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.

Essential writing skills: we all need to write Tolkien’s appendices

One of the ways J R R Tolkien broke new ground with The Lord of the Rings was through his massive back-story, partly published at the end of The Return of the King in the form of appendices.

I had to prone to take this picture. 'Get up,' She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. 'People will think you're dead.'

I had to go prone to take this picture of The Hobbit artisan market in 2012. ‘Get up,’ She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. ‘People will think you’re dead.’

That story was better there than interspersed through the text – ‘information dumping’ is the biggest turn-off to readers – but it underscored the sheer depth of Tolkien’s master-work.

In the 1950s it was unusual for this sort of thing to be published. Tolkien, of course, re-defined the genre and now the notion of back-story has become passe. Authors are almost expected to be able to have a complete world behind their story, to create chronologies, maps, gazeteers – even to provide swatches of cloth for their characters’ clothing.

Few, I suspect, can ever get the detail that Tolkien did, without an equivalent amount of work. He began crafting Middle Earth in the trenches of the Western Front. That framed a good deal of the darkness in his mythos. His world also grew from the languages he developed – two full languages and several partial constructions. And it grew from repeated iterations – endless work, which he put into it in university holidays, of evenings, even scribbled on the back of old exam papers. Lines like ‘In a hole in the ground lived a Hobbit…’ expanded into – well, I don’t need to repeat that story, do I?

It would be difficult to repeat such a tremendous construction. But we can approach it, and I think every fantasy story deserves to have a fair back story.

That’s where e-publishing comes into its own. One of the ways to sell books these days is to have ‘extras’ available online.  And what better place to put the back-story than as extra tales, stories and appendices online?

It’s a thought. What do you figure?

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery, humour and more. Watch this space.

Write it now: grounding your writing in practical realities

The other day I heard a panel discussion on New Zealand’s national radio. They’d called together a group of Kiwi artists – a couple of composers and a couple of writers – to comment on their work.

I usually listen to these things with a certain cynicism. Here in New Zealand I find ‘arts’ discussions tend to veer into pretentious displays of woofy intellectualism – assertions of personal status within the tiny sub-culture of ‘high art’. Meaningful to those involved, perhaps. To the rest of us it’s the intellectual equivalent of the gentlemen among the group standing up and waving their You Know What at the audience while shouting ‘oooh, haven’t I got a big one?’

Progress, nineteenth century style; bigger, faster, heavier... more Mordor.

Pretentiousness in the arts? Not for me. I prefer practical industry when writing (that’s me on the right, in the hat).

The arts aren’t the only field where pretentious status contests dominate, of course. So I sat back to listen to this discussion, expecting to hear the usual claptrap. Except it wasn’t. As I listened to this programme I suddenly discovered that this particular arts discussion was practical. These were nuts-and-bolts artists – everyday people like you or me who had a passion for what they were doing and wanted to share it with other everyday people. It was properly grounded, properly practical, and smart.

And that, it seemed to me, was where things should be.

Writing – which is one of the arts – needs to be grounded. It’s about the writer having a thought, an idea, an emotion, and being able to transfer that to the reader. And who is that reader? I suppose some will have aspirations with the pretentious literati set. But for the most part readers are ordinary people – again, like you and me. That means being practical, it means writing what people want to read – not what will earn the writer status among a closed group of woofy literati who use their interest as a device to validate their pretensions of superiority.

Writing should be by – and for – everyday, practical people. People who don’t give a toss about status within exclusive in-crowds, or within academic departments. People who have real lives and go out and get jobs and come home tired, and love their families, and play sports on the weekend or do a bit of home maintenance or hang out with friends. People who want to be entertained in practical ways, to have a laugh, to weep, to get excited, to feel joy – to do, in short, all the things we do as humans.

That’s the real audience for writers. People like us. It’s what writing is about. Being real. Being practical. Being human. In everyday ways.

What’s your take?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: more writing tips, more geekery, humour – and more. Watch this space.

Essential writing skills: tricks for nailing that short story

One of the biggest pitfalls when writing fiction is the notion that all fiction is fiction. If you can write short stories, you can write novels. Right? Actually…no.

Cyber Katherine Mansfield...I think...

Katherine Mansfield, seen here in cyber form. An extraordinary short-story writer. But not a novellist.

Yes, authors can do both – and often brilliantly. Look at Ernest Hemingway, one of my favourite authors. Or Isaac Asimov. Or Arthur C. Clarke.

But this isn’t because the skill set is the same. To the contrary – it isn’t. The reason these authors – and many others – shone in both fields is because they had mastered both forms. And they are very different forms. It’s like this…

1. Novels – lengthy works of fiction, usually 50,000+ words, tracing a significant ‘character arc’ for one or more major characters, through a plot with a defined introduction, exposition, pivot-points and conclusion. There is room for reasonable exposition, description and complexities of both character and plot.

2. Short stories – short fiction pieces of typically less than 5000 words and often as little as 500 – or less – which typically present a ‘snapshot’  – perhaps a single challenge for a single character –resolving with a single moment of revelation. Often they end with a humourous twist, a ‘payoff line’ that either explains or resolves a conundrum. The master of those, to my mind, was Sir Arthur C. Clarke.

These demand not just different structure but also different pacing. I recall one author – who was experienced at short stories – complaining that her first novel turned out like a lot of short stories jammed together. Well, obviously…

Want to write both? The first step is understanding that difference. The second – and there’s no way around this – is practice. Don’t think it’s easier to practice writing short stories because they are shorter. It’s not. They’re probably harder, because the key is what you leave out - not what you put in. Be prepared to work on them and throw away material. The snappier the better.

To my mind Ernest Hemingway was probably the master at it – though his famous ‘baby shoes’ six-worder is probably an apocryphal attribution. Not read it? Here it is:

“For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

I suppose we might call it ultra-flash fiction. Sharp, quick, poignant – and thought provoking. Which, really, is the key to any short story.

Do you write short stories and novels? What challenges have you faced?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, fun science, opinion and humour. Check it out.

Essential writing skills: the top ten skills for novellists

Fiction writing embodies all sorts of skills – more, really, than we perhaps imagine.

Wright_WgtnWaterfront2011_Copyright (c) 2011It’s not just a matter of being able to write – something which, as we’ve seen, demands a whole set of different skills of itself. More on that soon.

Writers also need a raft of skills to go with it. These days the act of getting published is itself complex, whether you go the trad route or by self-pub. It’s fast-changing, and it demands swift adaptation that can come only from understanding what’s going on in the market and with the industry. That’s quite apart from selling into that swift-moving stream. That draws in a lot of other needed skills and abilities – well beyond anything writers traditionally needed. It’s a matter of thinking laterally, of thinking inclusively, and of getting good at these things…

1. Familiarity with computer systems and social networking.
2. Experienced at running a small business.
3. Experienced writer with full control of their writing style.
4. Ability to meet deadlines without compromising quality.
5. Knowledge of the human condition, of people.
6. Wide general knowledge of how the world works, realistically.
7. Good knowledge of what constitutes a novel – character arcs, narrative plot, etc.
8. Ability to effectively manage time.
9. An ability to plug on even when enthusiasm wanes.
10. Knowing when to stop writing and submit the work.

More on some of these to come…and, of course, more on writing soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Art deco cars, more writing tips, fun science, opinion and humour. Check it out.

Creating your own literary ‘ear worm’ – like Tolkien and Rowling

Ever had a song stuck in your head – usually, the catchy riff or chorus the composer deliberately engineered for the purpose? They’re called ear-worms.

Weta's 10-metre high Gandalf above the Embassy theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington.

Weta’s 10-metre high Gandalf above the Embassy theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington, December 2012.

It’s apparently been discovered that the way to kill them – for a third of us anyway – is to listen to Thomas Arne’s eighteenth century ditty God Save The Queen.

Truth be told, I’m not sure that dislodging mental wheelspin with something horrible is a discovery. Back in the 1970s, for instance, Kiwi gentlemen knew that if they became transfixed by posters of the latest glamour pin-up de jour (Farrah Fawcett or, given that New Zealand was still 98.5% British back then, Caroline Munro), all they had to do for instant antidote was glance at a picture of our Prime Minister of the day, Robert Muldoon.

For writers the problem is the exact reverse. We have to figure out how to create a literary earworm – a concept or idea that keys so deeply into popular psyche that it sticks. I hesitate to call it a ‘book worm’. It’s one of the keys to sales.

To my mind the guy who did it – in spades – was J R R Tolkien. Not intentionally. What he was consciously doing with his Middle Earth mythos was creating a new mythology for Britain. And for a long time, nobody noticed – he couldn’t get the Silmarillion published, and Rayner Unwin was dubious about the viability of The Lord Of The Rings. A judgement borne out by dismal early sales figures.

But then something happened. In 1965 – after nearly a decade of bobbing along in mediocre-sales-land – it took off. The break-through came with a guerilla edition produced via copyright loopholes in the US. Tolkien hastened to get an authorised ‘second edition’ pushed into the market. That sold like hotcakes.

But even the pirate edition wouldn’t have taken off if it hadn’t keyed into what society wanted, just then.

Tolkien’s rusticated Hobbit society – and his faerie imagery with Tom Bombadil – harked to ‘Merrie England‘ and, to some extent, the arts-and-crafts movement of the nineteenth century. But by chance it also keyed directly into the values of 1960s counter-culture, which drew from similar inspiration. Mix that with epic-scale setting, the huge operatic scenario of good and evil – imagery that ran to the heart of western culture – and he had a winner.

The Lord of the Rings, in short, became a literary ‘ear-worm’. J K Rowling did much the same thing – using, in this case, classic ‘magic’, blended with much the same epic-scale themes – with Harry Potter.

So that’s how it’s done. The problem is that in both cases, luck played a role. But, as I’ve said before, that’s always part of the calculation.

Have you ever read something that stuck in your mind – that impressed you hugely? And have you ever read a book that’s left you stone cold – the ‘anti-earworm’ of literature?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing and publishing tips, science, history and other stuff. Watch this space.

Write it now: can authors review other authors’ work?

Traditional book reviews – as opposed to the instant reader feedback via Amazon and so forth that we now call a ‘review’ – have almost always been written by writers.

I’ve written plenty of them myself, professionally, for newspapers and lit magazines. The trick to it is abstraction.

From http://public-domain.zorger.comThe problem with the process, certainly in a tiny place like New Zealand, has been that editors often give books to a rival author to review, as the only person able to make an informed comment. Some of the authors then feel obligated to indulge in worth-assassination of their competitor. This is flat out patch protection, and I’ve been at the receiving end of it often enough in the past with my military histories – people whose equivalent ‘patches’ are usually defined by their employment writing books at my expense as taxpayer, and whose public portrayal of me as incompetent affects the income I earn from my competing commercial works. Go figure.

But in the ordinary course of ‘review’, in the expression of a professional and abstract view, authors should be able to review other authors’ work. If they do it properly.

How’s it done? My usual approach is to look on the review as a specialised feature article – to give the review a theme and argument of its own.The reviewer should write something informative – something that helps a reader judge the quality of a book, something that informs. A hostile trawl for any trivia on which to condemn the worth of the author isn’t the way to do it. Nor is simply regurgitating their content in pot-summary. Reviewers have to ask questions.

One question is ‘why’ –  why did the author choose the themes that they did? Why did they take a particular topic, angle or subject? What was their intent in writing the book? How did they tackle it? Where does their work fit with that of similar authors? This doesn’t have to be a worth judgement. Remember – the review has to inform a reader.

Do you write reviews? How do you approach them? Have you ever been reviewed? How did the reviewer approach your work?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery, history and more. Watch this space.

Write it now: every point of view has to be deep

I’ve said it before, and I’m about to say it again. There’s a meme doing the rounds called ‘deep point of view’ and it’s meant to be the key to getting people to buy your book.

Wright_Railway Book WhitcoullsI confess that I get mildly irritated by the assumption with most writing advice that all books will be novels (they’re not!). Writing is writing is writing, if you get what I mean – the skills transfer. However, to me the annoying point about ‘deep point of view’ is that what’s being touted as ‘deep point of view’ is really a basic ‘Writing 101’ lesson for fiction writers.

It’s a particular ‘point of view’ technique used by top-rated novellists since forever…well, the eighteenth century, anyway. By the early twentieth century novellists such as Hemingway had extended it to an art form.

There’s no trick. You’re telling a story about someone – so you’re best to tell it from their point of view, rather than the ‘eye of God’ approach. How does your character see things? How do they react to what they see, and to what happens to them? You could call it ‘opinion writing’ because most of the time you’re explaining your character’s opinion about something. It works best in first-person singular, but it also works in third-person.

It can be further deepened, even in third-person stories, by limiting what your readers get to the experiences of the character. If your character hasn’t seen something, then you don’t add it – your readers thus experience the entire novel through the framework of your character.

Go read Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, if you haven’t already, to see what I mean.

What often isn’t explained about ‘point of view’ writing is that to make it work, you have to develop your fictional character in specific ways, so you can ask ‘how does my character react to THIS’, in the specific circumstances of your plot, and get a meaningful answer. It doesn’t mean spending a huge slab of time working up the character in general; you’re better to focus your attention on the aspects of character that will allow you to answer these questions.

Don’t forget – characters in novels may appear to be complete and rounded. Actually they’re not. The skill is in picking the aspects that create the illusion of completion, the illusion of what Hemingway called being ‘real’. More on that soon.

Meanwhile – have you encountered this ‘deep point of view’ trope? And what did you think of it?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: more writing tips, more humour, science stuff and – well, 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

Write it now: the style of no style

It’s over a decade now since I fielded a review of a tome I’d written on the Hawke’s Bay earthquake of 1931 – to discover the critic didn’t like my writing style, which she referred to as ‘workmanlike’.

I had to take copyright action when this book of mine was infringed.

This is the book I deliberately wrote in plain style..

I took it as a complement, though it wasn’t intended as such by the reviewer.  She was trying to say this was my level of competence. What she didn’t know was that, for me, style is controllable – I’d applied it deliberately to that book, and with good reason. To me, some subjects benefit from a writing style that is – well, no style.

Let me explain.

One of my favourite authors is Isaac Asimov, doyen of science and science fiction alike – one of the ‘big three’ SF authors of the twentieth century, a prolific writer who turned his hand to any subject and was a master of more fields than most people have had hot dinners.

He did it by a combination of very hard work and staggering talent. But one critique always levelled at him was that he didn’t have a style. He wrote plain vanilla, avoiding what Hemingway called the ‘ten dollar’ words.

That was partly why he was so good. As he explained once, he wrote simply, because he wanted to communicate clearly – did not want the words to get between his meaning and his audience.

1197094932257185876johnny_automatic_books_svg_medI thought that was pretty cool – and I’ve consciously modelled my own general style on that idea. Not Asimov per se, but certainly the notion that simplicity breeds clarity.

For Asimov, in short, writing was unobtrusive. And that, it seems to me, is a good place to be. Unobtrusiveness draws readers into the material. By taking the chore out of reading, the author with the unobtrusive style gains a very powerful tool.

The current master of it, as far as I am concerned, is J K Rowling. Her writing reads simply, clearly, and without flourish – giving so much more power to her stories. And this is not just because she targeted a young adult audience in her Harry Potter series. There is a difference between clarity and simplicity of style, and the tone required for reading age. More on that anon. What I am getting at is that Rowling’s style, by any measure, has that virtue of simplicity and clarity.

How to do it? Hemingway led the crusade, nearly a century ago. Simplicity of vocabulary; an organisation of sentences that puts the verb up front, and minimal adjectives. Sentences need to be of varying lengths – and, if they are lengthy, then the organisation of the clauses still needs to progress from action to description.

In fiction, the way to make this happen is to avoid writing descriptions of a scene as if watching it in a movie. Instead, describe the scene as it was felt, experienced and responded to by the characters. Adjectives fall away. Characters are deepened – all in one easy move.

Style with no style. I like it. Do you?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: style with class, and style with control