On writing: The cautionary example of Alan Moore

What are you looking at?: Alan Moore (credit: The Guardian).

What are you looking at?: Alan Moore, from The Guardian

When I think of George R.R. Martin, I can’t help thinking of Alan Moore, too.

Both have been wildly successful in popular genres (fantasy, graphic novels). Both are old guys. Both don’t know how to trim their beards.

They’re opposite sides of the same coin.

Martin writes novels accessible to wide audiences (they couldn’t get any wider), he likes his fans and likes mingling with them, and in photos he usually has a friendly grin on his face.  If he ever stumbled into Dr. Jekyll’s lab and mistook a potion for a good black lager, I could seem him gag and cough, drop to the floor, roll around in agony for a while, then stand up … as Alan Moore.

Moore’s disdain for popularized versions of his work is legendary. His avoidance of fans and the marketplace is so un-Martin-like. In photos there’s usually a scowl or a perplexed look on his face.

But here’s another thing they have in common: Moore, like Martin, is inspiring to any and all writers out there.

The Guardian gave readers an update last week that Moore’s million-word novel about a small postage stamp of London earth, “Jerusalem,” has been finished. “Now there’s just the small matter of copy editing,” quipped his daughter in a Facebook announcement. When I read that line, I couldn’t help thinking of another incredible understatement, from the movie “Jaws,” about needing a bigger boat.

I don’t envy the editor of that book, but I do  admire Moore.  In the end, you know he’ll successfully publish his behemoth with a solid publisher, he’ll receive many reviews, he’ll get sales because we’re curious — even though he doesn’t care for any of it.

During his career, he’s layered a cocoon around himself that’s a good cautionary example for any writer, I think.

What does his example teach us? Write for yourself. Write what pleases you.

But don’t misunderstood this message. It doesn’t mean that you can get lazy and do anything you want. Don’t indulge in bad habits. Don’t settle for writing that’s “good enough” when you know you can do better.

I’d add — not to aim for a million words, either: If you haven’t published a novel yet, a big book is anathema to most publishers. Especially by an untested quantity. (An earlier version of my novel, a big fat padded thing, made the rounds and received a bunch of rejections — many commenting on its length .)

Ok, but… if your narrative can’t help growing to an enormous length and that growth is truly organic, truly necessary …. well, then just hope a sympathetic editor finds you and is willing to make the case for you.

Such questions have been on my mind a lot lately, my friends, as my own book finally approaches (yet again) its completion — but in a state that satisfies and pleases me.

So in the weeks and months ahead, I think I’ll mostly be dedicating Call of the Siren to aspects of my experience, and my preparation to run the gauntlet again. I hope that’s ok with everyone. It’s where my mind is.

Maybe I’ll also let my beard start growing again. Stop trimming it, too.

11 responses

  1. I’m still staring at The Luminaries and The Bone Clocks, wondering how I’ll ever have time to read them. I think we should all start aiming for the Gatsby model. 😀 Must feel good to be close to the new end.

  2. Definitely feels good, Jil, and it’s been a long road. But worth it. I’ve learned a lot.

    I admire both Catton and Mitchell, but I’m a poor slow reader. The size scares me off. I don’t feel like I have the time.

  3. I’m not sure how I feel about excerpts yet, Janet, even though I understand why it would be a good idea. Maybe I’ll be ready when it’s nearly done and my narrator’s come to the end of his journey. I guess I’m just a little chickenhearted — my past experiences with publishers have made me cautious (maybe too cautious).

  4. Actually, your response helps me a lot. I don’t know how I feel about posting from my work in progress either, but I haven’t. Mine is memoir and many people know bits and pieces of my journey and think I have “such an interesting life…..” (whatever that means since most of us have interesting lives if we’d see it). And people have suggested posting excerpts to attract…oh, whatever, agents publishers readers etc etc. Thanks for being so candid.

    By the way, I finished The Mandarins and began the Alexandria Quartet. Not sure why I’m dashing back to the past so much, but then, the unconscious works in mysterious ways.

  5. You’re in for a treat with the Durrell. Let me know what you think.

    I think I’d rather post some excerpts when the book is done the way I want. For me the danger of posting work in progress is that negative responses would be too easy to listen to. There are places that every writer has to discover, and I’ve learned a lot in the past two years of work. It’s better to just have a few trusted readers take a look.

    I hope that helps. If you ever need my help, let me know.

  6. You’re very kind, thank you. And the same to you from me.

    I first read Durrell some twenty years ago and remember being swallowed by it; now I think I know why: the idea of all experiences (to say nothing of reality) being multi-layered and dimensional, much of which we don’t see or understand, is pretty compelling.

    So, fantasy and myth maven, what do you think of Patrick Rothfus? The prologue of his first book hooked me good….three sentences in: “If there had been a wind it would have sighed through the trees, set the inn’s sign creaking on its hooks, and brushed the silence down the road like trailing autumn leaves”…and I thought, who is this guy??? A friend who doesn’t read fantasy, read it, and emailed me, “Is there such a thing as literary fantasy?”

  7. I admire Rothfuss — he’s another inspiring model for us all. He’s pursuing his own vision and not worrying about the marketplace. I’ve read two of his shorter pieces, but not his big saga. I have “The Name of the Wind” but I’m such a slow reader, Janet, that I don’t want to really commit to him until I’m ready … and once my book is finished. If you keep going and join him in that inn, let me — let everyone — know what you think. I’d love to see your assessment!

  8. Oh, I’ve already joined him…read both The Name of The Wind and Wise Man’s Fear. The books were my run-away place for a while when I just couldn’t work anymore. Interestingly, I learned what was wrong with my “bad” shoulder from Wise Man’s. There’s a scene where someone gets hit bad in the shoulder and the main character Reshi says, Oh, a brachial-plexus injury. And a light bulb went off. I searched the Internet, found what it was, and yep, that’s what I had. Just knowing and telling my body worker solved a perplexing problem. Oh, she said. Of course! I laughed. I’ve been healed by books before but never in quite that way.

  9. I’m sure Rothfuss would laugh if he knew his book served such a useful purpose! Over the years I’ve really grown to admire such writers for what they teach us about staying true to one’s vision, focus, you know? I’ve been thinking about my reading list for the holidays (there’s always a nice bit of time then) and it seems like the first book of his trilogy would be good for it. Thank you!

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