On the fine art of not finishing

I learned, over time, not to be a finisher. I would start grand projects, read the first 20 pages of a hundred books and write the beginnings of a hundred blog posts (much like this one). All of them are fragments — I have a folder on my computer called “fragments” — and none of them is finished.

It took me a long time to learn this, using the power of habits to make myself a master at the heavenly craft of completing nothing. I wasn’t always great at it, but through the sheer application of walking away from things I start, I have come to the point where I can consider not finishing what I started as my profession, my true calling.

And now, I am ready to take the next step and make this my full-time job!

Failing to finish things gives you an amazing feeling of accomplishment. The words you would have written but never got around to are the most perfect ones you can imagine. The exceptional middle and ending of the work, which you just couldn’t put to paper or screen, will always beat anything you ever actually wrote.

I would recommend failing to finish things to anyone. You will never have a greater sense of achievement. Go forth, young person, and stop when you feel like it.

On Michael Moorcock

I once wrote a letter to Michael Moorcock. I have no idea how I found some kind of address for him — possibly via the Hawkwind fan club I was a member of — but found it I did. And sometime later, he was kind enough to write back.

I have almost no recollection of what I asked him (probably something trivial about Elric), but I recall that I had asked him if he would read a story I had written. He politely declined, explaining that not reading other writers’ unpublished work was his number one rule. I think he said something encouraging about continuing to write.

There was, of course, a certain element of teenage braggadocio involved in this. I had not written a story at all. In fact, I had never written a story, not a word of fiction. But I reckoned that if Moorcock did want to have a read of something, I could probably rattle something out fairly sharpish and get it back to him. How hard could it be?

Moorcock has remained one of the touchstone writers of my life, and his Dancers at the End of Time trilogy (and associated short stories) remains a sequence of books that I return to repeatedly. His association with New Worlds also connected me to Ballard, M John Harrison, Samuel Delaney and many others I have read throughout my life.

There are three lessons that I learned from Moorcock.

Don’t let the confines of genre bind you

Moorcock is a genre writer, with much of his output coming from fantasy and science fiction’s weirder end. However, he hasn’t let himself be limited to this, playing with the forms of the modern novel and writing things which have as much in common with Iain Sinclair as Edgar Rice-Burroughs. His real theme isn’t fantasy, but the fantastical, something which can be found in everyday life.

Tolkien was the worst thing to happen to fantasy

I might be exaggerating: I am sure that even Moorcock would say that other writers (cough Hubbard, Lovecraft cough) were worse people and worse writers. But, while acknowledging Tolkien was a pleasant enough man and very welcoming towards him when they met, he certainly had no time for Tolkien’s fiction:

“It would be the same if we were talking about Warwick Deeping or RC Sherriff. It’s the British character sentimentalised, the illusion of decency, that whole nonsense of ‘no British boy would do this sort of thing’. It was also the tone of the BBC when I was growing up. I hated it.

Middle Earth is a place which celebrates the pre-industrial hobbits while the rabble — the orcs — are notable only for their brutality. When Saruman’s orcs are creating machinery, they are a pretty thinly disguised analogue of the industrial working class. But they are regarded as brutes, and their enslavement by Saruman is barely acknowledged.

It took me a long time to realise how odious Lord of the Rings was: Moorcock led the way.

Write, write and keep writing – but plan first

In his early years, Moorcock was capable of writing 15,000 words in a day , an insane amount of words unless you’re writing something that is unpublishable. Not only was his writing publishable, but it was also published.

How did he maintain that pace? As he told Hari Kunzru, mostly, it was all in the planning:

“It’s all planning. I’d have been in bed for three days, during which I’ve had time to sketch out the story. Then I spring out of bed and I’ve got a straight nine to five – or nine to six or seven – regime, which frequently includes taking the kids to school, then I just sit down and go through with an hour break for lunch. When you write that fast the book really does start to write you, you get high on the book. It’s partly lack of sleep, it’s partly the sugar – in my case I only had strong black coffee because it kept me going.”