James Morgan-Jones found his love of writing at around 12 years of age.
He's now the author of The Glasswater Quintet, and in this episode he talks about his approach to writing a book series and how the first book in the series came about when he was studying for his MA.
James is also a poet and a playwright and I was fascinated to hear about how his poetry, screenplays, and his background as an actor have informed how he writes his books.
In this episode, we discuss:
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James: I think you have to be prepared, (a), for a lot of work, obviously. I think you have to have an idea of your setting, where you want to set it. I think you have to have an overarching idea of your plot, the general storyline of where you want to take it. And also I think it’s helpful to have a clear idea of your principal characters.
Introduction: Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: What does it take to write a series of books or even a trilogy or even a quintet?
Hi, there. My name is Bryan Collins and welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast. Over the last few months, I’ve interviewed a number of authors, including this week’s interviewee, James Morgan-Jones, who’s written a series of books.
James actually wrote a quintet of books which he talks about in this week’s interview. One of the things I’ve been struck by is how writing a series involves a little bit of work upfront. For example, are you going to plan how the series unfolds in the final book, or are you simply going to write the first book and then decide if the next one is for you?
But writing a series also seems to have some other advantages as well. For example, if a reader enjoys book one, then there’s a good chance they’re gonna buy book two and book three, which means more book sales for you. And if you’re writing a series, it’s probably a little bit easier to continue the story because you already know some of the characters, you understand the world, and you have an idea for the tone of voice for your book.
In this week’s interview with James Morgan-Jones, who’s the author of the Glasswater Quintet, he talks about his approach for writing a series. James is also a poet and a playwright and I was fascinated to hear about how writing poetry and also writing screenplays and his background as an actor has informed how he writes his books. One of the other takeaways I got from this interview is that it’s a good idea to try different creative projects even if you don’t necessarily know how they’re going to pan out.
At the time of recording this week’s interview, I’ve actually started working on a new project. It’s a book that explains how content creators can earn a living from their work and get paid.
The book covers things like writing a series, writing non-fiction, creating online courses, creating a newsletter, and creating a niche website, and I’ve based some of the key ideas and strategies inside of this book, which won’t be out ’til later this year, on interviews with people I’ve had on the Become a Writer Today Podcast, like John Dykstra and also Mushfiq.
They cover topics like building a content website and buying and selling websites. I’m about 10,000 words into this book so, chances are, the topic could evolve a little bit but I’ll keep you posted about how it goes and I intend to use some of the ideas and chapters from this book as articles that I’ll publish on my newsletter so watch out for those.
Now, if you enjoy the Become a Writer Today Podcast and you find it helpful, please leave a short review on iTunes or you could share the show with a friend or a fellow listener or writer on Overcast, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you’re listening. And if you really enjoy the show, for just a couple of dollars a month, consider becoming a Patreon supporter. I’ll give you discounts on my writing courses, software, and books, and all for the price of a cup of coffee.
Now, let’s go over to this week’s interview with James, and I started by asking him to describe his background and how it’s helped inform his writing process.
Bryan: James, would you be able to describe your writing background to listeners so they’ll get a flavor for who you are, and then we could talk about your writing process?
James: Sure. Like a lot of people, I started writing when I was very young, about 12 or 13 is when I first started but, of course, as you can imagine, they were very derivative. They were often based on things I was watching on television at the time, that sort of thing.
Although, actually, there was one particular series which you wouldn’t get today, I think, for children’s television which was hugely influential and I think would — has even fed through to the Glasswater Quintet in a way, actually.
It was a series that was shown in the very early 70s and was, as I say, a very intelligent and thoughtful and prescient sci-fi for children that dealt with things like cloning and climate change, disastrous climate change, and genetic engineering, all sorts of extraordinary things which you, given that this was the very early 70s, you would never think that that would happen in those days, but it did.
Bryan: What was the show?
James: And so, yeah, it was a thing that didn’t — it only went on for about 26 weeks for six months and it was called Timeslip —
James: — but you can, I believe, still get it on DVD, but it was an extraordinarily thoughtful and intelligent series for children at the time and was a big hit at the time but, as I say, it was quite short-lived.
Anyhow, yeah, so that filtered into my writing then and I went on writing through my teens until I went to further education, which was in fact drama school, and I did carry on writing while I was there a bit but then the world of theater and acting tended to take over and so I didn’t write so much for quite a long time and came back to it later on.
I actually went on an MA course to get myself back in the saddle and I did that. I’m lucky enough to have a university literally down the road from me here in Wales so I did that there and it went from there and, from that point onwards, which was now about, frighteningly, about 15 years ago, I’ve been writing seriously. So, that’s, in a nutshell, the background.
Bryan: It’s interesting that you had a background in theater. I only learned about the three-act structure when I started reading about how screenplays were created so did that help you when you were writing the books that you had an understanding of that structure?
James: Well, I’m not sure about the structure. In fact, the latest thing I’ve been writing is, in fact, a play which is the first time I’ve done it and I’m really sort of quite excited to have done that, given the background, but I wouldn’t say the structure of a screenplay informed the novels.
What does inform it, I think, is dialogue. I think a lot of people have commented on the quality of the dialogue in the books, which is nice. You know, the fact that it sounds convincing and natural and so on. And that, I think, definitely comes from having worked on scripts and having been an actor. You have an ear, I think, the dialogue from that. And, yeah, I think that certainly has filtered into the fiction, without a doubt.
Bryan: If I’m writing dialogue, are there any tips you could offer me or our listeners?
James: I think you’ve got to hear it in your head, a great thing which always — I started doing quite naturally, actually, when I first started writing seriously, but then I came across interviews with writers who said the similar thing and so I thought, “Oh, that’s great, I’m doing that,” which is that if you whisper it very — or you can either speak it out loud, I tend to whisper it to myself, I read through the lines that I’ve written and I whisper it through to myself and you can often hear then if it doesn’t sound natural. If it does, if it convinces you when you read it through, it’s usually okay. Also, going back to it the day after —
James: — sometimes I’ll do that and I’ll think, “No, that’s — actually, that’s a bit stilted, don’t like that,” and I’ll change it again, but the best thing to do is to read it through for the rhythm of it and see if you can relate to how that’s sounding in your ear, as it were, and that’s certainly what I do.
Bryan: Does it take long to get the voice of different characters?
James: Again, I think I’m probably lucky in that way because of having been an actor, you’re more attuned to thinking in terms of character and how to inhabit it. And so I wouldn’t say it takes a long time. I have to think myself into it again and, again, it’s all to do with hearing it in your head is very important, I think, to do that. If you just write it externally, as it were, standing outside it, just like a typewriter rattling off the dialogue, it may not sound as natural as you’d like it.
Another tip, I think, because people haven’t, obviously, a lot of people aren’t gonna have an acting background, another tip is if you’ve got a trusted friend who’s happy to read it with you, you can actually read through dialogue together and see then, (a), how it sounds to you and, (b), how it sounds to the other person. I think that’s not a bad idea if you’ve got a lot of dialogue.
Of course, some people write without much dialogue at all, but if you’ve got a lot, that’s a tip. But going back to your original question, if I’ve got an idea of a character in my head, the dialogue tends to feed quite naturally through then.
Bryan: Makes sense. Makes sense. You mentioned, James, that you went back and did an MA. Did that help your writing? Was that something that you felt you needed to do before you could write a book?
James: No, I don’t think it’s important to — you don’t have to do it. Of course you don’t. It’s a bit like, actually, acting people have often said you need to go to drama school. Well, you don’t.
Lots and lots of people haven’t. But what it does do is provide you with an environment where you can nurture and you’ve got the time to explore whatever talents or abilities you might have.
And it’s the same with — it was the same with the MA. It just gave me time, as I say, to get back into the saddle and get used to writing on a daily basis once again. And it’s a nurturing environment. I think that’s what’s important about it. I don’t think you have to do it, by any means, and, of course, lots of people haven’t.
Bryan: When you went back and did the MA, was that when you started writing poetry and the Glasswater Quintet as well?
James: We were encouraged to try everything there and I threw myself into it and did try as much as I possibly could and so I did start to write a bit of poetry there and the Glasswater Quintet came about because at the end of the MA, you and anyone listening who’s done one will know, you have to do a dissertation normally of about 20,000 words or thereabouts and an idea for a novel came to me and my dissertation was the first part of what is now the first novel of the Glasswater Quintet.
So, it was born, yes, at that time and having then written my dissertation, I then — it was clear that I wasn’t at the end of the story and so I carried on straightaway and finished it in about a year, actually. It wasn’t an inordinately long time. And so, yeah, that’s how it started, during the MA.
Bryan: So the quintet is a five-book series.
James: Yes, only four are written, actually. The last one is — the grand denouement is yet to come.
James: So, yeah, four of them are out, yeah.
Bryan: Okay, and could you give listeners like a feel for how long it took you to write the four books?
James: Well, as I say, I started the first one for my dissertation, which would have been in 2007 —
James: — and so that has now — but having said that, there were hiatuses along that way when I wrote other things. I wrote a volume of short stories out and that happened. And, of course, I had to take more time perhaps than I would otherwise have done during that 15 years or so because — oh, that’s not quite, no, is it 14 years?
Because of, you know, for instance, you know, my mother was extremely ill during that time and her demise occurred during that time so, of course, that took up a lot of time and energy and it was quite a long, drawn-out affair, and so that took quite a bit of time. But normally speaking, the last — the fourth of the quintet, which was the last one to come out, which came out last November, that took me two years, but they varied. The first draft of the third one I wrote very quickly, actually, in about six months, but then it was adapted further and I put in more work again but that was a relatively quick one. But I would say 18 months to two years is about average for a novel.
Bryan: So, the series is a series of supernatural mystery books. Did that mean you had to figure out what way the mystery was going to unfold before sitting down to write them or did it emerge organically?
James: No, I’m very much in the organic camp, I have to say. I have a clear idea for a scenario and a vague plot and one thing I usually can pitch quite clearly is — and, again, I think this is where probably a dramatic background feeds in because there’s usually something fairly dramatic that happens at the end and I usually can picture that.
How I get to that point, though, is an unknown and I don’t plan, I actually feel my way through. I can’t imagine planning it meticulously, actually. I think I would feel constricted by that so it’s very organic. I start writing in — I know where I’m going to set it. There’s usually a vague idea of what the general plot for that particular novel is going to be hung on which, you know, which hook it’s going to be hung on, as it were, and then I’ve got a reasonable idea of the characters and then I just go from there and see what happens.
Bryan: At what point did you realize that it was going to be more than one book?
James: Not until after. Quite a while after, actually, I finished the first one. I then began to see how — place is very important in my books, very important. The first one was based — had a link because they — some of them, not all of them, have a time slip element to them, although people don’t actually go back into the past, they tend to, you know, shift out of the — in the first one, there’s a sort of hallucinatory connection to the past which is where the supernatural side feeds in. It’s not supernatural as in people turning into vampires or whatever, it’s much more of a sort of haunting of the mind.
And so the first one was I’ve discovered here where I live in Wales that there was a quite a well-known period of Welsh history, actually, that took place in the mid-19th century that literally happened on my doorstep. Quite literally, actually, some of the events would have taken place very near my front door and that was very interesting to me. Although I’ve never really been a historian as such, I found that very interesting. And so I fed that into the first book and then the other place that I know very, very well is, of course, the place where I grew up, as is the case with most people, and I began to see how those two places could be linked by a plot over a series of five books and so that’s what happens.
They basically have — they take place shifting, you know, over two locations. The first one takes place entirely in West Wales. The fourth one takes place entirely in the other location, which is on the borders of Essex and East London. And the two in between shift from, not constantly from one to the other but both locations do actually feed into them.
So, that was part of the basic concept. And then I had an idea, having written the first one, that they didn’t have to be linear in terms of time so, in fact, what happens in the Glasswater Quintet is that they take a circular but anti-clockwise trajectory so that the first one takes place in about the 2000s roughly, the second one goes back to the 1970s, the third one goes back to the beginning of the Second World War, it’s not really about the war, that’s always lurking in the background but it’s not really a war book as such but that’s when it takes place, and then it goes forward again to the 1990s, that’s the one that came out last November, and then the final one will take place, again, in the present day but just a few years on from the events depicted in the first one so you do this backward circle, if you like. Going backwards and then forwards again and that’s how it works.
Bryan: It sounds a little bit like the Time Traveler’s Wife.
James: Ah, I haven’t read it.
Bryan: Oh, yeah, it’s a similar book.
James: Right. Yes, well, I’m sure we could find similar examples in all sorts of things but that interested me to do, to go back and — because you can have people appearing at different ages in their life —
James: — and because they are linked not only by the place but by character as well and so you get people in the first book, for instance, you know, there’s a middle-aged chap who’s the father of the main protagonist in it, when you get to the second book, he’s a teenager in the 1970s and that’s always quite interesting, I think.
You can see people at the different stages of their life and then catch up with them again later when they’re perhaps quite elderly. That, to me, was quite interesting to do so part of the whole thing is to explore that, I think, the passage of people’s lives as well as time itself.
Bryan: One piece of advice writers always get is to write what you know. It sounds like both the locations and the parts of history that feature in your books are places and times that you know quite well.
James: That’s largely true, although there was an exception, actually. In fact, one bit I’m particularly proud of in the third book, which is called The Stone Forest, which begins in the East London location but it’s set right at the beginning of the war and there’s a place in East London you may have heard of called Barking, actually, and it’s on the Thames and a smaller river runs down through the town down onto the marshes and where it joins the Thames and there used to be a most extraordinary community there because there was a lot of industry right on the banks of the Thames and there were these extraordinary cottages back to back, which were almost like a little isolated village stranded on the edge of the marshes and the Thames itself.
Now, that, I have never — although it was no distance at all from where I lived and where my grandparents lived, I never actually — they didn’t actually live on the creek, as it was called, but they lived nearby, but I have never actually visited it and, of course, that community is long, long gone and simply no trace of it is left.
And so I wanted to start the beginning of the book there and it was very important that it should be convincing and atmospheric in order for the rest of the novel to work and so all I had to go on were photographs, you know, archived information. I got in touch with a lady who had lived there, actually, when she was a small child and she gave me some information, which was really helpful.
But, basically, it had to be done through imagination. I don’t know, I couldn’t possibly know that place so, really, you had to sort of immerse yourself in what you could find out and, fortunately, there are a lot of photographs, atmospheric photographs, so you had to try — I had to try and imagine myself into it, if you like. And it is partly illusion because, of course, you can’t ever really know what the past was like.
You can’t. What it would have been like to be there? So you become a bit of an illusionist. It’s smoke and mirrors, to an extent, but you have to do it with conviction and, obviously, you do research and certain bits of information that you know to be the case are fed into it but, by and large, if you’re going to create it convincingly, you have to become something of an illusionist and so there are aspects of the book that I don’t know personally but had to recreate in my imagination.
Bryan: It’s a good metaphor, particularly for a supernatural book. If somebody is listening to this and they’re saying, “I want to write a quintet,” or, “I want to write even a trilogy,” what advice would you offer? Like what do you know now that you wish you’d known at the start of the series.
James: Well, you see, a lot depends, you see. Some people want to know how you plan one and as I’ve said, I didn’t strictly do that. I just had an overriding idea of the concept of the whole and a lot was left to the imagination then. I think you have to be prepared, (a), for a lot of work, obviously. I think you have to have an idea of your setting, where you want to set it. I think you have to have an overarching idea of your plot, the general storyline of where you want to take it. And also I think it’s helpful to have a clear idea of your principal characters. If you’re writing organically, things will change.
You come up with ideas for characters that hadn’t, you know, previously existed and you suddenly think, “That would be good, I can put that person in,” but I think you have to have an overriding idea of why you want to write a trilogy. It’s no good saying, “All trilogies are popular or series are popular so I’m going to write one.” Why do you want to do it? Is there really enough material to convincingly take you through that length? Given, you know, your average novel is, what, about 90,000 words? So it’s quite a lot of words to write and you need to have a convincing line through which you want to go and, as I say, I was really helped by the idea of it being the backward circle.
That immediately gave me a framework on which I could begin to hang the whole thing. And I think that’s quite important before you start because, otherwise, if you’re literally just fumbling as you go along, it could work but you might get bogged down and lost if you’re not very careful. I think to have that overriding trajectory is quite important to start with.
Bryan: So is the whole series close to half a million words?
James: Well some of them — the first two are about 90,000, I suppose. The second two are longer, actually.
James: They’re about 110,000, 112,000, something like that. They’re about 20,000 words longer.
James: So, yeah, it’s about half a million words or something.
Bryan: Could you describe what your writing process looks like on a typical day when you’re working on the book?
James: Yeah. Well, now, you see, that’s interesting. A lot of people have — oh, everyone’s got different circumstances. If you have other things to do on a daily basis, as I did for a lot of the time that I was writing it, then you have to be really disciplined if you’re going to get on and do it every day and get your word count done.
People have often asked me this, actually, and I would say that if you’re busy, because it’s very exhausting. I mean, writing is hard, you know? I mean, you’re stuck there on your own and you’ve got to come up with the goods. I would say that I soon learned not to overtax myself. Otherwise, you can get dispirited and overtired.
And so, even something as little as, say, 500 words a day, is not very much but it’s not insignificant and if you have the discipline to do that, say, whenever it suits you, I mean, for a lot of the time, a good time for me was, say, between five and six o’clock in the afternoon or very early in the morning, but if you can discipline yourself to do that every day and you do produce 500 words, your word count soon mounts up and sometimes you will find yourself, you know, you’re on a good day and it’s flowing and you might suddenly realize you’ve written 1,000 or 1,500.
A lot of writers, you know, who are able to devote themselves purely to writing would get through more than that. They would be writing 3,000, 4,000 words a day certainly. But I think that, in my case, because I had so much else to do as well, and a lot of people will be in that situation, I think, my advice would be not — to do it every day, to be disciplined in that way, but don’t overtax yourself. Otherwise, it can be destructive in the long run, actually, because you can get very overtired and strained by it.
Bryan: I was talking to an author the other day and she was telling me that Graham Greene wrote 500 words every day and she said, “Well, he did all right.” [inaudible]
James: Yeah, how did he? Well, I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that so there you go. I’m in reasonably good company then.
Bryan: Yeah, certainly.
James: Yeah, well, that’s nice. I didn’t know that. That’s good.
Bryan: You’re also a poet, James. How does your writing process for poetry work?
James: Yes. I’m quite influenced by, I suppose, certain writers who have a poetic bent in their prose and so I think that’s always been part of my makeup and people have said that my prose is quite poetic in nature.
So, I think it’s there in terms of the way you evoke atmosphere and psychological states, which is quite important in the books, because the haunting of people, and it is as much to do with that, as I say, rather than any, you know, actual physical seeing of supernatural beings or anything like that, it has as much to do with evoking psychological states, so it can feed into that, but certainly into the invocation of place and description and atmosphere, I think the poetic side definitely feeds into that, although you have to keep it in check.
You don’t wanna overdo it, because nobody wants to read endless, over-flowery, or over-descriptive passages. But then, again, that’s the most significant part in poetry. You have to be taut and concise and make your images sharp and memorable if you can. So it’s the same thing in the prose. You don’t wanna overdo it, you just need to use it in a considered way so that it works effectively so that it impacts on people’s imagination, you see so that they can then picture it. That’s the aim, I think.
Bryan: Yeah, makes sense. When you’re writing poetry, I presume you’re not writing 500 words. How long do you spend writing poetry or how do you approach it?
James: I usually have an idea of what I want to write the poem about. For instance, I don’t know, last year, during the lockdown, I was sitting in the garden with one of the cats. It was a lovely day. And a beautiful — they are actually called beautiful demoiselle, you know, the small dragonflies that you can get and that is actually their name, beautiful demoiselle, and they are a most extraordinary color blue, it’s like a sort of midnight blue, and a very distinctive way of moving through the air which was not like a fly, not like a butterfly.
Anyway, it was very singular and it was just a fantastic moment. Both I and the cat were riveted by the sight of this thing fluttering through the air on this very still, warm day, and so I had the idea that I just wanted to capture that moment and the sight of this insect. But then you have to summon up the impact that it has on your imagination and, in that moment, you know, that’s the difficult thing, isn’t it?
You have to choose the words that will do that. And I can often spend, it’s not — that particular poem, for instance, is not very long but it probably took me a long time because I revise endlessly and I do go over and over and over and over quite obsessively until the words are exactly the way that I want it or, you know, it’s the best I can do, as it were. So, it can actually, over a period of time, it’s not all in one go, take a fair time to complete a poem, I would say.
Bryan: Do you write your poetry in a notebook and your fiction on a computer or do you have some other system?
James: I usually do both, actually, on the computer these days. I used to, I mean, years ago, of course, I used to use typewriters but the idea of going back to that now would be absolutely impossible and then that is one of the great things about technology is word processing, because I do edit so much and I can’t imagine doing that either on a typewriter now or even by hand, although I do carry a notebook around with me, in case I’m out and about and I just suddenly want to write something down or if I just happened to be sitting downstairs, I keep a notebook to the side of the, you know, the chair and if something occurs to me, to make sure that I don’t forget it, I will then write it down then. And, sometimes, I’ve written quick drafts in a notebook which I can then translate obviously onto the computer. But more often than not, I do everything actually on the computer.
Bryan: What are you working on at the moment?
James: Well, obviously, last year, we all realized that we were going to be plunged into the situation we were, so I thought — and then I knew I would actually have more time, I thought, right, okay, well, the first thing I had to do — the last, the fourth book in the quintet, which is called Eye of the Rushes, was finished but I had to get it ready for publication.
I had to go through the editor and proofreader and then I edited again and again and so on and so forth so that was the first thing I did. I then — I had about half a volume of short stories. I’ve already got one out but I thought, well, I’ve got this half, I am going to complete the other half so write several new stories so that I have another volume to come out at some point. So I did that. And that meant writing about 40,000 to 40 odd thousand words so it was reasonably substantial.
And then I wrote the first draft of a play, actually, which I’ve been meaning to do for a long time and it suddenly seemed a good idea to get that going and I wrote it in one-act form, initially, but I was very aware that it really needed to be a full-length job so I’m just finishing that now. It’s going to be a full-length play. And then, as soon as I finish that, which hopefully will be quite soon, I will start on the last in the quintet.
Bryan: Pretty good. Wow, you sound busy.
James: Yeah. It’s going to be called The Ice Chandelier, but, as I say, it isn’t actually written yet.
Bryan: So, I have an idea of what a short story writer could do with a finished collection and the same for somebody who’s written a series. What does a playwright do when they finish a play?
James: Very difficult, of course, particularly at the moment, because there isn’t any theater happening but, actually, it’s hard anyway to get plays on, especially nowadays.
Everything is so brutally commercial. I think it’s very, very difficult. The most likely thing is that you would perhaps get some kind of fringe venue possibly, if you were lucky, interested in it but — or, you know, but it can — actually, this has always been true. I mean, even going back to the beginning of the 20th century, sometimes playwrights would struggle to get, unless they’d written something that was hugely commercial, you would struggle to get plays performed and perhaps they would have to have their first performance by an amateur company or, as I say, somebody running a small, independent performance space in the provinces or something like that.
So, it’s very, very hard. But because of my background, particularly, I was very interested to see if I could pull it off and naturally do one so, at the moment, I don’t know if it will be performed, it’s really hard to say. We shall see what happens once it’s finished.
Bryan: Still sounds like a fun, creative project.
James: Yes. Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah. And also, your question you asked at the beginning about, you know, the whole screenplay thing and did that feed in, well, I wanted to see if I could actually go back to my roots, as it were, and think myself back into that form and that structure, whereas, as I said, I’ve done a lot, you know, a lot of dialogue, which has informed it, it’s not the same as the structure of a play or a screenplay so I was very interested to see if I could pull that off so, you know, it’s nice when you think you’ve actually done something.
Bryan: I can imagine. James, where can people find more information about you or the Glasswater Quintet?
James: Well, the best place, actually, is my website. It’s quite simple, it’s all one word, jamesmorganjones.co.uk. There’s information about all the books on it and you can sign up to a newsletter and you get free access, actually, to a couple of short stories and the first part of, you know, the beginning of the quintet can also be accessed so the best place is actually my website.
Bryan: Thank you, James.
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