My top five writing records…

It’s over 30 years since I started writing my first book for publication. It’s been a pretty wild ride at times.  The whole lot has been through the traditional system – and today I thought I’d share the top five ‘record events’.

Writing got me some interesting places. This is me in Tom Clancy mode on a submarine hunt, Exercise Fincastle, 1994.

Writing got me some interesting places. This is me in Tom Clancy mode on a submarine hunt, Exercise Fincastle, 1994.

1. The most money someone wanted for a license fee on any project I’ve worked on.
Not for a book, but I had to include this because it’s so crazy. The copyright owners wanted to charge $15,110.39 for use of one cartoon from a 60-year old magazine. Ouch. I could have commissioned new artwork for less than ten percent of that. The idea of using it was promptly dropped.  I’m still not sure what the extra 39 cents was for.

2. The fastest rejection.
Nine minutes, from a university press. They also told me never to bother them again. Usually a publisher rejects work through inaction – they neither know, nor care about, the hopeful author. But this was so decisive and fast that I’d obviously tripped up over a prior decision about dealing with me. The weird part? I was a total stranger. I have a shrewd idea as to what was going on. But it worries me that people I don’t know, and have never had an argument with, nonetheless feel so strongly they feel able to act as judge, jury and executioner, behind my back, and in absence of my knowing they have an issue. It’s not how western morality is meant to work, though it’s consistent with the moral void I’ve discovered every time I try to deal professionally with New Zealand academics or their wannabe hangers on.

3. The longest running contract before publication.
In 2003 I signed a contract with Penguin to write a biography of Sir Donald McLean. Before I’d finished, a biography of the same guy appeared, the existence of which was previously unknown to me or to Penguin. We agreed to put mine on hold for a while until the dust settled. It’s being published in February 2015.

4. The most books I had published in one calendar year.
Five. Four new titles and one reprint with amendments. I didn’t write them in one hit, of course – publishers stack ‘em for specific release times, and books chase each others’ tails.

5. The most danger I’ve ever been in as a result of writing.
There was the time when I was doing my aviation journalism jag, and I found myself in a C-130 Hercules, punting along at about 200 feet on a low-alt exercise with the rear door open and a Toyota Hilux bouncing on its chains beside me. But that wasn’t actually dangerous.

No, the most danger I’ve been in was in Archives New Zealand reading room, when a military historian who I’d never met before saw me, crossed the room, and stood over me with balled fists and red face, demanding to know what I was doing. He was very, very angry. I thought I was going to be hit, and I think I would have been if I’d stood up. I’ve had people back me into a corner and spit at me, in libraries, but this one wins the prize. Why did it happen? See (2).

Could be worse, of course – at least I’m not John Lennon.

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy from Fishpond.

Buy from Fishpond.

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Essential writing skills: what I learned from Jack Kerouac about chapters

One of the major battles Jack Kerouac had to fight when publishing On The Road was his lack of divisions.

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). I wrote this one…

His editors won; the book as originally published had divisions – I wouldn’t exactly call them chapters. And with good reason. Divisions, usually chapters, are an expected part of a book – a useful device for highlighting the structure. If set up right, they act as defined break points for readers. Good all round, unless you’re Jack Kerouac.

His point, of course, was to do with flows of consciousness – with sharing his mind process with the world and presenting his beat-gen anthem as he conceived it.

It was a valid point, and these days editions of the book are available in the original ‘scroll’ form.

Other authors – well, we all use chapters…don’t we. And that raises questions about such niceties as whether to name or to number. It’s a moot point. Nineteenth century practise was clear. Fiction and non-fiction alike were the same. A chapter could be given a title that summarised the contents. Or, if it was just numbered, it often included a pot-summary, headline-style:

“Chapter MCXXXVI: In which Our Hero, having Undergone Many Trials and Tribulations, Discovers the Wonders of the Aerial Steam Railway, but Not Before Losing His Tube Of Brass Polish and Thus Rendering His Goggles Completely Tarnished By Coal Smuts, To His Dismay and That Of His Companions.”

Readers then go on to read how the hero, who had undergone 1185 previous chapters of trials and tribulations, discovers a steam railway and is embarrassed by the way the smoke dulls his brass goggles.

All well and good for the Penny Dreadfuls – and, these days, for novels harking back to the style. But is telegraphing the entire contents of a chapter really the way to go?

Chapter titles have the same effect on smaller scale, which is why some authors simply number their chapters. And, of course, a word out of place in a non-fiction chapter title is a red rag to academics, for whom any discrepancy between promised and actual content is a lever for denying worth in the rival intellectual.

My answer? ‘It depends’. Both approaches are useful – the actual answer has to flow from the fundamental questions of purpose and intent. What fits the intended style of the book and the statements it makes?

Sometimes, as Kerouac showed us, it might even be better to dispense with the whole apparatus – titles,  numbers and even chapters.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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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

Click to buy from Fishpond

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