What kind of novels have you condemned yourselves to write?

Franz Kafka believed novels should stab us and wound us.
Franz Kafka believed novels should stab us and wound us.

AS ANOTHER YEAR ENDS, as I’m writing the last of another few hundred thousand words on a blank screen, as I’m searching my mind for a new story to tell, I wonder once again what kind of novels I’ve condemned myself to write.

It seems that so many of the legendary writers we read and revere also studied, examined, and analyzed their novels, tore them apart scene by scene and often character by character, carefully putting them back together again in order to maintain a book that reflected their style and their identity.

I always thought I wrote mysteries.

And occasionally I wrote a thriller.

At least that was my intent.

I don’t think I have studied, examined, or analyzed my craft or my novels nearly enough.

I was comfortable with the top layer.

I didn’t peel back enough bottom layers.

I didn’t dig deeply enough.

I had never thought much about it until I read a quote by Franz Kafka. His thoughts were tucked away in a letter he wrote to a school friend in 1904. He said: I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

That’s pretty strong stuff.

But he’s right. It’s not necessary to write novels as dark as those penned by Kafka, but writers do need to write stories that deeply affect people, whether it’s with humor, love, mystery, the unknown, or grief.

It’s well known that Ernest Hemingway was a master of writing spare prose. He once told the Paris Review: I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.

Ernest Hemingway writing the tip of the iceberg.
Ernest Hemingway writing the tip of the iceberg.

The Old Man and the Sea could have been over a thousand pages long and had every character in the village in it and all the processes of how they made their living, were born, educated, bore children, et cetera. That is done excellently and well by other writers. In writing you are limited by what has already been done satisfactorily. So I have tried to learn to do something else. First I have tried to eliminate everything unnecessary to conveying experience to the reader so that after he or she has read something it will become a part of his or her experience and seem actually to have happened. This is very hard to do and I’ve worked at it very hard.

Sherwood Anderson taught Hemingway that it was all right to write about common, ordinary people. I think my goal in a book is to take common, ordinary people and throw them in uncommon, unordinary circumstances, stir the pot and see who wins or loses.

For me, it’s all about the backstory. What is happening at the moment revolves strictly around the secrets that have shrouded my character’s past: the pain, the grief, the mistakes, the faults, his loves, his loves lost, his loves thrown away, his compulsions, his obsessions, and his memories, both good and bad. They all dictate what he does next: when he runs, when he fights, and why he tries to love and finds it so hard to love and winds up alone again. He hates being alone, but it is an old familiar feeling he well understands.

I would like to write more humor. I have always said that writing humor is exactly the same as writing horror. The build up is identical. You simply change the punch line.

I’ve tried. My punch line is always dark.

I would like to write about romance. But I can’t. Don’t understand it. Never have. I’ve been in love with the same woman for fifty years. I understand us. I haven’t figured out how to toss a little romance into my character’s miserable life. He meets girls. He wines and dines girls. He protects girls. He feels responsible for girls. He will even kill for them. But when the novel ends, she’s not with him anymore. I hope that someday – when I have written down the final sentence – she has refused to leave. I would like that a lot.

So I’m waiting for the right girl to waltz into my story.

And she’s out there somewhere, no doubt waiting for the right writer to find her.

And, for the moment, we’re both left hanging in limbo.

Secrets of the Dead is my first book in the Ambrose Lincoln trilogy.


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  • Don Newbury

    I’m thinking most writers spend most waking moments in varying degrees of limbo, some of it “cushier” than others….

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Don, limbo is never cushy. I know. I hang on with broken fingernails most days of my life.

  • That sounds fascinating – looking at all the books you’ve written as a set, asking yourself what you are as a writer, and whether you’re happy with it.

    I can only dream of being in that place, one of these days (Book 2 is going well, thankyouforasking).

    Making the subconscious (yours) conscious. As if you were someone else, studying your work to write a PhD thesis.

    A worthy way to spend a few days in a new year. You could find you’re happy with the results – or you could ask yourself what you would change if you could. If you do, please write about it.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Alicia, I got started before you did. That’s all. Now it’s time for you to start catching up.

  • Darlene Jones

    I think we write what touches us and then hope that it connects with our readers.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Great insight, Darlene. Too often, I fear, we the write the stories we want to write without figuring out ways to connect with the readers. That may be the missing link.

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