Essential writing skills: finding that ‘Goldilocks’ word

One of the hardest things for writers – and especially if you’re under pressure to produce and hit a word-target – is finding the right words. Having, in short, a wide enough vocabulary to express yourself with interest and variation. It’s harder than it seems. Even experienced authors usually rely on a relative handful of words – certainly in first drafts. It’s the struggle to find good variations, I think, that slows authors down the most.

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What's it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er - introductions...

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What’s it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er – introductions…

The problem’s ironic in many ways. It’s a while now since English became the richest language in the world – word-wise, certainly. The current vocabulary runs to something over a million. But most people don’t actually use that many – a 1991 paper suggested the average college student has a vocabulary of under 17,000 words. This is about the same as Shakespeare.

What it means is that for every word you have in the vocabulary of your writing, there are probably several alternatives. And maybe it’s good to use some of them. But this doesn’t mean jamming as many different words as possible into your material. Good styling isn’t about sitting down with a Thesaurus and finding synonyms for your favourite adjective. Callipygian, for example. Authors who succumb usually end up with fifty shades of stylistic mauve. I hesitate to use the word ‘purple’; it’s too intense a colour for this sort of mud.

As with all things there is a balance. Word selection guides tone. It guides the reading age. It guides that indefineable ‘feel’ of the work. I’ll post in more detail later on those points. Within those parameters writers have to find a vocabulary ‘Goldilocks zone’ where there is enough variation in the word selection to be interesting – but not so much as to make the work over-written or pretentious.

My advice:

  1. Get that first draft out even if you use a lot of ‘samey’ words – a bad first draft is better than no first draft, and stopping to find elusive words breaks trains of thought. Sure, you’ll have a fairly bland vocab. But you can then go through and fix the word selection on the editing which is, as we know, really an integral part of the writing.
  2. Be careful with adjectives.  Writing, in general, has been stripping itself of these ever since Hemingway decided to introduce a more journalistic tone to literature a century ago.
  3. It’s handy to have three or four variations for your commonest words (in novels, it’s usually ‘said’) – but no more.
  4. When finding synonyms for ‘said’, be judicious. It’s tempting to use an adverb – but don’t. Why? “‘I say! That’s a bit off, old chap,’ expostulated Algy.” See what I mean?
  5. ‘Groak’ means ‘to stare silently at someone while they are eating’. Just saying.

Do you have a favourite word that keeps popping up, usually unannounced, in your writing?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Writing inspirations – an old farmhouse, crumbling with time

Today’s writing inspiration is a photo I took of an old farmhouse near Dovedale, Nelson, New Zealand.

Photo I took, by chance, of an old farm building near Dovedale, Nelson district, New Zealand.

Photo I took, by chance, of an old farm building near Dovedale, Nelson district, New Zealand.

The house crumbles with age now, ivy and foliage intruding across its walls. But once it was loved, once it was a home. You can imagine the stories, imagine the history. An inspiration for writers.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Writing inspirations – the 1930s as we would wish them to be

Today’s writing inspiration is another of my art deco pictures – a style of which I am a huge fan.

A photo I took in 2014, not 1930 despite the appearences...

A photo I took in 2014, not 1935 despite the appearances…

I took this during the 2014 Art Deco weekend in Napier, New Zealand – a celebration not just of the styles of a bygone age, but of the magic of the day; of the 1930s not as they were, but as we would wish them to be. An inspiring thought.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Writing inspirations – Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney

Today’s writing inspiration is a photo I took of the Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney.

Hyde Park barracks, Sydney - now a museum and a World Heritage site.

Hyde Park barracks, Sydney – now a museum and a World Heritage site.

These barracks were designed by convict architect Francis Greenaway in 1818-19, originally as a place to house convicts. Since then they have also been a receiving depot for immigrants, an asylum, and law courts. And by imagining the lives of the people who used this building over nearly two centuries, we can be inspired with ideas and new thoughts.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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I give Russell Crowe an F in Gallipoli history

If Russell Crowe had put what he’s reported to have said yesterday about Gallipoli in a history paper I was marking, I’d have given him an F.

Anzac Beach during the landing by 4 Battallion on 25 April 1915. Photo by Lance-Corporal Arthur Robert Henry Joyner. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Anzac Beach during the landing by 4 Battallion on 25 April 1915. Photo by Lance-Corporal Arthur Robert Henry Joyner. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

The interview, on Australia’s Seven Network, included Crowe’s suggestion that the landing by Australian forces on 25 April 1915 – part of a wider landing on the peninsula – was the invasion of a sovereign nation that, he is reported to have said, ‘we’d never had an angry word with.

Sigh. The Gallipoli landings of 25 April 1915 weren’t an unprovoked invasion of sovereign territory. The British and Ottoman Empires went to war on 28 October 1914, on Turkish declaration. By the time of the Gallipoli landings there had already been fighting around Suez, also Ottoman sovereign territory.

Gallipoli was an attempt to end an existing war by knocking out the belligerent. Crowe is right to the extent that there was no earlier dispute between the Turks and the Australians or New Zealanders. Nor was there later, a point made clear in 1934 by Mustafa Kemal – Kemal Ataturk – who commanded the defence against the Anzacs and later became President of Turkey:  ‘Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives … You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country … You mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away the tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace after having lost their lives on this land. They have become our sons as well…

However, the fact remains that the soldiers of both sides were doing their job, and the ethics of the war were not defined by the military operation intended to end the fighting. They flowed instead from a far broader picture, including the reasons why the Ottomans felt obliged to declare war in the first place. In this, Britain was not blameless, though it is facile to point to their taking over two Turkish dreadnoughts completing in British yards, in August 1914, as the provoking factor. The factors ran deeper than that, and German realpolitik cannot be discounted in the mix.

The cover of 'Shattered Glory'. Now out of print.

The cover of my book ‘Shattered Glory’ with a marvellous painting of the New Zealanders on Chunuk Bair, Gallipoli, by Ion Brown. Now out of print, but I have a few personal copies. If you want one, contact me.

From both the Australian and New Zealand point of view the more crucial historical issue remains the way the Gallipoli campaign has been mythologised. In New Zealand, Anzac Day – the anniversary of the landings – has become a nation-defining moment, upheld as the day when New Zealand strode forth on the world stage and began asserting itself as something more than just a scion of Britain.

I won’t go into all that here, other than to point out that the men were motivated to join the war not to assert New Zealand, but for Empire –  for ‘our nation’, Britain. This was the age when New Zealand was Britain’s imperial Boy Scout, all enthusiasm and jingoism, to the amusement and ridicule of everybody else.

New Zealand’s reinvention of that day as a nation-defining moment began in 1916 with the transformation, largely at the hands of the Bishop of Auckland, of the Gallipoli defeat into a victory. It was still defined as an Imperial victory; but the road led, eventually, to the re-conception of the whole campaign in that nation-defining sense.

One of the outcomes is that our day of remembrance, along with that of Australia, is 25 April – the day we landed in another country. Not the day the First World War effectively ended, 11 November, which is how just about every other Commonwealth country remembers it.

Because we are still buoyed by that mythology, few have yet questioned it – and given the way history works as a discipline, we probably won’t for another generation or two.

As for Crowe – well, sorry, mate, I know you’re a fellow Kiwi, fellow Wellingtonian and all that…but that really is an F-grade historical comment.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Essential writing skills: how ‘pantsing’ can lead you adrift. Beware.

I posted a while back on the way to approach novel-writing as a blend of both planning and seat-of-the-pants free-flow.  You plan the skeleton of the story ahead of time, then ‘pants’ your way through the details.

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What's it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er - introductions...

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What’s it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er – introductions…

The trick throughout is to stick to that plan. Or, if it does seem to be failing on the back of too many new and good ideas, the trick is to recognise WHEN it’s in trouble, stop, and re-cast it accordingly. If you don’t, you lose the benefit of the plan and end up with your pantsing in a tangle.

OK, that was an awful image, but you get what I mean.

I can’t stress that point enough. If you ‘pants’ your way off into the creative blue yonder, I guarantee you’ll end up writing your characters into a position where they have to do something uncharacteristic – or where something unlikely happens. For instance, they’re on one side of the continent but the volcano into which they have to drop the magic dingus is on the other, and they have only five minutes to get there. Or you get to the point where they have to do something that the internal consistency of the setting prevents.

There’s no faster way to break the suspension of disbelief than to have to create a sudden deus ex machina to get your characters out of that sort of tangle.

The best way to avoid this sort of problem is not to get into it in the first place, because it WILL involve re-writing. Danger signs include too much time pantsing and not enough checking back against the structure and characters. But if you do end up tangled – what then?

There is, alas, only one answer. Re-writing the first draft. The only question is the scale of the re-work. If you find yourself, for instance, having to introduce an unlikely device to get your characters out of trouble, you may be able to get around it by re-working a much earlier part of the story where the device is first introduced. That way it becomes part of the plot and doesn’t look like an add-on.

But quite often the only actual answer is to scrap significant tracts of the material and start again. Which is fine – all writing is good writing, to the extent that everything adds to experience. But if you’re up against a deadline, either for a publisher or to meet the word-count of NaNoWriMo, having to re-write risks disaster. And if you’re writing to earn an income, time is money – meaning that the re-write time, effectively, reduces your rate of return.

That’s why it’s better not to go adrift in the first place, and keep an eye on that plan while you’re ‘pantsing’.

Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014

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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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