The Mechanics of Writing


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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