How to Write a Novel in Three Days

By Jim Denney

From Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney [Kindle Edition available at Amazon.com for $3.99] [Print edition available at Amazon.com for $7.75]

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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.

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

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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

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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:

Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney

Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney

Write Fearlessly! Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence by Jim Denney 

Copyright 2016 by Jim Denney.

Dip Up the Fire!

“The writer of originality, unless dead, is always shocking, scandalous; novelty disturbs and repels.”
— Simone de Beauvoir

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Why did you become a writer?

My own reasons for writing have evolved over the years. I knew I wanted to write stories from the time I was nine years old. A writer, it is said, is a reader moved to emulation. That was me. I wanted to write the kinds of stories I liked to read, and to entertain others the way those stories entertained me.

There’s nothing wrong with writing purely to entertain. But somewhere along the way to adulthood, I discovered that stories do so much more than merely entertain. As Harlan Ellison observed in Slippage:

“Entertain, yes! That goes without saying. But a good writer does that automatically, it’s built into the machine. Telling a thumpingly good, mesmerizing story is what one does without question. But beyond that, any writer worth his/her hire knows that all writing, one way or another, is subversive. It is guerrilla warfare against the status quo.”

Ellison expanded on the idea of writing as guerilla warfare in his story collection Shatterday,

“I don’t know how you perceive my mission as a writer, but for me it is not a responsibility to reaffirm your concretized myths and provincial prejudices. It is not my job to lull you with a false sense of the rightness of the universe. This wonderful and terrible occupation of recreating the world in a different way, each time fresh and strange, is an act of revolutionary guerrilla warfare. I stir the soup. I inconvenience you. I make your nose run and your eyeballs water. I spend my life and of miles of visceral material in a glorious and painful series of midnight raids against complacency. It is my lot to wake up with anger every morning, to lie down at night even angrier.”

When you write, do you inconvenience anyone? Is your writing an act of guerrilla warfare? I’m not saying you should intentionally preach sermons through your fiction. A story should be a story, not propaganda. If you pollute your fiction with heavy-handed preaching, you obliterate its artistic and moral integrity. “The theme must be deeply submerged in the story,” novelist Elizabeth Bowen warned. “If a theme or idea is too near the surface, the novel becomes simply a tract illustrating an idea.”

The unconscious mind does not lie. If you draw upon the power of your unconscious mind to write your story, if you dig deep within yourself and write about characters and situations that engage your emotions and passions, your story will be honest — and it will possess layers of meaning that you may not even realize. Your story will come alive as literature, verging on myth.

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The writer’s unconscious mind always reveals more truth than the writer suspects. As Madeleine L’Engle reflected in Walking on Water, “It is a humbling and exciting thing to know that my work knows more than I do. … Sometimes it is years after a book is published that I discover what some of it meant.”

When you write from the unconscious mind, you write stories that entertain — and that resonate deep within the reader. You write honestly. You write about things that matter. You write about universal truths — deep truths you share with your readers. Again, Harlan Ellison:

“I talk about the things people have always talked about in stories: pain, hate, truth, courage, destiny, friendship, responsibility, growing old, growing up, falling in love, all of these things. What I try to write about are the darkest things in the soul, the mortal dreads. I try to go into those places in me that contain the cauldrous. I want to dip up the fire, and I want to put it on paper. The closer I get to the burning core of my being, the things which are most painful to me, the better is my work.”

Write to entertain. Tell a story, don’t preach. But summon your stories from the volcanic core of your being. Reach down into the cauldrous unconscious, dip up the fire, and put it on paper. You’ll find that the truth within you burns brighter than the sun.

“It’s not worth doing something unless you are doing something that someone, somewhere, would much rather you weren’t doing.”
— Terry Pratchett

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:

Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney

Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney

Write Fearlessly! Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence by Jim Denney 

Copyright 2016 by Jim Denney.

Invent Your Confidence

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Excerpted from Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney.

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“I think that all artists, regardless of degree of talent, are a painful, paradoxical combination of certainty and uncertainty, of arrogance and humility, constantly in need of reassurance, and yet with a stubborn streak of faith in their own validity no matter what.”
— Madeleine L’Engle

Edna Staebler was born two blocks from the public library in what is now Kitchener, Ontario. As soon as she could read, she’d go to the library two or three times a week and return with an armload of books. As a teenager, she wrote daily in her diary — though, as she later lamented, “nothing exciting happened to me; Kitchener and my dates seemed very dull.”

Attending college at the University of Toronto, Staebler told all her friends she was going to be a writer. But during the year she spent on the campus newspaper, she only wrote one story — “about girls drinking buttermilk in the Women’s Union.”

After college, Staebler took a job with Kitchener’s daily newspaper. She wanted a job writing news stories, but her boss assigned her to collect money from the newsboys instead. Her poor math skills resulted in swift termination. She desperately wanted to write, but didn’t know how to go about it.

She recalled, “I read hundreds of books: novels, plays, biographies, and books about writing: Virginia Woolf, Mary Webb, Arthur Koestler, T. S. Eliot. Some of them expressed thoughts I’d had and I wondered, Why didn’t I write that? And all the time I felt guilty as hell because I wasn’t trying. …  I just woozled around, not knowing what to write about.”

Staebler married a man who at first seemed talented and fun-loving — but after a few years, his personality underwent a change. He became a moody alcoholic and was diagnosed with mental disorder.

One summer, to escape the unhappy atmosphere at home, she went to visit her sister in Nova Scotia. She’d only planned to stay a few days, but ended up staying for two weeks in the little fishing village of Neil’s Harbour. Each day she told herself, “Tomorrow, I’ll leave.” She went out on the sea with the fishermen, square-danced at the Orange Lodge Hall, and got to know the men, women, and children of the village.

She awoke one morning and said, “That’s it! I’ll write a book about Neil’s Harbour!”

She went back to Kitchener and wrote about everything she could remember — the sound of the ocean, the voices of the people, the colors, the emotions. Her mother came to visit and found her on the sofa, writing in a notebook. “Why waste your time?” said her mom. “You can’t be a writer — you have to have talent.”

Just when Edna had finally begun to write, her mother — her own mother — sabotaged her! Staebler’s confidence wilted. She felt the chilling onset of writer’s block.

A few days later, an author came to town and spoke to the women’s club. Staebler talked to him afterwards and showed him her work. He told her it was good. He left town, but sent her notes of encouragement. “Keep writing,” he’d say. “Believe in yourself.”

She accumulated hundreds of manuscript pages — but never dared submit them to an editor, fearing rejection. During a lucid moment, her husband said, “You’re not a writer until you’ve had something published.” His words stung — but she knew he was right. She selected a story about Neil’s Harbour and submitted it to Maclean’s — her first-ever submission. It sold.

She was in her fifties when she made that first sale — it had taken her that long to summon her confidence. When her alcoholic husband ran off with her best friend, she decided to support herself by writing. She worked regular office hours, producing scores of articles. She sold them to Maclean’s, Chatelaine, Saturday Night, Reader’s Digest, and many other publications.

At age sixty, she published her first book. At age sixty-two, she produced a cookbook — recipes from Canada’s Mennonite region, enriched by Staebler’s personal stories. At sixty-six, she published Cape Breton Harbour, based on her two weeks in a Nova Scotia fishing village.

Edna Staebler died in 2006 at the age of one hundred after a memorable writing career that began at the precise mid-point of her life. The moment she summoned the confidence to do the work she was born to do, she became a writer.

More than talent, more than skill, more than a keyboard to pound on, a writer needs confidence. You have to decide to write, and you must act on that decision even if you don’t feel an ounce of confidence within your soul.

Diane Ackerman (A Natural History of the Senses) said, “The best advice on writing I ever received was: Invent your confidence. When you’re trying something new, insecurity and stage fright come with the territory. …  How could it be otherwise? By its nature, art involves risk.”

American novelist and writing teacher John Gardner empathized with the insecurities of a writer. “In my own experience,” he said, “nothing is harder for the developing writer than overcoming his anxiety that he is fooling himself and cheating or embarrassing his family and friends. To most people, even those who don’t read much, there is something special and vaguely magical about writing, and it is not easy for them to believe that someone they know, someone quite ordinary in many respects, can really do it.”

Romance novelist Jayne Ann Krentz has more than 35 million copies of her novels in print under her own name and six pseudonyms. Her advice: “Believe in yourself and in your own voice, because there will be times in this business when you will be the only one who does. …  An author with a strong voice will often have trouble at the start of his or her career because strong, distinctive voices sometimes make editors nervous. But in the end, only the strong survive. Readers return time and again to the unique, the distinctive storytelling voice. They may love it or they may hate it, but they do not forget it.”

When did Edna Staebler find success? She found it when she stopped listening to her mother, her alcoholic husband, and her self-doubt — and she made the choice to invent her own confidence.

Be yourself and believe in yourself. Tell your stories and live your dreams.

 “The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.”
— Neil Gaiman

Copyright 2015 by Jim Denney. For more writing insight and inspiration, read Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney.

 

The Unconscious Writer

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Excerpted from Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney.

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John Steinbeck (pictured above), in a 1962 letter to an aspiring writer, said, “Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down.” He added that halting one’s forward progress to edit and polish during the first draft phase is usually just “an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.”

When you are first drafting (or “fast drafting,” as my friend Michelle Weidenbenner says), always move forward, never look back. By writing freely, quickly, and without inhibitions, you tap into the engine of imagination — the unconscious mind.

Ursula Le Guin describes her writing process as “a pure trance state. … All I seek when writing is to allow my unconscious mind to control the course of the story, using rational thought only to reality check when revising.”

In Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande talks about a creative faculty we all possess, though few of us are fully aware of it: “The higher imagination, you may call it; your own endowment of genius, great or small; the creative aspect of your mind, which is lodged almost entirely in the unconscious.”

Brande says we should call this the UN-conscious mind, not the SUB-conscious mind, because “sub-” suggests that which is lower and inferior. Far from being inferior to the conscious mind, she says, the unconscious “has a reach as far above our average intellect as it has depths below. … The unconscious must be trusted to bring you aid from a higher level than that on which you ordinarily function.” In fact, she says, “the root of genius is in the unconscious, not the conscious, mind.”

One of Dorothea Brande’s most famous disciples, Ray Bradbury, often said that conscious thought disrupts the creative process, and true creativity springs from the Muse, the unconscious mind. In a 1975 speech, he said, “I have had a sign by my typewriter for the better part of twenty years now which says, ‘Don’t think.’ I hate all those signs that say ‘Think.’ … Emotion, emotion wins the day. Intellect can help correct. But emotion, first, surprises creativity out in the open where it can be pinned down.”

Novelist Marcia Golub calls unconscious creativity the “daydreaming-on-paper state” — and she says it’s the true “high” of writing. “I daydream very intensely,” she says, admitting she didn’t realize how intensely she daydreams until she noticed her husband watching her and asking, “Who are you talking to?” She wasn’t aware that she was acting out her daydreams, because she was in a state of unconscious creativity. She was “in the zone.”

Golub recalls, “Soon after my husband and I started living together, he learned to make noise before coming into my writing space. He learned to do this because if he didn’t, I would get startled and scream. That would startle him and he would scream. It was Night of the Living Dead meets Edvard Munch till we worked things out.”

What is the unconscious mind? Where in the brain is it located? Is it in the right brain or the murky region of the limbic system? Is the unconscious, creative mind the result of the synergistic functioning of many regions of the brain working together? Or does the function of the unconscious mind extend beyond the boundaries of the brain? Is it a creative activity of the immortal human spirit — a human reflection of the creativity of God?

I don’t know. No one knows. The term “unconscious mind” is a convenient label for a phenomenon we cannot explain. We don’t need to know where it is located or how it works. We only need to know that the unconscious is the key to unlocking our creative powers.

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Condensed from “Reading No. 22: The Unconscious Writer”
in Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney.

Muse of Fire consists of 90 readings, plus three bonus readings and an epilogue — three solid months and 90,000 words of pure, distilled motivation and inspiration for just $3.99. Each reading is from three to five pages long — just the right length to help you feel empowered to begin your next writing session with energy and enthusiasm.