On Writing

What kind of idiot tries to combine a hard-science PhD with writing a novel?

This one, apparently.

Since it’s now finally heading vaguely toward a denouement, I thought I’d write down some of my thoughts regarding something I’ve been writing.


In December 2008 I started a story called The Misfits, as much as anything else to get some relief from the final stages of writing my MSc thesis. (Thesis-writing is a unique process and a uniquely-difficult one. If you haven’t done it, it’s hard to explain. The most difficult thing for me was that science writing makes you throw out every single piece of good writing technique that you’ve ever learned…)

I had vague intentions for a 10-30,000 word story, arguably a ‘novella’. Originally it all seemed so very finite and self-contained. The story would follow a small group of prospective Space Marines from recruitment to acceptance into their chapter. It was sparked off because I felt unsatisfied with the few Black Library novels that I’d read. The general depictions of Space Marines seemed to leave a lot to be desired … such as sympathetic characterisation, for starters. Or any characterisation at all. Or believable dialogue.

The Soul Drinkers series hurt my brain. In fact, I actually had to give up after the first book in the trilogy, making it one of only a handful of books to ever defeat me. (I made it through Greg Egan’s Incandescence. I made it through Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. I even made it through Marion & Thornton’s Classical Dynamics of Particles and Systems.)

The final straw was Dan Abnett’s ‘Brothers of the Snake’. You see, the problem isn’t that it’s actually bad. It’s not. The problem is that it’s uneven. Some bits are vastly better than others. If you want to see what I mean, look at the first chapter. Look at the (human) female lead. She has a clear narrative voice, a clear personality and behaves in a believable manner. Then compare her to the marine. He comes across as wooden. Dull. Vaguely disconnected. His dialogue reads like a combat manual than an actual person speaking. There’s no sense of personality. You get the impression that the lady legislator is talking to a cardboard cut-out, a cardboard cut-out that happens to have a bolter.

Unfortunately, the rest of the book followed like that.

Anyway, it all left me a bit baffled. How hard can writing Space Marines actually be? Surely no harder than anyone else? I mean, conveying personality is tricky, yes, and characters can decay all too easily into tedious author-avatars … but I was still left with that odd feeling that maybe I could do it better.

This is an odd feeling for me. Anyway, after some internal debate, I eventually decided to see if I could put my money where my mouth was. The only way I could test the assertion was to try it, and the only way I could test the results was to make them public.

So, open goes the Word document. (No, I absolutely refuse to use LaTeX in any context except paper-writing. It’s a horrible document-processing tool, and anyone who claims otherwise has clearly been deluded by the siren-song of hyperactive Linux enthusiasts.) Typing happens. Typing carried on happening. More typing followed it. And the results found themselves sent to FanFiction.net

Sometime around May last year, it began to dawn on me that I’d birthed a monster.

I mean ‘monster’ in the good way, of course. To my immense surprise, people actually appeared to like it. The general reaction has been surprisingly-positive. Only, what I’d never planned on was the story turning itself into a novel. But the word-count carried on creeping up. 10,000, then 20,000, then the magic 40,000 came and went (that being a common definition of ‘novel-length’). Only it carried on growing.

At the moment, I have sat on my laptop hard drive a ~3.5 Mb Word document called ‘TheMisfits.doc’. It has more than 400 pages (single-spaced, 12pt type). The word count currently clocks in at more than 230,000. By contrast, your typical trade-paperback novel is usually about 100-140,000.

Two paperback novels, back to back. And it’s still not finished. Eeeep.

Anyway, back to The Misfits.

The story I’ve ended up writing is not quite what I originally had in mind.

The first version was me having a go at a few things that have always bothered me about 40K. It went something like this: somewhere, there’s a planet. Every couple of centuries, warriors come from the sky to test the tribes, and choose new recruits from amongst them. This is the way it’s been for thousands of years, and the Space Marines assume that this so-very-mythic set-up will carry on indefinitely.

Only, for whatever reason, the Marines find themselves delayed by a century or two.

And, in the time they’ve been away, Stuff Has Happened. One of the tribes finally conquered all the others. Their dominance has had side-effects. All those tribal warriors needed something to do. The dangerous predators have been hunted to extinction. Large-scale agriculture has become possible. Populations have expanded. Villages have turned into towns and cities. The ‘nation-state’ theory of political organisation has caught on. There’s been an industrial revolution. Windmills have given way to steam, steam has given way to electricity. People are doing experiements with atomic power and basic rocketry. There’s been an arms race. There are theories of gravity and evolution. Archaeology has thrown up some odd ruins. The Origin Question is a hot potato amongst intellectual circles.

And then, at long, long last, an Astartes strike cruiser turns up in orbit around the planet. And, well, it’d be fair to say that Hilarity Ensues. As you can see, that’s not very much like The Misfits at all. There’s a ghost of it in the form of Delta Octalis, which is unusually-advanced for an Imperial world, but not much else.

But I did hang onto the basic idea of Space Marines with personalities. It seems very much a natural idea. Space Marines presumably have to be very driven individuals. To get through their recruitment process must require a lot of motivation. And there must be some sort of story behind that motivation. What drives them? A desire for glory? A need for revenge on someone or something? A desire to serve the Emperor? Or just something as mundane as an escape from a life of inconsequence? (Note: never underestimate mundane motivations. Just because they’re mundane doesn’t mean they’re powerless. Also, your readers will be able to relate to them more easily.) Also, they have all sorts of bizarre and extraordinary experiences, pretty much on a daily basis. That must have some sort of impact. Do they lead to cynicism? Black humour? Greater faith? How do the Marines see themselves, in respect to ‘other’ human beings? (If there is a central question in ‘The Misfits’, then there it is.)

Except we have the likes of Brother What’s-His-Name from Brothers of the Snake. The viewpoint cardboard cut out. The one whom everything that happens just appears to bounce straight off, or pass through. I’m reminded of Glibert Snook, the
‘human neutrino’ from a Bob Shaw novel – except that Gilbert Snook was far, far more of a likeable character than Brother Priad.

Space Marines are supposed to be superhuman, not neutrinos. Seriously – it tells you something that I had to look up online the Iron Snake’s name. If Space Marines end up forgettable, then something’s gone a bit wrong.

Anyway, how well I succeed in any of this isn’t for me to say. It’s for you the readers to judge. You may well find my efforts lacking, and that’s fair enough. I hope that you don’t, obviously, but at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter. However I do hope that if nothing else, somewhere along the way, I’ve managed to entertain you, even if only briefly.

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