Writers are sometimes told to JUST WRITE, even if they know that what they’re writing is bad. I think this can be good or awful advice depending on who you are.
It’s good advice if you’re the kind of writer who gets stuck agonizing over sentences and scenes until they’re perfect. If that’s you, you can benefit by postponing a lot of that self-critique until you have a first draft. Because otherwise you won’t have one.
And first drafts are always bad. Reaching the end of a first draft and re-reading it for the first time is like waking up in bed with a stranger who seemed dazzling and irresistable last night, when you were drunk, but now it’s daylight and oh my God what were you thinking. But that’s okay, because now you can take care of all the other stuff that got overlooked when you were trying to invent an entire populated world with a compelling narrative through-line in your head.
So if you tend to endlessly re-read what you wrote last week and mentally compare it to the greatest novels of all time, you’re asking for trouble. It might be a red flag that your story isn’t working in some fundamental way—in which case you need to strip it down to the part you like best and start over—but you might also simply be operating under the mistaken belief that your first draft has to be excellent.
On the other hand: Your first draft does have to be excellent. I mean this in the sense that I don’t think it’s possible to write a good book you don’t like. Those stories of authors who found every sentence excruciating but their pain and toil created something magnificent—those didn’t happen. I don’t believe those at all. It’s the other way around: You think you’re creating something magnificent and only when you re-read the first draft do you realize, boy, I still have a lot of work to do.
It is possible to crank out a novel that no-one really likes, including you. I know this because I did it, right after I started writing full-time and mistakenly believed that the job was all about discipline. Since then, I’ve written four or five novels that will never be published, but none has been a bigger waste of time than that one, which was bad in every way, and I knew it at the time, while I was working on it. Each day, I was happy to finish writing, and I didn’t think about it again until I had to the next day. That is no way to write a novel.
Delusion is key here. You don’t have to write a great first draft. But you have to believe it will be a great book. You must know in your soul that it’s going to be great when you’re done. Not because you’ve re-read your first chapter a hundred times and every line is perfect, but because the story is in your head and it thrills you to think about. Write that book.
I apologize for asking Mr. Barry, but what would you consider yourself to be on the political spectrum? I’ve seen people call you a right-libertarian, a neo-liberal, and other times fiscal conservative. An answer would be much appreciated.
Well those are terrible guesses. I can rule out those three. Here, I took the
Political Compass test for you:
I call myself a militant centrist because I’m a writer, and you can’t write unless you constantly put yourself in other people’s shoes, even shoes that are kind of gross. For example, if I’m writing a character who’s going to assault someone, I need to understand how he sees the world in order for that behavior to make sense. He wouldn’t do it for no reason, or if he thought it was fundamentally wrong or would make him a bad person. So he must have a view of the world in which it’s the right thing to do.
I might disagree with this character, but it’s my job to make his behavior rational. So I climb into that brainspace as far as I can, until it starts to seem totally reasonable to me, too, that he has to assault someone, and, in fact, maybe it’s the assaulters who are the real heroes, and the world needs more of them.
(I went back and re-read Machine Man a few years ago, and was really surprised by how strange that character is. When I was writing him, I had wriggled far enough into his head that it seemed quite logical. But with a little distance: No. He is messed up.)
Anyway, out of reflex, I do this in real life, too, so when I encounter an opinion that I find bizarre, I try to contort my mind until I can imagine the context in which it makes perfect sense. And once you can do this for people who want to amputate their own limbs, you can definitely do it for people who oppose gun control.
So although I have a lot of political opinions that are very left-leaning, I usually find something to sympathize with in right-wing arguments, too. I mean, I usually think they’re wrong. I really do think most right-wing talking points are, on the evidence, objectively incorrect nowadays. But I can imagine circumstances or contexts in which they would make sense.
This may make me the kind of person who would be appeasing Nazis in the 1930s, by the way, so it’s not an objectively good thing. It’s just good for a writer.
Hello, I would like to sya that I love your Book Jennifer Government and NationStates. I started playing it maybe a month ago, and I’m doing pretty well. But I have made a mistake with one of my issues and now I have Socialism. So my question is. Do you have any advice for me on how I can fix it? Thanks for your time. Have a great day!
A Guy named Oliver
This is a common problem. Often you’re happily going about with a free market and individual rights and then someone’s like, “Should we maybe do something about how poor kids are getting a worse education, thus entrenching disadvantage across generations?” and, whoops, socialism.
The important thing is not to panic. Just because you have socialism, that doesn’t mean you’ll always have socialism. There is a cure. However, socialism is a very serious condition, and I’d advise you to avoid contact with other countries so they don’t catch it from you.
This can happen more easily than you think: There are a lot of transmission vectors, such as citizens of your country posting online about how they were taken to the emergency room and yet their financial lives have not been reduced to a smoking ruin, and if citizens of other countries hear this and believe it, that country can get socialism, too.
It’s also important to remember that any amount of socialism is dangerous. You can’t be half-pregnant with socialism. You either have it or you don’t. The only solution is to completely flush it out of your system. There’s no point in curing socialism in one area only for it to fester somewhere else. And you may be surprised by the places socialism can develop, if left untreated; for example, do you have a public fire service? A lot of countries do and don’t realize it. Unless your fire service is charging market rates and refusing service to non-paying customers, then unfortunately, you still have socialism.
Similarly, you may have a lot of public roads and parks, left over from a time when people didn’t fully understand the risks of socialism: You need to hand these over to fee-charging corporations as quickly as possible. Schools, clinics, and public transportation, obviously. Get rid of those. Welfare. Pensions. Also, and I know you don’t want to hear this, but the military. If your national defense is funded by forcibly taxing your citizens, you probably have socialism. This can be hard to see directly, so keep an eye out for signs of parasites, such as a wider network of supposedly-private defense contractors guzzling down those tax dollars.
The good news, though, is that with sufficient dedication, you can be cured! In time, you can become completely socialism-free, and enjoy a Utopian libertarian existence with no welfare, taxation, or empathy of any kind. Good luck.
Well let me ask you, Anonymous: y U no post? I mean, I don’t know you. But I’m guessing you haven’t blogged in a while. Why is that? Is it because you decided the world doesn’t actually need your random thoughts inserted into it on a semi-weekly basis? I’m just spit-balling. But that sounds right to me. I mean, there are a lot of human beings out there, Anonymous. A lot. And they can’t all be the chosen one sent to save humanity with the power of their opinions.
I know, I know; you used to feel that way. You used to be young, Anonymous. You were filled up with the righteous clarity and passionate delusion of youth that other people need to hear what you have to say. And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s a good thing for young people. But you’re not 23 any more, are you?
And opinions have become so digestible. You were raised in an age of op-ed pieces, I bet, where people thought about what they wanted to say, spent some time composing it into robust form, and delivered it in meal-sized portions. Today you wouldn’t be halfway through that process before the social media maelstrom had eaten, judged, and moved on, all in punctuation-free one-liners. That’s okay; that’s an evolution of sorts; but it’s not exactly your sweet spot, is it? If you’re delivering 500-word blogs (blogs!) a day after the fact, you’re kind of constantly late to the party, right?
But I do think you should start posting, Anonymous. Like for me, I had a really terrific year creatively in 2018; one of my most enjoyable. I didn’t post about it, though, for a few reasons, a big one being that the moment I say out loud something about the writing going well, I can already feel the thousand demons of writers’ Hell winging their way toward me. But then a few people started to think I had been killed in that fake balcony fall where Wikipedia says I broke my arm,* or abducted by winged writers’ demons, so I felt a little guilty about that.
And when you do post, Anonymous, you often get reminded that there are people out there who do like to know that you are still alive, and not consumed by demons, and some of those people you’ve been connected to for a really long time. And that’s nice. That’s really nice. So I do want you to give it a shot, Anonymous. Get back out there. Share your irrelevant thoughts, because that’s what people do. The second you have a book deal.
Did you write Lexicon chronologically and later decide which order to publish the chapters in? Or did you write it in the order in which the chapters appear? Or something else?
I wrote scenes in the order they occurred to me and moved them around later. That wasn’t chronological order,
but wasn’t the published order, either, since I rewrite like a lunatic.
Actually, that’s misleading. I also write like a lunatic. It’s not just rewriting. When I had the basic idea
for Lexicon, the first thing I did was write 20,000 words that never ended up in the book.
I think a lot of writers do this. Many people have told me they started writing
a novel and loved it for ten or twenty thousand words and then lost interest. I always say it’s not you; it’s the
book. You haven’t lost steam because you’re not a good enough writer; it’s because your stupid story isn’t giving
you enough to work with. You had something good but went wrong and now you’re trying to decorate the
Sistene Chapel ceiling with crayons. Did Michelangelo use crayons? No. That ceiling would have sucked
if he’d had crayons. People would say, “That is one mediocre ceiling. I can’t believe I came all the way here to see it.”
So when that happened to me, I threw it all away except for a 500-word scene of a guy getting assaulted in
a bathroom and 1,000 words of a street hustler’s magic game gone wrong. I still found those interesting.
This time when I hit 20,000 words and began to hate it there was more to salvage: I had characters
like Eliot, Yeats, and Bronte, and a stronger idea of what people were doing and why. Everything else was
still terrible. I didn’t have a story so much as a bunch of different people doing different things.
But there was more there. So I cut back to 10k words and spent a couple of years writing and cutting and
rewriting my way up to 40k.
Then I threw it all out for the same 1,500 words I’d had before. I’d developed a lot more of the world,
but the whole thing still sucked for reasons I couldn’t identify. So I decided to try a new approach.
(During this time Machine Man went from idea to online serial to published book. It was nice to work on something
with a linear relationship between time spent writing and book length.)
This time, I made those simple two scenes the openings of Chapters 1 & 2 and spent the entire rest of each chapter
exploring them. With all the other stuff stripped away, it immediately felt more like a real story.
I ran it up to 80,000 words without too much trauma, relatively speaking,
sticking with this new format of alternating point-of-view chapters: Wil, Emily, Wil, Emily.
That became increasingly challenging as the ending loomed and I needed to bring story threads together.
For example, I would want to do something with a particular character in a particular time-frame at
a particular point in the story, but it wouldn’t be the right point-of-view chapter. I managed to make it
work anyway, kind of, and finished a first draft (110,000 words), but it was complicated and hard to follow,
with too much jumping around in time and space. It even had the worst kind of flashback, where first you
see something that doesn’t make any sense, then later the story is like, “Oh, so here’s what you needed to know
back then. It’s pretty great now, right?” No! It’s too late. You can’t retrospectively save a scene. I already
experienced it and felt bad.
The structure also made it impossible to change anything. My first drafts always need a lot of reworking in the back
half, since they evolve through a beautiful, natural, organic process of creative discovery, instead of from a plan
like a sane person would use. My structure was a Jenga tower of Babel where I couldn’t touch any part of it
without risking collapse the whole thing, because it was all interconnected and inflexible.
So I straightened out the timeline, moving scenes to where they made the most sense
from a story point of view, rather than the dictates of an alternating chapter structure.
That sounds neat and tidy, like you can click and drag a scene from one place to another and
it will snap into the right place, but the reality is more like operating on someone who has their big toe growing
out of their forehead. It’s messy, is what I’m saying. You create a lot of ragged edges. There may be some
Usual disclaimer: This process isn’t something I recommend. Ideally I would have an idea, plan the book,
and write out a first draft in chapter order. I’m just not smart enough to do that. That’s the only problem. I can’t guess in advance
what will be interesting about a story. I have to wade in there and figure it out from ground level. But
maybe you can!
Do you think the world is doomed in the near future?
Only in the sense that it will be a nightmarish hellhole by our standards.
I’m sure it’ll be fine to the people who live in it. I base this on
how young people seem happy all the time while old people complain that the
world has gone to hell.
In fifty years, the world could be a desert scorched by permanent war
between rival corporate city-states and people would still be like,
“I would hate to live in 2017, when people got colds and just had to live
with male pattern baldness.” You value the stuff you have and don’t
miss what you don’t have, is what I’m getting at.
Also ethics are super malleable. I feel they misled us about this in
school. Back then, I definitely had the idea that the future would be
filled with difficult ethical decisions about which technologies we would
pursue and which we would reject in favor of human decency and dignity.
But in practice, what’s happened is anything gets to exist if it works and people like it.
Like Uber. Before Uber, cities had all these rules about
who could drive a cab and how, and for the most part they were eminently reasonable
attempts to keep people safe and not ripped off. Then Uber came along like, “What if we
DON’T have those rules,” and people liked it, so now we have that.
So the world is doomed in that way. But also full of promise, in that
it will have things that I will personally dislike and not
understand but which would have defined my life if they’d been invented
when I was eight years old.
I’m optimistic that we will avoid destroying ourselves with nuclear weapons
or runaway artificial intelligence. Not for any good reason. Logically,
I can totally see that happening. But I have a good feeling.