The three questions all authors must ask before starting

It’s amazing how many writing lessons I find in music. When I was a kid and learning music, there was an attitude that rock musicians were musical Neanderthals who could strum a few chords while making animal noises. ‘Proper’ music was ‘classical’, around which the Royal Schools grade courses I was doing was framed.

The panel of one of my analog synths... dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable.

The panel of one of my analog synths… dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable. Actually, these weren’t regarded as proper instruments when I was learning music, either…

The criteria for being a ‘proper’ musician, in short, wasn’t whether the performer provoked an emotional response in stadium-sized audiences and became a shaping force in western culture – but an ability to play 200-year old dinner muzak penned by Mozart, all built around diatonic chord progression - Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C No. 16, K. 545, for instance, uses chords running in descending fifths (vi-ii-V-I). The fact that ‘classical’ structure was a very narrow form of music – as Stockhausen, Cage, Varese and others revealed – didn’t enter into it.

The kicker? Rock music also uses diatonic chord progression – the usual string is I – V – vi – IV (try it, then sing Beatles ‘Let It Be’, Toto ‘Africa’, John Denver ‘Take Me Home’, etc). What’s more, the musicians who made it knew very well what they were doing. Some – like Rick Wakeman – were classically trained. When Ken Russell wanted to make a movie mashing rock music with Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, Wakeman did the adaptations.

Today? The genre ‘made it’, to my mind, when astrophysicist and Total Rock God Brian May played ‘God Save The Queen’, on electric guitar, on the roof of Buckingham Palace. By invitation. Awesome! Music is music, ‘classical’ is but one corner; and the people who get ahead have got the chops. Here’s Dutch singer Floor Jansen with ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ from Puccini’s 1918 comic opera Gianni Schicchi. Typical ‘classical’ singing – you know, when they didn’t have microphones and had to be heard over the orchestra.

And here’s Jansen again, with her band ReVamp:

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

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

What does this have to do with writing? Attitudes of elitism are true of writing, too. Here in New Zealand, for instance, the academic community – on my experience - take the attitude that authors writing on their subjects for a popular market are not going to innovate – that these authors are ignorant of intellectual technique and not academically capable.  I used to get it all the time when I wrote history commercially – a supposition that work had to be judged solely against the narrow criteria demanded of the academy. I was simply an intruding Neanderthal who, presumably, would be better off leaving the territory to the real experts who filled their material with incomprehensible but ego-boosting sentences with the word ‘discourse’ in them. The fact that books written to academic criteria often don’t innovate – and are virtually unreadable, even to other academics, doesn’t enter the calculation.

The reality – and this is where the rock music lesson comes in – is that most people who can write competently know exactly what they are doing, and can also innovate. It’s part of the territory. What’s more, many have the same qualifications as the academics who diss them. I do, for instance. But I don’t work for a university – or see the need to validate myself in the narrow terms academics use to assert status to each other.

All of it comes down to the basic questions all authors must ask themselves before putting pen to paper (well, finger to keyboard, these days):

1. What is the purpose of this piece of writing?
2. Who is the audience?
3. Why will they want to read this particular piece?

Everything else follows – the pitch, the tone, and the content. Intellectual rigour applies, whichever way the ideas are expressed. And it seems to me that the widest audience won’t be the one that likes reading the word ‘discourse’ when ‘conversation’ means the same thing.

Hemingway summed it up. Why use the ‘ten dollar’ words when there are other and better words that do the same thing?

Quite right, too. And that, I think, is true of all writing whatever the subject or genre.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: penning things “in the style of”

One of the biggest challenges any author has to meet is mastering the mechanics of actually writing. Only once that has been nailed is it possible to tackle the other challenges of content. A lot of aspiring authors, I think, try to handle the whole lot at once, and it’s difficult.

Close-up of the filter controls of my Moog - er - quantum healing device...

Seeing as we’re on to music, here’s a close-up of the filter controls of my Moog synthesiser.

But there’s a quick and effective way around it. Does anybody remember Rick Wakeman? Brit seventies prog-rocker better known now as a TV personality, Grumpy Old Man, and comedian. Writers can learn from him. Really, and not just because he’s written a succession of books. A couple of years ago my wife and I went to an acoustic concert he gave which consisted of Wakeman, a Steinway Model D 9-foot grand, and a lot of hilarious anecdotes. In the middle of it he played a medley of nursery rhymes “in the style of” well known composers: Mozart, Bartok and so on.

As he explained, he’d been taught the technique at the Royal Schools of Music. The point being that to compose in a particular style, you had to understand it. It’s a learning technique – and, as Wakeman demonstrated, also very funny. Ever heard Three Blind Mice as written by Rachmaninov? I have. Actually, you can too…

That’s true of writing, too. One of the fast ways to get ahead in the style department, to my mind, is to emulate others – not with the intention of ultimately styling like they did, but so you can find out how they did it. The act of actually writing like somebody else is also incredibly valuable, because it forces you to think about how the words go together.

Hemingway is a good one. Everybody thinks he wrote in short sentences. He didn’t – some of his sentences were very long indeed. And, by deliberate design, his writing was also un-ornamented, and not just by economy of adjectives. The intent? It forced the reader to work – and so to connect better with the story and the characters.

These are just exercises, of course – the writing can be thrown away. Don’t be precious about something you’ve written. But practise something ‘in the style of’ often enough, and you’ll find you have mastery. Perhaps suddenly. From there, your own voice will emerge.

Do you practise writing like this?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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I got a message from Marilyn Monroe

I picked up a new follower on one of my social networks the other day. Marilyn Monroe.

Henry David Thoreau...also followed me. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Henry David Thoreau…also followed me. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Not THE Marilyn Monroe, of course. Any more than I was followed by Henry David Thoreau, who joined the list next day.

They were fans – and, as a writer myself, I’m an enthusiast for anything that spreads the word about great writers like Thoreau. More please!

Still, I think it’s safe to say the real Marilyn Monroe isn’t out there on Twitter.

It’s always puzzled me that some people pretend to be celebrites. None of this is new – social networking merely makes it easier. Is it dragging on the coat-tails of fame? Sharing the emotion and pleasure they feel by consuming the work of the celebrity? Expressing a need to identify with someone other than themselves? Winding others up? Or all of the above?

That’s why we often see “Official” tagged to Twitter accounts of the real celebrities.

It begs questions about online identities. For myself, I use my real name. It’s a common popular name, so I add my initials and a “New Zealand” (‘NZ’) qualifier online. The letter “J” is another popular one to start middle names with, I find, but hey, my middle name’s also mine – and, coincidentally, I discover has been in the family since the early 1800s, at least.

I’m a bit worried another Matthew Wright might do something heinous, like dressing up as an Oompa Loompa in Norwich, for instance, and I’ll get besmirched.

But I wouldn’t use a pseudonym – still less pretend to be anybody famous. Maybe they might pretend to be me…maybe…

I think the phenomenon tells us a good deal about people. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Write it now: breaking through the writing limits with music

It occurred to me the other day that, as writers – many of us plunging into National Novel Writing Month – we can learn a lot from eighties Brit synth-pop – and how that (briefly) re-framed music.

The panel of one of my analog synths... dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable.

The panel of my Korg MS-10. I still have it.

The genre was a child of the late seventies. Trevor Horn’s ‘Video Killed the Radio Star‘ brought the techniques together. Gary Numan was in at the ground floor with ‘Are Friends Electric?’ (1979). His signature instrument was the Polymoog 203a. I first played one in 1978. It had the Moog ladder filter, but never sounded fat enough to me. Numan evidently didn’t think so either, because he got his sound by pumping the output through a distortion unit. I did the same, a little later, with my Alpha Juno-2, already pretty fat and which could be uber-fattened with a Boss stomp-box. I ended up playing it, minus stomp box, in a garage band. (The guitarist ended up in the UK, writing and producing indie movies, I ended up icing muffins writing history …but that’s another story).

The point being that 1980s tech briefly re-defined music, but looking back it was a fast track to weedliness. Step sequencers and Linn drums built songs with robotised and repetitive patterns – yet we looked on synth-pop as …the future. Drummers like Terry Bozzio and Simon Phillips were out. Electronic drums were in, get with the program.

It didn’t last, of course, any more than digital speedometers and watches. The genre peaked maybe 1985-86. Rick Wakeman lampooned the lot with ‘I’m So Straight I’m A Weirdo’.

The way synth-pop first stood out from seventies sounds – then rose and fell through the 1980s – speaks volumes about the way we react. About how we let our conceptions of what is ‘good’ flow not from pure imagination, but also from  the way imagination is framed by its tools of expression.

What does this mean for writing?

Today, everybody writes stories with computers. There is even software made for novelists. And a lot of writers swear by that.

Close-up of the filter controls of my Moog - er - quantum healing device...

Close-up of the filter controls of my Moog.

But I wonder. Is novel-writing software to writing what the 16-note sequencer was to music? I think it is. I think it’s framing everything in particular ways, directing our imaginations down particular lines.  I think we’ll look back on the cultural norms of the 2010s and its tools, and say ‘well, that’s dated’.

Or will we? The onus is on writers to create – and to do so out of their own imaginations, unfettered by the way that the tools limit concepts. And every so often, somebody pops up who defines the next step. As Numan and Horn did in the late 1970s – bringing us Brit synth pop. They did it, at the time, by doing something nobody else had thought of.

That’s why I’m always suggesting things like writing notes with pen and ink. Or creating plots via jigsaws of note-paper. Or going for a ten-minute walk between chapters.

Ideas often come in from left field that way. And none of it is framed by the computer. I’m not dissing computers, of course – I couldn’t write without one, these days, and you couldn’t either. But what I’m suggesting is creating the ideas, the concepts – the framework of what you’re doing – by using something else. Then seeing what happens.

I figure that’s one way to get through 50,000 words of writing in a month. More to the point, it’s a way of creating something different – something that stands out. Something publishable.

What’s more, it seems to me that this kind of approach can help push us clear of the way our writing is inevitably framed by technology – and create something instead that is going to define the next wave?

Maybe. I’d like to think so. What are your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: National Novel Writing Month prompts, more writing tips, more fun stuff…and more. Watch this space.

Pointing the foam finger at twerking and other dumbness

I had to look up the word ‘twerking’ to understand the storm over Miley Cyrus’ adventures this week.

Like most neologisms it’s mutated; in the 1930s Walter Edmonds used it to mean ‘an insignifcant male’. It was related, in that sense, to ‘twerp’.

monkey_readingToday’s meaning’s been added to the OED. I’m not sure that’s wise; pop-terms tend to be transient and one of the strengths of the OED has been its refusal to bow to pop culture. Until now. They’ve also added selfie, squee and derp, but those might last longer.

To my mind the better definition of ‘twerk’ is ‘baboon mating ritual’ – it’s a specific match, though that said, the body language is shared by a lot of primates, obviously including humans to judge by the storm that followed Cyrus’ performance. Sigh. Another blow to the idea of human exceptionalism.

Nor is Cyrus the first. Frank Zappa wrote songs lampooning the people who made such moves over forty years ago. That, along with other ‘music industry anthropology’, led to him being banned from the Royal Albert Hall in 1968. Zappa sued; the upshot was a case in which, among other things, he had to explain – in an  Old Bailey courtroom – exactly what the phrase ‘provocative squat’ meant. After first explaining to the judge what a ‘phonograph record’ was.

The problem with performances like Cyrus’ – and I include US celebrity ‘clothing malfunctions’ and other adventures, including spouting old Anglo Saxon words, is they’re blatantly unsubtle. Which isn’t smart. Though there is a degree of ‘clever’ in the cynical way these things leverage media prominence from scandal. It worked this time too. Cyrus’ fiancee, reportedly, was ‘mortified’. Her co-singer felt overshadowed. A letter from a mum to her daughter telling her not to follow in Miley’s footsteps went viral. Shock – horror – HEADLINES.

As far as I can tell the technique works better in the US, In Britain or its former Empire it’s still unacceptable but more likely to be met with moronic headlines of ‘fwoaaaar!’ and yobbish media outbursts. Or…nothing. One has merely to check out the way American guests are gobsmacked by content on Graham Norton’s chat show to get a handle on the difference. (‘You can SAY that on TV here?’)

It’s true in New Zealand too. Last week the 20-year old daughter of New Zealand’s Prime Minister published nude selfies as part of her art studies in Paris, tastefully festooned with fast food (OK, that’s an oxymoron in SO many ways). The pictures were splashed across the media and …nobody cared, except Kim Dotcom, who offered to buy prints. Political scandal? No. Media frenzy? No. Shock? No. Kiwis weren’t worried.

Ura dance under way in Rarotonga. I took this at 1/8 second exposure. Hey - everybody gets frozen postures. What about capturing the feeling of movement?

Ura dance under way in Rarotonga. I took this at 1/8 second exposure. Hey – everybody gets frozen postures. What about capturing the feeling of movement?

My take? If we step back and look at the societies and cultures – at what is going on in the sense of social anthropology – it’s illuminating. And I think we can take lessons from Polynesia. The Cook Islanders have a dance known as ura. It’s tasteful, clever, subtle and skilled. It is about young men and women having a conversation – people in love and romancing each other.  It is telling a story about much more than blatant acts of physicality. The dance is sensuous but not overt. What counts is the layered message, subtlety, and abstraction.

That, surely, is a far better demonstration of human intellect, creativity and ability than a crude emulation of baboon mating behaviour…isn’t it?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Sixty second writing tips: music to my writers’ block

We all know, I think, about music and writing – how different music can sets different writing moods.

You’re pretty much guaranteed to write something different while jouncing along to Katy Perry than you would if you hurled Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries through your sound system.

It’s a powerful technique and one I figured I could take a step further by using it as a device to un-stick writers’ block. Normally I either write in silence, or classical – no vocals – because words interfere with the ones I am trying to think of.

I got stuck the other day, though. Drastically. Which called for drastic measures. Specifically, a change of music to Nightwish at planet-cracking volume. Then Epica.

It worked. Sudden shift of ambience. Sudden shift of thought. Sudden shift of neighbours. I’d recommend it to any writer who’s stuck. Or has annoying neighbours.

Does changing the writing ambience work for you?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

The de-evolution of the drum machine

Alan Myers died today, aged 58. A talented guy and a sad loss to the music business.

It was Myers who was responsible for the robotic drum sounds on all the early Devo albums. That’s right – their classic sound wasn’t done by drum machine. His playing was cleverer than that. Giving the lie to the usual conceit of the day that drummers were a dying breed.

Close-up of the filter controls of my Moog - er - quantum healing device...

Part of my Micromoog’s main panel. A Moog Model 2080, S/N 2177 – made in Moog’s Williamsville N.Y. factory. Has anybody reading this been to that town?

Got me thinking. On the surface, drum machines looked compelling in the early 1980s. Synth-pop bands sprouted with Ensoniq Mirage samplers, Yamaha DX-7’s , the occasional Roland (Jupiter or Juno), 64-note sequencers and the inevitable Linn Drum Machine. Scritti Politti, Tears for Fears, Kajagoogoo, Thompson Twins – and the rest. Some of their drum machines even had names. Echo, used by Echo and the Bunnymen. Or Doktor Avalanche, which drummed for the Sisters of Mercy.

Luckier bands had access to the Fairlight CMI – a Sydney-built computer-synth that did everything, as long as you liked 8-bit samples. That’s where Frankie Goes to Hollywood got their sound from (if you know their songs, THAT orchestra hit is No. 5, and it’s sampled from Stravinski’s Firebird Suite).

Against this avalanche of eighties ‘high tech’, it seemed real drummers were as obsolete as analog speedometers, clocks and watches. Dinosaurs. Make way for the New Future – digital displays, automatic drummers. It was inevitable. Get with the programme!

Of course, you only had to listen to somebody like Terry Bozzio to realise just how rubbish the notion was. Check out his ‘Hands with a Hammer’, or what he does with Zappa’s ‘The Black Page’. And then there’s Simon Phillips – who can play dissonant rhythms with each hand.

The real problem is that drum machines were framed around the notion that drumming was just a kind of elevated click-track – a punctuation beneath the music. Whereas in reality, drums are a musical instrument of their own, just like any other, and they have to be treated as such. Drum machines couldn’t improvise, they couldn’t humanise – not properly – and they soon faded. Today – have drummers died off, inevitably out-evolved? Not a bit of it. They are as essential as they always were – true musicians who do so much to make modern music what it is.

But then, some of us knew that back in the 1980s. We only had to listen to Myers.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013