Michael Moorcock – 10 Rules for Writing

Bunyan, Byatt, Conrad, Enid Blyton, HL Brunswick, Lester Dent, Michael Moorcock, Uncategorized
Michael John Moorcock (born 18 December 1939) is an English writer, primarily of science fiction and fantasy, who has also published literary novels. He is best known for his novels about the character Elric of Melniboné, a seminal influence on the field of fantasy in the 1960s and 1970s.
As editor of the controversial British science fiction magazine New Worlds, from May 1964 until March 1971 and then again from 1976 to 1996, Moorcock fostered the development of the science fiction “New Wave” in the UK and indirectly in the United States. His publication of Bug Jack Barron by Norman Spinrad as a serial novel was notorious; in Parliament some British MPs condemned the Arts Council for funding the magazine.
In 2008, The Times newspaper named Moorcock in its list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945” (Wikipedia)
Here is his advice to would-be authors on how to write.
1. Read everything you can lay hands on. I always advise people who want to write a fantasy or science fiction or romance to stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt.
According to Norstrom’s Alphabetical List of Famous Writers there are no writers between Bunyan and Byatt. The closest is H.L. Brunswick, author of the renowned “Nefarious Twelve” children’s series, whose oeuvre includes the wildly popular Nefarious Twelve Beat the Heck out of a Policeman. Brunswick was an unapologetic alcoholic and prominent member of the Friends of the Phlogiston Cowboy Society, who wrote almost thirty books for children including Nefarious Twelve Ruin a Perfectly Good Soufflé, Nefarious Twelve Bite the Hand that Fed Them and the ever-popular Nefarious Twelve Start World War III with a Balloon Whisk. Enid Blyton’s derivative Secret Seven Electrocute a Swan came along later and cornered the market in saccharine juvenile potboilers, thus ruining it for everyone else.

2. Find an author you admire (mine was Conrad) and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters.
Moorcock took his own advice here. His lengthy novel, Ben Him, became a bestseller. It charts the story of a gender-confused time-traveling janitor turned Punch and Judy performer who nevertheless managed to rise to the heights of political greatness during the Roman Republic by stapling his opponents’ lips to the side of a ship and sailing them out to sea never to return, thus leaving the stage clear for his notorious second-hand-chariot-salesmen persecutions.
3. Introduce your main characters and themes in the first third of your novel.
This seems to be almost axiomatic. But I would have thought that if you hadn’t introduced the main themes and characters by the end of page three, then you have an overinflated notion of your readers’ stamina level… unless, of course, your novel happens to be nine pages long, in which case you would have satisfied both conditions and be on your way to withering obscurity in the twinkling of an ear.
4. If you are writing a plot-driven genre novel make sure all your major themes/plot elements are introduced in the first third, which you can call the introduction.
See point number 3, re. ears and twinkling.
5. Develop your themes and characters in your second third, the development.
You may think that this is fairly obvious and that it would be remarkably difficult not to develop the characters and themes once you have introduced them in the first part of the novel. There are, however, two ways to avoid this hackneyed trope: 1) introduce a completely different set of characters in the second third of the novel who gradually assassinate the first set of characters leaving a completely new and confusing plot for readers to puzzle over; or 2) refuse to develop the characters and themes and instead devolve into an endless spiral of baffling subplots involving badgers and electricity pylons, and how to put them together in a complex heist scenario.
6. Resolve your themes, mysteries and so on in the final third, the resolution.
Again hackneyed. But there is an easy way to avoid belaboring your readers with this particular tedious howler. Simply refuse to write the last third of your novel and end it after the second act. This is bound to go down well with avant-garde readers who prefer the opacity and obscurity of a meticulously-detailed and abruptly-discontinued stream of consciousness to the dull, leaden predictability of a bestseller. You may not make any money, but at least you’ll be miserable.
7. For a good melodrama study the famous “Lester Dent master plot formula” which you can find online. It was written to show how to write a short story for the pulps, but can be adapted successfully for most stories of any length or genre.
If you take a moment to peruse this plot formula thingy you will see that it divides a story into four discrete parts and in each part the hero is put upon, tortured and beaten mercilessly so that by part four he is well-nigh dead and forgotten. Then suddenly at the end he manages to extricate himself from the clutches of the villain, get the girl, solve the mystery and finish the quest. Essentially Lester Dent was a sadist who enjoyed inflicting pain on his protagonists and whose motto was: “Kick a Guy When He’s Down. Then Kick Him Some More.” On the other hand his stories did appeal to a vast army of readers and he was so successful that virtually all of his yarns sold to the pulp magazines. So maybe there is something to be said for mindless, excruciating violence after all.
8. If possible have something going on while you have your characters delivering exposition or philosophizing. This helps retain dramatic tension.
In case you didn’t know (and I’m sure you did), exposition is a method of delivering back story to the reader usually through the mouth of one or more of the characters. The trick is to make it as natural and transparent as possible so that the reader is unaware that it is happening. The problem with this suggestion is that if you overdo it and make the accompanying action too intense your protagonist will sound like an idiot. While he is being attacked by cannibals in the Amazonian forest, being half-eaten by a giant sea squid, or precipitating headlong down a mountainside in a dodgem car with no brakes, he gasps out his fragments of back story, one breathless word at a time, to the leading lady who sits frowning by his side, trying to make sense of his ramblings. In this case, the action is a distraction and you will probably make things clearer by simply addressing the reader directly.
(Quixotically, Joseph Conrad, whom Moorcock extolled earlier, in his novel The Heart of Darkness has virtually nothing going on while the main character delivers the back story, which lasts for almost the whole of the book.)
9. Carrot and stick – have protagonists pursued (by an obsession or a villain) and pursuing (idea, object, person, mystery).
Or, in order to avoid cliché, have the protagonist pursued by a carrot while chasing after a stick. Or have the stick chasing the carrot. Or introduce a brand new horticultural/pedagogical dynamic in which a cabbage chases a blackboard through a jungle of sticks each of which is reading a novel in which the protagonist is actually a carrot.
10. Ignore all proffered rules and create your own, suitable for what you want to say.
In other words, disregard everything I have just wasted five minutes of your time on.