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Tue 03
Jun
2014

Fish Dreams

Writing

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.

Nightmares?

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
Oct
2013

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
Jan
2013

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.

Thu 30
Aug
2012

Idea Me

Writing 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, Diablo III. 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.

Fri 22
Jun
2012

Irony Certification Agency

Writing

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 names.

“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.”

Tue 24
Apr
2012

Why It Takes So Long

Writing 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*:

MONTH 1

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 a thing.

MONTHS 2-4

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, especially authors.

MONTHS 5-6

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 fellow author.

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.

MONTHS 7-8

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 corrections.

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 super exotic.

MONTHS 9-10

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 purchase quantities.”

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 it is.

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 netgalley.com account.

MONTHS 11-13

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.

* Note: Blog may represent one-sided author’s view of a process he actually knows little about, with gaps in knowledge filled with speculation and lies.

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