Star Trek lessons – writing out of the box

I’ve long thought most of the Star Trek franchise series and movies – the ones made between 1977 and 2005 – to be epic fails both as good SF and, more to the point, as good dramatic story-telling.

Sounds heretical, and I suppose I’ll get heat from fans – but if you step back to the first principles of writing, it’s true. I’ve just finished reading a book by Brian Robb, Star Trek: The essential history of the classic TV series and movies, which confirms my belief.

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.
Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

I’m not complaining about the fact that Trek aliens all looked like humans with lobsters glued to their foreheads or that Klingon was apparently constructed to be different rather than linguistic by the usual measures. My problem goes deeper than that.

Robb argued that the best ideas of the original 1966-69 series – the things fans regard as canonical – weren’t created by Gene Roddenberry. But he had huge influence and one major legacy was a set of rules about what could and could not happen. Writers called it the ‘Roddenberry Box’.

This defined Roddenberry’s vision – a future that had conquered prejudice, where inter-personal conflict was a thing of the past. A wonderful ideal. One we should aspire to. The problem was that when it came to story-telling, the Box was boring. A lot of the challenge for writers was getting around the limits while producing interesting tales.

To my mind that worked in the original series, particularly where the show was run as a light comedy – think Trouble With Tribbles. Wonderful. Why did it work? Because Roddenberry hired great writers – top-line SF authors among them – to work up plots revolving around three great characters, Spock, Kirk and McCoy.

'That's no moon'. Wait - yes it is. It's Mimas, orbiting Saturn.

‘That’s no moon’. Oops – wrong franchise. Actually, this is Mimas, orbiting Saturn. NASA, public domain

The problem – well explored by Ross, but which I’d long thought true – is that the show was captured by a fan base for whom the Box defined canon. To me the rot set in with The New Generation, which mashed New Age thinking and a lot of meaningless techno-babble with the Box and – to me – never captured the sense of wonder of the original. It was pretentious, laboured, ponderous, and fast descended to reverent posturing by one-dimensional characters – stories defined not by what made a good story, but by what was needed to satisfy a fan base.

I gave up watching it, and never bothered with Deep Space Nine or Voyager. I gave up on the movies. Later I caught a few episodes of Enterprise, which wasn’t too bad but which still dribbled, as far as I was concerned. According to Robb, the producers were actively writing, by then, for fans – missing a wider audience or new fans. Certainly, these grotesque going-through-the-motions exercises in franchise fodder didn’t appeal to casual Trek enthusiasts, like me.

For me, Trek didn’t come right until the 2009 J J Abrams movie, a complete re-boot which decisively broke the Box. It was Trek as it should be, re-cast for the twenty-first century. Wonderful stuff.

The fact that it featured Karl Urban – a Kiwi actor from my city, Wellington, was a particular plus.

The take-home lesson for writers? Idealism is wonderful. There is no faulting Roddenberry’s optimistic vision. But to make interesting stories, that idealism has to be given a dynamic. The fact is that human realities, including conflict, have been omnipresent through history, and it’s unlikely that a few hundred years will change them. But that doesn’t stop us trying; and it seems to me that stories built around the attempt would be far more interesting than stories exploring the success of meeting this hardest of all human challenges.

Your thoughts?

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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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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Three rules for naming your fantasy world

In my mis-spent early twenties, a friend and I created a fantasy world map for our RPG sessions.

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".

To build a world, start by wearing a hard hat (like mine).

Yes, I played Dungeons and Dragons – and later a game we invented ourselves to get around the sillier D&D ideas. The world was designed around what we might call the ‘rule of funny’, with place names made up mostly of bad puns and motorcycle parts manufacturers. This meant we had waters such as the Greg Lake, next door to rolling hills such as the Sinfields. And there was the Hergest Ridge – though we didn’t have the Old Fields. We also riffed on Tolkien’s unfortunate habit of ending place names with ‘-dor’. You know… Backdor. Frontdor. Dianador. Groan.

That does raise a point for those of us engaged in (more serious) fantasy world-building. Place names gotta be credible. Tolkien, inevitably, set the gold standard – he started by creating languages, and it flowed from there. I figure there are three principles.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with a friend, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

1. Be consistent.
Nothing spoils a (serious) fantasy map more than place names that don’t match up. You wouldn’t want R’rrug K’thach A’aaag next door to Kibblethwaite on the Marsh.  In reality, place names reflect the language they’re from – often with infusions that flow from earlier history. One group of invaders might co-opt an existing name into their language. Or it might be shortened over time. Londinium, for example, becoming London.

2. Name things twice.
That same phenomenon in (1) usually means new people give a landscape their own names. It happened in New Zealand where British settlers of the early nineteenth century persistently re-named places to suit themselves. That’s true of the world generally. Fantasy worlds need to reflect it too. Tolkien nailed it – he had three or four names for most of his places. So naming things twice or more helps add depth and credibility to any fantasy world. The process is inter-related with the history of the world you’re creating.

3. Many place-names are mundane.
Here in New Zealand we have many place names in Te Reo Maori, but if you translate them, the majority are descriptions of events, or a literal description of the place. Puketapu (‘Sacred Hill’) is common. All trumped by Taumata whakatangi hangakoauau o tamatea turi pukakapiki maunga horo nuku pokai whenua kitanatahu’ (‘The place where the great mountain-slider and land-swallower Tamatea, he of the very large knees, played his flute to his loved one’). It’s one of the longest place names in the world.

This is true elsewhere, too – if you check Europe, for instance, you’ll find a lot of ordinary names, in original language. ‘Brighthelmet’s Town’ (Brighton) and ‘New Town’ (Naples) among them. Here’s a website that lists ‘em.

Needless to say, Tolkien – once again – nailed it. I suppose the lesson, really, is ‘follow Tolkien’s lead, in your own way, and you won’t go far wrong’.

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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Essential writing skills: using weather to create a mood

Long-time readers of this blog know that I am something of a fan of J. R. R. Tolkien. A lot of a fan, actually. And the more I look at what he wrote, the more impressed I get.

The Lewis River - very Tolkienish view with wonderful blue skies.

The Lewis River – very Tolkienish view but with wonderful blue skies. Click to enlarge.

Take his settings. More often than not, and especially in The Lord Of The Rings, he’s telling us about the weather – which, usually, is gloomy. It rains a lot in Middle Earth.

Peter Jackson’s version – set in bright New Zealand sunshine against our sparkling landscapes – didn’t actually capture what Tolkien was describing in that sense. If you read the details in the text you find that many scenes in both The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit are set against wild weather; gloomy clouds, rain, even storms. Virtually the whole of The Return Of The King was played out under the darkness of Mount Doom.

Tolkien used the sun as a counterpoint – deliberately played to create the mood, as when the hobbits left the home of Tom Bombadil after several days socked in by rain and jogged fearlessly across the Barrow Downs. Doom followed when the weather closed in.

Not really Mordor - this is a photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, near Westport in the South Island of New Zealand.

OK, well this looks like Gorgoroth, except for the blue skies (again). Photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau. Click to enlarge.

Quite a lot of the inspiration for it, I suspect, came from Tolkien’s experiences in France during the First World War. It rained a lot over the trenches. Weather over Europe in 1915-17 was unusually wet in any event. But there is some evidence that the concussion of artillery bombardment – which sent shock waves hammering into the air – was enough to trigger looming clouds to drop their rain early, so it was even wetter over the battlefields than it might otherwise have been.

The relentless rain created a mood of gloom among the men, a darkness to befit the dark world into which they had been plunged. It is this mood that Tolkien evoked in much of The Lord Of The Rings which was closely based – in detail – on trench life and the environment of the Western Front. Tolkien did all this quite deliberately, of course, to create a mood, a sense of darkness, a sense of oppression to befit the epic canvas of his stories.

And he was, I think, perhaps also well aware of the sense of comfort felt by a reader who could comfortably snuggle before a roaring fire on a cold and dark winter’s afternoon, enjoying his words while the wild weather raged outside.

Do you write fiction? And if you do, do you use the weather to create mood?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: it’s OK to write square mountain ranges

It’s almost a cliche these days to say that modern fantasy writers all stand in J R R Tolkien’s shadow. Or George R R Martin’s.

But it’s true. Obviously, having two middle names beginning with R is a pre-requisite for greatness in the genre. And it was Tolkien who really defined the field for so many author who came after – the languages, the complex world-building, the maps.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

Maps are an excellent way to help a fantasy novel along. They make it possible for readers – and author – to orient themselves – and, more crucially, help suspend disbelief. Realistic geography makes the world more real. I’m talking about having rivers fall from mountains into valleys, thence into alluvial plains; by having swamplands in depressions, and deserts on the far side of mountains and the prevailing wind. A lot of authors deliberately build their worlds along these lines.

The odd thing is that the master in whose shadow we all stand didn’t do any of that. The geography of Middle Earth, like the stories, grew in the telling – and was essentially dictated by plot. The Misty Mountains divide the wilderness in two – ruler-straight, in The Hobbit version of the map – as a barrier for the heroes to overcome. Then comes Mirkwood – another massive barrier.

It’s no different in The Lord Of The Rings, where half the tension comes from the fact that Mordor is guarded by impassable mountains, conveniently blocking easy entry to the country from three sides. Unless you’re in Switzerland, real geography isn’t likely to hem you in that way, of course. Tolkien explained his geography by its internal history: Mordor’s mountains were raised by Sauron, deliberately, in that shape. But to me, at least, it’s always been irksome.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

Fantasy geography. Part of the world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG.

But then it occurred to me. In The Lord Of The Rings, especially, Tolkien was always describing real geography – details of the landscape, often down to the highest levels of fidelity. And he often did so by revealing how it affected the mood of his characters – making it completely real, in a literary sense.  The Dead Marshes; the pleasant woodlands of Ithilien; the horror climb over the Mountains of Shadow; all these things became real because of the way the hobbits experienced them – and thence, of course, the reader.

Part of the way he did that was by taking real things and inserting them into the story. Old Man Willow was apparently based on a real willow Tolkien used to sit under. The Dead Marshes were, explicitly and graphically, a description of the Western Front, where Tolkien served with the Lancashire Fusiliers.

This was how Tolkien made his geography work. Writing is all about transfer of emotion – and by writing landscapes that he drew emotion from – and by making the response to the landscape emotional, Tolkien also gave his wider geography a credibility that could not have been gained any other way.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 

 

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