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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Essential writing skills: two steps to kick the muse into action

There you are, pen in hand – fingers posed over keyboard – ready to write. And….nothing.

Writing environment; Otehei Bay, New Zealand - where Zane Grey fished and penned some of his 90-odd novels.

Otehei Bay, New Zealand – where Zane Grey fished and penned some of his 90-odd novels. Did he run into writing blank? Bound to have.

It would be a cliché if it didn’t happen to every writer, sooner or later. It’s especially a problem in the profession. Publishers get antsy if authors are late.

My advice, after several decades in the business, is not to batter your head into a brick wall. Work the problem.

I have a two-step approach.

1. Look at the issue laterally. Why are you stuck? Have you no ideas at all? Have you dried up on a phrase but have the ideas in your head? Or do you have an idea in your head and simply cannot find a way of expressing it? These are the usual causes of what we call ‘writers block’. They demand different fixes. Are you short of ideas? Often writers have notebooks with ideas. But don’t just read any notes you have. Write them down again, fresh. Or, if you’re stuck on a phrase, write down the lead-up to it in a different way. Use pen and paper,  not your computer. This is important, because it changes the framework of what you are writing with – and so, re-shapes your writing thoughts.

2. Now go away and do something else for twenty minutes – go for a walk, dig the garden, do the dishes, change the oil in the car. Something utterly different from writing. Do not, repeat NOT, think about your writing problem. But – equally – don’t get caught up too far in the new thing. That’s important too.

Then get back to your computer and watch what happens.

Did it work? Do you have a favourite technique for escaping that oft mis-named ‘writers block’?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: the secret to getting the writing edge

Want to know the secret to standing out as a writer? I’ve said it before – and I’ll say it again. Professionalism counts.

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.

I’ve heard stories of writing festival organisers having to rouse guest speakers out of their hotel room when they don’t show up on stage. Other writers, apparently, enjoy listening to the sound of deadlines rushing past. It’s an accepted part of the industry, and authors who do that aren’t exceptional. But it’s irksome to publishers, especially these days as the industry turns on its head.

Professionalism, in the publishing business, is all to do with timing, scale and quality. Time is money. The major publishing houses haven’t the time – and these days, often not the leeway – to deal with authors who swan in with contracted manuscripts, months late and twice the specified length.

Writing long might give an author bragging rights – ‘oooh, haven’t I got a big book?’ – but scale of book determines both likely market pick-up and cover price. Publishers work backwards from that to budget production costs such as printing and editing – all of which are affected by scale. Running over-length, in short, adds costs that won’t have been budgeted for.

I’ve heard of publishers requiring authors to ditch chunks of manuscript, purely to get the book down to length. Contracts have a clause in them giving the publisher right to do so.

The other essential ingredient is quality – making sure that the book is up to scratch. This, too, is contractual. If the book isn’t up to par, the publisher can reject it – or hire an editor to bring it up to scratch.

None of this has been dislodged by the self-publishing revolution. On the contrary, if an author is also publisher, the need to be professional is doubly true. And that’s without talking about the professionalism needed for marketing.

So how to get that quality – and scale – all within time? That’s the essence of writing.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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It’s not as a big as it was…reconceptualising publishing

I had to admit to my wife the other day the traditional publishing and bookselling industry isn’t as big as it was. Worldwide, but especially in New Zealand.

Retail book sales here have dropped a compound 25 percent in the past two years, driven by a perfect storm combination of downloadable e-books and the rise of internet-driven hard-copy imports. People aren’t ‘naturally’ moving to Kindle. They still want print. But why troll out to the bookstore when you can order a print book at discount rates from Amazon or the Book Depository, not pay local sales tax, and get it within a week or two? Combine that with the way the main book chain fell over a few years back – putting the shivers into the whole industry as it stood then – and you have a recipe for disaster.

HMNZS Te Kaha, ANZAC class frigate. The sailors in the RHIB were sponging the hull. 'Tight and tiddly', I think it's called. Flag is "Kilo" - 'I wish to communicate with you'.

HMNZS Te Kaha, ANZAC class frigate. I launched my history of the RNZN on her flight deck in 2001, a few years before I took this photo. Here she is flying flag “Kilo” – ‘I wish to communicate with you’.

The book chain recovered under new ownership, retaining 59 of its 80-odd original stores; but into that mix has come the shift to online purchase. It’s certainly hit the indie booksellers. Small wonder that the big publishing houses have been fleeing. The driver has been bottom-line accountancy as seen from the regional Asia-Pacific head office. Most of the New Zealand operations have retracted to Australia. However, New Zealand book sales are less than Australia’s, and the Aussies, as far as I can tell, don’t understand the New Zealand book trade. What it means is that (a) books with slow-but-steady trickle sales don’t get reprinted, and (b) that same sales pattern lets books that are still viable in the New Zealand market drop below the ‘pulp now’ trigger and get written off.

The old publishing culture has vanished. It used to be reasonably profligate; I remember one visit to Auckland a decade ago where She Who Must Be Obeyed and I had dinner out several nights running with different publishers – their cost, not mine. I was discussing business. Another time my publishers put us both up in a motel, got us a hire car, all so we could attend the launch of my 60th anniversary history of the Royal New Zealand Navy, at the big RNZN base in Devonport, on board HMNZS Te Kaha. For various reasons we locked ourselves out of the motel and I ended up with my wife propelling me, head first, through the kitchen window where I ended up with my head jammed into the sink. Just in case you think book launches might be glamorous.

These days, alas, catering at publisher meetings – which for me seem to always happen in the same cafe in central Wellington – have dwindled to cups of coffee. Sigh…

It’s as bad for booksellers, because instead of being able to get stock in overnight, if a customer asks, they have to wait five days or more. Usually more. That loses them sales.

Smaller local publishers are rising to fill the gap; but the repping-sales model has broken, and the number of retail outlets has shrunk. Those that are left are being cautious.

Of course we have to turn this around. Collapse? Maybe by the old thinking. By the new, it’s an opportunity. That, in turn, means thinking laterally. Thinking creatively. Not just reinvention. It means re-framing the issues.

The fact is that the online revolution has changed things, and not in the way we imagine. So to get a re-conceptualised answer we have to start by reconceptualising the problem. Are we really looking at the issue the right way?

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: a philosophy for writers

Decades ago when I was on my freelance journalism jag I had an editor – a features editor – who was known as curmudgeon. I heard a story about the time he threw a typewriter out of the newsroom window. All the more effective given that the newsroom was on the third floor.

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

But he was also direct with it, and absolutely straight; the classic ‘rough diamond’. If you had his backing, you had it – no questions asked.

He had forgotten more about grammar than I was ever going to know, and he didn’t hesitate to share.

When I asked to get involved in the subbing of my work – because I didn’t like the butcher job being done by the subbies of the day – he agreed. It was a morning paper. ‘You’ll have to come in at 10.00 pm.’ Straight answer, no compromise on process for them. I did.

He was the one who suggested I should write a story on a British Duke-class frigate due to visit Wellington. The ANZUS row was at its height – New Zealand was a pariah for taking a stand against all things nuclear.

If the British ship was arriving at all, it couldn’t have nuclear weapons aboard. The end.

But there was an obvious story there, given the right questions. And so I attended the press conference in the wardroom and asked the Rear-Admiral in charge of the little flotilla, straight-faced, whether he had them or not.

‘Obviously the Royal Navy neither confirms nor denies the existence of such weapons aboard,’ he said, equally straight faced. ‘But the provisions of New Zealand’s law are also clear.’

Well, what else could he say? He knew it. I knew it. My editor knew it.

But it had been asked and answered. I wrote the story and my editor duly printed it.

This was a guy who knew how to get good stories, who knew what audiences wanted – and who had the confidence to act as he needed, who was straight – and who, beneath the bluster, was also kind. He inspired people to follow his lead, he got the job done, and people who worked for him knew he backed them.

A good philosophy, I think, for writers generally.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: he said, she said – without adjectives

Have you ever tried writing dialogue without all the ‘he said’, ‘she said’ nonsense? It’s an effective technique, though it’s easy to say ‘do this’. Harder to master.

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

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

Hemingway set the gold standard – half-page strings of dialogue, often without any directions at all as to the speaker– and it was usually clear as to who said what.

The reason he took that angle is that the onus is on writers to show, not tell – and how better to show than by revealing the esssential meaning through the dialogue, rather than making the reader wade through instructions about it? Hemingway was the absolute master of the technique.

How did he do it? Any dialogue that’s well written should, ideally, speak for itself. The character of the character, shall we say, should come through in the choice of words. Through the context. Through their opinions and wording. If you’ve drawn the character right, the reader will be familiar enough to know what they might say. Perhaps even by such a simple device as a repeated signature phrase – ‘My dear Watson’, for example.

It becomes blatant where the characters are parodic – Passepartout and Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days, for instance.

Of course direction is sometimes still needed – not least to anchor the start point.  You have to add “he said” “she said” somewhere. However, one thing to avoid is a qualifying adjective – ‘he said darkly’, ‘she said brightly’ and so forth.

This is important. Show not tell. Adjectives tell the reader what to think about the dialogue; whereas the trick to quality writing is to make the reader work for the meaning by showing them a direction. Let the reader discover the tone through context or choice of words.

Think pared back. Think character. Think Hemingway.

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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