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.
Why don’t you write more short stories?
Why don’t YOU write more short stories, Bruno, since they’re so easy.
I dunno, I’m just less interested in shorts. I’ve never fallen in love with a short story the way I’ve loved plenty of novels. I like how they can be tricky. If you have a great idea for an ending and not much else, a short story is ideal. But this also annoys me a little as a reader, too, like the whole time the author is trying to outsmart me. Then it’s, yes, wow, you got me, I did not realize that whole family was going to die. Well done you. That’s another thing: they all have horrific endings. I realize this includes my own short fiction. I had a short story idea just yesterday and it seemed like a good one but the ending would be horrible for all involved. Who wants to read that? Not me. Wow I hate short stories.
Was there ever a book that didn’t get published that you really thought would be a shoe in? If yes, is there a way you could provide us, your local fans, a way to read it anyways?
This question has an unsatisfying answer. I just want to warn you about that up front.
Yes, I’ve written books I thought would be published but weren’t. There was one before Syrup, two between that and Jennifer Government, then one before Company, another before Machine Man, then I managed to go straight to Lexicon, and since then I’ve written four or five partials, two of which are close enough to novel length to count.
I was totally sure each of those would be published because otherwise why write them. I mean, novels are hard. You don’t do one unless you think the end result will be awesome. The only way I know to write a novel is to operate under the delusion that it’ll be the greatest thing in the world.
But then once I show it to people I sometimes discover that’s not the case. I would classify three of my unpublished novels as unsalvageable, by which I mean I’m doing you a favor by never releasing them. Everything else I think could be good if I had a few more ideas and did a lot of work. Maybe. But they’re definitely not good enough now and what I’m working on instead is more interesting.
One I still think is awesome and should be published (see my humilating 2007 blog about it) but it sits in a weird place because it’s not quite a young adult novel but not really anything else either. It will almost certainly not sell well and so make my trend look bad, which has commercial implications. And it’s messy in places and I don’t really love the ending any more. But every now and again I read it back over and think one day I will make this something.
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.
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.
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.