Essential writing skills: planning, planning, planning

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – the trick to effective writing is planning.

Wright_SydneyNov2011Planning the whole thing before even starting, be it book, essay, short story or whatever. Planning each section or chapter. Planning each sequence. Planning, planning, planning.

Sure, it’s fun to do what people call ‘pantsing’ – making stuff up as you go along, getting caught up in your own story.  It carries the vibrance of fresh creativity. But for writers who are starting out it often leads to dead ends, tangles or big-scale structural failures. Put another way, writing as personal entertainment doesn’t cut the mustard when it comes to producing stuff to time, length and specification. Which is how publishing works.

Yes, sure Famous Novellist X or Y (I’m thinking Stephen King) will say that they ‘pants’ their way through their stories. Actually they don’t, exactly. Usually they know where it’ll end. And they’re experienced enough – they’ve done the million word apprenticeship – to have command of their style and content. They can structure properly on the fly, and they know what elements have to come where to make the story compelling.

The rest of us – well, planning counts. Trust me on that one. Start broad; what is the purpose of the written material? Can you sum it up in a sentence. In the industry, that’s called a ‘logline’.

If it’s a novel, don’t get caught up in the intricacies of plot or narrative. You need a deeper level than that for a logline, which reflects the character arc of the key character. If it’s non-fiction, what is the thesis – the argument?

This broad purpose applies to everything that’s written – from a letter to an essay to a short story to a doctorate to a novel.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

And now, some shameless self promotion: my history of New Zealand, now available as e-book.

Also available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Buy the print edition here: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410

 

Do you have a writing group…like Tolkien?

Most writers, I realised the other day, hang out with writing groups. Or at least other writers.

Inside the Eagle and Child. Photo: A. Wright.

Inside the ‘Eagle and Child’. (Wright family photo)

J R R Tolkien, for instance, was part of a group called the ‘Inklings’, who met in a local Oxford pub – the Eagle and Child, known locally as the ‘Bird and Baby’Every Tuesday from 1939 until 1962 they’d go there to drink beer, swap stories – and read their tales to each other.

Imagine that – C. S. Lewis, Roger Lancelyn Green, Owen Barfield or maybe Lord David Cecil were the very first people in the world to experience The Lord of the Rings  – and they heard much of it in Tolkien’s own voice, as he sat there reading them the manuscript.

Tolkien himself was one of the first to hear passages from Lewis’s Narnia series. How awesome is that? Two of the greatest fantasy writers in the twentieth century, hanging out in the same pub and reading each other’s stories.

My key-ring from the Raffles Writers Bar. Complete with the original wrapping (yes, I am a writing nerd).

My souvenir key-ring from Raffles. Complete with the original wrapping.

During the early twentieth century other writers congregated in Raffles hotel, Singapore, to the point where there’s a Writers Bar, which (in its original location in the lobby) was frequented by the likes of Ernest Hemingway and W. Somerset Maugham. Its denizens were usually well lubricated with gin, tonic and Singapore Sling, invented around 1910 by Ngiam Tong Boom in the Long Bar on the opposite corner of the building.  Alas, this literary enclave came to a sharp end with the Second World War. But the spirit lingers. Did I say ‘spirit’? I did, didn’t I.

I made the pilgrimage to the Writers Bar in 2001, sans the cocktail.

Established writers usually veer into shop talk – the scale of the latest advances or gossip about editorial changes at Publisher X. I know that’s how my chats with other writers go, when I catch up with them. Which, unfortunately, isn’t often. I know plenty of writers and publishers, and it’s always good to have a yarn. But it’s hard to find time to get together.

Besides which, a lot of what I write is history – which, here in New Zealand,  is owned by viciously hostile in-crowds. Someone once described the behaviours of the military history crowd, particularly, as akin to circling piranhas.

Instead I hang out mostly with mathematicians and science types. And talk about my original interest, which isn’t history… it’s physics.

Do you have a writing group? How often do you meet?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, geekery, science and more. Watch this space.

Essential writing skills: we all need to write Tolkien’s appendices

One of the ways J R R Tolkien broke new ground with The Lord of the Rings was through his massive back-story, partly published at the end of The Return of the King in the form of appendices.

I had to prone to take this picture. 'Get up,' She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. 'People will think you're dead.'

I had to go prone to take this picture of The Hobbit artisan market in 2012. ‘Get up,’ She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. ‘People will think you’re dead.’

That story was better there than interspersed through the text – ‘information dumping’ is the biggest turn-off to readers – but it underscored the sheer depth of Tolkien’s master-work.

In the 1950s it was unusual for this sort of thing to be published. Tolkien, of course, re-defined the genre and now the notion of back-story has become passe. Authors are almost expected to be able to have a complete world behind their story, to create chronologies, maps, gazeteers – even to provide swatches of cloth for their characters’ clothing.

Few, I suspect, can ever get the detail that Tolkien did, without an equivalent amount of work. He began crafting Middle Earth in the trenches of the Western Front. That framed a good deal of the darkness in his mythos. His world also grew from the languages he developed – two full languages and several partial constructions. And it grew from repeated iterations – endless work, which he put into it in university holidays, of evenings, even scribbled on the back of old exam papers. Lines like ‘In a hole in the ground lived a Hobbit…’ expanded into – well, I don’t need to repeat that story, do I?

It would be difficult to repeat such a tremendous construction. But we can approach it, and I think every fantasy story deserves to have a fair back story.

That’s where e-publishing comes into its own. One of the ways to sell books these days is to have ‘extras’ available online.  And what better place to put the back-story than as extra tales, stories and appendices online?

It’s a thought. What do you figure?

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery, humour and more. Watch this space.

Write it now: six secrets behind a compelling book cover

 There’s an old adage that we must never judge a book by its cover.

My "Illustrated History of New Zealand"

My “Illustrated History of New Zealand”

Actually it isn’t that ‘old’, really. Go back a couple of hundred years and every book had a tooled leather cover – you had to open it to get to the interesting design part. That’s what frontispieces are for.

Some of the classier books still present a frontispiece. But most don’t – the artwork has been transferred to the cover.

Covers are even more important for e-books, where they become the front-end icon – the visual object that sets an e-book you’ve discovered, cold, apart from the others, that makes you want to click on it and see what’s within. A book may well be better than its cover seems to promise, but unless we’re specifically looking for the author or that book, there’s no question that the cover is what draws us to an unknown author and book.

It is, in short, a key marketing and discovery tool. Which, in turn, means it’s amenable to all the usual marketing methods – it has to provoke, excite, pose questions that demand answers. In short, it has to appeal to emotion.

That’s a good news, bad news story for self-publishers. Good news is that professional designers are adept at translating those concepts into visual form. Bad news is they cost.

The other bad news is that everybody’s doing it, anyway – the quality of most covers these days, whether from the main publishing houses, indie publishers or self-published – is stunning. The bar has been raised very high, and if your book doesn’t meet it, then it won’t sell.

History dead? Not when books like this sell so well.

History dead? Not when books like this sell so well.

My take? It’s no different for self-publishers than it is for mainstream industry publishers. Indeed, even though mainstream publishers, by contract, have full authority over  the cover, they’ll often consult with the author over artwork. I’ve provided commissioned paintings or (more usually) my own photos for book covers in the past. Everything has to be planned out. Budgets have to be worked up, designers commissioned, and costs vs benefits assessed. The questions are:

1. What is the cost of the artwork – a bespoke painting, or license fees on a photo? Here in New Zealand, commissioned cover art starts at around $1500 and license fees for photos are $150 each, upwards.
2. What is the cost of a designer?
3. What returns do you require from the book to meet these costs – amortised across sales?
4. Think ahead. Design is part of brand; does this cover span a series, or is it part of a brand look to identify a particular author? (Typified for me by Isaac Asimov’s Panther paperbacks of the 1970s which all said “Asimov”).
5. How enduring is the design? Be careful. Totally up-to-the-moment designs key into an instant audience, but risk looking dated and cheesy in a year or two. The expected life of the book can help in this calculation.
6. What minefield/licensing traps follow?

Bottom line is that quality counts – and quality isn’t free.

Have you had adventures with book covers? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, history, science geekery and more. Watch this space.

Essential writing skills: key tricks for proof-editing

In the past few weeks I’ve been exploring the ins and outs of editing - a skill of many facets that authors have to master. This week: proof editing.

Proof-editing is an essential part of the quality assurance process for writers. It involves an editor going through the work looking for consistency of content, consistency of style, and the sense of the wording.

"Hmmn...books. New fangled rubbish. They'll never replace scrolls, you know".

“Hmmn…books. New fangled rubbish. They’ll never replace scrolls, you know”.

It’s essential because the best author won’t get everything right all the time. Familiarity breeds contempt – that’s human nature. And these days it’s all too easy to mis-amend something in the word process and then miss the mistake. Enough misses to re-form the GTO’s, but that’s another story.

Proof-editing is also a delicate skill because the editor must work sympathetically with the style of the author. Sometimes they don’t – I recall one awkward experience with one of my early military histories in which the proof-editor was a frustrated writer who took the opportunity to re-write my work entirely, and badly. I rejected the changes – it was my book, not his.

Another time one of my books was butchered by a proof-editor whose editing was wholly out of sympathy with my style. The house editor handling the book at my publisher refused to bend. I came very close to withdrawing the book on the basis of breach of moral right – I am entitled to object to derogatory treatment of my material. In the end I didn’t, but I bucked my objection up to the managing editor of the publishing house, got the most egregious amendments reversed, and refused to work with their house editor again when she turned up working for a different publisher.

That said, this “total re-style” is a legitimate technique. Some magazines hire proof-editors to do just that. Ever wondered how Time or National Geographic get their styling so consistent? A proof-editor working in this capacity is usually not just an experienced editor but also a quality writer in their own right.

So what it boils down to is that proof editing is, itself, a skill of many facets – running the gamut from quietly correcting another author’s work, to totally re-writing it into a specific style.

Needless to say, authors also have to master it for their own purposes. A manuscript sent to a publisher will be proof-edited by the publisher – but that doesn’t reduce the onus on the author to provide the highest possible quality text. Which means learning how to proof-edit yourself – despite the fact that the familiarity problem makes that a very difficult task. It’s all part of the process.

One trick when doing it is to have a glossary beside you – a list of the consistencies that need checking. Working in chunks, backwards through the manuscript is also a useful technique – it breaks the flow of the work and means you have to concentrate on the details of the actual writing.

Next – line editing. Oh – and does anybody remember the GTO’s?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Essential writing skills: mastering word count

Welcome to 2014 and a new year of writing tips – quick essential skill tips on Fridays, longer posts Saturdays, and sometimes other stuff during the week. I’m going to cover a fair number of things in coming weeks and months, including editing techniques and ways to publish.

Where it all began - the newspaper office that gave me my first break as a writer.

Where it all began for me – the newspaper that gave me my first break as a writer. Click to enlarge.

First off – word count. Those who’ve been reading this blog for a while know it’s one of my little hobby horses, and it’s a good way to start 2014 because to me, everything keys from it. Sort of. I’ll explain. As a writer I often bewail the focus these days on word count. Despite the profusion of word-o-meters built into software, it’s not actually a goal or even a measure of completion.

It’s a tool. Editors commission through word count, journalists write to it – and authors, certainly when writing short stories and features – are frequently paid by the word. Publishers contract books on the basis of the word count, because it’s a gauge of scale that allows them to calculate costs. There’s some flexibility in that, but not a lot.

For authors, word count is a tool in a different sense. It’s a way of controlling structure. Any writing – irrespective of scale – must have a proper structure, meaning certain lengths of material in the correct places; and word count is a way to meter the proportions – keeping them under control. If you’re writing a 70,000 word book and the ‘beginning’ billows to a third or more, it’s probably out of whack structurally. And yes, readers will notice. So will editors.

Writing to meet specific word count, in short, is a key skill authors must master – one of the many skills. But it isn’t an end point of itself.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Tomorrow,’write it now’; next week – more writing tips, science geekery and more. Watch this space.

Sixty second writing tips: writing is broad-based

It occurred to me the other day that 99.9 percent of the writing advice on the internet is ‘how to write novels’. There is an assumption that anybody who writes will, by default, be a novellist; that writing is exclusively all about plots, character arcs and so forth.

Wright_Illustrated History WhitcoullsCertainly that’s where a lot of people who pick up a pen (well, a computer…) for the first time usually start. The dream ‘to be a writer’, for most, translates into ‘to be a novellist’ – or ‘short story writer’. Or both.

In fact there’s a lot more to writing than this. As I always say, writing is writing; it’s a skill of itself, and being able to master the fundamentals sets you up to then master the details of any specific corner–novel-writing. Or poetry. Or non-fiction.

What maybe isn’t obvious is the way these aspects feed into each other. For instance, a biography is closer than you might think to a character-driven novel. Sure, one has to be based in hard fact where the other is a product of imagination. But the stuff that a reader wants out of it – the insights into character, the emotional reward they get from discovering those insights – are much the same.

It’s why some novellists turn to biography – or why some biographies can be written as novels. There’s one released here in New Zealand lately, about aviatrix Jean Batten. Fiction – about a real person.

But it seems to me that the comparisons go deeper. All writing, I think, is grist to the mill. All writing inter-relates. We just have to be able to understand how. The point being that once we have that, we can leverage that skill – and write a novel with the same sure touch that we write an email, or a letter, or a blog post.

What do you figure?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: Christmas fun stuff, more writing tips, more humour, science and – well, watch this space.

Guess which real-world place is most like Mordor…

Last week a British meteorologist at the University of Bristol published a weather analysis of Middle Earth. Tres cool.

Here’s a link to the paper: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2013/10013-english.pdf

According to the report, the weather in The Shire was much the same as that of Lincolnshire – which is pretty much what Tolkien was envisaging. It’s also like Belarus, but that may be coincidence. The place in New Zealand where the weather is closest to The Shire is north of Dunedin. Curiously – though the report didn’t mention it – there’s an area there called Middlemarch, which sounds suitably Tolkienish.

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.

Not really Gorgoroth – 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.

When it comes to Mordor, the real-world place I immediately think of is the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, which I visited earlier this year. Tolkien’s explicit imagery was First World War trenches and Birmingham factories. But that isn’t where the British meteorologist found Mordor weather. Oh no. turns out the places most like Mordor, weather-wise, are New South Wales, western Texas and Los Angeles. (That said, Tolkien also made clear that the gloom around Mordor was made by Sauron.)

It was spring when I took this picture of a railway station in Soest, Netherlands.

Ok, so it wasn’t raining when I took this picture in Soest, Netherlands…but it was overcast.

What struck me about the report was how close Tolkien got to what we’d expect from a scientific perspective, if his land was real. There is a reason for this – Tolkien was basing his world on Europe. The Shire was approximately where Britain lies; Gondor and Mordor in North Italy. The weather he described followed, especially the constant rain around Trollshaws in The Hobbit, a place geographically congruent to Soest, Netherlands.

All of which is pretty neat. And it goes to show that there is often a lot more in the creations of fantasy writers than they perhaps imagine when they come up with the concept.

What do you think of Middle Earth weather?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: More writing tips, more science, more humour and more Tolkien stuff. Not that I’m a fan. Well, I am really.

Some of the hard realities of writing

I didn’t do National November Writing Month, though I was happy to cheer from the sidelines. I’ve been writing professionally for decades, it’s thirty years since I wrote my first book for publication, and every month is NaNoWriMo month for me.

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). I wrote this one…

Fitting in writing obligations around everything else that has to be done in a day, including sleep, is a perennial challenge all authors have to meet.

It’s getting more challenging as the publishing industry tightens. Not least because quality MUST NOT get compromised for speed. That’s one of the realities of writing. It’s one authors have to know, understand and accept if they’re to get ahead. It’s also true for self-publishers.

Put another way, the age of authors being able to casually rise from their beds at ten thirty, drift across to the typewriter after a leisurely brunch and tap out a few words, then maybe go fishing for the afternoon, are gone. Uh…damn.

The money isn’t in it. Actually, the money was never in it, except for a lucky few.

Trad publishing is getting tight – which means authors have to write smart, and the onus is on more than ever to produce quality in ever-shorter time, to meet a specific commercial market.

Self-publishers are under pressure too. If you write something that works, readers want more – and in that sense the life-cycle of e-books is short. Yes, they’re available forever – but readers always look for something new. Soon. It’s up to the author to provide it.

Everybody, basically, has to learn how to churn out stuff at the same rate as Barbara Cartland. Without compromising quality.

It means working smart, it means working professionally – it means working hard.

It’s a challenge. But I’ve got some pointers as to how to do it. Soon. Who’s in?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: more writing tips, more humour, more science – watch this space.

Seven real rules for writers

It is thirty years this month since I wrote my first book for publication. And after thirty years in the business it’s long been clear to me writing is a hard nosed profession. It’s rewarding. It’s a lot of hard work. But writers also have to be realistic – and tough about the realities.

Part of my list.

Part of my list. These books did not happen by accident.

The reality, especially these days, is that traditional publishing is in upheaval. It’s fighting to stay afloat – which means opportunities for lesser known authors are limited. Meanwhile, everybody and their dog is trying to self-publish via the internet, creating a flood of ‘noise’  that swamps the good stuff. It’s harder than ever to be discovered. Harder than ever to sell

That dictates the approach, and the questions authors have to ask when concocting a book these days have little to do with the art of writing.

When I come up with an idea for a book, I ask these questions – first:

1. What is the target audience? Specifically.

2. Why will they buy this book as opposed to any other?

3. Is anybody else doing the same thing?

4. What point of difference can I make in this book to set it apart?

5. How can I make that point compelling for buyers?

6. Which publisher or agent will look seriously at this idea?

Often I’ll extend that to the practicalities:

7. What price-point and presentation will best work for this book?

Publishers have their own expertise in this field, but it helps to conceptualise the book around the way they think – and publishers don’t necessarily publish because a book is brilliant literature. They publish because it’s going to sell – and questions of packaging, price point, presentation and target audience are the first ones on the list.

This is true for fiction and non-fiction alike. Or for a feature being pitched to a magazine, or a short story. These days, if I can’t answer those questions – and, maybe, get some hard data behind them – then I don’t write the book

What? What, you ask –but surely you write where the muse goes? Yes, writers write because they must – and it’s fun. But if it is to be more than a pastime, more than hobby entertainment with ambitions of publishing, it also has to be run as a professional business, with a bottom line. And that business is getting very difficult these days.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: More about writing, more humour – watch this space