Essential writing skills: breaking down the writing process

I mentioned a while ago that planning was essential to effective writing. Not just planning the content, but planning the whole thing – from idea to finished written material – as a process.

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.

Planning content and planning production go together, and today I thought I’d outline how that can break down – making it possible to plan things effectively – and efficiently.

This isn’t a non sequitur when it comes to writing. If you’re writing professionally, time is everything. A plan could look something like this:

1. Develop the content. This is what a lot of writers call ‘planning’, and it is, but it’s only the beginning. Whether fiction or non-fiction, there’s bound to be research associated with the project  – and this is the point to define it.

2. Do the research (and yes, I know that this is HUGE. It’ll need planning of itself -this line is akin to writing ‘now build the Effel Tower’, but hey…)

3. Break down the writing process. Deconstruction. Different people will do this different ways, but one approach is to run through discrete drafts – (a) first draft, (b) put in a drawer for a week, (c) come back to it and make revisions, (d) get it read and commented on, (e) take comments on board, (f) repeat until satisfied – or deadline approaches.

4. There is a discrete process to prepare something for release to a publisher, or if you’re self-pubbing, for that publication. I’ve posted on it before.

Now, you might think a defined process like this stands against creativity – reduces writing to a mechanical exercise. Of course creativity has to be allowed to flourish; but the reality of professional writing is that it’s not a hobby. Things have to be done to cost and time. The trick is to train your creativity to fall into place. And to apply principles of time management. More on that soon.

Do you plan what you’re writing as a process? What experiences have you had along these lines? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

And now, some shameless self promotion:

It’s also available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Nook coming soon.

You can still buy the print edition here: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410

Writing isn’t an automatic skill…but you can learn

There are three things people usually imagine they are better at than they actually are.

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.

One of them is driving. We all think we can out-drive The Stig…don’t we? Another is writing. The third? Er…well, anyway, today I’m going to look at the idea that because someone did high school English, they can write.

A lot of that flows from the western supposition that a writer’s skill set is defined by expertise in subject matter. The writing itself? It’s an assumed skill. That was certainly the case when I was studying history at university, where everything was taught about the subject – and nothing about how to express it (which is at least half the challenge).

The fact that writing, itself, is a learned skill – just as in-depth and hard to master as history, or any of the sciences – doesn’t often surface. But it is.

The thing is that high school writing skill fully equips most of us to get by in the ordinary world – to write those postcards, those letters or emails, or whatever. But it’s at the start of the skill scale for professional writers. It’s ‘unconsciously incompetent’ – the first level. The point where people don’t know what they don’t know.

That’s why so many imagine they’re better than they actually are. ‘I learned to write, so I can just do it’.

My wife ran into this when she did a course, a while back, on writing childrens’ books – presented by one of New Zealand’s top kids’ book writers. Most of the aspiring writers there had just retired and envisaged themselves ‘becoming writers’ as their retirement career. They were full of questions about contracts and what size of advance to ask for.

No no, the presenter insisted. First you have to learn how to write.

Ripple of shock through the room. Nobody had thought of that. They could write…couldn’t they? Actually…no.

These people, you see, were at that ‘unconscious incompetence’ stage.

There are three steps after that – ‘conscious incompetence’, where the writer gets a handle on what they have yet to learn, then ‘conscious competence’, where they’ve learned it but need to think through every step. Then – finally – ‘unconscious competence’, where the skills have become part of your soul.

The distance from start to finish is about 10,000 hours or one million words. There are no short cuts.

But it’s do-able, and the rewards are tremendous. Not financially (trust me!) but certainly in terms of satisfaction.

I think so, anyway. You?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

Some shameless self promotion:

It’s also available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Nook coming soon.

Buy the print edition here: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410

Unleashing your writing potential with advertising slogans

According to ads barraging us on TV these days, we are bubbling full of potential that has merely to be ‘released’ by whatever product or service is being offered. Apparently.

Wright_WgtnWaterfront2011_Copyright (c) 2011To my mind it’s not too different from the Nigerian phone scam – you know, give me $1000 and it’ll ‘release’ the million stashed in my bank. Fact is that athletes don’t ‘unleash’ their potential with flavoured salt water. They work like Trojans to get the potential in the first place. It’s earned.

Of course that’s how advertising works – and therein are lessons for writers.

Advertisers capture imagination – emotionally – in half a dozen words. When associated with an image – a brand – it can be one or two words. But even without that brand, advertising is geared to do what all writing pushes towards; to capture the reader emotionally.

The same techniques are essential for writers, and not just when it comes to the blurb. You need to hook the reader with the first line. And the next. And the next. This doesn’t mean making every sentence a slogan. What it means is thinking about underlying purpose – capturing emotion, then holding it. Advertisers have that down pat.

Funnily enough, you CAN unleash something by using their methods. Sales. Readership. Stuff like that. The technique is:

1. Hook.
The reader has to be made to want something – whether to buy a product or start reading your writing. Exactly what that hook is depends on what you’re writing. Newspapers and magazines do it twice – first the heading (usually written by a sub-editor) and then with the opening line  or two which is always crafted to grab. Often it’s printed in bolder type, just to drive that message home. That’s what I do on this blog, for instance.

2. Punch.
The reader has to get something out of the writing, and in very short order. Something emotional; something satisfying – but not too satisfying. Maybe it’s a question. Advertising slogans often appeal to self-validation or self-worth, even presenting answers without questions. ‘Because you’re worth it’. You need to be more subtle in writing…but maybe not much.

Exactly how that’s done varies by author. Years ago, A. E. Van Vogt used to recommend hooking people stylistically – using specific and often quite odd words to pique imagination. I wouldn’t necessarily go that far. There is a fine line between effect and weirdness.

One of the keys is to think about the meaning of the opening words – their effect; do they pull a reader? Establish tension?

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

Some shameless self promotion:

It’s also available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Nook coming soon.

You can still buy the print edition here: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410

 

 

Essential writing skills: planning, planning, planning

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – the trick to effective writing is planning.

Wright_SydneyNov2011Planning the whole thing before even starting, be it book, essay, short story or whatever. Planning each section or chapter. Planning each sequence. Planning, planning, planning.

Sure, it’s fun to do what people call ‘pantsing’ – making stuff up as you go along, getting caught up in your own story.  It carries the vibrance of fresh creativity. But for writers who are starting out it often leads to dead ends, tangles or big-scale structural failures. Put another way, writing as personal entertainment doesn’t cut the mustard when it comes to producing stuff to time, length and specification. Which is how publishing works.

Yes, sure Famous Novellist X or Y (I’m thinking Stephen King) will say that they ‘pants’ their way through their stories. Actually they don’t, exactly. Usually they know where it’ll end. And they’re experienced enough – they’ve done the million word apprenticeship – to have command of their style and content. They can structure properly on the fly, and they know what elements have to come where to make the story compelling.

The rest of us – well, planning counts. Trust me on that one. Start broad; what is the purpose of the written material? Can you sum it up in a sentence. In the industry, that’s called a ‘logline’.

If it’s a novel, don’t get caught up in the intricacies of plot or narrative. You need a deeper level than that for a logline, which reflects the character arc of the key character. If it’s non-fiction, what is the thesis – the argument?

This broad purpose applies to everything that’s written – from a letter to an essay to a short story to a doctorate to a novel.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

And now, some shameless self promotion: my history of New Zealand, now available as e-book.

Also available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Buy the print edition here: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410

 

Do you have a writing group…like Tolkien?

Most writers, I realised the other day, hang out with writing groups. Or at least other writers.

Inside the Eagle and Child. Photo: A. Wright.

Inside the ‘Eagle and Child’. (Wright family photo)

J R R Tolkien, for instance, was part of a group called the ‘Inklings’, who met in a local Oxford pub – the Eagle and Child, known locally as the ‘Bird and Baby’Every Tuesday from 1939 until 1962 they’d go there to drink beer, swap stories – and read their tales to each other.

Imagine that – C. S. Lewis, Roger Lancelyn Green, Owen Barfield or maybe Lord David Cecil were the very first people in the world to experience The Lord of the Rings  – and they heard much of it in Tolkien’s own voice, as he sat there reading them the manuscript.

Tolkien himself was one of the first to hear passages from Lewis’s Narnia series. How awesome is that? Two of the greatest fantasy writers in the twentieth century, hanging out in the same pub and reading each other’s stories.

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

My souvenir key-ring from Raffles. Complete with the original wrapping.

During the early twentieth century other writers congregated in Raffles hotel, Singapore, to the point where there’s a Writers Bar, which (in its original location in the lobby) was frequented by the likes of Ernest Hemingway and W. Somerset Maugham. Its denizens were usually well lubricated with gin, tonic and Singapore Sling, invented around 1910 by Ngiam Tong Boom in the Long Bar on the opposite corner of the building.  Alas, this literary enclave came to a sharp end with the Second World War. But the spirit lingers. Did I say ‘spirit’? I did, didn’t I.

I made the pilgrimage to the Writers Bar in 2001, sans the cocktail.

Established writers usually veer into shop talk – the scale of the latest advances or gossip about editorial changes at Publisher X. I know that’s how my chats with other writers go, when I catch up with them. Which, unfortunately, isn’t often. I know plenty of writers and publishers, and it’s always good to have a yarn. But it’s hard to find time to get together.

Besides which, a lot of what I write is history – which, here in New Zealand,  is owned by viciously hostile in-crowds. Someone once described the behaviours of the military history crowd, particularly, as akin to circling piranhas.

Instead I hang out mostly with mathematicians and science types. And talk about my original interest, which isn’t history… it’s physics.

Do you have a writing group? How often do you meet?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, geekery, science and more. Watch this space.

Write it now: do writers always perch on a soap-box?

Back in the early 1980s, when I was a history student at Victoria University, one of the other students took me aside and nodded towards the lecturer. ‘D’you know he’s really a Liberal?’

Hmmn

Hmmn

The Professor in question was one of New Zealand’s leading historians of the day on the Liberal party, which was in government 1891-1912 and imploded in the early 1920s. The world had long since moved on, rendering interest in them academic. Which, I suppose, is why this Professor was studying them.

That didn’t make him a Liberal, personally. But the distinction, it seemed, was lost on his students, to whom interest and personal advocacy were one and the same. The idea’s not unique to universities – though on my experience the angry, sanctimonious and half-educated youth who inhabited the history department at the time set the gold standard.

Post-Vietnam anti-war rhetoric was well entrenched. Post-colonial thinking was on the rise. Failure to advocate it was a fast road to social ostracism, buoyed on unsubtle intellectual bullying that enforced conformity to the breathless ‘new order’. Those who failed to conform lost out socially and found that career doors were not opened.

Conflation of interest with advocacy happens in the real world too – for writers it’s an occupational hazard. Freelance journos are bound to crash into the social no-no de jour sooner or later – they write on such a wide range, and even those who focus their brand into a particular subject get tarred eventually. Non-fiction book writers hit it. Want to write a book on how the Nazis took over Germany? Be careful.

Novellists hit it – I recall reading that Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven took a lot of stick for setting  The Mote In God’s Eye in a human Empire. Were they advocating Imperialism? Not at all. This was simply the setting.

That’s not to say that writing can’t be a soap-box. Often it is. But it can also be abstract – and it’s important for the writer to understand how that works – to signal the difference. Also for readers to appreciate it.

For me the trick is stepping away from the bus. Looking back and figuring out just what it is that frames the way we think. It doesn’t mean rejecting that – but it does mean understanding it. From that, it’s possible to be properly abstract. Or, indeed, to get back on the soap box, this time in an informed way.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery and fun. Check it out.

Why do you have to write?

Ask a writer why they write, and they’ll usually say ‘because I have to’. Or some variant.

1195430130203966891liftarn_Writing_My_Master_s_Words_svg_medWhat isn’t usually said is why they have to. There are, I suppose, as many reasons as there are writers.

But I figure there are several broad categories. For some it is a calling; a way to communicate what they feel to others. They are impelled to write – and often it doesn’t matter too much what it is they’re writing.

For others, writing is secondary to another interest – a vehicle by which that interest can be expressed.

Or it could be as simple as a pastime. One that, unlike most pastimes, carries potential to become more, if it’s done right.

Others write because it’s their vocation; they’re journalists, technical writers and so forth. But (mostly) it’s still rewarding. Mostly.

What impels you to write?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More stuff. Honest. Watch this space.

Re-discovering the writers’ magic treasure box

I suppose it’s true of every writer. Somewhere, out in the back shed, lurks a box of dusty, damp manuscript pages.

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'.

My writing treasure box has a lot of stuff inspired by various SF and fantasy authors (and that’s me, 40 years later…)

Maybe they’re typed sheets. Maybe it’s hand-written notes. Maybe something scribbled in an exercise book.

The painful teenage expressions of aspiring authorship. Stories that never made it. Letters to your future self.

Stuff that you’d be embarrassed to admit to writing – but which tells a deeper tale of hopes and dreams. Personal treasure.

Do you have that magic box of manuscript pages, out there in back-shed land? I know I do.

Have you had the courage to open it? And if you have – what did you find? Were you inspired? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, more geekery. 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.