Writing only looks easy. But it can be learned.

Writing isn’t something you can sit down and do without training. It only looks that way.

Spot my title in the middle...

Spot my title in the middle…

I’ve noticed, of late, various posts and comments around the blog-o-sphere along the lines of ‘my book is good, because I got positive comments on Good Reads (or Amazon, or Smashwords), so why did an agent say it was terrible?’

Or ‘I got positive comments on Good Reads, but the agent said the book needed this-and-this-and-this…’

Why? There’s no soft way to say this. Fact is that neither writer nor on-line reviewer actually knew what constituted a good book – meaning not just an abstract measure of quality and authorial competence, but what’s required for a specific market.

Agents do. So do commissioning editors.

What’s happened is that the aspiring writer’s sat down and thought ‘I want to be a writer’ – usually, meaning ‘novellist’. They’ve then churned out a novel. Which is, of course, an absolutely wonderful achievement and ambition; and all power to their writing arm. But writing, like every skill, has to be learned – and the four stages of competence apply, absolutely, to writing. I’ve said it before, but it deserves repeating:

1. Unconscious incompetence – you don’t know enough to realise you don’t know what you’re doing.
2. Conscious incompetence – you realise how much there is to learn.
3. Conscious competence – you know what you have to do, but it’s a conscious effort, mechanical.
4. Unconscious competence – it’s become part of your soul and your writing soars.

Going from start to finish takes a million words and about 10,000 hours. There are no short cuts.

Yes, some authors have an aptitude for it – but what this means is that they start off as a talented ‘unconscious incompetent’.

Does that mean giving up? Au contraire, my friends. It’s a challenge; and it’s a challenge that can – must – and will be met.

Training helps. So do writing groups. But the real progress comes from the doing – the hard yards; and the reality is that, until you’ve accomplished at least a sizeable fraction of that million word/10,000 hour learning curve, all writing will be just that – a learning curve.

Equally, it doesn’t mean stuff written along the curve is unpublishable. Quite the contrary – but I guarantee you’ll look back on it later and know you can do better today.

That always happens anyway – learning never stops, even when you’ve become unconsciously competent and writing has become part of your soul.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

Shameless self-promotion:

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

How to grab your readers with a killer opening line

Call me Ishmael, but I figure the oldest and dumbest cliche in the how-to-write industry has to be the one about opening lines.

William Shakespeare, the 'Flower' portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“Was it the proud sail of his great verse”? - public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, that’s because opening lines work. They drag the reader, kicking and screaming, into the words. And it’s true for all writing, not just novels. Journalists have to master the technique from the get-go. So do bloggers.

The opening line has to grab the reader – emotionally. It can do that by posing a question, or creating a sense of unfinished business. ‘In a hole in a ground lived a Hobbit…’

What’s a ‘Hobbit’? When that line floated into J. R. R. Tolkien’s mind, around 1930, he didn’t know either. He had to write the novel to find out.

However, that experience of having a killer opening line first off isn’t too common. Usually they have to be wrestled into existence. That, I figure, is also why writers often sit there with blank page, or a lone cursor winking at them on screen, and – don’t start.

Part of the problem is that we’re not often told how to write one. Recently I pointed out that advertisers have a lot to offer.

But there’s also the fact that – often – the writer won’t yet know exactly what they’re drawing the reader into. Tolkien didn’t – he had to write The Hobbit to find out. Most of us, though, have ideas when we start, but can’t quite figure out the way that translates into the starting words. So try this trick: don’t write one. Today’s age of word processing makes it easy to start writing without that first line, then back-fill. Often the line will pop into mind as you go along. Indeed, that first line might be the last thing you write into the work.

What does an opening line demand? It must:

1. Grab – by posing that question, often perhaps built around an emotion. The book opens with a character crying. Why?

2. Hold – by making that question compelling. Why should we bother with this character crying? What’s different?

3. Draw – pull the reader on. This means the second line has to be equally as ‘grabby’. And the first paragraph.

The trick is to make all this happen in ways consistent with the style and tone you’ve chosen for the book – not to have that first sentence hanging out there as an over-written, over-constructed device. Even though it is, when it comes down to it, exactly that.

Do you ever have trouble with opening lines? Have you ever read a book and been hooked from the get-go? 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

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

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

 

The dark secret behind better book sales

People buy books for a lot of reasons. The main one is the emotional response they get from reading. And that’s true of non-fiction as well as fiction.

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

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

But that isn’t the only reason. Why buy this book and not that? Why buy at all? A lot of it, it seems to me, flows from word-of-mouth. And that in turn boils down to one factor – discovery.

I would say ‘discovery’ and ‘quality’, but I can’t help thinking that Fifty Shades of Grey rather gives the lie to the notion that ‘quality’ is a factor.

Discovery is everything. Sometimes readers take a punt on an author they know nothing about, but have just stumbled across. But that still demands discovery. If your books aren’t known at all, they won’t sell – which sounds like one of those idiot ipso-facto statements, except it happens to be the biggest hurdle any author faces these days. Discovery. Going from zero to almost-zero.

It’s hard. Social media equips everybody with the same tools. It’s hard to be heard above the ‘noise’.  Everybody’s self-publishing, spamming themselves across Twitter.  Why should a potential reader click on this one – and not another one? Or any of them.

Combine that with the new age of e-convenience – where a lot of book-buyers buy even hard copy books from the comfort of their home PC – and you’ve got a lot of weight riding on whatever internet presence you can scrape up.

Advertising outside that paradigm helps. Sometimes. But that’s hard too. Back in the late 1990s, my books were being advertised on TV, in major print journals – even the Woman’s Weekly (it was a bloke book on engineering – the idea was that wives would buy it for their husbands). But even under that old model it was hard. Publishers back success. An established author will attract a good deal more advertising clout from their publisher than an unknown one.

That, I think, is why J K Rowling’s last ‘Harry Potter’ novel was splashed all over Wellington buses at around $6000 a shot, and my non-fiction history books weren’t.

Can you do anything to tip the odds? Sure. My take:

1. Professionalism counts. Sometimes, that also means paying for professional skills where your own skill set lacks – proof-editing or cover design, for instance.
2. A solid and positive social media presence. You’re an author. Your social media presence is your brand, and it takes a lot of effort to build up. Don’t break it by doing something stupid – like blurting what you really think of Politician X, or ‘flaming’ people, or pulling sock puppet tricks.
3. Actually, despite the way Fifty Shades of Grey burst upon us, quality DOES count.
4. Hard work pays off. No really.

And, of course, there’s always that indefineable – dumb luck. You can set everything up, get everything geared to go – and still, things have to go your way. But that’s life generally, isn’t it.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

Shameless self promotion bit: My Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand is available as e-book from Amazon. Go on, you know you want to …

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

Essential writing skills: we all need to write Tolkien’s appendices

One of the ways J R R Tolkien broke new ground with The Lord of the Rings was through his massive back-story, partly published at the end of The Return of the King in the form of appendices.

I had to prone to take this picture. 'Get up,' She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. 'People will think you're dead.'

I had to go prone to take this picture of The Hobbit artisan market in 2012. ‘Get up,’ She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. ‘People will think you’re dead.’

That story was better there than interspersed through the text – ‘information dumping’ is the biggest turn-off to readers – but it underscored the sheer depth of Tolkien’s master-work.

In the 1950s it was unusual for this sort of thing to be published. Tolkien, of course, re-defined the genre and now the notion of back-story has become passe. Authors are almost expected to be able to have a complete world behind their story, to create chronologies, maps, gazeteers – even to provide swatches of cloth for their characters’ clothing.

Few, I suspect, can ever get the detail that Tolkien did, without an equivalent amount of work. He began crafting Middle Earth in the trenches of the Western Front. That framed a good deal of the darkness in his mythos. His world also grew from the languages he developed – two full languages and several partial constructions. And it grew from repeated iterations – endless work, which he put into it in university holidays, of evenings, even scribbled on the back of old exam papers. Lines like ‘In a hole in the ground lived a Hobbit…’ expanded into – well, I don’t need to repeat that story, do I?

It would be difficult to repeat such a tremendous construction. But we can approach it, and I think every fantasy story deserves to have a fair back story.

That’s where e-publishing comes into its own. One of the ways to sell books these days is to have ‘extras’ available online.  And what better place to put the back-story than as extra tales, stories and appendices online?

It’s a thought. What do you figure?

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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

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.

Write it now: can authors review other authors’ work?

Traditional book reviews – as opposed to the instant reader feedback via Amazon and so forth that we now call a ‘review’ – have almost always been written by writers.

I’ve written plenty of them myself, professionally, for newspapers and lit magazines. The trick to it is abstraction.

From http://public-domain.zorger.comThe problem with the process, certainly in a tiny place like New Zealand, has been that editors often give books to a rival author to review, as the only person able to make an informed comment. Some of the authors then feel obligated to indulge in worth-assassination of their competitor. This is flat out patch protection, and I’ve been at the receiving end of it often enough in the past with my military histories – people whose equivalent ‘patches’ are usually defined by their employment writing books at my expense as taxpayer, and whose public portrayal of me as incompetent affects the income I earn from my competing commercial works. Go figure.

But in the ordinary course of ‘review’, in the expression of a professional and abstract view, authors should be able to review other authors’ work. If they do it properly.

How’s it done? My usual approach is to look on the review as a specialised feature article – to give the review a theme and argument of its own.The reviewer should write something informative – something that helps a reader judge the quality of a book, something that informs. A hostile trawl for any trivia on which to condemn the worth of the author isn’t the way to do it. Nor is simply regurgitating their content in pot-summary. Reviewers have to ask questions.

One question is ‘why’ –  why did the author choose the themes that they did? Why did they take a particular topic, angle or subject? What was their intent in writing the book? How did they tackle it? Where does their work fit with that of similar authors? This doesn’t have to be a worth judgement. Remember – the review has to inform a reader.

Do you write reviews? How do you approach them? Have you ever been reviewed? How did the reviewer approach your work?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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

Write it now: the truth of writing, and the ultimate writing challenge

I was taught writing by a poet. Formally, in a succession of tertiary courses, in the late 1970s. The lessons I took about writing from him carried a value well beyond what I really knew, then.

This is me doing my 'writing getaway' impression on Rarotonga.

This is me doing my ‘writing getaway’ impression on Rarotonga.

To this day, after 30 years and more than 50 published books and 500 feature articles, on top of this blog and other stuff totalling more than two million words in print, I still think of that poet’s lessons whenever I write anything.

What was the essence of his teaching? Questions. ‘What did they feel’? ‘What did that mean for them?’ And, implicitly, ‘how can we, as writers, understand and express that?’

Those questions are true for all writing, especially non-fiction, where such are the hardest of all questions to answer – and yet, also the most important. Why? Because they provide us with understanding. And yet the picture and emotional force in the mind – the fuel that drives all writers, drives anything truly creative and human – is literally inexpressible in the flawed vehicle of the word. Translating it to words destroys its perfection. We have to accept that words alone cannot convey the true picture, shape, colour and depth of concepts, feelings and emotions.

Indeed, when we think about it, the mind of one person cannot perceive the way another conceives something, for we can only express such in the limiting way of words.

And yet it is the duty – the mission – of all writers to try and discover ways of expressing themselves, in words, despite those limits.

That is the challenge. It is what writers must do. And over the next while I am now going to tell you – given the limits words place on concept – how to do it. At least as I understand it. I hope you’ll come along for the journey.

Along with other fun stuff which I’m adding to this blog because – well, it’s fun.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: more writing tips, fun science geekery including that custard lightspeed trick, and more.