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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Essential writing skills: three steps to capturing your readers

Want to know how to capture your readers? Writing’s all about emotion – about the author transferring their own emotions to the page, and perhaps creating new emotions in the reader. It can be exhausting. As Hemingway once said, you sit down at the typewriter and bleed.

Ernest Hemingway (left) and Carlos Guiterrez, 1934. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Ernest Hemingway (left) and Carlos Guiterrez, 1934. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The funny thing is, it’s true of non-fiction as well as fiction. Non-fiction also takes readers on an emotional journey – at basic level, the satisfaction of having information. But more usually non-fiction involves an argument, a pathway – and it is here that the emotion emerges. As Charles Darwin discovered, way back when.

Actually doing it, of course, is the trick:

1. Capture. The first task is to engage the reader at that emotional level. This is done by hook-lines and promises – the promise of that emotional journey and satisfaction. This doesn’t mean writing advertising slogans, but it does mean calling to the reader at a level other than that of the literal content. Readers are captured not by that literal content, but by the promise of what that content will do for them – how they will feel when reading it.

2. Hold. Next step – deliver on that promise. Keep the reader’s interest. One way to do that is to make small promises of emotional return along the way.

3. Punch. It’s not enough to carry the reader on an emotional journey – it has to be memorable. And the way to deal with that is to deliver a punch. This can be a multiple punch – giving the reader a series of little hitsies through the work, before finally delivering the KO at the end. It can be sharp – think of the way short story writers put a twist into the last sentence. Or it can be paced to suit the work. Think of the last chapter in Hemingway’s Farewell To Arms.

Ultimately the question writers have to ask, as they finish each sentence, is ‘what does this deliver to the reader? How will it make the reader feel?’

Where – in short – is the emotional journey?

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

 

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Shades of character grey and the lessons of Brit seventies sci-fi

Does anybody remember Blake’s 7 – a 1978 Brit sci-fi that ran for four seasons. As a kid I was quite a fan.

A completely fictional planetary scene constructed with the help of Celestia. Cool science software (cooler still because it's free).

A completely fictional planetary scene constructed with the help of Celestia. Cool science software (cooler still because it’s free).

Superficially, it was Robin Hood and his Merry Men in space, and it had every potential to be really bad. Actually, though, the show was utterly brilliant. Mainly because all the characters, including the good guys, weren’t exactly ‘good’. Especially Avon. It wasn’t ‘good vs evil’ so much as ‘complex dimensional self-interested and interesting bad vs really evil’. The characters were thoroughly brought to life by a cast who were all RADA trained actors. The dialogues between Avon and the chief baddie, Supreme Commander Servalan, were a case in point. I swear the two actors – Paul Darrow and Jacqueline Pearce – were sometimes improvising in character. The results were brilliant.

Against those performances, you could forgive the seventies-era SFX – cheesy spaceships made with kit-bashed Airfix parts and yoghurt pots, filmed with obvious depth-of-field problems and splatted into star-fields with hilarious blue-fringed PAL chromakey.

Blakes 7‘s shades of grey ran well beyond the usual ‘diamond in the rough’ SF character clichés of the period, exemplified for me by Han Solo, the bad guy with a heart of gold who turned up good in the end. Of course, the quality of the characterisation isn’t surprising. The show was created and largely written by Terry Nation – the same guy who invented Daleks.

I figure there is a lesson writers can learn from it generally. Not the one you’d think, though. These days it’s de rigueur to have those multi-dimensional characters. To have shades of grey – to look beyond the kiddie stereotypes of good-vs-evil and find the deeper humanity in everybody, in all its complex glory.

Years ago, Hemingway exhorted authors to write real people – not ‘characters’. And to some extent, that’s what we’re doing now. It has become the norm.

The point about Blake’s 7 was that it went well beyond the ‘norm’ of its period. Which is the lesson. These days, with the advent of self-pubbing and the mainstream publishing world becoming increasingly risk-averse, the onus is on writers to produce something that stands out. Creating complex characters in shades of grey isn’t enough.

Writers have to push beyond that now – to look for the next step, the next trend, and lead it.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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Essential writing skills: three reasons to plan

I posted a while back on the importance of planning for writers.  Today – more about why to do it.

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.

Writers plan their material to control it – to keep it within length, to avoid being caught up in dead-ends, to make sure the structure is correct.

Yes, it’s fun to free-flow the ideas. And there can be advantages to having that freshness of material. The hard reality from the professional perspective is that writing that way is actually writing-for-personal-entertainment. A pastime. Writing as production – as in, coming up with the goods for a publisher, to time, is a different ball game. But it’s something writers have to learn how to do if they’re to enter the field.

Self-publishing doesn’t change that calculation – it makes it harder, because the onus is then thrown on the writer to also be the publisher. And one of the advantages of separating the two is that publishers give a different view to a book.

So why must we plan? Three reasons – all, really, variations on the same theme: control. Control of content. Control of scale. Control of time.

1.  Planning to broadest scale gives the writing its initial over-arching structure – the logline or thesis is a good starting point.

2. Writing has to be efficient – to have a dynamic to draw the reader forward. Writers working to deadline can’t afford dead ends, or to mis-structure the piece. Planning the structural detail is essential.

3. That rule of purpose applies down to sentence and word level. Every chapter, every sequence, every sentence – all must have a purpose, which is to push the story or content along. If it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be there. Ask why – why does character X do such-and-such. Is it to reveal more of their character? If you’re writing non-fiction, how does the sentence or paragraph contribute to the argument?

There’s a lot more to planning than this, of course. More soon.

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

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Essential writing skills: five tricks to clarify your writing

I don’t know about everybody else, but for me one of the problems with the classic ‘bad first draft’ is that the stuff sometimes isn’t in the right order.

MJWright2011Of course, that’s the intent of the first draft – it’s to get the words down on the page. Then, thanks to the miracle of the word processor, they can be reorganised.

On the other hand, it’s better to get something approximating the right order of ideas in the first place. That old adage of the bad first draft being better than no first draft is very true. My take? Try these tricks. You’ll need some paper, pen scissors and sellotape (yes, writing IS a craft :-)).

1. Jot some notes down before writing anything else. Use two pieces of paper. Write the ideas down in any order, as they come to you, on the first. Then look at them, figure out if they work better in a different order, and write them down that way on the second page. Fifteen minutes planning can save hours of revision. You already have your large-scale plan (you do have a plan…don’t you?) – but that works on smaller scale during drafting.

2. Print the draft out. Spread the pages around on the floor. Paper has more area than a monitor – you get to see the whole of your writing, in a block. Skim-read it. Can you see patterns emerging? Do some parts go better in one place than another?

3. Mark the printout in pen-and-ink to give it those directions. Use arrows, stickies, whatever works, to highlight which blocks go where. Or maybe cut the pages up and tape them together in the different order.

4. Carefully carry the taped pages to the computer. Now transfer those amendments to the version on your computer. OK, yes, that might take some time.

5. And now – the final step. Re-style it again. The cut-and-paste swap around usually leaves jagged edges in the text – they’ll need fixing. Then read it again. Does it still make sense?

I find this approach works pretty well for me. Do these methods work for you?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Five steps to quality writing while invoking the lost art of typewriter

It’s less than two decades since computer swept typewriters away. Gone, like an old shoe, but not forgotten. The imagery of writing – of creative fiction, especially – still revolves around the old dieselpunk-era Smith Corona Portable or the Imperial upright.

Now this is a typewriter I didn't wear out. Largely because I got a computer. But I still typed around a million words on it.

A typewriter I didn’t wear out. Largely because I got a computer. But I still typed around a million words on it.

It’s easy to forget the lessons of typing too. Typing made revisions hard. I remember bashing out “first draft” stuff on double-spaced newsprint style paper. Then would come pen-and-ink changes; then maybe a second draft. Maybe a third. Finally it would be time to copy-type the final on clean, white manila paper.

These days it’s too easy to just change stuff.

I can’t complain. If done right, it makes it possible to achieve tremendous quality quickly. But it also makes it possible to write rubbish very quickly.

That’s because the permanence of the typed word on paper meant writers had to think first, type second. It meant every sentence had to be considered. It meant structure had to be planned. And the act of re-typing the pen-corrected manuscript gave a further opportunity to review the words in their minds – slowly and carefully.

All these things remain true of good writing today. The question is how they’re achieved – whether by careful consideration, then writing  – which works just fine on a word processor – or by blurt-and-amend, which also works fine, but may take longer, paradoxically, than the other way.

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

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

The thing is, it’s too easy to blat words into a word processor without considering the structures of sentences, paragraphs and – most important – of the overall work. I think the ease of typing and revising lends itself to unstructuring the writing, if we’re not careful.

My advice?

1. Stop, pause, plan – then write. Just like in the old typing days.
2. Do what typewriter-age writers did: print the draft out and go through it in pen and ink.
3. When keying those changes back into your word processor – think about how they can be improved.
4. Rinse and repeat. Seriously. You get the luxury of a clean version at the touch of a button. Quality counts, and two pen-and-ink reads are better than one.
5. When you get your work proof-edited, make sure the proof-editor does the same.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 

 

And now, some shameless self-promotion:

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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