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a/s/l?

Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.

Blog

Tue 31
Aug
2004

I lost! I lost!

Jennifer Government About a week ago a guy called Chris e-mailed me:

Just wanted to drop you a note saying that Jennifer Government was my favorite book of 2003, and was a finalist for the Campbell Award for best SF novel of the year.

Naturally, I assumed Chris was deranged. Sure, he has excellent taste in literature, but the Campbell Award was presented almost two months ago. If my book had been a finalist for one of the world’s leading science-fiction prizes, that’d be the kind of thing I’d have heard about, don’t you think? Well, apparently not. I e-mailed my publisher just in case, and it turns out Chris isn’t a mentally unstable nutjob with a penchant for fooling people into thinking they’ve qualified for major awards: Jennifer Government really was a Campbell Award finalist.

Not a winner, alas, which means I’m feeling honored, humbled, and a deep, burning rage toward Jack McDevitt. But still! This is awesome. Now I just need to go apologize to Chris.

Sun 29
Aug
2004

Once more into the breach

Company A little earlier I asked the question: “Is it a good idea to sell a book to a publisher, then extensively re-write it?” That’s what I somehow ended up doing to my new novel, Company. I sent off the new, much-altered draft to my editor, Bill, and waited to see whether he thought it was an improvement or I had made a big mistake.

The answer, it turns out, is both. Bill likes my rewrite and says: “More!” In particular, he wants me to fix a major plot-line that centers around people in this company being unable to remember anything about the world outside it. This concept is slightly surreal, I know, but I liked it so much that I hammered away until it made a vague kind of sense. Alas, Bill observes that it isn’t quite a specific enough kind of sense, and now that I’ve jazzed up everything else, this stands out. Since I am so happy to rewrite big chunks of the book, he says, how about I throw out that whole memory-loss idea and put in something better?

At this point I have two competing thoughts. One is, “God damn you, Bill, you’ll publish this book and you’ll like it!” The other is, “Aaarrrgghhh, he’s right.”

When editing a novel, it’s often hard to know when to stop. There’s no clear point at which you think, “That’s it, this book cannot be improved any more.” There’s always more you can do. If you want to be published in your own lifetime (or write more than one book), though, you have to stop editing at some point, but that is not, alas, a quiet, satisfying moment of realization that everything is just exactly right. For me, at least, it’s guilty and furtive. It’s thinking, “If I have to rewrite one more sentence of this thing, I’m going to vomit.”

I enjoy editing; I love watching something I’ve written improve. But, boy, when you’ve spent every day for the last two years immersed in the same story, you start to hate everybody in it.

And it doesn’t get any better when the book is published. I can’t stand to pick up my published novels because I can barely read a page without wishing I’d done something differently. (This makes book tours interesting.) So that’s how it is: I rewrite a novel until the mere thought of it engages my gag reflex, then I spend the rest of my life wishing I’d spent more time on it.

I’m going to rewrite Company again, because I think Bill is right: it will be better without the memory loss thing. I’ve had a month away from it, which is helpful. And above all else I want to do everything I can to make this novel as good as it can be, and should be.

Then one day, I know, maybe a year or two from now, I will crack open the cover, read a sentence at random, and think, “Damn. I should have done that differently.”

Sun 22
Aug
2004

The Great [Ii]nternet Debate

Writing Suddenly people are writing to me about the word “internet.” A few months ago I happened to mention that I don’t think internet should be spelled with a capital I. At the time, this passed without much comment, but now I’m getting besieged by IT professionals telling me how I am wrong, wrong, wrong.

Their arguments fall into three categories:

  1. Check a dictionary, idiot.
  2. An internet is any network of networks, so without capitalization it’s not clear which internet you’re talking about.
  3. There’s only one Internet, so it’s a proper noun and should be capitalized.

Arguments #2 and #3 are actually contradictory, so what I should really do is forward the e-mails from one side to the other and just let them go at it. Argument #1, though, is what annoyed me about capital-I Internet in the first place: this idea that there is a golden tome somewhere entitled THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE and if you follow it precisely you’re right and otherwise you’re wrong. Or, to use an example that may be more relevant here, that English is a language just like XML is a language, and if your usage isn’t in the spec, it’s a non-standard proprietary extension, doesn’t validate, and was probably invented by Microsoft.

To me, there’s no such thing as “correct” English. The purpose of communication is not to score the maximum number of grammar points; it’s to convey a thought from your brain into someone else’s. You do this by following common usage. That’s my beef with dictionaries: they still list “usward” (av. (Archaic) Moving toward us), but have to be dragged kicking and screaming to “blog.” Common usage beats dictionary definitions every time, and in common usage “internet” has lost its “I”.

/rant

:-P

Mon 16
Aug
2004

Something Desirable

What Max Reckons Sometimes you have to sit back and say, “Damn, this internet thing is cool.” I mean, obviously we all know it’s pretty handy. You can send e-mails on it and steal music and read newspapers for free. But occasionally you get reminded just how cool it is, in the world-shaking, society-defining sense of the word. Like when you go to this site.

Something To Be Desired is what happens when a bunch of people decide it’d be neat to make a TV series, only without the TV part. Instead they put up each episode on their web site, where you can watch it for free. A drama-comedy set around a Pittsburgh radio station, Something To Be Desired is clearly being made with very little money but bucket-loads of talent and enthusiasm, and it’s totally addictive: you download one ten-minute episode and then you have to find out whether Jack and Dierdre are going to sleep together and before you know it two and a half hours have passed, you’ve watched the whole thing, and you can’t believe you have to wait two weeks for the next episode.

Before the internet, I never would have seen this. In fact, it probably wouldn’t have been made, because why spend the time and money producing a series that has very little chance of ever being broadcast? But the web offers creative people a new way to drop their work directly in front of an audience. There’s no need for pitch meetings, for agents, for attending industry events in the vain hope of networking with someone who can get you a meeting with someone at a studio; instead, you just produce something, stick it on your web site, and if it’s any good, ordinary people hear about it and come check it out.

This is the vanguard of a major decentralization of the creative arts industry. As the internet evolves, hundreds of thousands of amateur artists are going to forget about trying to batter down the closed doors in Hollywood, the networks, and the publishing industry. Instead, they’ll just publish their work on the net. Some of it will be brilliant. Much of it will be terrible. But all of it will be given a real chance to find an audience, a chance that otherwise wouldn’t have existed. And, damn, that’s cool.

Tue 10
Aug
2004

Things I learned from my friend’s dog

Max The SniffernatorMy friend Fleur has gone on a 5-week jaunt through Asia and I’m looking after her two-year-old dog, Snow. I’ve never had a dog before, so the experience is teaching me a lot.

So far I’ve learned that:

  • There’s a sleepy dog smell.
  • You don’t have to be very big to snore like a foghorn.
  • Snow has no setting between OFF and MAXIMUM POWER.
  • Due to some kind of biological quirk, the phrase “Come here” cannot be detected by Snow’s ears, but she can hear the opening of a door from the other end of the house through solid brick walls.
  • If you step backwards (at any time), you will stand on Snow.

I’ve also gained some insight into her thought processes. I’m pretty sure that her philosophy goes like this:

  • The purpose of life is to locate humans and stand as close to them as possible.
  • Disgusting = interesting.
    • Corollary A: The fouler it smells, the more it needs to be sniffed.
    • Corollary B: If it drips, if it stinks, if it does both at once, bring it in the house.
  • It is uncouth to push open a slightly ajar door in order to pass through it; rather, one should sit in front of it and whine.
  • When you gotta go, you gotta go.
  • The grass is always greener on the other side of a closed door.
  • The only thing more exciting than going on a walk is coming home from a walk, unless you’re already home, in which case the most exciting thing is going for a walk.
  • If you don’t know what it is, lick it.

Sat 07
Aug
2004

Um… (#2)

What Max Reckons Clearly I didn’t think this through. I now have to write a six-volume series chock full of appalling characters just to satisfy all the people who wrote me annoying “Um…” e-mails. It was meant to be a deterrent, dammit! Now stop it!

Thu 05
Aug
2004

Um…

What Max Reckons Okay, that’s enough. At first I thought this was kind of funny. Then it wasn’t so funny, then it got irritating, and now it makes me want to hurt someone. I’m talking about the practice of starting a post with “Um.”

This is particularly virulent on technically-inclined mailing lists and forums. It goes like this: a person posts something—a comment, a question, anything—and some other guy thinks they’re wrong. But he doesn’t just come out and say that, oh no. First he says: “Um…” Like this: “Um… Word won’t run on Linux.”

This is meant to convey the impression that the initial post was so mind-numbingly stupid that at first he couldn’t believe it was actually meant in earnest. Then, as he began to phrase his reply, he had to pause to ratchet down his intelligence a few levels so that the drooling simpleton who had uttered such idiocy would be able to comprehend it. This created a pause which had to be filled by “Um.”

Only that’s not what happened at all. If you’re having an actual conversation with someone, sure, you might say “um.” But if you’re typing out a post, what the hell are you doing? Are your fingers operating independently of your brain? No! You’re just being an asshole!

Maybe I could deal with this if it only happened when genuinely brilliant people wrote messages to real morons. After all, geniuses aren’t supposed to have social skills. But it happens all the time. This is the exchange that finally sent me over the edge:

#1: Happily seen that Gentoo has released 2004.2. I’m now using 2004.0 and I wonder whether it is necessary for me to migrate to 2004.2 from 2004.0.

#2: Uh.. if you do an “emerge -uD world” then you too will have all the bonus’s of 2004.2…

#3: Really? I think simply doing this won’t change my /etc/make.profile. It’ll be still point to ../usr/portage/profiles/default-x86-2004.0, isn’t it?

#4: Um, its a symlink… change it to point to the new profile

No! No! Not “Um!” The first guy was right, goddamn it! You can’t “um” him when he’s right! What is this um doing? It’s a totally unjustified um!

This is a cancer of the internet, I tell you, and it’s got to be stopped. Please. I can’t take much more.

(P.S. If anyone writes me an e-mail like “Um… Word can run on Linux if you use an emulator,” I’m going to name a really bad character after them.)

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