Wednesday, September 21, 2022

An interview with writer Alec Worley on his work with Warhammer, comics, and more

Alec Worley has written a number of stories for Warhammer publishing house Black Library and comic anthology 2000 AD. He's agreed to answer a few questions for the Tabletop Lair on exploring the other sides of Grimdark futures, his first creator owned comic, John Carpenter movies, what games he's been playing, and getting published.

The Tabletop Lair: When did you realize that you wanted to be a writer? Were there any pieces of media that were particularly influential?

Alec Worley: I always had comics and books as a kid, but it was Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy gamebooks that really snagged me as a reader. As a writer too! I think maybe it was that sense of telling a story that plays out as a result of choices made by the main character. That main character being me, the reader! I started writing my own gamebooks soon after, full of Hammer horror and illustrations copied out of comic books.

I got into RPGs soon after and got my hands on West End Games’ Ghostbusters at one point. I only played it once, I think. I had no idea how to run a comedy adventure without things going completely off the rails. Plus, all my players wanted to do was blast civilians in the face with an unlicensed nuclear accelerator!

Anyway, there was a section in the Ghostmaster’s Guide that broke down exactly how adventures work. The main character has an objective. There are obstacles in the way of that objective, etc. I distinctly remember that section being my first step into understanding how storytelling works.

I always wanted to do something creative for a living, but I was raised working class and was never quite sure how that might be a realistic option. I lasted exactly a month at College and had to take on a paper-round to afford the bus fare every day. I wanted to work in film, even more so when I discovered Quentin Tarantino. But I was on the dole, had no qualifications, and was terrified that I’d completely messed up my life!

I muddled through from there, working as a projectionist in London’s West End for several years while figuring out not only how to write, but to write for a living. Another thing I’m still figuring out to this day!

TTL: In addition to your original works, you’ve written for some beloved universes: Warhammer, Star Wars, Judge Dredd. How do you go about handling characters and settings that many of us have grown up with?

Black Library
AW: Lots of research! I’ll read as much as time and my sanity will allow. I have to understand how the world works and have some kind of critical read on the whole thing. But I also need to get a handle on the emotional appeal that universe has not just for me, but for every other fan.

In doing all this I’m always looking for unexplored angles, or interesting responses a character might have to a particular bit of lore. My Sisters of Battle stories featuring Sister Adamanthea came about from me wondering what would happen if a Repentia actually survived her penance? Would she be revered as some kind of saint? Would she even want to be forgiven? I love going into the pathology of these characters. There are few people in the 40k universe who aren’t completely crazy!

Baggit and Clodde in Dredge Runners and The Wraithbone Phoenix came about from me wondering how an irreverent Three Kings-type military caper might work in 40k. But then the Warhammer Crime series came up and those two characters were just a perfect fit! What’s given me so much mileage with these guys is asking what might it be like for two abhumans to exist in the Imperium, within a society that despises them?

TTL: On the subject of Black Library’s Crime and Horror imprints, what sets these apart from the “power armour and boltgun” stories many associate with Warhammer?

AW: For me, it’s about focusing on specific aspects of Warhammer lore. With Crime, you’re focusing on ‘domestic 40k’, which goes into all the inner workings of the Imperium away from the battlefield. The focus there is on the moral ambiguities, the social pathology of the Imperium and the extremes to which citizens will go, just to get by. Whereas Warhammer Horror is more of a tone thing. The emphasis has got to be on tragedy, hopelessness and fear and trying to wring as much suspense and horror from that as possible.

You’re not telling a military adventure story or a Wagnerian soap opera like the Horus Heresy. Warhammer Horror is Alien, not Aliens. But it’s a tricky balancing act since horror is so intrinsic to Warhammer.

TTL: What tabletop games have you been playing lately?

AW: I’ve been running Fourth Edition Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay for the last couple of years. Now, I adore the Old World and Cubicle 7 make obscenely beautiful books, plus they’ve totally captured the Blanchian grimdark of the setting. But, man, do I find the system tough to run! I’m no good with maths, so maybe that’s the issue.

For me, there’s two areas of crunch for WFRP: the XP system and combat. Levelling-up takes place in-between games, so I don’t mind poring through the rulebook so much. But combat? It’s fine when there’s regular PCs fighting a few standard-issue thugs. But I find things snarl up when your PCs are Skill-heavy combat specialists like Troll Slayers or Duellists. And if they’re fighting a monster that comes with another half-dozen special rules then forget it!

Chaosium Inc

I took a break with Dungeon Crawl Classics and Sailors on the Starless Sea, which was great, though one of my players didn’t quite realize how frail his zero-level characters are and proceeded to wipe himself out. Straight after that, I played 5th ed D&D as a player and it was fantastic!

I’ve got a few issues with D&D. I think the PCs turn into unkillable superheroes after they reach a certain level and the world feels very shiny and corporate at times. But I can’t deny how smoothly the system runs. Plus, the automated character sheets were a game-changer for me! Though it’s the first time I’ve had to say, ‘I think my character sheet needs recharging!’

I’ve been running 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu too, using a modified system that incorporates simplified bits of the Pulp Cthulhu rules. I’ve run The Haunted House, which the players enjoyed, though I think they might have struggled making the transition from combat-heavy D&D to investigative CoC.

I love the gentler pace of Cthulhu, which really lets the Keeper play with atmosphere and the players get into their characters.

I’ve also been playing Kill Team, which is perfect for me as I just don’t have the time or budget to play full-scale 40k! The Conan skirmish boardgame by Monolith is another standby.

TTL: You’ve recently written a comic, The Coffin Road, for Sandy King and John Carpenter’s Storm King publishing house. Can you talk a bit about that?

AW: I did a couple of short horror stories for Storm King’s annual anthology Tales for a Halloween Night. These were called Cold and The Mime, both with 2000 AD’s Ben Willsher on art. I’ve got another one called The Caretaker coming out this year with another 2000 AD artist Tom Foster. 

I can’t praise the editorial team at Storm King enough! They really do go out of their way to make their stories as good as they can possibly be. So I was chomping at the bit to work with them again. 

Never mind the fact that John Carpenter is one of my all-time favorite directors! I watched Halloween, The Fog, The Thing constantly while growing up and applied so many of those techniques and plot devices to my comics over the years.

The Coffin Road is about a recovery driver who rescues a young woman stranded on a haunted stretch of road. They need to find their way out of the woods before dawn as they find themselves pursued by a malevolent crook-necked specter…

​Trevor Denham has done an incredible job on the art, and it was colorist Ryan Winn’s idea to light the whole thing like a Giallo. The story’s really a Sandman-esque dark fantasy and Trevor and Ryan have given it exactly the kind of woozy, dreamy atmosphere I was after.

TTL: And lastly, any words of advice for those who want to write licensed fiction?

AW: Here’s my boilerplate advice for writing anything: Read a lot, write a lot, and study a lot.

Study is crucial or you won’t get any better any time soon. You won’t understand where you’re going wrong. You’ll be more likely to get stuck in a loop, get frustrated and blocked. So what should you study?

  1. Language. That’s your grammar and syntax, your nuts and bolts. I’d highly recommend studying Sin & Syntax by Constance Hale.
  2. Form. Study the medium in which you’re writing, whether that’s prose, theatre, poetry, film, etc. Same goes for genre, whether you work in comedy, horror, autobiography, historical, etc. Learn the limitations and advantages of your form.
  3. Drama. Learn how scenes and characters work. Understand narrative structure. Everything I learned in this department came pretty much entirely from American screenwriting books!

In terms of writing licensed fiction or comics, I’m at a stage in my career where I’d probably say, ‘save something for yourself.’ Don’t give these companies everything you’ve got!

I’ve been writing licensed stories for fifteen years now and Coffin Road is the first thing I actually own! All the original concepts I’ve written, like Age of the Wolf and Dandridge for 2000 AD, are lost to me forever. I’ve given those children away for a paycheck, and I’m really feeling that loss these days.

Storm King/Alec Worley

I guess you can either become a hack and not care about what you write or who owns it. Or you can work hard and create characters that you love and can relate to, but there’s a cost to doing that too. Not only does it take longer (and the writer of licensed fiction needs to work fast). It can also weigh on the soul, especially when you get feedback from readers who only seem to want the same old thing they’re read a thousand times before.

The hard truth about professional writing is this: being in a position to write your own stories to a paying public is a privilege enjoyed by a miniscule proportion of the writing community. Yet that miniscule proportion is so very greatly publicized, which means a lot of people come to writing with very skewed optics.

The internet has opened up opportunities for writers to gain greater creative and financial independence, but those roads are just as lengthy, fraught and potentially soul-consuming. Writers who talk about their ‘brand’ or ‘content’ end up sounding like marketing executives, but that’s the game we all have to play now.

You’ve heard of the ‘1,000 True Fans’ theory, right? That if you can garner 1,000 true fans, that is, readers who’ll buy anything you put out, then you can make a living off what they might contribute to a monthly Patreon or whatever. I think that’s certainly true, but a writer would need to accumulate 10,000 generic fans/followers/regular readers in order to generate that 1,000-fan hardcore. And to get those kind of numbers, you have to spend all day marketing yourself on social media (which does its utmost to keep you hidden unless you’re paying them or giving yourself over to 24/7 addiction). And all this takes you away from you actually writing and getting better at it.

So what’s the answer? I honestly don’t know. I’m still working through it. I’ve started my Substack Agent of Weird in an attempt to at least focus my readership, get everyone in one place and hopefully cut through some of the smoke and mirrors perpetuated around writing (usually by writers trying to market themselves).

If you want to write professionally, you need to keep your feet on the ground, diversify your projects, that is, combine higher-paying gigs with lower-paying passion projects, and be good at what you do. Having gone through a lot of bad times (and put my loved ones through a lot of bad times too) throughout my writing career, I’m a bit of an evangelist about this stuff. I hate to think of other people going through the same rotten experience just for want of someone explaining how this (very self-obsessed, very cliquey, very middle-class) world actually works. At least, how it actually works for me.

The good news is publishers of licensed fiction are always looking for new writers and there’s usually a very clear path towards reaching them, even if that path is the dreaded slush pile. So…

  1. Be good at what you do
  2. Be professional
  3. Know what you’re getting into.

If there’s anyone out there struggling to see their way forward on any of this stuff, then please don’t hesitate to bang a comment on my Substack…

Thanks so much for having me on Tabletop Lair, Matt!

Thank you as well Alec, for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer these questions! Follow him on his substack, website, and Linktree.

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