When writing isn’t writing?

I have never understood the appeal of post-modern abstract art – you know, the pile of ordure sitting in the middle of a whitewashed gallery, from which you’re meant to deduce some profound statement about the nature of society, and if you don’t ‘get’ it then you’re a stupid luddite.

MJWright2011To me this sort of thinking has a lot more to do with woofy in-crowds than anything intellectual.

That said, if it would turn a dollar I’m not averse to the notion of inhaling mouthfuls of watercolour and blowing it at canvas in some sort of existential demonstration of the way life and physics integrate.

But I question whether it would appeal to many. And that’s the point. If we carry the idea across to writing, we find much the same comparison. Every book has its audience, but would the wider public prefer to read the latest, intellectually pretentious darling of the literary set – or a new Harry Potter book?

You get the picture.

So why are we told that literature is ‘better’, or somehow ‘smarter’, than mass-market writing? To some extent I think it’s driven by a pretentious sense of exclusive superiority. I’ve been to publisher parties where people of this ilk have walked into the room pelvis-first, flicked the artfully worn scarf over one shoulder, and declared their status as a ‘wraiter’.

Engaging these people in conversation, if they can lower themselves to your level, is interesting because after a while it turns out that they haven’t written or published anything. They’re groupies, and they look down their noses at any writing that isn’t ‘literature’.

My stuff, for instance. Apparently I’m not a proper ‘wraiter’ by this standard – I put together hack-work for the proles. Quite. Apparently that also defines my intellectual capacity.

My take? I think writers need to engage with the widest possible audience, in ways that are interesting for the writers, and which will be interesting for their audience. Producing books that are the writing equivalent of a pile of ordure in the gallery, masquerading as ‘art’, isn’t the way to do it.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Write it now: grounding your writing in practical realities

The other day I heard a panel discussion on New Zealand’s national radio. They’d called together a group of Kiwi artists – a couple of composers and a couple of writers – to comment on their work.

I usually listen to these things with a certain cynicism. Here in New Zealand I find ‘arts’ discussions tend to veer into pretentious displays of woofy intellectualism – assertions of personal status within the tiny sub-culture of ‘high art’. Meaningful to those involved, perhaps. To the rest of us it’s the intellectual equivalent of the gentlemen among the group standing up and waving their You Know What at the audience while shouting ‘oooh, haven’t I got a big one?’

Progress, nineteenth century style; bigger, faster, heavier... more Mordor.

Pretentiousness in the arts? Not for me. I prefer practical industry when writing (that’s me on the right, in the hat).

The arts aren’t the only field where pretentious status contests dominate, of course. So I sat back to listen to this discussion, expecting to hear the usual claptrap. Except it wasn’t. As I listened to this programme I suddenly discovered that this particular arts discussion was practical. These were nuts-and-bolts artists – everyday people like you or me who had a passion for what they were doing and wanted to share it with other everyday people. It was properly grounded, properly practical, and smart.

And that, it seemed to me, was where things should be.

Writing – which is one of the arts – needs to be grounded. It’s about the writer having a thought, an idea, an emotion, and being able to transfer that to the reader. And who is that reader? I suppose some will have aspirations with the pretentious literati set. But for the most part readers are ordinary people – again, like you and me. That means being practical, it means writing what people want to read – not what will earn the writer status among a closed group of woofy literati who use their interest as a device to validate their pretensions of superiority.

Writing should be by – and for – everyday, practical people. People who don’t give a toss about status within exclusive in-crowds, or within academic departments. People who have real lives and go out and get jobs and come home tired, and love their families, and play sports on the weekend or do a bit of home maintenance or hang out with friends. People who want to be entertained in practical ways, to have a laugh, to weep, to get excited, to feel joy – to do, in short, all the things we do as humans.

That’s the real audience for writers. People like us. It’s what writing is about. Being real. Being practical. Being human. In everyday ways.

What’s your take?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: more writing tips, more geekery, humour – and more. Watch this space.

Write it now: who’s your writing influence?

As far as I am concerned one of the more facile questions authors – or artists of any kind – get asked is ‘who’s your influence?’

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

Yes, I’m a huge Tolkien fan. Is Tolkien an ‘influence’ on my writing? No.

It’s as if nobody can do anything original. There’s an automatic assumption that a creative artist – like a writer – has to be ‘influenced’ by the style or approach of a leader in their field – that they have to follow, not create or think laterally.

To the extent that styles often follow trend, I think it’s always going to be possible to trace links between different authors’ work. But the question of ‘influence’ begs the obvious question – if writers are only capable of following others’ lead, where do the original ideas come from?

The reality, of course, is that there are authors who don’t let others influence them – who march to the beat of their own drum. I can’t help thinking that the best writers are those who  go out and create something entirely new.

Sometimes they create stuff that’s too bizarre for words. Or just weird, like Kafka’s flirtation with gaps instead of commas. But amidst all that is an originality that you just can’t get if you let people ‘influence’ you. Out of that comes such things as Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, an experiment in free-flow thought that absolutely worked. Or Hemingway, whose stylistic influence was pure art deco.

So where do these authors get their ideas? Their influences?

Part of it, I think, comes from cross-pollenation, often in unlikely ways. Take Claude Debussy – possibly the greatest French composer that ever lived. His influence, quite explicitly, was the Impressionist art movement.

If Monet could evoke an emotion through colour, he wondered, could a composer evoke a sense of colour through music? Bizarre idea –but he had a go. And through this, Debussy captured the feel of late nineteenth century Parisian bohemianism, just as the artists did. He influenced a whole school of composers  – I’m thinking of Erik Satie’s ‘Gymnopedie’, especially, a piece filled with morning-after ennui.

That works for writing too. If you think of influence in this abstract and indirect way then it becomes more then just follow-my-leader. One of my ‘influences’ in this sense, as a writer, has always been Frank Zappa. What gives, you say? He was a composer. That’s right. The appeal is what he was doing musically – which was all to do with collisions of rhythm, collisions of tonalities. Almost dada, in a way. How does that flow into writing? In many ways. Collisions create the tension that draws readers on. And that is the essence of writing.

Do you have an ‘influencer’ like this?  What inspires you, as a writer?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery, history and more. Check it out.

More wonderful architecture from the art deco capital of the world

I thought I would conclude my trilogy of deco posts with a few more glimpses of my home town – Napier, New Zealand. The place has spectacularly reinvented itself since its discovery, about 25 years ago, of its own modernist heritage.

The Masonic Hotel (1932) - early streamline moderne, with the former T&G Building (1936) behind.

The Masonic Hotel (1932) – early streamline moderne, with the former T&G Building (1936) behind. I had lunch in here last week.

Today it styles itself the ‘art deco capital of the world’. And in many ways, it is. Back in 1931, a devastating earthquake destroyed the town centre. Afterwards, grand plans to rebuild after the model of Santa Barbara  were scuttled by cost. Still, the architecture that did emerge was all of its day, mostly early 1930s modernism. Today it has one of the coolest collections of those styles in the world, a Californian climate – and a look that would not have been out of place in golden age Hollywood.

Close-up of the former T&G Building (1936).

Close-up of the former T&G Building (1936).

Former State Theatre, a Spanish Mission design redolent of the Golden Age of Hollywood. That door on the left is about where the queue was in 1977 when I was eagerly waiting to watch Star Wars...and the theatre manager came out to say they were full. Sigh. I saw it later, of course. About ten times.

Former State Theatre, a Spanish Mission design redolent of the Golden Age of Hollywood. That door on the left is about where the queue was in 1977 when I was eagerly waiting to watch Star Wars…and the theatre manager came out to say they were full. Sigh. I saw it later, of course.  Four times in this cinema alone.

View of the town centre with Clifton and Cape Kidnappers across the bay beyond.

View of the town centre with Clifton and Cape Kidnappers across the bay beyond.

Want to know the sad part? When I was a kid, there was a LOT more art deco than today. Everything, back in the late 1960s, was still in its original 1933-40 incarnation – and, at the time, entirely out of fashion, faded and dowdy. It was only after a lot the best stuff was ripped down or re-made, including some of the deco footpaths, that Napier’s unique and irreplaceable heritage was suddenly rediscovered.

But ain’t that always the way?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Regular writing posts science, humour and all the usual stuff. Watch this space.

Five reasons why blank paper’s a writing inspiration

Ever been caught when that ‘good idea’ floats in – and vanishes just as quickly, before you can get back to your computer? Just as you’re writing to a deadline or trying to make up your NaNoWriMo quota?

History offers us a few ways out of it. Back in the nineteenth century a good number of New Zealand settlers carried watercolours, paper and brushes with them – the same way most of us carry a camera (phone) today.

1195430130203966891liftarn_Writing_My_Master_s_Words_svg_medTheir quick-sketch records are a wonderful snapshot of how they saw their world. Others carried notebooks – among them land buyer Donald McLean who wrote moment-by-moment events as he watched them happen. Like this moment when he watched Maori haul a canoe up the raging Manawatu river:

“…A strong tug and a long tug. Poor fellows – just touch and go and she will do it. No! Yes, she will! There comes the help – now! One strong pull and and one long pull! No – not yet! …Into the water, lads! Over she goes, some of the helpers struggling to gain the shore among the heavy boulders and rocks“.

Today it’s too easy. You can dictate into your phone, take a photo, even type notes (slowly). Yet I can’t help thinking that we’ve lost something. Specifically, the way that writing with pen and ink forces us to translate reality through the filter of mind. There is a value to that. And it does so in ways that electronic gadgets don’t.

A few hand-written notes can be incredibly valuable, quite apart from capturing ideas then and there. Because:

1. Writing ideas down with a pen frames your thoughts in ways that differ from a keyboard.
2. You can literally draw connections between ideas.
3. Ideas can float in, from left field, in ways they wouldn’t otherwise.
4. Paper works during power cuts and doesn’t need charging.
5. Paper’s recyclable and renewable…unlike plastic and electronic parts.

My top tip today? When you go out next, take a notebook with you. One made of paper…

Or do you already? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: Write it now, more National November Writing Month tips, writing prompts and more. Watch this space.

Sixty second writing tips: why we write

I saw the supermoon this week. It hung luminescent yellow in the low horizon.

From a scientific perspective, not too different from any full moon. But it was there, and it carried an emotion because it emerged in the first clear night sky we’d had over Wellington since the worst storm in years. And something struck me. Could I write about the emotions and mood it conveyed? Could I imagine how others might receive it, and write about them? Perhaps.

But also, maybe not.

I’ve spent over 40 years learning about writing and then doing it. I started when I was seven. I was formally trained in fiction writing. I’ve written every day I can since  forever – not just books in my academic field but also as a freelance journalist and writer.  Here’s my list. And I’ve done a lot of other work in the industry.

Yet from this experience I know that words are simply imperfect vehicles with which we try, as writers, to express the perfection of thoughts and concepts.

All too often I have the idea in my mind – and cannot translate that to the page to my satisfaction. The crystal perfection of concept, which cannot be conveyed by words.

The real skill of writing, I think, is the aspiration towards that end point  – which is unattainable. Naturally.

Yet we must try – and in that attempt, perhaps surprise ourselves. And our readers.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Cover art by a professional

I posted a few days ago about book covers and the importance of having good cover art.

Back in the late 1990s one of New Zealand’s best known artists, Colin Wynn, did the cover artwork for my history of the Royal New Zealand Air Force.


Colin is the official artist of the Royal New Zealand Navy, and he also did the cover art and a lot of the interior paintings in my book on New Zealand’s naval story, which wasn’t strictly devoted to the RNZN, but which they took up as their official sixtieth anniversary volume in 2001.

Both books are long out of print (but let me know if you’d like to read ‘em – I’m wondering about having them re-published).

bluewaterWe’ve got a few originals by Colin in our house – including the Kiwi Air Power cover, and a marvellous picture of a Los Angeles class submarine docked in Pearl Harbor.

He’s just relaunched his website – it’s at http://colinwynnart.com/ And he does far more than just military. Colin’s art is definitely worth checking out.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Write it now, part 22: don’t let the words get between you and the reader

One of the biggest shifts in writing styles over the past 150 years has been the demise of purple prose.

sleeping-man-with-newspapers-mdCheck out newspapers from the mid-nineteenth century, particularly, and you’ll see how modern written English has been slimmed down. Made less pompous. More efficient. More active.

In part this is to do with the way English has changed over the period. We don’t talk today the way we did then. I wrote a book last year revolving around a series of diaries and love letters written by a figure from the 1850s (it’s in with the publisher, more on this anon) – and the difference in the language was startling.  However, de-purpling has also been an active styling trend on top of the linguistic shift, and it was driven particularly by newspaper journalism in the early twentieth century. Writers such as Ernest Hemingway then picked that up and fed it into general literature.

That trend’s continuing today, but you might not know it from some of the stylings inflicted upon us in self-pubbed books. The main problem is to do with adjectives, often dropped into grammatical structures that, technically, render them adverbs, compound nouns and so forth.

It’s all a matter of taste, of course. But the usual trend these days is to simplify, keep the colour out, and keep the language active. The doyen of it was Isaac Asimov, whose writing was often criticised for having ‘no style’ – absolute plain vanilla. And yet it worked, brilliantly. A more recent example of what I’m getting at is J. K. Rowling, whose stylings combine simplicity with clarity and a wonderful lightness of touch.

Put another way, her words didn’t get between her story and the reader – and that, I think, is one of the reasons why Harry Potter was so popular.

How to do it? My suggestions:

1. In fiction, what counts isn’t the description of the scene, it’s how the characters react to it. The reader will share their reactions and build a much more powerful impression of the scene than if you tell them what it is, plod-fashion.

2. The same is also true of non-fiction, outside lists of data; how did people react to events or a moment?

3. Grammatic structure counts, at this level.  Personally I try to avoid sentence structures that require adverbs as an initial modifier ahead of the predicate. Means I don’t get mired in a sea of compound adverbs and hyphen nightmares. (As opposed to getting compound-adjective miring in a hyphen-sea nightmare).

Ultimately it’s all a matter of taste, but I think the lessons offered by people like Rowling versus their sales figures are a pointer. Simple is good. Straight-forward is good. Plain vanilla – with, perhaps, a careful sprinkling of other flavours – works.

Do you ever consciously simplify your style when writing?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Sixty second writing tip: covers do sell books

I don’t often blog about the books I’m working on – but today my publishers sent me the cover of a book of mine they’re releasing in September.

You can track my phone, but you don't know what I look like. Oh wait a minute, yes you do...

What I CAN reveal is that this author portrait is being published in the book too. May cause me to be recognised and have people take a poke at me for writing in their territory, but hey…

It’s been professionally designed and looks fantastic. Cover reveal? Sure. When the moment comes – this is a commercially published book and there’ll be a marketing campaign. Soon.

Keep checking this blog…daily… :-)

It got me thinking. Covers sell books, including e-books. The days when a publisher like Victor Gollancz could brand their sci-fi in plain yellow wrappers, or when Penguin could release every book with that classic orange-and-cream design – are over.

I thought I’d share the criteria for a good cover these days. It has to be:

1. Distinctive.

2. Modern – which can also mean retro.

3. Classy and professional.

4. Reflect the content, symbolically or literally.

My covers have all been handled by my publishers – it’s part of the standard contracts. The problem for self-publishers is that the cost of hiring designers and buying rights to photographs or commissioning artwork gets pretty steep. Few authors are also designers and artists and the DIY answer is getting harder to achieve as the quality bar lifts.

A knotty problem. I don’t actually have an answer.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Frank Zappa was my “Elvis”. Was he yours?

This December it’ll be 20 years since Frank Zappa died. He was a truly great American composer. You can still get his albums – and a lot of stuff released since from his legendary ‘Vault’.

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

Zappa’s stuff is copyrighted (including his moustache silhouette, which is trademarked) so you’ll have to make do with a photo I took of my own synthesiser.

Popularly, Zappa was the potty-mouth wild man of rock whose songs provoked offence – especially ‘Catholic Girls’ and ‘Jewish Princess’. He always considered himself more an anthropologist, exposing the sordid heart of the music business in the sixties and seventies. Much of it was driven by his finely honed sense of the absurd; he was a satirist. He lampooned politicians, groupies, minorities and majorities alike. He ragged the music business and went to war with televangelists. He skewered rock stars, especially Peter Frampton whose subtle ‘I’m in you’ was thoroughly done over by Zappa’s ‘I have been in you’.

He also wrote songs about the importance of eating vegetables (‘Mr Green Genes’), dental hygiene (‘Montana’), B-movies (‘Cheepnis’), life on the road (‘Babette’, ‘Road Ladies’), and the dangers of living with huskies (‘Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow’).

Less well known was the fact that he was also one of the best producers of his day. His repute within the music industry was second to none. His compositions were pure genius, spanning the gamut from musiqe concrete to doowop, big-band jazz to rock, funk to orchestral. He wrote rock operas and musicals. He mixed and matched time signatures in ways that nobody before – or since – has matched. He invented xenochrony – one piece of music juxtaposed against another. He even released an album of synth baroque music, Wendy Carlos style. In Zappa’s case, it was his eighteenth century namesake Francesco Zappa.

By the time of his death he was recognised in Europe as a leading modern orchestral composer.

The musicians Zappa hired were the top of their profession. If you got a job with Zappa, you were guaranteed a job with anyone. Because you were one of the best around.

His secret? I think Zappa was dada-esque; his music flowed from collisions – collisions of rhythm, collisions of tone, and collisions of ideas. He transcended genre and medium to create an emotional experience for listeners. He  showed us a way of approaching things that was not only different, but it provoked – provoked us to think, provoked emotion, provoked a response.

It is these collisions that artists strive for – to give life and meaning to their work, to give their work a dynamic, to lead people into it. Zappa was an absolute master.

That’s something all artists – as in, anybody who works in the arts – can learn from.

Matt Groening once referred to Zappa as his ‘Elvis’. He’s mine too.

Who’s your Elvis?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013