Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Nine tips for great writing ...

How do you write stuff that people want to read?

Here are some conclusions I've come to over a life-time of writing and editing fiction and journalism.

First, care about your subject ... Passion is an over-used word, and the advertising industry exhorts us to feel passion about a variety of banal and pointless things ... (electronic gadgets, chain-saws, food mixers). But genuine enthusiasm about a subject is contagious, and if you feel deeply about something, write about it.

Second, focus on your authentic experience of that subject. Don't be afraid to use the 'I' word ... Your individual experience, rendered with integrity, passion and exactitude, has the potential to enthral thousands of others. Write about your concrete experience of that subject ... the sights, sounds, smells ... the visceral reality of the thing. Avoid the lofty abstraction, and accurately render the raw human experience.

'Visitors' was a collection of short stories based on growing up in the Waikato, and on my travels abroad. It was a book about love, death, obsession, and the tenacity of the human spirit. I'm passionately interested in those things, and left a little bit of my heart on every page.

Next, learn the craft. Since the first recorded narrative written several thousand years ago, 'Gilgamesh', writers have been perfecting the technical business of story-telling. Find a way to acquire the insights of accomplished writers who have gone before you.

This includes learning about the Hero's Journey, an ancient template that has great narrative power; how to write a well constructed scene with a beginning, rising action and climax; how to understand the three unities of time, place and action. You also need to know how to make your protagonist's predicament compelling; how to maximise dramatic power; and how to write sizzling dialogue that walks off the page.

Next, accept the reality of re-drafts. Every first draft of a story is flawed. Each time you re-draft a narrative, a mysterious process of improvement takes place. Most pieces of fiction go through multiple re-drafts, improving at each step of the way. Re-drafting isn't optional, it's essential!

Finally, have some fun ... The more you treat your writing as a process of playful enquiry and experimentation, the more likely you are to go back for the repeated visits necessary to produce a polished manuscript. Go for it!

Sunday, 27 July 2014

White sharks at Muriwai

Encounters with sharks underwater in Tonga recently (see below) have caused me to reflect on these magnificent creatures, and the shark attack last year at Muriwai Beach, which killed film maker Adam Strange. I had taken a South Island friend swimming at Muriwai three days before the attack, and was struck by how the coroner's report, and the media generally had concluded that there was no way the death could have been prevented. Adam had been swimming in deep water between the gannet colony and Oaia Island, home to a thriving fur seal outpost.

Muriwai and Oaia Island at sunset ... (U Machold)
Fur seals are a staple of the great white shark diet. There are estimated to be at least a hundred great whites in Foveaux Strait at Stewart Island where seal colonies proliferate. In the 1990s, fur seals began to breed again in the North Island, after years of being hunted to near extinction, and Oaia Island is one of the few significant colonies here. Great whites migrate up to 3,300 km annually and it's a reasonable assumption they visit Oaia Island on the way. Water visibility at Muriwai is very low, which means sharks are invisible to us, and may cause sharks to mistake human swimmers for seals.

NIWA has tracked the migration routes of great whites using tags