Top Five Moments in My Career (So Far…) – Part 1
My first novel was published five years ago. Like all of my books, I can’t stand to think about it for too long, let alone actually read it, because all any writer ever sees in their own work are the holes, the missed opportunities, and the things you’d do differently if you just had one… more… chance… to edit the motherfucker.
But five years is a good benchmark. It’s not entirely accurate, as Cadian Blood came out in October 2009, so it’s only 4 and 1/2 years really, but these days I take any inspiration to blog as regularly as I can without the temptation to keep putting it off.
It’s a list that starts in 2009 CE, which is when my first novel hit the shelves. Obviously I’ve existed as a semi-coherent entity before that date. This is just, y’know, my novel career. Not the video game and RPG stuff that came before it. Five years is a decent enough landmark in the timeline to warrant making a list, and by the gods do I ever like making lists.
Here’s one for you now: In five years, I’ve made 404 posts on WarSeer, 423 on Heresy-Online, and 2,070 on Bolter & Chainsword. I started tweeting regularly in 2011 (only about 10 tweets before that, for all of 2009 and 2010), and I’ve got 1,882 tweets, with 3,649 followers. I started my active Facebook page on October 11th 2011, and have 6,763 Likes as of a few minutes ago. I’m listing all of this so I can have something to look back on in five years, when those numbers either seem perfectly sane… or the stuff of star-lit dreams from my new home in the gutter.
Also, this is my 200th blog post. Woo and yay.
That’s not a smart list, though. What that is, dear friends, is a lot of time I probably should’ve spent writing instead of on forums and social media, lamenting the fact I can’t paint black.
But anyway, here are the Top Five Moments in My Career (So Far…). There’ll be a follow-up post, no doubt cunningly called “Part 2” or “Honourable Mentions” or something equally unexciting, as there was way too much to say in one post, and several things weren’t exactly moments in the strictest sense. They were more like… perks, or just generally awesome things, like getting to hang out in Forge World’s office behind the scenes and make a break to flee with their storm bolter.
Or perhaps when I high-lariously didn’t shave my head for ages and fucked around with the camera before shaving it again:
But no. Those were foolish trifles, and not of the calibre I’m talking about. I’ll save the Honourable Mentions for next time, in Part 2.
For the record, these aren’t in any real order. I’m just not that organised, no matter how awesome I think lists are.
Let’s do this.
- #5 – Sabbat Worlds.
Getting invited onto Sabbat Worlds was for me, in a weird way, more about me and Dan than anything related to my career. It’s so trite to say “it was an incredible honour”, because of course it was. That should go without saying.
Dan and I need to Skype this week, as it happens, to discuss various projects and stuff. That’s normal. That’s work. But that’s now. That’s after five years. Back when I was invited onto Sabbat Worlds I’d only met Dan a handful of times, and the mild shame of me losing control of my voice and practically shouting “HI DAN ABNETT” when we first met was still pretty fresh. I was still more of a super-fan than his colleague, but he asked me onto the book anyway.
There’s the mundane angle that BL may have politely asked Dan to put me in the anthology as a means of boosting my name, as I didn’t have much out by that point and even The First Heretic was still in the misty reaches of the release schedule, driving its way towards publication. (As it happens, Dan was the first human being to read the synopsis and the first three chapters of TFH. Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.)
But I didn’t care, and still don’t. Getting invited onto Dan’s flagship series and getting to play around in his own personal crusade was an awesome honour, and a sign that he thought I could write well enough not to spoon up his personal project. In my short story ‘Regicide’, I showed the death of Warmaster Slaydo, the death of Archon Nadzybar, and I also got to show the first ever appearance of Warmaster Macaroth. Anyone who knows the Gaunt’s Ghosts storyline will know that this isn’t exactly small-fry stuff in the lore – Dan trusted me with some insanely major stuff, with no real requests beyond not fucking it up. He could’ve said “I want to see this, and this, and this…” and “This character is like X, and this character is like Y…” but instead he just let me run loose, with a single line of how he imagined Macaroth to be in-person.
I like to think he was happy with the results.
Since I joined Black Library, Dan’s been a consistent mentor as well as a friend, with plenty of phone calls advising me on the ins and outs of a career I still barely understand. When I’ve been pissed off, he’s calmed me down. When I’ve been confused, he’s enlightened me with insufferably patient and wise counsel. When I’ve banged on and on about how Carl Thonius is the best character in Black Library history, he’s kept his bored sighs to a minimum.
- #4 – Games Day UK 2010.
I went to Games Day 2009 for no reason beyond the fact that Black Library asked me to. Cadian Blood wasn’t even out and no one had any idea who I was, so I was sat between my editor Nick Kyme and my girlfriend Katie (before the Marriage Times) for several hours,caged by these two enforcers and signing random flyers every once in a while, or the rare pre-release copy of CeeBee a month before it went on general release.
Here we are, way back in the mists of time.
So I was basically sat there for half the day, doing nothing. I also lost a hat, and Katie lost one of her really expensive cameras. But the Bugman’s after-party was absolutely righteous, so the good and bad comes out as a wash, there. That was Games Day 2009.
And then came Games Day 2010.
Cadian Blood had been out for a year. Soul Hunter had been out for almost a year. The Sabbat Worlds Anthology and The First Heretic were both on pre-release right then and there – the former being an absolute honour to be part of, and the latter being my first Horus Heresy novel.
From the opening of the doors to the moment they sealed shut, I was sat there signing, and signing, and signing, and signing. It was freaking insane. It was actually the day I realised I didn’t think I could survive another full day of signing and shaking hands and yelling about Warhammer 40,000, so every time since then a succession of pleasantly understanding Black Library staff have been cool about breaking up my signing hours to something more Aaron-friendly. I did nothing but sit there that day, but I’d never been more tired in my life. If you think I look like a sleepy sack of shit at a Weekender event (and you’re right, because I do) that one day at GDUK2010 eclipsed anything else.
It was the first time one of my own friends stood in my queue to come and get something signed. That was as creepy as balls, and never gets any less creepy-as-ballsy. My brother’s done it to me since then, at a signing in Dublin. My good friend (and Deathwatch GM) Mark did it to me a few days ago at the Horus Heresy Weekender. It never ceases to be weird, with a vague undercurrent of guilt.
I even got hooked into a brief interview with SFX Magazine. Imagine how surreal that felt.
This was also the first time my family came to see me “at work”, and was a huge boost to my mum and stepdad getting an eyeball on this being a career, rather than me dicking around with toy soldiers. My mum even sat with me at my table for about an hour, which I’m sure looked terminally lame to outsiders, but I thought it was ace. We were coming out of a long ten-ish years of not getting on all that well, so her showing up and seeing what I did for a living was a big deal for both of us.
Katie, Nik Vincent-Abnett, and a bunch of readers/fans (several of whom would later become my pals) dressed up as a Titan crew, which was pretty rad.
By this point, I still didn’t know many of the other Black Library authors very well, mostly hanging out with Jim Swallow and Dan Abnett. Graham McNeill still terrified me. Chris Wraight wasn’t even there; he was still an English teacher. Clearly, this was a grimmer and darker age than the glorious golden era in which we live now.
I met Matt Farrer that day, who was (and indeed, most likely still is) one of the most charming and eloquent creatures that abides upon this Earth. Sadly I’ve not seen him since, though he sometimes shows up on Twitter to be terribly mysterious and say adorable things.
You may have noticed – keen-eyed souls that you are – that I tend to stand up at signings these days rather than sit at the desk. I’ve been doing that for a couple of years. People shuffling up to me and abasing themselves while I’m enthroned is something King Conan of Aquilonia would expect of his subjects, whereas standing and chatting feels less… creepylicious.
Games Day 2010 was also notable for the first time I met this smarmy-looking gentleman:
While I was hanging out with Jim Swallow in Bugman’s Bar post-Games Day, this random guy standing near us turned and said “Do you mind if I talk to you?” As opening conversational gambits go, this was intriguingly direct. He was clearly bored and/or waiting for someone else, and it was as if his impatient isolationism snapped in a moment of savage, social English pressure.
“Sure,” said Jim.
“Mnnnnuh,” I said, which represents the very apex of my ability to be friendly to strangers. I glared at this newcomer, suddenly fearful. What if he tried to tell me about his RPG characters? Even worse, what if he wanted to touch me? And not in an excitingly gay way, either. What if he wanted to touch me in bad ways? Would anyone ever find my body?
That person turned out to be John French, who is now one of my closest friends, a fantastic author, and among the finest human beings I know. He didn’t tell me about his RPG characters, nor has he (to my knowledge) touched me in any ways that seemed particularly exciting or overtly murderous in the four years since.
- #3 – This Cover, Right Here.
Choosing a cover to rank as The Very Totally Best is no easy feat, because I’ve been extremely lucky with my covers to date. Some people have suspected me of kidnapping various artists in order to get the covers I’ve got, while others simply ascribe it to a particularly bloodsheddy combination of shadow-voodoo and black magic.
I have a weird relationship with cover art, one I think many authors share with their own front-facing, word-selling artwork. When people ask me “What does [Insert Character Name] look like?”, the bare naked truth of the matter is that I don’t really care. I don’t care what Sevatar looks like. I don’t care what Talos looks like, or Argel Tal, or Khayon in the forthcoming Black Legion Series. When I write anything, I’m not writing to explain exactly what’s in my head – whether it’s a location or a character or a mood. I’m writing to give the reader enough information to paint their own picture. I don’t want a reader seeing exactly what I imagine; I want them seeing what my words inspire them to imagine.
To that end, it comes down to key features. I don’t care what Grimaldus’s face looks like – I care that you know he’s one of the most zealous warrior-priests in existence, yet he has strangely kind eyes. The first part implies something fairly clear, and the second part clarifies a strange contrast that’s easy enough to imagine – or at least interesting enough to think about. Similarly, I don’t care what Argel Tal’s exact expressions look like – I care that you’ve got enough context to imagine someone that looks Persian or Babylonian, who cares for an injured prostitute-priestess, and who watches and thinks about things much more often than he speaks about them. You can imagine his expressions from that context, because you’re human and humans are (by and large) intelligent creatures. You can imagine what a man like that would look like. You don’t need me harping on about his angular cheekbones or his rad(?) sideburns(??) every six pages.
I’ll use Talos as a more detailed example. With his rune-scarred armour, as he carves his prophecies onto the ceramite when he’s suffering his fits; the fact he would’ve been handsome before he was changed by the VIII Legion gene-seed; the Nostraman sigil on his skull-painted faceplate; the hammer-broken Aquila on his breastplate; the scavenged and stolen weapons… That’s Talos. You know he’s a not a pristine-looking guy fresh off the parade ground. You know what he looks like, and just as importantly, you know how other characters in the novels will see him. What I imagine Talos’s exact armour pieces to look like is irrelevant, because beyond the characteristic and unique details, I don’t care. The unique aspects tell the story and show the character. They’re what matter, and what inspire the image in other people’s heads.
I’ve always thought good writing refuses to tell you what to think – instead it gives you enough information for your imagination fill in the blanks.
I’m the same with art. The cover for Soul Hunter is a great example, because Talos looks nothing like that in my head, and I couldn’t care less. That’s what emerged from the imagination of John Sullivan, one hugely talented fellow, based on the key points of description of Talos’s appearance and personality. I couldn’t be happier with it.
A lot of my covers are like that. Neil Roberts, John Sullivan, Raymond Swanland… An indescribable amount of my work sold because of their artwork representing it. Authors live and die wishing for cover artists as great as the ones I’ve had the pleasure of working with.
Some of those covers deal with characters that are deeply entrenched in the Warhammer 40,000 license (at least visually), so what they look like is largely determined by their past rather than anything else. That’s all good, too. Two of my very best covers – The Talon of Horus and Betrayer went down that road, and they’re two of my absolute favourites. They’re also two that I did lead-up teasers for ages ago, with my incredible skills in MS Paint.
You may remember them. These… these avataric slices of excellence.
It doesn’t matter that Abaddon doesn’t have his daemon sword in the first Black Legion book, or that The Talon of Horus is largely about finding Abaddon rather than his actions as the main character – it’s the first book of the Black Legion Series, and it had to have him on the cover. All good. That’s sane, reasonable, business sense. No complaints there.
The very rare times I’ve been less than thrilled with my artwork is because key details went ignored, usually despite me directly mentioning them as pertaining to the character, or the final pieces just weren’t my cup of tea. Win some, lose some. Or rather, win most, lose a couple. Just the way the world works.
I got in a brief argument once over a piece that someone elsewhere in the publication process claimed I didn’t like purely because it didn’t match the image in my head. That’s the exact opposite of how my brain works with these things. I didn’t like it because I knew later representations of the character were going to look completely different to avoid repeating that image, and because I just plainly thought it wasn’t all that great a piece of art. But frankly, with Armageddon, BL can do stick-men covers for the rest of my life and I’ll go to my grave thanking them for how amazing Kai Lim has made Grimaldus and Dubaku look right there, back to back, ready to die fighting.
Holy shit, do I ever love that piece. Everything about it is divine.
Maybe I’m biased, though. Taken together, I think the Night Lords Trilogy is the series with most evocative and killer covers that BL has ever done (I profusely thanked John in the Omnibus foreword for his blood, sweat, and tears) and as for Neil’s work on the Heresy? Well, I think one of my covers ended up being the best in the HH series, as well.
- #2 – New York City.
Something that can be easy to forget in the daily haze of deadlines and emails is that Black Library have treated me pretty damn well. In the space of five years I’ve had the chance to go to Amsterdam, Chicago (twice), New York, and Banff in the Rocky Mountains – not counting the trips to Dublin, Belfast, London, etc.
Those were the ones I said Yes to, and there have been several trips I couldn’t make for various reasons as well. Each of those was awesome in their own way, but going to New York for Book Expo America was something truly special.
Travelling as an adult has never exactly thrilled me. I was born in London, but by the time I was 11 I’d been to about 25 different countries. I’d seen Tutankhamun’s mask, the pyramids, and the Taj Mahal. I’d ridden an elephant up a mountain in India, crossed from Europe to Asia on the Bosphorous Bridge in Istanbul, and secretly fed the holy monkeys in the Swayambuhnath Temple in Nepal. All of that was amazing as kid but it’s given me a certain blase’ deal when it comes to travelling now. New York totally annihilated all of that in one fell swoop.
Part of it was that I was travelling with Katie which added a certain newness to it all, but it mostly came down to how overwhelming New York really is. I remember getting out of the cab for the first time on Fifth Avenue, and just… looking up. And up. And up. I’ll never forget that. Weirdly, I liked looking up in New York more than I enjoyed going to the Top of the Rock and looking down.
We did all the utterly obvious tourist stuff… and loved every second of it. Sushi for lunch; dinner in Chinatown; a cannoli in Little Italy; a walk in Central Park; shopping on Fifth Avenue; staying in the New Yorker hotel; eating at the Tick-Tock Diner; going to a rooftop party… Name a tacky tourist destination and we almost definitely saw it, did it, and loved it. The weather was beautiful. The company (being my good pal and fellow author Andy Smillie, as well as BL’s ex-American Sales guy Vince Rospond) was the very bestest.
I also got to see (and sign books in) one of the American battle bunkers, which are absolutely, totally, ruthlessly awesome. Such a great atmosphere for gaming. I left feeling really jealous that we don’t have anything much like that in the UK, even though I’m not exactly hurting for tabletop opponents. It was the vibe that I loved.
Bizarrely, one of the most powerful memories I have of New York City is that it’s where I bought the most comfortable trainers I’ve ever owned in my life.
Another weird one that sticks out is in a street-corner pizza parlour where the girl behind the counter asked why we were in the city, and I admitted my publisher brought me over to sign some books at the Expo and in a few stores. She gave us free pizza slices. I realise it all sounds tediously touristy when relayed like this, but imagine yourself standing there with your future wife in New York City, with your wedding in a few months time, surrounded by photos of all the celebrities that had eaten there over the years, and getting free slices of huge American-style pizza while the girl behind the counter congratulates you on “making it”.
It didn’t matter that it was just one of the first steps in my career and I may never end up as Stephen King or Robin Hobb. I’ll never forget that trip.
- #1 – When This Happened Last Night.
I’m a big fan of the Axis of Awesome. Everyone and their dog knows them for the Four Chord Song, with its eighty-one bajillion-squillion views on YouTube.
Way back when Katie and I were trying to decide on the song for the first dance at our wedding, we considered the Four Chord Song for the fact it’s 1) awesome, and 2) loads and loads of songs in one, saving us the choice. I got it into my head that I’d actually email the Axis’ website and ask (read: beg) their manager/agent to see if they would ever play at our wedding. It was the longest of long shots for obvious reasons – bands that size would never play a wedding and they’d cost infinity Australian dollars for every three seconds of their time, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. It would’ve been the best thing ever. That’s what counts.
One of the first posts on my Facebook page back in 2011 references this failed stab at ultimate glory. You may remember it:
Last night, as I was catching up with The Independent Characters (which is a great podcast you should totally listen to on your wireless headphones while dealing with your toddlers at 5am every morning…) I came across a recent post on their Facebook page where Jordan from the Axis of Awesome brought his fucking Death Guard army to play with Carl, one of TIC’s hosts.
How killer is that? (Spoilers: The answer is “very killer”. I’d also accept “seriously cool” and “the raddest”.)
I realise that I should be cool about this. I should be calm, collected, and super-suave. But I can’t, because if you want to know what the for-really-reals best thing in this whole list is, it’s this:
Y’know, I’ve still not stopped grinning.