Announcing my next book on the New Zealand Wars

I’m pleased to announce my first title for 2014. It’s being published by Libro International on 29 July. Here’s their media release. I’m quite excited, and I hope you will be too.

The cover of my next book.

The cover of my next book.

The New Zealand Wars – a brief history tells the tale (briefly!) of the thirty years of sporadic fighting that marked New Zealand’s mid-nineteenth century.  Two of these wars played out at the same time – and with much the same technologies – as the US Civil War being fought on the other side of the Pacific.

It’s an era that had had its share of controversy and its share of myth-making. Late twentieth century historians reversed the way the wars had traditionally been seen. But were they right? And what was the actual story – in brief – behind the dramatic events of the day?

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

A sneak peek inside my ‘Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand’

A few weeks ago an e-book edition of my best-selling Illustrated History of New Zealand was released by David Bateman Ltd.

Wright_New Zealand Illustrated coverYou can buy that by scrolling down and clicking on the link below. Go on, you know you want to…

Today I thought I’d share some of the pages of the print version.

History, to me, is more than simply recounting past events. It is about understanding the shapes and patterns of life –  exploring how they led to the world we know today. From that, we can understand more about where we are – and where we might go. It is, really, about understanding the human condition.

Sample of p 104. Click to enlarge.

Sample of p 104. Click to enlarge.

For these reasons history must be about people –  their thoughts, hopes and moods. About how they responded to the world they found themselves in. The colonial-age journey to New Zealand, which the sample pages I’ve reproduced here describes, brought that human condition out in many ways; a three month transition between old and new, a rite of passage in which they could shuck off the old world and more fully embrace the dream of the new.

Sample of p.105. Click to enlarge.

Sample of p.105. Click to enlarge.

On these pages I’ve conveyed some of the thoughts of those settlers – click to enlarge each page. The poignancy of the journey was deepened, for many, by tragedy; children, particularly, were vulnerable – and often died, something the colonial government deliberately addressed in the 1870s. That’s covered elsewhere in the book.

The opportunity to write something as big as my Illustrated History of New Zealand – big in the physical sense, big in terms of being an interpretative history of an entire nation – is rare in the career of any author.

Sample of p. 106. Click to enlarge.

Sample of p. 106. Click to enlarge.

The opportunity to then re-write it, ten years on – to re-visit, re-cast, re-think, extend and renew – is almost non-existent. That’s particularly true here in New Zealand where the number of qualified historians to have written large-scale interpretative general histories of the country, solo, in the last 60 years, can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Sample of p. 107. Click to enlarge.

Sample of p. 107. Click to enlarge.

These samples have a copyright notice added to them. Pictures, forming part of the design collage, are from the collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library.

My Illustrated History of New Zealand is on sale now in bookstores across New Zealand, or direct from the publisher website. Scroll down for the e-book link.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Some shameless self promotion:

It’s also available on iTunes:

Nook coming soon.

You can buy the print edition here:

Write it now: the truth of writing, and the ultimate writing challenge

I was taught writing by a poet. Formally, in a succession of tertiary courses, in the late 1970s. The lessons I took about writing from him carried a value well beyond what I really knew, then.

This is me doing my 'writing getaway' impression on Rarotonga.

This is me doing my ‘writing getaway’ impression on Rarotonga.

To this day, after 30 years and more than 50 published books and 500 feature articles, on top of this blog and other stuff totalling more than two million words in print, I still think of that poet’s lessons whenever I write anything.

What was the essence of his teaching? Questions. ‘What did they feel’? ‘What did that mean for them?’ And, implicitly, ‘how can we, as writers, understand and express that?’

Those questions are true for all writing, especially non-fiction, where such are the hardest of all questions to answer – and yet, also the most important. Why? Because they provide us with understanding. And yet the picture and emotional force in the mind – the fuel that drives all writers, drives anything truly creative and human – is literally inexpressible in the flawed vehicle of the word. Translating it to words destroys its perfection. We have to accept that words alone cannot convey the true picture, shape, colour and depth of concepts, feelings and emotions.

Indeed, when we think about it, the mind of one person cannot perceive the way another conceives something, for we can only express such in the limiting way of words.

And yet it is the duty – the mission – of all writers to try and discover ways of expressing themselves, in words, despite those limits.

That is the challenge. It is what writers must do. And over the next while I am now going to tell you – given the limits words place on concept – how to do it. At least as I understand it. I hope you’ll come along for the journey.

Along with other fun stuff which I’m adding to this blog because – well, it’s fun.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: more writing tips, fun science geekery including that custard lightspeed trick, and more.

A career by the numbers

I did some counting the other day. It’s coming up thirty years since I was hired to write my first book, as what amounted to a (paid) intern with the New Zealand Forest Service.

Wright_SydneyNov2011It’s 29 years since it was published. When I checked in a local public library, earlier this year, a copy was still on circulation. How dog-eared, battered and otherwise disintegrated it is, I can only imagine.

Since then, apart from academic papers, freelance articles, book reviews and so forth, I’ve written another 50 books – total 51 to date. More in process.

Of those, contracts for 33 were held by Penguin Random House. Were? I’ve been withdrawing the licenses for my out-of-print titles; 17 in total so far.

I’ve had books on the top five best seller lists in New Zealand on four occasions, two of them for several months.

The net total published output is something over two million words. More, if you add this blog. I probably wrote another million during the learning process.

What does all this add up to? A lot of hard work. But the main word is fun.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Cover reveal – my second book for 2013

I mentioned last week that I had two books being published this year within a few weeks of each other. It’s the way writing goes, sometimes. Books written at different times end up chasing each other. It’s not the first time it’s happened.

TrainsTunnelsBridges_LargeAs well as my large-scale Illustrated History of New Zealand, I’ve also written a short history of New Zealand’s iconic railway locomotives and engineering – one of my interests – sold exclusively through Whitcoulls, New Zealand’s largest book chain. Trains, Tunnels, Bridges: Icons of Our New Zealand Rail History. Here’s the cover.

Wright_Railway Book WhitcoullsLike all my transport books, it flows from my interest in the field – which, for me, isn’t about listing serial numbers or spouting locomotive statistics like Arthur Putey on a platform at Paddington.  What I write about is the intersection between technology and society. In short – what locomotives and all the apparatus of rails, tunnels, bridges and rolling stock have meant to New Zealanders. Opening, inevitably, with our very first and most spectacular railway project  – the effort, during the late 1850s, to drive a tunnel through the wall of a volcano and so link Lyttleton to Christchurch.

The book is on the shelves in Whitcoulls this week. Here it is on the plinth in the middle of their Lambton Quay shop, alongside a Windows 8 manual and a cookbook. Where they had a Weta-supplied Nazgul last year as part of a Hobbit promotion. Which to me makes it pretty cool.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Cover reveal: my ‘Illustrated History of New Zealand’

I don’t often blog about the writing I’m doing – but occasionally it’s time to reveal a little about the adventure. I’ve got two books being published this year. The first is a second edition of my Illustrated History of New Zealand, originally published in 2004. Today I’m pleased and very excited to be able to bring you a preview of the cover.

Wright_New Zealand Illustrated coverIt’s being released in three weeks as a second edition with completely revised text, revised and updated photo selection and a whole new look, by David Bateman Ltd.

Originally it was published as the Reed Illustrated History of New Zealand (first edition cover in brown, below). Reed New Zealand were synonymous with New Zealand publishing, and our oldest publishing house. That 2004 edition sold like hotcakes – Reed ordered a reprint even before the book was released, just to meet pre-orders from retailers. It hit the national best seller lists and did astonishingly well.

With my military histories, this book was one of the titles that the Royal Historical Society at University College in London considered of such worth that they elected me a Fellow – the highest international accolade it is possible to get in the historical field.

Then in 2007  Reed were sold to another publisher in a train-wreck of a take-over that saw the imprint vanish for legal reasons. My back list was left to wither in out-of-print land.

nz_smallIn 2011 I approached David Bateman Ltd about republishing my Illustrated History. They were keen. What followed involved a lot of paperwork – including rights retrieval, and re-negotiating the rights for nearly 600 images from the Alexander Turnbull Library. Everybody there was wonderfully friendly and helpful.

On 18 August, my Illustrated History of New Zealand will be back, published by Bateman. But it’s not a reprint. It’s been completely revised. Two chapters were wholly re-written from scratch – and yes, things have changed that much in terms of what we know about the past. Beyond those, every section has been re-thought and the text wholly re-styled and re-written with updated material. Yes, even history can be updated. The process of discovery never stops.

I put as much work into it as I would have into a new title. Maybe more, and it is, effectively, a new book. There are 120,000 words, just under 600 photos, and around 10,000 words worth of captions, presented in 488 large-format pages. It is a big book by any measure, a proverbial doorstop. The original was case-bound; this edition, which has a completely new interior look, is soft-cover with French flaps – long folded extensions that carry the blurb and my author photo.

More soon, including a glimpse inside and other cool stuff. Meanwhile – here’s the cover. Enjoy.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Writing lessons – amps to 11 with Pink Floyd!

A few years ago She Who Must Be Obeyed and I were sitting quietly at home watching the 483,986th TV re-run of The Sound of Music. It was a hot evening. The windows were open.

MJWright2011Julie Andrews got up to sing. And suddenly the room filled with sound. The anti-Sound Of Music. Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. Undistorted. In our lounge.

I thought it was the neighbours. But it wasn’t. It was someone four doors down and over the back fence, who wanted to fill the evening air with Messrs Waters, Gilmour, Mason and Wright at planet-engulfing volume.

Impressive. We were 75 metres from source. Yet the whole was crystal clear, balanced, without a skerrick of distortion.

The panel of one of my analog synths... dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable.

The panel of one of my analog synths… dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable.

Usually, when someone whips amps to 11 all you get is the bass whoomph, which isn’t audible next to the speaker. It’s to do with the way the wave generates.

But not this. I’m talking perfect fidelity. That meant it was a really, really good sound system – set up by someone who knew precisely what they were doing. The secret word might be ‘Perreaux’ (Google it).

And they used this to play Pink Floyd. Sub-zero cool. What made it doubly amazing was the quality. Pink Floyd span the gamut of amplitudes and frequencies. Meaning that not only technically pure sound but also intentional distortion has to be amplified without further distortion, then conveyed over distance. I cannot say how amazing that was, to me at least.  (OK, I’m a geek… hey, it’s the 21st century. Geeks won the war for cool. Get over it.)

Welcome to the machine. We abandoned the Trapp family and went outside. Probably other neighbours hated it. But hey…

All this has a point when it comes to writing. Quality counts. Anybody can whip the amp to 11 – which in the writing sense means splurging out words.

Anybody can write. It’s taught at school, apparently. Can everybody write like Hemingway? Certainly not. And that is the issue. Getting to Hemingway level means evolving skills beyond the point of ‘unconscious incompetence’ into the tortured realms of apprenticeship – of ‘conscious incompetence’, of ‘conscious competence’ – and then ‘unconscious competence’, when writing is second nature.

Possibly all to a soundtrack of Pink Floyd. I like that idea. Do you?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Write it now part 5: what you’re in for as a writer

In this ongoing series on the A-Z of writing, we’ve been looking so far at what writing is, what it involves, and the scope of what there is to learn.

For those who seriously want to do it, writing is also a lifetime committment. So what are you in for? Plus side – the rewards are huge. Writers who make a career of their passion write for the joy of it, and the journey can lead to surprising places. Check out the photo, for instance. That’s me, doing my ‘journalist’ thing. Did I ever think I’d do a ‘Tom Clancy’? Of course not.

But it’s also a hard road.

First off, don’t think it will make you rich.

Journalist on a submarine hunt, Exercise Fincastle, 1994.

Where can writing lead? Cool places, that’s where. This is me behind the tac rail of an RNZAF P-3K Orion, hunting submarines during Exercise Fincastle, 1994.

The world’s richest writers are mostly novelists. But for every Dan Brown equivalent, lounging with an ice-cold pina colada in the comfort of their Cessna Citation X as they descend into Majorca for another sun-drenched sojourn at their beach mansion, there are a thousand writers in grinding poverty. Their books are good, their skills top notch – but sales don’t provide a living. The method of publication makes no difference.

That’s also true of other writing – non-fiction, journalism, and so forth. Want to make a living freelancing? Maybe you can. But not, for instance, in New Zealand. I know someone who tried. He did well by local standards – but that didn’t pay the grocery bills, and after about a year, he shelved his typewriter and got a job. One in his field – he didn’t quite end up working as the icing guy in a muffin factory. But you get the picture.

Second, be prepared to work. And work hard. Writing should be a pleasure. That’s why most of us do it. But the reality of assembling the right 100,000 words - of preparing the MS for publishing, of going through the editorial processes (trawling those 100,000 words many times, chasing proof-editors gaffes) – and then promoting it is a lot of work. You have to find ways of balancing the grind so it doesn’t kill the fun.

Third, it’s a solo profession. Sure, there are online communities filled with friendly, like-minded people who offer great support. Sure, there are symposia, conferences and all the other things that writers get involved with. And writing groups abound. But at the end of the day, writing always involves sitting down – alone – and doing it. For hours, weeks, months and years. Alone. Be prepared.

Finally –  it is an endless learning curve. Learning is where innovation comes from. It’s how you hold the audience.  There is always something to learn, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be learned ‘from’ somebody. After a while, experienced writers are good enough at their profession to make their own judgement calls over self-improvement.

Did I say ‘profession’? I did, didn’t I.

Any thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: Next instalment of ‘Write it now’, more ‘Sixty second writing tips’. And posts on kindness. Watch this space.

Sixty second writing tips: music for the writing mood

One of the best tools writers have is music, for many reasons. One of them is something to listen to while we write – squashing intrusive background noises. And, more particularly, to put us into the right zone.

That, to me, is one of the strengths of ‘music to write to’. It can help create the right emotional space – perhaps the same emotional space as I’m trying to evoke in readers. For me, it shouldn’t intrude to the point of killing the words and ideas. Usually I’ll pick instrumental music, often chamber music, which is able to set a mood without being too intrusive. That, in fact, is exactly what it was written for (Mozart wrote muzak…get over it…)

There is an exception. If I’m looking to write high fantasy I’ll select Epica or Nightwish (the pre-2005 stuff) at planet-crushing volume (several notches up from “11”).

Do you find music helps you write? Does it set your mood? What music works best for you – and when? And does anything with spoken word kill the words you have in your mind? Do share!

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Write it now, part 1 – so you want to be a writer?

So you want to be a writer, eh? Not a bad choice of career. There are worse ones. There are also better paid careers. But then, you’re not in it for the money, are you?

My Adler Gabrielle 25 - on which I typed maybe a million words in the 1980s.

My Adler Gabrielle 25 – on which I typed maybe a million words in the 1980s. See the shine on the keys?

Welcome to my new blog series ‘Write it now’ – an A-Z of writing. I thought this year I’d share some of the tips and tricks that have helped me write and publish over 500 feature articles and 50 books, some 2,000,000 words or thereabouts, over the last 30-odd years since I had my first break, aged 18, with my university newspaper.  Here’s the list.

Each week, I’m going to publish another post covering a different aspect of writing as I see it. And I’d love to hear from you – what you think of these ideas, whether they’re helpful, and whether you’ve got thoughts of your own.

We’re all in it together, you see – writers.

First, a bit about my background. I formally trained in fiction writing at the local polytechnic and, later at university, was fortunate enough to get key writing lessons from Richard Adler, then Professor of English at the University of Montana, visiting New Zealand on a Fullbright scholarship. I wrote my first books as an ‘intern’ with the New Zealand Forest Service a couple of years later – yes, I got paid a salary to write. Later I picked up tips and tricks from a newspaper editor in my home town, and more again from a features editor on the Wellington metropolitan daily, for which I freelanced.

Mostly, though, I’ve written books, published by companies such as Random House and Penguin.

It’s been a lot of fun, and the best is yet to come. Along the way I’ve learned a lot about writing as a profession, about writing as art – and that’s what I’m going to share with you.

How do I see writing? To me, words are secondary. In fact, I disagree with ‘word count’ as a goal. As we’ll see during these posts, it’s simply a tool. And there are many writing tools.

The more important part of writing is purpose. And writing has but one purpose; to elicit emotion in the writer – and to elicit one in the reader. Ideally, the emotion the writer intends.

That’s true of all writing. All? All. Non-fiction included. You’ll see why as these posts develop.

So – in just three words, here’s what writing is:

Writing is emotion.

It’s true. What do you figure?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Next week: ‘Write it now – are writers born or made?’ Along with other writing-related posts, history posts, and inspirational posts.