Do you write non-fiction but secretly want to write a novel?
Are you confused about the process? Do you think you’re not creative enough, or worry that you don’t have enough ideas?
Are you afraid that writing a novel might be a waste of time with no return on investment or practical use in your business?
In this webinar replay, I take you through:
- How to use your strengths as a non-fiction writer through organization and structure, research, work ethic and a focus on self-development to help you write your novel
- Specific ways to get your first draft done
- Tackling the fear of failure
- How to find ideas and fill the creative well
- How to learn the extra skills you need and why the writing craft is like an iceberg
- The business of fiction and why it’s not a waste of time, plus tips on how to make money with fiction
You can watch the video below, or here on YouTube:
If you’d like to take it further, check out my How to Write a Novel course:
Transcription of webinar replay
Joanna: Hello, everyone. I’m really excited about this evening.
This is a topic that’s very dear to my heart, and actually, one I haven’t been able to talk about until probably the last six months because some of the stuff is quite personal. So, I’m really excited to share it with you today.
Just in case you haven’t been to my site and, of course, I wouldn’t have expected you to, I just want to make it clear that I write fiction and nonfiction. And I make my living from my writing and my websites.
I left my day job as an IT consultant in September 2011. So, I’ve been doing this full time for a while. But as you’ll see, I did quite a lot of this while I still had a day job. I just wanted to make it clear that I do both fiction and nonfiction. And I’m an indie author, entirely an indie author. I self-publish professionally. And as you can see, I’ve made various bestseller lists. So, you can definitely do this with both sides.
I want to take you back to that picture from 2008. That is me with my first nonfiction book. It was called, “How to Enjoy Your Job or Find a New One,” which is a terrible book title! I rewrote it and re-branded as Career Change later on, but I wanted to show you that because I spent so many years, probably since I was a child wanting to write stories, wanting to write fiction.
I hero-worshipped fiction authors. My mum taught English literature so she was very literary-focused. I went to Oxford University so it was all very English literature. I had this myth of what you should write as a fiction writer.
And the only way I seem to be able to get around that with my own writing was to write nonfiction. And, of course, I love writing nonfiction, and I still do it because it helps a lot of people and it scratches a certain itch.
But I was desperate to write a novel.
So in 2011, I actually put out my first novel. And that’s the cover designed by Joel Friedlander, which is awesome because we met back in the early days of blogging, 2008.
I started writing that in Nanowrimo and put that out in 2011. And now, I’ve got 13 novels. And things are quite different. So, yeah, you can do these things part-time.
As we go through today, I want you to remember that this is a journey. And as I explain things, you’ll realize that a lot of this is mindset shift as well. I’m really looking forward to helping those of you who do business writing, technical writing.
I used to work writing technical specs and that sorts of writing. So, it was a massive shift for me to become a creative writer. So, when I was thinking about doing this presentation and I put it out on Twitter. I asked nonfiction writers why they weren’t actually writing fiction and these were the most common things. And they were true for me as much as anyone.
“I’m not creative enough to write fiction” or “I didn’t have any story ideas”.
And also, “I always wanted to write fiction but it’s not practical. It won’t pay the bills”. And nonfiction often integrates to a wider business and many nonfiction writers assume that it’s the only way to make money as a writer. So, we’ll be covering that this evening.
I’m going to go through a number of different things.
Use your strengths as a nonfiction writer
Now, some of you may have read Tim Ferriss’s new book, Tools of Titans. Great book and he has a great podcast. One of the things I really learned from Tim this year was,
“Don’t pay so much attention to your weaknesses but double down on your strengths.”
“You can become a very good something but you can’t become a very good everything.”
This is something I’ve really been trying to lean into. And this is what I think is really important for you guys as nonfiction writers.
These are some of the superpowers that I think a nonfiction writer has which will help you write fiction. And we’ll go through each in turn.
- Organization and structure because to write a nonfiction book, that’s really important.
- Research. Understanding search terms and the language of the reader.
- A work ethic.
- Belief in self-development.
There’s this myth in writing fiction that you have to wait for the muse or that some god-like power will come upon you and you will stream perfect sentences onto the page, which is not true.
And you guys know that because I don’t think that myth exists in nonfiction.
With nonfiction, it’s “Okay, I want to write a book on this. I’ll sit down and structure and then I’ll write it.” So, that work ethic will serve you very well.
And then finally the belief in self-development because you can learn and you can change. And many of you will write this type of self-development book, self-help, and if you write it for other people, then you have to believe it for yourself. So, that will be my challenge to you guys. Let’s get into this in more detail.
Use that organizational strength to think about story structure
Now, of course, we’re only doing a short webinar today and I can’t go into all the details of the story structure. But this is the archetype of story. And this will work with your life. It will work with pretty much any best-selling novel. It will work with most best-selling films e.g. the Star Wars franchise.
This is the classic, hero’s journey type of approach. And when you actually think about it this way, it means you can deconstruct what a novel is. So again, to write a novel, you don’t just go “Oh, I’m going to write a novel,” sit down, start writing and see what comes out. That will not make a great novel.
What you need to do is think about story rather than writing.
And this is a massive mindset shift and some of these things might go over your head right now but I hope I can just give you some things to think about in the future.
When you start to think about the structure of story, you’ll realize that this is also the kind of thing that you’ll do in a nonfiction book. You take the reader on a journey and you lead them from one point of view to another point of view by the end of the book.
So, we can’t go into all these in details, but I wanted to show you the story structure that all novelists use, whether or not they do it consciously or not. But if you do it consciously, you can use it to actually structure your book.
Use an organizational tool like Scrivener
Scrivener absolutely changed my life. I wrote my first novel on Word and then I moved to Scrivener later on and it’s just amazing. If you organize your writing with Scrivener and your research and everything, if you don’t know, it’s basically software. As you can see here, you create in little blocks and then you can drag and drop things into different orders.
It’s very unlikely that you write nonfiction in order. I don’t write my fiction in order either. Scrivener really helps me as an organized nonfiction author to put stuff down, plan stuff.
These are some of the plans for End of Days, my next thriller novel. I just wanted to show you the early stages when I’m just kind of throwing down ideas and research.
Organizational tools like Scrivener and Evernote and other things that you might use for nonfiction are also superpowers with fiction.
This is something nonfiction authors are great at because often it will be, “Okay, I’m going to write a book on the successful author mindset. And to write that book, I will now go and read a ton of books on these other topics.”
And then researching your readers is super important. Understanding where your book is going to be in the ecosystem. I think, again, a lot of novelists are very overly romantic about their book ending up just being discovered somehow.
Whereas, nonfiction authors are often a lot smarter about researching readers and writing a book more specifically for that niche. So, you can see that Nicholas Sparks’ book See Me is a romance book. Clearly, George R. R. Martin’s has a sword. Clearly, it’s fantasy or historical. Stephen King, The Shining, The Goldfinch, literary fiction, Pulitzer prize on the front. So, you can write what you love, but you also have to write something that will find an audience. And I think nonfiction authors understand that pretty well.
I love this quote because it’s from Stephen King. He is, of course, one of the best-loved fiction authors in the world.
You might say, “Well, Stephen King is the most talented writer around,” but he says, “What separates a talented individual from a successful one is a lot of hard work.”
I think nonfiction writers are very good at hard work. And we often do a lot of it. If you have that work ethic that will really help.
In terms of a practical way of applying that work ethic, there are specific ways to get that first draft done.
So, this is basically how I get a novel written and it’s pretty similar to how you would write a nonfiction book except that you have to take the breaks off. And I think that’s what many nonfiction authors struggle with because if you write say, like a book on the successful author mindset. I can say, “Okay. Well, this is what I think about that topic.”
And that’s often how you will start a nonfiction book. It’s, “What do I think about this topic?” Or, “If I research it, what does this other person think about this topic?”
Whereas with a novel, you are coming up with stuff from your head in a sentence about a character in a place and all these different things. But the principle of getting the words down is exactly the same.
Schedule your writing time.
At the moment, I’m running a business, The Creative Penn, which actually takes a lot of time.
For me to write my novels, I’m having to find that extra time, because I have to get to a different mindset for the novel stuff. I’m getting off at 6:00 which is earlier for me. I’m not going to my email until around 10:00 and spending that time immersing myself into the fiction side of things. I’m scheduling that time. Now, whatever that time for you, it doesn’t matter. You just have to be at some point.
When I was working my day job, I would get up at around 5 a.m. But that was easier in Brisbane, in Australia because it was sunny. I would do my writing before work, because when I got home from work, I was just completely exhausted. So, using those timed writing periods, and just say to yourself, “This is my novel writing time.” And in that time, obviously, you’ll be plotting and planning and thinking and doing other things than writing. But if you schedule it, you will actually get started on this project.
And then also, don’t start with chapter one because that will leave you hanging for a long, long time. It doesn’t need to be a perfect first sentence on a perfect book. And, of course, you would probably know that from nonfiction, because we always write the introductions last. Well, at least I do. We rewrite the introduction over and over again because it’s the most difficult thing. So, yeah, don’t start with chapter one.
And the other thing is sitting with those feelings of discomfort and feeling like, “I don’t have anything to write.” Well, just start typing anyway.
“Jenny walked into the room,” is a good example. Who is Jenny? What does she look like? Why did she walk into the room? What does the room look like? What happens next? It’s basically asking yourself questions. But just start writing and something will come.
Psychology and self-development. The belief that you are able to change
And this is a quote from a writer who was taking my “Write a Novel” class, which we’ll talk about later. I was asking, “How do you feel, and why are you not writing?” And she said,
“The five minutes before I start writing, I feel like I’m about to jump out of an airplane at 10,000 feet.”
I really like that idea because that fear of jumping out of the aeroplane is a fear of failure. It’s equivalent to a fear of dying. A bit like public speaking, I guess in a way. It’s something that will not kill us.
Writing a novel, or failing to write a novel, or succeeding in writing a novel, or writing a chapter is not going to kill you, but it feels like that.
So, I want to acknowledge the fear of writing and it’s something I still feel.
I’m planning this next series around maps and cartography and I’m really scared. I’m like, “This is a huge topic.” I’m at that point of wrangling it, but I know this is also the point of exhilaration. That jumping out the aeroplane which I’ve done for real is also exhilarating, and something that you don’t regret.
Sometimes these risks we take are really important. You guys know that as nonfiction writers. And I also like this quote from Austin Kleon:
That means a lot to me because it was my fifth novel, Desecration, before I really lost my self-censorship. I haven’t lost it entirely, but I stopped being afraid of what people thought of me.
I will always be sensitive about what people think of me and my fiction because you’re basically reading my mind when you read my stories. But, I’m figuring out who I am through writing my books.
Nonfiction writers often think that they need to be the expert in something before they start, but this reminds us that you can get started without knowing everything, and you can figure it out as you go and learn so much.
One of the blocks is “I’m not creative enough. I don’t have any story ideas.” It’s one of those things. It’s like a muscle.
I walked 100 kilometers last year in one weekend and I didn’t think I could do that until I started walking a little bit, walking half an hour a day and then an hour a day and then longer and longer and longer until I could do it. It’s the same with ideas.
It’s the same with ideas.
Now, the big lesson I’ve had with this, first of all, let’s use Pinterest. Pinterest is amazing. That was a quite technical tip but on Pinterest I have all my boards for each book. And you can see here are some of the pictures that went into End of Days which is my most recent novel.
The important thing is to follow and trust your curiosity.
I don’t know what it is about technical writing in particular, but nonfiction in a more general sense, where you always lose touch with what you are really interested in that is outside the sphere of your job or your main hobby I guess. But for me, it was really discovering, “Oh my goodness, this catches my eye.”
If you pick up a magazine in a shop, or you pick up a book or you see a picture on Pinterest, consider why it’s so great. I’m drawn to temples and archaeology. I like reading Dan Brown, religion, Death Culture and I like quite dark stuff. I’m drawn to these types of dramatic images. I like storms! There are storms in most of my books.
That first book, “Pentecost” which is now “Stone of Fire” has a massive storm in the Arizona desert. So, storms appear in most of my books.
When you trust what you’re interested in, what you’re curious about, that will lead you into ideas.
That’s the temple of Hatshepsut there which you can see in the top right, an Egyptian temple with a storm over it. That picture there is actually a scene in the book, in “End of Days” which is a storm coming over the top of the temple of Hatshepsut, and my people are in there.
The question is in my mind, “What if there were people inside the temple? And what if these are the people who are coming to kill them? What will happen then?”
You might be a song person or whatever. Film. Start tuning in to what catches your eye, what you notice and what fascinates you. Other people will like that stuff, too. That’s what’s so interesting, but what you have to do is start tuning in to your curiosity. And once you tune in, you will be able to find ideas.
And the other thing is that fiction is mostly based on nonfiction research.
That’s me in the London library. And on my desk right now, in front of me, if you could see here, I have 12 different hardback books on maps. So, these maps and cartography series I’m thinking of.
Every morning, at the moment, I’m just reading map books and writing notes, and writing ideas waiting for an idea to emerge from this kind of massive reading.
Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin is based on the War of the Roses. A lot of fantasies are based on history and you can get ideas from anywhere. And of course, “Great artists steal.” This is one of the good quotes by Picasso and a number of other people have said it.
But taking ideas from lots of places and turning them into something new along the lines of that archetype of story is basically how you come up with a novel.
The important thing is also to write down the sparks that appear.
So, when you get an idea, or find a quote, or a note, or a thought, or you visit a place or you take a picture, note it down.
I have a lot of journals. I write my notes at the moment in a Moleskine journal. I’ve just started using Evernote which is amazing. I’ve been using Things app on my phone. I take pictures. I use Pinterest and then I use Scrivener. I use a number of different things and then I kind of pull it all together.
However you do it, the most important thing is anything that pops into heads, write it down. So, looking again at the pictures from Pinterest about End of Days. This one with the pictures of Egypt there, what stands out to you on that page? Is there anything interesting? What stands out? If you do this with other things, other books, other images, you will find ideas. But then, write them down.
I’ve got this written on my wall and it’s one of my mantras. I can’t remember where I heard it actually. I think it was Brene Brown on Jonathan Fields’ Good Life Project Podcast.
But basically, if you put all this stuff into your heads, then it will come out again in some form. I absolutely trust that. And when you go to the blank page, once you have filled your head up with information and ideas, it will come out.
It won’t come out according to that structure, but you can structure it as you go. But essentially, trusting emergence, something is within you that has urged you to even come on this webinar. You want to write a story, so trust something will come out.
Learn the extra skills you need over and above your nonfiction skills
There’s this myth that you’re born a fiction writer, which I just don’t think is true at all. Who is born knowing anything? We all have this innate ability to learn, and then you learn and you practice, and that’s exactly the same with any form of writing.
I’m pretty sure that the first nonfiction book you wrote was not as good as the second or the third or the fourth. And I’m pretty sure that End of Days, my latest novel is better than the version of “Pentecost” that Joel helped me publish back in 2011. In fact, I did actually rewrite that in around 2014.
We learn by writing.
We learn character, dialogue, plot, setting, pacing, all these things. And practice. Take classes, learn things, and then practice. That’s the same as anything else.
This iceberg image is a metaphor that I was thinking about when I was creating my course about how to write a novel. Because when I thought, “Oh my goodness, there is so much I want to tell people. There’s loads, I’ve just been learning so much for years.”
But the point is, too much knowledge will stop you because you’re paralyzed with knowing too much or researching too much.
Maybe many of you have hundreds of books on writing on your shelf or on your Kindle. I know I do. I mean, I still buy them all. But, if you try to read them all and put them into action, you would struggle.
There comes a point when that analysis paralysis has to stop. And you have to put this into practice.
Now, you can write a novel with the little bit of information that you have above the surface of the water in this metaphor. And of course, there’s always more to learn which is why I think writing fiction is so exciting because you can just keep on learning new things about
You can write a novel with the little bit of information that you have above the surface of the water in this metaphor.
And of course, there’s always more to learn which is why I think writing fiction is so exciting because you can just keep on learning new things about story for the rest of your life. But you can definitely write that novel with the specific knowledge about the things you do need. Like we said, character, setting, dialogue, that sort of thing, plot. So, take heart. You can write with that top bit of the iceberg.
What do you like to read?
And then I want you to think about this when you’re considering a book: What are the books you love as a reader and what do you love about them? How did the books begin and end? What is it about the character or the plot or the setting? Why do you want to turn the pages? Why do you crave these books?
I used the example here of the Hunger Games. And the other thing to do is to actually copy down passages from books. I did this when I wrote my first novel. I wrote down the first line and the last line of every chapter in James Rollins’ Map of Bones. I think it was because I wanted to understand how to write a thriller. And I analyzed it and tried to work out why I loved it so much.
Just think about the books you love and what attracts you to them.
The Hunger Games is a perfect example of that story. An arc that we looked at earlier and it’s the struggle of one main protagonist, one main character which is really useful. I do urge you to write about one main character in your first attempt because it is much easier.
Write a character that people want to spend time with
Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games is interesting. I mean, she’s not a perfect character. She’s quite unlikeable in many ways. She’s standoffish and she can be pretty hardcore, and she kills people, but we want to spend time with her.
Game of Thrones is not something that you want to start trying to write because it has so many primary characters, it becomes very hard to manage.
Go easy on yourself. Use that one main character, then think what do they want? What does your character want?
With Katniss, the story starts when her sister who is picked for the reaping and Katniss wants to stop her sister getting killed in the Hunger Games so she volunteers. And then what does she want? She wants to survive the Hunger Games. Who or what stops them getting what they want? The other people, the bad guys, some of her friends trying to stop her in many ways. Her own character tries to stop her.
Then how did they overcome the obstacles?
Of course, she has to get through these various battles; internal and external. And how they change is the result of the journey. She becomes a kind of figurehead for the resistance.
Now, I’m a thriller writer, so I’ve chosen a thriller example, but whatever genre you’re interested in, and genre is a difficult word but just think category on Amazon. That’s how you can think of genre these days. Go to the books you love the most and find those core aspects of the story.
Character and plot are the two main things
For me, it’s often topic or place. For my maps and cartography, I walk past a map shop every day in Bath and I started thinking, “What if I inherited a map shop? What are all those maps about anyway?” And then I started thinking about stuff around maps. I started with a topic.
Stone of Fire was also a plot idea. For my London Psychic series, I had the idea about a psychic who could read objects and worked in the British museum. He was finding out the past of these objects.
Consider what your character wants and why when you’re thinking about your story, what is stopping them? Who is stopping them?
How do they overcome things and how do they change? These are the prime questions and if you can answer those in just a couple of sentences, just brainstorming, that will give you a really good outline for your book. It really is as simple as starting that way and then doing the timed writing.
As I say, it’s simple but it’s not easy.
Is fiction impractical?
Let’s move into the final reason why many non-fiction writers don’t write fiction. It doesn’t fit into a business model, it’s impractical, you can’t make any money.
I’m sure many of you have heard some of the Kindle millionaire stories. Now, obviously, most of those are the high end of the normal curve so are very rare.
But, there is a business model for fiction that I am following and that you might be interested in too. But, I’ve said here, do it for love as in do it to change your life. Do it for the creativity in your soul. Or understand the business model and do it with more intention.
Or understand the business model and do it with more intention.
I started by doing it for love and basically doing it because I wanted to see what it felt like to write fiction and I’ve ended up making it a core part of my business. So, we all start somewhere. Now, this is the reason I love fiction so much. And I’m sure many of you will get this.
The problem with nonfiction books and products is the constant updates. You’re like this hamster on a wheel, especially if you write technical books. Facebook changes their interface every five minutes!
The moment you’ve written a book on Facebook marketing and published it, it’s out of date. So, this is the same with anything that’s written about the technical arena and a lot of nonfiction books might come into that category.
My own book, How to Market a Book is on its second version. I need to put out a third version because things change.
Fiction is amazing. It is truly scalable because you never have to update it.
Now, of course, I did update Stone of Fire because I’ve become a better writer, but generally, you should be always moving forwards and not editing your old works.
A story is new to the reader who has just discovered it.
Last year I went through a phase with James Herbert, an English horror writer and dead now, but I discovered him, and he wrote in the ’70s and ’80s. I was like seven years old so I didn’t read it then, but I discovered them last year. I’ve read about 10 of his books now. It was awesome because the stories were new to me.
With nonfiction, people are often looking for the newest thing. But with fiction, the backlist is so valuable.
And when I understood this, when the penny dropped, I knew that fiction could be a viable future for me. Like, it actually IS the retirement. Although, I’ll probably still be writing books until I die!
This is a model where you don’t have to update the older books. They will just keep making money all the time. So, you can see here, this is how I followed my own model. But this is the very first thing. If you want to incorporate fiction into your business, you have to write more books.
You have to write more books because one book will not make you a massive income.
Now, again, there’s a myth in the fiction world that your debut novel will come out, will make you a million dollars and you can retire.
This is just not true.
Even The Girl on the Train over the last couple of years has been massive, and it was billed as a debut. But actually the author had written books before under another name, Amy Silver. So, it was a ‘debut’ with a new name.
She ‘failed’ under another name and so they tried again. But for indie authors, particularly writing more books and having a backlist is so valuable.
If you have these multiple streams of income, that will make you more money over time.
Also, if people find one of your books, they’re more likely to buy all the others which is good. Writing a branded series in an era of binge reading and immersing ourselves into stories is important for fiction and nonfiction. So this tech will help you for both.
If you have a long running series and examples there are Janet Evanovich, with “Tricky Twenty-Two”. James Patterson writes lots of series, Chicken Soup for the Soul. Once you have a series, people are like, “Oh, I want to know what’s happening to that character”, so they will get into that series and will buy more. And that happens far more with fiction than nonfiction.
Many of my ARKANE readers, for example, have read all eight books and have pre-ordered book nine, which doesn’t often happen with nonfiction because people buy each book because they’re interested in that particular topic.
Stone of Fire is permanently free on all e-book stores so people can download that and that’s the first book in the series.
I know that a lot of nonfiction authors write short books and this is one of the stand-out indie authors as Steve Scott or SJ Scott. He writes habit books and makes a massive amount of money from writing a ton of small books on habits.
You can also do this for fiction.
Check out the novellas by H. M. Ward, one of the best-selling erotic romance authors. These are less than 40,000 words often only 25 to 30,000 words. I’ve got three novellas or four novellas, something like that. And they were shorter. They sell for $2.99. You still make $2.00 per copy and you can write them a lot quicker.
So, if you’re worried about writing 110,000 word epic, then why not just try writing a 30,000-word novella?
I actually find novellas easier than short stories. It’s not really the length. Short stories are really hard. Novellas are easier. Novels are really hard, so there you go. It’s about how much you can keep in your brain basically.
This again is a tip for fiction or nonfiction. 50% of my income at iBooks and Kobo is from box sets. Now, if you’re not doing box sets and if you’ve got more than three books on a particular topic, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, then you should be doing a box set because it’s just amazing.
They seem to have their own ecosystem. And they’re just really easy to make. You just get a cover, I use Vellum or you can use other formatting software. Just make a new cover, upload it and you have a box set.
In 2016, I hit the USA Today list with the ARKANE box set which includes the first three books in the series, written 2011 – 2013. So you can revitalize older books this way.
I’ve even got an eight-book series on iBooks and Kobo at $16.99. There is no cap on royalties at iBooks or Kobo. So, that’s really awesome. So, you can go short, you can go long and you can start these various models based on fiction, but you have to have more books.
I wanted to show you this because going wide, I think, and again, this is a personal decision but going wide to me is very important because Apple and Kobo, I can sell higher priced box sets and get the full royalty.
And they have great promo opportunities for box sets whereas Amazon has trained readers for cheaper prices. So, it’s all very different that you can do.
This has been a whistle stop tour and for every single one of these topics, there’s a lot more you could get into.
I want you to come back to that original picture of me. Remember me holding that nonfiction book. And then me on the lawn holding the first version of Pentecost that Joel designed for me back in Australia in 2011.
I still remember how hard it is to write that first novel, but I can tell you that it changed my life.
I didn’t think I could be that person and yet I have become that person.
I had always wanted to write fiction and once I had done it once, I realized I just didn’t want to stop. And I absolutely love it.
Now, I’m a non-fiction writer because I love helping people, I love making a difference in people’s lives.
But I’m a fiction writer because I am obsessed with these stories and I’m fascinated by the world and I want to write more. My fiction touches people in a different way.
So, I want to challenge you. How much do you want this? Isn’t it time that you gave yourself some space for that creative impulse?
If all you do out of this webinar is schedule an hour to go to a cafe with a notebook and write down ideas, then awesome! I would love for you to do that.
If you’d like to take it further, check out my How to Write a Novel course: