Man, I have a lot of blood on my hands!
It’s been a week since the release, so we are entering the whole “spoilers below” zone. You have been warned. I will also begin by saying I make zero apologies for anything in the novel. I don’t work for the fan base and what they want. You being loud on the internet means nothing to me. I write books that I would like to read. I happen to be a fan myself. As it turns out, a lot of people like the same stuff I do. Some don’t. I went into the project knowing full-well that no matter what I wrote after typing the title, some 3-10% of the fan base would be ‘appalled.’ I am 100% comfortable with that because this is not fan fiction – it is real writing. It would be impossible to satisfy everyone – so why bother trying? An attitude? Yup!
Hour of the Wolf was spawned at GenCon 2017 in a relatively disheveled hotel room at the Marriott. A number of the authors assembled to start the process of crafting out closing off the Clan invasion, namely, the taking of Terra 1-2-3 and setting up the new era.
Ending the Dark Ages was not an easy task. First, there were a variety opinions of how we got into this situation with the Republic, the blackout, Fortress Republic, Devlin Stone’s identity, etc, that had never been addressed. Not a lot of narratives made sense because, brace yourselves, they never really thought them through to begin with. Some characters had contradictory info in different novels, which was a hoot and a half to sort through. One solution was to not answer the questions at all, keep the fans in the dark. I hate that crap. Tell the fans the truth (or at least a version of it) so we can move on.
Another key topic was dealing with the Republic of the Sphere. The Republic was the Dark Ages to many fans. There was at least one voice that wanted to keep a handful of worlds Republic. I was against this. It never catches on. Remember the Chaos March? Not a lot of fans wearing Chaos March t-shirts at GenCon. The Republic had to die in order for us to move forward. I know that sounds heartless, but that doesn’t mean you can’t play in that era.
In the back of my mind I had a few things I kept thinking about. One was Surrender Your Dreams, and making that mesh in seamlessly. The Fidelis had to be addressed in some way. I always knew what their eventual arc was going to be, but implementing it was tricky.
The GenCon meeting was just the jumping off point. Jason and I agreed on one front – Wolf’s Dragoons needed to be a part of this. It would serve as a basis for some good stories. Their betrayal was mapped out from the beginning. Alaric was destined to turn on them.
We all agreed that the Jade Falcons were going to try and mess things up for Clan Wolf, but I came up with the idiotic idea of bringing them into the fight against the Republic directly. There were military reasons for this – namely I couldn’t envision Alaric beating the Republic and still being strong enough to beat the Falcons. He was smarter than that. Let Malvina do some of the bleeding for him…that was my thinking.
This launched weekly phone calls where we started to hash out the details. John Helfers approached me and said, “We think you’re the guy to write this.” I thought, wow, how cool is that? John told me the title at that time. To me, it was too revealing, but what the hell. I was going to write a major spine novel in BattleTech.
We wrote up where the Houses and Clans were and where we saw them going after Hour. The goal was to have good storylines with what followed.
For me, Hour (and the preceding novellas and novels) had a singular undercurrent. “Don’t make the Clans look stupid.” The Clans historically have let their honor trip them up, robbing them of a lot of victories. I never felt that was fair. They would have studied Tukayyid. They would know the flaws of their rede of honor and found ways to avoid having honor used against them. They would not be ‘tricked’ into defeat after defeat. At the same time they would not be infallible nor undefeatable. After a century in the Inner Sphere, the Clans were not morons. In fact, this learning would make them even more deadly.
I also wanted this to define the differences between the Wolves and the Jade Falcons. They have distinct views of the future and values. They are not cookie cutter either – there are people in the respective Clans that don’t support the direction their khans are going. There are undercurrents to today’s politics woven in there too. I’d be shocked if you missed them.
Being a historian, I incorporated interesting parallels where I thought appropriate. Stone in the bunker, is like Hitler – only he’s waiting for Julian Davion not General Steiner. Stone promoting people to knighthood while the rest of the world burns…pure Hitler. Kalidessa Kerensky repainting her unit to fool the Republic – that was from the Battle of Yorktown during the American Civil War. That big flanking maneuver with Alaric…that was Chancellorsville. Being students of history, both Clans had a lot to leverage.
From the start this book also had to be about the characters. Alaric is hard to do. Look at his mother. Holy shitballs – Katrina Steiner-Davion. Alaric was forged for this purpose, to go to Terra. He was crafted to be a tool of war. As a character, that makes him a bit arrogant, cocky, and not easy to coddle up to. Malvina is the same thing, though with a much sharper edge, being batshit crazy and all. Malvina wins, which makes her dangerous. Stone is…well, Stone (I will get to that in a later blog post). Say what you will, but he led the alliance to take down the Word of Blake, so he is no slouch. So here you have three masters of war, none of which the fans are going to love. Welcome to the real world. If anything, you warm to Alaric because he’s the best defense against Malvina, but you end up liking him then for all the wrong reasons. That or you support Stone, and all of the baggage he carries. As a writer, it makes things challenging.
So the secondary characters were more critical. I arrived at that conclusion early on. They would be easier to identify with. Readers, I knew, would have more of a bond with the secondary characters than the big ones…and that is okay. I wanted a strong female focus. I was tempted to use Anastasia Kerensky, but she came with a boatload of baggage in terms of the Dark Ages novels; complete with a myriad of inconsistencies, trying to explain Steel Wolves from Wolf Hunters, etc. Anastasia was cool, but she is a loaded gun you need for a specific mission.
So Chance Vickers emerged. Many of the other strong characters, like Kalidessa Kerensky, have their own strong personalities. One thing I loved about Mike Stackpole’s early Clan books was that he had Elementals and Aerospace pilots as points of view. I wanted that too.
The tankers, Hawkins and DuJordan, were there from the very start, snarky to the bitter end. I spoke to an actual tanker for that idea. By and large, they are my favorite characters ever. We don’t see tank crews ever, let alone Clan tankers. So these guys had to stand out. John, as an editor, actually asked me for more scenes with them, and I greedily complied.
I put together the first outline and everyone said, “Looks good.” Then I wrote Hour of the Wolf. I finished the last chapter in Michigan right after my mom’s death while I was handling her estate. Not exactly my best point in life, but oddly fitting for the book. It was a dramatically different book. There was no prequel novellas planed then, so everything got crammed into one big book. At that time, John restricted my word count, which complicated matters too. A lot of scenes, I felt, got short-changed. It was akin to pouring five gallons of water into a one gallon bucket. I was counting on a rewrite (a safe bet) to resolve a lot of my gut feelings.
Then nothing happened for a while because editorial was busy as shit. During this period two key events took place. One, the last season of Game of Thrones – and Avenger’s Endgame. One sucked, one was brilliant. It made everyone gun-shy at CGL. It raised the scrutiny levels on Hour of the Wolf to epic proportions. Everyone it seemed at CGL wanted to look at HotW and add their version of polish to it. Everyone wanted to contribute in some way. Trust me, five authors cannot write a novel, not a good one.
John finally said, “We think we need a writer’s summit to map out the future, then retool the book after that.” Cool beans. I enjoy the summits…usually.
The High Lords of BattleTech met in Seattle. For me, it was quasi-brutal. It was a room of authors I respected dissecting my storyline, some of them never having read the novel. Think of stripping naked in front of a hot girl and her pointing and laughing – that’s how it felt at times. Not that I have ever experienced this. I’ve heard about it from one of my fraternity brothers though. I don’t get nearly enough credit for not killing anyone in the room, seriously. There were plans. Lots of opinions were thrown against the wall. It was fun at times, but it took a lot of self-control for me to not get defensive. You have to remember, this is not MY universe, it is Topps and CGL’s. I just get to drive the car every now and then. I’m only quasi-thick-skinned about this stuff.
So we decided to change things up on the novel. We agreed that the first third of the book needed to be pulled out as its own book. (That became Children of Kerensky – ish.) We came up with a cool new ending for HotW. I went back to the drawing board and put together a new outline, using the shell of the first draft. John and company agreed to it.
We spent hours going through each faction, each Clan, and determining two things: 1. Their reaction to what was happening. 2. Where they would be going story-arc-wise in the future. This is Loren, Randall, Mike, Jason, Phil, John, Brent, Ray, and me, in a room, hammering out how factions would react to the events on Terra. For the fans out there that say, “My Clan never would behave that way…” well, you are wrong. When you look at the experience in the room writing and working in this universe, compared to your petty little thoughts of what you wanted to see. Sorry, you are the one who brought a knife to a ‘Mech brawl.
That led to round two of the book. I wrote up the revised version. I had to include Kickstarter backers. That wasn’t really a problem. I used to struggle for names, now I had a list of them – but frankly, in the beginning, that list was a hot steamy mess. To the fans out there that thought I wrote such a large book to specifically include the Kickstarter backers, you couldn’t be more wrong. This story needed a lot of characters to impress on the reader the scope of this conflict. Some characters just die too, and we wanted to have plenty to choose from. We also needed to seed the ilClan era with new characters and storied units. The Blackened Wolves (out of the Cauldron), the Black Wolves (the Dragoons), the Second Wolf Assault Cluster (The Howling Furies), the goddamn Falcon Guard…these units play roles going forward.
In the middle of the big rewrite, John said, “We need the Republic perspective more, like a whole novella more,” so Rock of the Republic came into being. So, in the middle of working on a big book, I wrote a novella. Not the act of a sane person. I never laid claim to sanity as my high ground.
John kept telling me he had a “few” changes to the second draft of the book after he read it. When I got it they were pretty significant. I had delivered what was in the outline, but John wanted more. In fact, some of the stuff he wanted was stuff we tossed out of the first draft…so I was semi-elated about those elements.
Part of this problem was me – okay, it was more like 100%. Hey, I own my shit. I wanted to tell the story from a lot of different character perspectives. As it turns out, John counted and there were initially 28 different perspectives. Ok, even I will admit that’s a lot. My intent at the time was centered around chaos and immersion of the reader. I wanted readers to feel some of the same confusion the characters did in the battle. At the same time these perspectives were knit together. John wanted that streamlined down to a handful of perspectives, which was good, but complicated. He suggested centering on one unit. So several battles were rewritten from a different point of view. A lot of focus went to Kalidessa Kerensky’s unit, which I loved. We upped the Republic counterattack…which opened the door to getting some Republic perspectives, namely the Ares Crew under Jack Traver.
Out of that madness – legends were born.
John also wanted some characters explored more deeply, which I love doing. Some other stuff was expanding the book overall. The first draft I was limited to 125k words. I slammed into that limit and passed it. John told me this time around, “Don’t worry about the word count.” Lock and load! It clocked out at 169k + words. Just so you know, the old FASA/ROC novel word ‘limit’ was around 65k words. In other words this was 2.5 times the size and scope of a traditional BattleTech novel. Somehow streamlining made the book bigger.
From a writing perspective, the length of some of the chapters is deliberately long. I wanted the reader to feel what the characters were experiencing in the battle itself, total immersion. I wanted the reader to have mental exhaustion mixed with an equal part of, ‘I need to go on and see what is going to happen!’ I wanted the readers to be in the fight with the characters.
The end of the book was tricky. At the summit, we agreed the first blow to the readers was the betrayal of the Dragoons. The intent was to lull them into thinking, “Wow, I just read the big surprise in this book.” Honestly, we telegraphed Alaric’s intent in other novels…but no one could foresee 30 pieces of silver. Once readers got their breath and let their guard down, we hit with the last bit in the book, the bigger sucker punch, the blow to Alaric and his character. Yes, I set you up. “You’re welcome!” Somewhere out there is a video of all of the people at the summit saying that phrase together, we recorded it.
Big rewrites are difficult. As I said before, there are a lot of threads in this book that are intertwined in other novellas and novels. On top of that, we had to set up things that would be happening in the new era. There are huge and awesome stories to come, and HotW sets the stage for those. This book is a carefully woven tapestry. Pull one thread wrong and the whole thing falls apart.
So, here’s the deal. John and I actually work well together. Some of his ideas are brilliant. I won’t tell him that, but they are. He is willing to listen and change his position. Every rewrite we have done on every other project, we have made the characters pop and sizzle. It almost always leads to a better book. So, this was a chance to do that on a monumental scale. We both knew that the bones of this book were solid and that we were onto something neat with the secondary characters.
Truth be told, the actual invasion of Terra, the battles and timeline, really didn’t change much from the first draft. What changed was who was telling the story.
It took four weeks, working seven days a week, 10+ hours a day. So yes, it was an overhaul. I was writing in my sleep, true story. At 4am I would start having dialogue and scenes play out in my head. I would roll out of bed and jot them down. In the rewrite the actual story itself did not functionally change. The invasion and the final trial was essentially the same. Hard to believe, right? It’s true.
Then, in December, John asked for a few little clarifications and tweaks. Some actually came in Christmas Eve! Honestly, we made some tweaks right up to the time of publishing, mostly around Stone’s last chapter dialogue. There is a lot in that last chapter with Stone, some very subtle hints of things to come.
So, that is how we got here.
Next time – what got chopped…