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Friday, 27 November 2009

An Interview With Dan Abnett

Idle Hands...?
An Interview with Dan Abnett
Dan Abnett is a busy man. He writes comic book scripts for 2000AD and Marvel. He has written over 30 novels set in the Warhammer & Warhammer 40k realities (published by The Black Library), including the hugely popular Gaunt's Ghosts series (if you haven’t read them, stop what you’re doing and go buy them now). He made the UK fiction charts with Doctor Who and Torchwood tie-in novels. His first original work, Triumff, a swashbuckling adventure based in an Elizabethan-style alternate reality, has just been published by Angry Robot Books.

Did I mention he’s had over 30 novels published in the last decade?

If there is someone better to talk about how to make it as a full time writer, I’m yet to meet them. Dan has taken some time out of his busy schedule to talk to us about his career, his writing experiences and to explain how it’s possible to write that many books without cloning technology.

You started out on your literary career by writing for comics. Can you tell us a little about how you got into this field?

I’ve always liked comics. When I was a kid, I hit upon comics as a way of doing the two things I liked most (writing stories and drawing pictures) at the same time. I had an epiphany aged about eight or nine, when a school friend first introduced me to Marvel comics.

In my early teens, I write and drew my own comics until I couldn’t draw them fast enough to keep up with my stories. After University (I did a very traditional English Literature degree at St Edmund Hall, Oxford) I ended up working as an editorial trainee at Marvel in London. I learnt about comics on the job: how they’re put together, how story-telling works etc. It was invaluable. I also learned all about writing for licensed properties, which has stood me in immensely good stead.

I started freelancing as a writer while I was at Marvel (it was the equivalent of overtime - you took home colouring or lettering or writing jobs, and it was also part of the learning curve), and eventually enjoyed it so much I quit the editing day job and went freelance as a writer.

You have written over 30 novels for The Black Library; how did you come to write for them?

I’d been freelance for about a decade, writing huge amounts of comics (to be fair, I still write comics, and love doing it), and I had a hankering to write prose/long fiction. Games Workshop contacted me, because they were looking to launch comics and books based on their universes. My name came up because I’d just written a couple of issues of Conan. Usefully, I was reasonably familiar with the Games Workshop IP thanks to an interest in role playing games in my teens. I started writing for them - comics at first, then short stories, and finally full novels. It continues to be a great and very rewarding experience. Like you say, over thirty books. I can scarcely believe it.

Out of all the novels you have written set in their worlds, do you have a favourite?

It would be really hard to pick a favourite, but the first Gaunt’s Ghosts Omnibus - The Founding - would be up there, because it’s the start of my longest and most successful series. That and the every popular Eisenhorn saga.

Triumff is your first original work. How different an experience was it to write Triumff compared to earlier projects? Was it something you had wanted to do for a while? What made you decide to write it?

Triumff is actually one of a number of original ideas I’d had floating around since the very start of my writing career. I’d produced an early draft of it in the nineties (and I seem to remember that at one point I’d thought about doing it as a comic). When someone (in this case, the HarperCollins imprint Angry Robot) offered me the chance to write original fiction, it was one of the most attractive ideas that I had lurking. The actual writing experience wasn’t massively different from my other novels, but it was very liberating: I was the total master of my own world, not navigating my way carefully through something already established.

Triumff is the first of a three book deal with Angry Robot Books; any chance of a sneak preview of the next?

The second is Embedded, a very hard-edged combat SF novel, much more in keeping with the military science fiction I’m known for in my previous novels. The third one... we’ve yet to decide.

You always seem to be very busy with your writing! How do you manage your time, and how do you manage to keep your focus split between different styles and projects?

It seems to suit me: I get more done when I’ve got slightly too much to do than when I’ve got ample time. It sharpens the faculties. I become very focused. And moving from while thing to the next helps to keep me fresh. If I did the same thing for too long without a break (and, thanks to deadlines, there have been times when I’ve had to), I quickly ‘burn out’ on the unvaried diet.

As a full time writer, what advice would you give to someone who wanted to make a career as a writer?

Write. Write a lot. Write whatever you can whenever you have the chance. Build up your ‘writing muscles’ so that you’ve got the stamina for a full-on project like a novel. Keep a note book on you at all times (always write down your ideas, or you WILL lose them!). And read. It’s rocket fuel. Pour words into your brain to help words come out.

Speculative fiction is regarded as a difficult market to break, but worth it for the loyal readership. In your experience, is it a difficult market? What advice would you give to someone trying to make their mark in this genre?
I came at it from a slightly odd angle, but I think there’s a very fine line between innovation and commerciality in any market. In SF, particularly at the most marketable end of it, you want to try and walk that very fine line between identifying current popular trends and ‘flavours’, and not producing a bad reheat of something that’s doing well. There’s no simple formula - I wish there was.

Can you think of a mistake you’ve made in your writing career that you would advise others to avoid?

I’ve had some less-than-pleasant adventures, but I wouldn’t swap what I learned from them for anything. Advice is good, so listen to it, especially when it’s free. But make your own mistakes too, and learn to learn from them.

Some writers regard literary agents as something akin to the Demonic Powers. What is your opinion / experience of literary agents?

That’s one I can’t answer. I’ve never had an agent. As a consequence of the way the comics industry works, I’ve never needed one. I understand there are many circumstances in modern publishing when one is essentially vital. The biggest advice I can offer on the subject is: be very sure you understand what an agent is and what he or she will actually do for you. Do not imagine or guess. Find out. You may be surprised.

And finally, can you sum up a key piece of advice for new writers in one sentence?

Displacement activity is the real enemy of writing: there is absolutely, positively no excuse for not ACTUALLY GETTING ON WITH IT.

Many thanks to Dan for taking the time out to answer my questions. Information about his new book, Triumff, can be found here, and Dan’s website can be accessed here.
Since writing this, I've also found out that Mr Abnett has a new string to add to his literary bow; he has written the screenplay to the new Warhammer 40,000 Ultramarines movie. I can't tell you how excited I am about this, and I suspect the vast majority of Warhammer players will agree that there probably couldn't have been a better choice for the writer. A lot of the movie details are still a bit hush-hush, but hopefully Dan will come back for a chat about the experience when he's released by the Inquisitors.

I don’t know about you, but I’m suddenly feeling like my excuses for procrastination no longer cut it, so I’m off to get on with the writing. After I finish Triumff (very good. Go buy it). And re-read the Gaunt’s Ghosts series (really, you need to read them).

Thirty novels in a decade.



Katherine said...

What a great interview. I particularly liked the final bit of's almost as if it were specifically tailored to me!


Phillip said...

A great interview with my primary inspiration for writing. The man is a genius!

Katherine said...

I'm sorry i just read this all over again. It's so fabulous. Keep going Gemma!


Clair said...

Okay. I am so hoping that this works. I've been trying to leave a comment forever - because I do so love Dan's work. Triumff has gone on my wishlist and I'm also liking the sound of Embedded.

Clair said...


Queenie said...

Wow indeed. I'm rarely a reader of comics or role-playing-game-based novels, but it's fascinating to get an insight into this type of writing work, and Triumff looks like just what I need to fill a gap in my partner's Xmas present list. Thank you!

The Master said...

A very timely reminder about displacement activity as I am most guilty of it.

It is always a delight to hear from Dan as he is one of the good guys of the industry.

Phil Brennan.

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