May 26, 2021

Is It Nails or Headlights?

Susan Reichert

The dictionary says a novel is a fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism.

G. K. Chesterton, an English writer, philosopher, lay theologian, and literary and art critic said, “A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.”

D. H. Lawrence was an English novelist, poet, and playwright among other things. He said, “‘if you try to nail anything down, in the novel, either it kills the novel, or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail.”

Whereas E. L. Doctorow who is known for historical fiction said, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

I think Chesterton is trying to tell us to concentrate on writing about the story, show and do not tell.

Lawrence is saying do not nail everything down in the story and Doctorow is telling us we will be able to see as far as out thoughts go, but that is okay, we can make the whole trip that way.

Perhaps you see their advice different. If so, we would love to know what you think. Everyone sees and hears things different.

Let us face it, each writer either has found a way that works for them in their writing, or they are working on finding a way.

Some writers spend hours working on an outline, months researching, and at the end of the year, they find they have not written anything.

Other writers spend very little time researching, have no outline, just put words that come to them on paper and at the end of 80,000 words call it a novel. However, it may just be words, discombobulated thoughts on paper.

Both scenarios are extreme. If your story requires research, be sure and do it. The book you are writing should dictate the amount of research you need. If it helps you to outline, then do it. If it is easier for you to not outline but to write from the seat of your pants (panster) then do it.

Whichever, you must determine how far down that road the headlights need to shine and how much you want to nail down.

Susan Reichert, author of Between Me and You, God’s Prayer Power and Storms in Life. She has written numerous magazine articles and stories in anthology books. She is a speaker at writing conferences, seminars, and libraries.

She is the founder of Southern Author Services, and Editor of Suite T. Also, the founder of

Collierville Christian Writers Group (CCWriters Group), and founder and co-publisher of Southern Writers Magazine. A national magazine for authors and readers (which is retired now). At the time she was the Editor-in-Chief of Southern Writers Magazine. Reichert has a passion for writing about God in devotionals, prayers, and inspirational works.

She and her husband live in Tennessee. They have four grown daughters with families of their own.

Visit Susan at:

Amazon -

Member of the: DAR; First Families of Mississippi.


  1. Great information, Susan. I love the comments from Chesterton, Lawrence, and Doctorow. I especially relate to the driving analogy. When I begin a novel, I know generally where I'm going. Some days are like driving in the daylight and I can make great progress toward the destination. Other times are like driving at night and I see only as far as the headlights. Either way, I'm moving forward.

  2. Thanks Kay for your comment. At least we move forward and in the scheme of things, that is the most important. Like you some days we writers see where we are going, others, we sometimes wing it, and sometimes have a little lite.

  3. I agree with Kay...and sure wish there were more daylight drives. lol I wish I could outline, but I can't. I've tried, but the story never goes by the outline. Good post!