to your book it made me hunt out the whole series. I have to say the 'tie in' is a good background to write/read against however I agree it need to be judged on the content. Mena

speco said...

I actually never played anything 40k related (other than the Dawn of War computer games a while back). But a little less than 20 years ago I picked up a decent little paperback book called 'Space Marine' by Ian Watson, and something about it just appealed to me. So much actually, that I soon picked up 'Inquisitor' and 'Harlequin' by the same author.
I was craving for more, but there were not many 40k books to be found at that time.
I couldn't be more happy about the quality novels that were published since the Black Library opened it's gates. It's excactly my kind of fiction, I don't care if it's tie-in or anything else. On the contrary - I like having a well developed universe as the background setting, it provides the added effect of exploring more and more of a different universe with every book you read. And then, things become a lot more visual while you read them. When reading an Abnett or McNeill (and others) 40k novel, after a few paragraphs I'm in the game and know what things look like, heck I can even feel the mood the characters are in. Of course it's because these particular authors know how to write such things well, but it's also the knowledge you already have from previous stories in the same universe, that makes it easier for you to associate with and feel 'at home' in a strange world.
I also agree with Graham that the Horus Heresy novels took the whole thing to a new level, the opening trilogy was some of the best stuff I ever read - and I loved the characters. 'Fulgrim' and 'Legion' were also gread reads all on their own. And I probably left out some others, that I didn't get around to read yet.
I also received 'A Thousand Sons' today and look very much forward to reading it - congratz on being No. 1 this time Graham, and why the hell not? ;)