Essential writing skills: how to make words your servants

Half the battle for writers is making writing their servant – not being a servant to the words. It’s a lesson novice writers usually only discover after they’re about half way through the first book and are finding the words mastering them, not the other way around.

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one...

I re-pitched my history of New Zealand for its second edition, altering the tone to bring the writing up to date.

It has to be addressed. And there is, alas, only one way to do that. That’s right – practise. But that shouldn’t be a chore – writing’s fun, right?

Once you’ve made words your servant – and your friend – you can start paying attention to the equally crucial matters of content, tone and style – together, what we might call ‘voice’. This isn’t something that just happens; it can be directed and controlled, just like any other aspect of writing. Take George McDonald Fraser’s Flashman, a novel about the bully from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, grown up and turned Victorian-age military hero. Fraser presented it as a ‘found memoir’ – which it wasn’t – but buoyed the conceit with such a subtle ‘1840’ period tone to his words that at least one reviewer was taken in.

It works in non-fiction, too. Recently I re-wrote one of my earlier books, a kids’ book pitched for 8 year olds, into a young adult-and-older account pitched for the 12+ bracket. It had to be completely re-written to do so – with full attention to the language, content and tone. I also re-pitched my history of New Zealand, when it came around to the second edition, to modernise the writing.

The trick to achieving that  control – something superficially easy to do but very hard to actually master. It takes a long time for writers to be able to consciously control the tone. But it’s an essential writing skill, and one that improves with practise. My tips? Try this:

1. Pick a passage by (say) your favourite author. What defines the tone? Look through a passage for key words – terms that give flavour. Check the pacing, the ‘beats’. Look for sentence length and paragraphing. Is it present or past tense? Examine the material closely and make notes.

2. Now try writing a passage at least 750 words long, of your own, in the same style, with the same cadence, word selection and rhythms.

3. Didn’t work? Of course not, it won’t the first time. But this is an exercise…and you know what exercises mean. Yup – do it again.

4. And again.

5. And again (etc).

It’s the only way. Did I mention you then throw the exercises away? Words are not precious babies, still less numeric targets. They’re tools, and they’re disposable. You can always write more.

The point is that when you’ve mastered tone, you’re more than half way to controlling voice, content and style. Writing will be your servant. Not the other way around. And there’s one other benefit that comes out of doing all this. With the quality comes that most precious of all skills that writers can have – speed.

Do you deliberately throw away ‘practise writing’? How do you extend yourself when writing?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Re-conceptualising the publishing problem in the online age

I discovered today that there are around 3.4 million different titles for sale on Amazon. The number is rising by one book every five minutes.

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

A proportion of these are written by bots – compilations of data, really, rather than books. But still, these figures underscore the democratisation of publishing. And the difficulty of discovery.

It also underscores a sea change in the publishing world. That’s been particularly evident here in New Zealand a 25 percent compound drop in sales has done for many of the major houses, who have been pulling out of Auckland in droves. And the old days when deals were done over a publisher-funded dinner and spouses came along for the ride are long over.

Actually, the money was never there anyway. Writers – even famous writers – haven’t had anything like the average income of their rock musician equivalents. Ray Bradbury’s house was up for sale recently. An old-ish house, large but not mansion-like, asking price $1.49 million. That’s just over double the average asking price in the area, Culver City. Not bad. But remember that Bradbury was a writer of world stature not just in SF but also literature generally. The house has also been described as out of the reach of many authors, but reasonable by US standards.

The Bradbury experience underscores a point. For every Dan Brown there were 10,000 other authors who didn’t make it big – but who got publishing contracts. Publishers worked by averages – they’d run a dozen titles that might break even or generate a loss, knowing a single winner would make all good. They had to run that way because nobody knew which book would work. And they also needed a range of books to be viable in the marketplace.

The advent of self-publishing hasn’t changed that, because – setting aside discovery of individual authors and looking at the industry as a whole – the limiting factor is the disposable income of potential readers. But it has spread the available money over a wider area. Publisher responses have involved classic big-business downturn tactics – becoming risk-averse and re-trenching.

To find an answer – laterally and creatively – we have to re-conceptualise the problem.

The problem isn’t the shift of readership from print to e-book or the democratisation of publishing. It’s getting the disposable income that anybody – not just book readers – has to spend from their pocket into yours. A point underscored by where the readership for Dan Brown best-sellers, Harry Potter and (shudder) Fifty Shades of Grey came from. It wasn’t traditional book readers. These titles broke into the pockets of a wider slice of populace.

Next challenge – how to make that happen reliably. And yes, I know that’s about as practical as dividing one by zero (I double dog dare you to try that bit of math…) But hey – we’re into re-conceptualising here. Playing with ideas. And until you’ve explored the impossible, you can’t find out the limits of the possible – can you?

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: the secret to getting the writing edge

Want to know the secret to standing out as a writer? I’ve said it before – and I’ll say it again. Professionalism counts.

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.

I’ve heard stories of writing festival organisers having to rouse guest speakers out of their hotel room when they don’t show up on stage. Other writers, apparently, enjoy listening to the sound of deadlines rushing past. It’s an accepted part of the industry, and authors who do that aren’t exceptional. But it’s irksome to publishers, especially these days as the industry turns on its head.

Professionalism, in the publishing business, is all to do with timing, scale and quality. Time is money. The major publishing houses haven’t the time – and these days, often not the leeway – to deal with authors who swan in with contracted manuscripts, months late and twice the specified length.

Writing long might give an author bragging rights – ‘oooh, haven’t I got a big book?’ – but scale of book determines both likely market pick-up and cover price. Publishers work backwards from that to budget production costs such as printing and editing – all of which are affected by scale. Running over-length, in short, adds costs that won’t have been budgeted for.

I’ve heard of publishers requiring authors to ditch chunks of manuscript, purely to get the book down to length. Contracts have a clause in them giving the publisher right to do so.

The other essential ingredient is quality – making sure that the book is up to scratch. This, too, is contractual. If the book isn’t up to par, the publisher can reject it – or hire an editor to bring it up to scratch.

None of this has been dislodged by the self-publishing revolution. On the contrary, if an author is also publisher, the need to be professional is doubly true. And that’s without talking about the professionalism needed for marketing.

So how to get that quality – and scale – all within time? That’s the essence of writing.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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When tyre-kickers leaf through your books…

Last week I sauntered into the (last) bookstore in Wellington’s Lambton Quay, New Zealand’s Golden Mile of retail shopping. I soon found some of my books – quite a number of my Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand, in fact, cover-out, which is the very best way to display such things.

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one...

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). A display from earlier days.

Cheered, I went to leave, when someone standing nearby picked up a copy and began leafing through it. I loitered. He leafed, frowned, smiled, leafed again, smiled, looked quizzical, and leafed some more. Finally he put it back in the shelf. ‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘Would you mind telling me what stopped you buying the book? I’m the author, you see.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I was just browsing.’

I guess you can lead the horse to water. If the guy had no intention of buying and was simply passing time, he wasn’t likely to be captured by the book even if it had ‘buy me, you bastard’ in fluorescent ink at the top of every page. In point of fact, I wrote the whole thing to be appealing (obviously) – but not to capture a reader with hook lines every paragraph. That would ruin the book. That’s why TV is so terrible at the moment, incidentally; the pacing is designed to capture people as they idly channel surf, meaning action/drama every eight seconds (literally). It really affects the structure.

I walked off, “No Sale” signs chinking up in my mind’s eye. Better luck with the next customer. Maybe.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: a philosophy for writers

Decades ago when I was on my freelance journalism jag I had an editor – a features editor – who was known as curmudgeon. I heard a story about the time he threw a typewriter out of the newsroom window. All the more effective given that the newsroom was on the third floor.

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

But he was also direct with it, and absolutely straight; the classic ‘rough diamond’. If you had his backing, you had it – no questions asked.

He had forgotten more about grammar than I was ever going to know, and he didn’t hesitate to share.

When I asked to get involved in the subbing of my work – because I didn’t like the butcher job being done by the subbies of the day – he agreed. It was a morning paper. ‘You’ll have to come in at 10.00 pm.’ Straight answer, no compromise on process for them. I did.

He was the one who suggested I should write a story on a British Duke-class frigate due to visit Wellington. The ANZUS row was at its height – New Zealand was a pariah for taking a stand against all things nuclear.

If the British ship was arriving at all, it couldn’t have nuclear weapons aboard. The end.

But there was an obvious story there, given the right questions. And so I attended the press conference in the wardroom and asked the Rear-Admiral in charge of the little flotilla, straight-faced, whether he had them or not.

‘Obviously the Royal Navy neither confirms nor denies the existence of such weapons aboard,’ he said, equally straight faced. ‘But the provisions of New Zealand’s law are also clear.’

Well, what else could he say? He knew it. I knew it. My editor knew it.

But it had been asked and answered. I wrote the story and my editor duly printed it.

This was a guy who knew how to get good stories, who knew what audiences wanted – and who had the confidence to act as he needed, who was straight – and who, beneath the bluster, was also kind. He inspired people to follow his lead, he got the job done, and people who worked for him knew he backed them.

A good philosophy, I think, for writers generally.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Nine steps to professional publishing

Ever wondered what happens when a main-stream publisher receives a contracted manuscript? It’s worth knowing because even if you’re self-publishing, the process is industry standard – I’ve been through it many times, and it’s followed by everybody from Penguin Random House to some of the smaller houses I’ve published with.

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A book of mine that went through the publishing process. Click to buy from Fishpond

It’s evolved that way for a reason – and you’ll need to follow it too, for the same reason. Two words: quality assurance. Here’s how it works.

1. The MS is read for quality. Most contracts (certainly every contract I’ve ever signed) has a ‘quality’ clause. If the book’s not up to par, it’s sent back for revision (and the contract usually specifies the time the author has).

2. If the MS is on spec (to length, to specified content, and up to par), the author’s paid their ‘delivery advance’, usually half the full advance-on-royalties. These days, this is often the last money the author sees for that title.

3. The MS is then sent to a proof-editor. This is a ‘high level’ read for sense, wording, style and content. The author is sent the proof-editor’s adjustments, for comment or further work.

4. While the proof-editing’s going on, designers are working up the cover and internal look of the book. These matters are wholly controlled by the publisher – by contract – but the author’s consulted.

5. The proof-edited manuscript is then typeset, proof-checked for literal errors (typos), and sent to the author for checking. At this point, the author shouldn’t ask for changes beyond any literal corrections (typos) – and publisher contracts have a clause in them levelling the cost of change on the author if it exceeds a certain point, usually ten percent.

6. The whole thing is read once more, sometimes twice, and corrections made. Sometimes the author gets a second check at this stage too, often in parallel with the proofing.

7. It’s sent to the printer. Meanwhile, the publisher’s marketing department is working up their strategy for selling the book.

8. Advance copies are received and sent to the author.

9. The book’s finally available in quantity and published. Of course, that’s only the beginning of the hard work for the author and publisher alike – especially these days. The main challenge, inevitably, is marketing.

More on that in a while.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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All about the ancient and modern art of book binding

Today I thought I’d reveal something about book binding. An ancient art – but also a modern one. And a subject that, really, authors need to know quite a bit about.

The cover of my next book.

My next book – being released on 29 July. This one is perfect bound with French flaps.

The basic principle of book binding hasn’t changed for centuries. The issue is simple enough; getting individual pages – which are often printed in multiples on large sheets of paper – to stack neatly and hold together. It has to be robust. The last thing a book-maker wants to have happen is an explosion of loose pages as the binding breaks. It also has to be cheap, the more so today in a competitive market where e-books are making sharp inroads.

Traditional printing methods usually print books on what are known as ‘forms’, multiple pages at a time. These are not in page order, but in what is known as ‘imposition’ . Because the form is folded and guillotined, the pages on it have to be arranged so that they produce the right order, AFTER folding. Exactly how the imposition is applied depends on the size of the book and the number of pages being printed per form, usually 4 or 8 but sometimes 16. That is why traditional print page numbers are always an even number, usually a multiple of 4, and why you sometimes see blank pages at the back. Digital printing is a little different, though not always.

There are three major ways in which books can be bound – each with their own costs, advantages and pitfalls.

Perfect Binding
Sometimes also called ‘burst’ binding or with a ‘drawn on’ cover. This is the way POD books are usually made. The pages are folded, assembled into the book, and the cover is wrapped around them (‘drawn on’ to the book) and glued along the spine. The book is then trimmed to size. Almost all books are produced by perfect binding these days, and it works well – even on large books such as my Illustrated History of New Zealand, which topped 400 pages and 1kg in weight.

Saddle stitching
Magazines and a lot of reports are made this way; the book is folded and staples (‘wire’) used to stitch the pages together at the spine. The advantgage is that it’s cheap and robust. The disadvantage is scale. It works well up to about 80-88 pages, but after that, the outer pages have to be stretched too far and the spine-side of the book tends to bulge.

Case binding
This is the traditional hardback. It’s the same, generally, as perfect binding except that often a webbing is glued to the back of the pages, which themselves are frequently stitched – with thread – into place. The cover itself is then attached. It’s extremely robust. Curiously, board games are made exactly the same way – the board is, in effect, technically identical to the cover of a hardback, only without the pages. Often a case-bound book will be finished in un-patterned linen. Sometimes they are given a gold-leaf pattern. Usually they are wrapped with a printed dust jacket that carries the cover design. The wrap-around flaps, traditionally, have been used for author photo, jacket blurb and other useful material. Sometimes, a perfect bound book will also be given flaps – these, in that case, form part of the cover and are known as French Flaps.

Useful? I hope so. I’m open to questions…ask away…

 

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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