Imagery before action: how to write a novel inside a week

November 1, 2017

Acolyte of Embers by CobaltPlasma

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.

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.

Michael Moorcock
Six Days to Save the World
Michael Moorcock: Death is No Obstacle

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