Category Archives: Blog

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!

Guy Gavriel Kay on A Writer’s Life

Every Wednesday I post a link to someone else’s thoughts on a topic of interest to writers, as well as a bit of commentary.

If you hang around me long enough and the conversation turns to fantasy, chances are I’ll start spouting the praises of Guy Gavriel Kay at some point. His duology The Sarantine Mosaic was a revelation to me, and he’s one of a handful of authors whose books I can truly lose myself in—where my admiration of craft and enjoyment of story blend perfectly.

Recently, he gave a 50-minute lecture for the Writer’s Trust of Canada on the topic of “A Writer’s Life.”

Listen here

The first three minutes are biographical. Kay’s lecture starts at 3:24.

It’s worth a listen, particularly in the context of this blog and others that touch on how to write. He starts off by talking about the importance of reading someone’s work rather than listening to what they have to say about how they create it, and he comes to the conclusion that “How I have written, or how anyone has, does not tell someone” at the beginning of the career what they need to do.

As someone who edits for a living, I might seem disinclined to agree with him, but I think he makes an important point. There’s a difference between seeking feedback on your writing, which will help you improve it, and seeking (or offering) THE ONE TRUE PATH TO GREATNESS, which so many people do. Your strengths and your weaknesses, along with your opportunities and obstacles, will come together to guide your development and create your process. So read a little about how to write. You’ll find good and useful ideas. But more than that, read authors you want to write like and do your best to learn from their work.

That’s only about the first 20 minutes of the lecture. Kay goes on to talk about the “creative arrogance” inherent in the act of sharing writing and the fear that comes married to it, and from there, he charts the power of fiction writers in shaping the perception of history. He charges that this power comes with responsibility and urges awareness of “the power that accrues” to books that are intended primarily as entertainment, because if they’re good at what they do, they’re the books that most people read.

So like I said, lots to chew on there. I hope you get a chance to listen to the lecture, and I hope it’s a profitable 50 minutes for you.

The Building Blocks of Fantasy – History

This is the first of several weekly posts in which I’m going to lay out what I see as some of the building blocks of writing a great fantasy novel. It’s not gospel, but I hope it’ll help you take a look at your writing and find ways to improve it. Enjoy.

Fantasy may be born in the imagination, but it doesn’t come from nothing. No group of people, including the characters in a book, emerges without connections to those who came before them. There’s an endless string of chickens and eggs reaching back into the mists of prehistory and beyond. And if you fail to create a world in which those chains are apparent, your fantasy suffers.

I often think about where a fantasy novel gets its credit with readers from—how an author gets the story to feel real. Every time a reader picks up a fantasy story, its author asks them to swallow a whole package of statements that conflict with the world as they know it: Dragons are real. Elves and dwarves are real. Magic exists. Gods and goddesses walk the earth among mortals.

To make that package palatable, the author has to establish some credit with readers, even people out-and-out looking for that package. There are lots of ways to do that, but history is one of the most powerful.

We live in a world steeped in history. If you grew up in the United States, like me, you grew up inundated with stories about Jamestown, the American Revolution, the Civil War, Manifest Destiny, etc.—all the way on up through the Civil Rights Movement and the AIDS Crisis. On top of that, odds are you got some kind of religious history. Genesis and Exodus. The New Testament. Other books in other religions I should know more about. You also grew up surrounded by the detritus of that history. Monuments. Parks. Graffiti. Arguments. Stereotypes. Prejudices.

For most of us, I think, history fades into the background of our lives until some event forces it into our consciousness for a little while. But it’s always there, subtly informing the way we see ourselves, the people around us, and the world in general. Maybe most importantly, most of us receive history fairly uncritically. The first story we’re told about something sticks and becomes truth until something else dislodges it. We end up stuffed full of received historical narratives, and anything that fits into them feels true, because it plays to what we think we know about the world.

So people are used to looking for history, and they’re used to swallowing it more or less unquestioned. As an author looking to get a reader to believe in an imaginary world, that provides you with an incredibly powerful tool. A little dose of history—most often not dead history in the form of an encyclopedia extract or ten pages of backstory but living history in the form of a monument, a ruin, a prejudice, a fight, or a conversation that directly impacts a major character—helps breathe life into a world. Beyond that, a story that loosely shadows a widespread historical narrative feels true to the reader as well. It’s immediately plausible, because the reader has heard of something sort of like it once before. A pastoral green land (England/The Shire) is threatened by a shadow from the southeast (Germany/Mordor). An emperor (Caesar/Palpatine) usurps power from a senate (Rome/The Old Republic).

In the end, that means two things for the writer of a fantasy novel: you must read history, and you must write history. Read it to understand how people think about it and talk about it—to grasp the shapes of the stories we tell and how they might appear in your fiction. Write it because without it, your stories won’t feel whole. Where your characters are coming from matters as much as what they’re heading to.

Catch the next post in the series here.