Christmas is a deeply sacred holiday in Australia, because its arrival signals that it’s time to put aside daily trivialities and focus on what Aussies really care about: sun, sport, and lying around not doing much. I am partaking in this by making a pilgrimage to Perth, and since Western Australia doesn’t have electricity, this will be my last blog of the year.
Thanks to everyone who’s visited my site in 2004—this blogging thing has been very cool. I wasn’t sure what the hell I was doing in the beginning, or whether posting regular updates to my site would quickly get boring. I don’t know about you, but I’m still having fun, so I’ll be back in 2005.
P.S. Okay, okay, Western Australia has electricity.
I was reading my local community magazine and came to the classified column “Adult Services.” There weren’t many to choose from, so apparently (a) I live in a morally upright suburb, and (b) it’s a sellers’ market. Still, I decided to critique their marketing efforts: If I was buying, which hooker would I hire?
Sexy, friendly, mid-30s, blonde
I like that she’s “friendly.” The last thing I’d want when I’ve hired a prostitute is for her to be rude or standoffish. Although maybe I’m reading that wrong; maybe you get her around to your house but when you try to get frisky, she says, “I’m sorry… I just don’t want to ruin the friendship.” I’m also a little wary about that “mid-30s”: is that her age or birthdate?
R U BI CURIOUS WHATEVER?
Try a sensual male body rub by attractive young guy.
Hmm, I need to be a lot more than “curious” about bisexuality before the idea of a sensual body rub from an attractive young guy sounds appealing. I think I’d have to have some pretty firm opinions.
Affectionate mid 30’s Blonde. Prefers men 50’s+
So if I open the door, Vanessa’s face will fall with disappointment. That’s no good. I have to say, though, I’m surprised that someone so picky about who she sleeps with has chosen this career path. I feel bad for Vanessa; I imagine life is quite the challenge.
EROTIC.. BODY.. TOUCH
All good words. But to me the ad suggests a lack of imagination; like whoever wrote it doesn’t really know what she should be doing. She comes over, you get naked, then she just starts awkwardly poking your chest.
Uni Student. Visit You. $250/hour.
That sounds like a lot of money just for a visit. I hope that includes some sex. But why is Angel telling me she’s a student? Will she need to get some studying done while she’s over? Is she prone to holding forth on socialism? It’s almost as if she’s suggesting that Uni Students who have sex are rare and exotic. She’s obviously not staying at my old dorm.
Cheeky Private Blonde 23 Credit Cards.
We have a winner! First, I am a sucker for wacky names, and “Faith Paradise” is even better than “Juliette Private”. She’s cheeky (that’s a plus), private (won’t tell everyone the next day), and, apparently, has 23 credit cards! So if the sex didn’t go well, we could chat about consumerism. Perfect!
A while ago, someone called Ellis started writing to me. The first e-mail was in August, in response to this blog about people who start posts with “Um…” It read, in full:
Do you have any pets?
Soon Ellis was sending me e-mails after almost every blog. Sometimes they were comments on what I’d written, like this response to my hope to be hired as Syrup screenwriter:
You would probably be good at a screen play, I have heard that blogger typically are better at that genre.
Sometimes I had to think really hard before I got the connection, like this response to my blog about the Internet Writers Workshop:
The meaning of life is in essence, sex. The whole point of our species is to reporduce and evolve, these are done through sex.
Sometimes they were questions:
What about you, what do you search for (outside of your web site?)
Sometimes they were bizarre:
I am making my graduation suit compleatly out of duct tape, I will send pictures when I make it.
And frequently they were about animals:
Mr. Max, do you have any pets?
I have two cats and a kitten, they are all cute, the cats are fat but the kitten is fluffy and thin.
The other day I thought: I have to find out who this guy is. So I e-mailed Ellis and asked if I could interview him. He agreed, and I sent him three initial questions:
- So who ARE you?
- How did you find my site?
- I get quite a few people who write to me about one blog in particular, but you write to me about practically all of them. How come? Do you write to other bloggers or am I special?
- I am an American eighth grader currently living in San Francisco, California. Most of my time is spent singing, I have been in three San Francisco Operas four local operas. I take private voice lessons and sing in a choir listed as being better than SF boys chorus. My spare time is spent either reading (but mostly) playing on the computer and learning how to program. That pretty much who I am, not anything REALLY interesting.
- I found nationstates through my brother (secllia) and followed the links from nationstates to your site (maxbarry.com) and then explored the site until I found the news letter and subscribed.
- Why do I write so many of them? Well, when ever something catches my eye I write back, usually about a random statement taken out of context that relates to what I am currently thinking and I write back about it (I don’t know how I connected to the time I told you I was making my graduation suit out of duct tape, but I wrote that because I just made a duct tape wallet). And yes you are special (in more ways than one :-) I don’t do this to other bloggers I read.
I wrote back:
Wow, I’ve never even seen an opera, and here you are singing in them. Not only that, but you make duct tape wallets. That’s plenty interesting. I have three more questions:
- Do you have a web site? I think you should. Your kind of random comment is perfect for a blog. And then *I* could leave comments for *you*.
- If you sing in a boys’ choir, does that mean that when your voice breaks they kick you out and your career is over? Or will you one day be playing the leading role and releasing a range of CDs?
- What are the advantages of the duct tape wallet? Why not, say, leather?
Ellis snapped back:
- I unfortunately don’t have a web site because my parent won’t let me, but I have found some places to set up on the sly. I would definitely like to get messages from you, you might be a little more interesting in private.
- When my voice changes I get to go to the older group till I am 18, then its life on the streets. I plan to go to school of the arts in my area so that by the time I am 18 I will be able to go to a good music collage. And yes, someday soon I will be recording.
- Duct tape over leather, one, duct tape is cheaper, I needed to carry around ID and money and starbucks cards. Two, upgradeable, just recently I needed a sperate clear slip for my ID, so I just duct taped on a piece of clear plastic, you try doing that with a leather wallet and still have it look cool and leathery! Third, no animals were hurt to produce it.
Damn, how awesome is Ellis? If he gets that web site up, I am definitely linking to it. And remember: you heard about him here first.
Hey, now this is damn cool. Fast Company’s November issue contained their top 100 “people, ideas, and trends that will change how we work and live in 2005.” Coming in at number 8 is “Max Barry’s Company”!
What it is: A satiric novel due out next fall featuring a company “so huge that nobody who works for it knows what it actually does.” Stir into motion the angle-players, bureaucrats, and suck-ups after merciless layoffs. Let the follies begin.
Our Take: Barry’s cult novels Syrup and Jennifer Government established him as a gifted business satirist. Expect more informed viciousness about the hierarchies we endure.
I guess now I should stop editing the thing so it can actually be published, hey? (Just a little longer. Just a liiiiiitle longer.)
Update 6-Dec-04: At Fortress’s request, I’ve removed the script while they make their decision. Thanks to everyone who reviewed it and made suggestions!
Okay, for anyone who’s interested: here’s my attempt at the first twenty-something pages of a Syrup screenplay.
This is what the Fortress guys will use to decide whether I’m the right guy to write the full thing. I would really, really love to do that, but I’m going to try to spend the next few weeks not fretting about it. This is what I’ve decided: if they like the way I’ve done it, then terrific, but if not, well, it’ll just mean that one of my most fervent wishes is dashed in a highly public and embarrassing way. That’s all.
If you’re reading this via your web browser, you might notice I’ve also added the ability for people to leave comments in response to my blogs, something I’ve been threatening to do for ages. This is more hand-written code on my part, so I apologize in advance if something goes wrong, or the comments all disappear, or my web host freaks out again at the load I’m generating on their server (“Aahhhh! Scripts!”) and takes down the whole site.
Assuming this works, though, I’m very interested in what you guys think of my draft. If I actually get this gig, I want to use any feedback I get here to help me write the rest of it.
Syrup has been optioned! Yes, the heartbreaking, inspirational story of one novel’s quest to become a feature film continues. When the rights became available again earlier this year, I was lucky enough to have a couple of choices, and in the end I plumped for Fortress Entertainment. This is a brand new financing & production company headed by a couple of guys who completely got the story and made me think they could do great things with it.
Last time I went on this particular ride, the production company got themselves a script I didn’t much like. For me it was too focused on the logistics of Scat and 6’s challenges and not enough on their relationship. But there was nothing I could do about this, because when a studio buys the film rights to a novel, the last thing they want is an author hanging around wringing his hands about how his precious words are being changed. I just had to wait until the option expired, and start again.
So this time, with Fortress, I said I wanted to write the script. This was greeted with a cautious, polite silence. I’ve never written a screenplay, and authors have a reputation for being generally terrible at adapting their own books, so Fortress, I suspect, was not thrilled at the idea of throwing time and money at me while I slowly discovered I can’t write for the screen.
Which is fair enough. So we came up with a solution: I’ll write the first 20 or 30 pages, then they’ll either hire me to write the whole thing, or go looking for someone else.
I started this a couple of weeks ago, in between Company edits, and am almost finished. In a few days’ time, I’ll post my work here, so you can judge for yourself: am I the man to deliver this thing, or should I stick to my day job?
Now a community service announcement. If you’re a Struggling Writer (TM) looking for ways to improve, head straight for the recently-revamped Internet Writing Workshop. Or, possibly, read the rest of this blog, then head on over. That might make more sense.
The toughest thing about writing a novel is the loss of perspective. For me, the process usually goes like this:
- Hey, what a great idea for a book! This will rock!
- This story is going gangbusters. Look at all these plot threads unfolding!
- I should really start to tie some of these plot threads together.
- Okay, now which threads are important and which aren’t? What is this book really about?
- What makes a good story? Why do human beings read books?
- What is the meaning of life?
- Boo boo boo boo boo boo.
The best antidote to this is feedback. Or maybe therapy, but I’ve never tried that. Feedback allows you to view your story through the eyes of someone reading it for the first time, something you the author can never do. When I get good feedback, I weep with joy, and the realization that I need to do three months of rewrites.
But there are two big problems with feedback:
- Some people are insane. They tell you to change all the good parts of your book, and set it in space. Since you have no perspective, it’s difficult to tell these people are insane; you can think they’re really insightful.
- It’s embarrassing, at least for people who haven’t done it very much. Writers are often touchy about receiving feedback, and readers know this so they’re careful about giving it. The result is feedback like: “I liked everything.” Which is nice to hear, but completely useless. Or even harmful, if it prevents you from seeing problems that need fixing.
The Internet Writing Workshop solves both of these problems. First, you get lots of feedback, possibly a dozen or so quick critiques, and this makes insane opinions stand out. When ten people tell you they love your main character and one person says you should rewrite him as a woman, you know you can safely ignore that person, and everything he ever says.
Second, everything is via e-mail, so you don’t have to look any weepy-eyed writers in the face as you critically dissect their masterpieces. And they don’t have to look at you, so the feedback you get is honest and free of any reflex need to soothe your feelings. This doesn’t mean you’ll always agree with it, but it will give you that invaluable glimpse of your own book through someone else’s eyes.
The IWW is completely free, being run by hard-working and soft-hearted volunteers. I used it all the time when I was starting out, and it made me a better writer.
Any time I need cheering up, I check out my web stats to see what people were searching for when they visited my site. Most search terms are sensible enough, like “jennifer government”, but then there’s a long list of ones that… aren’t so much. These are funny for two reasons: first, that—quite by accident—these words do actually appear on one of my web pages, and secondly, imagining the look of disappointment on these people’s faces when they end up here instead of a page of, for example, “naked people telling the news”.
Here are my favorite maxbarry.com search terms from the past few months:
- heroic things drew barrymore has done
- pictures of women smashing up things wearing high heels
- jennifer lopez has tattoos where
- what is the government of italy called
- her sexy long legs are perfect for head locks
- help avoiding assholes
- a newspaper article on koalas only saying care for our koalas
- results of a study about where pop stars go or hang out
- deleted scenes from ninja turtles the movie
- sneeze or sneezed or sneezes or sneezing bless you
- the main reason why the government has a website
- lyrics german ooh la la ooh la la
- still looking for that marvel comic book with all the marvel women in bathing suits
There’s an especially long list of search terms involving Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, just because I wrote that one bit about them. Most of these are as distasteful as you’d imagine, but others are… well, take a look:
- girls that look exactly like mary-kate and ashley
- what kind of jeans do mary-kate and ashley olsen like?
- which one is mary kate
Then there are two that are distasteful, but too bizarre to pass up:
- mary kate and ashley olsen naked pics without bras
- mary-kate and ashley jennifer government sex
There are plenty of people looking for naked pictures of Mary-Kate and Ashley, but this first guy went to the special effort of specifying that they be naked without bras. Clever. Then someone was apparently interested in whether the Olsen twins had ever engaged in hanky-panky with a character I made up. You know that line between fantasy and reality? Right, exactly: you do. This guy doesn’t.
As previously mentioned, occasionally some wacky marketing stunt I dreamed up for one of my novels comes true. Films as advertisements, logo tattoos, naming people after corporations; no matter how outrageous I try to be, real-world marketers are scampering along right behind.
But this is something else. First, a few lines from Chapter 1 of Jennifer Government:
The Johns smiled. “We started selling [Nike] Mercurys six months ago. You know how many pairs we’ve shifted since then?”
Hack shook his head. They cost thousands of dollars a pair, but that wouldn’t stop people from buying them. They were the hottest sneakers in the world. “A million?”
“Two hundred million?”
“No. Two hundred pairs.”
“John here,” the other John said, “pioneered the concept of marketing by refusing to sell any products. It drives the market insane.”
700 pairs worldwide, 140 in the US only
The next step, in Jennifer Government, is to throw open the warehouse doors and try to shift as many pairs as possible before the aura of exclusivity wears off. Also to shoot a few customers to make it look as if demand for the shoes is so hot that people are killing each other for them. If that turns out to be Nike’s plan in real life, too, I’m putting in a call for commission.
I know you’re dying to know whether I made it around that 10km/6mi course without medical assistance, so: yes! This pic is of me just after the race, and if you’re wondering about that smile on my face, it’s due to the endorphins—I declined to test the benefits of Vaseline. My time was 1 hour 1 minute and 19 seconds, which I was very happy with; so happy, in fact, that as soon as I’d attained it, I tried to faint. But a table was kind enough to catch me and then I realized it would be a good idea to drink some water.
I’m kind of addicted to running now, but a little worried about whether it’ll get in the way of my writing. For the last few years I’ve had a routine of falling out of bed and into my chair in the study, where I start typing more or less whatever’s in my head. This has worked better than you might expect, so I’m leery of postponing that crucial time when I start thinking about stories. But a run first thing in the morning helps me, too.
Today I decided to try something new. I got up, turned on my computer, and read over the last page or so of Company, which is what I’m currently working on. Once the scene was fresh in my mind, I laced up my shoes and headed out the door. I live on top of a hill, and have been advised that if I run down hills my knees will explode on my 40th birthday, so I did a fast walk for six or seven minutes, mulling over the novel. It was all working nicely: I was having some good thoughts, and still getting my exercise.
Then I reached the bottom of the hill and started to run. I took two steps and looked down. I wasn’t wearing my sneakers. I was wearing my casual shoes.
I’m doing an online interview this Saturday/Sunday, so if you want to ask/demand/accuse me of something without waiting 20 weeks for a response via e-mail, now’s your chance. It’s run by the NationStates moderators, but open to anyone who can figure out IRC. If that’s you, I’ll be in the #nationstates channel on irc.esper.net this weekend; for the time where you live, here’s the World Clock. And if you’re wondering what it’ll be like, the answer is this.
Speaking of interviews, there’s a new one with me up at piedriver.com. I did this about 6 months ago, but the guy only recently gotten around to posting it, so my answers are new and surprising even to me.
The other day some money inexplicably appeared in my bank account. This intrigued me. I wanted to know more, like: Who put it there? And: Could they send more? It turned out it was from my agent, Luke. “Oh, that’s royalties,” he said. “Jennifer Government earned out the advance.”
Authors earn money in two ways: royalties and advances. Royalties are the cut the author receives from the sale of each book (usually around 10% of the cover price, but can be much higher or lower depending on the edition, country, and how much more famous they are than me). An advance is a payment made to the author before the book goes on sale. It can take a year or more for a book to hit the shelves after a publisher has accepted it, and months or years to sell significant numbers of copies, and six months on top of that for it to show up in a royalty statement with a check attached. So if there were no advances, authors would turn up to bookstore readings with their possessions in a shopping cart. Because this would be embarrassing for all concerned, the publisher makes a kind of bet: they guess how many copies they’ll sell, and pay the author the equivalent of a year or two’s royalties. The author doesn’t earn anything else until actual royalties exceed the advance.
You don’t have to pay back an advance even if the publisher over-estimates, which is fortunate because otherwise I’d be washing dishes in the Penguin Putnam cafeteria. They expected to sell more copies of Syrup than they did, so my royalties have never earned out the advance. On the one hand, this makes me one lucky asshole, because I got overpaid. On the other, it’s largely the reason why Penguin dumped me from their list, so I think it mostly works out.
Anyway, the point is this is the first time I have earned actual royalties. I’m so excited about it. I feel as if I am a real author, not just a guy with an attack-dog literary agent. I’m making a living from telling stories!
Stop me if I’m getting too cynical, but I think elections are won by the guy with the stupidest policies. Not because people are just that dumb, but because of the nature of democratic elections. Political campaigns are mostly marketing, and when your target market is the whole country, any marketer will tell you that your best strategy is to scramble straight to the bottom of the barrel and start groping around in the muck there for the lowest common denominator you can lay your hands on. Because smart is complicated, but dumb is catchy.
During an election, it’s easy to believe you are surrounded by idiotic, ignorant, single-issue voters, and these people are the entire reason the other guy gets so many votes. But they’re not: they just seem numerous at times like this because they get very loud. I put it to you that elections are decided by people roughly as informed and intelligent as you (well, maybe not you), but they (we) are most swayed by stupid arguments.
Let’s take the War on Terrorism. This is a very powerful phrase, to the degree that it’s offensive for anyone to say they don’t support it. But it’s also dumb, because nobody knows what it actually means. Clearly, we are not about to rid the world of terrorism, because you can’t defeat an “ism”. Terrorism will be with us for as long as desperate, insane people exist; the best we can do is to mitigate the damage such people can do, and try not to encourage them. Indeed, when terrorism crops up in inconvenient corners of the world, we don’t even attempt to do anything about it.
In August this year, US President George W. Bush said as much:
“I don’t think you can win [a war on terrorism]. But I think you can create conditions so that… those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world.”
This is one of the smartest things Bush has ever said about terrorism, but from a marketing perspective, it was a tremendous blunder. Indeed, his political opponents John Kerry and John Edwards eagerly seized on this piece of insight, and counter-attacked with statements of piercing dumbness:
“This is no time to declare defeat… the War on Terrorism is absolutely winnable.”
It took less than 24 hours for Bush to withdraw (actually, “clarify”) his earlier comment and replace it with a stupid, more marketable one:
“In this different kind of war, we may never sit down at a peace table, but make no mistake about it, we are winning and we will win.”
Bush is ahead of Kerry on national security, because Kerry has a kind of stupid, nuanced position and Bush has a really stupid but really simple position. The Republicans rammed this home in a series of TV ads so breathtakingly dumb they’ll probably win Bush the election. They put forward the proposition that if you need someone with a big stick to guard your campfire from hungry wolves at night, you should take the guy who whacks anything that moves rather than the guy who stops to think about it. Which do you want, after all: to poke your head out of your tent in the morning to discover George surrounded by a collection of clubbed wolves, squirrels, and unlucky family pets who happened to wander by, or be woken in the middle of the night by John saying, “Is that a wolf? I think it’s a wolf. No, wait… it’s probably not. Or maybe it—AAAAAAAHHHHH!”
Electing a national leader is a lot like buying a computer (or, for the geeks among you, a car): it’s too complicated to consider on the merits, so we end up basing our decision on something simple and stupid, like how good it looks. We’re simply not qualified to make an informed decision. Face it: if you had to prove a real understanding of how to run a country before you were allowed to vote, the President would be elected by about three people. The rest of us have better things to do than read about history and economics. Marketers know this, and target it. Taking a simple position on a complex issue is stupid, but simple sells. It’s survival of the dumbest.
P.S. If you’re voting in the US election next month and you care about my opinion, I would vote Kerry. I wrote a blog about why here. If you don’t care, that’s fine, too. You can still buy my novels.
First, thanks to those people who wrote to me about testicles. I have been running for two months now without noticing any gonad-related issues, but now I know I’m the exception. James advises me:
tape up your testicles with sticky tape, that way they wont bounce around and you will run faster
Because of reduced air resistance, I’m assuming.
Drew has an even more alarming tip:
If you’ve just taken up running, and you’re in training for the Nike 10 km event, then get to know and love the above product.
Six weeks ago I started running, spurred on by Nike’s promise to turn me from latte-sucking desk-bound loser to uber sporting champion (and all round winner).
Five weeks ago I was ready to chuck it all in, courtesy of a nasty spot of chafing and a very tender left testicle.
Four-and-a-half weeks ago I discovered Vaseline, and within five days everything was back under control.
Now I’m wondering why I don’t have sore testicles. (Also, how I’m going to be able to look any male runner in the eye ever again.) Maybe it’s because my shorts have this odd interior netting. I hope that’s it. I hope I don’t just have freakish nuts.
In other news, the conservative government retained power in Australia, just like Freddy said it would. With no thanks to Freddy, though. I met him for dinner the night of the election and said, “So, did I convince you to change your vote?”
“I thought about it,” he said. “But then I forgot to vote.”
Since voting is compulsory in Australia, this means I’ll soon be visiting Freddy in prison. (Just kidding. It’s a $20 fine.) Speaking of which, though, a reader called KingJahnx pointed out a benefit of compulsory voting I’d never considered before:
at least you don’t have people constantly bugging you untill you register to vote like in the states
Good point. I’m getting sick of being encouraged to vote, and I’m not even eligible.
Several irate Canadians wrote to me to complain about me blaming their nation for poor sales of Syrup. Here’s one from Cass:
Dear sir: I, as a Canadian, bought Syrup, and loved it. Your ingratiude made me cry. I hope you are happy.
Well, not any more. I was doing fine before I read that. Other readers opined that my low sales were a result not of Canadian indifference but poor distribution. Tyler said:
I have not once, through my many months of searching, have ever found Syrup on the shelves of a local bookstore.
While Jesse wrote:
I’ve tried in vain to find Syrup, I’ve checked three major cities in Ontario to no avail.
And, neatly summarizing, Nick said:
I do nt think you should blam e Canada but you should blame your publisher. I spent 18 months searching in bookstores and on Amazon.ca for a copy of Syrup bit could not find an availble one. It was not until I was on vacation in Chicago that I found a copy. Do not blame my country for lousy sales, blame your crappy publisher.
I should perhaps observe at this point that I had a different publisher for Syrup than I did for Jennifer Government. It could, perhaps, be argued that my first publisher finds it difficult to even glance at a copy of Syrup without becoming filled with pangs of regret over having cut me from their list. So maybe that explains it.
But this doesn’t totally let you off the hook, Canada. You can still go up to the counter of your local bookstore and get them to order in a copy of Syrup. Pretty much any bookstore will happily order in a book for you at no additional cost, and it’s a good way to support books that aren’t making it onto the shelves on their own. (See, I mention this not for my own benefit, but for all the struggling writers out there. Well, not entirely for my own benefit.)
I have started running. When I tell people this—people who know me, or went to high school with me, or have ever seen me run—the color drains from their face and they make little cawing noises in the back of their throat. I’ve never been one for running; in fact, I’ve never been a big supporter of exercise in general. Not as a participation sport, anyway. But when I had Snow I had to walk her, and that didn’t seem to wear her out so I started running with her (if her tongue was hanging out by the time we got home, I got a point; otherwise she did), then Snow went back to her owner but for some reason I am still running.
There’s a nice track along a river near my house, so almost every morning I go out and run along that. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
- Guys who run past me are just showing off
- Guys who run past me and say, “Morning mate, how are you going?”, like one bloke did this morning, are really showing off. (In response, I managed to insert, “Hi,” into an explosive exhalation.)
- Girls are bouncy
- I don’t care how well-ventilated they are, I’m not wearing those tiny running shorts that are slit all the way up your hips.
Now I have done the unthinkable and entered a 10km (6.25mi) fun run. It’s on the 24th of this month (and sponsored by Nike, which is apt), and my goals are:
- To complete the course without stopping
- Or dying
- And before everyone else has packed up and gone home.
My Dad was a mad keen runner (some would say obsessive), so I feel incredibly stupid for only taking this up after he’s gone. I want to ask him a heap of questions. And I would have loved to have gone running with him. But I have his running watch, and I’ll be wearing it on the 24th, and in a way that’s almost the same.
On Friday night I shared a few beers with Freddy, a friend of mine, and around 2AM we were sufficiently inebriated to debate politics. “So,” I said, jabbing my beer bottle in Freddy’s general direction. “Who are you voting for?”
There’s a federal election next weekend, you see, and in Australia, voting is compulsory. I know that just made a few of you choke on your Starbucks double-decafs, but it’s true. There is a reasonably sensible case to be made for compulsory voting, but I don’t like it because it means elections get decided by people who live in marginal electorates and don’t give a crap about politics. It’s difficult to persuade intelligent, well-informed people to change their political views, so political parties target the swinging “who-cares” voter bloc. This time around, for example, the government’s chief campaign claim is that if the other guy is elected, interest rates will go up, a position backed by no credible evidence and believed by no economists, including the ones employed by the government. The Opposition, on the other hand, is simultaneously arguing that the Prime Minister isn’t fit to run the country and that shortly after the election he’ll probably resign anyway, points that stand up pretty well on their own but cancel each other out when you put them together.
The reason I’m voting against the government is that it’s been busted several times telling big porkies. To my mind, the way to deal with governments who lie to the general public is give them a big kick in the political backside. If you don’t, they realize there’s no downside to lying, and they do more of it. It’s a systemic thing: voters are meant to reward or punish government behavior. It’s the only way they’ll learn.
I am not the only person to think this, and indeed “truth in government” is a big election issue. Until Friday night, I thought it was the election issue, but Freddy had an alternate view. “Max,” he said, blurring in and out of focus, “nobody cares about truth in government. All politicians lie: the government, the Opposition; all of them.”
“Well, what about Iraq,” I said. “We participated in an invasion that killed ten thousand Iraqis because the government told us they had weapons of mass destruction.”
“Nobody cares about Iraq!”
“Pfff,” I said. “Then what do they care about?”
“What affects them. How much money they’re going to end up with in their pockets. That’s why the government is going to win, because they’re talking about interest rates, and the other guys are talking about morals.”
A chill ran down my body, and it wasn’t only the beer I had just spilled: Freddy was right. It didn’t matter that the government had lied, or that its interest rates scare campaign was dubious at best: it was speaking to people’s self-interest.
Self-interest is a scarily powerful concept. Regardless of what you think about the morality of self-interested behavior, it trumps altruism time and time again. The reason why you, reading this blog right now, are living in a capitalist country is that capitalism harnesses the power of self-interest and socialism tries to repress it.
When you’re up against self-interest, it’s pointless to argue about ethics and community. You can only beat self-interest with more self-interest. “What about the fact that the government doesn’t even control interest rates, and that in fact when they do rise it’s because the economy is doing so well that it needs a brake applied?” I argued.
But even I could tell this was too complicated, and Jen came downstairs to tell us that it was three in the morning and would we please stop yelling. “Okay, then,” I said, with less volume. “What about this. The fact is, your single vote won’t make any difference to the election outcome anyway, so you might as well vote against the government so at least you can say you didn’t support lying bastards.”
Freddy considered this. “Hmm. Maybe.”
Aha! Apparently I had found an argument so stupid that it just might work. This would never fly in the US, but in Australia, where it is compulsory to exercise your right to be free, maybe it was just what the Opposition needed. Is it too late to run up a quick series of TV spots? “And next Saturday, remember: your vote won’t make any difference whatsoever. So please vote for us.”
Last March I discovered that for some reason Canadian sales of Syrup were somewhat weak. By this I mean that in the last six months of 2003, I sold 6 copies. After I posted about this on my site, several Canadians e-mailed me promising to snap up the book, so I’ve been looking forward to a big spike in my next royalty statement.
And here it is! My latest statement shows Canadian sales have increased an incredible 183%. So that’s 17 copies.
Now, I don’t want to seem ungrateful. J.K. Rowling would kill for sales growth like that. And, I suppose, cause the world to be completely deforested. But come on, 17! In other parts of the world, parts just on the other side of your border, Canada, it’s selling great. In fact, it’s in its fourth or fifth printing, and the fact that one of those times was because the publisher pulped a whole bunch of copies before realizing my career wasn’t dead yet doesn’t matter.
The way I see it, there are three possible parties to blame:
- My publisher
I’m going with #3, because I have to work with #1 and #2. Pissing off Canada, on the other hand, means—what, they’ll stop buying their 23 copies a year?
Actually, this gives me an idea. Given I have so little to lose, what I need is to get Syrup banned there. Banned books attract publicity and protest groups, and when the ban is finally and inevitably lifted, they sell like gangbusters. Plus, being the author of a banned book would give me all kinds of literary cachet. I could get invited to top-class cocktail parties and tell Salman Rushdie about the time I used him as an example of a red-hot writerly stud muffin.
Surely it can’t be that hard to get banned; I just need to take a sentence or two out of context, tell some hyper-twitchy group that it’s aimed at them, and sit back and wait for Time to call. The Church of Scientology, for example. Surely there’s something I could find in Syrup that would offend them?
I stumbled across an article in New Scientist magazine on a remarkable new development: neuromarketing. The idea, apparently, is that if you study what happens to people’s brains when they’re making a buying decision or watching an ad, you get all kinds of insights, such as that despite their protests, women really do find grossly over-muscled men like The Rock attractive (I knew it!).
Joey Reiman, CEO of a marketing consultancy firm—and may I just say how sad it is that you so rarely see a CEO named Joey outside of a marketing consultancy firm—explains the reasons behind neuromarketing:
What if you could, for example, show a company that their moral and ethical behaviour has a bigger influence on consumer preference than the color of their packaging or their tag line?
Bwahahahahaha! If you could—hahahahaha! Ethical behaviour! Ohhhh, that’s funny. No, now I see it: I was thinking marketers would mainly be interested in working out how to trigger the synapses that make you open your wallet, but as Joey says it’s really a noble scheme to improve the moral behavior of corporations by… showing them there’s a buck in it. Now I feel all warm and snuggly!
This is just another example of marketing bravely going where genuine scientists went a long time ago, only this time for profit. For example, 17th century physiologist E.H. Weber was the first to develop a way to measure how small a difference you could make to an object before anybody noticed, but it was marketers who applied that knowledge to shrink candy bars. Yet who gets the Nobel Prize, hmm?
Neuromarketing experiments suggest that a particular part of the brain is related to product affection—that is, it gets busy when people look at products they like. So if marketers can find a way to stimulate that part of the brain, consumers will start drooling and fumbling for their credit cards no matter what crappy product they’re being offered—the Holy Grail of marketing! No doubt there is money being poured into research on lasers or special chemicals. In the meantime, though, I think we should all be on the lookout for sales assistants with small drills and sticky fingers.
I started answering my e-mail again today. As regular readers of this site already know, I am a long way behind on this. I have a page that lets you know exactly how long, and this has been standing firm at 12 weeks. Which is heinous enough, right? Except when life got a little crazy a couple of months ago, I stopped replying to e-mail and stopped updating this page, too.
So when I sucked it up and came back to my Inbox today, I knew it would be bad. But when I saw exactly how bad, I was dumbfounded. I am now 23 weeks behind.
This makes me feel very ashamed. What kind of person takes five months to respond to an e-mail?
So to everyone who wrote to me, I’m really sorry. I’m getting back into my e-mail now. And if you’ve been waiting for an answer since early April, you’ll be hearing from me any day now.
It was a slow day in Germany, so Ralf Heinrich decided to whip up a few mock Jennifer Government posters. (Click for larger versions.) Ralf is quite the wiz with Photoshop, so lest anyone be deceived: no, these aren’t official. Officially, teams of screenwriters have been locked in the Warner Bros. dungeon and are being flogged daily until they produce something the studio execs like.
Until that happens, I have to amuse myself with posters like this. That’s Jennifer Lopez on the left and Keira Knightley on the right. The J-Lo one is especially appropriate, because originally I thought she’d be a good Jennifer Government, but then I was quietly informed that since Out of Sight, she and George Clooney (whose company is developing the film) don’t get along so well. So I’m glad I didn’t unknowingly toss that one up to George. That could have been awkward.
I told Ralf this and he said:
I selected J Lo only because of her pretty look and not because of her talent as an actor… so I’m happy to hear she won’t starr in the movie.
Aw, now when she reads this she’s going to get all upset. But I’m actually more disturbed by the Keanu Reeves references. Whoa.
Just wanted to drop you a note saying that Jennifer Government was my favorite book of 2003, and was a finalist for the Campbell Award for best SF novel of the year.
Naturally, I assumed Chris was deranged. Sure, he has excellent taste in literature, but the Campbell Award was presented almost two months ago. If my book had been a finalist for one of the world’s leading science-fiction prizes, that’d be the kind of thing I’d have heard about, don’t you think? Well, apparently not. I e-mailed my publisher just in case, and it turns out Chris isn’t a mentally unstable nutjob with a penchant for fooling people into thinking they’ve qualified for major awards: Jennifer Government really was a Campbell Award finalist.
Not a winner, alas, which means I’m feeling honored, humbled, and a deep, burning rage toward Jack McDevitt. But still! This is awesome. Now I just need to go apologize to Chris.
A little earlier I asked the question: “Is it a good idea to sell a book to a publisher, then extensively re-write it?” That’s what I somehow ended up doing to my new novel, Company. I sent off the new, much-altered draft to my editor, Bill, and waited to see whether he thought it was an improvement or I had made a big mistake.
The answer, it turns out, is both. Bill likes my rewrite and says: “More!” In particular, he wants me to fix a major plot-line that centers around people in this company being unable to remember anything about the world outside it. This concept is slightly surreal, I know, but I liked it so much that I hammered away until it made a vague kind of sense. Alas, Bill observes that it isn’t quite a specific enough kind of sense, and now that I’ve jazzed up everything else, this stands out. Since I am so happy to rewrite big chunks of the book, he says, how about I throw out that whole memory-loss idea and put in something better?
At this point I have two competing thoughts. One is, “God damn you, Bill, you’ll publish this book and you’ll like it!” The other is, “Aaarrrgghhh, he’s right.”
When editing a novel, it’s often hard to know when to stop. There’s no clear point at which you think, “That’s it, this book cannot be improved any more.” There’s always more you can do. If you want to be published in your own lifetime (or write more than one book), though, you have to stop editing at some point, but that is not, alas, a quiet, satisfying moment of realization that everything is just exactly right. For me, at least, it’s guilty and furtive. It’s thinking, “If I have to rewrite one more sentence of this thing, I’m going to vomit.”
I enjoy editing; I love watching something I’ve written improve. But, boy, when you’ve spent every day for the last two years immersed in the same story, you start to hate everybody in it.
And it doesn’t get any better when the book is published. I can’t stand to pick up my published novels because I can barely read a page without wishing I’d done something differently. (This makes book tours interesting.) So that’s how it is: I rewrite a novel until the mere thought of it engages my gag reflex, then I spend the rest of my life wishing I’d spent more time on it.
I’m going to rewrite Company again, because I think Bill is right: it will be better without the memory loss thing. I’ve had a month away from it, which is helpful. And above all else I want to do everything I can to make this novel as good as it can be, and should be.
Then one day, I know, maybe a year or two from now, I will crack open the cover, read a sentence at random, and think, “Damn. I should have done that differently.”
Suddenly people are writing to me about the word “internet.” A few months ago I happened to mention that I don’t think internet should be spelled with a capital I. At the time, this passed without much comment, but now I’m getting besieged by IT professionals telling me how I am wrong, wrong, wrong.
Their arguments fall into three categories:
- Check a dictionary, idiot.
- An internet is any network of networks, so without capitalization it’s not clear which internet you’re talking about.
- There’s only one Internet, so it’s a proper noun and should be capitalized.
Arguments #2 and #3 are actually contradictory, so what I should really do is forward the e-mails from one side to the other and just let them go at it. Argument #1, though, is what annoyed me about capital-I Internet in the first place: this idea that there is a golden tome somewhere entitled THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE and if you follow it precisely you’re right and otherwise you’re wrong. Or, to use an example that may be more relevant here, that English is a language just like XML is a language, and if your usage isn’t in the spec, it’s a non-standard proprietary extension, doesn’t validate, and was probably invented by Microsoft.
To me, there’s no such thing as “correct” English. The purpose of communication is not to score the maximum number of grammar points; it’s to convey a thought from your brain into someone else’s. You do this by following common usage. That’s my beef with dictionaries: they still list “usward” (av. (Archaic) Moving toward us), but have to be dragged kicking and screaming to “blog.” Common usage beats dictionary definitions every time, and in common usage “internet” has lost its “I”.
Sometimes you have to sit back and say, “Damn, this internet thing is cool.” I mean, obviously we all know it’s pretty handy. You can send e-mails on it and steal music and read newspapers for free. But occasionally you get reminded just how cool it is, in the world-shaking, society-defining sense of the word. Like when you go to this site.
Something To Be Desired is what happens when a bunch of people decide it’d be neat to make a TV series, only without the TV part. Instead they put up each episode on their web site, where you can watch it for free. A drama-comedy set around a Pittsburgh radio station, Something To Be Desired is clearly being made with very little money but bucket-loads of talent and enthusiasm, and it’s totally addictive: you download one ten-minute episode and then you have to find out whether Jack and Dierdre are going to sleep together and before you know it two and a half hours have passed, you’ve watched the whole thing, and you can’t believe you have to wait two weeks for the next episode.
Before the internet, I never would have seen this. In fact, it probably wouldn’t have been made, because why spend the time and money producing a series that has very little chance of ever being broadcast? But the web offers creative people a new way to drop their work directly in front of an audience. There’s no need for pitch meetings, for agents, for attending industry events in the vain hope of networking with someone who can get you a meeting with someone at a studio; instead, you just produce something, stick it on your web site, and if it’s any good, ordinary people hear about it and come check it out.
This is the vanguard of a major decentralization of the creative arts industry. As the internet evolves, hundreds of thousands of amateur artists are going to forget about trying to batter down the closed doors in Hollywood, the networks, and the publishing industry. Instead, they’ll just publish their work on the net. Some of it will be brilliant. Much of it will be terrible. But all of it will be given a real chance to find an audience, a chance that otherwise wouldn’t have existed. And, damn, that’s cool.
So far I’ve learned that:
- There’s a sleepy dog smell.
- You don’t have to be very big to snore like a foghorn.
- Snow has no setting between OFF and MAXIMUM POWER.
- Due to some kind of biological quirk, the phrase “Come here” cannot be detected by Snow’s ears, but she can hear the opening of a door from the other end of the house through solid brick walls.
- If you step backwards (at any time), you will stand on Snow.
I’ve also gained some insight into her thought processes. I’m pretty sure that her philosophy goes like this:
- The purpose of life is to locate humans and stand as close to them as possible.
- Disgusting = interesting.
- Corollary A: The fouler it smells, the more it needs to be sniffed.
- Corollary B: If it drips, if it stinks, if it does both at once, bring it in the house.
- It is uncouth to push open a slightly ajar door in order to pass through it; rather, one should sit in front of it and whine.
- When you gotta go, you gotta go.
- The grass is always greener on the other side of a closed door.
- The only thing more exciting than going on a walk is coming home from a walk, unless you’re already home, in which case the most exciting thing is going for a walk.
- If you don’t know what it is, lick it.
Clearly I didn’t think this through. I now have to write a six-volume series chock full of appalling characters just to satisfy all the people who wrote me annoying “Um…” e-mails. It was meant to be a deterrent, dammit! Now stop it!
Okay, that’s enough. At first I thought this was kind of funny. Then it wasn’t so funny, then it got irritating, and now it makes me want to hurt someone. I’m talking about the practice of starting a post with “Um.”
This is particularly virulent on technically-inclined mailing lists and forums. It goes like this: a person posts something—a comment, a question, anything—and some other guy thinks they’re wrong. But he doesn’t just come out and say that, oh no. First he says: “Um…” Like this: “Um… Word won’t run on Linux.”
This is meant to convey the impression that the initial post was so mind-numbingly stupid that at first he couldn’t believe it was actually meant in earnest. Then, as he began to phrase his reply, he had to pause to ratchet down his intelligence a few levels so that the drooling simpleton who had uttered such idiocy would be able to comprehend it. This created a pause which had to be filled by “Um.”
Only that’s not what happened at all. If you’re having an actual conversation with someone, sure, you might say “um.” But if you’re typing out a post, what the hell are you doing? Are your fingers operating independently of your brain? No! You’re just being an asshole!
Maybe I could deal with this if it only happened when genuinely brilliant people wrote messages to real morons. After all, geniuses aren’t supposed to have social skills. But it happens all the time. This is the exchange that finally sent me over the edge:
#1: Happily seen that Gentoo has released 2004.2. I’m now using 2004.0 and I wonder whether it is necessary for me to migrate to 2004.2 from 2004.0.
#2: Uh.. if you do an “emerge -uD world” then you too will have all the bonus’s of 2004.2…
#3: Really? I think simply doing this won’t change my /etc/make.profile. It’ll be still point to ../usr/portage/profiles/default-x86-2004.0, isn’t it?
#4: Um, its a symlink… change it to point to the new profile
No! No! Not “Um!” The first guy was right, goddamn it! You can’t “um” him when he’s right! What is this um doing? It’s a totally unjustified um!
This is a cancer of the internet, I tell you, and it’s got to be stopped. Please. I can’t take much more.
(P.S. If anyone writes me an e-mail like “Um… Word can run on Linux if you use an emulator,” I’m going to name a really bad character after them.)
So this is about six months too late and I actually got scooped, by myself, on chuckpalahniuk.net, but: I was on book tour in the US earlier this year, and this meant staying in a lot of fancy hotels. In Seattle it was the Alexis, which is apparently frequented by authors so, uh, frequently, that it has a special room for them: the “Author’s Suite.” This, I assumed, was a dingy sub-basement hole where people could yell down things like, “Max, don’t forget to do the washing,”* but no: it was swish as. The hotel asked (oh, how politely they asked) every visiting author to sign a copy of their novel, and the walls of the Author’s Suite were fairly groaning with these. I had lots of fun hunting down copies of some of my favorite books, and was especially happy to find a Fight Club. Chuck Palahniuk is one of my top two modern authors (the other is Neal Stephenson); I don’t see much resemblance between Chuck’s stuff and mine, but am very happy whenever someone else does. By the time I left, this is what the Author’s Suite copies of Fight Club and Jennifer Government looked like.
* (I actually wrote that and thought, “Crap, I have a load of washing in the machine.” I had to go and get it out before I could finish the blog. Yes, my life is that glamorous.)
Is it a good idea to sell a book to a publisher, then extensively re-write it? The marketer in me says, “No.” (Also, “Put pop-up ads on NationStates!”) But that’s pretty much what I’ve done with Company. At first I was just going to do a little tweaking: snip a sub-plot here, pat down a character foible there, that kind of thing. But the more I re-wrote, the more I saw that needed re-writing. Then, before I knew it, I had a new second half to the book.
(Of course, when I say, “before I knew it,” I’m using artistic license. No-one actually ends up with a novel “before they knew it.” I’m always seeing this in movies: someone decides to write a novel and two weeks later they’re typing THE END into a laptop at Starbucks and exhaling in satisfaction. Two weeks! I can’t get a sentence right in two weeks. Also, I hate people who write novels at Starbucks. And people who exhale in satisfaction in public; them too. So you can see why this annoys me.)
This is something of an addiction of mine; I’m always throwing out the last half of novels and trying again. I never intend it; I just get obsessed with improving things. This is not necessarily a bad thing, if you ignore the fact that I’m spending enormous chunks of time writing bits of novels only to cut them later (which I try to). But now I’ve done it to a book a publisher has already bought, and, presumably, thought was pretty good.
So I’ve confessed to Bill, my editor. As I e-mailed in the new draft, I put the question to him: am I a hard-working, committed author, or just some kind of idiot? He replied:
It depends on what you’ve done. If it’s turned into a searing portrait of the artistic struggles of male ballet dancers, I shall not be pleased.
He’s reading the draft now. There are no ballet dancers. But I’ll have to wait and see what he thinks.
I’ve received a bunch of foreign-edition Jennifer Governments lately, which is always cool. There’s a Finnish version called Jennifer Valtiovalta, a wicked little Japanese version called something your computer probably doesn’t have the correct font to display, and, my favorite, an Italian Logo Land. The groovy thing about that is they’ve gone with the original cover design, but re-shot it for no apparent reason. It’s the 1998 Psycho of book covers.
And speaking of covers… and… um… posters, this thing to the left comes courtesy of Rob Treynor, who responded to the Fark.com challenge: “Photoshop a scene from the next movie that Hollywood will make that butchers a good book.” Oh yeah!
(Now I know I’m going to get mail about this otherwise, so for clarity: no, Drew Barrymore has not been cast in the movie. This is just one guy’s amusing vision of hell.)
I’m grateful and completely humbled by the response to my last post. The overwhelming kindness I’ve received from so many people has made an awful time much more bearable. I’m truly touched and amazed. Thank you.
Dad’s funeral is on Tuesday. It will be a simple, private service, as he wanted. Those who were close to him will help each other deal with the shock of his death, and, more importantly, celebrate his life. I’m thinking of telling a story about Dad’s running. He was a mad keen runner for the last 20 years of his life, even completing a bagful of marathons. But the memory that sticks in my mind is when he competed in a fun run around what I think was a national park. I was about ten, and course the most important thing in the world at that age is that your Dad is better than all the other Dads. So I loitered around the finish line with a certain trepidation. And then, bursting out of the trees—there he was! Pounding toward us, scattered applause breaking out, he crossed first… and kept running. He’d decided the course was too short, and he went around again.
To me, this was the most heroic thing that had happened in the world ever.
I was enormously lucky to have this man as my father, and on Tuesday I will give thanks for that.
Dad was the most practical person in the world. “When I go,” he said, “just put me in a cardboard box.” Today my brother and I had to choose him a casket. The funeral director handed us a page with a list. They started at twelve thousand dollars (metal, lots of gold) and worked their way down to four thousand (solid wood). “Then if you flip that page over,” she said, “you’ll see our particle board caskets.” They were one thousand dollars. I laughed. I knew what Dad would be saying.
Still, I can’t put him in particle board. He’s getting a solid wooden one.
I love you, Dad.
British pole dancer Donna Cleeve has been forced to quit her job because she’s allergic to the metal pole. The 20-year-old from Portsmouth developed a red rash after each show before she realised nickel used in the poles was to blame. “It’s hard to look sexy when your legs and body are inflamed. I tried to ignore it, but in the end it wasn’t worth the pain,” she told London’s Sun. She’s now given up her dancing and taken a job in sales.
My web traffic soared on the back of my review of a Mary-Kate and Ashley novel, partly because quite a few people liked it but mostly because there are an awful lot of internet searches for “mary-kate and ashley”. In fact, that phrase quickly became the #3 search people used to get to my site, coming right after “jennifer government” and “max barry”. (Alas, “max berry” is #6.) For a few days Google actually listed my site in its first page of results for “mary-kate and ashley”, which, if I have this right, makes me one of the world’s foremost Mary-Kate and Ashley experts. This is awesome. Now if this novel-writing thing doesn’t work out, I have something to fall back on.
In response to my Everybody just left the room post, I received an emphatic e-mail from a guy named Jason:
just fuck off with your boring egotistical ramblings… if you cant reply to your email you can go fuck your self.. silly marketing c—t pretending to care…
fucking stick to the marketing, you do it better than writing books
you have the time to write bullshit about 9/11 but not answer your emails… wat the fuk?
There was more, but it became repetitive. I was surprised; I hadn’t realized that visiting my web site was compulsory. Also, while I am a long way behind on my e-mail, so is the Pope and people don’t write him hate mail. Or at least not just about that. And I was a little confused about the references to marketing. I do what marketing better than writing books? Was he talking about how I promote my novels, like on this web site? If so, wouldn’t it be self-defeating to stop writing in order to concentrate on promoting my writing?
I searched through my In Box in case there was a previous message from Jason and found two. One was from a week ago, in response to my True Love & Drool post (I’m better now, thanks), and it said:
i know your a good writer and all, i did read your book.. but having a pissy throat infection is not a good enough reason to not reply to my email. Maybe your too important and your time is too valuable to deal with “readers”… i maybe a low life, uneducated skum bag.. but at least im more enlightened and “educated” than the people who have marketing degree’s and PHD’s and all this truly meaningless “education”…
I was beginning to sense a theme. I opened up Jason’s original e-mail and was surprised to see it was a mere 4 weeks old. For most people, sure, that’s a long time to reply to an e-mail. But for me, that would be lightning-fast. That’s why the page with my e-mail address lets people know I’m running several months behind.
In light of that, I felt Jason was being a touch unreasonable. But I also felt guilty about my pile of unanswered e-mail, so I decided to reply to his original question. Here it is:
Iv just started reading ur book, its great so far! Im just interested in what made you see the light? ie. realise that marketing is fundamentally evil… and turn towards a more satisfying and creative career?
Well, Jason, there were a few reasons. But partly it was so I could reach out and touch people like you.
The commission investigating the September 11 attacks has released tape recordings of some of the conversations from that day. Among them was one of the most powerful pieces of dialogue I’ve heard in years. I have no jokes or political points to make here; I just want to talk about the actual words.
The situation was this: within the last 50 minutes, two hijacked airlines had struck the World Trade Center in New York, a third had crashed into the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and a fourth was being tracked. The national Air Traffic Control System Command Center contacted the FAA headquarters to suggest military jets be used to intercept this fourth aircraft.
Many people have said that 9/11 felt like a Hollywood movie. If it had been, the scene would have gone like this:
TRAFFIC CONTROL GUY Do we want to think about scrambling aircraft? FAA OFFICIAL Way ahead of you. PULL BACK to reveal out of man's office window, two F-15s screaming off a runway.
Or, perhaps, this:
JACK RYAN You guys need to scramble aircraft, now! FAA OFFICIAL You don't run the FAA, Mr. Ryan. I do. And I'm not spending twenty thousand dollars in jet fuel just because you've got a point to prove! CLOSE UP on RYAN as his jaw clenches with frustration.
This is popcorn entertainment, escapism. There is nothing wrong with that; I often enjoy a good dose. But what I love even more are tiny moments of realistic human failing: when a person does something unthinking, or gets confused. These are touching simply because they’re real and recognizable. Humans make a lot of mistakes. Our lives are not scripted, and if we could yell “cut” and do over every bit of our lives we weren’t happy with, we’d all still be in our teens.
That’s why this little exchange is, for me, almost heart-breakingly tragic.
Air Traffic Control: “Do we want to think about, uh, scrambling aircraft?”
FAA: “God… I don’t know.”
Air Traffic Control: “That’s a decision somebody’s gonna have to make probably in the next 10 minutes.”
FAA: “Uh… you know, everybody just left the room.”
The other day I lost my internet connection. All the lights on my cable modem turned off except one, the Receive light, and it just blinked at me. I wasn’t worried because this has happened before and each time it turned out to be a general fault in my area: koalas chewing through the cables, for example. Well, actually I’m just guessing there. It could have been koalas. I never bothered to get into the specifics.
I called up Telstra, my ISP, and after wading through layers of “Press 2 if you want to express your frustration with automated telephony systems,” I got a recorded message saying there was a nationwide problem. I was invited to press 0 to speak to a human about it, and since I wanted to know when it would be fixed, I took them up on this.
Now, I knew this wouldn’t be easy as it sounded. Telstra has an excellent “Network Status” web page that displays problems with its service; if you visit this, you can see if there’s an area-wide outage at a glance. But if you can’t visit this page—if, for example, you’re suffering from the effects of an area-wide outage—you have to call them up, and they refuse to tell you anything until you have exhaustively checked your own computer. Their attitude seems to be that while they accept it’s possible that there are koalas chewing on their cables, it’s much more likely that koalas are chewing on your cables. Or have crawled inside your computer. Or, I suppose, the problem is the result of some more technical issue unrelated to koalas. Anyway, at first I used to have conversations like this:
Max: “My modem’s doing that blinking thing that means there’s a problem with your network, can you tell me when it’ll be fixed?”
Tech: “First I need to confirm everything’s working at your end. Can you tell me what error message you get when you try to connect?”
Max: “No, because I don’t use Telstra’s connection software. It kept crashing so I use the open source replacement. But that’s not the problem; the problem is the modem doesn’t seem to be getting a signal.”
Tech: “Uhh… okay. Can you check that the cable connecting your modem to your computer is plugged in?”
Max: “Well, I could, but whether it is or not, my modem’s still not getting a signal.”
Tech: “Can you check that cable?”
Max: “Hang on… I have to crawl under my desk… ow! What the… so that’s where my favorite pen got to. Okay, yes, the cable is plugged in.”
Tech: “Can you check the cable from the modem is plugged securely into the wall?”
Max: “Fffffff…fine. I just have to move some furniture… urrrrrrghhhh! Arrrrrgh! Okay. Yes it is.”
Tech: “Okay.” (keyboard sounds) “There’s an outage in your area. It should be fixed by two o’clock. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
Then I got smart. This time, when Andrea the tech support person came on the line, I shamelessly lied. “I already checked my cables before I rang, and they’re all plugged in.”
Andrea: “Okay, good. (keyboard sounds) There’s no outage in your area. What I’ll do is book a technician to come out and look at your modem. Because you’re out of contract, you’ll be charged $66 plus $18 per 15 minutes. Is that all right?”
Max: “Uhhh… I thought there was a nation-wide problem. There was a recorded message just before I got you.”
Andrea: “No, I’m not aware of any nationwide problem.”
Max: “Well, that’s what the message said.”
Andrea: “I’m looking at the screen and there’s no outage. When your modem is blinking like that, it usually means there’s a problem with the actual modem. So the technician may need to sell you a new one.”
Max: “But every other time I’ve had this pattern of blinking lights, it’s been a fault with your network.”
Andrea: “It’s more likely to be your modem.”
Max: “The Power light on, the Receive light blinking, everything else off?”
Andrea: “That’s right.”
Andrea: “Do you want me to book a technician?”
Max: “I think I’ll wait and see if it fixes itself.”
Andrea: “Okay. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
Now, let’s pause to review the “facts” I received here. At first I thought there were only two:
- There is no outage
- My pattern of blinking lights suggests a fault with the modem
But later I realized Andrea had buried a third one in there as well, and it was waiting to bite me.
The next day my modem still wasn’t working, so I called up again. Tech support told me:
- There is an outage
- My pattern of blinking lights suggests a network fault
- It will be fixed by 1pm
This was a relief, because I didn’t want to shell out for a new modem. It was also reasonably satisfying to confirm my suspicion that Andrea had no frickin’ idea what she was talking about.
Sure enough, internet access was mine again after 1pm—but only for a few hours. Then the modem started doing that blinking thing again. I couldn’t bring myself to call Telstra again, so I decided to re-try an earlier strategy: going to bed and hoping everything fixed itself overnight. Alas, this proved unsuccessful. In the morning I sucked it up and called Telstra again. Now tech support told me:
- There was an outage in my area yesterday, but that was fixed
- That pattern of blinking lights could mean anything
- A technician needs to come out to my house to see what the problem is
Then commenced a heated five minute argument about why a technician needed to come to my house. This came to a halt when I finally articulated a key assumption: “… so I don’t see why I should have to pay for a technician to confirm there’s a problem with your network.”
“Oh,” the tech said. “You don’t pay for a technician unless the problem is with your computer — like if it’s got a virus and that’s why you can’t connect. Otherwise there’s no charge.”
Thus, Andrea’s third and final piece of misinformation:
- If a technician comes out to see me, I get charged for it
The soonest a technician could visit was the next day. “I can book him in for between 7am and noon,” tech support said.
“Okay, sure, any time in there is fine. Say, 9am?”
“No, I mean, that’s the booking time: between 7 and 12. We book in five-hour windows.”
Fortunately I don’t have a real job, so this didn’t require me arranging time off work. Instead I merely had to postpone showering in case that was when the guy knocked, and, of course, he finally dragged himself to my doorstop at 11:30am. He came upstairs, unplugged my modem, and plugged in an orange doohickey. It went KRRRRRSSSSSSSHHHHHH, like an old man blowing his nose. The technician repeated the process at the wall socket: same deal.
“Hmm,” he said, “When I drove up, I noticed a Telstra van on the corner, digging up the road. I wonder if they’ve disconnected the amplifier.”
He wandered out the front door. I heard these blokes shouting to each other. “Oi! Did you cut any optical cables there?” “What?” “I said did you—” And so on. After a few minutes, the technician wandered back. “Yeah, they’re doing some work. They reckon they’ll be finished in about twelve hours.” With that he packed up his orange doohickey and left.
This strikes me as an interesting, even innovative, business process. A traditionalist like myself might come up with something like this:
- When a Telstra bloke unplugs part of the network, he records that fact in the system.
- If a customer calls up with connection problems, tech support checks whether any Telstra blokes have unplugged things in that area.
Telstra, however, prefers:
- Telstra blokes arbitrarily unplug sections of network; wander off for hours or days.
- When customers call up unable to connect, tech support makes them check if their computer cables are plugged in.
- Technician is booked for some vague time period in the future, during which customer is required to stay at home and avoid going to the bathroom.
- Technician drives to customer’s house, checks modem, wanders streets looking for any Telstra blokes who might have unplugged things.
That must be why they’re Australia’s largest telecommunications company and I’m a chump trying to make a living out of writing novels. That and their koala expertise.
I’ve spent most of the last three and a half days at Continuum, my first ever science-fiction/fantasy/horror convention. I didn’t know what to expect, so my first stop was the “So This is Your First Convention” panel. This proved to be a little alarming, as Danny, the Chairman, talked about the “6-2-1” rule: “Each day, have at least 6 hours of sleep, 2 meals, and 1 shower. Please, the shower is particularly important. I can’t stress that enough.”
But I soon discovered that sweaty nerds dressed as Darth Vader were actually thin on the ground. Instead, there were endless ranks of spunky young women with arresting eye shadow. What’s more, they were friendly, thus rectifying the single flaw I’ve always found with spunky young women with arresting eye shadow in the past. Danny was right: the convention felt like an intimate party for a couple hundred people. Everyone was excited to be there and ready to party down.
The convention’s centerpiece was the Maskobalo, a big costume party. There I learned another important lesson: nobody respects the guys who wear tails. “Furries,” said Sarah, a blindingly blonde punk rocker wearing a SHOW US YOUR RIFFS T-shirt. “See, some of them love animals a little too much.” Actually, that’s not what she said. What she said terrified me to the depths of my soul, and I had to bang my head against the floor until I could no longer remember specifics.
My favorite part of the Maskobalo was the most realistic Dalek I’ve ever seen—when it talked, even the lights on its head flashed—doing stand-up comedy:
Yesterday I went for a job interview. The woman said, “Do you have any EX-PER-I-ENCE?” I told her, “Daleks have ruled the galaxy for THOU-SANDS—OF—YEARS!” She wrote: Some management experience.
Just before the Maskobalo, I got talking to Ian, who had read some of my blogs. He said, “That one you did about drool, did you make that up?”
I was shocked. “You’re not suggesting I make up blog posts for comedic effect.”
This had sounded a lot less sarcastic in my head. Ian laughed. “Riiight.”
“No, no, I mean they’re all true. I don’t make anything up.”
I could tell Ian didn’t believe me. But I didn’t have time to argue; the Maskobalo was starting and we had to go into the main hall, along with a Dominatrix, a Knight, and a Cyberman, to watch a Dalek perform stand-up comedy.
I have a throat infection. This will come as no surprise to people who know me well; developing throat infections is something of a hobby of mine. In fact, given the amount of time I devote to it, it’s more like unpaid part-time work. According to my parents, it’s because I have no tonsils. The story goes like this: as a kid, I caught a cold or something and the late 1970s were a dangerous time for tonsils; you only needed to look at a doctor the wrong way and he’d be down your throat, grabbing for them. My parents were unconvinced that I needed a tonsillectomy (“ectomy” being Latin for “get those dangly things”), but they were hypnotized by the gentle swirls of the doctor’s lava lamp and into surgery I went.
In a twist worthy of Marvel Comics, I emerged with an incredible super power: the ability to transform any bodily affliction into a throat infection. It works like this:
- Get food poisoning
- Develop throat infection
- Stub toe
- Develop throat infection
- Develop throat infection
- Develop much worse throat infection
During times of sickness, I also gain super powers of drool production, which allow me to produce my own body volume in saliva. In fact, I’m pausing to spit even as I write this. Sorry, that’s probably a little more insight into the creative process than you really needed. But it really is amazing. If I could bottle this stuff and sell it as some kind of industrial lubricant, I’d be rich.
Right now I can’t speak without breaking into a fit of coughing (followed by spitting), so Jen is required to phrase all questions to me in a way that accepts a yes or no answer. She’s pretty good about this, except, I discovered, when it’s 4AM and she has to get up for work in three hours. I thought I was being terrific last night, keeping my coughing and spluttering down to an admirably low level, but somehow Jen failed to appreciate this. At one point she glared at me (I think—it was dark) and said, “Do you want me to go into the spare room?”
My answer was “no”—I mean, it wasn’t like she was disturbing me—but I had a feeling the real question was, “Do you want to go into the spare room before I brain you with a lamp?” Unable to articulate this, I just lay there quietly. Then, slowly but surely, my throat started to tickle. I fought against it, but finally it was too much and I had to grab for the pack of Butter Menthols on my bedside table. In the process I banged my lamp and knocked a book onto the floor, and in fact I was still looking for those bloody Butter Menthols when Jen sprang out of bed and announced she was relocating.
She didn’t hit me, either. I guess her question was for real after all. What a girl. I was filled with love and appreciation; also saliva. I had to spit.
Last night I took a break from re-reading Cryptonomicon to pick up a book roughly as long as one of its paragraphs: Sealed With a Kiss, by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. It was number 20 in a series, so at first I wasn’t sure if I would be able to follow the story-line without having read the previous 19, but luckily these fears turned out to be unfounded. It was a cracking read, full of hope and joy and heart-breaking pathos, so I’m sharing it with you.
Here’s the blurb:
Mary-Kate and Ashley can’t wait to go home for winter break. But they wind up stuck in a Harrington University dorm instead.
Things start to look up when the girls meet a new boy with a romantic holiday secret…
You see why I was intrigued. The book’s first sentence alone raised a series of perplexing questions:
“We’re going home to Chicago for only two weeks!” Mary-Kate Burke told her sister Ashley.
First, who, exactly, reads the 20th book in the Mary-Kate and Ashley series without realizing they’re sisters? I mean, setting aside the possibility that the previous 19 books have been keeping this a secret, and that the reader has thus far been unexposed to mainstream media, the book’s cover shot is of two remarkably similar-looking girls. Isn’t that a giveaway? If you’re worried about readers that stupid, you probably need to point out that they’re twins, too.
Second, I can’t help but wonder what percentage of Mary-Kate and Ashley books contain an exclamation point in the first sentence. I haven’t checked, but I get the feeling it’s a high number.
Third, and most intriguing: Mary-Kate Burke. The authors of this book—and it says so on the cover, so it must be true—are Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. I’d thought this was some kind of tell-all autobiography, but apparently not. It turns out that Mary-Kate and Ashley books feature characters called Mary-Kate and Ashley that look exactly like them but are, in fact, fictional. I hope you get that, because I had to stop and think about it for a while. Whenever I came across passages like this:
“Why can’t you just get another flight, Cheryl?” Ashley asked.
“On what—Santa’s sleigh?” Cheryl grumbled. “It’s the holidays. All the flights are already booked.”
I thought, “Well, just send your private jet, Ashley!” Then I had to remind myself that fictional Ashley doesn’t have a jet. People complain that movies and computer games blur the line between fantasy and reality; I say, start with Mary-Kate and Ashley. After reading this book, I’m no longer sure if they even exist. I mean, think about it: first there was just one of them, on that TV show Full House, then they split into twins; now, apparently, they have divided again, into the Olsens and Burkes. They’re actually spinning themselves off. Either that or they’re some kind of mutant virus, and unless we do something, there will soon be eight of them, then 16, then they’ll destroy mankind.
But back to the book. It quickly became apparent that Ashley was the more entertaining twin, getting all the good lines:
“Wait!” Ashley cried out. “I forgot to pack my bathing suit and flip-flops!”
“Bathing suit?” Mary-Kate shrieked. “But the winters in Chicago are ice-cold!”
“There are indoor pools,” Ashley said.
Snap! Good work. The book really started to move along when the twins’ Chicago holiday plans were dashed and they were forced to move into a dorm with four boys. Hoping to recover from the indoor pools comment, Mary-Kate stepped to the fore:
“I hope you like Twister,” Mary-Kate said.
“What’s that?” Derek asked.
“It’s a game!” Mary-Kate said.
“Does it run on double-A batteries?” Tyrone asked.
“How impressive is its resolution?” Derek asked.
“Does it include a thirty-two-bit RISC-CPU with embedded memory?” Garth asked.
They’re computer geeks! (And Derek’s surname is “Wang,” so extra funny.) This was a startling development. I knew that large sections of the internet were writing fantasy fiction about the Olsen twins; I didn’t know the reverse was also true. But then, with adulthood approaching, I guess they have to manage the transition of their fan base from pubescent girls to lecherous men.
The inclusion of geeks as love interest had me hooked, and I couldn’t wait to find out how the twins would manage to pry them away from their computers. (“Stop posting about how you’re about to kiss one of the Olsen twins, Derek, and just kiss me!”) But then a new figure entered the scene. He was Colton, and I knew he was trouble because his clothes were described (“cuffed jeans, black sweater, and grey trainers with black stripes”—which, incidentally, boldly puts an Americanism in “sweater” right next to two Briticisms in “grey trainers”). Colton looked “like those models in the Gap ads.” He skateboarded, snuck through tunnels, cooked pizza muffins, and his great-grandmother invented the pencil eraser. Or so he said. It quickly became apparent that Colton was a pathological liar. Ashley picked this up straight away, but Mary-Kate was blinded by infatuation.
Alas, if only they’d gone to the geeks, a few minutes Googling would have punched holes in Colton’s story. But no. Old fashioned Scooby-style investigation ensued, with plenty of creeping around in tunnels. At one point, the book got into a bit of trouble when the story required that the twins and two other girls return to the tunnels, but there was no motivation for them to do so. Authors hit situations like this from time to time, and I tell you, it can be a struggle. The solution to this one, though, was pure genius:
“I am not going back down to those tunnels,” Cheryl declared. “I’m tired of sneaking around.”
“Me, too,” Kirsten agreed.
“We have to go back,” Elise said in a small voice.
Everyone turned to look at Elise.
“I dropped my Peppermint Pink blusher in the tunnel,” she explained. “It must have fallen out of my sweatshirt pocket last night.”
“Why can’t you just buy another one?” Kirsten asked.
“Because,” Elise said, “Peppermint Pink was discontinued last month.”
Down in the tunnels, Ashley got off another zinger:
“Wait!” Mary-Kate said. She pointed to a narrow tunnel. “I know we never went through this one.”
“Let’s not and say we did,” Ashley blurted out.
So Mary-Kate was already steamed when they discovered Colton’s secret: he was the son of the tyrannical Headmaster! His full name was Colton Harrington III, he was stinking rich, and he’d lied non-stop to them since they met. This, you’d expect, would be when Mary-Kate slapped him, realized how she’d overlooked the gentle love of the geeks, and learnt a few life lessons about untrustworthy men who look like Gap models. But no: in the greatest love tragedy since Molly Ringwald chose Andrew McCarthy over Jon “Duckie” Cryer, she fell into Colton’s arms. There the book unexpectedly ended; I say unexpectedly because there were still dozens of pages left but they turned out to be full of advertisements for other Mary-Kate and Ashley books.
But wait! All was not completely lost for the geeks. They missed out on the twins, but in the final scene Garth scored a slow dance with one of their hangers-on, Kirsten. Alas, even this was tinged with tragedy. Kirsten quickly complained that Garth was “more into computer games than smooching,” and thus the relationship seemed doomed. Oh well, at least it was realistic.
In a few weeks I’m going to my first ever science-fiction convention: Continuum (Melbourne, Australia, 11-14 June). They asked me to write a piece for the program book, so here it is:
I admit it: I am a conference virgin. I’ve never done this before, just about everything I know I got from movies, and I’m hoping it’ll be fun but worried it will be painful. I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do but will be desperately covering this up and pretending I’ve done it loads of times.
At first I wasn’t sure I was qualified to speak about science fiction. Only one of my novels is sci-fi, and even that masquerades as mainstream fiction. But then I thought about it:
- I use Linux, read Slashdot, and program web games, and yes, yes, there’s no proven link between tech geekery and science-fiction, but we all know the correlation is there
- I think Neal Stephenson is a god
- Jennifer Government is being developed as a sci-fi movie by Steve Soderbergh and George Clooney, and I think this is the coolest thing ever
- I once met Chris Carter and got to hang out with the X-Files people
- My agent went to college with Joss Whedon, and this deeply impresses me
- I believe that the Star Wars prequels are not just bad but desecrations
- I have trouble finding purpose in a world without Buffy
So dammit, I am qualified. I also thought about some of the short stories I’ve written over the years:
- Plucky crew dock with what appears to be a deserted spacecraft but isn’t
- Girl’s best friend hits puberty before she does; also becomes werewolf
- Six-year-old girl sees alien invasion as opportunity to get back at her brother
- Teenagers hang out on the beach and tell scary stories until they all get eaten by weird bugs
- Small group of post-Earth survivors defend their homeworld against what is ostensibly alien attack but turns out to be other human survivors
- High school girl has sex with exchange student, goes nuts, gets hit by a train
Admittedly, most of these were written in high school, and featured my classmates as characters. The last one, for example, was called Jenny, and was very popular with everyone in my year except for Jenny. (I ended up marrying her, though, so she must have forgiven me.) Still, I’ve written my share of SF and H.
Not that you’d know, though, because none of these has ever been published. It is, I’ve discovered, very tough to sell fiction in Australia. The only way I managed it was to get an American publisher, which was not only easier than landing a local one, but made me abruptly more attractive to Aussie publishers. There is something bizarre about having to go to America to impress an Australian publisher, but the fact is new writers require heroic measures to get noticed. I have some experience with this, which I’ll be sharing in my Shameless Self-Promotion panel on Monday.
So if you’re interested, come along. Just remember, it’s my first time. Be gentle.
Now we return to some stories we were following earlier. In response to My life as a sex god, several people wrote in to inform me that I am not attractive. Jennifer, for example, wondered if she’d missed something:
How can these fans tell youre pretty? It CERTAINLY isnt from the pics you post on your site.. have you actually looked at those?
While Jonnie was more emphatic:
I really don’t think that you’re that good looking. Maybe no one has told you this, but your HEAD is WAY TOO BIG for your body!
What!? I thought everybody had to deal with their head sinking down and mashing the keyboard from time to time. Now I find out I have to hang out next to James Van Der Beek just to look normal? It’s… oh. Wait, I see what’s happened here. Jonnie mistook that stick figure with my head on it for a full-length photo.
After I expressed a wish for a Rent-A-Friend in Throwaway dialogue as art form, just like in Newlyweds, Steve was quick to put his hand up:
I just wanted to officially state that I will be your “RENT-A-FRIEND” in Portland, OR. You call and I am there. I will cackle with joy at every phrase.
I tell you what, if this works out, I’m putting Steve on permanent retainer.
Several Canadians wrote to tell me they planned to take immediate action following my Snubbed by Canada post, in which I lamented the fact that my last royalty statement for Syrup showed a paltry six sales there. I am now looking forward to a big turnaround. Based on these letters alone, sales are set to almost double!
Finally, part of the Mysterious Packages puzzle has been solved, with Sharon confessing she sent me the Office Space DVD to repay me for posting her a book. I’m pretty sure Sharon already paid me plenty for postage, so I’m grateful for her generosity, or early-onset senility. The other part of the mystery, though—that strange “Jennifer Government #75” card—remains unsolved. Spooky.
The Jennifer Government B Format hits shelves across Australia today—B Format being a smaller, cheaper paperback edition. The theory behind releasing multiple editions of the same book is that it’s already sold as many copies to actual interested readers as it’s going to, so the only way to generate new sales is to make it price-competitive with bird cage liner. Although the first edition of Jennifer Government in Australia was thirty bucks, so this time around it’s really just price-competitive with other books.
I’m becoming more attractive. At first I merely suspected this, but now I’m sure of it: I am heaps better looking than I used to be. I must be, because more and more I get e-mails telling me that I’m pretty, and previously I never got any. I think you’ll agree there’s only one logical conclusion: my looks are increasing in a linear relationship with my age. By the time I reach 80 I will be an irresistible sex symbol and have to fight off young women with my walking frame.
Just today, for example, I received an e-mail from Toni who says:
Oh………. and you are absolutely the hottest thing since bluetooth
Whoa! For a web geek like me, that’s so hot I have to adjust my USB cable. Earlier this year on my American book tour, a girl asked me to sign her bra. Admittedly, she wasn’t wearing it at the time, which makes the incident less sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll than please-label-your-clothing-before-laundering, but still: that never happened before. It used to be that girls were very determined to keep me away from their bras.
I got a tip-off, though, that perhaps there was more to this than simply my being a chiseled example of desirable manhood when one e-mail said:
you’re relatively handsome for a writer
I was interviewed for Melbourne’s MX Magazine this afternoon (article to run on Monday), and they wanted to take some photos.
I said, “Smiling, looking serious, funny expressions, what?”
“Funny expressions,” said Nic, the photographer. “We like funny expressions.”
So, ignoring the fact that I was standing in a very public and busy part of Melbourne and passing businessmen were doing things I couldn’t see but were sure were inappropriate behind my back, I did what I could.
Nic sniggered. “What was that, your Magnum look?”
“Hey,” I said. “I thought you photographers were meant to build up my confidence. Lower my inhibitions. Develop a bond of trust between photographer and subject.”
“You don’t have a confidence problem,” she said.
- If the book is brand new, its rating is five stars because the only reviews have been secretly written by the author.
- If the book is widely unknown, it has four and a half stars because the only people who have bothered to post reviews are devoted fans.
- If the book gets lots of publicity and everyone says it’s great, it gets three and a half stars because people complain it’s overhyped.
Before the UK launch of Jennifer Government, I had a chat over lunch with my British editor about the despicable things publishers do. It was a long and wide-ranging discussion, as you can imagine. But the part that’s relevant here is that he said, “It seems that if you post a truly awful review on Amazon, a completely over-the-top bashing, it’ll generate four or five very positive reviews in response.” Then he added, “Not that we would do that,” which was just as well, because I was getting nervous about their marketing plan. But he’s right: Amazon is not so much a collection of reader reviews as a forum for people to argue about books.
I find it tough to read Amazon’s user reviews of my own novels, partly because they can be incredibly scathing and partly because many are written by obvious lunatics and their fevered scratchings bear little resemblance to English. Bada-boom! Oh yeah, that felt good. Anyway, bad user reviews range from the vicious (“Much better than William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition! But that’s not saying much”) to the really vicious (“If you must read this book, do some good and support your local library. Sales will only encourage mediocrity”). It’s difficult to restrain the urge to track these people down, follow them to their work, and stand behind them all day yelling, “Hey, everyone! Carl’s doing a crappy job! His work is lazy and uninspired, and if you ask me, he should be unemployed! Frankly, even I could flip burgers better!” But that would be churlish.
Even the good user reviews can be a little frustrating. Take this review of Jennifer Government from hutsutraw in New Jersey:
This book has a lot of characters, blazing story - you really have to focus on what is going on where and with who. It is a fast paced, entertaining story. The only fault I have with this book is the lack of character description. Other than that, it’s definatly worth reading.
Great! Me, I dislike physical description (but that’s a subject for another blog), but I understand that not everybody feels that way. Thanks, hutsutraw. Only… wait a minute… what’s the rating? Three frickin’ stars! Three! Because I didn’t tell you what color shirt everyone was wearing? I get three out of five for writing a novel that is allegedly flawless in every way except that!?
I tell you, it’s not good for the blood pressure. I’m not one of those writers who refuses to read reviews of his stuff, but I can definitely see where they’re coming from. Matthew Reilly, an Aussie author, once told me, “If you believe good reviews, you have to believe bad ones, too.” My view is a little different. It seems to me that people who write good reviews about my books are intelligent, discerning, witty, and extremely good-looking. Bad reviews, on the other hand, are written by escaped asylum patients. I know, what are the odds? But experience really does seem to bear this out.
P.S. Humble apologies to everyone on the mailing list who got two copies of my latest few posts. I think the problem has been fixed now.
I’ve never really gotten into instant messaging or IRC, mainly because I already have enough trouble keeping up with my e-mail. I don’t really need any new avenues of communication that I don’t have time to respond to. But I’ve just had my second ever IRC interview with NationStates players, and it was good fun. If you’re interested in what I had to say about beers, bookstores, and programming, there’s a transcript available.
I stumbled onto that TV show Newlyweds the other night, and quickly became engrossed. I never realized this was a documentary about two pop stars; I just assumed it was some kind of reality TV show where the recently wed compete to break up each other’s marriages. Hmm… actually, that’s not a bad idea. Let me just call my agent…
One of the things I loved about Newlyweds was that Jessica seems to have a rent-a-friend: a person hanging around whose only job is to laugh at her jokes. Next time I go on book tour, I’m asking my publisher for one of those. (Max: “So you’re Jeremy?” Jeremy: “Right! Ha ha ha! Very good!” Max: “You and me are going to get along just fine, Jeremy.”) In fact, I could do with one in everyday life.
The other thing I loved was the dialogue. If this thing was scripted, I’d be campaigning for them to hand over the Emmy right now. See, I have something of an addiction to throwaway dialogue. This is an exchange between characters that has no bearing whatsoever on the plot, but is fun anyway. Or, at least, fun for the writer. (It’s very liberating to write a scene that doesn’t have to do anything.) But it’s not so much fun to read, which is why my throwaway dialogue tends to get deleted between drafts one and two. It’s basically just me being tricksy, and I don’t think anyone wants to pay money to see that. You can just visit my web site.
Anyway, there was a tiny scene in Newlyweds that was so perfect that it sent me running for pen and paper. This is classic throwaway dialogue. It may well do nothing for you, but for me… goosebumps, dude. Goosebumps.
Jessica and Nick are walking down a hotel corridor. Suddenly Jessica lets loose an enormous sneeze.
Nick: Bless you.
Jessica: Is that true, that if you sneeze, your heart stops?
Long pause. Nick turns around to look at her.
Nick: Why would your heart stop?
Jessica (defensive): That’s what I heard… just… what I heard.
Nick: From who?
Jessica: I don’t know.
Nick: Never heard that.
A typical e-mail is this one, from Meghan:
I have one question for you: What kind of dog did they get? Did they get it? If not, I’ll be very grumpy.
While Jonn assumes the worst:
I notice Kate never got her puppy, you heartless sod.
For those of you who haven’t read the book, what the hell is wrong with you? No, sorry, I mean: for those of you who haven’t read the book, there’s a little throwaway scene where Jennifer promises to buy her daughter Kate a puppy. Then she gets distracted by having to save the world, as you do. There is, I think, every indication that Kate will get her puppy, but you never actually see it happen.
This is mainly because having my characters wander through a pet store hand-in-hand and fall in love with a brown-eyed Beagle named Floppy didn’t strike me as the greatest way to finish a fairly brutal thriller about corporatization. Even a line like, “Now let’s go get that puppy,” threatened to engage my gag reflex. I think most people will be with me on this one. But still, I have to admit: I have a dangling puppy reference.
Closure is very important. As Jerry Seinfeld said: “If I want a long boring story with no point to it, I have my life.” Novels have to end, and when they do they’re meant to wrap up all their loose story threads. I realize this; in fact, the main reason Miranda Hewlett-Packard disappeared between drafts three and four was that I couldn’t tie her story thread neatly enough to the others. So don’t tell me I’m not prepared to go the hard yards for closure. It’s just… well, I never thought so many people would care so much about that puppy.
I wonder if there’s some group I could join. “Hi, my name is Max and I have a dangling puppy reference.” (“Hi, Max.”) You know, that feels good. The first step is admitting you have a problem.
There’s no question in my mind that George W. Bush has been great for democracy. Previously, a lot of people were becoming disillusioned with mainstream politics, frustrated at having to choose between one corporate-backed rich white guy with good hair and another, slightly different-looking corporate-backed rich white guy with good hair. The feeling was: “What difference does it make if I vote? They’re all the same. What will one guy do that the other won’t?”
Thanks to Bush, now we know. He’s like a walking object lesson in the importance of voter turnout.
I’m Australian, but one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen was a rally outside City Hall in New York in 1999 to protest the police shooting of Amandou Diallo. Thousands of people voicing their grief and outrage… all quietly and competently supervised by the target of their protest, the NYPD. In plenty of countries, the cops would have been beating the crap out of those protestors. In the others, the protesters would have been throwing rocks at the cops and setting their cruisers on fire. But not in the United States. It was, to me, not just impressive but almost magical.
Then there was September 11. In the aftermath, there was a global outpouring of grief and sympathy for Americans—and more than that, of allegiance. If you lived in the US, you might not have noticed this. Your attention was, of course, focused inward. But it was there, and it was extraordinary. It was overwhelming. What I heard over and over was, “Today, we are all Americans.” Throughout the world, people wanted to stand by the US.
I wonder now what might have happened if the war on terrorism had chiefly been a diplomatic one. If the Bush administration had defined what terrorism was and called the world together to expunge it—not just in one country or two, but globally, and no matter in which cause it was employed. In 2001, with that incredible worldwide feeling of unity… maybe it was possible to take that act of great evil and extract from it a great good.
But it’s not possible now. That global unity is gone, and in its place is cynicism and mistrust. It happened because George W. Bush told the world it was irrelevant. As the war on terrorism morphed into an invasion of Iraq, Bush and his administration said it again and again: “You either agree with us or you are meaningless.” Maybe it was ignorance of the importance of international diplomacy. Maybe it was arrogance. Maybe it was even realistic. But one thing’s for sure: the world had offered its hand in solidarity and it didn’t like having it slapped away.
Opinion of the US has fallen so low that America is now widely viewed as the greatest threat to world peace—not just by people in “Axis of Evil” countries, or Muslim countries, but by majority populations in Western countries, like Australia, that are staunch US allies and have troops in Iraq right now. That sounds absurd if you live in the States, I know. But to understand it, imagine you don’t. Imagine it’s China that has more military power than the next 20 countries plus yours combined; China’s new government that rapidly cancels international treaties on everything from anti-missile proliferation to global warming; that announces it has no use nor care for world opinion; that conquers two countries in two years and hints of more to come; China that says other countries must choose to either support it without question or be “with the terrorists;” and China’s new President who describes entire nations as “evil” and his country’s military operations in religious terms.
I hate how the US is viewed by the world today. America is a truly great country, and doesn’t deserve to be considered deceitful, dangerous, arrogant, and greedy. But it is, because in the eyes of the world, George W. Bush is the US. It’s not as if we foreigners watch CNN. All we know about American politics is who’s President and how many bombs he’s dropping on other countries.
Which is why I hope like hell that John Kerry wins the election this November. If he does, people around the world won’t know it had anything to do with who had the better service record, or was more credible on jobs. But they’ll think, “Maybe Americans didn’t agree with Bush after all.” They’ll think, “Maybe they’re not all like him.” They’ll think, “Maybe we can stand together again.”
The Dutch edition of Jennifer Government is out, and it’s a whopper. It’s 405 pages compared to 321 in the US paperback, but because it’s been printed on paper as thick as carpet samples, it’s three times as big. I like that; it makes it seem more significant. If it were up to me, you’d have to carry my novels out of the bookstore on a forklift.
Publishers routinely alter a book’s paper thickness, font size, and spacing depending on whether they want it to appear light, fun, and fast, or weighty, serious, and important. This makes it tough to judge which are genuinely longer than others. War and Peace, for example, is really just four paragraphs printed on pages as thick as wet towels.
I always find it awkward when someone asks me how long one of my books is, because the conversation goes like this:
Me: “It’s about eighty thousand words.”
Them: “So… what’s that in pages?”
“It depends a lot on how they set it. But somewhere around three hundred.”
“Um… is that a lot?”
“So you want to know how thick it is, is that it? You want to know whether it’s a thick book?”
But then, I’m very touchy.
The other interesting thing about the Dutch edition is that they’re running some kind of barcode competition as a promotion. There’s a web site where you type in the barcode that comes with your copy of the book, and if you’re lucky you win… actually, I don’t know. They never told me that. Books, I guess. I assume that if the prize was a date with me, they’d have to notify me first. Although now that I think about it, I haven’t read my contract that closely.
There is something odd about using a barcode as a symbol of consumerism in an anti-corporate-ish novel, then having a corporation use that symbol to sell copies of the book as part of a marketing campaign. At some point there, I’m thinking, “Wait a minute… that’s not ironic. That’s just a promotion.”
Max (checking into hotel): “The surname is Barry.”
Desk woman: “Berry?”
“No, Barry. With an A.”
“With an e?”
“A. A for apple.”
“E for epple?”
I swear, it really happened.
After that I tried laying on a thick American accent whenever I pronounced my surname, but I just got strange looks, especially outside the States.
I get called Berry in print too, though, so that can’t be it. I wouldn’t mind so much except I went to high school with a kid named Scott Berryman who moved in on a girl I was deeply in lust with, so he was my arch-nemesis for, you know, about three weeks around the end of 1987. Every time that damn Berry name comes up, I get flashbacks of Scott and Tracy sitting under a tree together, holding hands. Damn you, Berryman!
Still, even I can appreciate this pic, which a mysterious person called RaptorRed whipped up on the NationStates forum. Now that’s funny! I especially like the little heads floating in the bowl.
Another day, another company tattooing itself onto people’s foreheads. This is why I love marketing: it’s not just shameless, it’s shameless and imitative. In 2003 it was Dunkin’ Donuts, now it’s Toyota taking the word “brand” too literally and slapping Scion logos and prices onto 40 human foreheads in Times Square.
“This is the first time we’ve used foreheads,” says Toyota exec Brian Bolain, which is, just quietly, not a sentence you want to put into your press releases, Brian; not ever, not about anything. It sounds like there could be a second time; like forehead billboards could be the next big thing in advertising real estate. Presumably companies will pay varying rates for foreheads, based on available space (low hairlines equals low pay, people with fringes need not apply) and smoothness of texture (perhaps a deduction per zit).
But wait! I’m forgetting the most important part: attractiveness. Because the point of forehead advertising is to embed the brand into the human host, so it becomes the most whole-hearted product endorsement ever. A person wearing a corporate tattoo says: I like this product so much, it’s literally oozing out of my skin! You don’t want uglies walking around embodying your product; if you’re buying human flesh by the inch, you want the good stuff. The nice-looking stuff.
In the Ad Age report, Josh Tierney, one of the walking corporate billboards, says, “It is a little compromising.” Getting the tattoo, that is. The logo tattoo. Tattooed on his forehead. Josh strikes me as the kind of guy you want around when your plane crashes in the Andes and you need to pick someone to eat; he’d complain, but only a little.
I have no doubt that this was pitched to Josh as a bit of fun: make some money, do something silly, why not? Don’t worry about concepts like dignity and individuality: you can have them back when you’re done. But look at the pic of the two marketing geniuses who convinced him, standing in Times Square as their forty Frankenstein Inc’s monsters roam around. Decent-looking guys. Nice, wide, smooth foreheads. But whaddya know? No tattoos.
I did say that people who join my site could win stuff, right? Right. So here we go. A couple of years ago my publisher made up some honest-to-God Jennifer Government barcode tattoos — the idea, I think, was that bookstore sales staff might wear them. (We’re talking stick-ons, not permanent, just in case you were wondering.) I never heard any reports of this occurring, so possibly it was one of the world’s less effective marketing stunts. But still, they’re kind of neat. If you had one, everyone would be jealous at your next anti-globalization rally. So that’s what I’m giving away today.
I couldn’t decide whether to do this randomly or based on whose quote made me laugh the most, so I’m going with one of each. The random selection is Kareem Badr of Austin, Texas, and Jamie of Auckland, New Zealand scores for tapping into one of my pet hates with this quote:
Anyone still spelling “internet” with a capital “I” is probably struggling with the complexities of their new-fangled electric typewriter.
Ahhhh, yes. Stupid dictionaries. They have words from 1682 but when I want to put down HYPERLINK in Scrabble, it’s not in there. How unfair is that? But I digress. Kareem and Jamie, e-mail me your postal address and I’ll send you some tattoos. Oh, the excitement!
I’m working up a new draft of Company, so the last few days I’ve walked down to my local café and scribbled away there. I’ve always hated writers who do this, because I reckon they’re concerned not so much with writing as with being seen to be writing, and those people are even more pretentious than actual writers. Whenever I see someone sipping a coffee over their laptop, I want to say to them, “Oh, you’re so important with your fancy computer, thank you so much for sharing this mystical act of creation with the world.” Of course, that’s a personal problem and I should probably see someone about it.
When I’m writing I like to be home by myself and play really loud music. But with edits, I’ve found it useful to get away from the study, the phone, and the urge to see if I have any new e-mail. So it’s off to the café.
After I turned up three days in a row with 200 pages under my arm, the waitress got curious enough to ask what I was doing. “Editing,” I said. “I’m working on a novel.”
“Oh,” she said, not very enthusiastically. Some people get very excited when they hear you write novels; others react like you said you work in the tax office. “What kind?”
“Um… a comedy with social comment.”
“Oh, okay,” she said. “So do you want another coffee?”
I did, but mainly I was impressed with myself for coming up with such a good definition. It’s not often that I come up with clever things like that. I usually need to go away and do a few drafts first. That’s why I’m a writer and not a stand-up comedian. But dammit, that’s a great definition. That’s what satire should be.
Satire has a bad rep. When Syrup was published, my agent warned me, “Don’t call it satire. Say it’s a comedy. Nobody likes satire.” My editor advised me against writing any more of it. And for good reason: most satire is boring as all fuck. It tries to sell you a moral first and tell you a story second; then, if you’re lucky, it might get around to being funny. I don’t want to read novels like that. I sure don’t want to write novels like that. I want to write the good kind of satire, the kind that has engrossing stories and characters you care about and are scary and piss-funny both at once. These are out there, too, but there aren’t piles of them.
So I often describe my novels as something other than satire. But because authors are terrible at describing their own books, I end up saying things like, “Well, Syrup is a kind of comedy-romance-corporate-thriller… and Jennifer Government’s more of a science-fiction-comedy-action-thriller… or… something.” It’d be a lot easier if I could say I write satire and know that people weren’t thinking, “Oh, dull, unfunny, pretentious crap.”
Maybe if I use my new definition a lot, that’ll help. Maybe I can change people’s minds one waitress at a time.
People often e-mail me to point out that some scary-ass marketing technique I dreamt up for Syrup or Jennifer Government has actually come true. No matter how shameless, ludicrous, or extreme I get, some novelty-tie-wearing marketer eventually gets the same idea. Notable examples so far include Dunlop-Tire paying people to take its name and Dunkin’ Donuts convincing people to tattoo its logo on their foreheads. The latter is really something; follow the link for a pic of grinning, tattooed college students. I want to call them corporate prostitutes, but not all of them were paid: some apparently got tattoos just for the sheer joy of turning their faces into billboards. Which raises the question: which is less moral, taking money from a corporation to rent your face, or letting them do it for free? It’s a toughie.
Now I’ve got an e-mail from Nathan who says my Why Copyright is Doomed essay is coming true, too. Just in case you don’t feel like digesting 1,800 words right now, the short version is that I think advertising is going to creep into novels. Not just in relatively subtle The Bulgari Connection ways, but big, bright, honking, dancing, in-your-face-just-the-way-you-don’t-like-it ways. Real advertising.
And here it is. Matthew Reilly, a fellow Aussie, has a new novel out next week, Hover Car Racer. And it’s to be published on the web alongside ads for United Pictures films and Canon products.
I’ve met Matt a few times. He’s a terrific guy, even though his books sell better than mine. If you like big blockbuster action novels, he’s your man, and if Ice Station in particular never makes it to the screen, it’s a crime. I don’t blame him for letting ads snuggle up to his fiction. I think it’s inevitable; eventually, all novels will be like this. But can’t help but cringe. I wish I could have stayed ahead of the marketers a little longer this time.
Once every few months, I have lunch with a bunch of ex-Hewlett-Packard employees. Unlike me, most of these guys have real jobs, so they’re still in that bizarre business world I’m no longer a part of. This makes the lunches a little like anthropological surveys for me; I get to peek in and see what’s happening. And what’s happening, apparently, is that everybody’s “adding value.”
I know this phrase is not new. But last time I checked, it was mostly in annual reports and speeches by incoming General Managers. Now it’s everywhere. A business failed because “it wasn’t adding value;” a woman’s job is to “add value to the channel;” one man offered to help me with my new novel by “adding value to your sales and marketing strategies.”
Now, okay, value is important. You gotta have the value. But “add value” as a phrase has clearly reached the point where it’s no longer conveying any useful information. It’s adding no value. It’s so broad you can use it in any situation. Here, watch. My job as a writer is to “add value to letters.” My pajamas, which I’m wearing right now, are “adding value to my legs.” I married Jen because she “adds value to my daily living experience.” I saw Tomb Raider 2 on the plane, but it “added no value to excrement.”
The only way to rid the world of this expression is to overuse it so grossly that everyone gets sick of it. So if you’re at work today, really pack it in to your conversations. There’s no reason why every sentence coming out of your mouth can’t include “add value.” If people start to look at you funny, that just means it’s working. And if they nod their heads wisely and talk about strategic vision, it’s time to look for another job.
I know what you’re thinking. “Sure, Max’s web site is kind of neat and all, but I don’t want to have to keep checking it for updates. I have better things to do with my time, like browse for naked pictures of John Ashcroft. Can’t I just get Max’s posts in my e-mail?”
Yes! You can! After spending a few days slaving over a hot command prompt, I managed to add a membership list, so you can now join my site. It’s a bit like being in a cult, only you don’t have to shave your head, mail me checks, or commit ritual suicide. I think you’ll agree that’s a plus.
Today I received a Syrup royalty statement. This is usually a depressing event, because it reveals either that vast numbers of people are not buying Syrup, or, worse, that the book isn’t for sale any more. This statement, which is the first since Viking brought Syrup back into print, is not quite so heinous. People are buying it. This is a relief not because I get 75c from every copy—well, not just because of that—but because nothing is quite as awful as watching your novel slowly sink into oblivion. Once I got a royalty statement that had negative net sales. I didn’t even know that was possible.
(It’s because bookstores can return unsold stock to the publisher for credit. Even on the royalty statement I’m looking at right now, one bookstore—just one!—returned one copy of the Syrup hardcover, almost five years after it was published. They make me pay back my 75c for that.)
It seems that people are split pretty evenly over whether they prefer Syrup or Jennifer Government, so I cling to the hope that one day the former will be read by as many people as the latter. It still seems possible.
Except in Canada. Now, Canada and Syrup have long had a strained relationship. It has always sold abysmally there, although I have no idea why. I like Canada. I used to work with a Canadian at Hewlett-Packard, Mike, and we got on fine; I don’t think he phoned home to say, “Quick, tell everyone not to buy Max’s novel.” But this latest royalty statement makes the situation truly bizarre. In the last six months of 2003, Canadian Syrup sales were: 6.
Now, serendipitous references to the character in the novel aside, what the hell is with that? Six!? I’ve bought more copies than that! If it was zero, I’d think maybe the book wasn’t available at all, but six—six! It’s enough to make me want to catch a plane to Vancouver and buy an armload full of copies, just to treble national sales. Or maybe I’ll track down Mike and kick his butt.
Jennifer Government has been beaten for the Borders Original Voices in Fiction 2003 Award by Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. I haven’t read this, but according to the blurb it’s “an unforgettable, heartbreaking story of blah blah blah.”
Pfff, as if there weren’t enough unforgettable, heartbreaking stories already. I mean, really.
Apparently this was announced a couple of weeks ago, but I only found out today, when I thought, “Hey, I wonder if they’ve announced who won that Borders award yet? I should find out.” This is one of the problems with being an author: no-one gives you bad news. Or maybe it’s just me. My author pic is kind of scary.
People kept telling me that turning 31 is harder than 30. From a psychological perspective, that is. Because physically, neither is exactly a struggle. You just keep doing what you’re doing and the birthdays organize themselves. But the thought of being 31 years old was, according to these people, more of a shock than the thought of turning 30.
Now I’m 31, I can say for sure: that’s a load of crap. Thirty-one has nothing on 30. When I turned 30, my body discovered age overnight. I swear, it was like while I was sleeping someone had broken into my body and taken it for a joyride. The vehicle was clearly no longer in showroom condition. There were scuff marks and discolorations. The radio was missing. My analogies had stopped making sense. And just to rub it in, everyone kept calling me up and saying, “Ho ho ho, the big three-oh!”
But 31, so far, has been fine. I’ve checked and everything seems to still be in working order. Nobody has tried to mock me with numbers. It’s a good day.
Okay, this will be of zero interest to just about everybody, but I need to announce it somewhere. I wrote a plugin for Blosxom that allows a blogger to preview their posts before they become available to the world at large. The advantage over existing plugins is that if everything looks right, you don’t need to do anything.
If you want it for your site, download autopreview here.
One of the cool things about having a web site is seeing what people typed into search engines to bring them here. “Jennifer Government,” is, as you might expect, the runaway winner here (43%). But there are also some truly bizarre phrases. My all-time favorite is “coke fuck shoes”. But this month’s winner is:
let me try on your lingerie and high heels
It’s hard to imagine exactly what this person was looking for. In fact, it’s probably better not to. But it really does match a page on my site*.
The other fun thing is seeing which sites link to mine. Because occasionally—just occasionally—there’s one that makes no apparent sense and has as its logo a guy blowing bubbles out of his pipe. Don’t tell me what it’s about. I like it better not knowing.
* [Update: Well, it used to. Google now seems to be rebuilding its index of my site. For the record, the match is this page.]
I don’t talk about books I’m working on. This is because I once posted a diary on this site about a book I was working on, Girl Makes Headlines, and it turned out to be a baaaaaad novel, very bad, and when it became clear that I shouldn’t even attempt to get it published, I had to quickly pretend it never existed. Talking about future books, I realized, is begging the publishing gods to smite you down. So now I don’t do it.
Until, that is, I sell them to a publisher. And that’s what’s just happened: Doubleday has ponied up for Company. It will be published in hardcover sometime next year.
I wasn’t sure exactly what I should say about the book at this stage, but fortunately I received an e-mail from a guy called Luke who is very sure what he wanted to know. Luke has 18 questions for me. They start out about my novels, then get into NationStates territory, so I’ll just take the first ten.
1. Is “Company” going to be unique and insightful like the first two books, or is it going to be meant solely to be painfully funny to people in offices, sort of like a Dilbert in writing?
I’m not sure those things are mutually exclusive. I love Dilbert. I’d be very happy if people thought I had written the Dilbert of novels. But I think you’ll find Company to be very recognizably a Max Barry book. I haven’t changed much since I wrote Jennifer Government.
2. Have you finished it and your publishers are just making us wait, or are you still working on it?
I’ve finished the latest draft. My editor is writing up his thoughts on what I should do for the next draft, which, if all goes well, will then be pretty close to the published version. This editing process will probably go for two or three months. The rest of the time is the publisher fooling around with cover designs, sucking up to bookstores, and trying to arrange all the fiddly little die stamp letters in the printing press into the right order.
3. Do you plan on writing more books afterwards?
4. If so will they be coming out more or less frequently than your first books?
It depends. It was three and a half years between Syrup and Jennifer Government, and will be roughly two years between Jennifer Government and Company. I’d like to have books published more regularly than that, but only good books. I’m not sure how long I’ll take to write my next good one.
5. If answer to #3 is yes you expect your quality of writing to increase or decrease?
I expect my writing quality to increase as I get more experienced, then taper off sharply once I get rich and famous, descend into a incoherent lifestyle of drunken debauchery, and start pulling out old, rejected manuscripts to meet publishing deadlines. You’ll know this has happened when you see Girl Makes Headlines on the shelves.
6. How many books do you think that you could write before runing out of original ideas?
Forty-two. No, actually, that’s a fair question. John Grisham has just published his—what—17th legal thriller? And apparently it’s good. I really don’t know how you find anything new to say in your 17th genre novel. But I’m only up to book three. I have plenty more stories.
7. Will you be doing any more IRC sessions do you think?
8. Will you be doing any more book tours?
If the publishing gods smile, yes.
9. If you will, do you think that you could persuade your demographically blind publishers to make a few more east coast stops?
I can ask them. I may not be able to persuade them. How this works (I think) is that the publisher lets bookstores know that they’ve got a particular author on tour soon, and any stores that want to host him/her put up their hands. So the best way of getting me to tour your city may be to find the bookstore that does the most author events near you and say, “Me and all my friends want you to host Max Barry.”
10. What about Western Massachusetts? I think if you could publicize it, our being a large chunk of land out of touch with reality would cause a book tour to be very succesful. ;p
I tell you what, I’ll mention it on my web site.
People are mailing me strange things. A couple of weeks ago I got an envelope that had nothing inside but a small card with “THANK YOU” printed on the front and “Jennifer Government #75” hand-written on the back.
Now, it’s nice to be thanked. People should thank me more often. But—wha-huh? What’s it for? For writing the novel? Who’s it from? And what does the #75 mean? Did I miss the first 74 notes? Is it a series of clues? Is it someone who writes thank you notes to all the authors they like, and I’m the 75th?
Then a few days ago I checked my mail box and inside is a DVD of the movie Office Space. Everybody’s been telling me I have to see this film, but I’ve never gotten around to it. Now somebody anonymously mailed it to me. Who? God?
I’ve heard that the best thing about being famous is that you get a lot of free stuff. This I can believe. But I’m quasi-famous, at best. And not many people know my postal address.
Nothing inflames hatred of Microsoft quite like redesigning your web site. Except, I guess, having your innovative internet business crushed through monopolistic abuse of market power. Yeah, that’s probably worse. But designing your web site means having thoughts like this: “Okay, I can work around Internet Explorer 6’s float bug using absolute positioning, but that means I run into IE5’s positioning bug—which I guess I could fix by exploiting its CSS bug—” And so on.
I tell you, if everybody didn’t use Internet Explorer as their browser, nobody would use it.
When Doubleday asked me for an author photo for Jennifer Government, I e-mailed them a whole bunch of snaps. Most were of me looking like I thought authors were meant to look like: serious, thoughtful, smoking a pipe and rubbing my tweed elbow patches, that kind of thing. But one was this one I took of myself with my tongue poking out—which, of course Doubleday chose for the book jacket.
Now that’s okay—people get the impression that I like smashing up hotel rooms, but that’s actually kind of cool—but the problem is I’m sitting in front of a standard Windows desktop. I can protest that I dual-boot Linux all I like; it makes no difference. In the eyes of geeks around the world, I am forever shamed.
Right now I’m in a Seattle hotel room, having just finished the last bookstore appearance on my US book tour. It’s been such a blast; thanks to everyone who came along! I hope it was good for you too.
Syrup is back in Australia and New Zealand! Apparently the publisher was checking down the back of a couch for a TV remote and instead found 2,000 copies. Or maybe it was a warehouse, not a couch. Whatever. This means that like in the US and Canada, while most bookstores won’t have Syrup on the shelves, they can now easily order it in for you.
Because there’s limited stock, if you’re keen to get your mitts on a copy in Australia or New Zealand, now’s the time to act. (By going to a bookstore and ordering a book. Was that clear already? Okay.)
Borders has announced the finalists for its 2003 Original Voices award, and Jennifer Government is one of them! I’ve never felt so warm and fuzzy toward a chain store. Although I can’t help but wonder if the idea of going after Barnes & Noble with a private army really tickled Borders’ fancy.
The winner is announced in March, so I have that long to arrange horrible accidents for Monica Ali, Mark Haddon, Khaled Hosseni, Audrey Niffenegger, and Julie Orringer. No, wait! That might trigger a sympathy vote. Maybe I should toss myself down some stairs.
Only a week or two now before my US book tour! I talk, I read, I sign books, I answer questions; it’s like a wild and crazy party for librarians. You should come along.