Let’s say, hypothetically, that you’re a hypothetical human being that, hypothetically, dabbles in writing short stories on Google Drive to kill the mindless boredom of hypothetical math classes. You need a snappy one-liner to kick off your short. Since your writing MO seems to include some pretty good starting sentences, what are your thoughts on how to achieve the perfect opening hook for a story?
I appreciate you saying my first sentences are “pretty good,” Fish. I can see why you came to me. I, too, seek wisdom from people who perform slightly above average. Some people say you should shoot for the stars, but I prefer to aim at about hat-height.
I believe in starting books from the front. When writing them, that is. Actually, reading, too. It’s important both times. But I mean I’d rather have a good first sentence and figure out the idea later than the other way around. An idea by itself isn’t much good. I have ideas for books all the time. They will be amazing, if I can ever get them onto paper, which I won’t, because they only sound good. Good-sounding ideas are actually terrible because they have no character and no heart.
An idea only becomes good with execution. A book can be anything, before you start, but by the end of the first sentence, it can only belong to a specific set of things. By then you have a sense of whether anybody is likely to die in it, or use the word “parsimonious,” or if it’s going to be funny, or have wizards. There is probably a tense and point of view and setting and timeframe. There’s still a world of possibility, of course, but you started with infinity, so this is smaller.
Anyway. I don’t have any tricks. I just think about it and see what tickles me. I like short first sentences. I try to write books that are interesting because things happen in them, not because I am an enthralling carpenter of words, so I think the first sentence should advertise that by getting to the point.
Here are my opening lines so far, just in case you don’t know them by heart:
I want to be famous.
Hack first heard about Jennifer Government at the water cooler.
Monday morning and there’s one less donut than there should be.
As a boy, I wanted to be a train.
“He’s coming around.”
And a few from novels that may never be published:
When Jason Hackman was four years old, he broke both arms falling out a second-storey window.
I want to help you.
So it’s 1346 and I’m hacking some guy’s arm off.
I’ll be honest: I did a bad thing.
Our job was simple.
Diego once killed a man by digging a hole.
When she was five, she was allowed to go to school.
I like those kinds of sentences because they make me want to read the next one. Or write it. That’s really all I’m looking for.
Hey Max, I see that there’s digital and physical versions of your books and I was wondering, which sell more copies, and which makes the more money for you?
If you’re asking because you want me to have more money, then I applaud that sentiment, but
you should buy whichever you prefer. You having a better reading experience is worth
more to me than the extra 75 cents.
Paper books sell more, for me at least. It’s around 2:1 on Lexicon.
But with each book, the electronic share gets bigger. Syrup (1999)
Royalties vary, but ebooks usually sit somewhere between hardcover and
paperback. From the average Lexicon sale to date, I have seen:
It’s less outside the US & Canada. And this only applies once the book has
earned out its advance, which is the payment authors get up-front. For example,
Penguin thought Syrup was going to sell its socks off and
paid me a big advance, and then it didn’t, so I’ve never seen any royalties.
But each sale is still good because it washes away a little more of my shame.
My ex-agent Todd once told me that publishers usually break-even on a book
before the advance earns out. I hope this is true.
If you self-publish and charge more than a few bucks, you get a much higher
return on your books. But you also have to persuade people to buy them, which is
hard. Publishers are pretty good at that.
Do you know what happened to Paul Neilan? You blurbed his book (deservedly, as it was absolutely brilliant), but then he disappeared.
That is a good question. I have no idea. I mean, I can guess: He probably fell into that bottomless abyss of despair and self-loathing where novels live sometimes. Again, just a guess. But it seems to me that any time you try to write a novel, you are a lot more likely to psychologically self-destruct than succeed, so probably that.
I mean, I’m not projecting or anything. This has nothing to do with me. And I’m not saying writing is hard; I mean, you just have to type stuff. How hard is that. I’m just saying maybe Paul found it tough to juggle the competing demands of blogging for eager readers awaiting his new novel and working on a literary hellspawn trying to devour his soul. So he probably pulled the plug on one or both, at least for a while.
If you are out there, Paul, I hope you’re still writing, and not worrying about how long it takes, and chasing the things that make you happy. Also hurry up, man, I need a new book.
I noticed people are “following my reviews” on Goodreads. This is great but must be unsatisfying because I don’t write any. I don’t think I should review books unless I love them, since that feels too cruel to an author who surely doesn’t deserve it, because writing books is hard, man, respect. And if I do love the book, I don’t want to say anything about it that might be a spoiler, because the book is so wonderful, you should just read it without knowing anything. It’s a pickle.
Anyway. “The Girl With All The Gifts” by Mike Carey is my favorite read of 2015. In lieu of saying anything about it, I will tell you thoughts I had while reading it. Also I will list my thoughts out of order, not chronologically. Enjoy.
“That’s really cool.”
“OH MY GOD.”
“OH MY GOD THAT’S AWESOME.”
“Oh it’s that kind of book.”
“I wonder what happens next.”
“That character dynamic is backward.”
“I was wrong.”
Last week I did
an interview on Reddit and was asked about my new novel,
“The Ascension’s Mirror.” This was a surprise because I didn’t know I wrote that. But Goodreads had it listed,
saying I was the author. There was also a reader review:
I’m a big fan of Mr Barry’s work and was happy to see this new offering. I’m having a little trouble getting through it, because of the language. He is replacing words and phrases. For example “She laughed at my futile endeavours in the direction of identify some type of popular flooring with her,” means (roughly) She laughed at my attempt to seek common ground with her, or something like that.
I’m hoping that it will eventually be worth it. . . .
There was a second novel by me, “Cry in the Redemption,” which I definitely didn’t write, either. Both were for sale on Amazon as Kindle books.
At first I thought there must be another Max Barry out there, writing books. I know there are a few Max Barrys around, such as Better Max, and some other Max who can’t remember his email address, so I’m always getting notes from his grandmother and warnings from his ISP. Seriously, Max. Get it right. The other day your boss sent me a stern note, asking why I hadn’t responded to his earlier note. The reason your life is in tatters is because I get all your important emails.
But no, other Maxes were not writing novels. In fact, no-one was writing these, I realized, because the writing is not just awkward but nonsensical. From its official description on Amazon:
We can’t inform oneself considerably unless be mindful just after
oneself examine this. They are waiting around for us towards adhere our
necks out and deliver a miscalculation, and your self may well
accurately contribute them in direction of us. Your self include been
This reminded me of a piece of text run twice through Google Translate, once to turn it into a different language, once to turn it back. I’d heard of web sites doing this to steal content, because the end result is different enough that it doesn’t look so much like plagiarism.
I asked my agent about this, and they asked Amazon, and within a day the books were gone. Poof!
So apparently this happens: Bots auto-generate novels under the names of real authors and put them up for sale in the hope of confusing readers.
Which is kind of cool. Not for us, of course. Not for humans. But I always knew the robot apocalypse was coming, and have been looking forward to seeing what shape it takes. I didn’t think they’d be writing novels.
P.S. The real question is what the original text was. The bots auto-translated something. I don’t know what, though.
Max, is it actually true that your novels kind of suck?
Yes! You probably refer to those works-in-no-progress I mentioned,
which do indeed kind of suck, but the truth is, so do all my novels, at every stage of the process,
including at the end, when they’re published. There is no novel I look at and think, “That is just perfect.”
Ways in which I think my novels kind of suck include:
The characters do something that seemed plausible at the time but now I’m older/wiser/in a worse mood I don’t think so, so everything is stupid.
The first sentence won’t work for people who need to be grabbed right away, or else is too gimmicky for people who don’t like being grabbed right away.
There’s nothing I can explicitly put my finger on but I still feel it could be better somehow, like remember that chapter near the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, how come it doesn’t have something like that.
I didn’t use the serial comma because I liked how it made sentences seem faster but now I love the serial comma so the whole book is dumb. Similarly: I chose “less” instead of “fewer” because I decided real people never said “fewer” but now I’m like OH YES THEY DO SO YOU WERE STUPID.
I’m sure there are more.