Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Why Do You Write?

It's Wednesday, which means it's time for another installment of YOU TELL ME, the part of the blog where I stop pontificating and let you pontificate like the pontiff you've always wanted to be. So speak up, you silly pontiff, you.

This week: not a multiple choice test. Put away your #2 pencils and scantron sheets, because this is an essay question.

You tell me: Why do you write? What makes you pick up the pen/typewriter/laptop/quill and parchment and put words to the page? What makes you overcome the doubters and the rejections and the heartache to wake up the next day and write some more? What compels you through the hours of toiling in obscurity and the uncertain prospects of success?

Subquestion 1a: what advice do you have for your fellow writers to keep on going?

Discuss amongst yourselves.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Fun With Widgets

Make no mistake about it: the last week of February 2007 will go down in the history books as the Week of the Dueling Widgets From Big Publishing Companies Who Are Catching On to That Whole Technology Thing*. Write it down. You heard it here first.

Hoping that their books will go viral, HarperCollins and Random House have designed widgets so you too can list your favorite books on your website. The widgets have searchable features, page scrolls and, of course, a link to buy the book. No word yet on plans to make the widgets smell like paper.

First out of the gate was HarperCollins. Over to the right in the "Fun With Widgets" toolbar is a widget for THE ALCHEMIST by Paul Coelho.

And from Random House, to the right is CONSIDER LILY by Anne Dayton and May Vanderbilt, the girls over at Good Girl Lit.

What do you think? Which publisher wins the first Battle of the Dueling Widgets From Big Publishing Companies Who Are Catching On to That Whole Technology Thing?

*I kid the Big Publishing Companies. They caught on to technology a long time ago. Why, just look at the printing press. Way ahead of its time.

Monday, February 26, 2007

What Makes Literary Fiction Literary?

Well, I would post something about the Oscars, only I'm pretty sure nothing at all happened during the seventeen hour broadcast. Was there even an Oscars? I watched every minute and I can't be sure. I know some awards were given and some bad dresses worn, but wow.

The book industry really needs an Oscars, because let's be honest, the best part of the Oscars is the horrendous fashion choices, and the publishing industry does horrendous fashion better than anyone. One spin around a publishing function and the fashion police would lock down the venue and declare martial law. Also it would be great to see Ryan Seacrest with famous writers on the red carpet saying, "We're here live on the red carpet with.... uh... a.. great writer......... Who are you again?" A good time would be had by all.

On a completely different and entirely unrelated note, one of the most common questions I hear from authors and at writing conferences is this: How can you tell the difference between commercial and literary fiction?

This very question was addressed at a panel at the San Francisco Writer's Conference, and everyone had a different answer. Some people feel that commercial fiction emphasizes plot whereas literary fiction emphasizes characters. Others feel that literary fiction emphasizes unique prose whereas commercial fiction is more straightforward. Still others stick to the "I know it when I see it" defense, and then of course there's the "literary fiction is that which does not sell" definition. Complicating any delineation are genre busters like Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard, who write genre fiction and have plot heavy books but are considered literary. What, dare I ask, are we to make of all of this?

First off, I'd like to bust one of the myths about literary fiction -- that it doesn't have a plot. Sooooooooo much literary fiction I get in the old query inbox is plotless. It's just a character musing about the vagaries and eccentricities of everyday existence. The prose is lush, the character detailed, but one problem -- absolutely nothing is happening and thus it's (forgive me) extremely boring. Good literary fiction has a plot. It starts in one place and ends in another. The characters face challenges and evolve. Even in quiet books like GILEAD (a seriously amazing book, btw), things happen. A literary novel might not end in a shootout or with the death of an albino, but there's a plot there.

Before I get to my own definition, I think I need a caveat paragraph: I love both genre novels and literary novels, so I'm not trying to express a preference here. Also there are a bazillion exceptions to every rule in literature, so of course there are going to be exceptions to my definition.

With the caveats out of the way, here's my own delineation of the difference between commercial and literary fiction. Are you ready? With all this buildup it's not going to be very exciting. So dial down your expectations. I swear, it's kind of mundane. Should I get to the point? Ok, fine, I'll get to the point. In commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface and in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface.

Here's what I mean.

Most genre fiction involves a character propelling themselves through a world. The character is an active protagonist who goes out into a world, experiences the challenges of that world, and emerges either triumphant or defeated. Think about every genre novel you've ever read: sci-fi, westerns, romances chick lit, thrillers.... They are all about a character with a certain level of mastery over the world in which they are in bumping up against the challenges of that world and trying to achieve their goal. Sure, the character might have an inner struggle and be a richly rendered character, but for the most part genre novels are about the exterior -- they are about how a character navigates a unique world.

So the plot in a genre novel usually involves things happening -- action sequences, love sequences, chases, shootouts.... The best genre novels fold these action sequences with the inner life of a character, but make no mistake: genre novels are really about how a character interacts with the outer world. The things that happen are pretty much on the surface, and thus the reader can sit back and watch and see what happens.

Now consider literary fiction. In literary fiction the plot usually happens beneath the surface, in the minds and hearts of the characters. Things may happen on the surface, but what is really important are the thoughts, desires, and motivations of the characters as well as the underlying social and cultural threads that act upon them. The plot may be buried to such a degree (like GILEAD) that if you have to describe the book in a short sentence it seems plotless -- an old man writes a letter to his young son and reflects on his life. There doesn't seem to be a plot there. But there is a plot in GILEAD. It is about how the protagonist comes to terms with his life and how he reconciles his desire to leave something behind for his son with his impending mortality. GILEAD has all the ups and downs of a genre novel, but the plot points all relate to the inner mind, and the climaxes and nadirs are almost hidden in quiet moments and small-but-powerful revelations.

Even when the prose is straightforward, literary fiction is more challenging to read than genre fiction because it requires the reader to infer a great deal of the plot rather than simply sitting back and watching the plot unfold. It requires empathy to relate to characters as humans and to deduce the hidden motivations and desires that lurk beneath their actions. The reader has to recognize the small turning points and the low points and the high points based on what they know of the character and about human nature. And there's a reason very few literary novels end with a shootout (er, except for THE HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG) -- what happens out in the world isn't as important in literary novels as what happens within the minds of the characters, and thus the climax might be something as small as a decision or a new conviction.

So there's a reason there are genre busters like Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard, as well as the hybrid genre of commercial literary fiction. These novels tend to be told with more straightforward prose and are accessible, but they have a deeper emotional complexity. They fuse the out-in-the-world plotting of genre fiction with the in-the-mind plotting of literary fiction. The novels have traditional climaxes that also resolve the inner battles of their characters.

I will devote another post sometime to my obsession with plot, but what you see here is my belief that a literary novel should be as finely plotted as a genre novel, and anyone who ignores plot does so at their extreme peril. Just because the plot in literary fiction is harder to spot doesn't mean it's not there.

What do you think? What makes a literary novel literary?

Friday, February 23, 2007

This Week in Publishing 2/23/07

This week....... in publishing.

San Francisco literary agent Nathan Bransford and a few of his friends destroyed the competition at Trivia Night at a local pub Thursday night, winning $50, which apparently is legal in California.

As promised in the previews for this week's episode of This Week in Publishing, the Great Scrotum Debate of '07, stemming from author Susan Patron's supposedly controversial use of the word scrotum in her Newbery Award winning novel THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY, has gone from a listservosphere war to a small tidbit in a Publisher's Weekly article, to this blog, to being on the front page of the New York Times, not to mention being discussed on CNN, NPR, MSNBC and, of course, The View. The New York Times article on the kerfuffle was the third most e-mailed article of the week. And, in a shocking revelation, it's not a human scrotum in question, it's a dog's scrotum. You see, I wish books like THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY were around when I was younger -- I would have known that dogs have scrotums. Publisher's Weekly gives a fun update of the hoopla here.

Well, it's all over -- a judge ruled in favor of Perseus in the PGW bankruptcy case, which means...... uh, I'm not even going to pretend I know what it means. Apparently publishers can still apply to have their contracts with PGW terminated and those who haven't signed with Perseus can go with the distributor of their choice and NBN is still offering 85 cents on the dollar. But uh, it's over, right?

On a more serious note, PGW President Rich Freese suffered a fall on Sunday, breaking some ribs and an elbow. Best wishes for a speedy recovery! More eloquent than I, PGW blog Radio Free PGW writes, "Radio Free PGW wishes him a fast, full and speedy recovery. We also hope they are giving him some really good drugs."

Christian publisher Thomas Nelson, who made waves earlier in the year by instituting a policy that all its authors must sign a pledge that they believe in the Nicene Creed, decided to forego attending the winter Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) trade show -- which is too bad, because I hear those CBA trade shows are pretty wild.

And finally, just in case you feel like you haven't accomplished enough in life and wish you had better utilized your youth, here's something to make us all feel like complete failures: 15 year old Zach Hunter had his first book published on February 8th -- it's called BE THE CHANGE, and it is about ending slavery and human trafficking around the world. Young Zach has already raised thousands of dollars for the cause and is the youth spokesperson of Walden Media's Amazing Change program. Zach has officially accomplished approximately 5,000 times more in life at 15 than I have at 26. But Zach didn't win Trivia Night last night, did he?

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Art of Reading Rejection Letters

Aside from making great wallpaper, kindling, and kitty litter, believe it or not rejection letters do serve a purpose. You can make yourself a better and more successful writer if you analyze them properly. But here's the problem with rejection letters -- it's practically impossible to make sense of a form letter that maybe includes one little teensy tiny bit of individualized advice. Plus, they can be completely contradictory -- one rejection letter could say "needs more monkeys" (mine) and the other letter could say "too many monkeys" (some lesser agent). What's a writer to do??

Here's the secret to understanding these maddening missives: rejection letters are pretty much worthless by themselves. Unless a rejection letter happens to be incredibly detailed and specific and you completely trust the person's reaction (sort of like the holy grail of rejections), you're really not going to learn too much. And you're going to learn even less if you analyze a rejection letter for hidden meaning (you're also going to rack up the psychiatry bills). One letter by itself isn't much help. BUT. When you start accumulating rejections you can start to make more sense of them by analyzing the trends.

So let's say you received twenty-five rejections from agents on the query to your new novel. If you didn't get any requests for partials at all, and you only got form letters in return (i.e. a rejection that didn't specifically mention an aspect of your work), something's wrong. It could be that your project isn't marketable, your query letter wasn't good, you queried the wrong agents... something that is preventing you from getting in the door. It doesn't necessarily mean you're a bad writer, it just means that you're in for a reevaluation of your project and your approach.

If, however, you're getting requests for partials (hooray for you!) and fulls (even better!), but you're not getting an agent to bite, it may mean that you're close but that something isn't quite right, and maybe you can make some changes that will make your project better. This is where an accumulation of a some non-form rejection letters can actually be helpful.

Spread those bad boys out on the table. Avoid the temptation to set fire to said table. And start to analyze the common threads. Don't go nuts with this, you aren't looking to crack the Da Vinci code here (holding them up to mirrors will not be helpful, trust me), just see if there are a few common things that you can pick out. Maybe a few people said that your project isn't marketable. Or maybe a few had similar problems with characters or plot lines.

Here's the next most important step: if you are hearing the same thing again and again, listen. Don't say, "Oh, well, my work is what it is, they're just STUPID." We're not stupid. Most of the time. Make that change. Try again. And keep changing until something works.

Lastly, when you receive a rejection, avoid the temptation of sending back an aggressive missive that questions an agent's intelligence/savvy/heart in order to exact one small bitter piece of revenge. This is a small industry. You may need to query me again down the line. I really don't like receiving these types of letters, and my memory is as long as the day... uh, is long.

And tomorrow... in an all new This Week in Publishing. Secrets will be revealed! "Damnit Kate run!" Lives will be changed. "Where is Meredith?" And stay tuned for a shocking escalation in The Great Scrotum Debate. Tomorrow... in This Week in Publishing.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Paper or Plastic?

Enjoy the blog except for the whole me-dispensing-advice thing? Wish I'd can it so you could talk freely to your fellow writers in the comment section? Well, you're in luck. Every Wednesday (weather permitting), I'm going to have a feature called You Tell Me, where, after I get verklempt, I'll introduce a topic for you to discuss amongst yourselves.

Today's topic: Random House is neither random nor a house. Discuss. (just kidding)

Actually, today's topic involves technology.

For many years now the publishing industry has been waiting for the e-book format to take off, believing that technological innovations in other entertainment venues would make that whole paper thing obsolete. So far it hasn't -- e-books still represent a tiny fraction of overall book sales, and the vast majority of book sales are still of the ink and paper variety.

But things are changing. Slowly. The audiobook market, for instance, has seen significant growth in downloadable audio. And this past fall Sony rolled out its Sony Reader, a digital book thingamajig that is readable from all angles, even in the sun, and can hold like a gajillion books. E-books haven't taken off, but as the technology improves, will we prize convenience over tradition?

So...... IN THIS CORNER, weighing in at nine ounces is Plastic, the "Digital Demon." The thingamajig contains every book that you've ever wanted to read in your entire life. The screen is as readable as paper, displaying crisp graphics that are readable in any light (including darkness). No more lugging around books. No more booklights. No more hurting your shoulder carrying textbooks. It's light, it's portable, it's convenient. It's like the iPod, only with books. Is it the future?

And IN THIS CORNER, weighing in at, uh, lots of pounds, is Paper, aka "Papryus From King Cyrus." It makes you feel like you've accomplished something when you've turned the pages. You can fill up a bookshelf, use it as a paperweight, cut out the pages to hide a small pickaxe so you can crawl through a river of shit and come out clean on the other side. Is old new again?

Who. Will. Win.

Discuss amongst yourselves.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


One of the most popular pasttimes at Writer's Conferences is discussing the latest trends in publishing. People want to know what genres are hot, what's not, and who should be arrested by the book police. Of course we agents answer the question dutifully -- we do, after all, want to appear like we know what in the heck we're doing. But here's the thing about "what's hot/what's not" trends in the publishing industry: they're kind of pointless to worry about.

Let's say, for instance, that today you looked at Publisher's Marketplace and saw that lots of books have been sold about monkeys. Monkey fiction, monkey nonfiction, monkey memoir and, of course, monkey romance. You go to a Writer's Conference and hear an agent say, "I'm looking for historical fiction, narrative nonfiction.. oh, and monkeys are really hot at the moment, so if you have a great monkey book come talk to me." You think to yourself, "Hey! I should write a book about monkeys!"

So you sit down to write the book and a year later you have a finished monkey manuscript. Then you try and find an agent, and that takes six months. Then your agent sends around your monkey manuscript to publishers, and that takes another couple of months. Your book comes out a year later. That's THREE YEARS from when you first heard monkeys are hot. Three years for people to get really really tired of monkeys. And, wouldn't you know it, by the time your book comes out monkeys are like so totally over and everyone wants books about jackrabbits.

If you try and write your book according to trends you're playing a risky game. It could be that the industry has moved on to the next thing by the time you've even completed your manuscript. So don't worry about the fads and don't follow the trends. You know certain genres are going to be around for a while -- science fiction as a whole isn't going anywhere, spies and thrillers are going to be around, fantasy will be around. Within those genres though, and when you're choosing plots and characters, don't take your cue from the hot new thing of the moment. Be original, write what you love. Who knows, maybe you'll have the book that starts the next new trend. A monkey trend.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Great Writing: Hiding in Plain Sight?

First off, I had a great time at the San Francisco Writer's Conference this weekend. Thanks to everyone who attended, and especially to those who waited in line during the pitch session for their chance at three minutes of fame, glory, glamor!! Actually it was three minutes to pitch to a very tired literary agent, but hey, same thing, right?

Also I'm feeling verrrrrry humble today because I "uhhed" my name in the Agent Q&A panel. As in, "Hi my name is, uh, Nathan Bransford," as if I had momentarily forgotten my own name. So before I introduced myself for the pitch session, I was coaching myself: "Don't 'uh' your name. Don't 'uh' your name." So what did I do? I UHHED MY NAME AGAIN.

So to everyone who attended the conference: I swear on my life I know my own name. Usually.

In other news it's a three day weekend, my girlfriend is out of town, and it's 70 degrees outside, so I've been living it up, getting a little crazy. Yes, that's right, I've been reading for pleasure.

One thing you always hear from disgruntled writers is how bad the state of literature is, how publishers only care about money and how there's so much crap out there. Just look at the bestseller lists, they'll tell you, it's full of crap. The other favorite argument of the downtrodden and cynical is that great literature would never be published today because publishers only care about the bottom line. Well, I'm here to tell you: NOT TRUE.

Last night I read Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD, a post-apocalyptic tale about a man and his son trying to survive in the horrific aftermath of a worldwide disaster that blots out the sky and causes mass starvation and kills off basically everything, leaving the few remaining survivors searching for food. You don't find out exactly what caused the disaster (I'm guessing Britney Spears was somehow involved), but it's a bleak, bleak world and basic humanity is at stake. It's seriously an incredible read -- I read it in one sitting, and I was blown away by its power and immediacy. It made me think, it made me cringe... it's a masterpiece -- Literature with a capital L.

Oh yeah, and it happens to be a New York Times bestseller, written by someone who began his career writing genre fiction.

So now I'm reading the urban fantasy novel A KISS OF SHADOWS by Laurell K. Hamilton, the first in her Meredith Gentry series, and guess what -- another New York Times bestseller with incredible writing!! Not only does Hamilton craft an awesome alternate world, she is a seriously gifted writer. She is one of the best writers I've ever seen at describing people, her pacing is amazing, I can't stop turning the pages. This isn't a "guilty pleasure" read, this is just good writing.

What's going on here? Could it be that the people who are selling the most copies of their books are also some of the best writers alive?

Patrick Anderson seems to think so. Anderson is a Washington Post book critic, and he recently wrote a book called THE TRIUMPH OF THE THRILLER, in which he argues that some of the very best writing is hidden in plain sight, in genre fiction and bestsellers. I haven't yet read the book (sorry Patrick, I'm busy reading about faerie private investigators), but according to this review by Chris Bolton, Anderson singles out George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly, who write genre fiction, as some of the best living writers.

But really, hasn't this always been the case? Many of the great authors over the years have also been bestsellers. MOBY DICK wasn't a commercial success, but Herman Melville had big hit with travel novel TYPEE. F. Scott Fitzgerald broke out in a big way with lad-lit classic THIS SIDE OF PARADISE. Few authors whom we now consider the great writers of an era were entirely overlooked during their own time.

At the same time, there are small, overlooked gems that are published every week. Some of my favorite books were not big sellers, and a great deal of good writing today is published by small presses, some of whom are even nonprofits. The midlist, once the home of talented writers who penned successful but not blockbuster books, is disappearing.

So you tell me -- on the whole is publishing overlooking great writing or is great writing hiding in plain sight?

Friday, February 16, 2007

This Week in Publishing 2/16/07

This week's This Week in Publishing:

As you may have heard, former NBA basketball player John Amaechi came out of the closet in his memoir MAN IN THE MIDDLE, settling once and for all the question "Is he gay or is he just British?" (He's both!) But seriously, it's one small step for tolerance, one giant step because he's a really tall dude.

What's going on with the whole AMS/PGW bankruptcy thingamajig? So glad you asked. Baker & Taylor put in a $76 million bid for most of AMS' assets, including several of its distribution centers and one Dwight Schrute bobblehead. This does not, mind you, include PGW and this does not, mind you again, mean that this is a done deal. This is just a stalking horse offer (no, I swear that's what it's called).

As for PGW, the whole shebang was supposed to be wrapped up earlier this week -- a judge was supposed to decide if PGW goes to Perseus, NBN or some combination of the two. But the judge postponed the deicision, which, hey, if he's anywhere near as confused as I am about this whole thing, I can't really blame him. No word yet on Perseus' top-secret strategy to cry out that they cannot bear to see PGW split in two and plea with the judge to spare PGW and give it to NBN, in the hopes that the judge will decide that Perseus is the real owner of PGW because it would rather see PGW go to a competitor than to see it harmed.

In a shocking turn of events, the first Anna Nicole Smith biography is already on the market! How did they get it out so fast?? Well, uh, actually it's already been on the market. As the New York Times reports, Barricade Books was already planning a new edition of their Anna Nicole Smith biography GREAT BIG BEAUTIFUL DOLL prior to her death. The bizarre timing prompted the publisher of Barricade Books to clarify, "We didn't kill her or anything." Whew! The biography ends with the death of Anna Nicole Smith's son and thus doesn't include accounts of her recent death, but Barricade is reporting very strong interest.

And finally, according to this Publisher's Weekly article, the blogosphere and listservosphere are all a-twitter because recent Newbery award winning author Susan Patron used the word "scrotum" in her middle grade novel THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY. A spirited debate has broken out between defenders of the author and those who fear the horrific effects of knowing the proper word for parts of human anatomy.

Have a good weekend everyone!!

Thursday, February 15, 2007

How to Write a Book Proposal

A few readers have registered their complaints that the blog has lately been heavily focused on fiction queries and manuscripts and novels, and what about poor, neglected nonfiction? Doesn't nonfiction have feelings too? When nonfiction is pricked does it not bleed???

Apparently so.

The art of writing a nonfiction book proposal is sort of like cooking lasagna. There are a thousand ways of making it, everyone has their own recipe, but most every lasagna will have a few basic ingredients and chances are it's going to taste good in the end. The below recipe, if you will, applies to just about every kind of nonfiction, from history to self-help to narrative nonfiction.

Also, people often ask if they need to write the whole nonfiction book before they query an agent. Not so! Or at least not usually so. An agent can often sell nonfiction projects on proposal, meaning you write the proposal first, then sell the project, then write the book. It mostly depends on the quality of the idea and its marketability, your platform, and your writing ability. There are definitely exceptions to this -- it really depends on the project, and sometimes it pays to write the whole thing, especially memoir. Think of a memoir like a novel. You may have to write the whole thing.

So without further ADO (thanks everyone), here are the basic sections of a nonfiction book proposal.

The overview is unlike anything you'll ever write. It's not quite a synopsis, it's not quite a sample chapter, it's not quite catalog copy, it's not even quite, uh, an overview. Its really the distillation of the book you're going to write. You're getting across the meat of the story that you are writing about. You're telling the story/narrative/subject in brief. You're telling the agent/editor what the book is going to be about, what it will be like and who's going to read it. It's really a sales pitch.

So to write the overview, pretend you're a broke screenwriter pitching a project to a big time Hollywood producer. You're telling the gist of the story, you're selling him on how America absolutely needs a movie about the number 23, baby! You want the producer at the end to have an idea of what the book is about so he'll scratch his chin and say, "Interesting.... Tell me more about this number 23."

A good overview will give the agent/editor a great sense of the subject, the scope, the heart, and the need for the book. It will get them excited about the project.

I know all of this is really vague, and that's because the approaches to the overview vary a whole lot depending on the project, and it's difficult for me to say that the overview is one thing or another. You have some room for creativity here, so just focus on summarizing and pitching your project while making it sound as appealing and necessary as possible.

Competing Titles/Market Analysis
This is the part where you discuss the other books that are out there as a way of convincing an agent/editor that there is a pressing need for your book. Counterintuitive, I know. The market analysis should not be along the lines of, "275,000,000 Americans drink milk, therefore my book about milk will sell 275,000,000 copies," but it should really address the market for the book and who your potential reader will be.

Also, in this section you should discuss other books that have been published on your subject. If they're close enough to yours you might list them and address them individually, assessing how each one differs from yours. This is not the time to Swift Boat other authors, but you should clearly differentiate your project from the other books that have already been published on the subject. It's not enough to try to convince an agent/editor that your book is like someone else's only better -- you have to find a genuine unexplored niche in the marketplace.

Platform platform platform. This is the part where you convince the agent/editor that you are the best person in the entire world to be writing the book. It's probably best not to lie in this section.

Outline/List of Chapters
Sometimes people include an outline or a list of chapters to give a sense of the scope of the project. Personally I feel like this part is a little overrated for something like narrative nonfiction because the finished product is probably going to change, but this section is very important for any sort of self-helpish or businessish proposal since you'll already have a pretty good idea of where the project is going and can summarize it here.

Sample Chapter(s) (1-3)
Other than perhaps the overview, the sample chapter(s) is(are) the most important part of the proposal. Some editors I know just get a gist of the overview and then turn straight to the sample chapters to see a sample of the author's writing. So work very, very hard on these chapters to make them as good as possible.

Other things that you might consider throwing in I mean including are copies of newspaper/magazine articles you wrote that apply to the subject (if the book is arising out of a published article), reviews of past nonfiction books you've published (not self-published), and anything else that will help convince the agent/editor that you're super-awesome.

And that's pretty much it! Easy as lasagna.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Formatting Your Manuscript

Much like John Denver sings in "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," I blog when I can and work when I should. But unfortunately I wasn't early to rise to rosin up the keyboard (and when the sun was coming up the cakes, sadly, were not on the griddle), so today's post is going to be brief, which should be right up your alley if you are similarly busy (or if you're into that whole brevity thing).

I have seen a whole lot of manuscripts in my day, and no two manuscripts have ever been formatted the same way. This means I have seen everything from 10 point font single spaced with half inch margins (I call it the "Magnifying Glass" template) to 24 point double-spaced (the "Old Man" template).

So how should you format your manuscript? Here's the "Author Standard" template:
  • Double Spaced
  • 1" margins
  • 1/2 inch indent for a new paragraph
  • Pages numbered (and make sure page numbers don't start over every chapter)
  • Page break after the end of a chapter
  • No fiddling at all with anything else -- no messing with the spacing between paragraphs, no fiddling with the width of the type, no full justification, no hyphenation. Basically just open up Word, hit double spacing, make sure the pages are numbered, and start typing.
  • And most importantly -- don't try and make it look like the layout of a book.

What font? Well, I know there is an ongoing battle between the Times New Roman camp and the Courier camp. (I personally prefer Times New Roman). But do not choose anything other than one of these two fonts. Seriously. No matter how much Gill Sans Ultra Bold Condensed is calling your name, and believe me I know how tempting you can be, Gill Sans Ultra Bold Condensed, you wily devil you...... just resist.

Happy Valentine's Day everyone!!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Power of Google

Give yourself a hand. No, I mean it! Give yourself a hand, pat yourself on the back, buy yourself a big cigar (just don't smoke it around your query letters). If you're an aspiring writer and you're reading this blog or Miss Snark's or the blogs by other agents and your fellow writers it means you're doing the right thing. You're researching the publishing industry, you're serious about the business of writing. You, my friend, are pretty darn awesome. Or it means you're procrastinating.

(And no, this is not the introduction to my new self-help book. But if I did write a self-help book I would call it THE PURPOSE-DRIVEN SECRET OF YOU, THE OWNERS MANUAL: HE'S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOUR SOUTH BEACH DIET.)

A couple of years back something was invented that changed the course of the publishing industry forever. A device so revolutionary we tremble at the mere mention of its power. No, not paper. Even more important. They call it..... Google.

The effect of Google on the publishing industry has been utterly profound (ok, maybe not as profound as paper), and in the years to come its effects will be even, uh, profounder. The New Yorker recently featured a very good article on Google's Library project -- Google is essentially trying to scan and (make searchable) every book ever written, (including, apparently the occasional finger of the people doing the scanning, which is my favorite part of the article.) In the process of scanning, well, everything, Google is taking a controversial approach to the copyright ramifications of the program, which is the subject of two lawsuits.

Meanwhile, Google is also expanding its Book Search program -- they already have quite a few public-domain books posted online, and their goal is to make more existing books searchable. Two years from now if you entered, say, "Nathan Bransford's secret of life" in Google Book Search, a little excerpt from THE PURPOSE-DRIVEN SECRET OF YOU, THE OWNERS MANUAL would pop up next to a link to buy the book (which you should totally buy, I swear it will change your life).

There are more and more ventures like this in the pipeline, I'm told, because hey, it's Google, and new ventures are what they do.

But this isn't just an extended product placement ad for Google (although they did pay me handsomely AND give me one of those scooters they ride around on). This post is also an exhortation to please, please, please use the Google before you query an agent. Especially, uh, me.

Two years ago I could have understood if someone queried me about their screenplay or their poetry collection, or if they began their query with a rhetorical question. I mean, short of knowing me personally, how could they know that I personally declared war against queries beginning with rhetorical questions in 2004?

Things have changed. Now all you have to do is Google me and my blog pops up. Just five minutes looking at my blog, seeing what I represent and don't represent, and tailoring your letter accordingly will instantly increase your chances of me requesting your manuscript by approximately 1,000%. Five minutes! And yet people don't do this. It boggles ze mind!

But here's the problem -- if you're reading this blog you already know these things. You're already one of the smart ones. You know that your odds are drastically increased if you Google an agent you're querying and write a personalized query letter. I need to reach the people who aren't reading this blog. So I have a plan. We're going to pay it forward. Yes, you heard correctly. Pay it forward.

You know that movie with that kid who saw dead people that was about being nice? Yeah, I didn't watch it either. BUT. Apparently there's this idea in the movie that if you're good to three people then those people will be good to other people, and suddenly everyone will be good to everyone else and we can all hold hands and sing kumbayah and watch more movies with the kid who saw dead people.

So here's the plan -- let's all think really bad thoughts about queries that start with rhetorical questions, and let's also encourage everyone we know who is writing a book to just take five minutes and Google the agent they're querying before they send the query, and then maybe I won't get any more of these types of queries.

Ok, fine, or you can just pay it forward by being good to people and try and make the world a better place. God. You're so selfish.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Anatomy of a Really Bad Query Letter

Now, you probably read the title of this post and assumed that I'm about to be mean to some poor author who was unfortunate enough to send me a letter. But never fear! No authors were harmed in the making of this blog. I wrote this really bad query letter myself. I know, I know. You can save your applause until the end.

I thought it might be helpful to post a letter that includes some of the common mistakes people make in query letters so you can avoid them. Don't do as this poor, hapless writer did. Er, I mean don't do as I did. Do as I don't.

rip pffffffffffffffffffffff cough cough cough cough oh god get it out of here [Since I can't include smellovision in my blog posts, that is my reenactment of the experience of opening a query letter that smells like old, stale cigarette smoke. Let's just say it's not a happy smell.]

Dear Miss Snark, [As much as I enjoy seeing which agent you queried before me, it's probably not the best strategy to forget to change the salutation.]

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if there was a race a heartless zombies who ate, nay enjoyed, human flesh? [Mayday mayday. My epic war against query letters beginning with rhetorical questions is not going well. Please send reinforcements.] In my 250,000 word novel, the first of a million word trilogy, a race of homicidal zombies target literary agents, gleefully spilling their vile literary agent blood all over their computers, enacting revenge on behalf of mankind for all of the query letters they have rejected over the years. [250,000 words is waaaay too long. Also you might want to avoid plot lines that involve literary agents dying at the hands of crazed zombies. I'm just saying.]

Drew Diggler was born in Denver, Colorado. His best friend was named Charlie. His dog was named Fred. He once had a crush on a girl named Susan. Susan dumped him. Then he went to high school. In high school he had a dream about zombies. But he didn't meet any actual zombies until much later. He went to college. In college he saw a movie about zombies. Then after he graduated from college he actually met a zombie. The zombie told him it was his mission in life to stab every literary agent in the world with their staplers. [Too much information. Where is the plot? Also, I'm not a big fan of excessive gore. Especially gore that involves literary agents.]

Meanwhile, Drew Diggler realizes that he hates his corporate soul-sucking job, he has grown weary of his wife and their two children, he hates like, his existence, man, so he quits his job/travels around the world/goes on a homicidal killing spree. [The whole man-suffering-crushing-ennui-and-subsequent-mid-life crisis plot is just a tad played out. Also, what happened to the zombie? He was kind of growing on me.]

And then after he quits his job/travels around the world/goes on a homicidal killing spree, he discovers Jesus' DNA and decides to clone him while uncovering a centuries old plot that is protecting the hidden meaning of life just as he stumbles upon a government conspiracy concealing the existence of extraterrestrial life, all the while being chased by the bad guy, who is an evil albino. [You might want to avoid these plotlines as well. And this letter is going on too long.]

This is just one of seventeen unpublished projects I would like you to represent, all attached here. [Writes about more than one project, attaches a file]. I'm so so so so so so sorry I'm a first time writer, I know I'm not qualified, I genuflect before you, but see, at least I know the word genuflect so that has to count for something, right? I know there are better qualified writers out there than me, but I hope you will please give me a chance. Please? Will you? I hope you will. [Don't apologize for being a first time writer -- I like first time writers! They have that new author smell.]

My book is kind of like THE DA VINCI CODE mixed with THE LOVELY BONES meets THE HISTORIAN mixed with a dash of HARRY POTTER and ERAGON. Oh, and it's also like FANCY NANCY and THE FIVE PEOPLE YOU MEET IN HEAVEN. Now that I think about it it's exactly like a lot of other bestselling books out there, so it is guaranteed to be a #1 New York Times Bestseller. [Don't compare your book to a bunch of other bestselling books -- it's ok to reference other books, but you probably want to avoid big bestsellers]. I did not include a SASE in my letter, nor did I include an e-mail address, in fact I'm also not going to include a phone number, just so you cannot possibly get in touch with me. [This actually happens -- I have a file full of letters with absolutely no contact information. Sadly I was not even able to reach the authors using telepathy.]

Let's make some money together. [Whenever people say this I always imagine that we're starting a used car dealership.]

Nathan Bransford, Author

Hmmm..... on second thought, maybe there is a market for literary agent hunting zombies. I'm going to request a partial from myself.

Friday, February 9, 2007

This Week in Publishing 2/9/07

Hello, thanks so much to everyone who has written comments, sent in e-mails and queries, and have otherwise made themselves known this past week. I really appreciate it, and I continue to be amazed at just how many talented people there are out there.

I'm going to begin introducing some semi-regular features to the blog soon, so keep your eye out. Not only will you have something to look forward to every week, I won't have to think of a blog topic every day!! You see, everyone wins. Especially the children.

So from now on, every Friday you can look forward to a weekly roundup that I like to call.......... This Week in Publishing. I know, I get 0 creativity points for the title.

This week's This Week in Publishing:

- As mentioned in yesterday's post, it took approximately twenty seconds for the first Crazy Astronaut Lady book proposal to sell, meaning you are about 8 months away from going into a bookstore, seeing a book about the Crazy Astronaut Lady, thinking to yourself "Oh yeah, I remember the Crazy Astronaut Lady, that was funny! Oh, we were so innocent, back then."

- In other publishing news, AMS, the parent company of distributor Publishers Group West (PGW), went bankrupt earlier this year, leaving PGW and its publishers scrambling. PGW distributes publishers like Avalon, Grove/Atlantic and others, meaning these publishers aren't entirely sure how they're going to get their books to bookstores and how they're going to get paid for the books they've already shipped.

Meanwhile, Perseus is trying to assume PGW's distribution business by offering 75 cents on the dollar for signing up with Perseus for a four year contract, and then National Book Network swept in with an offer of 85 cents on the dollar for a three year contract. But ultimately who gets what is going to be decided by a bankruptcy judge and AMS's creditors. (If this doesn't make any sense whatsoever don't worry -- I've spent the last week and all afternoon trying to figure it all out and still am kind of fuzzy. You're not alone.) Here's one of the many articles that explains the issue.

Oh, and I have to say that I feel very bad for PGW employees, who are pretty much universally beloved and whose jobs are in limbo, but who probably will be absorbed by either Perseus or NBN. They are now left wondering whether they are going to have to transfer to the Stamford Branch or the Scranton Branch.

(You probably didn't get that unless you watch The Office. Also, if you don't watch The Office shame on you.)

- In other deal news, another vampire book just sold. Oops, nope, got that wrong. Correction: it's another zombie book. Seriously, people love them some vampires and zombies these days.

- And finally, Jack Canfield, the man behind Chicken Soup for the Soul, (i.e. that book that your mom loves) has a secret. What is his secret? Well, he'll tell you. If you buy the book. Basically The Secret is based upon the idea that there is one little secret that has been around for 4,000 years that holds the key to unlocking successful health, money, love and happiness. So what is the secret?? YOU HAVE TO BUY THE BOOK. Or, of course, watch the upcoming Oprah special. (I'm guessing the secret is bourbon. Er, at least, that's my secret.)

And that....... is This Week in Publishing. Have a great weekend everybody!

Thursday, February 8, 2007

The Basics of Publishing Contracts

First off, a message to the fraternity who sent Curtis Brown an invitation to his college reuinion: you may wish to update your records. Mr. Brown passed away in the 1940s. Although I'm sure he would have been utterly thrilled to receive your invitation had he still been alive, as he would now be 141 YEARS OLD.

With that out of the way, I thought I'd be wild and crazy and post something (hopefully) useful today: the basic sections of a publishing contract.

Without further ado (adieu? Which is it?), here are some of the parts of a publishing contract. Try not to fall asleep.


The territory, as referenced in my post yesterday, is a list of countries where a publisher can distribute.

There are three basic types of deals for US publishers:

1. US or North America -- which gives the publisher exclusive English language control over either just the US or the United States and Canada. (Note that North America does not include Mexico. Sorry, Mexico!! Love you though. Kisses to Belize as well.)

2. World English -- Just like it sounds. World rights in the English language. This is probably the simplest thing I will explain today.

3. World All Languages -- Just like World English, only with all of the world's lovely and colorful languages thrown in. The publisher can sing with the voices of the mountain. And paint with all the colors of the wind.

(Yes. Yes, I did just reference Pocahontas. You saw clearly.)

Let's go back to the North America type of deal. What's complicated here is that there is "exclusive" territory and "nonexclusive" territory. I know, I can see your eyes glazing over already. Stick with me.

Exclusive means only the US publisher can distribute in the exclusive territory. That's home turf. Nonexclusive (also known as the "open market") means both the US and any other publisher (UK or foreign) can also distribute. Think of the open market as unclaimed turf where anyone can roam freely. So typically in North American contracts the deal is for exclusive North American rights and nonexclusive Open Market rights. Hope that makes sense.

Let's move on.

Grant of Rights

These are the specific rights that are granted in the agreement. Sometimes this can mean everything under the sun (book rights, film rights, audio rights, tv rights, electronic rights, etc.), or it could just be for one specific thing (trade paperback reprint rights only). Who could say, really?


This is the fun part. The advance is the money that a publisher pays you up front to publish the book. Take it to the bank, it's yours to keep, even if your book only sells two copies. Huzzah!

A lot of people who are new to publishing find advances kind of confusing. Do you have to give it back if your book doesn't sell? Nope. BUT. You don't get paid royatlies until your advance "earns out."

Think of an advance as a loan you don't have to pay back. Each copy you sell earns royalties (discussed below) that goes first toward paying off your advance. Then, if your book eventually earns more money than your initial advance you start getting royalties. So if you were paid $10,000, your book has to earn $10,000 in royalties before you start to see extra money.

Advances can range from a hundred dollars to BILLIONS (ok, not billions. Unless you're Dan Brown. ok, not even Dan Brown.)


Each copy you sell earns a royalty, specified as either a percentage of the cover price or something like a percentage of the amount a publisher receives for the sale. There are lots of different types of royalties depending on what type of copy is sold (hardcover, paperback, mass market, special sales, discount sales, omnibus, anthology... it goes on and on).


In addition to printing and selling your book, publishers typically get assorted other rights that they may or may not sell to another publisher somewhere down the line. It's sort of like subcontracting -- if a publisher doesn't want to do something themselves they can sell the rights to someone else.

So, let's say a publisher publishes your book in hardcover. They can either bring out a paperback edition OR they can sell paperback rights to another publisher, in which case publisher #2 does all the work to bring out the paperback edition, and you and publisher #1 split the proceeds.

I have nothing funny to say about subrights. They are that boring.

Warranty and Indemnity

This sounds like a spy novel, but actually this is the part where you promise the publisher that your book isn't plagiarized, that you control all the rights, that any recipes are not injurious to the user, etc. etc. Basically you promise on your life that everything in your book is kosher and you accept responsibility for it.

There are many many many other sections, but I think you get the picture. These are the biggies.

And with that, I'm off to send an RSVP to Curtis Brown's old frat. Won't they be surprised to see him!!

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

What's Going on in the Publishing Industry?

For those of you who think I spend my day in my slippers, sipping bourbon, lazing around reading query letters and manuscripts, I'm afraid you are sadly mistaken. I don't wear slippers!

But in seriousness, I actually do have a job where I have to keep up with industry news, and today I've decided to prove it to you by boring you to death with industry chatter.

Oh, and you can stop working on your Crazy Astronaut Lady Book Proposal, because a Crazy Astronaut Lady Book Proposal just sold.

There is a big drama going on in publishing: a battle over the future of Europe, pitting rival superpowers clashing over the future of European democracy! Does that sound like the next great WWII spy drama? It isn't! It's sort of like a book industry version of the cold war, i.e. very polite.

You see, American publishers have typically had exclusive rights to America and its territories and dependencies (basically United States, Puerto Rico, the Phillipines, Guam... you get the picture). And UK publishers have had exclusive rights to UK territories and assorted former colonies (UK, India, Singapore, Burma, a bunch of islandes that no one has ever heard of. I mean, Ascension is totally made up, right??). So anyway, exclusivity means that only the US publisher can distribute in their exclusive territories and only the UK can distribute in their exclusive territories, and if you're not in your exclusive territory you need to step OFF.

Whither Europe? Oh, yes. Whither Europe indeed. Europe has traditionally been part of the "open market," that nebulous territory where BOTH the US and UK publishers can distribute. So European bookstores who stock books in English have their pick of the British and American versions, and sometimes they present them side by side.

WELL. The Brits are like, "Nu uh! We're in the EU and even though we haven't adopted the Euro we're going to claim Europe exclusively now, you bloody Yanks need to take your books somewhere else!" and the Americans are all, "No way man, we are the country of freedom and democracy and the Europeans should be able to CHOOSE what books they want," and the Brits are like, "You're a wanker," and the Americans are all, "I don't even know what a wanker is."

Enter Hachette, the French multinational who recently purchased the Time Warner Book Group, and who thus has both American and British divisions. A CIVIL WAR WTIHIN THE COMPANY BETWEEN THE BRITISH AND AMERICAN DIVISIONS was... uh.... recently decided very amicably. In cases where they control world rights, the Brits get to distribute exclusively in Europe, and the Americans get East Asia. So now European bookstores will be stocking only British versions of the few titles for which this compromise applies to.

So it's not over yet. This is but one compromise on a veritable powderkeg of emotion and pride and money over the exclusivity of Europe. Stay tuned. Only one country can win. (Unless they come to an agreeable solution)

And that is what is going on in the publishing industry. Aren't you glad you asked?

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

The Difference Between YA and Adult Literature

Originally titled: Dude Looks Like a YA

Maybe it's because basketball season is in full swing (and my Sacramento Kings, sadly, are stinking up Arco Arena), but I have been seeing a lot of crossover novels lately. Get it?? Get it?? Crossover? Basketball? (I know, it's my lamest opening ever. Just stick with me here.)

After everyone saw how books like HARRY POTTER and ERAGON sent kids and adults alike scurrying to the bookstores in droves, crossover became the new thing all over again. Everyone has seen how successful books that are enjoyed by both children and adults can be, and the massive sales.. ahem, I mean the thrill of having your work read by as many people as possible means I now get a lot of crossover novels in the query inbox.

But here's the problem with crossover novels: there's no crossover publisher, only children's publishers and adult publishers, and there's no crossover section of the bookstore, only the children's side and the adult side. Sure there are big publishers with both children and adult divisions, but cooperation on a crossover novel would mean taking the elevator down a few floors, and come on, who can be bothered to do that???

So this raises an interesting question for the aspiring crossover novelist -- how can you tell if your novel is a YA (young adult) novel that might appeal to adults or an Adult novel that might appeal to a younger audience?

As an example, let's take two (very good) novels about troubled high schoolers: KL Going's FAT KID RULES THE WORLD, and Michelle Tea's ROSE OF NO MAN'S LAND. FAT KID RULES THE WORLD opens with an overweight teenager contemplating suicide before he befriends a homeless high schooler and joins a band, ROSE OF NO MAN'S LAND is about a troubled teenager who befriends/sort of falls in love with a wild teenager who distracts her from her troubled home life. Somewhat similar themes, right? But FAT KID RULES THE WORLD is a YA novel and ROSE OF NO MAN'S LAND is an Adult novel. What accounts for the split?

To me the separation between YA and Adult is not necessarily thematic, it has more to do with pacing and presentation. When you read a YA novel the pace tends to be quicker, the books tend to be shorter, and things happen in a more straightforward fashion. While of course there is a ton of variation and exceptions, things tend to unfold on the surface to keep a younger reader interested and engaged. In an adult novel, even an adult novel about high schoolers, things unfold more slowly, there tends to be more subtlety and ambiguity. Things happen beneath the surface and they can be more challenging. In other words, I think the YA/Adult split is more about the telling than the characters and the themes.

All of this is a long way to say that I think you need to write and pitch your novel as one or the other, because agents don't usually handle both adult and YA, and it's virtually impossible to pitch a "crossover" book. You also want to really make it one or the other to avoid ending up with a novel that is too adult for children and too juvenile for adults, which happens a lot. Books do indeed cross over, and you can mention that your book has crossover potential, but at least initially I think you have to go one way or another -- hopefully this will serve as a rough guide of which direction you should go.

Just. Like. Basketball.

(Worst metaphor ever.)

Friday, February 2, 2007

Grammar: Do As I Says and Not As I Does

First off, thank you very much to the talented and amazing Miss Snark, who was kind enough to link to me today. I actually think Miss Snark is a tactical mastermind who uses the links to crush her competition under the ensuing deluge of queries, but I am proud to say that I am still alive and breathing after quite the busy morning. Luckily Miss Snark's readers seem to be as talented as she is, so it's been a pleasure reading everyone's queries.

A few of my more anal I mean astute readers have been kind enough to point out the poor grammar choices in my blog posts lately, and this of course has made me quite the sheepish agent because I so readily reject queries on the basis of said poor grammar. I'm a stickler for grammar, diction, and all those other topics that you should have been paying attention to when you were aiming a spidwad at the back of Suzy's head in elementary school. A misuse of its/it's or there/their/they're is enough to send me scurrying for the rejection button (I don't actually have a rejection button, but I like to imagine that I have a trap door like in cartoons that drops someone into the basement at the press of a button. And yes, these are the things I think about all day).

I liken grammar and diction and word choice to playing an instrument. No one can write a symphony without knowing how to play a note, and no one can write a great novel without a thorough and complete command of the English language. I think there's a misconception out there that if you just have a good story it's going to shine through and then a magical copyeditor will come along and correct everything. That's just not the way it works -- if you have grammatical mistakes or poor word choices in your query letter or your manuscript you're not going to make it very far. And if grammar and diction are not your strong suits then you might think twice about your expectations for success as a writer. I'm not saying you can't enjoy the process of writing and sharing it with your friends and family, but you're facing a major uphill climb if you want to be a published writer.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to the 7,278 queries that came in as I was writing this blog post. (I'm exaggerating. Barely.)

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