Essential writing skills: knowing when to stop writing and start publishing

One of the biggest challenges for writers is knowing when to stop. When to let the book go and move on to the next. But it’s tricky. Even hard publisher deadlines don’t stop some authors from tinkering. Or even re-casting.

I had to scrabble over boulders to get this shot. Foreground is Denis Glover's plaque from the Wellington Writers' Walk; background, HMNZS Te Kaha at quayside, Te Papa national museum background (the Tracy Island look-alike).

I had to scrabble over boulders to get this shot. Denis Glover’s plaque from the Wellington Writers’ Walk

That’s why contracts carry amendment clauses. Once a manuscript’s been proofed, everything that changes adds cost to the publisher. The threshold I’ve usually seen for author amendments is five or ten percent of the book, after which the cost of re-editing and re-typesetting is levelled on the author.

The cost calculation is true for self-publishing too (you want to get paid for your time…don’t you?).

And that’s apart from the problems that follow when you’re interrupting the editing process with changes. Trust me – that’s how errors arrive. Unwelcomed. Unheralded. But they’re gonna crash your party.

The point to stop, then, is when the manuscript’s ready for publication. Then it can go through proof- and line-editing, typesetting and so forth without becoming a movable feast and without sending costs through the roof.

Of course it’s easy to say “just stop”. The harder part is stopping. The reason authors tinker is because the work hasn’t attained the conceptual perfection of the idea in their minds. And it’s an endless task, because these things never do. The point to stop, then, is where you are satisfied that your writing takes your reader on the emotional journey you intend. This point is true of all writing, not just fiction. My tips:

1. Starting right makes it easier to stop. If you structurally plan your writing, figure out what you want to say before putting finger to keyboard, you’ll know when it’s finished.
2. Command of styling is essential. That takes practise – and don’t be afraid to put the hours in getting that practise.
3. Get feedback – put your work out to ‘Beta Readers’.
4. Be confident in yourself. Don’t succumb to self-doubt.

What experiences have you had with ‘stopping’ – and how have you dealt with it?

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

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

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

 

 

The dark secret behind better book sales

People buy books for a lot of reasons. The main one is the emotional response they get from reading. And that’s true of non-fiction as well as fiction.

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

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

But that isn’t the only reason. Why buy this book and not that? Why buy at all? A lot of it, it seems to me, flows from word-of-mouth. And that in turn boils down to one factor – discovery.

I would say ‘discovery’ and ‘quality’, but I can’t help thinking that Fifty Shades of Grey rather gives the lie to the notion that ‘quality’ is a factor.

Discovery is everything. Sometimes readers take a punt on an author they know nothing about, but have just stumbled across. But that still demands discovery. If your books aren’t known at all, they won’t sell – which sounds like one of those idiot ipso-facto statements, except it happens to be the biggest hurdle any author faces these days. Discovery. Going from zero to almost-zero.

It’s hard. Social media equips everybody with the same tools. It’s hard to be heard above the ‘noise’.  Everybody’s self-publishing, spamming themselves across Twitter.  Why should a potential reader click on this one – and not another one? Or any of them.

Combine that with the new age of e-convenience – where a lot of book-buyers buy even hard copy books from the comfort of their home PC – and you’ve got a lot of weight riding on whatever internet presence you can scrape up.

Advertising outside that paradigm helps. Sometimes. But that’s hard too. Back in the late 1990s, my books were being advertised on TV, in major print journals – even the Woman’s Weekly (it was a bloke book on engineering – the idea was that wives would buy it for their husbands). But even under that old model it was hard. Publishers back success. An established author will attract a good deal more advertising clout from their publisher than an unknown one.

That, I think, is why J K Rowling’s last ‘Harry Potter’ novel was splashed all over Wellington buses at around $6000 a shot, and my non-fiction history books weren’t.

Can you do anything to tip the odds? Sure. My take:

1. Professionalism counts. Sometimes, that also means paying for professional skills where your own skill set lacks – proof-editing or cover design, for instance.
2. A solid and positive social media presence. You’re an author. Your social media presence is your brand, and it takes a lot of effort to build up. Don’t break it by doing something stupid – like blurting what you really think of Politician X, or ‘flaming’ people, or pulling sock puppet tricks.
3. Actually, despite the way Fifty Shades of Grey burst upon us, quality DOES count.
4. Hard work pays off. No really.

And, of course, there’s always that indefineable – dumb luck. You can set everything up, get everything geared to go – and still, things have to go your way. But that’s life generally, isn’t it.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

Shameless self promotion bit: My Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand is available as e-book from Amazon. Go on, you know you want to …

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

Do you have a writing group…like Tolkien?

Most writers, I realised the other day, hang out with writing groups. Or at least other writers.

Inside the Eagle and Child. Photo: A. Wright.

Inside the ‘Eagle and Child’. (Wright family photo)

J R R Tolkien, for instance, was part of a group called the ‘Inklings’, who met in a local Oxford pub – the Eagle and Child, known locally as the ‘Bird and Baby’Every Tuesday from 1939 until 1962 they’d go there to drink beer, swap stories – and read their tales to each other.

Imagine that – C. S. Lewis, Roger Lancelyn Green, Owen Barfield or maybe Lord David Cecil were the very first people in the world to experience The Lord of the Rings  – and they heard much of it in Tolkien’s own voice, as he sat there reading them the manuscript.

Tolkien himself was one of the first to hear passages from Lewis’s Narnia series. How awesome is that? Two of the greatest fantasy writers in the twentieth century, hanging out in the same pub and reading each other’s stories.

My key-ring from the Raffles Writers Bar. Complete with the original wrapping (yes, I am a writing nerd).

My souvenir key-ring from Raffles. Complete with the original wrapping.

During the early twentieth century other writers congregated in Raffles hotel, Singapore, to the point where there’s a Writers Bar, which (in its original location in the lobby) was frequented by the likes of Ernest Hemingway and W. Somerset Maugham. Its denizens were usually well lubricated with gin, tonic and Singapore Sling, invented around 1910 by Ngiam Tong Boom in the Long Bar on the opposite corner of the building.  Alas, this literary enclave came to a sharp end with the Second World War. But the spirit lingers. Did I say ‘spirit’? I did, didn’t I.

I made the pilgrimage to the Writers Bar in 2001, sans the cocktail.

Established writers usually veer into shop talk – the scale of the latest advances or gossip about editorial changes at Publisher X. I know that’s how my chats with other writers go, when I catch up with them. Which, unfortunately, isn’t often. I know plenty of writers and publishers, and it’s always good to have a yarn. But it’s hard to find time to get together.

Besides which, a lot of what I write is history – which, here in New Zealand,  is owned by viciously hostile in-crowds. Someone once described the behaviours of the military history crowd, particularly, as akin to circling piranhas.

Instead I hang out mostly with mathematicians and science types. And talk about my original interest, which isn’t history… it’s physics.

Do you have a writing group? How often do you meet?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, geekery, science and more. Watch this space.

Essential writing skills: lessons in dialogue

I realised recently that my standard conversation in any take-away always goes something like this:

“Hi, I’ll have a Super Glob Burger, hold the ketchup thanks.”
“Wanchiwitha?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand the question.”
“WANCHIWITHA?”
“Could you repeat that please?”
“WAN–CHI – WI – THA?”
“You mean, do I want chips with that? Yes please.”

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.

What does that tell us about writing? First point is that it’s obvious who was speaking – all without a single “I said”, “he said”, or anything else.

More crucial is the mis-spelling. I did that deliberately. What impression does it give of setting and character? A bored burger slider? Background clatter? Me having trouble figuring it out? All of the above? I didn’t say – and that’s important, because it makes the reader think. However, mis-spelling is a trick authors should use only sparsely. One line of mangled dialogue is enough get the message across. More – and it gets hard to read, even boring.

The same applies for any other speech quirk. It’s possible, for instance, to represent a speech impediment or accent by mis-spelling, but there’s a fine line between making the story hard to read – or being patronising or offensive. If done well it can be great. Madeleine l’Engle used it in A Wrinkle In Time – wonderfully – to convey reverberation in the voices of the guardian angels. However, few of us have l’Engle’s skills as a writer. Get the balance wrong, and it can be the kiss of death.

My rule of thumb is not to be too explicit – make clear the speaker has vocal quirks, but do it through choice of words, through expressing emotions, frustrations or how others react.

Story telling is all about conveying emotion – and about making readers work for the reward.

As for the end of the fast food story? I got chips and handed over $5.90. I knew it was $5.90 because I got $4.10 change for my $10.

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

 

Write it now: do writers always perch on a soap-box?

Back in the early 1980s, when I was a history student at Victoria University, one of the other students took me aside and nodded towards the lecturer. ‘D’you know he’s really a Liberal?’

Hmmn

Hmmn

The Professor in question was one of New Zealand’s leading historians of the day on the Liberal party, which was in government 1891-1912 and imploded in the early 1920s. The world had long since moved on, rendering interest in them academic. Which, I suppose, is why this Professor was studying them.

That didn’t make him a Liberal, personally. But the distinction, it seemed, was lost on his students, to whom interest and personal advocacy were one and the same. The idea’s not unique to universities – though on my experience the angry, sanctimonious and half-educated youth who inhabited the history department at the time set the gold standard.

Post-Vietnam anti-war rhetoric was well entrenched. Post-colonial thinking was on the rise. Failure to advocate it was a fast road to social ostracism, buoyed on unsubtle intellectual bullying that enforced conformity to the breathless ‘new order’. Those who failed to conform lost out socially and found that career doors were not opened.

Conflation of interest with advocacy happens in the real world too – for writers it’s an occupational hazard. Freelance journos are bound to crash into the social no-no de jour sooner or later – they write on such a wide range, and even those who focus their brand into a particular subject get tarred eventually. Non-fiction book writers hit it. Want to write a book on how the Nazis took over Germany? Be careful.

Novellists hit it – I recall reading that Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven took a lot of stick for setting  The Mote In God’s Eye in a human Empire. Were they advocating Imperialism? Not at all. This was simply the setting.

That’s not to say that writing can’t be a soap-box. Often it is. But it can also be abstract – and it’s important for the writer to understand how that works – to signal the difference. Also for readers to appreciate it.

For me the trick is stepping away from the bus. Looking back and figuring out just what it is that frames the way we think. It doesn’t mean rejecting that – but it does mean understanding it. From that, it’s possible to be properly abstract. Or, indeed, to get back on the soap box, this time in an informed way.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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

Experience the past. See the journey. Understand the now.

I don’t often blog directly about the books I write – but I have some auspicious news. My publishers, David Bateman Ltd, have released my Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand as an e-book. My first major e-release, after 30 years of trad book publishing and 50-odd titles.

MJWright2011The print edition has sold very well – and continues to sell. Now it’s also available as e-book on Amazon, iTunes and Nook. And it’s not just a text book – it’s complete with all illustrations. That makes the file fairly big, but it’s worth it.

Here’s what reviewers have said:

“Books of this sweep, length, and immensity of topic are often described as “ambitious”. That it certainly is, but it is an ambition emphatically realised. Both author and publisher have done a great job … Everyone who lives in this country would benefit from reading this book, and would enjoy it.” Graeme Barrow, Northern Advocate

“Wright has covered a lot of ground, engaged with the best of current historical and archaeological thinking and served up a lively, sound general history of New Zealand for the general reader. Bateman should also take another bow…” Gavin McLean, Otago Daily Times

“…an extraordinarily accessible journey through our arguably short but undeniably rich history. I recommend it to anyone who has an active interest in the past or has simply been looking for an excuse to learn more about the events that shaped this country.” Lemuel Lyes, ‘History Geek’ blog.

I’m  marking the release over the next few weeks with a few posts, some sneak-peeks inside the book, and more. Watch this space. Meanwhile, here are the links. Go on – you know you want to…

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

And Nook is coming soon.

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

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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

Essential writing skills: we all need to write Tolkien’s appendices

One of the ways J R R Tolkien broke new ground with The Lord of the Rings was through his massive back-story, partly published at the end of The Return of the King in the form of appendices.

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 go prone to take this picture of The Hobbit artisan market in 2012. ‘Get up,’ She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. ‘People will think you’re dead.’

That story was better there than interspersed through the text – ‘information dumping’ is the biggest turn-off to readers – but it underscored the sheer depth of Tolkien’s master-work.

In the 1950s it was unusual for this sort of thing to be published. Tolkien, of course, re-defined the genre and now the notion of back-story has become passe. Authors are almost expected to be able to have a complete world behind their story, to create chronologies, maps, gazeteers – even to provide swatches of cloth for their characters’ clothing.

Few, I suspect, can ever get the detail that Tolkien did, without an equivalent amount of work. He began crafting Middle Earth in the trenches of the Western Front. That framed a good deal of the darkness in his mythos. His world also grew from the languages he developed – two full languages and several partial constructions. And it grew from repeated iterations – endless work, which he put into it in university holidays, of evenings, even scribbled on the back of old exam papers. Lines like ‘In a hole in the ground lived a Hobbit…’ expanded into – well, I don’t need to repeat that story, do I?

It would be difficult to repeat such a tremendous construction. But we can approach it, and I think every fantasy story deserves to have a fair back story.

That’s where e-publishing comes into its own. One of the ways to sell books these days is to have ‘extras’ available online.  And what better place to put the back-story than as extra tales, stories and appendices online?

It’s a thought. What do you figure?

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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

Where now, book publishing?

In 2012, New Zealand domestic book sales contracted 7 percent. In 2013, it was 15. That’s a compound drop, in just two years, of just over 23 percent against 2011 figures.

Spot my title in the middle...

Spot my title in the middle…

Small wonder the big international houses have been fleeing Auckland in droves – or reducing their presence to branches of their Australian office.

The New Zealand experience isn’t unique; there’s been a worldwide downturn in print books. It’s been a ‘perfect storm’, in fact – a combination of reduced discretionary spending on the back of the general financial crisis, coupled with the explosion of e-book readers, mostly in the form of hand-held tablets and phones. Their rise wasn’t entirely coincidental with the downturn – readers didn’t have $500 to fork out annually on books, but they did have $99 for an e-reader and $3 each for the titles that go with it.

For New Zealand, though, the issue was complicated by the implosion, a couple  of years ago, of the Whitcoulls chain. The chain was purchased and has been reconstructed under new ownership – but for a while it looked as if New Zealand might lose a third of its book retail  outlets. That provoked some heavily risk-averse decision making in publishers’ editorial offices; the change was palpable.

On top of that has come the typical Kiwi rush to technology – an explosion of e-readers, coupled with a thoroughly requited love-affair with online shopping. Book retailers here can’t compete with Amazon or The Book Depository – it’s an issue of volume coupled with the fact that overseas purchases don’t attract local sales tax.

One of the casualties has been the old publishing model. The New Zealand market was always miniscule – pushing up the cover price on books and making the overseas sales model always an ill fit anyhow.

Growth, when it comes, is going to have to pivot on the new principles of book publishing and selling – nimbleness, presence through multiple channels – electronic and print – and an ability to adapt quickly. It’s going to demand innovation, lateral thinking, and creativity.

History dead? Not when books like this sell so well.

History dead? Not when books like this sell so well.

It’s a case of the quick or the dead. Anybody remember Kodak?

I’ll blog later on where I think society has gone – and what that means for books, including how they’re published.

As for me? I’ve been told history is dead as a genre here in New Zealand – yet my history of railways sat for three months at No. 3 on the Whitcoulls best seller list last year.

At a time when some publishers are shutting their doors, I’m getting approaches from others wanting me to write for them. I have four titles coming up in the next twelve months.

Still, as far as I am concerned the need for innovation has never been greater. And I think that’s not just true for me – it’s true for all writers. More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing, publishing, science and other stuff. Watch this space.