Writing Tips from the Reading – The Ice Schooner by Michael Moorcock

Every week, I post a few editorial thoughts about a traditionally published book I’m reading—what I see working and what I see as problematic. Hopefully, it will give you a chance to learn a few things, both about what I see as an editor and about what to look for when you’re evaluating your work. I’ll stick to books that are by big-name authors and popular—books I don’t think I can hurt when I talk about what I see as their flaws.

I’d never read Michael Moorcock before this week, and I came across one of his books at a used bookstore last weekend and decided it was time to remedy that. The Ice Schooner, published in 1969 after being serialized in 1966, is pulp fiction at its pulpiest. It’s also possessed of one of the most straightforward taglines I’ve ever seen: “Aboard a lust-plagued ship they crossed a frozen hell to a city of legendary doom.”

No pulling punches there, and what you’re advertised is what you’re given.

What’s working:

– The pulpiness. Really, this is an example of a book delivering exactly what it says it’s going to deliver. It’s a short, fast-paced, totally over-the-top romp. Books that make you grin while you read them are doing something right.

– The high concept. Pulpiness aside, Moorcock’s concocted a pretty cool scenario: a frozen future Earth, in which a new and far deeper ice age has encased the entire planet in ice. Humans, along with a few other species, have survived by making some pretty drastic adaptations. The world’s now warming, and the crew of an ice schooner (imagine a clipper ship on skis) are making a run north to see if they can find the remnants of New York City, where the mythical Ice Mother is supposed to live.

You’ll hear agents and editors talk often about how they want “high concept” fiction. This is what they mean—a cool idea that’s integral to the plot of the book. They want it because readers want it too. Fantasy and sci-fi tend to do very well if they have what I think of as a high cool-stuff ratio—how many novel, exciting situations are there per chapter? The Ice Schooner scores highly on that.

What’s not working:

– The love story. Don’t get me wrong—I’m a fan of love stories. But what we have here is underdeveloped. Love stories take page space to grow properly, and this one isn’t given enough. It’s love/lust at first sight between the male protagonist and the first (and only) female character he encounters, with no explanation whatsoever of why either of them is attracted to the other. That flunks the interesting, novel, and exciting test pretty hard.

But really, that’s it. There are other things I dislike about the novel, but outside of the love story, it’s doing exactly what it wants to do and delivering the package it’s advertising. I may groan inwardly about some of the language and the machismo of the male characters, but those things fit what this book sets out to be. If I were editing this, I’d warn the author about those things, because they limit the audience of the book. But it’s not my job as an editor to change what a book wants to be.

Up next week: Red Marsby Kim Stanley Robinson.

For centuries, Mars has beckoned to mankind to come and conquer its hostile climate. Now, in the year 2026, a group of one hundred colonists is about to fulfill that destiny.

Join in if you like!

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