Writing only looks easy. But it can be learned.

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

Spot my title in the middle...

Spot my title in the middle…

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

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

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

Agents do. So do commissioning editors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

Shameless self-promotion:

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

Nook coming soon.

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

Essential writing skills: knowing when to stop writing and start publishing

One of the biggest challenges for writers is knowing when to stop. When to let the book go and move on to the next. But it’s tricky. Even hard publisher deadlines don’t stop some authors from tinkering. Or even re-casting.

I had to scrabble over boulders to get this shot. Foreground is Denis Glover's plaque from the Wellington Writers' Walk; background, HMNZS Te Kaha at quayside, Te Papa national museum background (the Tracy Island look-alike).

I had to scrabble over boulders to get this shot. Denis Glover’s plaque from the Wellington Writers’ Walk

That’s why contracts carry amendment clauses. Once a manuscript’s been proofed, everything that changes adds cost to the publisher. The threshold I’ve usually seen for author amendments is five or ten percent of the book, after which the cost of re-editing and re-typesetting is levelled on the author.

The cost calculation is true for self-publishing too (you want to get paid for your time…don’t you?).

And that’s apart from the problems that follow when you’re interrupting the editing process with changes. Trust me – that’s how errors arrive. Unwelcomed. Unheralded. But they’re gonna crash your party.

The point to stop, then, is when the manuscript’s ready for publication. Then it can go through proof- and line-editing, typesetting and so forth without becoming a movable feast and without sending costs through the roof.

Of course it’s easy to say “just stop”. The harder part is stopping. The reason authors tinker is because the work hasn’t attained the conceptual perfection of the idea in their minds. And it’s an endless task, because these things never do. The point to stop, then, is where you are satisfied that your writing takes your reader on the emotional journey you intend. This point is true of all writing, not just fiction. My tips:

1. Starting right makes it easier to stop. If you structurally plan your writing, figure out what you want to say before putting finger to keyboard, you’ll know when it’s finished.
2. Command of styling is essential. That takes practise – and don’t be afraid to put the hours in getting that practise.
3. Get feedback – put your work out to ‘Beta Readers’.
4. Be confident in yourself. Don’t succumb to self-doubt.

What experiences have you had with ‘stopping’ – and how have you dealt with it?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

Some shameless self promotion:

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

Nook coming soon.

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

How to grab your readers with a killer opening line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does an opening line demand? It must:

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

And now, some shameless self promotion:

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

Nook coming soon.

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

Writing isn’t an automatic skill…but you can learn

There are three things people usually imagine they are better at than they actually are.

My Adler Gabrielle 25 - on which I typed maybe a million words in the 1980s.

My Adler Gabrielle 25 – on which I typed maybe a million words in the 1980s.

One of them is driving. We all think we can out-drive The Stig…don’t we? Another is writing. The third? Er…well, anyway, today I’m going to look at the idea that because someone did high school English, they can write.

A lot of that flows from the western supposition that a writer’s skill set is defined by expertise in subject matter. The writing itself? It’s an assumed skill. That was certainly the case when I was studying history at university, where everything was taught about the subject – and nothing about how to express it (which is at least half the challenge).

The fact that writing, itself, is a learned skill – just as in-depth and hard to master as history, or any of the sciences – doesn’t often surface. But it is.

The thing is that high school writing skill fully equips most of us to get by in the ordinary world – to write those postcards, those letters or emails, or whatever. But it’s at the start of the skill scale for professional writers. It’s ‘unconsciously incompetent’ – the first level. The point where people don’t know what they don’t know.

That’s why so many imagine they’re better than they actually are. ‘I learned to write, so I can just do it’.

My wife ran into this when she did a course, a while back, on writing childrens’ books – presented by one of New Zealand’s top kids’ book writers. Most of the aspiring writers there had just retired and envisaged themselves ‘becoming writers’ as their retirement career. They were full of questions about contracts and what size of advance to ask for.

No no, the presenter insisted. First you have to learn how to write.

Ripple of shock through the room. Nobody had thought of that. They could write…couldn’t they? Actually…no.

These people, you see, were at that ‘unconscious incompetence’ stage.

There are three steps after that – ‘conscious incompetence’, where the writer gets a handle on what they have yet to learn, then ‘conscious competence’, where they’ve learned it but need to think through every step. Then – finally – ‘unconscious competence’, where the skills have become part of your soul.

The distance from start to finish is about 10,000 hours or one million words. There are no short cuts.

But it’s do-able, and the rewards are tremendous. Not financially (trust me!) but certainly in terms of satisfaction.

I think so, anyway. You?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

Some shameless self promotion:

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

Nook coming soon.

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

Unleashing your writing potential with advertising slogans

According to ads barraging us on TV these days, we are bubbling full of potential that has merely to be ‘released’ by whatever product or service is being offered. Apparently.

Wright_WgtnWaterfront2011_Copyright (c) 2011To my mind it’s not too different from the Nigerian phone scam – you know, give me $1000 and it’ll ‘release’ the million stashed in my bank. Fact is that athletes don’t ‘unleash’ their potential with flavoured salt water. They work like Trojans to get the potential in the first place. It’s earned.

Of course that’s how advertising works – and therein are lessons for writers.

Advertisers capture imagination – emotionally – in half a dozen words. When associated with an image – a brand – it can be one or two words. But even without that brand, advertising is geared to do what all writing pushes towards; to capture the reader emotionally.

The same techniques are essential for writers, and not just when it comes to the blurb. You need to hook the reader with the first line. And the next. And the next. This doesn’t mean making every sentence a slogan. What it means is thinking about underlying purpose – capturing emotion, then holding it. Advertisers have that down pat.

Funnily enough, you CAN unleash something by using their methods. Sales. Readership. Stuff like that. The technique is:

1. Hook.
The reader has to be made to want something – whether to buy a product or start reading your writing. Exactly what that hook is depends on what you’re writing. Newspapers and magazines do it twice – first the heading (usually written by a sub-editor) and then with the opening line  or two which is always crafted to grab. Often it’s printed in bolder type, just to drive that message home. That’s what I do on this blog, for instance.

2. Punch.
The reader has to get something out of the writing, and in very short order. Something emotional; something satisfying – but not too satisfying. Maybe it’s a question. Advertising slogans often appeal to self-validation or self-worth, even presenting answers without questions. ‘Because you’re worth it’. You need to be more subtle in writing…but maybe not much.

Exactly how that’s done varies by author. Years ago, A. E. Van Vogt used to recommend hooking people stylistically – using specific and often quite odd words to pique imagination. I wouldn’t necessarily go that far. There is a fine line between effect and weirdness.

One of the keys is to think about the meaning of the opening words – their effect; do they pull a reader? Establish tension?

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

Some shameless self promotion:

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

Nook coming soon.

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

 

 

Re-discovering the writers’ magic treasure box

I suppose it’s true of every writer. Somewhere, out in the back shed, lurks a box of dusty, damp manuscript pages.

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'.

My writing treasure box has a lot of stuff inspired by various SF and fantasy authors (and that’s me, 40 years later…)

Maybe they’re typed sheets. Maybe it’s hand-written notes. Maybe something scribbled in an exercise book.

The painful teenage expressions of aspiring authorship. Stories that never made it. Letters to your future self.

Stuff that you’d be embarrassed to admit to writing – but which tells a deeper tale of hopes and dreams. Personal treasure.

Do you have that magic box of manuscript pages, out there in back-shed land? I know I do.

Have you had the courage to open it? And if you have – what did you find? Were you inspired? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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

Write it now: the twelve steps to traditional publishing

Although traditional publishing is in upheaval these days, there are lessons we can learn from its processes. The new age of e-publishing hasn’t changed the need for quality control – which trad publishing has had down pat for decades.

Part of my list.

Part of my list.

The traditional publishing process breaks down into twelve broad steps. They vary a little from publisher to publisher, but the intent is always the same; quality control. The steps typically go like this:

1. Manuscript (MS) submitted.
2. MS read and confirmed for quality – or returned to the author for amendments.
3. MS sent for proof-editing. Most publishing houses operate a ‘virtual’ editorial process – they’ll have a stable of contractors who are brought in as needed for this work.
4. Proof-edited MS checked back with the author to confirm changes. The author needs to avoid the temptation to re-write at this point (and will likely incur costs if they do – this is built into contracts).
5. MS line-proofed.
6. MS sent for typesetting. Usually the design will be run past the author for comment although most contracts give final say to the publisher.
7. Typeset MS proof-checked by publisher and run past author for final comments.
8. Typeset MS line-proofed.
9. Index usually implemented at this stage (if there is one).
10. Typeset MS checked again and sent for printing.
11. Printer provides proofs (lasers, ozilit or, these days, more usually high-quality inkjet) – these are carefully line-checked.
12. Any amendments implemented – book then printed.

Usually a handful of initial copies are sent before the main delivery – and it’s about this stage that the author finds a typo. Nature of the beast.

The main focus is on change control – on making sure that amendments are contained, and that they’re always proofed. Repeated proofing pays dividends, although in these cost-conscious days, not all the proofing steps are always applied.

Traditional publishing has gone down this track for good reason. It’s quality assurance. It gives a professional edge, and in this age where one of the biggest challenges is discovery, there are lessons therein for self-publishers.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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

Essential writing skills: tricks for nailing that short story

One of the biggest pitfalls when writing fiction is the notion that all fiction is fiction. If you can write short stories, you can write novels. Right? Actually…no.

Cyber Katherine Mansfield...I think...

Katherine Mansfield, seen here in cyber form. An extraordinary short-story writer. But not a novellist.

Yes, authors can do both – and often brilliantly. Look at Ernest Hemingway, one of my favourite authors. Or Isaac Asimov. Or Arthur C. Clarke.

But this isn’t because the skill set is the same. To the contrary – it isn’t. The reason these authors – and many others – shone in both fields is because they had mastered both forms. And they are very different forms. It’s like this…

1. Novels – lengthy works of fiction, usually 50,000+ words, tracing a significant ‘character arc’ for one or more major characters, through a plot with a defined introduction, exposition, pivot-points and conclusion. There is room for reasonable exposition, description and complexities of both character and plot.

2. Short stories – short fiction pieces of typically less than 5000 words and often as little as 500 – or less – which typically present a ‘snapshot’  – perhaps a single challenge for a single character –resolving with a single moment of revelation. Often they end with a humourous twist, a ‘payoff line’ that either explains or resolves a conundrum. The master of those, to my mind, was Sir Arthur C. Clarke.

These demand not just different structure but also different pacing. I recall one author – who was experienced at short stories – complaining that her first novel turned out like a lot of short stories jammed together. Well, obviously…

Want to write both? The first step is understanding that difference. The second – and there’s no way around this – is practice. Don’t think it’s easier to practice writing short stories because they are shorter. It’s not. They’re probably harder, because the key is what you leave out - not what you put in. Be prepared to work on them and throw away material. The snappier the better.

To my mind Ernest Hemingway was probably the master at it – though his famous ‘baby shoes’ six-worder is probably an apocryphal attribution. Not read it? Here it is:

“For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

I suppose we might call it ultra-flash fiction. Sharp, quick, poignant – and thought provoking. Which, really, is the key to any short story.

Do you write short stories and novels? What challenges have you faced?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, fun science, opinion and humour. Check it out.

Write it now: six secrets behind a compelling book cover

 There’s an old adage that we must never judge a book by its cover.

My "Illustrated History of New Zealand"

My “Illustrated History of New Zealand”

Actually it isn’t that ‘old’, really. Go back a couple of hundred years and every book had a tooled leather cover – you had to open it to get to the interesting design part. That’s what frontispieces are for.

Some of the classier books still present a frontispiece. But most don’t – the artwork has been transferred to the cover.

Covers are even more important for e-books, where they become the front-end icon – the visual object that sets an e-book you’ve discovered, cold, apart from the others, that makes you want to click on it and see what’s within. A book may well be better than its cover seems to promise, but unless we’re specifically looking for the author or that book, there’s no question that the cover is what draws us to an unknown author and book.

It is, in short, a key marketing and discovery tool. Which, in turn, means it’s amenable to all the usual marketing methods – it has to provoke, excite, pose questions that demand answers. In short, it has to appeal to emotion.

That’s a good news, bad news story for self-publishers. Good news is that professional designers are adept at translating those concepts into visual form. Bad news is they cost.

The other bad news is that everybody’s doing it, anyway – the quality of most covers these days, whether from the main publishing houses, indie publishers or self-published – is stunning. The bar has been raised very high, and if your book doesn’t meet it, then it won’t sell.

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

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

My take? It’s no different for self-publishers than it is for mainstream industry publishers. Indeed, even though mainstream publishers, by contract, have full authority over  the cover, they’ll often consult with the author over artwork. I’ve provided commissioned paintings or (more usually) my own photos for book covers in the past. Everything has to be planned out. Budgets have to be worked up, designers commissioned, and costs vs benefits assessed. The questions are:

1. What is the cost of the artwork – a bespoke painting, or license fees on a photo? Here in New Zealand, commissioned cover art starts at around $1500 and license fees for photos are $150 each, upwards.
2. What is the cost of a designer?
3. What returns do you require from the book to meet these costs – amortised across sales?
4. Think ahead. Design is part of brand; does this cover span a series, or is it part of a brand look to identify a particular author? (Typified for me by Isaac Asimov’s Panther paperbacks of the 1970s which all said “Asimov”).
5. How enduring is the design? Be careful. Totally up-to-the-moment designs key into an instant audience, but risk looking dated and cheesy in a year or two. The expected life of the book can help in this calculation.
6. What minefield/licensing traps follow?

Bottom line is that quality counts – and quality isn’t free.

Have you had adventures with book covers? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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

Essential writing skills: the top ten skills for novellists

Fiction writing embodies all sorts of skills – more, really, than we perhaps imagine.

Wright_WgtnWaterfront2011_Copyright (c) 2011It’s not just a matter of being able to write – something which, as we’ve seen, demands a whole set of different skills of itself. More on that soon.

Writers also need a raft of skills to go with it. These days the act of getting published is itself complex, whether you go the trad route or by self-pub. It’s fast-changing, and it demands swift adaptation that can come only from understanding what’s going on in the market and with the industry. That’s quite apart from selling into that swift-moving stream. That draws in a lot of other needed skills and abilities – well beyond anything writers traditionally needed. It’s a matter of thinking laterally, of thinking inclusively, and of getting good at these things…

1. Familiarity with computer systems and social networking.
2. Experienced at running a small business.
3. Experienced writer with full control of their writing style.
4. Ability to meet deadlines without compromising quality.
5. Knowledge of the human condition, of people.
6. Wide general knowledge of how the world works, realistically.
7. Good knowledge of what constitutes a novel – character arcs, narrative plot, etc.
8. Ability to effectively manage time.
9. An ability to plug on even when enthusiasm wanes.
10. Knowing when to stop writing and submit the work.

More on some of these to come…and, of course, more on writing soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Art deco cars, more writing tips, fun science, opinion and humour. Check it out.