I’m not sure if it’s like this for other writers, but I have
trouble writing something new while I still like my last book. It
hangs over me. It makes me feel like I should write that kind of thing again.
Maybe that doesn’t sound so bad. But imitating something you
think is awesome doesn’t work. It’s much better to imitate something
something you think is flawed. Flawed, you’re all, “I loved THIS PART
but it would have been SO much better if THIS.” Then you make
something new and interesting. Aping something you admire, though,
you only get a photocopy.
Some people who discover me via Lexicon ask which of my books
they should read next, and I’m never sure how to answer, because
I think they all suck. I had to reach that belief in order to write the next
one. A lot of what I do relies on delusion; I also have to convince
myself that the new book is THE GREATEST THING IN THE WORLD, because how
else would it make sense to spend a year or two on it. Despise the old,
adore the new: I’m sure it’s the same in any relationship.
Lexicon has been doing well, which created a problem I hadn’t
really faced before. Usually, when a book comes out, I’m deep into the
early exploratory phase of the next one, and I take some time out to return
to that little lost world and talk about it on radio or bookstores or
whatever. And it’s always slightly fraudulent, because I’m also thinking,
this book kind of sucked, you should see what I’m working on now. Again,
this is more about delusion than truth. I have to believe that in order
Now, promotion is good fun; people generally say nice things and make you feel
like all the work was totally worth it. They even start to convince you,
you know what, this book didn’t suck that much. It was kind of great.
You used to love it, remember? Then before you know it, you’re flipping
the pages, thinking, This was good. Why did I ever leave?
So the thing with Lexicon is this phase has lasted much longer
than usual. It’s maybe not all about the book; it’s maybe social media,
too, bringing everyone so close you even can hear their thoughts. And it’s wonderful, of course, everything
you dream of when you’re lost in a third draft, trying to stitch plots
But after a while I started to feel like I was cheating on the new book. It’s one thing
to stay friends with your ex. It’s another to still think about them,
talk about them, and open their covers and run your fingers down their
Anyway, this is why I haven’t been on Twitter et al lately. I’ll be back;
it’s all good. This book I’m seeing now, wow. We just needed some time.
I was in a bookstore recently and there was a boy, about 10, who
wanted a book. His dad was not sure he should have the book. The
issue wasn’t the book itself; the book was fine. The issue was that
the book was #3 in a series, and Dad established that the boy had borrowed
the first two from a library.
“Why don’t you borrow this one from the library and I’ll buy you
a different book?” he said.
The boy mumbled something I didn’t catch but I’m guessing was
some variation of, “I want this book.”
I figured that Dad was seeing the book as an object, and feeling it would
be wrong to have book #3 sitting on the shelf without
#1 and #2. The boy was seeing the book as a story he wanted
to get into his head. He had already loaded books #1 and #2 into
his head and he didn’t much care how #3 got there.
E-books have made a lot of people think about whether they want
books or stories. Because you can get stories
cheaply and efficiently in e-book form, but you can’t put them on your
bookshelf. You can’t gaze lovingly over your collection, or hold
them in your hands and feel the paper speak to you.
Really, though, it’s only the latest manifestation of an old dilemma. There
have always been people who have treated books with reverence,
laminating their covers, turning their pages with care, and never
cracking their spines. And there have been people like me.
I don’t set out to destroy my favorite books. They just wind up that way. And
while I have no problem with people who take care of their books,
I have to admit I don’t quite get it. Sometimes people bring me a book
to be signed and they apologize because the book is dog-eared and
crumpled. I love seeing that. Those books have been loved. Hard.
P.S. The boy got his book. I saw him walking out with it.
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,
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.
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
“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.”
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*:
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
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,
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Every year I get asked what I think about
NaNoWriMo, and I don’t
know how to answer, because I don’t want to say, “I think it makes
you write a bad novel.”
This is kind of the point. You’re supposed to churn out 50,000 words
in one month, and by the end you have a goddamn novel, one you wouldn’t
have otherwise. If it’s not Shakespeare, it’s still a goddamn novel.
The NaNoWriMo FAQ
says: “Aiming low is the best way to succeed,”
where “succeed” means “write a goddamn novel.”
I find it hard to write a goddamn novel. I can do it, but it’s not very
fun. The end product is not much fun to read, either. I have
different techniques. I thought I should
wait until the end of November, when a few alternatives
might be of interest to those people who, like me, found it really
hard to write a goddamn novel, and those people who found it worked
for them could happily ignore me.
Some of these methods I use a lot, some only when
I’m stuck. Some I never use, but maybe they’ll work for you. If there were
a single method of writing great books, we’d all be doing it.
The Word Target
What: You don’t let yourself leave the keyboard
each day until you’ve hit 2,000
Why: It gets you started. You stop fretting over whether your words
are perfect, which you shouldn’t be doing in a first draft. It
captures your initial burst of creative energy. It gets you to the end
of a first draft in only two or three months. If you can consistently
hit your daily target, you feel awesome and motivated.
Why Not: It can leave you too exhausted to spend any non-writing
time thinking about your story. It encourages you to pounce
on adequate ideas rather than give them time to turn
into great ones. It encourages you to use many words instead of few.
If you take a wrong turn, you can go a long way before you
realize it. It can make you feel like a failure as a writer when the problem is
that you’re trying to animate a corpse. It can make you dread writing.
The Word Ceiling
What: You write no more than 500 words per day.
Why: You force yourself to finish before you really want to, which makes
you spend the rest of the day thinking about getting back to the story, which
often produces good new ideas. You feel good about yourself even if you only
produced a few hundred words that day. You don’t beat yourself up about
one or two bad writing days. You give yourself time to turn good ideas
into great ones. Writing feels less like hard work.
(More on this.)
Why Not: It takes longer (six months or more). It can be difficult to work on the same
idea for a very long time. It may take so long that you give up.
The Coffee Shop
What: You take your laptop, order a coffee, and compose your
masterpiece in public.
Why: It gets you out of the house, which may help to break a funk.
You’re less likely to goof off if people are watching. It feels kind of cool.
Why Not: It’s extremely distracting. You look like a dick. You lose a deceptively large
amount of time to non-writing activities (getting there, setting up, ordering
coffees, considering bagels…).
The Quiet Place
What: You go to your own particular writing place and close the door on
Why: It removes distractions. It can feel like a special, magical
retreat, where you compose great fictions (particularly if it’s somewhere you
only use for writing, not checking email, doing your taxes, and leveling
Why Not: You may not have one. You may find it depressing
if you’ve had a tough time writing lately. You can end up fussing over making
your Writing Place perfect instead of writing.
What: You write in patches of 30-60 minutes. When you feel your concentration
flag, you go do something else for 30 minutes, then return.
Why: It freshens you up. You find solutions to difficult story
problems pop into your head after a breather.
You can find time to write more easily, knowing you’re only sitting down for a
short while. When you’re “running out of time,” you can feel energized and
write very quickly.
Why Not: It’s more difficult to sink into the zone if you know another activity
is just around the corner. It can encourage you to look for excuses to stop writing.
It discourages more thoughtful writing.
What: You pull out the network cord, turn off the phone, and write
in blocks of four hours.
Why: It eliminates distractions. You can relax knowing that you
have plenty of time to write. It encourages thoughtful writing.
Why Not: You can wind up grinding. You can feel reluctant to start
writing, knowing that such a huge block of time awaits.
What: You consume alcohol, narcotic, or caffeine before writing.
Why: Dude, those words just gush.
Why Not: You may be part of the 99.9% of the population that writes self-indulgent
Sidenote: There is no case of writer’s block that can’t be cured with enough
What: You strap on headphones and crank up the volume.
Why: It’s inspiring. It can quickly put you in the right frame of mind for a scene.
It can block out other noise that would otherwise be distracting.
Why Not: You can’t think as clearly. You can be misled
into thinking you’re writing a powerful/exciting/tragic scene when in fact it’s
just the music.
The Break of Dawn
What: You wake, walk directly to your computer, and write.
Why: Your mind is at its clearest and most creative. You haven’t started
thinking about the real world yet. Your body is not fuzzing your mind
with digestion. If you write for a while, you develop a hunger dizziness that’s
mildly stimulating. (This can be combined with coffee.)
Why Not: You may not be a morning person. You may only be able to write
for a short while before becoming too hungry to continue. Your lifestyle
may not permit it.
The Dead of Night
What: You write at night, after everyone’s gone to sleep.
Why: It feels kind of cool. It’s often a reliable distraction-free time. You can
often be in a fairly clear, creative frame of mind.
Why Not: You may only be able to write for a short while before becoming too
tired to write coherently. You may be too tired to repeat the process regularly.
You may not be a night person.
What: You start writing the scenes (or pieces of scenes) that interest you the
most, and don’t worry about connecting them until later.
Why: You capture the initial energy of ideas. You can avoid becoming derailed
by detail. You make sure your novel revolves around your big ideas.
Why Not: It can be difficult to figure out how to connect the scenes after the fact.
You need to rewrite heavily in order to incorporate ideas you had later
for earlier sections. Your characters can be shakier because you wrote scenes
for them before you knew the journey they’d make to get there.
What: You start at the beginning and write the entire thing in sequence.
Why: You see the story as a reader will. You feel more confident about your
characterizations, pacing, and logical progression of plot. It’s simpler.
Why Not: You can become bogged down in boring sections you think
are necessary to set-up good stuff (not realizing yet that you don’t need
those boring sections, or that they can be far shorter than you think). You
can wind up far from where you intended to go, never finding a place for those
initial ideas. (This may not be a bad thing.)
What: You sketch out plot, characters, and turning points before you start
Why: You feel like you know what you’re doing. You can feel excited because you
know big stuff is coming. You tend to produce a better structure, with larger
character arcs and clearer plot twists.
Why Not: What seems like a brilliant idea for an ending on day 1 can seem trite
on day 150, when you understand the characters and story better. You feel pressure
to make your characters do implausible things in order to fit your outline.
You can close yourself off to better ideas. You can become bored because you
already know what’s going to happen.
What: You start writing with no real idea of where you’ll wind up.
Why: It’s exciting. Discovering a story as you write it is one of life’s great joys.
Your characters have freedom to act more naturally and drive the story,
rather than be bumped around by plot.
Why Not: You can end up nowhere very interesting. You tend to write smaller,
more realistic stories, which may not be what you want.
What: You abandon the story you’re working on, even though you know
it’s brilliant and the idea is perfect but GODDAMN it is driving you insane
for some reason
Why: It’s a bad idea. There might be a good idea inside it somewhere, but
you’ve surrounded it with bad characters or plot or setting or something
and the only way to salvage it is to let all that other stuff go.
Why Not: While loss of motivation is always, always, always because the story
isn’t good enough, and some part of you knows it, you rarely need to throw away the
whole thing. Often deleting the last sentence, paragraph, or scene is enough to
spark ideas about new directions. Sometimes you only need to give up a plan
for the future. Changing your mind about where you’re going can allow you to
write the story you really want.
(More on this.)