MaxBarry.com
the x is for xtreme

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 I raise this because I think it’s reasonably common for unpublished (and underpublished) writers to think: “Man, the only way to make it as an author is to churn out predictable, formulaic crap.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?

Fri 18
May
2007

The Exceptionals Goes to Manhattan

Writing Now I don’t want to go on and on about this new book. Well, I do. I really do. But I realize that’s of limited interest when you can’t actually read it, and probably won’t be able to for at least a year. And maybe it’s of limited interest even then. Although why are you bothering to read my blogs? That’s just weird, man.

Anyway. The fact is, the most exciting thing I did this week was email it to my agent. From there it will go to Bill, my editor. Bill hasn’t read it yet, so I will wait with thoughts like these: “He’s going to love it. It’s by far my best book. Maybe he’ll hate it. It’s probably all wrong for my demographic and the market has changed and he’ll ask if I’ve written anything else lately. Oh, shit. I’ve wasted a year.”

Now I know from responses to a recent blog that some of you find the idea of my career heading anywhere but upward laughable. Or at least you were kind of enough to pretend that. But you have to keep in mind, I’ve been dumped by a publisher once. If you had heard nothing but positive things right up until the moment they showed you the door, you’d have paranoia issues, too.

So even though I love this book, love it, I know that until I hear back from Bill I will fret. I will regret posting this blog, for making the humiliation when it gets rejected so much more public.

But today: damn. I just sent my best book to my publisher. I’m ecstatic.

Fri 11
May
2007

Fear the Beautiful

What Max Reckons A while ago I watched The Biggest Loser. This is a TV show in which fat, unhappy people turn themselves into thin, self-satisfied assholes. Well, some of the contestants are assholes to begin with. They either stay the same, or turn into different kinds of assholes. The nice ones, though, it’s like watching Annakin Skywalker become Darth Vader: by the end they look cooler, but will destroy planets to get what they want.

Why is this? I suppose skinny people might be innately more evil than fat ones. But I don’t know. I mean, Mother Theresa. Or maybe it’s that attractive people are more evil. That sounds about right. (Again, Mother Theresa.) I’ve always been suspicious of very good-looking people. I think they should be microchipped and tracked, so we can keep an eye on what they’re up to. I would feel a lot better if I knew beautiful people were being monitored to make sure they weren’t skipping lines, getting out of speeding tickets, and having impromptu sex with flight attendants. If I can’t do those things, nobody should be allowed to.

But I can’t blame the Biggest Loser people for becoming pricks. If I abruptly became a lot hotter, I’d develop a huge ego and poorly-concealed contempt for my fellow man, too. I mean, even more so than now. That’s just the natural consequence of being able to look at yourself in the mirror and think, “Wow… I’m amazing.”

I keep hearing about the importance of self-esteem, but I’m not convinced. I think we may be underestimating the value of crippling self-doubt and insecurity. If you go to the beach, you’ll see a hairy, fat man in his 50s strolling by in a thong, while nearby a 20-year-old with the body of a movie star tugs at her skirt to make sure it’s covering thighs she thinks are too large or pale or freckled or god knows what. I don’t think it’s coincidence that human beings are afflicted with chronic lack of confidence just as they begin to scale the peak of their physical attractiveness: I think that’s the only thing stopping young people from taking over the world. Imagine how horrendous it would be if that 20-year-old had the self-confidence of the 50-year-old. No, not because of the thong. The thong would be fine, obviously. The problem would be that once she realized how vastly superior she looked compared to the rest of us, she and her young, beautiful friends would round the rest of us up and lock us in labor camps, where they wouldn’t have to look at us.

And we would let them, because they’re beautiful.

Thu 03
May
2007

Life As You Know It

Max I turned on my computer to be greeted with this email:

Are you available for a phone call?
Best,
Claire

Claire is the assistant to my agent, Luke, so I email back in the affirmative. I wonder what’s up: phone calls out of the blue are usually good news, like maybe something exciting happening with a film.

Claire replies:

I have some good news and some bad news… I’ll call you in a min.
-CD

Now, let me skip ahead and tell you that the bad news isn’t anything serious: they just have to subtract some money from my royalty check to pay US withholding tax. But in the five minutes before I find that out, I am convinced that either:

  1. Doubleday has decided to drop me as an author; or:
  2. Company has sold much more poorly than anyone let on and Doubleday has decided to drop me as an author.

This completely out-of-the-blue, oh-by-the-way-everybody-hates-you-and-your-career-is-over thing happened to me once before, in 2002, and suddenly I’m back there, staring into the abyss. The “good news” will turn out to be: “And that means we can start looking for an even better publisher!” Everyone will try to be positive but the inescapable truth will be: I’m history. I know this for a fact.

I love being able to write for my job. I love it. But boy, I could do without the occasional heart-stopping moments where I see my entire professional world fall apart. I really could.

P.S. Oh, and later I emailed Claire to ask what the good news was again. She probably did mention it in the phone call, but I didn’t notice because I was too busy planning my new career as an ice-cream salesman. She said it was that I had some royalties.

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