MaxBarry.com
legionnaires' disease-free since 1990

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

Blog

Sat 29
Apr
2006

Maximum Words. Maximum Results. Maximum Barry.

Writing (Gahh! I wrote most of this blog, then got sick. It was the usual. But I’m better now, thanks for asking.)

Some people recommend that you write a certain number of words every day. Well, not you, necessarily. Novelists. See, those of us who decided it was a good idea to write a novel sometimes find that our key challenge has become not drawing heart-breakingly realistic characters or identifying our underlying unifying theme, but rather getting to the end of the frickin’ thing before we die.

Novels are long. You probably don’t realize how long until you write one. Occasionally I hear that someone read one of my books in some ridiculous amount of time, like a single night, or half a day while sipping coffee in Barnes & Noble, or while waiting in line at a movie, and this is wonderful but also appalling, because people really shouldn’t be allowed to digest a couple of years’ worth of my work that fast. They should have to work at it, like I did. It’s only fair.

But the point is: if a writer isn’t careful (or if he is; if he is too careful), he can find himself with a reasonable amount of pages but no enthusiasm to write any more.

The minimum-number-of-words-per-day technique is meant to help. It’s practiced by successful authors and advocated by admirable organizations, and for many people, it clearly works.

But for me, it’s a disaster. I tried it in 1998, after I’d finished Syrup but before I’d found a publisher. I was starting a book called Paper Warfare, a fairly straight corporate thriller about tobacco marketing, and I was very disciplined; every day for weeks I pounded out my minimum 2,000 words. But it felt wrong, because I knew that some days I was just banging out words so I could close the goddamn word processor and go do something else. The next day, I’d try to avoid looking at the words, because if I did I would be so appalled that I would have to delete them. This didn’t seem very efficient. And, more importantly, I wasn’t enjoying it: writing had become a chore.

I made it all the way to the book’s climax—I even had the ending plotted out—then realized it sucked. Not just a little. Not in ways that could be fixed. The whole book really, really blew.

Since then, I’ve written exactly as many words per day as I feel like. And that’s worked well, because when I’m having fun, I’m usually producing good words. But for the book I’m working on now, I’m trying something new: a maximum number of words per day.

I had something like this when I wrote Syrup, because I wrote during my lunch breaks at Hewlett-Packard: I had one hour to eat, write, and get back to pretending that I knew what SCSI interfaces were. Often I would be forced to leave half-way through a great scene, even though I was chafing to finish it. During the rest of those days I would keep thinking about the book, and come up with little embellishments and new ideas. Next lunch time, I would cram down my chicken sandwiches so I could get to writing as soon as possible.

I think this is pretty close to the perfect state: unable to write quite as much as I want to. So I’m seeing if I can create it artificially.

So far it’s been hard, because when I’m on a roll, I really don’t want to stop. I find myself deliberately avoiding doing a word count, because I know I’m probably already over. (I have set my maximum low: just 500 words per day.) Stopping before I want to is frustrating. But then, that’s the idea. I should finish each day a little frustrated.

You will know if this technique is working, because my blogs will become much longer, as I seek outlets for my pent-up words. Yes. You will be my hookers.

Comments

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Kori (#2258)

Location: Rochester, MN
Quote: "And then Jesus said, 'Let them eat cake.'"
Posted: 4707 days ago

So we'll get paid for this?

Andrew (#1279)

Location: Texas
Posted: 4707 days ago

Soo is there a copy of "Paper Warfare" online? Can we read it :). Send me the link :P

Phill Sacre (#1822)

Location: London, UK
Quote: "Computers are like air conditioners. Both stop working, if you open windows."
Posted: 4707 days ago

One thing that Scott Adams said was that really boring jobs allow your creativity to blossom. If you're doing a day job which is quite creative, you'll use up some of your creativity quota. If you're doing a really boring job, it gives your mind time to wander, and in fact I generally find that's when my mind is most likely to come up with new ideas.

Which kind of complements what you said, Max - you need to just give yourself time to think about what you're writing :-)

Narain (#824)

Location: Los Angeles, right between civilization and a desert
Quote: "NI!"
Posted: 4707 days ago

Does that mean you pay us per word that you write, or is it just by paragraph?

Alan Barclay (#1701)

Location: Seattle
Quote: "http://www.alanbarclay.com"
Posted: 4707 days ago

I swear by a set period of writing every day, with no consideration for words produced. Outside my 8 to 5 job, I write 45 minutes a day, the same time each weekday.

As well as the excitement of stopping while still energetic and on a roll, a set period also heads off overwhelming thoughts like "I should use every free hour to write."

I recommend this thought and others like it if you want to drive yourself into paralysis. Putting a cap on my writing heads this off and I write more in the long run.

(PS: Gee when I was growing up a tonsilectomy was supposed to _reduce_ infections. Glad I never had it done. Sorry, you did, Max.)

Rod McBride (#688)

Location: Gardner, KS
Quote: "www.MidwestRockLobster.blogspot.com"
Posted: 4707 days ago

I remember David Sedaris explaining in an interview why he continued working as a housekeeper after he was earning more than a living off his writing, basically the same kind of idea. Picking fruit, cleaning apartments, anything but sitting down at the keys first thing in the morning.

I suspect that's also what he loves so much about using an old fashioned Selectric instead of a word processor. Having to bother with all the stuff a word processor frees you from, and not having, for instance, a word counter to distract you.

I think some people I know would like it if I had a maximum word count, a verbal limit on how long I am allowed to ramble about stuff...

Justin Holt (#147)

Location: Rochester, NY
Quote: "www.justinholt.net"
Posted: 4707 days ago

I remember after finishing my first book, exactly two years from the day i started writing it, i gave it to my grandma before i left to drive the hour and a half home to my house. when i got there, the phone was ringing, and it was her saying, "i'm on chapter twenty-three already." granted, the chapters are short, but still, all i could bring myself to say was, "that's good, grandma." the next morning i get another call, and it's her, and she says, "so i stayed up all night and finished it. i liked it." there were probably more accolades thrown in there, but eventually it came to the point where she took a break in her part of the conversation, obviously waiting for me to take up my part in it. but i couldn't say anything, because i knew what was coming next. and then it did. she asked, "so when's the next one going to be done?" i think at that point i never wanted to write another thing again, mostly because i knew that whatever it was i would write could never be done fast enough, and a sort of never-ending cycle was created, where the important words weren't going to be the ones already on the page, but everyone was waiting for next. or something like that. but maybe that's just me.

as for the writing per day thing, i have tried it both ways, the way that stephen king advocates in his 'on writing' book, and the way of waiting around for inspiration to set in. i remember someone asking chuck palahniuk at the postcards from the future conference if he did the per day self deadline thing and his response was, 'do you sit down to take a shit if you don't have to?' personally, i always found that the one resounding plus of doing the word per day thing isn't neccesarily the writing itself, but rather the ideas within the writing. some good stuff comes out when you don't allow your mind the time to censor it. even if the writing is crap, which a lot of times it is, most of the time it seems there are at least a couple of parts that, if they don't blow you away, at least make you say, 'well this isn't complete crap. maybe i've got something here.' then again, that could just be me.

Peter Baker (#475)

Location: Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Quote: "I reject your reality and substitute my own."
Posted: 4707 days ago

Takes me forever to read a book. Who's got the time these days?... That and I like to have the picture painted vividly in my mind, so I like to take my time.

Nora Jean Stone (#1170)

Location: San Francisco, CA, USA
Quote: "Do Wa Ditty, Life in the CITY, where the Women are Strong and the Men are Pretty... anon"
Posted: 4707 days ago

Wasn't it Mark Twain who said, "The hardest thing about writing is applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair."?

I read once that Ernest Hemingway would write each morning before his children woke up. He would read everything that was written and then progress. He was said to have stopped writing the day before on a line he knew how he would end, in a paragraph he knew how he would end, in a chapter he knew how he would end. That way after reading everything he wrote from the beginning he could progress to that point, where he knew were he was going.

But he also shot himself, so I don't know how good that writing technique might be for others.

All I know is if something that is a creative effort turns into being a chore, that's the time to step back and reconsider the process. I know I wrote my best poems and short stories when I was working in a government printing warehouse, where my brain wasn't being used for any higher function than moving my hands collating that which others had written... badly.

Christian (#2192)

Location: Calgary, Canada
Quote: "If being a nerd was baseball, I'd be starting quarterback!"
Posted: 4707 days ago

This isn't the first time I've been used as someone's whore. I feel cheap. And dirty.

And I love it!

Katy (#2345)

Location: Los Angeles
Posted: 4707 days ago

Yes, I do want to leave a comment. (Sorry. I actually started typing this before I realized that you're not supposed to answer the question above the comment box.)

I am not interested in a career as a writer, but I am trying to write a story. I stopped about two months ago and don't think I'll start again.

I was making myself write every night before I went to sleep (I have a spare laptop: what better use to put it to?) and... I'm not very inspired by the time I finally get to bed every day. It was a nice thought, but my writing came out sounding affected with a hint of pretentious (very similar to that last sentence, only chapters of it).

Hm. Another bad idea. Writing at night...
Bad.

And sorry about the long post; it's morning. I guess this should be my time of day to write (type).

Machine Man subscriber Adam (#24)

Location: Morristown, Indiana
Quote: "Why do I blog? Simple, because Max Barry blogs."
Posted: 4707 days ago

April 30, 2006

Yeah...I write a maximum of twenty words per day. It's not really working out.

-adam

Michael (#1299)

Location: Northern California
Quote: "Chugachugachoochoo"
Posted: 4707 days ago

Ohh, I've always wanted to be a hooker. Preferably a T.J. Hooker. I've been practicing my 'riding on the hood of a car' technique for a while now, but I still have trouble with my Shatner impersonation.

Tim Ashwood (#595)

Location: Sydney
Posted: 4707 days ago

I write what I want, when I want.
If I don't feel like writing, it's TV or DVD or the other blackhole of time - editing.
And re-editing.
And again.
No, wait - that was better the other way.
Dumbass, no it wasn't, put it back.
Crap. I'm bored with this - get back to progressing the story - "she heard the crunch of gravel behind her, but maintained her steady walking pace while wrapping her fingers around the hilt of the knife. Whoever it was, if they came too close, would get a nasty surprise..."

Keely (#1602)

Location: easy-peasy-24.livejournal.com of course!
Quote: "I always wanted to see the lights of Broadway... but then you get there and they're really kind of annoying."
Posted: 4707 days ago

I gotta say though, I am one lazy-ass punk kid, and I do write but often the only way I can guarantee that I write is when I have a sort of deadline, like a contest deadline or the <a href="http://www.nanowrimo.org">NaNoWriMo</a> deadline, to keep me in check.

I dunno--that's just the way I function. Maybe if it was my job, and I was out of school already, it'd be different...

Richard (#2051)

Location: Boulder, CO
Quote: "...I may not like you, but because some town in Switzerland says so, you have rights!"
Posted: 4707 days ago

I seem to have a similar problem with throat infections...trouble is, I've got both of my tonsils. Oh well.

Tony Quin (#1310)

Location: Plymouth -urgh
Quote: "Yoga is NAILS"
Posted: 4706 days ago

Someone make sure those last six words go on his headstone!

Jeffrey (#2286)

Location: Right here
Quote: "Mathematics is a powerful language. Just look at how mathematicians destroyed the housing market."
Posted: 4706 days ago

Why do I feel so dirty now? And on top of that guilty for reading Syrup so fast.

Machine Man subscriber David (#1456)

Location: Sydney, Australia
Quote: "Why are the pretty ones always insane?"
Posted: 4706 days ago

You started writing a new book and didn't tell us until now? I suppose next you'll be conceiving more children and keeping it to yourself. Typical. The whole point of having a blog is that you give up any pretence of a private life and tell the world _everything_. It's one of the bylaws of blogging, I suggest you read up on them before we meet next, okay?

John Doe (#797)

Location: Live from Omicron Persei 8
Quote: "You're just jealous because the little voices only talk to me."
Posted: 4706 days ago

1) Please, please, write a blog entry about NaNoWriMo in October. It looks really interesting, and I'd love to join in, except that I'm really disorganized and I'm sure I'll forget all about it by then.

2) We have that same problem in software development. Creating something takes an inordinate amount of time, compared to the amount of time users actually spend with it. You might spend days designing and implementing something that most users won't even notice, or will go through in seconds. The thing that saves me is that I love programming. If I were to worry about the outcome too much, or about how I'm spending a third of my life writing stuff that becomes obsolete almost as soon as it's ready, I might lose it.

The best explanation I've read on this thus far was in Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. If you want to be happy, you need to be involved in enjoyable activities. If you want activities to be enjoyable, you need, among other things, to make sure you're performing them for their intrinsic values.

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: 4706 days ago

Hooker? Yeah, I charge a hefty fine, Mister!

Trespassers Will (#2174)

Location: Puyallup, WA
Quote: ""...and if I laugh at any mortal thing, 'tis that I may not weep" - Lord Byron"
Posted: 4706 days ago

My sympathies on the spare room thing, Max. My affliction is insomnia, which is highly ironic. In the Army, I couldn't stay awake, especially on guard duty. Now that I am a civilian, I can't get to sleep. I toss and turn until my wife, an unfairly light sleeper, tells me to get lost, or at least have a hard time sleeping in the guest room.

Hang in there.

Coley (#2323)

Location: USA
Quote: "I was walking home one night and a guy hammering on a roof called me a paranoid little weirdo. In morse code"
Posted: 4705 days ago

sure, little text box I'll leave a comment.

Michael (#1299)

Location: Northern California
Quote: "Chugachugachoochoo"
Posted: 4704 days ago

That was actually kind of funny. The box above... sorry, I'll go now.

Oodge (#2790)

Location: Tas
Quote: "'Ooh look Marge, Maggie lost her baby legs.'"
Posted: 4482 days ago

you do that Michael of Northern California. as others have said, i also feel guilty about reading Syrup in one afternoon. since then i have actually attempted to read it slowly. by the first chapter i am unable to put it down...

by the way Max, thanks for the hooker comment

John (#2879)

Location: UK
Quote: "Minging sum ne"
Posted: 4452 days ago

I assumed as I started reading this, that the point of limiting your word count was that it would encourage you to polish those words. I mean, 500 words isn't much, so I guessed you'd knock off 500 words, forbid yourself to write more that day, and spend the remaining energy on revising those words until they gleam.

(Of course, introducing the risk of killing your prose's spirit!)

But you never mentioned it, so I wonder whether it's a factor?

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