MaxBarry.com
weird ideas since 1973

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

Sun 11
Feb
2018

The Write Order

Lexicon

Did you write Lexicon chronologically and later decide which order to publish the chapters in? Or did you write it in the order in which the chapters appear? Or something else?

Robert

I wrote scenes in the order they occurred to me and moved them around later. That wasn’t chronological order, but wasn’t the published order, either, since I rewrite like a lunatic.

Actually, that’s misleading. I also write like a lunatic. It’s not just rewriting. When I had the basic idea for Lexicon, the first thing I did was write 20,000 words that never ended up in the book. I think a lot of writers do this. Many people have told me they started writing a novel and loved it for ten or twenty thousand words and then lost interest. I always say it’s not you; it’s the book. You haven’t lost steam because you’re not a good enough writer; it’s because your stupid story isn’t giving you enough to work with. You had something good but went wrong and now you’re trying to decorate the Sistene Chapel ceiling with crayons. Did Michelangelo use crayons? No. That ceiling would have sucked if he’d had crayons. People would say, “That is one mediocre ceiling. I can’t believe I came all the way here to see it.”

So when that happened to me, I threw it all away except for a 500-word scene of a guy getting assaulted in a bathroom and 1,000 words of a street hustler’s magic game gone wrong. I still found those interesting.

This time when I hit 20,000 words and began to hate it there was more to salvage: I had characters like Eliot, Yeats, and Bronte, and a stronger idea of what people were doing and why. Everything else was still terrible. I didn’t have a story so much as a bunch of different people doing different things. But there was more there. So I cut back to 10k words and spent a couple of years writing and cutting and rewriting my way up to 40k.

Then I threw it all out for the same 1,500 words I’d had before. I’d developed a lot more of the world, but the whole thing still sucked for reasons I couldn’t identify. So I decided to try a new approach.

(During this time Machine Man went from idea to online serial to published book. It was nice to work on something with a linear relationship between time spent writing and book length.)

This time, I made those simple two scenes the openings of Chapters 1 & 2 and spent the entire rest of each chapter exploring them. With all the other stuff stripped away, it immediately felt more like a real story. I ran it up to 80,000 words without too much trauma, relatively speaking, sticking with this new format of alternating point-of-view chapters: Wil, Emily, Wil, Emily.

That became increasingly challenging as the ending loomed and I needed to bring story threads together. For example, I would want to do something with a particular character in a particular time-frame at a particular point in the story, but it wouldn’t be the right point-of-view chapter. I managed to make it work anyway, kind of, and finished a first draft (110,000 words), but it was complicated and hard to follow, with too much jumping around in time and space. It even had the worst kind of flashback, where first you see something that doesn’t make any sense, then later the story is like, “Oh, so here’s what you needed to know back then. It’s pretty great now, right?” No! It’s too late. You can’t retrospectively save a scene. I already experienced it and felt bad.

The structure also made it impossible to change anything. My first drafts always need a lot of reworking in the back half, since they evolve through a beautiful, natural, organic process of creative discovery, instead of from a plan like a sane person would use. My structure was a Jenga tower of Babel where I couldn’t touch any part of it without risking collapse the whole thing, because it was all interconnected and inflexible.

So I straightened out the timeline, moving scenes to where they made the most sense from a story point of view, rather than the dictates of an alternating chapter structure. That sounds neat and tidy, like you can click and drag a scene from one place to another and it will snap into the right place, but the reality is more like operating on someone who has their big toe growing out of their forehead. It’s messy, is what I’m saying. You create a lot of ragged edges. There may be some crying involved.

Usual disclaimer: This process isn’t something I recommend. Ideally I would have an idea, plan the book, and write out a first draft in chapter order. I’m just not smart enough to do that. That’s the only problem. I can’t guess in advance what will be interesting about a story. I have to wade in there and figure it out from ground level. But maybe you can!

Comments

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Chris (#7387)

Location: Melbourne
Posted: 183 days ago

Great advice Max. And very reassuring.
I’m in a similar position and the Jenga Tower of Babel is very real to me. So nice to know that the feeling of complete panic as I try to rewrite may not be linked to a singular form of stupidity on my part.

Valerie (#5458)

Location: Chicago
Posted: 183 days ago

Hmmm...this is a little eerie. Less than twenty four hours ago, you popped in to my head. I even thought how weird it would be if you sent an email soon. Now, here you are in my inbox. This begs the question - did you receive and respond to my "request" or did I pick up on your intent?

Valerie (#5458)

Location: Chicago
Posted: 179 days ago

Okay, guess it was all on my end! G'day...

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