Essential writing skills: a few interesting publisher terms

Like all professions, publishing has its own terms – many of them plain English words that mean something different within the field. Today I thought I’d share a few of the more interesting ones.

  1. 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…

    ‘Title’. This has two meanings in the publishing industry – (a) The identifiying name given to a book, in the sense we usually know it; but also (b) a particular book. For instance, if I’m contracted to write a new book, it’s referred to as my ‘new title’.  Publishers, similarly, don’t talk about the ‘number of books’ they release in a year – it’s ‘number of titles’. The distinction helps avoid confusion with ‘book’, which to the industry can also mean ‘stock unit’. I can always tell whether an author’s worked with the trad publishing industry for a while or not, because the term leaks into everyday author-speak.

  2. ‘Release to trade’. This is when a new title is made available to the market. It differs from ‘launch’, which refers to a special social event designed to mark that release. Outside the publishing industry, the terms ‘launch’ and ‘release’ are often used interchangeably to mean a title’s on the market, but that’s seldom done within it.
  3. ‘List’. This refers not just to the catalogue of titles that a publisher has available, but by implication also to its nature – to the style of title the publisher seeks to produce and be identified with. It can also refer to an author’s own personal catalogue of titles.
  4. ‘Back list’. The prior catalogue of titles that a publisher has issued, but which may not necessarily be available. Authors can have back-lists too (mine is in process of being re-issued, heh heh heh).
  5. ‘Imprint’. This is the brand under which a book is issued. Many of the larger publishing houses issue under several imprints, each usually associated with a specific sub-brand. Penguin, for example, always issued generally under its house brand; but also into more specialist markets as Puffin (kids), Pelican (intellectual) and Allen Lane (elite).
  6. ‘Sale or return’. This refers to the practise of a publisher lending their stock to trade. If the books don’t sell, they’re returned to the publisher, hopefully undamaged. Authors, who are at the bottom of the financial food chain, usually get a proportion of royalties withheld – by contract – as the publisher hedges against too many copies coming back. While it means publishers can get mountains of books physically on sale inside bookstores, to my mind all it really does is transfer the risk of a bad stocking decision by a bookstore back on to the publisher (and, of course, the author).

There are many other terms, often technically associated with the editorial and production process. More of them anon. Do you have any curious publishing terms you’d like to share, or which you’ve encountered? Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Essential writing skills: why commas count when you write

Commas count when you write. Really. Franz Kafka thought he could do without them. But for the rest of us, commas are essential. Look at it this way. If I said to my wife, “I bought a new camera bag,” she’d be happy, whereas if I said “I bought a new camera, bag,” she might take it entirely the wrong way.

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…

Some writers, beginning writers especially, wrestle over commas – like, where does the comma actually go? In fact, they are obvious in a well-written sentence. The confusion emerges when the sentence hasn’t been structured properly and the phrasing isn’t clearly delineated. That’s a matter of practise.

Other writers mistake the definition of single-word phrases and mistakenly use commas to bracket qualifying adjectives or adverbs.

You know. Single, qualifying, adjectives or adverbs. I once read a whole book filled with that particular construction. Ouch. (MS Word knows. It awarded my offending sentence a Wiggly Green Underline when I wrote it).

Typically, a phrase represents a single idea. It can be as short as a single verb or conjunction, or as long as half a dozen words. If you find a phrase extending much beyond that, look at the styling – there is a risk of convolutions that confuse readers. You might want to consider re-phrasing the sentence.

Commas can also string long sentences together. Sometimes it’s handy to add one in conjunction with the word ‘and’ to mark the final phrase of a sentence. This is the ‘Oxford Comma’ in honour of its origins with Oxford University Press, though I believe it’s also known as a Harvard Comma and Serial Comma.

So what’s the difference between a comma and its two cousins, the colon and semicolon? More soon…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Essential writing skills: stripping out the language

One of the best ways to make your fiction writing compelling is to leave gaps that the reader then has to work to fill. This draws them deeper into your material.

Wright_Typewriter2The question is what to leave out. And it seems to me that a lot can be done by dropping speech identifiers and the adverbs that get added around them. Instead of ‘he said’, ‘she said’, try not identifying speakers at all. It has to be done judiciously, but the context and individual ‘voice’ of a speaker should be sufficient to identify who’s speaking, most of the time.

Similarly, the tone of words chosen for them to speak should also show the emotion behind it – you shouldn’t have to tell the reader; they should pick it up from the speaker’s words, if necessary by adding a couple of clues into the writing.

Check this out (I can write this pastiche because Conan Doyle’s pre-1925 work was declared public domain):

Great Scott, Holmes!’ Watson said forcefully ‘how the devil did you know that?’
‘My dear Watson, it was an elementary deduction,’ Holmes replied smoothly.
‘How so?’ asked Watson quizzically.

The identifiers and most of the adverbs are unnecessary. We know Watson spoke forcefully from the words, and we know he was puzzled, so we don’t have to spell it out. Each speaker also named the other – a trick Conan Doyle used, himself, to reduce the ‘he said’ ‘she said’ problem. So it will work perfectly without the identifiers and adverbs:

‘Great Scott, Holmes, how the devil did you know that?’
‘My dear Watson, it was an elementary deduction.’
‘How so?’

See what I mean? The writing is smoother, the pace works better – and it’s shorter. Word count, remember, isn’t a target – it’s a tool. Of course, don’t just listen to me. Go read Hemingway.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Essential writing skills: the art of the book review

The other week the New Zealand Listener published my review of Christopher Pugsley’s new book on the Second New Zealand Division, Bloody Road Home.

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…

I hadn’t written for the Listener for a while, so it took me a moment to slip into ‘book reviewer’ groove. And there is one.

Reviews of this sort – professional essays, basically, published in the culture or literary pages of major magazines and newspapers , and for which the reviewer gets a (small) professional fee, differ from the ‘reviews’ readers can write and post in places like Amazon. Sometimes, yes, those are also classic review essays; but often they’re not – they’re reader feedback.

That’s no less important, of course – especially given the way Amazon ranks books based on star rating –  but by the same token there is definitely an ‘art’ to review writing.

It’s not enough to simply summarise the contents or express an opinion as to whether the book was great, indifferent or a stinker. Professional reviews have to draw the reader, just like any other piece of writing. They have to trace an argument; and they have to say something along the way that adds value.

That doesn’t mean setting up a straw man to knock the target book down. You know, starting by pompously asserting that ‘any definitive work on this subject must have X in it’, followed by a lengthy discussion ‘proving’ that the author, foolishly, missed X.

It also doesn’t mean trawling for any trivial inconsistency or alleged ‘error’ that can be wrung out of it, as a device with which to deny the competence and worth of the author.

Both techniques are regularly used by academics in New Zealand to damage the sales and readership of other authors’ books in ‘their’ personal subjects.

To me, though, none of this informs the reader of the review what they’ll get out of the book. Why should they read it? To me the more useful approach is to ask questions around which to structure an essay. Why did the author take the angle they did? What is the place of the work in its field? Why did the author take the angle they did.

Conveniently, that’s sometimes answered in the introduction. Inconveniently, it’s just as often not – though that produces a device around which to structure the review.

Ultimately, a professional review must, itself, take readers on an emotional journey. Just like any other piece of writing.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

If writing’s art, what should we deliver?

It’s over a decade since I paid a stupid amount of money to attend a lecture given by Malcolm McLaren – yes, that Malcolm McLaren. It was touted as a ‘cyber lecture’ in which he was going to reveal the philosophy of his approach to art. And after he’d dribbled on about nothing for about four hours, he did.

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

Never mind the bollocks, here’s my typewriter.

It was really simple. Deliver paying customers nothing. Emptiness. As an art statement, you understand. He insisted it had apparently underpinned his direction of the ‘Sex Pistols’ back in the seventies. Kind of clever in a rather anarchic-in-the-UK sort of way.

Alas, as McLaren continued to blather on in verbal circles about what always turned out to be – well, nothing, I realised he’d managed to export that particular art statement to New Zealand. The fact that he was sustaining it for so long made clear that his particular brand of ‘nothing’ was, indeed, very cleverly thought out.

But time was getting towards midnight and, as he showed no signs of flagging in his delivery of empty, I felt I should respond in kind by rising to my feet and engaging in a conceptual ‘nothing march’ to the nearest exit. It wasn’t easy, because a fair number of others in the audience had decided this was also going to be the way they expressed their art. McLaren suddenly realised what was happening. ‘Wait, wait,’ he began calling from the stage. ‘I’ve got more to say’.

Actually, he hadn’t, and the stage manager evidently also thought so because he shortly had the lecture shut down so the stage crew could all go home.

Conceptually, I could see what McLaren was getting at by punking art, just as he had punked music. And art is in the eye of the beholder. But I still felt vaguely ripped off. And that, to me, raises some obvious questions about writing, which is a form of art.

The onus is on writers to produce material that takes their readers on an emotional journey – which isn’t going to be the personal emotional journey the writer has creating the stuff. The emotional experience a reader has may not even be what the author intended to create in the recipient. But it’s still valid. It’s one of the reasons why writing, by any measure, classifies as art – because it invokes that abstract multi-dimensionality of emotion on so many levels, in both creator and recipient.

The nature of that journey is, very much, up to the writer. That’s how the art of writing is personalised; it’s how it’s given its individual character. The issue is being able to deliver something – an expression of writing as art – that achieves a result, both for the artist (writer) and for the recipient.

I believe, on my own experience, that McLaren chose ‘empty’ as his art expression. That certainly isn’t mine. And there’s no room for pretension or snobbery – not if the artist wants to be genuine. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Essential writing skills: good and bad ways to write a novel series

A little while ago I read the first three of Joan Aiken’s ‘Wolves’ novels, a series for children set in an alternative nineteenth century. King James Stuart III is on the throne, beset by plotters wanting to put the Hanoverian pretender into power.

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…

The books weren’t ‘the further adventures of…’ but a set of tales connected by common world and a quite subtle technique; a secondary character in one book would become a main character in another, embroiled in a completely different tale. This, it seemed to me, was an exceptionally clever approach because it enabled Aiken to keep coming up with fresh plots and character arcs. And, of course, C S Lewis did something similar with his Narnia series, as did Ursula Le Guin with her Earthsea books.

Finding new angles is always the problem with series. An ongoing series offers a good way to capitalise on earlier work, including research. It isn’t even a marketing ploy, necessarily; sometimes a character or setting simply captures popular imagination and the audience demand more. Conan Doyle discovered that the hard way – he couldn’t kill off Sherlock Holmes.

A series, of course, offers a different challenge for novellists – creating a suitable character arc. There are various ways of dealing with that. Joanne Rowling did it by limiting the length of her series, from the get-go, and presenting Harry Potter’s ‘coming of age’ arc across seven books. Each of the novels gave a slice of that arc.

You never see the model from this angle in the series.

You never see the model from this angle in the series. A picture I made with my trusty Celestia software.

But what about open-ended series? That’s another matter altogether, regularly dealt with by TV script writers, and something that’s also changed over the years. Back in the 1960s, for instance, Gene Roddenberry hauled in top-rated writers to produce scripts for the original Star Trek. But irrespective of what transpired, all had to return to zero at the end – a ‘reset’ ready for the next episode which would launch from an unchanged setting. Authors who’ve taken that same approach for long-running story series include Doyle (mostly) and Enid Blighton (unfortunately).

Today the focus is different. On TV we see it in shows such as the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica were presenting whole series as linked story arcs, in which characters did change, where the setting did alter. There’s a lot to learn from this in terms of handling novel series. Much depends on whether the series is fixed – like Rowling’s –  in which case it will be possible to develop a single lead-character arc spanned across the series.

But if it’s open-ended, what then? One way is via micro-arcs. The character has to face a challenge in each novel that addresses a single aspect of what their character needs. Perhaps they learn something about themselves along the way – just one thing, maybe. In the next novel, they learn something more. The setting keeps changing. With suitable planning, it’s possible to create ‘super-scale’ story arcs (I’m thinking Perry Rhodan, a German team effort which I think has run to nearly 3000 novels so far).

The risk, of course, is that it’s too easy to fall into melodrama on the back of it. That’s where TV soap operas fall down, usually leading to a favourite actor coming back, after being killed off, as their own long-lost twin. Over-long novel series can go that way too, if the author’s not careful.

Which way an author goes is up to them, of course – ‘closed’, the way Rowling did it; ‘linked’, the way Aiken did it; or just open-ended, the way Conan Doyle did it. But the techniques for each are different, and that’s the secret to making them work, in the end.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Essential writing skills: how to avoid losing the plot

One of my biggest gripes about the final Hobbit movie was the way it – rather literally – lost the plot. Not just the plot of Tolkien’s wonderful kids’ classic, but the plot that this curious adaptation had defined for itself.

'That's no moon'. Wait - yes it is. It's Mimas, orbiting Saturn.

‘That’s no Death Star’. It’s Mimas, a moon of Saturn.

In particular, the big battle scene – which from a dramatic perspective should have been the closing drama of the eight-hour, three-movie sequence – dribbled. We lost it half-way in favour of Legolas defing physics in a cartoon-character climb up falling stones; and Thorin going into glacially slow single combat with a CGI orc on a skating rink.

Abandoning the battle scene around which the movie was built –  was  a major structural failure on the part of Jackson and his script-writing team. Sure, it enabled them to personify the fight and resolve the tensions of the ‘big bad guy’ who provided ‘chase melodrama’ in the first movie.

But that could have been set amidst the battle. And should have been. Tolkien did in the original, when the battle became the setting for Thorin’s redemption of himself, through combat. Thus one of the key character arcs resolved in synch with the dramatic climax of the story.

This is a basic dramatic principle. Sure, it’s good form to personify the challenge your hero has to meet, in the form of a ‘big bad guy’. But you can’t isolate the resolution from the way the plot’s been built. For a great movie example of that, check out Star Wars, where the underlying plot – the need by the rebels to destroy the Death Star – came together with the personal character arc, Luke’s tensions with Darth Vader, who was also the ‘big bad guy’ of the Death Star. Everything came together in a single very exciting scene. This was simply brilliant movie-making and story-telling. Losing the plot – literally – is something novelists need to avoid too.

The base principle, both for novels and films, is simple; plots move in dramatic rising waves until the final climactic scenes when both the plot and the main character arcs resolve. Putting the two together creates real tension and drama. Failing to do so results in melodrama, at best. At worst, it’s simply silly – as The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies showed us. The key to bringing the character and plot together correctly is planning. Not necessarily blow-by-blow; there’s still room for good ideas. And for re-planning if those ideas threaten to overwhelm the balance of the plot.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015