The Moorcock model

“So I feel very little in common with those miles of fat fantasy books and feel almost guilty that, in the wake of Tolkien, I reinvented the Victorian three-decker (a lot of them weren’t that long per volume either!). I could write 15,000 words a day and gave myself three days a volume. That’s how, for instance, the Hawkmoon books were written. 45,000 words was the minimum paperback length for a ‘novel’ (which are more normally 60,000 and up) so the whole four are only 180,000 words, which is shorter than one volume, say, in the Pyat sequence…”

—Michael Moorcock, interview with Quantum Muse

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Michael Moorcock is one of the larger presences in fantasy literature, and in British literature in general. His most famous character is Elric of Melniboné, whose incessant brooding and implausibly large weapon form a classic template for the fantasy anti-hero—but he’s also one of the first fantasists to write in a multiverse (and possibly the inventor of the term?) and has written about the Eternal Champion in the guise of too many other characters and series to count. Most good used bookstores will have at least a few pieces of one or the other of his “three-deckers,” and the proportions and design of the white Elric books are still an archetypal image of fantasy literature to me.

You don’t see slim fantasy novels any more; the genre’s luminaries today tend to work long, though I think the tendency is more pronounced in men than women (when you think “tome-writers” you think Martin, Rothfuss, Sanderson; versus, say, Le Guin, Link, Valente). Charles Stross has a pretty fascinating blog post on why books are the length they are (see also). For an indie publisher whose main product is ebooks, of course, these considerations aren’t so salient—but I cut my teeth on the work of people who write long, and I have the same inclination. The Dandelion Knight is 160,000 words long; The Eighth King, written in rather less time, is 170,000. I’m proposing to write two books at 50,000 words each, so the trilogy, if all goes as planned, will add up to 150,000.

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“I don’t ‘world-build’ and have no interest in what I see as crossword puzzle activities — making up artificial languages and the economies of countries and so forth — and leave that to the people who like to do it. I look for the quickest way to tell the story I want to tell. I am fundamentally a storyteller and the genre in which I tell the story is only chosen because it’s the best genre I can see for telling that story. But since I started an industry has grown up to supply people with fantasy escapes. I’ve said this before, but people accuse me of not doing what they expect from a fantasy trilogy and in response to this I described Elric as a failed escape plan — which makes people furious. My fantasies are, of course, escapism, but they aren’t at root escapist, because they’re written by someone who prefers to confront what scares the crap out of him.”

ibid.

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M. John Harrison has a brief, interesting post on roughly the same topic, to roughly the same effect. I don’t know if I agree with them, necessarily; one of Moorcock and Harrison’s great inheritors is China Miéville, who doesn’t seem to have any problem writing intelligent, imaginative, political fantasy in a meticulously constructed milieu. I would love to write like China Miéville; I have tried to write like China Miéville.

But China Miéville writes fat. Intelligent, imaginative, political—but fat. Fat makes food and books rich, and my own big books do their best to use all the flavor that fat brings out, so don’t think I’m against it; but, with some regrets, I am not in the market for fat this January.

Unfortunately for me, the technique of literary cuisine that requires the most fat is probably worldbuilding.

I think minimal worldbuilding may be key to successful application of the Moorcock model. And I won’t be at all surprised if that pushes me into uncomfortable territory. My tendency in fantasy, so far, has been to resist familiar tropes; for example, The Dandelion Knight’s titular character is an old icon in the story world, as well as a terrorist group, as well as one or more particular living members of that terrorist group, and the significance of all these things is tied in with history in a way that just requires slow immersion and occasional exposition. I’m not quite comfortable with the cognitive economies that come with familiar categories: wizard, dragon, vampire. It makes the whole effort feel too much like D&D for my tastes. It’s not that I don’t enjoy such books; I love A Song of Ice and Fire, jousts and dragons and all. But it’s hard for me to work within those parameters.

Luckily, I have the Western genre to lean on as well, which lets me invent things that still benefit from an easy reference point. So when I talk about a runeslinger, you’re going to understand exactly what I mean; when I talk about a ciudor, that’s not so obvious, but as it becomes clear that a ciudor is a prospector combing the dead cities for old magic and tech, then you get it. There are elections and railroads and cattle rustling, sorcerers and scribes and staves. But the gods of the Ogdoad and Ennead, the magical properties and political importance of black silver, the nature of the deathbirds that patrol the sky… they’re going to have to be applied with a light touch, if at all.

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“To be honest, I started doing trilogies because it was way of selling a novel three times! Rather than doing one long one for the same money, it was more economical to do three very short ones. You’ll note that even when put together, few of my fantasies are as long as the majority of trilogies.”

ibid.

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As I write, I’m in the middle of a great interview with David Farland on the Creative Penn podcast, and there’s an interesting exchange that’s currently in paraphrase, although I may go back and copy it verbatim:

JP: It seems like the criteria you’ve given for writing a bestselling book require a pretty long book, and the bestsellers you’ve described [Harry Potter, Twilight] are long books for their genres. Is length a prerequisite for writing a bestseller?
DF: Yes, I think so. If you look at the bestselling books across a lot of genres, they tend to be much longer than is typical for the genre. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books, Gone With the Wind, …
JP: The current digital marketplace is moving toward shorter books, novellas. Is that compatible with writing bestsellers given this insight about length?
DF: Oh, sure. You can just slice up your longer works and give us, what, five chapters at a time? No problem.

I wish they’d gone into this in a bit more depth—I’ve thought hard about it in the context of my own long books, The Dandelion Knight and The Eighth King, and I’ve decided, rightly or wrongly, that it would just take too much time to divide the content into equal-length books, then reorganize them so the internal arc is satisfying. At least in my mind, the structure of a piece of serialized fiction is more tightly constrained than that of a single book, even if the book and the serial are of equal length. It’s true that, to some extent, structure needs to be self-similar at various levels of resolution regardless of the length of the whole work; subplots, chapters, and scenes all need to have some kind of arc, some kind of ratcheting tension and resolution. Keeping someone reading across a chapter break isn’t necessarily qualitatively different from making them buy the next book. But it is different. There’s an evaluation at the end of a series installment that’s more important, and more explicit, than any evaluation that happens inside the book, because the reader is being invited to spend money. So it’s the usual tension:

1. Am I satisfied enough with the story to pony up for the next hit?
2. Am I dissatisfied enough with the story that I need to know what’s next?

Point 2 above may actually be where Moorcock’s series tend to flag, or at least not to conform to this admittedly somewhat marketing-driven structure. Things aren’t often left hanging in, e.g., the Elric books. It’s not quite that loops are never left open; when Elric leaves Melniboné, you do wonder whether he’s going to come back and give Yyrkoon what for, and so on. But that’s not why you read on; it’s not a nagging question. If you read on, you read on for more Elric, not for more plot. Similarly, if you’re hoping for the continuation of the plot line of Blood, you are sure to be disappointed by Fabulous Harbors, which is a collection of wonderful but only tangentially related short stories that nonetheless does its best to serve as vinculum between Blood and The War Amongst the Angels.

Now that I think about it, I can think of a lot of “series” where this is true, many by writers Moorcock admires. Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris books, M. John Harrison’s Viriconium books, and China Miéville’s Bas-Lag books all qualify, as do Barry Hughart’s Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox and Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books. So you can certainly create great literature and make a living as a writer with this approach.

But it’s 2015, and part of the point of this project is to go full indie—do what the indies recommend, see whether I can make it work. I have a few years left in me; plenty of time to scorn marketing and follow the muse.

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So now I’ve blown a couple of thousand words on matters of general interest. It’s a nice introduction to the way I think, maybe, or at least what I’m reading and listening to; but in my next long essays I’ll get down to nuts and bolts, with one post on the story world and then one on my outlining process.

The plan

theClaimDuplex

On December 31, 2014, I’m quitting my job as a research professor in the psychiatry department at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

From a writer, one typically expects such a sentence to end with a coda like “to focus on my writing, damn the torpedoes and dental insurance.” But I’m not there yet. I have a few self-published books that don’t sell; I’ve never gotten an agent more than provisionally interested in a novel; I haven’t traditionally published a short story since 2008. I also have a wife and two kids, and collectively we need my income to cover the basics.

So: On February 2, 2015, I’ll begin work as a software engineer and data scientist at a startup called Big Health. There are a number of perks associated with this move, notably a zero commute (I’ll work remotely except for quarterly company meetings), a rather better compensation package, and January.

Not every January. But this January? This one is mine. And I know exactly what I’m going to do with it.

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I spend a lot of time with three men in my head—mostly because it beats listening to my inner postal worker muttering about water fluoridation while I’m washing dishes. Those men are Johnny B. Truant, Sean Platt, and David Wright of Sterling & Stone and the Self-Publishing Podcast. I haven’t met them or even corresponded with them, but their success in making a living from writing has worn deep channels into my mind over the last year and a half or so. Their fingerprints are all over this site, in fact: The mailing list link, the fact that I’m shelling out for hosting at all, the affiliate links, the ampersanded company name. And January.

Johnny, Sean, and Dave write fast. They’re not the only people who do, but they’ve introduced me to all the other people who do. And they’re at the high end, I think—Johnny has talked about regularly hitting 8000-word daily quotas. At 250 words a page, 8000 words amounts to about 32 double-spaced pages, or a very short novelette. A week’s work, or 40,000 words, is a very short novel. A month’s work, 160,000 words, is The Dandelion Knight, which took me five years to write, edit, and publish.

My daily quotas, when I’ve hit them, have been about 1000 words. Which still adds up, and has added up; I’ve written two novels and a solid double handful of novellas and short stories at that rate. A 30,000-word January would be one of the better writing months I’ve had, for sure; that would be two novelettes or a really good start on a novel.

Note well, though: Those daily quotas have been dialed in almost exclusively on the 50-minute train ride from Trenton to Philadelphia. On a per-hour basis, I write as fast as the SPP guys already.

Maybe I can’t hit 8000 words a day from Day 1. But surely this opens up wider vistas than just starting a novel.

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One of the pillars of the SPP guys’ productivity is beats. This is what everybody else calls outlining. Rachel Aaron swears by beats as well; she claims that knowing what you write before you write it can more or less double your word count per unit time. This is qualitatively consistent with my experience: I spent a couple of days outlining my most recent book, The Eighth King, and routinely hit my word count goals with time to spare. Knowing where your book is going, and by what waypoints, is hugely freeing to creativity at the word-by-word level.

I know this, but I’ve always resisted it. There’s a point, usually rather early in planning, by which I’m really itching to write. I’m at that point as I write these words, in fact, in early December 2014. But I’m resisting it. The thousand words I could write in this hour on the train will be a small fraction of my total word count for January—which is to say, even a small multiplier on my productivity for the month will repay the words I lose now.

Of course, “now” I’m not planning out my writing. Now I’m writing to you about my writing.

Why is that?

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If it was ever new for writers to expose their process, it isn’t any longer. The Writing Excuses crew have a great series of podcasts where they workshop a short story each; the podcasts are free and highly educational, and also a clever funnel into a short anthology, Shadows Beneath, in which they’ve published both the rough and final versions of each story. The SPP guys have their Fiction Unboxed project, the literary equivalent of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, where they crowdsourced a genre and story idea, wrote and published the novel in a month, and let their backers into every word and minute of the process. This is work coming from people at the top of their fields, and well worth studying.

But most of us aren’t at the top of our fields. Most of us aren’t full-time writers, and won’t be able or inclined to be in the near future. Most of us don’t have collaborators, like the SPP guys, to spark new ideas and spur us on in story meetings; most of us don’t have the polished critical sensibilities of the Writing Excuses crew.

So, if this little essai has any value at all, it’s this. I’ve been writing as hard as I know how for ten years now, and it’s gotten me somewhere. I’ve traditionally published two short stories, placed respectably in a couple of contests, completed a couple of novels and gotten the occasional sniff of interest from agents. I think there are a lot of people like me out there. In the weeks that follow, I hope this will give shape to the possibilities of your own writing career: What could you do with a month to yourself, if you planned it out? How far could you come in that time? How might it fuel your writing when the month is over?

I don’t have any idea, by the way, what my own answers to these questions might be. That’s part of the point of this.

And it’s long past time to talk about what “this” is.

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I have 20 weekdays in January. I think I can write at an average rate of 5000 words per day, for a total of 100,000 words. I’ll start at 4000 words per day on January 5 and ratchet up by 100 words a day to finish with 6000 words on January 30.

The 100,000 words will be divided among two short fantasy Westerns, The Claim and The Candidate. The third book, The Crescendo, will complete a trilogy, but I have a lot of thoughts about what else might go on in that story world, and there will almost certainly be more books after that. As I write, all three books are planned out with paragraph synopses; The Claim has chapter-by-chapter beats, and I plan to write those for The Candidate during the remainder of December.

I’m hoping to reserve the word count push for mornings. Not that I’ll have any lack of things to do in the afternoons—preparation for the new job, work on postdoc projects, housework, and exercise will hopefully all feature, and of course I’ll be posting raw words and production notes here.

In the weeks to come, I’ll be posting process notes, beats, synopses, and notes about the story world. During January, I’ll take a page from Fiction Unboxed and post a brief diary entry about each day’s work—what was great, what was hard, how my beats failed me, how I transcended them. After January, I’ll continue posting regular updates on the rest of the publication process—revision, cover design, launch plans, and so on.

Of course, like any set of story beats, these plans are provisional. I have an arc plotted out for this little experiment, and it ends in my first real indie publishing success. But no plan survives contact with the enemy, and I am beset by enemies—resistance, obscurity, obligations, poor discipline, cat videos. I can’t promise I’ll show you the secret kung fu to vanquish those enemies; but I think I can promise you a hard and bloody battle. And, really, this is the Internet; what else are you here for?

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Thanks for getting this far. I’ll see you in my next post, tentatively titled “The Moorcock Model.”