My problem, as a bloke, with Top Gear, number plates and laddish silliness

I can’t see what the fuss is over Top Gear’s provocative Porsche number plate – you know, the one that got Jeremy Clarkson and the rest hustled out of Argentina before the wrath of a mob.

Aha - Clarkson's book on display in Whitcoulls, Wellington. My book directly behind his...

Aha – Clarkson’s book on display in Whitcoulls, Wellington. My book directly behind his (and in front of Julia Gillard’s).

Allegedly it was an off-colour reference to the British victory in the Falklands War of 1982. Personally I figure Clarkson’s protestations of innocence are correct. I mean, apart from anything else, wringing the meaning out of those letters demanded a fair amount of subtle thinking, and Top Gear isn’t exactly subtle. It’s a show about ‘Brit lads’ being ‘laddish’ with lad’s toys on a big budget with the help of a slick production team, some very fast sports cars and a good deal of British public school potty humour. This is the show, after all, who claim their engineering workshop is in Penistone. And who did have an intended ‘substitute’ plate for the Porsche reading ‘Be11end’.

Surprisingly, Top Gear didn’t make a point of visiting Urenui when the show came here. Depending how you translate it, the name is Te Reo Maori for ‘Great Courage’ or ‘Big Penis’. Instead Clarkson damaged one Toyota Corolla on a narrow bridge and drove another up Ninety Mile Beach. Not uber-fast, either. Once, the beach was the racing track where Norman ‘Wizard’ Smith went for 300 mph in an aero-engined streamliner in 1931, just in case anybody thought the Land Speed Record was exclusive to people named Campbell (Smith missed). But today it’s legally a public road, with a speed limit. (OK, so Clarkson’s Corolla wasn’t thrashed, it just got salt and sand sprayed through engine and running gear. I hope I never end up owning that one.)

You laugh at the British silliness. You think, ‘gee, I wish I had the chance to drive that’, that you could drive like The Stig, and that you too could play conkers with caravans. Or turn a Robin Reliant into a space shuttle. But to me, these days, Top Gear seems rather tired. Formula. There are, I suspect, limits as to how long a band of middle-aged men can cavort through our Sunday evening TV being big-budget yobbos.

Still, I can’t complain. My latest book ended up stacked, cover out, behind Clarkson’s the other day – and one can but hope that the reflected fame was, well, reflected in the sales…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: three steps to starting that novel from scratch

So you’ve got a novel lined up to write – maybe for NaNoWriMo. Where to now? My take is to start from the fundamental principles. What is the novel doing? And no, don’t tell me the plot. What is its purpose?

Another photo I took of Giverny, same specifications as the other.

Photo I took in Giverny – Monet’s garden. This garden was made for one purpose – to draw an emotional reaction through art. Identical purpose, in fact, to a novel.

I say all this rhetorically. A novel, like all writing, has to take the reader on an emotional journey – and it has to be able to first capture the readers with that journey, and then hold them. To do that it needs a specific structure – one that not only contains a well-paced plot, but which integrates that plot with the development arcs of the characters.

On the face of it that can be daunting to disentangle, but it’s absolutely essential. Books that fail to integrate plot, character and pace will also fail to capture readers. It’s one of the reasons why novice writers shouldn’t ‘seat-of-the-pants’ their way through a story, unplanned. Doing so reduces the act of writing to personal entertainment – a pastime that has meaning for the author – but the results aren’t likely to grab many others. Yes, there are ways of ‘pantsing’ and it’s a valid technique, but it has to be handled properly – more on that soon.

So how do you disentangle the complexities of character arc, plot and pace to produce an integrated whole? My take is this:

  1. Start with the lead character. This is the heart of the emotional journey. Use a piece of paper to plan out their character arc – the ‘start point’ for the character, how they change, grow or develop as characters; and where they end up. This is the basic pacing skeleton for the story. Why paper? Because it forces you to think differently than if you’re typing. It’s a key tool at this planning stage.
  2. Do the same for any supporting characters – noting that their character arcs need to be different. Indeed, the difference between needs, wants and the ‘turning points’ when a character grows is one of the essential elements needed to drive tension in the story.
  3. On another piece of paper, develop the plot skeleton – key events, the actual settings and so forth, structuring it around the fact that the key turning points in your lead character’s development arc are what gives true emotional drama to the events. Write down the key elements and line them up with the pacing skeleton based on the lead character’s arc.
  4. Stick the whole thing in a drawer for a week. Then pull it out, get a fresh piece of paper, and copy-write the structural lists on to it. Why? Because the act of doing so makes you think about it – and if a new idea occurs, include it. Wash, rinse and repeat as necessary until you’re satisfied that it all works together – that your character arc and the dramatic plot points are meshed.  Work on it. And, all going well, that should give a basic structure for the story.

Of course, there’s a lot more to writing fiction than this – a lot more, indeed, to planning content. More on that soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: climbing the hidden mountain of writing

It’s always seemed to me that the biggest challenge for beginning writers is the hidden mountain. The skill challenge that isn’t obvious when starting – but which everybody crashes over, relentlessly, on the way. After all, everybody can write…can’t they?

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

Actually, no, it’s a learned skill like any other – one where the skill challenges are not obvious.

In past years, the agent-publisher model acted as a filter and kept the ‘learning curve’ books out of the market. Frustrating, an eternal source of angst for beginning writers – but it was a quality gateway.

That’s changed now. Anybody can publish. And many do, often without having the skills to realise what is wrong with what they’ve written. I’ve seen books where the mechanics of the writing – and hence the style – have got more competent as the author’s gone on. Ouch.

It’s understandable. Scrabbling to get the words, the content and the structure all together if you’re on a learning curve is like trying to pin down jelly, and it’s something long-standing writers don’t much have to confront. Why? Because the act of becoming a long-standing writer also means they’ve nailed the craft. They don’t have to think about the mechanics of writing or how to express their ideas; it’s become part of their soul.

They’ve surpassed the elusive million-word, ten thousand hour hurdle and become ‘unconsciously competent’ at the task. That lets them concentrate on content – and on style. That’s how J K Rowling – who is an absolute master of written styling – was able to write as Robert Galbraith, with totally different voice and style to Harry Potter. It’s still hard work, of course. As Hemingway put it, you sit down at the typewriter and bleed.

My answer? Until you get there don’t be afraid to throw something out – put it in a drawer, permanently.

Sure, you’ve sweated blood and tears over that piece of writing. But it’s part of the learning curve. Look on it as an exercise. The next one will be better. And the one after that better still. You’ll know when you’ve got there.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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The three questions all authors must ask before starting

It’s amazing how many writing lessons I find in music. When I was a kid and learning music, there was an attitude that rock musicians were musical Neanderthals who could strum a few chords while making animal noises. ‘Proper’ music was ‘classical’, around which the Royal Schools grade courses I was doing was framed.

The panel of one of my analog synths... dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable.

The panel of one of my analog synths… dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable. Actually, these weren’t regarded as proper instruments when I was learning music, either…

The criteria for being a ‘proper’ musician, in short, wasn’t whether the performer provoked an emotional response in stadium-sized audiences and became a shaping force in western culture – but an ability to play 200-year old dinner muzak penned by Mozart, all built around diatonic chord progression – Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C No. 16, K. 545, for instance, uses chords running in descending fifths (vi-ii-V-I). The fact that ‘classical’ structure was a very narrow form of music – as Stockhausen, Cage, Varese and others revealed – didn’t enter into it.

The kicker? Rock music also uses diatonic chord progression – the usual string is I – V – vi – IV (try it, then sing Beatles ‘Let It Be’, Toto ‘Africa’, John Denver ‘Take Me Home’, etc). What’s more, the musicians who made it knew very well what they were doing. Some – like Rick Wakeman – were classically trained. When Ken Russell wanted to make a movie mashing rock music with Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, Wakeman did the adaptations.

Today? The genre ‘made it’, to my mind, when astrophysicist and Total Rock God Brian May played ‘God Save The Queen’, on electric guitar, on the roof of Buckingham Palace. By invitation. Awesome! Music is music, ‘classical’ is but one corner; and the people who get ahead have got the chops. Here’s Dutch singer Floor Jansen with ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ from Puccini’s 1918 comic opera Gianni Schicchi. Typical ‘classical’ singing – you know, when they didn’t have microphones and had to be heard over the orchestra.

And here’s Jansen again, with her band ReVamp:

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

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

What does this have to do with writing? Attitudes of elitism are true of writing, too. Here in New Zealand, for instance, the academic community – on my experience – take the attitude that authors writing on their subjects for a popular market are not going to innovate – that these authors are ignorant of intellectual technique and not academically capable.  I used to get it all the time when I wrote history commercially – a supposition that work had to be judged solely against the narrow criteria demanded of the academy. I was simply an intruding Neanderthal who, presumably, would be better off leaving the territory to the real experts who filled their material with incomprehensible but ego-boosting sentences with the word ‘discourse’ in them. The fact that books written to academic criteria often don’t innovate – and are virtually unreadable, even to other academics, doesn’t enter the calculation.

The reality – and this is where the rock music lesson comes in – is that most people who can write competently know exactly what they are doing, and can also innovate. It’s part of the territory. What’s more, many have the same qualifications as the academics who diss them. I do, for instance. But I don’t work for a university – or see the need to validate myself in the narrow terms academics use to assert status to each other.

All of it comes down to the basic questions all authors must ask themselves before putting pen to paper (well, finger to keyboard, these days):

1. What is the purpose of this piece of writing?
2. Who is the audience?
3. Why will they want to read this particular piece?

Everything else follows – the pitch, the tone, and the content. Intellectual rigour applies, whichever way the ideas are expressed. And it seems to me that the widest audience won’t be the one that likes reading the word ‘discourse’ when ‘conversation’ means the same thing.

Hemingway summed it up. Why use the ‘ten dollar’ words when there are other and better words that do the same thing?

Quite right, too. And that, I think, is true of all writing whatever the subject or genre.

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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Posing the vital question: are writers also readers?

I have a question to put to you. I posted earlier this week on the books I read as a kid, which have stayed with me.

Spot my title in the middle...

Spot my title in the middle…

The reason a book ‘stays with you’ is because of its emotional impact at the time – and later. Now, that poses a question. You’d think that – as writers write – they’d draw a deeper emotional response from books and from reading than, perhaps, do people who just read. Flip sides of the same experience, but the writer’s deeper into it.

I wonder, though. It isn’t true for me. I find music offers the better experience, certainly in terms of engaging with it. Reading simply doesn’t engage me the same way.

But I write. I write a lot.

So I put it to you – does it follow that ‘writers’ must, by nature, draw their best emotional involvement from ‘reading’. Or is writing an expression of an emotional experience that writers draw, more fully, from all things – the world around them, life experiences, music and, in due place, their own reading? In the end, does it come down to individuals?

I draw distinction here between reading to reverse-engineer how it was done – to examine the way different authors approached their subjects and learn from it – with reading for pleasure. I’m asking about the latter – in short, are writers also readers?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Essential writing skills: tackling the invisible hurdle

I’ve been posting these past few weeks about the challenges facing writers in the new environment. The biggest hurdle, of course, is so huge it’s invisible.

Books on sale in a real bookshop. Some of them mine...

Books on sale in a real bookshop. Some of them mine…

Let me explain. A few years ago the challenge authors faced in being published was – being published. The road was paved with hurdles. A starting author first had to write something good enough to be competitive with the professionals. Then they had to find the agent, who in turn had to get a publisher interested in circumstance where publishers, more often than not, went with previously published authors who had an established record.

Eventually, if everything went well, the book would appear. And – usually – not do too well. Most books didn’t do much more than break even – and publishers know the odds. The figure I’ve seen is that about one book in ten does really well. The rest don’t, and publishers accept that because having a reasonably broad range of books in their lists is part of the deal.

These days the paradigm’s changed. That world is still there, but authors also have the option of self-publishing through Amazon.

I could hear the cries of ‘squee – no entry barrier!’ all the way down in New Zealand.

There are two problems with this. The first is what Chuck Wendig calls the ‘shit volcano’ quality issue. Everybody can publish, so everybody does. ‘I learned English in school, so I can write…right?’

That sudden flood of authors (no pushing at the back) creates the second issue, which is just as big a barrier as the old agent model. Discovery.

In July this year Amazon listed 32.8 million separate titles of all kinds for sale. In that same month, they shifted 120,000 e-books a day, as best-sellers, of which 31 percent were indie published. You get the picture. Any individual book is going to be lost in the noise, no matter how good – or bad – it happens to be. Yes, the review system’s there, but a good book that doesn’t get good reviews – perhaps because nobody’s found it – won’t float to the top. That isn’t a problem for Amazon – they profit from the aggregate. But it’s a major issue for any individual author.

So – all that’s happened is that one ‘filter’ has been, effectively, replaced with another. One that cannot be reasoned with because it’s part of the environment, like gravity. The question is what to do about it. How can a writer – armed with an identical tool-kit to every other hopeful out there in internet-land – get found?

And when they are, how can they sell their stuff?

It’s a new paradigm. More soon. Meanwhile – what are your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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