The Mechanics of Writing

Gears

I have always enjoyed writing stories. When I was younger I did it to entertain myself. Later, as I became more confident, I shared my work with close friends. I have always had a good imagination but I must admit that many of my ideas then were heavily influenced by the books I read as a child, as well as the television programmes and movies that I liked to watch. The fact is that although I loved writing I did not really know how to write a story.

I think that this is true for most people. There may well be one or two natural story tellers out there but even so they have to grapple with the mechanics of writing a book. I suppose that some might simply dictate their ideas and leave it to typists and editors to put the thing into some sort of semblance, but that does not seem to be the essence of writing to me. It is like an artist sketching a painting, doing the bare minimum, and then handing it over to someone else to finish. Yes, it has got their name on it but it has not captured any of their soul.

Writing a novel is a process as much as any other human undertaking. Having the idea to begin with can often prove frustrating but in that respect it is only the first and most certainly not the last problem to be encountered. I have had lots of ideas for books, but most of them withered and died. Although an idea might seem good at the first inception the fact is, as a novel writer, you have to discover if it has the necessary longevity. You have to take that original idea and subject it to testing. How individual authors do this is probably as different as the books that they write. For myself, I like to write a fairly loose document that aims solely to capture the idea in as complete a fashion as possible. I do not worry about things like spelling, grammar, plot, character development, all essential to a good book; that comes later. Getting the idea down on paper is what counts. Then I spend time writing the book in my head. Even if it survives these two crucibles it does not mean that the book will see the light of day. Fitting the idea into the actual mechanics of writing is what decides that.

An average novel is some 70,000 words long. I use that as my target. I am not particularly concerned about word length other than as a guide. The fact is, however, that 70,000 words is quite a distance in literary terms. If an idea can be spun into a story that reaches or even surpasses 70,000 words then you definitely have the makings of a book. There are other considerations, however. Does the story develop? This is a very good question and one that many writers do not seem to stop to consider. It might seem obvious but I have read more than one book where the entire story was so linear that you could see the end coming before you even reached the middle. Such a tale is still a story, just not a very good one.

Development of the idea is all important in good fiction writing. That statement includes everything related to the story. Not only must the plot develop but so should the central characters. If the hero is the same person at the end of the book as they were at the beginning then they really have not passed through any interesting experiences. Experience is what changes us and we accrue it through living a life. The more interesting the life the more subject to change we are through learning life’s lessons. A character in a book who does not learn is not interesting, certainly not to me. This is known as the hero’s journey and it is a staple of fiction writing. I am often surprised how many writers do not seem to be aware of this narrative template.

To develop both the story and the characters a writer must create a plot, a series of causal events that give the story its momentum so as to move it from beginning to end. In the early days of writing plots were as simplistic as that, they started at the beginning of the story and finished at the end. They could still take some interesting turns along the way, and throw in a few surprises too, but they were essentially simple. Today, we have writers who can craft plots that seem more intricate than the actual story that they give rise to. In fact, if you watch a television series like Daredevil, you can see the use of what is called the overarching plot that ties together a number of shorter sub-plots that provide the actual story of each episode. The role of the overarching plot is to bring the main story to a logical conclusion while at the same time allowing for numerous interesting developments to occur without the risk of the story disappearing at a tangent on each occasion. A television series often employs a team of writers to achieve this level of story telling to a high standard, novel writers usually do not.

When I have replied to someone by telling them that I am an author I have often heard the response: ‘Oh, I’m going to write a book one day too!’ I never question the person’s intent, I do often wonder if they know what is involved, however. I like cars. I would like to build a car of my own design, money and time permitting. I do not know how to build a car, however. I do know that I could learn and, if I were to enjoy a big win on the lottery, I might very well just do that very thing. I suspect that most people who state that they are going to write a book one day stop to think in the same way. That is the difference between writing a book, which anyone can do, and writing a book that people want to read. If you do not understand the mechanics of the process then you are in for a rough ride. A bit like the one offered by my car if I build it before I learn the necessary skills first.

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Fantastical Fantasy

At long last things have started to improve for me. First, my health, my foot and leg has been getting stronger with each day. This has been helped by my surgeon deciding to remove the external fixator frame on February 21st. Great news indeed. I will have to wear a plaster cast for several months afterwards but they are easier to live with, no risk of infections through open wound sites for one thing. Also, I can wear normal pants again.

Second, because my foot has become more comfortable I have been able to write and I mean seriously write. I went back to my fantasy novel, The Queen of the Mountain Kingdom (tentative title), which I had left languishing at some 60,0000 words. There had been problems with the chronology and getting various plot threads to weave together in the way I wanted. I was also unhappy with some of the character representations and the fact that my central character seemed to disappear from the action too many times. I really wanted to get this book sorted, but it was a real task and I struggled with it.

Returning to the fantasy world that I had created proved very cathartic, actually. In three days I doubled the number of written words. I found myself writing like an author possessed. The fact that I am no longer using strong painkillers has to be a consideration. I felt galvinised. In those three days I sorted out the chronology, tied the threads, developed the major characters more, and advanced the story to a logical conclusion. That does not mean that the book is finished, it just means that it now has a logical beginning, middle, and end. I still have a lot of editing to do.

One of the requirements of a good fantasy novel is a believable imaginary world. This is not something that you can do just by writing the story. It requires serious consideration in its own right. Robert E Howard created several fantasy worlds, his most famous being the Hyborian Age through which Conan the Barbarian swung his sword. Howard spent time writing essays on his creation, defining countries, religions, cities, and geographies. It is necessary work. It is very easy to get lost in such a world if you leave it undefined, it becomes vague and, I expect, unconvincing to the reader. A large portion of my story is based in a city high on the side of a mountain. I found that although I had an idea in my mind of the city that I often lost sight of where important places within it were located. This led to me writing contrary directions for the locations of sites and events. I got seriously confused. I am now in the process of drawing a map of the city and another one that depicts the continent that hosts the action. I will publish these on my website once I have developed the rough versions into something a little more pleasing on the eye.

When I started writing the first draft of The Queen of the Mountain Kingdom I took the time to write supporting essays on key features of the culture and history of the world that I was creating. As ideas occurred to me I made notes and developed them into a logical account. For example, I had the idea that the mountain is considered to be holy by the indigenous population and that it was once served by a body of priestesses, known as the Orosies. These women were replaced by male priests and women generally were reduced to second class citizens. I found it very helpful to write an account of the Orosies, especially how they moved underground to continue their religion in spite of the male dominated church that displaced them. With a fantasy book there are a lot of such considerations. I do not think of it as a chore but rather as a necessity. I want my readers to submerge themselves in an alternate world that is deep, rich, and entirely believable. To do that I have created a past history some 3,000 years long. It is not a work of several volumes, just a series of short pieces that capture, develop, and define the major historical and social developments of the world in which the main story takes place. It makes sense of why women cannot hold positions of authority in a kingdom based on the greatest mountain in the world. This background material also brings the weight of time to bear on the protagonists who find themselves fighting not only a rival kingdom but a powerful and magical people long thought to be lost to the world. I find it adds a kind of irresistible force, a juggernaut, that drives the plot forward and puts everything that the characters achieve into jeopardy. It creates tension.

I would like to say that the book is close to being finished, but it is not. However, the draft is some two thirds completed, less the editing of course. Now that I have dealt with the previous obstacles progress is moving at an impressive rate and I am very excited at the prospect of working on it. Hopefully, The Queen of the Mountain Kingdom will be completed by spring. I get the feeling, however, that it will continue to grow after that. I already have ideas for a second and third book in this new world that I have created.

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The Value of the Review

As with many subjects I have written about book reviews before, particularly my attempts to encourage readers to post their opinions about my books. I am happy to be able to write, therefore, about a review that a reader posted with no such encouragement from myself.

The book in question is ‘Mesozoic’, my technological thriller that features time travel and dinosaurs. The latter are a long standing obsession of mine. I became a fan of the adventure novel quite early in life. Books like ‘Treasure Island’, ‘The Three Musketeers’, and ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ are stories that I have read many times for the simple pleasure of it. ‘Mesozoic’ is very much in that vein. It features a disparate group of characters who must make a hazardous journey through an exotic landscape to escape being trapped several million years back in history, in the time of the dinosaurs. It is not a weighty novel. There are some themes in it that are important to me, like the consumer based economies devouring resources with no concern for anything other than making money. The book also features several strong female characters. The survivalist who as the unenviable task of keeping everyone alive in the prehistoric environments is a woman called Tanya. The next leader of the human world that has survived a massive ecological disaster in our future is Dr Eva Keisler. I actually quite like them. However, I wrote the book for fun and I think that I was successful in that aim.

The reader who took the time to post a review appears to agree with me. Kay gave the book 5 stars. You can read her comments here:

Amazon – Mesozoic Book Review

The review is short and to the point. It really does not have to be much more than that. I think that most people do not want to write a critical essay and, even as a writer, I agree with them. I try to get this point over when encouraging my readers to post something. The 5 sentences that make up this review are sufficient for posting on a vendor’s website, in my opinion. It is certainly enough to please me as an author.

Having written 5 books I wish the number of reviews that each had received equalled 10% of the total sales for each title. My reviews would number in the hundreds. Unfortunately, that is not the case. If you have ever read one of my novels I would be very grateful if you could spare me 10 minutes or so of your time and post a similar review to the one above. If you like my work and would like to read more then this one little thing, more than even the selling of a copy of one of my books, would do more for me as an author than anything else.

Book Cover 01

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Goodbye, Sister Morphine

Here I lie in my hospital bed
Tell me, sister Morphine, when are you coming round again?
Oh, I don’t think I can wait that long
Oh, you see that I’m not that strong

(Lyrics by Richards, Faithful, and Jagger)

It is 2019 and I am still recovering from surgery that I had some nine months ago. This is actually the second time that I have had this particular procedure, the first was in June 2010, just before the World Cup kicked off. Back then the pain management offered was simply woeful. The strongest painkiller that I was prescribed was Codeine, which simply was not sufficient when I was required to fracture the bones in my foot up to six times a day. When my surgeon told me in 2017 that I needed to have this surgery again I did worry about handling the pain. Things have changed, however, but I am not sure if the are for better or worse.

Immediately after my surgery in April, 2019, I was prescribed both Longtec and Shortec to help manage the resultant pain. Both medicines contain Oxycodone hydrochloride, an opioid that contains morphine. The Longtec is a slow release version taken twice a day at twelve hour intervals, and the Shortec is quick release. I directed to take the latter four times a day. Both drugs were supplied in 10mg doses.

Fixator

My Ilizarov Frame, aka the External Fixator

Initially, these painkillers worked very well. They suppressed the worst of the pain in the first few weeks, especially when I was making adjustments to the external fixator that was holding the bones of my foot together. This wonderful device allows the patient to fracture the bones to promote new bone growth. It also allows the surgeon to influence the development of the bone so as to turn a deformed foot, like mine, into something that looks more normal and sits flat to the floor. The problem with these drugs, however, is that being morphine based they can become addictive if the patient continues to use them after the pain has subsided. This is what happened to me.

I wanted to come off these painkillers but I found myself being frustrated by the fact that the surgery was not working. In early September, 2018, I went to see my surgeon expecting to agree a date for the removal of the frame, but he told me that my foot was not healing properly and that I needed a bone marrow transplant. In turn that meant continuing with the Longtec and Shortec as there would be fresh discomfort to deal with. Then, in late November, I had to have a third bout of surgery to replace all of the rods that held my foot together. I had actually broken one of them by walking on the foot, which was made difficult due the acute angle of the lower ring that progressed past my heel. I think that, in retrospect, this contributed to my foot not healing as walking on it is a necessary part of that process. I had asked the surgeon to replace the lower ring with one that was more horizontal in September but he had dismissed it, now he accepted that it had to be done to help facilitate recovery. Again, this meant continuing with the Longtec and Shortec.

Immediately after surgery I resolved to take myself off the opioid painkillers as soon as possible. They were causing me all kinds of problems. My appetite was poor and I was only putting weight back on very slowly after each bout of surgery. I was falling asleep in the afternoon but finding it difficult to sleep on a night. I had headaches, mood-swings, constipation, and dizziness as well. These were all recognised side-effects of these particular drugs. I should have had a review of my situation by my GP, but they were disinterested in my situation. In fact, in they continuously failed to fill my repeat prescription requests on time throughout the entire period. I had no faith in them as a primary healthcare provider. Even submitting a formal complaint did not change anything; they promised me a medical review but I am still waiting for it to happen!

I decided to go it alone.

First, I reduced the Longtec from two a day to one. Then I increased the interval in-between dosages from twelve hours to twenty-four. As I was still taking the Shortec this reduced the withdrawal symptoms. Once I had finished with the Longtec I started the same process with the Shortec. At first this proved relatively easy with only mild withdrawal symptoms, however, once I got to only two dosages a day I started to struggle. I began to experience anxiety attacks, bouts of being too hot and then shivering with cold, insomnia, and muscle pain. I used standard paracetamol as a placebo and this certainly helped. After a couple of days on a single dosage only I decided to stop altogether. This was neither easy nor recommended, but I had made my mind up.

Initially, I experienced heightened withdrawal symptoms that were so uncomfortable that I found myself contemplating taking a Shortec tablet just to offset them. I remember sitting on the edge of my bed at three in the morning having a discussion about this with myself. I was sweating profusely even though the night air was cold. The temptation to take the Shortec was almost irresistible but I defeated it by concentrating on the thought that once I had cleared the drug from my system then I could start driving again. I love driving and I had missed not being able to go out in my car for nine long months. That thought kept me going.

The second and third nights were also great struggles, but I got through them. Once I reached the fourth day without the opioid things started to improve if only gradually, but every day after that it all got much easier. My appetite returned and I began to sleep better. The anxiety and muscle-pain receded. By the seventh day I was feeling so well that I knew it had been worth the effort. The only disappointment was knowing that this could have been avoided if my GP had taken an interest in my medical situation and offered to help me get off the very drugs that they were so reluctant to dispense to me in the first place.

I have a fourth and final surgical procedure to face; the removal of the external frame itself. I do not intend to go back onto the opioids post-surgery. My foot and leg will be encased in a plaster-cast for a few months and I am told that I have a high pain threshold, probably because I have always lived with chronic pain. Since having the external fixator fitted I have attended a weekly clinic for patients. Over the months the problems caused by using Longtec and Shortec for extended periods, and particularly when the pain has receded during the healing stage, has been a constant topic of conversation between us. Some people have been able to stop using the opioids very quickly, others have not. None of those that I talked to have said that they were able to undergo a gradual withdrawal with their doctor’s assistance. Considering how addiction to painkillers is now recognised as a serious problem it seems ridiculous that the use of a drug based on morphine, which is known to be highly addictive when patients are not experiencing pain, goes unmanaged. I consider myself lucky. I had the strength to get through the withdrawal process, not everyone else is so lucky.

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Stan & Ollie (2018)

stan and ollie

As biographical films go this movie achieves a clever launch of the story of Laurel and Hardy. It begins with the pair informing the audience all about their lives in 1937 as they conduct a conversation while making their way to the set of their latest film, ‘Way Out West’. It is a very clever means of delineating the characters of Stand and Ollie, their various relationships, and, without doubt, the most important theme of the story, their friendship. After filming their famous dance scene for ‘Way Out West’ the film jumps forward in time and finds the pair older, poorer, and about to book into an unattractive hotel in Newcastle, England, prior to beginning their final tour of Britain and Ireland. Their opening night is little better, the is not the premier venue in the city and is barely half-full.

With both Stand and Ollie looking as old and tired as their environment this film could very easily have descended into bathos, instead director Jon S. Baird chooses to follow the Laurel and Hardy method of comedy by concentrating on the small interactions and ignoring the bigger picture. Their entrance into the Newcastle hotel is quite simply a Laurel and Hardy comedy sketch complete with Ollie’s wearied look into the camera. It is, however, barbed with a note of reality, as many of their meetings with British fans prove to be throughout the tour, that act as reminders that time has marched on and fate has not been kind to their memory as they might have wished. Stan and Ollie are not given to self-pity, however. They are seasoned professionals who have worked hard all of their lives and they love entertaining people, even half-full houses. They also share a friendship that has lasted over 30 years and this is the bedrock of both their professional and personal relationships. It is not perfect, despite appearances, but it is remarkably strong. Even though the pair are heading towards the end of their professional lives, and they clearly understand this even if they do not wish to admit to it, it is their friendship that sees them through the trials of getting old and finding a way into the hearts of their audience other than by making yet another film. The end of their long career is coming but it is not all sadness because what Stan and Ollie have is a deep affection and respect for each other that turns ‘Stand & Ollie’ into a beautiful film in its own right.

The actors, Steve Coogan as Stan and John C. Reilly as Ollie, are so good that as the story develops they seem to be Stan and Ollie. It is quite remarkable. I do not think that I have seen another biopic in which I forgot that I was watching an actor play another living person, especially two that I have enjoyed watching for so long myself. The mannerisms, the speech, the looks, the subtle interactions, are all close to being perfect. This is acting of the highest degree. Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly do not ask the audience to suspend their disbelief, they seduce them into doing so by being entirely believable. This is not some great drama or highbrow review of intellectual concepts, it is an examination of the human condition as seen through the trials, tribulations, highs and lows of two friends.

‘Stan & Ollie’ illustrates what it was that made these two entertainers so special. Although they receded from public life, like so many other entertainers who grow old and find that the powers that be in Hollywood no longer have a use for them, Laurel & Hardy have survived. Their brand of humour remains influential, entertaining, and relevant. It is about two friends trying to make their way in an uncaring world and what could be more inspirational than that? Throughout their cinematic legacy Stan and Ollie get repeatedly knocked down but always got up again. With childish optimism they continued trying to succeed. That philosophy appears to have been a part of their actual lives as well. It is definitely a part of this movie and provides the uplift at the conclusion. You cannot help but smile as the credits roll and Stan and Ollie perform their ‘Way Out West’ dance one more time.

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Not Another New Year’s Resolution?

Nope. I gave up New Year’s Resolutions many years ago. I can remember listening to a discussion on the subject on the radio in which someone pointed out that this whole making a resolution for the New Year had become meaningless because it had become socially acceptable to break the resolution within a matter of weeks. Also, there seemed to be a top ten of such promises to self, along the lines of ‘lose weight’ or ‘read more books’ or ‘drink less’. For the most part they were nothing more than good intentions.

On consideration of that point I stopped participating in the seasonal making a promise just to break it activity and went for making resolutions as and when I need them. In such instances I make the resolution something that is achievable and of benefit to me. Back in April, 2018, I made a resolution to get through the then imminent surgery; it is one that I am still waiting to achieve. At the time it all seemed quite sensible as I was given a three month recovery period. That changed to six months and is now a little over nine. A lot of thing have gone wrong in that period and not very much seems to have gone right.

At the end of November I underwent yet another surgical procedure that was aimed at helping me walk better while still wearing the external fixator. The actual surgery went well, I was only in hospital for one night. The position of the lower ring means that my foot now sits flat to the floor, which does make walking more natural and more stable. Unfortunately, as we approached Christmas I suffered another infection and had to go onto antibiotics, which did not agree with me and seemed to make me feel even worse. Celebrating my favourite holiday certainly proved to be more of a chore than I had expected. Even without the infection I was still pretty much the invalid, unable to help with putting up the holiday decorations for example. I had a lot of time to just sit and ponder things and one of the subjects that came to mind was my writing, or rather the lack of it.

Another resolution that I set myself back in April was to finish my fantasy novel, but that most certainly has not happened. I understand why, the months have not been a slow but steady period of recovery from the initial surgery. They have, in fact, been a rather constant battle to recover ground lost to infections, pins breaking, and further surgery. The emotional toll has been almost as great as the physical. For the last nine months I have been unable to do most of the things that I enjoy doing. I have watched lots of television. Even though I have seen some very good films, documentaries, and light entertainment I have also grown bored with this medium through overexposure. I want to be active again!

I have never been the most active of people due to my disability but this level of lethargy is proving very frustrating. Everything at the moment is a chore. Getting a cup of tea is a health and safety nightmare due to my lack of a decent sense of balance, it being a hot beverage, growing tired too quickly, and so many other factors that never occurred to me previously. It is like this with almost everything and it has stopped me from writing in a similar manner.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing for me is that the creative process has not stopped during all of this. I keep getting ideas for new stories. I get excited by them and want to start work but then my current situation intrudes and I find myself putting everything onto the ‘for later’ shelf. Because I have to sit with my leg elevated I find that even on a good day I cannot spend as much time working as I would like to.

However, there is some good news at last. I see my surgeon again in early February and I have been assured that we are going to discuss a date for having the frame removed. It will mean me wearing a plaster cast for at least six months afterwards but I can live with that. I know from previous experience that it is easier to sleep with a removable cast than it is with this frame. In fact, everything will get easier.

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Will This Horror Never End?!

Once more I find that an unplanned gap has occurred between my blog posts. The cause is, has it has been for most of this year, the surgery that I am still recovering from. The fact is that it seems to have failed. My surgeon does not seem to want to admit this, but then he is planning on operating on my for the third time this year in a little under a week. He is going to do the same procedure again in the hope that we might get a different result.

I know that I have the right to refuse any more surgical procedures and I did not consent to the latest proposal without several days of contemplation. I had a simple choice, have a ‘frame break’, which basically means removing the external fixator with a view to fitting it again some time next year, or have the lower ring replaced by one that is actually horizontal and should not interfere with my walking as the current offset ring does. To be honest, I was  leaning towards having the ‘frame break’ and then refusing to have the fixator refitted ever again. Such has been the awful experiences that I have gone through with it this time around.

It was my wife who talked me into trying the new ring instead. She is a nurse so she knows what she is talking about. She is also my wife and she wants to go places and see things with me. I can do that and for much longer if my foot decides to heal. That was the original hope of course, however, it seems to me that we hoping for different results despite repeating the same process and I find it difficult to be inspired by that approach. Nevertheless, I am committed to it now. I hope that this works as I want my next surgery to be the total removal of the external fixator and to never see its like again!

Fixator

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