Finding Inspiration On Your Bookshelf

What to write?

You want to write a story but don’t know where to start. Here is one of my personal tips for finding inspiration.

I often find myself wanting to write something and not being sure what to write. This post attests to that as I wanted to write a new post for my blog, but didn’t know what it was to be about. So I wrote about that. What to write?

Novels or short stories?

Finding inspirationI am not a short story writer. No matter how often I see it on advice blogs or sites, ‘writing short stories is the best way to get your name known. Enter your story in a competition…’ etc. I am too wordy to write short stories. It’s a discipline just like writing a novel, where wordiness is also a drawback. Less is more, blah-do-blah, you’ve heard it all before. But short stories are a good way to hone your skills and develop ideas, on a small scale and, if they are for you, then fine. I prefer the larger challenge of novel writing and find short stories too restrictive, but competitions are a good thing to get involved in. Some of them ask for only 1,000 or 2,000 words – not my style. I often have to edit out over 10,000 words of any novel, so telling a story in fewer is not so much pulling teeth for me as having the whole lot ripped out. I admire short story writers; I’m just not one myself.

But you decide and, if you decide, ‘Toady I will write a short story’, or ‘Today I will start a new novel’, you are still left with, ‘What to write?’

Write about what you know


Lonely House, James Collins
Lonely House, James Collins

This is what they all say, and I don’t necessarily agree. I wrote a book, ‘Lonely House’, about two young guys accidently killing a man in a house where, seconds after the shooting, the victim’s family turned up for a party. It later transpires that… Well, I won’t give away the twists, but there are many. I’ve never shot anyone or found myself in a house in the woods where a monster lives, faced by a family starving their child so that she will… But that’s another twist. The point is, I didn’t know anything about the situation and so had to use my imagination. Okay, so write about things you know about, but don’t limit it. Let your imagination soar and see what comes out.


Write about what you don’t know

I was interested in writing a story that centred around a winter solstice festival, ‘The Saddling’ (due out in May 2017). I knew very little about winter solstice apart from the date of it, and so research was the way to go. Make research a fun part of your work and not only will you find unexpected inspiration but you’ll also learn something along the way.

But, where to start?

One day I wanted to write… something. Short story, novel, screenplay, musical? I’ve done them all – even the short story thing – but I had no idea what to write about. This is where I invented one of my ‘inspiration techniques.’ This involved thinking of a number between one and six, then a number between one and 15, a number between one and 300, a number between one and 30 and a final one between one and eleven. Why? What do the numbers (and here I do this at random) three, seven, 167, 15 and six, have to do with anything? Simply this:

Finding inspiration

The lair of the White Worm
The lair of the White Worm

I have a bookcase with six shelves, roughly 15 books per shelf, each book being approximately 300 pages (these numbers will vary) and each page having on average 30 lines. The last number is a word on a line, and you can drop this one if you want. So, I am now going to find the 7th book on shelf three, find page 167 and line 15. If word number six turns out to be and, if, but, etc. then I’ll simply find the nearest adjective or noun. I’m going to the shelf now…

I’ve chosen ‘Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable’, as it was the seventh book on shelf three. It has 1,480 pages so I can, if I want, be flexible on the number 167 and think of another one, but I won’t. Page 167, line 15, word number six turns out to be: Dutch. So, how about writing something about Holland, or the Dutch, or, after reading the rest of the line, Richard the Lionheart? It’s an idea, and at least I have a setting. Actually, the title of the entry in this book is ‘Bogie’ which Brewer talks about as a scarecrow or goblin. So, that’s probably more useful. Already I am forming ideas for a creepy story about scarecrows. Perhaps I should check out some ‘Dr Syn’ and make sure I don’t replicate those famous scarecrow stories. Maybe I could think of something else? Something to connect a scarecrow and a Dutchman, the Flying Dutchman perhaps? That’s a neat legend.

the saddling, James Collins
The inspiration for this novel came in a dream

Not everyone has a shelf of reference books, but a novel will work as well, or even a magazine. My top shelf, number one, has novels on it and book number 15 happens to be ‘The Lair of the White Worm’, by Bram Stoker. Not my most favourite story of his, but page 167, line 15, word six turns out to be: ‘Will’. In this case, it’s talking about a will – a perfect idea for a story. I want to write a comedy spoof about a haunted mansion and the family gathered for the reading of the will. Perhaps this is Stoker giving me some inspiration from beyond the grave.

So, you see, I have this one little system, which is entirely random, of finding inspiration. As long as you are open to it, you can find a single word sparks off a whole story, short or otherwise, and all you have to do is cross over to the bookcase apply your random numbers. If it doesn’t work, I have other techniques that I will write about another day but, if you are stuck for an idea, try it and see what you come up with. Meanwhile, I am off to write about a Dutch scarecrow connected to a will. Anything could happen.

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:

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 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 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, 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.’


James Collins authorWriting Thoughts is about just that: my thoughts on writing.
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News: 11/06.2017 ‘The 13th’, the film that I co-wrote, will be showing at The Cyprus International Fiolm Festival on Saturday 17th June.
11/06/2017 ‘The Saddling’, my latest novel, is now available on Kindle and Amazon and already has nine five-star reviews.