Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Nathan Bransford: How I Write

Today we have author Nathan Bransford giving us an in depth look at how he writes. 

Nathan 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 releases today from Dial Books for Young Readers. Many of you might know his name because he was formerly a literary agent with Curtis Brown Ltd., and blogs about the biz. 

Take it away Nathan...

How I Write
When I took creative writing classes in college, I was always fascinated by hearing about how other writers write, especially the famous ones: Whether they wrote in bursts or whether they planned, whether they were sober or intoxicated, depressed or happy, whether they wrote at night or during the day, daily or only when inspiration hit, whether the writer is a creative and flighty artist-type or a studious hard worker, whether they outlined or figured it out as they went along, whether they showed signs of genius early or came to it late.

When I got out of college and started working in publishing, I realized there is no such thing as a "writer's" personality type or a universal system that works or anything close to resembling one best way to write. Everyone does it differently.

There's only one thing professional writers have in common: They get the job done, one way or another.

So please don't take this post as how I think everyone should write. This is just the process that works for me. Some of these styles or tips may be useful to you... or not! The only way to know is to try them out. Just know that there's nothing "weird" about the way you write. As long as you get the job done you're a writer.

Brainstorming Ideas
My biggest ideas usually come to me in a flash, and from there I round them out one step at a time. I'm drawn to high concept book ideas both as a result of my personal taste but also because in an age of great distraction I feel like it helps if you can describe your book in a sentence.

The idea for JACOB WONDERBAR started as an image of a kid trapped on a planet full of substitute teachers, and I let that basic idea guide the entire rest of the process. The idea felt middle grade, so okay, I was going to write a middle grade novel. How did the kid get to space? Well, he'd need a spaceship. How did he get the spaceship? Maybe he traded a corndog for it. Maybe his best friends tagged along, and maybe they accidentally hit a huge stumbling block on the way that was making it really difficult to get back home. Maybe that stumbling block was breaking the universe, and maybe there's more keeping him in space than breaking the universe, maybe the kid thinks he could find his dad while he's there.

Then I sketched out the characters. I knew the main character would be a good-hearted troublemaker, I knew I wanted a strong female character, and a timid friend who is mildly scared of Jacob. I fleshed out these basic ideas before I sat down to write a page.

And I let the plot and characters drive the voice - a little wacky, some heart, and action-driven. From there it was just a matter of spending six months writing it.

Outlining vs. Writing Blind
I'm an outliner, but not an obsessive one. I try to have a definite but still-vague sense of the beginning, middle and end of the book, and don't worry about figuring out exactly how the characters are going to get from Point A to Point B. I always want to leave room for things to work or not work on the page and for new ideas to creep in.

Still, I turned in a three page synopsis to my publisher before I wrote JACOB WONDERBAR FOR PRESIDENT OF THE UNIVERSE, and it ended up being almost exactly how the book turned out. So while I don't have everything figured out ahead of time, I definitely write with a map.

I'm not someone who can write every day. For one thing I'm too busy, but I also need the break between bursts of writing in order to process, brainstorm, and let my subconscious work out problems. I try to always have a sense of the challenges ahead and questions I need to figure out, then I give my brain time to do its thing in the background.

On the weekend I'll wake up, drink a few cups of coffee, respond to e-mails and maybe write a blog post or two, and then when I'm wide awake it's time to write. I block out all distractions, but I don't go into isolation either: I still check e-mail and Twitter from time to time and I can concentrate with people and noise around me (except for music, which I can't listen to while writing.)

And for the next six to eight hours, I just write. If I hit a stumbling block I force myself to stare at a blank page until I figure out how to resolve it (or I don't figure it out, but the staring time is still useful). If I'm really stuck I'll work on my series bible or do something else that will get me just a little bit closer to the finish line. I don't really have time for writers block, and I really believe if you just stare at the screen long enough you'll figure it out.

While I was writing JACOB WONDERBAR FOR THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNIVERSE I was often writing both days on the weekends and very rarely took a day off, but that ended up being too much for me, hence my new search for more balance. Now I try and break up my weekend with one day of writing and one day of doing something fun.

I can write anywhere as long as I have a laptop and a couple uninterrupted hours. I usually write on my couch in my living room, but occasionally I'll go outside or to a coffee shop. I don't have a desk.

I write on a MacBook Pro on Microsoft Word, unless I'm traveling, in which case I'm writing on my iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard and the Pages app. I don't own a printer and didn't touch a piece of paper related to my manuscript until I got ARCs.

I gotta be honest, I don't always like the writing process. I sometimes find it tedious, and there are many times along the way I'd rather be doing something else. I'm drawn to that old phrase, "I don't like writing, I like having written." When it's going well it can be really fun and I still enjoy it overall, but I'm honestly a little suspicious of people who think writing is always a blast. Because it's really hard!

I struggled quite a bit with the "Am I Crazies" and the "Am I Really Good Enoughs" while I was writing JACOB WONDERBAR, and that was probably my biggest stumbling block. But I powered through because deep down I really believed in the idea and knew I'd regret it endlessly if I didn't try and do it while I had the time to do it.

What gets me through the tough stretches is that feeling of looking back on something as hard and time-consuming to accomplish as writing a novel and being proud of the result of your effort. That's what keeps me going.

Chapter Philosophy

I tend to write short chapters (3-6 pages double-spaced) that are focused around something happening. I try and map out my chapters in the same way I map out the novels: They have a beginning (hopefully with a hook or some piece of action to engage the reader and center them in the action), a middle section with conflict that builds toward a climax, and an end, which is usually either a pithy or sentimental moment, or possibly a cliffhanger.

Again, this is both borne out of my own taste, as well as my philosophy about reading in an age of distractions. I also have to consider my audience: 8-12 year olds aren't exactly known for their lengthy attention spans, but keep them engaged and they'll stick with you.


  • I try to avoid adverbs and non-said dialogue tags (but don't always succeed)
  • One of my weaknesses as a writer is that I have a tendency to rush through scenes and have to remind myself to slow down and flesh them out
  • Working out and taking showers does wonders for unlocking ideas
  • Whenever I come back to writing after an absence I have to accept that the first day back isn't going to be very productive
  • I don't write to a particular daily word count or even keep very close count of what I've gotten done. I just write as long as I can and power through when I'm feeling tired. I do try to leave off while there's still some material left to be written in a scene so I can easily get back in the rhythm the next time I pick up.
  • When I have an idea just before I'm falling asleep I force myself get up and write it down, otherwise I'll only remember that I had a really great idea that I can no longer remember, and it will drive me crazy.
And when in doubt: space monkeys.

Whew! That's my process, and I'm happy to answer questions about it (though please allow a bit of time for a response).

Also: What's your writing process, and what works for you?

*This post has been cross-posted with Nathan's blog, Monday, May 2, 2011.


  1. Really interesting information here. Like Nathan, I love hearing about how other writers work and what their routines are.

    My process probably seems a bit haphazard. I get an idea in my head for a thrilling climax, then work out what kind of a story will lead to that. Then I plough through the internet to research any locations or aspects I'm not familiar with, all the while planning the story out in my head.

    I write pretty much whenever I can set aside some free time. Before work and during my lunch hour are the most common times. I'd be lost without Google Documents and Wikipedia.

  2. I also love learning about other people's methods. Space monkeys sound like the perfect solution!

    My writing depends on which version I'm on. I write rough drafts blind, but make sure I know where I'm going when I rewrite.

    If my words dry up, I stop and do something else, because staring at a blank page makes the ideas go away as well...


  3. I think the biggest thing that helped me here was seeing that maybe it's ok to not write every day. I've never seen that in print before! But I know I'm the same way - forcing myself to write through problems doesn't work for me. Giving it a rest for a few days does - the answer will always just bubble up when I come back to that piece.

    My almost 9-year old daughter, the one who almost never reads fiction (and when she does, tends towards "boy books"), enjoyed your book trailer and wants your book. I'll be on the lookout for that. Congrats!!

    Thanks Nathan and Janice --


  4. Thank you for admitting that you don't always like the writing process. I've questioned whether I should be a writer because at times, I hate the process. It's nice to hear that other writers go through the same thing.

  5. I love it when authors share their methods for getting their creativity flowing. I've taken many showers for this very purpose, and yes, it does wonders.

  6. I have had Nathan's blog post sitting in my overstuffed inbox for awhile and I am finally reading this now . . . Loved it! This is very similar to how I write, and I love how straight forward you present your process.

    And I agree--working out and-in particular-showers work wonders to unlock creativity. Driving, too. Basically all times when I can't exactly write it down right away LOL

  7. Great post. I love hearing about other writes' processes, especially those who work full time like me. I'm glad to see that you finished your book without writing every day. For me, I have to squeeze in time early in the morning, at lunch if I take a break, and some on the weekends.

    And for those of you who haven't read Nathan's book, you want to. I just finished it last night. It was a fast paced story that had lots of humor kids would like. Me too.

  8. Thanks for sharing! I love the title of your book, and the cover art.

  9. I liked the idea of a series bible. I'm working on a series now and that would be extremely helpful. I think I'm like you in that I tend to rush through scenes. That means I probably have more revisions until the scene is fully developed. And yes, writing is damn hard!

  10. I'm delighted to read about another writer who finds it better not to write every day, and who can't write with music playing - our brains must work in the same way, Nathan, so Snapping-space-monkeys!