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:

A sneak peek inside my ‘Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand’

A few weeks ago an e-book edition of my best-selling Illustrated History of New Zealand was released by David Bateman Ltd.

Wright_New Zealand Illustrated coverYou can buy that by scrolling down and clicking on the link below. Go on, you know you want to…

Today I thought I’d share some of the pages of the print version.

History, to me, is more than simply recounting past events. It is about understanding the shapes and patterns of life –  exploring how they led to the world we know today. From that, we can understand more about where we are – and where we might go. It is, really, about understanding the human condition.

Sample of p 104. Click to enlarge.

Sample of p 104. Click to enlarge.

For these reasons history must be about people –  their thoughts, hopes and moods. About how they responded to the world they found themselves in. The colonial-age journey to New Zealand, which the sample pages I’ve reproduced here describes, brought that human condition out in many ways; a three month transition between old and new, a rite of passage in which they could shuck off the old world and more fully embrace the dream of the new.

Sample of p.105. Click to enlarge.

Sample of p.105. Click to enlarge.

On these pages I’ve conveyed some of the thoughts of those settlers – click to enlarge each page. The poignancy of the journey was deepened, for many, by tragedy; children, particularly, were vulnerable – and often died, something the colonial government deliberately addressed in the 1870s. That’s covered elsewhere in the book.

The opportunity to write something as big as my Illustrated History of New Zealand – big in the physical sense, big in terms of being an interpretative history of an entire nation – is rare in the career of any author.

Sample of p. 106. Click to enlarge.

Sample of p. 106. Click to enlarge.

The opportunity to then re-write it, ten years on – to re-visit, re-cast, re-think, extend and renew – is almost non-existent. That’s particularly true here in New Zealand where the number of qualified historians to have written large-scale interpretative general histories of the country, solo, in the last 60 years, can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Sample of p. 107. Click to enlarge.

Sample of p. 107. Click to enlarge.

These samples have a copyright notice added to them. Pictures, forming part of the design collage, are from the collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library.

My Illustrated History of New Zealand is on sale now in bookstores across New Zealand, or direct from the publisher website. Scroll down for the e-book link.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Some shameless self promotion:

It’s also available on iTunes:

Nook coming soon.

You can 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.

Motoring magic from the wonder age of deco – part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quintessential modernism - streamline-age Cadillac convertible.

Quintessential modernism – streamline-age Cadillac convertible.

Passing the Buick...

Passing the Buick…

The art of deco.

The art of deco.

Parasols and sun.

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

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

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

Something tells me this is a 1936 Packard.

Something tells me this is a 1936 Packard Super 8.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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

Motoring magic from the wonder age of deco – part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anybody might think it was 1930...

Anybody might think it was 1929 Chicago …

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

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

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

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

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

More cars on display...

More cars on display…

My next car? I wish...

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

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

The art of the art deco car...

The art of the art deco car…

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

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

I jumped back and this appeared as I spun around…

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

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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

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

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

Anybody might think it was 1940...

Anybody might think it was 1940…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, I’m sure it’s 1940…

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

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

Suddenly it was 1940...

Lots and lots and lots of people…

Vintage car parade, Napier, New Zealand.

Parasols and deco…

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

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

Write it now: voice and style in action

It seems to me that writing style differs from voice. To me, voice is the framework authors use to express themselves, the characteristic ‘sound’ that identifies their work, conceptually, as theirs and sets it apart from that of other authors. Style is the detail of how that expression takes place, word by word, and it can vary – indeed, some authors tailor their style to suit the purpose of their book.

My "Illustrated History of New Zealand"

My “Illustrated History of New Zealand”

A couple of years ago I had opportunity to revise and re-publish my Illustrated History of New Zealand. This was a massive volume of 120,000 words and 600-odd photos which I’d written in 2003, published in 2004 by Reed New Zealand Ltd. It sold very well indeed, and though it went out of print in a flurry of corporate take-overs, I obtained the publishing license and offered it to a new publisher – David Bateman Ltd.

The book had to be re-made from scratch – but that made it possible to revise the whole. This was positive; some of the text could be re-written completely, reflecting the way research and discoveries about New Zealand’s far past in particular have changed since I originally wrote the text.

But I also reviewed the entire interpretation. Even where there was nothing major to change, there was still room to re-nuance the argument – to tweak, tweeze and re-polish the closer meanings, which I did often by changing a few words only. The idea was to change the meaning a little, but not too much – in effect, adjusting the voice. Novellists face the identical challenge when directing the emotional response of readers.

However, the resulting text couldn’t be allowed to stand with just those amendments. These simply rendered it a stylistic patchwork of old and new. I wanted something more consistent. I also wanted something more modern. I originally wrote the text for this book in 2003, styled specifically for the tastes of the general reading audience then. Time had moved on, and I figured it was essential to re-style the whole into a single form; chattier, more in tune with what’s needed now – yet still reflecting the voicing I had incorporated. For me it was an exercise in knowing the pitch, knowing what the audience wanted, and knowing what I wanted the style to be.

The point being that both first and second editions still reflected my ‘voice’ as a writer – yet quite consciously used different written stylings. For me it was part of the revision.

So yes, voice has to be unique to the author – their characteristic ‘sound’. But has to be understood; it has to be managed. Through that, it is possible to bring that voice to bear in any style.

That management comes from understanding – from understanding how ‘voice’ works to convey meaning and colour. It comes from accepting that, yes, it is more than just flat-out creativity. From knowing your own voice, through experience, and being able to apply it in any writing situation.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Shameless Plug: You can buy my illustrated history from Fishpond, New Zealand’s largest online bookstore.

It’s Golden Age Hollywood party time!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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

When a US President came under New Zealand command

It is seventy years, this month, since Operation SQUAREPEG – the New Zealand assault on Nissan Island, the largest atoll in the Green Islands Group, west of the Solomons.

Green Island and the battle plan. Public domain. From

Nissan Island and the battle plan. Public domain. From tm/scholarly/ tei-WH2Paci-_N81633.html

The island was needed as an air base for operations against the main Japanese naval bases at Rabaul, but it’s become one of the forgotten sidelines of the Pacific Campaign – even in New Zealand memory, playing second fiddle to the North African and Italian campaigns.

For my family, though, it is a piece of history. The effort opened with a commando raid – a reconnaissance in force – ahead of the invasion. My grandfather was on that raid. Some years ago I pieced what happened together from his letters home and official material. The story forms part of the book I wrote in 2003 on the Pacific War.

My grandfather went ashore with 321 others. under Colonel F. C. Cornwall, around midnight on 30 January 1944. They landed at Pokonian plantation at the north end of the lagoon. Here they established a perimeter from which to begin a day’s reconnaissance. All went well until mid-afternoon when the perimeter came under attack from Japanese forces.

My grandfather emptied his pack out on the beach and filled it with grenades, then joined a group of others on a Higgins boat, intending to flank the attackers. When the boat got out into the lagoon it came under fire from half a dozen Mitsubishi ‘Zeroes’. Amidst the drama, Bill Aylward – sitting on the thwart next to my grandfather, turned to one of the pintle-mounted machine guns and returned fire. Soon everybody on the boat was joining in, using machine guns, rifles – and drove off the marauders. Afterwards, my grandfather wrote that Aylward certainly deserved a medal. He wasn’t alone; and Aylward was awarded the Military Medal for his actions.

pacwarThe incident put paid to any thought of staying, and the commando was pulled off to their boats, awaiting pickup that night. In the scrabble, my grandfather wasn’t able to pick up his mess gear. But they had the information they needed. What they didn’t realise was that the garrison had almost surrendered to them. None of that stopped the main New Zealand invasion force taking the island on 16 February. US Marine engineers were clearing jungle for a runway even before fighting stopped, and the first aircraft made an emergency landing there on 5 March.

My grandfather was stationed on Nissan Island for some time, with the other New Zealanders and a small US force. The whole came under New Zealand Divisional commander Major-General H. E. Barrowclough – including the American contingent, which was led by a young Lieutenant by the name of Richard Milhous Nixon.

Yes, that Richard Milhous Nixon. It’s the only time that a US President has served under New Zealand command… albeit a quarter century or so before he became President, but hey…

Do you have any family stories from the Second World War that you’d like to share?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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

Flagging away the Kiwi flag?

Last week a fresh debate erupted about New Zealand’s flag. It was prompted by the Prime Minister’s suggestion that we should look at a new one.

I’m cynical. The issue pops up perennially, and I can’t help thinking it’s deliberately trucked out, every time, to divert public attention from something more important. The symbolism and emotion attached to it isn’t in the league of (say) the US flag – but it still pretty much guarantees a bite.

Maori under the 'United Tribes' flag 1834. Watercolour by Edward Markham. (United Tribes Ensign, Waitangi). New Zealand or recollections of it. Ref: MS-1550-120. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Maori under the ‘United Tribes’ flag 1834. Watercolour by Edward Markham. Click to enlarge. (MS-1550-120. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

The history’s interesting. New Zealand’s first flag was a modified maritime jack, adopted by Maori in 1834 at the behest of the British Resident, James Busby. The motive was administrative. By this time small ships were being built in New Zealand – but they weren’t attached to a country as a legal entity, and liable for seizure as unregistered. The issue came to a head in 1830 when the Hokianga-built Sir George Murray was seized on arrival in Sydney.

Busby’s answer was to have the ships locally registered and sailing under a New Zealand flag – which had to be attributed to Maori because there was no New Zealand colony. Henry Williams, former naval officer and one of the heads of the Church Missionary Society effort in the Bay Of Islands, designed several options. These were approved – back in Sydney – by the Governor. Samples were fabricated and sent back to New Zealand for Maori to select.

What Maori thought of it is unclear; the concept and symbolism was foreign to Maori society of the day. There is good evidence that when Busby confronted gathered rangitira (chiefs) with the flags, they politely picked one for him – but it didn’t mean very much in their terms.

A few years later, New Zealand became a Crown Colony and its flag – inevitably – the Union Jack, that amalgam of the crosses of St Andrew, St George and St Patrick that Britain adopted, fully, in 1801.

The current New Zealand flag was adopted in 1902, defined by the New Zealand Ensign Act. It came in context of New Zealand’s re-invention of itself as the ‘best of Britain’s children’ – a rah-rah age of social militarism and imperial patriotism in which New Zealand was ‘our country’, Britain ‘our nation’.

The flag captured it precisely – a Union Jack in one corner, floating in the four stars of the Southern Cross that symbolised New Zealand.  However times continued to change, and by the 1920s the sense of nationality-within-Empire stood at tension with New Zealand’s sense of itself.  That wasn’t resolved until the 1980s, when the ‘colonial cringe’ driven mind-set of being ‘Britain’s least best child’ was broken, decisively, by a new generation.

From that perspective there’s an argument to change the flag – but there are also counter-arguments, including the point that the flag has grown up with the country – it symbolises events integral to New Zealand’s own individual history and self-image.

The other question is what to change to. The usual proposal involves a silver fern on black background. But there are other idea,s and we can be sure that – even if change were implemented – somebody would complain.

If you’re a Kiwi, do you have an opinion about the flag? If not, what does the flag of your own country mean to you? Would you change it?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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