Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, December 19, 2016

8th Annual Heifer International Fundraiser!

It's that time of year!

This is the eighth year in a row for our Heifer fundraiser! In a time of so much strife in the world, an organization that tries to alleviate hunger is as important as ever.

Here's how this works. All you have to do is help spread the word by:

1) Leaving a comment on this post (bonus points for sharing it so others hear about Heifer and leave their own comments).

2) Tweet a link to this post ( and include the hashtag #NBHeifer

3) OR even easier, just retweet this tweet:

4) OR donate directly by going to this page:

Do one of those things? I'll donate $2.00, up to a max of $2,000.

While you're at it...

5) Click over to other participating blogs at the bottom of this post and leave comments there too
6) Make your own per-comment or tweet pledge and I'll link to you/tweet you!

If you want in on the fun and make a per-comment or tweet pledge on your own just leave a comment with a link to your blog post or tweet announcing your pledge or e-mail it to me and I'll feature it in this post.

Heifer International is an organization that fights hunger by giving families around the world livestock, training, or other assistance that helps improve their livelihood. Heifer has been recognized for its work in Fast Company and Forbes, among other places.

If you have anything to spare this holiday season I hope you'll consider making a donation. Over the past years we have raised over $12,000 together, which is quite something. Here's that link again to donate directly.

Thanks, everyone!

Participating blogs/Twitter handles:


Wednesday, December 7, 2016

What is your favorite bookstore?

Photo by me in Aardvark Books, San Francisco
Amid the very sad news that beloved Cobble Hill bookstore BookCourt is closing, where I had my launch party  Jacob Wonderbar and the Interstellar Time Warp, the New York Times recently asked seven authors about their favorite bookstores.

We can do better than seven can't we? What is your favorite bookstore and why? 

While I'm on record as an e-book aficionado, when I do want to buy a paper book for myself or as a gift, I go out of my way to shop at local bookstores. And I have plenty of love and nostalgia for bookstores. I still think they're going to persist in the e-book era.

Favorite bookstore is a tough choice for me. As an author, I'm so thankful for BookCourt and Books Inc Opera Plaza for hosting me for some memorable events. I loved my pilgrimages to storied bookstores like Shakespeare & Co in Paris and Powell's in Portland.

But for sheer influence I'd have to go with Bloomsbury Books in Ashland, Oregon. My family used to go to the Shakespeare Festival every summer and we'd make multiple trips to Bloomsbury, where the staff introduced me to David Eddings and all kinds of other authors.

What about you?

Monday, December 5, 2016

Will you ever buy mostly e-books? The results! (2016)

For the 10th consecutive year, I asked people if they could see themselves going mostly paper free.

We seem to have settled into a bit of an equilibrium. Ever since 2011, the number of e-book aficionados has hovered between 44% and 49%, but last year there was anomalous reversal down to 40.5%. Interestingly, this year's bump back to 47.1% was mainly driven by people coming off of the fence and choosing the "maybe" and "I don't know" options in fewer numbers.

With all the usual caveats (unscientific poll, different sample sizes and audiences), here are the people who welcome their coming e-book overlords:

2007: 7% (!)
2008: 11%
2009: 19%
2010: 32%
2011: 47%
2012: 47%
2013: 49%
2014: 44%
2015: 40.5%
2016: 47.1%

And here are the paper dead-enders who will go down swinging for their paper books:

2007: 49%
2008: 45%
2009: 37%
2010: 30%
2011: 25%
2012: 25%
2013: 25%
2014: 28%
2015: 38.6%
2016: 37.8%

What do you make of these results? Are we locked in a stalemate? What would be a potential game-changer?

Friday, December 2, 2016

This week in books (and politics) 12/2/16

Photo by me. Follow me on Instagram! @nathanbransford
This week! The books! (And some politics this time).

First up, if you haven't already voted in the 10th annual e-book poll, pray get thee to the post to vote! I'll reveal the results early next week and compare to the past polls.

Meanwhile, links galore:

It's December (um wait a second it's December???), which means it's best-of-the-year season. Kicking things off is the New York Times, with their ten favorite books of the year, and Amazon with the best children's books of the year.

Indie bookstore expansion alert! Congrats to the fantastic Greenlight, and here's rooting for more similar success stories.

How much income has J.K. Rowling seen from her books and movies and plays and theme parks? Um. Well. A lot.

Speaking of which, reasearchers have quantified what made us love Harry Potter (and other types of archetypal stories).

The Times had a conversation with novelist and now officially fashion-icon Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about beauty and feminism in Our Modern Era.

Jennifer Hubbard talks about heroes, real and fictional.

In publishing advice news, BookEnds reminds us that publishing is not a business for the impatient, and warns against the potential downsides of querying two books at once. And editor Melissa Manlove talks about the elements of a good picture book.

What's this I see? A rumination on the similarities between writing and chess? I clicked so fast.

Writing an acknowledgments section is the best part of writing a book. Here's a handy checklist.

And lord knows it's difficult these days to avoid distractions. Here's what Medium founder Ev Williams has to say about keeping a schedule, which has great paralells for the writers out there.

In political news, an interesting look at how publishers are scrambling to make sense of Trump's victory and readjusting to the new landscape.

There have been a ton of articles about the importance of empathy and the lack thereof. GigaOm founder Om Malik makes a convincing case that Silicon Valley has a lot of soul-searching to do.

I enjoyed this post on how designers can resist what's to come.

Trump supporters, you've been a little quiet on my line in the sand post. (Except for Jerry, thanks Jerry!)

And this article is very long, but for my money this is the best post-election recap I've read. The essence? With an election this close, everything mattered.

Comment! of! the! week! goes to ABC, who nicely articulates how dominant the election has been in many of our brains:
What is happening in this country is going to be too difficult to separate from everyday existence, including writing. Heck, I'm already considering how it is/will impact what I write next. This presidential election is making it hard to sleep, it's causing me more back tension than I already have, and (as a therapist) it informs many of the discussions I have been having with clients--even those who couldn't yet vote. It's in the water and the air and the food! 
And finally, I've been hearing a lot of people talk about how maybe things won't be so bad. This New Yorker cartoon was some necessary gallows humor.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Trump supporters, can we make a deal?

Yes, this is a political post. Context here. No hard feelings if you decide to skip to the next post.

Hello and congratulations on the election.

If you are indeed a Trump supporter, I would like make a plea to you: please read this post in full even if you think I'm a lunatic. You won the election! Throw me a bone! Heck, you could throw me two bones if you were so generous as to share this with another Trump supporter or two million.

Let me start by saying what this blog post is not:
  • This is not an attempt to get you to change your mind.
  • This is not an attempt to make you feel bad for voting for Trump.
  • This is not an attempt to explain why I'm right about everything in the world oh make that the universe.
(If you do want one of those articles, by all means you can click here and here and here and here and here. But that's not what this post is about).

I don't know your personal reasons for voting for Trump, but because I'm an optimistic person by nature and believe the vast majority of people to be good at heart, I trust that you went to the voting booth with good intentions, however much I might disagree with you. I'm not going to try to persuade you otherwise. 

But I am, shall we say, scared. I am like a dog lying on its belly, paws up saying, "Master please pet my belly instead of goring my intestines." I'm scared for the country. I'm scared even more for the people who are less advantaged than me. I could list all these particular fears for myself and for my friends and for people I don't even know, which is a very long list, but again, not the point of this post. 

The fear I want to focus on, as a proud American who will croon "Where at least I know I'm free" with the best of them, and as a former public school attendee who is mindful of the very long history of charismatic leaders stirring a fear of outsiders in fractured times, is this one: the risk to our cherished democracy and the principles it stands for.

That's crazy, you might be thinking. You liberals have lost your damn minds. You are in a bubble! (FWIW my parents are farmers and I grew up in a county that voted overwhelmingly for Trump but yes I do now live in Manhattan in a building that has more people living in it than my entire hometown). We elected a businessman, not a tyrant. There you go again, overhyping and lying. You lost. Get over it. Our institutions are strong. If Trump sucks he'll be impeached or voted out. Give the guy a chance. This attitude is why you lost the election in the first place!! 

I HOPE YOU'RE RIGHT!! If this all comes down to me being a lunatic I will happily check myself into the asylum. 

But since you were kind enough to throw me the bone of reading this article, here's what I ask of you, with the inauguration still two months away and with history yet to be written:

I want you to take a deep breath and close your eyes. Just kidding!! Hope you didn't do that, I need you to read the rest of the article. 

I want you to take a moment. (Eyes open, to be clear). Set aside Trump, set aside Obama, set aside Hillary, set aside our politically fractured environment, set aside additional metaphors about dogs and bones. 

In a totally hypothetical world, what would be a "step too far" for you against our democracy? What would make you stop, even if it's your guy or gal in the Oval Office, and say, "Okay, that's too far." Pretend it's your friend Steve who just became President of the United States (love Steve!), or the Newman guy in Jurassic Park who got slimed by the dinosaur with the weird gills.

Here are some hypotheticals -- NOT SAYING THESE ARE GOING TO HAPPEN -- but just to give you a sense of what I have in mind for potential "steps too far":
  • Crackdowns on educators
  • Censoring of political speech
  • Jailing of opposition leaders and/or reporters
  • Systematic efforts to bankrupt institutions or news outlets
  • Registries for minority or religious groups
  • Restrictions on the Internet and social media
  • Assaults on peaceful protestors and a blind eye toward prosecuting those responsible
  • Defying court rulings
  • Assassinations or detainment of dissidents
  • Postponement of elections
  • Internment camps
  • Nuclear war
  • Failure to recruit Bruce Willis to avert asteroid threatening Earth
Just take a moment, work with me, and think, "If, hypothetically, Trump were to do X, Y and Z from this list (or something else), then I would have to reconsider things." Even if you think there's less than zero chance of it happening. Even if it feels like an exercise in writing young adult dystopian fiction (which you should totally try by the way).

Okay. Do you have your list? (Do tell in the comments section - I'm curious! Passive aggressive "things Obama or Hillary already did" will be deleted, not the point of this exercise though I appreciate the attempt also I'm onto you!)

Trump likes deals, I like deals, we all like deals. The deal I want to make with you is that if I do my absolute best to keep an open mind about the future and, as I am repeatedly asked on social media, to "give Trump a chance," you will withdraw your support for Trump if one of your "steps too far" happens. 

It may be hazy if and when it happens. It may feel like it had some justification. You may not even remember reading this blog post (although, if so: how could you, future you, HOW COULD YOU). That's why I want to do this now, in a vacuum before things start getting wild. Let's make this deal while our heads our clear.

All I ask is that you remember this post, remember this exercise, remember your "steps too far," and resist if it happens however you see fit.

Thank you for reading. You're fired. Just kidding.

Enjoy this post? Please consider following me on Twitter or Facebook, subscribe to my blog, or check out my guide to writing a novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Will you ever buy mostly ebooks? (10th annual poll)

Well by golly we made it to ten years of this poll.

I have been asking this question every year since 2007, when the Kindle was brand new and the iPad did not yet exist.

So. Do you think you'll ever buy mostly ebooks? Do you already?

Caveats, because even ten years in I still get these:
  • Yes, I understand this isn't a scientific poll 
  • Yes, it's further unscientific to compare between years when my blog readership may have changed
  • Yes, I know you want more poll options because no option here precisely captures your view. Choose the one that's closest.
Poll below. You'll need to click through if you're an email subscriber. (And if you're not an email subscriber, subscribe now!)

Monday, November 21, 2016

The last week in books 11/21/16, plus a few words about politics

Photo by me. Follow me on Instagram! @NathanBransford
First up, thank you to everyone who weighed in on the two posts last week (here and here) about how authors should navigate politics on social media. The discussion was almost entirely wonderful and positive, even when people disagreed, which is not something I take for granted in this charged up day and age. I highly recommend checking out the two threads for some thoughtful discussion.

And now, a "fair warning" about this here blog that I am so very thankful you peruse from time to time

Over the last few weeks, I've been thinking almost nonstop about the election. About where we go from here, about what I can do, and about how we're going to navigate a world, and especially a social media world, where it seems like almost everything is political.

I have some ideas about all of this that I'd like to tease out, and especially because I have such a wonderfully positive and diverse group of people who read and comment on this blog, I'd like to use this as a test ground for some of those ideas. Basically I'd like to use this space as sandbox. Let's build some castles!

So... here's my fair warning to those of you who read and subscribe: this blog will no longer be an entirely politics-free space.

But here's my pledge to you:
  • I do not intend to turn this blog over to *only* politics. This will still primarily be a place where we talk about writing, reading, and all those things you've come to expect. This is not a bait and switch. Don't care about politics? Feel free to skip on past those posts.
  • When I do post about things related to politics, I do not intend to be strident or to be unwelcome to people who disagree with me. I want this to be a safe space for people of all views. 
  • In fact, if you want to thoughtfully disagree with me I WANT YOU HERE. Please stay. I want to learn from you.
  • Unless you're a jerk. Jerks of all stripes will be unwelcome.
I hope you'll stay for what's to come, but no hard feelings if it's not your cup of tea. 

Thoughts? Questions? Take to the comments section!

Now then. There were some solid books and writing links from the last week or two, and I still aim to give them to you:

People love them some old book smell. But what is that exactly? Electric Literature found a great infographic that explains it. Science!

People also love them some New York. (Oh, what's that you say? You don't love New York? Watch this.) Anyway, the Guardian had a list of the top 10 New York novels. How do you think they did?

I linked to this in my post on the end of truth, but in case you missed it, I highly recommend checking out Amanda Gefter's whole interview on the nature of consciousness.

Still surprised Trump won? The NY Times has a list of 6 books to read to help you understand it.

And if you're having trouble dealing with the election, the LA Times has a great recommendation: head to the library.

And if you're really really having trouble dealing with the election, YA author Ellen Hopkins has a message for you: we're not getting over it and we don't have to.

And if you're really really really having trouble dealing with the election, if may be of some small comfort to know that Octavia Butler totally saw it coming.

So is Bob Dylan actually going to show up to accept the Nobel Prize in Literature? Probably not.

In writing advice news, yours truly was featured in an interview with Kelly Q. Anderson, where I touched on such things as dealing with rejection (sometimes from the fetal position) and advice for embracing the right kind of fear.

One of the challenging things about editing-as-you can go is that while it can sometimes be helpful, it can also be an unproductive sinkhole of time that stops you from what you really need to be doing, which is charging forth. Writing Helping Writers has some ideas on how to navigate that.

In agent news, Jessica Faust talks about the advantage of an agent who really knows you.

And Penguin Random House has a roundup of 27 of the best books on writing. Which is great and all, but, um, Penguin Random House YOU FORGOT ONE.

Comment! of! the! week! There were so many good comments last week, thank you so much to everyone. For Comment of the Week I'm going with Alexandroid, who has a short but eloquent post on how empiricism is the answer to the fracturing of truth:
I think our only hope is to build a culture where people value evidence based arguments over conspiracy theories, where critical thinking and scientific method are taught and praised but speculations and poor fact checking are considered unethical and looked down upon. We will never be able to get objective truth but at least we can affect our common mindset and lens. We've done this before with things like valuing life, empathy and honesty, there is no reason we could not do it again as a society and civilization at large.
And finally, people of all political stripes have been longing lately to return to a more innocent time. In order to bring you back to some halcyon days, I give you... CNN's wonderfully ludicrous in-studio "hologram" effect during the 2008 election (email subscribers, please click "Read More" below to see):

Have a great week!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The end of truth

If you've been too distracted by the presidential election to follow the latest cutting-edge theories in physics, you may be surprised to learn that the latest in physics sounds... well... actually quite a lot like the presidential election.

(And no, I'm not referring to whatever physics account for Donald Trump's hair.)

In The Atlantic, science writer Amanda Gefter (whose mesmerizing book Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn is a must-read) had a conversation with cognitive scientist Donald D. Hoffman about the extent to which a "public object" doesn't really exist because of the observer effect, and how skewed our perceptions of reality may be as a result.

Let me try to translate this into English (and scientists, please let me know if I'm translating badly).

We humans like to believe that there is a "real" world out there irrespective of our individual perceptions. In other words, if you look at Donald Trump's hair and I look at Donald Trump's hair, we'd like to think that at the end of the day we're looking at the exact same hair. There is some "objective" reality of Donald Trump's hair. If we somehow had a third party god-view of Donald Trump's hair, we would know where Donald Trump's hair is at all times and we could measure it accurately, even if it, say, fell into a black hole.

The problem is, as Gefter points out, experiment after experiment with quantum particles shows that if we make the assumption that there is a "god view" independent of someone observing a particle, "we get the wrong answers." Experiments keep defying the idea that there is a third party, objective reality out there that's separate from who is observing it.

It's quite possible that reality itself is comprised entirely of the interaction of first-person points of view. If you were inside of a black hole and I was outside of a black hole and Donald Trump's hair fell into the black hole, we might see two totally different things happen and they're both equally real. You literally have your own Donald Trump's hair, and I have mine.

Lucky us.

So how does this relate to the presidential election?

"The Media" is Plural

For the last hundred years, owing to some quirks of technology (only so many channels on the spectrum) and economics (efficiences of scale), we had a largely centralized media after the rise of radio, television, book publishers, and newspaper syndication in the 20th century. Most people got their national and international news either from a major paper, from syndicated services like the AP within their local papers, or from the nightly news on one of the capital-lettered networks on television.

The effect of all of this is that our news was pre-filtered and shaped by these "mainstream" networks, which meant that we were by and large starting our political discussions from the same set of facts. We may have disagreed, sometimes strenuously, and there was much that was happening outside of the "mainstream" that we didn't even know about, but our disagreements were starting with many of the same basic "truths."

Cable altered this landscape a bit, leading to the rise of CNN and Fox News, among others, but then, of course, along came the Internet, which has had a profoundly unpredictable effect on what we even consider our realities to be.

On the one hand, the Internet has shone a light on previously unheard voices that would have previously struggled to have broken through to the mainstream. The Rodney King video was shocking when it landed on TV in the early '90s (at least, shocking to white viewers), but its existence depended on some person randomly having a camcorder on hand when it happened and getting the tape to a TV network willing to run it.

Now there is a stunning drumbeat of cell phone videos of police shootings and their aftermath that are dispersed on social media, raising awareness of the frequency of these types of incidents and sparking calls for reform and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

At first it felt like the Internet was going to spur greater access to the truth by allowing alternate voices the room to flourish through crowd sourcing, through the gathering of like-minded people in virtual spaces, and by the amplification afforded by social sharing. Rather than being stymied by gatekeepers, truths could bubble up, the spotlight could shine in places that it previously failed to reach, and we could have greater confidence that we were getting the truth by having access to so many primary sources to verify the truth for ourselves.

It felt like information, as they say, was going to be free.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Freedom

But there was a problem with the colossal explosion of information on the Internet: there's way too much of it.

Along came Twitter and Facebook.

Both of these social networks allowed us to do something very important: they filtered information for us, and most importantly they helped filter our news. 62% of Americans now get their news via social media.

Facebook and Twitter went about this in slightly different ways. Twitter has always been a bit more of a wild west, but what you see on the social network depends entirely on who you follow and what those followers tweet and "retweet" (sharing someone else's post). There's some cross-pollination from outside your immediate circle, but if you follow only people who are like you, chances are you will largely see what is being shared by people like you.

Facebook started with a similar constraint (you are only seeing the posts of people you are friends with and the Pages you follow), but took one more crucial further step to filter. Because of Facebook's news feed algorithms, what you see in your news feed is influenced by who you interact with the most and the types of things you tend to click on. Their intent is to show you what you will find most interesting.

The result has, arguably, been the sorting of the country into isolated echo chambers that don't sufficiently interact with each other and see information that doesn't conform to their preexisting views. As Zeynep Tufekci pointed out in the New York Times, Facebook's own research shows the company encourages confirmation bias by "somewhat prioritizing updates that users find comforting." You start seeing the things on Facebook that you want to see, perhaps confirming your pre-existing opinions, rather than having them challenged.

This might not be hugely consequential to our politics if we were still operating with largely the same essential set of facts. Yes, we may see things we're more likely to already agree with, yes, we may have completely different narratives of the same real-life event ("Benghazi!"), but these would constitute different spins on the same facts.

But then came the fake news.

Alien Hunting

We've always had the National Enquirers of the world, which mixed some actually-true scoops with, ya know, Bill Clinton confessing he's an alien hunter.

What's new is that we now have an explosion of fake news that looks plausibly like the real thing, and it's... pretty much everywhere on social media, including the very false articles that the Pope endorsed Trump and that an FBI agent connected to the Clinton email case was found dead.

Facebook has taken a lot of heat for the role fake news played in the election, and in the wake of the controversy, both Google and Facebook have pledged to restrict ads on sites that have fake news, despite Mark Zuckerberg denying fake news influenced the election.

But the problem with expecting Facebook to filter out fake news is that such an exercise devolves into philosophy very, very quickly. Who gets to decide what is "true" or "fake"?

Let's take the "Bill Clinton confesses he's an alien hunter" story above. How, exactly, do you go about debunking that story and proving it's fake?

Someone asks Bill Clinton, and he says he's not an alien hunter? What if he's lying?

A majority of people don't think Bill Clinton is an alien hunter? What if they just don't have the facts, or what if the voters are lying because they're Democrats who think alien hunting is a bad look for Bill?

Snopes says Bill Clinton is not an alien hunter? Who made Snopes king? Do they have 24 hour surveillance on Bill Clinton's extraterrestrial activities?

At the end of the day, isn't it up to all of us to decide what we think is true or untrue based on the preponderance of evidence and the sources we trust?

And... guess what: JOKE'S ON YOU, BILL CLINTON REALLY DID KINDA SAY HE WAS AN ALIEN HUNTER. Or, at least, he said somewhat jokingly on Jimmy Kimmel's show that he looked into the Roswell and Area 51 records when he was president to make sure there were no aliens. ("Hunting" for evidence, get it?). Here's the video.

So... Now what. Do you let that article on Facebook or do you ban it just because the headline is somewhat misleading? How misleading is too misleading? What's the line between satire and fakery? And how do you know why someone is sharing something? What if I want to share something because it's bats*** crazy?

Sure, maybe you can use human editors or artificial intelligence to weight the likelihood of accuracy of a story and begin to weight sources by reputation and tag posts accordingly, but how do you prevent bias from creeping into what are, at the end of the day, editorial decisions with blurry lines?

The "mainstream" media already had a version of this problem with their "Democrat says this, Republican says that" structure of balancing stories, which can quickly devolve into false equivalency or total confusion if one side is telling the truth and one is lying. If one scientist says the moon is a satellite orbiting the Earth and another scientist says the moon is a giant mozzarella ball on an invisible pizza, organizations like the New York Times are reluctant to call person two a lunatic and instead present the pizza idea as a "controversial new theory." We report, you decide! They are loath to decide for you.

So it's no wonder we're out there clicking on things that mainly reflect what we already believe. The information out there is so vast and complicated and contradictory, how can we do anything other than charge forth using our gut feelings and biases and tribal allegiances to cut through the noise?

And now, I fear, we're in for one final hammer blow to a truth we can all agree on.

The Final Frontier

Much like the way ABC, NBC, and CBS used to marshal the news into centralized mainstream narratives as a starting place for political discussions, we may look back on having a couple social networks we could squabble on as a quaint relic of a more innocent time.

We're taking the dominance of Facebook and Twitter for granted. Just as the television networks' dominance were usurped by an abundance of cable news outlets that are now in the process of being usurped by an even greater abundance of Internet news outlets, there's a risk that the social media landscape could fracture even further into our own little echo chambers. Who's to say we're not going to divide ourselves up into liberal Twitter and Facebook and conservative Twitter and Facebook or into even smaller groups than that?

And even on top of that, we now have an incoming president with a, shall we say, interesting relationship with the truth.

For a glimpse into what is possible with a president who is unbound from the truth, who will have tremendous influence over the apparatus of government and the state, and a chief advisor who already runs a propaganda apparatus, I'd turn you to this 2014 article about the alternative realities created by one of Vladimir Putin's top advisors, who co-opts movements on the right and left, who drumbeats phrases until they become meaningless, and takes both sides of arguments to leave everyone feeling completely disoriented:

One moment Surkov would fund civic forums and human-rights NGOs, the next he would quietly support nationalist movements that accuse the NGOs of being tools of the West. With a flourish he sponsored lavish arts festivals for the most provocative modern artists in Moscow, then supported Orthodox fundamentalists, dressed all in black and carrying crosses, who in turn attacked the modern-art exhibitions. The Kremlin’s idea is to own all forms of political discourse, to not let any independent movements develop outside of its walls. Its Moscow can feel like an oligarchy in the morning and a democracy in the afternoon, a monarchy for dinner and a totalitarian state by bedtime.

We don't have a national press we trust. The independent press that does exist is in perilous financial straits. We have a social media landscape where we live in our own echo chambers. We are constantly tricked by fakeries. We have a president-elect willing to spin up easily falsifiable stories and an interest in stirring up our emotions, who could very well further legitimize propagandists, and who could break norms to employ previously nonpartisan government data or institutions to create alternate realities that are extremely difficult to disprove.

Try to set aside whatever feelings you may have about my level of paranoia in going there, and, as Trump would say, "Believe me" on this one: It is about to get very, very confusing to figure out what is true.

The Observer Effect

Much like, well, apparently reality itself, the news is busy creating itself to conform to our existing perspectives, and our grasp of what is true is largely dependent on what we make of it. In the coming years, this is only going to get more and more complicated.

The Internet has fractured our centralized, mainstream realities into millions of individual bubbles. We have truths sitting side by side with fakeries and no time to sort them out. We don't trust and can't agree upon the institutions we used to rely on to sort through this for us. We can't even talk to one another, because our facts barely intersect.

Most importantly, the universe is bending toward us, letting us choose our own truth adventure and giving us whatever we need to believe what we want to believe.

Sorry, Mulder and Scully. The truth is not out there. We are all independent observers spinning up our own realities.

Like this post? Please consider following me on Twitter or Facebook, subscribe to my blog, or check out my guide to writing a novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Has the writing community become close-minded to alternate viewpoints?

In discussing how authors navigate politics in social media, an anonymous author chimed in about closed-minded he/she believes the online writing world to be to anything other than liberal perspectives.

Is the writing world closed off to opposing views? Have we created our own echo chamber?

I'd like to print that author's comment (nearly) in full, and then respond to some of the points. Please leave your own thoughts in the comments section.
Nathan, I doubt this is news to you, but the writing community is largely liberal. 
Somewhere along the way, we have decided that any view that differs from the liberal point of view is not only uneducated, but abhorrent. Whether intentional or not, we have effectively silenced all opposing points of view. And we now spend all of our time agreeing with each other and patting each other on the back for being so open minded and accepting. After all, there is no one left to really challenge us, no one left to "tone police" us. 
Since you asked, these are some things off the top of my head that I'd like to challenge in the writing community, but cannot without risking my career and/or being verbally attacked with a gang-like mentality: 
1) The validity of the "tone policing" argument
2) That discrimination against conservative views in the writer community is not only acceptable, but encouraged
3) The use of the acronym WHAM and what it means
4) The collective reaction to this election in the writing community, and the idea that this somehow proves what we've known all along: conservatives are racist/sexist/bigots/etc
5) That there are people in the writing community who we regularly silence through group intimidation
6) That we sometimes use labels like racist, sexist, bigot, etc irresponsibly, and that admitting this does not negate that racism, sexism, bigotry, etc exists
7) That we ignore all demographics that aren't related to race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and a few select religions
8) That when we talk about politics, it's only in relation to social issues
9) How we refuse to accept that this election was about anything other than what we hold dear (social issues) when there were multiple important issues that we may have chosen to ignore
10) That whole safety pin thing and what it unintentionally symbolizes
11) That we are more focused on being right, and less focused on effecting change.
12) That we are frustrated, baffled, angry, scared, etc by the outcome of this election, but refuse to self-reflect on this, when we spent the last year weeding out any dissenting view or opinion in the writing community and surrounding ourselves with like-minded people who won't challenge us on some of these positions
13) How insulting and painful this collective reaction must be to an entire demographic (you know, conservatives, who we pretend don't exist in the writing community)
14) That we are starting to all sound the same, recycling the same thoughts and vocabulary, and our work will reflect this 
I'll stop there I guess. 
You said in your post that there is an expectation that authors openly engage in advocacy. Advocacy for *what* exactly? Are saying there is an expectation that we all advocate for the same things? Because we all agree, right? Even Mary Kate said it. Now, if you don't agree, you can't even remain silent to avoid scorn. If you are on the "right side" and aren't "brave" enough to speak out about it (amongst all of us safe, like-minded writers), you will be unfollowed. It's a great way to weed out the undesirables. Speak up, or we can assume you don't agree with us. Brave, indeed. (And maybe vaguely creepy, a la President Coin)
Some of my thoughts:

  • When I said it felt like there was almost an expectation that authors would openly engage in advocacy, I didn't mean simply liberal advocacy. More that it seems like authors are now encouraged to share their views, whatever they may be, and there is pressure against remaining silent.
  • While I agree that the publishing world is liberal in the sense that if you examined the voting habits of authors and employees within the publishing world and the public pronouncements on social media they would skew liberal on the whole, I don't know that the effect of that political liberalism necessarily translates into the way books are published and marketed. At the end of the day, the publishing world is way, way more capitalistic than it is political. You still see things like: 1) Contemporary YA books by male authors packaged and marketed differently than contemporary YA books by female authors; 2) Lack of racial diversity in the industry and in the books it publishes and especially how it markets, necessitating an entire movement to embrace and promote diversity in young adult literature, not even as a political end but simply so the diverse world our young people live in is accurately represented; 3) A self-perpetuating myth that "boys/minorities don't read"; 4) There are plenty of politically liberal editors publishing books by the Ann Coulters of the world.
  • While I don't doubt that one risks a social media ****show espousing an unpopular view, I'd be surprised if an author had their book dropped simply because of their political views. I don't want to name names, but I can think of several prominent YA authors off the top of my head alone whose views most liberals would consider abhorrent. 
  • You won't hear any arguments from me about the ill effects of witch hunts, but at the same time, I'm also not in favor of totally consequence-free speech. If you say something publicly, you should be prepared to defend it or apologize for it.
  • Um.... sorry but what does WHAM stand for? Someone help me out.
What do you guys think? 

Art: Illustration from "Anatomy, physiology and hygiene for high schools" by Henry Fox Hughes

Monday, November 14, 2016

How should authors navigate politics on social media?

When I started blogging and doing The Social Media around 2007 (grandpa alert!), the conventional wisdom was that authors should steer clear of politics.

You don't want to alienate half of your audience! Those are potential readers out there! Let's all get along!

It's interesting in a way that authors were ever cautious around politics, given the role that artists and writers have played throughout history in protest, satire, and thought leadership. But whatever caution existed in the early days has eroded.

Around five years ago, I began noticing a slow but steady change in the direction of open season for politics. Now there's almost an expectation that authors will openly engage in advocacy.

I've been slow to go political on social media, but this election has shaken me up and loosened whatever restraints I was feeling. What's happening, and what could happen if we're not vigilant, is just too important.

I've also already noticed a steady stream of unfollowers on Twitter as I post more openly political thoughts. That's obviously a tiny price to pay to stand up for what I believe is right, but it does speak to the potential for divisiveness.

How have you navigated this landscape? What do you think is the right approach? Have you unfollowed or given up reading an author because you didn't like their politics?

Art: Painting of Battle at Soufflot barricades by Horace Vernet

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Now we write

Writing fiction is an act of empathy. It requires us to see the world through the eyes of people other than ourselves.

Writing fiction is an act of imagination. It requires us to see possibilities that do not yet exist.

Writing fiction is an act of dedication. It requires us to have the discipline to see a difficult labor of love through to completion.

Writing fiction requires writers to feel life more deeply. To absorb the world, to soak it in, to wrap one's self in the spectrum of emotions, from the euphoric to the terrifying.

And there are times when the world feels overwhelming. When those empathetic receptors that writers employ to channel the world are overpowered by the fear and by disbelief that our most dystopian imaginations are not as safely confined in the realm of fiction as we would like to believe.

I don't see silver linings right now. I don't see an orderly pendulum that gives me any expectation that this too shall pass in time. I don't see the utility in joining hands with people who will pull us down. I don't see wisdom in trying to make excuses for the misguided and irresponsible.

So what can we do?

We open our eyes to see the world as it really is.

We remember that our strength comes from each other.

We summon our hope.

We summon our courage.

We fight.

And we write.

Art: Blossoming Almond Branch in a Glass with a Book by Vincent van Gogh

Friday, November 4, 2016

This week in books 11/4/16

Photo by me. I'm on Instagram here.
This week! The books!


I'm going to resist getting political here on the advice of my mother and am going to avoid pleading that you don't vote for a certain candidate who I won't name who scares the ever living bejeezus out of me and why don't enough people realize that something like what led to World War II could happen again even in this very country and DO YOU SEE HOW HARD THIS IS FOR ME.

Ahem. I'm not going to do it.

Let's get to the links shall we?

Tuck Everlasting was one of my favorite novels as a kid and it heavily influenced my interest in philosophical science fiction, so I was very sad to see that Natalie Babbitt passed away this week. Author Cynthia Leitich Smith has a roundup of some of the tributes.

The Bronx is home to over 1.5 million people. It's losing its only bookstore.

Many writers love using their iconic composition notebook for their scribbles. Wired has a look at a cool redesign.

The great Emma Watson left copies of Maya Angelou’s Mom and Me and Mom with handwritten notes around the London Underground to help promote her feminist book club.

Author Sarah Letourneau has a great post on character archetypes, complete with quiz!

And finally, lord knows authors have a hard time with how they and their books are perceived, but with perseverance that all can change. I found a lot to like in Sports Illustrated's recent profile of Alex Rodriguez, who has reinvented himself as a top-notch baseball analyst.

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Want to finish your novel? Try talking to yourself

Nathan here! Kendra Levin is an Executive Editor at Penguin, a life coach for writers, and the author of the recently-published The Hero Is You, a self-help book for writers on the writing journey out now! Visit her at and follow her @kendralevin on Twitter. Enjoy!

When you’re a writer, words are everything. They’re your medium—your paint, your musical notes, your clay. The words of your favorite authors can infuse you with inspiration and motivation, as can clunky text that makes you think, “I know I can do better than that!” The right words can make the difference between a phrase that’s perfectly serviceable and one that lights up the page.

Over the past decade as a senior editor at Penguin and a life coach for writers, I’ve noticed that for all the care writers lavish on the words they write, few spend much time noticing the words they think. For most of us, self-talk is a low-volume radio station running in the background all day long, and we rarely notice the way we’re talking to or addressing ourselves inside our minds (or, if you’re anything like me, sometimes out loud as well).

But a series of studies in recent years have shown that the way we talk to ourselves can have a significant impact on our performance and our well-being. Talk to yourself effectively, and you can reduce your social anxiety, perform better in a high-stress situation, and gain a sense of perspective and self-worth.

Unfortunately, many writers don’t pay much attention to their own self-talk, and when they do, they’re often shocked to discover how harsh they are on themselves on a daily basis. Fortunately, there’s a relatively simple solution: revision.

The next time you hear that background noise in your head, turn up the volume and pay attention to what you’re saying. Then see if your words can benefit from being revised using the following suggestions:

Instead of saying: “I can’t write unless…”

Replace with: “[Your name], today you can…”, as in, “Keisha, today you can write while the kids are at archery practice.”

Instead of saying: “Never”, as in “I’m never going to finish this manuscript” or “This piece is never going to be good.”

Replace with: “[Your name,] when this is finished, you will feel…” as in “Sam, when this script is finished, you will feel a huge sense of accomplishment.”

Instead of: “I don’t know…” as in “I don’t know if this is any good,”

Replace with: “[Your name], you are going to discover _____ and here’s what you’ll get out of that: ________.” As in, “Lupe, you are going to discover whether or not this manuscript is any good by the time you finish it, and here’s what you’ll get out of that: you’ll know what the best is that you can do right now, you’ll set the bar for your next project, you’ll find out whether you can write an entire novel and what that feels like, and by the end you’ll know what you want to do next.”

Instead of: Random insults: “I suck at this,” “I’m a terrible writer,” “I have no business doing this,” “I’m an imposter,” “This chapter is terrible,” “Why bother?”, “I’m wasting my time,” etc.

Replace with: Accurate affirmations: “I’m proud of how hard I’m working.” “Today I feel confident.” “I love the chapters I’ve written so far.” “I’m so proud of these characters and feel lucky I get to tell their story.”

A few general tips for effective self-talk revision:

Use the third person. The subtle separation from the self that’s created by making this shift can make a huge difference in reducing fear and giving us perspective.

Affirmations aren’t B.S. Self-affirmations have been proven to help us filter out unhelpful self-criticism and focus on our strengths.

Treat yourself like you would your best friend. Be compassionate, honest, non-judgmental, and ultimately kind in the way you talk to yourself. And remember that the words you use make a huge difference!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

In defense of personalized queries (and five tips!)

Agent Janet Reid recently posted a rant about one of the frequent flash points in the "This process is too freaking hard" camp of agent-seekers: the personalized query. Essentially, Janet believes personalized queries are pointless.

In one sense I do agree with Janet.

Is a personalized query, by itself, proof that the author has written a good book? No.

Does it matter that an author is a good querier if the book is otherwise fantastic? No.

In an ideal world, would authors need to personalize their queries in order to find an agent? No.


Do we live in an ideal world? No.

Agents are positively besieged with queries at all times. I still receive queries to this day and I haven't been an agent for six years. It's a relentless deluge.

And that slush pile should really be called a sludge pile (bonus: this article examines the origins and possible connotations of "slush pile"). At least 50% of the queries I received as an agent were so far away from anything approaching publishable material I constantly wondered if I was being punk'd by an evil competitor.

When you're dealing with that kind of volume (I answered between 50-100 every weekday), anything that makes a decision easier is a godsend. And one of the absolute best shorthands that I was dealing with a professional author going the extra mile was when a query was personalized.

It didn't mean I liked being kissed up to.

It didn't mean I tossed out every query that wasn't personalized.

It just was a tipoff that I should pay closer attention to the query. If someone took the time to personalize a query they also were more likely to be the type of professional, hardworking author I wanted to work with. I'm absolutely positive this extra attention tipped me over to requesting manuscripts a non-trivial amount of the time.

Contra Janet, finding an agent is not like hiring a plumber. You, the author, are not choosing someone to work with out of the Yellow Pages (ha! Remember those? I just lost everyone under 25).

A more appropriate metaphor, I think, is that finding an agent is like finding a potential investor in your business. And if you want someone to invest in your book startup, are you going approach that venture capitalist casually? Or are you going to research them, make sure they're a good potential fit, and dress snappily when you pitch your business plan?

Does researching an investor and putting on a suit make you a suckup? No, it's just the professional thing to do. And just like an investor, most agents will appreciate it if you've done your homework.

The ultimate proof I believe in this? When I queried agents for Jacob Wonderbar I always personalized. I didn't know Catherine Drayton prior to querying her, but I did know she represented The Book Thief and mentioned it in the query letter.

If you are going to personalize, here are some tips:

  • Include the personalization at the start of the query, not the end, for maximum "hey, tipoff, I'm a professional" effect.
  • Don't fake it (yes, some people try to do this).
  • Don't overdo it. You don't need to write a page-long ode, just a wink and a nod is okay.
  • Be professional, not overly familiar. You may feel like you know someone from their blog or social media account, but if you don't actually know them, you don't know them. 
  • Build off this basic formula: "I chose to query you because [you represent X books, I saw your write X article] and [how this resonated you]." How I did this for my Jacob Wonderbar query: 
As a young literary agent with Curtis Brown Ltd. I have long admired Inkwell, as well as your strong track record. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, if you searched for a book that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike THE BOOK THIEF (which I absolutely loved), you might just have JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW, a middle-grade-and-up science fiction novel that I just completed. Still fun! But no one dies - Mr. Death would be lonely.

Authors/agents, what do you think? Do you think it helps or is it more trouble than it's worth?

Art: Image from The Ladies' Home Journal, 1889.

Friday, October 28, 2016

This week in books 10/28/16

Photo by me. I'm on Instagram here.
This week! In the books!

First off, it's hard to believe it but we recently passed the three year publication anniversary of my guide to writing a novel: How to Write a Novel: 47 Rules for Writing a Stupendously Awesome Novel You Will Love Forever. I really had no idea what to expect when I self-published it, and in fact I thought so little of its prospects I didn't even have a print version out on publication day! But in the past three years it's sold over 12,000 copies, (well over half of them in print I might add) and I'm psyched about the 104 reviews on Amazon. Thanks to everyone who has read and recommended it!

Now then. Lots of links to get to.

Emily St. John Mandel, author of the awesome Station Eleven, has a great article out on FiveThirtyEight about the rise of the word "Girl" in titles, what with The Girl with the Dragon TattooThe Girl on the Train, Gone Girl, and of course the best of which is Sarah McCarry's About a Girl, the only one of the books in this list that is actually about a girl. Hope this becomes a running series with "Club" and "Code" up next.

Over at Books and Such, Janet Kobobel Grant has some advice for kicking a mid-career writing slump.

For all you picture book authors out there, Tracy Marchini has some advice on how to make sure your language is appropriate. (Appropriate for the picture book format anyway, not whether it's appropriate for kids. You're on your own there).

The BBC has an awesome article about Iraqi science fiction authors imagining what their country will be like in 100 years.

In NaNoWriMo advice news, here's my roundup of posts, here are some bite-sized tips from Reedsy including one from yours truly, and here are 5 tips from Angela Ackerman on keeping the words flowing.

Carolyn Kellogg makes the case that Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize is the best thing that can happen to the book world.

And I stumbled on this article from 2013 in The Atlantic, about how to build a happier brain through dwelling on the positives.

Comment! of! the! week! goes to John Shea for pointing me to this amazing anecdote, in response to my bucket list item to see someone reading one of my novels in public (unconfirmed by me but still):
C. S. Lewis managed to be best seller for decades without ever seeing anyone reading one of his books in public. He thought it might be a lesson in humility!
There you have it.

And finally, Halloween is just around the corner. Dogs beware of roaming skeletons! (via Mashable)

(*Email subscribers, please click the "read more" button below to see this video, along with anything else I reference that you can't see in these emails).

Have a good weekend!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

What's on your literary bucket list?

Inspired by BookEnds' recent posts on bucket lists, I got to thinking: what's on your literary bucket list? What are you hoping to do by the time you kick the ole' bucket and write query letters in the sky? (Just kidding, there are no query letter in heaven. That's why it's heaven.)

Here's my stab:

1. Finish that novel I've been trying to write in various forms since college.

2. See someone reading one of my books on the subway.

3. Re-read Moby-Dick on the way to whale watching in New Zealand.

4. I will have many leather bound books and my apartment will smell of rich mahogany.

That's all I can think of for now. I'm sure I'll add more.

What about you?

Monday, October 24, 2016

4 tips for extroverted writers

One of the hallmarks of introversion is, seemingly, writing, clicking on, and sharing on articles about introversion.

To wit:

17 Graphs That Are Way Too Real For Introverts
21 Pictures You’ll Only Understand If You’re Introverted
25 Mildly Irritating Things That Drive Introverts Crazy
25 Dating Tips Every Introvert Needs To Know
21 Insanely Useful Skills Every Introvert Has Mastered
15 Travel Tips Every Introvert Needs To Know
11 Talents Introverts Don’t Realize They Have
26 Things Introverts Are Sick And Tired Of Hearing
15 Things Introverts Should Know About Planning A Wedding


Now that I have the introverts all frantically clicking on the above links, gather 'round my fellow extroverts.

Yes, we live in a society that tends to normalize extroversion, and we should be respectful of our introverted compatriots.

But things aren't always easy for extroverts either! Especially when you get your energy from other people and have somehow chosen a hobby that, by definition, is solitary and necessitates time alone in one's own head.

Extroverts, you really can control that stir-craziness and write and finish a novel.

Here are some tips for writing while extroverted:

Find a writing buddy

I get some of my best writing done when sitting across from someone who is also writing. Why? I feel like I'm being social and can take the occasional break to talk to someone, but I can mostly focus on getting some writing done.

This may require some trial and error. You need someone whose distraction-per-hour ratio is similar to yours, and you will need an approved bat-signal for requesting permission to speak.

But a great writing buddy will keep you happy and productive.

Write with noise

If you can't find a writing buddy, you may need some low-level noise to keep the walls from feeling like they're closing in.

I highly recommend soccer. It's the right level of dialogue, and you can always tell by the inflection of the announcers' voice when something exciting is going to happen.

Otherwise, maybe music, news, or what have you.

Get out of your house

Yes, it's temping to embrace what's convenient, and that often means writing on your couch in your pajamas. But if you turn writing into an outing, you'll feel less cooped up, and you may meet some people on top of it.

Go to a cafe, go the park... do it.

Control your schedule

Writing means saying no to plans when you should be writing. This can be very hard for extroverted writers, as we find social engagements highly tempting and distraction. The FOMO is real.

Make sure you have something fun planned for the end of a long writing day so you don't feel as trapped.

What say you, writing extroverts? Any tips that helps you get your quiet work done?

Footnote: I'm available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! More info here.

Art: Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Friday, October 21, 2016

This week in books 10/21/16

Photo by me. I'm on Instagram here.

A Friday roundup! Five posts in one week! We are back!

(Well, assuming the Internet doesn't continue to melt down).

I had my eye out for links, and now I am delivering them to you. Also, quick reminder before I get to them: I'm available for your editing and consulting needs! Feel free to reach out.

First up, you know how you want to *just be a writer* and want your future publisher to handle all the rest? Reminder from BookEnds about that fantasy: Not going to happen.

You may recall that Mr. Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature. In Bob Dylan's latest Dylan-esque move, it seems the Nobel committee is having trouble getting a hold of him.

Jonathan Franzen once said, "What is fiction if not purposeful dreaming?" Well, I read a pretty fascinating article on actual dreaming, which has some of the leading theories on what dreams really are.

In the latest salvo in the publishers vs. free guerrilla war, The Atlantic is going to block people who use ad-blockers, offering them a paid ad-free option. Makes sense to me.

Kindle Unlimited authors have you noticed a pages-read drop? Publishers Marketplace reported on complaints from authors (link is subscription only), which Amazon addressed here and here.

Author Frances Mayes reflects 20 years after the publication on Under the Tuscan Sun and what the experience taught her about taking risks. I particularly loved this passage: "When I sprang from my comfortable university career into a new life in a foreign country, I took a big risk. Some of the best decisions we make come from that inner voice that says “Why not?” That says “Andiamo.” So much disappointment arises from what is desired but not chosen."


Freelancers Union pointed me to this hilarious flow chart on whether you should work for free.

Author Curtis Sittenfeld talked about the joys and perils of book reviews (via Jennifer Weiner).

Comment! of! the! week! goes to a very fitting individual now that we're back in the swing of things. In response to my post about the guilt of not-writing, Bryan Russell writes:
I feel like there's a line that you have to tread. You have to decide what is simply excuse-making (i.e., serial procrastination) and what is real. I save the guilt for excuse-making because this is simply my conscience reminding me that the little devil on my shoulder just won a round. But I don't let myself feel guilty about what is real. Sometimes life interferes, and there are things you can't control. You have to be able to forgive yourself. Creation takes energy. This is the physics of the imagination. But sometimes you don't have enough energy left to force those atoms to bounce and collide inside your skull and spark that frisson of energy needed to make something on the page. Be it a day job, be it illness or disease, be it a death in the family, or be it parenthood, sometimes the energy simply isn't there. And this is okay. It's renewable energy, luckily. Wind, water, and sun. So forgive yourself and come back later. Give your head a few knocks and the atoms will start bouncing armours again. 
And finally, Jennifer Hubbard has a fantastic reminder for writers in the throes of doubt: Trust the story.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Your handy NaNoWriMo prep

It is almost upon us!

Yes, your favorite annual torture device writing festival is nearly upon us, where thousands of intrepid novelists will set aside November cheer in favor of tearing up their laptops in an effort to write a novel in just one month. It's called NaNoWriMo, and it's quite something.

Are you ready? You sure?

Here are some links that may help.

First off, all of my best tips are written up all nice and polished-like in my guide to writing a novel, otherwise known as How to Write a Novel: 47 Rules for Writing a Stupendously Awesome Novel You Will Love Forever.  (That link is to Amazon but it's available in All The Usual Places online.)

If you prefer your advice in the free form (as in, it doesn't cost anything), here are some links to get you started:

Getting Started

Style and Voice

Staying Sane


And don't forget, once you're done with that draft, I'm available for edits and consultations.

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