Essential writing skills: what I learned from Jack Kerouac about chapters

One of the major battles Jack Kerouac had to fight when publishing On The Road was his lack of divisions.

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

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

His editors won; the book as originally published had divisions – I wouldn’t exactly call them chapters. And with good reason. Divisions, usually chapters, are an expected part of a book – a useful device for highlighting the structure. If set up right, they act as defined break points for readers. Good all round, unless you’re Jack Kerouac.

His point, of course, was to do with flows of consciousness – with sharing his mind process with the world and presenting his beat-gen anthem as he conceived it.

It was a valid point, and these days editions of the book are available in the original ‘scroll’ form.

Other authors – well, we all use chapters…don’t we. And that raises questions about such niceties as whether to name or to number. It’s a moot point. Nineteenth century practise was clear. Fiction and non-fiction alike were the same. A chapter could be given a title that summarised the contents. Or, if it was just numbered, it often included a pot-summary, headline-style:

“Chapter MCXXXVI: In which Our Hero, having Undergone Many Trials and Tribulations, Discovers the Wonders of the Aerial Steam Railway, but Not Before Losing His Tube Of Brass Polish and Thus Rendering His Goggles Completely Tarnished By Coal Smuts, To His Dismay and That Of His Companions.”

Readers then go on to read how the hero, who had undergone 1185 previous chapters of trials and tribulations, discovers a steam railway and is embarrassed by the way the smoke dulls his brass goggles.

All well and good for the Penny Dreadfuls – and, these days, for novels harking back to the style. But is telegraphing the entire contents of a chapter really the way to go?

Chapter titles have the same effect on smaller scale, which is why some authors simply number their chapters. And, of course, a word out of place in a non-fiction chapter title is a red rag to academics, for whom any discrepancy between promised and actual content is a lever for denying worth in the rival intellectual.

My answer? ‘It depends’. Both approaches are useful – the actual answer has to flow from the fundamental questions of purpose and intent. What fits the intended style of the book and the statements it makes?

Sometimes, as Kerouac showed us, it might even be better to dispense with the whole apparatus – titles,  numbers and even chapters.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: two steps to kick the muse into action

There you are, pen in hand – fingers posed over keyboard – ready to write. And….nothing.

Writing environment; Otehei Bay, New Zealand - where Zane Grey fished and penned some of his 90-odd novels.

Otehei Bay, New Zealand – where Zane Grey fished and penned some of his 90-odd novels. Did he run into writing blank? Bound to have.

It would be a cliché if it didn’t happen to every writer, sooner or later. It’s especially a problem in the profession. Publishers get antsy if authors are late.

My advice, after several decades in the business, is not to batter your head into a brick wall. Work the problem.

I have a two-step approach.

1. Look at the issue laterally. Why are you stuck? Have you no ideas at all? Have you dried up on a phrase but have the ideas in your head? Or do you have an idea in your head and simply cannot find a way of expressing it? These are the usual causes of what we call ‘writers block’. They demand different fixes. Are you short of ideas? Often writers have notebooks with ideas. But don’t just read any notes you have. Write them down again, fresh. Or, if you’re stuck on a phrase, write down the lead-up to it in a different way. Use pen and paper,  not your computer. This is important, because it changes the framework of what you are writing with – and so, re-shapes your writing thoughts.

2. Now go away and do something else for twenty minutes – go for a walk, dig the garden, do the dishes, change the oil in the car. Something utterly different from writing. Do not, repeat NOT, think about your writing problem. But – equally – don’t get caught up too far in the new thing. That’s important too.

Then get back to your computer and watch what happens.

Did it work? Do you have a favourite technique for escaping that oft mis-named ‘writers block’?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Star Trek lessons – writing out of the box

I’ve long thought most of the Star Trek franchise series and movies – the ones made between 1977 and 2005 – to be epic fails both as good SF and, more to the point, as good dramatic story-telling.

Sounds heretical, and I suppose I’ll get heat from fans – but if you step back to the first principles of writing, it’s true. I’ve just finished reading a book by Brian Robb, Star Trek: The essential history of the classic TV series and movies, which confirms my belief.

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.
Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

I’m not complaining about the fact that Trek aliens all looked like humans with lobsters glued to their foreheads or that Klingon was apparently constructed to be different rather than linguistic by the usual measures. My problem goes deeper than that.

Robb argued that the best ideas of the original 1966-69 series – the things fans regard as canonical – weren’t created by Gene Roddenberry. But he had huge influence and one major legacy was a set of rules about what could and could not happen. Writers called it the ‘Roddenberry Box’.

This defined Roddenberry’s vision – a future that had conquered prejudice, where inter-personal conflict was a thing of the past. A wonderful ideal. One we should aspire to. The problem was that when it came to story-telling, the Box was boring. A lot of the challenge for writers was getting around the limits while producing interesting tales.

To my mind that worked in the original series, particularly where the show was run as a light comedy – think Trouble With Tribbles. Wonderful. Why did it work? Because Roddenberry hired great writers – top-line SF authors among them – to work up plots revolving around three great characters, Spock, Kirk and McCoy.

'That's no moon'. Wait - yes it is. It's Mimas, orbiting Saturn.

‘That’s no moon’. Oops – wrong franchise. Actually, this is Mimas, orbiting Saturn. NASA, public domain

The problem – well explored by Ross, but which I’d long thought true – is that the show was captured by a fan base for whom the Box defined canon. To me the rot set in with The New Generation, which mashed New Age thinking and a lot of meaningless techno-babble with the Box and – to me – never captured the sense of wonder of the original. It was pretentious, laboured, ponderous, and fast descended to reverent posturing by one-dimensional characters – stories defined not by what made a good story, but by what was needed to satisfy a fan base.

I gave up watching it, and never bothered with Deep Space Nine or Voyager. I gave up on the movies. Later I caught a few episodes of Enterprise, which wasn’t too bad but which still dribbled, as far as I was concerned. According to Robb, the producers were actively writing, by then, for fans – missing a wider audience or new fans. Certainly, these grotesque going-through-the-motions exercises in franchise fodder didn’t appeal to casual Trek enthusiasts, like me.

For me, Trek didn’t come right until the 2009 J J Abrams movie, a complete re-boot which decisively broke the Box. It was Trek as it should be, re-cast for the twenty-first century. Wonderful stuff.

The fact that it featured Karl Urban – a Kiwi actor from my city, Wellington, was a particular plus.

The take-home lesson for writers? Idealism is wonderful. There is no faulting Roddenberry’s optimistic vision. But to make interesting stories, that idealism has to be given a dynamic. The fact is that human realities, including conflict, have been omnipresent through history, and it’s unlikely that a few hundred years will change them. But that doesn’t stop us trying; and it seems to me that stories built around the attempt would be far more interesting than stories exploring the success of meeting this hardest of all human challenges.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: how to make words your servants

Half the battle for writers is making writing their servant – not being a servant to the words. It’s a lesson novice writers usually only discover after they’re about half way through the first book and are finding the words mastering them, not the other way around.

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

I re-pitched my history of New Zealand for its second edition, altering the tone to bring the writing up to date.

It has to be addressed. And there is, alas, only one way to do that. That’s right – practise. But that shouldn’t be a chore – writing’s fun, right?

Once you’ve made words your servant – and your friend – you can start paying attention to the equally crucial matters of content, tone and style – together, what we might call ‘voice’. This isn’t something that just happens; it can be directed and controlled, just like any other aspect of writing. Take George McDonald Fraser’s Flashman, a novel about the bully from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, grown up and turned Victorian-age military hero. Fraser presented it as a ‘found memoir’ – which it wasn’t – but buoyed the conceit with such a subtle ‘1840’ period tone to his words that at least one reviewer was taken in.

It works in non-fiction, too. Recently I re-wrote one of my earlier books, a kids’ book pitched for 8 year olds, into a young adult-and-older account pitched for the 12+ bracket. It had to be completely re-written to do so – with full attention to the language, content and tone. I also re-pitched my history of New Zealand, when it came around to the second edition, to modernise the writing.

The trick to achieving that  control – something superficially easy to do but very hard to actually master. It takes a long time for writers to be able to consciously control the tone. But it’s an essential writing skill, and one that improves with practise. My tips? Try this:

1. Pick a passage by (say) your favourite author. What defines the tone? Look through a passage for key words – terms that give flavour. Check the pacing, the ‘beats’. Look for sentence length and paragraphing. Is it present or past tense? Examine the material closely and make notes.

2. Now try writing a passage at least 750 words long, of your own, in the same style, with the same cadence, word selection and rhythms.

3. Didn’t work? Of course not, it won’t the first time. But this is an exercise…and you know what exercises mean. Yup – do it again.

4. And again.

5. And again (etc).

It’s the only way. Did I mention you then throw the exercises away? Words are not precious babies, still less numeric targets. They’re tools, and they’re disposable. You can always write more.

The point is that when you’ve mastered tone, you’re more than half way to controlling voice, content and style. Writing will be your servant. Not the other way around. And there’s one other benefit that comes out of doing all this. With the quality comes that most precious of all skills that writers can have – speed.

Do you deliberately throw away ‘practise writing’? How do you extend yourself when writing?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: the secret to getting the writing edge

Want to know the secret to standing out as a writer? I’ve said it before – and I’ll say it again. Professionalism counts.

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.

I’ve heard stories of writing festival organisers having to rouse guest speakers out of their hotel room when they don’t show up on stage. Other writers, apparently, enjoy listening to the sound of deadlines rushing past. It’s an accepted part of the industry, and authors who do that aren’t exceptional. But it’s irksome to publishers, especially these days as the industry turns on its head.

Professionalism, in the publishing business, is all to do with timing, scale and quality. Time is money. The major publishing houses haven’t the time – and these days, often not the leeway – to deal with authors who swan in with contracted manuscripts, months late and twice the specified length.

Writing long might give an author bragging rights – ‘oooh, haven’t I got a big book?’ – but scale of book determines both likely market pick-up and cover price. Publishers work backwards from that to budget production costs such as printing and editing – all of which are affected by scale. Running over-length, in short, adds costs that won’t have been budgeted for.

I’ve heard of publishers requiring authors to ditch chunks of manuscript, purely to get the book down to length. Contracts have a clause in them giving the publisher right to do so.

The other essential ingredient is quality – making sure that the book is up to scratch. This, too, is contractual. If the book isn’t up to par, the publisher can reject it – or hire an editor to bring it up to scratch.

None of this has been dislodged by the self-publishing revolution. On the contrary, if an author is also publisher, the need to be professional is doubly true. And that’s without talking about the professionalism needed for marketing.

So how to get that quality – and scale – all within time? That’s the essence of writing.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: he said, she said – without adjectives

Have you ever tried writing dialogue without all the ‘he said’, ‘she said’ nonsense? It’s an effective technique, though it’s easy to say ‘do this’. Harder to master.

Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)

Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)

Hemingway set the gold standard – half-page strings of dialogue, often without any directions at all as to the speaker– and it was usually clear as to who said what.

The reason he took that angle is that the onus is on writers to show, not tell – and how better to show than by revealing the esssential meaning through the dialogue, rather than making the reader wade through instructions about it? Hemingway was the absolute master of the technique.

How did he do it? Any dialogue that’s well written should, ideally, speak for itself. The character of the character, shall we say, should come through in the choice of words. Through the context. Through their opinions and wording. If you’ve drawn the character right, the reader will be familiar enough to know what they might say. Perhaps even by such a simple device as a repeated signature phrase – ‘My dear Watson’, for example.

It becomes blatant where the characters are parodic – Passepartout and Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days, for instance.

Of course direction is sometimes still needed – not least to anchor the start point.  You have to add “he said” “she said” somewhere. However, one thing to avoid is a qualifying adjective – ‘he said darkly’, ‘she said brightly’ and so forth.

This is important. Show not tell. Adjectives tell the reader what to think about the dialogue; whereas the trick to quality writing is to make the reader work for the meaning by showing them a direction. Let the reader discover the tone through context or choice of words.

Think pared back. Think character. Think Hemingway.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: using weather to create a mood

Long-time readers of this blog know that I am something of a fan of J. R. R. Tolkien. A lot of a fan, actually. And the more I look at what he wrote, the more impressed I get.

The Lewis River - very Tolkienish view with wonderful blue skies.

The Lewis River – very Tolkienish view but with wonderful blue skies. Click to enlarge.

Take his settings. More often than not, and especially in The Lord Of The Rings, he’s telling us about the weather – which, usually, is gloomy. It rains a lot in Middle Earth.

Peter Jackson’s version – set in bright New Zealand sunshine against our sparkling landscapes – didn’t actually capture what Tolkien was describing in that sense. If you read the details in the text you find that many scenes in both The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit are set against wild weather; gloomy clouds, rain, even storms. Virtually the whole of The Return Of The King was played out under the darkness of Mount Doom.

Tolkien used the sun as a counterpoint – deliberately played to create the mood, as when the hobbits left the home of Tom Bombadil after several days socked in by rain and jogged fearlessly across the Barrow Downs. Doom followed when the weather closed in.

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.

OK, well this looks like Gorgoroth, except for the blue skies (again). Photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau. Click to enlarge.

Quite a lot of the inspiration for it, I suspect, came from Tolkien’s experiences in France during the First World War. It rained a lot over the trenches. Weather over Europe in 1915-17 was unusually wet in any event. But there is some evidence that the concussion of artillery bombardment – which sent shock waves hammering into the air – was enough to trigger looming clouds to drop their rain early, so it was even wetter over the battlefields than it might otherwise have been.

The relentless rain created a mood of gloom among the men, a darkness to befit the dark world into which they had been plunged. It is this mood that Tolkien evoked in much of The Lord Of The Rings which was closely based – in detail – on trench life and the environment of the Western Front. Tolkien did all this quite deliberately, of course, to create a mood, a sense of darkness, a sense of oppression to befit the epic canvas of his stories.

And he was, I think, perhaps also well aware of the sense of comfort felt by a reader who could comfortably snuggle before a roaring fire on a cold and dark winter’s afternoon, enjoying his words while the wild weather raged outside.

Do you write fiction? And if you do, do you use the weather to create mood?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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