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Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.

Blog

Sat 29
Apr
2006

Maximum Words. Maximum Results. Maximum Barry.

Writing (Gahh! I wrote most of this blog, then got sick. It was the usual. But I’m better now, thanks for asking.)

Some people recommend that you write a certain number of words every day. Well, not you, necessarily. Novelists. See, those of us who decided it was a good idea to write a novel sometimes find that our key challenge has become not drawing heart-breakingly realistic characters or identifying our underlying unifying theme, but rather getting to the end of the frickin’ thing before we die.

Novels are long. You probably don’t realize how long until you write one. Occasionally I hear that someone read one of my books in some ridiculous amount of time, like a single night, or half a day while sipping coffee in Barnes & Noble, or while waiting in line at a movie, and this is wonderful but also appalling, because people really shouldn’t be allowed to digest a couple of years’ worth of my work that fast. They should have to work at it, like I did. It’s only fair.

But the point is: if a writer isn’t careful (or if he is; if he is too careful), he can find himself with a reasonable amount of pages but no enthusiasm to write any more.

The minimum-number-of-words-per-day technique is meant to help. It’s practiced by successful authors and advocated by admirable organizations, and for many people, it clearly works.

But for me, it’s a disaster. I tried it in 1998, after I’d finished Syrup but before I’d found a publisher. I was starting a book called Paper Warfare, a fairly straight corporate thriller about tobacco marketing, and I was very disciplined; every day for weeks I pounded out my minimum 2,000 words. But it felt wrong, because I knew that some days I was just banging out words so I could close the goddamn word processor and go do something else. The next day, I’d try to avoid looking at the words, because if I did I would be so appalled that I would have to delete them. This didn’t seem very efficient. And, more importantly, I wasn’t enjoying it: writing had become a chore.

I made it all the way to the book’s climax—I even had the ending plotted out—then realized it sucked. Not just a little. Not in ways that could be fixed. The whole book really, really blew.

Since then, I’ve written exactly as many words per day as I feel like. And that’s worked well, because when I’m having fun, I’m usually producing good words. But for the book I’m working on now, I’m trying something new: a maximum number of words per day.

I had something like this when I wrote Syrup, because I wrote during my lunch breaks at Hewlett-Packard: I had one hour to eat, write, and get back to pretending that I knew what SCSI interfaces were. Often I would be forced to leave half-way through a great scene, even though I was chafing to finish it. During the rest of those days I would keep thinking about the book, and come up with little embellishments and new ideas. Next lunch time, I would cram down my chicken sandwiches so I could get to writing as soon as possible.

I think this is pretty close to the perfect state: unable to write quite as much as I want to. So I’m seeing if I can create it artificially.

So far it’s been hard, because when I’m on a roll, I really don’t want to stop. I find myself deliberately avoiding doing a word count, because I know I’m probably already over. (I have set my maximum low: just 500 words per day.) Stopping before I want to is frustrating. But then, that’s the idea. I should finish each day a little frustrated.

You will know if this technique is working, because my blogs will become much longer, as I seek outlets for my pent-up words. Yes. You will be my hookers.

Fri 14
Apr
2006

I, Nerd

Max I mentioned this once or twice on my book tour, but for those who weren’t there—you know, because you live in one of those areas that my publisher hates—earlier this year I had what I am pretty sure is my nerdiest moment ever.

I am quite proud of my nerdy accomplishments—I have created a web game, written a science-fiction novel, and formed a religious opinion about operating systems. I consider my nerdiness to be not abnormal, but rather the way that everyone would be if only they stopped and thought about it properly. But then I had this moment, when even I thought, “Ooh, that’s pretty nerdy.”

Here’s what happened. Some time ago, I registered a domain name for my baby girl: finlaybarry.com. (That’s not the nerdy thing.) I thought this would be a good way to share photos and news with relatives in various parts of the world, and, when Fin was old enough, she could use it for whatever she wanted. Maybe a blog, if by then those weren’t so 2005.

I have already gotten Fin banging away on a keyboard, because I want her to get used to the command line before I introduce her to a GUI. Here is the first thing she ever wrote:

6fcv5jnnnnnnnnnnmmmmmmmmmmmmmjnj /bvyj,[k[ v

That’s not the nerdy thing.

The nerdy thing is that I thought—I actually stopped and thought—“Hmm… before I name my next kid, I should check to make sure the domain name is available.”

Mon 10
Apr
2006

Coca-Cola Stole My Brain

Syrup Fukk... I mean, BlakIn my novel Syrup, the hero comes up with an idea for a new cola called “Fukk,” which comes in a jet black can. He sells the concept to Coca-Cola (well, kind of), and the company releases it.

I’m hoping there will be a Syrup movie in the not-too-distant future, but Coke is making me nervous by releasing products that are increasingly like Fukk. The latest is “Blak.” It’s a black bottle, not a can, but still: I’m becoming convinced that their plan is to creep toward a Fukk-like product, then sue me for stealing their idea.

Incidentally, I visited the Blak web site and noticed it has a “Spread the Word” section. Coke is clearly excited about this, because if you visit any of the other sections, you see a big link back to “Spread the Word.” It turns out that Spreading the Word is sending e-mails to your friends to tell them about Coca-Cola Blak. I would be very interested to know if the number of people who use this facility is greater than zero.

Update: They do sell it in a black can! Aaargh!

Mon 03
Apr
2006

Reincorporation

Company Some people were confused and disturbed by my blog about “Rub-a-Dub-Dub.” They wanted to know if I was seriously upset about a children’s book featuring a duck. To which the answer is: yes. Yes, I was. In fact, every time I go into that bathroom and see that little vinyl horror sitting in the corner, it bothers me all over again. I can’t see inside its chewable pages, but I know that “Quack-a-doodle-do” is lurking there. These sorts of things play on your mind.

Going crazy? No, I’ve always been like this. I’m just opening up.

In less confusing and disturbing news, Company is apparently going great guns. My editor, Bill, e-mailed me:

COMPANY rolls on…another reprint.

This was very exciting, because I’ve never been reprinted in hardcover before. (I have in paperback. Syrup is now up to its ninth printing or something ridiculous. But according to my royalty statement, it has still sold hardly any copies. The only explanation I can think of is that the publisher is doing tiny print runs—like maybe ten books at a time. This would make sense, since this is my ex-publisher, Penguin Putnam, who dropped me like an envelope full of Anthrax after Syrup failed to scale the bestseller lists. If I were a little more bitter and vindictive, I would cackle with glee every time they’re forced to reprint, and fire off e-mails to everyone I ever worked with there saying, “How do you like me now, huh? Huh? HOW DO YOU LIKE ME NOW??”)

Any reprint is terrific, because it means the book has done at least a little better than the publisher expected. But that “another” in Bill’s e-mail puzzled me. I queried him about it, thinking maybe—maybe—this wasn’t the second printing at all; maybe, if I was really lucky, it was the third. Bill replied:

4th, as a matter of fact.

Hot damn! Even if these are tiny print runs, that’s fantastic. Everyone who bought a copy, I’m thinking of you right now. Not individually, obviously. That would take too long. I’m imagining an amorphous, book-buying blob. No, really. It’s the least I could do.

Company has also picked up a couple of great new reviews, most notably in The Economist. What I especially liked about this one is that it called me “a master of short sentences and the passive tense,” and this outraged a group of linguists so much that they wrote an essay about it:

[T]he passive involves a voice contrast; it has absolutely nothing in common with tense. I am astonished, all over again, at how educated people can commit blunders as extreme as this one in print, and editors don’t even notice.

Clearly you don’t want to mess with people whose idea of a funny joke begins: “I was walking across campus with a friend and we came upon half a dozen theoretical linguists committing unprovoked physical assault on a defenseless prescriptivist…”

Update: In the comments, Mark Liberman—one of those outraged linguists—points out that this isn’t the first time my scribblings have caught their attention. There is this article from 2004, in which Mark discusses Jennifer Government’s use of “And yet.” It took me a while to work out whether I was being praised or dissed—I think it’s praised—and the more I read of their web site, the more stupid and uneducated I felt. To rectify this, I plan not to visit their site again.

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