Re-discovering the writers’ magic treasure box

I suppose it’s true of every writer. Somewhere, out in the back shed, lurks a box of dusty, damp manuscript pages.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

My writing treasure box has a lot of stuff inspired by various SF and fantasy authors (and that’s me, 40 years later…)

Maybe they’re typed sheets. Maybe it’s hand-written notes. Maybe something scribbled in an exercise book.

The painful teenage expressions of aspiring authorship. Stories that never made it. Letters to your future self.

Stuff that you’d be embarrassed to admit to writing – but which tells a deeper tale of hopes and dreams. Personal treasure.

Do you have that magic box of manuscript pages, out there in back-shed land? I know I do.

Have you had the courage to open it? And if you have – what did you find? Were you inspired? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, more geekery. Watch this space.

Motoring magic from the wonder age of deco – part 2

The other Saturday I spent a few hours in downtown Napier, New Zealand, where the annual art-deco weekend was in full swing.

'Art Deco' car parade, Napier, February 2014.

‘Art Deco’ car parade, Napier, February 2014.

For a few days the town turns into party central, celebrating the rich and famous lifestyles of 1930s Hollywood. There’s a lot of cosplay. And  a lot of tourists. I overheard a couple of them – done up in period costume down to the cloche hats – chatting in German, something like: ‘Ich muss ganz ein Eis kaufe mir’. I don’t go in for the dress-ups, nor did I attend any of the set-piece events such as a 1930s picnic or the tours. It’s my home town after all. And I’ve (literally) written the book on it.

Crowds along the balcony of the 1932 Masonic Hotel, an early streamline building.

Crowds along the balcony of the 1932 Masonic Hotel, an early streamline building.

But I did make the point of going to see the vintage car parade. They spanned the gamut from the First World War through to the early 1940s. Few of them actually appeared on New Zealand roads at the time – the country imported mainly British. And none of them, I suspect, were in quite the sparkling order they are now. But that wasn’t the point …was it.

Quintessential modernism - streamline-age Cadillac convertible.

Quintessential modernism – streamline-age Cadillac convertible.

Passing the Buick...

Passing the Buick…

The art of deco.

The art of deco.

Parasols and sun.

Parasols were vital wear in 33 degree C heat (91 degrees F).

My camera really didn't capture just how much the cars glowed in the sun.

My camera really didn’t capture just how much the cars GLOWED in the sun.

Something tells me this is a 1936 Packard.

Something tells me this is a 1936 Packard Super 8.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Writing tips, science, geekery…and more.

Write it now: six secrets behind a compelling book cover

 There’s an old adage that we must never judge a book by its cover.

My "Illustrated History of New Zealand"

My “Illustrated History of New Zealand”

Actually it isn’t that ‘old’, really. Go back a couple of hundred years and every book had a tooled leather cover – you had to open it to get to the interesting design part. That’s what frontispieces are for.

Some of the classier books still present a frontispiece. But most don’t – the artwork has been transferred to the cover.

Covers are even more important for e-books, where they become the front-end icon – the visual object that sets an e-book you’ve discovered, cold, apart from the others, that makes you want to click on it and see what’s within. A book may well be better than its cover seems to promise, but unless we’re specifically looking for the author or that book, there’s no question that the cover is what draws us to an unknown author and book.

It is, in short, a key marketing and discovery tool. Which, in turn, means it’s amenable to all the usual marketing methods – it has to provoke, excite, pose questions that demand answers. In short, it has to appeal to emotion.

That’s a good news, bad news story for self-publishers. Good news is that professional designers are adept at translating those concepts into visual form. Bad news is they cost.

The other bad news is that everybody’s doing it, anyway – the quality of most covers these days, whether from the main publishing houses, indie publishers or self-published – is stunning. The bar has been raised very high, and if your book doesn’t meet it, then it won’t sell.

History dead? Not when books like this sell so well.

History dead? Not when books like this sell so well.

My take? It’s no different for self-publishers than it is for mainstream industry publishers. Indeed, even though mainstream publishers, by contract, have full authority over  the cover, they’ll often consult with the author over artwork. I’ve provided commissioned paintings or (more usually) my own photos for book covers in the past. Everything has to be planned out. Budgets have to be worked up, designers commissioned, and costs vs benefits assessed. The questions are:

1. What is the cost of the artwork – a bespoke painting, or license fees on a photo? Here in New Zealand, commissioned cover art starts at around $1500 and license fees for photos are $150 each, upwards.
2. What is the cost of a designer?
3. What returns do you require from the book to meet these costs – amortised across sales?
4. Think ahead. Design is part of brand; does this cover span a series, or is it part of a brand look to identify a particular author? (Typified for me by Isaac Asimov’s Panther paperbacks of the 1970s which all said “Asimov”).
5. How enduring is the design? Be careful. Totally up-to-the-moment designs key into an instant audience, but risk looking dated and cheesy in a year or two. The expected life of the book can help in this calculation.
6. What minefield/licensing traps follow?

Bottom line is that quality counts – and quality isn’t free.

Have you had adventures with book covers? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, history, science geekery and more. Watch this space.

Motoring magic from the wonder age of deco – part 1

I made the pilgrimage this year to my home town of Napier, New Zealand – and its annual Art Deco weekend – three or four days of Golden Age Hollywood style partying with air shows, vintage car parades and more.

Unlikely to have actually driven in 1930s Napier...but who cares?

Unlikely to have actually driven in 1930s Napier…but who cares? This photo didn’t use an infill flash – there was SO much light the shadow side of the car was illuminated by reflection off the footpath alone (just like that photo of Aldrin on the Moon, actually).

It’s all in good fun. And for me, the centrepiece was the car parade with its procession of Packards, Chryslers, Buicks, Chevrolets and more.

It’s not strictly historical, of course. New Zealand was one of the most motorised countries in the world back in the 1930s, but most of them were British, built to comply with British road tax laws that favoured ‘small’. Austin Dibblers and Humber Pootles ruled the roost. Although proper cars were occasionally brought in from North America, they were a rarity.

A 1938 Morris 'Minor' - same transmission, curiously, as the 1952 model I learned to drive on. No synchromesh on 3rd and 4th.

A 1938 Morris ‘Minor’ – same transmission and side-valve 850 cc motor, curiously, as the 1952 Minor I learned to drive on, decades later. Syncromesh? What’s that?

Sun, palms, deco. Hollywood? No. Napier.

Sun, palms, deco. Hollywood? No. Napier.

The other Kiwi quirk was the tendency to keep the cars well past their ‘use by’ date – a hazard for historians trying to date mid-twentieth century photos by cars. Even in the 1950s it wasn’t unusual to see early 1930s models chugging about.

1931 Hispano Suiza. No such beastie in 1931 Hawke's Bay, but hey...

1931 Hispano Suiza. No such beastie in 1931 Hawke’s Bay, but hey…

Anybody might think it was 1930...

Anybody might think it was 1929 Chicago …

Cars lined up after the deco-age parade, Napier, 2014.

Cars lined up after the deco-age parade, Napier, 2014. Photographic conditions were extremely difficult – 33 degree C and blazing bright sunshine matched with dappled shadows.

There was an art about cars back then which they seem to have lost today.

There was an art about cars back then which they seem to have lost today.

A lot of the cars at the parade have been brought in since. There were quite a number of Packards – including some magnificent Clippers – few of which actually drove New Zealand streets back then.

More cars on display...

More cars on display…

My next car? I wish...

A 1937 Packard 120C six-cylinder convertible. Beautifully restored. My next car? I wish…

The parade doesn’t celebrate what happened; it celebrates aspiration. And it’s fun to imagine Napier as it might have been in 1940 when all the art deco was brand new and Humphrey Bogart ruled the silver screen.

The art of the art deco car...

The art of the art deco car…

Along the way, I almost walked backwards into a 1937 V12 Rolls Royce Phantom III, while lining up a photo of another car. Don’t ask.

I jumped back and this appeared as I spun around...

I jumped back and this appeared as I spun around…

More soon. Meanwhile – do you like ‘deco’ stylings? What’s your favourite design period?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Writing tips, science, geekery…and more deco. Lots more deco.

Sun, style and heat in the ‘Art Deco Capital of the World’

Late every summer, thousands of people pour into Napier, New Zealand, to dress up in golden age Hollywood costume, cavort about in vintage cars, and generally have a good time.

Anybody might think it was 1940...

Anybody might think it was 1940…

The annual ‘Art Deco Weekend’ has been a fixture on the city calendar for more than a quarter of a century. It’s the latest re-invention in Napier’s long history of self-promotion as a resort. Before that – starting in the 1920s – it was the ‘Nice of the South’, though the climate is Californian. These days, so is the town look – with healthy doses of Miami stirred in.

That’s no coincidence; most of the town centre was rebuilt to the latest styles of the 1930s, after a devastating earthquake and fire destroyed virtually the whole original town centre in February 1931.  Grand plans to build block-spanning Spanish Mission buildings, Santa Barbara-style, were foiled by Depression-era penury. Instead, the place was rebuilt piecemeal as individual owners could afford it. But that produced its own unique result – one of the best collections of small modernist buildings in the world, encompassing a range of styles from Spanish Mission to Chicago School, early streamline and more.

Sun glow over two of the 'deco' buildings in Tennyson Street, Napier.

Sun glow over two of the ‘deco’ buildings in Tennyson Street, Napier.

Today they are all lumped together under the blanket moniker ‘art deco’. What’s left of them, anyway – about a third of these unique ‘deco’ buildings were knocked over in the 1980s, spurring a belated effort to recognise the heritage. Others have come down since in the face of strict earthquake regulations. But that hasn’t stopped the city re-inventing itself around the imagery – and today, thousands of visitors pour in for the annual ‘Art Deco’ weekend to celebrate the heritage and indulge in various light-hearted activities based around the ‘deco’ theme.

I don't know who these guys were, but they looked the part. Ties and waistcoats in 33 deg C heat - 91.4 deg F.

I don’t know who these guys were, but they looked the part. Ties and waistcoats in 33 deg C (91.4 deg F). Must be 1940.

Yes, I'm sure it's 1940...

Yes, I’m sure it’s 1940…

I heard that this 1937 Rolls Royce V12 Phaeton was worth half a million dollars.

Is that a 1937 Rolls Royce V12 Phantom III gliding into view?

Suddenly it was 1940...

Lots and lots and lots of people…

Vintage car parade, Napier, New Zealand.

Parasols and deco…

As I walked the downtown streets with their vintage cars; their men in flat caps or straw boaters and braces; their women in cloche hats and print dresses, I felt rather the odd one out. A time traveller, perhaps. It wasn’t the fact that I was festooned with twenty-first century camera gear. It was more fundamental than that. You see, I don’t do cosplay.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Deco cars, writing tips, science, geekery…and more.

It’s Golden Age Hollywood party time!

My home town – Napier, New Zealand – styles itself ‘Art Deco capital of the world’ with reason. Between 1932 and about 1940 the central city was completely rebuilt to the latest styles – Chicago school, Spanish Mission, Streamline Moderne and more – after a devastating earthquake.

Party time in Napier's main 'art deco' precinct, February 2014.

Party time in Napier’s main ‘art deco’ precinct, February 2014.

It was a unique heritage. Unfortunately most of the best was knocked down in the 1980s, before the value of this unique collection of small ‘art deco’ buildings was recognised. However, the rest have been saved and restored.

Today that heritage – and the lifestyle we’d like to imagine went with it – is celebrated with an annual summer party, a three day weekend of 1930s Hollywood-style fantasy action. The streets fill with restored vintage cars, the Warbirds arrive with their awesome T-6 Harvards (Texans), Spitfires, Mustangs, Avengers and the like. And everyone has a great time.

I made the effort to get there this year. Here are the first couple of photos. More soon.

I don't think any of these cars actually featured in 1930s Napier...but hey...

I don’t think any of these cars actually featured in 1930s Napier…but hey…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More deco posts, more writing tips, and stuff.

Write it now: licensing your blog and book photos

One of the biggest hurdles in publishing – whether commercially, online, independently or by the big corporates – is navigating licensing requirements.

I commissioned the artwork for the cover of my 1998 book on the RNZAF. I still have the original painting. That meant I also had license to use it on the cover.

I commissioned the artwork for the cover of my 1998 book on the RNZAF. That meant I also had license to use it on the cover.

It’s especially true in this computer age, where we’re encouraged to copy – sites like Pinterest or Tumblr pivot on it. And, truth be told, a fair proportion of that copying WILL be infringement. The question is whether the owners object. Mostly, I suspect they won’t.

Other sites post content as an index/selector for licensed photos. That can be a trap for the unwary. I saw a story, a while back, about an amateur home web publisher who found a couple of images on the Getty library site. Used them, thinking ‘they’re on the web, therefore they’re free’ …and, about three months later, received an account at their commercial rate. Hideously expensive for an indvidual with a private website.

A lot of pictures are public domain – but it’s important to follow process to make sure. Copyright terms differ. In Britain it’s 75 years after author death. In New Zealand it’s 50 (counted at the end of the calendar year). In the US, it’s so complex you have to be an attorney to puzzle it out. Crown or government copyright is different again – in the US, for instance, government-created material can be freely used. But that’s not so in New Zealand or Britain, for instance.

Basically, if a picture isn’t public domain, you’ll need to license it. Or use your own.

It was easy to deal with the rights for the main photo on  the cover of my book Trucks. Why? I took it.

It was easy to deal with the rights for the main photo on the cover of my book Trucks. Why? I took it.

That applies to anything you publish – be it online in a website, or in a book (which, these days, is likely to be online). It’s especially important for book covers, where licensing fees are often special, reflecting the greater profile the cover has relative to internal pictures.

What’s more, even negotiating rights can carry traps. You aren’t buying copyright – you’re licensing the right to use a copyright image for a specific purpose. That can be time limited, or restricted to a specific publication. You don’t have free reign.

How to handle it? I am not a solicitor and this advice shouldn’t be taken to supersede or replace anything you may obtain professionally. Copyright laws also vary from country to country.

However, as a rule of thumb, there are basic principles it pays to follow. If you’re licensing a photo, make sure you have the rights you need. Some photo libraries also distinguish – even today – between print and e-publishing rights. Make sure you get both. Some online pictures also carry explicit terms for use with them – New Zealand’s online National Library collection, which runs to tens of thousands of images, does this.

If you’re commissioning artwork, make sure you have an agreement that transfers copyright to you. This is implicit in the act of commissioning, but it’s better to be explicit, these days. Also bear in mind that, if you use a separate designer, you’ll need the rights to that design too. That’s also implicit in any commissioning – but it pays to be explicit. A design using others’ licensed copyright material is, of itself, otherwise copyright to the designer as a ‘collage’. This is also why photographs are copyright to the photographer, even if they incidentally show material copyright to others within their composition (the key is ‘incidentally’).

It’s laborious and painstaking – and yes, it’ll cost. But it’s cheap by comparison with the cost of a post-fact scrabble to make good, when an aggrieved owner turns up with a copyright claim.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, history, science geekery and more. Watch this space.

Write it now: who’s your writing influence?

As far as I am concerned one of the more facile questions authors – or artists of any kind – get asked is ‘who’s your influence?’

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

Yes, I’m a huge Tolkien fan. Is Tolkien an ‘influence’ on my writing? No.

It’s as if nobody can do anything original. There’s an automatic assumption that a creative artist – like a writer – has to be ‘influenced’ by the style or approach of a leader in their field – that they have to follow, not create or think laterally.

To the extent that styles often follow trend, I think it’s always going to be possible to trace links between different authors’ work. But the question of ‘influence’ begs the obvious question – if writers are only capable of following others’ lead, where do the original ideas come from?

The reality, of course, is that there are authors who don’t let others influence them – who march to the beat of their own drum. I can’t help thinking that the best writers are those who  go out and create something entirely new.

Sometimes they create stuff that’s too bizarre for words. Or just weird, like Kafka’s flirtation with gaps instead of commas. But amidst all that is an originality that you just can’t get if you let people ‘influence’ you. Out of that comes such things as Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, an experiment in free-flow thought that absolutely worked. Or Hemingway, whose stylistic influence was pure art deco.

So where do these authors get their ideas? Their influences?

Part of it, I think, comes from cross-pollenation, often in unlikely ways. Take Claude Debussy – possibly the greatest French composer that ever lived. His influence, quite explicitly, was the Impressionist art movement.

If Monet could evoke an emotion through colour, he wondered, could a composer evoke a sense of colour through music? Bizarre idea –but he had a go. And through this, Debussy captured the feel of late nineteenth century Parisian bohemianism, just as the artists did. He influenced a whole school of composers  – I’m thinking of Erik Satie’s ‘Gymnopedie’, especially, a piece filled with morning-after ennui.

That works for writing too. If you think of influence in this abstract and indirect way then it becomes more then just follow-my-leader. One of my ‘influences’ in this sense, as a writer, has always been Frank Zappa. What gives, you say? He was a composer. That’s right. The appeal is what he was doing musically – which was all to do with collisions of rhythm, collisions of tonalities. Almost dada, in a way. How does that flow into writing? In many ways. Collisions create the tension that draws readers on. And that is the essence of writing.

Do you have an ‘influencer’ like this?  What inspires you, as a writer?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery, history and more. Check it out.

A quarter century of fun with digital image manipulation

Normally I don’t edit the photos I take, other than minor straightening, colour correction, scaling and adding copyright watermarks. But I realised the other day that I’ve been using image manipulation software in various flavours for about 25 years.

So this time I thought I’d have a bit of fun. I took this photo on a blustery grey-ish day in the South Wairarapa.

Original photo taken at 1/160, f.8 and 18mm focal length. Then dealt to. Who needs Instagram when you have Photoshop?

Photo taken at 1/160, f.8 and 18mm focal length. Then dealt to on the computer. No Instagram.

It’s purely filtering – the apparent fringing on the top right is an artefact of the process I used.

Can anybody guess what I did? Clue: not all the picture is actually filtered; and the effect is mostly a digital rendering of a well known film-photographic technique. You could, I think, do much of this in a darkroom with trays of chemicals and a stop-watch, old-style. But the computer’s faster, cleaner and not so smelly.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tops, science geekery and history. Watch this space.

Where old American school-buses go to die

I promised a few surprise posts this year. Here’s the first. A couple of years ago the City Council in Napier, New Zealand, decided to spend about $1.1 million on two old Thomas school-buses, which they had customised in California for that quintessential Flash Gordon look – specifically, streamline moderne.

Napier deco bus 'Belle' outside the former Hawke's Bay Museum and Art Gallery.

Napier deco bus ‘Belle’ outside the former Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery.

It was intended to match the city’s art deco theme, but the plan didn’t go well. The buses arrived in New Zealand in late 2012 and were declared un-roadworthy on inspection in Wellington. That cost $100,000 to rectify,  and then when they did hit Napier streets in April 2013 they netted a grand total of 11 paying passengers a day, for a dead loss to the Council of $58,000 through August. It was late 2013 before passenger numbers rose.

Napier deco bus 'Belle'.

Napier deco bus ‘Belle’.

My take? If you’re going to customise an American school bus, do this. I’d pay for a ride. You?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Regular writing posts, science geekery and more.