Writing inspirations – beyond the Misty Mountains…

Ever since Peter Jackson filmed The Lord of The Rings in New Zealand, I’ve only ever been able to see the place in terms of its Tolkienish landscape. Mostly, anyway.

The Misty Mountains? Maybe...

The Misty Mountains? Maybe…

This is a picture I took the ranges west of Lake Wakitipu, in the south of New Zealand’s South Island – actually Mount Bonpland and other peaks, rather than Caradhras, but you get the idea… Jackson actually filmed the Caradhras sequences a little further north, but the scenery’s all much of a muchness in this district. Inspiring? Absolutely.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

The Gallipoli centenary: we must remember them

The centenary of New Zealand’s landings on Gallipoli, this weekend, is also a moment to remember all New Zealand’s war dead. We know who they were; their names are inscribed into memorials from Bluff to Kaitaia, from Palestine to Egypt, to North Africa, to Italy, France, Belgium and many other places.

Names of the New Zealand dead, Tyne Cot cemetery, near Ypres.

Names of the New Zealand dead, Tyne Cot cemetery, near Ypres.

Here is a list on the wall of the New Zealand Memorial at Tyne Cot cemetery, near Ypres, a photo I took some years ago and which still resonates today. This memorial commemorates the 1200 Kiwis who died between August and October 1917, during what is usually known as the Third Battle of Ypres.

We will remember them.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Writing inspirations – In Flanders Fields

One of the most moving experiences I’ve had as a writer was on the day I visited Ellis Farm, a preserved aid post from the First World War, near Ypres. It was here that Canadian doctor, Major John McCrae, penned what has become the signature verse of the war: In Flanders Fields.

Remains of the aid post in Essex Farm where John McCrae wrote 'In Flanders Fields'.

Remains of the aid post in Essex Farm where John McCrae wrote ‘In Flanders Fields’.

He was inspired by the death of a friend, Alexis Helmer; and during the evening of 2 May 1915 began drafting his famous rondeau. The timing is significant; in 1915, nobody guessed that the war might last another three and a half years. And yet the spectre of death – and the iconic flower of that war, the poppy – already loomed close.

It was an inspiring moment for me to visit that place. And inspiring, I hope, for you.

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

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

Buy from Fishpond

Click to buy from Fishpond.

Buy from Fishpond.

Click to buy from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

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