So Shakespeare wrote terrible jokes, apparently

I read the other day that one of the reasons why kids often don’t ‘click’ with Shakespeare – or find his comedies funny – is that his jokes were terrible. They were also topical, and the one thing that dates faster than last week’s old fish is a topical joke.

William Shakespeare, the 'Flower' portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

William Shakespeare, the ‘Flower’ portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I can’t help thinking – at least on my experience – that high school English teachers also have a bit to do with the calculation. The one I had, back in the late 1970s – a fellow named ‘Frog’ McKenzie- was a pleasant and well-meaning guy, but he had an unerring ability to make anything he taught dull. He obliterated class interest in literature. All the reading on the curriculum – not just Shakespeare but Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and even Heller’s Catch -22 – were rendered dull, dull, dull. Forever.

The reality, carefully hidden by the teacher, was that Shakespeare was the hot writer of his day – sharp, fast and witty. Interesting.

I don’t buy into the debates over whether the plays were written by Will Shakespeare or some other guy with the same name. Nor do I think they were penned by his wife Anne Hathaway (who got his second-best bed in his will, and is apparently now a Hollywood actress), or the Duke of Bedford, still less the Queen’s nurse, Bernard (who Shakespeare parodied in Romeo and Juliet’s The Nurse).

I think the plays were written by the guy we usually say they were. They were rollicking good stories.

Back then Londoners went to The Globe for an evening’s entertainment – much as later generations went to the cinema, and we blob around on our own couches with our X Boxes. So the pressure was on the Immortal Bard to hit the spot – and he did. If you happened to be living in Elizabethan England, his plays were up to the minute, jokey, bawdy, and often geared to subtly tweak the nose of the regime. This last was quite risky, because the place was being run as a police state. But Shakespeare managed it, usually by setting his play in some historical period. Some of his history plays were also designed to bolster the Tudor regime (a deep defamation on Richard III, but hey….)

Shakespeare produced, in short, a jolly good evening’s entertainment that was edgy enough to be good – but not so edgy it had him thrown into the Tower. (‘I only let him off because he blubbed on the way to the gallows’). And that’s the sort of stuff I wasn’t taught at school by my English teacher, who instead presented Shakespeare as high literature and a looooong afternoon’s bore.

That said, it’s hard to ‘get’ every last subtle in-joke, in all its complex detail, unless you’re a close scholar of the Elizabethan period. I’m not, which means I probably miss quite a lot, except the bit about ‘sack’, which was the Elizabethan term for cheap imported sherry, usually in a sack-wrapped bottle. Today we’d probably call it ‘chateau cardboard’ – you know, 3 litres of terrible wine packaged in a plastic bladder held in a cardboard box with a small slot for a tap.

Sir John Falstaff with a jar of sack. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Sir John Falstaff with a jar of sack. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Now, the last time I saw ‘chateau cardboard’ on sale in a pub was in a bar in Reefton in 1997, where my wife ordered a glass of house savignon. The woman behind the bar fished out a plastic bladder (sans cardboard case) from the chiller, opened the valve, and schpritzed a glass-full of this vinegary, sugary liquid. Conceptually? Sack. So began an evening that continued with the local ‘Man O Man’ contest, fuelled by an astonishing amount of drinking (we sat at the back, watching in amusement) and to my mind all this was not entirely unlike the sort of bawdy fun in the kind of Elizabethan bars that Prince Hal and Sir John Falstaff might have frequented. Falstaff, anyway.

See what I mean? I could go on like this for quite a while, because a lot of what Shakespeare wrote cut to the heart of the human condition, which everybody can identify with today because it’s still going on – I mean, a rowdy bar is a rowdy bar. It’s all interesting, if we know where to look. My English teacher didn’t, but that’s another story.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

If in doubt, throw it out – a motto for writing

Quite a bit of what’s written – certainly in this day and age – is really practise, like a pianist running through those interminable Czerny exercises. And like those exercises, the result isn’t really intended to see the light of day.

Essential writing fuel!

Essential writing fuel!

I suspect a lot of it does, though – courtesy of the fact that in this age of self-publishing, anybody can publish anything. And a lot of people do. There’s often a mood in writing circles about the preciousness of words. ‘My babies’.

Actually, I’m a great fan of writers throwing stuff away. It’s important – surprisingly so, in fact. Words are merely a tool for expression. If they’re not right – or if the author is on a learning curve – then the best thing, sometimes, is to chuck out the old and re-write. That’s also good practise, because it forces authors to think about how they’re expressing themselves – and to work at tackling the problem from a variety of angles.

It’s a technique that even practised writers – the ones who’re ‘unconsciously competent’ at the art – have to use. Jack Kerouac, allegedly, wrote On The Road in one massive pep-pill fuelled burst. What we might not realise from the “scroll” that poured in one huge sellotaped roll out of his typewriter is that he’d already had several attempts at the book.

They weren’t failures. Kerouac abandoned them because they weren’t capturing what he wanted. But if hadn’t taken the time to get his thoughts into line by writing them, he wouldn’t have been able to then write the “scroll” as he did.

My axiom? Words are easy to assemble. Moulding them to the intended meaning is a lot harder. That’s why I say: if in doubt, throw it out. And (of course) start again. This time having had the practise of expressing the idea once. It’ll work better the second time.

Or the third.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Thanks to E L James’ publicity fail I might have to write Proust fan-fic

In what has to be classed as an epic publicity fail, E. L. James’ Twitter Q&A this week turned into farce when the feed was bombed by people who – well, they didn’t exactly like her books.  Or her.

I have to ask. What were her publicists thinking? Sure, Grey is one of the fastest-selling books of all time, following up the previous trilogy. And sure, there have to be a lot of, shall we say, gratified customers out there. But those sales have happened on the back of a repute for those books being very, very badly written porn, reportedly derived from ‘Twilight’ fan fiction.

I have to say ‘repute’ because I haven’t actually read any of James’s work – nor will I. Still, the fact remains that sales are skyrocketing and James is reportedly worth anything from $38 to $58 million, depending on which site you look at. And what did the late Phineas Taylor Barnum once say about nobody ever losing money by under-estimating the taste of the public? Obviously this is where the market’s at, so I now have to decide which famous novel to redo as very, very badly written porn fan fic. Maybe you can help. Which should I pick?

  • Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.
  • John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
  • Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time.

My vote’s with the last, but that’s just me. I always did want to summarise Proust.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Free is not the answer for selling your e-book

These days I find myself barraged with offers to download books – for nothing, with the blessing of their authors. ‘Here, my book’s always free! Pleeeeeze download it!’

Wright_Typewriter2Bah! I can’t stand ‘always free’. It takes income away from writers. It takes income away from publishers.

I know how it happens. One of the axioms of economic theory is that demand rises inversely to price. Make something free, and – in theory – you have infinite demand. In practise, of course, that doesn’t happen, but that’s because people usually buy books for more reasons than just price. Interest and time enter the mix. So does discovery. A free book can sit there, not shifting, because nobody knows about it – a problem in this internet age when everybody is screaming for attention and everything gets lost in the noise.

Another axiom of economic theory is that – assuming steady demand – price falls if supply rises. This explains, pretty much, why the money’s gone out of book-writing of late. In the old days – and by that, I mean five or ten years ago – publishing was the province of mainstream businesses, involving authors, agents, editors, publishers, marketing and retail bookstores, all using hard copy.

Enter Kindle, and all that changed. Really it was the same revolution as happened to print photography, music and all the rest, applied to books.

With one other outcome. Anybody could publish – so anybody did. The gatekeepers were gone, and one outcome has been Chuck Wendig’s ‘shit volcano‘. Would-be authors suddenly got to publish the 23-volume epic saga they’d been writing on their cellphone while riding to work every day since 2003. And for them it’s not for the money – so they chuck it out free.

That’s a problem for mainstream authors and publishers, because they feel obligated to match it. And so they scrabble for cash just when the traditional business is changing.

What’s the answer? There’s an expectation in Generation Z, or AA, or whatever one we’re up to, that anybody has a right to help themselves to stuff online. The concept hasn’t been helped by Google, who offer everything for nothing because it’s a vehicle for their real business, advertising. (Google is an advertising company – trust me!)

But this idea of ‘free content’ is killing the writing and publishing industry – not because everything suddenly has to be free, but because it’s driven down the expectation of price. Free is handy for give-away moments – a quick promotion to get the book into the hands of key people who might help promote it – but free – and low-cost –doesn’t generate income, either for author or publisher. And there are costs to publishing, even in the new paradigm. Books still have to be designed – especially the cover – edited and proofed. There are marketing costs. And authors like to be paid. If they’re not, chances are they won’t be able to carry on writing.

In this sense, all ‘free’ does is take money out of the business. Besides, if you’ve got good quality content – well, it’s reasonable that those wanting to consume it should also pay for it.

‘Free’ or ‘low cost’ also implies that the author doesn’t value their work.

My take? Use ‘free’ judiciously to promote – but otherwise, set a realistic price that’s going to meet costs and give the author a return on time. It’s fair, and it’s reasonable. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

What’s missing from the new publishing paradigm

I can’t help thinking that the last five years have been dramatic for the traditional publishing model. You know, the multi-barrier one where, to get published, you had to first attract an agent. Five years ago, a lot of writers’ blogs featured their representative, even if the writer was unpublished – but to even get an agent was a mark of status.

My books in the window...

Yes, this is an entire shop window filled with books written by me – 14 out of my 52 titles.

All that’s gone. As has the debate over ‘traditional’ (old paradigm: status) versus ‘indie’ (old paradigm: amateur/unpublishable). In some senses it’s opened the door for anybody to publish anything – what Chuck Wendig calls it the ‘self-publishing shit volcano’. But there’s also good stuff that would have been welcomed in the trad system.

I don’t think the old system has gone – I still publish through it. But it’s been joined by another. And in all the debate, one thing’s been missed – one thing both the old and the new models share.

Money. There isn’t any, either way.

The old publishing model’s been bent, and the money’s gone out of it, certainly in New Zealand. Advances have dropped – often to zero – as has shelf-life. Even a few years ago, publishers let stock sell through over 5-6 years. Now they’re often pulping titles after a few months if they don’t shift.

The online/self-pub model relies on marketing through the internet – meaning any author’s book is joining about a hundred million others, while their authors tweet, blog, Facebook and generally scream about them. ‘Buy my books, you bastards!’ The good stuff is drowned in the noise. The average lifetime sales of an e-book, I’m told, is about a hundred units. I can believe it.

Worse, the Gen Z idea that everything online should, by rights, be ‘free’ has collided with the fact that one way to compete in that noise-filled frenzy is to drop the price. And a chunk of those publishing don’t care, either – for them, what counts isn’t the income so much as being published.

To my mind the answer isn’t holding on to the old, like a tiger growling over the last scraps of its dinner – it’s one of adapting or dying. Nor can we blame the technology. The real change isn’t in the sudden application of the information age to book distribution and sales, but a social one in the readership – the people who part with cash for the books. Organisations such as Amazon merely facilitate it for a general populace who are driving the change. Bottom line is that book-readers like the convenience of the e-book.

In this new world, I also think the answer isn’t ‘free’. More soon. Meanwhile – your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Writers are more than just what they write

One of the writing tropes to which I totally object is the notion that writers are defined by what they’re best known for – and that they’re somehow incapable of anything else. Or worse, not even capable of writing what they are acclaimed for.

Wright_AuthorPhoto2014_LoIt happens in an awful lot of places and ways, including fiction circles, where authors get tagged with whatever genre they’ve become known for, and that’s an end to it. If the author does do something different, they risk having critics treat them as if they are incompetent – as if the author has dared to step outside what they know and must, by default, be found wanting. That’s partly, I believe, why J K Rowling used a pseudonym for her detective novel.

The reality – as Rowling’s work makes abundantly clear – is that many authors are quite capable of tackling a wide range of things, brilliantly and with obvious quality. Look at Arthur C. Clarke, whose work ranged from science fact to science fiction (and he understood Einsteinian space-time).

To me that’s all to the good. Personally I couldn’t think of anything more limiting than trawling and re-trawling a specific small territory. I’ve written two books on New Zealand’s First World War, and unless something new occurs to me (which is always possible) that’s enough for the moment. I’ve done three books, to date, on the earlier New Zealand Wars – each ‘cutting into’ the topic from a very different angle. I do want to revise my main analytical volume on the period, but I haven’t much interest in doing anything more.

There is too much else to write about – new, interesting fields that pique my curiosity. Einsteinian space-time, for instance, though truth be told, I knew about that as a teenager – and won a regional science prize on the back of it.

And now?

Watch this space. Geddit? Space? Just remember that, when my next important writing thing happens. You’ll see. More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Writing with proper pace – avoiding the thin and stretched problem

I posted the other day about the way authors can write quickly and well – it boils down to having good concepts for content, then being able to translate that content into a linear thread. But that isn’t the only issue authors have to tackle when it comes to speed.

A writer rag-tagging at Gandalf's coat-tails...

A writer rag-tagging at Gandalf’s coat-tails…

The other one is pace. A story – or, for that matter, an article or piece of non-fiction – can be brilliantly conceived and well written, but still run too slowly to keep reader interest. The example that always springs to mind when I think of this problem is Harry Turtledove’s ‘World War’ series, an alternate history saga in which lizard-like aliens crash the Second World War and force both Allies and Axis to co-operate.

I chugged my way through the first of these but didn’t bother with the rest. Why? Turtledove is an excellent writer; there’s nothing wrong with his ideas, characterisation or anything else. But the pace was glacial. There was a mis-match, to my mind, between the drama of the story concept and the speed at which that drama was laid out. The peaks – the elements that hold reader interest – were too far-spread.

It would have worked, I think, as a book about a quarter of the length – and maybe the whole ‘World War’ saga could have been reduced to a couple of modest volumes on that basis.

The inverse problem is when the book is too thin for the subject – when it charges, helter-skelter, into the concept it’s conveying without pause for breath. I always thought Dan Brown’s The Of Vinci Code (I know what I said) veered into that territory – though, for all the faults I can find with Brown, there’s little doubt about his mastery of pace.

That also happens in non-fiction; I’ve chopped my way through history books where the author has clearly got rather carried away with their research and subject matter, and where the publisher hasn’t felt able to deal with the problem.

Though sometimes they do – I recall, years ago, a historian complaining to me that the publisher had required them to cut out about a third of their book. On my own experience, I know that publishers don’t do that gratuitously.

It’s a bit like the effects of Tolkien’s ring: The Ring didn’t give extra life – it stretched out the life its bearer had. ‘Thin and stretched,’ Bilbo explained to Gandalf at one point. And that, it seems to me, is true of writing too. The length has to fit the concept.

So what’s the answer? There’s no single ‘ideal’ length; different concepts will have different natural paces to them. The trick is finding them. One rule of thumb, though, is not to try to write to an ambitious word length – too often, authors go for ‘scale’ and the bragging rights of being able to say they just published a 1000 page book, when the content doesn’t match up.

Symptoms of the problem in fiction include stalling – dredging for what comes next, or including scenes that don’t advance the character arc and plot. Or, in non-fiction, it can include sections that don’t strictly relate to the main subject matter.

All these things have to be watched for. And don’t forget – word-count isn’t a goal; it’s a tool for measuring.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015