So I finished Machine Man. And I want to stay all cool and authory about it, but honestly, I feel a little heartbroken. I think because when I tap out THE END on a regular novel first draft, it means I finally have something I can show people. But Machine Man wasn’t a regular first draft: it was an experience, me posting one page at a time and checking the next morning to see what people thought. That was freaking wonderful—terrifyingly wonderful—and now it’s over, I already miss it.
I think I will need to do this again. This, or something like it.
But my next step is turning the serial into a novel. Every first draft can be better; my first drafts can be a lot better. If you read this serial—even if you only read some of it—I would love to know what you thought. I usually distribute my first drafts to ten or twelve early readers. This time there are 600 of you, another three or four thousand in the free feeds. As a feedback junkie, this makes me trembly and excited.
If you’ve got an opinion, please let me hear it. I want nothing more than to make my stories as strong as they can be, and I need to figure out how this book reads to someone who hasn’t written it. So please help me: post a comment. Or, if you’d prefer to keep it private, email me.
I tell all my early readers: I’m after what you felt. Please don’t think you need to be a literary critic. Don’t try to imagine what other people might like. Above all, don’t hold back because you can’t think how to justify what the book made you feel. Figuring out why you had a particular reaction and what to do about it, that’s my job. I can do that. What I can’t do is read my own book for the first time. The closest I can get is hearing you describe how you felt when you read it.
Please do tell me what you liked and what you didn’t. I’m looking for flaws, but part of figuring out what to improve is understanding where its heart is. Also, I tend to assume that anything an early reader doesn’t mention she didn’t care terribly much about, so it’s a candidate for the ax. If you stopped reading at some point, please tell me where. If you’re partway through, please share your thoughts so far. If you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about with feelings versus literary criticism and all that, please comment anyway. One-sentence thoughts are fine. I can’t get too much feedback. Please. Tell me.
Well, when I say “making,” I mean “it’s in development.” And as we have learned, sometimes painfully, movies in development often do not make it out of development, at least not in our lifetimes. But still! This is a pretty amazing thing for a not-quite-finished experiment in fiction.
“They” in this case is Mandalay Pictures, who do actually get stuff made, and who I think get this concept particularly well. I’m not saying they’re self-mutilators. I have no proof of that. Let’s just say that if you were, I think they’d be sympathetic.
So Marc Graser of Variety reported this, and look what he said!
…suggestions from readers are integrated into the plot as the story unfolds.
I’m not sure I want that in print. That seems like the kind of thing that could lead to lawsuits. But, well, it’s true: you guys post comments, I read them, and that affects what I write the next day. So there you go. We have a film deal.
I have to mention (again) my Machine Man muse/tormentor M.I. Minter, the guy who essentially provoked me into doing this, because his response to this latest development was:
It’s amazing the fantastic things that happen when you regularly produce work.
I’m starting to suspect that M.I. Minter will make one hell of a Daddy one day. He has a knack of delivering delicious, crunchy praise with a chewy, you-can-do-even-better center.
It looks like this:
Image courtesy wordle.net
That’s pretty awesome. I love the big Lola. I’m disappointed “just” is so big, though. I have to stop using that. Possibly I am overdoing the similes, too, with a “like” of those dimensions. But the scattering of body parts is nice.
As reported in Publisher’s Weekly, Vintage Books will bring Machine Man to life in print form in the US & Canada, most likely in 2011. This will be a rewritten version of what’s currently going up online—since I think the two mediums have very different requirements, plus I haven’t yet seen a first draft I didn’t want to rewrite. Or any draft, actually. But that’s my personal issue. So anyway, once I finish the serial, probably later this year, I will start trying to figure out how the hell I do that.
The particularly cool part is that Vintage (like Scribe in Australia & New Zealand) is happy for me to keep the serial online. Which may sound obvious to you, but that idea caused some publishing industry minds to EXPLODE. Their natural inclination is to scrub the internet free of any potentially competing versions whilst locking down e-books so tightly they don’t work on your device. That’s possibly just my bitter experience talking. But this is a significant step for a publisher, and I’m really happy Vintage took it. I didn’t want to take down my online serial. That would be like leading my child into a forest and abandoning her there. Then, I guess, going home and building a new child based on the first one. And offering her in print form. Wait. This analogy may have gotten away from me.
What we’ll have, then, is the original, unedited serial online, and a more polished (I was going to just say “polished,” but that could be a stretch) novel based on it. Given my track record of rewriting books until they cry, it will probably differ quite a lot from the serial. But on the other hand, it won’t have reader comments. Which is a shame, because those are awesome. It’s like book club five days a week.
This all makes a pretty amazing outcome for a project I started just because a reader bugged me. It’s been successful in a whole lot of ways. So thank you.
P.S. I can’t believe that Publisher’s Weekly’s “Deals” section, by Rachel Deahl, isn’t called “Deahls.” That’s a no-brainer.
P.P.S. My favorite sci-fi site just posted an article about this entitled “Max Barry Jams In Public, Creates A New Publishing Model, Slices Your Legs Off.” Ahh, bless your nerdy hearts.
In the morning, I carried my coffee upstairs to my office and checked my email. This is almost always a bad idea, but still, hard to resist. I had a message from Meredith, who said she was very much enjoying Machine Man. That wasn’t the cool part. Well, it was. It’s always cool when someone tells you they like something you wrote. It never gets old. But what came next was even cooler: Meredith was a neuroscience major. She wrote:
I’m surprised he doesn’t have any phantom pain, since that’s extremely common; while the prosthetics would help trick the brain for sure, with that many limbs taken off, he would certainly have pain. No one totally understands phantom pain, but the idea is that our perceptions are not totally sensory; they are, in a large part, just our brain’s best guess. So, basically, the brain guesses that the limb is still there, but you can’t control it (unclench the phantom fist, etc.). A very simple technique has just been developed by Dr. Ramachandran at UCSD that is incredibly successful: Using a $5 drugstore mirror to make the arm that’s still there look like the arm that got cut off. This makes the brain think that what your one arm is doing, the phantom arm is doing. So those with phantom pain can get rid of an uncomfortable position.
I knew of phantom pain, of course, but thus far hadn’t thought of anything interesting to do with it. Now, thanks to Meredith, I did. Suddenly phantom pain seemed extremely interesting. So I opened up a blank page and began writing.
Often people email me interesting things about the subject areas in which I write. After Company, for example, I heard a lot of terrific workplace horror stories. Which is great, but I always think, “I wish I’d heard that two years ago.” Because then I could have used it in the book.
Yesterday, I sat at my desk with no idea what I would write for that day’s page, received an email from a neuroscience major, wrote something based on her insights, and published it. Then, to make it even better, the first reader comment (from always-interesting Pev) was: “Nice research on phantom limb pain, Max.”
This is the kind of research I can dig: the kind other people do for me, before I even know enough to ask. It’s not the first time it’s happened with this story. And it’s a totally unexpected side-benefit of the real-time serial format. I’m loving this.
Seriously: I’m making this story up as I go. I didn’t say that just to lower your expectations. It’s a work in progress. I haven’t plotted it out in advance. I write each page a few days before you see it.
I’d like to believe the reason I keep getting emails like, “Come on, tell me: how much of this have you written already?” is that people think Machine Man is so amazingly brilliant that no mere mortal could dream it up on the run. Unfortunately, I have to face the fact that you just think I’m shifty.
So look, I swear: it’s for real. I’ll show you the blank pages I haven’t written yet.
Anyway. Six weeks in, I’m thrilled. I like the story, I like checking the latest comments about each page, and 2,700 people have signed up for it. The unsubscription rate is 7%, meaning 93% of people who try it out via email stick with it, which I couldn’t be happier about. Well, I guess I could. 100% would be better. But maybe that 7% just changed email addresses. Or someone close to them died and they couldn’t handle any contact from the outside world for a while. You can’t rule that out.
Now some news:
Machine Man is going to be a book. You know, a real one. My Australian publisher, Scribe, decided there was no need to wait to find out whether the rest of the story—i.e. most of it—would be any good, and offered for print rights. That’s some pretty good blind faith right there. I’m touched but slightly afraid.
I’m enjoying this enough to see it though, so the end of the free feed is nigh. I’m thinking Chapter Ten; i.e. the last free page will be 43. That’s eight and a half weeks in, which seems about right. Actually, page 33 would have been a good place, story-wise, but I hadn’t gotten around to setting up PayPal. Soon, anyway, you’ll have the opportunity to pay $6.95 for the rest of the story. If it helps, you can think of me using that seven bucks to buy shoes for Fin. Look at her! Right now she has to walk around in baskets.
And a few thoughts:
My favorite chapter so far is Chapter Five, which contains my favorite page (20), which contains my favorite line (“Don’t do that thing.”). I realize this is something no self-respecting author should ever admit, but that line made me giggle like a child.
Biggest surprise was the reaction to page 23. I forgot that nobody but me knew that Lola was into prosthetics. I mean, really into them. And people liked this development. Which was great to discover, you sick bastards.
At the risk of disappointing you by revealing its very mundane origins: Page 21 is more or less the original idea I had for this story. I was walking along one day when I saw an unattractive man in a beautiful car; I had a notepad with me and wrote down: The cars are better than the drivers. I thought about this while waiting for the train, at which point I added: I want to be a train, which is essentially page 2. The rest follows naturally, I’m sure you’ll agree.
I’ve managed to get to the FAQ, but am I REALLY supposed to believe what you have posted there?
I think he means that writing is a good way to send yourself insane before you ask everyone in the world to watch you work and post comments. True, it’s not a method I’d generally recommend. It’s essential to stay excited about a work-in-progress, and there may be no better way to deflate yourself about a promising story than to show it to people before it’s ready.
But I am a big boy. And I did set expectations before I started: this isn’t a plotted, edited, polished book. This is me caught in the act of making sausages. I think everyone understands that.
Ha ha ha! No, of course they don’t. And nor should you: all that really matters is whether the story is worth reading.
One week in, this is what I’ve found:
You people don’t miss a thing. Upon posting Page 4, I was immediately slammed by multiple readers for being repetitive, unimaginative, and suggesting that straight hair can dangle. This is slightly terrifying, because no doubt Page 4 is a lot better than some others I’ll serve up. But it’s also instructive. I think Machine Man is good training for me in the same way as a boot camp commander who makes you crawl through mud while screaming insults about your mother. They’re both… uh… character-building.
I am getting a lot of love for this project, which is flat-out wonderful. It’s thrilling to watch a page go up and read comments about it. Scary. But thrilling. There is usually a gap of several years between me giggling to myself in my study over a line, and anyone outside my immediate friends and family reading it. That immediacy of reaction is kind of addictive. Thanks.
I wonder what would happen if every day I tried to predict what will happen on the next page. I feel like it would really screw with Max as a writer.
Ha ha ha! It sure would! Although that is a fascinating thing for me: I have always wished I could stick probes in your brain to see how you react as you read my stories. Are you buying this particular subplot? Do you care? Did you notice that foreshadowing before; was that too obvious, or too subtle? Usually I have to bug Jen about these things. Here I feel closer to getting an answer to the eternal question: How does this book look when it’s inside your head?
Quite a few people seem frustrated at the one-page-per-day drip-feed. I’m not sure whether this is good frustration (“I love this story so much, I can’t wait for pages!”) or bad frustration (“In the 24 hours between each page, I totally forget everything that happened!”). I guess a little of each. I’m enjoying this format very much, but will wait and see how well it works for readers over the long-term.
GMail is really popular. Which is not particularly relevant, but wow: almost half of all subscribed email addresses are at gmail.com. Hotmail is a very distant second. There are about 1,500 people signed up to Machine Man at the moment, with… huh. I just double-checked my numbers, and it’s exactly 1,500 people. That’s a little weird. Anyway, 1,500 people, with three-quarters getting it via email and the rest via RSS. There might be others reading pages on the site without subscribing.
Since it’s been a happy beginning, I’ve decided to start a new Machine Man feed every Wednesday. So if you only stumbled across this concept today, you can still get Machine Man delivered starting from Page 1! Feel free to tell your friends about that.
Speaking of which: Machine Man! I hope you’re signed up for this spectacular venture into real-time serial fiction. I say “spectacular” because “I wound up writing a 200-page story for eight interested readers” would qualify too, albeit not in the sense I’m hoping for. But either way.
Because the original concept wasn’t self-destructive enough, I decided each Machine Man page will accept your comments. That way, my eight interested readers can not only bankrupt me financially, but also destroy my creative confidence. There’s a very real chance here you may see me totally disintegrate as a human being. And I’ll throw that in for nothing.
P.S. I have to confess: I’ve cheated a little already. I got ahead of myself and built up a little stack of pages, which are now ready to go. It has been fun. There is something very satisfying about a solid, ninety-word scene. I think I like this medium. It’s like a novel with ADHD.
P.P.S. I got a spam email from “Mal Awesome.” That’s the best name I’ve ever heard. Next time I need a character name, I’m trawling my Junk folder.
I’ve never loved the idea of reading a novel online, because novels aren’t meant to be read that way: they are designed to envelop you. Anything I see on the web, by contrast, I give my attention for a maximum of eight seconds before checking Reddit for videos of laughing dogs. Don’t say that’s just me. It’s how the internet trains us.
So rather than trying to shoe-horn a novel into a web-friendly format, I thought I’d write you a real-time serial. That means a continuing story that turns up one tiny page at a time in your inbox. It is titled “Machine Man.”
I say “real-time” because I will write it as you read it. I’m warning you about this up-front because it’s going to be a little chaotic, and Hemingway was right. Also there is the possibility that it will go so badly I nuke this part of the web site and pretend it never happened. But it’s the web, right? So I will release early and release often.
Right now you can sign up for free. If it goes well, I’ll turn it into a subscriber thing where you can buy the whole thing for $6.95.
Pages start Wednesday March 18, 2009. You can find out more here.
I hope you like it.
P.S. I’m not sure if anyone’s done anything quite like this before. If they have, and it was a disaster, please don’t tell me.
P.P.S. Special thanks/blame to Ian for haranguing me into doing this.