Strange Methods: Michael Moorcock's 3-Day Novel
Looking at Moorcock's famous advice for writing an entire novel in under a week
One thing writers will often say is that every book is a different process. Each time you start a new book, you have to learn all over again how to write it. The methods that worked on your last novel (or story or poem or etc.) might not work at all for your next one. Your tried and true techniques can suddenly fail. So I’ve always found it useful to see how other authors have constructed their works for ideas I can file away to try when a project is stalled.
Along these lines, I thought I’d try a little series called “strange methods” where I look at some unusual story-writing ideas, and see what techniques can be stolen. First up is a process I think about a lot: Michael Moorcock’s guide to writing a novel in three days.
Michael Moorcock, if you don’t know, is a British novelist who is probably most famous for his Elric of Melinbone fantasy novels which are kind of like Conan the Barbarian reimagined as a philosophical (and somewhat emo) goth with a sword that ate souls. However, Moorcock has written a truly crazy number of books in different genres and modes and often published several books a year at his most productive. How did he do it? Well, enter the three day method.
Moorcock outlined this method in an out-of-print book called Michael Moorcock: Death Is No Obstacle, but his advice has been copied all over the web including on sites like Boing Boing so I’ll repeat some of it here (bolding mine):
* First of all, it’s vital to have everything prepared. Whilst you will be actually writing the thing in three days, you’ll need a day or two of set-up first. If it’s not all set up, you’ll fail.
* Model the basic plot on the Maltese Falcon (or the Holy Grail — the Quest theme, basically). In the Falcon, a lot of people are after the same thing, the Black Bird. In the Mort D’Arthur, again a lot of people are after the same thing, the Holy Grail. It’s the same formula for westerns, too. Everyone’s after the same thing. The gold of El Dorado. Whatever.
* The formula depends on the sense of a human being up against superhuman force — politics, Big Business, supernatural evil, &c. The hero is fallible, and doesn’t want to be mixed up with the forces. He’s always about to walk out when something grabs him and involves him on a personal level.
* You’ll need to make lists of things you’ll use.
* Prepare an event for every four pages.
* Do a list of coherent images. So you think, right, Stormbringer [note: this is the name of Elric’s sword]: swords, shields, horns, and so on.
* Prepare a complete structure. Not a plot, exactly, but a structure where the demands were clear. Know what narrative problems you have to solve at every point. Write solutions at white heat, through inspiration: really, it can just be looking around the room, looking at ordinary objects, and turning them into what you need. A mirror can become a mirror that absorbs the souls of the damned.
* Prepare a list of images that are purely fantastic, deliberate paradoxes say, that fit within the sort of thing you’re writing. 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?
* 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.
* Once you’ve started, you keep it rolling. You can’t afford to have anything stop it. Unplug the phone and the internet, lock everyone out of the house.
* 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?”
* In your lists, in the imagery and so on, there will be mysteries that you haven’t explained to yourself. 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 can’t put in loads of boring exposition about something you have no idea of yourself.
* When in doubt, descend into a minor character. So when you reach 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 brew something.
There’s a bit more advice to this method, mostly concerning the swords and sorcery subgenre and some ways to simplify structure for the three-day time constraint. You can read the full advice here. Personally, I’m not interested in the advice about writing quickly—although if you’re planning NaNoWriThreeDayWeekend then perhaps you will be—and much of the advice is good if expected (have a MacGuffin object people search for, use a “ticking clock” to up the stakes). But what I think about a lot from this advice is the resonant lists.
The idea of compiling a list of ideas and events you can turn to when you are stuck writing seems to me like great advice even if you’re planning to draft your novel in three years instead of three days. Lists can function as “invisible architecture” for a novel, providing you—the author—with a means of generating the story that the reader won’t necessarily see. But because they are lists and not detailed outlines, they still leave lots of room for an organic writing process and surprises.
So what are Moorcock’s lists. First, you create a list of associations with your main concept(s) in order to create coherence. Although Moorcock may have been writing “low art” adventure fiction about barbarians fighting bandits, this is also a common technique with experimental literature. I’ve written before about creating a list of linguistic associations to create a story from, which I learned as a Lishian technique for making elliptical literary short fiction. By working from the language itself, you create a feeling of coherency to your story, your plot, and your worldbuilding.
So this is a technique that any literary form can use.
Secondly, he suggests a list of strange paradoxical images like The City of Screaming Statues. This exact idea is a bit less flexible of a technique, although it works well for all sorts of fantasy, surrealism, and science fiction. What I love about this idea though is forming a group of images/ideas that have their own resonance and coherency but which you don’t know everything about. They’re ideas that aren’t fleshed out, and won’t be fleshed out until you put them on the page. Moorcock isn’t suggesting writing an encyclopedia entry on the City of Screaming Statues to draw from. It’s just the name. think any author could use a list of evocative and interesting ideas—that fit the novel’s genre and tone—to provide a kind of structure to the work without being overly determined. This isn’t a strict outline of every step of the journey, but rather a few notable markers on the map for the writer to wander to during outlining.
And I think this second kind of list is adaptable. In a recent newsletter on writing genre fiction, I suggested a technique for coming up with the elements of a genre story that’s not terribly dissimilar.
[Try writing] two columns of expectations or associations of your two elements (genre and angle) and pairing them. Let’s take my last example. In a haunted house story I might expect spooky noises, characters going mad, creepy animals, hidden rooms, etc. On a cruise ship I expect buffets, shuffleboard, dolphin sightings, portholes, etc. Simply mix those up randomly—possessed dolphins leaping onto the ship, creepy messages written on the outside of portholes, hidden empty buffet room, a man in a Hawaiian shirt beating himself to death with a shuffleboard cue, etc.—and you are already on your way to writing a story.
This above idea of a haunted cruise ship is a silly one I dashed off quickly, but I think you can see how this example would work. I create two lists (1. associations with the genre and 2. associations with my story angle) and combine them to form a third list of strange ideas that could then serve as the pillars of my story. If I wanted to write the haunted cruise ship story, I have four different ideas already in place. I don’t know exactly what will happen in the hidden buffet room or how my character will deal with the possessed dolphins, but having those elements ready gives me something to work with. The fun is figuring out how to get from one to the next to the next.