Essential writing skills: finding the right words to write

Styling gives the characteristic ‘tone’ to a piece of work –  expression to the ‘voice’ of the author It’s a vital writing skill. And, as we’ve been seeing in the recent posts about editing, it’s also something that comes towards the end of the writing process, once the structure is sorted out.

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

Things to think about when styling include:

  1. Choice of words. You need a reasonably varied vocabulary. This doesn’t mean delving into a thesaurus to find the most unusual words you can; ordinary words work quite well. Sometimes, repetitive use of the same word is actually appropriate, because of the alliterative effect. I use that one myself at times, though I’ve had trouble periodically getting that past editors. Once I was told that a word shouldn’t be repeated more than once in any three paragraphs, which to me seemed silly. Word choice is particularly crucial for conveying subtle nuance and meaning. Word choice is important; and so is clarity.
  2. Rhythms. Writing has a rhythm, like music. It’s defined by the intersection between choice of words and the phrasing. The rhythms are most obvious in poetry – but even plain prose has to have it. And like music, that rhythm needs to be interesting. This is one of the ways in which you can keep reader interest going.
  3. Devices. I’m talking similes (something is like something else), metaphors (something IS something else), alliteration (repeated use of the same sonority) and a careful selection of broken grammatical rules (DO start occasional sentences with a conjunction). All of these have their place, and not just in poetry, though they need to be carefully applied. A paragraph with half a dozen metaphors or similes in it becomes difficult to read.
  4. Word count. As we’ve seen in previous posts, word count is not a goal of itself. It’s a tool for determining structure and for defining the overall size of the work – something that publishers and editors rely upon to guide their costings. Working over the first draft to re-style it, by nature, will change the word count – and while there are some fairly good tolerances, the onus remains on the writer to stay around the intended limit, not just of the work as a whole but also of each individual section. Failing to do so will affect both the carefully planned structure and the publishing costs.

There is, of course, a vast gulf between my outlining what’s needed – and actually doing it. But styling, like all writing skills, is something that comes with practise and the only real way to master it is to roll up your sleeves, pick up the word processor, and get down and dirty with the wording.

Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: the principle of editorial fresh eyes

In the last week I’ve been exploring how to turn your first draft – the piece of writing that comes out of the end of NaNoWriMo, for instance – into a finished work. The principles, of course, are the same for any draft – and for any form of writing, fiction or non-fiction.

Wright_AuthorPhoto2014_LoLast time we saw how that first draft can be turned into a ‘second draft’, and then into a ‘final’ by degrees – a process that involves repeated iterations at ever-smaller scale.

This gets the book to the point where a publisher can look at it. But the editorial road doesn’t end there – not by a long way.

Preparing a book for publishing involves a lot more editing. This falls into two main categories: proof-editing and line-editing. The latter is done more than once. Publishers have whole teams of people and contractors lined up to do it. The whole revolves around the principle of ‘fresh eyes’.

What’s that? It sounds better than ‘familiarity breeds contempt’, but it’s the same thing. As author, you cannot – by the nature of the beast – see your own inconsistencies and mistakes. Sticking the manuscript in a drawer helps; you come back to it fresh and things will pop up. But in others ways – no. And this is no indictment of competence, or admission of sloppiness. Far from it. It’s the way that the human mind works. You see what you have trained yourself to see, not what is actually there.

An independent editor will spot things, in short, that you can’t – everything from idiosyncratic spelling that you’ve managed to accidentally program your spell-check to miss, through to the fact that you’ve spelt someone’s name three different ways in three different places. And it might be that this person’s name was, indeed, meant to be spelt differently. I’ve got a book being published early next year where that’s precisely the case. But the proof-editor wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t point it out.

If you’re self-publishing, the onus is on you to find an editorial team to do the same thing. Team? Did I say ‘team’? I did. And there are reasons for that – again, flowing from the ‘fresh eye’ principle. The problem, of course, is paying for it out of the likely commercial returns on whatever it is you’re publishing.

Needless to say, there are processes and structure to the way the editorial process works, too. More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: editing as writing and why it’s important

One of the key things an author needs to understand about their manuscript is the point that editing is integral to the writing process. It can take just as long to edit a first draft as it does to assemble those words in the first place. Maybe longer.

Wright_Typewriter2That’s a daunting prospect, but it’s do-able. The key to it is critical evaluation and breaking the task into manageable layers – starting with the big picture and moving down to the detail. Here’s how:

  1. Get the big picture. Take your manuscript out of the metaphorical drawer. If you can, print it out so you can strew the sheets of paper on the floor. Look at it from the big-picture overview. Is the structure right? Does everything mesh together? Make notes if it doesn’t. Avoid the temptation to re-write the specific words just now.
  2. If the structure’s wrong, figure out how to adjust it and nominate the sections that need re-writing.
  3. Go back to the computer, make a copy of the file labelled ‘Draft 2’, and work on that. Make the structural adjustments and re-writes. This may well be time-consuming. Don’t worry too much about the wording – this is still first draft territory. Print it out again and review. Rinse and repeat until you’re satisfied.
  4. Now it’s time to think about the wording. Start going through the wording in detail, initially from the viewpoint of the broader purpose of your argument or content. Does the wording work? Have you conveyed the intent? Are their ambiguities? This part of the process can be done with a printout and pen-and-ink, which often highlights things you don’t see on screen. Make sure your word-length stays tight to the intended quantity – as I’ve mentioned many times before, word-length is not an end-goal, it’s a tool. For authors, it enables authors to keep the structure of their work under control; and for publishers it’s a budgeting tool, because word-length quantifies production costs.
  5. Finally, it’s time to get down to the micro-detail of the wording – the fidelity of it. This demands another read through in which you go through the material with a close focus, looking for specific wording – making sure there are no extraneous or ambiguous phrases, keeping the styling tight to what you intend.
  6. Now stick the manuscript in a metaphorical drawer again. Leave it there for a few days before bringing it out, printing the material, and reading it carefully – word by word – on paper. Make notes or amendments in pen and ink. This change to a different medium is very important because it forces a different way of thinking and a different view on the material. You’ll be surprised what you find. Only then should you implement on the computer.
  7. If necessary, repeat the above steps until you’re satisfied.  Then – and only then – will the material be ready to submit for publication.

This process won’t necessarily work for every author – and you have to do what works for you – but the key principles are having time and space to let your thoughts breathe – to keep returning to the material with reasonably fresh eyes – and to change the medium from screen to paper as a device for improving that ‘freshness’. The steps I’ve noted here also break the task down from largest to smallest components. This is akin to hacking out the rough shape of a statue, then working on the details, and finishing off with a careful polish.

All of this is time-consuming, and all of it will involve more writing and composition. But that’s not the only part of the editorial process. Not by a long way. More soon.

Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014

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How to stoke your Kindle with “Coal”

I’m delighted to announce that my book Coal: the rise and fall of King Coal in New Zealand (Bateman 2014) – which was released in print a few months ago – has also been published internationally through Kindle.

Coal is an irreplaceable resource, formed over millions of years, yet humanity has been burning it as if there is no tomorrow. Today it’s responsible for 43 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. We stand at a cross-roads; and the story of coal – of which the New Zealand side is a microcosm and case-study – plays a large part in the journey.

Reviews of the print edition so far have been excellent:

There have been many books written about coal mining in New Zealand; however this definitive work by Matthew Wright has certainly set a new benchmark” – Robin Hughes, NZ Booksellers, 13 October 2014.

a fascinating read, and it is such a good way of understanding NZ history” – “The Library”, 15 October 2014.

…mines a rich seam of interesting content on many things relative to coal…” – Ted Fox, Otago Daily Times, 24 November 2014.

And so, without further ado – welcome to the Kindle edition:

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Essential writing skills: fixing that first draft

There’s a lot of truth in the old adage that a bad first draft is better than no first draft. The annual National November Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) contest is, essentially, geared to produce them.

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

I posted earlier on ways of preparing that bad first draft so it’s properly structured – so it has the right foundations. The words may not be right, but the basic form will be. First step after that, as I’ve mentioned, is to chuck the thing in a drawer for a month.

What then? The trick is to understand how editing words. There’s a notion – certainly among beginning authors – that ‘writing’ is the part where you’re assembling the words for the first time, and ‘editing’ is a quick polish afterwards, whereupon the work’s ready to publish. I’ve actually seen tweets from authors announcing they’ve ‘finished’ their book and after a quick edit, it’s going to be published in a week or so.

But that’s how it’s done…Right?

Actually, wrong. A first draft manuscript is way, way off being submitted to an agent or publisher, still less self-pubbed. Editing is as much work as the original composition, and it’s an essential part of the whole writing process. It’s also, separately, a part of the publishing process; and neither part is quick, easy or – unfortunately – cheap to accomplish.

First, there’s the editing needed to finish the manuscript – to get what you’re writing into its final form. This involves a good deal of re-wording and perhaps re-structuring, depending on how you set that first draft up in the first place. Trust me – this will take as long as writing that first draft did, maybe longer. And if it doesn’t, you have to ask yourself why.

Second, there’s the sort of editing done by publishers, which itself breaks down into several phases – proof-editing and various flavours of line editing. It’s also time-consuming, and there are no short cuts. If you are self-pubbing, you’ll have to do it (actually, for reasons I’ll explain, pay somebody else to). The phrase is ‘quality assurance’.

What does all this entail? Over the next few posts I’ll be outlining all of this in detail. Watch this space.

Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: Tolkien and character arcs as an editing tool for writers

I’ve posted several times about the importance of character arcs – the pivot around which novel-writing must revolve. The narrative events of plot all derive from it.

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, 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’.

A character arc is the journey – the direction – in which a character moves through the story. When that journey is complete, the novel ends. It is not about what a character wants – it is about what they need. Often the character arc is all about the difference; a character goes out to get what they want, learning along the way that what they want – and what they need to develop as people – are two different things.

What perhaps isn’t realised is that this arc is also a key editing tool. We often conceptualise stories as successions of cool scenes, snapshots that the writer things, ‘gee, that’d be neat to include’. The problem is that it’s too easy to wander – to end up with scenes that go nowhere or which don’t advance the story.

The answer is in the character arc. Sort that out first – what is the journey your character goes on? In The Hobbit, for instance – the classic ‘hero journey’ – Bilbo has to learn to discover his innate heroism. It is a progressive journey in which the development steps are clearly laid out.

First he is pushed into that journey by an unexpected event, with the help of a mentor (‘An Unexpected Party’); then he meets his first challenge (the trolls) – and is rescued by the mentor; other adventures follow that force him to act alone for the first time (‘Riddles in the Dark’); and finally he is stripped of his mentor and forced to find his heroism (Mirkwood and the spiders, escape from the Elvenking). Tolkien, brilliantly, extended Bilbo’s journey of self-discovery into ethical heroism – the confrontations with the dragon and the Arkenstone sub-plot.

The narrative events of the plot were subsidiary – Tolkien geared them to make it possible to explore Bilbo’s hero journey – not the other way around. That’s quite clear from the ‘first drafts’ published recently in a two volume set. Tolkien’s notes exploring narrative directions suggested various possible stories that were very different from the one he finally came up with – but all were built around a principle of rising tension and the essential character arc for Bilbo. The character arc, in short, drove the story. And that, I think, is a good principle to follow.

Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: pinning down the muse when deadlines press

So there you are, NaNo target or deadline just hours off – and your muse has disappeared so fast you can’t even see a patch of dust on the horizon.

Mars imaged in 1995 by the Hubble Space Telescope - with blue cast due to Rayleigh scattering. Cool. Photo: NASA, public domain.

Mars imaged in 1995 by the Hubble Space Telescope – with blue cast due to Rayleigh scattering. Cool. Photo: NASA, public domain.

One of the challenges writers face is that problem of forcing the stuff out even when the inspiration to write has decided to take a holiday on Mars.

What do you do? Other than run around in circles shouting ‘I’m a teapot’?

There are all kinds of tricks to nudge that inspiration back into action – taking a break for twenty minutes and doing something else, like going for a walk or getting some housework done. But what happens when those tactics don’t work either?

The key to all of them is to analyse why you’ve dried up – work the problem, then tackle it. And sometimes, brute force is the only answer. Try these:

  1. Is it because you’re simply flat out of enthusiasm? It’s become a chore? Tough. Writing isn’t a fun pastime. Push through – keep writing.
  2. Are you stuck because your ideas have dried up? Go back to your plan. Er – you DO have a plan, don’t you – and look it over. Is there anything else you can write in the story, then backfill?
  3. Have you worked your writing into a corner? Got stuck on plot? Go back to the plan (yes, THAT plan) and see where it went adrift. Is it to do with character arc, plot narrative, or something else? Luckily, NaNo is purely about words-to-time, which is an important skill of itself. Bash through anyway and finish it – you can revise later (and I’ll be outlining how).

Do these techniques work for you? How do you tackle those ‘stuck’ moments?

Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014

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