How to Write a Novel in Three Days

From my new ebook, Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly [Kindle Edition, estimated length 173 pages, available at Amazon.com for $2.99]

Is it possible to write a highly-acclaimed novel in just three days?

Science fiction and fantasy writer Michael Moorcock proved it can be done. He has earned a reputation as one of the field’s most celebrated authors. As both a writer and longtime editor of the British magazine New Worlds, Moorcock has been a major figure in the “new wave” science fiction movement. His existentialist time travel novel Behold the Man won the prestigious Nebula award, and he is justly famed for creating the unforgettable fantasy anti-hero Elric of Melniboné.

Writing in Overdrive by Jim Denney

Writing in Overdrive
by Jim Denney

In his early career, Moorcock eked out a living writing adventure novels in the low-paying pulp fiction field. To boost his productivity and his income, he devised a plan for writing sword-and-sorcery potboilers very quickly, usually in a matter of three to ten days. Every novel he wrote this way adhered to a series of simple formulas:

• Length formula: 60,000 words, divided into four sections of 15,000 words, six chapters in each section, no chapter longer than 2,500 words. Each chapter is required to contain elements that advance the action.

• Plot formula: the familiar tale of a lot of people competing in a quest to gain a much-sought-after object (familiar examples of such objects: the Holy Grail, the Maltese Falcon, the gold of El Dorado, Alfred Hitchcock’s notion of “the MacGuffin,” or the Rambaldi artifacts in TV’s Alias).

• Character formula: a fallible and reluctant hero who tries to avoid responsibility, but ends up being pitted against vastly superior, even superhuman, forces.

• Structural formula: a dire event occurs every four pages to advance the action and keep the reader hooked.

• Fantastic images formula: the story must contain a series of wild, vivid, fantasy images, such as Moorcock’s “City of Screaming Statues.”

• Time formula: the hero is in a race against time. Moorcock explained: “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 … there’s only 26 seconds to save the world! Will they make it in time?”1

Even though the actual writing of a novel may take as little as three days (a phenomenal 20,000 words per day!), Moorcock would always spend at least a couple of days preparing and organizing the story structure, characters, and lists of images and events he wanted to include, so he’d have everything he needed once the writing began. “The whole reason you plan everything beforehand,” he explained, “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.”2

This may sound like a recipe for churning out the most dreary and unreadable fiction imaginable—and in the hands of a lesser talent, it undoubtedly would be. But Moorcock actually wrote some of his highly acclaimed Hawkmoon and Elric tales on this formula. Though the plots were formulaic, his characters were strongly delineated and memorable, and his writing was clean and well-crafted. About the same time he had perfected this recipe for writing novels in three days, he began earning better money. Growing tired of the formula, he moved on to more challenging genres and projects.

Yet he continued to write quickly. One of his most celebrated novels is Gloriana, or The Unfulfill’d Queen, a literary fantasy novel that won the World Fantasy Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Published in 1978, Gloriana has remained continuously in print to this day. Moorcock wrote it in a mere six weeks.

For Michael Moorcock, preparing to write quickly is a matter of quality as well as speed. He organized and disciplined himself to write quickly, and in the process he wrote very well, and acquired a reputation for literary excellence.

Notes
1. Michael Moorcock and Colin Greenland, Death Is No Obstacle (Manchester, UK: Savoy, 1992), 8.
2. Ibid., 9.

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10 Comments

  1. Hi Jim, This title sure beats mine–How to Write a Novel in 30 Days. Wow, you make the impossible look possible.
    Michelle

    Reply
  2. A novel in 30 days is an achievable but highly ambitious goal, Michelle, and I think every serious writer should take a look at your pages at http://randomwritingrants.com/2013/05/16/how-to-write-a-novel-in-30-days-the-series/.

    Moorcock’s novel-in-three-days idea is clearly insane, but attention-getting. Moorcock had to come up with a highly specific formula to achieve it. It’s a story formula that few writers could (or would want to) emulate. (Few writers want to admit they write “formula” fiction.) The formula is do-able, because Michael Moorcock did it, and I included that story in the book to illustrate exactly what we are capable of IF we will commit ourselves to an extraordinary effort.

    But the realistic, workable techniques you talk about and the techniques and principles I explore in WRITING IN OVERDRIVE will produce powerful results that will astonish those who apply them.

    —Jim D.

    Reply
  3. I like the idea of prep work, and turning off the internal editor and blasting forward. I have found that pushing myself allows some for some great results. Thank you for this!

    Reply
  4. Thanks, Barbara! Yes, it’s a fascinating approach, and I’m eager to try it myself (or some adaptation of it, not necessarily the “MacGuffin” formula). I’m not sure I want to go for 60,000 words in three days. When things are really rolling, I think I’m good for maybe a thousand words an hour. Moorcock must have been producing something like 2,000 words an hour, or he’d have no time for eating, sleeping, and slumping in exhaustion. I think a goal of 60,000 to 80,000 words in 7 to 10 days might be (barely) do-able for me. Like you say, the main thing is to prep, turn off the internal critic, and blast away! Thanks for your thoughts! —JD

    Reply
  5. krazyslayer187

     /  July 1, 2013

    Wow that is truly impressive! I found that I work best when I set small goals for myself and push to do a little each day. Props to anyone who can achieve 20,000 words of quality writing in one day!

    Reply
  6. Agreed, Krazyslayer. Many great writers (including Stephen King and Robert J. Sawyer) set daily productivity goals of 2,000 words. Ten times that is kind of insane, and not sustainable over a long period of time. I’ve exceeded 10,000 words in a day before, but it was intense and you can’t keep it up for long. Thanks for your thoughts. —JD

    Reply
  7. Interesting – reminds me a bit of Lester Dent’s (Doc Savage and other pulp novels) master plot formula. http://www.paper-dragon.com/1939/dent.html

    Reply
  8. Thanks for that link, Wil. Yes, the Moorcock formula is reminiscent of the Dent formula, and I think the goal is the same: Produce a consistent quality product in a compressed time-frame. Different writers will have differing views of writing to fit a formula, but I can see how the “need for speed” might actually cause a writer to tap into the unconscious, the Muse, in such a way that some unexpectedly beautiful and brilliant writing might occur. All the best, Wil. —J.D.

    Reply
    • There’s an interesting book called The User Illusion (from a few years back) that gets into the topic of how artists, comedians, athletes and others basically learn to run on automatic when practicing their vocation, letting the subconscious take over. It could be “writing fast” in some way instigates a similar process in authors. Certainly I could see how it would deprive the inner critic of time needed to raise objections to what’s going on the page.

      Reply
  1. How to Write a Novel in 3 Days?

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