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?
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a couple of unpublished novels that I go back and re-read every few years and the fallow period does show me things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.
Hey Max. First, thanks for making NationStates. Second, did you really find a sock full of pennies? If so where?
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?
You start by becoming a banana for a minute and work your way up.
Do you even look at these?
Have you met an Alien?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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…
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
I am worth several hundred nets.
If there was one word you could use to describe Emily from Lexicon, what would it be?
Is Jennifer Government a young adult novel?
Oh I don’t know, is the MARGARET ALEXANDER EDWARDS ALEX AWARD for young adult novels?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.