Let’s say, hypothetically, that you’re a hypothetical human being that, hypothetically, dabbles in writing short stories on Google Drive to kill the mindless boredom of hypothetical math classes. You need a snappy one-liner to kick off your short. Since your writing MO seems to include some pretty good starting sentences, what are your thoughts on how to achieve the perfect opening hook for a story?
I appreciate you saying my first sentences are “pretty good,” Fish. I can see why you came to me. I, too, seek wisdom from people who perform slightly above average. Some people say you should shoot for the stars, but I prefer to aim at about hat-height.
I believe in starting books from the front. When writing them, that is. Actually, reading, too. It’s important both times. But I mean I’d rather have a good first sentence and figure out the idea later than the other way around. An idea by itself isn’t much good. I have ideas for books all the time. They will be amazing, if I can ever get them onto paper, which I won’t, because they only sound good. Good-sounding ideas are actually terrible because they have no character and no heart.
An idea only becomes good with execution. A book can be anything, before you start, but by the end of the first sentence, it can only belong to a specific set of things. By then you have a sense of whether anybody is likely to die in it, or use the word “parsimonious,” or if it’s going to be funny, or have wizards. There is probably a tense and point of view and setting and timeframe. There’s still a world of possibility, of course, but you started with infinity, so this is smaller.
Anyway. I don’t have any tricks. I just think about it and see what tickles me. I like short first sentences. I try to write books that are interesting because things happen in them, not because I am an enthralling carpenter of words, so I think the first sentence should advertise that by getting to the point.
Here are my opening lines so far, just in case you don’t know them by heart:
I want to be famous.
Hack first heard about Jennifer Government at the water cooler.
Monday morning and there’s one less donut than there should be.
As a boy, I wanted to be a train.
“He’s coming around.”
And a few from novels that may never be published:
When Jason Hackman was four years old, he broke both arms falling out a second-storey window.
I want to help you.
So it’s 1346 and I’m hacking some guy’s arm off.
I’ll be honest: I did a bad thing.
Our job was simple.
Diego once killed a man by digging a hole.
When she was five, she was allowed to go to school.
I like those kinds of sentences because they make me want to read the next one. Or write it. That’s really all I’m looking for.
Hey Max, I see that there’s digital and physical versions of your books and I was wondering, which sell more copies, and which makes the more money for you?
If you’re asking because you want me to have more money, then I applaud that sentiment, but
you should buy whichever you prefer. You having a better reading experience is worth
more to me than the extra 75 cents.
Paper books sell more, for me at least. It’s around 2:1 on Lexicon.
But with each book, the electronic share gets bigger. Syrup (1999)
Royalties vary, but ebooks usually sit somewhere between hardcover and
paperback. From the average Lexicon sale to date, I have seen:
It’s less outside the US & Canada. And this only applies once the book has
earned out its advance, which is the payment authors get up-front. For example,
Penguin thought Syrup was going to sell its socks off and
paid me a big advance, and then it didn’t, so I’ve never seen any royalties.
But each sale is still good because it washes away a little more of my shame.
My ex-agent Todd once told me that publishers usually break-even on a book
before the advance earns out. I hope this is true.
If you self-publish and charge more than a few bucks, you get a much higher
return on your books. But you also have to persuade people to buy them, which is
hard. Publishers are pretty good at that.
Do you know what happened to Paul Neilan? You blurbed his book (deservedly, as it was absolutely brilliant), but then he disappeared.
That is a good question. I have no idea. I mean, I can guess: He probably fell into that bottomless abyss of despair and self-loathing where novels live sometimes. Again, just a guess. But it seems to me that any time you try to write a novel, you are a lot more likely to psychologically self-destruct than succeed, so probably that.
I mean, I’m not projecting or anything. This has nothing to do with me. And I’m not saying writing is hard; I mean, you just have to type stuff. How hard is that. I’m just saying maybe Paul found it tough to juggle the competing demands of blogging for eager readers awaiting his new novel and working on a literary hellspawn trying to devour his soul. So he probably pulled the plug on one or both, at least for a while.
If you are out there, Paul, I hope you’re still writing, and not worrying about how long it takes, and chasing the things that make you happy. Also hurry up, man, I need a new book.
I noticed people are “following my reviews” on Goodreads. This is great but must be unsatisfying because I don’t write any. I don’t think I should review books unless I love them, since that feels too cruel to an author who surely doesn’t deserve it, because writing books is hard, man, respect. And if I do love the book, I don’t want to say anything about it that might be a spoiler, because the book is so wonderful, you should just read it without knowing anything. It’s a pickle.
Anyway. “The Girl With All The Gifts” by Mike Carey is my favorite read of 2015. In lieu of saying anything about it, I will tell you thoughts I had while reading it. Also I will list my thoughts out of order, not chronologically. Enjoy.
“That’s really cool.”
“OH MY GOD.”
“OH MY GOD THAT’S AWESOME.”
“Oh it’s that kind of book.”
“I wonder what happens next.”
“That character dynamic is backward.”
“I was wrong.”
Last week I did
an interview on Reddit and was asked about my new novel,
“The Ascension’s Mirror.” This was a surprise because I didn’t know I wrote that. But Goodreads had it listed,
saying I was the author. There was also a reader review:
I’m a big fan of Mr Barry’s work and was happy to see this new offering. I’m having a little trouble getting through it, because of the language. He is replacing words and phrases. For example “She laughed at my futile endeavours in the direction of identify some type of popular flooring with her,” means (roughly) She laughed at my attempt to seek common ground with her, or something like that.
I’m hoping that it will eventually be worth it. . . .
There was a second novel by me, “Cry in the Redemption,” which I definitely didn’t write, either. Both were for sale on Amazon as Kindle books.
At first I thought there must be another Max Barry out there, writing books. I know there are a few Max Barrys around, such as Better Max, and some other Max who can’t remember his email address, so I’m always getting notes from his grandmother and warnings from his ISP. Seriously, Max. Get it right. The other day your boss sent me a stern note, asking why I hadn’t responded to his earlier note. The reason your life is in tatters is because I get all your important emails.
But no, other Maxes were not writing novels. In fact, no-one was writing these, I realized, because the writing is not just awkward but nonsensical. From its official description on Amazon:
We can’t inform oneself considerably unless be mindful just after
oneself examine this. They are waiting around for us towards adhere our
necks out and deliver a miscalculation, and your self may well
accurately contribute them in direction of us. Your self include been
This reminded me of a piece of text run twice through Google Translate, once to turn it into a different language, once to turn it back. I’d heard of web sites doing this to steal content, because the end result is different enough that it doesn’t look so much like plagiarism.
I asked my agent about this, and they asked Amazon, and within a day the books were gone. Poof!
So apparently this happens: Bots auto-generate novels under the names of real authors and put them up for sale in the hope of confusing readers.
Which is kind of cool. Not for us, of course. Not for humans. But I always knew the robot apocalypse was coming, and have been looking forward to seeing what shape it takes. I didn’t think they’d be writing novels.
P.S. The real question is what the original text was. The bots auto-translated something. I don’t know what, though.
Max, is it actually true that your novels kind of suck?
Yes! You probably refer to those works-in-no-progress I mentioned,
which do indeed kind of suck, but the truth is, so do all my novels, at every stage of the process,
including at the end, when they’re published. There is no novel I look at and think, “That is just perfect.”
Ways in which I think my novels kind of suck include:
The characters do something that seemed plausible at the time but now I’m older/wiser/in a worse mood I don’t think so, so everything is stupid.
The first sentence won’t work for people who need to be grabbed right away, or else is too gimmicky for people who don’t like being grabbed right away.
There’s nothing I can explicitly put my finger on but I still feel it could be better somehow, like remember that chapter near the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, how come it doesn’t have something like that.
I didn’t use the serial comma because I liked how it made sentences seem faster but now I love the serial comma so the whole book is dumb. Similarly: I chose “less” instead of “fewer” because I decided real people never said “fewer” but now I’m like OH YES THEY DO SO YOU WERE STUPID.
I’m sure there are more.
Why don’t you write more short stories?
Why don’t YOU write more short stories, Bruno, since they’re so easy.
I dunno, I’m just less interested in shorts. I’ve never fallen in love with a short story the way I’ve loved plenty of novels. I like how they can be tricky. If you have a great idea for an ending and not much else, a short story is ideal. But this also annoys me a little as a reader, too, like the whole time the author is trying to outsmart me. Then it’s, yes, wow, you got me, I did not realize that whole family was going to die. Well done you. That’s another thing: they all have horrific endings. I realize this includes my own short fiction. I had a short story idea just yesterday and it seemed like a good one but the ending would be horrible for all involved. Who wants to read that? Not me. Wow I hate short stories.
Was there ever a book that didn’t get published that you really thought would be a shoe in? If yes, is there a way you could provide us, your local fans, a way to read it anyways?
This question has an unsatisfying answer. I just want to warn you about that up front.
Yes, I’ve written books I thought would be published but weren’t. There was one before Syrup, two between that and Jennifer Government, then one before Company, another before Machine Man, then I managed to go straight to Lexicon, and since then I’ve written four or five partials, two of which are close enough to novel length to count.
I was totally sure each of those would be published because otherwise why write them. I mean, novels are hard. You don’t do one unless you think the end result will be awesome. The only way I know to write a novel is to operate under the delusion that it’ll be the greatest thing in the world.
But then once I show it to people I sometimes discover that’s not the case. I would classify three of my unpublished novels as unsalvageable, by which I mean I’m doing you a favor by never releasing them. Everything else I think could be good if I had a few more ideas and did a lot of work. Maybe. But they’re definitely not good enough now and what I’m working on instead is more interesting.
One I still think is awesome and should be published (see my humilating 2007 blog about it) but it sits in a weird place because it’s not quite a young adult novel but not really anything else either. It will almost certainly not sell well and so make my trend look bad, which has commercial implications. And it’s messy in places and I don’t really love the ending any more. But every now and again I read it back over and think one day I will make this something.
How do you decide on the name of the characters?
I have a strict process. First, I use whatever name pops into my head. Then, about eight months later, I realize everybody’s name begins with E. So I have to change some or the book is too annoying to read. But now I can’t imagine them as anyone else, so I make the smallest changes possible, like using their surnames more often.
Sometimes I write a novel that doesn’t get published, and that’s handy because I can reuse all the names. Boy, there were a lot of Hollys before one finally made it into Company.
I do strongly believe in the importance of names, though. They’re the characters’ faces: the part you see over and over. So they’re doing characterization work every few lines. This is why I will find any excuse to get a name like Plath or 6 or Jennifer Government into a book.
Do you ever plan on writing a sequel to Lexicon, or another book set in the same universe?
Sometimes. Usually I start thinking about that kind of thing when I’m around ten percent into a different book. That’s when I’m remembering how much work it is to figure out a world and characters and plot and tone and everything from scratch. So I look back on previous novels and wonder why the hell I threw all that away. Like, why not just dust that thing off and take it for another spin around the block.
The reason is that by the time I finish a novel, I hate everything about it. Well not really. It’s more like the thought of reading it again makes me want to vomit. At that point, if I had to go write a sequel, everyone in it would die in the first ten pages, from spite.
I really like finding something new. The days I love writing the most are when something happens I didn’t expect and I realize the story is going somewhere different. I guess that could happen in a sequel. But it wouldn’t have that same feeling of stumbling around in complete darkness, trying to find the lamps. I bang my toes a lot doing that but when the light comes on, that’s why I write.
How significant is it that Austin Grossman re-tweeted your ASK MAX tweet and has he had any input into the computer game you allude to, and if not, why not? And, can we expect more writers to turn their hand to computer games unaware that indie computer games creation is about as profitable as indie novel writing?
This is a timely question because Austin Grossman has a new novel out about Richard Nixon fighting demons. Literal demons, that is. No, actually, both kinds. It’s very fun and does that Austin Grossman thing of taking someone you’d think was totally cool and together and tearing them apart with insecurities. If you enjoyed Soon I Will Be Invincible or You, or you are intrigued by the idea of a Cold War fought with intercontinental necromantic missiles, take a look at Crooked.
But no, I haven’t consulted with Austin on the computer game I’m fooling around with. I probably should have, since he is excellent at writing both novels and games. That would make a lot of sense. But the only way I know how to be creative is to take the thing away somewhere private and smash my brain into it until it’s done. So I’m doing that.
The crossover between fiction and games… on the one hand, there are more similarities than people might think. In both cases you are world-building, one way or another. And I like that I can dive in to either and build something all by myself. This is handy because I lost the ability to work with other people sometime around 2002.
On the other, the mindset is very different. I’m kind of horrified by how programmers can spend so much time focused on the tools: choosing and tweaking their IDE and plugins and language and platform and agonizing over the process. It’s like what writers do but times a thousand. And that looks like a lot of busy-time spent Not Writing to me. You can tell me this attitude will come back to bite me hard in about twelve months but I say it never will.
Probably indie game design is exactly as profitable as indie novel-writing, as you say, Dan. But it is interesting. And in gaming, people aren’t debating whether their industry is dying, which is nice.