MaxBarry.com
all things to no people

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

Wed 21
Dec
2016

Audio: I Should Buy Some Cement

Writing A 6-minute radio adaptation of a short story I wrote a few years back, thanks to Greg R. Barron.

Greg just noticed it on my site and decided to make an audio version, which is pretty great.

Original story.

Tue 13
Dec
2016

When My Next Book Is Out

Writing

Might we have a new book from you by the end of 2017? I’m jonesing for some new material. I guess I’ll go back through and re-read your old books again.

Anonymous

That is an excellent idea, because no, sorry, there won’t be a new book from me in 2017. It takes about a year to go from a draft I’m not ashamed to show to an editor to something that can sit on a bookstore shelf, and I don’t yet have a draft I’m not ashamed to show an editor.

But 2018 looks good! I’ve been working on multiple books and now they’re all getting close to finished. So one of those should be ready to go. I don’t know which one, though. Sometimes I feel like a book is on track and then I realize it’s horrible and I should burn it and feel bad and go work on something else. Then, a little while later, I realize that other book needs to be burned, and the first one is actually all right. It’s not a linear process, is what I’m saying.

This has been a really great year for me creatively. One of my best. It will take a while before that becomes apparent to anyone else. But I’ve enjoyed it a lot. I still don’t really know where good words comes from or why but I’m grateful for the ones that found me this year.

Tue 15
Nov
2016

Four Possible Trumps

Jennifer Government It’s hard to know what to expect from a President-Elect who’s promised a lot of things he can’t possibly have meant. On the one hand, maybe he did mean them, in which case, dear God. But on the other, surely not. This leaves a lot of middle ground for wild speculation, which I now intend to provide.

Also this election has reminded me that however far-fetched I think I’m being, it’s not far enough. So here are four possible Trumps.

  1. Benevolent Dictator Trump

    Beholden to no-one, President Trump dispenses with political bickering, cuts away swathes of bureaucracy and red tape, and replaces it with simple, direct, effective solutions that no-one tried before because they were so caught up in politics or not wanting to offend anyone or reading books or something. I think that’s right.

    Trump crafts an unpredictable yet nimble, energetic, and effective administration, unafraid to make unpopular decisions so long as they’re right. It is happy times for everyone who agrees with Trump’s version of right, which is everyone, by decree of a new federal law. Protesters and other unpatriotic unAmericans are taken to the desert to toil to build a statue of Trump so high it can blot out the sun.

    Term limits are abolished. In his eleventh year of rule, a small band of protestors vandalize the statue by blasting off the toupée and are shot on live national television, their remains displayed outside the city gates. God-Emperor Trump dies peacefully in his sleep in his twenty-third year of rule, surrounded by concubines. After a week of national mourning, the nation descends into bloody civil war as various full- and half-blooded Trump offspring lead armies in a battle for control of their father’s empire. Dragons return. Ivanka rides one.

  2. Robber Baron Trump

    By the time he waves goodbye from the chopper, Trump has vacuumed so much money from the American public that he and his family are the wealthiest people in modern history, richer even than he claims to be today. A drip-feed of revelations of fraud, embezzlement, and cronyism on an unprecedented scale hound him, along with persistent talk of federal prosecution, but none of it goes anywhere, dissipating like waves against the rocky shore of Trump’s now-impenetrable empire of lawyers, cash, and paid-up influence.

    Weakened by pillaging, the welfare system faces a short-term credit crunch, leading to riots among the poor and unemployed. This is held up by Republicans as proof of the fundamental non-viability of the welfare state and the need to abolish it altogether, a view supported by low-skilled male white voters who are shortly to become unemployed themselves as the shock of decreased government spending rolls through the economy. California and Texas secede and close their borders. Nevada falls to roaming biker gangs. The Trump family acquires Manhattan at market-bottom prices and builds a wall around it, a real one, not just a fence.

  3. Capitalizt Trump

    With a businessperson’s win/lose perspective on the economy, Trump abolishes regulatory authorities, slashes taxes, eliminates labor laws, privatizes public bodies, and ushers in an ultra-capitalist paradise in which corporations are free to do whatever the hell they feel like. It is a rich, refreshing new world for the already-wealthy, who find an ever-expanding array of services aimed at them, while the poor die of easily-preventable diseases or in back alleys after muggings gone bad on their way home from one of their three-dollar-an-hour jobs.

    Employment becomes so critical to survival that people revert to the ancient practice of calling each other by their occupation rather than their surname. A shoe company deliberately incites a violent riot to promote a new brand of sneakers. A plucky government agent… ah, you know what, just read the book.

    By mortgaging its future, the US is temporarily awash with cash, creating a false dawn that ushers in a second Trump term. He exits office just as the economy begins to run off the cliff. Via a running commentary of tweets, he blames his successor for the ensuring collapse, depression, and takeover by Chinese real estate speculators, labeling all of the above “sad!”

  4. Commander-in-Chief Trump

    Trump has always been a big believer in the “speak loudly and carry a big stick” approach. To date, his sticks have been lawyers, but starting January 20, 2017, they are stealth bombers and 7,100 nuclear warheads. Carrying his philosophy into office, Trump rattles a few sabers before going ahead and invading someone. It’s an irresistible dynamic: The benefits of military action are largely personal (status, pleasure of defeating an opponent) while the costs are born by an American public and purse he’s only borrowing and is allowed to hand back in any condition.

    Military adventures in Asia, the Middle East, and Alaska breed a host of new enemies for America, ensuring the need for ever-more defense spending and a twitchy, paranoid, nationalistic voting public. Trump exits office calling his military record his proudest achievement, despite the loss of several million citizens on the east coast after an incident that looked a lot like a biological attack but officially was just a bad flu season. Via a running commentary of tweets, he blasts the new President for weakness as she attempts reconciliation with foreign powers. Much of the Western hemisphere is annihilated in a nuclear exchange started by a relatively small rogue nation that nobody was paying much attention to. Trump relocates to Australia and begins to hoard water, leading to a Mad Max scenario where he is killed in a car chase after the escape of one of his breeders.

That’s what I’ve got for now. I mean, there are other possibilities. But these feel the most likely.

Wed 09
Nov
2016

10 Reasons President Trump Won’t Be That Bad

What Max Reckons Like me, you may be feeling a combination of shock, distress, and terror at the news that Donald J. Trump will become the next leader of the world’s largest military and economic superpower.

But it’s all right! It’s all right. It won’t be that bad. I mean, it will be pretty bad. That’s for sure. But we can get through this. To help you through this difficult adjustment period, here are some comfort thoughts:

  1. Many Trump policies range from mutually contradictory to the physically impossible so they can’t all be implemented.

  2. Writers of satire or absurdist comedy need never again be told that their work is too far-fetched.

  3. Reagan was a TV actor with fantastical economic ideas and latent Alzheimer’s and the US came out of that pretty okay.

  4. Exposure of electoral system that weights votes of residents of North Dakota and Wyoming 3-4X greater than those in California and New York, holds elections on a working Tuesday, and uses plurality voting, may prompt actual change, perhaps to “Best Out Of Three” system, or drawing straws.

  5. He is pretty funny, for a President.

  6. Inevitable war with foreign power and subsequent nuclear winter may offer effective solution to global warming.

  7. Nation avoids messy spectre of four years of depressing gridlock where bitter Republicans hold White House hostage and nothing gets done.

  8. Small children can be told that anything is possible with a straight face.

  9. Nation will undergo a great strengthening, in “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” sense.

  10. Shocking the hell out of the ruling class is necessary from time to time in order to avoid a build-up of complacency and corruption, so why not now. And election campaigns are all about demonizing opponents but only rarely are they actual demons.

Also the UK voted to Brexit, so, you know, sucks to be those guys.

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.

Tue 11
Oct
2016

In Which I Address Various Questions

Max

Hey Max. First, thanks for making NationStates. Second, did you really find a sock full of pennies? If so where?

Red

I did not really find a sock full of pennies. That was a humorous fiction. But everything else on this site is true. Some people think I make up stuff for it, like I’m inventing the “Ask Max” questions, but that’s wrong. I’m actually a little shocked anyone would think that. The truth is that by the time I finish working on my novel each day, I’m fictionally tapped out. I don’t have enough creativity left to make up anything. It would be a good interrogation technique: If you have a terrorist, make them write fiction for eight hours, then ask them where the bomb is. By then he has no lies left, I guarantee it.

But I have been tardy about answering Ask Max questions, which I feel bad about. Here are some more:

How do you become a banana for a week?

Thatguy

You start by becoming a banana for a minute and work your way up.

Do you even look at these?

Anonymous

Yes.

Have you met an Alien?

TheENugget

No. But I’m a little concerned by your capitalization of “Alien.” I feel like your next question is: “Would you like to?”

Does this site cover the complete list of all your works, or only a certain genre?

Skankhunt42

Holy God. So, what, I’m maintaining a stable of websites, one devoted to my mainstream fiction, one to my series of romances, another to my erotic swords-and-sandals fantasies, and so on? I think you’re saying I don’t publish enough, Skankhunt42. Okay. Message received.

What time is bed time?

Greg

I go to bed about 4am Pacific Time. This is 10pm in my local timezone.

What do you put on the census when it asks what your job is? Do you think it is creative that I put penguin tamer?

Greg

No I don’t, Greg. I think that’s irresponsible. The census is no joke. It’s used to make informed public spending decisions, like where to put schools, and which populations need suppressing because they’re too close to the truth. I put down “Writer,” which is technically true for anyone who is in the process of filling out their census.

Have you heard about these creepy clown sightings in the Southern and Eastern US?

Austin

It’s nerds with too much time on their hands, right? I mean, I don’t know anything about it. But it sounds like something I would have thought was an awesome idea when I was about 19: Dress up as a weird clown. Now it sounds like a good way to get punched in the face. People don’t like weird clowns.

How are you? Do you still live in Australia? Is there a lot of spiders? I’d love to come to your country, but bugs and spiders scare the sh.t out of me…

Kenza

I’ll be honest with you, Kenza, there are basically no spiders here. We just like to perpetuate that idea because it makes us seem tough and fearless. Well I mean there are some spiders. I did just catch a spider in the living room yesterday and move it to the back yard. But only because its thick furry body was blocking the light. I could hardly see a thing in there.

what is your net worth

buzz

I am worth several hundred nets.

If there was one word you could use to describe Emily from Lexicon, what would it be?

Olivia

“Emily.”

Thu 08
Sep
2016

WTF is “Young Adult”

Jennifer Government

Is Jennifer Government a young adult novel?

Zoe

Oh I don’t know, is the MARGARET ALEXANDER EDWARDS ALEX AWARD for young adult novels?

Max Barry nonchalantly holding a golden medal as if he barely even notices it's there, but you know he totally does

It is. That’s the answer to that question. Well, kind of. It is the American Library Association prize for “adult books with special appeal to teen readers.” Which I guess isn’t quite the same thing. Probably a true young adult novel primarily appeals to teen readers, like features them as main characters. I think that’s right.

I just asked Jen for the definition of a a young adult novel. She is a school teacher-librarian. She said, “It depends what you mean by young adult.” I feel like there isn’t a really hard line here.

Anyway, Jennifer Government is a book I would have liked to read in high school. So there you go.

P.S. Hahaha, I totally misled you. Lexicon won the Alex Award, not Jennifer Government. And Lexicon has sex and death and horror and is quite a lot less goofy than JG, which just goes to show those things don’t disqualify a novel from appealing to teens, at least in the eyes of librarians. The opposite, if anything. Librarians are amazing like that. They will hand you a book they know will make your eyes bug out because they know that is the point of novels, not to satisfy but to surprise.

Tue 16
Aug
2016

Send in the Clowns

What Max Reckons I was thinking about how unfair it is that reality has evil right-wing corporate overlords named the Koch Brothers while if I wrote that in a novel people would call me shallow and juvenile. I mean, it would be true. But also unfair. You’re supposed to have more creative license in fiction, not less. Then there’s Trump, who does things on a daily basis that no satirical character could get away with. It makes you wonder where there is left to go.

But then people have been complaining that satire is dead forever. Satire has died a thousand times, apparently, at the hands of JFK, George W. Bush, in fact probably every US President since about 1960. Before then I’m not sure. But I imagine a long line of despairing intellectuals stretching back through the centuries.

So it’s probably just a failure of imagination. We have a set of societal standards, and when someone veers close to the line, we can satirize them by portraying what it would be like if they crossed right on over. Oh, you think taxes should be lower? WHAT IF THERE WERE NONE AT ALL. That kind of thing.

But when someone does cross the line, and stays there, like Trump, it’s a problem. It feels like there’s no way to satirize it because the only step farther is pure ridiculousness. Still, on reflection, I think you have to consider that the line has moved. It moves a little every year, in one direction or another, and this time it’s moving very pro-clown. Many US Presidents have been a little clownish—Reagan, Clinton, George W.—and in fact now I think about it, more Presidents than also-rans. It has been an asset to be clownish. No wonder we wound up here. But my point is that it’s probably fair to imagine a very clownish President in the future, and elections contested between clowns.

This time, crossing the line hurts Trump. And that does indeed put him beyond satire, as well as making him unelectable*. But he also moves the line, and nothing is as shocking the second time, so the next clown will seem more reasonable. The next clown will be more reasonable, having observed the hits and misses of Trump. They will keep all the goofy style over substance and just pare off the awkward Hitler parallels. So get ready for that. Maybe not next election. You wouldn’t run a second clown against Hillary if your first clown got obliterated. But after that. I see 2024, two clowns.

* Update (8-Nov-16): Okay, apparently that’s not unelectable. My mistake.

Sun 07
Aug
2016

Abandoning the Book

Writing

I started writing a book and I’m at about 13,000+ words so far two years ago. Then after that I got busy with schoolwork and other stuff and couldn’t go back to it. Now, I revisit it and realize that, well, it’s total crap and that my writing style essentially changed. Now I’ve got to do a major re-edit and I haven’t even finished it yet. Should I abandon it and start writing other things?

Blair

Yep. Definitely. One hundred percent. I know this is the right answer because you said “and start writing other things.” If you had stopped at “should I abandon it” I wouldn’t be sure. I often feel like abandoning a book just because sometimes I can’t figure out how to get everyone from A to B without characters acting like soulless automatons so it’s not feeling at all like it did in my head and everything sucks and why am I even doing this. But that’s just writing.

I also often re-read the start of a draft I’m only part-way through and decide it’s terrible, because back then I had no idea what I was doing, so now everything feels a little off. Or a lot off. This is why it’s actually a bad idea to re-read a draft-in-progress. You ideally want to save that inevitable disappointing discovery until you have a complete manuscript, at which point you’re too invested to walk away. But I can’t help myself.

So getting cheesed off with your book can manifest as one of two feelings. The first is an urgent desire to start fixing it because you know it can be better. That’s good. The second is an urgent desire to throw it in a fire and go do something else. That’s also good if the something else involves writing. Because it’s never a mistake to write something. I honestly think you can find something like 50% of a great book in the first sentence, just because occasionally you stumble across a line that gives you tone and character and world in a way that immediately suggests the next 20,000 words. Starting something new can be a great reminder for me that I’m not not actually a shitty writer, I’m just stuck in a difficult narrative.

Write what you feel. Everything is better, faster, and more fun when you love it. So when it’s a choice between writing something you enjoy and writing something you don’t, that’s easy. Just as long as it’s something.

Thu 07
Jul
2016

Misinterpreting Copyright

Writing

I just read “Misinterpreting Copyright” by Richard Stallman, found the points he makes very convincing and am curious about your opinion as an author and someone who writes about piracy, DRM, and such things.

Anon

Stallman is right about everything. It’s just that the logical conclusions he reaches are so uncomfortable, it’s easier to pretend he’s wrong. It’s like PETA. There’s no way what we’re currently doing to animals is moral. But burgers are awesome and you can enjoy them better if PETA is a bunch of hypocritical wackos. So we’re all ears for that narrative.

Stallman is the guy saying, “You know, instead of buying that coffee, you could have given an impoverished third-world child safe drinking water.” You can’t fault the logic. But no-one wants to take it to that extreme. So you never hear people criticizing Stallman’s arguments. Instead, it’s always how he was late to a lecture or dresses badly or was rude to someone once.

So what Stallman is right about this time is that copyright was created for the benefit of readers, not writers. This is a foundational principle of capitalism in general: that the purpose of production is consumption. It’s not to create jobs. Jobs are a side-effect, a byproduct of having more stuff available more cheaply. Ideally, the stuff would be free and unlimited, in which case we wouldn’t need jobs at all. The stuff is the point, not the jobs.

The goal of copyright wasn’t for me to give up my day job selling Unix computer systems and live a luxurious life of working naked from home. That was just a side-effect of a system designed to encourage me to write more books. And frankly I’m not sure how well it’s working. It’s been a while since my last novel. Sure, it’s helpful to have time and freedom for writing, but I found being trapped in a corporate sales job pretty motivating, too. I can’t for 100% certain say that I’m producing more words today than I would if forced to sit under fluorescent lighting in a suit for 8 hours a day and given a laptop and freedom for one hour in the middle. Or threatened with waterboarding. There are lots of ways to incentivize artists, is my point.

But copyright isn’t even about that any more. At first it lasted for 14 years, after which anyone could sell copies, write a spin-off, or adapt the work; now it usually lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years, so just forget about doing anything ever unless you buy the rights. That’s not because we think we’ll get more books if dead authors’ estates can get paid in 2116; dead writers can’t write faster, and no-one ever decided whether to write a novel based on their prospects for postmortem royalties. Instead, we have adopted the idea that copyright is a moral thing, which artists deserve. If you make something up, you should be able to control it for the rest of your life, and then some, because it’s yours.

Personally, although I totally get the proprietary instinct (you’ll never treat my kids as well as I do), I think stories are bigger than authors. There’s no doubt to me that if copyright still lasted 14 years, we would be a lot richer for random artists and companies taking James Bond or Superman or Star Wars and doing what they liked. There would be a lot of dreck, yes. But from that hotbed of competition and evolution there would also be some truly great stories.

And copyright today financially benefits companies more than people. The vast majority of writers wouldn’t be affected at all if copyright was radically shortened, because the vast majority of books don’t generate royalties for decades. They do it for a few years, if at all. Only the mega-blockbusters have that kind of tail, and if you’ve produced one of those, you’re not starving. So in practice, the nice idea that artists should enjoy creative control forever translates into a small number of media companies cranking the handles on a couple dozen money-printing machines that no-one else is allowed to touch.

I’m a lot less idealistic than Stallman, though. Of course, everyone is.

Fri 10
Jun
2016

I Would Eat A Brick

Max

Would you eat a brick if I told you it would cure the cancer of anyone afflicted?

Krualstiken

Of course. That would be the most effective cancer treatment in the world. We’re currently shooting people full of poison and it doesn’t even work most of the time. Brick-eating would be a major technological breakthrough. You would win the Nobel Prize for discovering a treatment method as relatively simple and painless as brick-eating.

I would also kill an innocent person with a brick if that would cure cancer worldwide. I mean, I wouldn’t enjoy it. But cancer is the worst. In fact, I would let you kill me with a brick.

I knew someone who worked on The X-Files during its original run and when they were shutting down after nine seasons, she said, “It’s not like we were curing cancer.” Because occasionally in the arts & entertainment industry you can stop and realize that you’re making up stories while other people are doing important things like saving lives or growing food or building houses. I said, sure, but the people who are have probably been watching The X-Files. I hope that is true.

Fri 03
Jun
2016

Why I Hate Windows (this time)

Max

Hey Max, why do you hate Windows?

No one you ever heard of

I’M GLAD YOU ASKED. From the last time I whined about Windows:

But what really bothers me is the feeling that you must constantly fight for control of your own computer, because your aims are apparently in conflict with those of Microsoft and half of everyone else who writes Windows software. They want your computer to report information about you, keep ongoing watch over what you’re doing in case you turn pirate (activation, registration, and validation?), show you ads, and lock you out of protected media. If you lose this battle, six months later you find yourself with a computer so clogged with malware that the only way to make it usable again is to reinstall the operating system and begin the fight again.

Written in 2007. Windows today is that times a thousand.

At least Apple is up-front about how you’ll shut up and take what it gives you. I appreciate that honesty. On my phone, I’m happy for it. I don’t want to configure my phone. I just want to read email and look at photos. You make that happen, Apple.

But Windows! Windows is sneaky. Windows is the shady salesperson telling me it’s my decision but if I don’t want to upgrade it’s going to keep asking and then just go ahead and do it and say it was my choice.

I use Ubuntu Linux, which is part of an open source ecosystem where people make good software just because. That used to be only mildly notable, but the digital world has become so hard-nosed that whenever I switch to Windows, I’m a naive farm boy who just arrived in the big city: 15 minutes later, I’m bankrupt, naked, and everyone has my email address.

Oh, and the Start button. THE START BUTTON. The perfect symbol of everything that’s wrong with Windows. Well not everything. But a lot. Every edition of Windows for the last 20 years has breathlessly pushed one of two selling points:

  1. We added a Start button

  2. We removed the Start button

YOU’RE ADDING AND REMOVING THE SAME THING. How can your main feature of Windows 10 be something you introduced in 1995? Why is nobody talking about that? “Oh yes, I think Windows 10 is actually a significant improvement; it brings back the Start button.” That’s like someone was punching you in the face for a while, then stopped, and now you think things are better than ever! And it’s just a button! While you’re dreaming up new features, how about the one where you don’t need to reboot the entire freaking machine every time it wants to update?

So it’s mainly that: the sneakiness, and the sales campaign stuck on a loop.

Thu 19
May
2016

My Age

Max

What’s your age?

A lonely man

I’m 43. It’s a problem because the main photo of me on my website is from seven years ago and I designed the site’s whole color scheme around it. So now it’s about time to update that pic but I don’t want to have to restyle all the menus. It’s a real dilemma. They say age brings unexpected challenges but I didn’t see this coming.

Another problem is I have more trouble suspending disbelief. So where in my youth I would read a line like, “Commander Zorko strode onto the bridge, his brows furrowed,” and thought, “Yes, excellent, you have already impressed me, Commander,” now I’m more like, “That is some pretty cliched writing.” You might think this is a positive, raising my standards, but when your workflow is blasting out a terrible first draft and reworking it from there, it’s not. I have to drink a lot more coffee to delude myself into thinking that pearls are dripping from my fingers whenever they touch the keyboard, that’s for sure. And that’s a pre-requisite belief for any novelist hoping to complete a first draft, as far as I know.

It also means I finish fewer books. I used to finish everything, even books I hated. I would grind my way to the end, my hate for the author burning brighter with every page. Because once you check out of a story, there’s no coming back. It just gets worse and worse. Stories are a partnership, a deal between author and reader, and they don’t work unless both sides hold up their end. I went to a comedy show once and for some reason didn’t find him funny, but everyone around me was rolling in the aisles, so pretty soon I hated that guy with every fiber of my being. Also I felt kind of psychopathic, because it’s weird to be the only person not laughing. That’s not a great look. But now I bail out of a book at the slightest provocation. So I’m probably missing out on some great reads.

I liked The Phantom Menace when it came out in 1999. I really did. After the 13-minute pod-race scene, all I thought was, “That was a bold cinematic choice, inserting an action sequence with no relevance to anything else in the story.” All the stupid stuff I loved. But you just can’t do that at 43. I was unable to enjoy Pacific Rim because MY GOD WHY ARE THE ROBOTS PUNCHING THE MONSTERS. Like obviously that’s the point of the movie, why go see it if you don’t want robots to punch monsters, but SERIOUSLY ARE THERE NO LONG-RANGE WEAPONS, OH WAIT, YES THERE ARE, AND THEY PUT THEM IN THE ARMS OF THE ROBOTS, WHO ARE PUNCHING MONSTERS.

You see the problem.

Thu 12
May
2016

The Glorious Republic That Almost Was

What Max Reckons

Max, I hear you’re Australian. Do you support Australia becoming a republic?

Yes, I do! Australia almost became a republic in 1999 but the referendum was defeated 45% to 55%. It was interesting because according to the polls, most people were in favor of the general idea, but against any specific implementation. So we wanted to be a republic right up until someone said, “Would we have a Prime Minister or a President, then?” at which point it dissolved into bitter infighting.

This seems to be the general case. For example, a couple of months ago New Zealand tried to change its flag, since, like Australia’s, it has a certain Beneath-The-Iron-Heel-Of-The-Colonial-Empire vibe to it, and that idea had a lot of support in principle, which collapsed when faced with a particular alternative design. That was when the “Classy Silver Fern” people realized they didn’t have as much in common with the “Kiwi Shooting Laser Beams Out of its Eyes” people as they thought.

I think the lesson is that you should make people to agree to do something before you tell them exactly what.

Fri 22
Apr
2016

When I’m Not Writing

Max

What do you do in your off-time when you aren’t writing books?

James

I think about high schools. My daughter needs one in two years (I KNOW) and obviously the wrong choice will ruin her life forever. I mean, as a parent, you feel like every decision you make might ruin your kid’s life, right from the moment you get them, but this is a big one.

So I’ve been researching schools, and visiting schools, and emailing school teachers asking if I can come and speak to their classes, so I can figure out how good they are. If they say no, I know they have high standards. AHAHAHAHA. No, not really. It’s actually the opposite: If they say no, they suddenly seem terrible, like when you like someone and discover they don’t like you back. So all I’m really doing is making myself super biased.

Another problem is that when I visit a private school, I get a super-slick professional presentation, because that school is a business with an incentive to attract new customers. Whereas there’s a state high school near me that’s in such demand, they won’t even meet prospective parents. They had an Open Day but it felt grudging. So the private school comes off better, but they’re the only one selling.

Plus private schools are expensive. But then if you won’t bankrupt yourself for your kid’s education, what are you doing? But maybe that’s self-defeating because you wind up stressed and limited and that’s not good for anyone, either.

Then there’s the single-sex vs co-educational thing. I’m totally sold on the academic benefits of girls-only schooling, but I wonder about the social side, because there was a girls’ school across the road from my high school, and those girls were crazy. But then they were also Catholic. So that could have been it.

Today I visited a school where all the students seemed happy. That was pretty great. Maybe that’s it.

P.S. Aside from this I also:

  1. write things that aren’t books, like TV pilots that will never get made

  2. do NationStates

Wed 13
Apr
2016

A Real Book

Syrup

Not really a question, but it was really interesting to see your book Lexicon in my local library!

Matt

Why, because it’s not a real book? Because I go around slipping self-printed copies of my novels onto library shelves and into bookstores just so I can pretend for a few vain moments that my life and work matter? Because that is PREPOSTEROUS.

I’ve blogged about this before, but the first time I saw my novel in an actual bookstore, it felt a lot like someone put it there by accident. It wasn’t like, “Wow, I have a real book.” It was: “Look at all those real books, plus mine.”

Thu 24
Mar
2016

Post-Zombie Apocalypse Plans

Writing

In the inevitable event of a zombie apocalypse in Australia, what would be your plans to ensure your survival? Will you still write books for the non-infected population?

Atom

I don’t think so. It’s hard enough to make a living as an author without the undead clawing at the windows. I can barely work with metaphorical monsters trying to consume my brain.

That raises a good question, though, which is why I write. Some of my reasons over the years, roughly chronologically, have been:

  • It’s fun

  • Expectation that brilliant words will change world

  • Hope of fame & fortune

  • Hope of seeing book on shelves one day

  • Better job than telephone sales

  • Story trying to crawl its way out of my brain won’t let me think about anything else

  • Just published novel and too young to retire

It’s never one thing, of course. But I used to be very motivated by the idea of getting attention while today I’m not at all. That probably happens to everyone as they get older. Or else I’m disappearing into an elaborate fantasy world where my characters are the only people I really care about. One of those.

Today, I mostly write because when I sit down and read back what I wrote yesterday, it seems interesting but also not quite right, so I feel the urge to fix it and also see what happens next. It’s actually not that different to reading any book, only with more self-loathing. Also it takes longer. But I think readers and writers are fundamentally trying to do the same thing: find out what happens.

Post-zombie apocalypse, I don’t think I’ll write novels, but I will tell stories to children. I think that will be important.

Thu 03
Mar
2016

When I Quit Writing

Writing

Hey Max! I’m sure writing has highs and lows. Have you ever had a point where you thought about packing the whole gig in? What was that point? Why didn’t you?

Anonymous

This morning. I thought I knew what I wanted to write. But when I started, it sucked. The words felt stupid. In the past, when this has happened, I have told myself, Just push through, but now I know that when I do that, I wind up with a lot of stupid words, which I have to delete the next day. It’s always a mistake to think I might be underrating my words; that if I just slap them down there, it might turn out that other people like them better than I do. THAT NEVER HAPPENS.

So then I stopped, because it wasn’t working, and felt sad, because I couldn’t write. I had forgotten how to do it. My career was over.

Fortunately this is a frequent occurrence so I knew it wouldn’t last long. What I have learned is that being a complete failure as a writer is not my fault. It’s the book’s fault. If the book was good enough, it would make me enjoy writing it more. Working on a good book is great fun. It’s joyful. Words come easily. It doesn’t make sense that I would be able to write plenty of good words one minute and no words at all the next. I’m still the same guy. So it must be the book.

Therefore I just need take a break and change something when I get back. Have an idea. Try a different opening. Delete someone. And tada! Words. Sooner or later, words.

Wed 24
Feb
2016

How I Won My Wife

Max

I had the pleasure of reading “Machine Man” for college and right now we have to write an argumentative essay on whatever we want. Do you mind sharing your thoughts on Technology and how it affects Relationships and Face-to-Face communication?

Marc

I’m not sure this is a good question for someone who never goes anywhere. My face-to-face communications today have been:

  • I bought a quiche and a cookie from some people in a cafe

  • I accidentally scared a girl while running

  • My cat was like, “I’m going upstairs,” and I was like, “Oh no, you’re not,” then she ran upstairs.

Also family. I do talk to my family.

But yes, it is a complex and fascinating question. For example, I convinced my wife-to-be to move across the country for me by writing her letters. She was two thousand miles away at the time. So in the absence of technology, I wouldn’t have been able to communicate with her at all.

But if there had been more technology, like Skype, that would have been bad for me, too. I was very fortunate to be wooing her at a time of prohibitively expensive long-distance phone calls. Because I’m really playing to my strengths with the written word. I come off relatively well there. If I’d had to carry on actual conversations, I don’t think things would have gone so well. She had seen me attempt conversation shortly before she moved away and clearly it wasn’t very compelling. It was the absence of affordable communications technology that caused her to forget that and come back.

(Obviously once she got here, she remembered. But by then she’d already uprooted her life. So she was stuck.)

I believe that comprehensively answers your question. Good luck with your essay.

Thu 18
Feb
2016

Outlines: Nice in Theory

Writing

Are you a “knows-the-beginning, knows-the-end, so-now-let’s-write-the-middle” kinda writer, or are you “let’s-start-with-one-image-in-mind-and-see-where-that-takes-me” kinda writer?

Basu

The second one. The first one makes a lot of sense in theory, and it’s what I’d do if it didn’t inevitably lead to me sobbing over a tub of comfort ice-cream. But it does.

I don’t know whether anyone has made the first one work. I know some writers claim to have done it. But I think they must be lying. That would mean you can figure out almost everything you need to about a book before you start it. That’s not my experience. My process is more like this:

Day 1: “That’s a great idea.”

Day 5: “That idea was terrible but this character is interesting.”

Day 20: “I hate everything about this book except these two lines I just wrote.”

Day 40: “What was that original idea again, it wasn’t so bad, was it?”

Day 41: “OH RIGHT, YES, YES IT WAS.”

Day 50: “Ha ha this first chapter is great now that I changed everything I used to like about it.”

Day 150: “The later chapters are so much better than the first. The first one makes me want to vomit with anger.”

And so on. I also like to throw out the entire second half of a draft at some stage. Well, I don’t like to. But it’s what usually happens.

Wed 10
Feb
2016

Naked Wet Flour-Encrusted Tong Strangulations

What Max Reckons

Hello Max,

If memory serves me correctly, you wrote a blog about cement being your prefered way to hide a corpse quite a number of years ago. But what would be your prefered (if not favorite) way to kill someone?

Atom

In order to get away with it, or maximize my enjoyment? Because if you mean the second one, you’re a sick puppy, Atom. Get some help.

I think there must be one layer of misdirection. You want the kind of murder where people’s first reaction is, “What the hell, how did that happen,” then a minute later, “Ohhhh.” They think they’ve figured out the secret. But they haven’t. That’s when people stop thinking. No-one wants the thing they figured out to be wrong.

For example, let’s say say I just strangled you to death, Atom. The first thing I’m going to do is strip you naked. Then I’m going to drag you to the bathroom, dip your head in the toilet, put a pair of tongs in your hand, roll you in flour, and throw you off the balcony.

So the cops are in an unfamiliar environment. That’s important, too. They’re more experienced with murder than I am. They know what to look for. But they won’t have dealt with too many naked wet flour-encrusted tong strangulations. That puts us back on even ground.

Now for the misdirection. I’m leaving a suicide note signed by you. I CAN’T LIVE IN A WORLD THAT WON’T ACCEPT MY TONG-BASED SEX RITUALS. But it’s not convincing. The cops were already going to be suspicious and here it is, the thing that justifies their feelings. That’s when they find your phone, with angry messages to your girlfriend. WILL YOU SHUT UP ABOUT THE TONGS. I’M NEVER GOING TO DO THE TONG THING WITH YOU. Bang. Case closed. That girl is going to prison, because one twist is plenty.

Tue 02
Feb
2016

Setting

Writing

Hey, one of the things my teachers are always telling me I need to improve on in my writing is setting. Even in this simple question, you can note the complete absence of any indications of time and space. Seeing as my teachers are all incompetent, you got any tips that could help me?

Adam’s Neighbour

Setting is very important. Without setting, your characters would float helplessly in a formless void. I definitely recommend setting your story somewhere, so that they can move about and order coffees.

I’m not a big setting guy. You probably knew that. Probably I am half your problem, since you think my opinion worth writing in for. Maybe you should stop reading books like mine. But if we’re separating stories out into their constituent parts (which kills them, but anyway), setting ranks very low. Here’s a list of some things that might be in a scene or story, from most to least important, according to me:

  1. Someone wants something

  2. One person says something that the other person can’t think of a good reply to

  3. The feeling that something bad is going to happen soon

  4. Guess what, something wasn’t like you thought

  5. The feeling that something good is going to happen soon

  6. Somebody dies

  7. Where everybody is

  8. How old they are

  9. What they’re wearing

But setting is important. A good setting makes everything more believable. It’s just something I tend to leave until last, once everything else is working. Because no-one loves a book for its setting, and it’s relatively easily changed. This isn’t a film where you have to rebuild the sets. You can do it with a sentence here and there. Small details, implying larger ones. Like if we’re in a hospital, you don’t want to describe the walls, or the color of the uniforms, or say how many rooms there are. We’ve all seen plenty of hospitals; that stage is prebuilt in our heads. But you can mention an old guy shuffling by in urine-soaked pajama pants, or a woman sitting up doing her lipstick in her bed, or the bucket catching leaks behind the nurses’ desk. Something different and suggestive like that.

Thu 28
Jan
2016

What I’m Angry About Today

What Max Reckons

Hey Max, what are you angry about today?

Anonymous

My newspaper offered a “life hack” for better storage of food in zip-lock bags: Put your germ-laden lips on the bag and suck the remaining air out. They had a video of a woman doing her best not to exhale a mouth full of bacteria into a bag, to demonstrate. That really enraged me. I’m no doctor but I’ll take my chances with regular air over sealing in the escaped vestiges of whatever just crawled back out of your lungs. Really, it’s the label “life hack” that put it over the top. Like they think it’s so clever. Why don’t you go save some snakebite victims by suckling at their open wounds, you barbarians.

Mon 18
Jan
2016

Stages of Creative Laziness

Writing

hey buddy are you workin on anything new? i’m on the toilet right now at work and can think of no one i’d rather have in here with me.

davem

Thanks, Dave. I appreciate it. Later, when I answer my own call of nature, I will think of you, too.

Yes, I’m always working on something new. The funny thing about novels is the enormous lag time to publication. I cycle like this:

Stage 1: New novel is not working and everything is terrible. But my previous one was just published so people think I’m industrious and productive.

Stage 2: Several abandoned creative detours later, I’m still struggling to animate the stitched-together corpse of the new book. But the previous book is coming out in paperback so there’s still no pressure.

Stage 3: BWAHAHAHA. It’s alive. Progress is made. People ask me when the new book will be out because it’s been a while, dude.

Stage 4: OH MY GOD MAX WHERE IS YOUR NEW BOOK. I have a first draft, so am tempted to say, “Oh it’s basically done,” even though I know in reality there is a year of rewrites looming.

Stage 5: It has a publication date, so I can point to that. This is my laziest time creatively because it’s so tempting to polish up the thing that’s already fully formed, or work on its promotion, rather than pick up the shovel and head down to the cemetery to start sifting through body parts for the next book. And I can totally get away with it because no-one will say, “Hey, Max, I know the new book isn’t even out yet, but it’s time to start collecting body parts.”

Wed 13
Jan
2016

Dystopian Horror Wears a Hairpiece

What Max Reckons

Which dystopian horrors you’ve imagined have actually come true so far?

Meg

ALL OF THEM. Sometimes I think, “Well, at least THIS hasn’t happened,” then BAM, here’s Trump’s first TV ad. That thing is really something. It reminds me of why I got out of satire. I can’t do anything with that. It’s already a parody.

My favorite part is where it says we should ban Muslims from the US until we figure out a reason. Because at face value, there’s no reason to tack on that last part. If you were at a party and trying to make the argument for closing the borders, you would never say that, because it makes you look dumb. Instead, you would trot out some vague reason and hope you didn’t get called on it. Right? Explicitly saying “until I figure out why” calls attention to the fact that you don’t actually have a reason.

But the ad does this on purpose! It explicitly validates the idea that we don’t need to waste time identifying problems, but can skip on ahead to the part where we take action against people we never liked anyway. And this is smart, in a thoroughly amoral, civilization-eroding kind of way, because it’s so hard to logically justify racism. Xenophobia is a feeling, not a philosophy. You can’t really mount a solid, racist case for anything. But it’s a real feeling, so what you really want to hear, if you have that feeling, is that you’re completely right and don’t need to worry about why. We can just go ahead and ban Muslims. Until we figure out a reason.

And then the other side completely ignores all that and gets excited because the ad maybe unfairly implies that some footage from Morocco is Mexico.

Wed 06
Jan
2016

The Trouble With Owen

What Max Reckons

Who in tarnation is Owen, and what in the world did he ever do to you to get cursed two Christmas-times in a row?

Concerned Citizen

I don’t see what the big mystery is. I have blogged about Owen before. It was ten years ago, but still. Keep up, people.

Owen is my arch-nemesis because:

  • I liked a girl in high school and Owen sat with her under a tree during lunch a couple times. I don’t think they did anything but it’s the principle of the thing.

  • Later, a different girl I liked said she liked Owen. This was also a different Owen.

  • Owen’s surname—the first Owen, I mean—is Berryman, which is too similar to mine. People sometimes get my name wrong and call me Max Berry, so it’s like he’s laughing at me.

  • Children of Men is one of my all-time favorite films but it has Clive Owen in it, who I don’t like, so that’s annoying. The reason I don’t like Clive Owen is mainly that his surname is Owen. Similarly, I can’t enjoy Owen Wilson movies.

  • There’s this dude in my neighborhood who I cross paths with sometimes and he’s always doing something stupid, like looking the other way when I’m trying to get past. I bet his name is Owen.

So now you’re up to speed.

P.S. I just found that old blog post and his name was actually Scott. But I think that’s beside the point. It’s a little late to stop hating him now. I’m pretty sure the second Owen was really an Owen, and that’s good enough for me.

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