Essential writing skills: what editors do, and why it’s essential

It’s possible these days for anybody who wants to publish to do so. Bung the book up on Amazon, and hey presto – you’re published. But it’s risky without proper editing. By editing, in this context, I mean ‘editing the finished manuscript’ – not the stuff an author does to go from Draft 1 to Draft 2, which is often also called ‘editing’.

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What's it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er - introductions...

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What’s it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er – introductions…

Self-edited books carry risks because familiarity literally breeds contempt. You can’t see you own mistakes. Even literal typos disappear from view after a while.

There are all sorts of techniques to get around that – reading backwards, for instance, word by word, looking for ‘literals’. Yet at the end of the day nothing beats a fresh pair of eyes. Especially a fresh pair of eyes belonging to an expert editor.

Editing, as a process for preparing a manuscript for publishing, breaks into two main tasks. They are quite specialist, and everyday authors are NOT, I repeat NOT, likely to have necessary skills. As I’ve mentioned before, I had occasional run-ins with proof-editors who have actually been authors, masquerading as editors.

Last year one guy tried to re-write my material to fit his concept of my book, as if he was a better expert in my subject than I was. He wasn’t (he did his re-write from a secondary text) and all he did was break my carefully prepared, researched and peer-reviewed material. The publisher refused my request to send the original MS to a competent proof-editor, with the result that I ended up putting, by my estimate, over 60 hours unplanned time into undoing the vandalism. Ouch.

Here’s how it should work:

  1. Proof-editing. This is done first. It’s the big structural stuff – making sure the correct overall frameworks are there, that things are introduced in the right order, and that the writing makes sense overall. It’s a specialist skill – authors are usually NOT good proof-editors – certainly not of their own stuff, and often not of others.
  2. Line-editing. This is the detail stuff – making sure that the grammar is right, that there are no literal typographical errors – that full stops are in the right place, that dashes are all the right lengths (hyphens, em- and en- dashes all have their places). It’s usually done more than once, and it’s always done last. It’s an exceptionally ‘trainspottery’ skill; those who do it need to have an absolute eye for details that are often invisible to others (like the visual difference between en- and em- dashes).

Publishers hire editors with these skills all the time –and often have in-house editors with those skills. It’s not cheap, but it’s essential.  The question, of course, is how far self-publishers should go on the same issue – bearing in mind the typical costs versus the likely returns from any book. More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Writing inspirations – working within the limits and getting a result anyway

It was remarkably difficult to get this photo of sunset over Wellington, New Zealand. The camera I had wasn’t great for low-light shots, and was way too heavy for the tripod I was using, which meant it wobbled everywhere if I so much as breathed near it, let alone hit the shutter.

Sunset over Wellington from Petone beach.

Sunset over Wellington from Petone beach.

Still, I managed to get a photo that was reasonably illuminated and not too blurry – which I did by trying to work within the limits. And that, to me, is inspiring, because it’s something writers have to do all the time, if you think about it. And yet that doesn’t stop us. Does it? A thought to inspire.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Buy print edition from Fishpond

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Click to buy from Fishpond.

Buy from Fishpond.

Click to buy from Fishpond

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Writing inspirations – imagining life for settlers in days gone by

The first British settlers to reach the Wellington district in numbers landed on Petone Beach in February 1840, a place seen here in a photo I took before the place was socked in with the permanent rain we’ve had since Easter.

Petone beach, Wellington district.

Petone beach, Wellington district.

In 1840 the beach wasn’t where it is today; the land has been uplifted since by repeated earthquakes, and this specific scene would have been under water. The original beachline is off to the left, out of frame. But we can imagine the moment when the settlers spilled ashore from the colony ships, left to wade the last distance with their gear and equipment, their boxes and suitcases (and a piano) left stacked on the beach below the low-tide mark.

The swampy, rugged landscape they found was a far cry from what they had been promised when they agreed to one-way passage, half a world away. But they made the best of it anyway, and to me, that’s an inspiring thought.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

The new ‘Thunderbirds’ – fab or fail? I know what I think…

There’s no getting around it. Just about every bloke of A Certain Age in Britain and its former Empire was brought up with Gerry Anderson’s TV sci-fi classic Thunderbirds. It was at once charming, cheesy, funny, serious and melodramatic, but also hip and very, very cool.

A photo I took of the Corgi Thunderbird 2 model I've had since forever... And it's not tilt-shift. This is what happens on a focal length of 190mm at f 5.6, natural light with exposure time of 1/100.

The Corgi Thunderbird 2 model I’ve had since forever… and yes, I KNOW Thunderbird 4 is a submarine.

Thunderbirds captured the imagination of virtually every kid who saw it when it came out in 1965 – whatever their age, for it also turned Anderson into a pop-culture sensation in Swinging Sixties London. The show’s iconic radio call-back line, ‘FAB’ – not an acronym but a reference to the pop-culture word – summed it up. For me the show was inspiring. Among my books are several on engineering. Guess what got me on to it.

One of my earliest memories of TV – snowy black-and-white, miraculous to a 4-year old me – is watching the ‘Mole’ wobble out of Thunderbird 2’s pod and burrow to the rescue with the help of its rear-mounted rockets. I mean, how cool (if impractical) is that? Not to mention the Thunderbird machines themselves, invented by the stuttering genius engineer ‘Brains’ (aka Hiram J Hackenbacker). In true 1960s style these were atomic powered super-planes.

My favourite was always Thunderbird 2, a forward-swept wing frog capable of 8000 kph. Then there were the marionettes with their big heads, because the solenoid moving their lips couldn’t be made smaller. Their bounce-walk got so embedded in pop-culture that, even a generation later, advertisers were able to subvert the clunkiness without fear of people not ‘getting’ the joke:

Into this flowed Airfix and Revell kit-bashing  curious hybrids of B-58 Hustlers, F-104 Starfighters, Saab Drakkens and so forth. The Mole was made up of bits of Atlas booster, B-58 Hustler and the Airfix railway truss bridge, all poised, like many Thunderbirds vehicles, atop a 1/16 Vickers Vigor tractor chassis. Just for the hell of it, here’s the real Vigor with its Christie-style suspension:

Atlas booster with Mercury MA-9 atop. NASA, public domain.

The Thunderbirds Mole. No – the Atlas booster for real. NASA, public domain.

One of the big appeals of Thunderbirds was its effects complexity. Vehicle suspension really worked – this in small scale, no less. The Tracy brothers entered their craft via complex sliding couches, couch-trolleys, extensible platforms and so on. Thunderbird 1 didn’t just take off. It ran down a conveyor belt for no apparent reason and only then blasted off from a hangar with a real-world lemon-squeezer glued to the wall, hurtling skywards via a sliding swimming pool (well, how else do you launch a VTOL swing-wing hypersonic aircraft?). And then there was Thunderbird 2 with its pivoting palm-tree runway.

The man behind it was Derek Meddings, whose SFX work was leading-edge for the day – so good that when Stanley Kubrick was looking for effects experts for 2001: A Space Odyssey, he called Anderson.

Then there was the ‘2065’ setting with its secrecy schtik – this last a feature in most of Anderson’s work, never explained logically, but very cool nonetheless. And that’s without Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward and her faithful butler, Aloysus Parker – the comedy turn, but what a character.

My favourite model. I've had this Dinky toy of it since I was a kid. For some reason, I've never tossed it out...

My favourite model…

There was always talk of a remake, but the problem was re-creating the charm of the original. When the first effort happened in 2004 – live-action – it was panned. Rightly, too. And now we have another remake. Made in my own city of Wellington by Pukeko Pictures, owned by Sir Richard Taylor. I was at a book launch late last year and spotted him in the group, but I didn’t manage to talk to him. A pity, I’d have liked to have had a chat.

So how’s he done? I guess everybody’ll have their opinion. As for me? Well, the double-length pilot reprised the main disaster of Lord Parker’s ‘Oliday, which was pretty cool. But it all ran at breakneck pace – there was no time to savour the settings or enjoy the story, as there had been in the more leisurely original. Inertia seemed to have disappeared, too – epitomised by Thunderbird 2, all 400 tonnes of it (or whatever an 80-metre long freighter aircraft is meant to weigh) flipping about as if it was a Dinky toy. The original – for all its cheesiness by today’s standards – conveyed a proper sense of momentum and inertia.

Plus side is that it’s embraced modern effects tech, blending it – subtly – with carefully chosen model-work. The sensibilities have moved on too. There was a lot about the original, including its 1930s-style “Oriental villain”, smoking, implicit sexism, and other period touches that are either unacceptable today, or meaningless to a modern audience. We’ll see where Tintin Kyrano’s reinvention as Tanusha ‘Kaya’ Kyrano, with her own special Thunderbird, goes as the series unfolds.

So yeah, it’s different, but they’ve nailed today’s entertainment needs the way Anderson nailed those of the 1960s. Anderson always was up-to-the-minute; so I suspect that, if Anderson was doing it today, and had access to today’s CGI, this is how he’d have done it too.

And did anybody notice – apart from quick-fire references to Hackenbacker and Meddings – the really specific Space 1999 Eagle command module in the first episode?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Visions of New Zealand’s great war adventure

The centenary of the First World War – WW100, it’s dubbed in twenty-first century parlance – resonates on all sorts of levels for New Zealand. It’s a time to remember, a time to share family stories of the day; a time for sadness, and a time to recognise just how profoundly that war shaped New Zealand’s sense of itself.

Anzac beach, Gallipoli.  Hampton, W A, fl 1915 :Photograph album relating to World War I. Ref: 1/2-168790-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22796036

Anzac beach, Gallipoli. Hampton, W A, fl 1915 :Photograph album relating to World War I. Ref: 1/2-168790-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22796036

Still, there’s a difference between how we see those events now and the way they were seen at the time.

That’s where historians come in. Although there’s a popular notion that anyone can ‘become’ a historian by assigning themselves the label and then copying data from archives, the reality is that it’s a learned profession like any other – and one of the key skills is how to evaluate the material. That includes being able to recognise the ‘lenses’ that come between us and the original events, and how to understand the way people at the time saw things.

After all, they were products of their own past too. And they didn’t know their future, any more than we do.

Needless to say, no two historians agree on how to do that. We know what happened – the data is clear – but the why is usually debatable. That’s because we’re dealing with the fuzziness of societies. And so history, as an intellectual discipline, goes through cycles of interpretation – typically generationally.

My own stuff, incidentally, has been labelled ‘post-revisionist’ because the angle I’ve taken in both my popular work and my technical studies – including peer-reviewed papers – does not accept the ‘revisionist’ view adopted in New Zealand’s universities in the 1980s.

So – how do we view the First World War? A century on, we’ve lived through the Second World War and through the Cold War; and all of these have created new lenses through which society has viewed and re-viewed the events of 1914-18. The post-Vietnam anti-war view, in particular, had a profound effect on the way the First World War was seen in the 1980s.

Wright_Western Front_200 pxTo my mind, a major history project launched back then – in which the words of New Zealand’s surviving First World War veterans were ‘captured’ before they were lost forever – was heavily slanted by post-Vietnam pop-intellectual sentiment. This framework led to a style of questioning that – to my mind – also led the interviewers down particular tracks. They never got to grips with how these people thought at the time.

More soon. Meanwhile, I’ve written a variety of books on New Zealand’s First World War. And if you want to learn more, you can grab Western Front: The New Zealand Division 1916-18, right now, on Kindle.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Why does everything taste of chicken, except chicken?

I’ve always had an interest in discovering the secrets of the universe – you know, does dark matter exist, why we can’t have antigravity – and why every weird steak from crocodile to ocelot always has to taste of chicken.

Gallus gallus domesticus on Rarotonga, looking very much like the Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus).

Gallus gallus domesticus on Rarotonga, looking very much like the original Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus).

This last has been puzzling me a lot. Not least because even chicken doesn’t taste of chicken. I found that out in 2012 when I spent a few days in Rarotonga. Over there, chickens run wild – as in, not just free range. Wild. We had one perching on our breakfast table several days in a row, hoping to be fed. They don’t get soaked in antibiotics. They don’t get imprisoned in horrible conditions before being lightly killed, dropped through a macerator, and re-constituted into Chicken Niblets. They are entirely natural. And when anybody wants chicken – let’s say to add to the khorma I bought in an Indian restaurant in Awarua – they go out and catch one.

That natural living means that Rarotongan chickens don’t taste like battery chickens. Actually, they don’t even look like battery chickens. They look more like what they actually were before humans got at them, Red Jungle Fowls, which – like every other bird – are actually a variety of flying dinosaur. Recently a geneticist even found out how to switch on the gene that makes chickens grow dino-jaws instead of a beak, a discovery welcomed by other geneticists with loud cries of ‘nooooooo!’ and similar endorsements.

Here's the diorama - Velicoraptor mongoliensis, Dilong paradoxus, and, off to the right - yup, their close relative, Gallus Gallus. A chicken.

Think birds aren’t dinosaurs? Here’s Velicoraptor mongoliensis, Dilong paradoxus, and, off to the right – yup, their close relative, our friend Gallus Gallus domesticus.

I conclude from all of this that (a) what we call ‘chicken’ doesn’t actually taste of chicken; and (b) if I’m to define ‘tastes of chicken’, I should be thinking of Rarotongan chickens. And I have to say that of all the unusual stuff I’ve eaten over the years, few of them taste of it. For instance:

1. Snail (restaurant in Paris, Rue de Lafayette). These don’t taste of chicken. They taste of garlic flavoured rubber bands.
2. Ostrich (dinner to mark release of one of my books). Definitely not chicken, but could have been confused for filet steak.
3. Something unidentifiable in rice (riverside in Kanchanburi) I know it was meat. It didn’t taste of chicken or, in fact, anything else. I ate it anyway.
4. Goat (my house). Absolutely not chicken. More like a sort of super-strong mutton.
5. Venison (my house). Reminiscent of liver.
6. Duck (my house). Bingo! Yes, this actually did taste of Rarotongan chicken. And duck.

I can only conclude, on this highly – er – scientific analysis, that very little actually tastes of chicken, including chicken. But I may be wrong. Have you ever eaten anything that was meant to taste of chicken – but didn’t?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Essential writing skills: when plain English isn’t – and how to write simply

It was Ernest Hemingway, I think, who once remarked that he didn’t need to use the ‘ten dollar’ words in order to write well. Too true. Plain is best when it comes to writing.

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…

Hemingway didn’t mean that we must then reduce ‘plain English’ to an accounting exercise – you know, the attempt to reduce readability to numbers through ‘Gunning Fog’ tests, ‘Flesch Kincaid’ scores and so on.

Apart from anything else, it’s too easy to game them. String together a nonsense set of three-letter words in four or five-word sentences and guess what – these tests insist it’s the best possible sort of writing.

Except it isn’t.  But what can we expect when we try to reduce a complex social expression to numbers?

The reality is that clear writing has a lot less to do with short words and sentences than you may think. The reason, I suspect, that this has been conflated with ‘simple’ is because requiring that sort of structure stops inexpert writers from producing long and convoluted sentences.

Actually, it’s perfectly possible to write plainly and simply with long sentences, too. Hemingway did it – interspersing them with his short sentences.

The trick isn’t sentence length or even word length. It’s all to do with organisation. Writers wrestle with two things, mainly, when composing material: (a) the translation of an abstract concept into words; and (b) doing so in a linear fashion.

It’s the failure to do these things that usually leads to writing being convoluted. Mix in the point that writing is often required of people (let’s say in a corporate environment) who aren’t expert in it – though they are subject experts – and the result is often disastrously complex phrasing, as they wrestle with ideas that they just don’t have the writing chops to nail down.

My suggestion – which I think is handy for any writer, anyway – is to try this:

  1. Translate your thoughts. Get a blank sheet of paper and a pen. Jot down your ideas, anywhere on the paper, without putting them in any order. A word or two each, maybe a phrase. Then get another sheet of paper. Do the ideas seem to form an order or pattern? Copy them across, in that order. Revise any phrases along the way. Do they make sense? No? Repeat. Do NOT use software. It’s important to do this by hand, with the copying – it’s integral to making you THINK in a DIFFERENT WAY.
  1. Now expand your list of words and phrases – figure out how it translates into sentences and paragraphs. Re-word completely if necessary, that’s part of the process too. Does it make more sense than before? Is there a better way of phrasing it? Stick to the pen and paper for the minute.
  2. Now it’s time to type it into the word processor – once again, reviewing and revising as you go. In theory this should get your ideas in order. Now’s the time to re-word again, this time for style.

Does this approach work for you? How do you organise chaos into order when writing?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015