The Right Way to Write a Novel

by | September 21, 2015 | General | 17 comments

By Lisabet Sarai

Many erotica authors get their start publishing short stories. Anthologies, webzines and more recently self-publishing offer many opportunities for selling short erotic fiction—possibly more than in any other genre.

I’d argue that it’s far more difficult to craft an exceptional short story than to produce a longer work. With only a few thousand words available, you must choose each one with special care. Short stories leave no room for sloppiness. The stories I love most are jewels, masterpieces of symmetry and clarity that shine with inner light.

For some reason, though, many erotic authors I know believe that writing a novel is somehow a more worthy endeavor than crafting short stories. Again and again on writers’ lists I’ve heard my friends and colleagues lament that they can’t seem to spin a story longer than a few thousand words. They feel inadequate, unfulfilled, second rate. Only when you see your name on “real book”—a novel—can you truly call yourself an Author, or so they seem to think.

Well, pish tush to that. Anyway, if you can write an effective short story, you can create a novel. You just have to go about it the right way.

Before you close your browser in disgust at my arrogance, let me reassure you that the title of this post is intended to be facetious. I do believe that if you want to write a novel, if you have a story deep and complex enough to support 50,000 words or more, you can do it. However, there’s no one right way to go about it. Different authors use different techniques. My goal in writing this article is to introduce some of the approaches I’ve encountered in my 15 years of publishing, and encourage you to explore them.

You can write a novel. You just need to figure out the method that works for you, personally.

When I went to Amazon, chose “Books”, and typed “How to write a novel”, I got 2,859 results, with titles like “How to write a best-selling book in 21 days!”, “How to write a novel: simple and powerful 4 steps to your first novel”, “Write good or die”, “How not to write a novel: 200 classic mistakes”, even (egads!) “Fiction writing for dummies”. It seems that if you really want to make it big—write a how-to book about writing novels.

I haven’t read any of these books, and I’m not likely to. Still, I’ve published eight novels and I’m halfway through writing my ninth.

I’ve listened to lots of successful novelists discuss their methods, and I’ve introspected on my own. That’s the main source for the observations that follow. I’ll talk about six approaches to novel writing: the Jigsaw method, the TV Serial method, the Character-driven Random Walk, the Dump and Sift method, the Snowflake method and the Dissertation method. In reality, these are abstractions. They’re not monolithic methods, but rather, points in a multidimensional space. What are the dimensions?

– Analysis versus intuition

– Linearity versus non-linearity

– Continuous editing versus staged editing

You may well find a method that works for you in some other region of this space.

Jigsaw Method

People who write novels using this method write scenes as the story inspires them, without worrying about temporal order or connections. When caught up in the fever of an idea, they write furiously, trying to capture the images and events playing out in their imaginations. Often, though maybe not always, jigsaw people tend to visually oriented. They see scenes from their book, as if played out on an internal movie screen, then work to describe those inner films in words.

Creating a novel from these disparate chunks of prose involves fitting them together (like a jigsaw puzzle). Indeed, it can be quite puzzling trying to determine the relationship among the different segments of the book. Unlike a real jigsaw, the author may need to alter the shape of the pieces to make them mesh, or create new pieces to mediate the fit.

The Jigsaw method is located at the extremes of all three dimensions. It is highly intuitive, very non-linear, and requires staged editing to achieve consistency.

My good friend and crit partner C. Sanchez-Garcia mostly writes this way. He calls this the “clothesline method”, another apt analogy. There’s no way I could use this method, but for him (and for many other authors I know), it works.

TV Serial Method

This is the method I’ve used for most of my own novels. The TV Serial method is highly linear and uses continuous editing. It’s mid-way between analytical and intuitive.

This method builds a novel chapter by chapter. Chapters are like episodes in a TV series, each one featuring a minor conflict and resolution, and often, ending with something of a teaser to bring the viewer (reader) back next week. Each chapter gets polished (at least to some extent) before the author moves on to the next.

When I begin a novel I’m writing this way, I have in mind a set of characters, a premise, a setting, and a rough trajectory for the overall book. I will usually have some notion of how the book will end, but I don’t necessarily know how the characters will get there. I’ll also have a scene list (sometimes written, sometimes in my head), high points I want to hit over the course of the book.

I then sit down to write the book, from beginning to end. I try to finish each chapter in one sitting or at most two. I polish and edit as I write. Then, when I start my next writing session, I first reread and do further edits on the previous chapter.

If I finish a chapter with time left, I often will move to some other project rather than starting a new chapter, in order to preserve the structural integrity of the units.

As I write, my imagination fills in the details. I learn more about my characters. Occasionally, I have flashes of inspiration that dramatically change the course of the story. The final result is never exactly what I’d envisioned. It’s almost always better.

I suspect that this is the way Joss Whedon wrote Buffy. He began with a fairly superficial high school girl killing vampires. He ended up with a dark, twisted world where the characters lose as often as they win.

Character-driven Random Walk

When I ask many of my author friends how they approach the process of writing a book, they respond, “My characters talk to me. In fact, I can’t shut them up.” It’s an old joke—we writers are crazy, because we have voices in our heads. All humor aside, though, many authors’ process is completely driven by their characters. They don’t have an outline or a scene list. They simply listen their characters, following where they lead.

Of course, to do this, you need a pretty clear vision of who your characters are and what they want. Still, I gather from listening to my colleagues who use this method that characters can be a surprising and ornery lot. One friend had the experience of starting an erotic romance with a hero and heroine, only to discover a quarter of the way through that what she really had was two heroes.

The Character-driven Random Walk is almost totally intuitive, but unlike the Jigsaw method, it is usually linear. Characters act and react, while the author writes everything down. Gradually the story unfolds, from start to finish. The story line corresponds to the characters’ life lines.

I’ve been experimenting with this method in my current WIP. I’m not sure how effective it is for me. I seem to be having a great deal of difficulty moving the plot forward. My characters keep stopping the action to have more kinky sex. At some level, that’s what the novel is about, the development of their D/s relationship as they come to know and trust one another. I know that I need conflict, though, something that challenges that trust. While I have some ideas, my hero and heroine are resisting.

This method can be used with both continuous or staged editing. As usual for me, I’m on the continuous side. However, one could also write the whole book, following the characters without editing a word, then go back to revise.

Dump and Sift

The Dump and Sift method is just what it sounds like. You sit down and write whatever comes to mind, freely and uncritically. You stop when you’ve reached a pre-decided word count. Then you go back to select, analyze, polish and rearrange the raw material from the “dump” stage.

Dump and Sift is the model behind NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). It’s an antidote to over-thinking and perfectionism, and can get you past bouts of writer’s block.

I’ve occasionally used the Dump and Sift method (sometimes known as Write or Die, supported by a fun application that forces you to do so), but only for short sections of prose. I’m too analytical a person to just let the words flow without some selection or editing. The Dump phase of this method requires a level of intuition that comes hard to me. Dump and Sift is usually linear (though it doesn’t have to be—you could dump your scenes in any order). And the method is pretty much defined by its staged editing, where stage 1 involves no editing at all.

Snowflake Method

The Snowflake Method was introduced by Randy Ingermanson. I haven’t read his book. What I know about the method comes from an excellent blog post by Kathleen Bradean, about her attempts to apply this method. (A post, alas, which I now cannot find!)

As I recall her discussion, the method is hierarchical. You begin with a single sentence that summarizes the point of the book. You then expand this to a paragraph, something like a blurb. Next you write brief character profiles, focusing on goals, motivation and resolution. Eventually you get to the level of an outline. You then expand the outline into chapters. And so on. You iterate back to earlier levels as necessary, when your explorations lead you to the conclusion that some change is required.

You can find Ingermanson’s own description at his web site.

Ingermanson is a scientist by training. He treats the process of writing a novel as a process of systematic design. As a software engineer, I find this process very familiar. However, I’m pretty certain I couldn’t manage to apply it to my own writing. For me, when it comes to fiction, discovery trumps intention.

However, for some authors, it may be the perfect approach. Indeed, this fairly simple breakdown of steps might be useful to two very different types of authors: authors who already take a highly analytical approach to their work, and authors who crave discipline and structure but don’t know how to get it.

Dissertation Method

The Dissertation Method treats a novel like a doctoral thesis. It involves extensive research, copious notes, pages of character profiles, multiple level outlines and chapter summaries. Authors who favor this method may create timelines of their fictional world history, glossaries of terms, genealogies, maps, and a raft of other documents to support their writing.

For some books—I’m thinking of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, or Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy—creating this level of background documentation may be necessary. And I know some authors really enjoy investigating period details and assembling supporting material, almost as much as the writing process itself.

That isn’t me. I’ll do the research that’s required for a particular book, but no more (although I have sometimes spent significant time doing research for books I decided not to write). I’ve tried once or twice producing detailed character profiles. I found it an interesting exercise, but once I began the actual story, I pretty much ignored the profiles.

That’s just me, though. You may be the kind of writer who gains confidence and clarity from having a wealth of background material and supporting detail at her fingertips, should she need it.

I do appreciate reading books set in a historical or fictional world so fully imagined that it feels real. Frequently something like the dissertation method will be required to create such books.


I haven’t covered all the options here, but I hope that I’ve accomplished three things.

First, I hope I have demonstrated that there are a wealth of different alternative techniques for writing a novel.

Second, I want to emphasize that there is no one “right” way to do so. You need to find a method that matches your cognitive and emotional styles and that fits with your available time and writing schedule. If your current method isn’t working, though, perhaps you should experiment with something different.

Finally, I want to encourage you to write that novel you’ve been turning over in your mind, if that’s what you really want to do. If you have a story to tell, don’t be intimidated. Let it expand to fill the pages, in whatever way is most natural for you. Then send it out to the world.

Lisabet Sarai

Sex and writing. I think I've always been fascinated by both. Freud was right. I definitely remember feelings that I now recognize as sexual, long before I reached puberty. I was horny before I knew what that meant. My teens and twenties I spent in a hormone-induced haze, perpetually "in love" with someone (sometimes more than one someone). I still recall the moment of enlightenment, in high school, when I realized that I could say "yes" to sexual exploration, even though society told me to say no. Despite being a shy egghead with world-class myopia who thought she was fat, I had managed to accumulate a pretty wide range of sexual experience by the time I got married. And I'm happy to report that, thanks to my husband's open mind and naughty imagination, my sexual adventures didn't end at that point! Meanwhile, I was born writing. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, though according to family apocrypha, I was talking at six months. Certainly, I started writing as soon as I learned how to form the letters. I penned my first poem when I was seven. While I was in elementary school I wrote more poetry, stories, at least two plays (one about the Beatles and one about the Goldwater-Johnson presidential contest, believe it or not), and a survival manual for Martians (really). I continued to write my way through high school, college, and grad school, mostly angst-ridden poems about love and desire, although I also remember working on a ghost story/romance novel (wish I could find that now). I've written song lyrics, meeting minutes, marketing copy, software manuals, research reports, a cookbook, a self-help book, and a five hundred page dissertation. For years, I wrote erotic stories and kinky fantasies for myself and for lovers' entertainment. I never considered trying to publish my work until I picked up a copy of Portia da Costa's Black Lace classic Gemini Heat while sojourning in Istanbul. My first reaction was "Wow!". It was possibly the most arousing thing I'd ever read, intelligent, articulate, diverse and wonderfully transgressive. My second reaction was, "I'll bet I could write a book like that." I wrote the first three chapters of Raw Silk and submitted a proposal to Black Lace, almost on a lark. I was astonished when they accepted it. The book was published in April 1999, and all at once, I was an official erotic author. A lot has changed since my Black Lace days. But I still get a thrill from writing erotica. It's a never-ending challenge, trying to capture the emotional complexities of a sexual encounter. I'm far less interested in what happens to my characters' bodies than in what goes on in their heads.


  1. Daryl Devore

    Great post. Explains quite nicely that we all don't write the same way. Love Stephen King's explanation.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Thanks, Daryl. The creative process has almost infinite variations. I get very annoyed at pundits who don't recognize that face.

  2. Mychael Black

    I'm somewhere between Jigsaw, TV Serial, and Character-Driven. lol

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Hi, Mychael,

      For me it depends on the story to some extent. But I don't think I could ever use the Jigsaw Method.

  3. Donna

    Love this! I'm a combination of Character-driven Random Walk and TV Serial, because I definitely hear those voices, but I like to have a map, too. In my research for my current novel, there is the suggestion that the short story came into being for the faster pace of early twentieth century life. Of course, novels had been serialized in the nineteenth century, but monthly magazines were a better venue for a self-contained story. I guess flash-fiction was the next logical step? In any case beginning eroticists are fortunate that erotica does lend itself to the short form.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Maybe, but the first erotica I published was a novel, not a short story. And I find short stories harder–not harder to write per se, but harder to get right.

  4. JP

    I tend to write very much by the seat of my pants. I get into trouble sometimes by writing myself into a corner desperate to find the way out. So far I've managed to escape but it makes me larf when I re read the book and see exactly where I was fighting for reasons why my character had put himself in such a lousy position!
    My first erotic novel started out as a short story, one of several I was going to amass into an anthology – ahem! But 'My Vampire and I' became a full length novel because my characters just wouldn't shut up – yes, there were voices in my head – see, crazy.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Yeah, I've done that too. You sit there, stare at the page, and think, "Okay, *now* what?"

      Usually that happens when I try to force my characters in directions that don't suit them. It's not always obvious what the dynamic is, but I've learned that when I feel that kind of inner resistance, it's time to stop, take stock, and consider the alternatives…before I'm TOO lost!

  5. Larry Archer

    Another great quote from Stephen King is “A good novelist does not lead his characters, he follows them. A good novelist does not create events, he watches them happen and then writes down what he sees. A good novelist realizes he is a secretary, not God.”

    That's the way I write, I can become immersed in the story and watch how the characters interact. I'm never quite sure how a story will turn out and how to wait and see what they do.

    • Brina Brady

      I agree. That's how I write, too.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Hi, Larry and Brina,

      I know that's what a lot of authors do. But I really object to King's implication that if you don't write this way, you're not a "good novelist". This is just one method, and it doesn't necessarily work for everyone.

  6. Spencer Dryden

    The opening of this excellent piece really resonated with me. I love short stories. I love reading them and writing them. I will disagree with you on one point, it's a lot easier (for me at least) to write three 10,000 word short stories than it is to write one 30,000 word novella.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Everyone's different, Spencer.

      When I talk about a short story, though, I usually mean 5K or less.

  7. DangerousBill

    Well, I just wrote a long comment, and when I attempted to publish it, it all went away and couldn't be recovered. I'll try again another time.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Yeah, Blogger can be pretty annoying.

      Would love your feedback, though.

  8. Larry Archer

    Lisabet I'm sure the comment King made was somewhat tongue in cheek knowing his irreverent style. Like most things no one method works best for everyone and he is just focusing on his style of writing.

  9. Ginger

    Thank you! I somewhat agree with Spenser – three 10k stories are much easier than 30k +. Although my sweet spot seems to be in the 10-20 range – not too much required in terms of plot and development but just enough to get my feet wet and other parts as well! I keep trying at a non-erotic novel and I feel very much in quicksand. I think I'll give your different approaches a try. Perhaps one of them will work better for me!

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