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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

Thu 21
Nov
2019

Just Write a Bad Book, They Say

Writing Writers are sometimes told to JUST WRITE, even if they know that what they’re writing is bad. I think this can be good or awful advice depending on who you are.

It’s good advice if you’re the kind of writer who gets stuck agonizing over sentences and scenes until they’re perfect. If that’s you, you can benefit by postponing a lot of that self-critique until you have a first draft. Because otherwise you won’t have one.

And first drafts are always bad. Reaching the end of a first draft and re-reading it for the first time is like waking up in bed with a stranger who seemed dazzling and irresistable last night, when you were drunk, but now it’s daylight and oh my God what were you thinking. But that’s okay, because now you can take care of all the other stuff that got overlooked when you were trying to invent an entire populated world with a compelling narrative through-line in your head.

So if you tend to endlessly re-read what you wrote last week and mentally compare it to the greatest novels of all time, you’re asking for trouble. It might be a red flag that your story isn’t working in some fundamental way—in which case you need to strip it down to the part you like best and start over—but you might also simply be operating under the mistaken belief that your first draft has to be excellent.

On the other hand: Your first draft does have to be excellent. I mean this in the sense that I don’t think it’s possible to write a good book you don’t like. Those stories of authors who found every sentence excruciating but their pain and toil created something magnificent—those didn’t happen. I don’t believe those at all. It’s the other way around: You think you’re creating something magnificent and only when you re-read the first draft do you realize, boy, I still have a lot of work to do.

It is possible to crank out a novel that no-one really likes, including you. I know this because I did it, right after I started writing full-time and mistakenly believed that the job was all about discipline. Since then, I’ve written four or five novels that will never be published, but none has been a bigger waste of time than that one, which was bad in every way, and I knew it at the time, while I was working on it. Each day, I was happy to finish writing, and I didn’t think about it again until I had to the next day. That is no way to write a novel.

Delusion is key here. You don’t have to write a great first draft. But you have to believe it will be a great book. You must know in your soul that it’s going to be great when you’re done. Not because you’ve re-read your first chapter a hundred times and every line is perfect, but because the story is in your head and it thrills you to think about. Write that book.

Comments

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towr (#1914)

Location: Netherlands
Posted: 13 days ago

When I was writing my master's thesis people told me to "just write". It felt about as helpful as telling an aspiring astronaut "just build a rocket".
Of course there's differences between a novel and a thesis. For one you'll have to finish that thesis even if the "story" doesn't thrill you to write about. But I think my biggest issue was getting the "story" in order at all; what to tell, how to connect the parts etc. I have the same issue with story-ideas I have.

Radiatia (#6360)

Location: Auckland, New Zealand
Posted: 5 days ago

I'm at a bit of quandary after reading this. On one hand you may have given me some of the best writing advice I've ever read - but on the other hand, I wish I hadn't read it as I'm currently 48,000 words through a manuscript that I'm starting to realise is complete crap, and not something that I think can be tidied up in the second draft.

Basically, I suspect I'm making the mistake you did you in thinking that discipline is everything - I've tried to discipline myself to write until it's done, no matter what, but I think I've just ended up being so aggressive with my self-discipline that any good plot or characters have run for cover and are cowering in fear from me.

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 5 days ago

@Radiata

I think in your shoes I'd try starting the day by writing something that isn't necessarily the next 1,000 words of your current novel. Like maybe try a different scene from the same book, or else a scene that might exist if other things in your book were different, or else a different way to begin it. Or, if you really just want to leave it all behind, something entirely different.

That kind of thing can be incredibly freeing, and has often helped me realize which parts of my story I truly value, and which are there just because I had to write something that day and that was what came to mind.

48k words is quite a lot! Ordinarily, I'd say that if you've made it that far, you must have something there that's inspired you. You truly would need a whole lot of discipline to plow that far into something that was no good at all. So even if it's become a chore for you lately, a change of direction might be all you need.

Failing that, I've had books that I put away for a year at 50k words and when I came back, it was immediately obvious what was good, what was bad, and what I needed next. So that can work, too.

All my advice really comes down to "enjoy what you do," though. Anything can work if you're following your bliss.

Radiatia (#6360)

Location: Auckland, New Zealand
Posted: 1 day ago

Thank you, Max - your comment means a lot and I really appreciate the advice.

As it stands, having thought about it for a few days, I suspect what I've done is I've tried to cram too many ideas into one book when really there are ideas that could probably be made into three separate books - so what I'm thinking of doing is rewriting a pared down story which is technically the same story, but only uses the handful of scenes from the original that I liked and as such is therefore actually a completely different story.

(I think you wrote once about something similar happening to you when you wrote Lexicon?)

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 1 day ago

For sure, I do that all the time. I've never actually made it 48k words into a book before deciding to dismember it. But I have dismembered books so many times that all the separate pieces totaled about that much before I figured out where the story was.

So obviously there is a balancing act where you have to do that sometimes to find the good stuff, but if you do it all the time, you never finish. Personally, I've never regretted going back and butchering a book to rebuild something new, but all writers are different.

What you say about "too many ideas" resonates with me -- a few times I've found I start a book with three chapters full of half-baked ideas, and it's only when I go back later that I can see how to develop those ideas more slowly and in greater depth, so they fuel the plot rather than skate across it.

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