Blood and 20,000 Words a Day for My Lord Arioch

Bill Ward at Black Gate pointed toward a short essay by Michael Moorcock in which he reveals his process for writing the Hawkmoon novels, now re-released:

My old method of writing fantasy novels was to go to bed for a few days, getting up only to take the kids to school and pick them up, while the book germinated, making a few notes, then I’d jump out of bed and start, writing around 15-20,000 words a day (I was a superfast typist) for three days, rarely for more than normal working hours—say 9 to 6—get my friend Jim Cawthorn to read the manuscript for any errors of typing or spelling etc. then send it straight to the editor unread by me. I have still to read more than a few pages of the Hawkmoon books. The odd thing is that I’ve actually read almost none of my own books but I seem to remember the events as if I’d lived them. Some scenes are better remembered than others, of course. Similarly, I’ve reread almost nothing of the Elric, Corum or Eternal Champion novels.

That explains a lot, actually. I read almost everything of Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series in my late teens, starting with the Elric cycle, and I was struck even then by how inconsistent his writing was. The Elric stories are beautifully imaginative and fully realized. But much of the rest? The Michael Kane novels are awful, tedious pastiches of Burroughs. The first three Corum books are repetitive strings of fights and battles without impact or meaning, and on the whole memorable only for the beginning when Corum obtains the alien hand and eye and for the end when the Lost God Kwll takes them back. The second Corum trilogy is worse because it doesn’t even have that going for it.

Drumming out 20K a day and then refusing to read your own product is hack work, pure and simple. But the key phrase here is “My old method.” As I said, I read a lot of Moorcock in my teens, and I found he generally became better as he went along; probably my favorite of his novels is 1986’s The City in the Autumn Stars, even though I hate the ending (twist? anti-climax?). Maybe by that time, with his reputation and income established, Moorcock took a few deep breaths and began working with more patience and care. I seem to recall another interview in which Moorcock regretted not spending as much time on his early novels as he should have.

A few years ago I reread the original Corum trilogy and it was even worse than the first time around. Moorcock has said that his formula for writing fantasy was to have something supernatural happen every 1,000 words — every four pages, if you’re pounding on a typewriter in 12-point Courier. I think that may be why Elric endures better than the rest; the 1977 DAW series consisted of short stories and novellas interfused chronologically with two full-length novels, so the differing rhythms make the formula less apparent, less metronomic. My memory of the Hawkmoon books suggests they were not too bad, with the geopolitics tempering the otherwise typical quest narrative. Perhaps I should revisit them to see how they stand up.

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