has hidden shallows

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.

Writing Blog

Displaying blogs about Writing. View all Max's blogs.

Tue 11

How I Name Characters


How do you decide on the name of the characters?

I have a strict process. First, I use whatever name pops into my head. Then, about eight months later, I realize everybody’s name begins with E. So I have to change some or the book is too annoying to read. But now I can’t imagine them as anyone else, so I make the smallest changes possible, like using their surnames more often.

Sometimes I write a novel that doesn’t get published, and that’s handy because I can reuse all the names. Boy, there were a lot of Hollys before one finally made it into Company.

I do strongly believe in the importance of names, though. They’re the characters’ faces: the part you see over and over. So they’re doing characterization work every few lines. This is why I will find any excuse to get a name like Plath or 6 or Jennifer Government into a book.

Thu 06

Sequels and Lamps


Do you ever plan on writing a sequel to Lexicon, or another book set in the same universe?


Sometimes. Usually I start thinking about that kind of thing when I’m around ten percent into a different book. That’s when I’m remembering how much work it is to figure out a world and characters and plot and tone and everything from scratch. So I look back on previous novels and wonder why the hell I threw all that away. Like, why not just dust that thing off and take it for another spin around the block.

The reason is that by the time I finish a novel, I hate everything about it. Well not really. It’s more like the thought of reading it again makes me want to vomit. At that point, if I had to go write a sequel, everyone in it would die in the first ten pages, from spite.

I really like finding something new. The days I love writing the most are when something happens I didn’t expect and I realize the story is going somewhere different. I guess that could happen in a sequel. But it wouldn’t have that same feeling of stumbling around in complete darkness, trying to find the lamps. I bang my toes a lot doing that but when the light comes on, that’s why I write.

Thu 30



How significant is it that Austin Grossman re-tweeted your ASK MAX tweet and has he had any input into the computer game you allude to, and if not, why not? And, can we expect more writers to turn their hand to computer games unaware that indie computer games creation is about as profitable as indie novel writing?


This is a timely question because Austin Grossman has a new novel out about Richard Nixon fighting demons. Literal demons, that is. No, actually, both kinds. It’s very fun and does that Austin Grossman thing of taking someone you’d think was totally cool and together and tearing them apart with insecurities. If you enjoyed Soon I Will Be Invincible or You, or you are intrigued by the idea of a Cold War fought with intercontinental necromantic missiles, take a look at Crooked.

But no, I haven’t consulted with Austin on the computer game I’m fooling around with. I probably should have, since he is excellent at writing both novels and games. That would make a lot of sense. But the only way I know how to be creative is to take the thing away somewhere private and smash my brain into it until it’s done. So I’m doing that.

The crossover between fiction and games… on the one hand, there are more similarities than people might think. In both cases you are world-building, one way or another. And I like that I can dive in to either and build something all by myself. This is handy because I lost the ability to work with other people sometime around 2002.

On the other, the mindset is very different. I’m kind of horrified by how programmers can spend so much time focused on the tools: choosing and tweaking their IDE and plugins and language and platform and agonizing over the process. It’s like what writers do but times a thousand. And that looks like a lot of busy-time spent Not Writing to me. You can tell me this attitude will come back to bite me hard in about twelve months but I say it never will.

Probably indie game design is exactly as profitable as indie novel-writing, as you say, Dan. But it is interesting. And in gaming, people aren’t debating whether their industry is dying, which is nice.

Tue 03

Fish Dreams


A short story.

Her mother drops her at five and tells me what she likes to eat now. There are times I look at this woman and feel an echo of affection. But not today. She won’t eat peas any more, apparently. I am to encourage her to eat peas.

And she’s had nightmares, says her mother. Two.


Bad dreams. It’s common at this age.

Dreams about what?

Fish, she says. Don’t make a big deal out of it.

I say, How would I make a big deal out of it?

We talk it out, old wrongs flipping and snapping below the surface, and she turns and walks to the car. Then, at last, I have the girl to myself.

There is a puzzle in her overnight bag that she wants to show me. We solve and scramble it four times. Then she says she wants to go to the beach.

Maybe next visit, I say. We can’t go to the beach now.

Why not?

Because it’s late.

Can we go to the beach tomorrow?

Tomorrow I have to drive you back to your mother’s.

Oh, she says.

Next time, maybe you can stay longer. Then we’ll go to the beach. Today, we can do puzzles. And read books. Maybe do some drawing.

She’s disappointed. I don’t blame her. This apartment, it is no beach.

I tuck her into bed and kiss her forehead and she sits up and says, Do you look after me when I’m asleep?

Yes. I look after you all the time.

She frowns. I’m not getting it. I mean, do you look after me in my dreams?

I even look after you in your dreams.

This satisfies her. She snuggles down, throws an arm over Elephant, her faithful companion.

Good night, Daddy.

Good night, bunny.

I wash the dishes, looking out the window at the alley below. The apartment is eight floors up. If you fell, you’d die. Tonight, three men are down there, exchanging a brown-bagged bottle. One shoves the other. The bottle smashes. Profanities are exchanged. I hope she’s asleep, can’t hear this.

I go to bed reluctantly. It’s different with her here. Sleeping feels like a waste. But I need to be rested for the morning.

I rarely dream any more, but this night I do: I dream we’re on a train. She’s sitting opposite, legs tucked beneath her, wearing her favorite top, one with a cat. I look outside and realize we’re going to the beach.

When the train stops, we walk to the shore and build sandcastles. I suggest we stomp them, but she doesn’t want them ruined. We walk along the water and inspect washed-up jellyfish. Her arms and legs are thin as sticks, and I remember how fragile she is, how she needs protection.

A shark comes. Not a real shark, a toy, inflatable, big and floppy, full of plastic teeth. But still a fish, I think, the stuff of nightmares, and I try to pull her away. The shark snaps and wobbles across the sand and begins to gulp her down, until all I can see of her is her feet.

I knock my elbow on my bedside table. I’m cold and wet. She’s standing beside the bed and I sit up, disoriented. Hey, bunny. Hey.

You were shouting.

Was I?

Really loud.

I’m sorry. I had a bad dream.

I have bad dreams sometimes.

I know.

I didn’t have one tonight, though.

Maybe I took it.

She smiles, a big one that lights up her face. Thank you, Daddy.

Can you sleep in here tonight? I ask her. Do you think?

She climbs in without answering. I feel the bed shift with her tiny weight. She snuggles up beside me, this girl who’s keeping me safe.

Wed 30

I Hate My Books

Writing 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 to work.

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 back together. 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 pages.

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.

Tue 15

Book Sadist

Writing 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.

The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis. Book is in several pieces

Poor abused hardcover of Lord of the Rings with ripped pages coming away from the book spine

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.

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