MaxBarry.com
will dance for food

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 09
Nov
2012

Lexicon Covers

Lexicon My next book has gained not one but TWO covers: one for the US & Canada and one for the rest of the English-speaking world. They’re super different. This means either that one publisher is making a big mistake or that each understands the tastes of its own market best and those tastes are quite different. Or else that art is subjective. It’s one of those.

Click a cover for a larger version.

I am happy with these covers. I especially like the boldness of the American version. Although maybe I’m biased because my name is freaking huge. It’s hard to dislike that.

I would like to name and thank the cover designers, but I don’t know who they are. I’m going to find out and update this post. I assume it’s someone.

Lexicon is due for publication in June 2013.

Update! The US/Canadian cover is by Will Staehle, who has a really amazing portfolio there, and the UK cover is by Ben Summers. Thank you Will & Ben! Unless my book tanks, in which case it’s all your fault.

Wed 03
Oct
2012

First “Syrup” Movie Stills

Syrup

Stills! Where do they come from? How do they get out there? I don’t know. But they have begun popping up on sites like Amber Heard Web, Shiloh Fernandez Source, Kellan Lutz Online, and Syrup Movie Fans. So: behold!

(Unless you want to completely avoid spoilers. As in, you haven’t read the book. And you don’t intend to. But you really want to see the movie. And you’re browsing my site. You’re a strange person.)

Amber Heard as 6, Shiloh Fernandez as Scat:

Scat gazes skyward while a machine lurks ominously in the background:

Kellan Lutz as Sneaky Pete:

Now for some ANSWERS to COMMON QUESTIONS. I don’t believe there’s an official release date yet, but it can’t be too far away now, can it? Not with these STILLS. So I’m guessing within the next six months.

I haven’t seen the film; I am waiting until I can see it in a cinema. Because having a novel turned into a feature film, that’s kind of a big deal. I don’t want to watch the end result of that on a DVD. I want to sit in a theater and crane my neck and eat popcorn. Right?

The movie doesn’t strictly follow the plot of the book. I can say that without seeing it because I wrote many screenplay drafts, and they didn’t strictly follow the plot of the book. I don’t think movies should be like books only with all the parts you’d normally imagine filled in. I think they should do their own thing. They should be true to the core of the book but express that in whichever ways work best. Also, you know how I rewrite my novels to death? Oh. Well, I do. I change a lot in each new draft. So imagine me adapting my own novel. It’s a miracle anything survived.

If you missed it before, here is a teaser. I think it’s awesome. I was so happy when I saw this. I watched it about thirty times in a row.

Sun 23
Sep
2012

Syrup movie teaser

Syrup Somehow an Amber Heard fansite got hold of a “Syrup” teaser that had been made up for distribution people, and posted it to YouTube. This is the same teaser I saw in February but wasn’t allowed to show anyone. But now it’s out there!

Syrup teaser on YouTube

If you want a second-by-second analysis of exactly which lines are from the book and which I wrote for the screenplay and which they added and where I was standing when they filmed what, I am totally prepared to do that.

Thu 20
Sep
2012

Revenge of the Rats

What Max Reckons In 1957, a psychologist named B. F. Skinner decided to see what happened when you put a rat in a cage with a lever that made food come out. He discovered that if the food came out whenever the lever was pushed, the rat would settle into a healthy work-life balance of pushing levers and running hamster wheels. But if the lever only delivered food sometimes—if it randomly might or might not—the rat would work that lever like there was no tomorrow.

This research underpinned much development of poker machines and gaming. Now Diablo III reveals what happens when the rats have internet access: they bitch about drop rates.

The Diablo series of games are simple: you run through dungeons, hit monsters, and collect the items that fall out. Usually the items are crappy, but sometimes, randomly, they’re awesome, and allow you to fight even more powerful monsters, which can randomly drop even more awesome items. The game ends when you starve to death in your apartment surrounded by empty soda cans.

Actually, that’s not true: there is an end-game. Your character can’t progress beyond level 60 and there’s a hard maximum to the potential quality of items. So there is a diminishing returns thing: early in the game, you find better items often, but as your equipment approaches the theoretical maximum, your odds of finding something better become decreasingly smaller.

Diablo III had a few problems when it launched, and there was much bitching on internet forums. A great deal of the bitching was about drop rates; that is, how likely food was to arrive when you pressed the lever. Players thought drop rates were too low, if you were wondering. They wanted food to come out more regularly. A very popular proposal, one mentioned in almost every discussion, no matter how relevant, was that more situations should deliver “a guaranteed rare,” a “rare” being a high-quality item. That is, instead of food only coming out sometimes when you pushed the lever, it would come out every time.

This feedback around drop rates was offered to the developers in the form of an unholy maelstrom of teenage-grade internet fury that raged for many weeks. Players railed against the bitterness of a life of inadequate drop rates, expressing their incomprehension that such stupidity should exist and turning viciously against their former idol, game designer Jay Wilson, who was now revealed not as a benevolent provider of sometimes-food but rather the very face of evil, Diablo himself, as it were, He Who Made The Lever Not Work Often Enough.

Some of the angst was understandable. Diablo III introduced an in-game Auction House, which meant that instead of throwing your old items away as you found new ones, you could sell them to other players for gold. The marketplace being virtual and therefore operating with a degree of efficiency rarely seen in the real world, it was soon a lot easier to find good items on the Auction House than to go around hitting monsters hoping that one would randomly fall out. This in turn allowed players to obtain items approaching the hard maximum quite quickly after starting the game, and rendering their chances of thereafter seeing anything better randomly drop from a monster close to zero.

After sufficient buffeting, the developers decided to increase drop rates. They also created more “guaranteed rare” situations. This was very warmly received by the community. It wasn’t enough, though, and since then drop rates have been raised again, and “legendary” items radically overhauled to make them much better, i.e. more like food. At the same time, a new reward system was introduced called “Paragon Levels,” which periodically deliver such an enormous explosion of congratulation to the player that it almost feels sarcastic. This has quieted community angst, although at this point it’s hard to tell how many of them are left. I suspect a lot have stopped pushing the lever.

The interesting part about the rats who like to gamble is that they don’t do it for food. They don’t press the lever only as many times as required to deliver the same amount of food as when food delivery is guaranteed: they press it more often and more rapidly. They like to see if they can win. Although “like” could be the wrong word; it may be more accurate to say that the uncertainty creates stress, which they feel the need to resolve. I would imagine there are some pretty pissed-off rats, when they press the lever a bunch of times and still nothing happens. They would rage on the internet if they could. And they’d be justified, since it wasn’t their choice to get in the cage. Somebody put them there, who knew what would happen.

Thu 30
Aug
2012

Idea Me

Writing I’m almost finished the final round of major rewrites on the new book. That’s what I’ve been doing, if you’re wondering. It has been more fun and less like pulling my brain out through my nostrils than usual, so that’s good. I am feeling productive.

In a few weeks, I’ll be ready to start my next book! That’s exciting. Except I have no ideas. None. I don’t even know which genre it’ll be. By now it seems like I should have some sense of my own place in the literary marketplace, but I don’t. Apparently I do a kind of comedy-sci-fi-thriller-satire-romance thing. But I don’t know where you shelve that.

I mention this because it occurred to me that I have this web site, and you read it, so I should data-mine you for ideas. There is possibly a less exploitative way for me to say that. But I mean, if you’re on this site, I bet we have all kinds of things in common. Like favorite authors. And being interested in what kind of book I’m writing next. You’re basically me, with more perspective.

I don’t want story ideas, because those are personal. You could have the best story idea in the world and I wouldn’t like it because it wasn’t my idea. I’m very small like that. Also, imagine the legal ramifications. Nightmare. But I would like to know the very broad reasons you might pick up a book with my name on it. Is it for yucks, is it for a page-turner, is it to snip out the author photo for identity theft? You know. Broad strokes. Then the next time I think, “Hey, how awesome would it be to write a comedy about a sentient toaster,” I might remember your comments and think, “Mmmm, not that awesome.” This would be more efficient than my usual process, which is going ahead and writing the book and nine months later having my agent explain why it’s unpublishable.

In other news, I have been playing a computer game, Diablo III. This is one of the few games I’ve put significant time into since my first child was born seven years ago, just as an FYI for anyone thinking of having kids. The game is pretty fun, but what’s fascinating to me is how much video games have changed. When I was a kid, they were coin-munching sadists designed to ruthlessly punish anything less than autism-grade concentration. But now they are colorful piñatas for the easily bored who will rage on Twitter if anything is too hard. If I finish this rewrite and don’t have an idea for my next book, I’ll post a review.

Fri 22
Jun
2012

Irony Certification Agency

Writing

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA: Mr. Jeremy Frost, proprietor of the area’s newly-formed Irony Certification Agency, wears blue overalls. “People expect someone in a nice suit,” he says. “But I want them to see that irony is just a facilities problem. Like a leaky pipe.”

Mr. Frost’s business has been operating for eight months. In that time, he claims to have rendered services to some of the state’s largest employers, including a tech giant and two major insurers. But he’s unable to name names.

“People don’t like to admit they had an irony guy in,” he says. “They see the results. But they don’t like to talk about it.”

That’s something Mr. Frost aims to change. “Getting that first meeting, convincing them I can help them, it’s tough,” he admits. “But once I’m in, I’ve never left a customer disappointed. I figure if I keep doing what I’m doing, people will eventually get comfortable enough to share their irony problems.”

“Irony problems,” according to Mr. Frost, occur when places or objects build up irony over time, and then trigger ironic situations. He explains: “Say there’s a grocery store and they give me a call. I might find a guy to take in—Mike Slipper, for example, or Amanda Fall. I’ll have them walk up and down the aisles. Now, if Mike Slipper slips, or Amanda falls, that’s a pretty good sign we’ve got a source of irony somewhere nearby.”

It’s not always that simple. “I ask myself: what’s the most ironic thing that could happen? Because even a little irony nearby can be enough to set something off, if it’s potentially very ironic. One time an insurer had me visit this guy—he was a little accident-prone, and on a big, big policy. At first, everything checks out, but I’m just not comfortable with his car. It’s more likely to lock with the keys inside when you’re running late, the battery went flat when I tried to drive it to the store to buy batteries… nothing outside normal tolerances, but still, on the high side. Well, then I find out the guy has been writing letters to the paper saying we don’t need seat-belt laws. I can’t tell you the details of how that turned out, but let me just say that insurer saved a ton of money.”

Once Mr. Frost identifies a source of irony, what does he do? “Well, bear in mind, I do Irony Certification, not Irony Disposal. If you’ve got a restaurant on Ebola Avenue, I can check the premises over and tell you whether you’ve got a problem, but I can’t relocate your business.”

This is particularly the case when the source of irony turns out to be a person. “It is awkward, yeah,” he admits. “You have someone who’s been a long-time model employee, she owns a dog named Buster, and suddenly you’re telling her she can’t work in the accounting department any more. It’s not her fault. We still don’t know how the build-up of irony happens. We just know it’s there.”

Mr. Frost is straightforward about the skepticism he receives on the job. “Everyone has an opinion about irony,” he says, a touch wearily. “I do get people coming up to me, saying this isn’t really ironic, or that other thing is. Sometimes, a guy comes up, and three words in, I can tell from his accent where we’re going.” He shrugs. “But it doesn’t bother me. When you’re an Irony Certification Officer working on an irony-laden site, people telling you you’ve got the definition of irony wrong is just part of the job.”

Tue 24
Apr
2012

Why It Takes So Long

Writing Why does it take a year for a book to go from a draft to bookstore shelves? Is it to build anticipation? Because publishers are modern-day Neanderthals, trying to make e-books by rubbing sticks together? Because authors are so precious?

The correct answer is: yes! In more detail, it’s because this*:

MONTH 1

The editor and the author kick things off by exchanging emails about how happy they are to be working with one another. The editor prepares an EDIT LETTER, which is a document describing how fantastic the book is, and how even more fantasticer it would be if the following thirty or so issues were addressed. I put EDIT LETTER in caps because it’s very important. The author considers this. There is some back and forth over any parts of the EDIT LETTER that the author requires more clarification on to fully understand what kind of universe the editor must be living in to say such a thing.

MONTHS 2-4

The author rewrites. How long this takes depends on how much rewriting is required, and how depressed the author gets. All books have been through at least a couple author-driven drafts before they’re picked up by a publisher, but obviously another pass is needed, because why else editors. An editor who says, “Fine as is!” might as well go panhandle.

Also, books at this stage really do need rewriting.

In my case, I did a lot of rewriting for my editor on Company, and the publication process took 22 months. I didn’t do much on Syrup, and it took nine. So there is possibly a causal link there.

The art department begins fooling around with cover ideas, under strict instructions to not share them with anybody, especially authors.

MONTHS 5-6

The editor approves the rewritten draft and shares it internally with salespeople, the art department, and unrelated editors’ assistants. I’m not sure why assistants; I just know every editorial assistant I’ve ever met has read all my books.

The editor and author begin seeking people to provide a blurb/cover quote. The first edition can’t have actual reviews on the cover, because those will be received too late. But you need someone to say “MAGNIFICENT… STUNNING,” so you have to hit up a fellow author.

The copyeditor prints out the new draft and scrawls arcane markings on it by the light of tallow candles using quills. This ensures the book can no longer be shared electronically, and all subsequent changes must be done by hand. This five-hundred-page monstrosity is photocopied and e-mailed to the author. Sorry, that was a typo. I mean mailed. You know. Mailed. When they physically transport something. The author reads this by light of a virgin moon, which is the only time the unicorn ink becomes visible, and accepts some changes while giving others a jolly good stet. This can be a difficult time for the author, who must defend grammatical errors as stylistic choices in order to not look stupid.

The editor emails the author a scan of the finished cover art, saying, “Everyone here loves this!” The author may object to aspects of it, if he is an ungrateful asshole who thinks he knows how to publish books better than a, you know, publisher.

The book’s layouts are developed: the internal artwork, including the fonts, spacing, and style of chapter headings.

Publicity plans are developed, and final-ish decisions made on things like price and publication dates.

MONTHS 7-8

The manuscript is transformed into a galley, which is the final, copyedited version embedded in the layouts. When I say “transformed,” I mean someone sits down with the five-hundred-page copyedited manuscript, which by now has been scrawled on by at least two and probably four different people, with additional pages inserted here and there, and some of the changes stetted and then destetted and maybe redesteted again, some of which are impossible to read because I had to use a green pencil to signify which changes were mine and I couldn’t find a sharpener and I was trying to squeeze between the printed lines and thought I had enough room but didn’t. This person types all that out. I have never met them, because, I assume, they are kept in a basement and fed raw fish.

The author is sent galleys of forthcoming books by authors who agreed to consider giving a blurb, in case he wishes to reciprocate, while maintaining artistic integrity.

The Advanced Reader Copies are produced, which are like galleys, but one step closer to the finished version. They’re for reviewers and various promotions (a lot of Machine Man ARCs were given out at Comic Con last year), and are essentially the finished book, minus any late editorial changes, printed on cheap paper, and possibly with different cover art.

The author reads the latest galley/ARC and notices several horrendous errors that somehow escaped previous notice. He writes in with corrections.

The audio version is developed.

The author corresponds with translators attached to various foreign publishers, who want explanations for odd word choices. These will probably be published many months or even years later, and look super exotic.

MONTHS 9-10

The publisher pitches its quarterly list to large bookstore chains and buyers. I believe they actually sit down in a room, and the editor or marketing manager or whoever says, “Now THIS is a title we’re very excited about, it’s OH GOD PLEASE BUY ME by Max Barry,” and they have a little discussion about the author’s sales record and whether people are really interested in that kind of book any more, so that the bookstore chain/buyer can decide how many copies to stock. If they choose a low number, the book is essentially dead, because no-one will see it, and the publisher will scale back its marketing plans, because why spend money promoting a book no-one knows about. But if it’s a high number, there will be renewed excitement and high-fives and a little extra marketing budget for things like co-op (payment to bookstores for favorable shelf placement). The author can tell which it is because if it is a low number, the publisher won’t tell him.

Thanks to the amazing new website Random House has for its authors, I know they call this process “working with the accounts on an ongoing basis to estimate initial purchase quantities.”

The ARCs go out to newspapers, blogs, magazines, and anyone else who wants a copy and has an audience of more than three people. Interview and feature requests begin to come in and are scheduled by the publicity department. Early reviews come in and are forwarded to the author, unless they’re bad.

An e-book version is developed via a process involving priests and goats’ blood. Not really. It’s really done by re-typing the entire book from the finished, typeset manuscript. Nah, I’m still kidding. They take the last electronic document and just try to reimplement all the manual changes made since then by hand. You can decide which of those it is.

Due to piracy concerns, the e-book is closely guarded, so often cannot be reviewed by the author. Instead it is distributed to anyone with a blog and a netgalley.com account.

MONTHS 11-13

More reviews come in, and early interviews/profiles are conducted. The author, who has spent the last two years alone with a keyboard, begins spending large parts of each day talking or writing about himself, sowing the seeds for future personality disorders.

The publisher does whatever it is that needs to be done to ensure that tens of thousands of physical copies end up in the right place at the right time. I assume that’s something.

The book is published! The author catches the bus to the nearest bookstore to discover they’re not stocking it. Calls to agent ensue. The author may go on tour, which could involve dozens of cities over many weeks, or just popping into local bookstore and plaintively offering to sign copies, if they have some, like out the back or whatever.

During a book reading, the author notices a horrendous error that somehow escaped the editorial process.

The author wakes three-hourly to check his Amazon.com sales ranking.

And that’s about it.

* Note: Blog may represent one-sided author’s view of a process he actually knows little about, with gaps in knowledge filled with speculation and lies.

Tue 17
Apr
2012

I Have a New Book

Lexicon My fifth novel will be out in mid-2013. If you’re wondering how I manage this breakneck pace, with Machine Man gracing the shelves only last year, it’s because I haven’t been updating my web site or going on Twitter or Facebook. It’s amazing how much time that leaves. Also, I broke my usual pattern of following good novels with unpublishable ones. It’s a bold new strategy but I’m optimistic that it might just work out.

The new book is Lexicon. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t want to know anything more, because you have already decided to read it and want your experience to be untainted by any hint of a spoiler, then (a) thank you, (b) I am right there with you, and (c) you may skip ahead to the next paragraph. For everyone else, it is about a secret persuasion society that builds and deploys words as weapons. The people who wield these words are known as poets; the story centers around a young woman who is recruited into their ranks, and the man she falls in love with. Which you are not allowed to do, as a poet. I could explain why, but I’m not going to. Just trust me.

I began writing this book about five years ago, although it has changed so radically from my early sketches that I may just go back and write a second, completely different book from the same original idea. Usually, I start a novel with a particular situation in mind, but this time I had a concept, and unfortunately a concept is not a story. A concept is somewhere for a story to live. So I ended up writing a lot of words, looking for the story inside this concept. I always take a kind of sick pride in the number of words that don’t make it into my final drafts; the notes, doodles, experiments, deleted scenes, et cetera. I usually have at least as many of these as published words. This time, I have far more: 197,788. Actually, that is a little appalling. I hadn’t totaled that up before. But I’m still proud, because those words led to good ones.

Lexicon will be published by The Penguin Press in mid-2013 in the US and Canada. Details to come on other countries.

Fri 24
Feb
2012

This Sentence is Already Too Long

What Max Reckons Blogs are dying. Not this blog. I mean in general. This blog’s just fine. Okay, yes, it has been a little while since the last post, but that’s just because I was busy writing. Well. Rewriting. It’s like writing, only with less visible progress. With writing, you can feel reasonably assured that what you put on the page is better than what was there before. Not always! But mostly. Rewriting, though, you can spend a good six hours on a scene, sit back, and think, “Yep… that’s worse.”

Anyway. Blogs are OUT. They’re too long. That’s the problem. No-one has the time for them. The middle is hollowing out. Everything is polarizing. We want things to be very. It doesn’t matter what. Whatever it is, only very. There’s no place for mid-length writing any more. There never was, of course. But blogs used to be short. Then Twitter. Now blogs are like One Day Cricket.*

But here we are! And it’s already been more than 140 characters. So let’s continue. This blog will summarize what I’ve been thinking about over the last few months, while I was busy making my new book not worse.

  • Sneaker riots. The first one or two were kind of shocking to me, like a thought come to life. The next few were disappointing, like repeated plot points. But now we’re at, what, the seventh Nike sneaker riot? When does it become less likely that they’re continually being surprised by this kind of thing happening and more likely that they’re deliberately engineering it? That’s just a question. I’m just wondering.

  • Syrup movie. Now in post-production. I have been shown a teaser-trailer thing and it is heartbreakingly beautiful. I’ve watched it three hundred times. I’m not joking. The only thing that sucks about the Syrup movie is I’m not allowed to tell you anything. But soon. Soon…

  • Privacy. This interests me because privacy is obviously very important for reasons nobody understands. Generally, there’s a much stronger incentive for companies and governments to want to know things about you than for you to keep your data private. That leads to an interesting place.

  • Persuasion. This is the most valuable skill in the world, right? People who are good at persuading others become rich and successful; people who are easily persuaded by others do not. But nobody really thinks about this. Very few people actually go out and learn how to be better at persuasion, or more aware of its forms. Why is that?

    Also, the US as a culture is very advanced at soft persuasion (i.e. the forms of persuasion that don’t involve threats of bodily harm). It is great at selling stuff. We have the Internet and free access to vast stores of information but we’re still buying products with the cleverest ads, and electing politicians with the most reassuring voices. I wonder what happens if a culture becomes so good at persuasion that there is no longer an incentive to produce products that are just objectively good, as opposed to well-sold.

  • Privacy + Persuasion. It’s easier to persuade people if you know more about them. And if you can persuade them, you can get more information from them. That’s an interesting dynamic, too.

  • Piracy. But this is too depressing for now so I’ll blog about it later.

That’s a lot of Ps, for some reason.

(* This analogy works because even if you don’t know cricket, you know it is stupid and anachronistic.)

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