Finding the balance between writing well and writing weird

Here’s a thought for you as you prepare for NaNoWriMo or that novel you’ve always wanted to write. Archaeologists recently discovered a wind instrument, a bone flute, on which it was possible to play the Star Spangled Banner. The holes in the instrument had been spaced in a way that matched a modern scale.

Wright_Typewriter01Sounds ho-hum, but this instrument was 30,000 years old. It had been fabricated at the height of the last Ice Age, which means that the musical intervals that sounded pleasing to its makers were the same as the intervals that sound pleasing to us.

The same, it seems, is also true of stories. Humans are story-tellers. Three-act stories seem to be part of every culture around the world, cultures that are rich and diverse within themselves, but which all build their story-telling around the same basic structure.

We write in three-act structure, in short, not because it’s dull and conventional, but because it works. Like our sense of tone, we seem to be hard-wired for stories that have a beginning, middle and end. Sure, there have been efforts to change that from time to time – avant garde thought experiments – but they have never quite grabbed and captured in the way that the classic form does.

That’s an important point when constructing a novel – and especially when building one that has to be knocked through in thirty days, like NaNoWriMo. Although that doesn’t mean being boring. The trick is being different enough to be interesting – without dislodging the essential structure that readers identify with, expect and which – as I say – appears to be a fundamental part of human nature.

More soon – check back for regular posts on writing structure, writing technique – and writing inspiration, coming up through October and into November.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Solving the biggest NaNoWriMo challenge

The biggest challenge in the 50,000 word/30 day NaNoWriMo challenge – or, indeed, for any writing defined by word count – isn’t actually meeting that target. Yes, you do need to meet it – but that isn’t the real issue.

Wright_Typewriter2The real challenge is making the structure of what you write work to the 50,000 words – meaning proper balance between beginning, middle and end. That’s harder than it sounds. Any writing must have proper structure and pace for it to carry the reader on the essential emotional journey that lies at the heart of the art.

The exact proportions will vary depending on the purpose and intent of the writing, however as a rule of thumb for a novel plot you might think about 20 percent introductory, 50-60 percent expository and 20-30 percent ending. There are a few principles:

  1. Don’t use the beginning as an information dump. That’s not what it’s for. Beginnings are there to unfold the characters to the reader – to reveal what the character needs (as opposed to what they want). Call it Act 1.
  2. Keep the expository tight. Does a scene advance the character’s journey down their character arc? No? Cut it. Think of the whole as Act 2.
  3. The pace has to rise and fall in a series of rising waves until…
  4. The ending – which is the final point where the events leading the main character down their arc come together in a final challenge. This is the third and final act in the story.

From the viewpoint of writing, the purpose of the “50,000 word” length – and of keeping tally of the words – isn’t to hit a daily target of 1667. It’s to allow you to put approximate scale to the three acts and their components. If you’re running outside that scale, there’s likely to be something structurally awry.

Why is this important? Because if you get the structure right, everything else follows. After NaNoWriMo, you’ll have a good basis to build your novel.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: pantsing and planning your writing

Writing a novel – quickly and with quality – demands every skill a writer can bring to bear. It starts, not with actually writing, but with project planning – and moves from there.

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…

Project planning? Sure. There’s a school of thought that urges writers to indulge in free-flow – ‘seat of the pants’ writing. You start off with a blank page and start typing, following your imagination. Hey, apparently Stephen King does it, among others.

Actually, none of these writers quite do that. There’s a distinction between writing to produce a great novel that’s going to appeal to its audience – capturing and holding a reader – and just writing for the joy of it. The former is what professional writers do, and it’s often hard work. The latter’s a form of entertainment for the author, a pastime.

Sounds harsh, but it’s true. So what’s really happening when a top author ‘pantses’ their way through a book – and how do they make it work?

Several factors are at work here. The first is that these people are experienced – they’ve paid their dues, they’ve become ‘unconsciously competent’ at their craft. Writing is part of their soul. Words are their servants – these authors don’t struggle with the mechanics of styling or composition. They know how characters work, what constitutes a character arc, and how that integrates with a tight plot.

More to the point, most of these writers have also done the necessary groundwork and planning for their book. Isaac Asimov once summed it up. He never plotted a novel out as such – but he always knew where it would end. That gave him the direction to aim for. And it was essential.

All these authors, in short, blended planning with free-form; they had the structure of what was to be done – and then used their imaginations and competent writing skills in free-flow creativity around that skeleton. Best of both worlds.

This points the way forward for all of us. It takes about 10,000 hours – or a million words – for an author to make the transition from the first halting steps when they don’t know what they don’t know (‘unconscious incompetence’) through to realising what they don’t know (‘conscious incompetence’), familiarity with what’s needed (‘conscious competence’) and then – finally  – the glorious moment when writing becomes part of their soul (‘unconscious competence’).

There are no short-cuts. And that learning never stops – all writers are, really, apprentices at their craft. But the onus is also on to have a good foundation – and it seems to me that the best-of-both-worlds approach to planning and free-flow is an excellent approach for all writers.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Fellow writers – here’s the 2014 NaNo inspiration schedule.

It’s National November Writing Month again folks – just three weeks to go before it begins, and to help you along I’ve got some posts coming up about writing. These include posts about structure, about how to build characters, and about how to keep writing even when the muse departs.

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, I had to pose in the entrance of the 2012 Hobbit Artisan Market in central Wellington, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in Prince Caspian’. Am I a geeky Tolkien fan or what?

My background? I’ve been writing since I was seven. I was formally trained in fiction writing, though I am better known for my non-fiction. Many of my publications are in history, but of late I’ve veered back to the sciences, my original passion.

Aside from my feature articles, academic papers and professional work in publishing, I’ve also written and published over 50 books, a fair proportion of them with Penguin Random House.

It’s been a hell of a ride, and I’m still learning – as Hemingway says, we’re all apprentices. We’re also all in this together, folks – every writer has something to contribute. And if we work with each other, inspiring others to write great books, we can build a bigger pie for us all to share.

I’ve got a regular schedule planned for the next few weeks, through to the end of November. At this stage the schedule – posted around 7.30 am on the day, New Zealand time (evening before in the US) – is:

Friday – inspirational photo
Saturday – essential writing skills
Sunday – inspirational photo
Monday – more essential writing skills
Wednesday – a post on something else (surprise, though it’s likely to be either science or something about the books).

And I might have some surprises for Tuesdays and Thursdays. Keep a lookout for all this and more. Right here – this bat-time, this bat-channel…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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It’s NaNoWriMo time again – and here’s the deal

National November Novel Writing Month begins in a few weeks – challenging writers around the world to produce a 50,000 word work of fiction in just 30 days.

Wright_Typewriter2That’s a pace to challenge the best of the professionals. Although it’s definitely do-able. Don’t forget, Jack Kerouac whipped out On The Road in one three-week writing barrage. It’s one of my favourite books and has to be considered a literary classic by any measure.

So really, the question is not ‘whether’, you can blast 50,000 words out in that time-frame, but ‘how’.

We can’t do much better than taking a lead from Kerouac. Despite his intent to write via a spontaneous free-flowing ‘stream of consciousness’, he actually put quite a bit of prior planning into On The Road, including several earlier false starts. When he sat down at his typewriter to begin the marathon, he already had his characters sorted out, the plot and events in his head, and knew where he was going. The detail of his text then danced around that in what, to my mind, was an ideal blend of pre-planned structure with the soaring creativity of free-flow writing.

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

That’s me by the truck. A double-size truck designed to carry 100-ton loads in one hit – but not daunting, once it’s figured out. Like a novel, really…

Of course it’s easy to say that. The real issue is doing. And I’m going to help you. Over the next while, through the lead-up to NaNoWriMo and beyond, I’ll be detailing just how to make all that happen. How to write stuff – fast and well. I’ve got some posts lined up that’ll give you tips, tricks and techniques for getting there – plus, to fill the gaps between the regular posts, I’ll be re-blogging a few classics from my earlier NaNoWriMo advice, years ago. And check out other stuff on this blog, too – I’ve put up a lot of writing tips and techniques over the years.

Writing well? Sure. One of the conceits of NaNoWriMo is that anything blurted out in a month will always only be ‘first draft’ – the intent is to get people writing as much as anything else.

I disagree. I think that with the right amount of pre-work and planning, it’s possible to write something good in that time. That’s right – 50,000 quality words. In thirty days.

Stick around. I’ll show you. I’ve got regular posts lined up about how to do it, inspirational posts to spur your thinking, and more. Watch this space.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: writing as a whole concept

It has long seemed to me that one of the pitfalls of writing is the idea that ‘writing’ is finished when the last word goes on the draft. After that it’s ‘editing’, which I know some authors view not merely as a separate process, but also boring. After all, the book’s really finished… isn’t it?

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…

It’s an issue because, really, a book isn’t ‘finished’ until it’s out there on the store shelves. Everything that comes before that is part of the process – of which the assembly of the first draft is a part. But it is not the only part, and it certainly isn’t an ‘end’. On my experience it isn’t necessarily even the most time-consuming part. The reality, if we look at hours spent, is that the time required to actually draft the words – to have something to start working on – is about half the total.

So where does the notion that ‘writing’ and ‘editing are separate come from? I think part of the issue is the way results in writing are defined by word count – witness the proliferation of ‘word counters’ that even show progress bars. It gives the illusion of completion when a certain number of words are reached.

The reality is that word-count is a tool. In the profession it’s a specific device for defining scale. Editors use it. Word count provides a measure of the space a piece will take up – allowing them to determine costs. For authors, that same scale also means they can plan structure and produce work with proper pace, balance of content, and flow within the requisite length. It is not an end-goal of itself.

There is also the issue of motive. A lot of the people who decide to pick up writing produce fiction, drawn by the appeal of free-flow creativity – of being able to tell a story rather than receive somebody else’s. But once that draft’s been written, the entertainment aspect goes away and it turns into a grind. The professional reality is that yes, writing does need to engage you as author; but it also isn’t a pastime.

If we go back to first principles, what is ‘writing’, really?

To me, the reality of ‘writing’ is a process of conveying an author’s thoughts and emotion to a reader, and perhaps triggering a different emotion in the reader. If we look on writing in that sense, all parts of the process become part of a broader whole.

Actually writing words down is a part of it, but so too is the planning, research, editing, the typeset-check, even the marketing. All these things are essential parts of an author’s work – part of that broader concept we call ‘writing’.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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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

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