‘Kiwi Air Power’ – out now, and it’s the best launch party e-v-a-h!

There ain’t nothing like the sound of a Rolls Royce Merlin thundering overhead as you sip your morning coffee.

I’m on my annual pilgrimage to the Art Deco weekend in Napier, New Zealand; a light-hearted nod to the styles of the 1930s and early 1940s. And its hardware. This was the age when Britain’s Supermarine Spitfire and the North American Mustang reigned supreme in Europe’s skies on the back of genius design, heroic pilots – and their Merlin power-plants.

This weekend, they’re supreme in my skies – flying over residential Napier doing aerobatics, which is super-cool. And from my perspective that’s apt, because this is the moment Intruder Books are re-releasing my original military aviation title, Kiwi Air Power.

Wright - Kiwi Air Power 450 pxKiwi Air Power was originally published in 1998, but it’s been out of print for fifteen years, and I’m delighted that Intruder have been able to bring it to a new audience. The main thrust of the book is the Second World War and its long-duration scion, the Cold War. And you can get Kiwi Air Power for Kindle right now. If you haven’t got a Kindle, you can get a Kindle reader for PC or whatever device you own, here.

Kiwi Air Power is the first of a series of re-releases from my military-historical back list, and the REAL launch party, the one you’ll all share, will happen when Intruder publish the second title from my back list. Watch this space.

As for the amazing Hollywood-style deco age fantasy I’m in the middle of? It’s still unfolding – watch this space, and check my Facebook author page for pictures – if you haven’t ‘liked’ already, the widget’s in the right hand column.

But enough from me. I’m back to the deco-age Hollywood magic. And that classic Merlin sound. Woah!

Catch you soon.

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

Writing inspirations – they that go down to the sea in ships

There are an awful lot of small boats in New Zealand. I suppose it’s predictable, when you think about the size of the coastline.

Boat harbour, Oriental Bay, Wellington.

Boat harbour, Oriental Bay, Wellington.

I photographed these in the harbour at Oriental Bay, Wellington. And as always there is inspiration there. Who owns these boats? Where have they travelled? What plans, what dreams, do those who sail in them have? Fertile ground for speculation – and for writers.

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

Kiwi Air Power: cover reveal and a sneak preview!

Here’s the cover of my book Kiwi Air Power, my history of New Zealand’s military aviation to the end of the Cold War, which is being republished as No. 1 in a new military series by Intruder Books.

Wright - Kiwi Air Power 450 pxYou can get Kiwi Air Power for Kindle right now – it’s being officially launched next week, but it’s already been released to trade and is for sale on Amazon if you want to buy ahead of the launch (sssh).

If you haven’t got a Kindle, you can get a Kindle reader for PC or whatever device you own, here.

The inspiration for the new edition cover is a photo I took last year as an RNZAF UH-1D Iroquois did some truly spectacular aerobatics over my head. Which sums up how I feel about this release. Kiwi Air Power was originally published in a case-bound edition by Reed NZ Ltd in 1998, but it’s been out of print for fifteen years. Now you can buy Kiwi Air Power on Kindle – and it’s the first release in a series that’s going to bring selected titles from my military-historical back-list to the market – and at reasonable prices – for the first time in years.

They’re also being published, initially, as e-books, meaning they’ll be available for readers anywhere in the world with a click. Reversing the old order of release embraces all the change that’s been sweeping the industry. And that’s super cool.

I’ve got other writing news soon, about my forward list, which isn’t military or non-fiction, and that is a return to my roots as a writer. Those roots are what made it possible for me to more easily find and infuse human truths into the non-fiction for which my academic work has been recognised.

Watch this space.

And on top of that, I figure when the next book in the New Zealand Military History series comes out – a re-release of my First World War title Western Front – I should throw an online party. What do you say?

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

Making ancient mysteries like Gobekli Tepe go away – with science!

I am always intrigued by the way ‘ancient mysteries’ go away with new science discoveries. All without recourse to secret ancient civilisations or helpful aliens.

Gobelkili Tepe by Teomancimit. Creative Commons license via Wikipedia.

Gobelkli Tepe by Teomancimit. Creative Commons license via Wikipedia.

Take Gobekli Tepe. This construction in southeastern Turkey is made of 7-10 ton upright stones, elaborately carved, and was recognised for what it was in the early 1990s by archaeologist Klaus Schmidt. Current theory suggests it was a gathering place for worship from a wide area.

There’s no mystery about how it was built; it’s within the capability of classic late paleolithic tech, providing they had an organised labour force and surplus food. That’s the point. Archaeologists have given the technology available to ice-age humans many names and classifications, often based on where variants were found – all of which is rather academic because in the broadest sense the people who invented this technology were as smart as we are, and it was smart tech, making best use of available materials; not just stone but also fire, wood, animal products, plant products, minerals and resins.

The only problem with Gobekli Tepe is when it went up – around 11,000 years before present, before villages and agriculture. That’s the mystery. Hunter-gatherer bands were typically a close-related kin group of around 150. We know this because that lifestyle is still followed in places today, such as the Kalahari. This, it seems, is the maximum scale of community that hunter-gathering can reasonably feed (humans today are apparently hard-wired to personally know groups of about 150 - something anthropologist Robin Dunbar puts down to that hunter-gatherer ancestry).

The thing is that hunter-gatherers, theoretically, didn’t have surplus production (food) for luxuries like temple building. The conventional view is this. Between about 11,000 and 8000 years before the present, einkorn wheat opened up agriculture in the northern reaches of the Middle East. Animal domestication followed. All this opened the gates to larger communities, notably Jericho and Catal Huyuk. The latter was a curious ‘one building’ city that flourished from around 9000 years before the present in what is now central Turkey, supporting a population estimated at anywhere from 6000 to 10,000. These agricultural centres could support specialists and feed a labour force that didn’t contribute, itself, to food growing – making larger-scale constructions possible.

Smithsonian Institution, Public Domain, via Wikipedia.

Smithsonian Institution, Public Domain, via Wikipedia.

So what about Gobekli Tepe? Humans at the end of the ice age were still hunter-gatherers. No agriculture. But – clearly – there was surplus food and organised labour. What gives? Explanations have included assertions about alien originated civilisations, unknown to conventional archaeology but obvious in ‘clues’ that only enthusiasts are able to detect. Or it has been called the Garden of Eden.

How can I put this? Folks – it’s bullshit. Even in conventional terms there’s no mystery to Gobleki Tepe once we understand how agriculture rose after the ice ages. It turns out that neither flour, nor domestication of animals, nor villages were new. All had been invented before, largely by the Gravettian culture that flourished from Bulgaria to the Crimea, around 30,000 years ago.

The Oruanui eruption, Taupo, 26,500 BP. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Taupo_2.png

The Oruanui eruption, Taupo, 26,500 BP. Public domain, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Taupo_2.png

These people were well on the way to an agricultural revolution nearly twenty millennia before ‘our’ one. They had semi-permanent habitations and had learned to make bread from wild wheat. They had grain stores. They had horticulture. They fished – indeed, analysis of nitrogen isotope ratios has shown that a lot of their protein came from fish. There is evidence of semi-domesticated animals, certainly domesticated dogs. But that came to an abrupt end when the world plunged into new glaciation some 26,500 years ago, culminating in the Last Glacial Maximum around 20,000 years ago. The cause, possibly, was the Taupo super-volcano in New Zealand, which erupted with world-shattering effect and may have triggered a catastrophic climatic downturn.

World climates oscillated for a while, but began decisively warming with the end of the Younger Dryas glaciation some 11,500 years ago. Humans began moving into what is now eastern Europe. And it seems their version of hunter-gathering was supplemented with wild wheat. Grinding stones have been found as an accompaniment to their camps across a wide region, implying that flour was being ground from wheat before it was domesticated.

Mix that potential with determination and intellect – remembering these people were just as smart as we are and just as capable of doing stuff – and that, I think, is all we need to explain Gobekli Tepe. No secret ancient super-civilisation or alien woo required. Sure, later discoveries make other things possible – but that doesn’t reduce the intellect or humanity of those who achieved things with the technologies on which later developments rest.

Lest there be any doubt, New Zealand Maori, up until the point of contact with Britain, had a similar mix of technology to those who built Gobleki Tepe, and in many ways fewer opportunities. The Maori economy was a composite of hunter-gathering, with significant fishing, supplemented with horticulture north of the ‘kumara line’, but they had no wheat, corn, or metals, and no domestic animals other than the Polynesian dog (a type that went extinct in colonial times). Clay was available, but pottery – though known in the ancestral Polynesian islands from which Maori came – was not used.

Otatara pa with reconstructed elements of palisade, Taradale, Napier. Click to enlarge.

Otatara pa with reconstructed elements of palisade, Taradale, Napier. Click to enlarge.

What happened? Maori developed a complex, sophisticated, vibrant and organised society able to build over six thousand pa (fortified places) across New Zealand between about 1500 and 1800 CE, all demanding surplus production and a social scale of organisation that often ran way beyond the 150-ish figure of the main Maori social structure, the hapu. Some of these, such as the horticulture on Mount Eden or the pa at Otatara, far outstrip Gobleki Tepe in scale. When the British arrived, mainly after 1800 CE, they had to invent a whole new classification (the ‘noble savage’, in settler period terms) to explain a people who, to British thinking of the nineteenth century, ran outside what was ‘supposed’ to happen by what the British knew at the time. But Maori had done it anyway, by their own capabilities. The problem, of course, was with how nineteenth century British thinkers saw the world.

Now go figure about those late ice-age folks and Gobleki Tepe.

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