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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

Thu 17
Dec
2015

Opening Lines

Writing

Let’s say, hypothetically, that you’re a hypothetical human being that, hypothetically, dabbles in writing short stories on Google Drive to kill the mindless boredom of hypothetical math classes. You need a snappy one-liner to kick off your short. Since your writing MO seems to include some pretty good starting sentences, what are your thoughts on how to achieve the perfect opening hook for a story?

Fish

I appreciate you saying my first sentences are “pretty good,” Fish. I can see why you came to me. I, too, seek wisdom from people who perform slightly above average. Some people say you should shoot for the stars, but I prefer to aim at about hat-height.

I believe in starting books from the front. When writing them, that is. Actually, reading, too. It’s important both times. But I mean I’d rather have a good first sentence and figure out the idea later than the other way around. An idea by itself isn’t much good. I have ideas for books all the time. They will be amazing, if I can ever get them onto paper, which I won’t, because they only sound good. Good-sounding ideas are actually terrible because they have no character and no heart.

An idea only becomes good with execution. A book can be anything, before you start, but by the end of the first sentence, it can only belong to a specific set of things. By then you have a sense of whether anybody is likely to die in it, or use the word “parsimonious,” or if it’s going to be funny, or have wizards. There is probably a tense and point of view and setting and timeframe. There’s still a world of possibility, of course, but you started with infinity, so this is smaller.

Anyway. I don’t have any tricks. I just think about it and see what tickles me. I like short first sentences. I try to write books that are interesting because things happen in them, not because I am an enthralling carpenter of words, so I think the first sentence should advertise that by getting to the point.

Here are my opening lines so far, just in case you don’t know them by heart:

I want to be famous.

Hack first heard about Jennifer Government at the water cooler.

Monday morning and there’s one less donut than there should be.

As a boy, I wanted to be a train.

“He’s coming around.”

And a few from novels that may never be published:

When Jason Hackman was four years old, he broke both arms falling out a second-storey window.

I want to help you.

So it’s 1346 and I’m hacking some guy’s arm off.

I’ll be honest: I did a bad thing.

Our job was simple.

Diego once killed a man by digging a hole.

When she was five, she was allowed to go to school.

I like those kinds of sentences because they make me want to read the next one. Or write it. That’s really all I’m looking for.

Tue 08
Dec
2015

What It’s Like To Run NationStates

What Max Reckons

Hey Max, Could you remove my copyrighted image from the banner on your amphibian distribution page. It is the cool frog you lifted from the cover of the Journal of Biogeography (far right photo in your banner). If you are going to make money from your web site, you should pay the people whose content you steal. Also, that species does not even occur in Brazil.

Thanks,

Elizabeth Everman (the person whose copyright you are violating)

This is a NationStates question. I figured that out by asking myself, “Do I have any idea what this person is talking about?” Whenever the answer to that is “no,” it’s about NationStates.

You should know I tracked Elizabeth down on Facebook and we identified the frog in question and now everything is fine. But I’m posting because I’ve been meaning to tackle an ASK MAX question on what it’s like to run NationStates, and this one came along and gave me a good answer. It’s like trying to figure out what an amphibian distribution page is and why it has an illegal frog on it.

NationStates is amazing. Don’t get me wrong. I love NationStates. I made a little web site in 2002 and poured way too much time into it and now it’s this whole big thing. It just means there’s too much to keep track of. Also, the one percent of any group of people who are trying to do something stupid or psychotic at any given moment is big enough to be a significant number. Put those things together and you have people angrily contacting me about something I’ve never heard of but which they assume I was instrumental in bringing about.

So a disproportionate amount of time goes into a small number of extreme cases, like the guy last month who felt something on the site was racist so he contacted PayPal and lodged claims against us for credit card fraud. Or people who get banned from the site for whatever reason and decide to extract revenge in poorly thought-out ways, like threats or editing Wikipedia or DDoS attacks. The site has volunteer moderators, thank God, who deal with the vast majority of this kind of thing, but if it’s weird enough, it involves me.

There’s always something, so I know if I have a spare twenty minutes and want to grapple with a highly charged debate over something ridiculous, I can check in. This week, for example, there is a 100-post discussion amongst moderators over Angela Lansbury’s bosom. A player set his nation’s flag to a photoshopped image of Ms. Lansbury with one breast on display; this was removed, and the nation deleted for violating site rules, but then the player begged forgiveness based on his five-year clean record, and the image was more comedic than pornographic, so what to do? The discussion has so far traversed the nature of obscenity, art, rules consistency, and the specific weighting of player records.

What I like doing most on NationStates is making new stuff. Programming is really satisfying. It’s like fiction-writing plus puzzle-solving for me. This kind of programming, anyway, where I get to build whatever I feel like, and there’s a community giving instant feedback. That’s fun.

I don’t really play the game for enjoyment, in the same way I don’t read my own novels recreationally; it’s kind of spoiled when you’ve seen the insides. But I do have a secret nation no-one knows about, which I check into from time to time. Most of the daily issues nations encounter today have been written by volunteers—there were 30 when I launched the site and there are over 450 now—so they’re new to me.

Oh, so the frog. On NationStates, you can issue dispatches, which are official communications from your nation. Some people use these to write about their nation, describing its history or fauna or political stance or whatever they like. There are 402,000 of these, so you can see why I didn’t notice the frog. But it was there, a hotlink in a player-created dispatch, and that was what Elizabeth saw. There is a “Report” button on these pages, which I mention in the hope of steering similar issues to the moderators, but it’s small and easy to miss.

So that’s NationStates.

Tue 01
Dec
2015

Royalties on Paper and eBooks

Writing

Hey Max, I see that there’s digital and physical versions of your books and I was wondering, which sell more copies, and which makes the more money for you?

Matt

If you’re asking because you want me to have more money, then I applaud that sentiment, but you should buy whichever you prefer. You having a better reading experience is worth more to me than the extra 75 cents.

Paper books sell more, for me at least. It’s around 2:1 on Lexicon. But with each book, the electronic share gets bigger. Syrup (1999) is 6:1.

Royalties vary, but ebooks usually sit somewhere between hardcover and paperback. From the average Lexicon sale to date, I have seen:

Hardcover: $2.65

Ebook: $1.70

Paperback: $0.95

It’s less outside the US & Canada. And this only applies once the book has earned out its advance, which is the payment authors get up-front. For example, Penguin thought Syrup was going to sell its socks off and paid me a big advance, and then it didn’t, so I’ve never seen any royalties. But each sale is still good because it washes away a little more of my shame.

My ex-agent Todd once told me that publishers usually break-even on a book before the advance earns out. I hope this is true.

If you self-publish and charge more than a few bucks, you get a much higher return on your books. But you also have to persuade people to buy them, which is hard. Publishers are pretty good at that.

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