Essential writing skills: summing up the secret to writing that NaNo novel

In the past few weeks I’ve been outlining ways of planning for that elusive ‘first draft’ of your novel – which is what National November Writing Month is really all about.

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…

Go check out those posts, if you haven’t already. If it’s done right, that draft should be a good basis for developing into a saleable novel without too much re-casting. The principles, just to recap, are:

  1. Plan first, write later.
  2. When making that plan, everything pivots around the ‘character arc’ of your lead character – this is what drives the narrative. Yes, you need subsidiary characters with their own arcs; but it’s best, certainly when on a learning curve, to focus on a single lead character. Keeps things simple.
  3. Planning doesn’t mean ignoring ‘seat of the pants’ free-flow writing; the two work together – the plan gives the structure and the ‘pantsing’ provides the creative spark to flesh it out.
  4. Don’t get too hung up on the specific wording in this first draft. The key is to get the structure, pace and flow right first – in short, broad strokes.

Working to that general plan should make it possible to knock out a 50,000 word draft in thirty days. It will almost certainly read badly – the usual issues with swift drafting are passive language, repetitive phrasing and vocabulary, and a general feel of ‘clunkiness’. But that’s not an issue – that is what word processors are for.

The more crucial part is having the right elements in all the right places; getting the character arc right and being able to tie the plot to it in a series of waves that maximise the tension at the pivotal point where the character arc resolves. As we’ve seen, that lead character arc acts as a very determined editor; using it as a tool, you can judge whether a scene or sub-character is extraneous or not.

What’s next? Cleaning up that wording and applying a suitable writing style. Of which more anon.

But before that, there’s the practicality of actually hammering out that draft. Which is a challenge in itself, not least because of the need to keep the pace going.

More soon. And meanwhile, get writing…what are you waiting for?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: the core of novel writing

One of the many challenges beginning writers face when setting out to tackle their first novel – or their second, or their third – is the fact that ‘good ideas’ often come as snapshots of particular scenes, or a setting, or a scenario.

Wright_Typewriter01Characters – and the essential character arc – usually take second place in the planning and writing process. It’s a classic issue. The reason why it happens, in part, is because we are fed entertainment in ‘scenes’ and ‘settings’, around which part of the emotional pull is grounded. Some guy has a blue Police phone box that’s bigger on the inside than the outside and can go anywhere in space and time. Coooool!

The problem is that this isn’t the whole story. The structural priority in fiction writing – and, for that matter, in any writing – is the emotional journey on which the writer takes the reader. This is always based around the character arc, and always demands movement, a direction. More, in short, than a static scenario. The problem with a succession of snapshot ‘ scenes’ is that they often don’t link to that directional character arc.

The answer is to step back, reverse the whole process, and start with the character arc. Jot down notes about those cool settings and scenes on a set of cards. What is the appeal of that setting to you – the emotional pull? This could give insights into the kind of character that would inhabit it. Then start working on the characters. Focus on one character only to begin with. This is your lead character. Forget the setting. What does the character NEED to develop, to grow? What is their journey?

Once that’s sorted out, look back at the scenario and setting. Does that fit? Will it work with the character? The priority MUST be the character journey, from which all else follows. That’s because this is the core of the novel – the means by which readers are captured and then held. Narrative plot events, cool scenes, and cool setting all play a part. But they are the background – secondary to that character arc, around which all must pivot.

Want proof? Go check out that show about the guy with the blue box. The stories aren’t really about his TARDIS or the neat places you can go in it. Are they?

Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: understanding points of view and other novel-writing puzzles

The other week someone asked me how many points of view it’s possible to have in a novel. It’s a tricky question. The best answer – certainly for novice or learning novelists – is ‘one’. That’s the simplest.

Wright_Typewriter2It’s simplest because the author is dealing with but one major character arc, and a single point of view can be handled from various writing angles – first person singular (‘I’), as if the novel was a personal narrative. The reader only gets to see what the narrator sees. It’s closely related to ‘third person singular’ – which is the same as first person, but where the author steps back and refers to the lead character as ‘he’ or ‘she’.  But they don’t reveal anything that anybody else sees.

Both angles offer differing advantages, depending on what the author has in mind. With first person singular, for instance, it’s possible to play with styles. The classic, to my mind, is George McDonald Fraser’s Flashman series, written in first person singular in the style of a ‘found’ nineteenth century memoir, to the point where one reviewer thought it actually was. Brilliant. It’s harder to produce that sense with third person singular, where the writing style is more independent of the content. But that independence may be what’s desired.

Handling multiple points of view – in effect, treating every character as a lead – is possible but quite tricky to accomplish well. It virtually dictates that the novel has to be written from ‘third person plural’ perspective – ‘he’ or ‘she’ perspectives, covering multiple people. It’s possible to play with styles and voices to give a different feel to each narrator. But it carries structural complexities – the multiple ‘lead’ character arcs have to be very carefully planned so they mesh properly around the plot, as just one challenge.

Great novel writing definitely includes multiple POV. But I would not recommend this for novice authors. Nor would I recommend it for a contest like NaNoWriMo – it’s too time-consuming to get multiple POV right. I can be done, of course – but don’t forget, what I’m talking about here isn’t just how to write fast. It’s how to write fast with quality. Some forms of writing – well, they impose speed limits. And multiple POV is one of them.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: what Ebenezer Scrooge teaches us about character arcs

One of the key things all novellists have to master is the character arc. It’s fundamental to the nature of the novel  – the reason why readers become emotionally engaged. Usually, the arc of the main character dictates the fundamental plot structure of the novel.

Wright_Typewriter01So what is a ‘character arc’? At basic level, it’s the journey a character takes as a person. They learn something. They develop. They change. The plot and events of the novel will always be about how they make that change. What does the character need to learn? How can they discover the better person they probably already believe themselves to be?

Take Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s all about Ebenezer Scrooge’s personal character arc – his transformation from a mean-spirited Grinch into a kind and generous man. The whole of the plot is subordinated to that goal. So how does Dickens handle it? Very, very unsubtly, broadly as allegory. That, of course, is why this tale is such a great way of exploring the integration between plot and character arc. Several key points emerge:

  1. Scrooge doesn’t know how to find his own joy. So the key tension of the character arc is going to be one of self-discovery. Undoing self-delusion is one of several possible character arcs.
  2. The plot of the story takes us on a journey through that character arc – it is designed to show first how Scrooge has insulated himself from Christmas joy, then how he is made to discover himself. It’s not subtle – nor did Dickens intend it to be. When the transformation is complete, we are shown how Scrooge has become a different man. The narrative ends there because there is nothing more to say about Scrooge’s transformation. The story is over.
  3. Dickens didn’t ‘pad’ the story with any unnecessary events. Everything was subordinated to defining Scrooge and taking us on a journey through his character transformation.
  4. The drama came wholly from within Scrooge – driven by that internal transformation. It didn’t rely or need external crises, adventure or other setting. And that’s the best way to develop story drama.

If you deconstruct other stories you’ll often find much the same thing – Tolkien’s The Hobbit, for instance, which is the classic hero journey.

Plot and narrative, in short, all swing around the needs of the characters. Something writers have to bear uppermost in their minds when plotting out their novel.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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My problem, as a bloke, with Top Gear, number plates and laddish silliness

I can’t see what the fuss is over Top Gear’s provocative Porsche number plate – you know, the one that got Jeremy Clarkson and the rest hustled out of Argentina before the wrath of a mob.

Aha - Clarkson's book on display in Whitcoulls, Wellington. My book directly behind his...

Aha – Clarkson’s book on display in Whitcoulls, Wellington. My book directly behind his (and in front of Julia Gillard’s).

Allegedly it was an off-colour reference to the British victory in the Falklands War of 1982. Personally I figure Clarkson’s protestations of innocence are correct. I mean, apart from anything else, wringing the meaning out of those letters demanded a fair amount of subtle thinking, and Top Gear isn’t exactly subtle. It’s a show about ‘Brit lads’ being ‘laddish’ with lad’s toys on a big budget with the help of a slick production team, some very fast sports cars and a good deal of British public school potty humour. This is the show, after all, who claim their engineering workshop is in Penistone. And who did have an intended ‘substitute’ plate for the Porsche reading ‘Be11end’.

Surprisingly, Top Gear didn’t make a point of visiting Urenui when the show came here. Depending how you translate it, the name is Te Reo Maori for ‘Great Courage’ or ‘Big Penis’. Instead Clarkson damaged one Toyota Corolla on a narrow bridge and drove another up Ninety Mile Beach. Not uber-fast, either. Once, the beach was the racing track where Norman ‘Wizard’ Smith went for 300 mph in an aero-engined streamliner in 1931, just in case anybody thought the Land Speed Record was exclusive to people named Campbell (Smith missed). But today it’s legally a public road, with a speed limit. (OK, so Clarkson’s Corolla wasn’t thrashed, it just got salt and sand sprayed through engine and running gear. I hope I never end up owning that one.)

You laugh at the British silliness. You think, ‘gee, I wish I had the chance to drive that’, that you could drive like The Stig, and that you too could play conkers with caravans. Or turn a Robin Reliant into a space shuttle. But to me, these days, Top Gear seems rather tired. Formula. There are, I suspect, limits as to how long a band of middle-aged men can cavort through our Sunday evening TV being big-budget yobbos.

Still, I can’t complain. My latest book ended up stacked, cover out, behind Clarkson’s the other day – and one can but hope that the reflected fame was, well, reflected in the sales…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: climbing the hidden mountain of writing

It’s always seemed to me that the biggest challenge for beginning writers is the hidden mountain. The skill challenge that isn’t obvious when starting – but which everybody crashes over, relentlessly, on the way. After all, everybody can write…can’t they?

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

Actually, no, it’s a learned skill like any other – one where the skill challenges are not obvious.

In past years, the agent-publisher model acted as a filter and kept the ‘learning curve’ books out of the market. Frustrating, an eternal source of angst for beginning writers – but it was a quality gateway.

That’s changed now. Anybody can publish. And many do, often without having the skills to realise what is wrong with what they’ve written. I’ve seen books where the mechanics of the writing – and hence the style – have got more competent as the author’s gone on. Ouch.

It’s understandable. Scrabbling to get the words, the content and the structure all together if you’re on a learning curve is like trying to pin down jelly, and it’s something long-standing writers don’t much have to confront. Why? Because the act of becoming a long-standing writer also means they’ve nailed the craft. They don’t have to think about the mechanics of writing or how to express their ideas; it’s become part of their soul.

They’ve surpassed the elusive million-word, ten thousand hour hurdle and become ‘unconsciously competent’ at the task. That lets them concentrate on content – and on style. That’s how J K Rowling – who is an absolute master of written styling – was able to write as Robert Galbraith, with totally different voice and style to Harry Potter. It’s still hard work, of course. As Hemingway put it, you sit down at the typewriter and bleed.

My answer? Until you get there don’t be afraid to throw something out – put it in a drawer, permanently.

Sure, you’ve sweated blood and tears over that piece of writing. But it’s part of the learning curve. Look on it as an exercise. The next one will be better. And the one after that better still. You’ll know when you’ve got there.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Forecasting New Zealand’s seismic apocalypse

This weekend’s tragedy on Japan’s Mount Ontake reminds us that life around the Pacific ‘rim of fire’ is often risky.

That string of tectonic plate collisions stretches around the whole circumference of the Pacific and has shaped life in many ways. It was cause of the 2011 tsunami that devastated eastern Japan. It gave the US Yellowstone. It provokes earthquakes. It has also shaped my home country, New Zealand – and has been doing so for at least the past ten million years. The obvious question is ‘what next’ – something that has exercised seismologists and vulcanologists for generations. One way of finding out is to look back into the past, figuring out where fault lines are and how often they move.

Karaka Bay - on the eastern side of the city where Port Nicholson opens out to the sea through a narrow channel.

Karaka Bay – on the eastern side of the Miramar ‘was-an-island-before 1460′ Peninsula

That’s certainly been a focus of ongoing work in New Zealand, which straddles the collision between the Australian and Pacific plates and is prone to massive earthquakes. And of all the historical quakes, it seems few were as spectacular as the series that ripped through the country around 1460, as an indigenous Maori culture began to emerge from its Polynesian settler origins. All of them were around magnitude 8 or higher. They began, it seems, in the south as the Alpine Fault moved. Then there was a quake off what is now Wellington. And another in the Wairarapa. And another at Ahuriri, creating the Te Whanganui-a-Orotu lagoon. Wham! Tsunami followed, 10 metres or more high.

Maori refer to the 1460 Wellington quake as Haowhenua – the ‘land swallower’. Superficially that’s a paradox; the quake created land, raising the channel between Miramar, then an island. But the quake also triggered tsunami, washing far around the coasts and inundating settlements and gardens on the south coast of the Wairarapa. For Maori, the key issue was the loss of food-stuffs by a disaster that had, literally, swallowed their land.

It's all in an ordinary industrial-style street.

This movie studio in central Miramar was underwater before 1460.

A succession of quakes of this magnitude remains unprecedented. Seismology, to date, has usually treated quakes as independent events. And yet it’s clear that earthquakes occur in clusters, and seismologists have been asking questions of late that point to connections. One of those is interactions between fault lines. A quake on one fault might deliver enough energy to a nearby fault to trigger it, providing that fault was already under stress. There is also the effect of ‘slow quakes’. This only emerged in the early twenty-first century when GPS measurements revealed that, at certain points where the Pacific plate dives under the Australian – usually east or west of the New Zealand land mass itself – there are areas where the two slip slowly, but not smoothly. Huge earthquakes follow, but the energy released is spread out over months and not detectable by conventional instruments.

What these quakes seem to do is stress shallower fault lines, east in the plate interface. Current analysis indicates that a slow-slip quake under Kapiti island in early 2013 was likely cause of the succession of conventional quakes that struck in a semi-circular arc around Kapiti from mid-2013 – the Cook Strait and Grassmere quakes of July and August; the Eketahuna quake of January 2014; and the Waipukurau quake of April 2014.

All were severe quakes, but not in the league of the 1460 series. As yet the jury’s still out on the linkages. If the hypothesis is right though, the issue is obvious. Slow quakes might provoke successions of conventional shallow quakes in New Zealand. And if the 1460 sequence was one of those, it’s clear these quakes can be large indeed.

That begs a question: what would happen were New Zealand to suffer a similar quick-fire succession of huge quakes? That’s something I’ve tackled in my book Living on Shaky Ground (Penguin Random House). I won’t repeat the details here – suffice to say, it’s spectacular and I can’t help thinking that Mars looks appealing about this time of year.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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