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Viewing Blog: Nathan Bransford, Most Recent at Top
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Nathan Bransford is the author of JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW, a middle grade novel about three kids who blast off into space, break the universe, and have to find their way back home, which will be published by Dial Books for Young Readers in May 2011. He was formerly a literary agent with Curtis Brown Ltd., but is now a publishing civilian working in the tech industry. He lives in San Francisco.
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1. The quest


One of the most interesting things about novels is the extent to which the very thing a novel is about -- a quest -- is also the thing that best describes the writing of the novel itself.

Our characters go on a quest. We go on a quest to tell their story.

Our characters struggle. We struggle. Our characters strive. We strive.

This is one reason Moby-Dick is my favorite novel. It's truly an insane novel. Meandering, strange, packed full of things that don't belong, filled with moments of brilliance and stretches of tedium. What better living metaphor to the writing process than a psychotic chase for a white whale who may or may not exist, has already taken its adversary's leg, and who most likely wants him dead?

And, similarly, I've already written about how the striving of Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby is best understood as a writer's own wish that the world would conform to our wishes rather than what exists in front of us.

So naturally I was drawn to an article in Quartz yesterday about the secret to happiness: always wanting and pursuing more.

Science, take it away!
Neuroscientist Jaak Panskepp argues that of seven core instincts in the human brain (anger, fear, panic-grief, maternal care, pleasure/lust, play, and seeking), seeking is the most important... It can also explain why, if rats are given access to a lever that causes them to receive an electric shock, they will repeatedly electrocute themselves. 
Panskepp notes in his book, Affective Neuroscience, that the rats do not seem to find electrocution pleasurable. “Self-stimulating animals look excessively excited, even crazed, when they worked for this kind of stimulation,” he writes. Instead of being driven by any reward, he argues, the rats were motivated by the need to seek itself.
Yes, you read that right. When rats are given a means of shocking themselves, they will go ahead and do that even though it's completely unpleasurable.

The quest to explore our surroundings and boundaries is powerful. So is the drive to tell the story. And explore still more in the process.

Art: Illustration from an early edition of Moby-Dick by A. Burnham Shute

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2. What are your favorite action scenes in literature?


A great action scene is so much more than just an exciting moment in a novel. They're great because we're invested in the outcome, hanging on the edge of our seat, hoping our favorite characters survive as they propel themselves through physical space.

What are some of your favorite action scenes in literature?

Art: Tiger Hunt by Peter Paul Rubens

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3. YALLWEST!!



I'm psyched to be making the trip west this weekend for YALLWEST, a fantastic festival in Santa Monica featuring some of the best YA authors on the planet. If you're in the Los Angeles area, I highly recommend stopping on by! It's free and open to the public aside from a few ticketed events.

There are keynotes featuring the likes of Rainbow Rowell, Sana Amanat, Soman Chainani & Melissa de la Cruz, Matt de la Peña, Jason Reynolds, Marie Lu and Tahereh Mafi, tons of great panels, and fun events like the Smackdown.

I'll be participating in said Smackdown, I'll be reading some cringeworthy writing from my teen days (I am completely mentally unprepared to do this and am breaking into a cold sweat just thinking about it), and will be on a panel about outer space. Oh, and I'll be signing books at 4pm on Sunday.

Check out the fantastic schedule and hope to see you there!

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4. Moneyball for book publishers


Way back in 2007, I wrote about what I called the "holy grail" of book publishing: the blockbuster detector. Inspired by both The Wisdom of Crowds and Moneyball, I wondered about the possibility of a tool that could identify undervalued markets and help predict future sales.

2007, mind you, was the era before the Kindle and iPad even existed. These, of course, opened up a world of possibility, where you could assess on a granular level where people stop reading, and distinguish between books that people buy and books that people actually read.

So naturally, now that it's 2016, there's a company dedicated to helping publishers detect which books might be hits or duds based on the reading habits of beta readers.

This is probably just the tip of the iceberg. Readers and writers, are you alarmed at the idea that your publisher could scale back your marketing budget if people stop reading past page 60 of your novel? Are you excited by the idea you could gain access to this type of data and help you revise?

What do you think?

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5. 8th Annual Blog Bracket Challenge!


It's mid-March, and you know what that means. Our 8th! Annual! Blog bracket challenge!!

Who is the greatest literary bracket prognosticator of them all?

We'll see. It's probably not me. In fact it's probably you.

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

Will it be you??

Here's how to enter:

1. Go to the front page of the ESPN tournament challenge: http://games.espn.go.com/tcmen/frontpage

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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6. How to find and work with a freelance editor


Nathan here! My good friend Christine Pride is a talented freelance editor who has worked for Random House and Hyperion and edited eight NY Times bestselling books. Oh, and I also hired her to edit my guide to writing a novel.

Christine has a wealth of experience, and I'm excited to share her post on how best to work with a freelance editor. 

Thank you Nathan! It’s so nice to be “here” in this vibrant community of writers.

When I decided to leave the “cushy” comforts of corporate publishing in the fall of 2012 to strike out on my own as an editorial consultant, it was with the idea of, among other things, ditching all of the less appealing aspects of the job (endless meetings, office politics, etc.) to focus more on what I love: the actual editing. And true to my wishes, the purity of the work has been a real treat, and incredibly fulfilling and meaningful—beyond what I could even have hoped.

(The freedom to wear loungewear in the office is icing on the cake.)

In the past three years, I’ve worked with more than a hundred writers, across many different genres, to help them refine their projects and improve their craft; to commit to their goals and deadlines, and to navigate through the publishing process, which let’s be honest can be both mystifying and intimidating. I’m so proud of the successes so many of them have experienced and are cheering them the loudest knowing just how hard they’ve worked and how much they’ve invested.

It’s no secret that getting an agent or a book deal is no easy feat. That’s true today more than ever given the changes in the industry, which have left agents and publishers with less of the time, resources and inclination to take a chance on a flyer or to invest in what we would sometimes call, “fixer uppers,” the books that show promise but need quite a bit of editorial work to be ready for primetime. So it’s more important than ever before that when you approach an agent with your work it is as polished, perfected and as salable as possible for you to have the best chance at success.

Meanwhile, the self-publishing marketplace is growing exponentially, and gives writers a wonderful (and often lucrative) pathway to bring their books to readers. But in that landscape too, the bar is high and readers have come to expect that the quality and caliber of the product will be on par with those coming from a corporate publisher.

A professional can offer you the unbiased feedback and narrative insight in terms of what readers, agents and editors are looking for that can take your book from good to great.

That said, though the benefits might be clear, it’s a big decision, and it’s a big investment, of hundreds or thousands of dollars, not to mention your precious time in addressing the feedback and suggestions from your editor. So you want to carefully consider whether it’s right for you and if you decide that it is, to go into the process armed with as much information possible to make the most of the process.

With that in mind, I offer you these tips:

Do your research

As you would if you were looking for a doctor, contractor or nanny, hiring any professional requires you to vet them in terms of their experience, expertise and fit with your particular needs.

It’s always nice to start with a referral, if you know any fellow writers who have successfully worked with an editor. You can also be in touch with literary agents you admire to ask them (or someone on their staff) for a recommendation. Agents often have a team of “go to” independent editors to whom they refer clients (because as I said they often don’t have time to do the editorial shaping themselves, even if they see promise in a project). You can also comb through other resources like writer focused websites (like this terrific one!) or publications like Poets and Writers or Narrative where editors may advertise.

Once you have a name, or a few, you’ll want to Google them and make sure they have solid credentials, a professional presence online and testimonials. Bear in mind that not all editors have the same level of experience. An editor or agent who has worked in the industry is going to have an insider perspective, along with keen editorial insights honed from working in the trenches. Which is not to say that you wouldn’t have a wonderful experience with an editor who hasn’t worked at one of the big publishing houses, but that experience does offer a premium.

It’s always nice to have a chat with the editor (or editors) you’re considering as well, to talk a little more about your project and to get a gut feel for him or her. Do you enjoy talking to this person (after all you will likely be doing a lot of that)? Is this someone you could trust with your work? Do they have experience and/or in interest in the type of book you’re writing?

Many editors will also agree to do a sample edit of ten or so pages. I, personally, don’t think sample edits are a very useful tool since edits are so holistic and it’s the bigger picture feedback on the plot, characters, etc. that’s going to make the most impact on your book. But if you just want to get a sense of what an edit from this person will look like, this could be helpful to you.

Be clear about your needs, goals and expectations 

There are many different points in your writing journey that you may want to consult with a professional editor. Don’t be afraid to tailor the services to exactly what’s going to be most helpful to you; most editors are happy to be flexible in terms of services and collaborative style.

Maybe you’d just like a topline read and some overall honest feedback. Perhaps you need a review of your query letter to make sure it hits the mark. Maybe you’d like to talk through a new book idea before you get too far down the road with it. Or, as is the most common, maybe you have a finished draft and would like the editor to provide detailed margin and line notes and an editorial letter (known as a development edit) to guide your next revision.

Make sure your editor knows your ultimate goals—to get an agent, to self-publish, to hone your craft, etc. Being clear about your goals and expectations will make sure you and your editor have the most productive collaboration.

Be mindful of your budget

A comprehensive development edit is likely going to run you in the range of $1500 and up, depending on a variety of factors. Some editors will charge by the hour and some will offer a flat fee; it’s typical that half will be due when you start the scope of work and half will be due when it’s complete. Don’t be afraid to say to your editor, “Look, I have $2000 to spend here, what’s the best way to maximize that?”

There are ways to cut corners and an editor will often give you different options that are within your budget. You can also shop around because prices can vary from editor to editor based on their level of experience and demand. Also remember that this expense could be tax deductible in most cases—check with your accountant or the IRS.

One way to keep costs down (and to work most effectively) is to polish and perfect your project as much as you can before you invite the help of an editor. This is where your writing group comes in handy or your friend who’s willing to read. This initial (free) feedback can help you address obvious trouble/blind spots, getting you that much farther down the road. Or you may approach an editor for top-line feedback first and then do a preliminary revision for returning to them for a deeper edit. 

Be open-minded and willing to do the work

Any collaboration with an editor is only going to be as good as the work you put into it. Revising and responding to feedback is JUST as important to being a successful writer as raw talent itself. I would argue even more so.

When I was an in-house editor the average book I acquired would still go through two to four more rounds of edits and that was after the author got a book deal! So imagine the rounds of revisions to get it to that point.

Prepare yourself for that and know that a good editor is going to give you a lot of notes, thoughts and ideas and you should have an open mind in terms of any and all feedback and options presented. A teacher, a coach, a friend, a mentor and a writing adviser, the best freelance editors are all of that rolled into one (with a dash of therapist throw in for good measure!)

The right collaboration can be meaningful, productive and get you closer to your writing goals and I hope this information and advice gives you a better understanding of the process and how to make the most of it.

Good luck out there and happy writing!

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7. How not to write a novel


Nathan here. I first met my friend Julia Forster a decade ago when we were assistants to two US and UK agents who worked closely together. She's now an accomplished author, and her novel What a Way to Go was published on Thursday by Atlantic Books in the UK. I invited her to write a guest post on the writing process. Enjoy!

In the autumn of 2002 I upped sticks from Bristol, England and rented a room in Kensington, Brooklyn for three months. I had an idea for a novel. It was to be set across two locations – New York and Venice.

The book would follow a young girl, Paige, who dreamt of being a cartographer. She was best friends with a boy called Sebastian who had dyslexia. He wanted to build gondolas.

I spent three months “researching” New York, haunting Park Slope coffee shops and bookstores. I volunteered at the Park Slope Food Co-op, and then as a magician’s assistant. I ate a lot of organic broccoli from the Food Co-op but also maxed out on American Pancakes.

One day, I walked straight into Paul Auster outside the Community Bookstore in Park Slope in which I’d had my first ever taste of Green Tea. I grinned at the author inanely, and stepped aside.

I didn’t read much (although I did obsess over Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I borrowed from the Brooklyn Public Library) and I wrote even less.

In December, I came back to the UK and realised that, while I had a wealth of ethnographic research and a massive overdraft to boot, I had no book. There was also no plot, no real sense of who my characters were, nor what made them tick.

Fast-forward two years and I was now based in London and working in Soho at a small literary agency. One Friday evening, on my commute home walking alongside the Thames on the South Bank, it struck me that the canvas I had chosen was too epic for me to handle. I decided to shrink it, and write an entirely different book, this time an autobiography.

It would be set in the middle of England where I grew up. My parents had divorced when I was five, so I was brought up in two family homes, one in a town called Northampton with my Mum (population 180,000) and, every other weekend, I was based in a small village with my Dad (population 180).

Over the course of the next year, I drafted 80,000 words. Only then did I realise the two major shortcomings with this project:

1) Nothing happened to me.

2) Nobody knew who I was.

I consigned the book to live under the bed. It served as quite good sound insulation. Aged 32, I moved to rural mid-Wales, with a partner and a three year-old daughter and a nine month-old son. If I turned my back for more than two seconds, my crawling baby son would be found fingering plug sockets or head-butting skirting boards.

By the age of three, he’d been hospitalised twice for whacking his prominent forehead, once having to be put under general anaesthetic in order to stitch his wound up again.

And it was under these circumstances – when I had been reduced to survival mode and when my horizons only reached as far as when I could reasonably consume another cup of strong coffee – that I managed to write the book that would find its way into print, What a Way to Go.

Can you picture those old-fashioned T-model Fords, the ones which needed a metal hand-crank to get the engine to fire? You’d put the crank into the front of the car, engage the ratchets, and then manually heave it round until the engine stuttered into life.


That was my brain.

My synapses hadn’t fired for that long that to begin with, the connections mis-fired.

For example, you would have thought that in order to commence a novel, you’d launch Word or Scrivener. Well, I launched the Excel application and began to compose my novel in tiny little cells on a spreadsheet.

I am not kidding when I say it took me three months to realise the error of my ways. By that time I was halfway through a six-month writers’ bursary which had been kindly awarded to me by Literature Wales.

By then, I was caffeine-addled and desperate. Turns out, this was the best state of mind in which to write.

I completed What a Way to Go over the next 18 months. I wrote as if my life depended on it, because it turned out that it did.

More about What a Way to Go: It’s 1988. 12-year-old Harper Richardson's parents are divorced. Her mum got custody of her, the Mini, and five hundred tins of baked beans. Her dad got a mouldering cottage in a Midlands backwater village and default membership of the Lone Rangers single parents' club. Harper got questionable dress sense, a zest for life, two gerbils, and her Chambers dictionary, and the responsibility of fixing her parents' broken hearts...

Set against a backdrop of high hairdos and higher interest rates, pop music
and puberty, divorce and death, What a Way to Go is a warm, wise and witty tale of one girl tackling the business of growing up while those around her try not to fall apart.

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8. Jacob Wonderbar for President of the Universe resembles... the 2016 American Presidential Election



When I wrote Jacob Wonderbar for President of the Universe in 2009-2010, I definitely tried to weave in some political satire that would resonate with kids who have to listen when their parents watch the news, and who have probably experienced a school election or two themselves.

Little did I know this novel would start to resemble the present in some weird ways.

Quick plot summary for those who haven't read it: the king of the universe has decided to abdicate the throne in favor of space's first democratic election, and since no self-respecting space human wants to listen to an adult give speeches (shudder), it is up to Mick Cracken, space buccaneer extraordinaire, and Jacob Wonderbar, Earth-born prankster with a heart of gold, to vie for the presidency.

Jacob wants to do a good job as president of the universe. Mick? Not so much. He promises nothing but entertainment.

They visit the planet full of journalists (imagine CNN's studios, but like, a whole planet), and Mick gives this speech:
Mick flashed his best cocky smile. "To the finest reporters and journalists in the universe, guardians of free speech and keepers of liberty. I bow down before your beauty and intelligence, you peerless scribes of truth and wisdom." 
The reporters nodded to each other and smiled. There was a smattering of applause. Jacob didn't know what to do and locked eyes with Sarah Daisy, who shook her head and shrugged. 
Mick paused for a moment, basking in the glow of attention. Finally he began to speak. 
"My administration will be full of corruption and scandal. There will be foul tricks and dirty deeds. I will disgrace the office, and my mistakes will force me to beg for mercy." Mick looked up at the reporters. "There will probably be tears." 
The reporters murmured to each other appreciatively. 
"As the universe's most famous space buccaneer, I couldn't be more unqualified for this office. I cannot promise you that I will be competent  or wise or good or even sort of good. You will often wonder how and why you elected me in the first place. That is, if I don't steal votes outright." Mick winked, and the reporters laughed. "There will always be a scandal to follow. Always a conspiracy to unravel. Constant speculation about whether I will be forced to resign. 
"Above all else, you will never be bored. I will break every single promise I make to you, except for this one, which I will hold dear: My speeches will be short." 
The room grew quiet in excitement and anticipation. 
"And that is why it gives me great pleasure to announce my candidacy for president of the universe." 
The reporters rose to their feet and cheered wildly. Mick raised his hands above his head and shook them in triumph.

Annnnd here we are. If you'd like to read more about the campaign antics, Jacob Wonderbar for President of the Universe is for sale on Amazon and B&N.

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9. What are your favorite still-active blogs?



I've mentioned previously that the blogosphere is feeling a little quieter lately, but maybe I'm just not looking in the right places.

What are some of your favorite still-active writing and publishing blogs? Who's out there still innovating and keeping the people talking?

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10. Do you have a writing New Year's resolution?


It is 2016! Still no flying cars or hoverboards (no, it's not), but um, at least Crystal Pepsi is coming back? Bueller?

Anyway, as we move ever more squarely into the twenty-first century, it is that time of year where we make resolutions for how we will self-improve, conquer worlds, and burn off all those Crystal Pepsi calories.

Do you have a writing-related New Year's resolution?

I'm hoping to make more progress on my sloooooow going novel. And hopefully blog a bit more consistently. And look at Twitter a little more often.

What about you?

Art: The Sun by Edvard Munch

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11. 7th Annual Heifer International Fundraiser!


It's that time of year!

This is the seventh year in a row for this Heifer fundraiser, and it's one of my favorite holiday traditions.

Here's how this works. All you have to do is:

1) Leave a comment on this post AND/OR
2) Tweet a link to this post and include the hashtag #NBHeifer. Here's a tweet button for your pleasure:



3) Click over to other participating blogs at the bottom of this post and leave comments there too
4) 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. (I recommend Rowfeeder for tracking your hashtag).

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. And in order to encourage people to spread the word about this worthy cause, there are now THREE ways to help increase the love:
  1. For every comment someone makes in this post between now and 6PM Eastern time on December 27, I will donate $2.00. 
  2. For every tweet that includes a) the hashtag #NBHeifer and b) a link back to this post (http://bit.ly/1MpYxaJ) I will donate another $2.00. (up to $2,000 between the two) 
  3. If you'd like to donate to Heifer directly, please visit this page.
We can encourage everyone to stop by so we can multiply the giving! Over the past years we have raised over $10,000 together.

Thanks, everyone!

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12. Will you ever buy mostly e-books? The results!

Has there been a disturbance in the Force?

It's not just The Force Awakens, but for the second consecutive year, e-books have reversed their gains in my poll that asks whether you think you'll ever buy mostly ebooks. The results!

Here are the people who say you can pry paper books out of their cold dead hands:

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

And 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%

Now, yes, caveats, this was an unscientific poll, different samples, etc. etc.

So tell me. Does this track with your personal experience? Any former e-book devotees who have made the jump back to print?

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13. Will you ever buy mostly ebooks? (9th Annual Poll)

Here we are again.

I've been asking this question once a year since 2007, when the Kindle was an inelegant piece of plastic and the iPad was a glimmer in Steve Jobs' eye.

Will you ever buy mostly e-books? Do you already?

Poll below.

Caveats to preempt comments I have heard since 2007. Yes, not a scientific poll, yes, difficult to compare between years, yes, I know you want more poll options because no choice here precisely capture your nuanced opinion and buying habits. Choose the one that is closest enough to your perspective.

Looking forward to seeing what you think!


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14. Need an editor? Check out New York Book Editors



True story. This past fall I took a product management class, and for my class project I tackled a question I found fascinating: What would a good editing service look like?

I did a ton of author interviews and focused on the challenges writers face when looking for a good editor. The editor needs to be reputable. You want someone who understands your work. You want a place you can trust where you wouldn't get ripped off. And you want a one-stop shop. Very few authors I spoke to knew where to go.

I developed a plan for a site that would connect authors with experienced, reputable, vetted editors with prior publishing experience, and proudly showed it to two of my editor friends. They both looked at me a little confused, and said, "Wait. You do know Natasa Lekic, right?"

Turns out this site already existed!!! It's called New York Book Editors, and Natasa and I are now good friends.

All of the editors are experienced and most used to work at the "Big 5" publishing house and other top imprints, and they focus on connecting authors with an editor who will be the right developmental editor. They also offer trial edits and calls to help you decide if you really have the right fit.

Check it out! Tell 'em I sent you.

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15. The past few weeks in books 12/14/15

Akihabara. Photo by me. I'm on Instagram here.
Hello! It's been a little while. I've been traveling (see above) and working a lot for my day job, but I haven't forgotten about you. How could I, you're marvelous!

Here are some links I've noticed in the past few months.

Most relevant to my gap in blogging is this post by author Jennifer Hubbard about not writing. Sometimes you need a hiatus.

And most relevant to the origins of this blog AN UPDATE ON THE LIVES OF HEIDI MONTAG AND SPENCER PRATT. If you know why that is relevant to this blog you have stuck with me for quite some time and I salute you.

Got an offer of representation from an agent? Cool. Don't say yes until you've read this post from agent Jessica Faust.

Oh, and don't negotiate your own contracts.

But you may not have to worry about that because ginormous debut book deals are back, baby!!

What could be better than the covers of The Little Prince and The Great Gatsby? The cover of The Little Prince and The Great Gatsby as  GIFs. Along with several other beloved classics. (via io9)

You may have written some longform journalism or a personal essay. What do you need to know to turn that into a full-length book? Read this indispensable article by editor Peter Ginna. (via Janet Reid)

Oh hey an article where Miranda July interviewed Rihanna click.

Oh hey an article where Barack Obama interviewed Marilynn Robinson click.

Oh hey an article where George Saunders and Carly Rae Jepsen tested random items click.

So have you ever thought about what consciousness really is? Like, why are we awake? Why are we here? Are other animals actually conscious? What about a jellyfish? AM I BLOWING YOUR MIND YET?? No? Well, this video on scientists who are trying to solve the mystery of consciousness may do a better job.

Remember Google Books? Apparently it's legal after all.

You probably know about the hero's journey. Here's a great video that shows the twelve steps nearly every hero goes through.

And finally, what does writing and tattoos have in common? More than you might think.


Have a great week! I'll be back with more posts all week, including a poll I've been running for NINE consecutive years.

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16. Need a great fall read? Check these out

One of the most rewarding experiences being connected to the writing world is seeing people you think are amazing and talented blow up and become wild successes. This year was an incredibly fruitful time for some of the writers I'm fondest of as both writers and human beings, and I'm delighted to point you to them!

Check these out...


I first met Sarah McCarry way back in 2010, when she was secretly writing her legendary blog The Rejectionist. I finagled a way to meet her in New York and we've been great friends ever since. In addition to publishing the awesome Guillotine chapbooks, she's now the author of the wildly acclaimed trilogy All Our Pretty Songs, Dirty Wings, and now About a Girl

All three books are incredible coming of age stories featuring intertwined characters in different times, with mythology weaving through. Sarah is one of the finest writers I know and even apart from the compelling narratives, the prose alone is worth the purchase.


Back in 2007, I was a literary agent on the hunt for new authors and Lisa Brackmann sent me one of the best query letters I've ever received. A few years and many revisions later, that book became Rock Paper Tiger and received a rave in the New York Times.

Following Hour of the Rat in 2013, Lisa has now completed a trilogy with Dragon Day. One of the most amazing qualities of Lisa's books is the way she's able to weave in seemingly disparate cultural threads, her deep on-the-ground knowledge of China, and a knack for realistic suspense into wildly compelling narratives.


I met Carmiel Banasky through Sarah McCarry a few years ago, and at the time she was putting the finishing touches on an intriguing literary novel. That novel, The Suicide of Claire Bishop found a publisher, rave reviews from everyone, and is now out for you to read.

The Suicide of Claire Bishop has the type of mind-bending plot you don't often find in literary fiction. In the 1950s, a woman's husband commissions a painting for her. The artist disturbingly depicts her suicide, and her life starts to unravel. In the 2000s, a man with schizophrenia comes across the painting and improbably thinks his ex-girlfriend is the artist, which is impossible unless she can time travel. Weaving all this together is some of the best prose I've come across in a long time.


Daniel José Older is one of the last authors I started working with before I left agenting. We went through many rounds of revisions on an incredible young adult novel set in a Brooklyn alive with Afro-Caribbean mythology, where graffiti paintings come alive and dark spirits are threatening.

Shadowshaper is another book that has received starred review after starred review after starred review, and it was so awesome to see it come to life after all the hard work that I saw Daniel put into it.


Anyone who hasn't heard of Ransom Riggs' wildly popular Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children will likely do so in short order when the Tim Burton film adaptation comes out in March.

But in the meantime, you can content yourself with the third book in the series, Library of Souls. These innovative novels combine found photographs that are interwoven into a charming and spine-tingling alternate world.


Can't believe I know these talented people! You can't go wrong with their books.

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17. Your NaNoWriMo Tuneup


The leaves are changing in the northeast and there's a chill in the air. It can only mean one thing: You are about to devote yourself to the greatest writing fest ever scheduled during a month when you are also supposed to spend time with loved ones and eat turkey.

Yes indeed, National Novel Writing Month is nearly upon us once again! Are you going for it? Are you? Are you doing it? Do you hear the pestering in my voice?

Whether you are a first-timer or a veteran, the best advice I have to give you is in the pages of How to Write a Novel: 47 Rules for Writing a Stupendously Awesome Novel You Will Love Forever. Not only does it have all the tips and organization you need to write the best novel you possibly can, its bright orange cover doubles as a seasonal-appropriate piece of flair for your coffee table.

If you prefer your advice in blog form, I aim to please. Here's a selection of links for new novelists and veterans alike:

For first-timers:


For veterans:

For everyone:

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18. Jonathan Franzen, Kanye West and the cultural appropation of trolling


It's been ten years now since Kanye West caused an immense stir in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by staring into a camera and saying, "George Bush doesn't care about black people" next to a memorably dumbfounded Mike Myers. (George Bush later said it was the worst moment of his presidency).

Kanye West has of course gone on to say and do many more brazenly controversial things, including interrupting Taylor Swift's VMA award speech with "Imma let you finish but Beyonce had one of the best music videos of all time," to announcing himself as the successor to Steve Jobs, to most recently rambling at the VMAs before saying he's running for president in 2020.

Love him or hate him (for the record, I'm mostly a fan), Kanye West has mastered the art of capturing attention in the social media and reality TV era. It's not enough to just be a good artist these days (which he is), you also have to fight for attention and eyeballs, and one of the best ways to do that is to do or say something plainly ridiculous and watch it get retweeted through the Internetosphere.

It's why I find Kanye West's much-lampooned video for Bound 2 hilarious, which consists almost entirely of him riding a motorcycle with a naked Kim Kardashian in front of images of iconic American landscape, including stampeding white horses in slow motion. He even premiered it on the Ellen DeGeneres show for some reason. You can almost hear Kanye's challenge to America -- you know this is what you want, you know you will eat this up.

This is the art of the troll - taking our cultural sensitivities and proclivities, countering or fulfilling them in a brazen way, and using our resulting outrage as a ploy to capture our attention. Trolls have been around since the early days of the Internet, and that darkest of art forms has now seemingly risen to great cultural heights.

Jonathan Freezy

No less a personage than eminent Man Of Letters Jonathan Franzen has seemingly taken a page from the Kanye West playbook in advance of the publication of his latest novel, Purity.

In an interview with The Guardian, Franzen professed that he had considered adopting an Iraqi war orphan out of his frustration that young adults are insufficiently angry. Yes. The quote in full:
Oh, it was insane, the idea that Kathy and I were going to adopt an Iraqi war orphan. The whole idea lasted maybe six weeks. And was finally killed by Henry’s response. He made a persuasive case for why that was a bad idea. The main thing it did … one of the things that had put me in mind of adoption was a sense of alienation from the younger generation. They seemed politically not the way they should be as young people. I thought people were supposed to be idealistic and angry. And they seemed kind of cynical and not very angry. At least not in any way that was accessible to me. And part of what journalism is for me is spending time with people who I dislike as a class. But I became very fond of them, and what it did was it cured me of my anger at young people.
Adopting an Iraqi war orphan. Because he's confused why young people are insufficiently angry. In the same era as the Black Lives Matter movement. When Franzen's own greatest source of anger seems to be the plight of North American songbirds. It's completely ridiculous.

The quote reverberated throughout the Internet, just in time for the release of Purity, currently the #13 bestseller on Amazon. (It should also be noted that Kanye West's George Bush Katrina remark came just after the release of his album Late Registration, which went on to sell 3.1 million copies.)

Franzen can't be serious. He has to be trolling. Right? Or is he serious? Do we know? I can't tell. Pretty sure he's trolling. Pretty sure.

Meet the Franzdashians

Kanye West is of course married to Kim Kardashian, reality TV show extraordinaire, who came to fame via the Paris Hilton playbook, and has stayed there ever since via her family's uncanny ability to ensnare our attention.

One of the essential appeals of reality TV isn't that it's real, it's that it blends reality and fiction in a complex way, where we're left puzzling over what's real and what's not. It's why I like The Bachelor so much. It's unreality that somehow creates its own reality, and teasing out what's real is an entertaining but ultimately futile exercise. I mean, can we talk about Bachelor in Paradise??

We're living in an era where we're constantly, relentlessly besieged by fakery -- spam emails, parody Twitter accounts, The Onion, Andy Borowitz, vaccine scares, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories. Every day we have to navigate this miasma and decide what's real. It's why Snopes exists. It seems fitting that our evening entertainment would capitalize on a dynamic that we spend a good chunk of our day navigating.

Franzen has, naturally, disavowed reality TV too. He suggested the "reality" at the start of this quote by Karl Kraus be changed to "reality TV:" "Reality is a meaningless exaggeration of all the details that satire left behind fifty years ago." Yet intentionally or unintentionally, he keeps feeding the beast and forcing us to wonder if his fuddyduddery and provocations are earnest or contrived. He's living out his own personal reality TV show in the old-schoolest way possible, through interviews in the newspapers and magazines that still exist.

All the while, we keep talking about him. I mean, look at me. I'm writing this 1,000 word post about Jonathan Franzen. It's the second time I've done this. I'm unintentionally promoting his book.

He sucked me in. Just like Kanye.

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19. What I learned about writing from a broken tooth


I recently had quite a health ordeal, and for some reason it reminded me of writing and publishing. Probably because everything does. Bear with me on this one.

A month back, while in the early days of my new job, I bit into a piece of toast and felt a sharp pain in one of my molars. I didn't think that much of it -- I've had some jaw/tooth aches in the past that didn't amount to much -- and I went about my business, planning to check with my dentist if the pain didn't go away. Then, a week later, I proceeded to get immensely sick, coming down with a 104.5 fever. (Spoiler: I survived!)

On top of that, my tooth still hurt like crazy whenever I accidentally bit into something, so as I was recovering from that illness thanks to the miracle of antibiotics, I went to the dentist. Sure enough, I had a broken tooth beyond repair and an infected root. It's probable that my illness was connected to the broken tooth, as a point of entry for some bacteria or another. Annnd I had to have the tooth extracted. Which I really didn't want to do. But I had to.

Now, thankfully, I'm on the other side of everything. My tooth is gone, my gum is healing, I can finally eat normally again, and I'm back to 100% health. Win!!

So why am I telling you this?

Last night as I was eating a delicious crab sandwich without any pain, I got to thinking, "You know what? Having *no* tooth is better than having a broken tooth."

Indeed. And then I saw a commercial for Entourage, which reminded me of agenting, and then THIS BLOG POST WAS BORN.

There are so many times in your publishing life where it's tempting to hold on to something that's broken. Maybe you have an agent who you kind of realize is not a good agent, or you are presented with a publishing deal from a micro publisher you're not totally sure about. But, having an agent is better than having no agent, right?

No.

Just as my broken tooth wound up getting me sick, a bad agent can do immense damage to your career if they send your manuscript around badly. It's harder to find another good agent to take you on, and publishers may not reconsider your manuscript if they've already seen it. They can also set you back from looking for a good agent. And unscrupulous "publishers" out there can take advantage of you financially.

Having *no* agent is better than having a bad agent.
Having *no* publishing deal is better than having a bad publishing deal.

You may worry about the appearances of losing something that felt hard-earned, and no doubt it's painful in the short term, but you have to think of those bad actors like a broken tooth that you need to extract in order to restore yourself to publishing health.

You will heal. You'll get back on track. And you'll realize you're better off. Good riddance, broken molar.

Art: The Toothpuller by Carvaggio

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20. I miss the blogosphere


Where have all the bloggers gone? Long time passing. I want to know.

I miss the blogosphere.

There was a time, between 2007-2009, when everyone had a blog. It was peak blog. Blogspot and Wordpress. Blog rolls and tagging. Blog awards and comments of the week.

I started feeling the decline in 2011, and in 2013 it was really apparent. Now, it's a veritable ghost town.

Maybe I'm just getting old, but I really miss that time. Peak blog coincided with economic calamity, and the entire world was on edge (note: I don't think there was a connection. I think.). But there was something comforting in the sense of simultaneous community and individuality, people pioneering their own space but making sure to check in on what everyone else was doing.

And sure, people are still tweeting and Facebooking and Tumblring, but there was a time when people put their thoughts out there, in detail, took the time to go around and read what other people were thinking, in detail, and left thoughtful comments. In detail.

The blogosphere certainly had its unfortunate flame wars, but it seems like the book portion Twittersphere and Tumblrverse in particular are now optimized for peak outrage, one s***show after the next, with nothing ever meaningful really seeming to come of it.

This is some uncharacteristic techno-nostalgia for me, but I think 2007-2009 was a pretty great time, (Internet-wise at least), when people were putting their thoughts on digital paper and thinking thoughtfully about what other people were writing. And making actual real-life friends! I met some of my dearest friends through my blog.

Am I missing something? Have people picked up and moved to another, better place?

What do you make of the decline of the blogosphere?

Art: Sunland Landscape by Audley Dean Nicols

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21. Comic-Con here I come!


I'm psyched to be returning to Comic-Con this weekend for two incredible panels!

Check these out...

Tomorrow at 6pm PT in 25ABC I'm going to be hosting a panel on choosing the right publishing path for you:
Authors Sarah J. Maas (Throne of Glass series), Seanan McGuire (October Daye series), Cora Carmack (Losing It) and Elizabeth Briggs (Chasing the Dream series), along with editor Adam Wilson (Simon & Schuster) and literary agent Holly Root (Waxman Leavell Literary Agency), discuss the various options for publishing fiction and how to determine what works for different genres. Moderated by author, former literary agent, and all-around publishing guru Nathan Bransford.
And then on Sunday, I'm hosting a blockbuster young adult panel at 3:45 in 5AB:
Strong protagonists, engrossing romance, humor, action, and angst! Join panelists for this popular annual Q&A session and chat about the hottest new titles and trends in YA fiction. Moderated by Nathan Bransford (The Jacob Wonderbar series) and featuring Alexandra Bracken (Darkest Minds series), Rae Carson (Girl of Fire and Thorns series), Susan Dennard (Something Strange and Deadly trilogy), Alan Gratz (The League of Seven), Sarah J. Maas (Throne of Glass series), Tahereh Mafi (Shatter Me series), Ransom Riggs (Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children), and Sabaa Tahir (An Ember in the Ashes).
I know!! So excited!

If you're going to be at Comic-Con let me know and/or come say hi. Don't be shy. Unless you're wearing a Greedo costume, in which case you had better watch yourself as me and Han go way back.

See you there!

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22. The last few weeks in books 7/27/15

Photo by me. I'm on Instagram here.

It has been a while!

My time has been stretched in the past few weeks due to travel and moving (to Manhattan of all places), but I am now hoping to return to a semi-regular schedule. Hello! Nice to see you.

I've been collecting lots of links over the past few months. Let's see what we've got.

First up, this coming Saturday I'm going to be speaking at the Writers Digest Conference in NYC. There's still time to register! I'll be talking about staying sane during the writing process, which seems like it's not possible but I SWEAR that if you do these things... okay yeah it's not totally possible.

Remember when we all compiled our top 100 movie lists? That was excellent. The BBC went and did their top 100 American movies, and I have to say it's a pretty solid list.

The BookEnds blog is back with a vengeance (well, it's back with some smart and author-informative posts). Some recent ones I took note of are how you should think twice before granting an agent an exclusive, and how if you are seeking publication, it's important that you don't think of it as a hobby, but as a job. That means buckling down, setting deadlines, and pushing through, especially when you don't have the luxury of time. And maybe you should put some thought into your query.

The juggernaut of a franchise known as James Patterson (who also I believe is the name of a writer too), is starting a children's imprint with Little, Brown. And oh by the way Patterson's novels have now sold over 300 million copies.

You're probably not really done writing your book.

E.L. James has a new book out, Grey, told from the perspective of Christian Grey, natch. The sequel I'm waiting for is the novel told from the perspective of Charlie Tango, Christian Grey's helicopter. E.L. James, I'll get you started!
I was born in a warehouse, but I'm so much more than that. They told me I should just fly, hover, do my job reliably, and someday be sold for scrap metal after a long career. They told me I could never attract the attention of a self-made billionaire with a fondness for girls who bite their lips. 
They were wrong. 
I give my inner helicoptress a high five as I settled into the SeaTac tarmac, obeying Christian Grey's skillful, artful commands. If I had a lip I would bite it and shyly mumble my appreciation.
If only they could see me now. 
YOU KNOW YOU WOULD BUY THIS BOOK.

Ahem.

We all know that writing can be a solitary pursuit, and it can sometimes be tricky to get things done at home when there are things like chores and TV and people who call themselves "family members" trying to distract you. Behold, the rise of the writer's space.

There are a lot of writing competitions out there, some more reputable than others. Writer Beware takes a look at some of the red flags.

And finally, do you want to be a beer editor? I mean, of course you do.

Have a great weekend!

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23. How should authors be paid?


There was an interesting kerfuffle recently as Amazon began transitioning some royalties over to pages read, as opposed to downloads. Will Oremus is one who thinks it makes sense.

It got me thinking. How should authors be paid?

What about all those used book sales that authors aren't compensated for? Library borrowings? Back to the patronage system?

Anyone got some creative ideas?

Art: Money to Burn by Victor Dubreuil

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24. How to know when to leave your agent


Not sure what's in the air these days (well, besides nitrogen, oxygen, argon, and the smell of hot dogs seriously where is that coming from), but I've heard from several authors who are wondering whether it is time for them to leave their agent.

Also, I realize that this sounds like a lofty problem for the agent-less, the equivalent of a mansion owner wondering if they should get a new pool to replace the one they have, but I would encourage you all to read this post as well, not only because you may have an agent someday, but also I'm hoping to lay out some of the things you should and shouldn't expect of an agent.

Leaving an agent is a really tough decision, and one you absolutely should not take lightly. You are forgoing an advocate, you could possibly be burning a bridge, and it's incredibly important to act as rationally and non-emotionally as possible. But sometimes it's the right decision.

So. How do you know if you should leave? I'm going to divide this up into good reasons and bad reasons. A HUGE caveat is that every situation is different and you ultimately have to choose the best path for you.

Bad reason: Your agent couldn't sell your book.

Even the best agents strike out sometimes. This doesn't make them a bad agent. Sometimes it just doesn't happen with the first book. If they made a good faith effort to submit it, they did the best they could and it just didn't happen, and they still believe in you, that alone is not a very good reason to leave.

Yes, some agents have more clout than others, but the book itself and serendipity are way more powerful than any agent. If you like your agent and they just couldn't sell your book, I wouldn't hold it against them.

Good reason: Your agent has behaved unprofessionally or unethically

It can be so tricky for authors on the outside to know what constitutes unprofessional and/or unethical in a business that can feel very opaque. Especially one that tolerates a level of eccentricity that would make Edward Scissorhands feel awkward.

But if you find that your agent is being shady or doing something headslappingly bad like blasting your manuscript to 50 editors all at once on the same email thread, have a heart to heart. If they don't have an explanation that satisfies you, you may have your answer.

Bad reason: Your agent doesn't write or call you back immediately

You're not your agent's only client. Days are busy. You have one book to worry about, an agent is juggling dozens.

Give it some time. Be patient. Remember that snails look at publishing and think, "Whoa dudes let's pick up the pace, huh?"

That said...

Good reason: Your agent has gone incommunicado.

You should be able to get in touch with your agent. Maybe not immediately, but within a reasonable time frame. This is actually a very good thing to establish from the outset -- how quickly should be reasonable for responses?

If you try and try and try to get in touch with your agent and you just can't get in touch with them, you may have a problem on your hands.

Bad reason: You want to leave without being transparent about your concerns and giving your agent a chance to respond.

Good relationships depend on trust and communication. If you have concerns, express them. Your agent should appreciate your honesty and have good answers for you.

Especially when so much happens outside of view, and especially because you may not have insight into the customs of the industry, what can seem totally strange at first blush can make much more sense when your agent explains it.

Don't let things linger. If you're concerned, speak up.

Good reason: Your gut is telling you it's time to go.

You've expressed your concerns.

You have given your agent a chance to respond.

You listened to their response in good faith.

You have let some time go by.

You have gotten feedback and perspective from other knowledgable people.

You have reflected.

You aren't taking this decision lightly in the slightest.

You still think it's time to go.

Okay. It's your career. You have to make your choices. If you have acted in good faith, listened, and you just think it's time, it may well be time.

Art: The Signal by William Powell Frith

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25. Creativity tip: When you need inspiration, figure out what you need to know


I'm on record saying writer's block doesn't exist.

When I say that, I'm not saying that you won't experience a feeling of idea-lessness or that life circumstances will never get in the way of your writing. Lots of people go through stretches where it is legitimately impossible to write.

What I mean is that most commonly, that feeling of writer's block is just a feeling that you can actually power through.

When you head down that path, the absolute most helpful thing to do is to figure out the problem. Figure out why you can't think of an idea. What is it that you're trying to solve in the book?

Here's what I mean. I'm at a stage in writing my new novel where I legitimately don't know what's going to happen next. And I got stuck. I seriously couldn't think of what to write next. But rather than stare at the blinking cursor of doom, I started creating structure around the problem.

I know that the main character is currently at Point A, and eventually she'll need to get to Point B. So I started cataloguing some of the things that need to happen before Point B. Then I broke it up still further into a series of chapters. I started writing out some of the feelings I want her to experience before Point B, plotting out the ups and downs. I wrote down some of the bigger things I hadn't yet tackled in the narrative but wanted to, such as showing something happening in the broader world.

And I figured out the problem. I need to set a new plot line in motion, and I needed to do more work to get a sense of where she's going before I figure out the next step.

I still don't know precisely is going to happen, but this is the first step toward being unstuck.

Sometimes it doesn't work to confront a lack of ideas head on. It can be far more effective to create some structure around it, figure out what you need to figure out, and then power on through.

Art: Sebastian Hyller by Franz Joseph Winter

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