Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, February 20, 2014

On a Love of Weather


Talking about the weather is almost by definition the height of banality. When you have absolutely nothing else to talk about with someone, well, at least there's the weather. You can chitchat about how nice it is or how horrible or gosh I hear we're going to get some snow tomorrow.

And yet the weather is something that affects us more than nearly any other force. At minimum it affects our day and mood, and at maximum it can destroy our livelihood, homes, and even kill us. It's amazing that people spend so little time thinking about something so important.

For instance, weathermen are a running joke. We marvel at their ineptitude when they predict one inch of rain instead of the two that falls, or if they hype a six inch snowstorm that turns out to be nothing.

Who stops to think about how miraculous it is that we can even vaguely guess the weather a few days in advance? Most people see simplicity where there is endless complexity.

The Science of Prediction

Predicting the weather is not as simple as standing outside, licking a finger and holding it to the air to see which way the wind is blowing. We have hundreds of stations around the globe taking measurements at various levels of the atmosphere. Mounds of data are fed into some of the most powerful computers in existence, which in turn rely on some of the most sophisticated algorithms ever developed.

In order to accurately predict a snowstorm a few days in advance, these computers have to take into account the dynamics at every level of the atmosphere, the shifts in jet streams, the confluence of different storms, and somehow output a reasonable approximation of what will happen in the future.

Maps like this are churned out, which require very advanced knowledge to even interpret. Various weather models are compared against each other in order to come up with a forecast. And yet it's still almost impossible to be completely accurate.

To get a huge snowstorm in New York, you often need a low pressure system tracking up the coast with a lot of moisture and energy that passes near what is called "the benchmark," an arbitrary place in the ocean that is just far enough off the coast to throw snow back at NYC but not so far that it goes out to sea, and a high pressure system in Greenland that acts as an atmospheric dam, slowing down the system so that it deepens and becomes more intense.

Even with all of that needing to come together all at once, a very subtle shift in temperature at the 850mb level of the atmosphere (about 5,000 feet) can mean the difference between snow, sleet, or freezing rain. A few degrees can mean the difference between a raging blizzard and pouring rain. And the intensity of the storm itself affects this temperature. The storm, in effect, creates its own weather dynamic.

This is what you're blaming your weatherman for!! An unexpected shift in winds and intensity that raises or lowers the temperature a few degrees at 5,000 feet in the air.

Weather Nerddom

As I'm sure is now apparent, I've always been somewhat of a weather nerd. I read weather message boards that interpret the latest weather models, have spent years gradually learning the lingo and concepts, and I find it all completely fascinating. The consensus reached on the message boards are far more accurate and up-to-date than anything you see when you type your zip code into weather.com.

Even still, with the information out there, people would often rather trust their own vague intuition. I was stocking up on supplies before Hurricane Sandy and the checkout person scoffed that it was going to be nothing and I was going to have to return everything. I was like, "Um... I think this one is going to be big."

I don't totally blame people. Most people's experience with weather forecasting is limited to oracular weathermen who breezily give a confident forecast without any hint of the complexity at work or their level of confidence in the outcome. Some weather forecasts are a slam dunk because the dynamics are simple, some are highly uncertain because the dynamics are complicated, but they almost never tell you which is which.

Still though. Isn't anyone at least curious?

Weather and Writing

To me, thinking deeply about things like the weather is what it takes to be a writer. I don't mean that all writers are weather nerds (we all have our own weird interests), but in order to be a writer you have to take the parts of life that everyone takes for granted and think about them extremely deeply.

Many people are content to skate on the surface of life and just get through their day. Writers are not like that. We pick apart interactions, we wonder what makes people tick, we don't take the everyday for granted.

Writers can't just see the sun shining outside and let that be the end of their thinking. Much like the weather, it's only when you dig deep and learn everything you can that you can accurately see what is possible.

Art: A Storm on a Mediterranean Coast by Claude-Joseph Vernet






Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Writing With a Day Job


On last week's episode of Girls, Hannah got a temporary day job in GQ's advertorial department, where she had a taste of success (as well as free snacks).

Her fellow co-workers were fellow aspiring writers, and during a slightly fraught break room chat, they revealed that all of their writing successes came before they had a day job. Hannah quits, not wanting to wake up in ten years having failed to pursue her real writing, but later decides to try to have it both ways and vows to write three hours every night.

I'm sure this episode rang true for many a writer. Barring some sort of independent wealth or a generous benefactor, there are really only two choices:
  • Quit/scale back your day job to have more time to write, plunging yourself into financial uncertainty. 
  • Keep your day job and carve out time for writing in the margins, plunging yourself into creative uncertainty.
There are pros and cons of both courses of actions, of course, and I know writers on both ends of the spectrum. Some writers I know cobble together a freelance life to maintain maximum flexibility while just getting by financially, which gives them enough time to write.

I have thrown myself into my day jobs. 

I probably could, in theory, quit my day job, combine my books income with some writing/editing consulting on the side and cobble together a reasonable living with more time to write. But here's the thing: I like having a career.

It's not just about having a steady paycheck and benefits, which are nothing at all to sneeze at. Having financial security takes a ton of the pressure off of writing, and I completely recognize how fortunate I am in this day and age to even have a good job, especially one where I feel like I'm helping accomplish a greater good. 

For me, one of the most important reasons I like having a day job is balance:
  • Writing can be solitary -- I like going into an office, having a routine, seeing coworkers I like every day, and getting out of my own head.
  • Writing can be frustrating -- I like having something else I'm invested in, particularly in an arena where one's effort is often more closely tied to tangible results. 
And when one is down and gets difficult, often the other is up. It's sort of like having multiple horses in the race. When the writing is tough, it can be nice to go into the office on Monday and feel like I'm not living and dying by the publishing world. When I have a rough day in the office it's nice to be able to go home and write and feel like I have another iron in the fire.

The main drawback of writing with a day job is that it requires a huge amount of discipline. I have to give up things I might otherwise like doing. Namely, enjoying my weekends and many of my weeknights. Instead of going skiing as much as I like or staying in and binging on Netflix I have to convert to what is essentially a six or seven day workweek.

Again, I should be so lucky. And I don't know how this will work once I have a family. 

But if you're in a similar position, just know that you really don't have to quit your day job to write. There's enough time in the day, provided you take advantage of those slivers of time you have available and press forward even when you get tired.

Anyone else out there struggling with this dilemma? How do you make things work?

Art: Hay Harvest at Éragny by Camille Pissarro






Thursday, February 13, 2014

Please Try E-mailing Me Again


It pains me to inform you that the contact form on my website is broken. GAH!! Those e-mails you sent (and who knows how many others) have been arriving very inconsistently.

If you sent me a bid for a publishing consultation through the contact form on my site and you haven't received a reply, please e-mail it to me again at nathan [at] nathanbransford.com

Also, if you have ever tried to contact me and I didn't e-mail you back this is probably why. Feel free to try again.

Thank you, and so sorry for the inconvenience!






Wednesday, February 12, 2014

I'm offering publishing/writing consultations


Inspired by my friend and colleague Christine Pride, I'm going to offer five publishing consultation slots over the next month. During this time you will be free for one hour to ask me anything to your heart's content via Skype or Google Hangout or phone, from feedback on plot to how to go about the traditional or self-publishing process to advice on your query letter to whether Bachelor Juan Pablo is a harbinger of the apocalypse (spoiler: the answer is "yes"). 

Here's how this will work.

I have literally no idea what to charge, and I also want to be fair about how to allocate slots, so I'm going to use a bidding system. 

If you are interested, e-mail me a bid for an hour consultation before 5pm ET on Monday February 17th at nathan [at] nathanbransford.com. That's it. Four slots will go to the four highest bids. However, I know we are in economic crunch times and there are many worthy writers who don't have a lot of cash, so the fifth slot will go to a randomly selected person from among all the bids even if they're not one of the highest bidders. And obviously those who don't get a slot don't pay anything.

A few extra things:
  • I will read up to 25 pages of material in advance of the call
  • Timeslots are only available between 6pm - midnight ET on weekdays and 9am - midnight ET on weekends on account of my day job and sleep requirements. Times to be mutually agreed upon and subject to change in case of emergency and all that.
  • Bids from Bachelor Juan Pablo will be summarily rejected. Juan Pablo, please take a moment and say your goodbyes.
Thanks, everyone! Looking forward to chatting.

Art: Rokoko-Kavaliere im angeregten Gespräch by August Hermann Knoop






Monday, February 10, 2014

Sometimes the Boring Idea is Best


When people set off to write a novel, they often feel as if they need to break every single mold and come up with something no one else has thought of before.

And then, when writing the novel, writers sometimes feel pressure to get their characters from Point A to Point B in the most! exciting! way! possible!

Not only is this way too much pressure to put on yourself, a lot of times it isn't even the best choice for your story. As I say in my guide to writing a novel, "“Sometimes a character just needs to stare at the ice floes and contemplate the meaning of life."

You don't have to break every mold to write a novel, and you don't have to try to blow everyone away on every single page. There's a rhythm of ups and down in a novel that can be incompatible with shoving originality and excitement where it doesn't belong. You can also exhaust the reader if you constantly try to blow their minds.

Poor, poor boring idea! You are unappreciated, you are downtrodden, you are the idea of last resort. But sometimes you are the right one for the moment.

Art: In Gedanken by Félix Armand Heullant






Friday, February 7, 2014

The Past Few Weeks in Books 2/7/14

Photo by me. I'm on Instagram here.
There were some good publishing and books links in the past few weeks, and here are the ones that caught my eye.

But first, as I mentioned last week my friend and colleague Christine Pride, who has edited 7 NY Times bestsellers, is offering some private consultations this month. Check it out.

And in April I will be venturing to the lovely state of Wisconsin for the UW-Madison Writers’ Institute! I'll be giving some talks and workshops and would love to see you there if you can make it.

Now then. Links!

Big congrats to Kate DiCamillo, who won the 2014 Newbery Award for Flora and Ulysses, to Brian Floca, who won the Caldecott for Locomotive, to Marcus Sedgwick, who won the Printz for Midwinterblood, and to Markus Zusak, who received the Margaret A. Edwards Award.

Amazon released its list of the bestselling books of 2013, with Inferno by Dan Brown taking the top spot.

Sarah McCarry, aka The Rejectionist, has kicked off the first few entries in her series on writing and depression/mental illness, and it's off to a seriously terrific start. Here are the posts featuring Mairead Case, s.e. smith, Red Mills and Christine Hou.

Author Amanda Hocking had a really great an honest post about hitting a rough spot and not really being sure how much to share online or not.

Ann Morgan decided to read one book from every country in the world. Such a cool project. She shared her favorites with The Atlantic

What makes for better writing - getting more words on the page or working slowly and getting things right the first time? Here's a vote for quantity. I'm not sure I agree. (via Jennifer Hubbard)

And what's the difference between middle grade and YA? Agent Janet Reid describes some of the differences.

The past few weeks in the forums: Title tips, book marketing as a marathon, and query critiques!

And finally, The Beatles' famous impromptu rooftop concert, which ended up being their last, happened 45 years ago. Amazing:


Have a great weekend!






Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Will there ever be a successful "Netflix for Books?"


Ever since I've been connected to the book world there has always been talk about a "Netflix for books." The latest (very good) comparison was made this week by Peter Osnos in The Atlantic.

It's important to remember, as Osnos does, that the publishing industry innovated with subscription services long before movies ever did. Ever heard of the Book of the Month club? There are also these services that allow you to check out just about any book you want called libraries.

But snark aside, a true subscription service that allows readers to pick the books they want for a monthly fee has proven to be a bit of a white whale for some time.

We seem to be closer than ever. Scribd, Oyster and the Kindle Lending Library are all hoping to be your go-to source for on-demand book rentals, and they've gained more traction than most of these attempts in the past.

And yet is really something people really want? Few people read more than one book a month. That is, in fact, one big source of the appeal of the BOMC. And an e-book rarely costs more than $9.99. And the people who read the most books (such as hard-core genre readers) are the ones who are reading books that are cheaper to begin with. And the library is free. So do we really need a an e-book subscription service?

Call me a skeptic. I spent most of January reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt on my iPad, and it set me back $8.85. That's less than a month of Netflix.

What do you think? Can a subscription service take off?






Monday, February 3, 2014

3 Things Writers Can Learn From J.K. Rowling's Second-Thoughts About Harry and Hermione


Every newsfeed in the land was abuzz with J.K. Rowling confessing to second thoughts about how she wrapped up the Harry Potter series, and specifically about whether Harry and Hermione should have gotten together. The full interview has not yet been released, but that hasn't stopped the Internet from having a collective freakout, with some people agreeing and some people thinking everything turned out just fine thankyouverymuch.

From the quotes that have been released, it sounds more like she felt like she forced the Ron/Hermione relationship more than flubbing the Harry/Hermione relationship.

Count me in the camp that feels that a lack of chemistry between Harry and Ginny was a bigger problem than an unfulfilled desire to see Harry and Hermione get together, but setting that aside, there's a lot that this reveal tells us about the writing process.

1. Even J.K. Rowling has second-thoughts about her plotlines

Writing a novel can be such a confusing mess. At the end of the day you have to just pick something and go with it, but those nagging second thoughts might never go away.

By the time you read a good book it feels like canon, like it sprung forth fully-formed from its writer. You get lost in it and don't think about all of the difficult choices the author had to make, all of those times when the author went with their best guess about what would work with no prior knowledge of whether it really would make sense and be the best plot.

Second-thoughts and doubts are totally normal. You might feel like you're barely holding things together, and you wouldn't be alone.

2. It's hard for authors to see their works clearly

It's hard to get a sense of the forest from the trees when you spend hundreds of hours getting one inch of bark right at a time. Authors are so deeply immersed in their worlds, see them on such granular levels, that it's hard to have the distance to make the right choices. Or, even if you make the right choice, you might not even be quite sure why.

This is why editors exist. They can take a more objective look and see the forest and help guide writers to make the right choices.

In this case, whatever her second thoughts, I don't know that Rowling was wrong about how she ended up writing the books. Even many years after the series closed I'm sure it's difficult to see things clearly.

3. Authors and readers and books have an uncomfortable relationship

The other day, John Green tweeted that books belong to their readers. Which is true as it goes, (especially if they have purchased them), but books also belong to their authors. What J.K. Rowling says about her works really does change how we look at them.

When Rowling said that Dumbledore was gay that carried a whole lot more weight than if anyone else had said it. Nothing changed in the text, but it certainly changed how people interpreted the books.

The reading experience is ultimately up to the reader, but what the author thinks and says about their work really does matter.

What did you think about this revelation?







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