MaxBarry.com
nice idea, shame about the execution

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

Mon 07
Dec
2009

It’s Not Me, It’s You

Writing

Another installment in the series: “Max Craps On About Writing.”

I’ve written more bad fiction than you’ve read. I’m serious. I’ve done a hundred or so drafts of nine or ten manuscripts, and let’s not even start on the shorter stuff. Read one of my books? Think it could have been better? Well that’s what they published. That was polished.

After a decade of wrangling paragraphs for a living, I have decided: it’s always the book’s fault. When your scene won’t quite come together, your novel idea won’t stay interesting, your main character refuses to fill out: it’s not because you lack talent. It’s because your idea is stupid. You’re trying to push shit uphill. And you may be a good shit-pusher, with a range of clever and effective shit-pushing techniques, but still: it’s going to be hard, frustrating, and ultimately you’ll discover you still don’t have your shit together.

I used to believe that an author needed an iron will. Discipline, to forge through the bitter dark and emerge clutching a tattered, tear-stained first draft. Now I think that’s a good way to lose nine months on a bad idea. Because if you have any skill as a word-slinger, you can make a bad idea sound okay. Not brilliant. But mildly interesting, at least for a while. Keep pushing that shit, though, and depression sets in. That’s when you think: I’m not good enough. Or: If I were more disciplined I’d finish this. Or: I can’t write.

Sure you can. You just can’t write this and stay interested, because it’s a stupid idea. It’s predictable. It’s been done. It had one intriguing aspect and you tapped that out within the first three pages. You don’t want to write this because your body is bone-bored of it.

A good idea excites you. It makes each day of writing a little joy. A good idea, when you peel it, has more good ideas inside. It makes you feel clever. It doesn’t need to be articulated. It might sound silly when you try to explain it. (Don’t try to explain it.) But you know there’s something there. It pulls you to the keyboard. It spills words from your fingertips. Some days, you lose your grip; you wander from the path and lose sight of where you were. But a good idea calls out to you.

A while ago I had The Block. The way I got out of it was to write a page of something new every day. The first week, I flushed out a lot of ideas that had been humming around the back of my brain, promising me they were brilliant. They weren’t. I captured them one page at a time and set them aside. The second week I wrote two things that were kind of interesting. Not very interesting. But not abominations, either. It was possible to imagine that in some alternate universe of very low standards, they could become novels. Not popular novels. But still.

The third week, I wrote something interesting. And I discovered I could write. That the reason I’d been stuck wasn’t because I’d forgotten where the keys were. It was because the story I was trying to make work sucked.

So that’s my advice to anyone mired in a story. Don’t blame yourself. You’re great. It’s just that stupid idea.

Comments

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Machine Man subscriber Stygian Emperor (#2947)

Location: the Stygian Empire
Quote: "Flesh is a design flaw."
Posted: 2784 days ago

Who needs school when we have you to educate us? I graduated top of my class from Max Barry High.

Go Chickens!

Machine Man subscriber Puck Malamud (#3017)

Location: New York, NY, USA
Quote: "We're fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well Dance."
Posted: 2784 days ago

Augh. Thank you for saying that. Thank you so much. I've had a stupid block for months now and this was just what I needed to keep going through it.

Machine Man subscriber gStein (#585)

Location: 127.0.0.1
Quote: "That's not change! That's more of the same!"
Posted: 2784 days ago

"/You/ don't suck, your /ideas/ suck"
thanks for the inspiration, max!

syrup6 (#1224)

Location: Arkansas
Quote: ""Truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion" - Kierkegaard"
Posted: 2784 days ago

I'm pretty sure you wrote that idea into chapter one of Syrup... am I right?

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 2784 days ago

Can we pretend I did? Because that would be a good story.

Machine Man subscriber Adam (#24)

Location: Morristown, Indiana
Quote: "Why do I blog? Simple, because Max Barry blogs."
Posted: 2784 days ago

Tues
8 Dec
2009

BAD IDEAS TO WRITE BOOKS ABOUT:

An Alligator Who Eats People in New York
Cancer
Real Science ("Weird Science" and Science Fiction are still okay. Actual Science is quite boring)
A&W Root beer
Vacuum Cleaners
Popcorn
Ninjas
Anything Dan Brown writes about

GOOD IDEAS FOR BOOKS:

Adam (me!)
Panda Bears
Robots
Being Awesome
Pirates
Abraham Lincoln


SOMETHING TO REMEMBER:

"Live every week like it's 'Shark Week'"

-meta Adam

Machine Man subscriber Roger (#1653)

Posted: 2784 days ago

Ok WTF Max. Did you read my mind, then type out this blog post? I'm having this exact problem...

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 2784 days ago

I'M RIGHT BEHIND YOU

Machine Man subscriber Alan W (#1427)

Location: Spokane, Washington
Quote: "Corgis are like potato chips"
Posted: 2784 days ago

*turns around slowly*

Whew! It was just hyperbole!

Unless ...

I, for one, welcome our new omniscient Max overlord!

Lepidecko (#3428)

Quote: "why don't girls ever put the seat back up??"
Posted: 2783 days ago

So true. I usually know I'm on to a good idea when I have one of these terrible sleepless nights. I keep waking up every 5 minutes with a new facet of the idea or a new direction to take it in. Ever novel I'm really proud off started off with a night in which I set out the whole story in a notebook filled with barely readable, half-asleep, scribbles.

Machine Man subscriber SRD (#2889)

Location: Ogden, Utah
Posted: 2783 days ago

BRILLIANCE! Somebody should give you a PhD or something.

Joe Sherrod (#947)

Location: Rockville, Maryland, USA
Posted: 2783 days ago

That's a good way of thinking about it, but what about authors like Junot Diaz who spend years agonizing over their novels, only to end up with a Pulitzer? For some, the masochism method appears to work.

Machine Man subscriber hammer256 (#4122)

Posted: 2783 days ago

I can't imagine he was agonizing over ideas that he got bored with. A good idea won't write itself, and still need agonizing over. It's just that it doesn't feel boring to agonize over it. At least, I hope not.

Mary Rose (#2854)

Location: San Francisco, CA
Quote: "go big or stay home"
Posted: 2783 days ago

Adam #24, I beg to differ. Actual science is fascinating--assuming it's well written. I just finished Jonathan Weiner's "The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time." Great stuff.

Max, fantastic ruminating. Loved it.

mrk

Machine Man subscriber Russell (#3897)

Location: USA
Quote: "O Lord, Protect us from those to whom you speak directly"
Posted: 2783 days ago

i think i can sum up my reaction to this pretty simply.

THANKYOU!

Machine Man subscriber rebecca (#3891)

Location: oceanside
Quote: "revolution is the best revenge"
Posted: 2783 days ago

Great advice.
I was just going to bang my head against the wall to dislodge The Block, but I think your method will work much better.

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 2783 days ago

Joe Sherrod wrote:
> That's a good way of thinking about it, but what about authors like Junot Diaz who spend years
> agonizing over their novels, only to end up with a Pulitzer? For some, the masochism method appears to work.

True, and there are plenty of examples of writers who allegedly slogged their way through to a classic. Although I'm not sure I really believe it was ALL bad. I think maybe such tales skip over the part where the writer loved what (s)he was working on enough to push through. If it's frustration at not being able to get the brilliant, shining story that's in your head onto the page, that's a little different.

No technique works for everybody, of course. There are no golden rules. But I do think many writers get bogged down in mediocre ideas, and blame themselves for not being good enough to write their way out of it. A new idea, though, and they're away.

Gravy (#4388)

Location: Melbourne
Quote: "I've hired you to help me start a war. It's a prestigious line of work, with a long and glorious tradition..."
Posted: 2783 days ago

Anytime an author feels THAT down on themselves, they should just read some Dan Brown.

And realise the standards they have been measuring themselves against are obviously far too high!

Lepidecko (#3428)

Quote: "why don't girls ever put the seat back up??"
Posted: 2782 days ago

Or they should write a 500 page story about some kind of monster that chases a kid and then either the kid or the monster can win.

No. Wait. Maybe Stephen King will write one of those one day....

Michael Ricksand (#2212)

Location: Terra
Quote: "You do not have a right to be stupid."
Posted: 2782 days ago

"Read one of my books? Think it could have been better?" you ask. Well, I read Jennifer Government some time ago and now I'm reading Company, but I don't think they could have been better. Not (only) because I like them the way they are, but because I don't understand the concept. They are what they are, and to change that isn't possible in my mind. Well, except for fixing grammatical errors, like when Eve says "My mom forbid my sisters and I to have individual possessions" when it should have been "my sisters and me". (You don't say "She forbid I", you say "She forbid me". Yes, I'm like this all the time and I have no friends, thanks for asking, haha.) But when it comes to writing phrasing and plot differently? Does not compute.

The way I see it, your books were always the way they were, it's just that you needed to do a little rewriting until you'd managed to find their true forms.

Benjamin Solah (#4398)

Location: Melbourne
Posted: 2782 days ago

Excellent post. It really has me thinking after storming away in my National Novel Writing Month novel, and now I'm stuck and kind of unmotivated.

So do I scrap the whole novel, or just interrupt the shit part of the novel with zombies invading (or something far more feasible)?

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 2782 days ago

I think it can happen at every level. Sometimes I get stuck in a paragraph because I'm trying to make a bad idea work; I drop the idea, and I'm good to go again. Sometimes killing a single bad sentence is enough to free me up. Sometimes it's a whole bad chapter and sometimes I write an entire bad book.

If you're stuck in an unfinished novel, then backing up a little can help a lot. I'd just keep backing up until I feel inspired again. If you've already finished a first draft, then it's about picking which part of the story you love most and cutting/replacing the rest.

NaNoWriMo bothers me a little because it can trap writers in bad ideas--you take a bad turn on page 24 and it's too late to go back now because you'll never finish! It can make people feel like slogging through is the only way to write.

@Michael Ricksand: Ha! That one doesn't count because it's dialogue! Take it up with Eve, buddy!

Hotrod91 (#4564)

Location: Lubbock, Texas, United States
Quote: "I gotta feeling that it's gonna get cold tonight..."
Posted: 2780 days ago

Great minds don't write books in an instant.

Faust took years to be completed! Maybe we should all slow down before rushing to finish!

Peter Emuss (#1630)

Location: England
Quote: "Before you criticise someone, walk a mile in their shoes. Then, when you criticise, you'll be a mile away and you'll have their shoes."
Posted: 2708 days ago

Coo. It's been a while since I've been around here, yet on my first time back I find stellar writing advice on the first page. Thanks Max. {goes to read archives}

Benjamin: The zombie thing would actually be my recommendation! Not necessarily zombies, but throwing something big, bold and world-changing out into your character's world.

In his "On Writing" book, Stephen King mocks a Victorian device called The Wheel Of Plot, which an aspiring author could spin when they were stuck and it would come out with: "A shot rings out," "Somebody dies," or "A secret is revealed." I actually think it's quite a nifty idea; a sudden change can be the thing to free up your brain.

I'm working on my NaNoWriMo novel as we speak. Have slowed down somewhat after November, but approaching 70,000 now. Keep going mate.

PJW

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