Why Project Management Might Make You Want to Write a Novel

Last week I had a chat with a friend who’s considering a new leadership position in a company I know well. One of the first questions was what I thought the main focus of the job would be, and to me the answer was obvious: creating and managing a project plan that would keep everyone from getting too caught up in the details on the way to the end goal. And that’s when I realized: novelists are really project managers, only we call it “plotting” instead of “leadership.”

Jamestown bridge 2017

Have a plan, not just an end goal

I’d already been thinking a lot about effective project management after a recent non-fiction project didn’t go as smoothly as I would’ve liked. We started out with a clear goal, but before we figured out the path that would lead us there we strayed way too far into the weeds: where are we going to store our files? Who’s going to have access? It was like sitting down to write a novel and focusing on punctuation and word count before knowing the plot.

After a week or two of wandering off track, we refocused and developed a plan. And sure enough, most of the pesky details sorted themselves out along the way—just like typos and spelling errors are usually weeded out during the editing process.

Turning an idea into a story worth sharing

Every novel starts with a great idea, but the only way to write a story worth sharing is to create a plot and then stick to it. Since characters can’t see the end of their own story, we novelists have to be their project manager. If we do our work well, each step forward seems inevitable because all distracting detours and details have been quietly eliminated—no matter how fascinating or pithy or appealingly alliterative they might be.

My friend didn’t accept that job, but our conversation reminded me that both project management and novel writing require a plan with a capital P. Projects will never go smoothly unless both the desired end goal and the stepping stones to get there are spelled out ahead of time. A novel will never be a satisfying read unless the ending and the choices made along the way seem both logical and inevitable. And only an effective project leader can keep the big picture in focus. Because once all those shiny details start waving their arms, it’s all too easy to be distracted.