Essential writing skills: getting the details right in historical fiction

Back when I was writing New Zealand military non-fiction, our leading local academic military historians often ended up reviewing my books for national magazines or newspapers.

Wright_Military History CoversWhat followed, every time, was a trawl for anything they could construct into a denial of my professional competence in a field where I was being published on merit, and where they wrote and published competing books on full-time salary at my expense as taxpayer. None of these strangers had the guts to approach me personally, and none responded to my approaches. Since then I’ve discovered I can’t get on mailing lists or into the symposia these people organise at public expense, and I’ve been advised that their public representations appear to put me at a disadvantage relative to being fairly assessed for the public-funded work and opportunities their employers offer.

Funnily enough, if I’d been as witlessly incompetent as these local academics insisted, I wouldn’t have had a look in with publishers such as Penguin who produced my military material solely on due judgement of its merits.

That brings me to the point of this post, which is the problem of readers taking umbrage at what they suppose to be an ‘error’. This is also an occupational hazard for fiction writers. Especially historical fiction. The author may not get feedback – but the reader doesn’t get the intended enjoyment out of the novel, and may even abandon it. Why? Because some detail the reader believes to be an error destroys the suspension of disbelief. That’s one of the key hooks that keeps readers engaged. And that can be blown in a flash if the author makes mistakes over the factual background.

Sometimes the error rests with the reader, who thinks they know something – but actually, it is they who are wrong. That, I suspect, is why Alexander Fullerton added a note at the beginning of his First World War nautical novel The Blooding of the Guns, detailing which way the helm was ordered to turn at the time, relative to the direction the ship was turning.

A photo I took of the Louvre. I am 100% certain that the Holy Grail is NOT situated under that pyramid in the centre left of frame. though the reception desk is.

A photo I took of the Louvre. I am 100% certain that the Holy Grail is NOT situated under that pyramid in the centre left of frame. though the reception desk is.

But sometimes the problem is with the author, or their editor. My favourite example is Dan Brown, whose version of Paris in The Of Vinci Code (I know what I said) was very different from the one I knew. He confused railway stations – he conflated two that are actually about 1.5 km apart. He apparently didn’t know what’s under the pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre (the reception desk), or how the museum works and is laid out. He had his heroes drive along streets that aren’t driveable. And so it went on. I suppose Brown hadn’t visited Paris when he wrote the novel.

The point being that if you’re going to present yourself as ‘factual’, as he did, the onus is on to be so. There are, I think, many reasons why the novel was so wildly popular. One of them was Brown’s absolute mastery of pace. But for me, the suspension of disbelief – absolutely essential given the outrageous premise of his plot – was totally blown by his egregious lapses of fidelity. There is a lesson therein for novel writers. More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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NaNoWriMo – don’t dream it’s over…

You’ve spent the last thirty days on NaNoWriMo – that annual 50,000-word-in-a-month novel contest. And suddenly it’s 30 November.

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What's it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er - introductions...

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What’s it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er – introductions…

That arrived fast! And what counts is the doing – not the ‘winning’. Which sounds facile, but don’t forget that, whether you won or not, you’ve just joined a fairly select group. A lot of people have ambitions of writing ‘their book’. Do they even tackle it? No. You just have – and that’s the first and hardest hurdle. A brilliant achievement. So take a deep breath and pat yourself on the back.

What now? Agents, publications, riches? Don’t even dream of it. Not yet. There’s work ahead, folks. If you haven’t finished in the time – don’t sweat, keep writing and finish the draft – for that is what NaNo produces. And don’t sweat if it’s a little under or over. Word count isn’t an end point. It’s a tool by which you make sure your work’s balanced and to required spec. In point of fact, 50,000 words is a little light for a modern novel.

Next step. When you finish – or if you have already – stick the manuscript in a metaphorical drawer and leave it there until after Christmas. Don’t forget to back up the files. Now go and write something else.

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…

This is actually vital. Putting a pause into the work – even if you’re still in a white heat of enthusiasm – pays colossal dividends. You’ll come back to it with fresh eyes – and that’s one of the keys to good writing. What then? Well, there’s no easy road. If you’ve been following the approaches I recommend, you’ll have something that’s well structured but roughly worded. That’s fine – this is how professional writing works. It’ll need re-writing, possibly completely re-wording, but the hard part’s been done, which is getting the underlying structure, the balance of pace, the character arcs correctly meshing with the dramatic pace of the plot narrative, and so forth.

Of course, that approach doesn’t work for everyone. But either way, the manuscript’s going to need work. How much work? Some writers look on the act of initial drafting – which is what NaNo is – as ‘writing’, everything else as ‘editing’.

Actually, the whole thing is writing and on my experience the first draft is only about the half-way point, maybe less, before it’ll be ready to submit to an agent or publisher. And the publishing process could add as much author time again. The point being that there’s still some effort ahead. But it shouldn’t be a chore. Writing’s fun – and re-writing the first draft, quite possibly, is even more fun, for reasons I’m going to outline soon.

As the song says – don’t dream it’s over.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: finding that ‘Goldilocks’ word

One of the hardest things for writers – and especially if you’re under pressure to produce and hit a word-target – is finding the right words. Having, in short, a wide enough vocabulary to express yourself with interest and variation. It’s harder than it seems. Even experienced authors usually rely on a relative handful of words – certainly in first drafts. It’s the struggle to find good variations, I think, that slows authors down the most.

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What's it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er - introductions...

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What’s it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er – introductions…

The problem’s ironic in many ways. It’s a while now since English became the richest language in the world – word-wise, certainly. The current vocabulary runs to something over a million. But most people don’t actually use that many – a 1991 paper suggested the average college student has a vocabulary of under 17,000 words. This is about the same as Shakespeare.

What it means is that for every word you have in the vocabulary of your writing, there are probably several alternatives. And maybe it’s good to use some of them. But this doesn’t mean jamming as many different words as possible into your material. Good styling isn’t about sitting down with a Thesaurus and finding synonyms for your favourite adjective. Callipygian, for example. Authors who succumb usually end up with fifty shades of stylistic mauve. I hesitate to use the word ‘purple’; it’s too intense a colour for this sort of mud.

As with all things there is a balance. Word selection guides tone. It guides the reading age. It guides that indefineable ‘feel’ of the work. I’ll post in more detail later on those points. Within those parameters writers have to find a vocabulary ‘Goldilocks zone’ where there is enough variation in the word selection to be interesting – but not so much as to make the work over-written or pretentious.

My advice:

  1. Get that first draft out even if you use a lot of ‘samey’ words – a bad first draft is better than no first draft, and stopping to find elusive words breaks trains of thought. Sure, you’ll have a fairly bland vocab. But you can then go through and fix the word selection on the editing which is, as we know, really an integral part of the writing.
  2. Be careful with adjectives.  Writing, in general, has been stripping itself of these ever since Hemingway decided to introduce a more journalistic tone to literature a century ago.
  3. It’s handy to have three or four variations for your commonest words (in novels, it’s usually ‘said’) – but no more.
  4. When finding synonyms for ‘said’, be judicious. It’s tempting to use an adverb – but don’t. Why? “‘I say! That’s a bit off, old chap,’ expostulated Algy.” See what I mean?
  5. ‘Groak’ means ‘to stare silently at someone while they are eating’. Just saying.

Do you have a favourite word that keeps popping up, usually unannounced, in your writing?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: fifty-plus shades of character

It was Ernest Hemingway, reputedly, who insisted that fiction authors should not create ‘characters’ – they should create real people.

Ernest Hemingway (left) and Carlos Guiterrez, 1934. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Ernest Hemingway (left) and Carlos Guiterrez, 1934. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

He didn’t mean use real people – oh, except a bit – but he did mean that novellists, playwrights and the rest shouldn’t assemble ‘characters’, Lego-fashion. They instead needed to portray the smooth and complex dimensionality of real people – who come, needless to say, in far more than fifty shades of grey.

That, of course, is far easier said than done. Real people are tricky; they can say one thing and mean or do another. They seldom present as all-good or all-bad. They have motives. They have ambitions. They learn. From all this the author has to derive not only a believeable character – but also their character arc, their development as an individual. This is what the novel will be all about, irrespective of genre or plot.

And do you think the challenge ends there? Nooooo. You see, writing is always linear; you can portray but one idea at a time, in a sequence. What’s more, the surface narrative is always going to be at least one step away from the deeper character. Writers have to learn not merely how to unpick the deeper character, but how to portray the deeper character through a linear sequence of carefully selected narrative events.

The obvious word that springs to mind about this point is ‘aaaargh!’ – but never fear. It’s do-able. Yes, it takes practise – but then, everything does. And the results are well worth it. For now – with more detail to follow – try this:

  1. Think ‘real’, not ‘constructed character’. What motivates your character?
  2. What are they looking for – is there motion to their nature? This could offer clues to the character arc.
  3. What story or event might best suit this character? Yes- that’s right. It’s best to start with a character and believeable character arc first. Then look for a story for them. And yes, I know that’s precisely the reverse of the way most people think.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: grammar – the writer’s playground

It was Winston Churchill, I believe, who once insisted that ending a sentence with a preposition was something up with which he would not put.

Wright_Typewriter2As any of us who have dragged through High School English know, grammar is often touted as the basic building block of writing. Which, in many ways, it is; you can’t write things that scan properly without it. It’s there for a reason.

The onus is on authors to get it right, though that doesn’t mean losing perspective. Grammar is a tool, not an end-goal. The so-called ‘grammar Nazis’ who nit-pick authors for any technical glitch that they can attribute to the writing don’t achieve much other than showing themselves up as small-minded.

It happens though. Some years ago a book reviewer – not someone writing the reader commentaries one gets on Amazon, but a journalist commissioned to prepare a discursive article about one of my books – took a ‘point off’ for my use of ‘impacted’ as a verb. I’d done it deliberately, and it’s correct to do so. ‘Impact’ began life in the early seventeenth century English as a transitive verb. It’s still such today, though it is more often used as a noun. A fact that gives due context to the remark – which was, of course, an attempt to put me in my place; simple bullying of a kind that, alas, happens quite often in this sort of book review. (‘I can’t write books myself but I will trawl your work for anything I can claim proves that you are incompetent and ignorant as a book author’).

So the point about grammar? Just like musical rules don’t constitute good music alone, grammar alone doesn’t constitute good writing. There has to be a dynamic to written style – something that isn’t contained in the grammar rules, but which exploits them, perhaps even bends them. Advertisers and journalists do it all the time – how often do you see sentences that start with a conjunction?

This doesn’t mean being ignorant of grammar. You have to know the rules in order to break them. But once you have them down pat you can play with them. For stylistic purposes, the rules to bend are typically those associated with words – like, don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.

Actually, judiciously, you can. It means finding a balance; bending the rules enough to be interesting, without being blatantly egregious. It’s a skill, but one that comes with enough practise in writing. It’s as much an essential skill as any other – giving your writing what, in due homage to Frank Zappa, I always call ‘writing eyebrows’.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: what Lucas and Tolkien show us about the hero journey

Sorting out a viable character arc and hence plot for your story is perhaps one of the trickiest aspects of writing to get right. But it’s also the most important.

Like all writing, it’s a learned skill – practise makes perfect, and you can’t play games with the structure until you’ve mastered it. For beginning writers perhaps the best way to approach that is to fall back on the fail-safe story – the three-act hero journey. This is absolutely classic structure and character arc, used and re-used by writers old and new, experienced and novice.  It’s the literary equivalent of the four-chord rock song. But that doesn’t mean every writer who uses it ends up with the same story – far from it. In fact, the onus is on you, as the writer, to make an original tale around that structure.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in ‘Prince Caspian’.

To show what I mean we need go no further than two classics, Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and George Lucas’ Star Wars. On the face of it, they’re radically different tales – different settings, different genres. But they’re both based on the hero arc. Check this out:

  1. We meet Bilbo/Luke in their normal world. They are set in their ways, but something niggles them – something is missing in their lives.
  2. They meet an older mentor figure (Gandalf/Obi-Wan), and a dramatic event pushes Bilbo/Luke, forcibly, out of that normal world (Bilbo’s ‘unexpected party’, Luke’s discover of his murdered uncle and aunt).
  3. Bilbo/Luke at first flounder; but the mentor offers guidance, and they begin to learn how to handle themselves. There is a first test away from the mentor (Bilbo vs the trolls, Luke sent to look for Leia in the Death Star while Obi Wan is dealing with the tractor beam) .
  4. Bilbo/Luke gain confidence from their experiences.
  5. There is a pivotal point at which they are stripped of their mentor (Gandalf departs to deal with the Necromancer, Darth Vader kills Obi Wan) after which the hero has to find their own strength (Bilbo versus the spiders, Luke leading the attack on the Death Star). Tolkien had a lot more space to explore this side of the arc than Lucas – Bilbo’s hero growth in The Hobbit was multi-dimensional and the Lonely Mountain sequences focussed on his ethical journey after he’d found his personal heroism.
  6. Bilbo/Luke achieve a great victory on the back of their new-found strengths (Bilbo uses the Arkenstone to try and reconcile the crisis over the unguarded dwarven treasure, Luke uses the Force to hit a small target and blow up the Death Star.)
  7. The story ends; the character arc is complete.

So there you have it; the hero arc – an arc which must be entwined with specific plot points to work. If done right – and both Lucas and Tolkien nailed it – the drama flows from the character development, and the narrative of the plot matches the essential pivot points of the character arc. That one-two punch keeps readers on the edge of their seat.

And if you need another example, go check out The Wizard of Oz. Same story.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: ways to build a real character for your novel

One of the ways to transform a ‘character’ in your story into someone ‘real’ is to start with a good foundation. What makes people tick?

At this level, people are simpler than you might think. One powerful motive is self-validation – feeling worthy and valued, even to themselves. This can produce all manner of outcomes, because there are so many different things people identify with – and so many different ways they validate themselves.

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…

Let’s take one example – imagine a university Professor who, for better or worse, validates his self-worth by the status he imagines he has in his field of employment. What does that produce? He will see others – who ‘compete’ for the same status – as taking away his self-worth. This sounds ridiculous but it’s actually fairly common in the field – this is why academics end up fighting over what, to those of us in the real world, appears to be nothing. Would such a character have the confidence to confront someone they viewed as a threat? Perhaps, but let’s suppose they mix this with a fundamental underlying insecurity.

That opens up story narrative. When affronted by someone who they imagine has taken away their self-worth they respond not by confronting their supposed assailant, but sneakily through back-channels, a cowardly back-stab that means this Professor character doesn’t have to actually introduce himself to his targets. And if confronted; why, he is a Professor – how dare anybody question his status or authority?

What else can we add, to make a point of difference in character? Laziness? A sense of entitlement? And so we begin to build up a picture of a thoroughly unlikeable protagonist. A Professor, perhaps – someone, perhaps, who feels entitled to position and status, who does not work particularly hard but who draws validation from the little they achieve, presenting as ‘puffed up’ to any they work with.

sleeping-man-with-newspapers-mdStereotypically, one might also imagine a character of this nature to be physically lazy and over-weight. Of course, all this is purely to show the thought processes that might go into a character. I’ve deliberately portrayed a cliche – a classic bully. Such a character, you have to admit, is at best a pathetic one-dimensional caricature. Not compelling for readers – but by going to the extreme I have, I hope, given something of the basic mechanics of how characters might be developed.

The trick is to be a lot more subtle – to build from a strong skeleton, mixing and matching the surface elements to produce that most elusive of literary creations, Hemingway’s ‘real’ person. More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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