MaxBarry.com
will write for food

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.

Wed 25
Nov
2015

Whatever Happened to Paul Neilan

Writing

Do you know what happened to Paul Neilan? You blurbed his book (deservedly, as it was absolutely brilliant), but then he disappeared.

-kd

That is a good question. I have no idea. I mean, I can guess: He probably fell into that bottomless abyss of despair and self-loathing where novels live sometimes. Again, just a guess. But it seems to me that any time you try to write a novel, you are a lot more likely to psychologically self-destruct than succeed, so probably that.

I mean, I’m not projecting or anything. This has nothing to do with me. And I’m not saying writing is hard; I mean, you just have to type stuff. How hard is that. I’m just saying maybe Paul found it tough to juggle the competing demands of blogging for eager readers awaiting his new novel and working on a literary hellspawn trying to devour his soul. So he probably pulled the plug on one or both, at least for a while.

If you are out there, Paul, I hope you’re still writing, and not worrying about how long it takes, and chasing the things that make you happy. Also hurry up, man, I need a new book.

Tue 17
Nov
2015

Will the Real Lee Bob Black Please Stand Up

Lexicon

Hello Mr.Barry, I was required to read your book Lexicon in my college literature class and enjoyed it very much. However, I’m forced to create a presentation about Lee Bob Black. So my question is: Who the hell is Lee Bob Black? All I’ve found is his website with a bunch of links to his blog. Which would have sufficed if my teacher didn’t think you were this ingenious wordsmith wizard or something. She thinks you made him up basically. Something to do with marketing and illusion. Can you help me out? Is Lee Bob Black a persona you made up or are we digging a dry well here? Thanks. Maybe.

Taija

Lee Bob Black is an actual person. Sorry. That website with his work on it is completely legit, not a carefully constructed piece of reality augmentation for the book. There are a few pieces of reality augmentation floating around, but Lee isn’t one of them.

Basically I needed a lesser-known poet. In the book, people get poet names based on rank, so Woolf and Eliot and Yeats are serious headkickers, while Lee Bob Black could be a younger guy working the streets. The real Lee I had met in St. Kilda sometime around 2001 when his friend graffitiied my house. Artists. Anyway, we got talking and then he moved to New York and we lost contact, but I remembered his great little poems.

At some point I emailed him:

You are in my novel-in-progress. I needed the name of an obscure real-life poet and you sprang to mind. I was intending to change it, but since here you are, I will ask if I can use it. Context: there are characters in the book who adopt the names of real poets, and the one who uses your name is cool but sleazy. So do not feel compelled to say yes.

I’m a little shocked by that now because I wouldn’t describe the character as “cool but sleazy.” He’s outright despicable. He does things that you wouldn’t want to be associated with in any way. But Lee, not knowing this, was delighted and honored. And I was happy, right up until the book was published, when I suddenly realized I had done a terrible thing and Lee was going to freak right out when he read it.

At a reading in New York, I looked into the audience and surprise! There he was. I had to stop and check whether he was about to serve me with legal papers. But no. He was incredibly gracious about it.

I understand your teacher thinking Lee Bob Black must be fictitious, because no author would be stupid enough to name that character after a real, living person. But actually I am that stupid.

Thu 12
Nov
2015

My review of The Girl With All The Gifts

Writing I noticed people are “following my reviews” on Goodreads. This is great but must be unsatisfying because I don’t write any. I don’t think I should review books unless I love them, since that feels too cruel to an author who surely doesn’t deserve it, because writing books is hard, man, respect. And if I do love the book, I don’t want to say anything about it that might be a spoiler, because the book is so wonderful, you should just read it without knowing anything. It’s a pickle.

Anyway. “The Girl With All The Gifts” by Mike Carey is my favorite read of 2015. In lieu of saying anything about it, I will tell you thoughts I had while reading it. Also I will list my thoughts out of order, not chronologically. Enjoy.

“That’s cool.”

“That’s really cool.”

“OH MY GOD.”

“OH MY GOD THAT’S AWESOME.”

“Oh it’s that kind of book.”

“I wonder what happens next.”

“That character dynamic is backward.”

“I was wrong.”

Buy from Amazon.com Buy from an indie bookstore

Tue 27
Oct
2015

Robots Wrote My Book

Writing Last week I did an interview on Reddit and was asked about my new novel, “The Ascension’s Mirror.” This was a surprise because I didn’t know I wrote that. But Goodreads had it listed, saying I was the author. There was also a reader review:

I’m a big fan of Mr Barry’s work and was happy to see this new offering. I’m having a little trouble getting through it, because of the language. He is replacing words and phrases. For example “She laughed at my futile endeavours in the direction of identify some type of popular flooring with her,” means (roughly) She laughed at my attempt to seek common ground with her, or something like that.

I’m hoping that it will eventually be worth it. . . .

There was a second novel by me, “Cry in the Redemption,” which I definitely didn’t write, either. Both were for sale on Amazon as Kindle books.

At first I thought there must be another Max Barry out there, writing books. I know there are a few Max Barrys around, such as Better Max, and some other Max who can’t remember his email address, so I’m always getting notes from his grandmother and warnings from his ISP. Seriously, Max. Get it right. The other day your boss sent me a stern note, asking why I hadn’t responded to his earlier note. The reason your life is in tatters is because I get all your important emails.

But no, other Maxes were not writing novels. In fact, no-one was writing these, I realized, because the writing is not just awkward but nonsensical. From its official description on Amazon:

We can’t inform oneself considerably unless be mindful just after oneself examine this. They are waiting around for us towards adhere our necks out and deliver a miscalculation, and your self may well accurately contribute them in direction of us. Your self include been warned.

This reminded me of a piece of text run twice through Google Translate, once to turn it into a different language, once to turn it back. I’d heard of web sites doing this to steal content, because the end result is different enough that it doesn’t look so much like plagiarism.

I asked my agent about this, and they asked Amazon, and within a day the books were gone. Poof!

So apparently this happens: Bots auto-generate novels under the names of real authors and put them up for sale in the hope of confusing readers. Which is kind of cool. Not for us, of course. Not for humans. But I always knew the robot apocalypse was coming, and have been looking forward to seeing what shape it takes. I didn’t think they’d be writing novels.

P.S. The real question is what the original text was. The bots auto-translated something. I don’t know what, though.

Thu 22
Oct
2015

Where My Hair Is

Max

wear is ur hair

Anonymous

Good question, Anonymous. Good question. When I was 23, a hairdresser said, “If we cut it shorter, it’ll cover the thinning area,” and I said, “WHAAAAAAAAAT thinning area,” and he was embarrassed. I never thought about it before, but that must be a tricky part of the job: telling men they’re balding.

Anyway, it was a shock to me, because I had thick, luscious curls. They are possibly more luscious in retrospect than they were in reality. I now imagine women weeping as I swept past. But yep, 23 and they started to go. So I started cutting my hair short and then shaving it. Occasionally I encounter someone who thinks men shave their head just for the look of it, not because they have to, and this makes me laugh until I start crying. No. That does not happen.

The best thing about having no hair is how awesome it is at venting excess heat when exercising. I don’t know how you hairful people work out, I really don’t. It also saves a lot of time that I would otherwise spend worrying about how my hair looks. And I can pass for a criminal just by not shaving for two days. The worst part is having no hair.

Fri 09
Oct
2015

Details, Details

Lexicon

SPOILER WARNING: Mild spoilers about Lexicon follow

Hello Max,

I am currently enjoying reading Lexicon, however my pedantic nature forces me to question the storyline at page 190-191 where Emily sleeps with Harry then he is not there next morning.

How does she get home?

How does she get home in such a way that she has difficulty finding her way back?

Regards

Graeme

I’ll be honest, Graeme: You are my nightmare. When I’m trying to move the story along while developing character and a satisfying emotional arc, blah blah blah, there is always a little voice in the back of my head that says, “You didn’t explain exactly how she got home.” Henceforth I will call that voice Graeme.

How did Emily get home? I don’t know. I never thought deeply about it. I presume it was somehow. She’s not that far from home; she is resourceful; she has feet; I just figure she gets it done.

But I know this isn’t a satisfying answer, because all stories are real, and real things have facts. So here is THE ACTUAL ANSWER that I just invented:

Her shoes were useless, of course, two-inch heels, so she carried them. She didn’t know the area but followed the dirt road in what she hoped was the right direction. It was an hour before she reached anywhere she recognized, which was another hour away from town. It would be less if a car passed by, but that would also mean she was recognized, and never live it down. So she walked with her head down. She was never going to see him again. She had already decided that.

Now I want you to bear in mind, Graeme, that rural roads are like rivers. There’s a main road, from which smaller roads branch out. If you start on a small road with a vague idea of the right direction, you can follow it back upstream until you reach the main road and there you are. But going the other way is more difficult, because you have to remember which branch to take. Right? And it’s dark when she returns. I hope we can agree on this.

I try to provide the minimum amount of detail necessary when writing. I think that’s my job: to figure out how to have the greatest effect in the fewest words. Because what amazes me over and over about novels is how much of the story is provided by readers. The page holds only the tiniest details, yet we conjure whole worlds. That’s the only reason novels work.

I don’t think they work when the author tries to explain every little thing. Or when they describe physical objects to death. I can’t stand that. It actually feels a little insulting, like they don’t trust me enough to share the story. Just tell me there’s a broken glass, dammit. I can do the rest.

Thu 01
Oct
2015

What They Don’t Tell You About Wikipedia

Max

Heyo! What does it feel like to have a Wikipedia page?

Code name: Esteban

It’s pretty great. The best thing is the mailing list they put you on, which lets you contact anyone else who also has a Wikipedia page. You also get a GMail plugin that highlights whether people emailing you have a Wikipedia page or not, so if they don’t, you just ignore them. Every six months, you’re invited to a secret meeting to vote on the world agenda, like whether we’re going to be pushing tax cuts or Trump for President or what.

The only problem is that everyone is terrified of being thrown out, so Wikipedia editors wield enormous power. They’re not allowed to have pages themselves, of course (WP:NOTE), but they’re effectively puppetmasters, so you hear terrible stories about them keeping B-list celebrities as virtual sex slaves and things like that. If you cross a Wikipedia editor, your bank accounts are frozen, your wife is gone, and your ass is out on the street faster than you can say “NPOV.”

You’re not allowed to modify your own Wikipedia page (WP:CONFLICT, WP:ORIGINAL), so if you make waves, the editors begin to seed your profile with false information, as a warning. If your profile has your birthday wrong, it means you’ve begun to make enemies. If it says you were once convicted of shoplifting, your life is in danger. If it discusses gay rumors, you’ve become a pawn in a bitter intra-wiki factional war. But I’ve already said too much.

Wed 23
Sep
2015

That’s Ironi

Jennifer Government

Why is the Turkish edition of Jennifer Government named “Ironi?”

Gee

Because it’s, like, you know, ironic. Actually no. Not at all. A Turkish speaker tells me it means “iron-y,” as in, having the properties of iron. My best guess is that this refers to the character Jennifer Government, who is unbending in her pursuit of justice, and has a high melting temperature.

But I may be completely misinterpreting it. Which would be ironic. Well it wouldn’t. But it feels like it should be.

Thu 10
Sep
2015

The Time I Didn’t Write Superman

Jennifer Government

Have you or have you considered writing comics or graphic novels?

Eric Adams

Clark Kent reads Jennifer Government I once pitched a story to DC Comics where LexCorp tries to sponsor Superman. They make a mockup of his supersuit covered in ads, like a racing car driver. Also they infect their own employees via the water coolers, creating an army of flaming-handed psychopaths. Lois Lane is one of those because she’s working undercover on a story. Then it turns out it’s not Lex Luthor behind all this but LexCorp itself, the corporation, which gained self-awareness and wants to literally consume human resources. So Superman and Lex have to trust each other to stop it. DC didn’t pick this up for some reason.

This came about because legendary comic book writer Kurt Busiek decided to have Clark Kent read one of my novels in Action Comics #838. Which is still a major life highlight, by the way. We swapped a few emails and Kurt asked if I was interested in writing for comics and of course I said, WHO WOULDN’T BE INTERESTED IN THAT, KURT, TELL ME, and he hooked me up for the pitch.

So I was sad that didn’t work out. As well as loving comics, I like the idea of some really talented artist having to draw what I want. Like, I might say, “I’m kind of thinking a guy who’s half-human, half-corporation,” and they think, “Arrghh, what does that even mean,” and then they figure it out. Because they’re talented. So then I’m looking at an awesome drawing of my idea and I’m like, “I came up with that.”

Thu 03
Sep
2015

Ways In Which My Novels Suck

Writing

Max, is it actually true that your novels kind of suck?

Anonymous

Yes! You probably refer to those works-in-no-progress I mentioned, which do indeed kind of suck, but the truth is, so do all my novels, at every stage of the process, including at the end, when they’re published. There is no novel I look at and think, “That is just perfect.”

Ways in which I think my novels kind of suck include:

  • The characters do something that seemed plausible at the time but now I’m older/wiser/in a worse mood I don’t think so, so everything is stupid.

  • The first sentence won’t work for people who need to be grabbed right away, or else is too gimmicky for people who don’t like being grabbed right away.

  • There’s nothing I can explicitly put my finger on but I still feel it could be better somehow, like remember that chapter near the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, how come it doesn’t have something like that.

  • I didn’t use the serial comma because I liked how it made sentences seem faster but now I love the serial comma so the whole book is dumb. Similarly: I chose “less” instead of “fewer” because I decided real people never said “fewer” but now I’m like OH YES THEY DO SO YOU WERE STUPID.

I’m sure there are more.

Mon 31
Aug
2015

Sport is Squiggly

Max

Maaaaaaaaaaaaaax! Why is The Squiggle hidden away as some kind of secret page/club instead of being linked from the front? Are you ashamed of your love of AFL? Your love of Richmond (it’s ok, there’s dozens of you. Dozens!)? Talk about the footy some time, educate the Americans.

Bob

I have actually blogged about Australian Rules Football once before. I shouldn’t have, because no-one cares, but I did. If you’re not familiar with AFL, here is a summary:

What I love about sport is how pointless it is. There is literally no reason to care who wins anything. But if you do care, it’s full of drama and stories. Sport for me is pure entertainment because I can stop thinking about it any time with no consequences.

Anyway, because I find this kind of thing fun, about 15 years ago I wrote a computer program to predict which team would win football games. Then I forgot about it until a few years ago when I rediscovered it on my hard drive and noticed it had performed bizarrely well in the meantime. So I made it into a chart and posted it on a football forum. I called it the “squiggle” because it has squiggly lines.

Now my website traffic looks like this:

A flowchart showing worldwide traffic visiting a directory named lexicon while most Australian traffic goes to a directory named squiggle

That’s most of the world visiting my site because of Lexicon, while Australians don’t give a stuff about my novels and head straight for the football chart.

Here is a pretty version:

But the one here on my site auto-updates, so you can check it during games and see how well your team is squiggling. This is addictive because if your team is doing well, what you most want to see is animated graphical evidence.

The Richmond Tigers are headed for finals for the third year in a row, which is awesome, because we were terrible for about twenty-nine years there. Our supporters are like those people who were kidnapped as children and kept in a basement and now we’re stumbling around trying to function in adult society. We don’t know how to act. It’s pretty great.

Update: This is a genuinely good introduction to Australian football:

Mon 24
Aug
2015

My Shorts

Writing

Why don’t you write more short stories?

Bruno

Why don’t YOU write more short stories, Bruno, since they’re so easy.

I dunno, I’m just less interested in shorts. I’ve never fallen in love with a short story the way I’ve loved plenty of novels. I like how they can be tricky. If you have a great idea for an ending and not much else, a short story is ideal. But this also annoys me a little as a reader, too, like the whole time the author is trying to outsmart me. Then it’s, yes, wow, you got me, I did not realize that whole family was going to die. Well done you. That’s another thing: they all have horrific endings. I realize this includes my own short fiction. I had a short story idea just yesterday and it seemed like a good one but the ending would be horrible for all involved. Who wants to read that? Not me. Wow I hate short stories.

Fri 14
Aug
2015

The Unpublished

Writing

Was there ever a book that didn’t get published that you really thought would be a shoe in? If yes, is there a way you could provide us, your local fans, a way to read it anyways?

Hobson

This question has an unsatisfying answer. I just want to warn you about that up front.

Yes, I’ve written books I thought would be published but weren’t. There was one before Syrup, two between that and Jennifer Government, then one before Company, another before Machine Man, then I managed to go straight to Lexicon, and since then I’ve written four or five partials, two of which are close enough to novel length to count.

I was totally sure each of those would be published because otherwise why write them. I mean, novels are hard. You don’t do one unless you think the end result will be awesome. The only way I know to write a novel is to operate under the delusion that it’ll be the greatest thing in the world.

But then once I show it to people I sometimes discover that’s not the case. I would classify three of my unpublished novels as unsalvageable, by which I mean I’m doing you a favor by never releasing them. Everything else I think could be good if I had a few more ideas and did a lot of work. Maybe. But they’re definitely not good enough now and what I’m working on instead is more interesting.

One I still think is awesome and should be published (see my humilating 2007 blog about it) but it sits in a weird place because it’s not quite a young adult novel but not really anything else either. It will almost certainly not sell well and so make my trend look bad, which has commercial implications. And it’s messy in places and I don’t really love the ending any more. But every now and again I read it back over and think one day I will make this something.

Tue 11
Aug
2015

How I Name Characters

Writing

How do you decide on the name of the characters?

I have a strict process. First, I use whatever name pops into my head. Then, about eight months later, I realize everybody’s name begins with E. So I have to change some or the book is too annoying to read. But now I can’t imagine them as anyone else, so I make the smallest changes possible, like using their surnames more often.

Sometimes I write a novel that doesn’t get published, and that’s handy because I can reuse all the names. Boy, there were a lot of Hollys before one finally made it into Company.

I do strongly believe in the importance of names, though. They’re the characters’ faces: the part you see over and over. So they’re doing characterization work every few lines. This is why I will find any excuse to get a name like Plath or 6 or Jennifer Government into a book.

Thu 06
Aug
2015

Sequels and Lamps

Writing

Do you ever plan on writing a sequel to Lexicon, or another book set in the same universe?

Ike

Sometimes. Usually I start thinking about that kind of thing when I’m around ten percent into a different book. That’s when I’m remembering how much work it is to figure out a world and characters and plot and tone and everything from scratch. So I look back on previous novels and wonder why the hell I threw all that away. Like, why not just dust that thing off and take it for another spin around the block.

The reason is that by the time I finish a novel, I hate everything about it. Well not really. It’s more like the thought of reading it again makes me want to vomit. At that point, if I had to go write a sequel, everyone in it would die in the first ten pages, from spite.

I really like finding something new. The days I love writing the most are when something happens I didn’t expect and I realize the story is going somewhere different. I guess that could happen in a sequel. But it wouldn’t have that same feeling of stumbling around in complete darkness, trying to find the lamps. I bang my toes a lot doing that but when the light comes on, that’s why I write.

Mon 03
Aug
2015

Virtual Reality: All Fun and Games Until Society Becomes an Evil AI’s Playground

Max

Is VR going to live up to the hype this time?

guin

Not for me. I can’t change direction without feeling motion sick, so Virtual Reality headsets are super-charged vomit inducement machines.

Also, I know it’s just for games, but someone with one of those things strapped to their head looks like the ultimate psychically defenseless human being to me, because they can only perceive what a computer decides. I mean, I’m sure it’s fine. But if I could put you in one of those and control what you saw and heard, I bet I could convince you to do anything at all and make you think it was your choice.

Thu 30
Jul
2015

Crooked

Writing

How significant is it that Austin Grossman re-tweeted your ASK MAX tweet and has he had any input into the computer game you allude to, and if not, why not? And, can we expect more writers to turn their hand to computer games unaware that indie computer games creation is about as profitable as indie novel writing?

Dan

This is a timely question because Austin Grossman has a new novel out about Richard Nixon fighting demons. Literal demons, that is. No, actually, both kinds. It’s very fun and does that Austin Grossman thing of taking someone you’d think was totally cool and together and tearing them apart with insecurities. If you enjoyed Soon I Will Be Invincible or You, or you are intrigued by the idea of a Cold War fought with intercontinental necromantic missiles, take a look at Crooked.

But no, I haven’t consulted with Austin on the computer game I’m fooling around with. I probably should have, since he is excellent at writing both novels and games. That would make a lot of sense. But the only way I know how to be creative is to take the thing away somewhere private and smash my brain into it until it’s done. So I’m doing that.

The crossover between fiction and games… on the one hand, there are more similarities than people might think. In both cases you are world-building, one way or another. And I like that I can dive in to either and build something all by myself. This is handy because I lost the ability to work with other people sometime around 2002.

On the other, the mindset is very different. I’m kind of horrified by how programmers can spend so much time focused on the tools: choosing and tweaking their IDE and plugins and language and platform and agonizing over the process. It’s like what writers do but times a thousand. And that looks like a lot of busy-time spent Not Writing to me. You can tell me this attitude will come back to bite me hard in about twelve months but I say it never will.

Probably indie game design is exactly as profitable as indie novel-writing, as you say, Dan. But it is interesting. And in gaming, people aren’t debating whether their industry is dying, which is nice.

Thu 23
Jul
2015

Lexicon Foreign Covers

Lexicon Today I went looking for Lexicon covers. Usually I’m sent a copy when a foreign edition comes out, but not always. In those cases I just get surprised to discover that something like this exists:

Russian book cover of Lexicon by Max Barry, depicting young woman with white hair shouting a magical word while a gun fires a bullet from her mouth. Yes, seriously.

This is Russian. I actually thought it was awesome until I noticed the handgun poking out of her mouth. That kind of took it over the line for me. It reminds me of a terrifying poster for some werewolf movie that used to hang in the window of a video store I had to walk past as a kid, where a wolf’s snout is poking out of the man’s mouth. That was really scary. I was about fifteen but even so.

Turkish book cover of Lexicon by Max Barry, on which is the Moon

This one is from Turkey. I didn’t remember any Moon references in Lexicon, so I checked. I did actually use the word “moon” twice and “moonlight” once, in sentences that were about something else.

Taiwanese book cover of Lexicon by Max Barry, showing a young woman's partially obscured face while Taiwanese writing dissolves around her

That’s pretty great. Good job, Taiwan.

Greek book cover of Lexicon by Max Barry, showin an eye with writing around it

What? Come on, Greece. It’s like you tried to redraw the American paperback cover from memory.

Israeli book cover of Lexicon by Max Barry, depicting the back of a man in a suit walking up steps

This is from Israel. It strikes me as the philosophical opposite of the Russian cover. It’s funny how the same book says to one person, “Man in a suit walking up a flight of concrete steps,” and to another, “Woman shooting bullets out of her mouth.” And neither of those things happens in the story.

Tue 21
Jul
2015

Terriergate

Syrup

I loved the Syrup movie, but who would have been your dream casting choices for the main characters?

Anonymous

I’m not sure I get to answer this after the movie is made. That seems like it would be rude. Probably no-one wants to have people come along and look at a job you did and discuss who would have done it better.

I never have a dream cast in mind for my own books anyway. It’s like trying to imagine movie stars playing your family. Whoever you pick, it’s going to be weird.

But I do love the cast I got. I especially love that Amber Heard, who plays 6, is right now being pursued by the Australian government for smuggling two tiny dogs into the country, in what has become known as Terriergate. I was fortunate enough to meet Pistol, one of the smuggled dogs, on the Syrup set, and let me tell you: It was no surprise to me when he ended up in the middle of an international incident. Australia has very strict quarrantine laws, being an island, but I don’t think we want to push Amber on this one. She really loves that dog.

Sun 19
Jul
2015

How the Seasons Work

Max

Max… Do your toilets flush in the opposite direction of those in the Northern Hemisphere, or has the Simpsons been lying to us all of these years?

Flushed…

Good question. You are referring to the Coriolis Effect, which influences toilets to flush counter-clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and the correct clockwise direction here in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s a real force but it’s so weak it only works if your toilet is in a climate-controlled, vacuum-sealed laboratory, which is probably not true for both of us.

For me, the real Hemispherical mind-bender is the date the seasons begin. Everyone knows the seasons are backward in the Northern Hemisphere. But DID YOU KNOW they’re not exactly opposite? Countries have different definitions of when each season begins so it can be Winter in the US while it’s Spring in Australia.

Unfortunately you can never be sure if this is true, because it’s one of those things people like to be pranksters about. If you know someone in another Hemisphere, the conversation goes like this:

You: What season is it there?
Them: Winter. Why?
You: Are you kidding me?
Them: No. Why? It’s Summer there, right?
You: No, Summer isn’t until next week.
Them: You’re joking, right?
You: Are you?

Fri 17
Jul
2015

How to Tell Whether the Book is Working

Max

Max! So good to see you back! You’ve been sorely missed… totally can’t wait for your new story. So, question: how do you know a story isn’t going well? Or, how do you know it *is* going well?

ryandake

Thanks for the question! Over the years I have figured out a foolproof process for telling whether a story is working. This won’t work for everyone, but it works for me, 100% of the time. Occasionally I think I’ve found an exception, but then I realize I haven’t.

Foolproof Method for Determining Whether Book is Working

  1. Do you wonder whether the book is working? If yes, it’s not. If no, continue.
  2. Do you ask people to read parts of the book to tell you whether it’s working? If yes, it’s not. If no, continue.
  3. Do you stop to go write other stories? If yes, it’s not working. If no, continue.
  4. When you read the last thing you wrote, do you feel like writing more? If no, it’s not working. If yes, continue.
  5. Are you convinced the book is (or will be) the greatest thing in the world ever? If yes, congratulations, it’s working, for now.

Books that aren’t working can be made to work, though. They may require radical surgery, like removing everything except one scene, but it can be done. Most of my books were Not Working for a long time before they started working.

I thought I would get about three ASK MAX! questions a week, and I would pick one. But there are tons already! Thanks so much. And please forgive what is clearly going to be a terrible question-to-answer ratio.

Thu 16
Jul
2015

Introducing ASK MAX!

Max Okay okay! I have a new plan. From now on, this site is all about ASK MAX!, where people like you post random questions and I post back. This should be a big improvement over the current situation where I wonder if there are any topics that someone needs my opinion on and decide no.

BUT WHY NOT JUST DO THAT ON TWITTER, MAX, you ask. Good question. The answer is: this is my site, crafted with my own bare hands, and one day Twitter is going to become totally commercial and everyone will be like, “Ugh, I hate Twitter but now I’m trapped there,” and I’ll be all, HAHAHAHA. Although I’m probably still going to use Twitter, too. I just don’t want to live there.

So quick update on what I’ve been up to lately! Mostly I’ve been writing many different books that kind of suck. That’s less fun than it sounds. I’ve been trying to fix this in various ways, such as closing down all social networking until I got it right. I don’t know if that helped. It may have made things worse. But anyway, I found a story. And I’m pretty deep into it now and it’s failed to die so I’m a thousand times happier with writing than I’ve been in a long while. So that’s good.

Another thing I’ve been doing is making a computer game. WHAAAT. Yes. I have. I actually can’t believe I didn’t do this sooner. Computer games are story-writing plus programming. I love those things. They’re basically all I’ve done since 1999. And this has been turning out unexpectedly well. I don’t know when it will be ready to show and in the meantime I’m going to keep quiet on what it’s actually about, just like I do with novels, so… yeah. This is a content-free kind of update.

That’s it. Please hit me with questions via the super-cute speech bubble on the site front page. And I’m sorry for going silent for so long! Especially to you guys who have been with me for years and years. You are a big part of what has made my life and career so rewarding. Please forgive me for going off alone until I could find something good enough for you.

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