How to Write a Book in Three Days: Lessons from Michael Moorcock
This article is the first part of a series about one of my favorite writers, Michael Moorcock, which will culminate in an interview with the man himself.
In the early days of Michael Moorcock's 50-plus-years career, when he was living paycheck-to-paycheck, he wrote a whole slew of action-adventure sword-and-sorcery novels very, very quickly, including his most famous books about the tortured anti-hero Elric. In 1992, he published a collection of interviews conducted by Colin Greenland called Michael Moorcock: Death is No Obstacle, in which he discusses his writing method. In the first chapter, "Six Days to Save the World", he says those early novels were written in about "three to ten days" each, and outlines exactly how one accomplishes such fast writing.
This is not the best way to write every novel, or even most novels. Moorcock used it specifically to write sword-and-sorcery action-adventure, but I think it could be applied more-or-less to any kind of potboiler. Once Moorcock himself had perfected this method, he became bored with it and moved on, restlessly playing with one genre and style after another, and turning in some of his best work, including the literary fiction Mother London (shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize) and the quasi-historical romance Gloriana. (Which took him six whole weeks to write!) The rest of Death is No Obstacle is about writing in these other forms.
So all of the quotes below are from just the first chapter of the book. I cannot recommend enough for fiction writers to hunt themselves down a copy (it's sadly out of print) and studying it, especially if you want to understand the purpose of form and structure in fiction. If you want to think of this post as a naked advertisement for this brilliant book, I'm okay with that.
To be clear: This is not my advice. This is Michael Moorcock's advice. I have never written a book in three days. I am planning on making the attempt, however, on the weekend of September 18th, which is Jewish New Years (Rosh Hashanah), and the next time in my calendar when I'll have three days straight with nothing else to do. Digesting this material is part of my preparation.
How to Write a Book in Three Days
- "If you're going to do a piece of work in three days, you have to have everything properly prepared."
- "[The formula is] The Maltese Falcon. Or the Holy Grail. You use the quest theme, basically. In The Maltese Falcon it's a lot of people after the same thing, which is the Black Bird. In Mort D'Arthur it's also a lot of people after the same thing, which is the Holy Grail. That's the formula for Westerns too: everybody's after the gold of El Dorado or whatever." (Cf the MacGuffin.)
- "The formula depends on that sense of a human being up against superhuman forces, whether it's Big Business, or politics, or supernatural Evil, or whatever. The hero is fallible in their terms, and doesn't really want to be mixed up with them. He's always just about to walk out when something else comes along that involves him on a personal level." (An example of this is when Elric's wife gets kidnapped.)
- "There is an event every four pages, for example -- and notes. Lists of things you're going to use. Lists of coherent images; coherent to you or generically coherent. You think: 'Right, Stormbringer [a novel in the Elric series]: swords; shields; horns", and so on."
- "[I prepared] A complete structure. Not a plot, exactly, but a structure where the demands were clear. I knew what narrative problems I had to solve at every point. I then wrote them at white heat; and a lot of it was inspiration: the image I needed would come immediately [when] I needed it. Really, it's just looking around the room, looking at ordinary objects and turning them into what you need. A mirror: a mirror that absorbs the souls of the damned."
- "You need a list of images that are purely fantastic: deliberate paradoxes, say: the City of Screaming Statues, things like that. You just write a list of them so you've got them there when you need them. Again, they have to cohere, have the right resonances, one with the other."
- "The imagery comes before the action, because the action's actually unimportant. An object to be obtained -- limited time to obtain it. It's easily developed, once you work the structure out."
- "Time is the important element in any action adventure story. In fact, you get the action and adventure out of the element of time. It's a classic formula: "We've only got six days to save the world!" Immediately you've set the reader up with a structure: there are only six days, then five, then four and finally, in the classic formula anyway, there's only 26 seconds to save the world! Will they make it in time?"
- "Once you've started, you keep it rolling. You can't afford to have anything stop it."
- "The whole reason you plan everything beforehand is so that when you hit a snag, a desperate moment, you've actually got something there on your desk that tells you what to do."
- "I was also planting mysteries that I hadn't explained to myself. The point is, you put in the mystery, it doesn't matter what it is. It may not be the great truth that you're going to reveal at the end of the book. You just think, I'll put this in here because I might need it later."
- "You start off with a mystery. Every time you reveal a bit of it, you have to do something else to increase it. A good detective story will have the same thing. "My God, so that's why Lady Carruthers's butler Jenkins was peering at the keyhole that evening. But where was Mrs. Jenkins?"
"What I do is divide my total 60,000 words into four sections, 15,000 words apiece, say; then divide each into six chapters. ... In section one the hero will say, "There's no way I can save the world in six days unless I start by getting the first object of power". That gives you an immediate goal, and an immediate time element, as well as an overriding time element. With each section divided into six chapters, each chapter must then contain something which will move the action forward and contribute to that immediate goal.
"Very often it's something like: attack of the bandits -- defeat of the bandits -- nothing particularly complex, but it's another way you can achieve recognition: by making the structure of a chapter a miniature of the overall structure of the book, so everything feels coherent. The more you're dealing with incoherence, with chaos, the more you need to underpin everything with simple logic and basic forms that will keep everything tight. Otherwise the thing just starts to spread out into muddle and abstraction.
"So you don't have any encounter without information coming out of it. In the simplest form, Elric has a fight and kills somebody, but as they die they tell him who kidnapped his wife. Again, it's a question of economy. Everything has to have a narrative function."
- [On "The Lester Dent Master Plot Formula"]1 "First, he says, split your six-thousand-word story up into four fifteen hundred word parts. Part one, hit your hero with a heap of trouble. Part two, double it. Part three, put him in so much trouble there's no way he could ever possibly get out of it. Then -- now this could be Lester Dent or it could be what I learnt when I was on Sexton Blake Library, I forget -- you must never have a revelation of something that wasn't already established; so, you couldn't unmask a murderer who wasn't a character established already. All your main characters have to be in the first third. All you main themes and everything else has to be established in the first third, devloped in the second third, and resolved in the last third." (Note: this last sentence is reminiscent of the classic three-act structure.) (Note 2: Lester Dent's Master Plot Formula is actually a bit more complex and specific than this. Here it is in its entirety.)
"There's always a sidekick to make the responses the hero isn't allowed to make: to get frightened; to add a lighter note; to offset the hero's morbid speeches, and so on.
The hero has to supply the narrative dynamic, and therefore can't have any common-sense. Any one of us in those circumstances would say, 'What? Dragons? Demons? You've got to be joking!' The hero has to be driven, and when people are driven, common sense disappears. You don't want your reader to make common sense objections, you want them to go with the drive; but you've got to have somebody around who'll act as a sort of chorus."
- "'When in doubt, descend into a minor character.' So when you've reached an impasse, and you can't move the action any further with your major character, switch to a minor character 's viewpoint which will allow you to keep the narrative moving and give you time to think."
One last note: later in the book, Moorcock talks about how he is also fond of using stock characters, especially those from the Commedia Dell'Arte.
More information about Michael Moorcock can be found at his official website Moorcock's Miscellany, which includes articles, blog, forums and a wiki.
1 Lester Dent was another extremely prolific author, known for churning out upwards of 200,000 words a month. He wrote in the heyday of the pulps in the early 20th century, and is best known for the adventures of Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, who became a prototype for later superheroes like Superman and Batman. According to Moorcock he is also "credited by both Hammett and Chandler with being the first of the hardboiled detective writers". Back