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How to Write a Book in Three Days

NaNoWriMo? Pah. Try NaNoWriWeekend.

Michael Moorcock is a highly influential English writer. His career has mostly specialised in fantasy and sci-fi, and whilst some of his novels have been highly literary, he was a firm exponent of sword-and-sorcery, particularly in the sixties and seventies.

He has often commented on the craft of writing, but one of his most unique and interesting techniques is his plan for writing a book in three days. He was talking about sword-and-sorcery at the time, the fantasy inheritor of pulp fiction, and the books in question were typically 60,000 words, but even so, there’s a lot to be said for his methods. Despite the general medium, the power of his work has been huge, and his best-known character, Elric, is one of fantasy’s great standouts.

Michael Moorcock

Anyway. Here is Mike’s technique for writing a book in three days:

  • 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: 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.
  • Divide your total 60,000 words into four sections, 15,000 words apiece. Divide each into six chapters. You can scale this up or down as you like, of course, but you’ll need more days — and stamina — for longer books, and keep chapters at 2.5k max. In section one the hero will say, “There’s no way I can save the world in six days unless I start by…” Getting the first object of power, or reaching the mystic place, or finding the right sidekick, or whatever. That gives you an immediate goal, and an immediate time element, as well as an overriding time demand. With each section divided into six chapters, each chapter must then contain something which will move the action forward and contribute to that immediate goal.
  • Very often a chapter is something like: attack of the bandits — defeat of the bandits. Nothing particularly complex, but it’s another way you can achieve recognition: by making the structure of a chapter a miniature of the overall structure of the book, so everything feels coherent. The more you’re dealing with incoherence, with chaos — ie with speed — the more you need to underpin everything with simple logic and basic forms that will keep everything tight. Otherwise the thing just starts to spread out into muddle and abstraction.
  • So you don’t have any encounter without at least information coming out of it. In the simplest form, Elric 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.
  • Use the Lester Dent Master Plot Formula.  [[I’ll put the formula at the end of Moorcock’s tips — Ghostwoods]] You must never have a revelation of something that wasn’t already established; so, you couldn’t unmask a murderer who wasn’t a character established already. All your main characters have to be in the first part. All you main themes and everything else has to be established in the first part, developed in the second and third, and resolved in the last part.
  • There’s always a sidekick to make the responses the hero isn’t allowed to make: to get frightened; to add a lighter note; to offset the hero’s morbid speeches, and so on. The hero has to supply the narrative dynamic, and therefore can’t have any common-sense. Any one of us in those circumstances would say, ‘What? Dragons? Demons? You’ve got to be joking!’ The hero has to be driven, and when people are driven, common sense disappears. You don’t want your reader to make common sense objections, you want them to go with the drive; but you’ve got to have somebody around who’ll act as a sort of chorus.
  • 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.

Elric with his evil, sentient, soul-drinking blade Stormbringer.

You’ll also need to know the Lester Dent Master Plot Formula. Lester Dent was a hugely prolific writer of pulp fiction stories, and is particularly remembered for the Doc Savage tales, which he created and wrote the great bulk of. His masterplan is a blueprint for classic pulp fiction stories, and it retains a lot of power, even today.

Lester Dent’s penname is Kenneth Robeson. He is the creator of Doc Savage and author of that successful book-length magazine since its birth. He has been writing five years and often turns out 200,000 words a month. He has not had a rejection in the past three years. This article describes the master plot that Mr. Dent uses.

This is one opinion. It is opinion of one who believes in formula and mechanical construction, for a pulp yarn.

It is opinion of one believing:

1—Majority of pulps are formula.

2—Most editors who say don’t want formula don’t know what they are talking about.

3—Some eds won’t buy anything but formula.

Framed over this typewriter, on a bulkhead of my schooner now anchored off a bay in the Caribbean while we attempt to raise a Spanish treasure, is an object which tends to make the convictions mentioned appear to be facts—or an unexpected hallucination.

The object on the bulkhead is a formula, a master plot, for any 6000-word pulp story. It has worked on adventure, detective, western and war-air. It tells exactly where to put everything. It shows definitely just what must happen in each successive thousand words.

No yarn written to the formula has yet failed to sell.

Lester Dent

A year or so ago, a rough form of this master plot was handed to a man who still had a first sale to make. If recollection is correct, he sold his next six yarns written to the master plot.

The business of building stories seems not much different from the business of building anything else. The idea is apparently to get materials, get a plan, and go to it.

The rough form of this story plan, this master plot, will follow. But first, it might be a good idea to consider some of the materials.

It seems likely that “character” rates as one of the principal story-making materials. Many a yarn comes back with “Inadequate Characterization” pencilled on a rejection slip, and a scribbler works up a headache trying to figure out what the hell that meant. It might help to glance over some barn door variety characterization gags that most professionals use.

A fair idea is to make out a list of characters before starting a yarn. Then it’s conceivably a better idea to try to get along with half the list.

For a detective yarn, several characters may be handy, to wit: One hero. One villain. Various persons to murder. It may not be a sure-fire thing to murder women, some editors being finicky that way. Somebody for the hero to rescue is often handy, too. Female. Not female, though, if the editor has what he is wont to quaintly call a “no woman interest” mag.

Characterizing a story actor consists of giving him some things which make him stick in the reader’s mind. Tag him. A tag may be described as something to recognize somebody by. Haile Selassie’s sheet and drawers might be called an appearance tag. So might Old John Silver’s wooden leg in Treasure Island. And movie comic Joe Brown’s big mouth. The idea is to show the tag to the reader so that he may thereby recognize the actor in the story. Instead of marching the character in only by name, parade the tag.

Mannerism tags may cover absent-minded gestures. Perhaps the villain (villainy at this point unknown) is often noted rubbing his eyes when in private or when thinking himself unobserved. At end of yarn, it turns out the color of his eyes has been disguised by the new style glass opticians’ cap which fits directly on the eyeball, and cap was irritating his eyes.

It’s nice to have tags take a definite bearing on the story. Not all can, however.

Disposition tags should not be overlooked. Is the character a hard guy? Does he love his women and leave ‘em—and later help them over the rough spots? This tagging might go on and on and become more and more subtle.

Characters usually have names. Occasionally an author is a literary Argus who writes a yarn carrying the actors through by their tags alone, then goes back and names them. This procedure is not necessarily to be advised, except a time or two for practice.

It is not a bad idea to use some system in picking names. Two characters in the yarn may not necessarily need names which look alike. Confusing the reader can be left to villains. If the hero’s name is Johnson, “J” and “son” names for the others might be avoided. Too, it may not be the best idea to go in for all very short names exclusively. And a worse idea is to go in for all long ones. Telephone books are full of names, but it’s an idea to twist them around, selecting a first name here, second one there. If nothing better is at hand, a newspaper, possibly the obit page, can help.

Now, about that master plot. It’s a formula, a blueprint for any 6000-word yarn.

A rough outline can be laid out with the typewriter, although some mental wizards may do it all in their heads. About a page of outline to every ten pages of finished yarn might serve.

Doc Savage, Man of Bronze.

Here’s how it starts:

Devise one or more of the following:

  1. A DIFFERENT MURDER METHOD FOR VILLAIN TO USE
  2. A DIFFERENT THING FOR VILLAIN TO BE SEEKING
  3. A DIFFERENT LOCALE
  4. A MENACE WHICH IS TO HANG LIKE A CLOUD OVER HERO

One of these DIFFERENT things would be nice, two better, three swell. It may help if they are fully in mind before tackling the rest.

A different murder method could be–different. Thinking of shooting, knifing, hydrocyanic, garroting, poison needles, scorpions, a few others, and writing them on paper gets them where they may suggest something. Scorpions and their poison bite? Maybe mosquitos or flies treated with deadly germs?

If the victims are killed by ordinary methods, but found under strange and identical circumstances each time, it might serve, the reader of course not knowing until the end, that the method of murder is ordinary. Scribes who have their villain’s victims found with butterflies, spiders or bats stamped on them could conceivably be flirting with this gag.

Probably it won’t do a lot of good to be too odd, fanciful or grotesque with murder methods.

The different thing for the villain to be after might be something other than jewels, the stolen bank loot, the pearls, or some other old ones. Here, again one might get too bizarre.

Unique locale? Easy. Selecting one that fits in with the murder method and the treasure–thing that villain wants–makes it simpler, and it’s also nice to use a familiar one, a place where you’ve lived or worked. So many pulpeteers don’t. It sometimes saves embarrassment to know nearly as much about the locale as the editor, or enough to fool him.

Here’s a nifty much used in faking local color. For a story laid in Egypt, say, author finds a book titled “Conversational Egyptian Easily Learned,” or something like that. He wants a character to ask in Egyptian, “What’s the matter?” He looks in the book and finds, “El khabar, eyh?” To keep the reader from getting dizzy, it’s perhaps wise to make it clear in some fashion, just what that means. Occasionally the text will tell this, or someone can repeat it in English. But it’s a doubtful move to stop and tell the reader in so many words the English translation.

The writer learns they have palm trees in Egypt. He looks in the book, finds the Egyptian for palm trees, and uses that. This kids editors and readers into thinking he knows something about Egypt.

So. The Master Plot itself.

Divide the 6000 word yarn into four 1500 word parts. In each 1500 word part, put the following:

  • FIRST 1500 WORDS
  1. First line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved–something the hero has to cope with.
  2. The hero pitches in to cope with his fistful of trouble. (He tries to fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem.)
  3. Introduce ALL the other characters as soon as possible. Bring them on in action.
  4. Hero’s endevours land him in an actual physical conflict near the end of the first 1500 words.
  5. Near the end of first 1500 words, there is a complete surprise twist in
    the plot development.

SO FAR: Does it have SUSPENSE?
Is there a MENACE to the hero?
Does everything happen logically?

At this point, it might help to recall that action should do something besides advance the hero over the scenery. Suppose the hero has learned the dastards of villains have seized somebody named Eloise, who can explain the secret of what is behind all these sinister events. The hero corners villains, they fight, and villains get away. Not so hot. Hero should accomplish something with his tearing around, if only to rescue Eloise, and surprise! Eloise is a ring-tailed monkey. The hero counts the rings on Eloise’s tail, if nothing better comes to mind. They’re not real. The rings are painted there. Why?

  • SECOND 1500 WORDS
  1. Shovel more grief onto the hero.
  2. Hero, being heroic, struggles, and his struggles lead up to:
  3. Another physical conflict.
  4. A surprising plot twist to end the 1500 words.

NOW: Does second part have SUSPENSE?
Does the MENACE grow like a black cloud?
Is the hero getting it in the neck?
Is the second part logical?

DON’T TELL ABOUT IT. Show how the thing looked. This is one of the secrets of writing; never tell the reader–show him. (He trembles, roving eyes, slackened jaw, and such.) MAKE THE READER SEE HIM.

Characterizing a story actor consists of giving him some things which make him stick in the reader’s mind. TAG HIM.

BUILD YOUR PLOTS SO THAT ACTION CAN BE CONTINUOUS.

  • THIRD 1500 WORDS
  1. Shovel the grief onto the hero.
  2. Hero makes some headway, and corners the villain or somebody in:
  3. A physical conflict.
  4. A surprising plot twist, in which the hero preferably gets it in the neck bad, to end the 1500 words.

DOES: It still have SUSPENSE?
Is the MENACE getting blacker?
The hero finds himself in a hell of a fix?
It all happens logically?

If so, fine. These outlines or master formulas are only something to make you certain of inserting some physical conflict, and some genuine plot twists, with a little suspense and menace thrown in. Without them, there is no pulp story. These physical conflicts in each part might be DIFFERENT, too. If one fight is with fists, that can take care of the pugilism until next the next yarn. Same for poison gas and swords. There may, naturally, be exceptions. A hero with a peculiar punch, or a quick draw, might use it more than once.

When writing, it helps to get at least one minor surprise to the printed page. It is reasonable to to expect these minor surprises to sort of inveigle the reader into keeping on. They need not be such profound efforts. One method of accomplishing one now and then is to be gently misleading. Hero is examining the murder room. The door behind him begins slowly to open. He does not see it. He conducts his examination blissfully. Door eases open, wider and wider, until–surprise! The glass pane falls out of the big window across the room. It must have fallen slowly, and air blowing into the room caused the door to open. Then what the heck made the pane fall so slowly? More mystery.

The idea is to avoid monotony.

Suspense must be the sugar which draws the flies. And possibly it’s coupled up with the MENACE, a slightly intangible thing at first glance. Menace shouldn’t be hard to recognize in a story. It’s that feel of terrible things to happen to the hero and every other decent person. It might be built up by repeated references, a word dropped now and then, and by making the villain particularly bad.

Villians don’t necessarily have to be inhuman, though.

ACTION: Vivid, swift, no words wasted. Create suspense, make the reader see and feel the action.

ATMOSPHERE: Hear, smell, see, feel and taste.

DESCRIPTION: Trees, wind, scenery and water.

THE SECRET OF ALL WRITING IS TO MAKE EVERY WORD COUNT.

  • FOURTH 1500 WORDS
  1. Shovel the difficulties more thickly upon the hero.
  2. Get the hero almost buried in his troubles. (Figuratively, the villain has him prisoner and has him framed for a murder rap; the girl is presumably dead, everything is lost, and the DIFFERENT murder method is about to dispose of the suffering protagonist.)
  3. The hero extricates himself using HIS OWN SKILL, training or brawn.
  4. The mysteries remaining–one big one held over to this point will help grip interest–are cleared up in course of final conflict as hero takes the situation in hand.
  5. Final twist, a big surprise, (This can be the villain turning out to be the unexpected person, having the “Treasure” be a dud, etc.)
  6. The snapper, the punch line to end it.

HAS: The SUSPENSE held out to the last line?
The MENACE held out to the last?
Everything been explained?
It all happen logically?
Is the Punch Line enough to leave the reader with that WARM FEELING?
Did God kill the villain? Make SURE it was the hero.

There it is. Take it, do what you can with it, while I go on deck, put on the diving hood, and have another try at that galleon, with the wife up the mast to keep an eye on the reefs for sharks and barracuda.

Note:

Most published articles have interesting histories behind them. This one might interest some of you. Lester Dent sent us a modest little six-page article just about the time this magazine was going to press. The last line of the article mentioned his master plot formula; the famed master plot that has fed every Lester Dent story for the past several years.

We wondered if Mr. Dent would share that formula with the fraternity. We phoned his hotel in New York. “Sorry, Mr. Dent has gone to La Plata, Mo.” We phoned the village postmaster at La Plata. “Sorry, Mr. Dent is on his yacht, the Albatross.” “Where?” “Off Miami someplace; my goodness, why?” The long distance operator in Miami, a student of human nature if there ever was one, asked us a question: “How long has Mr. Dent been on his yacht?”

“Why?” we were glad to ask this for a change.

“Well, you see if he’s just bought a yacht he’s on deck running up flags, and then running them down again.”

“Oh.”

“But if he’s had it for a while, he’s below listening to his radio. If you want, I’ll have the police put out a call for him on short wave.”

We demurred.

The operator coughed, letting us know she knew we were a plain sissy.

To invade the privacy of an author anchored God only knows where by belching into his radio: “L-e-s-t-e-r D-e-n-t, Lester Dent call Miami police station. Yachts at sea off Miami, flag the Albatross. Owner wanted by police.”

What a rummy we’ve turned out to be, we thought, as we gave the operator, who was by now politely sneering at us with her conversational coughs, the go ahead.

About two hours later a startled voice called us from Florida and asked what the hell we were up to. It seemed that every yacht off Miami caught the call and began signaling the Albatross while the rest of that busy little city came down to the wharf to see L-e-s-t-e-r D-e-n-t, a man obviously wanted by the police.

We explained demurely. And of such stuff are authors made that Mr. Dent agreed to send along his famed formula, although he added, with a touch of homespun: “I hadn’t ought to.”

It’s a pretty fine thing for an author to share such a hard-won secret with his competing professionals, so if you like this piece, we have a mild suggestion to make. Buy a copy of Doc Savage on the newsstands and if you like the lead story, tell the publishers so in a letter.

 

Red Phone Box, a darkly magical story cycle written by myself, Warren Ellis and twenty-six other writers, and edited by the sublime Salomé Jones, is out now. I think you'll like it.

Posted in authors, writing.


31 Responses

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  1. Joe says

    I can see scheduling NaNoWrikends. I might have to try tailoring one of these to a more literary form. Mind you, I’m enjoying the lit stuff far less than I used to and digging the genre stuff much more.

    • Ghostwoods says

      NaNoWrikend, eh? I like it :)

      The only thing I’m going to say re genre vs literary is that at the least, I’d suspect genre would be less depressing!

  2. Amanda says

    I just found out about http://www.3daynovel.com/

    • Ghostwoods says

      And did you find out about the $50 entry fee? Personally, I find that repulsive.

  3. Barbara says

    I will finish my 500 page historical mystery during NaNoWriMo and then come back to this concept to write the sequel. Thank you very much for sharing ideas, I am fairly certain they will work for me as well.

  4. Kirie says

    What a fab article – I will try this once my first novel is finished.

    • Ghostwoods says

      Please do let me know how it goes!

  5. Martin Turner says

    I wrote one in twelve days over Christmas this year, publishing it chapter by chapter online as I went, rather in the way Dickens published his. No formula, just a requirement that every chapter ends in a cliff hanger. It’s here if you want to read it (for free): http://12days.martinturner.org.uk

  6. Mike Crowl says

    Good to hear about Moorcock’s three-day writing process. One of my favourite memories from the early 70s is of hitching a lift back to London (from somewhere or other) with my soon-to-be wife, and getting picked up in a limousine of some sort that had three guys in it. One of them eventually mentioned that Mike Moorcock was sitting in the front passenger seat – I’d never heard of him at that point, but he immediately became an author I had to start reading!

  7. The Code Crimson says

    It’s fascinating to see these sort of intuitive storytelling secrets exposed and analyzed like this. When we’re reading, we barely notice when it works. When we’re writing and it doesn’t work, we can’t always figure out the reasons way. Wonder how these tips would work for a comic book or a more literary novel.

  8. Habibu A. Lawan says

    Very superb! This piece has recast my mind. I believe my first book should be able to make it to the bookshop in a coupla weeks. Awesome! Messr Mike moorcock and Lester Dent have given my maiden wing for a nice literary flight.

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