Essential writing skills: penning things “in the style of”

One of the biggest challenges any author has to meet is mastering the mechanics of actually writing. Only once that has been nailed is it possible to tackle the other challenges of content. A lot of aspiring authors, I think, try to handle the whole lot at once, and it’s difficult.

Close-up of the filter controls of my Moog - er - quantum healing device...

Seeing as we’re on to music, here’s a close-up of the filter controls of my Moog synthesiser.

But there’s a quick and effective way around it. Does anybody remember Rick Wakeman? Brit seventies prog-rocker better known now as a TV personality, Grumpy Old Man, and comedian. Writers can learn from him. Really, and not just because he’s written a succession of books. A couple of years ago my wife went to an acoustic concert he gave which consisted of Wakeman, a Steinway Model D 9-foot grand, and a lot of hilarious anecdotes. In the middle of it he played a medley of nursery rhymes “in the style of” well known composers: Mozart, Bartok and so on.

As he explained, he’d been taught the technique at the Royal Schools of Music. The point being that to compose in a particular style, you had to understand it. It’s a learning technique – and, as Wakeman demonstrated, also very funny. Ever heard Three Blind Mice as written by Rachmaninov? I have. Actually, you can too…

That’s true of writing, too. One of the fast ways to get ahead in the style department, to my mind, is to emulate others – not with the intention of ultimately styling like they did, but so you can find out how they did it. The act of actually writing like somebody else is also incredibly valuable, because it forces you to think about how the words go together.

Hemingway is a good one. Everybody thinks he wrote in short sentences. He didn’t – some of his sentences were very long indeed. And, by quite deliberate design, his writing was also un-ornamented, and not just by economy of adjectives. The intent? It forced the reader to work – and so to connect better with the story and the characters.

These are just exercises, of course – the writing can be thrown away. Don’t be precious about something you’ve written. But practise something ‘in the style of’ often enough, and you’ll find you have mastery. Perhaps suddenly. From there, your own voice will emerge.

Do you practise writing like this?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Control your writing inspiration with hidden thinking

I had an idea for a story the other day. Came in like a thunderbolt, fully formed.

It's a self-portrait, in a deco hubcab. No really...

Seeing oneself distorted in a dream? It’s a self-portrait, in a deco hubcab. No really…

After a while I figured it wouldn’t quite work that way, but it was a start. And that begs a question. Where did the idea come from? I wasn’t thinking about writing a story, or even idly contemplating plot ideas – the last little while I’ve been fully occupied with non-fiction projects.

But that’s how the best ideas usually arrive. Isaac Newton, for instance, was resting under a hedge one day when a new mathematical principle suddenly occurred to him. He called it ‘fluxions’, though today we know it as calculus (and Gottfried Liebniz, who’d had exactly the same idea, was very annoyed).

The reality is that our minds are always hard at work behind the scenes. It’s a more complex process than usually allowed, and I figure a fair number of ideas come to nothing – we forget them, or they don’t emerge other than in dreams. They’re random. Like the idea that hit me. Yet we CAN control it consciously. Instead of letting inspiration ‘float in’ randomly, try this. It’s VERY important to do this with pen and paper. What you’re thinking may not be able to be represented in words at this stage. That’s fine. Draw a picture, a diagram – whatever best works for you to express yourself.

1. Write down the end point. Starting with the end point is the sharpest way to focus direction. It has to be an emotional outcome for you, and for your reader. But don’t try to figure out the journey there…yet.
2. Write down any ideas, thoughts, concepts you already have. Snapshots of scenes? Absolutely. It doesn’t have to be a specific project.
3. Work on these ideas a bit – refine them, see if they organise into patterns. Write them down again.
4. Take a fresh sheet of paper and copy the notes you’ve made, clean,  and manually copy the latest version. This manual copying is VERY important.
5. Now stick the clean copy in a drawer. And forget about it.
6. Go and do something totally different. Fishing, for instance.

What this does is set up relationships between ideas in your mind. The act of writing (or drawing) by hand and manually copying is vital because it involves so many different activities – reading, motor skills, memory, and thinking about the content. The aim is to get ideas moving & mixing ‘behind the scenes’. You might need to re-visit that piece of paper in a couple of weeks, re-read it – and maybe something will ‘click’. Or you could get an idea that mixes with what you’ve written – something totally left-field. That’s good too.

Does this work for you? Do you have a method of your own for triggering inspiration?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: Weird Al is right to use a split infinitive

I couldn’t stop laughing at this week’s furore over Weird Al Yankovich supposedly having an ‘error’ in a song about grammar errors. Weird Al apparently included a split infinitive in the lyrics.

Oh, the (apparent) irony. Social media went nuts. Well, I beg to differ. And so, I think, would Captain James T. Kirk. Gene Roddenberry anyway.

A split infinitive is where the infinitive marker (‘to’) and the verb (‘go’) are divided by another word – let’s say, ‘boldly’. Thus we could say ‘to boldly go’, rather than ‘to go boldly’. It’s technically ambiguous – what you are doing is making ‘boldly’ into the verb. Are you saying they boldly? Or that they go? See what I mean.

That prompted a furore of its own in the mid-1960s, when Roddenberry first launched that particular phrase upon the world.

Except that split infinitives were upheld as grammatically OK – even adding to the power of a sentence – in the right context, as early as 1948. In the strictest and most retentive sense, it’s not correct. But English is a constantly evolving language, and in general practical usage – back more than 60 years now – it’s been fine to split the infinitive. And we do, a lot. Along with starting sentences with conjunctions…

Weird Al, in short, got it right. But then, doesn’t he always? The guy’s a genius. And now…pay attention…

Some important lessons there, grammar-wise. I wish my high school English teacher had been as entertaining.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Busy busy busy busy…with science!

Last year I signed a contract with Penguin Random House to write a science book on a subject close to the hearts of everybody around the Pacific Rim.

OK, so I'm a geek. Today anyway. From the left: laptop, i7 4771 desktop, i7 860 desktop.

OK, I’m a geek. I have three computers (temporarily) on my desk with “2001-esque” wallpaper. Headphones by Sennheiser deliver Nightwish at high volume. Click to enlarge.

A science book? I’m known as a historian. And I can legitimately call myself one if I want – I have post-graduate academic qualifications in that field. Indeed, the Royal Historical Society at University College, London, elected me a Fellow, on merit of my contribution. Which I very much appreciate, it’s one of the highest recognitions of historical scholarship worldwide.

However, I don’t label myself ‘a historian’. Nor is it my sole interest or qualification; I spent longer learning music, formally, than history – and my home field always has been physics. I began learning it aged 4, as I learned to read. Seriously. When I was 16 I won a regional science contest prize for an entry on Einsteinian physics and black holes, which I hadn’t learned at school – I had to read the papers and then deduce the math myself, without help, aged 16. (I am not Sheldon…really…)

What all this adds up to is an interest in understanding stuff – in seeing the shapes and patterns and inter-relationships between things and fields. And so – a book on science. Time was tight, but I wouldn’t have agreed to the contract if I thought quality might be affected. All writing has to be fast and good. If you’ve ever been a journalist (another of my jags) you have no option. The key is having writing as second nature – and planning. Good plans also have built-in capacity to adapt to circumstance, which meant that one weekend I had to sit down with a pile of science papers and:

1. Read those science papers. These included content such as: “Our estimate based on the seismic moment equation of Aki & Richards (2002, p. 48) (Mo = (X x D x RA; where Mo is seismic moment; (X is the rigidity modulus, D is fault plane displacement and RA is rupture area.”

2. Write a draft that drew from this and a lot of other stuff, in English pitched for a general reading audience. I did end up writing occasional sentences like: “This is known as the phase velocity, and is determined by the equation v = √g x d , where v is the velocity of the wave, d is the depth of water, and g is the acceleration of gravity.”  No other way of explaining fluid dynamics, you see… and well, this is science!

3. Revise that draft to clean up the wording. Final word count added to the MS in this 48-hour burst? A shade over 7000. That’s researched and mostly finished for publication. Think about it.

What got sacrificed was social media. That week and most others. I kept this blog going because I’d stacked posts. I’ll be back full force. Soon. What’s more, I’m going to share how to write quality, write accurately and quickly. There is, dare I say, a science to it. More soon.

The book is already being promoted on Random’s website. Check it out.

Science! A good word, that. Sort of thing the late Magnus Pyke might say. Science!

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: it’s OK to write square mountain ranges

It’s almost a cliche these days to say that modern fantasy writers all stand in J R R Tolkien’s shadow. Or George R R Martin’s.

But it’s true. Obviously, having two middle names beginning with R is a pre-requisite for greatness in the genre. And it was Tolkien who really defined the field for so many author who came after – the languages, the complex world-building, the maps.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

Maps are an excellent way to help a fantasy novel along. They make it possible for readers – and author – to orient themselves – and, more crucially, help suspend disbelief. Realistic geography makes the world more real. I’m talking about having rivers fall from mountains into valleys, thence into alluvial plains; by having swamplands in depressions, and deserts on the far side of mountains and the prevailing wind. A lot of authors deliberately build their worlds along these lines.

The odd thing is that the master in whose shadow we all stand didn’t do any of that. The geography of Middle Earth, like the stories, grew in the telling – and was essentially dictated by plot. The Misty Mountains divide the wilderness in two – ruler-straight, in The Hobbit version of the map – as a barrier for the heroes to overcome. Then comes Mirkwood – another massive barrier.

It’s no different in The Lord Of The Rings, where half the tension comes from the fact that Mordor is guarded by impassable mountains, conveniently blocking easy entry to the country from three sides. Unless you’re in Switzerland, real geography isn’t likely to hem you in that way, of course. Tolkien explained his geography by its internal history: Mordor’s mountains were raised by Sauron, deliberately, in that shape. But to me, at least, it’s always been irksome.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

Fantasy geography. Part of the world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG.

But then it occurred to me. In The Lord Of The Rings, especially, Tolkien was always describing real geography – details of the landscape, often down to the highest levels of fidelity. And he often did so by revealing how it affected the mood of his characters – making it completely real, in a literary sense.  The Dead Marshes; the pleasant woodlands of Ithilien; the horror climb over the Mountains of Shadow; all these things became real because of the way the hobbits experienced them – and thence, of course, the reader.

Part of the way he did that was by taking real things and inserting them into the story. Old Man Willow was apparently based on a real willow Tolkien used to sit under. The Dead Marshes were, explicitly and graphically, a description of the Western Front, where Tolkien served with the Lancashire Fusiliers.

This was how Tolkien made his geography work. Writing is all about transfer of emotion – and by writing landscapes that he drew emotion from – and by making the response to the landscape emotional, Tolkien also gave his wider geography a credibility that could not have been gained any other way.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 

 

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Announcing my next book on the New Zealand Wars

I’m pleased to announce my first title for 2014. It’s being published by Libro International on 29 July. Here’s their media release. I’m quite excited, and I hope you will be too.

The cover of my next book.

The cover of my next book.

The New Zealand Wars – a brief history tells the tale (briefly!) of the thirty years of sporadic fighting that marked New Zealand’s mid-nineteenth century.  Two of these wars played out at the same time – and with much the same technologies – as the US Civil War being fought on the other side of the Pacific.

It’s an era that had had its share of controversy and its share of myth-making. Late twentieth century historians reversed the way the wars had traditionally been seen. But were they right? And what was the actual story - in brief – behind the dramatic events of the day?

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

How to win with writing’s digital revolution

There’s no question that the digital revolution has hit writing.

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

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

Publishers are in a spin as traditional print-publishing – with its marketing and distribution model – falls away in the face of e-books and print on demand. A lot’s been driven by economic downturn. As discretionary spending falls away, people cut luxuries. But digital’s cheap. E-readers easily justify their cost.

To me the issue tells us a lot about how we think. It would be easy to  declare the death of print books. We’re conditioned to think that way as a result of Victorian-age progressivism, which framed our mind-set 200 years ago and hasn’t much shifted. You know the idea – the old replaces the new because it’s inevitable. The new out-competes, it’s natural, etc etc. Personally I blame Herbert Spencer, though realistically he was as much symptom as cause, back in the 1850s. We’ve been further conditioned by the way  ‘new models’ are sold on ‘superiority’ – actually a device to maintain sales, invented by car makers nearly a century ago when innovations became incremental. It’s so much a part of the commercial world that we don’t question it now. Of course the new is superior. Get with the programme!

The fact is that even biology doesn’t work that way, still less human social constructs, which is what we’re talking about when trying to predict the take-up of new technologies that’ll affect our lifestyles and habits. And yet we get puzzled when the future doesn’t happen as we imagine. What went wrong? Maybe it’s still coming. Er – er -

When trying to sort out the problem, we don’t ask the right questions – investigation usually pivots on why the original assumption that X will automatically replace Y didn’t happen. In fact, we have to ask questions based on different assumptions – such as ‘how has the new been received by society?’ We are looking at an interface, don’t forget, between capability and people. And people don’t behave in the shallow, automatic way imagined by nineteenth century observers who were wrestling to understand unprecedented social change.

Let me put it this way. Remember going out to the cinema? Killed in the 1950s by TV. Remember cash? Stone dead in the face of plastic cards.

I took this just before the premier of the Hobbit movie in 2012.

TV killed going out to the movies stone dead…didn’t it? This is the Embassy in Wellington, dressed for the premier of the first Hobbit movie in 2012.

Yeah, you get the picture. Plastic cards killed cheques; and certainly in New Zealand, usage of both cards AND cash have been climbing. If one was replacing the other, we’d expect cash to fall as cards rose. It isn’t. And less than 50 km from where I live, some guy named James Cameron has just arrived to stay, looking to spend several billion on – wait for it – movies that people will go to the cinema to see.

In all cases the new has taken its place alongside the old – which, itself, has adapted and changed. In many ways the new tech acts to improve the penetration of the whole medium into society. And that’s true of the publishing revolution. E-books have replaced ‘airport paperbacks’. But it isn’t either-or. It’s  ‘together’, as recent studies show. This one, for instance.  Or this one.

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Conceptually, we’re looking at complementary channels of communication; and we need to develop a mind-set that says ‘publishing’ means ‘publishing by any medium’. I can envisage buyers wanting to enjoy print but still buy an e-edition to have convenience on the move. Or an e-edition might offer additional content.

Publishers and authors alike need to be innovative, nimble, and open to change.

Curiously, I’ve got an example right now. Even a year or two ago, I’d supposed that large-scale books, such as my Illustrated History of New Zealand, might not be amenable to e-treatment. But they are. It’s out in e-format as well as print. Which I think is tres cool.

Welcome to the future.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Essential writing skills: three steps to capturing your readers

Want to know how to capture your readers? Writing’s all about emotion – about the author transferring their own emotions to the page, and perhaps creating new emotions in the reader. It can be exhausting. As Hemingway once said, you sit down at the typewriter and bleed.

Ernest Hemingway (left) and Carlos Guiterrez, 1934. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Ernest Hemingway (left) and Carlos Guiterrez, 1934. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The funny thing is, it’s true of non-fiction as well as fiction. Non-fiction also takes readers on an emotional journey – at basic level, the satisfaction of having information. But more usually non-fiction involves an argument, a pathway – and it is here that the emotion emerges. As Charles Darwin discovered, way back when.

Actually doing it, of course, is the trick:

1. Capture. The first task is to engage the reader at that emotional level. This is done by hook-lines and promises – the promise of that emotional journey and satisfaction. This doesn’t mean writing advertising slogans, but it does mean calling to the reader at a level other than that of the literal content. Readers are captured not by that literal content, but by the promise of what that content will do for them – how they will feel when reading it.

2. Hold. Next step – deliver on that promise. Keep the reader’s interest. One way to do that is to make small promises of emotional return along the way.

3. Punch. It’s not enough to carry the reader on an emotional journey – it has to be memorable. And the way to deal with that is to deliver a punch. This can be a multiple punch – giving the reader a series of little hitsies through the work, before finally delivering the KO at the end. It can be sharp – think of the way short story writers put a twist into the last sentence. Or it can be paced to suit the work. Think of the last chapter in Hemingway’s Farewell To Arms.

Ultimately the question writers have to ask, as they finish each sentence, is ‘what does this deliver to the reader? How will it make the reader feel?’

Where – in short – is the emotional journey?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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The greatest writing challenge of all

Writers never finish learning how to write. ‘We are all apprentices’, Ernest Hemingway once said, ‘in a craft where no-one ever becomes a master.’

Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)

Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)

Too true.  It is an endless learning curve. Steep at first – as novice writers realise how much they have to learn, take their first unsteady steps into that world. Later it’s easier. But even those who have mastered the craft – who have achieved the 10,000 hour, million-word goal, cannot rest on their laurels.

There is no such thing as saying ‘I have learned how to write’. No writer ever finishes learning. The onus is on all writer, always, to push the edges – to sit down, as Hemingway also put it, at the typewriter and bleed.

My take? When you finish writing for the day, the question isn’t ‘what is my word count’. The question is ‘on what emotional journey have I taken my readers’?

And then you have to ask ‘how can I make that a better journey tomorrow?’

Take on the challenge.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Essential writing skills: harsh sentences for authors

I posted the other week on the importance of getting the rhythm right when writing sentences. And on the incompetence of my high school English teacher, but that’s another matter.

Party time in Napier's main 'art deco' precinct, February 2014.

Rhythm’s important to writing – as important as music. Jazz, for instance (this being a jazz type picture).

Getting the rhythm right when you write is part of the essential framework of writing – it lends interest. You can draw the reader, sometimes, by rhythm alone. It applies, of course, to every part of writing – words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs and so on.

The other part of making sentences work is in the content, which is largely a matter of structure. In strict grammatical terms a sentence is a single idea, but it can often be broken up into clauses and sub-clauses.

In non-fiction, particularly – but also, sometimes, fiction – I often discover very long sentences, sometimes embodying more than one idea. They run on (this is a technical term). The reason is that the author hasn’t properly organised their thoughts. It gets egregious when the subject and predicative (‘what’ and ‘what happens’) parts are divided by long qualifying clauses. This can really obstruct meaning. ‘The queen, while sitting at dinner and feeling extremely hungry, but whose crown was extremely heavy and had fallen over her nose, told the king to pass the salt.’ Ouch.

The trick is to make sure the subject (what the sentence is about) and the predicative (what happens to the subject) are adjacent.  Sometimes a long sentence is better written as two or three short ones. In both fiction and non-fiction, it’s also useful to organise the ideas in each sentence – to get the order so the sentence leads the reader on a journey.

All this may sound like Writing 101, but it’s amazing how easily writers can get carried into their work. Familiarity breeds contempt – quickly. Yes, writers have to write for themselves first and foremost – but the reader has to be thought about too. One way to test that is to put the work in a metaphorical drawer for a couple of weeks and then re-read it. Does it hold your interest? If it doesn’t, then it probably won’t capture readers either.

The biggest challenge when writing – and one of the causes of long convoluted sentences – is the fact that we think in simultaneous concepts, but writing is linear – a single idea thread. The knack for writers when assembling sentences – and, for that matter, any writing – is to understand the issue and be able to disentangle that simultaneity.

It’s a question, in short, of understanding how people think.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 

 

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