Essential writing skills: three steps to capturing your readers

Want to know how to capture your readers? Writing’s all about emotion – about the author transferring their own emotions to the page, and perhaps creating new emotions in the reader. It can be exhausting. As Hemingway once said, you sit down at the typewriter and bleed.

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

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

The funny thing is, it’s true of non-fiction as well as fiction. Non-fiction also takes readers on an emotional journey – at basic level, the satisfaction of having information. But more usually non-fiction involves an argument, a pathway – and it is here that the emotion emerges. As Charles Darwin discovered, way back when.

Actually doing it, of course, is the trick:

1. Capture. The first task is to engage the reader at that emotional level. This is done by hook-lines and promises – the promise of that emotional journey and satisfaction. This doesn’t mean writing advertising slogans, but it does mean calling to the reader at a level other than that of the literal content. Readers are captured not by that literal content, but by the promise of what that content will do for them – how they will feel when reading it.

2. Hold. Next step – deliver on that promise. Keep the reader’s interest. One way to do that is to make small promises of emotional return along the way.

3. Punch. It’s not enough to carry the reader on an emotional journey – it has to be memorable. And the way to deal with that is to deliver a punch. This can be a multiple punch – giving the reader a series of little hitsies through the work, before finally delivering the KO at the end. It can be sharp – think of the way short story writers put a twist into the last sentence. Or it can be paced to suit the work. Think of the last chapter in Hemingway’s Farewell To Arms.

Ultimately the question writers have to ask, as they finish each sentence, is ‘what does this deliver to the reader? How will it make the reader feel?’

Where – in short – is the emotional journey?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Sherlock’s public domain – but will writing new stories be elementary?

A recent US court ruling that 50 Sherlock Holmes stories published before December 1923 are in public domain – hence free for all to use – raises questions about whether we’re about to be inundated with a flood of new Holmes adventures.

Holmes in action, illustration by Sidney Paget for Strand Magazine. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Holmes in action during the ‘Adventure of the Abbey Grange’, illustration by Sidney Paget for Strand Magazine. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

It’s subject to possible appeal, I suppose. But it’s a tricky issue. Here in New Zealand, all Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works have been public domain since 31 December 1980, the end of the fiftieth year after his death. But copyright terms and protections vary and his material has remained in copyright elsewhere. Some countries run 75 or 100-year copyrights after death, and the US has more than one term. The US court case came about, it seems, when a licensing deal with the Doyle estate tripped up.

To me, that raises a question. Sure, that ruling means any author can freely go ahead and use Sherlock Holmes and all the concepts and ideas that pre-date 1923 in stories of their own. This includes most of the classic Holmes imagery from the deerstalker cap to the pipe to the violin to the fact that it’s always 1895 and Hansom cabs are the way around London.

But should they?

Sherlock Holmes revisited has been done by authors. Nicholas Meyers’ The Seven Percent Solution, for instance. Or Fred Saberhagen’s The Holmes-Dracula File. And there have been innumerable adaptations of the stories for movies or TV.

Another Paget illustratioon for Strand magazine.

Another Paget illustration, from the ‘Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez’, for Strand magazine. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

As far as I am concerned, the only two adaptations that have come close to the spirit and intent of the Conan Doyle original were both by the BBC. There was the Jeremy Brett/Edward Hardwicke adaptation of the 1980s, which was utterly faithful to Doyle’s work in essential details. And there was the 2010 Benedict Cumberbatch/Martin Freeman re-telling, which was so faithful to the spirit that we can easily imagine Conan Doyle writing it, were he starting out today. Don’t forget, Holmes was set in what was, when Doyle started, the modern world.

I question whether re-imagining the Holmes character is effective. There’s been stupid Holmes and smart Watson (Michael Caine/Ben Kingsley Without a Clue, 1988). Or Holmes as action hero (Robert Downey/Jude Law Sherlock Holmes, 2009). But Holmes, as Conan Doyle imagined him, is iconic – so aren’t these new characters? Riffing on the old, but really something else?

That highlights what, for me, is the key issue for any author writing ‘new’ Holmes stories. Sure, there’s a market. But Holmes stories are hard to do well – and really, it’s elevated fan fiction. Isn’t it better for an author to invent something new?

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Essential writing skills: counting the beats

Welcome to the third post in a weekly series outlining some of the basic writing skills we need to get ahead in the business.

I have long thought that writing is a lot like composing music. Even down to rhythm.

My key-ring from the Raffles Writers Bar. Complete with the original wrapping (yes, I am a writing nerd).

My key-ring from the Raffles Writers Bar. Complete with the original wrapping (yes, I am a writing nerd).

One of the biggest parts of any writing style – of the mechanics of words – is the beat. We talk in beats. Poets write to specific beats with names such as iambic pentameter (‘I WANdered LONEly AS a CLOUD’) and dactylic tetrameter, which works quite well as an Irish jig (‘PARa diMETHyl AMIno benZALdehyde’)

However, writing also has other forms of beat. In fiction, the term is used to mean the key phrases that push the text along. Action points, you could call them. If you describe some action by a character, like stepping out of a car or tripping over, that’s a beat.

Beats work at larger scales too. The list of events-with-word lengths you need to structure your story properly, before beginning to write it, is known in the trade as a ‘beat sheet’.

Needless to say –like music – it’s important to get the rhythms right. Get the beats wrong and you’ll confuse or lose your readers.

That works on all the scales of beats, too. Identifying who spoke is a beat. But if you have a long string of dialogue and put ‘Watson said’ at the end of it, you’re missing the rhythm. By the time the reader’s got to that point, they’ll know it’s Watson, but they’ll have had to figure it out. Better to break the dialogue at the first phrase, insert the beat ‘Watson said’, and carry on. Or another beat could be used instead:

‘I say, Holmes, that was jolly decent of the Professor not to call me dense more than 38 times last evening.’

Similarly, you need to get the beats of the large-scale structure right. When building action to an exciting resolution, for example, you have to make sure the pace is right – that the reader is drawn into the story without getting bored. That’s done by beats.

Learning how to master beats is an essential writing skill. And, like all writing skills, the way to master it is to break the scales down from broadest to smallest. Start with the broad scope of what you’re writing; identify the pace and beats needed. Work down to the smallest level – the actual words – and make sure that’s got the right beats for that scale.

It all takes practise, but it’s certainly do-able; and once you’ve mastered the art of writing beats, you’ll be well on the way to the first big waypoint in the writing journey – making writing part of your soul.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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So is it muddle earth and not Middle Earth?

Viggo Mortensen’s recent suggestion in the British Telegraph that filming on Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings was chaotic got me thinking about how a book of that scope can be adapted to the screen, anyway.

This was the best aisle of craft stalls. That's also because it was the only aisle...

People at the 2012 Hobbit craft market in Wellington, New Zealand. Click to enlarge.

Some years ago I had a chance to hear Phillipa Boyens, the script-writer, explain how they’d done Fellowship, the only movie out at that time. Tolkien’s novel couldn’t be translated direct to a movie. The pacings were wrong for film. That’s true, of course, of any book.

Boyens didn’t discuss The Two Towers or The Return of the King, but it seems to me that adapting them couldn’t have been straight forward. They were structurally different from The Fellowship of the Ring – the story broke into two linear threads. If that had been made directly into a movie, it would have been peculiar – effectively, two movies jammed together. So it had to be reorganised. I got the impression that was quite a task, and one for which there was no obvious answer. The original cinema cut of The Two Towers was radically different from the DVD version – I saw both editions, and they were very different movies.

The Return of the King, it’s worth noting, was also inconsistent with the other two stylistically – Tolkien, quite deliberately, shifted to more epic tones during the climactic sequences. Another challenge for film-making.

A point to discuss. And I’d be inclined to agree with Mortensen’s reported observation that Jackson’s series of Middle Earth movies have been progressively captured by special effects. The Hobbit bears only a passing resemblance to the book, and the second one – particularly – was virtually all CGI. Nice eye candy, but I missed Tolkien’s original story.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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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.