Category Archives: Nathan Barra

Blood, Sweat & Hooked on Phonics

I was born and initially grew up in a bilingual country. My Canadian public school system sought to make its students proficient in both French and English by high school graduation. French was taught from kindergarten to sixth grade and English from six grade through twelfth. The problem was that my dad was transferred when I was nine, and though I had French proficiency at a third-grader’s level, I was effectively illiterate from the perspective of my new, all English school.

Elementary school in a new country was difficult enough without having to simultaneously catch up and keep up. It took an incredibly difficult couple of years for me to reclaim my literacy. I was incredibly lucky however. When my dad’s company arranged the paperwork for us to immigrate, they were unable to acquire a work visa for my mother. She decided to devote her time to tutoring my brother and me after hours.

To this day, I remember coming home from school, completing my assigned homework to the best of my ability, and then sitting with my mom at the kitchen table for hours. My nights were largely occupied with hooked on phonics, supplemental workbooks, and educational games. As any third grader would, I resented the extra homework, but I hated feeling stupid more, and so I worked my butt off.

Over the months, I struggled my way to literacy, graduating from games and primers to picture books, and eventually working my way up to novels. My mom gifted to me my love for reading through patient hours, frustrated tears, endless encouragement and enthusiasm. Though hesitant to give us toys, treats, and video games, my mom was ever generous with books. I could have as many as I could read. The library became an awesome place.

Eventually I caught up to my peers, but the momentum I had built up in my struggle carried me forward, past many of my classmates. My mom’s work permit was eventually granted, and she returned to a day job. By that time, however, working on my reading was no longer extra homework. I loved the stories and the adventure. I loved to read.

I never knew how much my mom kept from those early years until I was packing everything I owned to move halfway across the country. A few nights before I was scheduled to leave, with most of my life packed away in boxes for storage or for travel, my mom found me and showed me a giant Tupperware box, grayish from years of dust dulling the maroon of the plastic. Together, we opened it and inside I found not only the standard detritus of a young child’s life, but those months of workbooks. More importantly, I found stacks of stories written by a barely literate me. I thought that writing was a passion I had picked up in high school and college, but she showed me that I have been writing quite literally since I learned to read. Some of the stories were even in French.

I credit my mother with giving me the gift of literacy. Sure, I worked for it. I shed blood, sweat and tears, but without her patience and love, I would not have the passion for storytelling that is my calling. It is because of her that I can be a writer at all.

Thanks mom.

The Choosing of Names

Let me tell you a secret. My name isn’t actually Nathan Barra. I chose to write under a pen name for two reasons. First, I work in a very conservative industry, and have written several internal and external publications under my real name. I’m worried that publishing fiction under my true name would damage my credibility in my day job. Second, I consider my name to be unGooglable. Pretty much everyone I have ever had read my name has mispronounced it, and anyone I have tried to dictated to has misspelled it. In this day of search bars in social media, that is unacceptable.

Regardless of your reason, picking the right name is an art. These days, authors sell themselves as much as they sell their books. So, if you’re going to take the time to choose a pen name, what does it take to choose a good one?

5. A good pen name is multilingual.
With the Internet and the global economy, an author’s words are no longer limited to a local geo-market. Something written on one continent can and likely will be sold on the others. Therefore, it behooves the author to pick a name that is easily pronounceable in most major linguistic families. Go to, type “His name is…” and listen to how the name is pronounced in a bunch of different languages. Is it still comprehendible, or even better, similar?

4. A good pen name matches the brand.
Authorial brands are built on names, so the name must fit within the brand the author is trying to establish. For example, in urban fantasy, where I like to read and write, many authors have two part names. Examples include Jim Butcher, Richelle Mead, Patricia Briggs, Larry Correia, and Jennifer Estep. I too chose a two part name to help me fit in and make it easier to design a cover that is clearly urban fantasy.

3. A good pen name is memorable.
John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt would make a lousy pen name for many reasons. Without the tune, I can’t remember it, and in fact had to Google the end of the name and the spelling’s. Though most publishers try to avoid it, there are still a number of books with the same or similar titles, only distinguishable by who wrote them. When someone recommends a book, they often will be recommending the author simultaneously. How can they do that if they don’t remember the name?

2. A good pen name is easy to spell.
The biggest problem with my real name is that even after shortening it, I’ve had it misspelled and mispronounced countless times. In this day of online retailers, search engines and social media, a name that is easy to spell is essential. I need someone to be able to search me, friend me, tweet me, and find me on Amazon.  I chose Nathan because there aren’t variations on that name. Barra is a bit riskier, as it can be spelled with one r or two, but in the end, the name is still simple enough that I don’t think it’ll be much of a problem.

1. A good pen name does not already have an online presence.
When I was choosing my pen name, I did a search to ensure two things. First, I made sure that was available, which it was. Then, I searched to ensure that there weren’t too many Nathan Barras on Facebook, Twitter and Amazon. Facebook had the most, but none of them seem to be particularly active in writing circles. The last thing I would want is for someone to search for me, and then find some other Nathan Barra talking trash and making me look bad. These days, a strong online presence is essential. This doesn’t look like it’s going to change.

Time is Taken, Never Given

I work insane hours. I will often spend as many as thirty to forty hours at a time on the job. One hundred or more hour weeks are the norm, not the exception. Don’t pity me. I knew what I was getting into when I took this position. In fact when I was recruited for this opportunity, I chose it over four others for the challenge it brought me. My recruiter was honest with me, and to this day, I believe that I went into that choice with my eyes open. I knew that I was committing to a lifestyle, not just a job. Even still, my work leaves me with precious little time for my two life goals.

First, I want to be an amazing father.

Next, I want to be a professional writer.

That’s it. If all that is written on my tombstone is, “He was a damn good father and writer,” well, then it would all have been worth it.

One of the major challenges of my life is making time. I gave up on finding it years ago. I’ve come to realize, that no one will ever make me a good father, or a professional writer. If I’m going to have the time for either of those things, I need to take it. Because of that struggle, what free time I do have is precious. The greatest gift I can give my loved ones is a small piece of the time that I carved out for myself.

There are a thousand things that demand my attention. Sometimes, it is easy to let all the noise of the world overwhelm my two life goals.  My job, along with everyone else’s work, exists to further its own existence. We all come to work to make money for the company, and in turn, take some of those earnings back home with us. My job will never make me a professional writer.  That’s not what we do. Achieving that ambition will never help the company’s bottom line. Because of this, my work will never give me time to write. If I’m going to have that time, I must seize it.

No one will ever give you time. No matter how much my significant other, my friends or my family love me and want me to succeed, they will never be able to give me the time I need to write. Because they love me, they want to spend time with me. Truth is, I want to spend time with them too. But at some point, I need to write. The very best my loved ones can do is give me space. That gift is a gift of love. What I do with that space is up to me. Do I take a nap? Do I catch up on my reading or those television shows I have been neglecting? Do I stare into the depths of my navel and think about writing?

Or do I work? Do I take that gift of love, that gift of space, and use it to make something?

In the end, one piece of advice that I can pass on from my own struggles is this: seize your dreams. No one will seize them for you. Even if they were so inclined, in so doing, they would be rendered meaningless. It is in the struggle that accomplishment translates into meaning.

Franchises: Buying In for the Long Haul

I remember reviews of the Wii that compared it to the Xbox 360 and the PS3, when all three consoles were shiny and new.  From a technical perspective, the Wii was an inferior console.  It lacked entirely in capabilities that its competitors were counting on as differentiating selling points.  Like millions of others, I still bought a Wii.  In fact, the Wii sold so well that it dominated the competition for a number of years after its release.  Why would a technically inferior console do so well?


Nintendo holds a number of huge franchises that have always released a installment shortly after a new system’s release.  On IGN’s top 25 Videogame Franchises list, Nintendo franchises occupy the top two spots (Mario and the Legend of Zelda) and a handful of the remaining twenty three spots.

Authorial franchises start with a series.  With enough time, and if enough quality works are produced, the author’s name becomes the franchise, instead.  Even one series with the popularity of one of Nintendo’s flagship franchises, the Legend of Zelda as an example, is enough to build a very successful career on.  The question is, then, what can we learn from Zelda’s success?

#5. Successful franchises are cannon controlled.

To the best of my investigative skills, there has been neither a third party production of a Legend of Zelda game, nor a Legend of Zelda game produced for any system other than a Nintendo console since Nintendo started producing hardware.  Why would the license holder of such a huge franchise do this?  Isn’t Nintendo limiting their potential audience by not offering the game on PC or it’s competitor’s consoles?  The answer is two-fold.

First, Nintendo does not want anyone other than Miyamoto and Tezuka (the games’ designers) working on the franchise, lest they muddle the cannon.  The current prevailing theories as to the canonical timeline suggest at least three independent time streams.  This milieu and wealth of plot is too complicated for anyone else to handle.  One bad game, like one bad book, risks the entire franchise.  As to the second point, a gamer must do business with Nintendo’s hardware branch to play a Legend of Zelda game.  By limiting the availability of the game, Nintendo increases the profitability of all of its branches.

The Take Away: Upon establishing a successful series or franchise, it is essential to recognize the power of the IP represented therein.  I need to be very, very careful who I allow to work on it and how it is distributed.

#4. Successful franchises use iconic imagery.

TriforceTo me, the Triforce is indelibly linked to the whole Legend of Zelda series.  When I see that symbol, my mind automatically goes back to the games and how much fun I had playing them.  And you know, doesn’t those three golden triangles mean that this game is also a Zelda game?  Maybe I should stop walking through the mall and pay attention to that cutout in the window of the game store.

Point being, the Triforce is an excellent branding piece for several reasons.  First, it is strongly tied into the series, serving as a major focus for no less than six of the Zelda games.  It appears as a design element in many of the other installments of the series.  It’s a simple design that can be easily printed, embroidered, cast or otherwise incorporated into merchandise.  I am able to recognize it from across a crowded game store.  That’s some good branding.

The Take Away: If used properly, brands let me market my books, sell merch, and establish and communicate a reputation at a glance.

#3. Successful franchises inspire nostalgia.

The basic premise of a Zelda game is that a young boy from a rural village in Hyrule is called to save the world and sets out to explore a number of dungeons, killing monsters and collecting loot, until he faces off and defeats the ultimate evil of his time.  It’s a Hero’s Journey, every time.  Each game feels the same, and has the elements of puzzles and monster combat that I enjoy.  The familiarity is comforting.  Yet, there is enough variety in the storyline, treasures and items to collect, and milieu to explore, that it still feels fresh.  The learning curve from one game to the next is shallow.

Nostalgia also has value in that it can generate sales.  I remember, very fondly, my first game of the Majora’s Mask.  Because I enjoyed that game, I bought and played the Ocarina of Time, which I also enjoyed.  Each subsequent game has built up the nostalgic warm and fuzzies that I have for the Zelda franchise.  The release of a new Zelda game has pushed me off the fence about buying a new console before.

The Take Away:  Nostalgia is a powerful position from which to sell books.  If a consumer looks at my name at the bottom of a new release, and is flooded with a sense of nostalgic enjoyment, the book is likely sold.

#2. Successful franchises have staying power.

The Hero’s Journey is one of the essential story archetypes that speaks to the human condition.  It has resonated with people for thousands of years and continues to do so.  I want to start the game with Link and gain power enough to kill the ultimate evil of the day.  I can play, and read, that storyline over and over again, and never get bored so long as there is enough variety in other aspects.

Wise selection of archetypes is not the only element that can give staying power to a series.  One of my favorite things about a Legend of Zelda game is the underlying philosophy that serves as the theme for the game.  In Majora’s Mask, the world is destroyed at the end of the third in-game day, so you are forced to time travel back to the dawn of the first day repeatedly.  Whenever I play this game as an adult, I can’t help but ruminate afterwards about the nature of time, how I live my life and what I would do over if I had the chance.  In the Twilight Princess, the game focuses on the concept of twilight as the border of light and dark, and this imagery is dragged throughout the game’s other aspects.  To me, this speaks to the idea that the world is both bright and dark, and that, most of the time, we live in a world of moral greys.

The Take Away:  There isn’t one method to give staying power to a series, but it is essential for a series to have the endurance to become a successful franchise, none the less.

#1. Successful franchises have consistently high quality.

I didn’t start at the beginning of the Zelda franchise.  I started with Majora’s Mask, then went backwards in the release chronology.  I then follow the series to this day.  If Majora’s Mask had been the one bad game in the series, I would have done neither.  There are some other franchises which I started from the beginning, but ended up dropping mid-series due to a single bad installment.  When I build a franchise, what I’m really doing is building a brand, and for that brand to continue living, I must be sure that I deliver quality work, every time.

The Take Away: If I’m disappointed by the quality of a single installment, I may not come back.  Franchises trade on their name and upon garnered authorial trust.