The Ruthlessness of the Long-Distance Writer

The provocative title of the much acclaimed 1962 film “The Loneliness of the LongDistance Runner” came to me the other day as I was thinking about some of the strange things novelists do to develop and sustain their stories.


People often ask if I work from an outline, or if I know from the

beginning pretty much everything that is going to happen in my novels.  I tell them absolutely, positively yes.

Here’s the rest of the truth. I write all this down in a roughly three-page treatment, which I then put in a drawer and don’t look at again until I’ve finished, at which point I say, “I was going to write that?”


I suppose there are authors who just start writing without any plan and see what happens, but I don’t know any.  I suppose there are others who have thorough outlines they stick to, but I don’t know them either.  For me, as I imagine for just about every novelist, fiction is a combination of planning and inspiration.


There are a few reasons for this.  At the first keystrokes I can’t know the characters as well as I eventually will. In my work in progress, the main character was originally fairly sensitive to social problems, mostly because I liked her that way.  As the draft went on, I realized how unlikely that was and went back to introduce–at some peril of losing a bit of the reader’s sympathy–hints of the unthinking bigotry she would have inherited with mother’s milk.


And speaking of mothers, there’s been a complete role reversal in my protagonist Zora’s parents.  My original thought was an overbearing father and docile, rather caved-in mother, but I discovered the plot worked much better the other way around.


Plot is the key.  Other than “what are my characters like as people?” the biggest question is “what makes the best story?”  For historical novelists, this usually involves figuring out a way to get the main character into the right place at the right time.


Here’s where the ruthlessness comes in.  If a character is getting in the way of the story, the or she has to be disposed of. Novelists kill off characters right and left.  They force them into exiles of all sorts whether they want to go or not.  Sometimes they don’t need to be disposed of, but they must influence the plot in an unpleasant way.  “Wait a minute!” I might hear a fledgling character complain.  “I don’t want to be a jerk!”  Tough luck, I say!


Ruthlessness has a bad name.  Sometimes it’s simple expediency.  In my work in progress, I needed a means for Zora to break away from family and friends who were constraining her to remain in the aristocratic social circle of wealthy, turn-of-the-century New York.  So many exciting things affecting women, such as suffrage and unionizing, were happening in the years before World War I, and I had to get Zora out of the house.


How to do this?  Invent an acquaintance with a different point of view, one who exposes her to new things.  Give this person exactly the traits that fit the needs of the plot. Piece of cake!  Enter Sophia. I create characters out of thin air to aggravate problems and facilitate solutions.



As I go further into writing a novel, things start to fall into place. I know how people will react (and if I need something different, I go back and change them). I know how the characters will get from here to there. At this point I can’t type fast enough. Still, there are plenty of surprises ahead, plot twists the characters will tell me about as they are happening, things they will say I am not expecting.



Fiction is driven by what is called “the arc of the story.”  As my sense of that arc is honed, necessary revisions are clearer. This brings up another form of ruthlessness.  Sometime whole scenes, whole characters just have to go because they aren’t helping.



At this point, the novel has its own feedback loop.  Just this morning I went back through the first hundred pages to add small details I couldn’t have put in earlier, little hints of the inevitability, or at least the natural progression, of what lies ahead.  Zora is now a little snobbier and thoughtless at the outset, and her growing dissatisfaction with herself and her world more clearly linked to specific events.  A new character is introduced quickly a hundred pages before she will show up in earnest to enter the story.  I see whole conversations that need to change in focus or subject, or be eliminated altogether.  I see new words that have to be put in characters’ mouths or minds.  I see how, once they have said or thought these things, I can go back and foreshadow.


Gradually, through new drafting and this feedback loop, I reach the full potential of the story.  Pass after pass, the novel is layered into what you eventually read. For right now, I’m just holding on for the wild and wonderful ride.