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

Click to buy from Fishpond

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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

Click to buy from Fishpond

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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

The greatest writing challenge of all

Writers never finish learning how to write. ‘We are all apprentices’, Ernest Hemingway once said, ‘in a craft where no-one ever becomes a master.’

Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)

Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)

Too true.  It is an endless learning curve. Steep at first – as novice writers realise how much they have to learn, take their first unsteady steps into that world. Later it’s easier. But even those who have mastered the craft – who have achieved the 10,000 hour, million-word goal, cannot rest on their laurels.

There is no such thing as saying ‘I have learned how to write’. No writer ever finishes learning. The onus is on all writer, always, to push the edges – to sit down, as Hemingway also put it, at the typewriter and bleed.

My take? When you finish writing for the day, the question isn’t ‘what is my word count’. The question is ‘on what emotional journey have I taken my readers’?

And then you have to ask ‘how can I make that a better journey tomorrow?’

Take on the challenge.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Never admit that you’re a writer

One of the best pieces of advice I think I can give, as a writer, is never to admit you write.

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".

Nobody will think I am a writer in this disguise – and I’ve got protection against military historians trying to hit me.

The difficulty is that admitting to writing is sometimes provocative. This happens, on my experience, when people validate their self-worth by their ambitions as a writer. By some mechanism this then leads them to view others in the same field as a threat to that validation.

I still recall the moment, some years ago, when a military historian loomed up before me in the Archives New Zealand reading room with balled fists and red face, and demanded to know what book I was writing. I’d never seen the guy before. But he’d recognised me, presumably from my author photo, got angry and stormed across the room to have a go. I thought I was going to be hit, and I think I would have been had I stood up.

I thought, ‘I’m paying this guy’s salary, through my taxes’.

Eventually he went away, shouting to the room in general that he was doing ‘the same as’ me. Actually he wasn’t. For instance, I never stand over strangers and put them in reasonable apprehension of being hit.

A salutary lesson. And good reason for writers to never admit their profession.

Do you ever tell people you write?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

 

Essential writing skills: giving your style eyebrows

One of my favourite composers, Frank Zappa, used to refer to the interesting add-ons in his music as ‘eyebrows’. The unexpected bits that make you sit up and listen.

A picture I took in 2008 of a Katherine Mansfield quote on the Wellington writers' walk.

A picture I took in 2008 of a Katherine Mansfield quote on the Wellington writers’ walk.

It’s true for writers too. I’ve blogged about this before, but it’s well worth repeating. When you style your work, eyebrows are important. That doesn’t mean adding a writing gimmick (yes, Franz Kafka, I’m talking about YOU and your woeful dereliction of commas) but it does mean keeping the content interesting. Making it spark.

That spark flows from both the style, the content and the intent of your writing. But today I’m going to focus just on the stylistic part. My three key guidelines are:

1. Vary sentence lengths. A few short staccato sentences followed by a long one often works. Hemingway was a master at it – he’s often thought of as the ‘short sentence guy’, but actually he also wrote very long compound sentences, often a string of short phrases expressing the emotions of a character.

2. Content flows into the process: include a detail that stands out. This works for fiction and non-fiction alike.

3. Vary your vocabulary. Most books are written with a vocabulary of a few thousand words. But English has over a million available. Again, this doesn’t mean digging through the Thesaurus for the most obscure word you can find – instead, locate one that works with your style. It might be quite common.

All of this devolves to keeping the writing lively, interesting and well-paced – to holding the interest of the reader who, of course, you captured with the punchy first sentence…didn’t you… (OK, time to go back and revise that one now).

More writing stuff tomorrow.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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Essential writing skills: counting the beats

Welcome to the third post in a weekly series outlining some of the basic writing skills we need to get ahead in the business.

I have long thought that writing is a lot like composing music. Even down to rhythm.

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

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

One of the biggest parts of any writing style – of the mechanics of words – is the beat. We talk in beats. Poets write to specific beats with names such as iambic pentameter (‘I WANdered LONEly AS a CLOUD’) and dactylic tetrameter, which works quite well as an Irish jig (‘PARa diMETHyl AMIno benZALdehyde’)

However, writing also has other forms of beat. In fiction, the term is used to mean the key phrases that push the text along. Action points, you could call them. If you describe some action by a character, like stepping out of a car or tripping over, that’s a beat.

Beats work at larger scales too. The list of events-with-word lengths you need to structure your story properly, before beginning to write it, is known in the trade as a ‘beat sheet’.

Needless to say –like music – it’s important to get the rhythms right. Get the beats wrong and you’ll confuse or lose your readers.

That works on all the scales of beats, too. Identifying who spoke is a beat. But if you have a long string of dialogue and put ‘Watson said’ at the end of it, you’re missing the rhythm. By the time the reader’s got to that point, they’ll know it’s Watson, but they’ll have had to figure it out. Better to break the dialogue at the first phrase, insert the beat ‘Watson said’, and carry on. Or another beat could be used instead:

‘I say, Holmes, that was jolly decent of the Professor not to call me dense more than 38 times last evening.’

Similarly, you need to get the beats of the large-scale structure right. When building action to an exciting resolution, for example, you have to make sure the pace is right – that the reader is drawn into the story without getting bored. That’s done by beats.

Learning how to master beats is an essential writing skill. And, like all writing skills, the way to master it is to break the scales down from broadest to smallest. Start with the broad scope of what you’re writing; identify the pace and beats needed. Work down to the smallest level – the actual words – and make sure that’s got the right beats for that scale.

It all takes practise, but it’s certainly do-able; and once you’ve mastered the art of writing beats, you’ll be well on the way to the first big waypoint in the writing journey – making writing part of your soul.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

Shameless self promotion:

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

Kobo http://store.kobobooks.com/en-US/ebook/bateman-illustrated-history-of-new-zealand

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