By Oliver Tearle
Ever fancied writing a novel, but don’t have oodles of spare time to set aside for such a thing? Michael Moorcock, a hugely influential and prolific writer, has the solution. Those of you who like the idea of #NaNoWriMo (or National Novel-Writing Month), but would rather set aside a few days to write rather than a whole month, may like ‘the Moorcock method’. Stephen King’s book On Writing offers a fascinating insight into what it’s like to be a prolific author and has some invaluable advice, but Moorcock’s suggestions are well worth sharing too.
For over fifty years now, Moorcock has been a significant writer in a number of genres, notably fantasy, science fiction, and horror, although he’s also written more ‘literary’ works, such as Mother London (1988). Here at Interesting Literature we’re avid fans of his work. Moorcock is famous, in writing circles, for being able to write a book in three days. He wrote many of his early fantasy novels at such high speed. (It goes without saying that he wouldn’t have time to do much else in those three days – perhaps even sleep all that much.) But it worked for him: his novels featuring Elric, Dorian Hawkmoon, and Corum (‘the Prince in the Scarlet Robe’) had a considerable influence on fantasy writers in the 1960s and 1970s and continue to be read and enjoyed many decades later. So he must have been doing something right.
But how do you write a novel in three days? Moorcock explains it all in detail here, but if you’re impatient to get your own novel started, then we can boil down his principles to a few core pieces of advice. This advice will be of interest principally to readers who wish to write in a particular genre, particularly mainstream fiction – but even if you want to do something a little less formulaic (or are not interested in writing something yourself, but simply interested in the writing processes of authors) it may be useful, and interesting, to learn how a popular writer of genre fiction approaches his craft. We’ve played slightly fast and loose with the details in paraphrasing them, but in the link provided above you can see exactly what Moorcock recommends in his own words.
Anyway, these are what we might call the seven pillars of Moorcock’s method:
1. Plan and prepare before you start. Set up a few key things before the three-day ‘writeathon’: characters, settings, themes, possible plot developments.
2. Make the basic plot of your novel the quest narrative (Moorcock uses the examples of The Maltese Falcon and the Grail Quest). Your hero/heroine and sidekick/helper etc. are looking for a particular item/person, but so are the bad guys. It’s a race against time to see who’ll get there first. (Here, we’re always reminded of the Indiana Jones films, which follow such a plot.)
3. Make something happen every few pages, so the story is well-paced. Divide the action up into four sections and then divide those four sections up into six chapters. The idea is that you know that, by the end of each quarter, the plot has to have moved forward in a significant way. Moorcock also recommends that, at a more local level, each chapter directly moves the action forward.
4. If it’s a fantasy or SF novel (Moorcock’s forte during his early career) that takes place in a different world, make a list of some images which embody that world and make it vivid: landmarks, objects, geographical features, etc. Then, when you write, you can just go to this list and fill in the picture for the reader. Make these vivid: elsewhere in his list, Moorcock suggests that ‘paradox’ is a good rule of thumb, e.g. ‘the City of Screaming Statues’.
5. Prepare an overall structure. (This is not the same as a plot, Moorcock tells us – just the basic framework of the novel. You can fill in the gaps later.)
6. Think about the timing of the story’s events: e.g. how long has the hero got to retrieve the Grail/save the world?
7. Start off with a mystery – and then, every time you solve one mystery, that leads to, or creates, another. (An example might be: the hero needs to find someone who can help him in his quest. When he tracks down the person, they’ve already been killed – but there’s a clue on their person, such as a note or a map, that leads our hero on to his next challenge.)
Of course, many of these are common-sense rules, but it’s interesting to have them all put in one place by one successful writer and elucidated so clearly and helpfully. Moorcock provides a number of other rules and guidelines, too, but if this has got you interested in his technique, we’ll allow him to explain it in full in his own words, over at the website we’ve linked to above. The essential principle, though, is one of economy: as Moorcock says, ‘you don’t have any encounter without at least information coming out of it. In the simplest form, Elric [one of Moorcock’s first fictional characters] 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.’
You may think that a writer must be on drugs to be able to write a novel in three days. Some probably have been under the influence of something rather strong while they’ve been writing, but Moorcock has repeatedly set the record straight and said that he only ever wrote on coffee and sugar. We’ve written a post detailing some classic works of fiction which were written rapidly – we hope that one of these, or Moorcock’s words, inspire you to give writing in three days a go. And let us know how you get on…
On a related note, check out our tips for how to write a good English essay and these 10 recommended free online resources for writers; these curious writing facts; and, for more interesting information about science fiction and fantasy, see our collection of great SF trivia.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.