Sat 29

The Block


I’d love to be a published author, but I never seem to finish any of my stories. I write about 20-60 pages and then just kinda let the story die, and it is not for lack of trying…I really would love to finish a story, but I feel my life gets in the way. Where do you get the energy, drive, and determination to write a full length novel?

I avoid handing out writing advice on this site, because it’s hard to do without sounding like the world’s biggest blowhard. But I get this question so often that I’m going to blow anyway. (Forgive me.)

Disclaimer: I don’t think there’s any advice that’s going to work for all writers. Everyone does this thing differently; you need to find what works for you. Don’t devoutly follow any rule about writing… except this one. And the one about always relocating a few copies of my book to the front displays any time you’re in a bookstore. Yeah. Just those two.

I guess the first thing to realize if you’re stuck a few chapters into a novel is that this happens a lot. It doesn’t mean you’re untalented or undisciplined or not cut out to be a writer. I started a novel in high school that I thought was brilliant in Chapter 1, okay by Chapter 4, and after that didn’t want to think about. It died a slow, lingering death on my hard drive, but because I knew it was there, waiting for me, I didn’t want to write at all. It was a couple more years before I resolved to leave it behind and start something new: that one clicked for me in a way the other never had, and I finished it.

So the important thing is not to let this one problem derail you from writing. Maybe you can fix this story and maybe you can’t; either way, you have to keep writing.

I think there are three reasons you can lose enthusiasm for a novel. Let’s start with the ugly one: it was a weak idea to begin with. Maybe your premise isn’t well-suited to a novel; maybe it’s better as a short story or screenplay. Maybe it needs another key idea or two to fill out the concept. Or maybe you just thought this was going to be better than it turned out. In any of these cases, it often won’t help to blindly forge ahead and hope everything gets better. So let the novel sit for a while. Start writing something else. It doesn’t matter what. You might end up coming back to this novel with new ideas and a ton of motivation, but if you don’t, let it be because you’ve moved on to something better.

The second possibility is that your story has good fundamentals but you took a wrong turn. This can happen any time, but is more unsettling at the start because you have less confidence. A trick I use when suddenly I go from powering along to a dead halt is to delete the last sentence. Even if I think there’s nothing wrong with it: backspace backspace backspace. For some reason, this almost always immediately presents me with an idea for a new way forward. Sometimes I have to delete a paragraph or two, or (very rarely) even a whole chapter. I don’t know why the physical act of cutting part of the story away helps—I should be smart enough to work this out by just thinking about it, shouldn’t I? But apparently I’m not, and it does.

(I don’t plan my novels out in advance. If you do, this technique is less likely to help you. I hate planning novels; I think they’re much more fun to write when they evolve on their own. I tried planning a novel once and it was dull, dull, dull. (No, it wasn’t one of my published ones. Shut up, you.))

The third possibility is you’re being too hard on yourself. For a lot of writers, getting critical too early—and “too early” here probably means “before you’ve finished the first draft”, or at least 30,000 words—is a quick and effective way to kill your motivation. I’m lucky on this score, because I am blessed with a kind of split author personality: I have the writer guy and the editor. The writer guy is totally deluded about his own ability: he thinks everything he writes is breathtakingly brilliant. Which is very handy, because when I think I’m working on God’s gift to the 21st Century, it’s easy to stay motivated. But unless I snap out of that at some point, all I have is a first draft, and that’s not nearly good enough. This is when my editor personality comes in. He thinks everything I write is the purest horse crap. He can’t believe that I would consider inflicting such a grotesque parody of literature on live human beings. So he makes me rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite.

Getting those roles mixed up is a disaster. You don’t want a dose of cold, hard reality while you’re writing. No, no: delusion is your friend. Embrace the delusion. Save the critical analysis for later.

Okay. Enough blowing. Hope this helps someone.


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Robert (#413)

Location: Los Angeles
Quote: "A positive attitude will not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort."
Posted: 6785 days ago

I really like these types of blogs. Thanks for the advice, a lot of people will be interested in reading and learning from it.

Emily (#609)

Location: New York
Quote: "When in doubt, fuck it. When not in doubt, get in doubt!"
Posted: 6785 days ago

Thanks for the blowing! I think it will be very helpful to many people. You have given me my daily dose of hope that I am on the right track with my writing, because I feel like I've taught myself a lot of that advice already. Thanks! :-)


Ben (#1647)

Location: Oregon
Quote: "No, THIS is the rythm of the night!"
Posted: 6785 days ago

I've written three novels so far (just for fun), and I find that the third piece of advice is the most useful to me. Another way that helps me is to resolve to write every day and set reachable daily goals.
If all you want to do is just get a novel written, don't look at what you're writing as you write it. It'll be rough, no doubt, but that's why they call it a rough draft. Yuo can edit later.
And if you need extra motivation, and are somewhat crazy or looking to become so, NaNoWriMo is starting on November 1st. It's how I finally wrote a novel. Works every time (for me).
What I want to know, is how to sit through an edit of a novel. Help!


Picto (#64)

Location: United Kingdom
Quote: "Who is more foolish, the child afraid of the dark or the man afraid of the light? - Maurice Freehill"
Posted: 6785 days ago

You basically just took everything that was in my head and stuck it into chewable words for me to digest on, Max. I feel privileged to have someone do that for me.

Thanks. That NaNoWriMo thing looks interesting but, with my GCSE's on at the moment, I think I'll take part next year and spend the time until then thinking about it. It sounds interesting but I don't have time in between studies and athletics training. Still. As they all say, one day..

Peace out.

Machine Man subscriber Adam (#24)

Location: Morristown, Indiana
Quote: "Why do I blog? Simple, because Max Barry blogs."
Posted: 6785 days ago

Sat, 29 Oct 2005


I think I am more of an editor than a writer. I just think that everything that I write is crap until someone else says that it is good.
I also think that the world would be a better place if we all had flying cars. We could get to places faster...
Neeways, Max Barry's advice was good, but I may be too far gone. I guess I will have to keep on writing and hope that someone will think I am at least a decent writer.


To whom it may concern,
I pity everyone who has to work in a restaraunt...especially as a dishwasher. It may be the worst jobby ever. Has Max Barry ever worked in a restaraunt?

Even though I consider myself more of an editor than a writer, I still don't have the motivation to look over my blogs before posting them. I just click post and hope for the best.


Rod McBride (#688)

Location: Gardner, KS
Quote: ""
Posted: 6785 days ago

I 'started' and abandoned an average of three novels a year for twenty years. I’d get three or four chapters down and then get disenchanted with it, then come up with something ‘truly brilliant’ My ‘editor guy,’ in your parlance, always came out too soon.

I still go through disenchantments, but it was a great realization a few years ago when this story wouldn’t quit bugging me to write it that I had to tough it out. Sometimes I think it’s getting less coherent, further from the mark, etc. I edit in fits and starts, write brand new material for it, discard entire sub-plots and characters, and sometimes it’s further out of shape (now is one of those times) than at other points.

But it was authors I admired and respected talking about going through these same stages. Interview after interview in places like ‘Paris Review,’ I’d see authors say they go through dozens of rewrites, or spend a whole day getting a phrase right in their heads.

I think a lot of aspiring writers have this notion in their heads that most books get written in a steady, methodical way. That the author writes as if taking dictation. Hell, Don DeLillo talks about starting a fresh page for each paragraph, even if it’s a three line paragraph, so there’s ample room for notes and rewriting. I think that method is a comment from the typewriter days, but whether you’re moving type around on screen or using a Selectric, it still reveals that brilliant novels are not generally tossed off in nine days, ‘Bridges of Madison County’-style.

Machine Man subscriber Adam (#24)

Location: Morristown, Indiana
Quote: "Why do I blog? Simple, because Max Barry blogs."
Posted: 6785 days ago

After reading through that blog, I have realized thatI may have ADD...
You look nice today.


Picto (#64)

Location: United Kingdom
Quote: "Who is more foolish, the child afraid of the dark or the man afraid of the light? - Maurice Freehill"
Posted: 6784 days ago

If anyone is interested in reading what Doubleday has to say about Company then there's a sneak peek blurb for the book.

You choose. It sounds intruiging (sp.) though. Good work Max.

Ryan Smith (#1575)

Location: Seattle, WA, USA
Posted: 6783 days ago

I'm going to make another plug for This is a great way to trick yourself into prolific page counts, and continuing without second guessing your work.

I've always figured that most first novels won't be published anyway, so you might as well push on, weakly, and save brillance for when you have enough experience and background to know what you're doing. That's the beauty of nanowrimo for me. There's no pressure. It's just writing. At the end of the month you can worry about what you have.


Greg Karber (#1568)

Posted: 6783 days ago

The writing posts are the best ones.

John Lampard (#1652)

Location: USA
Posted: 6782 days ago

I have an Advance Reading Copy of Company to pass along (at no cost) to anyone in the US. If you live in the US, I will gladly mail it to the first person who is interested. please e-mail your name and address to me at [email protected]


John Lampard (#1652)

Location: USA
Posted: 6781 days ago

i have already sent it to the first person who responded. if anyone deserves to read it first, it is a fan!!

Machine Man subscriber Roger (#1653)

Posted: 6781 days ago

awesome. Your advice actually makes sense. I'm gonna be world-famous writer now!

Paul (#104)

Location: Connecticut, USA
Quote: ""Don't fight it son. Confess quickly! If you hold out too long you could jeopardize your credit rating. " --Brazil (1985 movie)"
Posted: 6774 days ago

Max, I need my fix! I'm going through withdrawls! Another blog posting is needed by your engrossed fanbase :) I know, I know, blame it all on being a daddy now... ;)

Gregor (#1182)

Location: Toronto
Quote: "The righteous man is beset on all sides by the tyrannies of evil men."
Posted: 6751 days ago

Of course!
There are two of me. We knew that bit.
The bad writer and the bad editor! :)
Why does the sound of writing 30,000 words sound exactly like getting 30,000 lashes?
I may stick to reading, I am good at that.
I'll go one better with moving your books, I'll put stickies on them saying 'buy me, I am great!'...

Michael (#1299)

Location: Northern California
Quote: "Chugachugachoochoo"
Posted: 6743 days ago

I think I managed to get through 160 pages once before coming to a screeching halt. It was even one of the rare times my 'editor' self actually liked and didnt have too many issues with what the 'writer' me had done.

Unfortunately I got stuck: I had a plan (loosely) of what was going to happen when I started it, but it grew so far away from that I couldnt manage to tie events together.

I think I was probably overly ambitious, as I had been following several seperate story lines which caused the problem of, 'now that all these things have gone in their own direction, I can't tie them together any more.'

Fortunately, because it was following seperate paths, I managed to rip my favorite story completely out from the rest without much damage to repair to that particular story-line. I've been working on it since.

Ada Rell (This Girl) (#2463)

Quote: "There are 10 types of people in the world: those who understand binary and those who don't. Tee Hee."
Posted: 6537 days ago

I like NaNoWriMo. You just have to write.
I like co-authoring. My friend and I talked it out for a few months and now we e-mail the chapters back and forth. Each of us knows what happens next. We edit each other's work fiercely and think our own above reproof. So that keeps author and editor separate.
Too bad you can't co-author a nano. . .

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