How Writing a Novel is like Managing a Warehouse

by Phil Lemos


I’m writing a novel.  Occasionally I get asked what that’s like.  I tell them it’s exactly like managing a warehouse.  

I work graveyard shift four nights a week as an assistant shift manager at a warehouse near where I live.  Running a warehouse involves unlocking the doors every night, plotting out a game plan for how to tackle the expected volume, and putting all the associates in the right places to maximize flow and efficiency.  Then you record all this information on your laptop so you don’t lose any critical information.  This all happens before the rank and file enter the building.  Once everyone arrives, you make a few announcements, turn on the conveyor belt and the shift begins.

No matter how meticulously you plan in advance, it’s inevitable that the night descends into chaos.  A handful of people won’t show up for their shifts (this number climbs to considerably more than a handful if the Patriots played earlier that evening), leaving gaps that you have to fill.  It’s inevitable that a giant box containing laundry detergent, paint or chlorine will fall off the belt and spill all over one of the aisles.  Twice a week the conveyor belt jams or breaks down.  Sometimes it’s an easy fix.  But conveyor belts can be temperamental, and often you find yourself calling the warehouse engineer at 2am to get him in and troubleshoot it. 

From their first couple of shifts, every employee thinks that they, too, can run the warehouse.  They spend all their time complaining about what the managers do wrong – how we push the volume too fast, too slow, run one line faster than the other, purposely give them shitty scanners that always crap out on them (even though they themselves hit the wrong button and caused it to crap out), screw them over by putting them in the hard aisles or making them work with the shitty employees.  While they do this belly-aching, all the packages that they’re supposed to be picking up slide past them on the belt. 

The three days a week that I’m not working at the warehouse, I cram in as much time as possible working on my novel.  Writing a novel involves unlocking your imagination, mapping out a skeletal version of your manuscript’s structure, and organizing the chapters properly to maximize flow and readability.  Then you record all this information in your laptop, before you forget all the ideas you came up with.  Once you’re properly situated in front of the screen, you pump yourself up, turn on the creative portion of your brain, and start tapping at the keys.

No matter how hard you try to motivate yourself, it’s inevitable that your writing session descends into chaos.  Your creative side won’t come up with enough ideas to advance your story or develop character (or you’re just not in a writing mood because the Patriots are playing), leaving plot holes that you have to fill.  You’ll spill your drink, forcing you to put your ideas aside and grab some paper towels before your laptop electrocutes you.  Or your file will become infected with a virus.  Sometimes you can shut down and restart, but laptops can be temperamental, so you find yourself running over to Best Buy to see if the Geek Squad can save your work.    

From the moment they hear me talk about my manuscript, everyone thinks they, too, can write a novel.  They’ll come up to me and say, “Oh yeah I’m gonna write a novel one of these days,” as if all you have to do is spend a weekend typing a bunch of words and voila, it’ll be in stores the following Tuesday at midnight.  They’ll spend this coming weekend doing exactly that, until they realize that it takes hard work and determination, and they don’t have the patience to devote an insane amount of time to writing 300 pages of prose in a coherent, engaging format.

So, there you have it.  Managing a warehouse and writing a novel couldn’t be more similar.  And explaining this to would be novelists and managers tends to scare both off the task.  Which is probably a good thing.