The three questions all authors must ask before starting

It’s amazing how many writing lessons I find in music. When I was a kid and learning music, there was an attitude that rock musicians were musical Neanderthals who could strum a few chords while making animal noises. ‘Proper’ music was ‘classical’, around which the Royal Schools grade courses I was doing was framed.

The panel of one of my analog synths... dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable.

The panel of one of my analog synths… dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable. Actually, these weren’t regarded as proper instruments when I was learning music, either…

The criteria for being a ‘proper’ musician, in short, wasn’t whether the performer provoked an emotional response in stadium-sized audiences and became a shaping force in western culture – but an ability to play 200-year old dinner muzak penned by Mozart, all built around diatonic chord progression – Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C No. 16, K. 545, for instance, uses chords running in descending fifths (vi-ii-V-I). The fact that ‘classical’ structure was a very narrow form of music – as Stockhausen, Cage, Varese and others revealed – didn’t enter into it.

The kicker? Rock music also uses diatonic chord progression – the usual string is I – V – vi – IV (try it, then sing Beatles ‘Let It Be’, Toto ‘Africa’, John Denver ‘Take Me Home’, etc). What’s more, the musicians who made it knew very well what they were doing. Some – like Rick Wakeman – were classically trained. When Ken Russell wanted to make a movie mashing rock music with Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, Wakeman did the adaptations.

Today? The genre ‘made it’, to my mind, when astrophysicist and Total Rock God Brian May played ‘God Save The Queen’, on electric guitar, on the roof of Buckingham Palace. By invitation. Awesome! Music is music, ‘classical’ is but one corner; and the people who get ahead have got the chops. Here’s Dutch singer Floor Jansen with ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ from Puccini’s 1918 comic opera Gianni Schicchi. Typical ‘classical’ singing – you know, when they didn’t have microphones and had to be heard over the orchestra.

And here’s Jansen again, with her band ReVamp:

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

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

What does this have to do with writing? Attitudes of elitism are true of writing, too. Here in New Zealand, for instance, the academic community – on my experience – take the attitude that authors writing on their subjects for a popular market are not going to innovate – that these authors are ignorant of intellectual technique and not academically capable.  I used to get it all the time when I wrote history commercially – a supposition that work had to be judged solely against the narrow criteria demanded of the academy. I was simply an intruding Neanderthal who, presumably, would be better off leaving the territory to the real experts who filled their material with incomprehensible but ego-boosting sentences with the word ‘discourse’ in them. The fact that books written to academic criteria often don’t innovate – and are virtually unreadable, even to other academics, doesn’t enter the calculation.

The reality – and this is where the rock music lesson comes in – is that most people who can write competently know exactly what they are doing, and can also innovate. It’s part of the territory. What’s more, many have the same qualifications as the academics who diss them. I do, for instance. But I don’t work for a university – or see the need to validate myself in the narrow terms academics use to assert status to each other.

All of it comes down to the basic questions all authors must ask themselves before putting pen to paper (well, finger to keyboard, these days):

1. What is the purpose of this piece of writing?
2. Who is the audience?
3. Why will they want to read this particular piece?

Everything else follows – the pitch, the tone, and the content. Intellectual rigour applies, whichever way the ideas are expressed. And it seems to me that the widest audience won’t be the one that likes reading the word ‘discourse’ when ‘conversation’ means the same thing.

Hemingway summed it up. Why use the ‘ten dollar’ words when there are other and better words that do the same thing?

Quite right, too. And that, I think, is true of all writing whatever the subject or genre.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy from Fishpond.

Buy from Fishpond.

Click to buy from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Buy e-book from Amazon

Essential writing skills: writing as a whole concept

It has long seemed to me that one of the pitfalls of writing is the idea that ‘writing’ is finished when the last word goes on the draft. After that it’s ‘editing’, which I know some authors view not merely as a separate process, but also boring. After all, the book’s really finished… isn’t it?

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

It’s an issue because, really, a book isn’t ‘finished’ until it’s out there on the store shelves. Everything that comes before that is part of the process – of which the assembly of the first draft is a part. But it is not the only part, and it certainly isn’t an ‘end’. On my experience it isn’t necessarily even the most time-consuming part. The reality, if we look at hours spent, is that the time required to actually draft the words – to have something to start working on – is about half the total.

So where does the notion that ‘writing’ and ‘editing are separate come from? I think part of the issue is the way results in writing are defined by word count – witness the proliferation of ‘word counters’ that even show progress bars. It gives the illusion of completion when a certain number of words are reached.

The reality is that word-count is a tool. In the profession it’s a specific device for defining scale. Editors use it. Word count provides a measure of the space a piece will take up – allowing them to determine costs. For authors, that same scale also means they can plan structure and produce work with proper pace, balance of content, and flow within the requisite length. It is not an end-goal of itself.

There is also the issue of motive. A lot of the people who decide to pick up writing produce fiction, drawn by the appeal of free-flow creativity – of being able to tell a story rather than receive somebody else’s. But once that draft’s been written, the entertainment aspect goes away and it turns into a grind. The professional reality is that yes, writing does need to engage you as author; but it also isn’t a pastime.

If we go back to first principles, what is ‘writing’, really?

To me, the reality of ‘writing’ is a process of conveying an author’s thoughts and emotion to a reader, and perhaps triggering a different emotion in the reader. If we look on writing in that sense, all parts of the process become part of a broader whole.

Actually writing words down is a part of it, but so too is the planning, research, editing, the typeset-check, even the marketing. All these things are essential parts of an author’s work – part of that broader concept we call ‘writing’.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy from Fishpond.

Buy from Fishpond.

Click to buy from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Buy e-book from Amazon

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.

Click to buy from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Buy e-book from Amazon

Posing the vital question: are writers also readers?

I have a question to put to you. I posted earlier this week on the books I read as a kid, which have stayed with me.

Spot my title in the middle...

Spot my title in the middle…

The reason a book ‘stays with you’ is because of its emotional impact at the time – and later. Now, that poses a question. You’d think that – as writers write – they’d draw a deeper emotional response from books and from reading than, perhaps, do people who just read. Flip sides of the same experience, but the writer’s deeper into it.

I wonder, though. It isn’t true for me. I find music offers the better experience, certainly in terms of engaging with it. Reading simply doesn’t engage me the same way.

But I write. I write a lot.

So I put it to you – does it follow that ‘writers’ must, by nature, draw their best emotional involvement from ‘reading’. Or is writing an expression of an emotional experience that writers draw, more fully, from all things – the world around them, life experiences, music and, in due place, their own reading? In the end, does it come down to individuals?

I draw distinction here between reading to reverse-engineer how it was done – to examine the way different authors approached their subjects and learn from it – with reading for pleasure. I’m asking about the latter – in short, are writers also readers?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Living On Shaky Ground

I’ve got three books being published between now and February.

Here’s a preview of Living On Shaky Ground: the science and story behind New Zealand’s earthquakes. It’s being published by Penguin Random House on 26 September. My advance copy arrived a few days back. And after thirty years and over 50 books, I have to say that the thrill of receiving the advance, unseen by anybody else except the publishers and the printers – never goes away.

My advance 'author copy' of Living On Shaking Ground - with its delivery packaging...

My advance ‘author copy’ of Living On Shaky Ground – with its delivery packaging…

And here it is in its 'natural habitat', a bookshelf, lined up with both editions of my last book on earthquakes.

And here it is in its ‘natural habitat’, a bookshelf, lined up with both editions of my last book on earthquakes.

The book includes over 50 photos I took myself, a lot of science text on earthquakes, and the story behind some of New Zealand’s bigger ones. The main – er – thrust of it it isn’t about the past, of course, but the future – what’s going to happen next?

More soon. And if you want to buy…it’s available for pre-order now, via New Zealand’s online bookstore Fishpond.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy print edition from Fishpond.

Click to buy print edition from Fishpond.

Kids books that have totally stuck with you

When you were a kid, did you ever find a book that, to this day, hasn’t gone away – that you could maybe read, years and years later, and still enjoy?

Here’s my list, all books I read up to the age of about 11-12. I’m not limiting it to a ‘top 10’ – in fact, some of the entries cover whole series of books. Justifiably.

  1. Arthur Ransome – the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ series
  2. C S Lewis – the ‘Narnia’ series
  3. Robert A. Heinlein – all his ‘juveniles’ (Farmer in the Sky, The Rolling Stones, Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, etc).
  4. Madeleine L’Engle – A Wrinkle In Time
  5. Tove Jansson – Finn Family Moomintroll
  6. J R R Tolkien – The Hobbit
  7. J R R Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings
  8. Nicholas Fisk – Space Hostages
  9. Norman Hunter – the whole Professor Branestawm series (my copies of the first three were autographed by the author himself, who came to my parents’ house in 1970).
  10. Arthur C. Clarke – Islands in the Sky (my main entree to Clarke, a YA-pitched showcase for his comsat future, and the first appearance of the ‘broomstick’ he also used 50 years later in 2010: Odyssey Two).
  11. Andre Norton – Plague Ship.

Care to share your list?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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

Click to buy from Fishpond

Click to buy print edition from Fishpond

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Click to buy e-book from Amazon