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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

Fri 25
May
2007

Max Craps On About Writing: Originality

Writing I mentioned earlier that I’m planning to talk a little about writing this year. Today I carry that threat through.

To those of you who couldn’t care less about this topic: my God, can you put aside your own selfish interests for five seconds? No, wait, I mean: sorry. But there are people out there interested in this. I know because whenever I post about it, I get emails of weeping gratitude. That’s hard to resist.

So to originality. I raise this because I think it’s reasonably common for unpublished (and underpublished) writers to think: “Man, the only way to make it as an author is to churn out predictable, formulaic crap. Nobody’s interested in publishing really original books.” Well, when I say this is a common attitude, I mean I used to hold it, and I assume everybody is like me. There I was in 1998, collecting rejection letters for Syrup, and the underlying message seemed to be that it wasn’t mainstream enough. And I couldn’t describe my own book; I couldn’t find the pithy couple of sentences that people seemed to want, that would make them say, “That sounds interesting,” instead of their eyes glazing over with confusion. I needed something like: “Terrorists hijack a submarine and ex-Special Forces agent Jack Fyre is the only man who can stop it.”

It’s tempting to believe that formulaic crap sells because there seems to be so much of it. But I now think you can look at a shelf full of Grisham novels or whatever and assume they’re all the same until you read them. Then you find some common elements, for sure, but much less than you thought. There is formula out there, but not much of it.

I reacted to my Syrup rejections by writing a standard, genre thriller. It was terrible. And I learned that you never improve anything by making it less original. It’s the opposite: the worst thing writing can be is not new.

I’m convinced this isn’t just me. I think everybody wants newness. Editors, agents, readers: we all want new plots, new ideas, new ways of looking at the world. Nobody wants to get twenty pages into a book and know where it’s going, or even feel too much like they’ve seen all this before. Even within a genre’s iron-clad conventions, we want twists, surprises, and reinventions.

Young writers in particular can sometimes try to crawl inside a pre-conceived box labeled “novel” or “screenplay,” and end up with something far less interesting than if they’d forged their own path. I’m not saying you want to hit the other extreme, and pursue a lone, bizarre vision with no regard for how it reads. But you must nurture the things that make your story and your writing unique—that make you unique, since writing is letting people crawl around inside your head. Billions of people can write a sentence. Why should I bother reading yours, unless they’re different?

Comments

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Dan (#3126)

Location: New York City-ish
Quote: "The main thing about Van Gogh…is that he painted pictures that astonished him with their importance, even though nobody else thought they were worth a damn. --Kilgore Trout"
Posted: 2644 days ago

"Is Jack Fyre a vampire? I think it would be better if Jack Fyre were a vampire fighting a "shadow war", don't you Mr. Barry? Vampires are very popular. Everybody loves vampires. I would represent Syrup if Scat were a vampire and Fukk was made with blood."
--imagined agent response


How many rejections did you get on Syrup? When I read Syrup I thought it was totally pop--it's mind-boggling to me that someone could read it without thinking it could have some sort of mass appeal.

You should post your hook/query. :o)

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 2644 days ago

That's a good idea. I'm going to dig that out right now...

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 2644 days ago

Okay, posted in Syrup -> Extras and Writing -> Help for Writers.

kitty (#1326)

Location: Upstate NY
Quote: "sweet"
Posted: 2644 days ago

I first read "Max Craps On About Writing: Originality" as "Max Craps OUT On Writing: Originality," thinking this post was about writer's block or something similar, which I'm really interest in right now cuz -- well, I just am.

Maybe I should scour your archives for that subject.

...

Machine Man subscriber Marleen (#2741)

Location: Berlin, Germany
Quote: "I want more expensive shoes in one place than I've ever seen in my whole life."
Posted: 2644 days ago

lol kitty, same here.

Maureen Ryan (#2265)

Location: East Cleveland, OH
Quote: "Truth is just an excuse for a lack of imagination"
Posted: 2644 days ago

I'm just posting my weeping gratitude.

shabooty (#637)

Location: D.C./V.A/M.D.
Quote: "I will shake your foundation. I will shake the f**cking rafters. Nobody'll be the same -Danny Bonaduce ....& go visit my blog @: http://www.shabooty.com"
Posted: 2644 days ago

max craps on writing?
DIRTYYY DIAPERS!!!

austin (#2462)

Location: rhode island
Quote: "hmmm...bleh..."
Posted: 2644 days ago

"Billions of people can write a sentence. Why should I bother reading yours, unless they’re different?"


That should definately be one of the century's best quotes.

Machine Man subscriber Narflz (#2594)

Location: St. Louis
Quote: "WARNING: Extended Use Of Narflz May Cause Explosive Diarhea"
Posted: 2643 days ago

Ha, that's an interesting coincidence. Just the other day, as part of my English final, I wrote a small essay on how it is important to be original in your writings, and I specifically referenced Syrup.

Rod McBride (#688)

Location: Gardner, KS
Quote: "www.MidwestRockLobster.blogspot.com"
Posted: 2643 days ago

When I'm writing, I am always intoxicated with my own originality. When I'm disenchanted with every word I ever wrote, one of the common laments is that everything I wanted to write has been written better.

Elmore Leonard has addressed the Crime thing, so my bank robbery plot is superfluous to the literature. Don DeLillo has documented American life in its absurd particulars beyond my wildest ambitions. Chuck Palahniuk has explored the subversive impulse to wit's end.

A six fingered man is only original if you ignore the Princess Bride, Hannibal Lechter, etc. But what if Craig Clevenger folded his cards after reading a Thomas Harris novel?

I'm familiar with all the doubts the unpublished have because I'm one of them. I've even toyed with self publishing out of a desperate fear of turning my baby over to an indifferent marketplace. It's comforting to know I'm not alone, but maybe a bit appalling as well. It means my fear of the industry is unoriginal.

Andrea (#2583)

Location: New York City
Quote: "I Hate My Job"
Posted: 2643 days ago

Wow Max, you have no idea how much I appreciate this post. I have just begun the soul destroying process of sending my novel to publishers without an agent without a hope really. And the first publisher I sent to was interested by my query letter but then rejected the sample. And they are supposed to champion original writers. I mean that is in their mission statement. I read several of their writers and felt that I was right up their alley. UGH!

I like how you had a hard time describing Syrup. I thought I was the only one with this difficulty but you’re right, it’s about getting a compact blurb. And some things just don’t distill that easy. I don’t know. I’m dismayed but I had to write this crazy novel of mine the way it had to be written so what can I do except continue down the long road of rejection and hope someone gets it.

I love your writing.
Rock on!
Andrea DeAngelis

Michael Ricksand (#2212)

Location: Terra
Quote: "You do not have a right to be stupid."
Posted: 2640 days ago

I was going to write a novel, but then I started reading "The ingenious knight Don Quixote of La Mancha" and thought "Why would anyone read my book when even I myself agree they'd do better reading this instead?" Nowadays, novels are everyone's life task...

Jeffrey (#2286)

Location: Right here
Quote: "Mathematics is a powerful language. Just look at how mathematicians destroyed the housing market."
Posted: 2636 days ago

I loved Syrup, Max. That was the book that decided you were among my favorites. You go to Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, or some other ginormous chain store and all you find is crap. From floor to ceiling it's stacked up. Don't get me wrong, kudos to the writers of it for making a living out of something they enjoy but shite, can we get something where the reader doesn't say "Oh this is going to turn out like (insert previous novel)." You stand around in the now trendy Starbucks infected book stores and you're left wanting. Finding yourself going back to the greats such as Cervantes, Garcia Marquez, or Hemmingway because they push the other crap on you too hard so that they can move product. It's just so refreshing when you take a chance on an author and you don't feel like you've been suckered into the same storyline that has been passed around like last year's cheap prom date.

Philippe Bolay (#3142)

Location: Sweden
Quote: "Quotes are great for hiding mediocrity"
Posted: 2632 days ago

I just finished your book "Company" and found it just as amusing and brilliant as your other books. I have really tried to stall this moment by reading incredibly slow and even by going back to re-read old favourite sentences but the inevitable end is finally here. Would you please tell that editor of yours to hurry the hell up and get new stuff published. Im warning you.. I might even have to resort to reading other authors..

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