Shocker: Long-work Writing Takes More Prep, Not Less

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Many times I’ve tried. Only once have I succeeded.

I tried to find an appropriate metaphor. Climbing Mount Everest? Finishing a journey of a thousand miles? Completing Hercules’s twelve labors?

I’ll simply stick with the unembellished fact: I completed a long work. These other epic tasks don’t quite compare, though the mental challenge of drafting a full novel and extreme physical conquests may have a few parallels.

Though I made it harder for myself than necessary.

Aren’t we all our own worst enemies?

I follow a set process for all writing—essays and articles and blog posts—that always begins with plans and outlines prior to drafting. Yet I hadn’t bothered to translate this system to long-work fiction.

No wonder none of my other attempts succeeded. Pure doggedness forced my first success.

If you could call it a success.

My first full novel manuscript had a sketched premise and a couple loosey-goosey character profiles. As I drafted, the premise struggled from lack of deliberation, which caused the plot to meander. The characters changed motivation—and goals. They even changed hair color and, at one point, someone had children after I’d described him in an earlier scene as kid-free and forever single.


Try as I might, I may not salvage my poor, scraggly manuscript. If I can stomach it, I’ll need to start afresh.

I’ll need a solid outline that demarcates a beginning, middle, and end. I’ll need to divide each of these sections into scenes, and I must outline each scene. My character profiles will plumb backgrounds and describe how each person changes over the course of my tale.

Lesson learned anew:

All writing, and perhaps long works above all, require more planning, not less. Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Not to me, quite clearly. At least, not early enough.

I followed this more careful path with my current novel manuscript. I outlined the entire work before I began drafting a single sentence. I puzzled through plot problems. I cast characters and tweaked them for chemistry and dynamism.

As a result, I’ve had so much more fun writing this tale. And I spend far less time staring at my screen, frustrated, wondering what comes next and how to get from here to there.

I’ve read interviews with writers who report simply starting with an intriguing setting, scene, or sentence. I’ve heard writers say that that they need only to put a compelling character in motion to craft a novel.

I liken it to waif-thin celebrities saying they can eat whatever they want.

I’m not one of them.