Essential writing skills: breaking down the writing process

I mentioned a while ago that planning was essential to effective writing. Not just planning the content, but planning the whole thing – from idea to finished written material – as a process.

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.

Planning content and planning production go together, and today I thought I’d outline how that can break down – making it possible to plan things effectively – and efficiently.

This isn’t a non sequitur when it comes to writing. If you’re writing professionally, time is everything. A plan could look something like this:

1. Develop the content. This is what a lot of writers call ‘planning’, and it is, but it’s only the beginning. Whether fiction or non-fiction, there’s bound to be research associated with the project  – and this is the point to define it.

2. Do the research (and yes, I know that this is HUGE. It’ll need planning of itself -this line is akin to writing ‘now build the Effel Tower’, but hey…)

3. Break down the writing process. Deconstruction. Different people will do this different ways, but one approach is to run through discrete drafts – (a) first draft, (b) put in a drawer for a week, (c) come back to it and make revisions, (d) get it read and commented on, (e) take comments on board, (f) repeat until satisfied – or deadline approaches.

4. There is a discrete process to prepare something for release to a publisher, or if you’re self-pubbing, for that publication. I’ve posted on it before.

Now, you might think a defined process like this stands against creativity – reduces writing to a mechanical exercise. Of course creativity has to be allowed to flourish; but the reality of professional writing is that it’s not a hobby. Things have to be done to cost and time. The trick is to train your creativity to fall into place. And to apply principles of time management. More on that soon.

Do you plan what you’re writing as a process? What experiences have you had along these lines? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

And now, some shameless self promotion:

It’s also available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Nook coming soon.

You can still buy the print edition here: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410

A sneak peek inside my ‘Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand’

A few weeks ago an e-book edition of my best-selling Illustrated History of New Zealand was released by David Bateman Ltd.

Wright_New Zealand Illustrated coverYou can buy that by scrolling down and clicking on the link below. Go on, you know you want to…

Today I thought I’d share some of the pages of the print version.

History, to me, is more than simply recounting past events. It is about understanding the shapes and patterns of life –  exploring how they led to the world we know today. From that, we can understand more about where we are – and where we might go. It is, really, about understanding the human condition.

Sample of p 104. Click to enlarge.

Sample of p 104. Click to enlarge.

For these reasons history must be about people –  their thoughts, hopes and moods. About how they responded to the world they found themselves in. The colonial-age journey to New Zealand, which the sample pages I’ve reproduced here describes, brought that human condition out in many ways; a three month transition between old and new, a rite of passage in which they could shuck off the old world and more fully embrace the dream of the new.

Sample of p.105. Click to enlarge.

Sample of p.105. Click to enlarge.

On these pages I’ve conveyed some of the thoughts of those settlers – click to enlarge each page. The poignancy of the journey was deepened, for many, by tragedy; children, particularly, were vulnerable – and often died, something the colonial government deliberately addressed in the 1870s. That’s covered elsewhere in the book.

The opportunity to write something as big as my Illustrated History of New Zealand – big in the physical sense, big in terms of being an interpretative history of an entire nation – is rare in the career of any author.

Sample of p. 106. Click to enlarge.

Sample of p. 106. Click to enlarge.

The opportunity to then re-write it, ten years on – to re-visit, re-cast, re-think, extend and renew – is almost non-existent. That’s particularly true here in New Zealand where the number of qualified historians to have written large-scale interpretative general histories of the country, solo, in the last 60 years, can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Sample of p. 107. Click to enlarge.

Sample of p. 107. Click to enlarge.

These samples have a copyright notice added to them. Pictures, forming part of the design collage, are from the collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library.

My Illustrated History of New Zealand is on sale now in bookstores across New Zealand, or direct from the publisher website. Scroll down for the e-book link.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Some shameless self promotion:

It’s also available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Nook coming soon.

You can buy the print edition here: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410

What writers can learn from fantasy RPG’s

Back in the early 1980s I used to do role-playing games. It began with the old classic, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons™, which came with hardback rule books, dice and long evenings with friends where everything was defined by random die roll:

Dungeon Master: You enter a room and [rattle of dice] find a wardrobe.
Player: My character opens the wardrobe and [rattle of dice] steps in. Are there fur coats?
Dungeon Master: [rattle of dice] The wardrobe is a shape shifted Gob Monster. Make a saving throw.
Player: [rattle of dice] Failed.
Dungeon Master: You’ve been swallowed and are about to pass through the [rattle of dice] duodenum.
Player: My character says [rattle of dice] “Aaaargh”.

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

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to re-draw and digitise. Similarity to the coast of Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, is entirely coincidental. Honestly, officer.

However, our little group balked at the way the whole was framed around hack-and-sorcery stereotypes, into which had been droozled elements of Tolkien. Then there was the way characters were ‘aligned’ to a nine-space cliche morality grid. Even as young twenty-somethings, we knew human reality was a tad more complex:

Player: My character backstabs the Elf and steals the magic dingus.
Dungeon Master: You can’t do that, you’re Lawful Good.
Player: Haven’t you heard of the law of the jungle...and it’s good for me.

We shortly ditched the game and swung into creating our own, which was very different and built around telling the story of characters in a fantasy world, largely via what amounted to improvised theatre between the players – collaborative creativity. Character names varied from the German slang for ashtrays to a brand name of analog synthesisers. Place names commemorated 1980s synth-pop bands and motorcycle part makers. The rest came from Bored of the Rings

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

This brand of analog synth became a character name. I own the synth pictured here…but it wasn’t my character. Anybody care to guess the name?

As you can guess, if it was silly, it usually happened. A lot got written down. And therein is the lesson. It was good practise. The rules and scenarios demanded creativity, and an ability to write in ways others could follow. Afterwards, we got down to writing down the adventures. None of it is publishable – or readable outside the playing group, now scattered. (The guy that developed the map and game with me, these days, is an indie film-maker in the UK, for instance.)

I last played our RPG©®™ nearly 30 years ago. We’d come to the end of the world scenario, and our characters had gone through their development arcs. We deliberately ended it with a final adventure that wrapped up the characters. The end. It was fun at the time, but I don’t miss it. What counts – now – is the way it created writing experience. Part of the million word journey from unconscious incompetence to making writing part of your soul.

Did you play AD&D™ or its variants? Did you write down those adventures? Or is there something else you’ve done that has captured your imagination and got you writing?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

And now, some shameless self promotion: Where that million word apprenticeship led me:

It’s also available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Nook is coming soon.

You can still buy the print edition here: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410

Writing isn’t an automatic skill…but you can learn

There are three things people usually imagine they are better at than they actually are.

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.

One of them is driving. We all think we can out-drive The Stig…don’t we? Another is writing. The third? Er…well, anyway, today I’m going to look at the idea that because someone did high school English, they can write.

A lot of that flows from the western supposition that a writer’s skill set is defined by expertise in subject matter. The writing itself? It’s an assumed skill. That was certainly the case when I was studying history at university, where everything was taught about the subject – and nothing about how to express it (which is at least half the challenge).

The fact that writing, itself, is a learned skill – just as in-depth and hard to master as history, or any of the sciences – doesn’t often surface. But it is.

The thing is that high school writing skill fully equips most of us to get by in the ordinary world – to write those postcards, those letters or emails, or whatever. But it’s at the start of the skill scale for professional writers. It’s ‘unconsciously incompetent’ – the first level. The point where people don’t know what they don’t know.

That’s why so many imagine they’re better than they actually are. ‘I learned to write, so I can just do it’.

My wife ran into this when she did a course, a while back, on writing childrens’ books – presented by one of New Zealand’s top kids’ book writers. Most of the aspiring writers there had just retired and envisaged themselves ‘becoming writers’ as their retirement career. They were full of questions about contracts and what size of advance to ask for.

No no, the presenter insisted. First you have to learn how to write.

Ripple of shock through the room. Nobody had thought of that. They could write…couldn’t they? Actually…no.

These people, you see, were at that ‘unconscious incompetence’ stage.

There are three steps after that – ‘conscious incompetence’, where the writer gets a handle on what they have yet to learn, then ‘conscious competence’, where they’ve learned it but need to think through every step. Then – finally – ‘unconscious competence’, where the skills have become part of your soul.

The distance from start to finish is about 10,000 hours or one million words. There are no short cuts.

But it’s do-able, and the rewards are tremendous. Not financially (trust me!) but certainly in terms of satisfaction.

I think so, anyway. You?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

Some shameless self promotion:

It’s also available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Nook coming soon.

Buy the print edition here: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410

Unleashing your writing potential with advertising slogans

According to ads barraging us on TV these days, we are bubbling full of potential that has merely to be ‘released’ by whatever product or service is being offered. Apparently.

Wright_WgtnWaterfront2011_Copyright (c) 2011To my mind it’s not too different from the Nigerian phone scam – you know, give me $1000 and it’ll ‘release’ the million stashed in my bank. Fact is that athletes don’t ‘unleash’ their potential with flavoured salt water. They work like Trojans to get the potential in the first place. It’s earned.

Of course that’s how advertising works – and therein are lessons for writers.

Advertisers capture imagination – emotionally – in half a dozen words. When associated with an image – a brand – it can be one or two words. But even without that brand, advertising is geared to do what all writing pushes towards; to capture the reader emotionally.

The same techniques are essential for writers, and not just when it comes to the blurb. You need to hook the reader with the first line. And the next. And the next. This doesn’t mean making every sentence a slogan. What it means is thinking about underlying purpose – capturing emotion, then holding it. Advertisers have that down pat.

Funnily enough, you CAN unleash something by using their methods. Sales. Readership. Stuff like that. The technique is:

1. Hook.
The reader has to be made to want something – whether to buy a product or start reading your writing. Exactly what that hook is depends on what you’re writing. Newspapers and magazines do it twice – first the heading (usually written by a sub-editor) and then with the opening line  or two which is always crafted to grab. Often it’s printed in bolder type, just to drive that message home. That’s what I do on this blog, for instance.

2. Punch.
The reader has to get something out of the writing, and in very short order. Something emotional; something satisfying – but not too satisfying. Maybe it’s a question. Advertising slogans often appeal to self-validation or self-worth, even presenting answers without questions. ‘Because you’re worth it’. You need to be more subtle in writing…but maybe not much.

Exactly how that’s done varies by author. Years ago, A. E. Van Vogt used to recommend hooking people stylistically – using specific and often quite odd words to pique imagination. I wouldn’t necessarily go that far. There is a fine line between effect and weirdness.

One of the keys is to think about the meaning of the opening words – their effect; do they pull a reader? Establish tension?

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

Some shameless self promotion:

It’s also available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Nook coming soon.

You can still buy the print edition here: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410

 

 

Essential writing skills: planning, planning, planning

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – the trick to effective writing is planning.

Wright_SydneyNov2011Planning the whole thing before even starting, be it book, essay, short story or whatever. Planning each section or chapter. Planning each sequence. Planning, planning, planning.

Sure, it’s fun to do what people call ‘pantsing’ – making stuff up as you go along, getting caught up in your own story.  It carries the vibrance of fresh creativity. But for writers who are starting out it often leads to dead ends, tangles or big-scale structural failures. Put another way, writing as personal entertainment doesn’t cut the mustard when it comes to producing stuff to time, length and specification. Which is how publishing works.

Yes, sure Famous Novellist X or Y (I’m thinking Stephen King) will say that they ‘pants’ their way through their stories. Actually they don’t, exactly. Usually they know where it’ll end. And they’re experienced enough – they’ve done the million word apprenticeship – to have command of their style and content. They can structure properly on the fly, and they know what elements have to come where to make the story compelling.

The rest of us – well, planning counts. Trust me on that one. Start broad; what is the purpose of the written material? Can you sum it up in a sentence. In the industry, that’s called a ‘logline’.

If it’s a novel, don’t get caught up in the intricacies of plot or narrative. You need a deeper level than that for a logline, which reflects the character arc of the key character. If it’s non-fiction, what is the thesis – the argument?

This broad purpose applies to everything that’s written – from a letter to an essay to a short story to a doctorate to a novel.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

And now, some shameless self promotion: my history of New Zealand, now available as e-book.

Also available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Buy the print edition here: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410

 

Science says we’re all doomed. Neatypoos.

We’re all doomed, apparently. A NASA-backed science study says so.

Artists impression of a GRB. Zhang Whoosley, NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Apocalypse: if Earth’s hit by that white beam, we’re dead. D-E-A-D. Dead. Artists impression of a GRB. Zhang Whoosley, NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

That’s more credible than stupid ideas about Mayan calendar dates (the world ended on 21 December 2012…didn’t it?) or the teachings of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (world’s end in 2010), or the deranged spoutings of former French pharmacist, Michel de Nostradame (1984 or 1997, depending on how you read it). I could go on…

We don’t have to look far to realise why this happens. Human fear of apocalypse seems universal – and as old as humanity. Stories flow through mythology. It’s cross-cultural; most societies seem to fear sudden destruction of all they know.

Certainly it’s rife today. We have the irrational doom-sayers – the ones who think it’ll happen tomorrow, without warning, let’s say courtesy of four ‘blood moons’ (that’s this year, apparently). Or we have the rational ones, who use mathematics to show that current civilisation is teetering on the edge.

That’s where the NASA-backed study comes in. Drawing on ancient Rome and the Mayan experience – when an apparently robust society suddenly collapsed – they’ve concluded that modern global civilisation is on the same course. The causes, apparently, are to do with iniquitous income distribution and climbing resource usage.

The idea’s not new; Jared Diamond pointed out, in Collapse, that humanity has a habit of exploiting environments to the ragged edge, then destroying them.

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

Couple that with meta-stable systems (systems that look stable, but actually sit in an easily disturbed equilibrium) and you have a recipe for trouble. A lot of the socially mediated systems we create do this, and that, in essence, is the current problem. Apparently. But I wonder.

It seems to me there are two sides to this. First, there’s our apparent common fear, as a species, that doom lies just around the corner. We all seem to think that way – the ‘apocalypse’ keys directly into our psyches in ways that other ideas don’t. Look at the popularity, today, of post-apocalyptic stories. It’s not just built into Western cultural philosophy. Indeed, it seems to be hard-wired into us.

That thinking gives credence to studies like the NASA one. It also cultivates idiot scare-mongering about mystery rogue planets. But where did this sort of thinking come from?

I have my suspicions.

The irony of all the scaremongering silliness is that from the science perspective we are staring down the barrel of a very real apocalypse in the form of another Carrington Event. But it never hits the popular doom radar.

The other issue is the credibility of the argument that we are, in fact, on course for doom by our own mis-doings or constructions. Longer term, I think we are. It’s obvious; humanity can’t keep on expanding without limit, exploiting resources and polluting the planet forever. We have to find another strategy. But I think we’ve already seen this one coming.

However, as for the idea of a catastrophic collapse – the abrupt demise of the social, political and economic systems on which western (and, of course ‘developing’) civilisation pivots? Somehow, I doubt it’s on the cards. Mostly.

Is belief in the apocalypse hard-wired into the human condition? How did that hard-wiring happen? And how can we think reasonably – dare I say ‘rationally’ – about it when we’re apparently hard-wired not to?

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 

Coming up: Apocalypses galore, writing tips, and more…