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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Remembering the dawn of darkness: 75 years since Hitler invaded Poland

It is seventy five years this week since Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime put Europe to the torch. A moment that – certainly here in New Zealand – risks being lost against the public profile of the First World War centenary.

The KM Schleswig-Holstein during the Battle of Westerplatte that opened the Second World War. Public Domain.

The KM Schleswig-Holstein during the Battle of Westerplatte that opened the Second World War. Public Domain.

In a narrative sense, the Second World War began on 1 September 1939 in Danzig harbour when the pre-dreadnought Schleswig-Holstein – then on a port visit – opened fire on the Polish barracks at Westerplatte. By 4 September, Germany was at war with Britain, most of her Empire,and France. The conflict did not end, for Europe, until the Red flag flew over Hitler’s chancellery in Berlin, nearly six years later. By then, seventy million people were dead.

It was a terrible cost. And yet we have to ask what would have happened had Europe’s democracies not stood up? If they had carried on with the ‘appeasement’ policy of the late 1930s that allowed Hitler to seize large parts of Europe, apparently with impunity. Today we live in a world dominated by democracies; but the survival of democracy as the leading world political system was by no means a foregone outcome in the late 1930s. Back then the three big democracies – Britain, France and the US – were still staggering to their feet after a deep depression. The US was staunchly isolationist; and democracy as a system was apparently a declining force in a world where the rising powers were the fascist ‘new order’ of Germany and Italy and the Communist but equally totalitarian Soviet Union. There was little difference between these two systems – police states that worked by repression, suffering and by targeting whole groups of their own populations for institutionalised murder.

Of the two, the Nazis were judged the greater danger from the western perspective, because Germany already had a two-generation long history of world ambition. That was what the First World War had been all about – Hitler merely renewed the push, adding totalitarianism to the mix. It is unlikely Hitler’s regime was stable enough to have survived his intended ‘thousand years’, but certainly the world would have had several miserable generations of Nazi hegemony – directly, for those unlucky enough to be in Europe and places like Ukraine, and indirectly, for most of the rest of the world, probably via economic levers. How long would the main democracies have survived as an effective system in a world dominated by totalitarianism? Would the democracies have been in a position to pick up the pieces when the Nazi regime eventually collapsed – or would some new dark power instead arise to fill the gap?

Sir Winston Churchill i n 1942 - quite possibly the greatest Englishman that ever lived. Wikimedia Commons, public domain. Library of Congress, Reproduction number LC-USW33-019093-C

Sir Winston Churchill i n 1942 – quite possibly the greatest Englishman that ever lived. Wikimedia Commons, public domain. Library of Congress, Reproduction number LC-USW33-019093-C

That was why Britain and France took a stand when Hitler threatened Poland. That was why, when Britain faced its ‘darkest hour’ in mid-1940, Winston Churchill insisted that there could be no backing down. As a historian, he knew the score – knew the ‘monstrous tyranny’ had to be stopped, ‘whatever the cost may be’, even if Britain had to do so alone – lest the world fall into what he called the ‘abyss of a new Dark Age’. The Nazis, as he well understood, were evil – evil in the truest sense, because they were rational, coldly logical, and calculating about it. And Churchill knew that, at the very least, that cost of stopping that evil would likely be Britain’s Empire. He knew India would go. But it was a price to be paid if the world was to be saved.

A justified war, then, insofar as war can ever be justified.

Right now, the anniversary of its beginning runs the risk of being swamped by the attention currently being paid to the First World War, a century ago.

Yet – if we step back and take the long view of history – actually it doesn’t. For the Second World War did not really begin in September 1939.

That was when the fighting started, sure – but as always, history runs deeper than the surface narrative. The reality is that the Second World War was not an isolated struggle. It was the second act of the struggle that began in 1914 – the First World War. Indeed, from this ‘long view’ there were not two wars; there was but one, two acts of unbelievable violence separated by an uneasy twenty-year interregnum.

I’ll explain. Next week. Watch this space.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

The sadness of those who rage at the world

I have always thought it sad that mass movements almost always define themselves by what they are ‘against’. A point underscoring one of the unfortunate truths of the human emotional condition, where anger and revenge – every time – are more attractive than kindness and good.

From http://public-domain.zorger.comIt seems to be a human failing. I first saw it at university where the undergrad community defined and validated themselves by what they were against – in effect, allowing the very world they raged at to define their frameworks. But this also meant they never broke clear of what they apparently hated. And so they raged against authoritarianism by demanding blind obedience to their struggle to break authoritarian control. They raged against racism by defining racists as inferior beings who had to be discriminated against. And so it went on. Those who did not join them were, by definition, part of what they defined as wrong – an insidious and un-arguable mechanism for enforcement.

What they were actually raging at, of course, was their own powerlessness. I suppose most of them grew up and learned how to let go. But the experience underscores the way that even intelligent people are drawn into lowest common denominator behaviour by the emotions of joining a movement, en masse, that speaks to their sense of validation.

All of this, looking back, was a reflection of a very common aspect of the human condition. There is nothing new about the way mass movements draw from emotion and not reason – an emotional mix where anger and revenge are the stronger powers. Unfortunately.

Napoleon Bonaparte confronted it on the streets of Paris in the 1790s. His answer was to deliver the protestors a ‘whiff of grape’ – cannon-loads of musket balls fired into the crowds at short range. Not a good answer.

And now? As I look around the world – look at the troubles erupting in a multitude of places – I can’t help thinking that humanity hasn’t learned. The big lesson – to let go, and so open the door to kindness, seems elusive. Sigh.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Is high-tech REALLY indistinguishable from magic?

A fellow blogger asked for help the other week. What was the specific source – by page reference – to Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Third Law’?

It was first published in his book Profiles of the Future – which was variously issued from 1958. My edition is the revised version published by Pan Books of London in 1973. And on p. 39 of that edition, as a footnote, Clarke outlines the Law: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’.

It was a throw-away point in a footnote to a lengthy chapter discussing the way conservative twentieth century science usually fails to admit to progress.

Fair point in that context, but I couldn’t help thinking of Europe’s history of exploration around the globe, which was built around wowing locals with techno-trickery and then bashing them with it. Toledo steel was one of several ways in which Hernan Cortez and subsequent marauders knocked over South and Middle American kingdoms in the sixteenth century.

It was a disparity that became extreme as Europe’s technical base improved, leading – ultimately – to the appalling massacre in 1893 of spear-wielding Matabele warriors by a handful of Cecil Rhodes’ Maxim gunners.  ‘Whatever happens/we have got/ the Maxim Gun/ and they have not,’ Hilaire Belloc intoned in wake of the battle.

The conceit of the age – echoed in Clarke’s Law – was that the indigenous peoples who saw European technology looked on it as magic. And it’s true to the extent that, if we lack any concept of the principle behind something, it may as well be magic. The notion of TV, for instance, was absolutely magical before the discovery of electromagnetic transmission; and even a top scientist from (let’s say) the late seventeenth century would have little chance of comprehending one, if they saw it. But I bet that if the principle was explained, they’d soon realise it wasn’t magic at all – just following a principle not yet known.

The same’s true, I think, of the way Europe’s technology was received across the world as it spread during their age of expansion. I think that sometimes the words of magic were used by indigenous peoples seeing the British demonstrate – usually – firearms. But that didn’t betray lack of understanding of the foreign technical concepts. The actual problem was they didn’t initially have the wording. The best evidence I have for this is in the collision between industrialising Britain and Maori in New Zealand, during the early nineteenth century.

Maori picked up British industrial products very quickly from the 1810s, including armaments. These were acculturated – drawn into Maori systems of tikanga (culture), in part by co-opting words already in use. The musket became the ‘pu’, for instance – a word for a blowpipe. But Maori very well understood the principles – certainly going out of their way to learn about armaments and warfare. Some rangatira (chiefs) even made the journey to London to learn more, among them Hongi Hika, who visited the arsenal at Woolwich in 1821 and learned of musket-age warfare and defences; and Te Rauparaha, who was taught about trench warfare in Sydney in 1830.

For ‘contact-age’ Maori, British industrial technology was not ‘magic’ at all – it was something to be investigated, understood and co-opted for use in New Zealand. And I suspect that’s how the same technology was also received by indigenous peoples elsewhere.

I don’t know whether Clarke thought of it that way; I suspect his targets, more particularly, were fuddy-duddies in his own establishment who wouldn’t accept that there might be new scientific principles.

Is there a technology you regard as potentially ‘magical’ to others?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Star Trek lessons – writing out of the box

I’ve long thought most of the Star Trek franchise series and movies – the ones made between 1977 and 2005 – to be epic fails both as good SF and, more to the point, as good dramatic story-telling.

Sounds heretical, and I suppose I’ll get heat from fans – but if you step back to the first principles of writing, it’s true. I’ve just finished reading a book by Brian Robb, Star Trek: The essential history of the classic TV series and movies, which confirms my belief.

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

I’m not complaining about the fact that Trek aliens all looked like humans with lobsters glued to their foreheads or that Klingon was apparently constructed to be different rather than linguistic by the usual measures. My problem goes deeper than that.

Robb argued that the best ideas of the original 1966-69 series – the things fans regard as canonical – weren’t created by Gene Roddenberry. But he had huge influence and one major legacy was a set of rules about what could and could not happen. Writers called it the ‘Roddenberry Box’.

This defined Roddenberry’s vision – a future that had conquered prejudice, where inter-personal conflict was a thing of the past. A wonderful ideal. One we should aspire to. The problem was that when it came to story-telling, the Box was boring. A lot of the challenge for writers was getting around the limits while producing interesting tales.

To my mind that worked in the original series, particularly where the show was run as a light comedy – think Trouble With Tribbles. Wonderful. Why did it work? Because Roddenberry hired great writers – top-line SF authors among them – to work up plots revolving around three great characters, Spock, Kirk and McCoy.

'That's no moon'. Wait - yes it is. It's Mimas, orbiting Saturn.

‘That’s no moon’. Oops – wrong franchise. Actually, this is Mimas, orbiting Saturn. NASA, public domain

The problem – well explored by Ross, but which I’d long thought true – is that the show was captured by a fan base for whom the Box defined canon. To me the rot set in with The New Generation, which mashed New Age thinking and a lot of meaningless techno-babble with the Box and – to me – never captured the sense of wonder of the original. It was pretentious, laboured, ponderous, and fast descended to reverent posturing by one-dimensional characters – stories defined not by what made a good story, but by what was needed to satisfy a fan base.

I gave up watching it, and never bothered with Deep Space Nine or Voyager. I gave up on the movies. Later I caught a few episodes of Enterprise, which wasn’t too bad but which still dribbled, as far as I was concerned. According to Robb, the producers were actively writing, by then, for fans – missing a wider audience or new fans. Certainly, these grotesque going-through-the-motions exercises in franchise fodder didn’t appeal to casual Trek enthusiasts, like me.

For me, Trek didn’t come right until the 2009 J J Abrams movie, a complete re-boot which decisively broke the Box. It was Trek as it should be, re-cast for the twenty-first century. Wonderful stuff.

The fact that it featured Karl Urban – a Kiwi actor from my city, Wellington, was a particular plus.

The take-home lesson for writers? Idealism is wonderful. There is no faulting Roddenberry’s optimistic vision. But to make interesting stories, that idealism has to be given a dynamic. The fact is that human realities, including conflict, have been omnipresent through history, and it’s unlikely that a few hundred years will change them. But that doesn’t stop us trying; and it seems to me that stories built around the attempt would be far more interesting than stories exploring the success of meeting this hardest of all human challenges.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: how to make words your servants

Half the battle for writers is making writing their servant – not being a servant to the words. It’s a lesson novice writers usually only discover after they’re about half way through the first book and are finding the words mastering them, not the other way around.

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one...

I re-pitched my history of New Zealand for its second edition, altering the tone to bring the writing up to date.

It has to be addressed. And there is, alas, only one way to do that. That’s right – practise. But that shouldn’t be a chore – writing’s fun, right?

Once you’ve made words your servant – and your friend – you can start paying attention to the equally crucial matters of content, tone and style – together, what we might call ‘voice’. This isn’t something that just happens; it can be directed and controlled, just like any other aspect of writing. Take George McDonald Fraser’s Flashman, a novel about the bully from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, grown up and turned Victorian-age military hero. Fraser presented it as a ‘found memoir’ – which it wasn’t – but buoyed the conceit with such a subtle ‘1840’ period tone to his words that at least one reviewer was taken in.

It works in non-fiction, too. Recently I re-wrote one of my earlier books, a kids’ book pitched for 8 year olds, into a young adult-and-older account pitched for the 12+ bracket. It had to be completely re-written to do so – with full attention to the language, content and tone. I also re-pitched my history of New Zealand, when it came around to the second edition, to modernise the writing.

The trick to achieving that  control – something superficially easy to do but very hard to actually master. It takes a long time for writers to be able to consciously control the tone. But it’s an essential writing skill, and one that improves with practise. My tips? Try this:

1. Pick a passage by (say) your favourite author. What defines the tone? Look through a passage for key words – terms that give flavour. Check the pacing, the ‘beats’. Look for sentence length and paragraphing. Is it present or past tense? Examine the material closely and make notes.

2. Now try writing a passage at least 750 words long, of your own, in the same style, with the same cadence, word selection and rhythms.

3. Didn’t work? Of course not, it won’t the first time. But this is an exercise…and you know what exercises mean. Yup – do it again.

4. And again.

5. And again (etc).

It’s the only way. Did I mention you then throw the exercises away? Words are not precious babies, still less numeric targets. They’re tools, and they’re disposable. You can always write more.

The point is that when you’ve mastered tone, you’re more than half way to controlling voice, content and style. Writing will be your servant. Not the other way around. And there’s one other benefit that comes out of doing all this. With the quality comes that most precious of all skills that writers can have – speed.

Do you deliberately throw away ‘practise writing’? How do you extend yourself when writing?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Revealing possibly the most useful publishing secret ever

On-line and off, one of the biggest challenges publishers wrestle with is colour matching.

Old boat winch and rails, Makara Beach, winter 2014.

Pastel shades of green-brown, brown-red rust and blue-white skies. Probably. That’s how it looks on my monitor anyway. Makara Beach, winter 2014.

All sorts of systems have been devised to make it possible to take the special shade of blue the designer has come up with, reproduce it accurately in a proofing system, and make it reproduce just as accurately when printed.

Some have come down to such simple expedients as having the client turn up at 3.00 am in a print plant to stand over the sheets coming out of the offset printing machine and physically compare them to the proof.

Computerised matching has reduced that one, but the problem has been made worse – not better – by e-publishing. That’s because you can’t know what hardware and settings the file will be viewed on. And they’re all different. The problem’s three fold:

1. Different monitor technologies display colours differently. The technologies produce very different results – put an LED and LCD monitor beside each other on the same desk (like I have) and the LCD will look brown against the LED, no matter how it’s set.

2. Colour settings vary within the same make and model of hardware. You might set a colour so it looks right on your monitor, but you don’t know how somebody else has set it.

3. Different operating systems handle colours differently. Different software handles it differently.

There’s no answer to this. But there are tricks to keep your material internally consistent, including across a series of book covers, for instance – even if the colours you see on your monitor aren’t those seen by somebody with a different system.

Here’s the trick. Reduce it to numbers. Each of the three components in RGB monitor colours is divided into 255 levels, from 0 (off) to 255 (full). Any colour can be defined as a value, for instance R 255, G 0, B 0 gives you bright red. R 85 G 67 and B 4 is mud. And so on. Most of the colour wheels or gradient-selectors that pop up in Word and other packages also show the colour as a numeric value in RGB.

Pick a number – and stick with it.

This isn’t the only available system – others include HSB, CMYK and LAB, though not all software has this built in. Some software, such as Photoshop, has all this and more – including pre-defined libraries of colours using the Pantone PMS matching system, which is the print industry standard.

See what I’m getting at? If you define the colours you want by numeric value – and keep a note of the values – you can reproduce them every time, consistently. And you don’t need to care how they might vary between your screen and somebody else’s, because it’ll be consistent for whatever device is being used to generate them.

When it comes to printing out, of course, there are other steps and cautions. But more of that anon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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