What gives a book its bones, and soul? Jennie Nash, Author Accelerator, and a special offer

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Yesterday I introduced my friend Jennie Nash. It was the first post in a three-post series that spotlights Jennie's Author Accelerator, a singular program that helps steer authors toward their own finished books. Today, we're continuing that series with Jennie's reflections on process, structure, tone and voice. What gives a book lift, shape, foundation? What makes a story soar? Who is that soul with the voice in the cathedral, finally ready to sing?

As you read, please remember Jennie's offer—a discount to try out Author Accelerator for a month. The normal price is $199/month, which gives writers four deadlines against which they turn in ten pages for review. Jennie is offering a discounted price of $150 for the first months. Authors can write to Jade@Authoraccelerator.com and ask for the Beth Kephart special offer. That will be good through November 15, 2015.

Author Accelerator encourages authors to think before they write—to map out their desires as writers, articulate their hopes for their projects, ponder requirements like structure and tone. You’ve published eight books yourself. When did you begin to recognize, in your own work, the power of the authorial pause?

There has been a certain frantic-ness in my own work for a long time. I was one of those people who wanted to be published before I was 25, because I was restless for success. Each time I wrote another book I would think, “THIS is going to be my big breakthrough book!” I would set arbitrary and very ambitious deadlines for myself – like, “I have to finish this draft in three months.” That can sometimes be good for staying motivated, but if you never let the work breathe, or let yourself breathe, it’s hard to find your voice.  All that pushing and striving didn’t help me to become a better writer, in the end, or to find any wider success. In fact, it was one of the things that led me to my biggest publishing failure – my last novel, which did not sell. I was so frantic to get the book done and out there and sold, and my desperation was my undoing.

When I began coaching other writers, I often saw that same frantic energy, and I began to believe that it was the thing that was harming them the most. Rushing to begin, rushing to finish, rushing to publish – these were the biggest problems I was seeing.

I began to build into my coaching process systems for helping writers to slow down and to THINK. I came to believe that taking the time to be intentional was the most critical step for any writer in any project. 

It doesn’t mean you have to necessarily add time to the creative process; stopping to think actually saves time, in the end. I recently had a client complete a rough draft of a book in about six months of very intense work, but she was very intentional, and she followed the strategic process, and it worked out very well in the end. So pausing to be intentional doesn’t have to mean your process is slow.

We all think we know what some words mean. But maybe we don’t. How do you define structure? 

Oh my goodness, this is such a hard question, because structure is such a complex thing! While we might start out by saying structure is the shape of the work – how it unfolds in time, what territory it covers – that is only one small part of it, the surface part of it that we can see, and perhaps graph or outline. Structure is much bigger than that.  I think of it more like a writer’s intention for their story.

I recently heard Elizabeth Gilbert talk about creativity (because of her new book, Big Magic, which is an exploration of the creative process) and she said the most extraordinary thing about the beginning of that book idea. She said it took her awhile to start work on it because she didn’t know what the book was going to be. She knew that she would write about creativity, but she didn’t know HOW she would approach the subject. She said that she asked herself,  “Does this book want to be a self help, `ten steps to creativity’ book, or `I travel around and interview creative people’ book, or a novel, or an academic neurobiology of creativity book? I had to find out what this book wanted to be.”

That is, in many ways, a perfect explanation of structure – deciding what the idea in your head is going to be, how it’s going to exist in the world, what your intention is for the work. You can see very clearly that Gilbert couldn’t start writing, and couldn’t sketch out a graph for the work or a table of contents or anything representing physical structure and shape, until she knew what the book was going to BE.

Once you make that decision, you create a kind of ecosystem for the work to grow into. It now has certain parameters and limitations. It is going to follow certain conventions – or perhaps break those conventions. That is when you can start looking at how it’s going to do its job. For memoir and non-fiction, you can begin to ask what is going to be in the book and what is going to be left out, where it’s going to start and where it's going to end. For fiction, you can begin to think about who is going to tell the story, where they’re going to stand in time and how much time is going to unfold in the course of the story.


Voice, to me, is an understanding about who your narrator is and where she stands in time and what her agenda is – her point, her purpose, the reason she is speaking to us in these pages. Voice, in other words, is not just how the narrator sounds or how she (or he!) speaks. It’s all the things the narrator believes and cares about and fears. It’s everything that makes the narrator who she (or he! or it!) is.

Every book has a narrator, which is obvious in fiction, but in memoir and non-fiction, it’s slightly less obvious. In memoir, the narrator is YOU, of course, but is it you, the twelve year old? You, the thirty year old? You, the person who has just learned the lessons the story is showing, or you the person who learned those lessons last year, or you the person who is experiencing those lessons as they unfold? You have to chose one narrative voice and stick with it.

If an author intrudes on the established voice, we can hear it. If a different “you” shows up in a memoir when you didn’t intend her to, we can sense it. These small gaps result in a breech of trust between the reader and the writer, and once you lose trust, you lose everything. That’s why establishing and maintaining a consistent voice is so key.


Tone is how the voice comes across to the reader, what the attitude or stance of the narrator is as she tells the tale or conveys the information. A book can have a desperate and angry tone, or a sad and melancholy tone, or a light and joyous tone. For the longest time, I didn’t want to read Gone Girl, even though it was all anyone could talk about, because I felt very uncomfortable with the tone of the book. It felt frightening to me, slippery, dark, not to be trusted – and I didn’t want to go to that place. I finally did read it – and of course my sense of the tone was precisely correct. That book had a very strong tone! 

Big Magic, which I just mentioned, has a very joyous, lighthearted tone. Gilbert talks about some dark things in the book, to be sure, but she does it in a way that is very safe, and ultimately uplifting. In many ways, that’s a triumph of her tone.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of our three-part discussion, when Jennie talks about character, meaning, and intent.


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