How to win with writing’s digital revolution

There’s no question that the digital revolution has hit writing.

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).

Publishers are in a spin as traditional print-publishing – with its marketing and distribution model – falls away in the face of e-books and print on demand. A lot’s been driven by economic downturn. As discretionary spending falls away, people cut luxuries. But digital’s cheap. E-readers easily justify their cost.

To me the issue tells us a lot about how we think. It would be easy to  declare the death of print books. We’re conditioned to think that way as a result of Victorian-age progressivism, which framed our mind-set 200 years ago and hasn’t much shifted. You know the idea – the old replaces the new because it’s inevitable. The new out-competes, it’s natural, etc etc. Personally I blame Herbert Spencer, though realistically he was as much symptom as cause, back in the 1850s. We’ve been further conditioned by the way  ‘new models’ are sold on ‘superiority’ – actually a device to maintain sales, invented by car makers nearly a century ago when innovations became incremental. It’s so much a part of the commercial world that we don’t question it now. Of course the new is superior. Get with the programme!

The fact is that even biology doesn’t work that way, still less human social constructs, which is what we’re talking about when trying to predict the take-up of new technologies that’ll affect our lifestyles and habits. And yet we get puzzled when the future doesn’t happen as we imagine. What went wrong? Maybe it’s still coming. Er – er -

When trying to sort out the problem, we don’t ask the right questions – investigation usually pivots on why the original assumption that X will automatically replace Y didn’t happen. In fact, we have to ask questions based on different assumptions – such as ‘how has the new been received by society?’ We are looking at an interface, don’t forget, between capability and people. And people don’t behave in the shallow, automatic way imagined by nineteenth century observers who were wrestling to understand unprecedented social change.

Let me put it this way. Remember going out to the cinema? Killed in the 1950s by TV. Remember cash? Stone dead in the face of plastic cards.

I took this just before the premier of the Hobbit movie in 2012.

TV killed going out to the movies stone dead…didn’t it? This is the Embassy in Wellington, dressed for the premier of the first Hobbit movie in 2012.

Yeah, you get the picture. Plastic cards killed cheques; and certainly in New Zealand, usage of both cards AND cash have been climbing. If one was replacing the other, we’d expect cash to fall as cards rose. It isn’t. And less than 50 km from where I live, some guy named James Cameron has just arrived to stay, looking to spend several billion on – wait for it – movies that people will go to the cinema to see.

In all cases the new has taken its place alongside the old – which, itself, has adapted and changed. In many ways the new tech acts to improve the penetration of the whole medium into society. And that’s true of the publishing revolution. E-books have replaced ‘airport paperbacks’. But it isn’t either-or. It’s  ‘together’, as recent studies show. This one, for instance.  Or this one.

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Conceptually, we’re looking at complementary channels of communication; and we need to develop a mind-set that says ‘publishing’ means ‘publishing by any medium’. I can envisage buyers wanting to enjoy print but still buy an e-edition to have convenience on the move. Or an e-edition might offer additional content.

Publishers and authors alike need to be innovative, nimble, and open to change.

Curiously, I’ve got an example right now. Even a year or two ago, I’d supposed that large-scale books, such as my Illustrated History of New Zealand, might not be amenable to e-treatment. But they are. It’s out in e-format as well as print. Which I think is tres cool.

Welcome to the future.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Essential writing skills: three steps to capturing your readers

Want to know how to capture your readers? Writing’s all about emotion – about the author transferring their own emotions to the page, and perhaps creating new emotions in the reader. It can be exhausting. As Hemingway once said, you sit down at the typewriter and bleed.

Ernest Hemingway (left) and Carlos Guiterrez, 1934. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Ernest Hemingway (left) and Carlos Guiterrez, 1934. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The funny thing is, it’s true of non-fiction as well as fiction. Non-fiction also takes readers on an emotional journey – at basic level, the satisfaction of having information. But more usually non-fiction involves an argument, a pathway – and it is here that the emotion emerges. As Charles Darwin discovered, way back when.

Actually doing it, of course, is the trick:

1. Capture. The first task is to engage the reader at that emotional level. This is done by hook-lines and promises – the promise of that emotional journey and satisfaction. This doesn’t mean writing advertising slogans, but it does mean calling to the reader at a level other than that of the literal content. Readers are captured not by that literal content, but by the promise of what that content will do for them – how they will feel when reading it.

2. Hold. Next step – deliver on that promise. Keep the reader’s interest. One way to do that is to make small promises of emotional return along the way.

3. Punch. It’s not enough to carry the reader on an emotional journey – it has to be memorable. And the way to deal with that is to deliver a punch. This can be a multiple punch – giving the reader a series of little hitsies through the work, before finally delivering the KO at the end. It can be sharp – think of the way short story writers put a twist into the last sentence. Or it can be paced to suit the work. Think of the last chapter in Hemingway’s Farewell To Arms.

Ultimately the question writers have to ask, as they finish each sentence, is ‘what does this deliver to the reader? How will it make the reader feel?’

Where – in short – is the emotional journey?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

The greatest writing challenge of all

Writers never finish learning how to write. ‘We are all apprentices’, Ernest Hemingway once said, ‘in a craft where no-one ever becomes a master.’

Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)

Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)

Too true.  It is an endless learning curve. Steep at first – as novice writers realise how much they have to learn, take their first unsteady steps into that world. Later it’s easier. But even those who have mastered the craft – who have achieved the 10,000 hour, million-word goal, cannot rest on their laurels.

There is no such thing as saying ‘I have learned how to write’. No writer ever finishes learning. The onus is on all writer, always, to push the edges – to sit down, as Hemingway also put it, at the typewriter and bleed.

My take? When you finish writing for the day, the question isn’t ‘what is my word count’. The question is ‘on what emotional journey have I taken my readers’?

And then you have to ask ‘how can I make that a better journey tomorrow?’

Take on the challenge.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Essential writing skills: counting the beats

Welcome to the third post in a weekly series outlining some of the basic writing skills we need to get ahead in the business.

I have long thought that writing is a lot like composing music. Even down to rhythm.

My key-ring from the Raffles Writers Bar. Complete with the original wrapping (yes, I am a writing nerd).

My key-ring from the Raffles Writers Bar. Complete with the original wrapping (yes, I am a writing nerd).

One of the biggest parts of any writing style – of the mechanics of words – is the beat. We talk in beats. Poets write to specific beats with names such as iambic pentameter (‘I WANdered LONEly AS a CLOUD’) and dactylic tetrameter, which works quite well as an Irish jig (‘PARa diMETHyl AMIno benZALdehyde’)

However, writing also has other forms of beat. In fiction, the term is used to mean the key phrases that push the text along. Action points, you could call them. If you describe some action by a character, like stepping out of a car or tripping over, that’s a beat.

Beats work at larger scales too. The list of events-with-word lengths you need to structure your story properly, before beginning to write it, is known in the trade as a ‘beat sheet’.

Needless to say –like music – it’s important to get the rhythms right. Get the beats wrong and you’ll confuse or lose your readers.

That works on all the scales of beats, too. Identifying who spoke is a beat. But if you have a long string of dialogue and put ‘Watson said’ at the end of it, you’re missing the rhythm. By the time the reader’s got to that point, they’ll know it’s Watson, but they’ll have had to figure it out. Better to break the dialogue at the first phrase, insert the beat ‘Watson said’, and carry on. Or another beat could be used instead:

‘I say, Holmes, that was jolly decent of the Professor not to call me dense more than 38 times last evening.’

Similarly, you need to get the beats of the large-scale structure right. When building action to an exciting resolution, for example, you have to make sure the pace is right – that the reader is drawn into the story without getting bored. That’s done by beats.

Learning how to master beats is an essential writing skill. And, like all writing skills, the way to master it is to break the scales down from broadest to smallest. Start with the broad scope of what you’re writing; identify the pace and beats needed. Work down to the smallest level – the actual words – and make sure that’s got the right beats for that scale.

It all takes practise, but it’s certainly do-able; and once you’ve mastered the art of writing beats, you’ll be well on the way to the first big waypoint in the writing journey – making writing part of your soul.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

Shameless self promotion:

Available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Kobo http://store.kobobooks.com/en-US/ebook/bateman-illustrated-history-of-new-zealand

Buy the print edition: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410

Essential writing skills: giving your sentences that rhythm and twist

Welcome to the second post in a series exploring some of the mechanics of writing.

Deco. Jazz. Hemingway, They all go together.

Deco. Jazz. Hemingway, They all go together.

Writing is one of those fields where everybody thinks they can do it –not because it’s easy, but because they don’t know enough about it to know how hard it actually is.

The challenge is making the transition from those stumbling moments through to soaring mastery of the art. I outlined some of those challenges last week – check out the break-down.

This week – the No. 1 basic issue – sentence construction. With a twist. One that will, I guarantee, throw Word green grammar error underlines through your work – but it’ll be quite comprehensible to the punters. And it’s essential.

It’s the twist that makes people want to read it, you see.

Sentence construction is something hammered into most of us at high school, with the exception of me – my English teacher told my parents that no matter what I did, I would fail at it. Especially anything to do with English.

He never twigged that the actual problem was that he was boring and I usually switched off listening about 10 milliseconds into his classes.

When it comes to sentences you know the drill: the tenses have to match, the plurals have to match, and a sentence must have a subject and a predicate, usually in that order. For example, ‘I am laughing all the way to the bank’. The subject is ‘I’, everything else is the predicate, or the ‘doing part’ of the sentence.

Ernest Hemingway (left) and Carlos Guiterrez, 1934. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Ernest Hemingway (left) and Carlos Guiterrez, 1934. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

It also has to be a particular length, though exactly how long is a matter of opinion. When I was at school, that English teacher ruled that no sentence could be more than 2.5 lines, for instance. An institutional silliness which masked the point that, by classical rules, a sentence can often be quite long. It’s meant to encompass a single idea, but that idea may be quite complex – hence we have a plethora of different devices to separate the clauses: colons; semicolons, commas, and Oxford Commas among them. (Did you see what I did in that last sentence, anyone…anyone?)

The problem is that a sentence written strictly by the rules is a writing equivalent of one of those Czerny music exercises. Strictly correct, but absolutely boring. That’s where the twist comes in. Writing that runs to relentless rhythm lulls the reader into thinking they’re back in one of those stupidly dull English lessons I had to endure at high school.

Follow the rules, sure – readers will likely have trouble parsing meanings otherwise. But be creative about it. And the creative part – from the point of view of mechanical construction – is to give the sentence an interesting rhythm. My how-to tips for that are:

1. Vary your sentence length. Hemingway was supposed to have written only with short sentences. Wrong. He also wrote very, very long ones – inevitably with purpose.

2. Don’t just vary your sentence length. Also vary the length of the clauses and components within it.

3. Also vary word length, by syllables ideally.

4. Don’t ever go to the high school I went to.

Try it. Read some sentences aloud. Try again – keep doing that, and you’ll see what I mean.

Of course, that’s not the only way to make sentences interesting. They also have to have the correct content. More on that next week.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 

The ethics of copying authors’ stuff online

It’s too easy these days to duplicate online material created by somebody else – and which is their intellectual property.

Quick - burn the intruding historian! Avenge ourselves!

“Someone whispered to someone else who had a grudge over that issue of your splashing mud on their boots that you were a witch, therefore you are guilty without defence and will burn.”

Corporates have responded by lobbying western governments into making copying a crime that, certainly under New Zealand law, works on a ‘guilt by accusation’ basis, breaking one of the key precepts of western justice in the process. Cases so far brought before the New Zealand Copyright Tribunal have all reflected music copying. Some have been fair cop. But the concern from the ethical viewpoint is that there have been repeated instances where innocent parties were brought before the Tribunal, including a soldier who was in Afghanistan on combat duties when the alleged infringements occurred, back in New Zealand. As another case report shows, if you are wrongly accused, you cannot prove your innocence. It is this situation that is the concern from the ethical viewpoint. We are back, in short, to the moral compass of the Salem witch trials.

Authors’ online material doesn’t seem to get copied in quite the same way. But it raises a slightly different issue, because in this age of self-publishing, authors often post their own material for sale – and copying it without buying is, in effect, stealing directly and personally from them.

Part of my list.

I took this picture of the spines of some of my books. It’s been duplicated by others across the internet, but the copyright is still mine.

Sometimes the author’s stuff is provided free, but even then I find there are misconceptions about the way that works. In my own case, the stuff I post on this blog is provided gratis for people to read and enjoy, providing it is not plagiarised or somebody copies it without crediting me – see the license terms down at the bottom right. I post photos I’ve taken with copyright notice. Some of those images earn income for me elsewhere.

What I am NOT giving away is copyright. Or the right to be associated with my intellectual work. I’ve had my published work occasionally infringed, but so far, my online stuff hasn’t been – shall we say ‘re-purposed’ – by others. It’s been copied, re-pinned, re-blogged and so forth, but politely with credit according to the stated terms.

What I have discovered is that some people who copy stuff have no idea what ‘copyright’ actually means. I often see disclaimers such as ‘No infringement intended, copyright remains with the owners’. Recently, someone pinched 38 of my commercial photos in one go and republished them without asking. I issued a take-down notice. They complied, but told me ‘I just copied them, I didn’t take your copyrights’. Actually, copyright gives the holder of that right power to act when the material is infringed. The infringement is the act of copying without permission (license). So by duplicating and re-posting without license, you’ve infringed.

I’ve also seen occasional infantile ‘holier than thou’ remarks like: ‘I will only accept your criticism for my copying, if you can claim you have never done it yourself’.

I assume the people doing this are twelve year olds who haven’t yet learned another fundamental precept of western society in which it is assumed people can learn from past mistakes, accept they were wrong – and reform. It’s how the western justice system works – and if we lose that principle, as a society, we’re doomed. Is this really where the ‘me’ generation wants to take us?

Have you had problems with your material being infringed? What have you done about it? Or been able to do about it?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Why we must re-conceptualise writing and book publishing

Last month, one of the three remaining indie booksellers in Wellington, New Zealand, closed down. Roy Parsons has been an icon for 60 years – combining books with music and a coffee shop. A winning combination. Until now.

My book Guns and Utu (Penguin 2011) spotted in a bookstore window, Lambton Quay, Wellington. Cool.

My book Guns and Utu (Penguin 2011) spotted in Parsons’ window, Lambton Quay, Wellington, back in happier days.

One reason for Parsons’ demise, reportedly, was the downturn in the CD market. But it’s indicative, too, of where books are going. 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.

Small wonder the international houses have been fleeing Auckland in droves.

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

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

On top of that has come the typical Kiwi rush to technology – a 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 with its sales-by-rep to bookstores. As a distribution and sales mechanism, that was marginal here at the best of times – the New Zealand market was always miniscule, pushing up the cover price on books.

Growth 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.

As for me? I’ve been told history is dead as a genre in New Zealand – yet my history of railways sat for three months at No. 3 on the Whitcoulls best seller list last year and my Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand sold better than any of my other books have in years. Dramatically so.

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 ten months. Only one of them is history. The other two are on popular science. Which, I guess, won’t be too surprising to long-time readers of this blog. And there’s a biography.

As far as I am concerned the need for innovation has never been greater. We must not just re-invent; we must re-conceptualise. I think that’s not just true for me – it’s true for all writers.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Five steps to quality writing while invoking the lost art of typewriter

It’s less than two decades since computer swept typewriters away. Gone, like an old shoe, but not forgotten. The imagery of writing – of creative fiction, especially – still revolves around the old dieselpunk-era Smith Corona Portable or the Imperial upright.

Now this is a typewriter I didn't wear out. Largely because I got a computer. But I still typed around a million words on it.

A typewriter I didn’t wear out. Largely because I got a computer. But I still typed around a million words on it.

It’s easy to forget the lessons of typing too. Typing made revisions hard. I remember bashing out “first draft” stuff on double-spaced newsprint style paper. Then would come pen-and-ink changes; then maybe a second draft. Maybe a third. Finally it would be time to copy-type the final on clean, white manila paper.

These days it’s too easy to just change stuff.

I can’t complain. If done right, it makes it possible to achieve tremendous quality quickly. But it also makes it possible to write rubbish very quickly.

That’s because the permanence of the typed word on paper meant writers had to think first, type second. It meant every sentence had to be considered. It meant structure had to be planned. And the act of re-typing the pen-corrected manuscript gave a further opportunity to review the words in their minds – slowly and carefully.

All these things remain true of good writing today. The question is how they’re achieved – whether by careful consideration, then writing  – which works just fine on a word processor – or by blurt-and-amend, which also works fine, but may take longer, paradoxically, than the other way.

Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)

Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)

The thing is, it’s too easy to blat words into a word processor without considering the structures of sentences, paragraphs and – most important – of the overall work. I think the ease of typing and revising lends itself to unstructuring the writing, if we’re not careful.

My advice?

1. Stop, pause, plan – then write. Just like in the old typing days.
2. Do what typewriter-age writers did: print the draft out and go through it in pen and ink.
3. When keying those changes back into your word processor – think about how they can be improved.
4. Rinse and repeat. Seriously. You get the luxury of a clean version at the touch of a button. Quality counts, and two pen-and-ink reads are better than one.
5. When you get your work proof-edited, make sure the proof-editor does the same.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 

 

And now, some shameless self-promotion:

Available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Buy the print edition here: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410

Unravelling the mystery of making book covers

If you’re intending to self-publish – or supplying a picture to your publisher that might be used in a print edition, the three terms you’re most likely to hear are ‘bleed’, ‘CMYK and ‘resolution’.

A professional book cover.

A professional book cover.

They sound suitably mysterious but – as always – there’s no particular secret to them. And they apply both to potential cover photos and interior pictures.

Bleed – the printed content that spills over the intended final edge of the page, typically by about 3mm. This means pictures or background run cleanly to the edge of the finished page after it’s been trimmed. If you’re printing to a standard like A4, running ‘full bleed’ means using over-size sheets (‘supplementary raw format’/SRA, defined by ISO 217:1995 standard). That usually costs. But it’s worth it. The alternative is ending up with that “photocopier look” – the white edge where the ink doesn’t quite reach.

CMYK vs RGB – by default, images on a computer are RGB (red/green/blue) which displays by projected light on your monitor. Print, however, involves reflected light on paper and requires a different system – cyan, magenta, yellow and black. An RGB picture has to be converted to CMYK before it’ll print. Modern software often makes that switch for you, but be careful. Free utilities that can do it include GIMP and Irfanview. I use the latter all the time.

Resolution – Printing usually pivots on a resolution of 300 dots-per-inch (118.1 dots-per-cm), and you’ll often hear people ask for ‘print resolution’ or ‘300 dpi please’.  Actually that’s misleading – it’s not enough to simply supply a picture at that resolution. The photos I publish on this blog are typically 650 pixels wide, which translates to 5.5 cm. Not enough (and yes, I do that deliberately). In fact, the “dots per inch” is irrelevant. What counts is the number of pixels over a given linear measure.

It works like this. If you’re trying to make a picture meet a standard Royal Trade book cover (C5 = 16.2 cm wide x 22.9 cm deep), you’ll need a minimum of 16.2 x 118.1 = 1,913.22 dots wide. To that you’ll have to add 100 dots for the bleed. Conveniently, a 10 megapixel camera shoots roughly this along the short edge of the frame, so a picture of this size (about 4.5 mB) will print OK. Inconveniently, a cover also needs allowance for the depth of spine and any wrap-around to the back, if the design’s intended to do that. Most books do, these days.

Have you ever wrestled with this stuff? Does this post help? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

Shameless self promotion:

Also available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Buy the print edition here: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410

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: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Buy the print edition here: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410