MaxBarry.com
too cool for school

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

Mon 29
Nov
2004

The Sticky Screen

Syrup Syrup has been optioned! Yes, the heartbreaking, inspirational story of one novel’s quest to become a feature film continues. When the rights became available again earlier this year, I was lucky enough to have a couple of choices, and in the end I plumped for Fortress Entertainment. This is a brand new financing & production company headed by a couple of guys who completely got the story and made me think they could do great things with it.

Last time I went on this particular ride, the production company got themselves a script I didn’t much like. For me it was too focused on the logistics of Scat and 6’s challenges and not enough on their relationship. But there was nothing I could do about this, because when a studio buys the film rights to a novel, the last thing they want is an author hanging around wringing his hands about how his precious words are being changed. I just had to wait until the option expired, and start again.

So this time, with Fortress, I said I wanted to write the script. This was greeted with a cautious, polite silence. I’ve never written a screenplay, and authors have a reputation for being generally terrible at adapting their own books, so Fortress, I suspect, was not thrilled at the idea of throwing time and money at me while I slowly discovered I can’t write for the screen.

Which is fair enough. So we came up with a solution: I’ll write the first 20 or 30 pages, then they’ll either hire me to write the whole thing, or go looking for someone else.

I started this a couple of weeks ago, in between Company edits, and am almost finished. In a few days’ time, I’ll post my work here, so you can judge for yourself: am I the man to deliver this thing, or should I stick to my day job?

Thu 25
Nov
2004

Get feedback

Writing Now a community service announcement. If you’re a Struggling Writer (TM) looking for ways to improve, head straight for the recently-revamped Internet Writing Workshop. Or, possibly, read the rest of this blog, then head on over. That might make more sense.

The toughest thing about writing a novel is the loss of perspective. For me, the process usually goes like this:

  1. Hey, what a great idea for a book! This will rock!
  2. This story is going gangbusters. Look at all these plot threads unfolding!
  3. I should really start to tie some of these plot threads together.
  4. Okay, now which threads are important and which aren’t? What is this book really about?
  5. What makes a good story? Why do human beings read books?
  6. What is the meaning of life?
  7. Boo boo boo boo boo boo.

The best antidote to this is feedback. Or maybe therapy, but I’ve never tried that. Feedback allows you to view your story through the eyes of someone reading it for the first time, something you the author can never do. When I get good feedback, I weep with joy, and the realization that I need to do three months of rewrites.

But there are two big problems with feedback:

  1. Some people are insane. They tell you to change all the good parts of your book, and set it in space. Since you have no perspective, it’s difficult to tell these people are insane; you can think they’re really insightful.
  2. It’s embarrassing, at least for people who haven’t done it very much. Writers are often touchy about receiving feedback, and readers know this so they’re careful about giving it. The result is feedback like: “I liked everything.” Which is nice to hear, but completely useless. Or even harmful, if it prevents you from seeing problems that need fixing.

The Internet Writing Workshop solves both of these problems. First, you get lots of feedback, possibly a dozen or so quick critiques, and this makes insane opinions stand out. When ten people tell you they love your main character and one person says you should rewrite him as a woman, you know you can safely ignore that person, and everything he ever says.

Second, everything is via e-mail, so you don’t have to look any weepy-eyed writers in the face as you critically dissect their masterpieces. And they don’t have to look at you, so the feedback you get is honest and free of any reflex need to soothe your feelings. This doesn’t mean you’ll always agree with it, but it will give you that invaluable glimpse of your own book through someone else’s eyes.

The IWW is completely free, being run by hard-working and soft-hearted volunteers. I used it all the time when I was starting out, and it made me a better writer.

Sun 21
Nov
2004

Looking for something?

Max Any time I need cheering up, I check out my web stats to see what people were searching for when they visited my site. Most search terms are sensible enough, like “jennifer government”, but then there’s a long list of ones that… aren’t so much. These are funny for two reasons: first, that—quite by accident—these words do actually appear on one of my web pages, and secondly, imagining the look of disappointment on these people’s faces when they end up here instead of a page of, for example, “naked people telling the news”.

Here are my favorite maxbarry.com search terms from the past few months:

  • heroic things drew barrymore has done
  • pictures of women smashing up things wearing high heels
  • jennifer lopez has tattoos where
  • what is the government of italy called
  • her sexy long legs are perfect for head locks
  • help avoiding assholes
  • a newspaper article on koalas only saying care for our koalas
  • results of a study about where pop stars go or hang out
  • deleted scenes from ninja turtles the movie
  • sneeze or sneezed or sneezes or sneezing bless you
  • the main reason why the government has a website
  • lyrics german ooh la la ooh la la
  • still looking for that marvel comic book with all the marvel women in bathing suits

There’s an especially long list of search terms involving Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, just because I wrote that one bit about them. Most of these are as distasteful as you’d imagine, but others are… well, take a look:

  • girls that look exactly like mary-kate and ashley
  • what kind of jeans do mary-kate and ashley olsen like?
  • which one is mary kate

Then there are two that are distasteful, but too bizarre to pass up:

  • mary kate and ashley olsen naked pics without bras
  • mary-kate and ashley jennifer government sex

There are plenty of people looking for naked pictures of Mary-Kate and Ashley, but this first guy went to the special effort of specifying that they be naked without bras. Clever. Then someone was apparently interested in whether the Olsen twins had ever engaged in hanky-panky with a character I made up. You know that line between fantasy and reality? Right, exactly: you do. This guy doesn’t.

Mon 15
Nov
2004

Who do I sue?

Jennifer Government Invitation to launch of Nike Mercurys... uh, I mean ZvezdochkasAs previously mentioned, occasionally some wacky marketing stunt I dreamed up for one of my novels comes true. Films as advertisements, logo tattoos, naming people after corporations; no matter how outrageous I try to be, real-world marketers are scampering along right behind.

But this is something else. First, a few lines from Chapter 1 of Jennifer Government:

The Johns smiled. “We started selling [Nike] Mercurys six months ago. You know how many pairs we’ve shifted since then?”

Hack shook his head. They cost thousands of dollars a pair, but that wouldn’t stop people from buying them. They were the hottest sneakers in the world. “A million?”

“Two hundred.”

“Two hundred million?”

“No. Two hundred pairs.”

“John here,” the other John said, “pioneered the concept of marketing by refusing to sell any products. It drives the market insane.”

This green thing is an invitation to the launch of a new range of Nike shoes that has gotten coolhunters drooling down their buttoned silk shirts. And what’s that down the bottom?

700 pairs worldwide, 140 in the US only

The next step, in Jennifer Government, is to throw open the warehouse doors and try to shift as many pairs as possible before the aura of exclusivity wears off. Also to shoot a few customers to make it look as if demand for the shoes is so hot that people are killing each other for them. If that turns out to be Nike’s plan in real life, too, I’m putting in a call for commission.

Wed 10
Nov
2004

A perfect plan

Max Max basks in the cool satisfaction of having pushed himself to his limit for no good reason I know you’re dying to know whether I made it around that 10km/6mi course without medical assistance, so: yes! This pic is of me just after the race, and if you’re wondering about that smile on my face, it’s due to the endorphins—I declined to test the benefits of Vaseline. My time was 1 hour 1 minute and 19 seconds, which I was very happy with; so happy, in fact, that as soon as I’d attained it, I tried to faint. But a table was kind enough to catch me and then I realized it would be a good idea to drink some water.

I’m kind of addicted to running now, but a little worried about whether it’ll get in the way of my writing. For the last few years I’ve had a routine of falling out of bed and into my chair in the study, where I start typing more or less whatever’s in my head. This has worked better than you might expect, so I’m leery of postponing that crucial time when I start thinking about stories. But a run first thing in the morning helps me, too.

Today I decided to try something new. I got up, turned on my computer, and read over the last page or so of Company, which is what I’m currently working on. Once the scene was fresh in my mind, I laced up my shoes and headed out the door. I live on top of a hill, and have been advised that if I run down hills my knees will explode on my 40th birthday, so I did a fast walk for six or seven minutes, mulling over the novel. It was all working nicely: I was having some good thoughts, and still getting my exercise.

Then I reached the bottom of the hill and started to run. I took two steps and looked down. I wasn’t wearing my sneakers. I was wearing my casual shoes.

Sun 07
Nov
2004

Ask Max

Max I’m doing an online interview this Saturday/Sunday, so if you want to ask/demand/accuse me of something without waiting 20 weeks for a response via e-mail, now’s your chance. It’s run by the NationStates moderators, but open to anyone who can figure out IRC. If that’s you, I’ll be in the #nationstates channel on irc.esper.net this weekend; for the time where you live, here’s the World Clock. And if you’re wondering what it’ll be like, the answer is this.

Speaking of interviews, there’s a new one with me up at piedriver.com. I did this about 6 months ago, but the guy only recently gotten around to posting it, so my answers are new and surprising even to me.

Mon 01
Nov
2004

I’m a real boy!

Jennifer Government The other day some money inexplicably appeared in my bank account. This intrigued me. I wanted to know more, like: Who put it there? And: Could they send more? It turned out it was from my agent, Luke. “Oh, that’s royalties,” he said. “Jennifer Government earned out the advance.”

Authors earn money in two ways: royalties and advances. Royalties are the cut the author receives from the sale of each book (usually around 10% of the cover price, but can be much higher or lower depending on the edition, country, and how much more famous they are than me). An advance is a payment made to the author before the book goes on sale. It can take a year or more for a book to hit the shelves after a publisher has accepted it, and months or years to sell significant numbers of copies, and six months on top of that for it to show up in a royalty statement with a check attached. So if there were no advances, authors would turn up to bookstore readings with their possessions in a shopping cart. Because this would be embarrassing for all concerned, the publisher makes a kind of bet: they guess how many copies they’ll sell, and pay the author the equivalent of a year or two’s royalties. The author doesn’t earn anything else until actual royalties exceed the advance.

You don’t have to pay back an advance even if the publisher over-estimates, which is fortunate because otherwise I’d be washing dishes in the Penguin Putnam cafeteria. They expected to sell more copies of Syrup than they did, so my royalties have never earned out the advance. On the one hand, this makes me one lucky asshole, because I got overpaid. On the other, it’s largely the reason why Penguin dumped me from their list, so I think it mostly works out.

Anyway, the point is this is the first time I have earned actual royalties. I’m so excited about it. I feel as if I am a real author, not just a guy with an attack-dog literary agent. I’m making a living from telling stories!

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