Essential writing skills: plugging on, even when it’s boring

One of the biggest challenges in writing is producing even when the well’s apparently run dry. As anybody who’s worked in a newsroom will attest, deadlines don’t wait for the muse.

Wright_Typewriter2That’s true of book writing too. Some authors perhaps enjoy the sounds of deadlines whistling past, but that’s not likely to please publishers.

Publishing is a business, you see – a serious one, with low profit margins. Production is dovetailed, and if a book misses its slot, that’s actually significant.

This is where contests like National November Novel Writing Month come in – apart from a challenge to write to length, they’re also a challenge to write to time. On average, 1667 words a day – though, in reality, some days would doubtless be more productive, others less. Remembering always that word count is a tool, not a target.

So how do you keep going when the muse has left you and gone to Mars? How about trying one or more of these?

  1. Sit down with your story plan – er, you DID plan it, didn’t you? – and look through what you’ve done, then what you have to do. Find another part of the story, yet to be written; write that and then back-fill.
  2. Re-read what you’ve written so far. Even revise it. Does this inspire enthusiasm? Some authors – and I think Roald Dahl was one of them – do this routinely as a way to get their mind back into the track of their work.
  3. Brute force also works. Sit down, start writing a sentence. Then another. Then another. Yes, it’ll likely be dull plod prose, but that’s what word processors are for.
  4. Do something even more boring, like cleaning up the kitchen or vacuuming. Don’t think about what you’re writing. Not for too long – maybe 15-20 minutes. Let’s say just long enough to earn domestic brownie points. Then get back to the writing.
  5. Run a contest with yourself – can I write the next sentence? How quickly?

The fact is that writing’s hard work. But even the dull patches can also be made fun, if you let it.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: the importance of styling

I’ve always argued that to write quickly and well means getting the fundamentals right first – the structure – and worrying about the style later. It’s a technique that’s really only come into its own with the advent of word processors – though, and without any sense of paradox, I also believe it’s important to at least plan using pen and paper, because of the way that different thought processes emerge.

Wright_Typewriter2Once you’ve got that draft, of course, the issue is that styling – and, in its own way, that’s as critical a part of the whole process as the structure. So what do I mean by styling? This is the front end of the writing; the way in which an author adds meaning, nuance and their characteristic ‘voice’. It can change the way the work is received – can drive readers off, or pull them in, depending on how it’s handled. It is, in short, a very powerful tool.

Styling involves getting the right words, the right phrasing, the right vocabulary and the right tone to the sentences. The word ‘right’, in this sense, is relative; it’s a value judgement. Different authors have different preferences – and so they should. If we all styled the same way, life would be boring. That said, a consistent style is often used by commercial magazines as a part of their branding. Take Time or National Geographic, for instance, where different contributions are re-styled in editorial to be consistent with the corporate ‘brand’.

In these and other magazines – including some I’ve written for – the author’s contribution is re-worked to meet a style without changing the meaning or content. And that principle also applies to your own novel – where the end point isn’t necessarily a ‘corporate’ style, but where you are trying to get it into a consistent shape that reflects your desired ‘voice’.

Some writers look on it as ‘re-writing’, but it isn’t – using the approach I recommend, it’s integral to the process. The time and effort required to get the styling right is often at least equal to the time and effort required to develop the structure and prepare an initial draft. The art of styling is also the art of preservation – keeping tight to the structure and themes you’d originally worked into the book.

If the book has been structured correctly – in the case of a novel, around the character arc with the narrative events and setting acting as backdrop – there should be no problems with extraneous scenes or extra characters, or padding, or any of the other irrelevancies that detract from the function of the character arc as the key device for capturing and holding readers.

Sometimes, of course, issues crop up structurally along the way as you review the work – meaning some re-work. But ideally, not too much.

So how does ‘styling’ work in the specific? More soon.

Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014

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Writing inspirations – a city street seller in Sydney

Today’s writing inspiration – for NaNoWriMo entrants and for writers of all persuasions – is a photo I took of a fruiterer in Sydney.

Fruit stand at the seaward end of Hyde Park, Sydney.

Fruit stand at the seaward end of Hyde Park, Sydney.

You can find these stands all over the city – places to buy fresh fruit and a raft of other things. The proprietor is chatting with a customer. What stories do they hear, I wonder? What do they see of city life? Do they see its underside? Its business? All of it? Pause to think – to wonder – to be inspired.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Writing inspirations – another golden age Deco moment

Today’s writing inspiration – for NaNoWriMo entrants and for writers of all persuasions – is another photo I took in Napier, New Zealand. The city was rebuilt in ‘art deco’ styles after a devastating 1931 earthquake. This is the ‘Dome’, formerly the ‘T&G’ building, of 1936.

Close-up of the former T&G Building (1936).

Close-up of the former T&G Building (1936).

Wellington architects Adkin and Mitchell produced something that harked forward to streamline themes – with those implicit undertones of the refined lifestyles and golden age Hollywood world of 1930s deco. Something to ponder; something to inspire.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Writing inspirations – a wonderful deco-era hotel

Today’s writing inspiration – for NaNoWriMo entrants and for writers of all persuasions – is the Hollywood Hotel, a bar and performance venue on Foster Street in central Sydney.

Hollywood cinema, near the Sydney CBD.

Hollywood Hotel, near the Sydney CBD.

Long-time readers of this blog will know I am a tremendous fan of art deco. This has to be one of the better examples I have seen of a small deco building – finished, Sydney style, in masonry.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Selfies with dinosaurs – the angry birds of the chalk era

I managed to take a selfie with ‘real’ dinosaurs the other week, thanks to some clever SFX. Cool. But in other ways it wasn’t too remarkable – because the latest science says these remarkable creatures, who once dominated the earth and whose chief badass was Tyrannosaurus Rex, are still with us today. We call them ‘chickens’, and usually pressure-cook them in secret herbs and spices.

Alioramus, an early Tyrannosaur. Not huge...but I wouldn't want to meet a hungry one without a Stryker to hand, even so. Click to enlarge.

Alioramus, an early Tyrannosaur. Not huge…but I wouldn’t want to meet a hungry one. Click to enlarge.

That’s right. Birds aren’t ‘descended from’ dinosaurs. They are dinosaurs - specifically, a type of theropod that survived the comet extinction and spread to fill a variety of ecological niches today.

Most of their Cretaceous-era (‘Chalk-era’) relations, such as T-Rex - also a theropod – couldn’t fly. But that didn’t stop most dinosaurs being brightly coloured, feathered (mostly) three-toed, hollow-boned, bipedal egg-layers. Just like birds. And, of course, that means dinosaurs were almost certainly warm-blooded. Like birds. Angry ones. (Go download the app.)

All this was brought home to me a few weeks back when I visited an exhibition about Tyrannosaurs – a long-standing dinosaur family of which T-Rex was one of the last and largest – in Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand’s national museum. I’ve already posted about the first part of the experience. The other part was the fabulous high-tech special effects that the museum used to bring their subjects to life.

That included some live action green-screen type SFX, fed back to museum-goers on huge screens - like this one. That’s me on the right, being checked out by my new friend Dino. Cool.

I'm on the right - a selfie I took with my SLR, green-screened and slightly foreshortened (uh.... thanks, guys) with some dinosaurs. Cool!

I’m on the right with SLR to my face in this selfie, green-screened and horribly foreshortened (uh…. thanks, guys) with dinosaurs.

I often walk on the Wellington waterfront. Until now, I'd never met dinosaurs on it... More green-screen fun.

I often walk the Wellington waterfront. Plenty of seabirds to see there, but until now, none of their ancient cousins. More live-action SFX fun in the T-Rex exhibition. I was lucky to take the photo - these things were moving. Note the feather coats and bird feet.

Velociraptor mongoliensis reconstruction, apparently life-size, which is bigger than I'd have thought (most of them were about the side of an annoyed turkey).

Velociraptor mongoliensis, apparently life-size, which at approximately 2 metres snout-to-tail is bigger than I’d have thought. Most of them were about the size of an annoyed turkey. Another hand-held ambient-light photo (note movement blur in the guy behind the display).

The whole exhibition, really, wasn’t about T-Rex. It was about what dinosaurs have become for us; symbols of total badass, which stands slightly against the fact that by the Cretaceous era they were actually feathered, bird-like and really pretty fluffy looking, including the ones that would have eaten you.

All this is a complete turn-about from earlier thinking. Victorian-age scientists looked on dinosaurs as slow, stupid, splay-legged, tail-dragging, cold-blooded lizards, doomed to extinction. The word ‘dinosaur’ remains a perjorative today in some circles for this reason. They were wrong, though in point of fact there HAD been large, splay-legged, exothermic animals in the Permian period (299-251 million years ago). There were two main land animal families at the time – the Synapsids (mammal ancestors), which included the fin-backed Pelycosaurs, like Dimetrodon. And there were the Sauropsids (reptile and dinosaur ancestors). Then came a Great Death, bigger than the one that ended the Cretaceous, that killed 90 percent of all life on the planet in less than 100,000 years. The jury’s out on what caused it, though climate change played a part. All the Synapsids died out, with the exception of a few species such as the Cynodonts, now regarded as mammal ancestors.

Reconstruction of Troodon by Iain James Reed. Via Wikipedia, Creative Commons attribution share-alike 3.0 unported license.

Reconstruction of Troodon by Iain James Reed. Via Wikipedia, Creative Commons attribution share-alike 3.0 unported license.

Dinosaurs came into their own two ages later, the Jurassic – and flourished particularly in the Cretaceous. By this time they were as far from their reptile ancestors as mammals were. Dinosaurs were feathered not for flight, but for display and insulation. They laid eggs in nests. They had hollow (pneumatised) bones. They fell into two types; Orthinischians (bird-hipped), which included the big quadrupedal herbivores; and Saurischichians, lizard-hipped dinosaurs which included the theropods and – paradoxically – therefore birds. Indeed, some of the Cretaceous theropods, like the various species of Troodon, were originally classified as early birds, which they weren’t. But only birds survived the K-T extinction event, 65 million years ago, apparently because they were small.

Did smarts play a part for dinosaurs? Apparently not. They were relentlessly tiny-brained. And the fact that dinosaurs flourished for tens of millions of years, out-stripping the mammals of the day, suggests that – despite our own conceits – intelligence wasn’t required for a survival advantage. But it’s possible they were smarter than we think. Their surviving cousins, today, offer insight. Crows are as pea-brained as all birds. Yet they can solve complex logic puzzles. So maybe dinosaurs had a different sort of intelligence from us.

More on that soon. But for now I’ll leave you with a final look at one of the biggest predators of the dino-era – the magnificent T-Rex, as seen in all good museums… especially one near me, just now. A feathered, hollow-boned, six-tonne carnivore with bird-feet, jaws with the strength of a hydraulic ram – 3000 kg worth of bite – driving home 15-cm long teeth. Speaks for itself, really.

The real thing - Tyrannosaurus Rex, King of the Tyrant Lizards, in all his glory. Another ambient light, hand-held photo of mine.

The real thing – Tyrannosaurus Rex, King of the Tyrant Lizards. Another ambient light, hand-held photo of mine.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Writing inspirations – the stories an old boat might tell

Today’s writing inspiration – for NaNoWriMo entrants and for writers of all persuasions – is a photo I took of an old boat in Sydney harbour.

A boat in Sydney harbour...

A boat in Sydney harbour…

The planking and paintwork says it all; and as writers we have to wonder who sailed on this boat over the years – what were their lives, their experiences, their hopes and their dreams? What are the stories that flow around this old boat?

A moment to ponder, to think, and to be inspired.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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