Essential writing skills: how to make words your servants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. And again.

5. And again (etc).

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

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

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

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Revealing possibly the most useful publishing secret ever

On-line and off, one of the biggest challenges publishers wrestle with is colour matching.

Old boat winch and rails, Makara Beach, winter 2014.

Pastel shades of green-brown, brown-red rust and blue-white skies. Probably. That’s how it looks on my monitor anyway. Makara Beach, winter 2014.

All sorts of systems have been devised to make it possible to take the special shade of blue the designer has come up with, reproduce it accurately in a proofing system, and make it reproduce just as accurately when printed.

Some have come down to such simple expedients as having the client turn up at 3.00 am in a print plant to stand over the sheets coming out of the offset printing machine and physically compare them to the proof.

Computerised matching has reduced that one, but the problem has been made worse – not better – by e-publishing. That’s because you can’t know what hardware and settings the file will be viewed on. And they’re all different. The problem’s three fold:

1. Different monitor technologies display colours differently. The technologies produce very different results – put an LED and LCD monitor beside each other on the same desk (like I have) and the LCD will look brown against the LED, no matter how it’s set.

2. Colour settings vary within the same make and model of hardware. You might set a colour so it looks right on your monitor, but you don’t know how somebody else has set it.

3. Different operating systems handle colours differently. Different software handles it differently.

There’s no answer to this. But there are tricks to keep your material internally consistent, including across a series of book covers, for instance – even if the colours you see on your monitor aren’t those seen by somebody with a different system.

Here’s the trick. Reduce it to numbers. Each of the three components in RGB monitor colours is divided into 255 levels, from 0 (off) to 255 (full). Any colour can be defined as a value, for instance R 255, G 0, B 0 gives you bright red. R 85 G 67 and B 4 is mud. And so on. Most of the colour wheels or gradient-selectors that pop up in Word and other packages also show the colour as a numeric value in RGB.

Pick a number – and stick with it.

This isn’t the only available system – others include HSB, CMYK and LAB, though not all software has this built in. Some software, such as Photoshop, has all this and more – including pre-defined libraries of colours using the Pantone PMS matching system, which is the print industry standard.

See what I’m getting at? If you define the colours you want by numeric value – and keep a note of the values – you can reproduce them every time, consistently. And you don’t need to care how they might vary between your screen and somebody else’s, because it’ll be consistent for whatever device is being used to generate them.

When it comes to printing out, of course, there are other steps and cautions. But more of that anon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Three rules for naming your fantasy world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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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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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: harsh sentences for authors

I posted the other week on the importance of getting the rhythm right when writing sentences. And on the incompetence of my high school English teacher, but that’s another matter.

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

Rhythm’s important to writing – as important as music. Jazz, for instance (this being a jazz type picture).

Getting the rhythm right when you write is part of the essential framework of writing – it lends interest. You can draw the reader, sometimes, by rhythm alone. It applies, of course, to every part of writing – words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs and so on.

The other part of making sentences work is in the content, which is largely a matter of structure. In strict grammatical terms a sentence is a single idea, but it can often be broken up into clauses and sub-clauses.

In non-fiction, particularly – but also, sometimes, fiction – I often discover very long sentences, sometimes embodying more than one idea. They run on (this is a technical term). The reason is that the author hasn’t properly organised their thoughts. It gets egregious when the subject and predicative (‘what’ and ‘what happens’) parts are divided by long qualifying clauses. This can really obstruct meaning. ‘The queen, while sitting at dinner and feeling extremely hungry, but whose crown was extremely heavy and had fallen over her nose, told the king to pass the salt.’ Ouch.

The trick is to make sure the subject (what the sentence is about) and the predicative (what happens to the subject) are adjacent.  Sometimes a long sentence is better written as two or three short ones. In both fiction and non-fiction, it’s also useful to organise the ideas in each sentence – to get the order so the sentence leads the reader on a journey.

All this may sound like Writing 101, but it’s amazing how easily writers can get carried into their work. Familiarity breeds contempt – quickly. Yes, writers have to write for themselves first and foremost – but the reader has to be thought about too. One way to test that is to put the work in a metaphorical drawer for a couple of weeks and then re-read it. Does it hold your interest? If it doesn’t, then it probably won’t capture readers either.

The biggest challenge when writing – and one of the causes of long convoluted sentences – is the fact that we think in simultaneous concepts, but writing is linear – a single idea thread. The knack for writers when assembling sentences – and, for that matter, any writing – is to understand the issue and be able to disentangle that simultaneity.

It’s a question, in short, of understanding how people think.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 

 

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Essential writing skills: giving your style eyebrows

One of my favourite composers, Frank Zappa, used to refer to the interesting add-ons in his music as ‘eyebrows’. The unexpected bits that make you sit up and listen.

A picture I took in 2008 of a Katherine Mansfield quote on the Wellington writers' walk.

A picture I took in 2008 of a Katherine Mansfield quote on the Wellington writers’ walk.

It’s true for writers too. I’ve blogged about this before, but it’s well worth repeating. When you style your work, eyebrows are important. That doesn’t mean adding a writing gimmick (yes, Franz Kafka, I’m talking about YOU and your woeful dereliction of commas) but it does mean keeping the content interesting. Making it spark.

That spark flows from both the style, the content and the intent of your writing. But today I’m going to focus just on the stylistic part. My three key guidelines are:

1. Vary sentence lengths. A few short staccato sentences followed by a long one often works. Hemingway was a master at it – he’s often thought of as the ‘short sentence guy’, but actually he also wrote very long compound sentences, often a string of short phrases expressing the emotions of a character.

2. Content flows into the process: include a detail that stands out. This works for fiction and non-fiction alike.

3. Vary your vocabulary. Most books are written with a vocabulary of a few thousand words. But English has over a million available. Again, this doesn’t mean digging through the Thesaurus for the most obscure word you can find – instead, locate one that works with your style. It might be quite common.

All of this devolves to keeping the writing lively, interesting and well-paced – to holding the interest of the reader who, of course, you captured with the punchy first sentence…didn’t you… (OK, time to go back and revise that one now).

More writing stuff tomorrow.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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