The future of authorship and the creation of worlds: The Black Library

Before I start this post, I should explain: I cannot claim to be the biggest Warhammer afficionado, I don’t own any of the maps or armies, and I am relatively new even to the books. I am not here to critique, praise, or discuss plot in detail. But, having read a handful of the Horus Heresy series of books, I am convinced that the model of writing which they represent is the future of authorship, and more generally, media.

For those of you who are not familiar, the Black Library is the fiction publishing arm of Games Workshop, creators of the well-known, much-played Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 games, and they explore the universe(s) in which those games are set. The books published through the Black Library share a clearly recognizable lore and tone, and draw heavily from various and sundry influences including elves, orcs, demons, Greco-Roman, Germanic, and Norse mythology, as well as a wide array of other cultures, traditions, and legends.

What makes the Black Library so fascinating is that each book in the series is written by a revolving panel of writers and explores overlapping, but not necessarily directly consecutive, storylines within the broader universe. By collaborating, the committee of authors creates a coherent, rich timeline with deep storylines and – above all – a rapidly growing base of content. To put this in perspective, consider: the Horus Heresy series, the one I am familiar with, has been written since 2006. In that time, 30 novels have been published (some full-length, some combinations of short stories and novellas). And that is only a minority portion of the larger Black Library canon.

Some novels are indubitably better than others (and of course the series is not looking to appeal to every reader), but the fundamental, deeply impressive fact remains: if you are interested in Warhammer, there is, from the moment you start, an ocean of material awaiting you. And it is ever-growing.

Author collaborations are not necessarily a new thing – in some form, they have existed for some time – and of course Warhammer provides a fertile lore from which to draw, but to the best of my knowledge, the Black Library is unique, or at least remarkable, for the way in which collaboration is embraced, and for the speed and uniformity of content which it produces. The trend towards open-source universes is growing, of course: other authors (notably Hugh Howey and his Wool series) have begun to embrace the idea, while Amazon even supports monetized fan fiction for a variety of titles, but for now, at this moment, I have not yet seen anything to match the effectiveness of the Black Library’s approach. Where reliance on a single creator (such as George R. R. Martin) may be the default approach, with a clear plot and limited cast of characters, it is also achingly slow. By comparison, a lore-driven, universe-exploring, creation by committee process keeps readers satisfied steadily and unrelentingly. I expect to see much more of it in future.

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Celebrate the weekend with on-sale Hard Drop!

That’s right, after a short absence dedicated to writing the Hard Drop sequel, I have returned to announce a SALE: through the weekend, get Hard Drop at up to 2/3 off!

As ever, reach out and get in touch, either here or at @vandervaartwill for more Hard Drop.

Hard Drop Sale Long Weekend!

It’s that time again – starting first thing this Thursday morning, May 29th, get your Hard Drop ON SALE at Amazon. For a limited time, through Sunday night, you can get your hands on this “balls to the wall action thriller” (per one enthusiastic reviewer).

Now is a great time to check out the first book in the Hard Drop series – with more to follow later this year. Check it out here and see for yourself.

And if you’re a Prime member, as ever, Hard Drop is available for FREE via the Kindle Online Lending Library!

Sci-Fi Inspirations: Halo

For anyone who has read Hard Drop, it will be pretty darn clear that I’m a Halo fan. Not, mind you, in a ‘best FPS shooter/sci fi franchise ever OMG’-kind of way, but in the sense that I appreciate its engaging, simple-but-dynamic gameplay and storytelling.

More than any other game or franchise, Halo manages at once to be everything to everyone – at once qualifying as a simple, entry-level military-style shooter and as an intense, bullet hell cooperative or multiplayer experience, able to satisfy ‘real’ gamers (by which I mean FPS gamers with talent and fast-twitch reactions, of which I am not one), a blockbuster, deep-lore franchise with spin-off novels and a simple, stereotypical cheeseburger buddy action movie replete with absurdly over-the-top characters (Sergeant Johnson, anyone?) and meme-ready one-liners.

It would be difficult to argue that the series is market-leading for the realism of its gameplay (Call of Duty might take those honors), the intricacy of its weapons systems (Borderlands or perhaps Bioshock), the diversity of attacks possible (Bulletstorm), the depth of its lore (Skyrim, Bioshock, again, Assassin’s Creed), or even the uniqueness of its characters (although it is hard to resist the ultimate strong, silent appeal of Master Chief), but at the same time it is impossible (or at least foolhardy) to deny the appeal of the total package. Admittedly, several of the above-mentioned ‘market-leading’ games are sandbox-style, sprawling, build-your-own-adventure games, and so not directly comparable to Halo – but then, that’s the point. It’s difficult to imagine Halo as anything more than what it is: a very nearly on-rails shooter with a few easter eggs (ammo, weapons) if you turn that extra corner. And yet, that doesn’t matter one iota: the whole thing, put together, is so damn fun that it’s impossible to complain.

What Halo does, in my opinion, better than anyone else is provide solid, unquestionably appealing ingredients which players can then apply in any number of ways to great effect, unlocking a cotton candy veneer of wish fulfillment in the storyline. The systems of other games, including Call of Duty, require greater buy-in, or owe greater debts to realism, or else require the framework of the story to intrude on the gameplay experience (e.g. Assassin’s Creed or Bulletstorm, where you are never able to forget the game dynamics completely), but Halo is the ultimate in what you see is what you get.

The result is an impressive, blockbuster franchise that shows no sign of slowing down. Every new game adds a slightly new dynamic, tweaks leveling, adds new weapons or enemies, but the underlying concept – the user-enabling, all-purpose combat platform – remains cheerfully, gleefully the same. It is this unrepentantly happy approach to science fiction, combat, and story that I have tried to incorporate in my writing – and I am pleased to see, from a number of my reviews, that I have succeeded in doing so.

Back on Prime (and it feels so good!)

As of midnight PST, Hard Drop is once again exclusively available via KDP Select!

This means it is available for FREE to all Kindle Prime customers (as a borrow via the Kindle Online Lending Library), as well as opening a number of other perks. Keep a keen eye out for sales and, as always, watch this space for news on the sequel (coming soon!).

Sci-Fi to light up your holiday weekend

If you’re looking for a change of pace, an excuse to stay in bed, or a fun way to work through your food hangover this weekend, take a look at Hard Drop, a “balls-to-the-wall action thriller” (Amazon review) and sci-fi shoot-’em up that follows a group of elite troops as they are deployed into the heart of a civil war. Available on Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and at Smashwords, Hard Drop delivers a “good old rock ’em, sock ’em fighting military saga” (Amazon review) that will entertain you from start to bullet-riddled end.

Take a look now, for only $2.99!

Self-Publishing Resources (#1): Scrivener

I’ve tried a bunch of different programs, techniques, and styles over my writing career. Some have been marginally useful, some not useful, and some downright counterproductive. When I started dealing with e-books, the formatting issues were honestly enough to get me foaming at the mouth and nearly throwing my computer. I’m not a meticulous person by nature, and in general when I write things can get a bit loose and creative, so it was with absolute, abject horror that I saw my first attempts at e-books jump from single to double spacing, skip whole pages, and randomly indent – despite my word file showing no evidence of this capricious formatting!

What made this worse (and all the more frustrating) was that I’m not, and never have been, bad with computers. Hell, I even do some coding (C++/Java, but still…). I get how compilers work and I realize that you have to play consistently by the rules to get cooperation from your machines. And, to be fair, if I worked hard enough on a document and turned on the ‘show formatting’ option, I can usually get my manuscripts through the Smashwords meatgrinder no problem. But…it’s annoying, laborious, and takes the fun out of finishing a book.

Which is why I’ve found Scrivener to be so awesome. It’s not a panacea for the ills of variable formatting (you still have to minimize the degree of variation in your text styles as much as possible, and trouble-shoot some issues), but it has several enormous advantages over sweating it out against Microsoft Word’s best efforts at sabotage:

1. It’s easy to use. For the most part, what you see is what you get. Better yet, you can ensure that it is by checking the ‘As Is’ box when you compile your project, although of course this may also preserve other errors in your formatting.

2. You can use it for a while to get the hang of it before deciding to buy. The trial version gives you 30 days of use – not 30 days from when you crack the seal, 30 days of actually opening the program and using the full version. If you compare this to other programs I’ve used (such as Final Draft or Photoshop), that’s a tremendous value-add.

3. The interface is great and hugely supportive of the writing process. While so far I have predominantly just copied and pasted word docs into the program to compile them for .epub and .mobi formats, there is a wealth of functionality available, from summary view to storyboarding (i.e. the digital equivalent of pinning index cards to a corkboard with thumbtacks), so you can see your story develop and work on it within the Scrivener program.

4. Tech support is terrific, and I do mean really great. They are fairly quick to respond (quick at least as far as typical tech support goes, they get back within 24 hours without fail), they are courteous, they are thorough, and they recognize that their program isn’t perfect. This last one I find especially important, as, over the course of my learning how to use the program, there were a few issues (such as not being able to include footnotes in an .epub) which proved really annoying. The responder I worked with acknowledged this limitation and helped me troubleshoot ways around it. Other times, of course, the issue was, as they say ‘ten inches in front of the monitor’, but they didn’t dismiss my issues or make me feel incompetent about it. In other words, great sales job, but I’m also very comfortable knowing that if something comes up that just doesn’t make sense to me, they’ll help me through it.

5. Ability to experiment with unique styles. Because of its straightforward interface and strong user support, the program gives authors the opportunity to experiment and innovate without having to worry about completely and irrevocably messing up the format of their book. This is awesome because, in the end, what author doesn’t want the chance to make their writing look interesting, different, and even artistic?

As aforementioned, it’s not a perfect program – there are minor issues (footnotes), some things aren’t as intuitive as they might be (i.e. you have to look in a different place for ‘contents’ and the ‘create table of contents’ settings), but all in all, Scrivener has been the best find of my indie publishing career. And, at $45, it’s pretty damn cheap.