How to write briefly, succinctly – and long

One of the key lessons for writers – repeated endlessly by those who teach it – is keep it tight.

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'.

Succinctly: that’s me, there.

Writing isn’t about word count – it’s about content. The right content. Any sentence that doesn’t move the content along is padding. Keep the focus. Drop those adjectives. If it’s fiction, does it move the plot and character arc along? If it’s non-fiction, how does that relate to the argument?

It’s a sound lesson, and it’s one that usually translates into brevity.

But brevity is not the only way to tackle that particular challenge. The other is writing by floods of words; a profligacy of words; a cascade of words;  words flowing like a river, pooling into great lakes of words, all adding depth to meaning. All without forgetting that essential lesson – that every point, every argument, has to move things forward.

New Zealand’s master was the late Sir Paul Holmes, a journalist whose style involved repeating a phrase, re-nuanced, from different angles. Very chatty, very accessible.  He  used to review my books on air; I was able to repay the compliment, later, when I had chance to review his book on the 1979 Erebus disaster. It was a wonderful book, not least because of Holmes’ fabulous written styling.

I parodied Holmes’ verbal style, explicitly, in one section of my science-fiction history Fantastic Pasts (Penguin 2008). Now out of print.

We find much the same style in the books of an English writing community – Douglas Adams, Stephen Fry and Ben Elton.

I twigged to it when I discovered a passage in one of Elton’s novels in which he took the best part of a page to describe a sink of dirty dishes. A waterfall of words, every one of them essential – because what he was doing wasn’t describing the dishes; he was describing reactions to them.

It was a way of making the reader feel what Elton felt. And there’s similar in Adams’ work (a tragedy, of course, that he passed away). Fry spelt it out in one of his autobiographies – a profligacy of words, a love of words. And yet these people didn’t waste their words; they styled them, lovingly, into shapes and patterns that drew readers in and made them hungry for more.

Something, perhaps, that we could all aim for.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

And now, some shameless self promotion: Want to check out 120,000 words?

It’s also available on iTunes:

Buy the print edition here:

Writing only looks easy. But it can be learned.

Writing isn’t something you can sit down and do without training. It only looks that way.

Spot my title in the middle...

Spot my title in the middle…

I’ve noticed, of late, various posts and comments around the blog-o-sphere along the lines of ‘my book is good, because I got positive comments on Good Reads (or Amazon, or Smashwords), so why did an agent say it was terrible?’

Or ‘I got positive comments on Good Reads, but the agent said the book needed this-and-this-and-this…’

Why? There’s no soft way to say this. Fact is that neither writer nor on-line reviewer actually knew what constituted a good book – meaning not just an abstract measure of quality and authorial competence, but what’s required for a specific market.

Agents do. So do commissioning editors.

What’s happened is that the aspiring writer’s sat down and thought ‘I want to be a writer’ – usually, meaning ‘novellist’. They’ve then churned out a novel. Which is, of course, an absolutely wonderful achievement and ambition; and all power to their writing arm. But writing, like every skill, has to be learned – and the four stages of competence apply, absolutely, to writing. I’ve said it before, but it deserves repeating:

1. Unconscious incompetence – you don’t know enough to realise you don’t know what you’re doing.
2. Conscious incompetence – you realise how much there is to learn.
3. Conscious competence – you know what you have to do, but it’s a conscious effort, mechanical.
4. Unconscious competence – it’s become part of your soul and your writing soars.

Going from start to finish takes a million words and about 10,000 hours. There are no short cuts.

Yes, some authors have an aptitude for it – but what this means is that they start off as a talented ‘unconscious incompetent’.

Does that mean giving up? Au contraire, my friends. It’s a challenge; and it’s a challenge that can – must – and will be met.

Training helps. So do writing groups. But the real progress comes from the doing – the hard yards; and the reality is that, until you’ve accomplished at least a sizeable fraction of that million word/10,000 hour learning curve, all writing will be just that – a learning curve.

Equally, it doesn’t mean stuff written along the curve is unpublishable. Quite the contrary – but I guarantee you’ll look back on it later and know you can do better today.

That always happens anyway – learning never stops, even when you’ve become unconsciously competent and writing has become part of your soul.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


Shameless self-promotion:

Also available on iTunes:

Nook coming soon.

Buy the print edition here:

How to grab your readers with a killer opening line

Call me Ishmael, but I figure the oldest and dumbest cliche in the how-to-write industry has to be the one about opening lines.

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

“Was it the proud sail of his great verse”? - public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, that’s because opening lines work. They drag the reader, kicking and screaming, into the words. And it’s true for all writing, not just novels. Journalists have to master the technique from the get-go. So do bloggers.

The opening line has to grab the reader – emotionally. It can do that by posing a question, or creating a sense of unfinished business. ‘In a hole in a ground lived a Hobbit…’

What’s a ‘Hobbit’? When that line floated into J. R. R. Tolkien’s mind, around 1930, he didn’t know either. He had to write the novel to find out.

However, that experience of having a killer opening line first off isn’t too common. Usually they have to be wrestled into existence. That, I figure, is also why writers often sit there with blank page, or a lone cursor winking at them on screen, and – don’t start.

Part of the problem is that we’re not often told how to write one. Recently I pointed out that advertisers have a lot to offer.

But there’s also the fact that – often – the writer won’t yet know exactly what they’re drawing the reader into. Tolkien didn’t – he had to write The Hobbit to find out. Most of us, though, have ideas when we start, but can’t quite figure out the way that translates into the starting words. So try this trick: don’t write one. Today’s age of word processing makes it easy to start writing without that first line, then back-fill. Often the line will pop into mind as you go along. Indeed, that first line might be the last thing you write into the work.

What does an opening line demand? It must:

1. Grab – by posing that question, often perhaps built around an emotion. The book opens with a character crying. Why?

2. Hold – by making that question compelling. Why should we bother with this character crying? What’s different?

3. Draw – pull the reader on. This means the second line has to be equally as ‘grabby’. And the first paragraph.

The trick is to make all this happen in ways consistent with the style and tone you’ve chosen for the book – not to have that first sentence hanging out there as an over-written, over-constructed device. Even though it is, when it comes down to it, exactly that.

Do you ever have trouble with opening lines? Have you ever read a book and been hooked from the get-go? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


And now, some shameless self promotion:

It’s also available on iTunes:

Nook coming soon.

You can still buy the print edition here:

Essential writing skills: planning, planning, planning

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – the trick to effective writing is planning.

Wright_SydneyNov2011Planning the whole thing before even starting, be it book, essay, short story or whatever. Planning each section or chapter. Planning each sequence. Planning, planning, planning.

Sure, it’s fun to do what people call ‘pantsing’ – making stuff up as you go along, getting caught up in your own story.  It carries the vibrance of fresh creativity. But for writers who are starting out it often leads to dead ends, tangles or big-scale structural failures. Put another way, writing as personal entertainment doesn’t cut the mustard when it comes to producing stuff to time, length and specification. Which is how publishing works.

Yes, sure Famous Novellist X or Y (I’m thinking Stephen King) will say that they ‘pants’ their way through their stories. Actually they don’t, exactly. Usually they know where it’ll end. And they’re experienced enough – they’ve done the million word apprenticeship – to have command of their style and content. They can structure properly on the fly, and they know what elements have to come where to make the story compelling.

The rest of us – well, planning counts. Trust me on that one. Start broad; what is the purpose of the written material? Can you sum it up in a sentence. In the industry, that’s called a ‘logline’.

If it’s a novel, don’t get caught up in the intricacies of plot or narrative. You need a deeper level than that for a logline, which reflects the character arc of the key character. If it’s non-fiction, what is the thesis – the argument?

This broad purpose applies to everything that’s written – from a letter to an essay to a short story to a doctorate to a novel.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


And now, some shameless self promotion: my history of New Zealand, now available as e-book.

Also available on iTunes:

Buy the print edition here:


Experience the past. See the journey. Understand the now.

I don’t often blog directly about the books I write – but I have some auspicious news. My publishers, David Bateman Ltd, have released my Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand as an e-book. My first major e-release, after 30 years of trad book publishing and 50-odd titles.

MJWright2011The print edition has sold very well – and continues to sell. Now it’s also available as e-book on Amazon, iTunes and Nook. And it’s not just a text book – it’s complete with all illustrations. That makes the file fairly big, but it’s worth it.

Here’s what reviewers have said:

“Books of this sweep, length, and immensity of topic are often described as “ambitious”. That it certainly is, but it is an ambition emphatically realised. Both author and publisher have done a great job … Everyone who lives in this country would benefit from reading this book, and would enjoy it.” Graeme Barrow, Northern Advocate

“Wright has covered a lot of ground, engaged with the best of current historical and archaeological thinking and served up a lively, sound general history of New Zealand for the general reader. Bateman should also take another bow…” Gavin McLean, Otago Daily Times

“…an extraordinarily accessible journey through our arguably short but undeniably rich history. I recommend it to anyone who has an active interest in the past or has simply been looking for an excuse to learn more about the events that shaped this country.” Lemuel Lyes, ‘History Geek’ blog.

I’m  marking the release over the next few weeks with a few posts, some sneak-peeks inside the book, and more. Watch this space. Meanwhile, here are the links. Go on – you know you want to…

It’s also available on iTunes:

And Nook is coming soon.

You can still buy the print edition here:

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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

Where now, book publishing?

In 2012, New Zealand domestic book sales contracted 7 percent. In 2013, it was 15. That’s a compound drop, in just two years, of just over 23 percent against 2011 figures.

Spot my title in the middle...

Spot my title in the middle…

Small wonder the big international houses have been fleeing Auckland in droves – or reducing their presence to branches of their Australian office.

The New Zealand experience isn’t unique; there’s been a worldwide downturn in print books. It’s been a ‘perfect storm’, in fact – a combination of reduced discretionary spending on the back of the general financial crisis, coupled with the explosion of e-book readers, mostly in the form of hand-held tablets and phones. Their rise wasn’t entirely coincidental with the downturn – readers didn’t have $500 to fork out annually on books, but they did have $99 for an e-reader and $3 each for the titles that go with it.

For New Zealand, though, the issue was complicated by the implosion, a couple  of years ago, of the Whitcoulls chain. The chain was purchased and has been reconstructed under new ownership – but for a while it looked as if New Zealand might lose a third of its book retail  outlets. That provoked some heavily risk-averse decision making in publishers’ editorial offices; the change was palpable.

On top of that has come the typical Kiwi rush to technology – an explosion of e-readers, coupled with a thoroughly requited love-affair with online shopping. Book retailers here can’t compete with Amazon or The Book Depository – it’s an issue of volume coupled with the fact that overseas purchases don’t attract local sales tax.

One of the casualties has been the old publishing model. The New Zealand market was always miniscule – pushing up the cover price on books and making the overseas sales model always an ill fit anyhow.

Growth, when it comes, is going to have to pivot on the new principles of book publishing and selling – nimbleness, presence through multiple channels – electronic and print – and an ability to adapt quickly. It’s going to demand innovation, lateral thinking, and creativity.

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

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

It’s a case of the quick or the dead. Anybody remember Kodak?

I’ll blog later on where I think society has gone – and what that means for books, including how they’re published.

As for me? I’ve been told history is dead as a genre here in New Zealand – yet my history of railways sat for three months at No. 3 on the Whitcoulls best seller list last year.

At a time when some publishers are shutting their doors, I’m getting approaches from others wanting me to write for them. I have four titles coming up in the next twelve months.

Still, as far as I am concerned the need for innovation has never been greater. And I think that’s not just true for me – it’s true for all writers. More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing, publishing, science and other stuff. Watch this space.

The news. Exciting for me. And you too, I hope

A couple of weeks back I promised I’d reveal some exciting news.

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".

Why was I wearing hard-hat and luminescent jacket somewhere in Mordor? Research, that’s why. More? You’ll find out soon… Click to enlarge.

Last year, print book sales dropped by 15 percent in New Zealand, nailing a down-trend that’s been happening for a while. I watched that start several years ago and decided to do something about it. Downturn apart, writing’s a business, and reinvention is key to longevity. So is adaptation, including embracing new technology. In this I was spurred by Random House who suggested I should join Twitter, get an author platform going and so forth. I did.

I got cracking in other ways – retrieving many of my publishing licenses to avoid losing control of them amidst the flight of big-name houses from New Zealand. I talked to publishers and discussed  future titles. I was offered new contracts despite the downturn. This last couple of weeks I’ve been fielding publishing schedules, including from Random. More soon. But the news is rather good – and yes, you’ll be the first to hear about the releases, on this blog.

Of course, the REALLY exciting news is due within a few weeks…and, I hope, more after that (when I catch my breath).

Meanwhile, here’s my updated author page at Random:

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More exciting news. 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.

Essential writing skills: avoiding ‘ftumch’ and line-editing for quality instead

Line editing – the painstaking, detailed process of checking every single letter, space and piece of punctuation in a manuscript – is by far the most crucial part of any publishing process.

1195430130203966891liftarn_Writing_My_Master_s_Words_svg_medA piece filled with typos is annoying. It smacks of sloppiness. A sloppy manuscript delivered to a potential agent or publisher won’t fare as well as one where even the tiniest details have been clearly attended to.

Readers get annoyed if they see it in published work. At worst, faulty line editing can provide an excuse – speciously – for reviewers to deny the entire competence of an author. It happens. (Actually, at worst, a typo like ‘ftumch’ might have some entirely unexpected consequences, but that’s another story…does anybody ‘get’ what I’m riffing on here?).

The rules are:

1. Line editing has to be done at least twice. Once before typesetting, once before publication. In each case it is the VERY LAST process.

2. It must be done by somebody who ideally has not seen the work before.

3. For best results, it should be done by two people. One reads the manuscript out aloud, letter by letter including spaces and punctuations. The other ticks it off against the typescript or galley proof.

Needless to say, the modern age of computing and cost-conscious publishing has every potential to foil the process, because it is too easy to change things. And making amendments after final proofing always risks introducing new errors.

Getting it right pays dividends. And it’s hard to get right – everybody makes mistakes. That’s called being human. But the onus is on us to try.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery and general blogging mayhem. Watch this space.