How to Write a Novel
Here’s a little confession my subscribers and community members may not know—when I read for fun, I love to read fiction. It’s so different from how-to, self-help and business and feels like a vacation from work. I also love to be transported to a new world.
And because I love reading novels so much, I do hope one day to write one (or more). It feels like maybe that’s far off in the future, but after reading Jennie Nash’s new book, Blueprint for a Book, it feels so much more do-able. I always felt overwhelmed by the idea of writing a novel. I had a few little starts to one particular novel that I hope to write one day. But I didn’t know where to go with it. I didn’t have a process. I didn’t know how to write a novel.
Jennie Nash’s Blueprint for a Book has transformed my sense of overwhelm. Suddenly the novel feels more doable. Blueprint for a Book offers a detailed path, and a proven one, for getting from that initial inspiration to having a compelling novel that hangs together, that works. So, I’m especially excited to interview Jennie for our August Author Spotlight.
Inspiration for Creating a Guide for Writers
Lisa: What inspired you to write Blueprint for a Book?
Jennie: Ahhh I love a confession about secret writing desires!! So many people have them….
The Blueprint for a Book method is the heart of what I teach in my Book Coach Certification program at Author Accelerator, and we have certified more than 75 coaches. Those coaches are authorized to go out and use and teach the tools they have mastered, and they frequently hold sold-out workshops on the Blueprint and elements of it (like the Inside Outline). Many develop their coaching services around the Blueprint. When I began to see how popular the method was among coaches and writers, it made me want to share a definitive writer’s guide to the method I created—to give more writers the opportunity to learn the method, and help facilitate the work our certified coaches are doing.
Reasons to Plan Your Novel Before Writing
Lisa: You start with a warning that I also start with for nonfiction – it’s tempting to just dive in but it’s usually best to take a step back and clarify your vision, your readers and your structure first. I know there are “pantsers” out there who say to fly by the seat of your pants. Can you share for our readers why you don’t advise that, why you suggest more thoughtfulness and structure before writing a novel?
Jennie: It is SO temping to just start—and you can find your way with fiction or nonfiction by writing. You can. It’s just that, for most of us, it takes a lot of time, often causes a lot of frustration, and ends in despair. A little bit of planning goes a very long way.
The Importance of Outlining
Lisa: The majority of the reader’s/writer’s time in your method is spent outlining. Why?
Jennie: Well, it’s not regular outlining—I don’t want to scare anyone away! The Inside Outline is a short little powerful punch of an outline that’s different from other kinds of outlines. It’s better! Faster! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!
But why outline at all? As a book coach, my job is to help people stay on track—well, to first define the track they want their book to be on and then to stay on it. The vast number of writers who draft novels on their own* end up with middles that don’t hang together or endings that fall flat. The way to fix that is to look holistically at the story—to look at the inside (how the character makes meaning of what is happening to them), and the outside (the plot), and the entire arc of change. The most efficient way to do that is to track it in a simple outline.
*By this I mean the writers who I see, those who are seeking my help as a book coach. These are writers who have gone in the wrong direction, been frustrated by rejection, wasted time, caved into overwhelm or never gotten off the block in the first place. Not all writers need help, of course, and every writer should do whatever works for them.
Developing the “Blueprint for a Book” Method Tweet This
Lisa: Your book is based on a system that teaches aspiring authors how to write a novel. How did you develop the Blueprint for a Book method and over what period of time did the system itself evolve to what it is now?
Jennie: I developed the Blueprint while coaching my own clients. I needed a way to help every writer no matter where they were in the process: starting at zero, with a full draft, or somewhere in between. And I needed a way to help them whether they were first-time authors or New York Times bestsellers. The Blueprint was, at first, a kind of test: COULD the writer define why they even want to write the book (the most important and first step of the Blueprint), and could they define their audience, write jacket copy for the book, and describe the inside and outside arcs of change of their protagonist? If not, I knew where they needed help. It was such a powerful process—to take the writer back to the foundational elements of their story—that I started using it with every client.
I then started a book-coaching company, Author Accelerator, and I taught the process to the book coaches I first hired and now train in the Book Coach Certification program. Over time, it became more refined. I made a Blueprint for nonfiction (that will be my next book), and then combined it with the fiction version to help memoir writers (most memoir writers need elements from both fiction and nonfiction), and that process added refinement as well.
In writing this book, I refined the Blueprint method even more—but the DNA is the same as it was at the start.
Avoiding Writing Without Thinking
Lisa: Any specific mistakes most novelists tend to make when writing a first novel?
Jennie: Yes—they start writing without thinking. This means that they force themselves to do the logical work of story development while they are doing the creative work of writing. It doesn’t often work out very well to mash those processes together. You tend to get nice writing that doesn’t hold up—a terrible reality for the writer because they have to throw out work they have spent so much time developing.
Helping Authors Make Logical Decisions
Lisa: What types of mistakes does the Blueprint for a Book method help authors avoid?
Jennie: There are so many ways that a novel can go off the rails, and the Blueprint covers the top 14 of them, including where the story should start, who the narrator is, what events should happen in the plot, and how the protagonist will change over the course of the story.
The Blueprint aims to help the writer make logical decisions about these elements so that, when the Blueprint is done and they are ready to write forward, the writer can let their creativity fly, knowing that the Blueprint will keep them from making the most common mistakes. (Though I will also caution that the creative process is often chaotic, and while the Blueprint can help tame some of the chaos, it won’t prevent all of it. That’s why it can be so effective to work with a book coach as you write forward.)
Using the Blueprint Method for Nonfiction
Lisa: When you worked on this particular book, which is a nonfiction, how-to book, how much did you employ the system that you developed for novels? What’s the overlap for fiction and nonfiction? And what was different for the nonfiction?
Jennie: I love that you asked this! There is vast overlap between fiction and nonfiction. The Blueprint methods for fiction and nonfiction differ in only two key places:
- When you define the character’s arc of change for fiction. On the nonfiction side, we talk about the reader’s arc of change. We need to know what the reader’s transformational journey is going to be.
- When you design a structure. On the fiction side, structure has to do with narrator, POV and the passing of time. On the nonfiction side, it has to do with the argument of the book’s point or idea.
Identifying the Reader
Lisa: What a fabulous and simple distinction. I love that you say on the nonfiction side, we talk about the reader’s arc of change. Like the reader is the main character in nonfiction! Please tell us more about applying the Blueprint method to this book.
Jennie: Yes – that’s exactly right: the reader is the main character in nonfiction. And I absolutely used the Blueprint method in writing this book on the Blueprint, particularly around that exact issue. I had one beta reader who called me out on it. This reader was my adult daughter, actually, who is enrolled in an English literature master’s program for teachers, but who has not yet written any fiction herself. She said, “Who exactly is this book for? Someone who has never written a novel or someone who has tried, who reads books, goes to conferences? I think you are confusing the two in how you speak to your reader.”
I had not defined the ideal reader well enough and had to go back to that Blueprint step and re-think the whole thing. (The answer is that my ideal reader does indeed know something about writing a novel. She has attempted it and it didn’t go well. Having more clarity around this allowed me to write a better book.)
But I knew my “why” for writing the book, I knew where I wanted my reader to end up, I knew the comp titles. I love the Blueprint and I use it myself!
Generosity in Writing
Lisa: And that shows! In your introduction, you share part of a speech Ann Rittenberg gave in 2002, a speech you’ve been referencing for almost 20 years. This speech talks about a “writer who is not afraid to access the deepest places in himself and is not afraid to share what he comes up with.” Can you share more about how you access the deepest places within yourself when you write?
Jennie: That speech is so powerful because Rittenberg talks about stinginess and generosity, and I find that these ideas underlie all good writing. Writing is about generosity of spirit. If you aren’t going to be generous—with what you believe, with what you see, with what you have to give—you might as well do something else.
So, for me and this book, for example, I am writing with a kind of “know it all” tone of voice. I did that on purpose. I wanted it to be short, sharp, to the point, without a lot of options for the reader to consider or a lot of text for them to slog through. So it’s “Do this, don’t do that.” This is me accessing the deepest places in myself because I am a book coach whose clients have had a great deal of success. I teach book coaching. I had to step into my own power as someone who KNOWS this material inside out (see what I did there?), and lives it, and is in a place where I am willing to share it in this “I believe this is the right way to write a novel” way.
That required a leap of faith. Stingy would have been my writing the book in a “Here is something I think might kind of sort of help” way. Generous was my going all in.
It all has to do with the writer’s intention, with their mindset. Which is, again, why I start the Blueprint with why. Why are you writing this book? You have to know your goals and motivations. Otherwise, you risk being stingy and ineffectual.
Refining the Point of the Novel
Lisa: You ask your readers/authors to clarify for themselves, “What is the point?” Is it crucial to know this, or can the point sometimes evolve from exploring the characters and story, listening and exploring as you write? What’s the danger of not knowing the point at the beginning? Does the point ever evolve or change as you write?
Jennie: You always have to know your point. You just do. Not knowing it is the cause of so much trouble at so many points of the process—and can lead to a lot of wasted time and pages. But that being said, your point can absolutely evolve. Think of it like a target, with concentric circles. The point you define at the start may be on the target, but at the outer edge. As you write, you refine it and get closer and closer to the bullseye.
The Importance of Thinking About the Reader
Lisa: Oooh. Yes, this is getting some wheels turning about my “some day” novel. Thank you. You also invite aspiring novelists to clarify who their reader is and answer at least six questions about their readers in order to successfully write a novel. Why is this so important for fiction? And of all six questions, which is your favorite?
Jennie: Too many novelists don’t think about the reader. They think about the story they want to write, the character, the plot, the feeling, the ending, but not the reader. It’s quite similar to not knowing your point. You can DO it—but it will probably take you longer and be a longer and more winding road to get there.
My favorite question is – well, I have to go with two of them: “What does she want more than anything in the world when she reads a book?” And “What can your book do to help her get it?” Together, these two questions help the writer know what the reader is seeking in a novel – entertainment? Education? Escape? – and they help the writer consider how their book will give it to them. Thinking about the reader in this way should be exciting (you are, after all, envisioning your novel out in the world) as well as empowering, because you are going to be moving people. That’s what writers do!
Envisioning the Finished Product
Lisa: That makes so much sense. You have readers work on jacket copy before they write the book, that is, writing what will go on the book jacket—the back of a soft-cover book, as well as the inner jacket of a hardcover book. Why is that helpful?
Jennie: This is one of my favorite steps in the Blueprint. It proves to YOU, the writer, that this will be a book that is bought and sold. It helps you envision it on the shelf. It helps make it real. Plus, if you can’t write about your story in 250 words, you will not be able to do it in 250 pages.
Defining the Passage of Time
Lisa: I really liked the question, “Where does your narrator stand in time?” and the subsequent questions about the story timeline. Why is it so important to clarify this ahead of time, before you write a novel, and what does that provide the writer for moving forward?
Jennie: Time is another element that many novelists don’t think clearly about: how time is passing in the story, how much time is passing, and where the teller of the tale is standing in relation to that period of time. The reason I included this in the Blueprint is because I see so many mistakes happening around the passage of time.
Some of the best books do really interesting things with time—and that is not an accident. The authors know what they are doing. I am just now reading Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Malibu Rising and it has this really unusual structure where elapsed time is one day in the life of a family and the POV switches among four siblings, but those chapters are interspersed with their parents’ history. It sounds complicated but the reader experience is smooth. Jenkins Reid had to have been intentional in order to get that smooth result. It’s a great story—I’m on the edge of my seat!
Writing Fiction Vs. Nonfiction
Lisa: In what ways is your process for writing narrative nonfiction similar to a novel and in what ways different? How about prescriptive nonfiction?
Jennie: To me, it’s all the same. I coach every genre in the exact same way. There are fundamental things the writer needs to define and fundamental things the writer needs to do no matter what they are writing. That is really the big revelation of my whole career: that the creative process of writing a book is not unique to every writer. There are common patterns. Each writer may approach the work in their own way, but they move through the same common patterns.
Learning from Other Authors
Lisa: Who are one or two of your favorite authors and what did you learn from reading their books?
Jennie: As a book coach, I point to The Art of Editing and The Situation and the Story because they taught me the concepts of macro and micro story levels that inform so much of my thinking. Also, The Creative Habit, which proved to me that creativity is a process that can be taught and optimized. I wouldn’t have a book-coaching business without that.
As a reader of fiction, I’m obsessed with Maggie O’Farrell right now. Her novel Hamnet blew my mind—I couldn’t put it down. Her memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am, is one of my all-time favorites. As I mentioned, I am also loving Taylor Jenkins Reid. Daisy Jones and the Six was probably my most-recommended novel of the last few years—there is so much to enjoy in it and so much to learn from it about time and tension and POV and the importance of making a point in a novel.
Lisa: Okay, I’ll be adding to the pile next to my bed! Who’s a favorite editor or mentor whom you worked with early in your career, and please share one or two lessons you learned from them.
Jennie: Betsy Carter, who was the editor in chief of New York Woman magazine, where I was an editorial assistant in my mid-twenties. She had so much authority over her empire—such vision for it—and so much compassion in how she ran it. I learned how to lead by watching her lead, and I learned how to see in story: how to recognize a story, and frame it, and produce it in a deadline. I recently reconnected with her online and it was so great to be able to thank her for all that training and all that wisdom.
Timeline for Writing a First Draft
Lisa: Oh, that is beautiful! In your experience, what does it take time-wise to write a solid first draft of a novel?
Jennie: If you have done the Blueprint, and you can devote some time to writing (a little every day, or longer chunks of time every few days), it can take as little as four to six months. For many people with a day job and kids and pets and parents to take care of, probably more like nine months to a year. But you can see why you don’t want to write for a year in the wrong direction! You want to get the fundamentals right first!
If anyone wants to learn about how to write faster, I recommend Rachel Aaron’s 2,000 to 10,000. It’s a fabulous book.
Working With a Book Coach
Lisa: Anything else you’d like to share with our readers, particularly if they feel nervous about the process of writing a novel?
Jennie: Ha—well, I would say that you should consider working with a book coach. If you only have a small budget to spend on your writing, spend it at the start. You will gain confidence and clarity, and that can make all the difference. At Author Accelerator, we have a free matching service. It’s powered by people, not algorithms. You tell us about your project and we match you with a certified coach who we think would be great for you. There is no obligation to work with that coach—you can connect with them and see if it’s a good fit.
And then I would remind them to tap into their why—their motivation. That’s the first question of the Blueprint and it’s one you want to return to again and again. If you know why you care about your story—which is different from why you care about being a writer or achieving success—you will connect to the power source that transcends nerves or doubt.
I often suggest that writers imagine their book finished and out in the world. Imagine you are doing a reading or an event. What are you talking about? What is the conversation? Why has anyone come to hear you? Imagining that is a great way to get to your why.
More About Jennie
Jennie Nash is the founder and CEO of Author Accelerator, a company on a mission to raise the bar on book coaching. Author Accelerator has trained more than 75 book coaches in both fiction and nonfiction through their Book Coach Certification program. Jennie’s own book-coaching clients have landed top New York agents and six-figure book deals with Big 5 houses such as Penguin, Scribner, Simon & Schuster, and Hachette. Jennie is the author of 10 books in 3 genres. If you want to learn more about book coach certification, visit her at jennienash.com and authoraccelerator.com.
Blueprint for a Book may be pre-ordered HERE to be shipped when the paperback comes out on Sept. 1, 2021. Jennie will also be doing a special day of working sessions around the Blueprint method, designed for anyone interested in becoming a book coach. You can sign up for those sessions HERE.
Thanks for the wonderful interview!
This is a great article! I firmly believe in preparation vs winging it with writing, and the methods suggested here are ones I’ve used with my own book coach. I’ve already pre-ordered this book so I can have one central location with all of this helpful instruction!
Awesome, Pat. Thanks for sharing and good luck with your novel!
Almost done Lisa!
This summer I have been working my way through Jennie’s online Author Accelerator Course for Fiction. Even after seven years of book coaching and editing, I am learning many new valuable writing lessons from Jennie’s course, lessons which I am then excited to teach to my clients. Thank you, Jennie, for creating such a helpful program, packed with such great advice. And thank you, Lisa, for posting your interview with her and letting others know about Jennie’s excellent methods for writing fabulous books. I preordered Jennie’s Blueprint for a Book and look forward to reading it and learning even more.
It’s my pleasure, Lynne. I can only imagine what an astute editor and excellent coach like you will be like when you’ve completed Jennie’s course! On fire!