The secret to writing the same – but different

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it now – The Hobbit and Star Wars (the original 1977 movie) are exactly the same story. Really. So is The Wizard of Oz, the movie. They’re all expressions of the classic Hero Journey – a specific story structure.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian’.

And yet they’re also totally different. So how does that ‘same but different’ work? It’s one of the biggest challenges fiction writers face. Writers have to be original. But if they’re too original the audience isn’t there. Sure, there’s a kind of ego boost in knowing you’ve just written the sort of stuff that leads to being fawned over by pretentious pseudo-intellectual literati, if you’re in to that sort of gratification. But nobody outside the 3 other people in that circle will have ever heard of you. And validation-by-pretension doesn’t pay the bills.

There are reasons why most novels, stories, plays – any piece of fiction, in fact – fall into a particular shape; the introduction, the exploration of the story, then the denouement. Three acts. Sometimes those acts are subdivided, but every story – one way or another – broadly meets that pattern. I’ve seen it argued that it’s actually hard-wired into human nature. I’ve discussed the hero journey before, and using these examples; but let’s explore, now, exactly HOW they differ.

  1. Structurally, they’re the same. Tolkien and Lucas adopted exactly the same narrative structure. And it’s totally classic. The hero, who doesn’t know he’s the hero – is kicked out of the everyday world by a dramatic event, and initially guided by a mysterious wise father-figure. Adventures follow during which the hero discovers more about himself and learns. The father-figure is lost, but by this time the hero has learned enough to be able to meet the challenge they then face. They meet the challenge, and then return to the normal world – changed.
  2. In a narrative sense, however, they’re totally different stories. Tolkien drew on the folk tale tradition, blending that with his evolving Middle Earth imaginarium; Lucas drew on 1940s sci-fi movies. The result was very different characters, plot details, setting and so forth.

I mention these because they’re such clear examples – both The Hobbit and Star Wars follow the hero journey in its specific form. But they’re not alone. For variations, check out Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, or Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.

All these are kids books – but that’s not surprising; the hero journey is very much a ‘coming of age’ story, well suited to younger audiences in particular. Robert A Heinlein used it in all of his ‘juveniles’. That base story also features in adult books, if you know where to look. Tolkien repeated it in adult form in The Lord Of The Rings, with other adult-pitched variations in The Silmarillion. And the ultimate form of the hero journey, to my mind, remains Kerouac’s On The Road. See what I mean about ‘same but different’?

Think of these things as layers. The trope provides the foundation, the base that shapes the story and makes it ‘the same’ for readers, something they can identify with and understand. But above that, the author has to create a wholly new superstructure, original, imaginative and ‘different’ – but which, built on that familiar foundation, carries the reader into it.

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  

Can we sell books with suggestive gibberish?

The other day I tried to buy a little smackerel of something from a fast food joint. When I went to close the deal the fellow behind the counter suddenly said “Wuddawuddabopbopbop.” Hilarity ensued.

Me: I’m sorry, I didn’t get that.
Goon: WUDDAWUDDABOPBOPBOP.
Me: Sorry, still don’t get it. Can you repeat it slowly, not louder?
Goon: WUD – DA – WUD – DA … (etc).

It turned out he was trying to sell me an add-on. The speed of the patter, I suspect, was part of the technique to get an unsuspecting customer to buy a delicious handful of whole unboned chicken, lovingly dropped through an industrial macerator, chemically bleached, mechanically reconstituted into bite-sized chunks with artificial flavour, wrapped in sawdust and MSG before being deep-fried, left for half an hour to go lukewarm, then served up in a grease-stained cardboard cup.

ClickhereandbuymybooksOK?

ClickhereandbuymybooksOK?

That led me to wonder whether I couldn’t get bookstores to do the same for books. You know – somebody picks up the latest best-seller and ends up being on-sold a couple of other titles. The trick is mangling the request so the hapless book buyer doesn’t know what they’re ending up with – they think they’ll be getting two sequels to Fifty Shades of Grey whereas they’ve just bought a pile of books by that guy Wright (for selection, click on the titles in the right hand column of this blog).

And this is where you come in. Drop me a comment with your take on just how a bookstore attendant might mangle things so as to slip in one of my titles (that column on the right) – or one of your own. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Announcing ‘Western Front – The New Zealand Division 1916-18′

My book Western Front – The New Zealand Division 1916-18  is being re-released this week – precisely a decade on from its original print publication – by Intruder Books. With an all-new cover.

Wright_Western Front_450pxThis was an important book for me, the first of three I wrote exploring the psychology of warfare through the lens of the First World War and the New Zealand experience.

A century on, we usually imagine the First World War in terms of its Western Front – portrayed as a grey, muddy world of trenches, wire, machine guns, whizz-bangs, artillery, and senseless death.

It was all these things. But the real question is why. Did it really happen because foolish generals knew nothing better? That they hoped that the enemy might run out of machine gun bullets before they ran out of men?

Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth – certainly as far as the New Zealand experience was concerned. And exploding some of the myths is what Western Front – The New Zealand Division 1916-18 is really about.

Review comments about the original issue included:

“An immensely readable story”
– Denis Welch, New Zealand Listener, 7 May 2005.

“Readers of this excellent book will thank God and hope that such a war will never come again…”
– Des Bell, Northern Advocate, 30 May 2005.

“This is an excellent read, factual, often emotional and simply written. It should appeal to all New Zealanders”
– Graeme Cass, Hawke’s Bay Today, 2 July 2005.

Western Front – The New Zealand Division 1916-18 is the second in a series of releases by Intruder Books, initially featuring the military books I wrote between 1998 and 2007. The first, Kiwi Air Power, is also available. And there’s more to come.

You can buy your copy right now, direct on Kindle – click on the cover.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Anticipating the next trend in book cover styles

I recently dug out some of the military histories I wrote in the late 1990s-early 2000s, largely because Intruder Books are reissuing some of them and I wanted to check out the old cover designs. Not to use those covers again – the license isn’t available – but to remind myself how they looked, way back when, and just how far styles have changed.

I commissioned the artwork for the cover of my 1998 book on the RNZAF. I still have the original painting. That meant I also had license to use it on the cover.

I commissioned the base artwork for the cover of my 1998 book on the RNZAF, which Reed NZ’s designer used as the basis for this cover. I still have the original painting.

A lot of that change, I think, flows from the way new technology provokes new styles. Actually, that was happening even before software oozed into the process.

Wright - Kiwi Air Power 200 px

Same book – 2015 cover. Click to buy. Go on, you know you want to…

Way back, sci-fi book covers were bright yellow and plain, in which case they were published by Victor Gollancz. Or they were traditional for the day – a cover painting (sometimes full colour), usually by Ed Emshwiller, with often hand-lettered title at the top and the author’s name at the bottom. Just like every other book on the planet, except that the sci-fi featured a spaceship or googly monster or something.

Then, around the turn of the 1970s, a young British artist named Chris Foss cut loose with an airbrush and a new concept – multi-faceted, amazingly detailed fantasy spaceships floating on abstract clouds. And he set a trend. As in: Bam! A Trend! Three milliseconds after Foss’s artwork adorned the Panther editions of Asimov’s Foundation ‘trilogy’ (it was in the 1970s), every sci-fi book cover on the planet suddenly featured fantastic, multi-faceted, hugely detailed spaceships floating against billowing backgrounds.

This book of mine was pretty hard to structure - took a lot of re-working via the 'shuffle the pages' technique - to get a lot of social linear concepts into a single readable thread.

Superb, superb design

For me, the best cover ever designed for any of my books remains the one Penguin commissioned from an Auckland designer for Guns and Utu. Just awesome. (Want a copy? Email me.)

Today’s covers are all Photoshop layer blend and SFX effects, which I can usually spot from about half the distance of Jupiter (I began working professionally with Photoshop in 1988…) Every cover on Amazon has a sameness which I just know has been done with Photoshop layer blends in various flavours. Sigh…

I’m determined this over-use of glow won’t happen for the New Zealand Military series I wrote from 1997 to 2009, half a dozen titles of which are due to be re-released by Intruder Books over the next two years. Layer clipping paths? Sure. But not glow. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, the next release is coming up in time for ANZAC day. Western Front: The New Zealand Division 1916-18. A tenth anniversary reissue, in fact. Watch this space.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015