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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

Fri 04
Nov
2016

Fresh Eyes

Writing

Max, I hear a lot of authors talk about “fresh eyes”. How long is it after finishing a first draft until you go back and begin the process of revision?

David

Fresh eyes are very important. I like to wait between one and three minutes. Not really. That was a joke. I actually don’t wait at all. I go back and re-read and revise everything all the way through while I’m writing a first draft. By the time I finish, my first chapter is actually draft thirty-nine, my fifth chapter is draft twenty, and so on.

I don’t recommend this. The better method is to bang out a first draft without looking back and only then discover how bad it is. Then at least you have something to improve. You can’t abandon that thing. You’ve invested too much.

But I can’t do that any more because I know it’s bad. I mean, I like to think of it like I’m developing higher standards. But really it’s just that there’s too much counter-evidence to maintain the delusion that I’m capable of writing brilliant first drafts. I’ve seen them. They are not great.

This exacerbates the “fresh eyes” problem, of becoming too close to a book and losing touch with how it appears to a new reader. That’s definitely a real thing, and critical in rewriting. If I could truly re-read drafts through fresh eyes, I could make them a lot better.

But I don’t think the solution is to put it aside for three months. It’s helpful—I have a couple of unpublished novels that I go back and re-read every few years and the fallow period does show me things I didn’t notice before. Usually how something I thought was pretty great actually isn’t. But it’s not enough.

Most writers, including me, need to think about how what they’re writing will play to a new reader all the time, every sentence. There’s some small technique there, clearing your head and forgetting what you already know for a moment, that you need to develop in order to write well. You’re scratching marks on a page; you need to consider what those marks will do inside other people’s brains. It’s better to become good at this and do it often than to wait until you have a finished draft and hope a few months away will do it for you.

The hardest time I have is during feedback from early readers. These are people who are reading something like a fifth or sixth draft, before it goes to my agent or editor. Often I find someone’s feedback truly mystifying, and it won’t make any sense at all until I manage to crawl out of my head and into theirs. That process of figuring out how someone might feel a certain way about the book is tough and confronting but always valuable, even if I do then decide that they’re insane and we should stop being friends. Because at least I’ll have fresh eyes.

Comments

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Machine Man subscriber Joel Pearson (#2145)

Location: Canberra, Australia
Posted: 229 days ago

So, how many friends have you had to let go because they were "insane"...

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 229 days ago

ALL OF THEM

Dale Birch (#5598)

Location: California
Quote: "fear's a good thing, it teaches us humility"
Posted: 228 days ago

I'm curious if your unwritten stories are more or less stuck in your head? I have a story stuck in my head that I fear I may never finish. I actually started writing it down more than 10 years ago, but it starts with a real life incident that ocurred over 30 years ago. I've manged to write 4 short chapters, but it's really just getting started. any advice?

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 218 days ago

Hmm, not really. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. If it's been that long, the odds are against it, but you might come back and find there's something you really love about it--then you cut away the stuff that wasn't so great and go from there.

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