Write an adventure novel in three days, the Michael Moorcock way

Michael Moorcock's tips for writing complete adventure novels in three days are the fruit of his early career, when he was writing novels (including his Elric classics) in three to ten days each. The advice comes from the opening chapter of the out-of-print Michael Moorcock: Death Is No Obstacle, which consists of interviews Moorcock conducted with Colin Greenwood. It's really good insight into how you can take mechanical plots and plot-devices and use them to make a book charge forward at a rate of knots, and still hang many different kinds of story, insight, and language off of them.

* "[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?"

Go read the whole thing, it's great stuff.

How to Write a Book in Three Days: Lessons from Michael Moorcock (via Making Light)


  1. The phrase is “rate of knots” referring to the nautical unit of speed. Not “rate of noughts” which doesn’t make sense. Just FYI.

  2. Nought/naught might be a reference to Moorcock, who as I recall had a fetish for it (and “nowt/aught”) in his early Elric-type stuff as go-to words for medievaly linguistic greebling.

    1. in my little patch of England nowt and aught are still pretty common. now I’m paranoid about the rest of the words I use

  3. The interviews were conducted by Colin Greenland not Greenwood. Although having the bassist of Radiohead doing the interviewing would be pretty gnarly.

  4. A knot can be a nought if there is no movement, while a nought in itself is not movement and no knot can be a nought without just becoming a piece of string – or something like that.

  5. Pity.  Nought was so beautiful a word in relation to the majority of the Elric work, what with it’s mostly being non-existent, pre-human, chaos-wrought and whatnot.

    1. Eeeewwww.  Not for me, thanks.  I thought it was pretty cool when Harlan Ellison used to type out short stories in a display window of a bookstore, but even that would be too public for me.

      I guess it would make a difference if you just allowed the curious public to see your screen as you typed, deleted, edited, and retyped your way along.  That would certainly be preferable to allowing them to comment on the process as you go.

      I’m imagining the chat window alongside the MS Word window.

      FicFan264: Man, that was a crap paragraph.
      beschizzarulez: your crazy, this will be his best book EVAH!!!!!!1!
      CapnProse: wonder why that cursor hasn’t moved for ten minutes…
      FicFan264: He’s stumped.  Writer’s block.
      HemingwaysMuse: painted himself into a corner.  never should have killed off the psychiatrist
      beschizzarulez: genius can’t be rushed!!  dont jostle teh elbow of The Master!
      DonaldP: Maybe he’s pooping.
      FicFan264: Mark my words, he’s about to delete it all.  A fool if he doesn’t.
      Rob Beschizza: Can’t a guy stop for lunch?
      FicFan264: sockpuppet!

      Sorry about that.  Forgot the nineties ended a while back.

      1. “I guess it would make a difference if you just allowed the curious public to see your screen as you typed, deleted, edited, and retyped your way along.  That would certainly be preferable to allowing them to comment on the process as you go.
        I’m imagining the chat window alongside the MS Word window.”
        Been done. 

  6. 3 to 10 days is not bad thinking Moorcock’s lovely yarns were about 1/10th of the usual doorstop tomes fantasy writers like to churn out these days.

  7. It may be a pun or something, but “rate of knots”? The rate of speed over water? It’s a) redundant, as it comes to the speed of speed, and b)even as intended, knots isn’t necessarily fast.

    Or is this a colloquialism of which I am unaware?

  8. I once attended a show in London.  Get this: Michael Moorcock being interviewed by Alan Moore.
    Soon after wards, Alan Moor interviewed Brian Eno as part of the BBCs Chain Reaction series.  Then I saw Neil Gaiman reading fro Fragile Things.

    What a week that was……. 

  9. I haven’t read any of his books…how do I work up a desire to read someone who spent three days working on his book?  

    However, the wannabe writer in me is absolutely in love with the idea that writing a book could be that simple.  Shoot, I’m gonna start writing one now!  Three days…piece of cake!  

    Hmm…which font to use?  Oh, I got a text.  Now, let’s see…what was I doing?

    1. Because every writer should struggle for years with their ‘next great American novel’

      Start by researching who he is/what he’s written/and the huge impact it’s had on the modern fantasy genre. The founders of D&D even put his name next to Tolkien and Howard as a major influence. Neil Gaiman did as much in a tribute short story in an anthology dedicated to him. Many (best and worst) ideas and themes now common place in modern comics were also pioneered by him.

      Good luck with the novel. I suggest Comic Sans.


  10. maybe that explains why i was
    bored out of my mind when forcing myself to read through a thousand-page-book by moorcock. nothing happened at all and in the end i was so pissed at wasting my time on this, i dumped my vow to finish every book i start reading. you can’t write books like this, only bad publishers can be fooled into believing this is worth anything at all.

    1. Moorcock’s never written a thousand-page-book though; even INTO THE MEDIA WEB, his 2kg mega-tome of collected non-fiction crashes out at 720 pages. You sure you’re not thinking of LORD OF THE RINGS? ;-)

      Anyway, all hyperbole aside, the books that Moorcock wrote in three days all max out around the 160 page mark – GLORIANA, which took him six weeks to write (which was a long time for Moorcock) was less than 350 page when published in hardback – but let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good moan, eh?

  11. Man, can someone forward this link to George RR Martin? Could have saved himself a lot of fan grief.
    In related news, wasn’t there an English mystery/detective novel author (of the 1950’s-70s?) who used to dictate all his novels to a transcriptionist, who would then send the (unedited) manuscript straight to the publisher?

  12. Now, head over to tvtropes.org http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HomePage , pick maybe 5 or 6 at random and you’ll be set.

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