Write It Now, part 20: keeping the fun in writing

The debate between ‘pantsing’ – seat of the pants free-form writing – and ‘plotting’ is one of the bigger arguments among writing groups and across the internet.

It shouldn’t be.

sleeping-man-with-newspapers-mdWhen I was learning the craft as a teenager – formally, through writing courses at what’s since become the Eastern Institute of Technology – stories poured out of my fingers into the typewriter. Totally without plan or care. The joy of following my imagination was as much entertainment as TV. It meant I could think of myself as a ‘writer’. My skills were unconsciously incompetent – I was doing courses, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and that meant I thought I knew it all.

Sounds harsh? I discovered the next steps the hard way. The process involved critically looking at what had to be done to improve, understanding what constituted quality, and doing it. For hours, days, weeks and months. Then years.

Writing got me some interesting places. This is me in Tom Clancy mode on a submarine hunt, Exercise Fincastle, 1994.

Writing got me some interesting places. This is me in Tom Clancy mode on a submarine hunt, Exercise Fincastle, 1994.

That was a hard row to hoe, but it led to some exciting places; and after thirty years of hands-on work, forays into freelance journalism and over fifty published books (most of them with Penguin and Random House), I haven’t stopped learning. The lesson from that experience is that pure free-form writing doesn’t work.

So why do some authors – I’m thinking Stephen King – do it? As we saw last time, when we delve into the way top authors write their stuff, it’s clear they are not pouring out an undiluted stream of consciousness.

They are working from experience, and they usually know the beginning and end of the story along with the structures needed to make it work. In other words, they did some planning. That leaves them free to create the filling. Their skill with writing is automatic; they have unconscious competence.

It’s possible for an experienced author to keep the structure of their book in their head – to know the word count needed to maintain that structural balance, and write coherent text. I do myself. But it took many years to learn how it was done, and only through practise.

Planning is vital to a successful book – fiction and non-fiction. Especially while working towards the ten-thousand hour point of unconscious competence. The next few posts will cover  how this can be done – without sacrificing the freedom of ‘seat-of-the-pants’ creation.

In other words – keeping the fun in writing. And I want to share the technique with you.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

OK, so I had a new author photo taken

I am very uneasy about publishing author photos.

Go on, smile, the photographer said,. Say 'Payday'.

Go on, smile, the photographer said. ‘Say “Payday”‘.

In part it’s because I hate having my photo taken. I much prefer to be on the other side of the viewfinder. There’s also the fact that, here in New Zealand, the only time strangers approach authors recognised from photos is to have a crack at them. My last incident was so unpleasant I stopped publishing my author photo in my books.

But image counts these days. Publishers keep asking me for photos. I’ve been using photos taken by my wife, but the other day I went to see a professional photographer.

Here’s the result.

I may swap yet with another from the same session. We’ll see. Editing tool of choice for getting it sized to web use? I have Photoshop – but for this job, Irfanview is my friend.

Do you have an author photo? Have you ever been recognised from it?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

ANZAC Day 2013: remembering why we fought

Wright_MilitaryBookCoversIt’s ANZAC Day this week in New Zealand – 25 April,  our equivalent of Memorial Day in the US or Armistice Day in Britain.

It’s iconoclastic. Most nations remember their military dead on days when a war ended – typically, for Commonwealth countries, 11 November, when the guns fell silent over the Western Front in 1918.

But not New Zealand and Australia. Here we remember our war dead on the day we began our first big overseas military campaign, the ground assault on Gallipoli that began on 25 April 1915.

Wright_Shattered Glory coverThe day is tied into our national identity. That wasn’t always the case. When the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) embarked on that campaign it was to do duty for Empire – for Britain, a country we called ‘home’ even though most of our young men had never been there.

I used to write histories of our twentieth century wars. In my final foray into that field, Shattered Glory (Penguin 2010), I explored the virtually spontaneous celebrations on 25 April 1916, the anniversary of the landings – at which time the Gallipoli campaign was turned, by sleight of hand, from an ignominious defeat (which it was) into a triumph of New Zealand’s contribution to Empire.

It became nationalist towards the end of the war, a spontaneous focus for grief flowing from the terrible death toll of the Western Front, New Zealand’s most lethal campaign of all time and the definition of what the First World War meant, socially and historically.

Of late, 25 April has become New Zealand’s de-facto national day – a moment to remember those who gave their lives – the young men who were never wearied by age.

To me it is also a day to ask a simple question. Why? Why did they go to war?

It is easy to suppose that young men were fooled by Boys’ Own images of war as glorious, a superior sports event that showered honour on soldiers, family and especially school.

I have found letters and diaries suggesting that this may have been true for the Boer War of 1899-1902, our first military campaign. But not the First World War. Not really. Most of the young Kiwis who went to fight even in 1914 knew what war entailed, even if they had yet to learn the true lethality of industrial age fire-power. That lesson had been driven home by 1916; and certainly most of their sons were cynical enough in 1939, when Europe again plunged into war and New Zealand’s young men flocked to sign up.

They did not go because it was glorious. They went because it was necessary.

We forget how close the world was, then, to a new dark age. In the 1930s democracy was but one of three competing systems, and it was on the back foot. In New Zealand of the day, the government of Michael Joseph Savage opposed fascism wherever it stood, even at risk of annoying a British government that felt appeasement was a cheaper option. But Savage was right. So was Winston Churchill, a politician, writer and historian who knew very well what both Nazi and Communist flavours of totalitarianism stood for. But such voices of warning were not heard until almost too late. And for a while in 1940-41, as Britain and her Comonwealth stood alone as the last main bastions of civilised western democracy outside the United States, things stood on a knife edge.

New Zealand’s part in that war took our fighting division from Greece to Crete to Egypt to the Western Desert to Syria, to Libya, Tripolitania, Tunisia, and finally Italy and – in the last hectic days of the struggle – Trieste. They did so under a remarkable commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg, VC, DSO (3 bars), etc. (It is nearly a decade since Penguin published my biography of this incredible man; I still think it is one of my best books).

Other Kiwis fought with our navy, with the Royal Navy and with the Merchant Marine. Still others fought in the skies, with the RNZAF and RAF among other services. And we had a presence in the Pacific, where a New Zealander, Major-General Sir Harold Barrowclough, led forces that included a US contingent under Richard M. Nixon. Yes, that Richard M. Nixon.

All this was done not for glory, or rewards of heroism, but because it had to be done. Whatever it took. The alternatives – a world dominated by Nazi evil, fuelled by what Churchill called the ‘dark lights of perverted science’, were too horrible to contemplate. And we knew it.

Today we must remember those who died to make the world a better place, safe for democracy - who helped make the modern world what it is. Both here in New Zealand – and around the world.

Please join me in remembering them.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Inspirations: Music, art, writing and unleashing the inner geek

As a writer, I have never regretted chugging through the Royal Schools of Music grade system. Music offers skills that feed directly into writing. Learning how to write a tune to words, for instance, rammed home why it’s important, even in prose, to have rhythm.

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. Pop quiz: can anybody identify it from this clipped close-up?

There’s a more subtle side to it, too. Music is about evoking emotion in the recipient – the satisfaction of listening, hope, despair, anger, laughter. So is writing. That’s one reason why rhythm of words is important. For writers, as for musicians, it helps evoke a response.

I still have a small collection of vintage analog synths. They all work – including my Moog, which was old and battered when I bought it in 1987. The fact that it functions 37 years after it left Moog’s Trumansburg factory is testament to the quality.

It is also an expressive instrument, meant to be played like a violin, not a piano. You can do things with pitch-bender, potentiometers and modulation wheels that give the sound life. If you have never heard a Moog 24dBa high-pass ladder filter being overdriven, you’ve missed something. Here’s someone using the filter as a resonator. Here’s Erik Norlander playing the biggest Modular Moog I’ve ever seen.

The worn out ribbon pitch-controller on my Micromoog. Apparently Bob Moog invented that device for Beach Boys keyboard player Brian Wilson.

One of the doyens of the Moog, way back, was Brit prog-rock icon Rick Wakeman. He defined the ‘rock opera’ via such classics as Journey To The Centre Of The Earth (1974), essentially a modern oratorio.

I saw him in concert, here in New Zealand, last year – and @grumpyoldrick didn’t disappoint. He spilled off a flight from the UK and gave a 2 1/2 hour show, using the Wellington City Council’s Steinway Model D, all from memory. He had the audience in stitches – he is a great comedian. Along the way he explained how he had been taught to put feeling into music. You close your eyes and imagine what you want to convey – the feeling of a summer’s day, for instance.

To me, that summed up music as art. Art is about conceptual shapes and patterns that convey feeling and emotion. Notes are flawed tools to express an inexpressible form – idea, which is emotional. The essence of art is conveying that emotion, however imperfectly, by whatever medium, to others. And that is true of writing, too. The medium is words; but the essence is emotion.

Wakeman was taught that about his art from the beginning. Others, including me, had to learn it later. The hard way.

Do you find art in music, in writing? How do you see these things?  is music inspirational for you in these ways? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Welcome – thank you – and what’s coming up

I discovered on Wednesday morning that my Monday post had been ‘freshly pressed’. Cool.

‘Hey,’ I said to my wife. ‘Now everybody in the entire world will realise I’m a beer-swilling geek who does physics problems for fun.’

‘You are,’ she said  ‘And so are all your friends.’

‘Only on Thursdays.’

This is me doing my 'writing getaway' impression on Rarotonga.

This is me doing my ‘writing getaway’ impression on Rarotonga.

I’d like to thank everyone who took the time to look at Monday’s post – and a warm welcome to all new readers. And a very big thank you to all my regular readers. Thank you! I wouldn’t be doing any of this without all of you.

Coming up – more ‘kindness’ posts, 60-second writing tips, ‘write it now’, the A-Z of a writing life, and ‘inspirations’ – mainly photographs I’ve taken. More humour, stuff about Tolkien, music and more science geekery. I think science is pretty cool. And fun.

Who am I? I’m a New Zealander and live in the land of Tolkien movies. I was trained in fiction writing. studied the sciences. classical music (Royal Schools), switched to history, which I took past post-grad level, though I kept my science hand in with an undergrad degree in anthropology.  I’ve been writing and publishing – among other things – for over 30 years, writing books mostly for Penguin or Random House. A few years ago the Royal Historical Society at University College, London, elected me a Fellow.

It’s been an interesting ride. And it ain’t over yet.

Of course this blog isn’t about me. It’s about you – my readers. I’d love to hear from you. Tell me about yourselves. What’s happening your way? And if there’s something you’d like me to post on – something scientific, historical or just plain interesting… let me know.

It’s all good. And interesting. Life’s like that.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Write it now, part 1 – so you want to be a writer?

So you want to be a writer, eh? Not a bad choice of career. There are worse ones. There are also better paid careers. But then, you’re not in it for the money, are you?

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. See the shine on the keys?

Welcome to my new blog series ‘Write it now’ - an A-Z of writing. I thought this year I’d share some of the tips and tricks that have helped me write and publish over 500 feature articles and 50 books, some 2,000,000 words or thereabouts, over the last 30-odd years since I had my first break, aged 18, with my university newspaper.  Here’s the list.

Each week, I’m going to publish another post covering a different aspect of writing as I see it. And I’d love to hear from you – what you think of these ideas, whether they’re helpful, and whether you’ve got thoughts of your own.

We’re all in it together, you see – writers.

First, a bit about my background. I formally trained in fiction writing at the local polytechnic and, later at university, was fortunate enough to get key writing lessons from Richard Adler, then Professor of English at the University of Montana, visiting New Zealand on a Fullbright scholarship. I wrote my first books as an ‘intern’ with the New Zealand Forest Service a couple of years later – yes, I got paid a salary to write. Later I picked up tips and tricks from a newspaper editor in my home town, and more again from a features editor on the Wellington metropolitan daily, for which I freelanced.

Mostly, though, I’ve written books, published by companies such as Random House and Penguin.

It’s been a lot of fun, and the best is yet to come. Along the way I’ve learned a lot about writing as a profession, about writing as art – and that’s what I’m going to share with you.

How do I see writing? To me, words are secondary. In fact, I disagree with ‘word count’ as a goal. As we’ll see during these posts, it’s simply a tool. And there are many writing tools.

The more important part of writing is purpose. And writing has but one purpose; to elicit emotion in the writer – and to elicit one in the reader. Ideally, the emotion the writer intends.

That’s true of all writing. All? All. Non-fiction included. You’ll see why as these posts develop.

So – in just three words, here’s what writing is:

Writing is emotion.

It’s true. What do you figure?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Next week: ‘Write it now – are writers born or made?’ Along with other writing-related posts, history posts, and inspirational posts.

New Year resolutions? Not for me, thanks.

Happy new year. It’s 2013 and we weren’t nobbled by Niburu the way pundits claimed. I never thought we would be.

Wright_SydneyNov2011I’m not making any New Year resolutions, though. I have a couple of reasons. One is that the date is arbitrary, even in the west, where 1 January wasn’t universal until recently. Ukraine led the way in 1362. South Holland picked it up in 1576. But until 1751, the English celebrated new year on 25 March. Other cultures have wholly different structures; Khmer New Year is on 13-14 April. So is the Tamil New Year – both marking the vernal equinox.  Here in New Zealand, the Maori New Year, Matariki, is still six months off.

In any case, I’m not convinced that resolutions actually work. We are creatures of habit; we start off with a hiss and a roar, but for me at least the effort usually runs out of steam around mid-morning on 1 January. For me, constant, incremental self-improvement is the way – certainly as a writer, where re-invention and constant improvement is one of the keys to longevity in the field.

So what’s coming up this year for me, writing-wise? I have books in press. I have contracts in hand, but Penguin and Random House are merging, putting around 90 percent of my back-list and publishing licenses, along with most of my in-print books, under one roof. That will make things interesting.

There’s also going to be blogging. Watch this space.

Do you have any plans for 2013? Resolutions? Aims? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

It’s Christmas again. Where did 2012 go?

It’s Christmas again – and I cannot believe how fast this year’s gone. A blur.

MJWright2011It’s a time for family, to think of others, to reflect. A time for giving, and for receiving; and the greatest gift anyone can give another is kindness.

I’ve got a few posts lined up for the holiday season – check back soon – and I’ll review“The Hobbit”, once I’ve seen it (yeah, I live where it was made, I am a HUGE Tolkien fan…and haven’t managed to see the film.) I’ll be back blogging full-strength mid-January. Here’s what’s coming:

- inspirations for writers and people of all interests;
- a regular series on how to write, how to publish and how others have done it;
- a short series on history mysteries;
- a short series on science geekery;
- and more (could mean….well, anything, but likely about books. New Zealand scenery. Funny stuff. Or steampunk).

And, if you get a moment, don’t forget to check out some really great blogs:

Karen Huber: http://kmhubersblog.com/
Dennis Langley: http://langleyblog.wordpress.com/
Elisa Nuckle: http://elisanuckle.wordpress.com/
Lemuel Lyes: http://historygeek.co.nz/
S. Thomas Summers: http://thelintinmypocket.wordpress.com/
Robyn Oyeniyi: http://teamoyeniyi.com/
Susan Keirnan-Lewis: http://susankiernanlewis.com/
Tom Burkhalter: http://tomburkhalter.wordpress.com/
Imelda Evans: http://imeldaevans.wordpress.com/
Claire McAlpine: http://clairemca.wordpress.com/
Karen Rought: http://themidnightnovelist.wordpress.com/

What’s happening for you this festive season? Keep safe, have a great time – and Merry Christmas!

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

And now…what next? You tell me…

I’ve been blogging quite a lot, this last while, on writing tips and NaNoWriMo and other writers. And The Hobbit.

But also off line the past few days. Dealing with pressing pre-Xmas writing deadlines, including a couple of exciting projects that I’d love to tell you about. And will.

Wright_SydneyNov2011What’s next? More writing-related stuff. The Sunday ‘inspirations’ posts (next one is on Dr Grordbort – yes, the steampunk ray gun guy…right here where I live in Wellington). And Tolkien. I’ve got a ‘history mystery’ series coming. Next few days I’m also blogging about the Mayan apocalypse.

What else? I’ve done ‘funnies’, science, literature. I’ve blogged about kindness, tolerance and reason – which I think are soooo important.

I want to say something about that tragic ‘Duchess of Cambridge’ radio prank and what I think about retarded chimps with half a brain breakfast radio script-writers. But maybe I shouldn’t… dunno, you tell me!

And I have to point you to something utterly cool.


It is a zombie apocalypse movie. Made by real intern/scientists who really work at CERN, shot inside the real thing – the large hadron collider. High-speed particle physics. With zombies.

What would you like to see more of? Talk to me!

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

Passing the Reality Blog Award to those who deserve it

Last week Luciana Cavallaro awarded me the Reality Blog Award. A surprise. I am humbled and grateful – thank you, Luciana!

Go check out Luciana’s blog – do it now. The award requires me to answer several questions – and pass on the award to some deserving bloggers.

1. If you could change something what would you change?
In my own life? There are things that, with hindsight, I suppose I might have done differently; but we don’t know our futures and can only do the best we can at the time. In the world generally? Well, the human condition has a few problems. It would be nice were it a little different. But I think we can work on that, if we want - starting by setting examples, one random act of kindness at a time.

2. If you could relive one day, when would it be?
The day I finished high school and walked out the gate with my friends, knowing I would never need to return.

3. What’s one thing that really scares you?
Nothing. Fear comes from the unknown, or often from fear of losing something. We have to accept that we may not get what we want, or that we may lose something we have been struggling for. But sometimes we get there. That’s life.

4. What’s one dream have you not completed yet and do you think you will be able to complete it?
I’m doing it now – writing. Everything I do is part of a wider project, one way or another. There is always something new to explore, something new to do. It will never be finished.

And now, some people to pass this on to -a hard choice. There are some really great bloggers out there, publishing some wonderful material. Here are some of the best I’ve read. Congratulations, and thank you!

Karen Huber:

S. Thomas Summers

Susan Keirnan-Lewis

Imelda Evans

Tom Burkhalter

Clare McAlpine

Lemuel Lyes

August McLaughlin

Merry Farmer

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012