How do you write a novel, and why do you write it that way?


How do you write a novel? Let me count the ways.

Some authors are plotters.

My wife is one of those. She outlines the book before she puts the first word of her story on paper. She carefully and diligently plots each character, each scene, and each chapter by longhand in a notebook. She even includes lines of dialogue in her chapter outlines.

I prefer flying by the seat of my pants.

I sit down at my word machine. I work hard with many re-writes to create my first sentence. Then I sit back, head down the road, and enjoy every twist and turn along the way.

I don’t know where I’m going. But I’ll get there.

How do I know?

I’m not driving that bus. My characters are.

As Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient said: “Some writers know what the last sentence is going to be before they begin. I don’t even know what the second sentence is going to be.

Neither do I.


James Lee Burle
James Lee Burle

Ernest Hemingway believes you should write five pages a day. No more. No less. Then quit and let the story simmer in your mind while you wait for tomorrow when you’ll write five new pages.

James Lee Burke says he begins writing each day with two scenes in his head. That’s all he wants. That’s all he needs.

Ondaatje began his entire book, The English Patient, with only two scenes captured in his imagination: A patient lying in bed talking to a nurse and a thief stealing a photograph of himself.

He had no idea how they would connect. They did.

I sit down with one scene rummaging around somewhere in the deep recesses of my head. One is all I need. That one scene will generally be a complete chapter.

Others write long chapters packed with a lot of scenes.

I write short chapters, and by the time I finish that chapter, the scene I’ll write tomorrow has already worked its way like a thorn into my brain. I’m ready when tomorrow comes.

Some write novels by charging through the story as fast and as hard as they can go. Damn the mistakes. Damn the typos. Full speed ahead.

They will re-write and polish only after the novel is in finished manuscript form.

Others re-write as they go along, never writing the next chapter until they are reasonably pleased with what has just spilled out of their word machine..

I’m one of those. I edit and re-write the chapter I completed yesterday before moving on to the chapter I’m writing today. One leads me straight to the other.  No confusion.  No black holes.  No writer’s block.

I recently read where one author – the very talented Maria Granovsky – believes that you should write your novel from start to finish, then set the manuscript aside, never look at it again, and write your book again from scratch. If I did so, I would have two completely different books.

Some authors write in the present tense.

I prefer the past tense.

Some write first person.

Others feel more comfortable writing in third person.

I’ve done both.

Some who write in first person are purists. I’m one of those No scene takes place unless their first person character is on location to witness what’s going on, over hear the dialogue, or participate in the conversation. The first person character is the constant observer.  He or she is the reporter who can credibly tell it all.

ConspiracyOfLiesOthers who write in first person cheat. Scenes are taking place, people are talking, thoughts are running through their heads, and the first person character is nowhere around or in sight.

How does he know?

How can he know?

I have listened to editors and agents at writer’s conferences who are apparently more worried about points of view than the storyline.

Only one point of view per scene, they say.

The point of view must be attributed to the single character who is facing the most risk and has the most at stake in the scene.

However, I’ve read many who play God and give points of view to every character in the book. Agents don’t like it. Editors don’t like it. Critics don’t like it.

I’m not for sure that readers even notice or care. Make them laugh. Make them cry. Scare the hell out of them. Or make them fall in love. But tell them a good story, and they won’t worry so much about the mechanics.

Some want to bury themselves in long books. Some love epics. They are looking for a journey. They want to follow the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of a family through several generations.

I prefer novels no longer than 60,000 or 70,000 words that take place in brief spans of time, It is, after all, an impatient world in which we live. I believe readers want to read shorter novels and more novels. Get into the story. Get out of the story. And move one. As Vladimir Nabakov explained, “The writer’s job is to get the main characters up a tree and then once they are there, throw rocks at them.”

You can never wait for the Muse to come and whisper inspiration in your ear. Stephen King said, “The Muse comes and sits on my shoulder every morning at five o’clock and tells me: ‘it’s time to write, you sonuvabitch.’” And Jack London pointed out, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go get it with a club.”

Some write the first drafts of their novels on computers while others use long hand, scribbling on note cards or notebooks. A few even use different colored pencils for each character. And more than a few clip out pictures from magazines to help them build a montage of  scenes and moods. When Joan Didion nears the completion of a manuscript, she sleeps in the same room with it. Jack Kerouac said he had a ritual of lighting a candle and writing by its light, then blowing it out when he was done for the night. And it was Hemingway opinion that you should always write drunk and edit sober.

So how do you write a novel?

As far as I’m concerned, the answer is quite simple.

Write it any way you damn well please.

Please click the book cover image to read more about Caleb Pirtle III and his books. Conspiracy of Lies is a short book, about 65,000 words, with short chapters that takes place over a very short time span.

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    Different voices. Different styles. Different genres. Different characters. Thank God for them all.

    • In schools, a child is in trouble if he is a visual learner, and his teacher is a talker. Or any other combination of learning/teaching style that isn’t the same for both.

      But in reading – well, just switch to someone who writes what you like to read – she’s out there somewhere.

      And you can afford to sample – and like – all kinds of different writing or reading, because you have choices that school kid doesn’t. My kids were readers – and homeschooled – but I still remember the impact the Harry Potter books had on 5th grade boys – the non-readers in many demographics. Or the Left Behind books on people who didn’t read much.

      It is the dream of every writer to find and fill such a niche.

      • Caleb Pirtle

        Alicia, there are still a lot of niches waiting to be filled. Finding them is like looking for a nugget at the bottom of a rushing stream. They may or not be where you look.

  • Gae-Lynn Woods

    Well said, Caleb. I believe there are as many ways to write as there are stories to read. One size never fits all, no matter what those damn clothes designers say.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I never see women wearing clothes that designers advertise on television. I find that I like a lot of books and movies that the critics don’t recommend.

      • You can’t – or at least I can’t – they only make them in ridiculous sizes.

        I think they think they are creating art – not clothing.

        But then I look like a giant Smurfette when I write, especially in winter (Forever Lazy bran head to ankles in electric blue + matching socks).

  • jack43

    The government wants us all to have the same healthcare. It wants us all to have the same education. Will it one day attempt to have us all read just one story written their way?

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I suspect there are many rebels in the writing business for that to eve happen.

  • Darlene Jones

    I have read novels written in first person that were incredibly well done, but I think it takes a special talent. Snadra Guilland’s Josephine trilogy is one – all written as diary entries. As for knowing the last sentence before I started … HA! The ending to my first book wasn’t at all what I planned and I blame the characters. They staged an uprising and when their own way.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Characters are always ready to mutiny if you give them the chance. My wife had her novel plotted down to the last line. When she finished, she was flabbergasted. The person she thought was the killer wasn’t the killer at all.

  • Loved this post. At first I imagined myself a pure pantser, but I kept stalling out mid-novel. I had several partial novels when I heard author Kimberla Lawson Roby talk about how she outlined and why. At the time I was stuck. So I tried outlining the next scene. It worked. So I outlined the next chapter, then did a brief outline of what would happen during the rest of the story. I finished that novel. It was the first novel I’d finished in nearly 20 years.

    I still like the freedom to follow my characters and incorporate all of the wonderful, wacky things they do and say that I hadn’t suspected. But creating a general outline–even if it’s in my head–of what’s to come keeps me moving forward. So I guess I’m a hybrid writer. A little bit of a pantser, a little bit of an outliner.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I think that was the point I wanted to make, Reese. And you made it well. Everyone writes different. There is no right way and no wrong. We all get to the finish line the best way we can. The object is to keep writing until you arrive. I do appreciate your comments.

  • Lana L. Higginbotham

    Caleb, I like to outline, do the research and then let the characters lead the way. They delight in surprising me. My storytelling becomes a passion as my acquaintance with my characters, whether fictional or real, deepens. Telling their stories is the key; people who are relatable not character sketches. If a writer can do that, regardless of the genre or writing style, they succeed, and the reader wins.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Yours is a sermon that I understand and believe in. When it’s all said and done, the reader has to win. Otherwise we have had a long, drawn-out exercise in futility.

  • The part of writing I enjoy most is not knowing what will happen next in a story and discovering it along with my characters. What a cool process. Great post, Caleb.

  • Amen. I love hearing from “experts” who tell me I can’t write like I do.
    I appreciate your advice and take it every day!

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Thanks, Leslie. No one should give you advice. They need to leave real writers alone.

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