Hey Max! I’m sure writing has highs and lows. Have you ever had a point where you thought about packing the whole gig in? What was that point? Why didn’t you?
This morning. I thought I knew what I wanted to write. But when I started, it sucked. The words felt stupid. In the past, when this has happened, I have told myself, Just push through, but now I know that when I do that, I wind up with a lot of stupid words, which I have to delete the next day. It’s always a mistake to think I might be underrating my words; that if I just slap them down there, it might turn out that other people like them better than I do. THAT NEVER HAPPENS.
So then I stopped, because it wasn’t working, and felt sad, because I couldn’t write. I had forgotten how to do it. My career was over.
Fortunately this is a frequent occurrence so I knew it wouldn’t last long. What I have learned is that being a complete failure as a writer is not my fault. It’s the book’s fault. If the book was good enough, it would make me enjoy writing it more. Working on a good book is great fun. It’s joyful. Words come easily. It doesn’t make sense that I would be able to write plenty of good words one minute and no words at all the next. I’m still the same guy. So it must be the book.
Therefore I just need take a break and change something when I get back. Have an idea. Try a different opening. Delete someone. And tada! Words. Sooner or later, words.
Are you a “knows-the-beginning, knows-the-end, so-now-let’s-write-the-middle” kinda writer, or are you “let’s-start-with-one-image-in-mind-and-see-where-that-takes-me” kinda writer?
The second one. The first one makes a lot of sense in theory, and it’s what I’d do if it didn’t inevitably lead to me sobbing over a tub of comfort ice-cream. But it does.
I don’t know whether anyone has made the first one work. I know some writers claim to have done it. But I think they must be lying. That would mean you can figure out almost everything you need to about a book before you start it. That’s not my experience. My process is more like this:
Day 1: “That’s a great idea.”
Day 5: “That idea was terrible but this character is interesting.”
Day 20: “I hate everything about this book except these two lines I just wrote.”
Day 40: “What was that original idea again, it wasn’t so bad, was it?”
Day 41: “OH RIGHT, YES, YES IT WAS.”
Day 50: “Ha ha this first chapter is great now that I changed everything I used to like about it.”
Day 150: “The later chapters are so much better than the first. The first one makes me want to vomit with anger.”
And so on. I also like to throw out the entire second half of a draft at some stage. Well, I don’t like to. But it’s what usually happens.
Hey, one of the things my teachers are always telling me I need to improve on in my writing is setting. Even in this simple question, you can note the complete absence of any indications of time and space. Seeing as my teachers are all incompetent, you got any tips that could help me?
Setting is very important. Without setting, your characters would float helplessly in a formless void. I definitely recommend setting your story somewhere, so that they can move about and order coffees.
I’m not a big setting guy. You probably knew that. Probably I am half your problem, since you think my opinion worth writing in for. Maybe you should stop reading books like mine. But if we’re separating stories out into their constituent parts (which kills them, but anyway), setting ranks very low. Here’s a list of some things that might be in a scene or story, from most to least important, according to me:
Someone wants something
One person says something that the other person can’t think of a good reply to
The feeling that something bad is going to happen soon
Guess what, something wasn’t like you thought
The feeling that something good is going to happen soon
Where everybody is
How old they are
What they’re wearing
But setting is important. A good setting makes everything more believable. It’s just something I tend to leave until last,
once everything else is working. Because no-one loves a book for its setting, and it’s relatively easily changed. This
isn’t a film where you have to rebuild the sets. You can do it with a sentence here and there. Small details,
implying larger ones. Like if we’re in a hospital, you don’t want to describe the walls, or the color of the uniforms,
or say how many rooms there are. We’ve all seen plenty of hospitals; that stage is prebuilt in our heads.
But you can mention an old guy shuffling by in urine-soaked pajama pants, or a woman sitting up doing her
lipstick in her bed, or the bucket catching leaks behind the nurses’ desk. Something different and suggestive like that.
hey buddy are you workin on anything new? i’m on the toilet right now at work and can think of no one i’d rather have in here with me.
Thanks, Dave. I appreciate it. Later, when I answer my own call of nature, I will think of you, too.
Yes, I’m always working on something new. The funny thing about novels is the enormous lag time to publication. I cycle like this:
Stage 1: New novel is not working and everything is terrible. But my previous one was just published so people think I’m industrious and productive.
Stage 2: Several abandoned creative detours later, I’m still struggling to animate the stitched-together corpse of the new book. But the previous book is coming out in paperback so there’s still no pressure.
Stage 3: BWAHAHAHA. It’s alive. Progress is made. People ask me when the new book will be out because it’s been a while, dude.
Stage 4: OH MY GOD MAX WHERE IS YOUR NEW BOOK. I have a first draft, so am tempted to say, “Oh it’s basically done,” even though I know in reality there is a year of rewrites looming.
Stage 5: It has a publication date, so I can point to that. This is my laziest time creatively because it’s so tempting to polish up the thing that’s already fully formed, or work on its promotion, rather than pick up the shovel and head down to the cemetery to start sifting through body parts for the next book. And I can totally get away with it because no-one will say, “Hey, Max, I know the new book isn’t even out yet, but it’s time to start collecting body parts.”
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.