By Jim Denney
In his early career, Michael Moorcock eked out a living writing adventure novels in the low-paying pulp fiction field. To boost his productivity and 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 (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 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.
1. Michael Moorcock and Colin Greenland, Death Is No Obstacle (Manchester, UK: Savoy, 1992), 8.
2. Ibid., 9.
Update — Tuesday, August 23, 2016:
I received this from a friend on Twitter today: “I’ll go so far as to say it can be done, but I don’t think even attempting this speed is good for most writers.”
I wouldn’t claim to know what’s best for most writers — there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to writing. In my books and blogs about writing, I try to present ideas that my fellow writers are free to adopt, adapt, or ignore, depending on their preferences and predilections.
Yet I absolutely believe that most writers could benefit from “writing in overdrive” — that is, writing quickly in a state of creative flow. When you are “in flow” or “in the zone,” you are tapping into the creative power of the unconscious Muse. You are not thinking critically and analytically about your work. You are simply letting the work flow straight from your imagination onto the page. Your writing is free and uninhibited. Because the work is flowing quickly, you can easily remember everything that happened before, and you don’t get lost in the thicket of your plot. You stay excited and energized, and you experience one inspired insight after another.
Michael Moorcock’s peak results — 20,000 words per day — are an extreme case. But any writer could adapt Moorcock’s formula by lowering the daily word goals to a less daunting level — say, 5,000 words per day. At that rate, you could first-draft a 60,000-word novel in twelve days. At 2,000 words per day (which, by the way, is the daily word quota set by Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, and John Steinbeck), you could first-draft a 60,000-word novel in thirty days.
I’ve never had a 20,000-word day myself — but I’ve had quite a few 10,000-word days over my writing career. That kind of speed may not be for everybody, but it’s exhilarating to experience. Over the next few weeks I plan to post more “writing in overdrive” insights that I hope my fellow writers will find helpful and empowering. God bless and inspire you!
— Jim Denney
Jim Denney has written more than 100 books for a variety of publishers including Simon & Schuster, St. Martin’s Press, McGraw-Hill, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Baker Books, Humanix, and many more. He is the author of the four-book Timebenders science fantasy series for young readers, and is a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). For more writing insight and inspiration, read:
Copyright 2016 by Jim Denney.