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

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

Writers’ rights with Moral Rights – a quick guide

A reader asked the other week what ‘Moral Right’ meant. It’s an interesting area for writers.

Wright_SydneyNov2011Moral right differs from copyright. You own copyright on anything you create, by default. The copyright holder, alone, has the right to copy the work, but also has the power to grant a license to others to do so. When you sign a publishing contract, you – as copyright holder – are granting them a license to reproduce your material. Usually the copyright holder receives a royalty for each copy sold under that license. However, copyright is transactable – you can sell that copyright, along with the licenses, to somebody else. Then they get the royalties from the sales of the work.

That’s how the Beatles’ back catalogue ended up with Michael Jackson, for instance. It’s also how the film rights for The Hobbit ended up where they did, because apparently Tolkien sold that particular right in 1969 to pay a tax bill.

Moral right is different. The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, issued in 1928,  defines it (article 6) as: “Independent of the author’s economic rights, and even after the transfer of the said rights, the author shall have the right to claim authorship of the work and to object to any distortion, modification of, or other derogatory action in relation to the said work, which would be prejudicial to the author’s honor or reputation.”

In other words, you have a right to be associated as author of your work – and a right to object to derogatory presentation of it, even if you’ve sold the copyright or signed a contract in which the copyright is owned by whoever’s commissioned the work.

The thing is, that right has to be actively asserted, which is why you often see the line ‘The author’s moral rights have been asserted’ on the imprint page. Sometimes, it may reflect only partial assertion of that right, and will say so – ‘The author’s moral right to be named as author of this work has been asserted’.

Publishers are well aware of it – which is why many include a clause in contracts stating that a line like this will be on the imprint page. It’s important. Copyright can be sold; moral right cannot, and it is reasonable that authors are not subjected to derogatory presentation of their work, even if it’s reprinted later.

Although most nations have signed, or recognise, the Berne Convention, the specifics of moral right in law differ from country to country.

My advice? I’m not an attorney or lawyer, but I figure asserting moral rights is part of the writing deal. Check out the precise details in your jurisdiction. If in doubt, consult your lawyer on it.

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

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

Essential writing skills: breaking down the writing process

I mentioned a while ago that planning was essential to effective writing. Not just planning the content, but planning the whole thing – from idea to finished written material – as a process.

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.

Planning content and planning production go together, and today I thought I’d outline how that can break down – making it possible to plan things effectively – and efficiently.

This isn’t a non sequitur when it comes to writing. If you’re writing professionally, time is everything. A plan could look something like this:

1. Develop the content. This is what a lot of writers call ‘planning’, and it is, but it’s only the beginning. Whether fiction or non-fiction, there’s bound to be research associated with the project  – and this is the point to define it.

2. Do the research (and yes, I know that this is HUGE. It’ll need planning of itself -this line is akin to writing ‘now build the Effel Tower’, but hey…)

3. Break down the writing process. Deconstruction. Different people will do this different ways, but one approach is to run through discrete drafts – (a) first draft, (b) put in a drawer for a week, (c) come back to it and make revisions, (d) get it read and commented on, (e) take comments on board, (f) repeat until satisfied – or deadline approaches.

4. There is a discrete process to prepare something for release to a publisher, or if you’re self-pubbing, for that publication. I’ve posted on it before.

Now, you might think a defined process like this stands against creativity – reduces writing to a mechanical exercise. Of course creativity has to be allowed to flourish; but the reality of professional writing is that it’s not a hobby. Things have to be done to cost and time. The trick is to train your creativity to fall into place. And to apply principles of time management. More on that soon.

Do you plan what you’re writing as a process? What experiences have you had along these lines? 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

 

 

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 dark secret behind better book sales

People buy books for a lot of reasons. The main one is the emotional response they get from reading. And that’s true of non-fiction as well as fiction.

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

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

But that isn’t the only reason. Why buy this book and not that? Why buy at all? A lot of it, it seems to me, flows from word-of-mouth. And that in turn boils down to one factor – discovery.

I would say ‘discovery’ and ‘quality’, but I can’t help thinking that Fifty Shades of Grey rather gives the lie to the notion that ‘quality’ is a factor.

Discovery is everything. Sometimes readers take a punt on an author they know nothing about, but have just stumbled across. But that still demands discovery. If your books aren’t known at all, they won’t sell – which sounds like one of those idiot ipso-facto statements, except it happens to be the biggest hurdle any author faces these days. Discovery. Going from zero to almost-zero.

It’s hard. Social media equips everybody with the same tools. It’s hard to be heard above the ‘noise’.  Everybody’s self-publishing, spamming themselves across Twitter.  Why should a potential reader click on this one – and not another one? Or any of them.

Combine that with the new age of e-convenience – where a lot of book-buyers buy even hard copy books from the comfort of their home PC – and you’ve got a lot of weight riding on whatever internet presence you can scrape up.

Advertising outside that paradigm helps. Sometimes. But that’s hard too. Back in the late 1990s, my books were being advertised on TV, in major print journals – even the Woman’s Weekly (it was a bloke book on engineering – the idea was that wives would buy it for their husbands). But even under that old model it was hard. Publishers back success. An established author will attract a good deal more advertising clout from their publisher than an unknown one.

That, I think, is why J K Rowling’s last ‘Harry Potter’ novel was splashed all over Wellington buses at around $6000 a shot, and my non-fiction history books weren’t.

Can you do anything to tip the odds? Sure. My take:

1. Professionalism counts. Sometimes, that also means paying for professional skills where your own skill set lacks – proof-editing or cover design, for instance.
2. A solid and positive social media presence. You’re an author. Your social media presence is your brand, and it takes a lot of effort to build up. Don’t break it by doing something stupid – like blurting what you really think of Politician X, or ‘flaming’ people, or pulling sock puppet tricks.
3. Actually, despite the way Fifty Shades of Grey burst upon us, quality DOES count.
4. Hard work pays off. No really.

And, of course, there’s always that indefineable – dumb luck. You can set everything up, get everything geared to go – and still, things have to go your way. But that’s life generally, isn’t it.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

Shameless self promotion bit: My Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand is available as e-book from Amazon. 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

Nook coming soon.

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