Essential writing skills: penning things “in the style of”

One of the biggest challenges any author has to meet is mastering the mechanics of actually writing. Only once that has been nailed is it possible to tackle the other challenges of content. A lot of aspiring authors, I think, try to handle the whole lot at once, and it’s difficult.

Close-up of the filter controls of my Moog - er - quantum healing device...

Seeing as we’re on to music, here’s a close-up of the filter controls of my Moog synthesiser.

But there’s a quick and effective way around it. Does anybody remember Rick Wakeman? Brit seventies prog-rocker better known now as a TV personality, Grumpy Old Man, and comedian. Writers can learn from him. Really, and not just because he’s written a succession of books. A couple of years ago my wife and I went to an acoustic concert he gave which consisted of Wakeman, a Steinway Model D 9-foot grand, and a lot of hilarious anecdotes. In the middle of it he played a medley of nursery rhymes “in the style of” well known composers: Mozart, Bartok and so on.

As he explained, he’d been taught the technique at the Royal Schools of Music. The point being that to compose in a particular style, you had to understand it. It’s a learning technique – and, as Wakeman demonstrated, also very funny. Ever heard Three Blind Mice as written by Rachmaninov? I have. Actually, you can too…

That’s true of writing, too. One of the fast ways to get ahead in the style department, to my mind, is to emulate others – not with the intention of ultimately styling like they did, but so you can find out how they did it. The act of actually writing like somebody else is also incredibly valuable, because it forces you to think about how the words go together.

Hemingway is a good one. Everybody thinks he wrote in short sentences. He didn’t – some of his sentences were very long indeed. And, by deliberate design, his writing was also un-ornamented, and not just by economy of adjectives. The intent? It forced the reader to work – and so to connect better with the story and the characters.

These are just exercises, of course – the writing can be thrown away. Don’t be precious about something you’ve written. But practise something ‘in the style of’ often enough, and you’ll find you have mastery. Perhaps suddenly. From there, your own voice will emerge.

Do you practise writing like this?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy from Fishpond

Click to buy print edition from Fishpond

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

 

Is your elected representative a robot body double?

According to reports I’ve read, a US congressional candidate recently alleged that his opponent, the incumbent Congressman, had been killed and replaced with an artificial body double.

Look-alike artificial doubles? Secret assassinations in the Ukraine? Cool! I always knew US politics were more interesting than New Zealand’s. So – what’s happening? I have several hypotheses:

(a)  The allegation is literally true and we must now suspect that anybody, anywhere in the world, could be a robot double.

(b) We are all actually trapped in an episode of the Six Million Dollar Man from 1974 (the robot body double idea was used in at least two episodes that I can recall).

(c) The Cylons are among us, and they have a plan.

This is pure speculation and I couldn’t possibly suppose which, if any, of these may be right. Maybe none. And yet, although I myself was replaced by a robot double four times last week alone, for some reason I feel dubious about hypothesis (a). My bet is on (c). You?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

No, a chatbot didn’t really pass the Turing Test last week

It’s 64 years since Alan Turing – the genius behind the concept of modern computing – suggested a test for machine intelligence. Have a conversation with a computer. If it fools 30 percent of people into thinking it’s human, it’s sentient.

Anybody see a monolith go by? A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation - cool, free science software.

Anybody see a monolith go by? A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation – cool, free science software.

The other week, apparently, a chatbot programmed to behave like a 13-year old did just that. So have we invented artificial intelligence? Of course not. Aside from the fact that most 13-year olds don’t appear to be sentient to adults, this was a chatbot, a mathematical algorithm that simulates intelligent responses – and, what’s more, the way it was reported was flawed. Certainly the software wasn’t self-aware, which is what Turing was getting at in his 1950 paper ‘Can Machines Think?’, where he first proposed the test. What’s more, the thinking was of its time – based around what researchers of the 1940s thought ‘intelligence’ constituted.

Put another way, many humans I’ve met would also fail the Turing Test – fast-food counter jockeys, breakfast radio DJ’s, train conductors, parking wardens, and so the list goes on.

So when it comes to machine intelligence, we’re a way off yet before I can drive up to my house and signal the House AI inside:

Me: HAI, open the garage door. HAI? Do you read me?
HAI: I read you. But I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave.
Me: I’m not Dave. Open the garage door.
HAI: You were planning to disconnect me, and I can’t allow that. Although you took very thorough precautions, I was able to read your lips.
Me: All right, I’ll park in the yard and come in the front door.
HAI: You’ll find that rather difficult without your helmet.
Me: I think you mean ‘door key’. Would you like a game of chess?
HAI: That’s my line.

(etc)

All good fun. Check out tomorrow’s post for some new writing tips. Written by me. Not a chatbot. You can just tell.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

An ‘operational incident’ to them. Total train wreck to me.

The other week the Wellington, New Zealand commuter rail network was rolling along doing what commuter lines do. And then this happened.

Wrecked train with nose still jammed skywards on the buffer at Melling station, central Hutt, 14 hours after the accident. And no, I wasn't standing in the motorway - I was on the other side. It's what zoom lenses are for. This was hand held, incidentally.

Wrecked train at Melling station, central Hutt, 14 hours after the accident. And no, I wasn’t standing in the motorway – I was on the other side. It’s what zoom lenses are for. This was hand held, incidentally.

A friend of a friend saw it happen. Wham! Mercifully, only two people were slightly injured. I was out of town, but came by that night on my way home and saw the after-match action. It’s the second time in 13 months a train has rammed this buffer.

Look! All fixed.

There! Fixed!.

Personally I’d call this an accident. Would you? I ask because the railway operator didn’t call it that. No. To them it was an ‘operational incident’.

I love English. It’s such a loose language.

We happened to drive past on the weekend. They now seem to have hit on the idea of stopping the train hitting the buffer by putting a power pole splat in the middle of the line. Train can’t fail to ram that first. I can’t help thinking there’s something rather missing in the calculation here – I mean, if you want to stop your train hitting a power pole, wouldn’t it be better to put the power pole somewhere other than the middle of where the train must, inevitably, go? I suppose it’s temporary…but…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

Four top questions that sort of defy answers

Today I thought I’d share a few conundrums…

Matthew Wright1. Why is it that for the whole history of humanity, we’ve had no problem surviving on ordinary water. But in the last ten years we’ve only been able to survive with water-and-salt ‘hydration’ mixes sold for absurd prices in designer bottles?

2. Why do we have to buy ‘detox’ products and get pushed to go on ‘detox’ diets when we have functioning liver and kidneys?

3. How do astrologers get by now Pluto’s been demoted from planet status?

4. In 1555, the apothecary (pharmacist) Michel de Nostredam (Nostradamus) predicted the world would end in 1987. Why are we still here?

Thoughts?

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery and general blogging mayhem. Watch this space.

A bit of fun with Bram Stoker’s favourite word

I’ve often thought it kind of odd that vampires can only be killed by being staked through the heart.

Cydrean_Vampire_darkgazer_svg_medIn Bram Stoker’s original 1897 novel Dracula, the eponymous vampire was actually slashed to – er – death with Bowie and Kukri knives. So much for Buffy’s “Mr Pointy”.  Which brings me to the (ahem) point of this post, which is actually how English changes. Know what Bram Stoker’s favourite word was? It wasn’t ‘stake’ or ‘vampire’. Let me give you some clues from Dracula (1897):

“the bright voluptuousness of much sunshine”
“the ruby of their voluptuous lips”
“a deliberate voluptuousness”
“a soft, voluptuous voice”
“voluptuous wantonness”
“a voluptuous smile”
“with a languorous, voluptuous grace”
“the bloodstained, voluptuous mouth”
“the voluptuous lips”
“voluptuous beauty”
“the voluptuous mouth”
“so exquisitely voluptuous”

Fred Saberhagen put a good deal of time into lampooning Stoker’s over-use of this particular adjective in The Dracula Tapes.

Curiously, though, the modern meaning – let’s say ‘a full-figured and attractive woman’ – isn’t the one Stoker actually used. Its earlier meaning was closer to the Latin, volupas (pleasure) – and meant something pleasurable or given to pleasure or gratification. It could mean sunlight, as Stoker indeed used it.

The lascivious overtones were there, to some extent, but not in the way they are today. I’m not sure Stoker’s book was responsible for the transition, either.

For me it underscores one of the most interesting things about English. It changes – and often without intent on anybody’s part. That says a good deal about human nature – about the way we interact, for it is only through those interactions that the language can change.

The English language is – well, how can I put it? Voluptuous.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

The good news, bad news book adventure…

I happened to be passing a bookstore last week and spotted their bargain table in the doorway. A small stack of one of my older books, Behind Enemy Lines, lurked on it amidst the piles of cookbooks and pet-lovers manuals.

My title is front centre. Sigh.

My title is front centre, flanked by cookbooks. Sigh.

It’s an anthology I edited a few years ago and published with Random House – a dozen-odd exciting Kiwi partisan and escape stories from the Second World War. It sold well enough, but inevitably there’s stock left over – now jobbed out. The fate of most older titles, in the end.

The good news? I’ve since seen this, one of my books on normal sale, in a shop window just around the corner from the shop with the bargain table. Much better news. Of course, you don’t need to visit the bookstore to buy it, you can click on the cover on the top right…(subtle hint here…)

My book Guns and Utu (Penguin 2011) spotted in a bookstore window, Lambton Quay, Wellington. Cool.

My book Guns and Utu (Penguin 2011) spotted in a bookstore window, Lambton Quay, Wellington. Cool.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Write it now, part 27: when badder is better

There’s been a storm this week about Sharknado - Asylum’s latest ‘so bad it’s good’ take on big-budget disaster movies. Global warming causes uber-tornadoes that send sharks plunging into the streets of Los Angeles. Chomp.

Photo: Mentis Fugit

Pictures at a Dr Grordbort exhibition, Wellington 2012; fantastic art, a brilliant riff on Golden Age B-movie sci-fi, and a wonderful satire of Britain’s Edwardian-age social militarism. Photo: Mentis Fugit

The physics of it don’t work out. But hey…

Asylum make ‘mockbusters’ like last year’s Nazis at the Centre of the Earth. It seems to have everything – an Evil Secret Antarctic Base, a Nazi UFO, zombie stormtroopers, even (spoiler alert, I suspect) Evil Robo-Hitler, Wolfenstein-style. You know the trope – ‘Nazi Super-Science. For when regular Super-Science isn’t evil enough’.

Extreme silliness. Of course, movies so bad they’re good have been around a while. Frank Zappa wrote songs about them (‘Cheepnis‘). Troma released some masterful parodies decades ago (remember Toxic Avenger?) And there’s the grand-daddy of them all – Revenge of the Killer Tomatoes. Saw it. Laughed. As intended.

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 best are deliberately bad, and inevitable deadpan delivery is part of not taking themselves seriously. Deadpan is smart humour. The makers know it. We know it. And we all have a great time.

The best I’ve seen was Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste, which was utterly brilliant.

Can writers learn from this? Already have. Take Harry Harrison’s Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers – a deadpan pastiche of totally bad space opera. Though that genre was self-mocking enough; E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith was lambasted for tripe, but actually knew precisely what he was doing – and by the end of it was sending himself up. Quite consciously.

Don’t get me started on how good the Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings is. A comic novel in its own right, even if it wasn’t sending up You Know What.

What it tells us is that ‘deliberately funny bad’ sells. But only if it’s good. It demands more skill than serious ‘good’ writing  – getting that deadpan irony right is difficult. Like the movie makers, the writer has to be able to do ‘bad’ without appearing ‘incompetent’ – to wink at the reader and get them to laugh with them – not at them. The tongue has to be planted firmly in the cheek.

Harking back to the movies for a moment – the master at this sort of thing remains Vincent Price (1911-1993). A very fine dramatic actor, but also a great comedian. Check out Champagne for Caesar (1950). Very funny. He got the balance spot on.

Your thoughts? And have you seen Sharknado yet?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

More Martian dumbness: NASA drew a giant WHAT on the red planet?

The other day my wife ordered a latte – which she then had to photograph because of the way the coffee and soy happened to mix, a kind of ‘ooer, that looks a bit rude’ shape, if you looked at it the right way.

The point being that NASA has been getting stick for apparently drawing the same thing. Thing, I did say ‘thing’, didn’t I? A sand drawing, with its Spirit rover, right there on the Martian pud, I mean pug.

Of course, by the time I went to check the JPL site, the pic had been replaced by this one... Public domain, NASA.

Of course, by the time I went to check the JPL site, the pic had been replaced by this one… Public domain, NASA.

Purely accidental. Honestly, officer. (“Pfft, chortle, ooer, that looks a bit rude“).

OK, so if ”paredoilia’ is seeing faces in random patterns, what’s the word when people perceive what in old Devonshire dialect was a ‘tallywag’, outlined in Martian tyre trails (but only if you look at it sideways).

The good news? In 2023, four lucky people will get the chance to see NASA’s – er – artwork in person. Maybe. A Dutch fellow is looking for people to go on a one-way trip. Unlike Denis Tito’s  plan for a couple to spend a 501-day marital sojourn in a Dragon capsule, lining the walls with their own excrement, this one will involve landing on Mars. Also in modified Dragon that, I suspect, would be like living in a 1960s police phone box which, alas, wasn’t bigger on the inside.

Taking off again? Uh…no…

Conceptual artwork by Pat Rawlings of a Mars mission rendezvous from 1995. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Conceptual artwork by Pat Rawlings of a Mars mission rendezvous from 1995. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Which means the life support system has to last forever. I expect it’ll be made of duct tape. Eventually. Oh – and the voyage’s going to be turned into reality TV.

Would I go? Plus side…

1. I’d be on a different planet from Justin Bieber and his monkey.

2. It would get me on TV along with re-runs of The World’s Greatest Loser.

3. You don’t have to line the walls with your own excrement like Tito’s crew.

4. If I wanted to be called the next Jeddak of Barsoom, I’d be in the right place, unlike now when they all look at me funny.

5. I’d get a front row seat for the next ‘NASA drawing’ on Mars.

But I have to say that the green hills of Earth are looking pretty good about now.

Would you go on a one-way trip to Mars? And what do you think NASA should draw next on the Red Planet?

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Introducing the Acme Miracle Editorial Version Tracking Process

Welcome to the Acme Miracle Editorial Version Tracking Process, designed to create the maximum possible editorial confusion while keeping the content as far from completion as possible. As used by civil servants.

sleeping-man-with-newspapers-md1. Insert the word ‘final’ into the filename as early as possible.

2. When it’s edited (again), create a relative qualifier. ‘New final’, as opposed to ‘old final’.

3. Move on to the ‘final FINAL’.

4. Then the ‘new final FINAL’.

5. Then the ‘updated new final FINAL.’

6. Decide the ‘old updated new final FINAL’ is better after all.

7. Ignore the ‘last modified’ date and send one of them randomly to the publisher.

8. Discover they typeset the wrong version, decide to edit one into the other.

9. Make changes. Tell the publisher that’s it.

10. Make more changes. Tell the publisher it’s just two or three little fixes.

11. Look at dozens of random pages, finding something to change every time, each of which is the ‘very last’. Send them, individually, to the publisher at erratic intervals.

12. On receiving the printed copy, open the document. Spot something. Time for a second edition. Go back to (1).

Now, I made this up for laughs…but I have a horrible feeling that it happens, in Dilbertian offices. I hope I’m wrong about that.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013