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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.

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Wed 25
Mar
2009

Lessons from the Machine

Machine Man A writer friend emailed me about Machine Man:

I’ve managed to get to the FAQ, but am I REALLY supposed to believe what you have posted there?

I think he means that writing is a good way to send yourself insane before you ask everyone in the world to watch you work and post comments. True, it’s not a method I’d generally recommend. It’s essential to stay excited about a work-in-progress, and there may be no better way to deflate yourself about a promising story than to show it to people before it’s ready.

But I am a big boy. And I did set expectations before I started: this isn’t a plotted, edited, polished book. This is me caught in the act of making sausages. I think everyone understands that.

Ha ha ha! No, of course they don’t. And nor should you: all that really matters is whether the story is worth reading.

One week in, this is what I’ve found:

  • You people don’t miss a thing. Upon posting Page 4, I was immediately slammed by multiple readers for being repetitive, unimaginative, and suggesting that straight hair can dangle. This is slightly terrifying, because no doubt Page 4 is a lot better than some others I’ll serve up. But it’s also instructive. I think Machine Man is good training for me in the same way as a boot camp commander who makes you crawl through mud while screaming insults about your mother. They’re both… uh… character-building.

  • I am getting a lot of love for this project, which is flat-out wonderful. It’s thrilling to watch a page go up and read comments about it. Scary. But thrilling. There is usually a gap of several years between me giggling to myself in my study over a line, and anyone outside my immediate friends and family reading it. That immediacy of reaction is kind of addictive. Thanks.

  • Long-time meta-blogger Adam wrote:

    I wonder what would happen if every day I tried to predict what will happen on the next page. I feel like it would really screw with Max as a writer.

    Ha ha ha! It sure would! Although that is a fascinating thing for me: I have always wished I could stick probes in your brain to see how you react as you read my stories. Are you buying this particular subplot? Do you care? Did you notice that foreshadowing before; was that too obvious, or too subtle? Usually I have to bug Jen about these things. Here I feel closer to getting an answer to the eternal question: How does this book look when it’s inside your head?

  • Quite a few people seem frustrated at the one-page-per-day drip-feed. I’m not sure whether this is good frustration (“I love this story so much, I can’t wait for pages!”) or bad frustration (“In the 24 hours between each page, I totally forget everything that happened!”). I guess a little of each. I’m enjoying this format very much, but will wait and see how well it works for readers over the long-term.

  • GMail is really popular. Which is not particularly relevant, but wow: almost half of all subscribed email addresses are at gmail.com. Hotmail is a very distant second. There are about 1,500 people signed up to Machine Man at the moment, with… huh. I just double-checked my numbers, and it’s exactly 1,500 people. That’s a little weird. Anyway, 1,500 people, with three-quarters getting it via email and the rest via RSS. There might be others reading pages on the site without subscribing.

Since it’s been a happy beginning, I’ve decided to start a new Machine Man feed every Wednesday. So if you only stumbled across this concept today, you can still get Machine Man delivered starting from Page 1! Feel free to tell your friends about that.

Comments

This is where site members post comments. If you're not a member, you can join here. There are all kinds of benefits, including moral superiority!

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: 2038 days ago

no i love getting it in my email - I wake up, grab my iphone, check my email, and read the page.
it's a fun wake-me-up.

John Perkins (#1915)

Location: Phoenix, AZ
Quote: "Nothing says love like cash."
Posted: 2038 days ago

So far I'm enjoying it, but I was thinking each individual piece would be slightly more substantial.

The current format reminds me of how much I miss Ficlets, and how closely this follows that model in terms of terseness. To see what I mean, I think Tim Lawver's "Pretty Things" was the best solo short story told in microfiction that I can recall on the site: http://ficlets.ficly.com/stories/28740.

I'll keep reading, so you keep writing. It's wonderful to see a successful author take this sort of risk.

Machine Man subscriber Myke (#2316)

Posted: 2038 days ago

I enjoy the format so far, Max. I think it works because most of the scenes to this point take place in a hospital where the kind of halting pauses between little stories "feels" like the right tone for a guy spending his whole day in a bed, you know? I think the challenge will be taking the format outside its natural boundaries. Good luck, I look forward to the rest of the story.

Erin (#1481)

Location: Seattle
Quote: "Living is easy with eyes closed"
Posted: 2038 days ago

Sorry for slamming you. It's only because I love you.

Dan Hope (#3822)

Location: Wordsley, UK
Posted: 2038 days ago

Comes about right for my Morning break at work. Perfect timing, and just the right size for my G1 screen.

Wondering how the format will work in the more fast-paced scenes (assuming there are any). Gaps in the action? We'll see how it goes.

Otherwise, loving it. As John Perkins said, I'll keep reading, so you keep writing.

Jennifer M. Dambeck (#3061)

Location: NJ, USA
Quote: "Rock on"
Posted: 2038 days ago

I love it! Don't listen to the haters!

Machine Man subscriber fredzfrog (#2368)

Location: Moe
Quote: "Fredzfrog"
Posted: 2038 days ago

i'm loving it...

having it delivered to my phone's email... geeky! :D

Machine Man subscriber FerretWithASpork (#2218)

Location: NY, USA
Quote: "What the F**ks a terminal?"
Posted: 2038 days ago

Hey Max,

After reading yesterday's page I wanted to comment, but I'm reading via RSS and totally didn't realize you could post comments on pages!

Anyway, I just wanted to say that so far I think the story is amazing, I'm loving the medium, I think it's very intuitive. I do have a tendency to not remember everything that's happening, but I do the same thing if I set down a book and come back to it, I just go back a page and it all comes flooding back to me. For me I think this medium is an amazing new way to write, and I think it's working VERY well.

Also so far the story seems amazing, I love that you haven't specifically said what it is, that I have these inklings of the plot, and that from there I have to guess at what it's going to be, the anticipation is great!

The only negative part of the medium that I can see is that not every page is going to be action packed brilliance, books don't generally work that way, so you're going to have to decide at some point if you want to try to include something exciting and important in every page, or just use standard writing methods.

So yeah, I definitely love the way Machine Man is going, and think it's going to be amazing all the way through.

Ajna (#3795)

Location: USA
Quote: "Judge if you want. We are all going to die one day. I intend to deserve it."
Posted: 2038 days ago

I'm completely going to steal Adam's idea... Gonna throw you a new curveball every other day (I'm sneaky like that. I get two pages every /other/ day, as opposed to everyone elses one-a-day. Much more satisfying.). Hope you're a good hitter, Max. ;)

On another, more related note: I read through all those comments, and have to say: Your glass is assuredly half empty (going by the standard assumption that whatever is in the glass is good). All but two or three comments were positive, yet you focused on those two or three.

Ajna (#3795)

Location: USA
Quote: "Judge if you want. We are all going to die one day. I intend to deserve it."
Posted: 2038 days ago

An idea I just had...

If people are having trouble remembering character names, you could always have a index of characters link off of the Machine Man section. Just *click*, and "Bang!", all the character's, right there. Naturally, you wouldn't want to describe their personality, or you'd wreck it for the newbies, but if you described when we first "met" them, it would make it very easy for those who keep forgetting stuff.

(Sidenote: Have you named the main character yet? I don't recall ever seeing his name (Actually, I don't recall you referring to them as a "him", for all we know they're a lesbian. Must investigate.)... If you haven't named him, I vote Jomeil. Or McLovin, SuperFly, Maxxx... I've got some ideas.)

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 2038 days ago

You're right, the comments have been gentle so far. I was exaggerating a little to say they were slams.

I haven't decided on a name for the main character yet. Or at least not a surname. (The prosthetics specialist just called him "Charlie.") So feel free to suggest something.

Machine Man subscriber Adam (#24)

Location: Morristown, Indiana
Quote: "Why do I blog? Simple, because Max Barry blogs."
Posted: 2038 days ago

MORAL DELIMMA

I wondered how long I could try to predict the future before someone/max would say something. The answer I found. 1 day. Kind of ridiculous when I think about it. It seems like it might make an author go insane.

Now, I'm faced with a dilemma...Do I go on until Max Barry goes crazy? Or do I stop and do something else? After all, Max could stop doing this or disable some comments.

That being said...
I predict at some point in the book there will be a reference to Star Wars. I've noticed it's called "Machine Man". The guy lost his leg and is looking for a super leg to be built for him. He's really into trains and machines. Clearly, he will be similar to Darth Vader...more machine than man. Maybe he'll even go to the extremes of thinking "I bet I could build a better arm than I have now" and cut it off.

-adam

AlteraX (#1984)

Location: Portugal
Quote: "My 62 year-old dad is reading Jen Gov. He's an Economist. - 2005"
Posted: 2038 days ago

So, he may just be a Viet Cong?

And the rss feeds restarting on every Wednesday? Trying to get the literary inclined masochists into your fan base? : P

But seriously, I'm really enjoying this. Keep it up!

My favorite page so far is page 5. I wonder what that says about me...

Machine Man subscriber Yannick (#3858)

Location: Heist, Belgium
Quote: "he reads things"
Posted: 2038 days ago

Definitely "I love this story so much, I can’t wait for pages!"
at least write *more* per page then!

I'm not-reading every day so I can read the few pages I saved all at once, just so I can trick my brain into thinking I'm reading an actual book, rather than 100 words that happen to form coherent phrases!

I just can't wait until the main character (Rob, maybe?) actually builds a leg from scratch.

Katy (#2345)

Location: Los Angeles
Posted: 2036 days ago

Love the story! And I'm 100% in favor of the *click* "Bang!" idea.

Side note: Oh, no! Hotmail! Gross :-(

Abgrund (#3357)

Location: Atlantis
Quote: ""Redeem your mind from the hockshops of authority." - Ayn Rand"
Posted: 2036 days ago

I can tell y'all never been in an American hospital, Mr. Barry. You'd have to prove you had first rate insurance before you'd ever hear a hint of "artificial leg", and if you're stuck with a crap HMO like most of us, well too bad. No bucket with a pole for you! It would be something helpful like, "You should try getting a second hand wheel chair from a church." But yeah, I like it. It would be great if you could write twice as fast, but, barring that, I'll simply read each one twice.

Machine Man subscriber Yannick (#3858)

Location: Heist, Belgium
Quote: "he reads things"
Posted: 2036 days ago

@Abgrund: His company probably made sure everything was taken care of, so he wouldn't sue...

Machine Man subscriber Roger (#1653)

Posted: 2035 days ago

"You people don’t miss a thing. Upon posting Page 4, I was immediately slammed by multiple readers for being repetitive, unimaginative, and suggesting that straight hair can dangle."

Well, the guy was on a lot of drugs, so it would make sense that straight hair can dangle, right? :P

Machine Man subscriber Shola Gordon (#3902)

Location: London, United Kingdom
Quote: "We are all history's middle children."
Posted: 2034 days ago

Kurt? - name suggestion.

Seriously Max, I would disable comments from your writings, because people are gonna be pricks and try and predict your work, and beef it down it's gonna mess up your thinking. Badtimes man, badtimes.

6 was an amazing character, this new lady doesn't reminds me of at all. 6 is sexy. I imagine this girl to be goofy for some reason.

Oh oh, just thought of a name for the character: Mickey. :)

Abgrund (#3357)

Location: Atlantis
Quote: ""Redeem your mind from the hockshops of authority." - Ayn Rand"
Posted: 2034 days ago

I gotta know, why can't straight hair dangle? I can think of plenty of things that dangle without being curly, like a hanged man or a soap-on-a-rope or my... anyway, better her hair than her breasts, right?

Sol (#3915)

Location: NYC
Posted: 2032 days ago

ack, what happened to the feed? I can't wait for the next page (because the pages so far have been so deliciously foreshadowing of cool things to come).

trust your imagination Max! ignore the few naysayers, we all love your work or we wouldn't be here.

Non-professional copy editors who take the time to nitpick a live web story are not your target audience, thank god.

Jamie (#111)

Location: Auckland
Quote: "Anyone still spelling "internet" with a capital "I" is probably struggling with the complexities of their new-fangled electric typewriter."
Posted: 2028 days ago

Say Max - how come your blog is in syndication?
I seem to be getting old(ish) posts re-sent to me.

I'm nostalgically re-reading them. (Remember the time Max insulted gingers? They just don't make blog posts like they used to...)

Machine Man subscriber Russell (#3897)

Location: USA
Quote: "O Lord, Protect us from those to whom you speak directly"
Posted: 2027 days ago

question: When you start charging for it, you say people could "give it to a friend" when they're done with it. Does that not theoretically mean that one person could buy it, set up a separate feed, and continue delivering it to the world for free?

because as much as I love your stuff, i'd prefer to leave your survival dependent on the good will of everyone else, not me. no offense...

Simon (#3192)

Location: Melbourne
Quote: "I'd rather be arrogant than wrong"
Posted: 2019 days ago

Not sure if you know this but Stephen King tried this online gig with a serial called The Plant. I think it lasted about 5 pages before it withered and died.

UTM (#3949)

Location: US
Quote: "01000100 01101111 01100101 01110011 00100000 01101110 01101111 01110100 00100000 01100011 01101111 01101101 01110000 01110101 01110100 01100101 00101110 "
Posted: 2013 days ago

I look forward to reading Machine Man each day. The characters seem to be shaping up well. It will be interesting to see how the per diem pacing will affect engrossing action or suspenseful bits - you know, the parts we readers can't put our books down until we know 'what happens next.' Nowadays I can watch almost any serialized show at any time on-demand or DVD but I'm more excited about reading a book at the leisurely pace of a page a day. Thanks!

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