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

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

Nook coming soon.

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

Essential writing skills: planning, planning, planning

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – the trick to effective writing is planning.

Wright_SydneyNov2011Planning the whole thing before even starting, be it book, essay, short story or whatever. Planning each section or chapter. Planning each sequence. Planning, planning, planning.

Sure, it’s fun to do what people call ‘pantsing’ – making stuff up as you go along, getting caught up in your own story.  It carries the vibrance of fresh creativity. But for writers who are starting out it often leads to dead ends, tangles or big-scale structural failures. Put another way, writing as personal entertainment doesn’t cut the mustard when it comes to producing stuff to time, length and specification. Which is how publishing works.

Yes, sure Famous Novellist X or Y (I’m thinking Stephen King) will say that they ‘pants’ their way through their stories. Actually they don’t, exactly. Usually they know where it’ll end. And they’re experienced enough – they’ve done the million word apprenticeship – to have command of their style and content. They can structure properly on the fly, and they know what elements have to come where to make the story compelling.

The rest of us – well, planning counts. Trust me on that one. Start broad; what is the purpose of the written material? Can you sum it up in a sentence. In the industry, that’s called a ‘logline’.

If it’s a novel, don’t get caught up in the intricacies of plot or narrative. You need a deeper level than that for a logline, which reflects the character arc of the key character. If it’s non-fiction, what is the thesis – the argument?

This broad purpose applies to everything that’s written – from a letter to an essay to a short story to a doctorate to a novel.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

And now, some shameless self promotion: my history of New Zealand, now available as e-book.

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

 

The Big Bang theory wins again. So does Einstein.

It’s a great time to be a geek. We’re learning all sorts of extreme stuff. There’s a team led by John Kovac, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who’ve been beavering away on one of the fundamental questions of modern cosmology. The secret has demanded some extreme research in an extreme place. Antarctica. There’s a telescope there, BICEP2, that’s been collecting data on the cosmic background temperature. Last week, the team published their initial results.

Timeline of the universe - with the Wilkinson Microwave Antisotropy Probe at the end. Click to enlarge. Public domain, NASA.

Timeline of the universe – with the Wilkinson Microwave Antisotropy Probe at the end. Click to enlarge. Public domain, NASA.

The theory they were testing is as extreme as such things get and goes like this. Straight after the Big Bang, the universe was miniscule and very hot. Then it expanded – unbelievably fast in the first few trillionth trillionths of a second, but then much more slowly. After a while it was cool enough for the particles we know and love today to be formed. This ‘recombination’ epoch occurred perhaps 380,000 years after the Big Bang. One of the outcomes was that photons were released from the plasma fog – physicists call this ‘photon decoupling’.

What couldn’t quite be proven was that the early rate of expansion – ‘inflation’ – had been very high.

But now it has. And the method combines the very best of cool and of geek. This early universe can still be seen, out at the edge of visibility. That initial photon release is called the ‘cosmic microwave background’ (CMB), first predicted in 1948 by Ralph Alpher and others, and observed in 1965 by accident when it interfered with the reception of a radio being built in Bell Laboratories. That started a flurry of research. Its temperature is around 2.725 degrees kelvin, a shade above absolute zero. It’s that temperature because it’s been red-shifted (the wavelengths radiated from it have stretched, because the universe is expanding, and stuff further away gets stretched more). The equation works backwards from today’s CMB temperature, 2.725 degrees Kelvin, thus: Tr = 2.725(1 + z).

The COBE satellite map of the CMB. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

The COBE anisotropic satellite map of the CMB. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

The thing is that, way back – we’re talking 13.8 billion years – the universe was a tiny fraction of its current size, and the components were much closer together. Imagine a deflated balloon. Splat paint across the balloon. Now inflate the balloon. See how the paint splats move further apart from each other? But they’re still the original pattern of the splat. In the same sort of way, the CMB background pattern is a snapshot of the way the universe was when ‘photon decoupling’ occurred. It’s crucial to proving the Big Bang theory. It’s long been known that the background is largely homogenous (proving that it was once all in close proximity) but carries tiny irregularities in the pattern (anisotropy). What the BICEP2 team discovered is that the variations are polarised in a swirling pattern, a so-called B-mode.

The reason the radiation is polarised that way is because early inflation was faster than light-speed, and the gravity waves within it were stretched, rippling the fabric of space-time in a particular way and creating the swirls. Discovering the swirls, in short, identifies both the early rate of expansion (which took the universe from a nanometer to 250,000,0000 light years diameter in 0.00000000000000000000000000000001 of a second…I think I counted right…) and gives us an indirect view of gravitational waves for the first time. How cool is that?

Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 - after he'd published both the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 – after he’d published both the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

What’s a ‘gravitational wave’? They were first predicted nearly a century ago by Albert Einstein, whose General Theory of Relativity’of 1917 was actually a theory of gravity. According to Einstein, space and time are an entwined ‘fabric’. Energy and mass (which, themselves, are the same thing) distort that fabric. Think of a thin rubber sheet (space-time), then drop a marble (mass/energy) into it. The marble will sink, stretching the sheet. Gravitational waves? Einstein’s theory made clear that these waves had to exist. They’re ripples in the fabric.

One of the outcomes of last week’s discovery is the implication that ‘multiverses’ exist. Another is that there is not only a particle to transmit gravity, a ‘graviton’, but also an ‘inflaton’ which pushes the universe apart. Theorists suspect that ‘inflatons’ have a half-life and they were prevalent only in the very early universe.

There’s more to come from this, including new questions. But one thing is certain. Einstein’s been proven right. Again.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More geekery, fun writing tips, and more.

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

And Nook is coming soon.

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

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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

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.

The news. Exciting for me. And you too, I hope

A couple of weeks back I promised I’d reveal some exciting news.

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".

Why was I wearing hard-hat and luminescent jacket somewhere in Mordor? Research, that’s why. More? You’ll find out soon… Click to enlarge.

Last year, print book sales dropped by 15 percent in New Zealand, nailing a down-trend that’s been happening for a while. I watched that start several years ago and decided to do something about it. Downturn apart, writing’s a business, and reinvention is key to longevity. So is adaptation, including embracing new technology. In this I was spurred by Random House who suggested I should join Twitter, get an author platform going and so forth. I did.

I got cracking in other ways – retrieving many of my publishing licenses to avoid losing control of them amidst the flight of big-name houses from New Zealand. I talked to publishers and discussed  future titles. I was offered new contracts despite the downturn. This last couple of weeks I’ve been fielding publishing schedules, including from Random. More soon. But the news is rather good – and yes, you’ll be the first to hear about the releases, on this blog.

Of course, the REALLY exciting news is due within a few weeks…and, I hope, more after that (when I catch my breath).

Meanwhile, here’s my updated author page at Random:

http://www.randomhouse.co.nz/authors/matthew-wright.aspx

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More exciting news. 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  http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-WH2Paci-_N81633.html

Nissan Island and the battle plan. Public domain. From http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/ 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.

A totally cool and exciting taunt

I post a lot on this blog about writing – but not often about the writing I’m actually doing myself. That’s partly because it’s often commercially sensitive. But also partly because you’d soon get sick of my blurting on all the time hard-selling my books. And I’d certainly get sick of writing about it.

Wright_SydneyNov2011Most of my books get a profile for a few weeks – and then I’m on to other content. But there’s a time and place for everything, and I’ve got a couple of exciting things happening this year which I’m going to share.

First one’s coming up in a couple of weeks. Watch this space.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: writing tips – tomorrow – plus history, science and general mayhem. And some news.Watch this space.

Essential writing skills: key tricks for proof-editing

In the past few weeks I’ve been exploring the ins and outs of editing - a skill of many facets that authors have to master. This week: proof editing.

Proof-editing is an essential part of the quality assurance process for writers. It involves an editor going through the work looking for consistency of content, consistency of style, and the sense of the wording.

"Hmmn...books. New fangled rubbish. They'll never replace scrolls, you know".

“Hmmn…books. New fangled rubbish. They’ll never replace scrolls, you know”.

It’s essential because the best author won’t get everything right all the time. Familiarity breeds contempt – that’s human nature. And these days it’s all too easy to mis-amend something in the word process and then miss the mistake. Enough misses to re-form the GTO’s, but that’s another story.

Proof-editing is also a delicate skill because the editor must work sympathetically with the style of the author. Sometimes they don’t – I recall one awkward experience with one of my early military histories in which the proof-editor was a frustrated writer who took the opportunity to re-write my work entirely, and badly. I rejected the changes – it was my book, not his.

Another time one of my books was butchered by a proof-editor whose editing was wholly out of sympathy with my style. The house editor handling the book at my publisher refused to bend. I came very close to withdrawing the book on the basis of breach of moral right – I am entitled to object to derogatory treatment of my material. In the end I didn’t, but I bucked my objection up to the managing editor of the publishing house, got the most egregious amendments reversed, and refused to work with their house editor again when she turned up working for a different publisher.

That said, this “total re-style” is a legitimate technique. Some magazines hire proof-editors to do just that. Ever wondered how Time or National Geographic get their styling so consistent? A proof-editor working in this capacity is usually not just an experienced editor but also a quality writer in their own right.

So what it boils down to is that proof editing is, itself, a skill of many facets – running the gamut from quietly correcting another author’s work, to totally re-writing it into a specific style.

Needless to say, authors also have to master it for their own purposes. A manuscript sent to a publisher will be proof-edited by the publisher – but that doesn’t reduce the onus on the author to provide the highest possible quality text. Which means learning how to proof-edit yourself – despite the fact that the familiarity problem makes that a very difficult task. It’s all part of the process.

One trick when doing it is to have a glossary beside you – a list of the consistencies that need checking. Working in chunks, backwards through the manuscript is also a useful technique – it breaks the flow of the work and means you have to concentrate on the details of the actual writing.

Next – line editing. Oh – and does anybody remember the GTO’s?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014