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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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I’m not more excited about anything than that I have four episodes of “Stranger Things” left.

Sun 07
Aug
2016

Abandoning the Book

Writing

I started writing a book and I’m at about 13,000+ words so far two years ago. Then after that I got busy with schoolwork and other stuff and couldn’t go back to it. Now, I revisit it and realize that, well, it’s total crap and that my writing style essentially changed. Now I’ve got to do a major re-edit and I haven’t even finished it yet. Should I abandon it and start writing other things?

Blair

Yep. Definitely. One hundred percent. I know this is the right answer because you said “and start writing other things.” If you had stopped at “should I abandon it” I wouldn’t be sure. I often feel like abandoning a book just because sometimes I can’t figure out how to get everyone from A to B without characters acting like soulless automatons so it’s not feeling at all like it did in my head and everything sucks and why am I even doing this. But that’s just writing.

I also often re-read the start of a draft I’m only part-way through and decide it’s terrible, because back then I had no idea what I was doing, so now everything feels a little off. Or a lot off. This is why it’s actually a bad idea to re-read a draft-in-progress. You ideally want to save that inevitable disappointing discovery until you have a complete manuscript, at which point you’re too invested to walk away. But I can’t help myself.

So getting cheesed off with your book can manifest as one of two feelings. The first is an urgent desire to start fixing it because you know it can be better. That’s good. The second is an urgent desire to throw it in a fire and go do something else. That’s also good if the something else involves writing. Because it’s never a mistake to write something. I honestly think you can find something like 50% of a great book in the first sentence, just because occasionally you stumble across a line that gives you tone and character and world in a way that immediately suggests the next 20,000 words. Starting something new can be a great reminder for me that I’m not not actually a shitty writer, I’m just stuck in a difficult narrative.

Write what you feel. Everything is better, faster, and more fun when you love it. So when it’s a choice between writing something you enjoy and writing something you don’t, that’s easy. Just as long as it’s something.

Thu 07
Jul
2016

Misinterpreting Copyright

Writing

I just read “Misinterpreting Copyright” by Richard Stallman, found the points he makes very convincing and am curious about your opinion as an author and someone who writes about piracy, DRM, and such things.

Anon

Stallman is right about everything. It’s just that the logical conclusions he reaches are so uncomfortable, it’s easier to pretend he’s wrong. It’s like PETA. There’s no way what we’re currently doing to animals is moral. But burgers are awesome and you can enjoy them better if PETA is a bunch of hypocritical wackos. So we’re all ears for that narrative.

Stallman is the guy saying, “You know, instead of buying that coffee, you could have given an impoverished third-world child safe drinking water.” You can’t fault the logic. But no-one wants to take it to that extreme. So you never hear people criticizing Stallman’s arguments. Instead, it’s always how he was late to a lecture or dresses badly or was rude to someone once.

So what Stallman is right about this time is that copyright was created for the benefit of readers, not writers. This is a foundational principle of capitalism in general: that the purpose of production is consumption. It’s not to create jobs. Jobs are a side-effect, a byproduct of having more stuff available more cheaply. Ideally, the stuff would be free and unlimited, in which case we wouldn’t need jobs at all. The stuff is the point, not the jobs.

The goal of copyright wasn’t for me to give up my day job selling Unix computer systems and live a luxurious life of working naked from home. That was just a side-effect of a system designed to encourage me to write more books. And frankly I’m not sure how well it’s working. It’s been a while since my last novel. Sure, it’s helpful to have time and freedom for writing, but I found being trapped in a corporate sales job pretty motivating, too. I can’t for 100% certain say that I’m producing more words today than I would if forced to sit under fluorescent lighting in a suit for 8 hours a day and given a laptop and freedom for one hour in the middle. Or threatened with waterboarding. There are lots of ways to incentivize artists, is my point.

But copyright isn’t even about that any more. At first it lasted for 14 years, after which anyone could sell copies, write a spin-off, or adapt the work; now it usually lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years, so just forget about doing anything ever unless you buy the rights. That’s not because we think we’ll get more books if dead authors’ estates can get paid in 2116; dead writers can’t write faster, and no-one ever decided whether to write a novel based on their prospects for postmortem royalties. Instead, we have adopted the idea that copyright is a moral thing, which artists deserve. If you make something up, you should be able to control it for the rest of your life, and then some, because it’s yours.

Personally, although I totally get the proprietary instinct (you’ll never treat my kids as well as I do), I think stories are bigger than authors. There’s no doubt to me that if copyright still lasted 14 years, we would be a lot richer for random artists and companies taking James Bond or Superman or Star Wars and doing what they liked. There would be a lot of dreck, yes. But from that hotbed of competition and evolution there would also be some truly great stories.

And copyright today financially benefits companies more than people. The vast majority of writers wouldn’t be affected at all if copyright was radically shortened, because the vast majority of books don’t generate royalties for decades. They do it for a few years, if at all. Only the mega-blockbusters have that kind of tail, and if you’ve produced one of those, you’re not starving. So in practice, the nice idea that artists should enjoy creative control forever translates into a small number of media companies cranking the handles on a couple dozen money-printing machines that no-one else is allowed to touch.

I’m a lot less idealistic than Stallman, though. Of course, everyone is.

Fri 10
Jun
2016

I Would Eat A Brick

Max

Would you eat a brick if I told you it would cure the cancer of anyone afflicted?

Krualstiken

Of course. That would be the most effective cancer treatment in the world. We’re currently shooting people full of poison and it doesn’t even work most of the time. Brick-eating would be a major technological breakthrough. You would win the Nobel Prize for discovering a treatment method as relatively simple and painless as brick-eating.

I would also kill an innocent person with a brick if that would cure cancer worldwide. I mean, I wouldn’t enjoy it. But cancer is the worst. In fact, I would let you kill me with a brick.

I knew someone who worked on The X-Files during its original run and when they were shutting down after nine seasons, she said, “It’s not like we were curing cancer.” Because occasionally in the arts & entertainment industry you can stop and realize that you’re making up stories while other people are doing important things like saving lives or growing food or building houses. I said, sure, but the people who are have probably been watching The X-Files. I hope that is true.

Fri 03
Jun
2016

Why I Hate Windows (this time)

Max

Hey Max, why do you hate Windows?

No one you ever heard of

I’M GLAD YOU ASKED. From the last time I whined about Windows:

But what really bothers me is the feeling that you must constantly fight for control of your own computer, because your aims are apparently in conflict with those of Microsoft and half of everyone else who writes Windows software. They want your computer to report information about you, keep ongoing watch over what you’re doing in case you turn pirate (activation, registration, and validation?), show you ads, and lock you out of protected media. If you lose this battle, six months later you find yourself with a computer so clogged with malware that the only way to make it usable again is to reinstall the operating system and begin the fight again.

Written in 2007. Windows today is that times a thousand.

At least Apple is up-front about how you’ll shut up and take what it gives you. I appreciate that honesty. On my phone, I’m happy for it. I don’t want to configure my phone. I just want to read email and look at photos. You make that happen, Apple.

But Windows! Windows is sneaky. Windows is the shady salesperson telling me it’s my decision but if I don’t want to upgrade it’s going to keep asking and then just go ahead and do it and say it was my choice.

I use Ubuntu Linux, which is part of an open source ecosystem where people make good software just because. That used to be only mildly notable, but the digital world has become so hard-nosed that whenever I switch to Windows, I’m a naive farm boy who just arrived in the big city: 15 minutes later, I’m bankrupt, naked, and everyone has my email address.

Oh, and the Start button. THE START BUTTON. The perfect symbol of everything that’s wrong with Windows. Well not everything. But a lot. Every edition of Windows for the last 20 years has breathlessly pushed one of two selling points:

  1. We added a Start button

  2. We removed the Start button

YOU’RE ADDING AND REMOVING THE SAME THING. How can your main feature of Windows 10 be something you introduced in 1995? Why is nobody talking about that? “Oh yes, I think Windows 10 is actually a significant improvement; it brings back the Start button.” That’s like someone was punching you in the face for a while, then stopped, and now you think things are better than ever! And it’s just a button! While you’re dreaming up new features, how about the one where you don’t need to reboot the entire freaking machine every time it wants to update?

So it’s mainly that: the sneakiness, and the sales campaign stuck on a loop.

Measuring songs by my productivity while listening, I like “Faded” by @IAmAlanWalker about 12,000 words.

Thu 19
May
2016

My Age

Max

What’s your age?

A lonely man

I’m 43. It’s a problem because the main photo of me on my website is from seven years ago and I designed the site’s whole color scheme around it. So now it’s about time to update that pic but I don’t want to have to restyle all the menus. It’s a real dilemma. They say age brings unexpected challenges but I didn’t see this coming.

Another problem is I have more trouble suspending disbelief. So where in my youth I would read a line like, “Commander Zorko strode onto the bridge, his brows furrowed,” and thought, “Yes, excellent, you have already impressed me, Commander,” now I’m more like, “That is some pretty cliched writing.” You might think this is a positive, raising my standards, but when your workflow is blasting out a terrible first draft and reworking it from there, it’s not. I have to drink a lot more coffee to delude myself into thinking that pearls are dripping from my fingers whenever they touch the keyboard, that’s for sure. And that’s a pre-requisite belief for any novelist hoping to complete a first draft, as far as I know.

It also means I finish fewer books. I used to finish everything, even books I hated. I would grind my way to the end, my hate for the author burning brighter with every page. Because once you check out of a story, there’s no coming back. It just gets worse and worse. Stories are a partnership, a deal between author and reader, and they don’t work unless both sides hold up their end. I went to a comedy show once and for some reason didn’t find him funny, but everyone around me was rolling in the aisles, so pretty soon I hated that guy with every fiber of my being. Also I felt kind of psychopathic, because it’s weird to be the only person not laughing. That’s not a great look. But now I bail out of a book at the slightest provocation. So I’m probably missing out on some great reads.

I liked The Phantom Menace when it came out in 1999. I really did. After the 13-minute pod-race scene, all I thought was, “That was a bold cinematic choice, inserting an action sequence with no relevance to anything else in the story.” All the stupid stuff I loved. But you just can’t do that at 43. I was unable to enjoy Pacific Rim because MY GOD WHY ARE THE ROBOTS PUNCHING THE MONSTERS. Like obviously that’s the point of the movie, why go see it if you don’t want robots to punch monsters, but SERIOUSLY ARE THERE NO LONG-RANGE WEAPONS, OH WAIT, YES THERE ARE, AND THEY PUT THEM IN THE ARMS OF THE ROBOTS, WHO ARE PUNCHING MONSTERS.

You see the problem.

Thu 12
May
2016

The Glorious Republic That Almost Was

What Max Reckons

Max, I hear you’re Australian. Do you support Australia becoming a republic?

Yes, I do! Australia almost became a republic in 1999 but the referendum was defeated 45% to 55%. It was interesting because according to the polls, most people were in favor of the general idea, but against any specific implementation. So we wanted to be a republic right up until someone said, “Would we have a Prime Minister or a President, then?” at which point it dissolved into bitter infighting.

This seems to be the general case. For example, a couple of months ago New Zealand tried to change its flag, since, like Australia’s, it has a certain Beneath-The-Iron-Heel-Of-The-Colonial-Empire vibe to it, and that idea had a lot of support in principle, which collapsed when faced with a particular alternative design. That was when the “Classy Silver Fern” people realized they didn’t have as much in common with the “Kiwi Shooting Laser Beams Out of its Eyes” people as they thought.

I think the lesson is that you should make people to agree to do something before you tell them exactly what.

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