Nathan Bransford, Author


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

What is the biggest obstacle you've overcome to be a writer?


Writing can be tough. And that's even without those external obstacles that can get in the way of achieving writerly dreams.

What's the biggest obstacle you've overcome to be a writer?

Mine was failure to believe that I could actually be a creative person who could actually write a novel. I don't know what I thought a "creative person" was per se, but I did think it wasn't me. That is, until I got over that and decided instead to just go for it.

What about you?

Art: The Bullfight by Auguste-Francois Bonheur






Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Page Critique: Let actions speak for themselves


Page critique Tuesday!

If you would like to nominate your page for a future Page Critique Event, please enter it in this thread in the Forums. Also, I'm offering personal consultations and edits if you're interested in that.

First I'll present the page without comment, then I'll offer my thoughts and a redline. If you choose to offer up your own thoughts, please be exceedingly polite and remember the sandwich rule: Positive, constructive advice, positive.

Random numbers were generated, and thanks to XXX, whose page is below:
Gone, Kitty, Gone: A Brock Rockster Mystery 
Middle-grade mystery/comedy
I smashed my steel-toed loafer through the front door and tumbled in, where I landed face-first on the floor of the large, dark foyer.
“Worst! Day! Ever!” I yelled. I knew everyone in the house was sleeping, but I didn’t care. I was upset, and with good reason.
“Carver!” I picked myself off the ground. “Carver! We need to talk!”
My perfect record had been shattered. When I woke up this morning I had been Brock Rockster, The Boy Who Always Got His Man, the twelve-year-old mustache prodigy and world’s greatest private investigator to the stars. I was untouchable, unstoppable, and undefeated – but not anymore. After today’s calamity, I didn’t know what I was.
I saw a room dimly lit off to the right and stomped toward it, each step echoing through the otherwise silent house. A reading lamp glowed in the room’s far corner over the head of Carver McCarver, who sat at her desk surrounded by stacks of papers and folders.
“Hello, pard,” she said. She finished reading the sheet in front of her before looking up. “Find Mr. Janston’s statue?”
“Janston got his weird little sculpture back just fine, Carver, but it wasn’t me that found it,” I said.
I took my fedora hat off, and Carver tipped her Stetson back in response. Carver was well over ninety years old, but had the energy of someone a third her age, and the wisdom of someone who’d seen the pyramids built.
This is an extremely solid, nay, excellent, nay, nearly flawless first page. The voice is strong, there's some solid wit and humor, the concept is fun, and I enjoyed the descriptions. Very very well done and I want to read more.

I'm going to pick two nits here. The first is a very common mistake, which is over-telling emotion. After Brock stumbles in and yells, "“Worst! Day! Ever!” and notes that he doesn't care if he wakes everyone up, it's a bit redundant to then say, "I was upset, and with good reason." It's already apparent.

People often say show-don't-tell, and this is one of those classic cases. Show emotion, don't say what the emotion is. People will get it.

Secondly, people don't generally say each other's names in the middle of a sentence, and it can sometimes break up the flow to include it. I'd remove "Carver" from the second to last paragraph.

But seriously, those are two arguable small changes that are arguable. This is in very good shape. My redline:

Gone, Kitty, Gone: A Brock Rockster Mystery 
Middle-grade mystery/comedy
I smashed my steel-toed loafer through the front door and tumbled in, where I landed face-first on the floor of the large, dark foyer.
“Worst! Day! Ever!” I yelled. I knew everyone in the house was sleeping, but I didn’t care. I had a good reason to be upset.
“Carver!” I picked myself off the ground. “Carver! We need to talk!”
My perfect record had been shattered. When I woke up this morning I had been Brock Rockster, The Boy Who Always Got His Man, the twelve-year-old mustache prodigy and world’s greatest private investigator to the stars. I was untouchable, unstoppable, and undefeated – but not anymore. After today’s calamity, I didn’t know what I was.
I saw a room dimly lit off to the right and stomped toward it, each step echoing through the otherwise silent house. A reading lamp glowed in the room’s far corner over the head of Carver McCarver, who sat at her desk surrounded by stacks of papers and folders.
“Hello, pard,” she said. She finished reading the sheet in front of her before looking up. “Find Mr. Janston’s statue?”
“Janston got his weird little sculpture back just fine, Carver, but it wasn’t me that found it,” I said.
I took my fedora hat off, and Carver tipped her Stetson back in response. Carver was well over ninety years old, but had the energy of someone a third her age, and the wisdom of someone who’d seen the pyramids built.
Nice work!

Art: Sherlock Holmes by Frederic Dorr Steele






Monday, September 15, 2014

Dirty Wings by Sarah McCarry


When someone asks me what all the hullaballoo about YA is these days, I don't start by talking about Twilight or The Hunger Games, I talk about how there is Literature, with a capital L, being written for young readers, books that are both accessible and fun to read but full of meaning, beautiful prose and depth. It's an incredibly exciting time to be a reader, and I'm so jealous of all the Kids These Days.

Case in point are the books by my good friend Sarah McCarry, first her incredible debut All Our Pretty Songs, but even more especially the prequel Dirty Wings.

Dirty Wings is about the deep, intense friendship of the mothers of the main characters in All Our Pretty Songs, when they were teenagers with hopes and dreams and confusions, and it's told with such beauty and precision.

But hey, don't take my word for it, here's what Kirkus had to say (in a starred review, naturally):
The prose is exquisitely crafted, moving effortlessly from dizzying to heartbreaking. Each setting—an exhaustingly filthy punk house, the New York street where Maia’s hermitlike father suddenly comes to life, the Mexican beach town where the girls’ road trip ends—is vibrantly constructed through careful detail and spare but evocative prose.
A breathtaking companion volume, fully readable on its own and devastating in the context of its predecessor.
Looking to see what all the YA hype is about? READ THIS.






Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Guest post (and giveaway!) - How and when to revise your manuscript


Nathan here! I'm very pleased to have a guest post today by David Zeltser, whose debut novel LUG is going on sale today!

Better yet, we're giving away three signed copies of LUG! All you have to do is leave a comment asking to be entered (non-anonymously please!), and we'll choose three random winners.

Here's David's post:

At every stage of your writing life—from newbie egg, to agented caterpillar, to published butterfly—you will be asked to revise your work. In this guest post, I’d like to share a few of the edits I’ve taken, and not taken, and my golden rule for revising.

The Newbie Egg Stage

When you’re first starting out, your friends and family will dutifully read whatever your hand them. Then they’ll come back to you with stiff little smiles and say things like “it’s good,” “nice work,” and “great job!” The temptation is to believe these oh-so-sweet big fat lies.

Don’t.

In fact, at this point, your job is to try to pry the truth from their stiff little grinning lips. It may take some convincing but, ultimately, they will reveal all.

And then, when they let loose, it’s your turn to grin and bear it.

Here’s a lesson I learned the hard way. Let’s call it:

The Newbie Egg’s Golden Rule of Revising

Almost all readers’ suggestions have something of value. The key is not so much to take them verbatim as to find the underlying problems that inspired the suggestions--problems that the readers are often not even consciously aware of. If you can detect those issues, you can choose the best way to revise.

Once you’ve dived in and taken a pass at fixing the deeper problems, show a few other people your respect. Put your manuscript away for a while. Keep repeating until you’re happy and your readers are no longer just politely grinning. Then, I hope you’ll find yourself in. . .

The Agented Caterpillar Stage

If your agent is worth her salt, she too will have revisions. My agent is Catherine Drayton of InkWell Management. With her permission, I’d like to share a few key excerpts from her LUG edit letter to me:
The Environmental message
I think that the coming of the Ice Age and the parallels with our current environmental crisis are a strong selling point for this book. Lug’s talent is that he is extremely observant and the subtle way you handle this at the moment is perfect. I do however think that you could use some more funny observations from Lug and evidence his frustration that no one else around him seems to notice what is happening to the world. Kids have an uncanny way of zoning in on what’s really important and feel powerful when they can see something that adults can’t. 
Characters
I do think that the relationship between Lug and his father is important and could use development especially in the context of choosing the next big man and banishment from the tribe. I want to see more interaction between Lug and his family at the beginning of the book, especially Big Lug. If we see, clearly, what Lug has—we understand better what he is forced to leave.   
Language
In terms of the language I think that I would tone down the ‘cave man’ talk. It is always risky to use dialect as it can fall very flat and draw attention to the author. Lug is speaking in perfectly formed English so I’d consider having the others do so as well – even if it is in very clipped, short bursts. 
Once you and your agent are happy with your chrysalis...ur...manuscript, my hope is that you’ll emerge into . . .

The Published Butterfly Stage

Once you have an editor at a publishing house, you book is in the final revision phase! Although I was excited to steal almost all of my editor’s suggestions for LUG, I thought it might be useful to share a rare example when I chose not to take one. Here’s an excerpt from an email I sent to my editor on that topic:
In a few places you've asked for the removal of certain words or concepts because they seemed too sophisticated for the Stone Age. I had thought about doing this quite a bit in my first drafts of LUG, and ultimately decided against it. Basically, I concluded that I would not write this story as hard (or even soft) science fiction, but rather as satirical comic fantasy. 
She quickly took the point, helping me to fine tune the intentionally anachronistic words and concepts I used to satirize our society’s inaction on climate change. I’m grateful to all my editors/readers for their enormous help. I also want to say a big thanks to Nathan Bransford for the opportunity to guest post on a blog I’ve found very useful in my own writing life.

Watch the LUG book trailer and learn more about all the books here.






Wednesday, August 27, 2014

How do you name your characters?


This question comes from reader Puneet Agrawal, who is wondering about a seemingly simple and yet quite complicated and important question: How do you name your characters?

Where do you draw your inspiration? What's your process? Do they just come to you or do you spend time brainstorming? Do you draw upon any resources, like baby name books or census data?

I'm personally partial to naming important characters after coffee drinks. What about you?

Art: The Gardener by Paul Cezanne






Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Page Critique: The danger of starting with dialogue


If you would like to nominate your page for a future Page Critique Event, please enter it in this thread in the Forums. Also, I'm offering personal consultations and edits if you're interested in that.

First I'll present the page without comment, then I'll offer my thoughts and a redline. If you choose to offer up your own thoughts, please be exceedingly polite and remember the sandwich rule: Positive, constructive advice, positive.

Random numbers were generated, and thanks to ria, whose page is below:
“We have damned the world,” Adriel said. 
“Come again,” Zachery said. 
They stopped at the pond, where Zachery fished some crumbs from his pocket and tossed them towards the ducks. Overhead, the shops and homes of the upper city clung to the walls of Drieh’s three lofty towers. A few rays of morning sunshine dove through chinks between the buildings only to flounder in the gossamer fog among the trees. 
“I’ve felt ripples of energy,” Adriel said. “Here on Altara. And in the netherial. I picked it up a few months ago, and it gets worse every few weeks.” 
He hadn’t felt anything of the sort, and his work relied on the netherial. “And what does this have to do with us damning Altara?” 
“I traced its energy signature back as far as I could and it originates with the Calamity. Something we did back then is building up to... something.” 
He let crumbs fall from his fingers onto the water’s surface. “This makes no sense, Adriel. No one else has felt anything. What you’ve described is impossible.” 
“I only brought this up because I thought you’d care. And I thought you might have felt something in your portals.” 
Zachery looked across the pond. A portal rose between the trees at the far end of the park, two slender pillars of dark rock curving toward each other with an arch of pure magic suspended between them. Anchor and focus, two simple elements that made up one of the most complex constructs on Altara.
There is some great writing here. This: "A few rays of morning sunshine dove through chinks between the buildings only to flounder in the gossamer fog among the trees" is just an awesome and evocative sentence. And the slender pillars of dark rock are also intriguing and mysterious.

I'm afraid I'm a little less sanguine about the dialogue. Here's the challenge of beginning with two people talking to each other: the reader has zero context to understand what they're talking about. They don't know who the characters are, they don't know what world they're in, they probably don't understand the references the characters are making to each other. 

It's sort of like attending a dinner party where everyone makes veiled references so you can't understand what they're really talking about. 

It's not impossible to begin with dialogue, but even if it starts that way it's extremely important to focus on making sure the reader feels very grounded in the story.

With a little more patience and anchoring the story, the dialogue will come alive. 

Here's my redline:
“We have damned the world,” Adriel said. 
“Come again,” Zachery said. 
They Adriel and Zachary stopped at the pond, where Zachery fished some crumbs from his pocket and tossed them towards the ducks. Overhead, the shops and homes of the upper city clung to the walls of Drieh’s three lofty towers. A few rays of morning sunshine dove through chinks between the buildings only to flounder in the gossamer fog among the trees. 
“I’ve felt ripples of energy,” Adriel said. “Here on Altara. And in the netherial. I picked it up a few months ago, and it gets worse every few weeks.” 
He Zachary hadn’t felt anything of the sort, and his work relied on the netherial. [More here on what Zachary is thinking about what Adriel just said in order to help give the reader context, as well as what the netherial is.]  “And what does this have to do with us damning Altara?” “I traced its energy signature back as far as I could and it originates with the Calamity. Something we did back then is building up to... something.”  He let crumbs fall from his fingers onto the water’s surface. 
“This makes no sense, Adriel. No one else has felt anything. What you’ve described is impossible.” 
“I only brought this up because I thought you’d care. And I thought you might have felt something in your portals.” 
Zachery looked across the pond. A portal rose between the trees at the far end of the park, two slender pillars of dark rock curving toward each other with an arch of pure magic suspended between them. Anchor and focus, two simple elements that made up one of the most complex constructs on Altara.
Thanks again, ria!

Art: Reinier Vinkeles by Charles Howard Hodges






Monday, August 25, 2014

What to write about when it feels like everything has already been written


This unnerving moment happens to every writer:

You finally get the nerve to tell someone your idea for a book. You describe your idea, you brace yourself for whether they think it's good or bad, but instead they say, "Oh yeah, that sounds like [X book]."

You blink a few times as your face flushes. Someone already had the same idea??? And the book is already published??

Are you now completely, colossally screwed?

No! You're not. Deep breaths.

There are hundreds of thousands of books out there. The odds that you will come up with completely original book that does not remind anyone of another book is pretty much zero. At the end of the day, originality is somewhat overrated.

Still, it can be disheartening to feel like you're simply retracing someone else's footsteps, and it may leave you bewildered. What do you do?

Here are some scenarios and what to do about them:

When all of your ideas for novels feel like books you have already read:

Keep thinking. Keep brainstorming.

If you're not feeling impressed or excited by your own idea there's no way you're going to sustain enough momentum to write a whole novel. When the writing gets hard it's only your belief in your idea that will sustain you.

Don't settle for an idea that you feel is vaguely uninspiring. Keep pushing yourself to find something better.

When it feels like you are imitating someone else's voice:

When you are just starting out, you may annoy yourself to death because you know you sound exactly like your favorite writer or the most recent book you read. You can't stop yourself from imitating.

This is totally, perfectly okay. Just go with it. Get the words out there. Don't stop writing.

What will happen over time is that you will gradually start to find your own voice. You'll start sounding less like your favorite writer and more like you.

And when you do, you can go back and rewrite the opening part where you were imitating. It will be much easier to go back and revise the voice than it would have been if you had obsessed over your voice from the start.

When you're writing a novel and then find out someone else already had a similar idea:

This is somewhat inevitable. There are tons of books already out there, we've been telling stories for thousands of years, and there are only so many combinations of events that can be shoehorned into a story.

The important thing to focus on is what makes your story unique. You need a unique setting, unique characters, and a unique style.

If the world of your novel feels very different than the previous similar book, chances are people won't even make the connection.

When you look at your unfinished novel and think, "Why in the world is anyone going to care about this with all the other stories out there?"

Have faith!

If every writer who experienced this feeling stopped writing there wouldn't be any books out there at all.

Everyone wonders why anyone would care about their book. Everyone has moments of self-doubt and feeling of futility.

Don't give into these feelings. If you power through and finish your novel you'll be immensely glad you gave your dreams a shot.


Do you ever have these moments of doubt? How did you get through?

Art: View of the Salon Carré at the Louvre by Alexandre Brun






Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Which book do you wish were turned into a movie?


Over at io9, Esther Inglis-Arkell ranked ten classic YA books she wished were turned into movies.

I wasn't actually familiar with those, but it definitely got me thinking. Which book do you wish were turned into a movie?

This is a tricky, tricky choice for me. On the one hand, classics like The Great Gatsby and Moby-Dick are difficult to transition to the screen, which gives me pause about picking something too literary. On the other hand, who knew that The Godfather would have been so elevated in Francis Ford Coppola's hands?

It turns out that some of my initial choices are already in the works, including Child 44, which is currently in production, Spin by Robert Charles Wilson, which is rumored to be considered for a TV show, and Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem, also in development.

Thus, I would have to go with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. What about you?

(And no, you're not allowed to answer "my own!")

Art: The Photographer Sescau by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec






Monday, August 4, 2014

Bill Watterson on life and creativity


I make no secret of my incredible affection for Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson, who on the whole is a pretty reclusive author, but when he speaks he makes it count.

So two great links to share. In the first, Fast Company pulled four great principles on creativity from his interviews in the movie Stripped.

And in the second, Slate reprinted the cartoon blog Zen Pencil's cartoon rendering of part of Bill Watterson's commencement speech at Kenyon College about creating a life that's in tune with your values.

Just about everything I've learned in life seems like it came from Calvin and Hobbes, from the power of imagination to our powerlessness on some days when even lucky rocketship underpants can't help. Bill Watterson is a national treasure.






Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at fifty



Happy fiftieth birthday to Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which was originally published in 1964. To celebrate, Penguin has a new paperback edition plus a golden ticket sweepstakes.

It's hard to imagine a book that was more influential for me than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and all of Roald Dahl's books for that matter, which were so powerful with their combination of humor, heart, but with a very sinister underpinning that perfectly captures what it's like to be 10-12 years old. The world at the age is amazing and funny and wondrous, but also a little scary.

Happy birthday to one of the greatest children's books of all time. While many people's memories of the book are shaped by the equally indelible film version Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (and to a lesser extent the Johnny Depp/Tim Burton version), some of us remember that Veruca Salt wanted a squirrel and not a golden goose, Mike Teavee was overly stretched to ten feet tall, and a vermicious knid is an alien, not a dangerous creature on Loopaland.

What's your memory of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?






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