MaxBarry.com
weird ideas since 1973
TypewriterWriting

Sometimes people ask what else I've had published besides novels. I avoid answering this question, because the truth is nothing, and that's embarrassing. I did try to sell some short stories once, but they got rejected a lot.

But just because they weren't good enough for some crummy Australian rag doesn't mean the world need be deprived of them, right? That's what the internet is for! So here's a collection of writings, advice for struggling writers, and other writing-related... uh, writings.

Writing Blog

Displaying blogs about Writing. View all Max's blogs.

Thu 10
Aug
2017

How to Summarize a Novel

Writing

Could you give some tips on query letter writing, as in what’s worked for you and what hasn’t? I’m about 40,000 words into my novel and the idea that six months or more from now i’ll have to condense it all down into a page both scares and confuses me.

Sam

A page! No-one reads a whole page synopsis. You get two or three paragraphs.

But you are right to be scared and confused. It’s terrible. It’s like you’re 40 years old and you run into someone you haven’t seen since high school and they say, “So what have you been up to?”

That’s your template for summarizing your novel. Skip to the highlights. You don’t make high school person stand there and listen to you justify those years when you didn’t really accomplish anything tangible as such but it was such an important period of personal growth and discovery. Sure, okay, without knowing about that, people can’t really understand the full significance of the time you threw a pie at your ex-boyfriend. Even so, the pie thing is the correct answer.

This process can feel fraudulent because of course you’re so much more than a pie person. That’s a small part of what you do, going around throwing pies at people. You spend a few minutes on that per day, tops. But people realize that. They understand there’s a whole life going on as well as the pie-throwing thing. You’re not selling yourself short by skipping to the highlights; you’re just respecting the fact that high school person isn’t actually asking for your entire life story right now. If they want to know more—and why wouldn’t they; what made you throw pies?—sure, you can head back to a bar or whatever and start to unpack things. But for now: stick to the pie-throwing.

I’m not great at this, by the way. And I haven’t done it in 15 years, not the query letter kind. You should probably look up what an agent or editor thinks, since they have actual experience reading these. But since I’m here, and I have to write blurbs sometimes, which is the same deal, here’s my opinion.

I think you want to start by reducing your book down to the shortest description that makes any kind of sense. So Lexicon might be “killer poets.” If you can get that into the first sentence, that’s ideal. In fact, your query letter might want to have a sentence like, “It’s a story about a girl who is drawn into a secret society of killer poets” before taking a step back and doing the actual synopsis, which is a more linear description.

Note down more words or phrases that are important to the texture of the story (I might want “chase” and “secret school,” “love” and “betrayal”) just to make sure they get used somewhere. The goal is to linger in the mindset of trying to pick out just the most essential concepts before you get bogged down in trivialities like trying to write sentences that make sense.

When it is time to write sentences that make sense, remember you’re still telling a story, just a very short one. That means you care about things like creating a question in the mind of a reader and withholding the answer. Don’t create something that sounds dumb to you but figure that’s their fault because if they want a proper story and not a novel murdered in three paragraphs they should read your frigging book. I say this as someone who used to think like that. You should still think about change and instability; that is, your synopsis/blurb/summary should strongly suggest that things are motion, or, at least, cannot remain the same.

Some stories lend themselves very easily to this, like murder mysteries, or mysteries in general, really. (Who? Why?) Also stories where someone wants something. (Will they get it and what will it cost?) But whatever it is, what makes it a story is that it contains change or the threat of change. The reason people want to read the story is to find out how its characters will deal with that change.

Ideally you want to demonstrate that your story is funny (or horrific, or whatever) rather than merely claim it’s funny, or horrific, or whatever. That mainly means matching tone. That is, you don’t want to change tone from your novel and wind up with a dry academic abstract. In the same vein, don’t lose sight of your story’s emotion. It can be implicit, but you must convey that people are feeling things, not just doing things.

This is all a million times harder in practice than theory. Good luck.

Also: There’s a related question about whether a synopsis should give away the ending. Some people say yes, because the editor or agent wants to know whether you screwed it up. I say no, unless it’s an amazing twist ending that everything else depends upon. You can go right up to it, but I’d still leave the final question unanswered. I will admit that a big part of this is that I think people who spoil endings are monsters. But it seems more valuable to me to leave the editor/agent in at least a little suspense, i.e. experiencing something like the kind of feeling you hope to arouse in readers.

Wed 17
May
2017

Ask Max: Normal Service Resumes

Writing

hello?

Normanshire

Hello! Hi there!

Crazy thought, have you ever considered banging out books Heinlein style? One draft, then DONE. Launch it and go to the next, and the next, and the next. Get 10 books done in the time of 1. if 50% of people don’t love it, you are still 5x better off than 100% liking that x10 draft work. And honestly? I bet 80% of the people will STILL love your work. The only person stopping you is that unfair critic glaring from your mirror. Tell him to piss off and let you write!

Yet another aspiring writer

I appreciate the support, Y.A.A.W. Thank you. But I have to say, I would rather set myself on fire. First, I think you’re being very optimistic about how many people would like the pieces of crap I produce as early drafts. You may think otherwise, but remember, I’ve seen them and you haven’t.

Second, and I offer this by way of explanation, not as excuse, I like messing around with stories by myself. That’s super fun. Showing them to people is the worst part, because they stop existing as beautiful imaginative creatures full of wonder and possibility, and turn into chunks of paper with plot holes and unclear character motivations that need a lot of work. I like publishing books, and I agree I should do it more often, but it’s just so tempting to sit and write drafts instead.

Do you like peanuts?

Jordan P. Johnson

They’re okay. I don’t dislike them. Me and peanuts have nothing to say to one another.

Hey Max, have you noticed that the Swiss company “Allevia” has been liquidated and no longer exists? re: “Allevia: So Sue Me (Dec 2006)”.

Anon

I did not know that! Huh. I guess I showed them. I mean, I’m not trying to take credit for bringing down the company. But, you know, they tangled with me, and now I’m here and they’re not. So I basically brought down the company.

Hello, Will you be answering my question. Of course not this question. As that may become rhetorical. But the question I posted prior to the question I just end posted in this post.

Darius Trappernicus

No.

Could you write a Multi Ending Book? One that allows the reader to make choices as they read. With a range of unique outcomes.

Darius Trappernicus

Oh, wait, it’s you again. Then yes, I will answer it. No.

I mean, that’s almost NationStates, isn’t it? That’s pretty close.

Which stance did you take? Trump or Hillary? Or moderate?

Thomas Laszlo

I am perfectly moderate and the rest of the world is extreme, like everyone thinks. I think Hillary would have been a good President. You would have gotten sensible, incremental improvement with Hillary. She would have finished with historical low approval ratings because a lot of people were super aggravated by her very existence and would have beaten the drum until it drowned her out of office, but still.

Trump, on the other hand, was the kind of person I thought the US would elect in about twenty years, right before Fahrenheit 451-style parlor walls and the Apocalypse. Years ago I regularly watched The Apprentice, and each episode a team would go into the boardroom to face Donald, who would quiz them on their performance and then invent a completely unrelated reason why one person was to be fired. The logic never held from one episode to the next, so one week being cautious might get you fired and the next it would win praise. So in that sense, it was a useful allegory for the randomness and cult of personality of the business world. But also it made clear that Trump is basically a collection of amoral pathological psychoses tuned for self-aggrandizement. Which is not ideal in a President.

I do wonder if there’s a more evil version of Trump, though. Because Trump isn’t very calculating. A lot of the time, his main objective seems to be to feel important. Also often he seems to believe what he says and then just doesn’t want to admit he was wrong later. So I wonder if you can take that bluster and shameless populism and set it in someone with more self-awareness, who does it on purpose. That would be pretty evil. Maybe Trump opens the door for that kind of person.

On the plus side, though, it’s been a fantastic six months for journalism. Not long ago, everyone hated the media and journalists were hopelessly compromised click-bait merchants in a dying industry. Now they’re saving democracy. I mean, they’re also hopelessly compromised click-bait merchants, but as an institution, the media has been a real credit to the nation. I think there’s a lot to be proud of there.

See, a more evil Trump would have wedged the media with patriotism, rather than attacking them directly. You attack the media head-on, you’re injecting adrenaline directly into the veins of everyone who ever thought they might like to be a journalist. You go to war, you get attacked, then the media has to shut up and support the troops. That’s what Evil Trump would do.

Australians in total need to reevaluate their leaders.

Michael

That’s not a question. HEY, IT’S CALLED “ASK MAX,” NOT “MICHAEL MAKES STATEMENTS.”

Do you ever write funny short stories and then sit in the corner of your bedroom giggling to yourself?

Greg

Not short stories. But with novel scenes, and in my study, when I’m rereading. When I’m actually writing, I’m staring at the screen with an expression like your psychotic ex-boyfriend peering through your bedroom window. There is no giggling at that point. But reading it back, I try to put myself in the headspace of someone who’s reading it for the first time, and if I do that successfully, then yes, I do admit, I sometimes giggle and guffaw at the wit of the fellow who wrote these words, whoever he is.

Tue 14
Mar
2017

New Book Feels

Writing

A graphic titled The Book I'm Working On. There are two charts. The first, labeled Reality, shows a bell curve where the likelihood of the book being garbage at one extreme or genius at the other extreme is very low, and the likelihood of it being just okay is high. The second chart, labeled How It Feels, shows an inverted curve, so that the likelihood of the book being either garbage or genius is high, while the likelihood of it being simply okay is low

Wed 21
Dec
2016

Audio: I Should Buy Some Cement

Writing A 6-minute radio adaptation of a short story I wrote a few years back, thanks to Greg R. Barron.

Greg just noticed it on my site and decided to make an audio version, which is pretty great.

Original story.

Tue 13
Dec
2016

When My Next Book Is Out

Writing

Might we have a new book from you by the end of 2017? I’m jonesing for some new material. I guess I’ll go back through and re-read your old books again.

Anonymous

That is an excellent idea, because no, sorry, there won’t be a new book from me in 2017. It takes about a year to go from a draft I’m not ashamed to show to an editor to something that can sit on a bookstore shelf, and I don’t yet have a draft I’m not ashamed to show an editor.

But 2018 looks good! I’ve been working on multiple books and now they’re all getting close to finished. So one of those should be ready to go. I don’t know which one, though. Sometimes I feel like a book is on track and then I realize it’s horrible and I should burn it and feel bad and go work on something else. Then, a little while later, I realize that other book needs to be burned, and the first one is actually all right. It’s not a linear process, is what I’m saying.

This has been a really great year for me creatively. One of my best. It will take a while before that becomes apparent to anyone else. But I’ve enjoyed it a lot. I still don’t really know where good words comes from or why but I’m grateful for the ones that found me this year.

Fri 04
Nov
2016

Fresh Eyes

Writing

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?

David

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.

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