Nathan Bransford, Author

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.

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