Aaron Dembski-Bowden

Don't worry. None of this blood is mine.

So you want to write about Warhammer 40,000?

I wanted to blog a little today, in order to keep typing through my lunch break and keep the focus going, but I needed a decent topic to eat up 20 minutes of time. Luckily, I found it.

I get this kind of thing a lot: “Do you have any advice for…?” “I’m about to submit my first…” “Any tips for a budding…”

And so on.

There are plenty of writing guides out there. I’ve linked to them before. Other authors also published by BL are free with their writing tips, and – in all honesty – I find tedious as shit to talk about. If you’re good enough, you’ll get in. If you’re not, you won’t. If you suck and you’re lucky, you might get in anyway. Them’s the breaks.

What I can do, however, is prepare you for the bullshit you have to deal with in licensed fiction.

Anyone reading this probably knows I’m pretty fortunate when it comes to my reputation in the fandom, and I rarely bump into any “AD-B doesn’t know the lore” criticisms. My attitude to 40K is usually mentioned as one of my major strengths in my reviews and on various forums. So this isn’t a blog post about how I’m personally treated. That’s largely useless as advice, because it’s so individual.

So what can I offer as advice? My advice is simple. Remember the Betrayer cover from yesterday? Well, only write professionally for a license if you’re perfectly okay with the kind of fucking nonsense like this:

Here we clearly have a fan in desperate love with some very serious punctuation.

Some people won’t read the whole series. Many of them just won’t know the lore all that well, or consider one of the many contradictory sources of lore from the past to be more worthy than any other. That’s fine, and it’s to be expected. But what you sometimes get is rage and ignorance in such excellent measures, that a genesis of purest madness is born.

Clearly, he saw that artwork, and his brain didn’t do any of the following:

  1. “I know from Aurelian that Lorgar and Angron are up to something elsewhere in Ultramar.” (That’s fine. It’s limited edition. Not everyone read it.)
  2. “I know from The Butcher’s Nails that Lorgar and Angron are up to something elsewhere in Ultramar.” (That’s cool. It’s a very new release, and not everyone likes audio dramas.)
  3. “This is a new event in the many years of galactic warfare that the series is showing in detail for the first time.” (That’s less cool; to still not get that shows a level of ignorance beyond what you’d expect, but whatever. All good.)
  4. “This couldn’t possibly be about the Siege of Terra, as it makes no sense for one novel to leap ahead like that. Also, as I know my lore, in addition to there being no Ultramarines at the Siege of Terra, Angron and Lorgar were Daemon Princes by then. So this is clearly not a representation of the Siege, as there isn’t a single detail about it that would make it accurate. Everything, in fact, is wrong. So it’s probably not about that.”
Instead of all that, he actually – somehow – decided it was the Siege of Terra. Okay… uh, fine. So he saw the Betrayer cover and was clearly annoyed it was a retcon. Fine, right? Some retcons annoy me, too. I’m sure you – you budding 40K author – would say “Whatever” and move on. No big deal.

But then, when he realised it wasn’t the Siege, there was this:

Here we descend into something you, as a 40K author, will have to deal with all the time. And that, quite simply, is the setting’s own fans getting it wrong.

As we all know, from the very novel he’s claiming to have read, he’s dead wrong. Know No Fear clearly states that many thousands of Ultramarines didn’t join the muster at Calth. They were stationed elsewhere in Ultramar at the time.

This is a minor thing, but take it to its eventual closure. These are the kinds of fans that, in their ignorance, downrate novels for being incorrect. They’re the ones that just lurve their Caps Lock crusades, despite arguing bullshit from a position on the shakiest ground. While I know many come around or get corrected over time, I’ve seen plenty of reviews (again, thankfully not too many of my own) where people give the novel a low score almost entirely on the basis that it’s done something wrong, when it’s the reviewer himself or herself that has no clue what they’re talking about. And I’m referring to the tiniest details, sometimes.

I couldn’t help a snide grin as I was reading his anger based on his own, uh, we’ll say “incomplete understanding” of the lore. Because this, ladies and gentleman, was time travel for me. This was looking into the future. This was a glimpse into a forum comment, or an Amazon review, in X months time, when someone will doubtless say something similar, wailing about “RETCONS” and “the HOLE of the Ultramarines” in Know No Fear being at Calth, when they very much weren’t. Indeed, there was a specific reference saying they weren’t.

EDIT: For the record, I suspect English isn’t his first language (and I’m willing to bet his Portuguese or Spanish is a lot better than mine…), so I’m not taking the piss out of his spelling of “whole”. The punctuation, however, is fair game.

Being published by Black Library is awesome. Writing 40K is awesome. Contributing to the setting and lore is awesome. You’ll find, though, when you’re sat at your desk in the same position as me, that it’s the stupidly annoying things that get to you with all this. Not when you get stuff wrong. But when they do, and they blame you for it.

So my advice is this: If you are, in any way, the kind of person that finds being misrepresented/lied about online or in your workplace to be something that makes your blood boil, don’t do it. If you’re the kind of person that cannot let an argument die with someone who refuses to admit they’re wrong, then don’t do it. If you’re the kind of person that cracks when accused of getting stuff wrong when you’re plainly and demonstrably correct, then – again – don’t do it.

Because you will meet readers like this. Away from any complaints of actual retcons, story quality, or genuinely getting lore wrong (if you get it wrong, that’s your call), there will always be the people that accuse you of it anyway, without evidence, and for the wrong reasons. Some people won’t know as much as you, some will know much more, and some will know different parts of the lore. That’s unavoidable. But when they’re dead wrong, and citing recent sources they’re dead wrong about…

Of all pluses and minuses with writing licensed fiction, this one is my truest ball-ache.

I don’t know this guy. I don’t hate him, or want him to explode into tiny bits. He posted in public on the BL Facebook page, so I considered his comments fair game as an example for this. Hell, I even agree with his first post; that would be a weird and pointless retcon. But he was the perfect example for this petty, petty point, by a petty, petty writer.

Because I very much shouldn’t be doing licensed fiction. I’m the kind of person I warn you all not to be, whose eye twitches at the first sight of those kinda posts.

But I like writing it, so there we go.

EDIT II: The Revenge of Editing: I come back to this post fairly often now that it’s a few years later (and I’ve ended up speaking to Pedro a bunch of times). Every time I think about editing it or updating it, I decide not to – the points stand up, and are shared across the length and breadth of licensed fiction, but I was plainly in a shitty mood to express them so meanly.

March 29, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , ,


  1. I try to write 40k fiction, but I think the largest pitfall I run into isn’t ignorance of knowledge, but the simple fact that I don’t possess all of it. Back when BL had forums with fan-fiction, I wrote a little piece about the ascension of some veteran sergeant from a fictional chapter. One of the comments said it had a lot of similarities to a novel about the Iron Hands. Having never read that particular novel, I was struck by what is consistently my largest issue. I don’t own all the books, so how am I to know if I’m infringing upon someone else’s material, or simply building a wall too closely to one that already stands?

    Thanks for the tips, ADB.

    Comment by Joseph Everett Pearce | March 29, 2012 | Reply

    • That’s a great point, but quite a simple one to answer (outside the Heresy series).

      40K’s ‘loose canon’ means you’re really not beholden to much, as long as you try not to actively contradict previously published stuff. And even then, the point of it is to show your own take on events and characters; there are several people writing about Kharn right now. I couldn’t care less. I’m sure their stuff will be great, but each of us only answers to ourselves, really. It’s different with 30K, as the continuity is a necessary bitch, and rightly so. But if I wrote about Kharn in 40K, I wouldn’t care if he was completely different than Laurie’s short story, or Anthony’s audio drama, etc.

      That’s very much one of the main draws of 40K’s setting for me. It’s not about detailing every inch of some mythical canon. It’s about hundreds of creators and artists showing your how they see the setting.

      Comment by Aaron Dembski-Bowden | March 29, 2012 | Reply

  2. Well said. And hilariously pointed as well.

    Comment by 〇rlandο Gοdhand〇 (@Kodanshi) | March 29, 2012 | Reply

  3. I could never do your job, aside from the fact that i’m not a very good writer. I would consider it my duty to hunt these pricks down and litterally eat the pages they have misquoted.

    As a bad tempered bastard with a shite grasp of 40k lore, but enough self awareness to recognise it, I salute you sir and your damn fine work.

    Comment by Deva | March 29, 2012 | Reply

  4. That guy sounds like he has sand in his vagina.

    I’ve only ever attempted writing short stories and because they sucked so badly I quit, I’d love to have a go at it again but I’d never get published in a market seemingly saturated with wannabe authors.

    As far as I see things, the 40k setting is so open to interpretation that I don’t think it’s correct to accuse an author of getting anything wrong, if my understanding is correct doesn’t GW say that nothing is cannon and at the same time everything is?

    Screw the haters ADB, keep up the good work!

    Comment by Paul Wilson | March 29, 2012 | Reply

  5. Got to love the keyboard warriors wrapped up in a blanket of their own ignorance. It reminds me of one of the reviews I saw on Amazon for The First Heretic. They make me just want to groan and mess about looking for a suitable Face Palm pic

    Comment by Tim Clowes | March 29, 2012 | Reply

    • I think I remember that review. The one about Marine helms and intake grilles. Practically TFH’s only average Amazon review, and the guy was dead wrong. I pounced him on WarSeer and explained why. He still refused to take the review down.


      Comment by Aaron Dembski-Bowden | March 29, 2012 | Reply

      • Yeah that was the one. The guy completely lacked any imagination and seemed to have clearly not bothered reading the about the author section. I hope you owned him good and proper

        Comment by Tim Clowes | March 29, 2012

  6. In principle I agree with you, mate, but I thought since our RuneQuest debacle of years ago (and you probably won’t remember the forum post I showed you, which I never got to post) you would have learned that there’s no sense of entitlement like geek entitlement! Isn’t it time you let this shit go? There will always be background pedants who think they know more than you. Mostly it’s born of jealousy that you’re writing in their favourite setting and they’re not. In this particular instance the guy just doesn’t know what the fuck he’s on about. Let it go… and I meant what I said about wanting your career 😉

    And in all seriousness – despite how tedious you find it to talk about the whys and wherefores of writing, especially for BL – some of us would find it valuable if you posted a (semi) serious blog on the mechanics of your writing process. Now there’s a fucking challenge. You up to it bitch?

    Comment by Richard Ford | March 29, 2012 | Reply

    • Why the hell would you ever need advice from me? Are you drunk, dude?

      Also, teehee, RuneQuest. Good times.

      If I could ever swing a post like that without being tedious or even more up my own asshole than usual, I’d give it a shot.

      Comment by Aaron Dembski-Bowden | March 29, 2012 | Reply

      • Firstly, yes, there’s every chance I’m fucking pissed!

        Secondly, as a writer it’s always fascinating to take a look at someone else’s writing process. We’ll have a chat about this some other time, when I’m not in danger of blowing smoke in orifices smoke should never go!

        Comment by Richard Ford | March 29, 2012

  7. I’ve always wanted to explore writing fiction more but I lack the attention span to write novels (I also lack the ability to think that what I write is well written), so I’ve been focusing on trying to write short stories. Got any tips for writing short stories? Not necessarily 40k short stories, just short stories in general. Also, I first became a fan of your writing through the short story you wrote about Cruze and Lion El’Jonson. I thought it was great, especially considering I read it between turns at an Apocalypse game.

    Comment by Temperus | March 29, 2012 | Reply

  8. I write insightful Warhammer 40k fanfiction based on the perspective of a character that shares my name but none of my faults. I’ve also created another special forces branch for the Space Marines called Dark Lanterns who possess special Jokarro digital weapons bound in their rings. They are also the only ones to have spoken with the Emperor directly who has manifested himself as a giant floating head in a fog-filled tube where he routinely issues out orders on how to stop the infamous 14th Black Crusade leader “Lord Zzedd.”

    Comment by John | March 29, 2012 | Reply

  9. This was a hilarious post, I love how it was put together! This guy forgot something very fundamental as well, “This shit isn’t real”. I absolutely love the lite if 40k. Its the main reason I still. I only read Black Library books when it comes to fiction. But I don’t know all the history or facts. Dude needs to enjoy the “feel” of the universe. I love Space Marines, for better or worse I coined the phrase “Astartesexual” for myself, but I don’t know everything about them. I just know that they are the heroic archetype we can all enjoy. The “facts” are fiction, for Sigillite’s sake!

    Again thanks for the laugh, good on you being able to handle it.

    Comment by Noobhammer Jason | March 29, 2012 | Reply

    • Damn autocorrect! Lore, not lite. And I “still play” is supposed to be in there.

      Comment by Noobhammer Jason | March 29, 2012 | Reply

  10. some more food for thought, thanks aaron – and oh yeah i think i posted on your wall asking about writing advice so sorry if i made you groan!! :S

    Yeah I go on BL website quite a lot, see quite a few reviews on this sort of nature. I think one of them on Age of Darkness commenting on how Horus’ armour was ‘too chaosy looking for this era in the heresy’ i literally pulled my moustache out and yelled ‘for fucks sake!!!!!!!!!’

    On an unrelated note I started writing a novel about Ahriman and his warband of Prodigal Sons, I really got into it and it is something like 37000 words now… then I went to BL live and the first thing John French says is ‘Hey guys, by the way I’m writing an Ahriman novel!’

    Bummer 😦

    Comment by VDOG | March 29, 2012 | Reply

  11. There’s always the retort to such people of ‘so when’s your BL novel coming out?’ 😉

    Comment by druidcat | March 29, 2012 | Reply

  12. I would wish to be an author, if not full time at least part time, writing short at least every 6 months and a full lenght every year, but my problem is, far from the story. Making up stories are my biggest asset. My flaws is descruption and details about characters and enviroment, and character development. I have a hard time evolving the characters from what they’ve experienced.

    Keeping up with the lor however I am, being a fluff-nazi. BUT I can take a hint when I’m being wrong and accept that as well. 🙂 Its all about seeing from more than one perspective.

    Comment by Forkmaster | March 29, 2012 | Reply

  13. Aaron! You hit that nail on the ol’ head! Go Ninja Go ninja Go….GO. GO. GO!(gotta live the turtles)
    I love that you wrote about this, so thanks.
    I have been hashing out the first three chapters of a story line that will probably be a little out there( maybe piss alotta arse’s off who cant see the big picture). How about we all just get excited how awesone the world has expanded in the right directions. It blows my mind. I really try to gobble up all old and new lore. I often get caught up; an somewhat feeling held back; by worrying about screwing up little details. The pudding is in the details, but Im sure it does get crazy fitting it all in. Thats what is great about 40k writing. So much info that we will soon need extra memory just to hold it all. It slowly evolves and beomes better all the time! Or maybe you and the other Greats should paint themselves into a little crappy box to which there’s no escape. The best thing is that there are the universes ‘facts’ and history, but there is still so much room for it to continue to grow. My favorite is how each Author molds the world furthur with each book and short story. Building on each others ideas until its a beautifully complex world like the kne we live in. From my first novel to the current few I have left to read, its really an awesome experience. Slowing pulling back the veil of knowledge. The best part is watching the baby grow bigger(my wifes pregnant, thus the analogy) Just enjoy it people! Just got my mitts on Aurelian, finally, and it blew my freakin mind.( traded my catechism for it) Im now a freakin cog-brain! Haha. Reading the Night lords now to be up to date. Keep up the good work and keep blowing my mind. Im coming to the Novemeber weekender from America. Hope to say hi! Keep spilling that brain all over the pages! It pure Adamantium I tell you!

    Comment by c-w-sigg | March 29, 2012 | Reply

  14. I think that “miguel portela pedro kantor” guy is actually “matt ward” in disguise, since he declared all space marines to be sub-ultramarines, its reasonable he got raged if he thought ultras got retconned.(revenge of the necrons?). “you may suck but you are lucky so you might get in. ” phrase reminded me of someone. someone who’s first letters are ‘m’ and ‘w’ , which is clearly “miguel wardida” no doubt. 😉

    Comment by lambdagod | March 29, 2012 | Reply

  15. But, so both Lorgar and Angron are fullfledged damon princes by the siege of Terra? Oh boy I wonder what they did to accomplish this. 😀

    Comment by Forkmaster | March 29, 2012 | Reply

    • Angron is given Daemonic Princedom by entering the Eye of Terror for all the killings he did. Lorgar becomes a Demon Prince based on all the atrocities committed by the Word Bearers in the name of faith.

      If they change it for them being Daemon Princes at Terra, i’m super excited about this.

      Now I just hope they do a book on the Iron Cage when Peturabo becomes a Daemon Prince for his sacrifice of all the Imperial Fist Geneseed left behind. Ah Chaos..how we love you.

      Comment by Theodore Schiro-Miller | March 29, 2012 | Reply

      • Sort of. There’s also art references showing them as Daemon princes at Terra, so…

        Yeah. All about choosing which fluff source.

        Comment by Aaron Dembski-Bowden | March 29, 2012

      • I have so been waiting for a Space Marines Battles with the Iron Cage. You should do it ADB. You love the Imperial Fists, we finally get to see Primarchs outside HH-series other than Battle for the Fang. Come on it would be lovely. And I think it would be suitable for those two to be DP by the siege of Terra. I think they both chose red as a main colour on their bro-trip in the Ultramar Worlds for their Legions armour.

        Comment by Forkmaster | March 30, 2012

  16. I really wish I could have gotten a hold of Aurelian but just couldn’t afford it at the time. Now i’m very curious about what they are planning in Ultramar. Well, Butcher’s Nails shall definetly be a must get now for me. I’m just very happy that Void Stalker isn’t out that same month or there would be choices to make on what books to buy. Keep up the writing, you pretty much have me hooked on all of your novels so far for ultimate re-read. Hell, my copy of Soul Hunter is destroyed because I kept reading it over and over again.

    Comment by Theodore Schiro-Miller | March 29, 2012 | Reply

  17. I just hope I’m alive when this whole bloody Heresy mess finally ends.
    I know it’s good marketing but come on, kill that Emperor already.
    What is this? Dallas in space with bolters?

    Comment by Flying_Dutchman | March 29, 2012 | Reply

  18. I can’t abide the fucking idiotic retcon about the Night Lords being traitors. Once you sort that, you talentless hack, then you can have a go at your hard working, money-paying fans.

    Also, what’s the deal with space battles? I was promised more. At least fifteen a week. WTH!?

    Lots of love,

    Comment by Xisor | March 29, 2012 | Reply

  19. to be honest before the hh series what we knew about M31 was so bland, one of the reasons why I love the series (in particular your stuff ADB) is how they always enrich it with revelations, new surprises and in general culture shocks as to how points of view were different back then.

    I mean think about it without HH changing the lore Space Wolves would be just insane bastards, 1000 sons would be magical insane bastards and ultramarines would be just… drop-dead boring. Also we basically wouldn’t know ANYTHING about the Alpha Legion, or about Omegon, or about good old Argel Tal and such and such.

    HH changes things, dudes, but it always seems to do so for the better.
    And yeah Theodore my SIGNED copy of The First Heretic is practically fallen to pieces its so well thumbed 🙂

    Comment by VDOG | March 29, 2012 | Reply

    • God, I wish I could afford to get to a Black Library event just to get my reading copies signed then enshrined, adn then buy new ones to read. Though if I was going to get any book signed it would be Void Stalker as that book as me salivating with the thought of Tsagulsa actually being more described in a current timeframe.

      Comment by Theodore Schiro-Miller | April 2, 2012 | Reply

  20. Most people (like me) would say, “That’s some kickass art…I want to read that book!” Too bad some tool bags just look to try and find a negative.

    Comment by Ryan Peterson | March 29, 2012 | Reply

  21. The awkward moment when i see this kind of behavior, and the person who says it, is of my nationality..There aren’t even many fans of warhammer 40k in Portugal, it just saddens me. Keep up the good work, really loved the recent short-story about the Crimson Fists, haven’t been let down yet in any book by you. Thank you for the awesome hours, making my train ride to university somenthing of a moment to look upon.

    Comment by Sdrazak | March 30, 2012 | Reply

  22. I honestly don’t see how you could get something wrong even if you didn’t know the story/lore. Don’t editors check it for accuracy??

    In either case you write very well, I’ve always been impressed with your stories. There will always be sideline critics. In my mind the only ones worth worrying about are the ones that actually buy your books or the ones that print them.

    Comment by allaboutwh40k | March 30, 2012 | Reply

  23. ‘If you suck and you’re lucky, you might get in anyway. Them’s the breaks’ – no truer words have ever been read for me. Lately, I’ve been reading an omnibus (which will remain anonymous for decencies sake) and I’ve been thinking that all along. I swear if I hadn’t paid for it myself, I’d have thrown it out by now, it is that dreadful. The second book in the omnibus is actually riddled from start to finish with massive sentence/spelling errors, that were so distracting that I had to pause occasionally, set the book aside and shake my head for a few seconds before continuing. I’m an unpublished writer (typically of fantasy but the warhammer 40K universe has since dragged me in) and my golden rule has always been, ‘If you can’t write a battle scene, then what the fuck are you doing writing it?’ And lately, that’s been a huge problem with a lot of books. I understand that a Space Marine would be massively difficult to portray in writing, I really do, but this Omnibus has made me want to actually write my own book, using the same Chapter, just to prove to myself that I could do it better. The problem has always been, and still remains, that the lore (which I read around extensively out of curiosity to begin with) would trip me up on some minor detail sooner or later.

    Either way, I love your books Aaron and your post made my day. Cheers

    Comment by Aidan | June 22, 2013 | Reply

  24. Why not just make up a unit and a solar system? Then you can skip all the madness with the cultist? Why not change it up like a human Imperial Guardsman is a lone survivor of tyrannid attack and it because a suspense/horror?

    Comment by Josh | January 4, 2015 | Reply

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