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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It’s not as a big as it was…reconceptualising publishing

I had to admit to my wife the other day the traditional publishing and bookselling industry isn’t as big as it was. Worldwide, but especially in New Zealand.

Retail book sales here have dropped a compound 25 percent in the past two years, driven by a perfect storm combination of downloadable e-books and the rise of internet-driven hard-copy imports. People aren’t ‘naturally’ moving to Kindle. They still want print. But why troll out to the bookstore when you can order a print book at discount rates from Amazon or the Book Depository, not pay local sales tax, and get it within a week or two? Combine that with the way the main book chain fell over a few years back – putting the shivers into the whole industry as it stood then – and you have a recipe for disaster.

HMNZS Te Kaha, ANZAC class frigate. The sailors in the RHIB were sponging the hull. 'Tight and tiddly', I think it's called. Flag is "Kilo" - 'I wish to communicate with you'.

HMNZS Te Kaha, ANZAC class frigate. I launched my history of the RNZN on her flight deck in 2001, a few years before I took this photo. Here she is flying flag “Kilo” – ‘I wish to communicate with you’.

The book chain recovered under new ownership, retaining 59 of its 80-odd original stores; but into that mix has come the shift to online purchase. It’s certainly hit the indie booksellers. Small wonder that the big publishing houses have been fleeing. The driver has been bottom-line accountancy as seen from the regional Asia-Pacific head office. Most of the New Zealand operations have retracted to Australia. However, New Zealand book sales are less than Australia’s, and the Aussies, as far as I can tell, don’t understand the New Zealand book trade. What it means is that (a) books with slow-but-steady trickle sales don’t get reprinted, and (b) that same sales pattern lets books that are still viable in the New Zealand market drop below the ‘pulp now’ trigger and get written off.

The old publishing culture has vanished. It used to be reasonably profligate; I remember one visit to Auckland a decade ago where She Who Must Be Obeyed and I had dinner out several nights running with different publishers – their cost, not mine. I was discussing business. Another time my publishers put us both up in a motel, got us a hire car, all so we could attend the launch of my 60th anniversary history of the Royal New Zealand Navy, at the big RNZN base in Devonport, on board HMNZS Te Kaha. For various reasons we locked ourselves out of the motel and I ended up with my wife propelling me, head first, through the kitchen window where I ended up with my head jammed into the sink. Just in case you think book launches might be glamorous.

These days, alas, catering at publisher meetings – which for me seem to always happen in the same cafe in central Wellington – have dwindled to cups of coffee. Sigh…

It’s as bad for booksellers, because instead of being able to get stock in overnight, if a customer asks, they have to wait five days or more. Usually more. That loses them sales.

Smaller local publishers are rising to fill the gap; but the repping-sales model has broken, and the number of retail outlets has shrunk. Those that are left are being cautious.

Of course we have to turn this around. Collapse? Maybe by the old thinking. By the new, it’s an opportunity. That, in turn, means thinking laterally. Thinking creatively. Not just reinvention. It means re-framing the issues.

The fact is that the online revolution has changed things, and not in the way we imagine. So to get a re-conceptualised answer we have to start by reconceptualising the problem. Are we really looking at the issue the right way?

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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Nine steps to professional publishing

Ever wondered what happens when a main-stream publisher receives a contracted manuscript? It’s worth knowing because even if you’re self-publishing, the process is industry standard – I’ve been through it many times, and it’s followed by everybody from Penguin Random House to some of the smaller houses I’ve published with.

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A book of mine that went through the publishing process. Click to buy from Fishpond

It’s evolved that way for a reason – and you’ll need to follow it too, for the same reason. Two words: quality assurance. Here’s how it works.

1. The MS is read for quality. Most contracts (certainly every contract I’ve ever signed) has a ‘quality’ clause. If the book’s not up to par, it’s sent back for revision (and the contract usually specifies the time the author has).

2. If the MS is on spec (to length, to specified content, and up to par), the author’s paid their ‘delivery advance’, usually half the full advance-on-royalties. These days, this is often the last money the author sees for that title.

3. The MS is then sent to a proof-editor. This is a ‘high level’ read for sense, wording, style and content. The author is sent the proof-editor’s adjustments, for comment or further work.

4. While the proof-editing’s going on, designers are working up the cover and internal look of the book. These matters are wholly controlled by the publisher – by contract – but the author’s consulted.

5. The proof-edited manuscript is then typeset, proof-checked for literal errors (typos), and sent to the author for checking. At this point, the author shouldn’t ask for changes beyond any literal corrections (typos) – and publisher contracts have a clause in them levelling the cost of change on the author if it exceeds a certain point, usually ten percent.

6. The whole thing is read once more, sometimes twice, and corrections made. Sometimes the author gets a second check at this stage too, often in parallel with the proofing.

7. It’s sent to the printer. Meanwhile, the publisher’s marketing department is working up their strategy for selling the book.

8. Advance copies are received and sent to the author.

9. The book’s finally available in quantity and published. Of course, that’s only the beginning of the hard work for the author and publisher alike – especially these days. The main challenge, inevitably, is marketing.

More on that in a while.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: he said, she said – without adjectives

Have you ever tried writing dialogue without all the ‘he said’, ‘she said’ nonsense? It’s an effective technique, though it’s easy to say ‘do this’. Harder to master.

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

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

Hemingway set the gold standard – half-page strings of dialogue, often without any directions at all as to the speaker– and it was usually clear as to who said what.

The reason he took that angle is that the onus is on writers to show, not tell – and how better to show than by revealing the esssential meaning through the dialogue, rather than making the reader wade through instructions about it? Hemingway was the absolute master of the technique.

How did he do it? Any dialogue that’s well written should, ideally, speak for itself. The character of the character, shall we say, should come through in the choice of words. Through the context. Through their opinions and wording. If you’ve drawn the character right, the reader will be familiar enough to know what they might say. Perhaps even by such a simple device as a repeated signature phrase – ‘My dear Watson’, for example.

It becomes blatant where the characters are parodic – Passepartout and Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days, for instance.

Of course direction is sometimes still needed – not least to anchor the start point.  You have to add “he said” “she said” somewhere. However, one thing to avoid is a qualifying adjective – ‘he said darkly’, ‘she said brightly’ and so forth.

This is important. Show not tell. Adjectives tell the reader what to think about the dialogue; whereas the trick to quality writing is to make the reader work for the meaning by showing them a direction. Let the reader discover the tone through context or choice of words.

Think pared back. Think character. Think Hemingway.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Writing prompt: suddenly it was 1938…

I’ve been playing with some of the photos I took during the Art Deco Weekend, Napier, a few months back.

Here’s one of them. It got me thinking of a story. You?

Anybody would think it was 1938...

Anybody would think it was 1938…

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: penning things “in the style of”

One of the biggest challenges any author has to meet is mastering the mechanics of actually writing. Only once that has been nailed is it possible to tackle the other challenges of content. A lot of aspiring authors, I think, try to handle the whole lot at once, and it’s difficult.

Close-up of the filter controls of my Moog - er - quantum healing device...

Seeing as we’re on to music, here’s a close-up of the filter controls of my Moog synthesiser.

But there’s a quick and effective way around it. Does anybody remember Rick Wakeman? Brit seventies prog-rocker better known now as a TV personality, Grumpy Old Man, and comedian. Writers can learn from him. Really, and not just because he’s written a succession of books. A couple of years ago my wife and I went to an acoustic concert he gave which consisted of Wakeman, a Steinway Model D 9-foot grand, and a lot of hilarious anecdotes. In the middle of it he played a medley of nursery rhymes “in the style of” well known composers: Mozart, Bartok and so on.

As he explained, he’d been taught the technique at the Royal Schools of Music. The point being that to compose in a particular style, you had to understand it. It’s a learning technique – and, as Wakeman demonstrated, also very funny. Ever heard Three Blind Mice as written by Rachmaninov? I have. Actually, you can too…

That’s true of writing, too. One of the fast ways to get ahead in the style department, to my mind, is to emulate others – not with the intention of ultimately styling like they did, but so you can find out how they did it. The act of actually writing like somebody else is also incredibly valuable, because it forces you to think about how the words go together.

Hemingway is a good one. Everybody thinks he wrote in short sentences. He didn’t – some of his sentences were very long indeed. And, by deliberate design, his writing was also un-ornamented, and not just by economy of adjectives. The intent? It forced the reader to work – and so to connect better with the story and the characters.

These are just exercises, of course – the writing can be thrown away. Don’t be precious about something you’ve written. But practise something ‘in the style of’ often enough, and you’ll find you have mastery. Perhaps suddenly. From there, your own voice will emerge.

Do you practise writing like this?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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A lament to a past that might have been but never was

Conventional wisdom pins the invention of agriculture down to the ‘fertile crescent’ of the Middle East. Possibly starting in Chogha Golan some 11,700 years before the present.

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 end of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

This was where humanity started on its journey to the current world of climate change, extinctions, pollution and over-consumption. However, new research suggests agriculture was also invented much earlier by the Gravettian culture who flourished during an inter-glacial period, around what is now the Black Sea, maybe 33,000 years ago. Humans around this time also domesticated dogs – the oldest evidence has been found in Belgium, dated 32,000 years before the present.

That interglacial was apparently brought to a sharp end when New Zealand’s Taupo super-volcano exploded and knocked the world back into a new sequence of Ice Ages, also apparently nipping the agricultural revolution in the bud.

But suppose it hadn’t – that the climate had stayed warm. How would the world be today, 33,000 years after the agricultural revolution instead of about 11 or 12000? There was nothing inevitable about the way technology emerged – if you look at general tech, by which I mean everything from energy harnessed to the things people had in their homes, like combs, pots, pans and so forth, we find little real difference between (say) the Roman period and the Medieval period.

The Oruanui eruption, Taupo, 26,500 BP. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Taupo_2.png

The Oruanui eruption, Taupo, 26,500 BP. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Taupo_2.png

A lot had to do with energy sources – which were limited to wind, fire, falling water, and human and animal power. Even the invention of gunpowder did not much change the calculation: it was not until steam came along that things took off.

The industrial revolution was product of a unique diaspora that combined the thinking of the ‘age of reason’ with a climatic downturn that seemed to prod people into new innovations, financed by a rising band of new-rich Englishmen who’d made their fortunes on Carribean sugar and had money to burn.

Don’t forget – this was partly a result of chance. The Chinese never industrialised despite being just as smart, just as resourceful, and having similar opportunities. The Romans didn’t, either, earlier on, though they had a society as complex and urbanised as our modern one.

The point being that our alternative Gravettian timeline might have rolled along with what we might call the ‘Roman/Medieval’ level, forever. Or they might have industrialised. Steam engines and a moon programme 28,000 years ago? Why not?

There are other dimensions, too. Back then, Neanderthals were alive, well and living in Gibraltar. Sea levels differed – anybody heard of ‘Doggerland’? Or ‘Sahul’?

Whichever way things went, odds are on that if the glaciations hadn’t done for that agricultural revolution 33,000 years ago, we’d be rag-tag bands back in the stone age again now, this time without easily-scoopable fossil fuels and metals.  Pessimistic, but when you look at the way the world’s going now – where else are we going to end up? We lost the space dream, and we’re busy smashing each other and using the resources we’ve got as if there’s no tomorrow. Which there won’t be, if this carries on.

Do you think the Gravettian world might have been different?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: Weird Al is right to use a split infinitive

I couldn’t stop laughing at this week’s furore over Weird Al Yankovich supposedly having an ‘error’ in a song about grammar errors. Weird Al apparently included a split infinitive in the lyrics.

Oh, the (apparent) irony. Social media went nuts. Well, I beg to differ. And so, I think, would Captain James T. Kirk. Gene Roddenberry anyway.

A split infinitive is where the infinitive marker (‘to’) and the verb (‘go’) are divided by another word – let’s say, ‘boldly’. Thus we could say ‘to boldly go’, rather than ‘to go boldly’. It’s technically ambiguous – what you are doing is making ‘boldly’ into the verb. Are you saying they boldly? Or that they go? See what I mean.

That prompted a furore of its own in the mid-1960s, when Roddenberry first launched that particular phrase upon the world.

Except that split infinitives were upheld as grammatically OK – even adding to the power of a sentence – in the right context, as early as 1948. In the strictest and most retentive sense, it’s not correct. But English is a constantly evolving language, and in general practical usage – back more than 60 years now – it’s been fine to split the infinitive. And we do, a lot. Along with starting sentences with conjunctions…

Weird Al, in short, got it right. But then, doesn’t he always? The guy’s a genius. And now…pay attention…

Some important lessons there, grammar-wise. I wish my high school English teacher had been as entertaining.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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