Refurbishing with colour and deco

I’ve refurbished my blog this week – added a new header, new background and changed some of the colours.

Here's the original image - also check out the close-up on my Google+ homepage.

Here’s the original image – also check out the close-up on my Google+ homepage.

The header’s from a photo essay I took in late February in Napier, New Zealand.  It features the upper parts of the 1932 Masonic Hotel building on the right, in early streamline style, and the 1936 T & G building, now called (rather unimaginatively) The Dome, on the left – partly obscured by deco-style foliage.

Napier is set apart by its stunning 1930s architectural heritage. And by its climate, which matches Santa Barbara. It was around 100 degrees F on that scorching late summer day. The camera got hot too, and the photos that came out of it glowed – even the shadows were fully lit, by reflection. The photo at bottom shows what I mean. It was taken facing the opposite direction from the blog header.

What do you think of the new blog look?

Unlikely to have actually driven in 1930s Napier...but who cares?

This is the exact image that came out of the camera – editing was restricted to scaling down for the blog, and adding the copyright notice. It was taken with full polarisation. Note the flared highlights, and how the shadow side of the car is illuminated by sunlight reflected off the footpath. Same phenomenon is why Apollo astronauts appeared to be side-lit on the Moon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

How I ended up on national TV without noticing

The night before last, and all day yesterday, people were telling me I’d been on TV.

MJWright2011They didn’t mean last week’s interview slot on TV3’s breakfast show. This was something else. Apparently I was part of a programme promo. Which, inevitably, I missed, because I don’t actually watch TV. I mean, I really don’t. It’s taken me a decade to discover the Battlestar Galactica re-boot.

The cover of Big IdeasStill, the surprise promo means only one thing. About fifteen months ago I was interviewed, fairly extensively, for a four-part series on New Zealand’s engineering history. I’ve written books on it, one of which - Big Ideas (Random House, 2009) hit the New Zealand best seller charts and stayed there for several months.

I always thought I’d missed the series – after all, as I say, I don’t watch TV. But a few days ago I was advised it’s coming, and now it seems a clip from the interview is part of the national promo.

I really should make a point of watching this one.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


The news. Exciting for me. And you too, I hope

A couple of weeks back I promised I’d reveal some exciting news.

I had to share this pic, taken by She Who Must Be Obeyed. We end up in some interesting places, sometimes. Just in case anybody googles "Stockton Mine".

Why was I wearing hard-hat and luminescent jacket somewhere in Mordor? Research, that’s why. More? You’ll find out soon… Click to enlarge.

Last year, print book sales dropped by 15 percent in New Zealand, nailing a down-trend that’s been happening for a while. I watched that start several years ago and decided to do something about it. Downturn apart, writing’s a business, and reinvention is key to longevity. So is adaptation, including embracing new technology. In this I was spurred by Random House who suggested I should join Twitter, get an author platform going and so forth. I did.

I got cracking in other ways – retrieving many of my publishing licenses to avoid losing control of them amidst the flight of big-name houses from New Zealand. I talked to publishers and discussed  future titles. I was offered new contracts despite the downturn. This last couple of weeks I’ve been fielding publishing schedules, including from Random. More soon. But the news is rather good – and yes, you’ll be the first to hear about the releases, on this blog.

Of course, the REALLY exciting news is due within a few weeks…and, I hope, more after that (when I catch my breath).

Meanwhile, here’s my updated author page at Random:

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More exciting news. And stuff.

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.

Write it now: celebrity book signing sessions

Over the years I’ve done a fair few book signings. You sit in a bookshop or public venue with a pile of books, while people you don’t know – who often put you on a pedestal – queue up to meet…you. And get you to sign a book for them.

Wright_Illustrated History of New Zealand 2Most people I’ve met at these events are friendly, chatty, and welcoming.  Engaging, and I’ve spoken to some interesting and kind people along the way, all of whom have had wonderful stories of their own. I recall one delightful experience, particularly, in which I got chatting with one couple who were very enthusiastic about art deco (as, indeed, am I).

Some authors are cautious about the number of books they sign. I’m not. It’s a personal touch – and that’s great. Sometimes I’ll drop into the local bookstore and sign their stock – which adds sales potential. Signing the book also, I suspect, makes it less likely the store will return it to the publisher under ‘sale or return’ arrangements.

Still, for me these are always nerve-racking moments. Partly because I don’t regard anything I do as special, or that I should be important because of it.

But it’s nerve-racking mainly because I sometimes get asked to inscribe my books, and  I can’t hand-write. Not legibly, anyway.

It’s like this. As a kid, I was left handed, which was why I wrote backwards and upside down in a sea of spattered ink. Alas, despite heroic efforts with every tool at their disposal – humiliation, class ridicule and many ingenious punishments – the teachers were unable to get me to write with the Proper Hand. Thus proving, apparently, what a stupid and worthless child I was. Of course, it could have been that the New Zealand school system was run as a barbaric exercise in conformity, enforced by weak and sadistic bullies who got their personal jollies out of punishing children entrusted to their care. But I digress.

The upshot was that I left primary school with worse hand-writing than I’d gone into it with, and I’ve never bothered trying to fix it. I can read the stuff. But it gets awkward when I fill out forms – assuming I don’t misread the form in the first place. And so when somebody buys one of my books and asks me to inscribe it, I’ll happily sign my name, but I don’t want to mess up their purchase with hand writing.

I remember one time a reader persisted – would I please, please, inscribe a particular phrase. I didn’t want to let them down, I did my best…but there’s no backspace with pen and ink. Sigh.

I did think of getting  a rubber stamp made, but it wouldn’t be the same.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: More writing tips, humour, science posts and – well, you’ll see. Watch this space.

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

OK, so I had a new author photo taken

I am very uneasy about publishing author photos.

Go on, smile, the photographer said,. Say 'Payday'.

Go on, smile, the photographer said. ‘Say “Payday”‘.

In part it’s because I hate having my photo taken. I much prefer to be on the other side of the viewfinder. There’s also the fact that, here in New Zealand, the only time strangers approach authors recognised from photos is to have a crack at them. My last incident was so unpleasant I stopped publishing my author photo in my books.

But image counts these days. Publishers keep asking me for photos. I’ve been using photos taken by my wife, but the other day I went to see a professional photographer.

Here’s the result.

I may swap yet with another from the same session. We’ll see. Editing tool of choice for getting it sized to web use? I have Photoshop – but for this job, Irfanview is my friend.

Do you have an author photo? Have you ever been recognised from it?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

In which your humble author foils a robbery in his own home in daylight

It was the end of another late summer day. My wife was in the kitchen. I was working on my computer. And I heard somebody call.

No knock. Just a call.

Couldn’t locate the sound. I went into the hallway to discover a large gentleman with his head through the back door, apparently on his way into the house. We’d been going in and out earlier, it wasn’t locked.

I confronted him at the door. At 182 cm I’m not short – but he was at least 10-12 cm taller than me, complete with shaved head and massive build to go with his height – 120 kg at least. Not someone to mess with. And I’d caught him trying to enter my house.

He looked at me.

‘Do you use that car?’ he said without preamble, pointing to my car. ‘Do you use it?’

‘I don’t know who you are,’ I replied.

‘I buy cars for others.’ No name, of course.

My car’s 23 years old and obscured from the street by a high gate, which this guy had opened, whereas my wife’s vehicle was in full view in the drive. And I’d stopped him coming in.

I knew what he was really up to. He knew I knew, too.

From http://public-domain.zorger.comPeople get hurt in these moments – the intruder doesn’t care. I’ve had training in hand-to-hand combat – which told me the chances of stopping someone this big if he attacked me were low. But my wife was in the house. So I stood my ground and applied Lesson No. 1 – talk politely and play the game.

‘Car’s not for sale,’ I said. And asked him to leave, politely. I wasn’t sure it would work, but after some tense words, he turned and left, abusing me as he departed.

By the time I got to the street the light truck he’d parked part-obstructing our drive was half way down the road. I couldn’t get the number.

The police arrived within 90 seconds of my call. It was then I discovered I wasn’t able to give a detail description of the interloper’s clothes. I realised I’d been too busy looking at his face – the eyes betray intent.

All this happened in full daylight, around 5.30 pm, in a quiet residential street.

I could ask, rhetorically, what society is coming to – but I already know. And it’s sad.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Inspirations: Music, art, writing and unleashing the inner geek

As a writer, I have never regretted chugging through the Royal Schools of Music grade system. Music offers skills that feed directly into writing. Learning how to write a tune to words, for instance, rammed home why it’s important, even in prose, to have rhythm.

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. Pop quiz: can anybody identify it from this clipped close-up?

There’s a more subtle side to it, too. Music is about evoking emotion in the recipient – the satisfaction of listening, hope, despair, anger, laughter. So is writing. That’s one reason why rhythm of words is important. For writers, as for musicians, it helps evoke a response.

I still have a small collection of vintage analog synths. They all work – including my Moog, which was old and battered when I bought it in 1987. The fact that it functions 37 years after it left Moog’s Trumansburg factory is testament to the quality.

It is also an expressive instrument, meant to be played like a violin, not a piano. You can do things with pitch-bender, potentiometers and modulation wheels that give the sound life. If you have never heard a Moog 24dBa high-pass ladder filter being overdriven, you’ve missed something. Here’s someone using the filter as a resonator. Here’s Erik Norlander playing the biggest Modular Moog I’ve ever seen.

The worn out ribbon pitch-controller on my Micromoog. Apparently Bob Moog invented that device for Beach Boys keyboard player Brian Wilson.

One of the doyens of the Moog, way back, was Brit prog-rock icon Rick Wakeman. He defined the ‘rock opera’ via such classics as Journey To The Centre Of The Earth (1974), essentially a modern oratorio.

I saw him in concert, here in New Zealand, last year – and @grumpyoldrick didn’t disappoint. He spilled off a flight from the UK and gave a 2 1/2 hour show, using the Wellington City Council’s Steinway Model D, all from memory. He had the audience in stitches – he is a great comedian. Along the way he explained how he had been taught to put feeling into music. You close your eyes and imagine what you want to convey – the feeling of a summer’s day, for instance.

To me, that summed up music as art. Art is about conceptual shapes and patterns that convey feeling and emotion. Notes are flawed tools to express an inexpressible form – idea, which is emotional. The essence of art is conveying that emotion, however imperfectly, by whatever medium, to others. And that is true of writing, too. The medium is words; but the essence is emotion.

Wakeman was taught that about his art from the beginning. Others, including me, had to learn it later. The hard way.

Do you find art in music, in writing? How do you see these things?  is music inspirational for you in these ways? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Welcome – thank you – and what’s coming up

I discovered on Wednesday morning that my Monday post had been ‘freshly pressed’. Cool.

‘Hey,’ I said to my wife. ‘Now everybody in the entire world will realise I’m a beer-swilling geek who does physics problems for fun.’

‘You are,’ she said  ‘And so are all your friends.’

‘Only on Thursdays.’

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

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

I’d like to thank everyone who took the time to look at Monday’s post – and a warm welcome to all new readers. And a very big thank you to all my regular readers. Thank you! I wouldn’t be doing any of this without all of you.

Coming up – more ‘kindness’ posts, 60-second writing tips, ‘write it now’, the A-Z of a writing life, and ‘inspirations’ – mainly photographs I’ve taken. More humour, stuff about Tolkien, music and more science geekery. I think science is pretty cool. And fun.

Who am I? I’m a New Zealander and live in the land of Tolkien movies. I was trained in fiction writing. studied the sciences. classical music (Royal Schools), switched to history, which I took past post-grad level, though I kept my science hand in with an undergrad degree in anthropology.  I’ve been writing and publishing – among other things – for over 30 years, writing books mostly for Penguin or Random House. A few years ago the Royal Historical Society at University College, London, elected me a Fellow.

It’s been an interesting ride. And it ain’t over yet.

Of course this blog isn’t about me. It’s about you – my readers. I’d love to hear from you. Tell me about yourselves. What’s happening your way? And if there’s something you’d like me to post on – something scientific, historical or just plain interesting… let me know.

It’s all good. And interesting. Life’s like that.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013