Sometimes people ask what else I've had published besides novels. I avoid answering this question, because the truth is nothing, and that's embarrassing. I did try to sell some short stories once, but they got rejected a lot.
But just because they weren't good enough for some crummy Australian rag doesn't mean the world need be deprived of them, right? That's what the internet is for! So here's a collection of writings, advice for struggling writers, and other writing-related... uh, writings.
Displaying blogs about Writing. View all Max's blogs.
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.
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.
In the inevitable event of a zombie apocalypse in Australia, what would be your plans to ensure your survival? Will you still write books for the non-infected population?
I don’t think so. It’s hard enough to make a living as an author without the undead clawing at the windows. I can barely work with metaphorical monsters trying to consume my brain.
That raises a good question, though, which is why I write. Some of my reasons over the years, roughly chronologically, have been:
Expectation that brilliant words will change world
Hope of fame & fortune
Hope of seeing book on shelves one day
Better job than telephone sales
Story trying to crawl its way out of my brain won’t let me think about anything else
Just published novel and too young to retire
It’s never one thing, of course. But I used to be very motivated by the idea of getting attention while today I’m not at all. That probably happens to everyone as they get older. Or else I’m disappearing into an elaborate fantasy world where my characters are the only people I really care about. One of those.
Today, I mostly write because when I sit down and read back what I wrote yesterday, it seems interesting but also not quite right, so I feel the urge to fix it and also see what happens next. It’s actually not that different to reading any book, only with more self-loathing. Also it takes longer. But I think readers and writers are fundamentally trying to do the same thing: find out what happens.
Post-zombie apocalypse, I don’t think I’ll write novels, but I will tell stories to children. I think that will be important.
Hey Max! I’m sure writing has highs and lows. Have you ever had a point where you thought about packing the whole gig in? What was that point? Why didn’t you?
This morning. I thought I knew what I wanted to write. But when I started, it sucked. The words felt stupid. In the past, when this has happened, I have told myself, Just push through, but now I know that when I do that, I wind up with a lot of stupid words, which I have to delete the next day. It’s always a mistake to think I might be underrating my words; that if I just slap them down there, it might turn out that other people like them better than I do. THAT NEVER HAPPENS.
So then I stopped, because it wasn’t working, and felt sad, because I couldn’t write. I had forgotten how to do it. My career was over.
Fortunately this is a frequent occurrence so I knew it wouldn’t last long. What I have learned is that being a complete failure as a writer is not my fault. It’s the book’s fault. If the book was good enough, it would make me enjoy writing it more. Working on a good book is great fun. It’s joyful. Words come easily. It doesn’t make sense that I would be able to write plenty of good words one minute and no words at all the next. I’m still the same guy. So it must be the book.
Therefore I just need take a break and change something when I get back. Have an idea. Try a different opening. Delete someone. And tada! Words. Sooner or later, words.
Are you a “knows-the-beginning, knows-the-end, so-now-let’s-write-the-middle” kinda writer, or are you “let’s-start-with-one-image-in-mind-and-see-where-that-takes-me” kinda writer?
The second one. The first one makes a lot of sense in theory, and it’s what I’d do if it didn’t inevitably lead to me sobbing over a tub of comfort ice-cream. But it does.
I don’t know whether anyone has made the first one work. I know some writers claim to have done it. But I think they must be lying. That would mean you can figure out almost everything you need to about a book before you start it. That’s not my experience. My process is more like this:
Day 1: “That’s a great idea.”
Day 5: “That idea was terrible but this character is interesting.”
Day 20: “I hate everything about this book except these two lines I just wrote.”
Day 40: “What was that original idea again, it wasn’t so bad, was it?”
Day 41: “OH RIGHT, YES, YES IT WAS.”
Day 50: “Ha ha this first chapter is great now that I changed everything I used to like about it.”
Day 150: “The later chapters are so much better than the first. The first one makes me want to vomit with anger.”
And so on. I also like to throw out the entire second half of a draft at some stage. Well, I don’t like to. But it’s what usually happens.
Hey, one of the things my teachers are always telling me I need to improve on in my writing is setting. Even in this simple question, you can note the complete absence of any indications of time and space. Seeing as my teachers are all incompetent, you got any tips that could help me?
Setting is very important. Without setting, your characters would float helplessly in a formless void. I definitely recommend setting your story somewhere, so that they can move about and order coffees.
I’m not a big setting guy. You probably knew that. Probably I am half your problem, since you think my opinion worth writing in for. Maybe you should stop reading books like mine. But if we’re separating stories out into their constituent parts (which kills them, but anyway), setting ranks very low. Here’s a list of some things that might be in a scene or story, from most to least important, according to me:
Someone wants something
One person says something that the other person can’t think of a good reply to
The feeling that something bad is going to happen soon
Guess what, something wasn’t like you thought
The feeling that something good is going to happen soon
Where everybody is
How old they are
What they’re wearing
But setting is important. A good setting makes everything more believable. It’s just something I tend to leave until last, once everything else is working. Because no-one loves a book for its setting, and it’s relatively easily changed. This isn’t a film where you have to rebuild the sets. You can do it with a sentence here and there. Small details, implying larger ones. Like if we’re in a hospital, you don’t want to describe the walls, or the color of the uniforms, or say how many rooms there are. We’ve all seen plenty of hospitals; that stage is prebuilt in our heads. But you can mention an old guy shuffling by in urine-soaked pajama pants, or a woman sitting up doing her lipstick in her bed, or the bucket catching leaks behind the nurses’ desk. Something different and suggestive like that.
hey buddy are you workin on anything new? i’m on the toilet right now at work and can think of no one i’d rather have in here with me.
Thanks, Dave. I appreciate it. Later, when I answer my own call of nature, I will think of you, too.
Yes, I’m always working on something new. The funny thing about novels is the enormous lag time to publication. I cycle like this:
Stage 1: New novel is not working and everything is terrible. But my previous one was just published so people think I’m industrious and productive.
Stage 2: Several abandoned creative detours later, I’m still struggling to animate the stitched-together corpse of the new book. But the previous book is coming out in paperback so there’s still no pressure.
Stage 3: BWAHAHAHA. It’s alive. Progress is made. People ask me when the new book will be out because it’s been a while, dude.
Stage 4: OH MY GOD MAX WHERE IS YOUR NEW BOOK. I have a first draft, so am tempted to say, “Oh it’s basically done,” even though I know in reality there is a year of rewrites looming.
Stage 5: It has a publication date, so I can point to that. This is my laziest time creatively because it’s so tempting to polish up the thing that’s already fully formed, or work on its promotion, rather than pick up the shovel and head down to the cemetery to start sifting through body parts for the next book. And I can totally get away with it because no-one will say, “Hey, Max, I know the new book isn’t even out yet, but it’s time to start collecting body parts.”