Lately my Google Alert emails have become polluted with other Max Barrys. I guess I knew it had to happen. I couldn’t have the web to myself forever. But all of a sudden there are three of us. The first guy to show up was okay. He writes about NFL. I gather that’s some kind of football. Not the good kind. But still. I was just glad he was doing something. I didn’t want some whiny, self-obsessed blogger Max Barry confusing everybody. I have that base covered.
But now this third guy. I’ve been worried about the wrong thing. Because this Max Barry, he’s better-looking than me. He models. He’s younger. More hair. I guess that goes without saying. But really: tons of hair. He cooks. Plays tennis semi-professionally. Works as a personal trainer. Posts workouts-of-the-day to his website. Workout-of-the-days? Whatever. He’s a god, is my point. A toned, buffed, let-me-whip-you-up-a-filet-mignon god. He makes me look like crap.
At this point I haven’t decided whether to break into his house in the middle of the night and stab him or become fast friends and use him as my body double for TV interviews. That’s a decision for the new year.
Speaking of which! That’s it from me for 2009. Thank you so much to everyone who cared enough to follow what I’m doing this year. Double thanks to everyone who made this the year of Machine Man. Triple—wait, this is getting ridiculous. But thank you, thank you to those who emailed me feedback on the serial, because that is incredibly helpful as I turn this thing into a novel.
I hope your year was a good one, and your next is better. And may I leave you with this: my daughter Finlay’s first ever appearance on stage, at her four-year-old ballet concert. They are dressed as kangaroos, if you’re wondering. This was one of the most terrifyingly beautiful moments of my life. I’m not talking about the dancing. I’m talking about what happened next.
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.
So I finished Machine Man. And I want to stay all cool and authory about it, but honestly, I feel a little heartbroken. I think because when I tap out THE END on a regular novel first draft, it means I finally have something I can show people. But Machine Man wasn’t a regular first draft: it was an experience, me posting one page at a time and checking the next morning to see what people thought. That was freaking wonderful—terrifyingly wonderful—and now it’s over, I already miss it.
I think I will need to do this again. This, or something like it.
But my next step is turning the serial into a novel. Every first draft can be better; my first drafts can be a lot better. If you read this serial—even if you only read some of it—I would love to know what you thought. I usually distribute my first drafts to ten or twelve early readers. This time there are 600 of you, another three or four thousand in the free feeds. As a feedback junkie, this makes me trembly and excited.
If you’ve got an opinion, please let me hear it. I want nothing more than to make my stories as strong as they can be, and I need to figure out how this book reads to someone who hasn’t written it. So please help me: post a comment. Or, if you’d prefer to keep it private, email me.
I tell all my early readers: I’m after what you felt. Please don’t think you need to be a literary critic. Don’t try to imagine what other people might like. Above all, don’t hold back because you can’t think how to justify what the book made you feel. Figuring out why you had a particular reaction and what to do about it, that’s my job. I can do that. What I can’t do is read my own book for the first time. The closest I can get is hearing you describe how you felt when you read it.
Please do tell me what you liked and what you didn’t. I’m looking for flaws, but part of figuring out what to improve is understanding where its heart is. Also, I tend to assume that anything an early reader doesn’t mention she didn’t care terribly much about, so it’s a candidate for the ax. If you stopped reading at some point, please tell me where. If you’re partway through, please share your thoughts so far. If you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about with feelings versus literary criticism and all that, please comment anyway. One-sentence thoughts are fine. I can’t get too much feedback. Please. Tell me.