Writing inspirations – sombre gravestones in a sudden sun

Today’s writing inspiration – for NaNoWriMo entrants and for writers of all persuasions – is a photo I took of headstones at Dovedale cemetery, near Nelson, New Zealand.

Headstones at Dovedale, 2013.

Headstones at Dovedale, 2013.

It was a patchy day. By the time I took this photo the light was fading – but it carried an electric glow that I tried to capture. There was a mood to it. Inspiring? I hope so.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Fellow writers – here’s the 2014 NaNo inspiration schedule.

It’s National November Writing Month again folks – just three weeks to go before it begins, and to help you along I’ve got some posts coming up about writing. These include posts about structure, about how to build characters, and about how to keep writing even when the muse departs.

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'.

Yes, I had to pose in the entrance of the 2012 Hobbit Artisan Market in central Wellington, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in Prince Caspian’. Am I a geeky Tolkien fan or what?

My background? I’ve been writing since I was seven. I was formally trained in fiction writing, though I am better known for my non-fiction. Many of my publications are in history, but of late I’ve veered back to the sciences, my original passion.

Aside from my feature articles, academic papers and professional work in publishing, I’ve also written and published over 50 books, a fair proportion of them with Penguin Random House.

It’s been a hell of a ride, and I’m still learning – as Hemingway says, we’re all apprentices. We’re also all in this together, folks – every writer has something to contribute. And if we work with each other, inspiring others to write great books, we can build a bigger pie for us all to share.

I’ve got a regular schedule planned for the next few weeks, through to the end of November. At this stage the schedule – posted around 7.30 am on the day, New Zealand time (evening before in the US) – is:

Friday – inspirational photo
Saturday – essential writing skills
Sunday – inspirational photo
Monday – more essential writing skills
Wednesday – a post on something else (surprise, though it’s likely to be either science or something about the books).

And I might have some surprises for Tuesdays and Thursdays. Keep a lookout for all this and more. Right here – this bat-time, this bat-channel…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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It’s NaNoWriMo time again – and here’s the deal

National November Novel Writing Month begins in a few weeks – challenging writers around the world to produce a 50,000 word work of fiction in just 30 days.

Wright_Typewriter2That’s a pace to challenge the best of the professionals. Although it’s definitely do-able. Don’t forget, Jack Kerouac whipped out On The Road in one three-week writing barrage. It’s one of my favourite books and has to be considered a literary classic by any measure.

So really, the question is not ‘whether’, you can blast 50,000 words out in that time-frame, but ‘how’.

We can’t do much better than taking a lead from Kerouac. Despite his intent to write via a spontaneous free-flowing ‘stream of consciousness’, he actually put quite a bit of prior planning into On The Road, including several earlier false starts. When he sat down at his typewriter to begin the marathon, he already had his characters sorted out, the plot and events in his head, and knew where he was going. The detail of his text then danced around that in what, to my mind, was an ideal blend of pre-planned structure with the soaring creativity of free-flow writing.

Progress, nineteenth century style; bigger, faster, heavier... more Mordor.

That’s me by the truck. A double-size truck designed to carry 100-ton loads in one hit – but not daunting, once it’s figured out. Like a novel, really…

Of course it’s easy to say that. The real issue is doing. And I’m going to help you. Over the next while, through the lead-up to NaNoWriMo and beyond, I’ll be detailing just how to make all that happen. How to write stuff – fast and well. I’ve got some posts lined up that’ll give you tips, tricks and techniques for getting there – plus, to fill the gaps between the regular posts, I’ll be re-blogging a few classics from my earlier NaNoWriMo advice, years ago. And check out other stuff on this blog, too – I’ve put up a lot of writing tips and techniques over the years.

Writing well? Sure. One of the conceits of NaNoWriMo is that anything blurted out in a month will always only be ‘first draft’ – the intent is to get people writing as much as anything else.

I disagree. I think that with the right amount of pre-work and planning, it’s possible to write something good in that time. That’s right – 50,000 quality words. In thirty days.

Stick around. I’ll show you. I’ve got regular posts lined up about how to do it, inspirational posts to spur your thinking, and more. Watch this space.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Writing inspirations – inside the cathedral of light, Sainte Chappelle

I’m opening a new series of writing inspiration posts with a photo I took of a lesser known cathedral in the heart of Paris – Sainte Chappelle. It’s on the Isle de Cite, about a block from Notre Dame. Have any of you been there?

St Chappelle, Paris - a photo I took using Fujicolour 200 asa film at 1/125th with an exposure time of around 1 second. It worked.

St Chappelle, Paris – a photo I took using Fujicolour 200 asa film at f.8 with an exposure time of around 1 second. It worked.

This cathedral is truly awesome, because of the slender tracery that holds up the roof. You wouldn’t think stone has such tensile strength. Being an inveterate geek – sorry, ‘intellectual badass’ – I spent a good deal of time working out how the twelfth-century engineers had done it. And the effect is amazing. As, indeed, it was intended to be. A cathedral of light. I find it inspiring. Do you?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: writing as a whole concept

It has long seemed to me that one of the pitfalls of writing is the idea that ‘writing’ is finished when the last word goes on the draft. After that it’s ‘editing’, which I know some authors view not merely as a separate process, but also boring. After all, the book’s really finished… isn’t it?

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

It’s an issue because, really, a book isn’t ‘finished’ until it’s out there on the store shelves. Everything that comes before that is part of the process – of which the assembly of the first draft is a part. But it is not the only part, and it certainly isn’t an ‘end’. On my experience it isn’t necessarily even the most time-consuming part. The reality, if we look at hours spent, is that the time required to actually draft the words – to have something to start working on – is about half the total.

So where does the notion that ‘writing’ and ‘editing are separate come from? I think part of the issue is the way results in writing are defined by word count – witness the proliferation of ‘word counters’ that even show progress bars. It gives the illusion of completion when a certain number of words are reached.

The reality is that word-count is a tool. In the profession it’s a specific device for defining scale. Editors use it. Word count provides a measure of the space a piece will take up – allowing them to determine costs. For authors, that same scale also means they can plan structure and produce work with proper pace, balance of content, and flow within the requisite length. It is not an end-goal of itself.

There is also the issue of motive. A lot of the people who decide to pick up writing produce fiction, drawn by the appeal of free-flow creativity – of being able to tell a story rather than receive somebody else’s. But once that draft’s been written, the entertainment aspect goes away and it turns into a grind. The professional reality is that yes, writing does need to engage you as author; but it also isn’t a pastime.

If we go back to first principles, what is ‘writing’, really?

To me, the reality of ‘writing’ is a process of conveying an author’s thoughts and emotion to a reader, and perhaps triggering a different emotion in the reader. If we look on writing in that sense, all parts of the process become part of a broader whole.

Actually writing words down is a part of it, but so too is the planning, research, editing, the typeset-check, even the marketing. All these things are essential parts of an author’s work – part of that broader concept we call ‘writing’.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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My top five writing records…

It’s over 30 years since I started writing my first book for publication. It’s been a pretty wild ride at times.  The whole lot has been through the traditional system – and today I thought I’d share the top five ‘record events’.

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.

1. The most money someone wanted for a license fee on any project I’ve worked on.
Not for a book, but I had to include this because it’s so crazy. The copyright owners wanted to charge $15,110.39 for use of one cartoon from a 60-year old magazine. Ouch. I could have commissioned new artwork for less than ten percent of that. The idea of using it was promptly dropped.  I’m still not sure what the extra 39 cents was for.

2. The fastest rejection.
Nine minutes, from a university press. They also told me never to bother them again. Usually a publisher rejects work through inaction – they neither know, nor care about, the hopeful author. But this was so decisive and fast that I’d obviously tripped up over a prior decision about dealing with me. The weird part? I was a total stranger. I have a shrewd idea as to what was going on. But it worries me that people I don’t know, and have never had an argument with, nonetheless feel so strongly they feel able to act as judge, jury and executioner, behind my back, and in absence of my knowing they have an issue. It’s not how western morality is meant to work, though it’s consistent with the moral void I’ve discovered every time I try to deal professionally with New Zealand academics or their wannabe hangers on.

3. The longest running contract before publication.
In 2003 I signed a contract with Penguin to write a biography of Sir Donald McLean. Before I’d finished, a biography of the same guy appeared, the existence of which was previously unknown to me or to Penguin. We agreed to put mine on hold for a while until the dust settled. It’s being published in February 2015.

4. The most books I had published in one calendar year.
Five. Four new titles and one reprint with amendments. I didn’t write them in one hit, of course – publishers stack ‘em for specific release times, and books chase each others’ tails.

5. The most danger I’ve ever been in as a result of writing.
There was the time when I was doing my aviation journalism jag, and I found myself in a C-130 Hercules, punting along at about 200 feet on a low-alt exercise with the rear door open and a Toyota Hilux bouncing on its chains beside me. But that wasn’t actually dangerous.

No, the most danger I’ve been in was in Archives New Zealand reading room, when a military historian who I’d never met before saw me, crossed the room, and stood over me with balled fists and red face, demanding to know what I was doing. He was very, very angry. I thought I was going to be hit, and I think I would have been if I’d stood up. I’ve had people back me into a corner and spit at me, in libraries, but this one wins the prize. Why did it happen? See (2).

Could be worse, of course – at least I’m not John Lennon.

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: what I learned from Jack Kerouac about chapters

One of the major battles Jack Kerouac had to fight when publishing On The Road was his lack of divisions.

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). I wrote this one…

His editors won; the book as originally published had divisions – I wouldn’t exactly call them chapters. And with good reason. Divisions, usually chapters, are an expected part of a book – a useful device for highlighting the structure. If set up right, they act as defined break points for readers. Good all round, unless you’re Jack Kerouac.

His point, of course, was to do with flows of consciousness – with sharing his mind process with the world and presenting his beat-gen anthem as he conceived it.

It was a valid point, and these days editions of the book are available in the original ‘scroll’ form.

Other authors – well, we all use chapters…don’t we. And that raises questions about such niceties as whether to name or to number. It’s a moot point. Nineteenth century practise was clear. Fiction and non-fiction alike were the same. A chapter could be given a title that summarised the contents. Or, if it was just numbered, it often included a pot-summary, headline-style:

“Chapter MCXXXVI: In which Our Hero, having Undergone Many Trials and Tribulations, Discovers the Wonders of the Aerial Steam Railway, but Not Before Losing His Tube Of Brass Polish and Thus Rendering His Goggles Completely Tarnished By Coal Smuts, To His Dismay and That Of His Companions.”

Readers then go on to read how the hero, who had undergone 1185 previous chapters of trials and tribulations, discovers a steam railway and is embarrassed by the way the smoke dulls his brass goggles.

All well and good for the Penny Dreadfuls – and, these days, for novels harking back to the style. But is telegraphing the entire contents of a chapter really the way to go?

Chapter titles have the same effect on smaller scale, which is why some authors simply number their chapters. And, of course, a word out of place in a non-fiction chapter title is a red rag to academics, for whom any discrepancy between promised and actual content is a lever for denying worth in the rival intellectual.

My answer? ‘It depends’. Both approaches are useful – the actual answer has to flow from the fundamental questions of purpose and intent. What fits the intended style of the book and the statements it makes?

Sometimes, as Kerouac showed us, it might even be better to dispense with the whole apparatus – titles,  numbers and even chapters.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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