Nathan Bransford, Author

Friday, March 31, 2017

How are you feeling about Trump?

Around time of the election, I had some very interesting political conversations in the comments section of these posts:
Looking back at the conversations, Trump opponents were drinking the panic juice and Trump proponents seemed pretty optimistic he was a different kind of politician who would drain the swamp.

How's everyone feeling three months later? Honest question.

Has anyone changed their minds about their vote? Are you feeling surprised or unsurprised by what's happened so far?

And oh yes, should reader ABC move to Canada?

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The key to a good query letter: Summarizing through specificity

Listen up all you query letter writers because this is the most important post on queries I've written in years.

I've recently been devoting much more time to freelance editing and working with authors on their queries (need personalized help? Contact me!). This means that instead of just evaluating queries for a "yes" or "no", like I did when I was a literary agent, I've had to really get into the weeds to figure out why something works or doesn't work. It's given me a fresh look at what makes some queries sing while others make a sad trombone noise.

And I think I found the key: summarizing through specificity.

Writing a query is such a tricky balance. One the one hand, you have to condense an entire novel into a few dozen words. On the other hand, you want your query to reflect the uniqueness of your book and stand out from the pack.

You need to be general, but you also need to include detail. You need to be clear, but you need to be original. You need to give flavor, but you can't get bogged down.

How in the world do you do all this at once?

Oh. I already told you. Summarizing through specificity.

Here's how to put this into practice in two simple steps:

1) Look for places in your query where you describe something in a general way

Oftentimes in queries you end up describing events in a very "summarizey" way:
Suzy "has to learn to grow up."  
The demon "haunts Bernadette's dreams." 
The wizard "must hone his magical powers." 
Boris "is a troublemaker."
While these phrases aren't terrible on their own, when you have too many of them the query ends up feeling flat. It misses the personality and flavor that makes your book awesome in the first place.


2) Try to replace that generality with how it actually happens in the book

Find those vague descriptions and replace them with specificity.

Let's try those plot summaries again:
It's time for Suzy to trade her bottle of vodka for a can of corporate whoopass. 
The demon wants Bernadette to have a nightmare so he can finally slip his claws under her ribcage. 
The wizard must perfect his ability to throw fireballs without burning down his hut again. 
Let's just say Boris was the best man at his bail bondsman's wedding.
Would you rather read the books described in Section 2 or Section 1? Nothing changed in the actual plots, what changed is that we replaced a high level summary with some flavor-building specificity.

The above examples are made up, but a recent real-world example came from author Greta Sloan -- she described one of her characters as an "abrasive little brother who drinks whiskey out of a coffee mug." I loved that detail, which tells you much more than any vague summary would. (And thanks to Greta for letting me use this example).

Now, you may worry that if you get overly specific your query will get swamped in details without the bigger plot shining through. And you're partly right. You can't do this trick endlessly and you need to strike a balance. If you notice, I mixed up some generalities with specificity in my query letter for Jacob Wonderbar:
Jacob Wonderbar has been the bane of every substitute teacher at Magellan Middle School ever since his dad moved away from home. He never would have survived without his best friend Dexter, even if he is a little timid, and his cute-but-tough friend Sarah Daisy, who is chronically overscheduled. But when the trio meets a mysterious man in silver one night they trade a corn dog for his sassy spaceship and blast off into the great unknown. That is, until they break the universe in a giant space kapow and a nefarious space buccaneer named Mick Cracken maroons Jacob and Dexter on a tiny planet that smells like burp breath. The friends have to work together to make it back to their little street where the houses look the same, even as Earth seems farther and farther away.
In some places, I opted for clarity over specificity, but wherever I could I tried to add little details that gives flavor to this world, especially on crucial plot details. Most importantly: There isn't a single sentence in the summary where I don't include specific, additive details.

Try as much as possible to replace generalities with detail and you'll be surprised how well your query starts to feel like it truly captures the spirit of your novel.

I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! More info here. And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.

Art: Architektur & Mathematik & Mechanik & Mailänder Dom & Schnitt by Walther Hermann Ryff

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

How to balance writing to market and writing what you want

You'll occasionally hear advice around the publishing-o-sphere that you should just write what you want, don't worry about the market one whit, and just let the chips fall where they may.

This is somewhat true, but not endlessly true.

On the one hand, yes. Definitely. You should absolutely write the book you want to write and consider whether what you want for your book is more consistent with self- or traditional publication. But if your goal is to be traditionally published, especially by one of the major publishers, it doesn't pay to just ignore the market entirely.

Here's what I mean (and don't mean) by this.

Don't chase trends

What people mean when they tell you to write what you want to write is that you shouldn't try to chase a trend. Because of how long it takes to write and publish a book, if you try to jump on a currently hot trend, you're already too late.

When it comes to trends, definitely ignore the market.

Do pay attention to genre conventions and word counts

Some genres are stricter than others, but you should be very familiar with the genre conventions (especially for romance) and the general word count ranges for your genre.

Word counts aren't a be-all-end-all and you should feel some flexibility there, but the farther you stray from your genre's word count sweet spot the harder the sell your book may be.

It's hard to break the mold with a debut

Every commercial art medium has megahit unicorns that defied genre conventions and were strikingly original.

But when you think back to many of these hits, they were often written/made after the artist was already established in their field with more conventional works.

George Lucas made American Graffiti before Star Wars. Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote In the Heights before Hamilton. Herman Melville wrote the more conventional travel book Typee before he wrote Moby-Dick and, more recently, John Grisham established himself writing legal thrillers before he veered off to write about high school football coaches and football players living in Italy and baseball players just to mix it up.

Success gives you artistic license and credibility to get a little wild. It's harder to do this right off the bat.

There are always exceptions

Sure. You can think of a million exceptions to the above rules. There are always going to be books that are just so magical they make everyone ignore all those supposed "rules."

But if you are going to break the rules you should do so consciously and with care.

So while you should absolutely write the book you want to write and figure out what's most important to you, if you care about commercial success at all it pays to have the market at least somewhat in mind.

Art: The Circus by Georges Seurat

Friday, March 24, 2017

The past few weeks in books 3/24/17

The Oculus. Follow me on Instagram! @nathanbransford
The past few weeks! In the books!

Want to start your own publishing company? Seems like as a good place to start as any, amirite?? There's some really great advice in this guide at Writer Unboxed.

Speaking of which, there's a great interview with Joanna Penn, who has been innovating on self-publishing for some time now.

That guy who said those things and had a book deal was defended by his agent. Then some people noticed that the guy had said some other things and the whole thing got canceled. So yeah. That all happened.

George Saunders, possibly the most prolific first time novelist ever, was interviewed by Electric Literature about all sorts of interesting things.

As someone who is occasionally completely addicted to the Civilization computer games, I could totally relate to this post by Barbara O'Neal about the Sims and how they just seem to trigger something in the novelist brain.

Author Jennifer Hubbard had a great take on the "why do you write" question. There are times when the question morphs into something else entirely, especially when the words aren't flowing.

S.E. Hinton's legendary, groundbreaking novel The Outsiders is turning fifty. Congrats!! I interviewed Ms. Hinton a few years back after having lunch in Tulsa.

Not to be outdone, HarperCollins is turning a hearty 200-years-old, and they launched a special website to showcase their history.

Airbnbs for book lovers! Reader I clicked. (via Book Riot)

In writing advice news, how do you know when to take the advice? It comes down to listening to your heart.

And speaking of editorial letters, Pub Crawl has a list of what goes into one.

So what does it mean to "raise the stakes?" And, like, not in poker. Writers Helping Writers has a breakdown.

Over at the Huffington Post, Kim Michele Richardson noticed someone breaking my 8th Commandment for Happy Writers and mused about her reaction. Writers, thou shalt not be jealous!

This article about the intersection of 4chan and Trumpism is long, but it's totally indispensable reading. Don't believe me? Maybe you'll believe THE CREATOR OF HARRY POTTER.

Comment! of! the! week! goes to Mallory for her response on thinking less and doing more:
I am so guilty of this as well! As a fantasy writer I always have a map drawn, all my territories laid out, basic religious systems outlined for each culture, etc. before I get any real WORDS down on paper, which I don't think is a bad thing. However, oftentimes I have so much fun building my world that I get stuck in brainstorming purgatory. 
I think the trick for telling when it's time to stop world/character/whatever-building and start actually writing is to be honest with yourself on one question: Am I just doing this because I'm scared to move forward? A new story idea is always a shining bubble of non-existent perfection. At some point brainstorming is just you putting layers of armor around that bubble - that's the point when you have to actually put pen to paper, in my opinion. 
And finally, if you're looking to get lost for a while, I urge you to wander around this incredible map that puts dozens of novels into one city.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Stop thinking and start doing

Back in my Youth, before I had written any novels, I spent a lot of time brainstorming and taking notes. I was working on a complicated novel idea at the time and I needed to invent a whole world from scratch, which happens when you're writing science fiction. So I came up with a bunch of ideas and wrote a bunch of notes.

Pages and pages and pages and pages of notes.

Like, hundreds of pages of handwritten notes. And I have small handwriting.

I would now like to take this opportunity to yell something at my younger self.

*Clears throat*


At the time I was writing all those notes, I thought I was being productive! I thought I needed to brainstorm to get all of my ideas out there. I thought people like J.R.R. Tolkien had imagined every blade of grass in Middle Earth before he started writing, and by god I was going to brainstorm down to the precise shade of green on every blade of grass in my world.

And yes, sure, it helps to get some of the broad contours of your world and plot in place before you start. But there comes a point when you're just sitting on the fence and being idle and you're not getting into the action.

Brainstorming is the easy part. Getting into the nitty gritty of writing a novel is where things get tricky.

Here's what I didn't appreciate: It's way more helpful to just get going and trust that you will figure things out as you go along.

When I actually got down to writing the novel I was brainstorming, how many of those notes that I had spent hours and hours writing did I end up using?

Yeah, pretty much none of them.

That's because the ideas couldn't withstand the pressure cooker of a novel. They were abstractions, they weren't particularly useful. Once I tried putting the plot together and getting the characters in motion, a lot of the ideas no longer made sense.

All that time I had spent brainstorming was largely wasted. I would have finished my novel so much faster if I had just tried to get going writing instead of feeling like I had to have everything figured out first.

If you're in a similar place where you think you're being productive but you're really just idly brainstorming, I'd urge you to think less and write more.

I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! More info here. And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.

Art:  Der vor seiner Staffelei nachdenklich sinnende junge Maler by Napoléon-François Ghesquière

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

How to know if you have a good editor

The art of editing is a bit of an ephemeral skill, and apart from an editor's credentials it can be difficult to know how seriously to take their notes. Sure, if the person works at Random Penguin Harlequin Harper House and has edited every famous Jonathan under the sun, you may wish to give their notes some extra care.

But good editors come in all shapes and sizes, even outside of the publishing industry, and chances are you're going to be squinting at a critique partner's or spouse's notes and wondering whether to trust them.

Ultimately it's up to you and your gut to decide which suggestions to take or not take, but here are a few ways to know if you have a good editor:

A good editor will not tell you how they would write the book

Bottom line, a good editor knows it is not their book. It is your book and it is their job as an editor to be somewhat egoless and try as best as they can to help you write your book and achieve your vision.

When you get notes or critiques from a good editor, they should be consistent with what you set out to do as a writer. If they're wildly divergent from what you're trying to do, either they don't get your book or they may not be a good editor and are trying to impose their own ideas on you.

A good editor will not tell you precisely how to fix a plot hole

Good editors tend to focus more on spotting problems than prescribing solutions. Sure, they may have some ideas about how to get a character from Point A to Point B in a cleaner fashion, but these ideas should be offered up more to illustrate potential directions than as concrete "take them or leave them" suggestions.

Chances are the author will come up with the best possible solution to address key problems, because no one else knows the world of the novel and the characters better than they do.

A good editor will not tell you they love everything

This is exactly what you want to hear and is not helpful at all.

A good editor will not tell you they hate everything

This also is not helpful.

A good editor will focus their suggestions at the right level

Some books need a ton of work. If this is the case, the advice should be synthesized at a very high level -- plot structure, characters, voice.

Some books are in good shape but need refinement. In this case, the advice should be more focused on chapter structure, plot holes, tightening.

Some books are nearly ready and need fine tuning. In this case, the advice should be more along the lines of line edits, dialogue, prose.

When an editor thinks entire plot arcs need to change, it's not particularly helpful to also provide minor line edits on chapters that could be removed entirely, except to illustrate broader points.

A good editor may frustrate you, but will also give you "ah ha!" moments

When an editor makes me mad, it usually means they're right but my brain is resisting the change. A good editor will absolutely frustrate you at times. That's totally normal.

But a good editor will also leave you smacking your head with things you can't believe you didn't see and get you jazzed up to make your book better.

At the end of the day, you are the actual editor, and you have to decide which course to take with your book. But a good editor will feel like a great teammate and coach along the way, even if they frustrate the heck out of you.

I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! More info here. And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.

Art: The Village Carpenter by Tony Offermans

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

9th Annual Blog Bracket Challenge!

It's mid-March, it's sleeting in New York, and you know what that means. Well, I don't know what the sleet means. But it's our 9th blog bracket challenge!!

Who is the greatest literary bracket prognosticator of them all?

Probably not me, if history is any indicator.

As always, the winner of the Blog Bracket challenge will win a query critique or other agreed-upon prize.

Will you be the best picker of them all?

Here's how to enter (please limit to one entry per person):

1. Go to the front page of the ESPN tournament challenge:

2. Make your picks.

3. If you have an ESPN username and password from last year you can log in when you submit your picks, and you can also just click to rejoin the Bransford Blog Challenge. Otherwise you may need to create a new user ID and password. But don't worry, it's not onerous and you can decline to receive updates in case you're spam conscious.

4. Hover over the link that says "My Groups" and then click "Create or Join a Group"

5. Search for "Bransford Blog Challenge." Enter the password, which is "rhetorical" and then click Join Group.

Then you're all set! You can make changes to your bracket by clicking on it until it locks on Thursday (and yes, there are play-in games before then, but the bracket still doesn't lock until Thursday).

Good luck!!

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