News from my desk

Screenplay and film news

Here we are heading into another weekend and what’s the news from my desk? As readers of my day-to-day blog about my life on the Greek island of Symi (www.symidream.com) may already know, I’ve been a bit involved with the London Greek Film Festival. The recent news there is that our film, ‘The 13th’ won three awards. Best Actress for the wonderful Rebecca Grant, Best Music for the very talented Michael Bishop, and a Special Award for the whole film itself. Basically, as far as I can make out, it came second in the Best Film category. All great news for the film. There is also a distribution deal in the offing which will see it released to the public in time. My novel, The Judas Inheritance, is the original story based on my original script for the film. The film is now being considered for the New York Greek Film Festival; fingers crossed.

My ‘Without a box’ bio; this site is where films are put when they are being submitted to film festivals.

Novel writing

As for the next novel… Where do I start? Since finishing The Saddling, (seven five-star reviews now, the latest one being: “A real page turner. From start to finish a great read. Right up to the last page the ending couldn’t have been predicted”) I have plotted out two new novels, started work on an adaptation, and written a few first draft chapters for two others. As you can see, I am not sure where to go next. The one I started talking about in a recent post has been put aside as another idea crowds in, and I think what’s happening is this: I’ve finished one major work, 100,000 words (The Saddling) and so my mind is free to create more worlds and characters, situations and plots. Trouble is, there are so many to get out. I am aiming for 2,000 to 3,000 words per day on something, but need to focus on one idea at a time. That’s always been my problem, knowing what to leave for now and what to work on next. Maybe next week I will settle down to just one thing.

The Saddling

 Publicity

I have also been trying to get to grips with publicity and have put out a few feelers for someone to do this for me. It’s not because I am lazy, though I can be, it’s more to do with not understanding the process. Every time I look at a site that says it will publicise your books, I start to switch off. It’s not the cost, though I don’t have a budget for publicity, it’s all the fiddly bits and pieces you need to understand. So many sites, all with their own rules, so much advice, and so many ways to do things, I’d rather be writing than worrying about keywords at Amazon, freebies, Insta-something this, and book-blurb that, weekly deals and giveaways and all those other marketing tools. It’s a nightmare without a team and budget behind you, but we press on.

The Judas Inheritance

 Covers

I have also commissioned a new cover for Lonely House, one of my more gory horror stories, and I am again using Red Raven Book Design in Portugal for this. I highly recommend Diogo and his work and am looking forward to seeing what he comes up with over the next week or so. He’s also pretty quick and asks in-depth questions about your book and your vision before giving five mock-ups. He also builds into his price some extra work for edits and changes, and still the cost comes in at under €200.00 (depending on how many changes you want.) Check out his website and see what he can do for you.

Lonely House, James Collins
Original cover – looking forward to seeing the new one soon.

 And onwards

So, it’s the weekend now, and I have 101 things I want to write and so little time to do them in. I’ll leave this post here and go back to my notebooks and maybe roll a die. I have six project ideas, some started, some plotted, and maybe I should number them and then roll the die and settle on that one.

Starting a new novel

Three ways to start a new novel

I am often asked how ideas for stories come about. There is no one answer for that – one has come from a dream, one has come from walking past a television, one or two started off as ideas for screenplays and then, once the first draft was written, were turned into novels. But the usual starting point, for me, is the need to want to write something.

There are so many reasons for wanting to tell a story, but the main one is purely that; you want to write a story. We can shorten that sentence: you want to write. That’s the best starting place. After all, if you don’t want to write, you won’t want to write a novel, but do you start with a character, a theme, a plot, place or protagonist? Do you think, ‘that would be a good setting,’ or do you think, ‘that’s a great dilemma to explore’? I’ve touched on finding inspiration before, see Finding Inspiration on your Bookshelf, but, for me, there has to be a spark, something that makes your heart leap and say ‘that’s it!’ Sometimes, though, that spark is just a flickering flame and needs fanning. I am in that position at the moment and so here are a few ideas about the process of getting started.

Character

Starting a new novelSome people start with a character. Someone you know, someone you’ve observed, read about or seen on the news. You find an interesting person and think, ‘what would happen if…?’ And the ‘What If?’ is probably the best place to start. What if your best friend suddenly found herself/himself in a strange location, what would they do? How would they react? From here, the story grows out of the character, but even with those few lines, you can see that you already have the main ingredients for a story: a character and a problem. After all, without conflict, there is no drama, and without drama, there is no (decent) story. Yes, we can all write about pleasant things and how wonderful our visit to a location was, what a great holiday we had and how nicely it all turned out, but that’s not going not be of much interest to many readers. Readers want drama, they want to follow your character through some kind of adventure, change, difficult situation, and see them win at the end – or lose, you can do either.

Starting point one: Find a character and explore the ‘What ifs?’

Starting a new novelLocation

Here’s another way of starting things off. I am currently thinking that I might like to write a story set in a haunted mansion in the wilds, isolated, cut off, and creepy. Yes, it’s a very overdone setting, and the first things that come to mind are very overused stories. The Cat and the Canary‘, ‘The House on Haunted Hill’, ‘The House that Dripped Blood’ and all the rest. Classic, Gothic, creepiness with a group of people confined to one location and unable to leave. It’s been done to death by Miss Author, in the study with the typewriter. So, why not make it a spoof? Why not find a way to turn in on its head. That’s what I am trying to do. What if this was a comedy horror/mystery/thriller? You could then really play on the cliché and have fun. (Actually, that IS ‘The Cat and the Canary’, so make your characters specialists in a field, and only when all five realise that they need each other to survive can they band together to defeat the evil. But what happens if one of them…? And on we go.)

When writing ‘The Saddling’, the location was paramount. It’s set on the Romney Marshes, and so I was after atmosphere, and the setting brings that with it, depending on how you use it. I remember one of my essays at school, when doing A Levels, was to discuss Thomas Hardy’s use of Egdon Heath as a character, as the protagonist actually, and that’s another way of coming at it. Make your setting (the heath, the marshes) the protagonist, and you have both character and setting before you start.

Starting point two: find a setting and think who would be uncomfortable here? (Immediate conflict.)

Starting a new novelPlot

Another way to come at it, and I’ve done this, is to start with a plot. One of my first stories is called ‘You Wish’ and I hit upon that with the idea of, ‘What if you got your wish for one day?’ Nice, there is definitely a plot there about getting what you want, and we all want that. But then I added, ‘But in return, you have to suffer three days of the downside, the payback?’ That then gives us conflict and, in this case, loads of ideas for comedy. (It’s a comedy novel and rather a mad one, but I still like it.) And then I thought, ‘One person getting their wish and then having to deal with the consequences is one thing, having four people all doing the same is another. And so, the four main characters appeared. But I wanted to tie it in with fast, mad-cap comedy and a bit of a farce, so these characters then had to intertwine and come together and stir things up and… I won’t give away the story, but the point is, I started with a complicated plot and then put in the characters. This makes for an action-driven story with some depth to the characters and also, as there are four main characters, more chance of readers associating with at least one and cheering them on.

Starting point three: Find a situation

Putting it together

One of my previous cabaret partners used to quote from a show (I think it was ‘Merrily We Roll Along’) and come out with: ‘What comes first, the music or the lyrics? Answer: Usually the contract.’ (Sorry if I’ve misquoted that.) But what comes first when setting out to write a novel? Well, ‘anything’ is my answer. Start with a character and have a book about a character’s change, start with a setting and find inspiration from it, start with the idea of a type of fiction, comedy horror, life story farce (mix genres, I do), or start with a great big ‘what if?’ You will soon find that, once you’ve started thinking, the other things will attach themselves to you. I want to write a story about five people in a big old haunted house, I can even picture the building. Knowing me, I will draw up a floor plan. But I will have to start thinking: who is going to be at this house and why? So, I have a setting, and the characters will come, and then, based on who they are, the plot will emerge. There’s no theme for this idea (theme and subject, or message, is another way of starting out) but that’s all part of the writing process. Let it develop.

So, when asked how a novel comes about, I now usually say, it originates from the desire to write… something. How you then structure your writing is a subject for another day.

Nothing is ever finished

the saddling, James Collins

Nothing is ever finished.
You’ve written your novel, what next?

Ready to write

The chances are, if you’ve finished your novel, you will be champing at the bit to get it published. Thanks to innovations over the past few years, you can now do this. In fact, if you finished your draft today, you can have your published book on sale by tonight. But hold on! Nothing is ever finished.

I tend not to reread my novels, not once they have been put ‘out there.’ It’s not because I don’t like them, I do, very much. It’s not because I have read them before, I have, several times. It’s not because I have other things to do either, I have plenty. I tend not to reread them as I don’t want to find errors, I don’t want to think, ‘I could have done that differently,’ no matter how useful such thoughts are. If I reread some of my very early novels (the gay thriller Other People’s Dreams’, for example, I would not be satisfied with it at all, and there’s a reason for that:

Lulu.com
Lulu.com

I wrote it over a period of about three years, I submitted it to some publishers and had interest from one, the British publishers, Gay Men’s Press, and was very excited and encouraged when they talked about publication and sent it out to their readers for comment. Sadly, some of the readers thought it was ‘almost but not quite’ and, soon after, the publishers disbanded (nothing to do with my book!) I did, however, get an agent at the same time, and she read the book, had a heart attack and retired to Spain. (Again, nothing to do with my book. At least that’s what she said). So, many years later and along comes Lulu.com a self-publishing platform and one of the first, if I am not mistaken. Here I was suddenly able to upload my Word doc, see it laid out and then design a simple cover and, by tea time, have it ready for sale. It really was (and is) that quick and easy.

Grammarly
Grammarly home

But. Over ten years later and I have learned a thing or two. This is what I mean by ‘Nothing is ever finished.’ Here are the stages I have been through to complete my latest novel (my eighth published so far), ‘The Saddling.’

  • “I had a dream.” The idea for this story did, in fact, come from a dream. One of those dreams that leaves you with a feeling rather than just a snippet of imagery. It was an unsettling feeling and one that I wanted to explore in novel form.
  • I thought it would make a good film too, so I went through all the stages of plotting a film script: structure, character, setting, storyline, character development, spreadsheets and notes, images of the location, visual ideas and all that. I put it down as a screenplay in under 120 pages – TIP: it’s a good way to concentrate on your storyline but be aware of structure: most films are heavy on the structure before anything else.
  • I left it alone for a while, worked on something else and came back to it later. No-one was going to buy that script, but I had the basics for the novel. I set about the first draft.
  • This took a further year or so (one must do paid work in between writing sessions, unfortunately) including an intensive week away on a small island near me, Tilos, where I hammered out a further 35,000 words during my ‘Holiday.’
  • My novel was finished and, ten years ago, I would have sent it straight to Lulu.com, or even Create Space, and published it that night. But I had learned something in the years in between.
  • I left it alone for some time and worked on something else. I came back to it as a second draft and added in ideas that had occurred to me during that time. You should always be thinking of ‘the book’ and what you can do to improve it. I tend to work on about three stories at any one time, the first draft of something is always at the back of my mind.
  • I then ordered an A4, spiral bound, copy of draft one from Lulu. TIP: You can do this, keep it private, no need for a cover, and you can sit and read it in print, rather than on the computer. It looks different, you see it in a new light, and it was cheaper than buying the paper and printer ink I would have needed.
  • I attacked the draft (2) with a red pen and wrote draft 3. This was more a question of cutting and pasting, deleting over 10,000 words (from 110,000) and writing new sections. Some sections were simply edited.
  • I had a few people read draft 3 by sending them PDF files and, in the case of my editor, another A4 printed version.
  • I listened to their comments and wrote draft 4.
  • Then draft 5 – which was more of an editing job on my part. I also ran this through Grammarly to check up on my grammar. TIP: Don’t rely on the built-in spell and grammar checker with Word, always get a second opinion.
  • Draft 5 was sent to my editor, and I left it alone for a while. He came back with a few comments, and I edited things down to make draft 6.
  • The editor (who I work with as the indie-publisher and who also does my layout) set the chapters into Adobe In Design, and we looked at a few things like chapter length. I then did some further editing and layout work before sending him the final draft 6 files.
  • We then edited some more to make draft 7.

As I write, we are still working on the final layout of chapters ready for publication in April/May. He sets them out and sends me a PDF, I read them and hopefully find no errors. (He was still finding a few typos in my draft six – nothing is every finished.)

the saddling
A professional cover design is worth the investment

Once that draft is complete, we will then go through the manuscript, via Skype as he is the in the UK and I am in Greece, and we will ‘slaughter the widows and orphans’ to get the layout just right. That will be draft 7 and will be the final draft. Unless I reread it and want to make more changes. For changes, read improvements. But I shan’t as you can easily overdo something and kill it by fiddling with it. While all this was going on, I was also employing a cover designer, and this novel has my most professional cover to date.

As things stand today, March 5th, 2017, we have set out the first three chapters, another 35 + to go and then the widows and orphans to get rid of before uploading it to Create Space and Amazon for publication.

You see? Four years down the line and we’re still not quite finished. So, unless you know you have the perfect story told and laid out in the perfect way, don’t rush into publishing your book. Take time to make it perfect. You owe it to yourself, and you owe it to your book to make it the best you can while always remembering, ‘Nothing is ever finished.’