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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

Thu 30
Nov
2006

Exceptional

Writing Okay, look, I’m trying to keep low-key about this. I don’t want to make it into a whole deal. But I just finished the first draft of my new book, and OH MY GOD I LOVE IT SO MUCH.

I’ve been keeping my mouth shut about this, because from experience I know the moment I say, “This book I’m working on is going quite well,” that’s the first moment of a week of black, empty wordlessness. You just can’t tempt the gods like that. So I have been very good. I haven’t said anything to anybody, even though I have desperately wanted to grab someone and yell, “It’s the best book ever! It’s the best book ever!

Now I should confess that I often become overly enamored with my own books while I’m writing them. It’s a good thing, because if I saw them objectively, these staggering, newborn first drafts, I’d probably be so appalled that I wouldn’t be able to keep working on them. Blind love at this point is a prerequisite.

And next, I’m sure I’m going to read this draft and discover the myriad ways in which it’s not as wonderful as I thought. But that’s also a good thing: just as I can’t write if I’m in a critical frame of mind, I can’t edit unless I am. So I need to change modes. I need to give it some tough love.

But before I do, I’m just going to say it: this has been the best writing experience of my life.

I did two things differently this time. First, I had a daily maximum word limit. I probably broke this more times than I honored it, but still, I think it was helpful. It was good to feel a little naughty when I wrote 800 words in a day. And it was good to be able to leave it at 200 words when the scene needed more thought, rather than feeling like I should push on with whatever I had at the time.

The second thing I did differently was refuse to plot. Well, I’ve always done that; this time I actively tried to destroy my own plotting. Whenever I realized I’d figured out what was going to happen next, I changed my mind. My goal was to avoid any kind of cruise mode, where I feel that the story is ticking along nicely and I don’t want to screw anything up, so I just let things play out. This time I deliberately kept messing things up. Sometimes that meant I spent most of my writing time looking out the window trying to figure out what would happen instead. And by the time I got to the ending, all I knew was that it couldn’t possibly be what I’d originally imagined.

I’m sure this helped my characters, because I constantly looked to them for the next step instead of trying to nudge them down my pre-determined path. And although I have a bunch of stuff I need to go back and insert to make the stuff I only thought up later work, I think the plot that grew out of this chaos is actually pretty good.

But most of all: oh man, it was such cool fun. I’ve had the best time.

(Note: I know somebody’s going to ask about timelines, so: at a guess, I’ll be ready to show this to my editor in maybe 6-12 months. If he decides he wants to publish it, then add about 12 months before it would appear on the shelves. I know, I know. Sorry.)

Wed 22
Nov
2006

Zap zap bang bang

Jennifer Government By now four thousand people have told me about the shooting at the Playstation 3 launch. Well, all right, it wasn’t four thousand. It was sixteen. Fifteen, if you don’t count the guy who thought it was over an XBox. (I love it when people remember everything about a marketing promotion except the product. Just knowing that some marketing executive signed off on a million-dollar campaign only to boost his competition gives me a warm feeling inside.)

Not that I’m saying Sony deliberately engineered a stock shortage and then hired an assassin to shoot someone in the stampede in order to build up the hype. That would be unspeakably immoral. To rip off the opening of Jennifer Government so blatantly, I mean.

I’m thinking about creating a special section on this site: “Stuff that happened in real life that’s kind of like one of Max’s books.” That way I won’t feel the need to salute each individual event: I can just add it to the list. Then on cold, quiet nights when I’m feeling insecure, I can browse that list and feel good about myself again. The best part is there need never be a list of “Things that were predicted in one of Max’s books and, boy, was he off-base.” Those things just haven’t come true yet.

Of course, it’s not that hard to predict advances in marketing. You just imagine what you’d do if you wanted to sell something and had absolutely no morals, self-respect, or dignity. Wait six months, and bing! There it is.

Tue 14
Nov
2006

The Intelligent Customer

Syrup Don't freak out! Don't freak out!A reader named Richard e-mailed me about the new energy drink “Cocaine.” He did this when it was still quite topical, but I’ve been falling behind on my e-mail again, so I only just found out. In a few weeks time I’m planning to find out how those mid-term elections are shaping up.

Anyway, my thought today isn’t about Cocaine specifically, because everything about that product turns out to be exactly as you’d expect:

  • The inventor came up with the name at 1 a.m.
  • The name offended a bunch of people, who complained, which generated a lot of publicity, which helped sales
  • It’s anyone’s guess what it tastes like, because the articles about it and even the product’s own website consider that an irrelevant side detail

The complaints, of course, were that the product glamorizes and legitimizes the illegal drug cocaine. Just as obviously, the manufacturers were shocked that anyone could imply there was some kind of connection between the drug cocaine and their product, Cocaine. They wrote:

Well, we think that kids today are neither ignorant, nor uninformed. As a matter of fact, we think that you are the brightest and most informed generation in the history of the world. How else would you be able to navigate your way to our MySpace?

I was intrigued by how impressed these guys are with their customers. I mean, they really think they’re clever. That seemed like an odd conclusion to reach about people who buy sodas just because they have a funny name. And it occurred to me that whenever I hear a company telling their customers how smart they are, it seems they’re selling a stupid product.

Take cigarettes. I’m not saying you have to be stupid to smoke. But it certainly helps if you have a poorly developed ability to anticipate logical consequences. Yet it’s hard to find an industry more deeply moved by their customers’ intellectual powers than tobacco. If you ask Altria,* smokers aren’t just customers, they’re proud warriors for freedom of choice, fighting against nanny-government interference in our personal lives. In fact, you probably don’t realize it, but many people smoke even though they hate it, just to express their refusal to bow to the military-industrial complex.

Similar, sometimes companies implore you to “make up your own mind.” Their argument seems to be that if you’re smart, you’ll ignore the overwhelming body of evidence that says their product is dangerous, and instead reach an independent conclusion based on their promotional web site.

To test the apparent correlation between how smart companies tell you they think you are and how stupid their product is, I plugged the phrase “our customers are intelligent” into Google and noted the top product categories to come up. If companies tended to say that because they really did have smart customers, you might expect to see telescopes and pocket protectors. If, on the other hand, companies tended to tell their customers they were smart as a piece of transparent marketing, you might see:

  1. Shoes
  2. Diamond engagement rings
  3. Domain name hosting
  4. Web site design

…which is what came up. That seems about right to me: two products that are sold for an order of magnitude more than they cost to manufacture, a service that offers the exact same thing as two thousand other companies, and a web site design company that claims, “When Microsoft begged us to help them with their website we were far too busy with other projects and had to turn them down.” Although, to be fair, companies offering domain name hosting and web site design come up no matter what you put into Google. They’re just part of the landscape, like insects, or Paris Hilton.

(* “Altria” used to be called Phillip Morris. According to its web site, the company changed its name “to better clarify its identity as the owner of food and tobacco companies that manage some of the world’s most successful brands.” That’s good to know. I’d thought they did it just so people wouldn’t realize they were the same pack of lying, murderous bastards.)

Wed 01
Nov
2006

Company in Hollywood and Oz

Company If you were wondering what that strange feeling you had recently was—a sensation like some great evil in the world had suddenly been put to rights—then I’m happy to explain: Company has got itself an Australian publication date.

About time, I know. It’s very weird to be published overseas but not at home. I wouldn’t mind if my book was completely ignored or flayed by critics, so long as people could at least find it in a bookshop. Well, I’d mind a little. No, you’re right, that would suck. But having Company unavailable in my home country really niggled at me this year. I’m very happy to be getting that fixed.

The details: it’ll be a A$29.95 paperback out March 2007 from Scribe Publications, available in Australia and New Zealand.

In film news, I spoke to Steve Pink recently—he’s the guy writing the Company screenplay. I gotta say, when the film rights sold to this book, I had no idea how it could be a movie. I mean, it was barely a novel. For me, it was more like colonic irrigation: by the end, I felt like I’d flushed out everything I had left to say about corporate life. But Steve described some scenes to me, and they sounded very funny. So now I’m intrigued.

Apparently if this film gets made, Jen and I get to fly first class to the premiere. Jen thinks this is the most exciting thing ever. Not the movie. The chance to fly first class.

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