The funny side of having a popular name…

A while back another Matthew Wright – in Australia – pointed out to me that our shared name wasn’t common. It was ‘popular’. Good call.

I suppose I had to put on a kind of expression, or not, for this one...

Not even dressed up as a Grunka Lunka (Google it…)

But it hasn’t stopped relentless confusion. Like the time my publisher kept sending emails meant for me to Matthew Wright, a commissioning editor in their New York office.

Or the day when someone from the UK who’d read my books came to New Zealand and wanted to see me. He researched my appearance via Google and discovered Matthew Wright, star of many ‘adult’ movies.

Google really don’t know who I am at all – they also credit the books of mine that they’ve scanned without permission to Matthew Wright, a lecturer at the University of Essex. Adds insult to the injury, and they haven’t corrected their mistake despite my efforts.

Then there was the time someone contacted me wanting to buy ‘my’ book on the Midland Railway line, central South Island, by Matthew Wright. I write railway books. But this wasn’t one of them. (The third Matthew Wright who writes in New Zealand publishes poetry online…)

All good fun until somebody loses an eye. What worries me is that a Matthew Wright will do something heinous – and I’ll end up innocently smeared, even after clarification.

Which brings me to what Matthew Wright was reported doing last week. Allegedly,  my 20-year old UK namesake went on a rampage in a kebab shop, knocking someone over.  I suppose it was to be expected. As a friend of mine pointed out, he was in a clubbing district. (Groan.)

Thing was, this youthful Matthew apparently did it dressed as an Oompa-Loompa.

He has since denied the allegation, according to the latest report.

Have you ever been mistaken for somebody else?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Penguin Random House and me

Random House and Penguin confirmed their amalgamation this week. It’s indicative of wider changes in the traditional publishing industry. Between them they’ll have about 25 percent of the world publishing market.

You can track my phone, but you don't know what I look like. Oh wait a minute, yes you do...

Was a Penguin and Random House author. Now a Penguin Random House author. Not a random penguin, that’s something else entirely.

They’ll also have about eighty percent of my licenses. Instead of publishing with two of the Big Six, I’m publishing with one of the Big Five – including, at the moment, two books ‘in press’ with the former Penguin and with the former Random House.

The logic behind the merger is a bigger force in the market. A response to the challenge laid down by Amazon and the e-publishing revolution.

Where will the merger take writers? I guess the answers will come in the fullness of time. The bigger challenge for any author is still being found by their readership. It helps to have the marketing clout of a big-name publisher. But a lot still rests on the individual author – and on writing great books.

It’s a global issue.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Sixty second writing tips: spinning the writing pyramid

One of the best writing lessons I ever had came from a guy named Richard Adler, then Professor of English at the University of Montana.

I wasn’t in the land of dental floss wranglers at the time – Prof. Adler was out here in New Zealand on a Fulbright Scholarhship. And in just half an hour he delivered lessons about writing that brought everything else I’d been formally taught together.

One of those lessons was to use the standard ‘inverted pyramid’ structure. Start broad, narrow down. It’s a good structure to draw the reader – and also means you, as author, must first work out what the over-arching ‘organising principle’ of your content actually is. This saves a HUGE amount of re-work – trust me! So it’s doubly effective, and  it applies to absolutely every kind of writing.

I use it all the time, and these days add a twist of my own. Add a hook line at the beginning to draw the reader – a detail squib that piques interest, before showing them the broad canvas and then letting them explore down to the detail as they read.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Hey Google, get a load of my boring life

I bought a new smartphone the other day, replacing my ancient Nokia.

You can track my phone, but you don't know what I look like. Oh wait a minute, yes you do...

You can track my phone, but you don’t know what I look like. Oh wait a minute, yes you do… unless I smile or put a paper bag over my head.

Cool tech, apart from the funny teal colour distortion on the camera (check out the previous post on Katherine Mansfield). But hey… Brings me into the second decade of the twenty-first century, at last.

And it also means Google knows exactly where I am at all times. Well, it  knows where the phone is, but that usually amounts to the same thing. After a while, they’ll have a database built up of my movements.

What will they learn?

Well, they’ll learn that I spend about 98% of my time in front of a computer monitor.

They’ll learn that I don’t go shopping, much.

And they’ll learn that, from their perspective, my life is pretty boring

What piques me is the irony. Back in 1947, George Orwell envisioned a “future” (1948, wisely reversed by his publishers to 1984) in which every move by every citizen was watched.

The purpose, in his satirical tale, was social control – and it was framed by contemporary trends. His future Britain was very much a representation of the contemporary Soviet Union, which under Stalin was a totalitarian dictatorship.

The data gathering today is very different, for very different purpose – in very different context. But it is, nonetheless, direct monitoring of what we are doing, every minute of the day.

Does it bother me? The purpose is stated, it’s genuinely intended, and I don’t think it’s inimical.  Google already read my emails. Yeah, it’s an intrusion into what we traditionally think of as privacy. But I’m not too worried. If they think anything they collect about me is useful – well, good luck to them.

My only problem is that, historically, it’s not the people who collect the data who end up misusing it.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

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.

Thoughts?

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.