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

Comments

That's an excellent read. The

That's an excellent read. The linked Lester Dent master plot was intriguing too. It would be a cool exercise to break down how these methods work in some Elric stories, or even some other sword and sorcery classics. I suppose that's what my own blog is for. :)

In Death is No Obstacle,

In Death is No Obstacle, Moorcock himself dissects a bunch of the elric stories. He keeps saying over and over again that it's all about structure. I'm not sure I agree with him that it's always the case. I don't think, for example, that Melville could have written Moby Dick in the way that Moorcock describes. It's a different sort of approach. But at the same time, I think if one is writing Sword and Sorcery, one should not be given to spend too much time on any one particular story.

structure

If there is no structure then there is no story. Without structure there is only a collection of random events that do not correspond to each other and makes no logical sense of connectivity. Regardless of whether the writer realizes it or not, a successful novel possesses structure, however subconsciously developed or beneath the 'story' it may lay.

People who 'hate' plot or 'refuse' to use it are just plain annoying, because they think if they admit they use plot it somehow takes away from their creativity. Quit being so pompous and full of yourself as an 'artist' (not you specifically, btw, just a personal gripe of mine i felt like breathing out, lol). Writers' are not 'special' people. The only difference between a Writer and a Mechanic is a Writer writes and a Mechanic fixes cars. I wish people would get that what-a-writer-is-supposed-to-be movie bullsh*t out of their heads and just sit down and write your damn story already. Quit dreaming of being rich and famous and highly respected and all that nonsense crap, accept you are just an ordinary, average person just like everyone else on this planet, get over yourself, and realize being a successful Writer takes a lot of long, solitary hours hunched over a desk actually writing, and when you're done the only one who pats you on the back is yourself. If that isn't enough, then stop pretending you're a Writer because that's all there is to it.

i don't disagree completely,

i don't disagree completely, but whatever "structure" moby dick is supposed to have, I'd argue that it is haphazard at best.

Also, i've written extensively elsewhere about "Writer as Lifestyle Syndrome" which is my name for the disease you are describing in overestimating the social cachet of being a writer.

That list...

...probably took him as long to write as the books!

That was a fascinating look under the hood of a prolific writer. So interesting to see his process for coming up with these pulps so quickly. Even those who don't aspire to speed can find something valuable in his remarks.

Interesting to see his

Interesting to see his process. At first glance I thought of Jack Kerouac, since he was proud that he wrote The Subterraneans in three nights and On The Road in three weeks. Very different authors, though.

Lester Dent

The link to the Lester Dent Formula is a good one, but there is a serious typo that completely changes the formula. It's a 60,000 word formula broken down into 15,000 word sections, but in the transcription for the Michael Moorcock site in the link, it has been changed to a 6,000 formula broken down into 1,500 word sections. Which would make for a neat-o short story, but isn't what LD wrote.

It's not a typo. The Master

It's not a typo. The Master Plot is Dent's formula for writing a short story. He wrote great bunches of stories in addition to all those Doc Savage novels.

yup, NO typo

Just as said before, the Lester Dent formula is specifically for SHORT STORIES and those numbers are not a typo. Basically the Moorcock formula is just the Lester Dent formula only Moorcock added an extra 0 at the end of the numbers and moved the comma to the right one space, lol.

Lester Dent's 6,000 word Short Story total = Moorcock's 60,000 word Novel total
LD's 1,500 word sections (6,000 '/. 4) = M's 15,000 word sections (60,000 '/. 4)
LD's 250 word scenes (1,500 '/. 6) = M's 2,500 word chapters (15,000 '/. 6)

It's kind of obvious if you ask me ;-P

AND as I've stated in another comment, if you take the Events outlined in the book A Stranger Comes To Town by Adron J. Smitley and apply them to the above formula(s) one can EASILY write a full first draft in several days . . . if not an entire novel if one puts their nose to the grindstone. The nice thing is those Events explain to you exactly what needs to happen in such a way that keeps you writing while leaving you enough room for your original story. I say this because I've literally done as much a few times myself :-)

What seems 'obvious' to me is

What seems 'obvious' to me is that it IS a typo, albeit one that was included in the original article. Dent's Doc Savage novels conform almost exactly to the formula he presents here if you multiply the figures by ten; a 6,000 word story that followed this outline would be absurd.

Now I know

I guess now I know why I don't like his books. Just empty formula, no real depth emotion or meaning. Kind of like getting a meal at a fast food joint and expecting 'cuisine'.

You can tell the difference between something full of original ideas, and something like this that is just pounded out in a few days with random action hung on a 'framework'.

Well, try reading Moorcock's

Well, try reading Moorcock's books that were not written to this formula, such as the Colonel Pyat novels, or Jerry Cornelius, or Mother London.

I think you've misunderstood, my friend...

I think you've misunderstood by calling plotting a "formula" and viewing it in a negative way. ALL stories have plot, and just because someone points out, "The Hero should do this here, or the Villain should do that there." doesn't make it formulaic. You seem to think the "formula" is a telling to the writer of what EXACTLY to do, which it isn't. I'll give an example. Every good story has an "All IS Lost" moment where someone or something very precious to the Hero 'dies.' Is this a necessary step? Yup. But i think the problem you are having is taking that step quite literally. 'Dies' can be literal or metaphorical, and the 'someone or something very precious' can be a person, a highly prized item, or an ideal that dies inside of the Hero because of something horrible he's caused. That step could quite literally be the best friend of the Hero dying because the Hero still hasn't learned the moral lesson he needs to defeat the Villain, or maybe the Hero comes into possession of a magical artifact they rely heavily upon only to lose it by it being destroyed, then as they feel like giving up New Inspiration hits them and they realize they never truly needed to rely on that specific object of power in the first place.

A basic plot structure goes as follows:

1. Hero living in their ordinary world.
2. Something happens to Hero that has never happened before.
3. After a personal debate where they weigh their options, they decide to take action against their new problem.
4. Obviously, after their decision they need to prepare, so they gather what they think are necessary tools to help them on their journey to solve their problem, then they step into that new, unfamiliar world to begin solving their problem.
5. Along the way they'll meet an important secondary character that is experienced in the new world that helps teach them to learn and adapt their growing skills to achieve success in the new world as they hunt down clues and evidence to help get closer to their problem and thus, hopefully, solve it.
6. Complications arise because if the Hero never fails then it would be a boring story. Eventually they struggle to better themselves until they lose something precious (Lose, because if they win here then the story's over) so they struggle with their defeat thinking they should just give up . . . until new inspiration has them continue. so they mount up, gather their necessary tools, and ride out to face the Villain.

THAT'S just a basic overview of a basic plot, and it can be applied to thousands of stories. Like i said, you called it 'formulaic' but as you can see, it's up to the creativity of the WRITER --not the plot itself-- how wonderful and unique their story will be.

I think you misunderstand because in essence plot says, "Every story must have a logical beginning, middle, and end," and you seem to have looked at that and say, "That's too formulaic so i don't like it." Well, as much as you may not like it, every story DOES have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And every good story has plot.

I used to be just like you, thinking my stories must be unique and different from everything ever written, and i'll just sit down and write, letting my feelings and the characters move the story forward however it happens to flow out from my 'creative' brain. The PROBLEM with that is that it leads to unnecessary dialogue, descriptions and actions that have nothing to do with the actual story or why the reader even picked up your book in the first place to read it.

If i read a book blurb that says, "Hero is an ex soldier who finds his wife kidnapped after returning home from war, so he tracks down her captors to find her and rescue her," I do NOT want to be reading that story about a man rescuing his kidnapped wife and then out from no where, because the writer just let his 'creativity' flow, and all of a sudden i come across a few chapters where the ex soldier Hero takes up gardening along the way, then rescues a cat up a tree, the joins a debate team simply because the writer liked the way they penned those scenes EVEN THOUGH they have NOTHING to do with Hero rescuing his wife.

If it has nothing to do with why the reason the Hero acts, then it shouldn't be in that book. Every scene must have something to do with the Hero's attempt to solve their problem, and plot helps accomplish this.

On a personal note, I've had a friend of several years who wants to be a writer, but they are one of those, "I write and let all of my emotions come out, i never rewrite because it will take away from the emotional impact, and i never plot because i don't want to know where the story is going until i get there," kind of guys. And guess what? He's never had a single thing published, and every story I've ever read of his is basically a bunch of random characters doing unnecessary things for mostly no reason other than what happened to occur to him while he was writing, and thus there's NO POINT to any of his stories.

Plot is like racing. If i tell you you'll start HERE and try to run as fast as you can to get THERE, then you'll know where you're going. BUT if I tell you to start anywhere you want and to finish anywhere you want, you'll just be running in circles because you don't know where you're going =-)

Not too sure about this writing approach

Sometimes I read a book and it seems like the author banged it out in five seconds while taking a dump on the loo. Now I see my suspicions aren't too far from truth.

Challenge accepted. I just

Challenge accepted.
I just linked to this and laid it out as a challenge for my friends who write.

Ingenious! But there's no way

Ingenious! But there's no way I can write a novel in three days unless I start by getting the first object of power.

Ha!

Ha!

Ingenious!

But there's no way to get to that object of power without crossing the Abyss!!!!!

The link for 'Moorcock's

The link for 'Moorcock's Miscellany" isn't working for me. Every time I try www.multiverse.org, I get redirected to a random ad. Am I the only one?

I had that problem when I

I had that problem when I tried to access the site on my Android phone. They may be still having that problem. What browser/device are you using?

Safari (one back from the

Safari (one back from the newest version) on a desktop iMac.

That is strange. I have no

That is strange. I have no trouble with Safari on my Mac. Have you tried a different browser?

Mobile browser redirects at Moorcock's Miscellany

The 're-direct to random web site' effect sometimes seen at www.multiverse.org is an unfortunate side-affect of some anti-spam protocols our site technical guru has in place. Afaik it shouldn't affect desktop/laptop browsers - unless they're emulating/running in a mobile version. Certainly I've tested the five 'big' browsers - IE9, Firefox 5, Safari 5, Chrome 13 and Opera 11.5 - under Windows 7 and they all work as intended. Safari and Opera also work on my iPhone by the looks of it as well. FWIW, most of our mobile users use Tapatalk to access the forums these days.

On Safari - the version with

On Safari - the version with Snow Leopard, I still get the re-direct. I will try from another computer tomorrow. If it matters, I am in South Korea - I don't think it is a spam haven, but perhaps the location has something to do with my problem.

Very interesting

That's a fascinating insight into the way one very succesful author worked. He was obviously an intellegent and skilled writer. I think all budding writers could learn a lot from this, and the rest of the book.
But if I can be a bit picky, this is a bit of a marketing excerise as it is only the content of the book that is written in three days. But there is tons of preperation work to do (which would diminish with experience) which would clearly take a lot longer. So while the words might get written in that amount of time, the rest of the work that has to be done has to be taken into account as well. That said, it's still impressive that anyone can write so much in so little time. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention, I should find a copy asap. Cheers.

Good luck with that. Even the

Good luck with that. Even the paperbacks I've found are pretty expensive.

Funny thing is that they

Funny thing is that they didn't used to be. Between this article and the Boing Boing exposure, scarcity of the book has shot through the roof.

Which just goes to show why they need to come out with a new edition of the damn thing.

Great writer no matter what

Great writer no matter what anyone says. I've read a few of Mr Moorcocks books, and really enjoyed every one. Some, such as Behold the Man were really well put together, and others had a breathless quality to them which is refreshing considering the plodding prose in others fantasy writings.

I really do hope he re-releases Death is No Obstacle sometime soon, as the copies I have seen on the net have been anywhere from $50 to as much a $200! And I cannot justify paying such an amount for the book even though people rave about it. I also blanch at buyingthose second hand books because Mr Moorcock doesn't even benefit from the purchase of second hand books I understand?

Please Sir, re-release your amazing tome.

interesting...

I loved this article, and it reminds me of another very informative book (A Stranger Comes To Town by Adron J. Smitley) that completely outlines the writing process in a quick and concise manner (the book is Very short, like 30 pages i think, but the info is invaluable). I LOVE plot, and I love coming up with new and interesting ways to design the various plots for my writing. I've read The Hero's Journey years ago, and have read it several times over, but I always manage to find more questions because of the 'mysterious' way certain plot points are explained -or, rather, not really explained in such a manner that the reader knows exactly what the author is really talking about. It's nice to see a simple system for writing where the basic layout is there to follow while not putting a damper on the writer's flow of creativity and originality. If you liked the info in this article then I'd suggest you take a look through A Stranger Comes To Town (i think you can still go to Amazon.com and simply flip through the entire book without actually buying it) as ever since I purchased it my writing has become a daily monster of pleasurable work. It used to take me several days to get down a full chapter the way I wanted it, but now I'm churning them out by the day with very little rewriting. My only complaint about this article is that Moorcock's referenced book costs over $100 for a copy AND I REALLY WANT A COPY!!! lol

Pricey Book!

I searched on Amazon and the Michael Moorcock: Death is No Obstacle book is $200 plus! and all sold by private sellers/collectors - one of them priced a new condition book at $925!
Also, there was no way to look inside since Amazon was not the seller.
Very disappointing since I'm in no position to pay $200 for a book.

Yeah, that's my fault,

Yeah, that's my fault, actually. When I wrote this article the book cost $20, Then it got linked to and reblogged everywhere, including on Boing Boing, and demand shot up, making the book much more expensive.

found a "cheap" copy...

I literally just ordered a copy of Moorcock's book after reading this article, LoL. I managed to find a great used copy for $50 on Amazon. Yeah, that's expensive, but considering I LOVE reading about how other writers' minds work during the creative process I think it's worth it.

Currently I use 'A Stranger Comes To Town' by Adron J. Smitley as a guideline for my novel plots, and it's done wonders for helping me know what to do where and when with its very detailed plot skeleton (plus it's cheap as hell, too). It's MUCH better than The Hero's Journey, and though I love the Save The Cat! books by Blake Snyder, and his beat sheets, i found Adron to be very descriptive while leaving out all of the unnecessary "fluff" whereas Blake was very vague on some of his necessary plot points (and obviously if you've read the Hero's Journey then you know THAT'S chock full of things that make you go "Huh?" at times with it's little, vague descriptions).

I can't wait to get Moorcock's book. It should be arriving sometime next week, and I have you to thank for it =-)