Essential writing skills: how to make words your servants

Half the battle for writers is making writing their servant – not being a servant to the words. It’s a lesson novice writers usually only discover after they’re about half way through the first book and are finding the words mastering them, not the other way around.

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one...

I re-pitched my history of New Zealand for its second edition, altering the tone to bring the writing up to date.

It has to be addressed. And there is, alas, only one way to do that. That’s right – practise. But that shouldn’t be a chore – writing’s fun, right?

Once you’ve made words your servant – and your friend – you can start paying attention to the equally crucial matters of content, tone and style – together, what we might call ‘voice’. This isn’t something that just happens; it can be directed and controlled, just like any other aspect of writing. Take George McDonald Fraser’s Flashman, a novel about the bully from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, grown up and turned Victorian-age military hero. Fraser presented it as a ‘found memoir’ – which it wasn’t – but buoyed the conceit with such a subtle ‘1840’ period tone to his words that at least one reviewer was taken in.

It works in non-fiction, too. Recently I re-wrote one of my earlier books, a kids’ book pitched for 8 year olds, into a young adult-and-older account pitched for the 12+ bracket. It had to be completely re-written to do so – with full attention to the language, content and tone. I also re-pitched my history of New Zealand, when it came around to the second edition, to modernise the writing.

The trick to achieving that  control – something superficially easy to do but very hard to actually master. It takes a long time for writers to be able to consciously control the tone. But it’s an essential writing skill, and one that improves with practise. My tips? Try this:

1. Pick a passage by (say) your favourite author. What defines the tone? Look through a passage for key words – terms that give flavour. Check the pacing, the ‘beats’. Look for sentence length and paragraphing. Is it present or past tense? Examine the material closely and make notes.

2. Now try writing a passage at least 750 words long, of your own, in the same style, with the same cadence, word selection and rhythms.

3. Didn’t work? Of course not, it won’t the first time. But this is an exercise…and you know what exercises mean. Yup – do it again.

4. And again.

5. And again (etc).

It’s the only way. Did I mention you then throw the exercises away? Words are not precious babies, still less numeric targets. They’re tools, and they’re disposable. You can always write more.

The point is that when you’ve mastered tone, you’re more than half way to controlling voice, content and style. Writing will be your servant. Not the other way around. And there’s one other benefit that comes out of doing all this. With the quality comes that most precious of all skills that writers can have – speed.

Do you deliberately throw away ‘practise writing’? How do you extend yourself when writing?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy from Fishpond

Click to buy print edition from Fishpond

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Click to buy e-book from Amazon





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.

How to write and not be driven to eat your own weight in lard

After four weeks cudgelling words into existence and watching that count rise, National Novel Writing Month’s over. And now …what?

Wright_WgtnWaterfront2011_Copyright (c) 2011I figure there are three possible scenarios:

1. I hit the target and have a 50,000 word novel drafted.
2. I didn’t hit the target and have something less than 50,000 words.
3. I would have hit 50,000 words, but that M J Wright’s blog was so interesting I spent all my time reading it, telling all my friends to visit, and watching to see if he posted more, while buying as many of his books as I could afford…

It also seems to me that whatever happened, there are possibly three ways to feel about it:

1. Now’s the time to eat my own weight in butter.
2. I’m going to chuck the story in a drawer and forget it, forever.
3. That was a great experience. I’m going to sit back, take a well earned rest for a day or two – then start re-thinking that manuscript.

My money’s on (3). I figure yours will be too.

The thing is, what counts with things like NaNoWriMo is the doing. What all writing is about is the experience. It’s all good. Everything counts as another step in experience – another way-point in the million-word learning curve. What’s more, every writer is learning, all the time, including the established professionals. If they’re not, they won’t grow as writers. That’s the nature of the beast.

So you have your manuscript – whether written for NaNo, or something you’ve been working on a while, or whatever. What next?

I’ve got some ideas about that. You probably do too. More soon.

Meanwhile – how did NaNoWriMo go for you? Or have you another project on the go you’d like to share?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: Sixty Second Writing tips and ‘write it now’ return next week with more tips, hints, and ways of mastering the hard reality of writing in today’s world.  Plus – well, watch this space.

Grab your readers by controlling your organising principle

The real secret to writing quickly – and to making sure that everything you write is relevant – is to understand and control the ‘organising principle’ behind what you’re doing.

sleeping-man-with-newspapers-mdThis is something that is more fundamental even than structure to writing – because it tells you not only what the structure is going to be, but what’s going to be in it. Organising principle is one of the key fundamentals to writing a well-structured piece that’s going to grab your readers – anything from a letter to an essay to a novel.

Everything that’s ever written usually has an organising principle of some kind behind it, but often it’s unconscious. A chronology, for instance, is usually organised in date order from earliest to most recent. That’s often the basic structure behind any narrative history book – let’s take Winston Churchill’s immense History of the Second World War, which is a broad chronology. Superficially anyway.

Look further, though, and you’ll find the organising principle behind it. Churchill was giving reality to his oft-quoted quip about being remembered as a great man by history – because he was going to write that history. His selection of content, the way he presented it – everything about these books – was geared to that end. Often subtly, but sometimes not.

That’s true for fiction, too. One of the big issues writers often have is pruning out irrelevancies, those ‘good ideas’ for scenes that somehow gain a life of their own but which don’t specifically extend the characterisation. The writer gets stuck, backtracks, wrestles with the scene, can’t fit it in.

We have all, I think, faced that one.

But mix in a dose of organising principle – and suddenly the way becomes clear.

Imagine, for example, a play about a salesman – let’s say he’s not doing well and is wracked with guilt that he can’t provide for his family. So far so good, but a series of scenes showing his failures is going to be boring. Now stir in an organising principle – his descent to self-destruction.

Suddenly the play has a dynamic. What is the best way of showing the disintegration of character? Does the scene contribute to the exploration of that journey of self-destruction? If not, turf it or adjust so it does. Only then can we understand the final scene where the salesman leaves the stage to drive off – as we know, to his death.

I wouldn’t write a play like that myself, though, as I have a funny suspicion it’s been done already…

What the organising principle does, then, is act as a device to give everything place, and to dictate structure.

It’s the way to get ahead, and it works on any scale from vast epic down to blog posts.

Of course, the first thing you have to do is figure out what that principle will be for your particular writing. More on that next time.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: more writing tips, science geekery, history and more.

Writing and revising is all writing

I have an aversion to word count as a sole measure of writing progress.  In the profession, word count is a tool, a device for editors to identify scale and to help authors develop structure.

1195430130203966891liftarn_Writing_My_Master_s_Words_svg_medYet it’s popularly treated as a way of measuring how far the work is getting ahead. But when the draft’s finished – what then? The reality of writing is that a draft is far from a complete work. Often it’s only half way to finished, maybe less.

My tip today – why not think of the whole thing as writing? Drafting, re-writing, revising, editing – all these are different aspects of the wider creative process. What counts are the shapes and patterns of the written work – the way it takes a reader on an emotional journey.

The point is that the whole journey is there to be enjoyed. It should be fun (even though some writing is hard yakka).

Put another way, how we get there as writers – our own journey – is a complete experience.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: More writing tips, NaNo prompts and more – watch this space.

NaNo Writing Prompt No. 3

This week’s NaNo Writing Prompt photo is a vision from the golden age of Hollywood.

It was an age when streamline moderne reigned supreme, when the movies really were magic, and when the ‘haves’ could still afford – and get – utter luxury in the form of this 1942 Packard Super Eight 160 coupe. At least until the war intruded, that year.

Deco dreaming: photo I took of a classic US car in New Zealand - art deco parade, Napier 2012.

Deco dreaming: photo I took of a classic US car in New Zealand – art deco parade, Napier 2012.

Does it make you think of the magic of the movies? If the people in it were of their time, what would their lives have been like? What does the image inspire in you?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Why word count is essential but not an end goal for writers

I am always intrigued by the way writing is often perceived as word count. You can get widgets to broadcast progress to the internet. Contests such as National Novel Writing Month pivot on it – 50,000 words in a month.

Cyber Katherine Mansfield...I think...

Cyber Katherine Mansfield…I think…

Being able to write to speed and volume is a fundamental skill for writers, and the only way to get good is to do it. NaNoWriMo is fantastic for that. Good stuff.

But for me at least the deeper reality of writing is that it’s not just about the words or their number. It’s about the shapes, patterns of concepts, and the way ideas intersect. The meanings that flow from those intersections create the emotions a writer feels when writing, and which the reader feels when reading. Words are a flawed vehicle for expressing these.

Unfortunately, words are also the only vehicle writers have. Writing using anything else becomes music, painting or movies. All of which is good, but that isn’t a book.

Of course, writers have tried to stretch the limits. If you check out some of the experimental writings of the twentieth century – I’m thinking Franz Kafka with his omission of commas, or Jack Kerouac with the “flow of thought” format he used for On The Road – you’ll get a handle on it. They were trying to break clear of the limits created by words.

The point being that word count, alone, is NOT an end in itself.

That’s not to say we have to ignore word count. On the contrary. It’s a tool for defining scale, which editors and publishers need because scale is money in the business. For authors, it is also a tool for defining structure. A book with length X will always have components of particular lengths, and a particular pace of text, and can be planned accordingly. For professional writers, word count is certainly a tool to measure productivity – and yes, return on time is a practical issue.

What I’m getting at is that word count is a vital tool for writers – but has to be used correctly. Even in a quick-fire contest like National November Writing Month. Even when pushing to meet publisher deadlines. And quality is all the more essential these days.

Do you use word count as a tool this way?

Oh, one other thing. Does anybody ‘get’ what I’m on about when I talk about shapes, patterns and the intersections that give meaning? Just asking…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: More writing tips, and other stuff – watch this space.