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.

Write it now: the twelve steps to traditional publishing

Although traditional publishing is in upheaval these days, there are lessons we can learn from its processes. The new age of e-publishing hasn’t changed the need for quality control – which trad publishing has had down pat for decades.

Part of my list.

Part of my list.

The traditional publishing process breaks down into twelve broad steps. They vary a little from publisher to publisher, but the intent is always the same; quality control. The steps typically go like this:

1. Manuscript (MS) submitted.
2. MS read and confirmed for quality – or returned to the author for amendments.
3. MS sent for proof-editing. Most publishing houses operate a ‘virtual’ editorial process – they’ll have a stable of contractors who are brought in as needed for this work.
4. Proof-edited MS checked back with the author to confirm changes. The author needs to avoid the temptation to re-write at this point (and will likely incur costs if they do – this is built into contracts).
5. MS line-proofed.
6. MS sent for typesetting. Usually the design will be run past the author for comment although most contracts give final say to the publisher.
7. Typeset MS proof-checked by publisher and run past author for final comments.
8. Typeset MS line-proofed.
9. Index usually implemented at this stage (if there is one).
10. Typeset MS checked again and sent for printing.
11. Printer provides proofs (lasers, ozilit or, these days, more usually high-quality inkjet) – these are carefully line-checked.
12. Any amendments implemented – book then printed.

Usually a handful of initial copies are sent before the main delivery – and it’s about this stage that the author finds a typo. Nature of the beast.

The main focus is on change control – on making sure that amendments are contained, and that they’re always proofed. Repeated proofing pays dividends, although in these cost-conscious days, not all the proofing steps are always applied.

Traditional publishing has gone down this track for good reason. It’s quality assurance. It gives a professional edge, and in this age where one of the biggest challenges is discovery, there are lessons therein for self-publishers.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery 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.

Essential writing skills: mastering word count

Welcome to 2014 and a new year of writing tips – quick essential skill tips on Fridays, longer posts Saturdays, and sometimes other stuff during the week. I’m going to cover a fair number of things in coming weeks and months, including editing techniques and ways to publish.

Where it all began - the newspaper office that gave me my first break as a writer.

Where it all began for me – the newspaper that gave me my first break as a writer. Click to enlarge.

First off – word count. Those who’ve been reading this blog for a while know it’s one of my little hobby horses, and it’s a good way to start 2014 because to me, everything keys from it. Sort of. I’ll explain. As a writer I often bewail the focus these days on word count. Despite the profusion of word-o-meters built into software, it’s not actually a goal or even a measure of completion.

It’s a tool. Editors commission through word count, journalists write to it – and authors, certainly when writing short stories and features – are frequently paid by the word. Publishers contract books on the basis of the word count, because it’s a gauge of scale that allows them to calculate costs. There’s some flexibility in that, but not a lot.

For authors, word count is a tool in a different sense. It’s a way of controlling structure. Any writing – irrespective of scale – must have a proper structure, meaning certain lengths of material in the correct places; and word count is a way to meter the proportions – keeping them under control. If you’re writing a 70,000 word book and the ‘beginning’ billows to a third or more, it’s probably out of whack structurally. And yes, readers will notice. So will editors.

Writing to meet specific word count, in short, is a key skill authors must master – one of the many skills. But it isn’t an end point of itself.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Tomorrow,’write it now’; next week – more writing tips, science geekery and more. Watch this space.

Sixty second writing tips: writing is broad-based

It occurred to me the other day that 99.9 percent of the writing advice on the internet is ‘how to write novels’. There is an assumption that anybody who writes will, by default, be a novellist; that writing is exclusively all about plots, character arcs and so forth.

Wright_Illustrated History WhitcoullsCertainly that’s where a lot of people who pick up a pen (well, a computer…) for the first time usually start. The dream ‘to be a writer’, for most, translates into ‘to be a novellist’ – or ‘short story writer’. Or both.

In fact there’s a lot more to writing than this. As I always say, writing is writing; it’s a skill of itself, and being able to master the fundamentals sets you up to then master the details of any specific corner–novel-writing. Or poetry. Or non-fiction.

What maybe isn’t obvious is the way these aspects feed into each other. For instance, a biography is closer than you might think to a character-driven novel. Sure, one has to be based in hard fact where the other is a product of imagination. But the stuff that a reader wants out of it – the insights into character, the emotional reward they get from discovering those insights – are much the same.

It’s why some novellists turn to biography – or why some biographies can be written as novels. There’s one released here in New Zealand lately, about aviatrix Jean Batten. Fiction – about a real person.

But it seems to me that the comparisons go deeper. All writing, I think, is grist to the mill. All writing inter-relates. We just have to be able to understand how. The point being that once we have that, we can leverage that skill – and write a novel with the same sure touch that we write an email, or a letter, or a blog post.

What do you figure?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

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

Seven real rules for writers

It is thirty years this month since I wrote my first book for publication. And after thirty years in the business it’s long been clear to me writing is a hard nosed profession. It’s rewarding. It’s a lot of hard work. But writers also have to be realistic – and tough about the realities.

Part of my list.

Part of my list. These books did not happen by accident.

The reality, especially these days, is that traditional publishing is in upheaval. It’s fighting to stay afloat – which means opportunities for lesser known authors are limited. Meanwhile, everybody and their dog is trying to self-publish via the internet, creating a flood of ‘noise’  that swamps the good stuff. It’s harder than ever to be discovered. Harder than ever to sell

That dictates the approach, and the questions authors have to ask when concocting a book these days have little to do with the art of writing.

When I come up with an idea for a book, I ask these questions – first:

1. What is the target audience? Specifically.

2. Why will they buy this book as opposed to any other?

3. Is anybody else doing the same thing?

4. What point of difference can I make in this book to set it apart?

5. How can I make that point compelling for buyers?

6. Which publisher or agent will look seriously at this idea?

Often I’ll extend that to the practicalities:

7. What price-point and presentation will best work for this book?

Publishers have their own expertise in this field, but it helps to conceptualise the book around the way they think – and publishers don’t necessarily publish because a book is brilliant literature. They publish because it’s going to sell – and questions of packaging, price point, presentation and target audience are the first ones on the list.

This is true for fiction and non-fiction alike. Or for a feature being pitched to a magazine, or a short story. These days, if I can’t answer those questions – and, maybe, get some hard data behind them – then I don’t write the book

What? What, you ask –but surely you write where the muse goes? Yes, writers write because they must – and it’s fun. But if it is to be more than a pastime, more than hobby entertainment with ambitions of publishing, it also has to be run as a professional business, with a bottom line. And that business is getting very difficult these days.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: More about writing, more humour – watch this space

How to write and not be driven to eat your own weight in lard

After four weeks cudgelling words into existence and watching that count rise, National Novel Writing Month’s over. And now …what?

Wright_WgtnWaterfront2011_Copyright (c) 2011I figure there are three possible scenarios:

1. I hit the target and have a 50,000 word novel drafted.
2. I didn’t hit the target and have something less than 50,000 words.
3. I would have hit 50,000 words, but that M J Wright’s blog was so interesting I spent all my time reading it, telling all my friends to visit, and watching to see if he posted more, while buying as many of his books as I could afford…

It also seems to me that whatever happened, there are possibly three ways to feel about it:

1. Now’s the time to eat my own weight in butter.
2. I’m going to chuck the story in a drawer and forget it, forever.
3. That was a great experience. I’m going to sit back, take a well earned rest for a day or two – then start re-thinking that manuscript.

My money’s on (3). I figure yours will be too.

The thing is, what counts with things like NaNoWriMo is the doing. What all writing is about is the experience. It’s all good. Everything counts as another step in experience – another way-point in the million-word learning curve. What’s more, every writer is learning, all the time, including the established professionals. If they’re not, they won’t grow as writers. That’s the nature of the beast.

So you have your manuscript – whether written for NaNo, or something you’ve been working on a while, or whatever. What next?

I’ve got some ideas about that. You probably do too. More soon.

Meanwhile – how did NaNoWriMo go for you? Or have you another project on the go you’d like to share?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: Sixty Second Writing tips and ‘write it now’ return next week with more tips, hints, and ways of mastering the hard reality of writing in today’s world.  Plus – well, watch this space.

Writing to shake things up

I have long been a great fan of Admiral Sir John Arbuthnot Fisher (1840-1919).

First use of OMG! Part of p78 from Fisher's 'Memories' (Hodder & Stoughton, 1919).

First use of OMG! Part of p78 from Fisher’s ‘Memories’ (Hodder & Stoughton, 1919).

He was a firebrand, peppering his letters with Biblical quotes, multiple underlinings, different coloured inks. Along the way he invented the abbreviation ‘OMG’, first used in a letter he penned to Winston Churchill in 1917.

As  British First Sea Lord from 1904, Fisher was responsible for introducing both the dreadnought and the battlecruiser. He habitually arrived at work at 4.00 am, vigorously pour his energies into the tasks in hand, and would often parade around the offices bearing the sign ‘I have no work to do’.

The Royal Navy wasn’t called ‘the fleet that Jack built’ for nothing.

He spoke as he wrote. ‘Fisher,’ King Edward VII is reputed to have once said, ‘will you leave off shaking your fist in my face.’

One of Fisher’s favourite sayings – immortalised on the bust carved by Epstein – is starkly poignant ‘The  —- with today. What’s happening tomorrow?’

It is, I think, an apt point we could all do well to consider, as we write. What direction are we going in – and how can we make things more exciting tomorrow?

Have you written anything to shake things up lately?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013