Nathan Bransford, Author

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!!

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Do you even want to win the game you're playing?

Human beings are a competitive bunch. We want to be HASHTAG WINNING at life. We want to be the BEST and the RICHEST and the BEST LOOKING and WIN EVERY ARGUMENT and have the CUTEST ANIMALS AS PETS HAVE YOU EVEN SEEN FLUFFY I MEAN JUST LOOK AT HER.

We want to win so badly, in fact, that we spend a lot of time trying to win at things that won't actually bring us happiness even if we were to win.

We stay in jobs we don't like chasing a raise. We try to win arguments even if it means destroying a relationship. Some people take up creative pursuits because they think it will bring them riches and fame even though they don't even like writing that much in the first place.

I've seen people work themselves to the bone, getting promotion after promotion, only to wake up one day and see that their life was in tatters and the carrot they were chasing wasn't something they even really wanted. I've seen people get multi-book deals only to realize, after the euphoria of the deal wears off (as it inevitably does), that they didn't even really like writing that much.

They got so caught up in winning for winning's sake they didn't even realize they were playing the wrong game.

No doubt, winning is fun! Accomplishments make life worth living. And, apologies to the Notorious B.I.G. (RIP), but having mo' money is easier than having less.

But the joy of winning is fleeting, and there are lots of pursuits you can throw yourself into. The job you're in is not the only one that will offer a promotion as a carrot. Your side project isn't the only hobby you can have.

So how do you know you're in the wrong game? You know it when you're busy playing the "if only" game:
If only I get a raise, then I'll be happy. 
If only I get a promotion, then I'll be happy. 
If only I could get a little more work experience, then I'll go get the job I want to have and then I'll be happy. 
If only my significant other would agree to marry me, then I'll be happy. 
If only I could get an agent, then I'll be happy.
The game you're meant to be playing will make you happy even if you don't win it. You'll genuinely be in it for the love of the game.

And then, after a ton of hard work, when you are hashtag winning at the game you are meant to be playing, victory is very sweet indeed.

Footnote: 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 Trickster by Zacharie Noterman

Friday, February 10, 2017

The past few weeks in books 2/10/17

We've had some weather. I'm on Instagram @NathanBransford
Well, it's certainly been an interesting few weeks, and I have accordingly collected some interesting articles and blog posts that caught my eye. It wouldn't be fair to hoard them myself, so here they are!

Oh, publishing industry assistants. Underpaid, overqualified, rejecting everything in sight. Jessica Faust has an ode to you.

Congrats to the Edgar Award nominees! (That's the one for the mysteries).

Want to hire a freelance editor? Here are 5 things you should do first.

One of the best ways to find an agent is via a referral. But how do you get one? Agent Wendy Lawton has great advice on the key: invest in other writers over a long period of time.

Agent Jessica Faust has some advice on writing in difficult times (as nearly everyone finds our current era).

How does one become as prolific as Isaac Asmiov? Charles Chu plundered his autobiography for tips on never running out of ideas, including one great idea: don't fight getting stuck, work on something else for a while.

The NY Times had some great interviews with interesting authors lately, including John Edgar Wideman and Roxane Gay.

And this publishing industry article by Mike Shatzkin is super wonky as always, but it has an important central thesis: ebook sales probably aren't slowing down, and Amazon is still gobbling everything.

In politics and books news, Philip Roth had some thoughts on the parallels between his 2004 book The Plot Against America, which imagined FDR losing the 1940 to surprise populist/Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh, and our current surprise populist president. Roth thought it was more comprehensible that Lindbergh could have won in 1940 than Trump today.

And the NY Times took a fresh look at the parallels between our present time and Sinclair Lewis' novel It Can't Happen Here, which imagined a populist president coming to power in the 1930s.

Both of these books, incidentally, are selling like hotcakes on Amazon at the moment.

And in politics and culture news, is Netflix and the niche-ificaiton of media (I made up that phrase) deepening our cultural echo chambers?

Editor Joy Peskin bravely slammed Simon & Schuster for giving Milo Yiannopoulos a book deal, a rare example of on-the-record intra-publishing criticism.

Slate had a look at how reality TV narratives (including my beloved The Bachelor) help explain Donald Tump.

And in quite the sign of the times, the New Yorker wants you to know it has a way to submit tips completely securely.

Comment! of! the! week! goes to David, whose brevity in response to "How are you doing?" is a great example of doing a lot with a few words:
No longer unspeakably depressed. Just grimly resigned.
And finally, if you need some inspiration for the weekend, my friend Maya Neria has an awesome post on Medium about the power of believing in change.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Are people persuadable?

One of the things I've found fascinating throughout the election and beyond, is the extent to which people are, or aren't persuadable.
  • Is there really such a thing as a swing voter? 
  • What makes people change their minds?
  • What are the lines in the sand that trigger reversals of opinion?
  • When we sit around talking about politics with people who disagree with us, are we just wasting our time?
In the aftermath of the election, few things have felt more urgent to liberals than to understand why people voted as they did and the need to try to persuade the persuadable.

But is this a lost cause?

Quartz recently published an article on the scientific! proven! way to have conversations across party lines. And then an article in The Atlantic posited that instead of being all conversational maybe you really should just call people racist.

Color me a bit skeptical that there's a formula to persuasion. When people are confronted with information that runs counter to their pre-conceived ideas, don't most people tend to double-down? Don't most people decide first with their gut and then back into the evidence?

But people do change their mind, don't they? What happens when they do?

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The curse of having too much time

My new writing haunt - the Rose Room at the NYPL. I'm on Instagram @nathanbransford
When I was laid off at my previous job a few months back I was suddenly confronted with a problem I hadn't experienced since my college years: I had all the time in the world.

And yes! I chose the words "confronted" and "problem" intentionally! I had no idea it was going to be as much of a challenge to write when I had more time than less time.

When I was laid off I had YUGE plans with what I was going to do with my free time. I was going to write! I was going to travel! I was going to go to museums! I was going to blog! I was going to edit people's novels! I was going to job hunt! I was going to be one of those people sitting in a cafe at 2pm on a Tuesday making everyone with a day job wonder "Who has time to sit in a cafe at 2pm on a Tuesday?" I WAS GOING TO BE THAT GUY.

And I did do all of those things! Well. Except the writing part...

Here's the thing I didn't appreciate about being really busy with a day job: you have structure. You have things you must do because of such practical realities like "paying your rent" and "paying adequate attention to people who love you."

Want to write while you have a full time job? Chances are you have two or three choices when you can possibly write. So you better do it then. And when you have time? Better get crackin'.

There's something about being busy that made me commit to writing in the few openings in my schedule whether I wanted to or not. For me, it was the weekends or bust.

When you have all the time in the world? You have endless choice, it's easy to put off writing ("I have time! I can do it later!"), and you have to go out of your way to create structure.

The good news is that I have begun to turn the corner, and have started organizing my day around job hunting, then writing, then leaving some time for other pursuits. I forced myself to create some structure so I wouldn't neglect the writing.

And in the meantime, I'll be that guy making the tourists wonder, "What New Yorker has time to sit in the Rose Room at 2pm on a Tuesday?"

Have you struggled to create structure when you suddenly have time? How did you do it?

Thursday, February 2, 2017

How are you staying productive?

We were already living in an era of distraction, and that was before a polarizing presidential election and breaking news coming at us fast and furious. My social media feeds used to be an eclectic mix of a range of interests. Now? 100% politics.

I keep getting sucked into reading the news, getting into discussions, waiting to see what is going to happen next, and not getting nearly enough writing done.

I've never lived in a time less-suited for quiet concentration. And yet isn't that precisely what we all need right now?

How are you staying productive? Anyone managing to block out the noise? Any tips?

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