Collisions of coal: an author’s perspective

My biography of coal in New Zealand was published this month by David Bateman Ltd. It’s a book taking as its subject a ‘thing’, but in reality telling the human side of that ‘thing’ in all its dimensionality.

Coal 200 pxReview comments so far have been excellent – ‘this definitive work by Matthew Wright has certainly set a new benchmark‘ and ‘a fascinating read…such a good way of understanding NZ history‘ among them.

It was certainly fascinating to write. I’ve been trunking on in this blog about ways and techniques of writing – well, this book represents one way I put those things into practise.

All writing – fiction and non-fiction alike – must have structure, a theme, a dynamic around which to take the reader on an emotional journey. In fiction, that’s the character arc. In non-fiction, the author has to find something else; and for me the obvious angle was the intersection between humanity and this unique – almost chance – product of nature. That gave me the organising principle for the book, the thread around which I could weave the story. To do that I had to draw together a whole lot of thinking in areas that – on the face of it – seem quite disparate, but which in reality are all expressions of the one thing, our relationship with the world and with ourselves.

It was a story of collisions. You can’t tell the story of coal without delving into how it came to be, product of peat swamps and geological processes that, in New Zealand’s case, stretch over sixty million years. To give that context I decided to set it against the span of human existence – which, at best, is a tiny fraction of that time. The time during which we have dug up and burned that coal is shorter still, a tiny eye-blink against the span of years during which our coal resources formed.

This digger at the Stockton open cast coal mine is way bigger than it seems.

This digger at the Stockton open cast coal mine is way bigger than it seems.

The question follows – why have we been so profligate in our burning? The answer, also explored in the book, flows from our nature and the way we think. The mid-to-late nineteenth century, when New Zealand’s coal was first exploited on an industrial scale, was an age of a particular style of thinking. It was common across the industrialising world but particularly evident on the whole colonial frontier from the United States to Australia and South Africa – and one of the key drivers of the impecunious pace with which we dug up and burned the coal.

That same thinking also introduced another side of the human story of coal – our attitudes to it; the way we relied on it and yet also saw those who dug it as a social threat; and the way we relentlessly found news ways of exploiting it.

One theme became increasingly clear throughout. We have been digging and burning coal, not just in New Zealand but around the world, with ever-increasing pace in the last 250 years. The fact that coal is no longer burned in domestic homes has disguised the fact that in the last few dozen years particularly, that pace has skyrocketed.

Today, coal combustion produces 43 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Nearly half. And the jury is back on climate change. It’s happening – and it’s an own goal. Big time. Making coal the chief villain.

That was why I ended the book the way I did. With – a well, you’ll just have to check it out for yourselves.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: understanding points of view and other novel-writing puzzles

The other week someone asked me how many points of view it’s possible to have in a novel. It’s a tricky question. The best answer – certainly for novice or learning novelists – is ‘one’. That’s the simplest.

Wright_Typewriter2It’s simplest because the author is dealing with but one major character arc, and a single point of view can be handled from various writing angles – first person singular (‘I’), as if the novel was a personal narrative. The reader only gets to see what the narrator sees. It’s closely related to ‘third person singular’ – which is the same as first person, but where the author steps back and refers to the lead character as ‘he’ or ‘she’.  But they don’t reveal anything that anybody else sees.

Both angles offer differing advantages, depending on what the author has in mind. With first person singular, for instance, it’s possible to play with styles. The classic, to my mind, is George McDonald Fraser’s Flashman series, written in first person singular in the style of a ‘found’ nineteenth century memoir, to the point where one reviewer thought it actually was. Brilliant. It’s harder to produce that sense with third person singular, where the writing style is more independent of the content. But that independence may be what’s desired.

Handling multiple points of view – in effect, treating every character as a lead – is possible but quite tricky to accomplish well. It virtually dictates that the novel has to be written from ‘third person plural’ perspective – ‘he’ or ‘she’ perspectives, covering multiple people. It’s possible to play with styles and voices to give a different feel to each narrator. But it carries structural complexities – the multiple ‘lead’ character arcs have to be very carefully planned so they mesh properly around the plot, as just one challenge.

Great novel writing definitely includes multiple POV. But I would not recommend this for novice authors. Nor would I recommend it for a contest like NaNoWriMo – it’s too time-consuming to get multiple POV right. I can be done, of course – but don’t forget, what I’m talking about here isn’t just how to write fast. It’s how to write fast with quality. Some forms of writing – well, they impose speed limits. And multiple POV is one of them.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: what Ebenezer Scrooge teaches us about character arcs

One of the key things all novellists have to master is the character arc. It’s fundamental to the nature of the novel  – the reason why readers become emotionally engaged. Usually, the arc of the main character dictates the fundamental plot structure of the novel.

Wright_Typewriter01So what is a ‘character arc’? At basic level, it’s the journey a character takes as a person. They learn something. They develop. They change. The plot and events of the novel will always be about how they make that change. What does the character need to learn? How can they discover the better person they probably already believe themselves to be?

Take Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s all about Ebenezer Scrooge’s personal character arc – his transformation from a mean-spirited Grinch into a kind and generous man. The whole of the plot is subordinated to that goal. So how does Dickens handle it? Very, very unsubtly, broadly as allegory. That, of course, is why this tale is such a great way of exploring the integration between plot and character arc. Several key points emerge:

  1. Scrooge doesn’t know how to find his own joy. So the key tension of the character arc is going to be one of self-discovery. Undoing self-delusion is one of several possible character arcs.
  2. The plot of the story takes us on a journey through that character arc – it is designed to show first how Scrooge has insulated himself from Christmas joy, then how he is made to discover himself. It’s not subtle – nor did Dickens intend it to be. When the transformation is complete, we are shown how Scrooge has become a different man. The narrative ends there because there is nothing more to say about Scrooge’s transformation. The story is over.
  3. Dickens didn’t ‘pad’ the story with any unnecessary events. Everything was subordinated to defining Scrooge and taking us on a journey through his character transformation.
  4. The drama came wholly from within Scrooge – driven by that internal transformation. It didn’t rely or need external crises, adventure or other setting. And that’s the best way to develop story drama.

If you deconstruct other stories you’ll often find much the same thing – Tolkien’s The Hobbit, for instance, which is the classic hero journey.

Plot and narrative, in short, all swing around the needs of the characters. Something writers have to bear uppermost in their minds when plotting out their novel.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Finding the balance between writing well and writing weird

Here’s a thought for you as you prepare for NaNoWriMo or that novel you’ve always wanted to write. Archaeologists recently discovered a wind instrument, a bone flute, on which it was possible to play the Star Spangled Banner. The holes in the instrument had been spaced in a way that matched a modern scale.

Wright_Typewriter01Sounds ho-hum, but this instrument was 30,000 years old. It had been fabricated at the height of the last Ice Age, which means that the musical intervals that sounded pleasing to its makers were the same as the intervals that sound pleasing to us.

The same, it seems, is also true of stories. Humans are story-tellers. Three-act stories seem to be part of every culture around the world, cultures that are rich and diverse within themselves, but which all build their story-telling around the same basic structure.

We write in three-act structure, in short, not because it’s dull and conventional, but because it works. Like our sense of tone, we seem to be hard-wired for stories that have a beginning, middle and end. Sure, there have been efforts to change that from time to time – avant garde thought experiments – but they have never quite grabbed and captured in the way that the classic form does.

That’s an important point when constructing a novel – and especially when building one that has to be knocked through in thirty days, like NaNoWriMo. Although that doesn’t mean being boring. The trick is being different enough to be interesting – without dislodging the essential structure that readers identify with, expect and which – as I say – appears to be a fundamental part of human nature.

More soon – check back for regular posts on writing structure, writing technique – and writing inspiration, coming up through October and into November.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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My problem, as a bloke, with Top Gear, number plates and laddish silliness

I can’t see what the fuss is over Top Gear’s provocative Porsche number plate – you know, the one that got Jeremy Clarkson and the rest hustled out of Argentina before the wrath of a mob.

Aha - Clarkson's book on display in Whitcoulls, Wellington. My book directly behind his...

Aha – Clarkson’s book on display in Whitcoulls, Wellington. My book directly behind his (and in front of Julia Gillard’s).

Allegedly it was an off-colour reference to the British victory in the Falklands War of 1982. Personally I figure Clarkson’s protestations of innocence are correct. I mean, apart from anything else, wringing the meaning out of those letters demanded a fair amount of subtle thinking, and Top Gear isn’t exactly subtle. It’s a show about ‘Brit lads’ being ‘laddish’ with lad’s toys on a big budget with the help of a slick production team, some very fast sports cars and a good deal of British public school potty humour. This is the show, after all, who claim their engineering workshop is in Penistone. And who did have an intended ‘substitute’ plate for the Porsche reading ‘Be11end’.

Surprisingly, Top Gear didn’t make a point of visiting Urenui when the show came here. Depending how you translate it, the name is Te Reo Maori for ‘Great Courage’ or ‘Big Penis’. Instead Clarkson damaged one Toyota Corolla on a narrow bridge and drove another up Ninety Mile Beach. Not uber-fast, either. Once, the beach was the racing track where Norman ‘Wizard’ Smith went for 300 mph in an aero-engined streamliner in 1931, just in case anybody thought the Land Speed Record was exclusive to people named Campbell (Smith missed). But today it’s legally a public road, with a speed limit. (OK, so Clarkson’s Corolla wasn’t thrashed, it just got salt and sand sprayed through engine and running gear. I hope I never end up owning that one.)

You laugh at the British silliness. You think, ‘gee, I wish I had the chance to drive that’, that you could drive like The Stig, and that you too could play conkers with caravans. Or turn a Robin Reliant into a space shuttle. But to me, these days, Top Gear seems rather tired. Formula. There are, I suspect, limits as to how long a band of middle-aged men can cavort through our Sunday evening TV being big-budget yobbos.

Still, I can’t complain. My latest book ended up stacked, cover out, behind Clarkson’s the other day – and one can but hope that the reflected fame was, well, reflected in the sales…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Solving the biggest NaNoWriMo challenge

The biggest challenge in the 50,000 word/30 day NaNoWriMo challenge – or, indeed, for any writing defined by word count – isn’t actually meeting that target. Yes, you do need to meet it – but that isn’t the real issue.

Wright_Typewriter2The real challenge is making the structure of what you write work to the 50,000 words – meaning proper balance between beginning, middle and end. That’s harder than it sounds. Any writing must have proper structure and pace for it to carry the reader on the essential emotional journey that lies at the heart of the art.

The exact proportions will vary depending on the purpose and intent of the writing, however as a rule of thumb for a novel plot you might think about 20 percent introductory, 50-60 percent expository and 20-30 percent ending. There are a few principles:

  1. Don’t use the beginning as an information dump. That’s not what it’s for. Beginnings are there to unfold the characters to the reader – to reveal what the character needs (as opposed to what they want). Call it Act 1.
  2. Keep the expository tight. Does a scene advance the character’s journey down their character arc? No? Cut it. Think of the whole as Act 2.
  3. The pace has to rise and fall in a series of rising waves until…
  4. The ending – which is the final point where the events leading the main character down their arc come together in a final challenge. This is the third and final act in the story.

From the viewpoint of writing, the purpose of the “50,000 word” length – and of keeping tally of the words – isn’t to hit a daily target of 1667. It’s to allow you to put approximate scale to the three acts and their components. If you’re running outside that scale, there’s likely to be something structurally awry.

Why is this important? Because if you get the structure right, everything else follows. After NaNoWriMo, you’ll have a good basis to build your novel.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: pantsing and planning your writing

Writing a novel – quickly and with quality – demands every skill a writer can bring to bear. It starts, not with actually writing, but with project planning – and moves from there.

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

Project planning? Sure. There’s a school of thought that urges writers to indulge in free-flow – ‘seat of the pants’ writing. You start off with a blank page and start typing, following your imagination. Hey, apparently Stephen King does it, among others.

Actually, none of these writers quite do that. There’s a distinction between writing to produce a great novel that’s going to appeal to its audience – capturing and holding a reader – and just writing for the joy of it. The former is what professional writers do, and it’s often hard work. The latter’s a form of entertainment for the author, a pastime.

Sounds harsh, but it’s true. So what’s really happening when a top author ‘pantses’ their way through a book – and how do they make it work?

Several factors are at work here. The first is that these people are experienced – they’ve paid their dues, they’ve become ‘unconsciously competent’ at their craft. Writing is part of their soul. Words are their servants – these authors don’t struggle with the mechanics of styling or composition. They know how characters work, what constitutes a character arc, and how that integrates with a tight plot.

More to the point, most of these writers have also done the necessary groundwork and planning for their book. Isaac Asimov once summed it up. He never plotted a novel out as such – but he always knew where it would end. That gave him the direction to aim for. And it was essential.

All these authors, in short, blended planning with free-form; they had the structure of what was to be done – and then used their imaginations and competent writing skills in free-flow creativity around that skeleton. Best of both worlds.

This points the way forward for all of us. It takes about 10,000 hours – or a million words – for an author to make the transition from the first halting steps when they don’t know what they don’t know (‘unconscious incompetence’) through to realising what they don’t know (‘conscious incompetence’), familiarity with what’s needed (‘conscious competence’) and then – finally  – the glorious moment when writing becomes part of their soul (‘unconscious competence’).

There are no short-cuts. And that learning never stops – all writers are, really, apprentices at their craft. But the onus is also on to have a good foundation – and it seems to me that the best-of-both-worlds approach to planning and free-flow is an excellent approach for all writers.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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