Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, May 2, 2011

How I Write

Imagine this pose only for eight hours
It's How I Write week here on the blog as we gear up for the release of JACOB WONDERBAR on May 12th. Today: How I Write. Tuesday: How I Edit. Wednesday: My Query Letter and How I Found an Agent. Thursday: Why I Chose a Traditional Publisher. Friday: This Week in Books

Please stick around!

When I took creative writing classes in college, I was always fascinated by hearing about how other writers write, especially the famous ones: Whether they wrote in bursts or whether they planned, whether they were sober or intoxicated, depressed or happy, whether they wrote at night or during the day, daily or only when inspiration hit, whether the writer is a creative and flighty artist-type or a studious hard worker, whether they outlined or figured it out as they went along, whether they showed signs of genius early or came to it late.

When I got out of college and started working in publishing, I realized there is no such thing as a "writer's" personality type or a universal system that works or anything close to resembling one best way to write. Everyone does it differently.

There's only one thing professional writers have in common: They get the job done, one way or another.

So please don't take this post as how I think everyone should write. This is just the process that works for me. Some of these styles or tips may be useful to you... or not! The only way to know is to try them out. Just know that there's nothing "weird" about the way you write. As long as you get the job done you're a writer.

Brainstorming Ideas

My biggest ideas usually come to me in a flash, and from there I round them out one step at a time. I'm drawn to high concept book ideas both as a result of my personal taste but also because in an age of great distraction I feel like it helps if you can describe your book in a sentence.

The idea for JACOB WONDERBAR started as an image of a kid trapped on a planet full of substitute teachers, and I let that basic idea guide the entire rest of the process. The idea felt middle grade, so okay, I was going to write a middle grade novel. How did the kid get to space? Well, he'd need a spaceship. How did he get the spaceship? Maybe he traded a corndog for it. Maybe his best friends tagged along, and maybe they accidentally hit a huge stumbling block on the way that was making it really difficult to get back home. Maybe that stumbling block was breaking the universe, and maybe there's more keeping him in space than breaking the universe, maybe the kid thinks he could find his dad while he's there.

Then I sketched out the characters. I knew the main character would be a good-hearted troublemaker, I knew I wanted a strong female character, and a timid friend who is mildly scared of Jacob. I fleshed out these basic ideas before I sat down to write a page.

And I let the plot and characters drive the voice - a little wacky, some heart, and action-driven. From there it was just a matter of spending six months writing it.

Outlining vs. Writing Blind

I'm an outliner, but not an obsessive one. I try to have a definite but still-vague sense of the beginning, middle and end of the book, and don't worry about figuring out exactly how the characters are going to get from Point A to Point B. I always want to leave room for things to work or not work on the page and for new ideas to creep in.

Still, I turned in a three page synopsis to my publisher before I wrote JACOB WONDERBAR FOR PRESIDENT OF THE UNIVERSE, and it ended up being almost exactly how the book turned out. So while I don't have everything figured out ahead of time, I definitely write with a map.


I'm not someone who can write every day. For one thing I'm too busy, but I also need the break between bursts of writing in order to process, brainstorm, and let my subconscious work out problems. I try to always have a sense of the challenges ahead and questions I need to figure out, then I give my brain time to do its thing in the background.

On the weekend I'll wake up, drink a few cups of coffee, respond to e-mails and maybe write a blog post or two, and then when I'm wide awake it's time to write. I block out all distractions, but I don't go into isolation either: I still check e-mail and Twitter from time to time and I can concentrate with people and noise around me (except for music, which I can't listen to while writing.)

And for the next six to eight hours, I just write. If I hit a stumbling block I force myself to stare at a blank page until I figure out how to resolve it (or I don't figure it out, but the staring time is still useful). If I'm really stuck I'll work on my series bible or do something else that will get me just a little bit closer to the finish line. I don't really have time for writers block, and I really believe if you just stare at the screen long enough you'll figure it out.

While I was writing JACOB WONDERBAR FOR THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNIVERSE I was often writing both days on the weekends and very rarely took a day off, but that ended up being too much for me, hence my new search for more balance. Now I try and break up my weekend with one day of writing and one day of doing something fun.


I can write anywhere as long as I have a laptop and a couple uninterrupted hours. I usually write on my couch in my living room, but occasionally I'll go outside or to a coffee shop. I don't have a desk.

I write on a MacBook Pro on Microsoft Word, unless I'm traveling, in which case I'm writing on my iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard and the Pages app. I don't own a printer and didn't touch a piece of paper related to my manuscript until I got ARCs.


I gotta be honest, I don't always like the writing process. I sometimes find it tedious, and there are many times along the way I'd rather be doing something else. I'm drawn to that old phrase, "I don't like writing, I like having written." When it's going well it can be really fun and I still enjoy it overall, but I'm honestly a little suspicious of people who think writing is always a blast. Because it's really hard!

I struggled quite a bit with the "Am I Crazies" and the "Am I Really Good Enoughs" while I was writing JACOB WONDERBAR, and that was probably my biggest stumbling block. But I powered through because deep down I really believed in the idea and knew I'd regret it endlessly if I didn't try and do it while I had the time to do it.

What gets me through the tough stretches is that feeling of looking back on something as hard and time-consuming to accomplish as writing a novel and being proud of the result of your effort. That's what keeps me going.

Chapter Philosophy

I tend to write short chapters (3-6 pages double-spaced) that are focused around something happening. I try and map out my chapters in the same way I map out the novels: They have a beginning (hopefully with a hook or some piece of action to engage the reader and center them in the action), a middle section with conflict that builds toward a climax, and an end, which is usually either a pithy or sentimental moment, or possibly a cliffhanger.

Again, this is both borne out of my own taste, as well as my philosophy about reading in an age of distractions. I also have to consider my audience: 8-12 year olds aren't exactly known for their lengthy attention spans, but keep them engaged and they'll stick with you.

  • I try to avoid adverbs and non-said dialogue tags (but don't always succeed)
  • One of my weaknesses as a writer is that I have a tendency to rush through scenes and have to remind myself to slow down and flesh them out
  • Working out and taking showers does wonders for unlocking ideas
  • Whenever I come back to writing after an absence I have to accept that the first day back isn't going to be very productive
  • I don't write to a particular daily word count or even keep very close count of what I've gotten done. I just write as long as I can and power through when I'm feeling tired. I do try to leave off while there's still some material left to be written in a scene so I can easily get back in the rhythm the next time I pick up.
  • When I have an idea just before I'm falling asleep I force myself get up and write it down, otherwise I'll only remember that I had a really great idea that I can no longer remember, and it will drive me crazy.
And when in doubt: space monkeys.

Whew! That's my process, and I'm happy to answer questions about it (though please allow a bit of time for a response).

Also: What's your writing process, and what works for you?


David Kazzie said...

Couldn't agree more with this: "I don't like writing. I like having written." So freaking accurate.

magpiewrites said...

Nathan! Talk about peeling back the curtain to see how the Wizard does it! This is amazing insight - thank you!

Laurel said...

I've done the "by the pants" thing and paid for it in revisions. Now I like flexible outlines. I also like accountability, like a crit partner who is expecting a chapter. It keeps me honest.

I have one habit that I know isn't unique but doesn't seem universal, either. I'll write out backstory that I know will not go in the book. If I don't have backstory on the characters, they read two dimensional. So for a 90 K book, I've usually invested 140 K in words. Not counting revision.

Elie said...

If I can wake up and start writing, in pyjamas, that's the best thing in the world, only improved by a huge mug of tea.
Initial ideas are hand written in notebooks and on scraps of paper, and very soon I move them on to a mac.
I used to write without structure, but I have to admit things run more smoothly with an outline, and I'm always by amazed how different the editing process feels on paper rather than on the screen: it's almost like reading a different story.

Fadzlishah Johanabas said...

It's good to know there are published writers out there who DON'T write every day!

Awesome post, great insight. I hope the book will come out in Malaysia.

Nancy Lauzon said...

Thanks, Nathan, very interesting how everyone finds their own way. I start out by writing a flexible outline which changes as often as I need it to. I really hate writing first drafts, there's so much pressure, and plots are my least favorite thing. California writer Annie Lamott says you should give yourself permission to write a shitty first draft, and that really helped me. Just get it down, and then revise the crap out of it. I actually like the revision/fleshing out process the best, since I can just be creative and don't have to worry about where the story is going.

Mr. D said...

Interesting how different writers have different methods. I've written three books now, and I've used a different method for each one.

As for when do I write? Every spare minute I can.

Kayeleen Hamblin said...

"They get the job done, one way or another."

This describes my writing routine exactly. I'm a mom with three small kids. Some days, I don't get to writing at all, but I know I'm a writer because I keep coming back to it.

Teralyn Rose Pilgrim said...

This was really helpful. Thanks!

Tana Adams said...

I loved this! And yes, when in doubt space monkeys.

I work from a loose outline. A part of me still needs to pants, but just a small part. ;)

Austin said...

I'm an outliner. I outline the premise, the acts, then the chapters. Then I follow the map, taking detours and scenic routes when necessary. I detailed my process here on my blog.

I also write in bursts and try to leave time to let my brain process things. Since I'm also an artist I find helpful story ideas pop into my head while doodling. In fact I think flexing a different creative muscle is incredibly helpful when it comes to writer's block. I work as a copy writer by day, and I'll often pause and doodle a picture on a note pad if I feel my writing creative tank emptying. Also, like you said, working out and showers are good too. Most of my last book came to me while training for a half-marathon.

Thanks for sharing Nathan!

Katie Mills said...

Thanks for sharing your methods and writing habits! I find I do a lot of the same- especially the writing on the weekends (on my couch). I can bock out most noise and my kids have to say 'mom, mom, mom' about ten times when I'm really into it;)

Anonymous said...

In writing a zany sort of fantasy, do you have an advice about maintaining believability while essentially violating the rules of reality?

For example, do you ever have a moment where you think that the philosophical ponderings of a whale plummeting to its demise are totally believable but are perhaps a little iffy about a computer being able to reconstruct a cup of tea based on a verbal description?

Erik said...

I love getting a peek at how other writers write. It helps to know that everyone does it differently. That way I feel less crazy. One thing I'm trying to work on is not editing too much while I write. I need to throw the mental red pen across the room sometimes and just let the words flow.

Roxanne Wilder said...

Your blog is such a great resource! Thank you. Much of your process is similar to mine. However, a while back I read that the optimal amount of time for a human brain to focus is 90 minutes and then it needs a break. So I go for ninety and then jog or phone calls for 15, and then back to writing. Couldn't agree more about working out and showers. For me jogs, showers, coffee = ideas. I like an outline to be organized somewhat, but loose enough to allow for chaos and surprise.

Nathan Bransford said...


I think it's more important to be consistent within the rules you've established within the world you've created rather than making things strictly believable. If you have a wacky world you have a little more leeway for "cartoon physics" because it feels consistent with that world. If the world were more sober and realistic you wouldn't be able to get away with stretching things quite so much.

BellaVida said...

I also find it interesting to read about other writers and their process.

Fav line:
There's only one thing professional writers have in common: They get the job done, one way or another.

Beth Navarro said...

Thank you for posting this! I am also facinated by other's processes. I write everyday at my very not exciting, falling apart, IKEA desk (this I must remedy). I write during my girls nap time in the afternoon. I find since I've become a parent I get way more done since I only have a small window to do it in. ALthough I have to force myself to only use that time. If I have an idea in the morning it is so tempting to just write and ignore my wonderful kids! So I caryy paper with me everywhere and write it all down until my office hours. I outline though sometimes I feel too married to it and feel like it holds me back.

Kim Batchelor said...

About two years ago I was driving at night listening to Celtic music on the radio and learned of the very bleak side of "fairies" (songs of captive women, kidnapped with their babies, singing from caves to their loved ones). I then thought, "What if there's a girl who finds out she's half-fairy?" and the story began. Only after it was finished did I find the comments of many agents that they're "tired of fairies." Oh, well.

Distraction is the biggest enemy of my writing, but I take time most lunch hours at work or just after work to write--read the chapter I'm working on from the beginning, sometimes the chapter before to the point I begin writing, then leave off where I can easily pick up again. (One suggestion I've heard: stop mid-sentence.) I also like to read well-developed drafts outside my home: e.g., on a plane or in the library.

Nicole said...

Great post, Nathan! I'm also a huge fan of the "stare at a blank screen until the answer comes" approach. I've found that screen-staring or day-dreaming are often my best brainstorming times. Even if the answer doesn't come in those hours staring at the screen, it usually does hit me within a few hours of walking away. I think our brains just sometimes need that processing time to click into a fabulous fix for our plot or language. I count it as time well-wasted. :)

KAWyle said...

Nathan, I heartily second your advice to get out of bed and write down that idea that comes to you when you're falling asleep. I have a pad right next to my bed so that I don't have to haul myself all the way out! Some of my best ideas pop up when I'm in that half-asleep mode.

Like Erik, I try to silence my internal editor when I'm writing a first draft. And like Nancy, I enjoy letting that editor loose once it's time.

Barbara Kloss said...

Wow, I really enjoyed reading all of that. Thank you for sharing! It is always helpful to see how others write, and I found your method very encouraging.

Sometimes I feel like I can't start writing because I don't have those details fleshed out yet, but inevitably they work themselves out when I'm in a scene. (I also sit on the couch with my Mac. There's a permanent divot in the cushion.) I also have the same issue - forgetting to "slow down" in the midst of everything.

And you are right - working out (running for me) and showers seem to be a constant in figuring out "issues".

Looking forward to the rest of your week in blog posts!

Josin L. McQuein said...

I can't imagine writing paperless. Even with editing on screen, I've found so many more mistakes or places that could be tightened by printing the pages out and threatening them with a red pen.

Ted Cross said...

My style is very close to yours. I kept nodding as I read along, especially about getting up before falling asleep, and not fully outlining even though my mind has come up with a pretty decent idea of where it all will go.

Kevin R. Bridges said...

"As long as you get the job done you're a writer."

That's wonderful, and I'm considering putting it on my wall. It's much better than my previous philosophy:

"If you don't write every day, you're a dumbass."

I don't write with any kind of outline. I might sketch one out if I'm just uber-excited and want to do something, but I generally can only see about a chapter ahead, if that (though there is generally one, or a few, moments that I want to get to, in one way or another). I usually think of the ending as I write it. It's all very exciting and surprising, like reading a book.

Also, I blare an Offspring playlist in my headphones when I write, to block out the world around me.

Stephanie {Luxe Boulevard} said...

I like that you started with an image-idea. I started my MS that same way. For two months last summer I had one solitary image in my head. (I intend to get it tattoed on my upper thigh!) It was an exact image, but vague just the same, and I didn't know what to do with it. Then, after two months, one of my protagnoists appeared from it. From there it was one bit of research leading to another that brought everything to life.

Munk said...

You and I have a very similar writing method. The major difference is that though I do find writing hard, I really like the process. Perhaps it is my hatred of selling it, or perhaps I just like hiding, I don't know. But, I can say that on good days I have lots of little celebrations.
Each time I find a new and better way to say what I mean, I thrill a little.

Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

I'm so glad you said you don't have a writing schedule. I get pretty discouraged when I hear people say you have to write every single day or you basically have failed. I go in stints. I may take a week off because life happens but when I come back I write about 4-6,000 words in two days, getting everything out that I have been thinking about (because you are always thinking about the plot whether you are writing or not). And I find that if I am writing every single day, after a while my brain turns to mush and I can't think of a thing or it all sounds the same or I'm just plain old not inspired. So, I need to relax. Plus, I read a lot in those down times to recharge and learn from others. Which opens me up to knew ideas or ways of writing. Very helpful. Always.

This week is going to be great. Can't wait to hear more from you on your writing process!

Chris Phillips said...

"I don't like writing, I like having written." Hadn't heard it before. LOVE it. I can't write anywhere, I need to be home. I do listen to music most of the time when I write and sometimes my characters blurt out "Never say never" because of it. I sometimes wear a propeller beanie while writing and alcohol makes writing easier but editing harder.

BP said...

SPACE MONKIES! Aha! So THAT'S your secret! :D

Rane Anderson said...

That pose for 8 hours? I guess you can type one handed? hehe

Mercy Loomis said...

Fun post. I'm always curious about other people's processes as well.

My first novel was completely no-outline, and has involved the cutting and rewriting of several hundred thousand words by now. I'm experimenting with other methods on subsequent work. I have a novella that was not formally outlined but basically had a loose framework, and that went pretty well. I'm working on a YA that is also completely no outline, basic concepts but no real plot points set in stone. I'm having fun with that one, doing things like *add description of city here* so I don't get bogged down in the details on the first draft. It's already made one huge plot turn that I totally wasn't expecting. And I have another novel that I want to try plotting using lots of colored post-it notes on a whiteboard. It's a method I used during my current novel's revision and it was really helpful. (Hoping to get a blog post up about it this week, if I can get my husband to get my pictures off my phone.)

I've tried doing regular outlining and I can never get it to work. Usually before I start writing something I get a basic premise, a couple of characters, and a setting, and I shake up all the bits in my head until enough bits stick together that I can make a story out of it.

Victoooria George said...

I have a confession to make. I’ve always insisted to those around me that I can write anything. After all, I’m a writer, am I not? However, this isn’t true. May all the gods of writing please forgive me, I have never been able to craft an outline. I think this makes me what they call a “pantster”. When my story begins, there is a definite direction that presents itself and I can see where I want it to end, but I don’t know what will happen any more than anyone else does until I get to the next page and I like it this way. Because this is what is comfortable for me, I rely on my story to tell me when it’s time to write. I’m not always writing a novel, but I am always writing. And, on rare occasions when ideas are not churning in the ether around me, I can always fall back on my many grammatical errors that need correction, query letter crafting and hours of self doubt…er…meditation, to keep me focused on my writing every day. I am, as yet undiscovered talent but I believe that this is what will ultimately work for me. PS – I plan to claim this post as publication to shut my family up. If my mother calls you, just tell her you’ve read my work. Thanks!

Cynthia Lee said...

I make it up as I go along. I have a misty idea of the beginning and end but that's it.

I actually like the writing itself, even on the crappy days when I hate every word in the English language. I love the quiet (I write very early in the morning) and the feeling of my mind going quiet and focused. Whenever I'm feeling stressed or overwhelmed by real world stuff, I imagine myself sitting on my bed, writing on my laptop as the sun comes up and I feel better.

Stefan said...

This was some nice reading and I must say, I can see myself in a lot of what you said(wrote). And the Shower, isn't that the best place ever to go to when lacking of inspiration? I was almost on my way to buy a waterproof computer just because when I finally had gotten out of the shower and toweled myself the ideas were lost :( Anyways, I haven't read any of your books and I don't know of you in any way, just stumbled in to you on Twitter... and if anyone of you feel like it, check out a few of my poems at

TL Conway said...

Thanks for giving us a tour of your process! There's something calming about knowing you don't keep a rigorous schedule or stay slave to your word count. It makes me feel like there's a shot for me after all!

My process? I have a working outline before I start writing. (I need to get going on that series bible you suggested!) I'm most "in the zone" when I'm away from my couch, tv, and kitchen. So, I hide away in my study with classical music to provide background noise and I start writing in hopes something decent comes out.

Matthew MacNish said...

Wait. So after all that, it turns out that you're human?

Who would have known. Still, this is all very interesting, can't wait to hear more!

D.G. Hudson said...

Thanks for sharing your process, Nathan.

My writing process is a lot like yours:
I jot down ideas all the time and retain them in one file online

I map out loosely from beginning to end with space for growth in the story (keeps me on the story arc)

Writing in chapters a bit at a time, especially if I'm having trouble with another chapter. (It keeps the ideas flowing.)

I write something everyday, but on some days I wallow in editing, not liking any of it. I just get another coffee and look at something else in the book I can do like sketch out scenes, remind myself of how I want the characters to react, etc.

I have a space to write, a sort of desk with a lamp, a laptop, helpful books and notes galore, I have a file bin for writing info, keeping track of submissions, and I face a window (so if I get tired of looking at the screen, I can look outside and imagine that other world). I can shut the door if I need to.

I need quiet to write, no music, no other distractions. Working out is great for allowing the mind to simmer.

Like you, Nathan, I think being able to craft a novel is an accomplishment in itself - it shows tenacity, willpower, and persistence. Then the second part of the hard work kicks in - getting it published.

If you stare at your screen long enough -- will it suck you in? That is the question...(yes, images of Tron).

Looking forward to your next posts and all the reader comments.

Emily S said...

I write when I a lot of writers, I have 2 kids, a husband and a day-job. I was scheduled to go away all by myself (weeee!)this week on a writing "sabatical" but, life got in the way. I've rescheduled it for the fall. In the mean time, I will keep writing whenever I can.I like to write at home in my office with a pot of coffee on my left. I write at work (in a call center for a major insurance company) on Sunday mornings when its slow.It makes feel like I'm getting away with something! I really prefer to write when my kids are otherwise occupied/cared for because I totally neglect them when I'm in the groove.
Thanks for sharing your process, everybody! I am working on my first novel and connecting with other writers is helpful!

Tofu2 said...

Loved the post. I totally think its fascinating to hear how other people do the job. I particularly liked your line about how working out really helps to unlock ideas. As a runner who solves plot problems while on long runs, I couldn't agree more.

Sommer Leigh said...

Thanks for sharing your process with us Nathan!

I don't have a set time every day, but I usually do some writing every day, even if it is for me to stare at a blank screen (or the wall) for a couple of hours before deciding to go to bed.

I can write anywhere so long as it is on a laptop. I long ago lost my ability to hand write anything longer than a post-it note.

Will said...

Very similar to my writing pattern, though I still need to kick the habit of adding adverbs everything...indubitably.

Javid Suleymanli said...

great post. I like your tips :)

Brendan Gannon said...

Wow, what a comprehensive description! It's nice to see that you don't write every day. So many people giving writerly advice say "write something every day, regardless of what it is or whether it's any good." Good advice, but sometimes there just isn't a spare hour to be had.

Samantha Manzella said...

It really is fascinating to see how other writers write, isn't it? I loved this post, and I have to thank you for including all the links to posts that elaborated mentioned things. The series bible mentioned here sounds like a fantastic idea I might have to try.

Oh, and that quote? So true. Writing isn't always the most fun and lighthearted thing in the world, but it's definitely one of the most rewarding in my eyes.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Fascinating. Let us say that our writing processes are not very similar.

Must be something to do with the influence of the Sacramento Kings.

And I feel the sudden urge to write a blogpost...

Cambria said...

I cannot write with an outline. It makes me stress out, I feel like I have to write it the way the outline says and often times my characters have other ideas. So I start with an idea-usually a flash of the main character doing something in my mind(my newest series is on a girl who had been disfigured and couldn't remember how she got that way)-and I go from there. Alot of times i will stress half way through the book or right at the beginning and think how will I fill all these pages?? But ya know, my characters always surprise me. I have written 8 books now and the process is always a little different. Up until this last book that I wrote I never wrote the chapters in order. A lot of times i wrote the first chapter and then would see the end in my mind so i would start at the end and work backwards. Then when i burned out on the end i would go back to the beginning and work until there was just a big space in the middle to fill in. It worked for me but it made me crazy!! I was so scatterbrained. lol. This last book I just finished I made myself write in order and even labeled the chapters as I went. I thought it was going to be hard, but it worked out!
Hearing how other authors write is fascinating and I think it is a personal thing that only a fellow writer can understand.

Ella Schwartz said...

I am so so so glad you said that you don't love the writing process. I read so many authors who equate writing with pleasure. Some say things, "I have to write like I have to breathe". And I say to myself, really? I simply do not feel this way. Sure, I love dreaming up stories. I love the make believe words I create. And I love the finished work and only hope one day someone will want to read the fruit of all my hard work. But do I love the writing process? When I read people talk about how writing = life I begin to doubt myself as a writer.

Writing is HARD!

I write in a similar way as you do. I don't have a desk either. I tend to write on the couch or at my kitchen table.

And you are so right! I come up with my best inspirations in the shower. Sometimes I completely lose track of the time. Only when I run out of hot water do I realize I have been in the shower so long!

I really look forward to reading your posts for the remainder of the week.

And yeah to Jacob Wonderbar!!!

Karen Peterson said...

Nathan, thank you. Thank you so much. I sometimes feel like something is wrong with me because there are a lot of times that I just don't want to write because it feels tedious. I am SO glad to know I'm not alone.

Anonymous said...

I completely understand, when you said you want to know how other writers write. I try and do the same.

I've found that writing long-hand is the best for me. It is tedious and makes sharing the latest chapters with my reading group more difficult, it works, at least for now. There are a couple of reasons why I've changed from writing directly into the computer. First, my brain is faster than my hands flying across the keyboard, and because I can't spell for the life of me, it's easier to write it out then type it out, plus spell check sucks! But, the main reason why I switched to handwriting is to force myself not to edit as I go. I found myself, when I would transcribe what I wrote, that I would edit as I was typing, and i was concerned that it mess it the continuity of thought.

I'm also a night person, so most of my best writing doesn't happen until after 1:00 am.

Hope the post wasn't too long.

Mira said...

I loved reading this. Thanks so much for sharing, Nathan.

I very much appreciate your stance in the beginning - that there is no one right way to write, and as long as the writing happens, the process is just fine. That's very permission giving and self-accepting.

There's something about your process that is calm and balanced. I appreciate that. And when I read this sentence: "an end, which is usually either a pithy or sentimental moment, or possibly a cliffhanger", I got a sort of small chill, because being able to see and plan that is just so Nathan! It also gave me the intuition that you are a very good writer.

But I knew that, I read your posts.

I admit I was alittle surprised to hear you write on your couch with a laptop. I always imagined you at a nice wood desk with and ergonomic chair and the lastest Mac. Who knew?

Okay, so I do have a question. Your post is very detailed, so I don't have alot of questions, but here it one:

How do you maintain the discipline to write every weekend, for all day? Is it just an intrinsic part of you, or do you reward yourself, or use other tactics to get yourself to do that?

I ask because I'm very mood-driven, and I'd like to be more disciplined like you.


Nathan Bransford said...


I find it a bit easier with a deadline, but really I just decided to do it so I did it. I don't really have a reward system or anything, I just know that I don't do it I'm going to regret it so I'd better get it done.

Mira said...

Nathan - wow. I wish I made all my choices that way!

With writing I worry that if I force it, whatever "it" is, then "it" will hide from me. So, I have to wait for the perfect moment.

But I can see that's not true for you. The staring at the screen method has definite validity.


Other Lisa said...

I just know that if I don't do it I'm going to regret it so I'd better get it done.

Wow. My motivation, exactly.

I do enjoy parts of the process. I really love it when I come up with a great scene, or paragraph, or even sentence. But so much of writing is simply work. Good work, interesting work, challenging work. But work, nonetheless.

Barbara Watson said...

You have NO idea how wonderful it is to know that you don't write every day. As a mom, wife, and teacher, writing doesn't fit into my every day. I also cannot write with music anywhere near - any other noise I can block out (possible super power?) but not music.

Thanks for the peek into your writing life.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Loved hearing about your process. I'm going to try outlining for my next manuscript. I'm looking forward to the rest of your posts.

Anonymous said...

Do you write better in the morning, the afternoon or the night?

Nathan Bransford said...


The afternoon.

Anne said...

Nathan, do you write better when you have a good nights sleep, or maybe it doesnt matter?

Anita Saxena said...

Wow. Thank you for sharing your writing process. You don't know how much better it makes me feel to know that I'm not the only person who needs days in between writing sometimes to process what I just wrote and to think about where I'm going. Also, I've tried the whole staring at the screen thing, and it doesn't work for me. BUT, when I'm stuck I find if I switch to pen and paper I can usually write myself a solution. Again, thank you for sharing.

J.C. Martin said...

I'm a pretty obsessive plotter. I have a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the entire novel before I even start out. That said, my stories still tend to run away from me--not in a wildly different direction, but new layers are added that I can slot into my chapter plans--most of the time! :)

My job gives me the luxury of reserving a set time everyday purely for writing. Of course, how much writing actually gets done varies from day to day. Some days, I'm an irritable hermit who must not be disturbed, but other days I'm a relaxed scribe who is more than happy with the occasional interruption.

I am also a firm believer of the mystical art of screen staring when you get stuck. Once your vision starts to blur, something will come to you!

Katzie said...

I admire your time management skills! (Maybe a tad envious, too. :)) When I'm in writing mode, it's all I do. Even if I'm at work, mentally, I'm writing. I must have music and minimal distraction, so I usually hole up in my bunker (read: office) and go at it. I don't outline, but I keep notebooks to jot down ideas or to keep the details straight. In general, I get the characters going and then let them drive. I like sunny days in the garden with a cup of tea, or evenings by candlelight with a glass of wine in my office. I just love to write. It's what I'm most passionate about!

Kristin Laughtin said...

A lot of this sounds like me, except I try to write more frequently throughout the day rather than in long chunks of 6-8 hours. I don't think I could (mentally) do that in my current life, even on the weekends, unless I didn't have work (and if I definitely didn't have grad school). I also started setting a weekly quota, so that if I don't write so much one day, I can work on the story bible or edit my outline (which sounds more obsessive than yours; it makes me feel like I have already written a lot), I can make up for it over the course of the week. Like you, I need time to recharge, and so I write most days of the week but not all of them.

I've yet to use space monkeys, though. :-\

Peter Dudley said...

You and I have remarkably similar writing styles, except for the schedule.

(Now I try and break up my weekend with one day of writing and one day of doing something fun.)

I'm not too old to remember what weekends were like before children. With children, there is no balance.

Peter Dudley said...

BTW, I believe your wife is also an author. Do you write at the same time or different times? Do you find that helpful to have someone who understands that sometimes it's OK for dirty dishes to sit on the counter for a few hours when a scene needs to get written? That is, if you don't mind sharing.

Lauren B. said...

Count me among those who feel validated that you don't have to get up at 5am 5 days a week and write for two hours before your day job to be a 'real' writer.

I'd be interested in reading about your revision process and how it may differ! I suspect that my revisions will go faster than my (snails pace) first draft.

Marcia Richards said...

I'm so glad you wrote this, even though I was in the process of writing a similar blog post when i saw yours, started reading and "couldn't put it down'. There are many similarities to the way I write, so now I feel validated. Thanks for that. Anxious for your book to be on the shelves...will be buying it for my 9 yr old grandson. Linking to your blog from mine this evening. Great post!Writing IS hard, but fun anyway!

Ray Anderson said...

I have to print out pages. Then I can mark it up and fuss with it. Yeah, you can do that on a computer too, but not like you can with pen in hand.

lisalenardcook said...

What a great post! In my book about writing fiction, The Mind of Your Story, I shared some of my own process, which, for the literary fiction I write under my own name, involves discovering the story as I write (& rewrite). Recently, though, I've been ghosting thrillers, & you know what? Just as I do for nonfiction (I've written way too many Idiot's Guides), for these books, I outline, outline, outline. So, for me, the To Outline or not to Outline question is a matter of genre. If it's plot-driven, an outline is a must. If it's character-driven, I let the characters drive.

BTW, I'll be in SF the 13th, so hope to make the Launch Party.

JM Leotti said...

Fantastic post, Nathan! It made me feel better about so many things--I'm not so unusual! Writing is like love: Elation and Dread, and every emotion in between. Thank you!

TheUndertaker said...

Nathan, can I just say that this is probably the best blog post re writing that I have read in a long time. Honest, just simply a "hey, this is how I do it". How refreshing, and how helpful to realize that everyone does it different. Yes, of course I understand everybody has a different writing process, but I thanks to you, I realized that I thought I HAD to write a certain way (everyday, same time, no distractions, no emails), which was blocking me. I had created this block subconsciously and really confused myself (I'm quite good at that). Now, I suddenly feel quite inspired!

RG Sanders said...

I'd just like to say, I enjoyed the post and it inspired me to get back in front of my computer.

...well, aside from right now that is.

Debra Baseden said...

Great post--it always interest me to see what people's writing styles are. What does me in is coming out with plot outlines, but without them I've had four WIPs grind to a halt. I find I get timid and allow them to branch into too many directions. I'll definitely check out Jacob Wonderbar!

Kristi Helvig said...

I love reading about the writing habits of others. You and I are very similar in our approach, from the living room couch to loose outlining, and not listening to music while writing.

One thing that helps me is not ending for the day at a chapter break. I write a sentence, paragraph or whole page of the next chapter before stopping which makes it super easy to pick up again the next time. The "I like having written" line is brilliant and so true!

Lucy said...

One of the things I find about "writer's block" is that staring at the screen is only good for a few minutes. If I can't find a new paragraph to start in twenty or so, it's time to open a new document and find out why. I start to analyze, typing as I go.

What's frustrating me about this scene? What do I want to happen? What needs to happen?

Sometimes I back up and analyze what's happened in the past. The characters did this, this and this, and now they're here. Does something need to change in their previous actions? Or dialogue? How else could they act? What if?

Occasionally it'll take two or three sessions of this to straighten out some knotty problem--actually, in one instance it took months (not daily analysis, obviously), and I ended up with several major plot changes. But by coming back to it repeatedly, things have worked out.

Most often I find that my problem has to do with conflict--either it isn't believable, or there isn't enough of it. The scene is dragging and needs to move.

So there you have it--my experience with blank screens. :)

Robin Tidwell said...

We seem to have quite a lot of similarity in our processes...and this gives me hope! I was feeling kind of non-professional, not good enough, what-the-heck-was-I-thinking until now....

Rebecca Kiel said...

My writing has a sort of manic-depressive quality to it. I will go a month where it is pouring out of me, it's all I do after the kids go to sleep, and my husband knows to buy paper plates. Then after I have exhausted every last drop of creativity, I slow down. I catch up on laundry, I catch up on sleep, and let my 368 pages simmer. This "down time" can feel scary or frustrating, like I've lost my groove. But with a little extra discipline I work on more technical or business aspects of writing: researching agents, casting my FB net further, researching what other writers seem to be doing well. I know this is gestation time when I take a few steps back until I am ready to delve back into my manuscript. And when inspiration hits again, I edit the heck out of it. I am always working, but on different aspects of building a career as well as a book.

Wub2Write said...

I was a newspaper girl, so staring at a blank screen just after an interview was the norm for me. But once I got started, I was on a roll.

Love this post! I'm also a new follower.

BTW... a kid blasting off to a planet where substitute teachers live sounds like a fun read!

J. T. Shea said...

No, Nathan, readers of your wife's blog will know that is not a picture of how you write, but rather of how you grow a beard. One could of course grow a beard and write SIMULTANEOUSLY, but we men can't multitask now, can we? At least that's my excuse. I do have a wonderful sense of direction, though. To the fridge.

Your link to your 2010 High Concept post was well worth following. You rightly instanced SNAKES ON A PLANE as a classic example of high concept.

As I commented then, my trilogy has a chapter titled PLANE IN A SNAKE, which really is about a small plane eaten by a huge snake. With my protagonist Jimmy still in the plane. And the snake on an ocean liner. So maybe I should retitle the chapter JIMMY IN A PLANE IN A SNAKE ON A LINER. Just in case anyone doubts I'm weird.

Overall, my trilogy might be described as 'TREASURE ISLAND' MEETS 'TITANIC'. A treasure hunt on an ocean liner. That hits an iceberg. Twice. I told you I was weird.

'I don't really have time for writers block, and I really believe if you just stare at the screen long enough you'll figure it out.'
Is that before or after the proverbial drop of blood exudes from your forehead and drips onto the page?

No printer and no paper version until the ARCS!? Don't you realize an Electro-Magnetic Pulse could destroy your work? Not to mention destroying San Francisco, but let's get our priorities right here. We ARE writers.

And I write short chapters too. Short attention spans are not limited to kids!

Nicole, 'time well-wasted'? A great phrase!


McKenzie McCann said...

I completely agree that everyone has their own writing process. Sometimes I'll read something and think to myself "500 words per day? That sounds so forced."

Although, I do think writers are similar underneath all of the excess. Writers are not normal people.

paulajewelry said...

I totally agree with getting ideas from showers and workouts. The only downside is its hard to stop and write it down, especially in the shower. (I ended up keeping a hand-held recorder handy when I work out but can't solve the water problem!)
What about revisions? Everybody has a different idea about editing/revising. They come up with how many times they do it but I seem to do overall edits, spot edits, and do whatever-comes-to-mind edits. I don't really keep track of how many I do, maybe because I don't print them out (again, like you). How about you? What's your editing routine?

Marion said...

In a nutshell: Elation & Dread. Thanks, J.M. Liotti. A lot of dread before the elation.
I thought my book would be a poem. (It wasn't, luckily, because I'm not a poet.) Then I was surprised by 2 pages: the first page (not first any more, but the real beginning) and the climax, which was a bit of a shock. And then a chapter or 2, I think. And then an outline--as much a sort of mental map of relationships & driving forces as a plot outline. This outline I looked at once or twice afterwards. I've misplaced it!
I also write in spurts. I need percolation time. And I can't write if the main focus of my life happens to be somewhere else. Focus is a challenge with me.
One session is normally a few hundred words. Sometimes 2 or 3 thousand. That's as far as I can see.

maine character said...

That half-asleep time in bed is definitely a great time for ideas. I got good at writing in the dark, using my thumb as a guide to go line by line, but now I keep a digital recorder in reach, and it's just press a button and whisper away.

marion said...

J.M.Leotti, Sorry I misspelled your last name. Duh!

Colette said...

I am fortunate enough that I am able to write while sitting in a guard house getting paid to sign contractors and deliveries in and out of a gated office complex. So even if I don't write on my own all week I know I am stuck in a boring job where I make myself write. Last week had hard drive trouble and discovered just how boring my job is.

That said, I have a fluid outline which allows me the chance to follow my original path and any deviations I make along the way.

Danette Haworth said...

and then when I'm wide awake it's time to write.

Therein lies the problem.

Marion said...

Just clicked on your "Am I Crazies?" link. Love it! Thank you, Nathan, for inspiring such fantastic & LOL comments. Will try to remember to look at that page if I'm having a really bad day (in which case I probably won't remember!)

Emily Wenstrom said...

I love How I Write Week!

To stay excited and progressing on a long-term project, I have to touch it regularly. Daily, as much as possible. I get up an hour earlier than I have to on weekdays and use the time to write. On the weekends, I’m awful about focusing on work/to-do type things, so I gotta do them first: I’m at the gym 20 minutes after I wake up, and as soon as I’m out of the shower and clothed, I’m at my computer for at least 20 minutes, just so that I’m touching it and keeping it moving around in my mind.

My greatest challenge is frustration with how slowly it comes together. I’m quite slow at writing—100 to 300 words per sitting, a very frustrating, tiny drop in the bucket when you’re shooting to create a full novel. But it manages to grow over time. But when I get really fed up, I flip through what I’ve already done. I’m always surprised at how pleased I am with what’s on the page, and how many pages there actually are. That gives me the little boost I need to get back down to business.

Johnny said...

Nathan, I write like you. I need 5-6 hours at a time, but after a few weekends I feel like I have no social life whatsoever, and my chores pile up, so I break the trend and then I can't get back in after another month or so.

So how do you handle social life and chores while taking a big chunk of time to write in the weekend?

Anonymous said...

I think Tony Hillerman said it really well. He said something like: "One writes while one is peeling potatoes and washing dishes. Then when the story just can't stay in your head any longer, you finally put it on paper."

For me, I write while I am cleaning the house, pulling weeds and cooking dinner. I put it on paper (or rather in the computer) before my kids wake up in the morning and edit at my kid’s baseball, basketball and football games. If I ever get my book published, I am going to have to give them an acknowledgment and apologize for paying more attention to my hard copy book draft than their games.

- Heidi Wainer

Roslyn Rice said...

I am a busy full time working mother of two so the time to write is very limited. The best time is to force myself to go to bed early on Friday night and then write early on Saturday morning before the little people wake up and I have to go to the baseball field (my 2nd home).

Jen P said...

I'm inspired (again) by your post to get back in the chair and finish my WIP. Also by the other writing Moms' remarks.

Loved the bits I could so relate, no fixed schedule, am I crazies, good enough, I write on a MacBook Pro ...then almost fell off my chair with "I don't own a printer..."

JM Leotti said...

Marion - No prob. This made me laugh: "(It wasn't, luckily, because I'm not a poet.)" Very funny!

Ishta Mercurio said...

Thanks for sharing your process with us, Nathan!

Like you, I tend to have a vague-ish outline before I start, or within the first few chapters. I also need a couple of hours at a time; I'm not a half-hour-here-and-there writer.

But I don't really pay attention to chapter length for my novels. I do for my chapter books, and obviously I pay a lot of attention to length in my PBs, but I just let my novel do what it wants to do.

And I write my PBs out-of-order: beginning first, then the end, then I work on the middle. Then I sometimes go back and change the beginning, but not always.

I like writing in three different genres at once. If I get stuck on one project, I can let it sit and percolate in my subconscious while I work on another.

One thing I've noticed is that I need to write between books I'm reading. While I'm reading a good book, I tend to get so invested in those characters and that story that I can't think about anything else, including my own WiP. So, I have to finish reading the book and give myself a couple of days to work on my own stuff before I pick up another one.

Henri said...

Instead of working on my own writing, I just spent the last 15 minutes perusing through this week's posts. I especially enjoyed reading your query letter and how you found your agent. Thanks for sharing and good luck with your new and first release.

Dana Fredsti said...

I like the idea of a flexible (VERY flexible) outline. I also think there are times when a carefully chosen adverb or non-said dialogue tag adds value.

You almost had two people show up at Books Inc tonight until it hit them today was NOT Friday the 13th... :-)

Jackson said...

Such a great post! It's so nice to read that you don't follow word count and don't have the "I write from exactly this time to this time EVERY day" approach. (Reading that is really off putting sometimes.)

I am a believer of the outline that I must admit that I can get carried away and find I try to outline every point. (It surly has cause some struggles in my writing) So, now i try to outline the characters and a beginning/middle/end and then let the characters take off.

StaceyW said...

Particularly love the miscellaneous. I just finished a writing workshop, and one of the prof's most-repeated tidbits was "always stop when you know what's next."

Thanks! Great post as always.

Lucia M. said...

I love your posts! I think I am reading your whole blog in one night but I will leave some for tomorrow.

I am like you, I tend to rush through scenes and then when I read other books I realize my scenes are not too descriptive and rushed. I need to work on that! Patience!

rick crawford said...

Wowzers!!!! I love how you put all that into words. I feel exactly the same way. It is easy to get distracted with all the media. I find that more distracting than music. At times I don't know how I would be able to generate ideas or do research without the internet, but at other times, the WEB is a big distraction. Anyway....

Aidan said...

"I powered through because deep down I really believed in the idea and knew I'd regret it endlessly if I didn't try and do it while I had the time to do it."
I just copied this onto a sticky note so it will stare at me when I get stuck. You got it exactly...took the words right out of my head.
Thanks Nathan. Your blog is full of these perfect quotes.

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