‘A Way with Words’ by Chris Maclean


Chris Maclean is a Waikanae-based author with a keen interest in the outdoors, the subject of a number of his books.

Born in Wellington in 1952, he graduated from Victoria University with a degree in history. A career as a stained-glass artist in the 1970s led, in turn, to a second as a writer and publisher, which has been his primary focus since the late 1980s. The result has been a dozen non-fiction titles, including well-known volumes celebrating the local landscape – Waikanae, Tararua, Kapiti (winner of the Montana Book Award for History) and Wellington Telling Tales – and several biographies, including John Pascoe and Stag Spooner – Wild Man from the Bush. He has also collaborated with others to produce books on war memorials and stained glass (with Jock Phillips) and Tramping – A New Zealand History (with Shaun Barnett).

From an early age, author and publisher Chris Maclean was told he had a way with words. This talent, which protected him from school bullies and made him a proficient debater, later became the focus of his professional life. Since the 1980s he has written a dozen non-fiction books, publishing many of them very successfully under his own imprint, The Whitcombe Press. In A Way with Words he takes us through the changes over the years describing a variety of aspects of writing; the effect of writing by hand, the influence of memory, sleep assisted writing (see below), the requirements for writing online and the value of an editor.

A Way with Words also tells the stories behind his publications. In candid, accessible style, and through a fascinating range of illustrations, Maclean describes the stages of book creation, from the first germ of an idea to writing, design, printing and distribution. He shows, too, that making books is as much hard work and determination as inspiration, with luck always playing its part. And there are reflections on what has happened to books and publishing over four decades of rapid change – the impact of colour printing, the advent of computers and the more recent effects of the digital age. Chris’s books have raised the standard for local and regional histories, with an equal emphasis on images as well as words, with top quality design and presentation.

Coming from one of New Zealand’s oldest publishing families — his mother (with whom he wrote two books) was Joan Whitcombe, granddaughter of George Whitcombe the founder of Whitcombe & Tombs — he ponders the demise of the publisher and the bookshop but also talks about the opportunities that have opened because of the changing times. The influence of Whitcombe & Tombs in the early years was huge in the publishing/bookselling industry.

Sleep assisted writing: extracted from A Way with Words:

In 2004, set the task of writing 100 different stories in 100 days for a museum exhibition, Chris found a way to use his quiescent mind to good effect:

Soon after I began writing, I made a useful discovery. My usual pattern was to get up early, feed the cat, then begin to write with a cup or two of tea. With the museum stories, this meant doing the research the previous day. I began by spending the afternoons in libraries and elsewhere, rapidly researching that day’s particular subject. Often the results of my research were unclear or inconclusive, yet I noticed that when I woke the next morning an angle or narrative approach would often become apparent. Then the words flowed.

I therefore began to cultivate the crystallisation process that sleep seemed to offer. At night before I nodded off, I would consciously ruminate on the day's research. Then before waking, in that half-way world of dreamy semi¬ consciousness, I would focus on the day's story, hoping for a way in. And it worked. To my surprise, the more I practised this technique, the more reliable it became. With this trick of the mind, I would be able to achieve what otherwise seemed an impossible task.

It would be a further 10 years before I came across its validation in a newspaper report (The Dominion Post September 2014) about French research into the brain's ability to process material while asleep. It described how Sid Kouider, a neuroscientist at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris had found that 'the sleeping brain can be far more "active" in sleep than one would think'. This led to a second study in which he discovered that 'people are able to improve at tasks they "practise" while asleep'.

A Way with Words

Hardback $49.99

Publisher: The Whitcombe Press