Dan Abnett @ BSFA

I better get the confession out of the way right at the beginning. I subscribed to The Dandy for many years as a youth, but either it didn’t spark my interest in branching out to the rest of the comic world or I never found myself in the right circles. Suffice to say I never became a comic reader. I was well and truly a fantasy novel reader. If there are worlds and genres we absorb ourselves in as children that was mine. Guy Gavril Kay, Eddings, Weis & Hickman, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, that was where my adventures took place. I love the characters in comic books and (on the occasions I indulge) I enjoy comics, but the bug never got me when I was young and I think I know why.

Pocket money.

I may be clutching at straws here, but I think it was the fact that the way I was brought up, I didn’t have access to a regular income where I could be sure of each instalment. I would find myself gifted with books as and when the money was there and those books would last me until the next such buying spree. Anyway this is a long-winded way of excusing the fact that I didn’t know Dan Abnett was a comic book writer.

Oh I knew who Dan Abnett was, in fact more than that I was well aware of his first impact on the lives of gamers like myself, for if there was one other magazine that I did subscribe to as a youth it was White Dwarf. It was for this reason that I made my way down to London to hear Dan talk and I’m glad I did. I could not have chosen a better author with whom to introduce myself to the BSFA. Listening to Dan speak was, for me at least, truly inspiring.

Lee Harris conducted a superb interview whereby he rendered any questions I had useless by covering all the material I was interested in, in the interview itself. If I hadn’t been rushing for my train I would have loved to talk to Dan a little more about the subject of tie-ins, instead I’ll raise some of my personal thoughts here.

The interview started with and, in a way, ended on the contentious subject of the tie-in vs ‘proper novels’. “Yes” Dan Abnett whole-heartedly agrees, ‘the book industry does look down its nose at the tie-in, which is in complete contrast to the comic industry, where writers actually aspire to write in a pre-imagined world.’ Later in the interview he clarifies two things about himself, which I think goes someway to explain why the snobbery exists and why I think it’s unfair that writer’s like Dan are affected by it.

Abnett looks to do something different in each book he writes. As he says ‘when you’re writing the seventh or eighth novel about soldiers shooting things (he actually used a fantastic phrase, which I know I’ll get wrong so wait for the Angry Robot podcast) you need to find that extra something that will want to make the readers keep coming back. He treats each project he’s given as a challenge. Yes the world is already created (to a varying extent depending on the world), but it is down to the skill of the writer to bring their own voice to that world and find a story. The second thing that Dan mentioned, which, in my mind, is key to succeeding in the first is his emphasis on character. Character transcends all preconceived worlds as, in fact, does ‘story’. There are writers like Dan who are excited by their work and write a great story, irrelevant of whether it’s in a preconceived world. Someone else who stands out in this mould is R A Salvatore who writes for Wizards of the Coast (originally TSR back in my day).

Their are some writers of tie-in novels though who don’t exhibit this work ethic. Their writing does in fact smack of someone trying to get a credit and a bit of money in the hope that people will pay more attention to their ‘proper novel’. It is writers like this that drag more talented writers like Dan Abnett through the tie-in mud. I will name a shame here. Using the WotC example, I recently read a very good book by James P Davis, when I finished I felt I had been provided with interesting characters in interesting situations and even though it was essentially a D&D adventure with lots of killing monsters, it was the character and story that carried me along. By contrast the next book I read was by Jak Koke and… well lets just say I didn’t get all that. And it was one of those moments when I thought, this is why the tie-in has a bad name.

But… there is another way to look at this. Every author that adds their names to a tie-in franchise is by definition qualifying that product. The bad writers will ‘bring down’ the good writers and there for the product as a whole suffers. When you consider an author in isolation, critics may well say that they are a bad writer, but not much noise will be made because, well… it’s just a bad writer. Write badly for a huge franchise and suddenly lots of people are paying attention.

Dan Abnett has written his first script. Seriously as a script writer I loved watching his face while he discussed it. Talking about novels, Dan speaks like the professional that he is and passes on his knowledge with the confidence one would expect. When he talks about film you can see he is still a child in a candy shop (and I say that as a very positive thing). I can’t profess to have been involved in anything like the scale of the Ultramarines movie, but I allowed myself a little smile of understanding as he described what actors can do with your words.

In film school I saw lots of bad acting, but when you see a good actor ‘turn it on’ you suddenly have an appreciation for why they can earn what they do. Watching a good actor is one of the most exciting things a writer or director can witness. I’ve had the honour of seeing some of my words in the mouths of ‘name’ actors and I could totally understand Dan’s excitement by that process. As an aside I would have loved to have bared witness to John Hurts monologue.

It’s late and I’m tired, so I think I will wrap things up here, but I really do encourage you to check out the interview on the Angry Robot website when its posted because there are some fascinating insights. Most specifically in the area I haven’t covered here and that is Dan’s prolificacy as a writer. Advice worth taking and heeding.

Thank you very much Dan Abnett and Lee Harris for a wonderful evening.

P.S. I totally forgot to get a picture of Dan or a picture of my bubble-blowing pipe for Jen Williams. So instead here are my losing raffle tickets.

4 Responses to “Dan Abnett @ BSFA”
  1. loummorgan says:

    You could argue, though, that if character doesn’t transcend pretty much everything else – whether you’re writing an “original” novel, or a tie-in, or a short story or… well, whatever, you’re pretty much screwed from the outset.

    There probably is a degree of snobbery from some quarters when it comes to tie-in & shared world fiction, but the thing it should really be judged on is the story, the characters, the emotions those two generate in readers: the actual writing itself – not whether someone else invented the city it happens to be set in.

    That’s how it *should* work, of course…..

  2. kaisavage says:

    I couldn’t agree more (I tried, but I just can’t). I believe some of the snobbery lies in this idea that if someone else has already done the world-building then you, as an author, somehow have less work to do. In fact, quite often, there can be more work because it takes an extra amount of care to make sure that the story you are telling doesn’t break continuity or feel vastly out of character.

    And then there is your point, which I think is absolutely crucial. Story and character is everything and really story and character can be placed anywhere. The setting, decoration, mise-en-scene, fluff, whatever you want to call it is irrelevant. Fascinating, compelling and beautiful when written well, but still irrelevant to making us care about the characters and become intrigued by the story.

  3. Lee says:

    > he actually used a fantastic phrase, which I know I’ll get wrong so wait for the Angry Robot podcast

    I think it was “shooty, shooty, deathkill in space”


  4. kaisavage says:

    Thank you. That’s exactly what is was!

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