Tag Archives: Nathan Barra

My Journey to Professionalism, Step 1: Establishing My Identity

As hobbyists, writers create stories for our own enjoyment and for the satisfaction of sharing our vision. To be a professional, however, we must take a step beyond that and become small business owners. Though we still love writing and storytelling, the professional writer wears many hats, interacts with many different people, and works hard to produce the highest quality product he or she can. Professional writers are editors, accountants, marketers, designers, and their own most devoted agent. Though we interact with professionals who do all these job functions for us, the modern writer must take responsibility for his or her own career, learning and growing into other functions in order to be successful.

It took me a while to see this, and even longer to believe it, to understand what it means. By talking to a number of experienced friends, people who had traveled this road before me, I was able to see further down my own path, and start taking the first steps in my own journey.

The first step in creating your business is imagining it, creating your brand and beginning to build your name. Though writers sell individual works of fiction, I would argue a writer sells themselves, their abilities as a storyteller and their name as their primary product. There are an ocean of voices out there, all clamoring to be heard, so why then would a reader become a fan? How does a writer assure return business? It starts with the writer’s brand. The first step I took to becoming a professional was designing my identity and creating Nathan Barra.

The writer’s brand starts with the name, something that will appear on books. In November, I wrote my Fictorians post on the choosing of a good pseudonym, so I am not going to repeat what I said there. Instead, I want to emphasize how important it is to approach the branding process intelligently. Any other business, be a Coca-Cola, Calvin Klein, or Google, hires marketing firms to establish an identity that is immediately an easily recognizable and distinct. As writers, we must also do this, be it often with a smaller budget.

When you work with a designer on a branding package, one of your early conversations will be what you want your brand to convey. For me, I wanted Nathan to have two faces. First was the face I showed to consumers. I wanted Nathan to be dependable, intelligent, articulate and someone that readers would trust to produce high quality work regularly, stories they would enjoy reading even if it was outside their normal genre comfort zone. The second visage of Nathan was the professional face. I wanted industry professionals to see me and believe that I would be a reliable coworker, someone who would produce high-quality work on time, with regularity, and would be someone that they would enjoy working with.

My designer and I took these ideas and built my website, my logo, and my color palette. I created a look, a series of outfits that I wear whenever I make professional appearances as Nathan. I started pulling together a media package to give out when I guessed posted. I established Nathan Barra.com, and my blog, In Brief. I worked hard to create posts and gather content of the highest quality that I could manage. Most importantly, I was never, ever late. All these actions fed into the brand I was trying to establish.

At first, Nathan was a mask that I wore, and identity that I adopted when I wrote. However, in the year since I established myself as Nathan, that identity has become a second skin. Nathan is who I am when I write and when I interact with industry professionals. Nathan, and the brand I built around him, is the basis of my business.

That step taken, I began looking to some of the writers that I admired, both the professionals and the semi-professionals, to chart my next step. Though I haven’t spent a great deal of money on Nathan Barra, the cost of design work, hosting fees, and conferences isn’t insignificant. I haven’t been tracking my finances like it’s a business, but rather spending like the hobbyist. Therefore, my next step seems obvious. I need to change my spending habits and whip myself into financial shape. More on that tomorrow, however, when I speak about my second step in my professional journey.

Planning for Success

My generation was raised to believe in the power of goals. I was taught that goals set at the beginning of an endeavor would allow me to achieve success. In promising myself that I would do a thing, it would happen. Even though I always had the best of intentions, I would often fail to meet my goals anyways.

Eventually, I realized that the problem was that I was only setting goals, not making plans. Goals are objectives, indicators of intent. Plans are action, a path for execution. Without having both, nothing will ever be accomplished. Over the years, I realized that my goals need to be SMART to be effective.

Goals are Specific. Any goal you set has to be specific enough that you can intelligently plan for success. A popular New Year’s resolution is to lose weight and get in shape. But how much weight do you want to lose? How do you define “in shape?” Establish exactly how many pounds you want to lose, or by how many inches you want your waist to shrink. Give yourself a specific BMI number you want to drop below. Establish some task you cannot accomplish now that will be your landmark for “being in shape.”

Goals are Measurable. Though specificity defines the endpoint, measurability ensures that you can accurately and regularly track your progress and take corrective action. The entire thought behind behavioral-based management is that by measuring and changing people’s actions, we can reach objectives. It is important to avoid goals that are succeed/fail in nature. If such objectives must be set, it is important that we can accurately measure progress in time to make a difference in the success of the goal.

Goals are Actionable. As a part of behavioral-based management, SMART goals must be under the influence of the person trying to achieve the goal. For instance, I have absolutely no control over my company’s stock price, so trying to set that goal would be unreasonable for me. However, the CEO of my company might very well have that goal. The difference is that his actions could have a direct effect on the stock price for the company, where mine do not. When considering actionable goals, I ask myself, “Are there steps that I can take that will directly influence the results?”

Goals are Realistic. The whole point of the goal is to make some improvement in your life, so a goal that cannot be attained is functionally useless. This is often the most difficult aspect of a SMART goal, as it requires not only introspection and self-awareness, but knowledge of one’s environment and competition. Honesty is truly important in setting realistic goals. Goals should always be challenging, but they should be attainable or else you have failed before you even started.

Goals are Time bound. Like everything else, goals have an end. Even if you accomplish your goal, if that accomplishment is not well timed, it’ll be either less effective or entirely ineffective. When setting your goal, it is essential to look at what timing you will need to be effective, and build that timing into your goal.

Because I believe in SMART goals, I will go ahead and take a risk. I am going to broadcast my writer’s goals for 2014. I am also going to ask y’all to help me keep accountable. My email address is Nathan[at]NathanBarra[dot]com. Feel free to email me at any time, ask about how my goals are going, tell me about your own goals, or even just chat.

OBJECTIVE: Make progress towards becoming a professional writer.

Though this goal is not SMART, it isn’t really a goal either. It is the overarching objective each of my goals will be designed to support.

GOAL #1 (blogging): Write and publish 52 Monday posts for In Brief, at least 10 Fictorians posts, and have a Thursday’s Thoughts online every Thursday in 2014.

I have found that though blogging takes a lot of my time, it also has many benefits. Writing and editing so frequently has had a positive effect on my prose. I have met many wonderful people through my blogging. I spend more time now thinking about my craft and seeking out resources to improve my skills than I have ever had before. Most importantly, it keeps me writing even when I am so busy that I barely sleep.

My plan for this goal is to try to establish a queue at least one month out, but still treat every week as if my queue is empty.

GOAL #2 (novels): Polish my manuscript to be ready to be shopped to editors and agents by 30-Aug-14.

This goal suffers most and specificity. What is a polished manuscript? Unfortunately, after much thought, I have not found a way to quantify this goal. The most important thing, however, is its timeliness. There are two major industry focused conventions in the fall at which I want to start shopping the book. To do this, the book needs to be finished and ready to be sent out into the world by the above-mentioned date.

The plan is to let the books settle until the end of the month, giving time for my last beta readers to get back to me. Then, I will finish my structural edits by 26-Mar-14, and my line edits by 25-May-14. With that timeframe, I can find a proofreader or line editor, and finish the manuscript reasonably by 09-Aug-14. This might seem like a long stretch of time, but I work on-call. That means, I might work more than 120 hours a calendar week, for 10 days, and then have 5 days off to rest and recuperate. For me, with the blogging, this schedule will be challenging. But, where’s the fun in easy?

GOAL #3 (submitting): Submit at least 4 independent works to publication markets by 31-Dec-14.

The only way for me to become a professional author is to get over my fear of rejection and learn to let go of a completed work. Blogging has helped a great deal with that. Now, I need to start asking for people to pay me for my efforts. Note, that because of how this goal is worded, submitting my novel to any number of sources only counts once.

My plan is to submit twice (Q3 2014 & Q1 2015) to Writers of the Future, shop my book and submit a piece of flash fiction or a short story to a magazine or anthology.

GOAL #4 (professional networking): Attend at least 3 conferences with some sort of writing/writing business aspect by 31-Dec-14.

This goal wasn’t one that I would’ve considered in 2013. Back then, I didn’t realize how important it was both professionally, and personally, for me to get out and meet people in the industry. Not only are they business contacts, but they are my friends and support structure.

The plan is to attend Superstars Writing Seminar in February, the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer’s conference in September, and World Fantasy Con in November.

My goals have been stated and written down, and so I am accountable for their success. But, I also have a plan, a SMART plan. The only thing to do now is follow my plan and succeed.

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 translate.google.com, 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 NathanBarra.com 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.

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.