MaxBarry.com
will write for food

Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.

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Thu 10
Aug
2017

How to Summarize a Novel

Writing

Could you give some tips on query letter writing, as in what’s worked for you and what hasn’t? I’m about 40,000 words into my novel and the idea that six months or more from now i’ll have to condense it all down into a page both scares and confuses me.

Sam

A page! No-one reads a whole page synopsis. You get two or three paragraphs.

But you are right to be scared and confused. It’s terrible. It’s like you’re 40 years old and you run into someone you haven’t seen since high school and they say, “So what have you been up to?”

That’s your template for summarizing your novel. Skip to the highlights. You don’t make high school person stand there and listen to you justify those years when you didn’t really accomplish anything tangible as such but it was such an important period of personal growth and discovery. Sure, okay, without knowing about that, people can’t really understand the full significance of the time you threw a pie at your ex-boyfriend. Even so, the pie thing is the correct answer.

This process can feel fraudulent because of course you’re so much more than a pie person. That’s a small part of what you do, going around throwing pies at people. You spend a few minutes on that per day, tops. But people realize that. They understand there’s a whole life going on as well as the pie-throwing thing. You’re not selling yourself short by skipping to the highlights; you’re just respecting the fact that high school person isn’t actually asking for your entire life story right now. If they want to know more—and why wouldn’t they; what made you throw pies?—sure, you can head back to a bar or whatever and start to unpack things. But for now: stick to the pie-throwing.

I’m not great at this, by the way. And I haven’t done it in 15 years, not the query letter kind. You should probably look up what an agent or editor thinks, since they have actual experience reading these. But since I’m here, and I have to write blurbs sometimes, which is the same deal, here’s my opinion.

I think you want to start by reducing your book down to the shortest description that makes any kind of sense. So Lexicon might be “killer poets.” If you can get that into the first sentence, that’s ideal. In fact, your query letter might want to have a sentence like, “It’s a story about a girl who is drawn into a secret society of killer poets” before taking a step back and doing the actual synopsis, which is a more linear description.

Note down more words or phrases that are important to the texture of the story (I might want “chase” and “secret school,” “love” and “betrayal”) just to make sure they get used somewhere. The goal is to linger in the mindset of trying to pick out just the most essential concepts before you get bogged down in trivialities like trying to write sentences that make sense.

When it is time to write sentences that make sense, remember you’re still telling a story, just a very short one. That means you care about things like creating a question in the mind of a reader and withholding the answer. Don’t create something that sounds dumb to you but figure that’s their fault because if they want a proper story and not a novel murdered in three paragraphs they should read your frigging book. I say this as someone who used to think like that. You should still think about change and instability; that is, your synopsis/blurb/summary should strongly suggest that things are motion, or, at least, cannot remain the same.

Some stories lend themselves very easily to this, like murder mysteries, or mysteries in general, really. (Who? Why?) Also stories where someone wants something. (Will they get it and what will it cost?) But whatever it is, what makes it a story is that it contains change or the threat of change. The reason people want to read the story is to find out how its characters will deal with that change.

Ideally you want to demonstrate that your story is funny (or horrific, or whatever) rather than merely claim it’s funny, or horrific, or whatever. That mainly means matching tone. That is, you don’t want to change tone from your novel and wind up with a dry academic abstract. In the same vein, don’t lose sight of your story’s emotion. It can be implicit, but you must convey that people are feeling things, not just doing things.

This is all a million times harder in practice than theory. Good luck.

Also: There’s a related question about whether a synopsis should give away the ending. Some people say yes, because the editor or agent wants to know whether you screwed it up. I say no, unless it’s an amazing twist ending that everything else depends upon. You can go right up to it, but I’d still leave the final question unanswered. I will admit that a big part of this is that I think people who spoil endings are monsters. But it seems more valuable to me to leave the editor/agent in at least a little suspense, i.e. experiencing something like the kind of feeling you hope to arouse in readers.

Mon 07
Aug
2017

Elon Must Be Reading My Books

Syrup

Do you ever think about the fact that Elon Musk may have seen your movie? Let me explain:

Syrup stars Amber Heard.

Elon Musk is dating Amber Heard.

If I had a girlfriend who was a movie star, I’d watch her movies.

Therefore, Elon Musk may have watched Syrup.

Thoughts?

Someone who enjoys “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”

That’s a really good point. I hadn’t thought of that before. Because I didn’t know Amber Heard is dating Elon Musk. How about that. But no, I agree with you; Elon has definitely watched Syrup and it is informing his business decisions.

Sometimes I see a thing in a TV show or movie and wonder if they got that from me. Because I take stuff from other people all the time, so I assume it works both ways. The most likely explanation is that we’re both drawing from some third, much more original source. But still. I wonder.

The only rule of writing I’ve ever found that always works: a story gets better with an unopened box.

Love me some glitch hop. 🎶 🎧😍 twitter.com/alexsavageomfg…

“I just p3wned ur city:” that thing where a hacker can take over everything is becoming possible. blog.acolyer.org/2017/06/22/iot…

President Trump pursues super spy Reality Winner… I mean, come on, 2017 twitter.com/Tesseraconteur…

You better not mess with “the advertisers.” They’ll boot you right off the damn air. You don’t breathe without the advertisers’ say so, son.

Max and Jen saw several koalas on their 23km (14mi) run along the Great Ocean Road. pic.twitter.com/vxpTXtT8DL

Tue 23
May
2017

I Do Like Chocolate

What Max Reckons

Do you like chocolate?

Anonymous

I’m glad you asked. I feel I get misrepresented on chocolate. My position is that chocolate is fine. It tastes good. I don’t mind chocolate at all. But many other people are all CHOCOLATE NOM NOM NOM WHY YOU NO EAT MORE and then they start making out like I’m some kind of chocolate hater. Like I’m a chocolate bigot, just because I only like it a bit. I’m not. I promise you, I’m no chocolate bigot. I’m pro-chocolate, like I said. I’m just not, you know, insanely, off-the-charts, everyone-should-eat-as-much-chocolate-as-possible, let’s-round-up-people-who-don’t-want-to-marry-chocolate-and-put-them-in-camps kind of pro-chocolate. This is the trouble with moderate positions.

Wed 17
May
2017

Ask Max: Normal Service Resumes

Writing

hello?

Normanshire

Hello! Hi there!

Crazy thought, have you ever considered banging out books Heinlein style? One draft, then DONE. Launch it and go to the next, and the next, and the next. Get 10 books done in the time of 1. if 50% of people don’t love it, you are still 5x better off than 100% liking that x10 draft work. And honestly? I bet 80% of the people will STILL love your work. The only person stopping you is that unfair critic glaring from your mirror. Tell him to piss off and let you write!

Yet another aspiring writer

I appreciate the support, Y.A.A.W. Thank you. But I have to say, I would rather set myself on fire. First, I think you’re being very optimistic about how many people would like the pieces of crap I produce as early drafts. You may think otherwise, but remember, I’ve seen them and you haven’t.

Second, and I offer this by way of explanation, not as excuse, I like messing around with stories by myself. That’s super fun. Showing them to people is the worst part, because they stop existing as beautiful imaginative creatures full of wonder and possibility, and turn into chunks of paper with plot holes and unclear character motivations that need a lot of work. I like publishing books, and I agree I should do it more often, but it’s just so tempting to sit and write drafts instead.

Do you like peanuts?

Jordan P. Johnson

They’re okay. I don’t dislike them. Me and peanuts have nothing to say to one another.

Hey Max, have you noticed that the Swiss company “Allevia” has been liquidated and no longer exists? re: “Allevia: So Sue Me (Dec 2006)”.

Anon

I did not know that! Huh. I guess I showed them. I mean, I’m not trying to take credit for bringing down the company. But, you know, they tangled with me, and now I’m here and they’re not. So I basically brought down the company.

Hello, Will you be answering my question. Of course not this question. As that may become rhetorical. But the question I posted prior to the question I just end posted in this post.

Darius Trappernicus

No.

Could you write a Multi Ending Book? One that allows the reader to make choices as they read. With a range of unique outcomes.

Darius Trappernicus

Oh, wait, it’s you again. Then yes, I will answer it. No.

I mean, that’s almost NationStates, isn’t it? That’s pretty close.

Which stance did you take? Trump or Hillary? Or moderate?

Thomas Laszlo

I am perfectly moderate and the rest of the world is extreme, like everyone thinks. I think Hillary would have been a good President. You would have gotten sensible, incremental improvement with Hillary. She would have finished with historical low approval ratings because a lot of people were super aggravated by her very existence and would have beaten the drum until it drowned her out of office, but still.

Trump, on the other hand, was the kind of person I thought the US would elect in about twenty years, right before Fahrenheit 451-style parlor walls and the Apocalypse. Years ago I regularly watched The Apprentice, and each episode a team would go into the boardroom to face Donald, who would quiz them on their performance and then invent a completely unrelated reason why one person was to be fired. The logic never held from one episode to the next, so one week being cautious might get you fired and the next it would win praise. So in that sense, it was a useful allegory for the randomness and cult of personality of the business world. But also it made clear that Trump is basically a collection of amoral pathological psychoses tuned for self-aggrandizement. Which is not ideal in a President.

I do wonder if there’s a more evil version of Trump, though. Because Trump isn’t very calculating. A lot of the time, his main objective seems to be to feel important. Also often he seems to believe what he says and then just doesn’t want to admit he was wrong later. So I wonder if you can take that bluster and shameless populism and set it in someone with more self-awareness, who does it on purpose. That would be pretty evil. Maybe Trump opens the door for that kind of person.

On the plus side, though, it’s been a fantastic six months for journalism. Not long ago, everyone hated the media and journalists were hopelessly compromised click-bait merchants in a dying industry. Now they’re saving democracy. I mean, they’re also hopelessly compromised click-bait merchants, but as an institution, the media has been a real credit to the nation. I think there’s a lot to be proud of there.

See, a more evil Trump would have wedged the media with patriotism, rather than attacking them directly. You attack the media head-on, you’re injecting adrenaline directly into the veins of everyone who ever thought they might like to be a journalist. You go to war, you get attacked, then the media has to shut up and support the troops. That’s what Evil Trump would do.

Australians in total need to reevaluate their leaders.

Michael

That’s not a question. HEY, IT’S CALLED “ASK MAX,” NOT “MICHAEL MAKES STATEMENTS.”

Do you ever write funny short stories and then sit in the corner of your bedroom giggling to yourself?

Greg

Not short stories. But with novel scenes, and in my study, when I’m rereading. When I’m actually writing, I’m staring at the screen with an expression like your psychotic ex-boyfriend peering through your bedroom window. There is no giggling at that point. But reading it back, I try to put myself in the headspace of someone who’s reading it for the first time, and if I do that successfully, then yes, I do admit, I sometimes giggle and guffaw at the wit of the fellow who wrote these words, whoever he is.

John Clarke was a hero of mine. I met him once completely by chance on the banks of the Yarra. I’m shocked and sad he’s gone.

New Pepsi ad brilliantly deconstructs feeling of joining a cause only to discover its not what you thought and everyone is terrible.

Nice work Chase 👍 twitter.com/KeslingTwinMom…

Tue 14
Mar
2017

New Book Feels

Writing

A graphic titled The Book I'm Working On. There are two charts. The first, labeled Reality, shows a bell curve where the likelihood of the book being garbage at one extreme or genius at the other extreme is very low, and the likelihood of it being just okay is high. The second chart, labeled How It Feels, shows an inverted curve, so that the likelihood of the book being either garbage or genius is high, while the likelihood of it being simply okay is low

Novel Writing Fear #113: Finish first draft only to realize it’s a poor imitation of a forgotten childhood favorite.

I’m not finished with the new book until I’m ashamed of the old one.

Tue 07
Feb
2017

Spotted in the Wild

Lexicon My favorite thing to happen this year:

Saturday Night Live sketch of Trump vs Turnbull phone call with Lexicon by Max Barry visible on shelves behind the Australian Prime Minister

Eagle eyes by C. A. Bridges. Story here.

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