Blue Water Kiwis: cover reveal!

I’ve got some exciting news – my book Blue Water Kiwis, my history of New Zealand’s military aviation to the end of the Cold War, is being republished as No. 3 in a new military series by Intruder Books. Here’s the cover.

Blue Water Kiwis cover - 450 px

bluewaterBlue Water Kiwis was first published in 2001 by Reed NZ Ltd, marking the sixtieth anniversary of the Royal New Zealand Navy’s founding – though the book itself was about a good deal more than that, tracing New Zealand’s naval story from the early 1870s. I received a good deal of support from the RNZN.

The new edition marks the first time it’s been available in over a decade. It’s being released for Kindle initially, and follows the two earlier titles in my re-released military history series. Don’t forget to check ’em out – here.

If you haven’t got a Kindle, you can get a Kindle reader for PC or whatever device you own, here. And watch this space…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

How to avoid the lure of other people’s ideas in your stories

A few years ago I fielded an approach from someone who’d penned a short story and wanted to know what I thought of it. I had a look. ‘Well,’ I explained, ‘good story, but you need to make up characters of your own. Don’t use the ones J K Rowling invented.’

Wright_Typewriter2It’s not just the fact that Rowling’s characters – or, for that matter, Gene Roddenberry’s – are the intellectual property of their authors and that using them is – technically – stealing. It’s the fact that using somebody else’s characters is naff. It smacks of lack of imagination. Writers need to make up characters of their own.

The same’s true of that awesome scene from The Latest Hit Movie that you just HAVE to end up working into your own story. A derivative scene is usually the fastest way to kill the suspension of disbelief – the emotional entanglement the reader has with the story. I still remember reading a story by a quite well known sci-fi author – it had been published, and everything – and thinking ‘hey, this whole plot is Casablanca!’. Killed the story stone dead.

So why does it happen? One of the main reasons, I think, is that some people are captured and inspired by the emotional response they get – particularly – from movies or TV. But instead of analysing how the scene or characters provoked that response, they look instead to the surface narrative or features that inspired them – and trigger their own writing from that.

Again, apart from the derivative aspects, the risk here is that a film provokes emotion in particular ways. You can’t directly translate those into the written word.

So the onus is on writers to look deeper – to explore why it is they feel so inspired, or fulfilled, or validated, by something they’ve just experienced in another medium. The answer, always, will be in the interaction they have had with the scene or setting. And it is those reasons that will inspire readers – but they have to be clothed in a very different form. Otherwise the writer’s just plagiarising.

It’s that principle of having a good foundation – that emotional response – but building a unique superstructure on top.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Essential writing skills: planning, planning, planning

It’s coming up for a decade now since the reimagined Battlestar Galactica rid us of the imagery of that terrible 1970s Cowboys-and-Indians original. And one of my favourite parts was always the tagline – the Cylons had a plan. Not that we found out what that plan was until well down the track. But it gave a sense of purpose – and of drama – to the whole series.

Aha - now I can stop the Plorg Monsters from taking Earth's water!

Personally I like planning with a slide rule…

Plans are important for all sorts of things – and especially for writers. They show us where we’re going. They make it possible to get the structure right, first off, without floundering. Really, they’re an essential part of the whole process.

Now, I know some writers like to ‘seat-of-the-pants’ their way through what they’re doing. And that’s fine. But to me that’s writing for personal entertainment. Without some kind of idea of direction there’s a high risk of floundering – of losing structure. That leads either to massive re-writing, later, or to a written piece that isn’t going to work.

I’m aware of the argument for it, of course – the idea of spontaneous creativity. And that has its place too. But to my mind that needs to be done around the initial plan. Put it this way: a builder isn’t going to put up a building without a plan. Writers shouldn’t write without one, either.

So what is a plan? It doesn’t have to be exceptionally detailed – in fact, for that very reason of spontaneous creativity, it shouldn’t be. But it should show the broad structure of the intended work. If it’s a novel, it needs to lay out the broad plot – making sure that the plot and character arcs coincide correctly with the necessary dramatic structure. And it should show the end point. That way a writer knows where they’re going.

See what I’m getting at? A plan doesn’t have to be a prison to the imagination. But it is essential for writing because it makes sure the author has direction, has a broad idea of the necessary structure, and that the work overall is going to be in good shape when it’s finished.

If the proverbial ‘good idea’ comes in along the way – well, plans are there to be revised, aren’t they?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Essential writing skills: the importance of structure

The other day I sat down and wrote 5000 words to finish off a story due to the publisher.  I also deleted about 2000 – not the same words I’d written. I don’t call that editing. Author changes to their own work are an integral part of the writing process.

Wright_Typewriter2Net result was a gain of about 3000 words, but what counted wasn’t the word length, or even the words written. What counted was moulding the story into a shape I was happy with, which was approximately at the intended length – and which had the necessary structure, shape and character development.

To me that’s the essence of writing – all writing, fiction or non-fiction. Structure. Get that right, and everything else follows. In some ways it’s also not a mystery. Most forms of writing also come with an expected structure – one that works for them. An academic paper with its ‘I tell you three times’ structure – abstract, argument and conclusion – will be very different from a novel, which typically has a three-act form. Feature articles, built around the ‘inverted pyramid’, are different again.

It’s possible for a writer to break that structure and get away with it – but not often, and it demands an awful lot of experience and skill to get away with it. There are reasons why different forms of writing have specific structural shapes. More usually the skill is in honing the specifics of the structure to suit your particular purpose. For me the guidelines are straight-forward:

  1. Is the scale of component right? For instance, an introductory section shouldn’t be radically longer than an expository middle, a concluding section shouldn’t drag out. If it’s a novel, all elements have to be paced to hold reader interest. Has the scale got out of kilter during the writing process?
  2. Does each section achieve the intended purpose – introducing the topic or idea, exploring the variations on the idea or argument, and wrapping it up? If it’s a novel, each part of the structure has a specific purpose relative to character arc and plot. Does the plot fit that structure?
  3. When the piece is written, has the inevitable ‘good idea’ along the way derailed the structure? If so, some re-writing is in order.

You’ll gather from this that one of the pre-requisites to getting the structure right is to also have a plan. More on that soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015  

Oh, what a lovely blog hop!

This week Auckland writer Bev Robitai tagged me to join in the ‘Lovely Blog Hop’ – a round-robin of general all-round fun in which authors outline seven things that got them writing. My story starts in 1970, when I was 8.

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

  1. Lots and lots and lots and lots of books. As a kid, I was surrounded with them – classics such as Arthur Ransome’s wonderful Swallows and Amazons series, C S Lewis’s Narnia, Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Norman Hunter’s Professor Branestawm, and more.
  2. Graeme Beattie – ‘Bookman Beattie’, these days, New Zealand’s leading book blogger – played a part in the kick-off. Way back when, he was running his bookstore in central Napier, and a friend of my parents. One day, around August 1970, he passed on details of a book contest, run to mark the visit of Puffin’s retiring managing editor Kaye Webb to New Zealand. Kids had to write a short story. I entered – and won first prize. Fifty Puffin books. I still have some. And I thought, that was pretty cool, I’ll keep that going. I was eight. And I’ve never stopped.
  3. I was inspired by Norman Hunter. Writer of the ‘Professor Branestawm’ series, who came to my house one day in 1971-72. He was a very nice old gent and signed all my ‘Professor Branestawm’ books.
  4. On to my teenage years and I have to credit Tamatea High School for their part, in an inverse way. I learned to write in spite of them. My English teacher in 1977-79 was utterly useless. My parents arranged for me to attend writing courses at the local polytechnic as well as school, meaning I’d be taught how to write – effectively at tertiary level – providing I put in the extra hours. I was keen. Most of the classes were outside school hours, but one was only just – meaning I had to leave the school 10 minutes early, which the headmaster forbad. Yup – having failed to hire anybody capable of teaching, this worthless headmaster then tried to block my parents from having me taught competently elsewhere. Incredible! I attended the writing courses anyway, and that gave me an absolutely solid start. If Tamatea High School hadn’t been so actively useless, I wouldn’t have done them.
  5. I kept learning how to write at university. I still remember the writing lesson I got during one of my post-grad years at university, from a guy named Richard Adler, then Professor of English from the University of Montana in Missoula. No, I didn’t go there (I might never have returned, instead spending my life planting dental floss). He came to New Zealand on a Fullbright scholarship.
  6. My best teachers, as I emerged bright-eyed and bushy tailed into the world of writing and publishing, were people through the industry – Ken Hawker, former editor of Napier’s Daily Telegraph paper, who supported my writing from the outset; Frank Haden, the colourful features editor of the Dominion, who’d forgotten more about grammar than I’ll ever know, and more.
  7. Check out the battering. Is my copy of 'The Hobbit' much-loved, or what?

    Check out the battering. Is my copy of ‘The Hobbit’ much-loved, or what?

    Did I mention books? They need mentioning again. All through these formative years I was hugely influenced by what I read – especially fantasy and science fiction: Tolkien, Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke and a lot more.

So there you have it. Seven things that got me started. Don’t forget to check out Bev’s blog, and her books, especially Sunstrike and its sequels, exploring the Armageddon scenario that we really do need to be aware of.

And I’d like to nominate a blog to pass the Hop on to: Eric Wicklund’s ‘Momus News’. He’s a great story-teller, fun, imaginative, and always with a twist to his tales:

https://momusnews.wordpress.com/

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

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

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