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.

Guess which real-world place is most like Mordor…

Last week a British meteorologist at the University of Bristol published a weather analysis of Middle Earth. Tres cool.

Here’s a link to the paper: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2013/10013-english.pdf

According to the report, the weather in The Shire was much the same as that of Lincolnshire – which is pretty much what Tolkien was envisaging. It’s also like Belarus, but that may be coincidence. The place in New Zealand where the weather is closest to The Shire is north of Dunedin. Curiously – though the report didn’t mention it – there’s an area there called Middlemarch, which sounds suitably Tolkienish.

Not really Mordor - this is a photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, near Westport in the South Island of New Zealand.

Not really Gorgoroth – this is a photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, near Westport in the South Island of New Zealand.

When it comes to Mordor, the real-world place I immediately think of is the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, which I visited earlier this year. Tolkien’s explicit imagery was First World War trenches and Birmingham factories. But that isn’t where the British meteorologist found Mordor weather. Oh no. turns out the places most like Mordor, weather-wise, are New South Wales, western Texas and Los Angeles. (That said, Tolkien also made clear that the gloom around Mordor was made by Sauron.)

It was spring when I took this picture of a railway station in Soest, Netherlands.

Ok, so it wasn’t raining when I took this picture in Soest, Netherlands…but it was overcast.

What struck me about the report was how close Tolkien got to what we’d expect from a scientific perspective, if his land was real. There is a reason for this – Tolkien was basing his world on Europe. The Shire was approximately where Britain lies; Gondor and Mordor in North Italy. The weather he described followed, especially the constant rain around Trollshaws in The Hobbit, a place geographically congruent to Soest, Netherlands.

All of which is pretty neat. And it goes to show that there is often a lot more in the creations of fantasy writers than they perhaps imagine when they come up with the concept.

What do you think of Middle Earth weather?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: More writing tips, more science, more humour and more Tolkien stuff. Not that I’m a fan. Well, I am really.

Write it now, part 30: Middle Earth on a plate?

I’ve mentioned before that the art of writing focuses on what to avoid – not what to add.

Take food, for which we need go no further than J R R Tolkien. This week, the Roxy– a wonderful art deco cinema, literally just down the road from Peter Jackson’s studios in Miramar, Wellington – got into Hobbit mode for the annual ‘Wellington on a plate’ food festival.

The Roxy cinema, Miramar, Wellington - restored to fabulous 1930s art deco condition by Peter Jackson. A photo I took in 2011.

The Roxy cinema, Miramar, Wellington – restored to fabulous 1930s art deco condition by Peter Jackson. A photo I took in 2011.

The cinema’s restaurant, Coco at the Roxy, is providing Lord Of The Rings themed meals – which is pretty cool idea. Though I don’t think I’d be a fan of their genuine sixteenth century starters such as ‘faggots’,  a legitimate sixteenth century delicacy made of offal with a delicate covering of stomach fat. Mind you, how would a sixteenth century peasant view the fast foods we gorge on? I bet they’d find them too sweet (including the savouries) and way too salty.

The Roxy menu was a modern interpretation. Which is fair enough, because with a few exceptions, Tolkien was a bit vague about food. And that was a good thing. Let me explain.

Although Tolkien portrayed Middle Earth tech as High Medieval (creating the default fantasy tech for the genre), Hobbit society was a deliberate take on 1890s Midlands village life. He did this consciously, one of the many elaborate jokes he wove into his mythos. Their food reflected it; in The Hobbit, Bilbo’s cuisine is specifically English middle class, including the afternoon tea cake selection.

Tolkien went wider with the other peoples – but not much. Dwarves ate Cram on the road. Apart from lembas, Elvish food was conceptually ‘higher taste’ and largely nonspecific. He described various meals, but roast meats, vegetables, mead, breads and other pre-industrial fare was implicit rather than explicit, most of the time.

All was duly lampooned by Messrs Beard and Kenney in Bored Of The Rings, whose Boggies were uncontrollable gluttons who ate anything they would wrist-wrestle down their well-muscled  throats (anything, that is that they weren’t stashing in their coin purses ‘for later’). When the Boggies got going on the road, eventually, their menus were laugh-out-loud funny.

As always, Tolkien got it right; he did not have to describe all the food in every detail – it was more powerful to omit descriptions. Instead, and with the elves particularly, he usually gave us the idea of the food – what it meant to those experiencing it.  By painting other aspects of the elves in full detail, he was able to provoke our imaginations into filling the food gap via skilful use of image and concept – not literal description.

A brilliant technique; but, of course, that’s Tolkien for you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: more writing tips, publishing news, general geekery and more. Watch this space.

Write It Now, Part 23: Speed + quality = can be done

The pressure’s on these days for writers to produce. Content is getting ever more transient – even print books, which occasionally gained a ‘long tail’ of years, now tend to dwindle after just a year or so. And the advent of e-publishing has produced a colossal market.

The reality of this brave new future boils down to hard work for writers – a lot of it. And that’s also brought home with challenges like National Novel Writing month – 50,000 words in four weeks. A challenge of pace even for experienced writers.

All of which is a great training ground for writing as a career – a world where authors have to be able to produce great material, to length, in time.

There is a conceit – certainly in academic communities in New Zealand – that ‘speed’ and ‘quality’ don’t go together. Indeed, the word ‘prolific’ is used as a put-down in these circles. It seems to be a given that if somebody is ‘prolific’ then their quality has to be questioned.

This is a classic false premise, of course. Different writers produce quality at different speeds – and in fact, speed and quality can be made to go together by any writer. It takes practise. A lot of practise. And in the race for quantity AND quality, the word processor is your friend. Exploit its strength – painless editing without re-typing. Now, I know there’s software out there designed to do more – Scrivener, for instance.

Personally I use a word processor like a typewriter anyway – all the planning is done on paper. There’s no absolute right or wrong. What counts, though, at the end of the day – are the final words.

My take is this:

1. Figure out the broad structure – for a novel, the plot points, character arcs, chapter divisions and so forth. If you feel comfortable, you could detail down to how the chapters are structured. This is one of the keys to getting quality quickly, because  your story has got everything it needs in the right places. If you think of your book as a house, this is the foundation, wall and roof framing.

2. Now’s the time to populate that plan with words. And here’s the secret. If the first sentence doesn’t arrive, start with another further down, using the outline as a placement. Then backfill. This keeps the pace going. If you take the house analogy, this is putting up the wall-boarding, inner lining and roof. It’s handy to do that in sequence – but, if the frame’s correctly done and the pressure’s on to proceed, not always esssential.

3. This might well end up a bit patch-work, but it’s straight forward to polish the text. Back to housing again – this is the fit-out, painting and carpeting.

This process should work to any scale, from a short essay to a 90,000 word novel. Does this work for you? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Write It Now Part 18: Logline, the writer’s best friend

I figure a logline is one of the best friends a writer can have. A good one will help sell your manuscript to an agent or publisher.  What’s more, loglines are also brilliant writing tools.

A logline is a one-sentence description of a book. Its purpose is to tell the agent or publisher why the public want to read the book. To do that, the logline doesn’t recount the plot; it describes the character arc – in effect, the emotional effect of the book on the reader. It works for non-fiction, too, but it’s usually used for fiction. In novels or plays, the usual form is “[character name] has to [do something] in order to [achieve exciting goal] and so [develop as a character]”.

It has to grab the person reading it at once and convince them why they should represet or publish the material. The keys to writing a good logline are active language and being able to hone in on why people want to read the story.

“Halfling hero has to face dangers to drop a magic ring into a volcano.”

Uh…yay, but no cigar. OK, try this:

“Unwilling halfling has to find the courage to face the power of the Dark Lord in a quest to destroy a cursed ring that threatens the world.”

There’s character dynamic, purpose, drama, and the stakes of failure are clear.

Some books don’t render a good loglines, because they don’t meet the requirements of dramatic convention. Yet that convention, like it or not, is what sells. The only cure is to re-write the book.

Is there a way to avoid that re-work? Sure. This is where the logline comes in as a writing tool.

Got an idea for a book? A phrase – ‘In a hole in the ground lived a…’ for instance? Excellent. But don’t start writing the novel from that (yes, I know someone did…) These days the bar is slightly higher.

Sit down and write the logline. Make those the very first words you write on a book. Make it the real thing – grippy, dynamic, all the stuff you think you’ll need to sell the book. If it looks lame – well, that’s a good litmus test as to the book itself.

If you have a Good Idea half way through? No problem. Loglines can be revised. But it’s important to sit down and look at the whole structure of the book if you change direction part way. More on that next time.

Meanwhile, do you use loglines? Have you ever sold a story or book with one?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013 

Coming up: more writing tips, Neanderthal geek adventures with Amazon – and more.

Sixty second writing tips: how J K Rowling twisted the tropes

One of the secrets to successful writing is offering something readers can identify with, but that has enough originality to be new. The same…but different.

Kastel de Haar, near Utrecht, Netherlands - site of the Elf Fantasy Fair at which Hobb was visitor in April 2008, though that wasn't when I took this picture of the place.

Modern meets fantasy in another way – a pic I took a few years back of Kastel de Haar, near Utrecht, Netherlands.

J. K. Rowling’s shown us how it’s done. Back in the 1990s, Brit boarding school stories were dead, dead, dead. The world of ripping wheezes at the expense of The Beak, followed by clandestine visits to the tuck shop  with Bunter Major, was soooo 1930s.

Trad magic stories were pretty much dead too – I mean, spells, wizards and potions were so cliched. Put together, they should have worked even less well.

What Rowling did was genius – mashing up two cliches and giving them a twist. That came partly from the way she reinterpreted the spell-and wand trope, partly from the seven-story plot cycle, and partly from her style – easy, unadorned and well pitched for the readership. And now writing has its first billionaire author.

Time for the rest of us to follow suit. But not with school magic mashups. They’ve been done…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Write it now, part 16: hurrah for the sensitive new age vampire

What is it about our obsession with vampires? Vampires, it seems, are where it’s at today. And I don’t mean real vampires – you know, the ones who suck self-esteem. I mean the fantasy types, currently in pop-literature and movies in their sensitive new-age guise.

Cydrean_Vampire_darkgazer_svg_medThese days, novels about these reinvented suckers are  a license to print money, if  done right. Actually, it seems to happen even if they’re the literary equivalent of dribble.

I thought I’d finish this brief series of posts on the history of novels with a few thoughts about this rather – uh – pointed genre. I think it tells us quite a bit about our own society. And that’s Step 1 on the way to writing books that sell – which doesn’t mean ‘best sellers’, but does mean books that sell enough to generate a viable living.

That, alone, is a triumph for authors. I am not kidding.

Vampires always were a part of human mythology. Their first boost into western popular psyche came during the nineteenth century – heralded by penny dreadful stories like Varney the Vampire. The whole thing was given a kind of respectability, if you could call it that, by Bram Stoker, whose Dracula of 1897 defined the genre in one best-selling shot.

Superficially it was a horror story. Actually it was about something else – tweaking the sensibilities of Victorian-age, idealism. The salacious subtext – the subversion of morality – wasn’t much hidden, and readers loved it. Vampire stories were a socially acceptable frame around which to wrap what readers really wanted.

Part of the reason why Stoker and his imitators got away with it was because the vampire was also portrayed as evil. That stereotype persisted through the twentieth centry – right up until the 1970s when Fred Saberhagen turned the genre on its head with his hilarious The Dracula Tapes.

This told the story from Dracula’s perspective. Vlad Tepes – Dracula – was a polite nobleman who wanted to set up house in Britain and live quietly and privately in the centre of civilisation for a while. He got shipwrecked at Whitby (I mean, he wouldn’t sabotage his own ship – what sort of idiot did people think he was?), then ended up being harassed by an imbecile self-appointed vampire hunter named van Helsing who couldn’t be reasoned with. Very, very funny inversion of the genre.

About the same time Anne Rice wrote Interview with a Vampire, which presented much the same concept of vampires as dimensional, multi-faceted individuals. That set off the whole new-age vampire schtik – everything since has been, to my mind, a follow up to and in many ways diminuition of her concepts.

As far as I can tell, these days the writing of it has got down to one-dimensional teen angst style romance stories along with fifty shades of – well, salacious Mills and Boon. With blood. Uh…yay…

But that stuff still sells. Why? Just like it did for Stoker, over a century ago, the genre meets an immediate need – keys into something society feels it lacks. Vampires offer the twenty-first century a style of escape that is – well, interesting.

It’s to do with the underlying psychology. It’s about validation through being attracted to power, and the ability to achieve desire (represented by the vampire) – although that attraction carries a cost (blood sucking, a metaphor for power and strength). Interesting, made more so by the fact that the vampire  is supernatural. And that begs questions about why we’ve latched on to this – what is lacking in oursociety that attracts us to validation via supernatural means instead?

What’s your take on this one?

And let’s hear it for SNAVS. They’re what might make writing profitable…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Next time: fantasy genres, more geekism, comedy and some other stuff. Watch this space.

Sixty second writing tips: coining the right name

Some time after The Lord of The Rings was published, J. R. R. Tolkien fielded a letter from Sam Gamgee. A real Sam Gamgee.

It wasn’t surprising. Tolkien – a philologist –  mined English convention for his Shire and Hobbit names. Another was Peregrin Took – the first name is known, though Steve Peregrin Took wasn’t born with it – his real name was Stephen Ross Porter.

A few authors deliberately use real names. I’m thinking George McDonald Fraser, whose Flashman stories were riddled with real historical figures doing real things. Fun stuff.

Occasionally authors add a real name for other purposes, like the time Michael Crichton included a critic as one of his incidental bad-guys.

My tips? I think that…

1. If you’re writing fantasy, it’s important to have names that sound ‘real’ together – not random collections of syllables kludged up on the spot. Make lists before you start.

2. If the story is set in the present, it has to be a name that won’t leave anybody with the same name offended. One book I read included an unlikeable US Secretary of State named (wait for it…) “Trachea”. Little risk of lawsuit there. Lawsuit? Sure. Your bad guy turns out to have the same name as a genuine individual you weren’t aware of. It’s happened.

3. Coined names that reflect characteristics can work if done judiciously. J K Rowling is a master of it.

Do these tips work for you? Have you ever had trouble creating names for characters? And how have you got around it?

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up this weekend: ‘write it now’ – pantsing vs structure; and fun with comets.

Write it now, part 4: beware the death trap of illusory competence

So far in this series on the A-Z of writing, we’ve looked at why people write. Now we’re moving on to what it takes to be a writer – what does learning to write actually entail?

Wright_LeaningTowerAs I’ve mentioned before, writing is a skill like any other. The usual time it takes to master a skill is 10,000 hours. About 1,000,000 words, for a writer. Yeah, lots of zeroes – but as I said last time, it’s a passion. It’s going to be fun. The learning never stops. Not ever. If you think you’ve ‘learned’ how to write, guess again. True writers are always learning, even the experienced ones. I’ve been in the business for 30 years – and I make sure I push the edges all the time.

There is a four-stage psychological model for learning, invented by GTI employee Noel Birch, nearly half a century ago. A journey from ‘unconscious incompetence’ through ‘conscious incompetence’ to ‘conscious competence’ – and, finally, ‘unconscious competence’.

It makes a lot of sense, but to me it’s not an exact fit for writing; writing encompasses many skills, all separately learned, and the skills may be at different stages. Writers not only have to learn the ‘craft’ of writing, they also have to be skilled in the subject they are writing about. Writing also has a hidden pitfall right at the start – the ‘death trap of illusory competence’.

1. The death trap of illusory competence.
Some of the basics of writing – grammar, especially - are taught as life skills at school and often get extended in the workplace. Good stuff. But it’s not the whole skill writers need – a trap, later, for those wanting to go further. I’ve found people who have an interest and want to write about it, thinking they already know the writing part. Or they’ll decide to ‘become’ a novelist as a fun retirement activity.  ‘How hard can it be? I did High School English…right?’ Or they may think ‘I read a lot, therefore I know how to write’. To me, that’s like ‘I listen to Beethoven a lot, therefore I know how to play his piano concertos’- see what I mean?

The results are often awful – but the writer isn’t informed enough to know. In fact, they may well think they are very good. The technical name for this, I believe, is the ‘Dunning-Kruger’ effect.

I got my first writing gig when I was 18 – working for the university newspaper. Like most of my fellow students, I thought I knew what I was doing. So I thought. Actually? No, I didn’t.

2. Scrambling up from the pit of doom.
Some people plunge down that death trap and don’t even know it. But a lot of writers do escape – or even avoid it altogether. One of the tools for it is self-critique. There can be an epithany, or it can happen slowly; but one way or another, the writer realises how much they have to learn. And maybe gets frustrated. But  thinking your own writing is terrible is the first step to improvement. And a honed sense of self-critique is a sign of a potentially great writer.

I remember being at this point. There was a day when I made a specific decision. ‘My stuff’s no good. I’d better figure out how to get good.’

3. A view of the sunny uplands of writing joy.
After a while, the elements are there, but the author has to consciously think through them. (‘I need to add a metaphor here…done. Now I have to add an adjective. Done.’) The styling can be wooden, or the writing process itself very slow. Thing is, learning to write is a LOT more than simply knowing the techniques. The key to it is doing the hard yards – to applying those techniques, writing a lot – as in, every single day, even if it’s only for 15 minutes – and making them part of your soul.

4. Confident and competent writer.
This is the 10,000-hour, million word point. Suddenly all the skills become part of your soul; they become automatic. Usually this happens first with the mechanics of style. You think of an idea, and the words emerge. Your writing sings. That lets the author focus on content – and one day, hey presto, that all clicks together too. Writing becomes fast – and good at the same time.

5. ‘How did you know that?’
There is a further step that comes only from experience. Pride goeth before a fall. Do not think you have learned everything. You haven’t.The process of learning never stops. It can mean learning from someone else, or attending specialist courses-  but it also means being able to self-analyse, to figure out what’s needed. To discover – to move forward and to be abstract. The writer learns not to define self-worth by what they write, even while pouring emotion into the work.

So how do writers go down this road? Every individual journey is different. It’s also do-able and not daunting at all, if it’s approached step-wise. This series is designed to help you along the way, whatever stage your writing may be at.

But I’ll share one of the secrets now. Actually, it isn’t really a secret. It’s OK to make mistakes – providing you figure out how they happened and what to do about it. That’s how you learn things.

Actually, that’s true of everyday life.

Any thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

How Tolkien became part of my life. Is he part of yours?

Forty years after I first encountered the work of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, I am still on a wonderful journey of discovery in his world.

I had moment to think about it on the weekend when my wife and I passed through Miramar, Wellington and stopped at the ‘Weta Cave’. It’s a store run by Weta Workshop, who made the props for Peter Jackson’s adaptations of Tolkien’s work.  In typical Kiwi fashion it’s in an unprepossessing building of late 1930s austerity construction.

Weta Cave - unprepossessing ordinariness masking the home of something truly extraordinary.

Weta Cave – unprepossessing ordinariness masking the home of something truly extraordinary.

Most of the buildings in the area are like this. It’s the heart of Peter Jackson’s movie-making empire. You wouldn’t think so, to look at it. But that’s the magic of movies for you.

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

It’s all in an ordinary industrial-style street. I don’t know if these warehouses, directly opposite Jackson’s post-production building, are part of the studio or not, though interesting drumming noises were coming out of them when I took this photo.

Though the Park Road Post Production building is pretty impressive.

I took this from the street.

I took this from the street.

The visit – coupled with last week’s viewing of The Hobbit movie - got me thinking. I wouldn’t call myself a ‘fan’. I approach Tolkien with a critical eye, I don’t consume every word.  Each volume in my copy of The Lord of The Rings is from a totally different paperback edition and I’ve never bothered to get any of the different illustrated, one-volume or ‘collectors’ versions issued since.

But I like his created world and his writing very much indeed, and have ever since I was eight or nine - about as long,  in fact, that I’ve been writing myself.

It was the Pauline Baynes map that captured me first. Her artwork  was evidently frowned upon by Tolkien himself. But it spoke of adventure, of exploration – of the unknown. I wanted to experience that magic – to live that world. I started imagining. A little later, I read The Hobbit. And I was hooked. I still have that copy of the book, the third edition paperback with Tolkien’s own ‘Death of Smaug’ sketch as cover art. It’s totally battered. I don’t know how often I’ve read it. Lots.

A year or two after that I read The Lord Of The Rings. And read it again. And again. And again. And many times again after that. I’ve read it only twice since I was a teenager – but I can still pretty much quote passages from it.

Check out the battering. Is my copy of 'The Hobbit' much-loved, or what?

Check out the wear and tear. Is my copy of ‘The Hobbit’ much-loved, or what?

Tolkien’s work spoke to me on many levels. He conveyed a sense of wonder on an epic scale, yet in terms that brought that wonder back to ‘ordinary’ through the hobbits. I could share their sense of discovery, of growth, as the world unfolded for them – and which they had to find the strength to handle.

Later, as I learned more about literature and writing, I came to realise just how much of the essence of the western mind Tolkien had put into his work. My enjoyment of his world became a journey of discovery - re-awakening a sense of wonder when I read his material.

I am still on that journey, and it is a wonderful journey indeed.

How about you? Are you a Tolkien enthusiast? What drew you to his work? And if he’s not your cup of tea – well, what doesn’t appeal? It’s all valid. I don’t like some of his material myself, actually – too inaccessible, too academic; or written in ways that don’t capture. As I say, I approach this with a critical eye – not adulating fandom. But what he imagined remains very much a part of my life.

What are your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013