Max Barry is the author of five novels, including New York Times Notable Book Jennifer Government and Syrup, which has been made into a major film. He is also the creator of the internet mini-phenomenon NationStates, an online political simulation game. His latest novel, Lexicon, was published in June 2013.
In this article, first published on his website in January 2006, Max reflects on his editing process, the importance of getting feedback and why finishing your first draft is only half the job.
“All first drafts are shit,” according to Ernest Hemingway, and who would argue with someone who checks out by eating a shotgun? No, no, Ern was on to something here: when you finally crest that great mountain and stare “THE END” full in the face—when you, somehow, incredibly, have managed to complete a novel-length work—then you’re about half-way home.
Maybe the idea of writing 90,000 words that bear some kind of relation to one another is daunting enough for you right now, and if so you don’t want to read any further. It’s best not to know what awaits. Better to think that once your word count (checked every ten minutes, and God damn it rises slowly some days) is high enough, it’s all over. You’ve written a novel! Yep, if that’s you, you definitely don’t want to hear this.But if you’ve finished a first draft and have the niggling feeling that it could be better—that it should be better—then pull up a chair. I’m your man.
I used to hate editing. (Call it rewriting, if you like.) I knew I should do some of it. But what did that mean? I understood the technical stuff—fix the typos and the broken sentences, polish a paragraph here, tweak a transition there, sure—but what about the rest? What about the story? That curious drifting feeling around chapter four, could I do something about that? That minor character, the one in the wheelchair, should he be in the book at all? And the twist at the end: that works, doesn’t it? Does it?
Oh, the madness. The insanity of trying to edit a book without knowing what to do.
For my first (unpublished) novel, I ended up doing the worst thing possible: I edited the whole thing based on one person’s opinion. No, wait, that’s not the really stupid part: this guy hadn’t even read it. But he was an agent, and he said, “Novels should be around 90,000 words.” So I thought: Okay, there’s something to fix. And I cut 40,000 words from it.
Killed that book dead, I did. Not that it was ever going to be a bestseller. Or even publishable. But it was better before I messed with it.
You know, even then, I didn’t really believe in what I was doing. I didn’t understand what I was doing. I was just trying to edit. Whatever that meant.
Today, I’m proud to say you’re looking at an editing junkie. My editor remarked that Syrup, the first of my novels to be published, was “unusually polished” when it first crossed her desk. Well, compared to how I work now, I barely edited Syrup at all. While working on Jennifer Government, my second published book, I kept a file of everything I cut from various drafts: by the time I was done, it was longer than the novel. And Company, my third—I stopped collecting its cast-offs because there were too many. If I had a file of those, it’d be easily twice the length of the published book and maybe more. These rewrites weren’t forced on me: most happened before I even thought about sending a copy to my editor.
Is Company a much better book than Syrup? I’m not going to argue that one. Everyone has their own tastes. But I can tell you this for sure: it’s a hell of a lot better than it used to be.
With each new Company draft—and oh, there were many—I felt the thrill of improving it. (Coupled with the horror that I’d evenconsidered the previous draft to be any good; my God, I had showed that to people?) That feeling is right up there with being visited by a fantastic new idea, or breaking through a story roadblock: it’s one of the things that makes me love writing. To know: I made my story better.
I should be clear: there are plenty of times when the thought of reading my own story one more time makes me want to vomit. This was especially the case with Company, which I initially had trouble finding my way into, then was visited with a succession of great new ideas that required rewriting major sections. Then my editor had the temerity to point out one particular weakness—just a key part of the fundamental concept that everything else depended on, that’s all. And, goddammit, I realized he was right.
If I hadn’t known what I was doing—if I had started a rewrite without the confidence that I knew how to make my book better—this would have been as much fun as eating glass. But I had that confidence, and I got hooked on each new draft. I loved every one of them. If you told me tomorrow I had to rewrite Company yet again, I’d break your nose. But if you showed me a way to make it better… I’d break your nose, then thank you.
Which brings us to feedback. I know, I know: showing other people your drafts is tough. Exposing yourself like that, making yourself that vulnerable, can be terrifying. It’s perfectly reasonable to avoid that, to not show other people your stories, or to shy away from asking the dreaded question, “What did you think?”
That is, if you’re a pussy. Otherwise, you need to suck it up. Your pride isn’t relevant here. All that’s important is improving your story. And for that, you need feedback. Lots of it.
Man, what I’d give for the ability to erase my memory after each draft, so I could read my own books for the first time again. It would all become so clear: where the story sagged, where the promising leads left unfollowed lay, where my characters’ motivations got muddled and, oh God please yes, what the core of this goddamn story really is.
Instead I have to read them with the book’s entire history in my head: every twist, every rejected idea, every character arc and papered-over plot hole. I’m at a wedding looking at the bride, but I was the guy who got her out of bed that morning when she was hungover and reeking of stale cigarettes. I don’t see blushing cheeks: I see rouge plastered over pores and pimples. Does she look beautiful? How the hell should I know?
To find out, I ask others. I send my fiction out to a bunch of people, and work hard to understand how it looks to them.
The first key is quantity. You need to hear from enough people so you can tell whether “I thought Jack was meant to be gay” is a common reaction or the opinion of a lone idiot. Second, you need real, honest reactions. You have to explain to readers that you don’t want them to say, “I felt that this section dissipated some of our feelings of identification with Jack because he acts in a way that I, in that situation, could not have ethically done.” You just want them to say, “I didn’t like Jack beating up that old man.” It’s your job to figure out what to do about that.
I like to get feedback via e-mail, because I want to consider it over and over. I want to compare it to all the other feedback, and sift through for similarities and disparities. Feedback garnered via conversation is okay, but too easy to misremember or misinterpret—especially when part of you (the pussy part, which never really goes away) is wailing, “Oh God, she doesn’t like it!”
Sometimes what’s wrong with a story leaps out as soon as I start getting feedback. It’s so obvious! Only a moron, or an author who’s spent the last two years buried so deeply in his story that he can no longer see the way out, could miss it! Other times it takes weeks, with plenty of re-reading of e-mails as I wonder why people have disliked a character, or felt uninvolved in a subplot, or liked one thing in particular.
But sooner or later I get it. I get an understanding—a crude, second-hand one, perhaps, but the best one available to me—of how I’d feel about my book if I were reading it for the first time.
That’s worth diamonds. When I have that, I’m away. I start getting ideas for how to do things differently. I want to re-write. Preferably last week, before I showed it to anybody. But failing that, today. I can’t wait to get started making my story better.
Oh yeah. Love that.
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Reproduced with permission of the author. Photo credit: Jennifer Barry