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

Click to buy from Fishpond

Click to buy print edition from Fishpond

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

 

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

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

A glistening quote from the Wellington Writers’ Walk

I was out on the Wellington waterfront the other day with my camera and spotted the light falling just so across this quote from New Zealand’s best known short-story writer, Katherine Mansfield. She’s one of several authors commemorated in the Wellington Writers’ Walk.

My DSLR’s not new-tech, and CCD’s being what they are, I wasn’t sure a photo into the light would actually work. But it did. I had to share it.

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

 

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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: giving your style eyebrows

One of my favourite composers, Frank Zappa, used to refer to the interesting add-ons in his music as ‘eyebrows’. The unexpected bits that make you sit up and listen.

A picture I took in 2008 of a Katherine Mansfield quote on the Wellington writers' walk.

A picture I took in 2008 of a Katherine Mansfield quote on the Wellington writers’ walk.

It’s true for writers too. I’ve blogged about this before, but it’s well worth repeating. When you style your work, eyebrows are important. That doesn’t mean adding a writing gimmick (yes, Franz Kafka, I’m talking about YOU and your woeful dereliction of commas) but it does mean keeping the content interesting. Making it spark.

That spark flows from both the style, the content and the intent of your writing. But today I’m going to focus just on the stylistic part. My three key guidelines are:

1. Vary sentence lengths. A few short staccato sentences followed by a long one often works. Hemingway was a master at it – he’s often thought of as the ‘short sentence guy’, but actually he also wrote very long compound sentences, often a string of short phrases expressing the emotions of a character.

2. Content flows into the process: include a detail that stands out. This works for fiction and non-fiction alike.

3. Vary your vocabulary. Most books are written with a vocabulary of a few thousand words. But English has over a million available. Again, this doesn’t mean digging through the Thesaurus for the most obscure word you can find – instead, locate one that works with your style. It might be quite common.

All of this devolves to keeping the writing lively, interesting and well-paced – to holding the interest of the reader who, of course, you captured with the punchy first sentence…didn’t you… (OK, time to go back and revise that one now).

More writing stuff tomorrow.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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Essential writing skills: breaking down the learning journey

One of the biggest challenges aspiring authors face is the learning journey. I’ve seen it often enough. Writing’s taught at school, everyone can write – right?

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.

Of course it’s much harder than that. There is so much to deal with. Fiction writers have to master all the intricacies of structure, characterisation, dialogue, plot and expression. Non-fiction writers have to know how to convey and sustain an argument across the length of a book, and to reduce simultaneity of thought into a linear thread.

That’s without considering the issues of style and voice – the mechanics of writing. One of the outcomes is that authors often learn as they go. The written style at the end of the first book differs from the style at the beginning.

The only fix there is to turn around and start again, re-writing to consistent form. But another is to say ‘I want to write, so I’ll have to learn first’ – and treat the first five books as a learning exercise, never to be published and, ideally, thrown away.

I pretty much guarantee nobody does that, though – in part because most aspiring writers don’t know how challenging it actually is before they start. I didn’t. I long for my teenage days when I could pour stories out, without a care in the world about content other than to know I was writing. And also because the motivaton when starting out is often the emotional journey of writing, the book (‘my novel’) becomes the baby, not a product or an exercise.

Unfortunately the only real way to get good, and to be able to write fast, is to practise. But the learning journey can be broken down. First challenge, to my mind, is mastering the mechanics of getting the words down. Once that becomes automatic, it’s possible to focus on matters of content.

Tackling the nuts-and-bolts of actually writing first means you’ll be more likely to first find – and be able to fully control – the voice and tone of what you’re writing. That is a huge advantage when trying to present content, whether fiction or non-fiction.

Mastery of the words also means you can control the length – and won’t get hooked up on word-count as a goal. It isn’t.

In the next few weeks I’m going to run through some of the ways of mastering the mechanics of writing. I hope you’ll join me on the journey.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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Inspiring culture – the meta-literature of Tolkien

It occurred to me the other day that one of my favourite authors – J R R Tolkien – has probably had more written about him than he actually wrote himself.

I had to prone to take this picture. 'Get up,' She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. 'People will think you're dead.'

I had to prone to take this picture in the Hobbit Artisan Market in 2012. ‘Get up,’ She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. ‘People will think you’re dead.’

Certainly that’s true if you consider the books Tolkien published in his lifetime. There were, after all, only two Middle Earth books plus a few other bits and pieces. But even if you add in the endless sequence of ‘first drafts’ churned out of the voluminous Tolkien papers by his son and one or two others since the elder Tolkien’s passing in 1973, the fact remains that the amount of stuff triggered by Tolkien is even larger.

I happened to be prowling the Tolkien shelves of my local bookstore the other day and spotted, apart from various editions of Tolkien’s own work, at least a complete shelf of analyses, of books-about-the-films, of books about the mythology behind Middle Earth, about the artwork – in all its flavours – and at least two send-ups. The Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings (a comic novel in its own right) and a more impenetrable spoof of The Hobbit written by someone else.

That’s apart from the plethora of Tolkien biographies – which, based on what I have in my own collection, range from the ‘definitive’ general biography by John Carpenter through to more specialist studies of Tolkien in the First World War. I also have a semi-biographical snapshot, published as a book, based on the observations of a fan who was so taken by drafts of the Silmarillion that he sought out, and visited, the elderly Professor in the early 1970s.

Not to mention the music. Tolkien himself worked with Donald Swann to set some of his Middle Earth songs to music. Since then his mythos has inspired everything from Bo Hansson’s album Music Inspired By The Lord Of The Rings (1969), through to Led Zeppelin’s Battle for Evermore, and more recently Nightwish numbers such as Elvenpath or Wishmaster. The latter, with some of the lyrics actually in Tolkien’s High Elvish, isn’t exactly subtle. And there are reasons why a lot of Norwegian rock is known, colloquially, as ‘heavy mithril’.

All of which, to me, underscores just what a massive influence Tolkien actually was. And, of course, still is. None of it, of course, was planned or intended; the whole thing grew, to use a Tolkienism, in the telling.

I suppose next we’ll find books discussing the books that discuss Tolkien. Meta-meta literature? Or maybe not.

Do you have any ‘meta Tolkien’ literature – or music – in your collection?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Essential writing skills: five tricks to clarify your writing

I don’t know about everybody else, but for me one of the problems with the classic ‘bad first draft’ is that the stuff sometimes isn’t in the right order.

MJWright2011Of course, that’s the intent of the first draft – it’s to get the words down on the page. Then, thanks to the miracle of the word processor, they can be reorganised.

On the other hand, it’s better to get something approximating the right order of ideas in the first place. That old adage of the bad first draft being better than no first draft is very true. My take? Try these tricks. You’ll need some paper, pen scissors and sellotape (yes, writing IS a craft :-)).

1. Jot some notes down before writing anything else. Use two pieces of paper. Write the ideas down in any order, as they come to you, on the first. Then look at them, figure out if they work better in a different order, and write them down that way on the second page. Fifteen minutes planning can save hours of revision. You already have your large-scale plan (you do have a plan…don’t you?) – but that works on smaller scale during drafting.

2. Print the draft out. Spread the pages around on the floor. Paper has more area than a monitor – you get to see the whole of your writing, in a block. Skim-read it. Can you see patterns emerging? Do some parts go better in one place than another?

3. Mark the printout in pen-and-ink to give it those directions. Use arrows, stickies, whatever works, to highlight which blocks go where. Or maybe cut the pages up and tape them together in the different order.

4. Carefully carry the taped pages to the computer. Now transfer those amendments to the version on your computer. OK, yes, that might take some time.

5. And now – the final step. Re-style it again. The cut-and-paste swap around usually leaves jagged edges in the text – they’ll need fixing. Then read it again. Does it still make sense?

I find this approach works pretty well for me. Do these methods work for you?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Five steps to quality writing while invoking the lost art of typewriter

It’s less than two decades since computer swept typewriters away. Gone, like an old shoe, but not forgotten. The imagery of writing – of creative fiction, especially – still revolves around the old dieselpunk-era Smith Corona Portable or the Imperial upright.

Now this is a typewriter I didn't wear out. Largely because I got a computer. But I still typed around a million words on it.

A typewriter I didn’t wear out. Largely because I got a computer. But I still typed around a million words on it.

It’s easy to forget the lessons of typing too. Typing made revisions hard. I remember bashing out “first draft” stuff on double-spaced newsprint style paper. Then would come pen-and-ink changes; then maybe a second draft. Maybe a third. Finally it would be time to copy-type the final on clean, white manila paper.

These days it’s too easy to just change stuff.

I can’t complain. If done right, it makes it possible to achieve tremendous quality quickly. But it also makes it possible to write rubbish very quickly.

That’s because the permanence of the typed word on paper meant writers had to think first, type second. It meant every sentence had to be considered. It meant structure had to be planned. And the act of re-typing the pen-corrected manuscript gave a further opportunity to review the words in their minds – slowly and carefully.

All these things remain true of good writing today. The question is how they’re achieved – whether by careful consideration, then writing  – which works just fine on a word processor – or by blurt-and-amend, which also works fine, but may take longer, paradoxically, than the other way.

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

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

The thing is, it’s too easy to blat words into a word processor without considering the structures of sentences, paragraphs and – most important – of the overall work. I think the ease of typing and revising lends itself to unstructuring the writing, if we’re not careful.

My advice?

1. Stop, pause, plan – then write. Just like in the old typing days.
2. Do what typewriter-age writers did: print the draft out and go through it in pen and ink.
3. When keying those changes back into your word processor – think about how they can be improved.
4. Rinse and repeat. Seriously. You get the luxury of a clean version at the touch of a button. Quality counts, and two pen-and-ink reads are better than one.
5. When you get your work proof-edited, make sure the proof-editor does the same.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 

 

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Essential writing skills: cheap and cheerful adverb annihilation

“I hate adverbs,” I said brightly, one day. “So do I,” my wife said cheerfully.

“Especially the ones that are made by adding an –ly ending to an adjective,” I added slowly. “They tell, not show.”

“How do you show, then?” my wife asked quizzically.

“Why,” I said thoughtfully, “by the context of the speech, cues and clues in the choice of wording. Go read Hemingway. He was a master at it. He didn’t even name his speakers, half the time.”

“Like this, you mean?”

“Exactly.”

“Why?”

“Well, it gets the dialogue out faster.”

“And?”

“And it makes the reader work for meaning – pulls them into the story. Also you don’t end up with double-ups like a question mark followed by the adverb ‘quizzically’.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Scrabbling for blog content.”

“I knew it. So – you mean too many adverbs spoil the broth?”

“Basically, apart from that terrible mixed metaphor. What’s for dinner?”

“Alphabet soup. And you’re cooking.”

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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