I’ve written more bad fiction than you’ve read. I’m serious. I’ve done a hundred or so drafts of nine or ten manuscripts, and let’s not even start on the shorter stuff. Read one of my books? Think it could have been better? Well that’s what they published. That was polished.
After a decade of wrangling paragraphs for a living, I have decided: it’s always the book’s fault. When your scene won’t quite come together, your novel idea won’t stay interesting, your main character refuses to fill out: it’s not because you lack talent. It’s because your idea is stupid. You’re trying to push shit uphill. And you may be a good shit-pusher, with a range of clever and effective shit-pushing techniques, but still: it’s going to be hard, frustrating, and ultimately you’ll discover you still don’t have your shit together.
I used to believe that an author needed an iron will. Discipline, to forge through the bitter dark and emerge clutching a tattered, tear-stained first draft. Now I think that’s a good way to lose nine months on a bad idea. Because if you have any skill as a word-slinger, you can make a bad idea sound okay. Not brilliant. But mildly interesting, at least for a while. Keep pushing that shit, though, and depression sets in. That’s when you think: I’m not good enough. Or: If I were more disciplined I’d finish this. Or: I can’t write.
Sure you can. You just can’t write this and stay interested, because it’s a stupid idea. It’s predictable. It’s been done. It had one intriguing aspect and you tapped that out within the first three pages. You don’t want to write this because your body is bone-bored of it.
A good idea excites you. It makes each day of writing a little joy. A good idea, when you peel it, has more good ideas inside. It makes you feel clever. It doesn’t need to be articulated. It might sound silly when you try to explain it. (Don’t try to explain it.) But you know there’s something there. It pulls you to the keyboard. It spills words from your fingertips. Some days, you lose your grip; you wander from the path and lose sight of where you were. But a good idea calls out to you.
A while ago I had The Block. The way I got out of it was to write a page of something new every day. The first week, I flushed out a lot of ideas that had been humming around the back of my brain, promising me they were brilliant. They weren’t. I captured them one page at a time and set them aside. The second week I wrote two things that were kind of interesting. Not very interesting. But not abominations, either. It was possible to imagine that in some alternate universe of very low standards, they could become novels. Not popular novels. But still.
The third week, I wrote something interesting. And I discovered I could write. That the reason I’d been stuck wasn’t because I’d forgotten where the keys were. It was because the story I was trying to make work sucked.
So that’s my advice to anyone mired in a story. Don’t blame yourself. You’re great. It’s just that stupid idea.
Once upon a time a boy went to business school. The boy was not sure he wanted to go into business, because what he most loved was writing stories about aliens and monsters and girls who did not love him back. But he knew he could not hope to earn a living from such stories, so business school it was.
The boy learned many interesting things, until he began to think perhaps business was for him after all. One day, he attended a class in which students were divided into groups and asked by the lecturer to solve the following puzzle:
“A man buys a horse for $400. He feeds it, trains it, and sells it to a racetrack manager for $500. However, soon he regrets his decision, and asks the racetrack manager if he can have the horse back. The racetrack manager, being a good capitalist, asks for $700. The man objects, seeing no reason why the horse should be worth so much more than the day before, but eventually he relents and accepts the loss. Some years later, he finally sells the horse to neighbor for $800. Question: What is his total profit or loss?”
The boy’s group began to discuss this puzzle. The boy thought the solution was fairly obvious: the man bought and sold the horse twice, making $100 profit each time. However, his teammates were seduced by the puzzle’s suggestion of a loss, and insisted this be accounted for. They thought the man broke even.
The boy tried to explain his reasoning a different way. He added up the man’s outlays and revenues, showing the difference was $200. The group agreed, but insisted this was then canceled out by the loss. The boy tried again. “Imagine it’s not the same horse,” he said. “The man buys and sells one horse, then buys and sells a second horse.” The debate became heated. There was no second horse, the group insisted. There was one horse, and the man broke even.
After a few minutes, the lecturer halted the exercise and asked each group for its verdict. Only unanimous decisions would be accepted. Every other group in the class declared their belief that the man broke even. The boy’s group hissed at him to bow to the majority opinion, but he could not bring himself to do it. They informed the lecturer that they could not agree.
The answer, said the lecturer, was that the man made $200 profit. However, the exercise was not about that. It was designed to test teamwork. He had observed most groups working effectively: establishing leadership roles, managing divergent opinion, and finding common ground to reach a shared solution. The boy’s team, however, was a textbook example of failure: it had allowed a disruptive element to block them from consensus. It was then that the boy decided business was probably not for him.
You might be wondering what happened to that live short story. I did it. I just haven’t written about it because I lost the ability to form coherent sentences.
I knew it would be tough. Turning up at the Melbourne Writers Festival with a laptop, plugging into the big screen, and writing a short story from scratch while people watch: that’s not the recommended writing technique. I think that’s the opposite of what you’re supposed to do, which is something about forgetting the rest of the world exists. It’s hard to be creative and self-conscious.
But that was half the fun! Come watch Max struggle! I was already writing an online serial in real-time; how much worse could this be?
Lots. I turned up on the day, ready for action, at the table they’d set up. It was in the corner of the atrium, hidden behind the Festival’s Information Desk. On official maps, you couldn’t see it, because it was obscured by the word “INFORMATION.” This struck me as problematic. There was no signage to indicate who I was or what I was doing. Shortly after I began to set up, a man stopped and asked for directions to a panel. I decided it was time to make up my own signs. I did three, and stuck them to the front of the table: the first said, “Hi! I’m Max Barry.” The second said, “I’m writing a live short story today.” The third said, “Because I’m stupid, that’s why.” This turned out to be truer than I knew.
Half a dozen people had gathered. About this number stayed the entire three hours, and may I say to those people, I’m incredibly touched and grateful, even though you destroyed my sanity. There was nowhere for them to comfortably see the screen and me at the same time, but that didn’t deter them; oh no. They made the best of things, craning their necks and reclining chairs like they were beach lounges. That way, they could see pixelated, perspective-warped words on the big screen while staying close enough to make out the individual beads of sweat dripping down my nose.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First I had to chase down Festival people, imploring somebody to plug me into the big screen like we had damn well arranged. I hate to knock the Festival, because it’s a great event, but this was really crap. People were waiting.
Once I was on the air, I canvassed my little audience for ideas. I got some great ones, some good ones, and some I still don’t understand today. The two that jumped out at me were both about pregnancy: one about a couple whose due date comes and goes, and goes and goes, and another about renting a baby. In retrospect, I probably should have been wary of both of these, because they’re similar to two other shorts I’ve written: How I Met My Daughter and A Shade Less Perfect. I was already defensive, feeling around for tried and tested tools.
But it was only 11:30am: I was full of energy, optimistic! When people came up and asked for directions, I tried to help them out, then went back to my notes. Sometimes I asked for feedback from the people standing around. Then I realized I didn’t have to: I could hear their reactions.
Let me say that again. I would type a sentence, and hear people inhale, or snicker, or lean together to discuss it. Now, I guess I knew this might happen. And, at first, while I was messing around with notes, it was funny. Even useful. But then I started writing. And it was like they were INSIDE MY BRAIN.
The longest I ever sunk into the story before remembering that people were watching was about 45 seconds. Often I would be halfway through a sentence and someone would stop by to chat or offer suggestions or ask where the bathrooms were. Which is what I signed up for, of course: this was meant to be interactive. But it was like being woken from a deep sleep eighty times an hour. Two parts of my brain that don’t normally meet were knocking into each other and I wasn’t sure which of them was me.
By the two-hour mark, I was flagging. The story wasn’t awful, but it didn’t feel right. It was derivative, of me; like something not new. I wasn’t connected to it. I had honestly tried to do this right, but if I’d been at home, at this point I would have closed the document and checked my email.
Since that would have been inappropriate with an audience, I ploughed on. At 2pm, I finished. I thanked everyone who had stuck around, and I meant it, even though I already knew I would be spending the next few days trying to scrub them out of my brain. Then I left. I felt like someone had beaten the creative part of my mind with sticks. The rest of the day, I struggled to talk like a human being. True, I have that problem normally. But this was even worse than usual.
The next time I sat down in my study, I felt them there: phantom story-watchers. Halfway through my first sentence, I almost braced for a snicker. But it didn’t come. After a while, I forgot about it. I was okay. I was safe again.
Tomorrow I’m writing a short story in public. If you’re in Melbourne, you can stop by and watch me do it. This is the plan: I turn up at Federation Square Atrium 11am Saturday with a laptop and no ideas. I plug the laptop into a projector, to broadcast on the big screen hanging above my head. Then I spend the next three hours drinking coffee, staring into space, and attempting to write something.
I’ve wanted to do this for ages; in fact, in my first ever bookstore event (Union Square Barnes & Noble, NYC, 1999) I talked about how there should be bookstore writings, not readings. Because while I’m interested in what my favorite authors have to say, I’m really interested in how they work. I would love to see how they put a story together.
So this year I suggested it to the Melbourne Writers Festival, and they liked the idea enough to turn it into a 7-day spectacular: one writer embarrassing herself in public between 11am and 2pm per day. Saturday 22nd is my day, but you can also catch Eric Dando (today), Cyril Wong (Sunday 23rd), Reif Larsen (Thursday 27th), Evie Wyld (Friday 28th), Shaun Tan (Saturday 29th), and Jessa Crispin (Sunday 30th).
Clearly, this has the kind of potential for catastrophic public breakdown that I crave, so it should go well.
P.S. If you want to drop by at 11am and suggest some story ideas, that would be really handy.
I have a problem. Lately I’ve been happy with my writing; I don’t want to make a whole big thing out of it, but the words have been good words. I like them. They make me happy. One day, not too long from now, I hope other people will see them, and be happy, too.
I haven’t mentioned this recently—by “recently,” I mean, “for the last 18 months”—because I got myself into the slightly embarrassing situation of publicly declaring my excitement for a book that, in retrospect, didn’t quite deserve it. I don’t think I had gone through the essential “falling out of love” stage, which must occur so that an author can stop making goo-goo eyes at her new baby and start dismembering it, to build a new body around the interesting parts.
Also, I figured it’s frustrating to hear an author talking about how great his writing is going when he’s not putting out any frickin’ books.
But clearly this has backfired—or at least run its course. I first got an inkling when a friend sent me a podcast on “Writers and Procrastination.” Then there were the growing number of emails and comments, like this one from Ian:
What do you do all day? I read Twilight for frack sake. I’m so bored. And you….watch movies and grow facial hair? Books! WRITE BOOKS! Short stories…..anything
People think I’m not doing anything. It’s a little strange, because if I’m on book tour for some paperback edition, people seem to figure I’m at least keeping busy. But if I bunker down and write, they assume I’m sipping daiquiris in the Bahamas.
I decided to tally up the number of words of fiction I’ve ever written. It’s 1.5 million. My finished novels tend to wind up around 80,000 words, so that’s about 19 books. Since Company, I’ve written about half a million words, the equivalent of seven novels.
But not seven good novels. I’m a pathological rewriter: I believe that if a book hasn’t had more words cut from it than it is long, it needs more work. Right now, I have quite a lot of fiction that is promising. Some of it is almost there. But not quite. And I do not want to give you a bad novel. I never want to do that.
So here is my problem. Even if I escorted a manuscript to my publisher tomorrow, it would be a year, minimum, before that thing reaches your hands. It would make you happy, I think. But it’s a long time to wait. It’s too long.
So I am going to do something. I know what the something is. It will be good. And it will be in March.
If an infinite number of monkeys working on an infinite number of typewriters will eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare, a sufficiently powerful computer could auto-generate random combinations of letters, numbers, punctuation, sounds, and pixel maps, until it owns the copyright on every work of art that could ever be created.
One application of this machine would be to generate income by suing popular artists. Another would be to render all future art illegal.
Since going about your everyday life would inadvertently create an unauthorized performance of a copyrighted work, it would be illegal to do anything, at least for 120 years, except act out old books and films that had already entered the public domain.
Happy New Year!