Mark Clapham, author of upcoming novel Dead Stop, has been kind enough to stopped by the blog today. He is bringing some brilliant insights on writing from within different worlds, I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did!
For those of us who write for shared universes, creating stories as part of franchises owned by other people, each is a different experience, not just in terms of the stories told but also the editorial process, the readership response, and so on.
I started out writing for Doctor Who and its unofficial literary spin-offs*, and had one major advantage – I Was A Fan. Not just a casual fan, but a long term hardcore fan of Doctor Who and books related to it. I grew up learning how to read from Who novelisations written by Terrance Dicks and others (but mainly Terrance Dicks), and the literary expansion of Doctor Who during its absence from TV screens hit at exactly the right point in my late teens for me to be utterly hooked by this bigger Who universe on the page.
I therefore knew the rules and the form. Writing for Doctor Who, and series in the same fictional wheelhouse, allows the writer great licence to vary location, tone, protagonists etc. All of time and space is open to the writer and there’s opportunity to be funny, dark, self-aware… all that good stuff.
But at the same time you have a very good framework to support you as a writer, because we also know, whether writing a murder mystery or an action story or a comedy, whether we’re writing about the Doctor himself or his former companions or some random enemy, how this fictional universe and the crazy sub-genre that is Doctor Who function.
That there is a universe of terrors, but that the stories are about a more personal, dynamic scale: heroes and villains, people and monsters. That the backdrop can be cosmic, but the resolutions are usually on a human scale. That an intellectual resolution to vast problems is possible, that one person can make a difference – but that at the same time it may all just end with something being blown up. That whether they pretend to be horror or crime or war stories, stories in the Doctor Who universe are adventures, and as such skew to the pace and shape of a good action movie or thriller novel, starting with an instigating incident and tearing along with rising peril until a satisfying climax.
None of these are hard and fast rules, but they’re solid guidelines to work within, and if you consciously break them, you know you’re doing so and for a good reason. So writing in the Who sphere comes naturally, if not always easily, to me. I know the readership, because I am the readership to a certain extent, so I also know if not whether a story will be liked, the range of response I can reasonably expect.
Shifting across to Warhammer 40,000 was a very different experience. I knew the backdrop from playing a little 40K as a teenager, but I was never a very good wargamer (I’m no-one’s idea of a great strategist) and didn’t go deep into the hobby.
The universe of Warhammer 40,000 has a very consistent tone and sense of place – it’s there in the blurb of every 40K novel or story collection, the bit about the ‘grim darkness’ of the far future. It’s also, being based on a game with rules, a universe where things have to work consistently, and matters such as squad sizes and chains of command need to be adhered to. Mistakes in these areas will be picked up by editors at Black Library – who are all very nice, I hasten to add – who know the rules and the worlds far better than I do, and whose job it is to make sure what I’m writing fits within the Warhammer 40,000 universe both thematically and in terms of detail.
However, there are greater freedoms to writing 40K as well as rules to adhere to. While Doctor Who, and most of its spin-offs, concentrate on a single hero or small group who need to be on nearly every page of a story, war stories set in the world of 40K can sprawl across a number of characters, some walk-ons who never get to the very heart of the action, across both sides of a conflict, as well as the innocent bystanders caught in between. While these stories need to have plenty of action and danger, they’re not tied into a straightforward rollercoaster of a plot – conflicts can build, but set-pieces don’t need to roll into one another. Wars are complex, messy businesses, and while tying everything together at the end of a book is still a must, you can take a more winding route through different zones of conflict to get there.
While I like the Warhammer 40,000 setting a lot, and enjoy reading the other books in the line for research, I’m not part of the hardcore fanbase. I’m not a hobbyist, and I don’t know the background backwards – I need to research it through other novels and the game’s rulebooks. My first Warhammer 40,000 novel, Iron Guard, seems to have been pretty well received so far, so hopefully that means I’m doing something right.
Which brings me to my latest novella, Dead Stop, which is for Abaddon’s Tomes of the Dead line. Tomes of the Dead isn’t a shared universe, it’s a banner under which all the stories are in their own fictional worlds but which have one thing in common: zombies. However, when pitching Dead Stop as part of an open submission window, I knew I needed to fit in with something else – the type of book Abaddon publishes.
Thankfully, I really liked what they did. Abaddon publish punchy, pulpy novels with a lot of action and a certain sardonic humour. They’re sharp, shocking and usually have a genre twist involved. A lot of them use first person, which adds an immediacy and intimacy to the storytelling.
I like all that, and I also love zombie stories, so I was off to the races, and thankfully Abaddon editor David Moore picked Dead Stop out of his huge pile of submissions.
In Dead Stop I’m writing my first professionally published work outside an existing fictional universe, with characters and a reality that’s entirely pulled from my own head, albeit cherry picking from everything I like about zombie stories, and skewed towards the kind of story Abaddon publish. It’s a supernatural noir about a luckless British psychic who stops at a roadside diner in the United States, only to find himself stuck in an outbreak of the undead with a femme fatale ghost as his only possible way out. Like every femme fatale the ghost in question wants our hero to do something that’ll get him into deep trouble – in this case kill her zombified corpse so that her spirit might be set free.
In bringing ghosts and zombies into something very close to our world I’ve had to think of how these things mash together, twisting genre conventions while playing fair with the reader and sticking to my own ‘rules’ as to how all this weird shit works. I hope I’ve been successful, and that you enjoy the book.
It’s a world that I invented, but I would love you to visit it.
* I started in the post-Who New Adventures published by Virgin but have since contributed stories to the Bernice Summerfield series at Big Finish, Iris Wildthyme at Obverse Books, and a few paragraphs to the Faction Paradox anthologypedia thing Book of the War.
David Larkin can see ghosts. It’s a blessing – or a curse – that’s been part of his life since his eleventh birthday. It’s not much use to him, and he mostly just tries to ignore them and get on with life, travelling around and keeping to out of the way places where not too many people have died.
Until the ghost of Melissa appears to him, in a forgettable truck-stop diner on a highway in the American Midwest, warning him about the flood of zombies heading his way. Melissa offers him a deal: she’ll help David escape the zombie horde – in exchange for finding her zombified body and destroying it…
About The Author : Mark Clapham
Mark Clapham has been writing professionally for 15 years, which probably counts as a career. He has written novels for the Warhammer 40,000 and Doctor Who book ranges, and lots of other things that you can find out about at the modestly named http://www.markclapham.com. He lives in Exeter with his wife, the writer Mags L Halliday, and his daughter, but prefers to vacation in Raccoon City.