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writes things for cash

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.

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Mon 02
Oct
2017

How I Make Cakes

Lexicon

Why is Lexicon told out of chronological order? Is this entirely for the sake of suspense?

Aaron

Good question! There was more to it but I removed the HUGE SPOILERS since this is a public site.

So a linear structure is simple and powerful because as a reader you want to know what happens next. That’s the main reason you’re here. What happened before can be interesting, and well-told, and add layers to the story, but it’s always at least a little irritating to be pulled out of a story thread you’re following and sent somewhere else. (Unless you’re getting back to a previous story thread that you were enjoying more than this one. Which is often the case with stories that flip between multiple points of view. I mean, you’re going to have a favorite. So inevitably you’ll feel like you wish the story had more of that person and less of everyone else. Multiple narratives are deceptively slippery.)

Linear is a solid default. But you can do a lot more as a writer when you free yourself to leap around in time, since now you can reach forward and backward to include anything that impacts on the part of the story you want to tell. Our lives would be a lot more dramatic if we could do this in real life. Every small triumph or disappointment, imagine if you could build up to it with scenes from your past that illustrate just how significant and poignant it is. Stories are events arranged as to give meaning, and that’s easier to do when the events don’t need to occur in lockstep.

Most novels have some of each, of course; even the most linear story has, if not flashbacks, then reminisces of the she-had-been-here-once-before-five-years-ago variety. But Lexicon has . I think it’s accurate to say this is “entirely for the sake of suspense,” for a broad definition of suspense, since suspense is a fundamental pre-requisite for any novel, or almost any scene, in my opinion; if there’s no gap between what’s happening now and what might happen next, there’s no actual story. Almost everything I do on the macro level is for the sake of suspense.

But a key element to the opening of Lexicon is that there’s something unfolding and for quite a long time you don’t know what. So it makes sense for readers to stay with Wil and Emily as they’re each going through that learning state. It would be annoying to follow one of them on that journey and then have to go through it again with someone else. I mean, you just couldn’t do that.

I also think Emily’s early story is more interesting because Wil’s story is simultaneously revealing the darker side of the world she’s entering. Without that, it’s really just a girl going to school. Similarly, hers adds some solidity and meaning to his, which would otherwise be (more) chaotic and confusing. There would be a way to do it differently, but an awful lot would have to be different. To straighten out the whole book, I think it would break so hard in so many places, it would need to become a different book altogether.

Really, though, the answer is that this is the way I found into the story. I write tens of thousands of words trying to find a story that might be hidden inside an idea, and for Lexicon that process generated two pieces I liked: the eyeball thing and the street hustler. So I explored those more, and delayed figuring out how they would connect until later.

When I’m writing, I make the icing before the cake. So the cake is all that fundamental story stuff about who’s trying to do what. It’s the structure and plot. It’s the bulk of what will make the book succeed or fail. When it’s done, it’s what everyone will say the book is about. But the magic part is the icing: all the subtleties of tone and dialogue and a hundred tiny indefinable things that may even escape notice.

For example, if I have a scene with two people talking, and I love the way they’re interacting, I feel like I might be able to write a book with those two people doing whatever. I’m very interested in thinking about how they might have gotten here and where they might be going. Whereas if I have an actual story idea, like a secret society of poets, that’s good, but there are a billion ways to write that story, and I might never find one that works.

This is a bit of an exaggeration; I do usually start with some kind of story idea. But I don’t then try to build it from the ground up, layering on structure and plot. I go straight to the icing. Obviously a lot of both the cake and the icing will evolve simultaneously. And in the end, both need to be delicious. But I feel more confident in my ability to figure out a delicious cake to go under some great icing than the other way around.

This may not be a smart way to work, by the way. This analogy is very apt in the sense that if you imagine me making a cake by spreading the icing first and then trying to build a cake underneath it, that’s exactly how I work. There’s cake everywhere, is what I’m saying. Tens and tens of thousands of words of cake. But it’s more interesting, and more enjoyable, and ultimately the only way I can reach that moment where belief sparks and I can see it’s a real thing.

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