So I finished Machine Man. And I want to stay all cool and authory
about it, but honestly, I feel a little heartbroken. I think because when I tap out
THE END on a regular novel first draft, it means I finally have something I
can show people. But Machine Man wasn’t a regular first draft: it
was an experience, me posting one page at a time and checking the next morning
to see what people thought. That was freaking wonderful—terrifyingly wonderful—and now it’s over, I already miss it.
I think I will need to do this again. This, or something like it.
But my next step is turning the serial into
Every first draft can be better; my first drafts can be a lot better.
If you read this serial—even
if you only read some of it—I would love to know what you thought. I usually
distribute my first drafts to ten or twelve early readers. This time there are
600 of you, another three or four thousand in the free feeds. As a feedback
junkie, this makes me trembly and excited.
If you’ve got an opinion, please let me hear it. I want nothing more than to make
my stories as strong as they can be, and I need to figure out how this
book reads to someone who hasn’t written it. So please help me:
post a comment.
Or, if you’d prefer to keep it private, email me.
I tell all my early readers: I’m after what you felt.
Please don’t think you need to be a literary critic. Don’t try to imagine what other people might
like. Above all, don’t hold back because you can’t think how to justify what
the book made you feel.
Figuring out why you had a particular reaction and what to do about
it, that’s my job. I can do that. What I can’t do is read my own book for the first time.
The closest I can get is hearing you describe how you felt when you read it.
Please do tell me what you liked and what you didn’t. I’m looking for flaws,
but part of figuring out what to improve is understanding where its heart is.
Also, I tend to assume
that anything an early reader doesn’t mention she didn’t care terribly
much about, so it’s a candidate for the ax.
If you stopped reading at
some point, please tell me where. If you’re partway through,
please share your thoughts so far. If you don’t know what the
hell I’m talking about with feelings versus literary criticism and all
that, please comment
anyway. One-sentence thoughts are fine. I can’t get too much feedback.
Please. Tell me.
were in Hollywood trade Bible
really. True, you weren’t the main focus. The main focus was
OH BY THE WAY
THEY’RE MAKING A MACHINE MAN MOVIE.
Well, when I say “making,” I mean “it’s in development.” And
as we have learned, sometimes painfully, movies in development
often do not make it out of development, at least not in our lifetimes.
But still! This is a pretty amazing thing for a not-quite-finished
experiment in fiction.
“They” in this case is
who do actually get stuff made, and who I think get this concept
particularly well. I’m not saying they’re self-mutilators. I have no
proof of that. Let’s just say that if you were, I think they’d
So Marc Graser of Variety reported this, and look what he said!
…suggestions from readers are integrated into the plot as the story unfolds.
I’m not sure I want that in print. That seems like the kind of thing that
could lead to lawsuits. But, well, it’s
true: you guys post comments, I read them, and that affects what I write
the next day. So there you go. We have a film deal.
I have to mention (again) my Machine Man muse/tormentor
M.I. Minter, the guy who essentially
provoked me into doing this, because
his response to this latest development was:
It’s amazing the fantastic things that happen when you regularly
I’m starting to suspect that M.I. Minter will make one hell of a Daddy one day.
He has a knack of delivering delicious, crunchy praise with a chewy,
I discovered a word cloud generator, so naturally enough I pasted
Machine Man into it.
It looks like this:
Image courtesy wordle.net
That’s pretty awesome. I love the big Lola. I’m disappointed “just” is so big,
though. I have to stop using that. Possibly I am overdoing the similes, too,
with a “like” of those dimensions. But the scattering of body parts is nice.
in Publisher’s Weekly, Vintage Books will bring
Machine Man to life in print form in the US & Canada,
most likely in 2011. This will be a rewritten version of what’s
currently going up online—since I think the two mediums have very different
requirements, plus I haven’t yet seen a first draft I didn’t want to rewrite. Or
any draft, actually. But that’s my personal issue. So anyway, once I finish the serial,
probably later this year, I will start trying to figure out how the hell
I do that.
The particularly cool part is that Vintage (like Scribe in Australia & New Zealand)
is happy for me to keep the serial online. Which may sound obvious to you,
but that idea caused some publishing industry minds to EXPLODE. Their
natural inclination is to scrub the internet free of any potentially competing
versions whilst locking down e-books so tightly they don’t work on your
device. That’s possibly just my bitter experience talking. But this is a significant
step for a publisher, and I’m really happy Vintage took it. I didn’t want to
take down my online serial. That would be like leading my child into a forest and abandoning
her there. Then, I guess, going home and building a new child based on the
first one. And offering her in print form. Wait. This analogy may have gotten away from me.
What we’ll have, then, is the original, unedited serial online, and a more polished
(I was going to just say “polished,” but that could be a stretch) novel
based on it. Given
my track record of rewriting books until they cry, it will probably differ quite
a lot from the serial. But on the other hand, it won’t have reader comments.
Which is a shame, because those are awesome. It’s like book club five
days a week.
This all makes a pretty amazing outcome for a project I started just because
a reader bugged me. It’s been successful in a whole lot of ways. So thank you.
P.S. I can’t believe that Publisher’s Weekly’s “Deals” section,
by Rachel Deahl, isn’t called “Deahls.” That’s a no-brainer.
My favorite sci-fi site just posted an article
about this entitled
“Max Barry Jams In Public, Creates A New Publishing Model, Slices Your Legs Off.” Ahh, bless your nerdy hearts.
Yesterday I did something very cool. You might not think so. If you’re the
sort of person who paraglides, for example. Or leaves the house most days.
But for me: totally exciting.
In the morning, I carried my coffee upstairs to my office and checked my
email. This is almost always a bad idea, but still, hard to resist. I had a message
from Meredith, who said she was very much enjoying Machine Man.
That wasn’t the cool part. Well, it was. It’s always cool when someone
tells you they like something you wrote. It never gets old. But what came next was even
cooler: Meredith was a neuroscience major. She wrote:
I’m surprised he doesn’t have any phantom pain, since that’s extremely common; while the prosthetics would help trick the brain for sure, with that many limbs taken off, he would certainly have pain. No one totally understands phantom pain, but the idea is that our perceptions are not totally sensory; they are, in a large part, just our brain’s best guess. So, basically, the brain guesses that the limb is still there, but you can’t control it (unclench the phantom fist, etc.). A very simple technique has just been developed by Dr. Ramachandran at UCSD that is incredibly successful: Using a $5 drugstore mirror to make the arm that’s still there look like the arm that got cut off. This makes the brain think that what your one arm is doing, the phantom arm is doing. So those with phantom pain can get rid of an uncomfortable position.
I knew of phantom pain, of course, but thus far hadn’t thought of
anything interesting to do with it. Now, thanks to Meredith, I did.
Suddenly phantom pain seemed extremely interesting. So I opened up
a blank page and began writing.
Often people email me interesting things about the subject areas in which
I write. After Company, for example, I heard a lot of
terrific workplace horror stories. Which is great, but I always think, “I
wish I’d heard that two years ago.” Because then I could have used it in
Yesterday, I sat at my desk with no idea what I would write for that day’s
page, received an email from a neuroscience major, wrote
something based on her insights, and
published it. Then, to make it even
better, the first reader comment (from always-interesting Pev) was:
“Nice research on phantom limb pain, Max.”
This is the kind of research I can dig: the kind other people do for me,
before I even know enough to ask. It’s not the first
time it’s happened with this story. And it’s a totally unexpected
side-benefit of the real-time serial format. I’m loving this.
I’m making this story up as I go. I didn’t say that just to lower your
expectations. It’s a work in progress. I haven’t plotted it out in advance.
I write each page a few days before you see it.
I’d like to believe the reason I keep getting emails like,
“Come on, tell me: how much of this have you written already?”
is that people think
Machine Man is so amazingly brilliant that no mere
mortal could dream it up on the run. Unfortunately, I have to
face the fact that you just think I’m shifty.
So look, I swear: it’s for real. I’ll show you the blank pages I
haven’t written yet.
Anyway. Six weeks in, I’m thrilled. I like the story, I like
checking the latest comments about each page, and
2,700 people have signed up for it. The unsubscription rate is 7%, meaning
93% of people who try it out via email stick with it, which I couldn’t be happier
about. Well, I guess I could. 100% would be better. But maybe that
7% just changed email addresses. Or someone close to them died
and they couldn’t handle any contact from the outside world for a while.
You can’t rule that out.
Now some news:
Machine Man is going to be a book. You know, a real one. My Australian
publisher, Scribe, decided there was no need to wait
to find out whether the rest of the story—i.e. most of it—would
be any good, and offered for print rights. That’s
some pretty good blind faith right there. I’m touched but slightly afraid.
an interview on Machine Man for
I’m enjoying this enough to see it though, so
the end of the free feed is nigh. I’m thinking Chapter
Ten; i.e. the last free page will be 43. That’s eight and a half weeks in,
which seems about right.
page 33 would have been a good place, story-wise, but I hadn’t gotten around
to setting up PayPal. Soon, anyway, you’ll have the
opportunity to pay $6.95 for the rest of the story. If it helps, you can
think of me using that seven bucks to buy shoes for Fin. Look at
her! Right now she has to walk around in baskets.
And a few thoughts:
My favorite chapter so far is
Chapter Five, which contains
my favorite page (20), which
contains my favorite line (“Don’t do that thing.”). I realize this
is something no self-respecting author should ever admit, but that
line made me giggle like a child.
Biggest surprise was the reaction to
page 23. I forgot that
nobody but me knew that Lola was into prosthetics. I mean, really
into them. And people liked this development. Which was
great to discover, you sick bastards.
At the risk of disappointing you by revealing its very
Page 21 is more or
less the original idea I had for this story. I was walking along
one day when I saw an unattractive man in a beautiful car;
I had a notepad with me and wrote down: The cars are better
than the drivers. I thought about this while waiting for the
train, at which point I added: I want to be a train,
which is essentially page 2.
The rest follows naturally, I’m sure you’ll agree.
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
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…
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.
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
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
Feel free to tell your friends about that.
Machine Man launches tomorrow! Which is also my birthday. Yeah, thanks for
noticing. No, no, don’t try to make excuses. It only demeans us both.
Speaking of which: Machine Man! I hope you’re
signed up for this
spectacular venture into real-time serial fiction. I say “spectacular” because
“I wound up writing a 200-page story for eight interested readers” would qualify
too, albeit not in the sense I’m hoping for. But either way.
Because the original concept wasn’t self-destructive enough, I decided
each Machine Man page will accept your comments. That way, my eight interested
readers can not only bankrupt me financially, but also destroy my
There’s a very real chance
here you may see me totally disintegrate as a human being. And I’ll throw
that in for nothing.
Get Machine Man here.
P.S. I have to confess: I’ve cheated a little already. I got ahead of myself and
built up a little stack of pages, which are now ready to go. It has been fun.
There is something very satisfying about a solid, ninety-word scene. I think
I like this medium. It’s like a novel with ADHD.
P.P.S. I got a spam email from “Mal Awesome.” That’s the best name
I’ve ever heard. Next time I need a character name, I’m trawling my Junk
loved the idea of reading a novel online, because novels aren’t meant to
be read that way: they are designed to envelop you. Anything I see on
the web, by contrast, I give my attention for a maximum of eight seconds before
checking Reddit for videos of laughing dogs. Don’t say that’s just me.
It’s how the internet trains us.
So rather than trying to shoe-horn a novel into a web-friendly format,
I thought I’d write you a real-time serial. That means a continuing story
that turns up one tiny page at a time in your inbox. It is titled
I say “real-time” because I will write it as you read it. I’m
warning you about this up-front because it’s going to be a little chaotic,
and Hemingway was right.
Also there is the possibility that it will go so badly I nuke this
part of the web site and pretend it never happened. But it’s the web,
right? So I will release early and release often.
Right now you can sign up for free. If it goes well, I’ll turn it into
a subscriber thing where you can buy the whole thing for $6.95.
Pages start Wednesday March 18, 2009. You can
find out more here.
I hope you like it.
P.S. I’m not sure if anyone’s done anything quite like this before. If they
have, and it was a disaster, please don’t tell me.
P.P.S. Special thanks/blame to Ian for
haranguing me into doing this.