Essential writing skills: how to make words your servants

Half the battle for writers is making writing their servant – not being a servant to the words. It’s a lesson novice writers usually only discover after they’re about half way through the first book and are finding the words mastering them, not the other way around.

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one...

I re-pitched my history of New Zealand for its second edition, altering the tone to bring the writing up to date.

It has to be addressed. And there is, alas, only one way to do that. That’s right – practise. But that shouldn’t be a chore – writing’s fun, right?

Once you’ve made words your servant – and your friend – you can start paying attention to the equally crucial matters of content, tone and style – together, what we might call ‘voice’. This isn’t something that just happens; it can be directed and controlled, just like any other aspect of writing. Take George McDonald Fraser’s Flashman, a novel about the bully from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, grown up and turned Victorian-age military hero. Fraser presented it as a ‘found memoir’ – which it wasn’t – but buoyed the conceit with such a subtle ‘1840’ period tone to his words that at least one reviewer was taken in.

It works in non-fiction, too. Recently I re-wrote one of my earlier books, a kids’ book pitched for 8 year olds, into a young adult-and-older account pitched for the 12+ bracket. It had to be completely re-written to do so – with full attention to the language, content and tone. I also re-pitched my history of New Zealand, when it came around to the second edition, to modernise the writing.

The trick to achieving that  control – something superficially easy to do but very hard to actually master. It takes a long time for writers to be able to consciously control the tone. But it’s an essential writing skill, and one that improves with practise. My tips? Try this:

1. Pick a passage by (say) your favourite author. What defines the tone? Look through a passage for key words – terms that give flavour. Check the pacing, the ‘beats’. Look for sentence length and paragraphing. Is it present or past tense? Examine the material closely and make notes.

2. Now try writing a passage at least 750 words long, of your own, in the same style, with the same cadence, word selection and rhythms.

3. Didn’t work? Of course not, it won’t the first time. But this is an exercise…and you know what exercises mean. Yup – do it again.

4. And again.

5. And again (etc).

It’s the only way. Did I mention you then throw the exercises away? Words are not precious babies, still less numeric targets. They’re tools, and they’re disposable. You can always write more.

The point is that when you’ve mastered tone, you’re more than half way to controlling voice, content and style. Writing will be your servant. Not the other way around. And there’s one other benefit that comes out of doing all this. With the quality comes that most precious of all skills that writers can have – speed.

Do you deliberately throw away ‘practise writing’? How do you extend yourself when writing?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Swearing and cussing? Sirrah! It’s a lot of craven murrain

The other week the Prime Minister of New Zealand used a word in public that literally means the ordure of a male cow. The colloquial meaning the PM deployed it for was ‘rubbish’.

William Shakespeare, the 'Flower' portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

‘Thou dankish unchin-snouted malt-worm!’ William Shakespeare, the ‘Flower’ portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Oooh, naughty. Or is it? Way back in 1970, the same word was publicly used by Germaine Greer when she visited New Zealand. Then, police issued an arrest warrant. This time? The PM is in the middle of an election campaign in which everything he says or does will win or lose voters – and nobody batted an eye.

But of course. In New Zealand, today’s generation don’t regard this term as particularly offensive. I’ve seen the same word used in book titles, in the US it was the title of a Penn and Teller series, and so on. But that’s swearing. Words come and go. If they didn’t, we’d all swear like that impious swiver, Will Shakespeare.  Zounds! (God’s Wounds). The big word of his day was fie. But wait, there’s more. Not satisfied with the general vocabulary – which included some of the Anglo Saxon we use – the immortal bard is usually credited with coining around 1700 new words, many of them boisterously intended. You can check some of them out for yourself – here’s a Shakespeare insult generator.

What changes is the degree of offence society considers the word causes to ‘polite’ ears. That’s how Benjamin Tabart was able to use Shakespeare’s vilest word in his 1807 childrens’ tale ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’. Of course, by that time the hot potato word was ‘damn’, so offensive in polite society it was soon censored to d—d. That became a swear word too – ‘dashed’.

As always, older swear words that now seem acceptable aren’t directed ‘at’ anything. They’re abstract intensifiers that have lost connection with their original meaning. That’s different from offensive words intended to demean others’ behaviours, beliefs or cultures, which never become acceptable, any time. The fact that new terms of this latter kind keep turning up says quite a bit about the unpleasant side of the human condition.

But abstract intensifiers, directed at revealing one’s response to an ordinary event – like stepping in dog poo – are something else, and the funny thing is that any word will do, providing it’s understood. Sci-fi authors coin new ones often as devices for reinforcing the difference between ours and their future society. In Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009) the word was ‘frack’. An obvious homophone, but it worked well anyway. Or there’s Larry Niven’s Ringworld-series ‘futz’, which to me sounded like a mashup with putz. But you can’t fault the logic – the ‘different but not TOO different’ principle demanded of accessible SF.

I’ve only seen one place where a different word emerged. It was in Harry Harrison’s Bill the Galactic Hero. The forbidden term, the deeply offensive word of his galactic future, repeatedly used by his ‘starship troopers’? Bowb. It echoed 1930s slang, but Harrison made it the verboten word and used it with stunning effect – a multi-purpose obscene noun, verb and adjective with which readers instantly identified because of the context. ‘What’s this, bowb your buddy week?’ a trooper demands as his power suit fails and nobody stops him drowning. ‘It’s always bowb your buddy week’, the gunnery corporal tells the troops as the man sinks.

Bowb. Conveying the intensity of personal emotional response to the abstract without the current-day offence.  And that, of course, is the essence of writing – transmitting the intended emotion to the reader. Way cleverer than using existing swear words.

Trouble is, when I use bowb  in conversations, people look at me funny and think I’m a gleeking, beef-witted dewberry.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

Re-conceptualising the publishing problem in the online age

I discovered today that there are around 3.4 million different titles for sale on Amazon. The number is rising by one book every five minutes.

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

A proportion of these are written by bots – compilations of data, really, rather than books. But still, these figures underscore the democratisation of publishing. And the difficulty of discovery.

It also underscores a sea change in the publishing world. That’s been particularly evident here in New Zealand a 25 percent compound drop in sales has done for many of the major houses, who have been pulling out of Auckland in droves. And the old days when deals were done over a publisher-funded dinner and spouses came along for the ride are long over.

Actually, the money was never there anyway. Writers – even famous writers – haven’t had anything like the average income of their rock musician equivalents. Ray Bradbury’s house was up for sale recently. An old-ish house, large but not mansion-like, asking price $1.49 million. That’s just over double the average asking price in the area, Culver City. Not bad. But remember that Bradbury was a writer of world stature not just in SF but also literature generally. The house has also been described as out of the reach of many authors, but reasonable by US standards.

The Bradbury experience underscores a point. For every Dan Brown there were 10,000 other authors who didn’t make it big – but who got publishing contracts. Publishers worked by averages – they’d run a dozen titles that might break even or generate a loss, knowing a single winner would make all good. They had to run that way because nobody knew which book would work. And they also needed a range of books to be viable in the marketplace.

The advent of self-publishing hasn’t changed that, because – setting aside discovery of individual authors and looking at the industry as a whole – the limiting factor is the disposable income of potential readers. But it has spread the available money over a wider area. Publisher responses have involved classic big-business downturn tactics – becoming risk-averse and re-trenching.

To find an answer – laterally and creatively – we have to re-conceptualise the problem.

The problem isn’t the shift of readership from print to e-book or the democratisation of publishing. It’s getting the disposable income that anybody – not just book readers – has to spend from their pocket into yours. A point underscored by where the readership for Dan Brown best-sellers, Harry Potter and (shudder) Fifty Shades of Grey came from. It wasn’t traditional book readers. These titles broke into the pockets of a wider slice of populace.

Next challenge – how to make that happen reliably. And yes, I know that’s about as practical as dividing one by zero (I double dog dare you to try that bit of math…) But hey – we’re into re-conceptualising here. Playing with ideas. And until you’ve explored the impossible, you can’t find out the limits of the possible – can you?

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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It’s not as a big as it was…reconceptualising publishing

I had to admit to my wife the other day the traditional publishing and bookselling industry isn’t as big as it was. Worldwide, but especially in New Zealand.

Retail book sales here have dropped a compound 25 percent in the past two years, driven by a perfect storm combination of downloadable e-books and the rise of internet-driven hard-copy imports. People aren’t ‘naturally’ moving to Kindle. They still want print. But why troll out to the bookstore when you can order a print book at discount rates from Amazon or the Book Depository, not pay local sales tax, and get it within a week or two? Combine that with the way the main book chain fell over a few years back – putting the shivers into the whole industry as it stood then – and you have a recipe for disaster.

HMNZS Te Kaha, ANZAC class frigate. The sailors in the RHIB were sponging the hull. 'Tight and tiddly', I think it's called. Flag is "Kilo" - 'I wish to communicate with you'.

HMNZS Te Kaha, ANZAC class frigate. I launched my history of the RNZN on her flight deck in 2001, a few years before I took this photo. Here she is flying flag “Kilo” – ‘I wish to communicate with you’.

The book chain recovered under new ownership, retaining 59 of its 80-odd original stores; but into that mix has come the shift to online purchase. It’s certainly hit the indie booksellers. Small wonder that the big publishing houses have been fleeing. The driver has been bottom-line accountancy as seen from the regional Asia-Pacific head office. Most of the New Zealand operations have retracted to Australia. However, New Zealand book sales are less than Australia’s, and the Aussies, as far as I can tell, don’t understand the New Zealand book trade. What it means is that (a) books with slow-but-steady trickle sales don’t get reprinted, and (b) that same sales pattern lets books that are still viable in the New Zealand market drop below the ‘pulp now’ trigger and get written off.

The old publishing culture has vanished. It used to be reasonably profligate; I remember one visit to Auckland a decade ago where She Who Must Be Obeyed and I had dinner out several nights running with different publishers – their cost, not mine. I was discussing business. Another time my publishers put us both up in a motel, got us a hire car, all so we could attend the launch of my 60th anniversary history of the Royal New Zealand Navy, at the big RNZN base in Devonport, on board HMNZS Te Kaha. For various reasons we locked ourselves out of the motel and I ended up with my wife propelling me, head first, through the kitchen window where I ended up with my head jammed into the sink. Just in case you think book launches might be glamorous.

These days, alas, catering at publisher meetings – which for me seem to always happen in the same cafe in central Wellington – have dwindled to cups of coffee. Sigh…

It’s as bad for booksellers, because instead of being able to get stock in overnight, if a customer asks, they have to wait five days or more. Usually more. That loses them sales.

Smaller local publishers are rising to fill the gap; but the repping-sales model has broken, and the number of retail outlets has shrunk. Those that are left are being cautious.

Of course we have to turn this around. Collapse? Maybe by the old thinking. By the new, it’s an opportunity. That, in turn, means thinking laterally. Thinking creatively. Not just reinvention. It means re-framing the issues.

The fact is that the online revolution has changed things, and not in the way we imagine. So to get a re-conceptualised answer we have to start by reconceptualising the problem. Are we really looking at the issue the right way?

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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When tyre-kickers leaf through your books…

Last week I sauntered into the (last) bookstore in Wellington’s Lambton Quay, New Zealand’s Golden Mile of retail shopping. I soon found some of my books – quite a number of my Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand, in fact, cover-out, which is the very best way to display such things.

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one...

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). A display from earlier days.

Cheered, I went to leave, when someone standing nearby picked up a copy and began leafing through it. I loitered. He leafed, frowned, smiled, leafed again, smiled, looked quizzical, and leafed some more. Finally he put it back in the shelf. ‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘Would you mind telling me what stopped you buying the book? I’m the author, you see.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I was just browsing.’

I guess you can lead the horse to water. If the guy had no intention of buying and was simply passing time, he wasn’t likely to be captured by the book even if it had ‘buy me, you bastard’ in fluorescent ink at the top of every page. In point of fact, I wrote the whole thing to be appealing (obviously) – but not to capture a reader with hook lines every paragraph. That would ruin the book. That’s why TV is so terrible at the moment, incidentally; the pacing is designed to capture people as they idly channel surf, meaning action/drama every eight seconds (literally). It really affects the structure.

I walked off, “No Sale” signs chinking up in my mind’s eye. Better luck with the next customer. Maybe.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Three rules for naming your fantasy world

In my mis-spent early twenties, a friend and I created a fantasy world map for our RPG sessions.

I had to share this pic, taken by She Who Must Be Obeyed. We end up in some interesting places, sometimes. Just in case anybody googles "Stockton Mine".

To build a world, start by wearing a hard hat (like mine).

Yes, I played Dungeons and Dragons – and later a game we invented ourselves to get around the sillier D&D ideas. The world was designed around what we might call the ‘rule of funny’, with place names made up mostly of bad puns and motorcycle parts manufacturers. This meant we had waters such as the Greg Lake, next door to rolling hills such as the Sinfields. And there was the Hergest Ridge – though we didn’t have the Old Fields. We also riffed on Tolkien’s unfortunate habit of ending place names with ‘-dor’. You know… Backdor. Frontdor. Dianador. Groan.

That does raise a point for those of us engaged in (more serious) fantasy world-building. Place names gotta be credible. Tolkien, inevitably, set the gold standard – he started by creating languages, and it flowed from there. I figure there are three principles.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with a friend, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

1. Be consistent.
Nothing spoils a (serious) fantasy map more than place names that don’t match up. You wouldn’t want R’rrug K’thach A’aaag next door to Kibblethwaite on the Marsh.  In reality, place names reflect the language they’re from – often with infusions that flow from earlier history. One group of invaders might co-opt an existing name into their language. Or it might be shortened over time. Londinium, for example, becoming London.

2. Name things twice.
That same phenomenon in (1) usually means new people give a landscape their own names. It happened in New Zealand where British settlers of the early nineteenth century persistently re-named places to suit themselves. That’s true of the world generally. Fantasy worlds need to reflect it too. Tolkien nailed it – he had three or four names for most of his places. So naming things twice or more helps add depth and credibility to any fantasy world. The process is inter-related with the history of the world you’re creating.

3. Many place-names are mundane.
Here in New Zealand we have many place names in Te Reo Maori, but if you translate them, the majority are descriptions of events, or a literal description of the place. Puketapu (‘Sacred Hill’) is common. All trumped by Taumata whakatangi hangakoauau o tamatea turi pukakapiki maunga horo nuku pokai whenua kitanatahu’ (‘The place where the great mountain-slider and land-swallower Tamatea, he of the very large knees, played his flute to his loved one’). It’s one of the longest place names in the world.

This is true elsewhere, too – if you check Europe, for instance, you’ll find a lot of ordinary names, in original language. ‘Brighthelmet’s Town’ (Brighton) and ‘New Town’ (Naples) among them. Here’s a website that lists ‘em.

Needless to say, Tolkien – once again – nailed it. I suppose the lesson, really, is ‘follow Tolkien’s lead, in your own way, and you won’t go far wrong’.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Getting away from the re-remythologising of history

I’ve always thought it curious that our view of New Zealand’s history has always been a process of ‘re-mythologising’ – of discrediting one set of myths and replacing them with another. It happens once a generation.

Close-up of the reconstructed palisades at Otatara, Taradale.

Close-up of the reconstructed palisades at Otatara, Taradale.

When I was a kid, around 1970, my school taught that New Zealand had been settled by two races. Moriori were displaced by Maori, who had arrived in a great single canoe fleet, and who were in turn displaced by the British. This was the supposed ‘truth’ on which kids of my generation were brought up – despite the fact that the ‘two race’ settlement idea had been discredited by anthropologist Henry Devenish Skinner in 1923.

Moriori, in reality, are the people of the Chathams. It has always saddened me that the fantasy of a ‘two race’ settlement persists, to this day, in the disgraceful and ignorant pseudo-history peddled by those who would prefer that Celts had arrived in New Zealand first.

The other myth of the nineteenth century – the ‘great migration’ – persisted into the 1970s, though it was increasingly evident that no such adventure occurred. It was Jeff Simmonds, I think, who first proved the point.

Today we know the ‘great migration’ was another settler-era fantasy, created before the turn of the twentieth century by amateur ethnographer Stephenson Percy Smith, who concocted it by ‘rationalising’ Maori oral traditions into a form that suited the way pakeha of that day preferred to see their world. Settler-age thinkers such as William Colenso, who lived a generation or two before Smith, knew there had never been a great migration. But once popularised in the School Journal, it was all the rage.

The reality is that New Zealand was settled around 1280 AD by Polynesians from the Cook Islands. The first landing was likely on the Wairau bar. No humans had touched the place prior. Others arrived from the Marquesas islands. There were also return journeys. All this stopped during the fifteenth century on the back of the Little Ice Age, leaving New Zealand’s Polynesian colonists isolated. Maori emerged, indigenously in New Zealand, as a development of Polynesian settler culture. There is some evidence that there may, some time later, have been an arrival from Tahiti on the East Coast of the North Island – a point that could explain quite a bit. But it has yet to be proven.

The cover of my next book.

The cover of my brief history of the New Zealand Wars.

The mythologies of ‘two race settlement’ and ‘great migration’ were products of their time – a demonstration of the way that history is re-filtered through contemporary lenses. Even Maori of the day joined the band-wagon; Te Rangi Hiroa, for example, leaped upon the ‘great migration’ concept whole-heartedly, portraying Maori as ‘Vikings of the sunrise’.

Are we more enlightened in the twenty-first century? Of course not. Since the 1980s, New Zealand’s history has been re-written yet again. The so-called ‘revisionists’ have successfully dislodged old settler ideas. But these post-Vietnam baby boomers have also re-shaped our past in the image of their own ideals, the ‘post-colonial’ view that reversed – but which has not transcended – the parameters of settler age thinking. And while some new understandings have emerged, out of it has also come some of the most startling fantasies yet peddled about our past – fantasies that have once again seized the imaginations of particular intellectual groups, and so filtered through to wider society, as if true.

I’ve covered the story in my new book The New Zealand Wars – a brief history. And more besides. It’s time to get clear of the relentless cycle of re-mythologisation. Step one on that path is to understand the process.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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