writing

How to Write a Book in Three Days: Lessons from Michael Moorcock

This article is the first part of a series about one of my favorite writers, Michael Moorcock, which will culminate in an interview with the man himself.


In the early days of Michael Moorcock's 50-plus-years career, when he was living paycheck-to-paycheck, he wrote a whole slew of action-adventure sword-and-sorcery novels very, very quickly, including his most famous books about the tortured anti-hero Elric. In 1992, he published a collection of interviews conducted by Colin Greenland called Michael Moorcock: Death is No Obstacle, in which he discusses his writing method. In the first chapter, "Six Days to Save the World", he says those early novels were written in about "three to ten days" each, and outlines exactly how one accomplishes such fast writing.

On writing...

"You have to get rid of the self-consciousness, that particular egotism that stops you working, and stops you finishing work. When I started writing professionally, as a teenager, a lot of my effort went into developing the ability to keep working, to keep producing readable copy. I had to get used to thinking on my feet, and sophisticating things as I went along. You see, I wasn't writing for an editor, I was writing for a printer. The press was ready, waiting for my copy; and it would be ready for more copy tomorrow, and more this time next week. There was always the chance to do better tomorrow."

Michael Moorcock
Death is No Obstacle

More on Moorcock coming soon...

From the Writing Blog

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For those of you who haven't been following my intermittently updated writing blog, here's my analysis of Pynchon's use of description. I plan to have more posts in the future in which I pick apart the techniques of my favorite writers.

Also on the writing blog: my analysis of the current fiction magazine market

Middle-Aged White Women

At the BEA panel on Granta's new fiction issue, Sherman Alexie voiced the following observation: "All of us are writing for college-educated middle-aged white women".

Well, I know I'M not writing for college-educated middle-aged white women, and I think that the writers I tend to like aren't either (at least, I'm certainly not a middle-aged white woman). And if literary fiction in general, or Granta in specific is aimed at that demo, then that may explain why the so many lit fic writers I've been finding recently haven't been doing anything for me. We need more writers like Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem and David Mitchell to keep us guys reading.

(And while I liked Sherman Alexie's Diary of a Part-Time Indian, it wasn't the kind of book that made me want to read his entire backlog, you know?)

WaLS: The New Literary Disease

There is a certain fragment of the literary world that drives me fucking bonkers. In my mind, it is epitomized by travel writers, freelance copywriters, Neal Pollack, Poets & Writers magazine, writerswrite.com, preditors & editors, and Nick Mamatas. This is the subculture within the literary community where the act of writing has become little more than a performative task that functions as a signifier rather than a craft that is merely a means to produce an end. In this subculture what matters is not that one has produced good writing but that one is seen to be writing productively. In this world the legitimacy of one's writing has nothing to do with its style or content or mastery, but rather that one can point to various facts that, separate from one's work, are taken to be markers of personal legitimacy in the claim to writerhood. Far from the true virtue of writing, ie the production of quality literature regardless of recognition or fiduciary recompense, this instead is a world of a different kind. Rather than the world of writing as artform, it is the world of what I have come to think of as writing as lifestyle, populated by a crowd of mental lepers suffering from Writer as Lifestyle Syndrome (WaLS). And I for one am totally sick of it.

On Character in Fiction

I just want to say that I agree wholeheartedly with Dan Green's analysis of Nigel Beale's commentary. I am almost coming to resent the notion that all good stories have to be--and are necessarily--character driven.

Certainly the origins of the novel do not lie in "situations" that are rendered as closely as possible to those of "real life." Precursors to the novel such as Gulliver's Travels or Garganua and Pantagruel are plot-heavy phantasmagorias, anything but explorations of character, while most of the earliest actual novels, Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Tom Jones, are either explicitly picaresque narratives whose characters never develop beyond their roles in the plots or tales in which what happens is clearly the focal point, not characters "relevant to me and my life." Those readers like Nigel, who recoil from novels "which impose artificial form on formless real life experience," even when such form is simply "plot," have formed a relationship with fiction rooted in late-nineteenth century realism, later developed into "pyschological realism," that might arguably be called character-centered, but such readers assume this sort of fiction essentially brought literary history to a halt and that other kinds of fiction, less dependent on "lifeness" so very narrowly conceived, are simply marginal, trivial, empty flourishes easily ignored. Only character-driven realism is "natural."

Let me put it this way; if you say that all good fiction is character driven, then you close the door on almost all fiction (in any form) written before the rise of psychological realism. To which I say this: Can a modern person read The Odyssey and enjoy it? They can and do, despite that book's focus on plot over character. So why couldn't a great modern book emphasize plot or ideas (or anything else) over character? In fact, of course, many do, but I should hardly have to bring up the post-modernists again, or Borges, or weird visionaries like Philip K. Dick.

I think 21st century fiction might turn out to be the process of crawling out of the tyrannical grip of psychological realism that the 20th century gave to us.

More Reading Material for You

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I've always thought that when writers say they don't know where their ideas come from, it's a bit of a cop-out. Ideas are everywhere; you write about the things you're obsessed with, or think are cool, or think other writers aren't doing right. It's not actually coming up with the idea that's hard, but executing it successfully.

To wit, here's David Moles' fascinating series of posts on coming up with ideas, in which he somehow fuses together Tom Waits and HP Lovecraft:

  1. A Change of Clothes: Sexuality, procreation, the human body, invertebrates, marine life in general, fat people, people of other races, race-mixing, slums, percussion instruments…
  2. The Names of Towns: …caves, cellars, old age, great expanses of time, monumental architecture, non-Euclidean geometry, deserts, oceans, rats…
  3. Something to Eat: …the New England countryside, New York City, fungi and molds, viscous substances, medical experiments, dreams, brittle textures, gelatinous textures…
  4. Some Weather: …the color gray, plant life of diverse sorts, memory lapses, old books, heredity, mists, gases, whistling, whispering…

What's the Issue with Issue 1?

So a couple of guys named Stephen McLaughlin and Jim Carpenter have created a new poetry Journal called Issue 1. It's nearly 4000 pages long and is available in PDF form here. It's been creating quite a stir among certain poetry circles lately, mostly because a quick survey of the contributors shows it to be possibly the most significant collection of poets ever assembled. With work ranging from the likes of William Shakespeare, my own 13th Great Grandfather Geof Chaucer, to Contemporary figures like Ron Silliman and Susan Howe, to less widely known but still enormously talented poets like Anny Ballardini, Amy King, and, um, yours truly.

Now, of course, none of us actually wrote any of the pieces attributed to us in the book, but frankly i kind of wish I had written my three contributions. "A Cat of Countries" (page 1248):

A cat of countries

The sympathy of darkness
Singleness
Beardless and eternal
A room of countries
Of progress
Reluctance and fun
Firing beside a cat
Like a considerable sweeping
Feeling love

"Whole as a passage" (page 2646):

Whole as a passage
Into a swept whisper a fascinating trader
   arrived
The passages mumbled
Those were whole
A rapid rib, cheap rib,
   useful rib of an impossible thieving
Was he impenetrable?
Let her stare
Should he have been silent?
From his difficult arm he hungered for
   one, having, from his throat demoralization
     waiting
That was the creek’s wilderness
Sorrow, you were
   not there, making like a head
Fascinating and enthralling
He would sooner
   be different,
Big and little
”I save brass,” he whispered
He was lived by a
   mutter
He was thinking of the ghastly lives
   of bailiffs, knocking silently beside reckless conceptions
Now the thievings filled in the breeze

And my favorite, and the one that sounds the most like me, "Changing news like intelligence" (page 3573):

Changing News Like Intelligence

To burn descending on an art
A person
His anodyne news

Beginning beside a tree
More minor than a beggar

Now, of course there are some people who think this is lame. Others who take issue, like Silliman who made some vague mention of legal action in his blog about it.

To such people, I say chill out. It's a nice piece of something. There's no damage to your reputation taking place here. Clearly the list of authors was gleaned in someway from Buffalo poetics/the kinds of magazines folks like us get printed in. And frankly, taking Rita Dove at one end, and myself at the other, of a spectrum of fame, none of us are all that well known to the point that anybody outside our little poetry world will care about this one way or another. Take it as a compliment and relax. This thing is the best piece of flarf I've ever come across and frankly, like Anny Ballardini said on the Buffalo list today, I wish I'd had the idea.

Thought for the day

Only ambitious nonentities and hearty mediocrities exhibit their rough drafts. It is like passing around samples of one’s sputum.

--Vladimir Nabokov
In interview

Must Characters Be Round?

I recently watched the Russian mini-series of Dostoevsky's The Idiot, which was wonderful and supposedly scrupulously faithful to the novel (which I haven't read). One of the remarkable things about it, as with Dostoevsky in general, is that despite the fact that there's a huge cast of characters, every single one seems incredibly real and true to life, as if they could simply step off the page (or in this case, screen).

In his book, Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forester separates characters into "round" and "flat." The difference is deceptively simple; a flat character is "constructed round a single idea or quality"; "The really flat character can be expressed in one sentence such as 'I never will desert Mr. Micawber.'" The round character, on the other hand, is a character "capable of surprising in a convincing way"; "It has the incalculability of life about it—life within the pages of a book."

Upon first glance, it would seem like a tautology that round characters are better than flat ones, with Dostoevsky as the perfect example. But Forester does not take this view at all, rather he says, "In Russian novels, where [flat characters] so seldom occur, they would be a decided help."