Today sees the first of our Triskele Books Twitter Chats #triskeletuesdays

Triskele Books is an author collective, founded by myself and two other indie authors in 2011. We now number five members with two associates. Tonight, and henceforth every Tuesday evening, we will be hanging out on Twitter from 19.30-20.30 GMT (20.30-21.30 CET) to discuss an aspect of writing, publishing, marketing or teamwork.

Triskele 2015 fiction

Future topics include cover design, writers helping writers, Celtic stories, stages of editing, PR & marketing lessons learned, breaking the writing rules, social media and managing rights. But tonight, mere days before our London launch of four new novels, we’re talking Book Launches.

Why? What’s the point? Pros and cons. Expenses and mistakes. Tips for success. Physical v. virtual. Event management.

We’d love you to join us and chime in with your thoughts. I know every single person reading this is more Twitter-savvy than me, but I am adding my colleague Catriona’s instructions here, just in case.

Want to join our first Triskele Twitter Chat tomorrow night, but have no idea how? If you have a Twitter account it’s easy!

1) type ‪#‎triskeletuesday‬ into the search function on Twitter
2) When the results come up, click on the ‘Live’ tab. That way you will see all tweets in the chat, as they are posted.
i3) Post your question to Jill, LIza, Gillian or Jane as you would any other tweet, remembering to include #triskeletuesday within your 140 characters
4) Keep watching the search results for more questions and answers. Join in with replies whenever you feel like it!
Our first conversation will be live between 19:30 and 20:30 GMT on Tuesday 24th November.

So come and share your experiences, ask questions, offer an opinion. We’re very friendly and may well be drinking some virtual fizz. See you there! @JJMarsh1

Triskele Books

Triskele Books

Ghost TownCatriona Troth, my colleague at Triskele Books, is the antithesis of the bang-out-a-book-a-year philosophy. Ghost Town was not an easy delivery. I followed the gestation of this book and couldn’t have been happier when it finally came out. I asked the author why.

Let’s start with the facts. How long did this book take – from start to finish?

I worked out that, start to finish, Ghost Town had taken me 14 years. My daughter, who was 18 when it was published, told me she couldn’t remember a time when I wasn’t working on it.

What about the genesis of Ghost Town – why did you decide to tell this story?

I actually had in mind an entirely different story – a sequel to Gift of the Raven with Terry as an adult, finding his way as an artist. But I quickly worked out that I couldn’t write about being an adult in Canada in the 80s when I’d left as a teenager in the 70s. So I looked around for a different location, and thought about the time when I’d worked in a night shelter for the homeless in Coventry.

I remembered a little about the tensions that were around back then – as well as the joyous sound of Two Tone that synonymous with the city. But when I started to do my research, I realised that so much had gone on that I had been virtually unaware of. Coventry had taken itself to the brink of an all out race war – and then stepped back and said ‘not in our name.’ I became obsessed with telling the story of how that had happened.

How did you fit in the writing between motherhood and a full-time job?

KatActually, I was lucky enough, after my children were born, to be able to go part-time. But I was still commuting into London three days a week. And motherhood was full-time, as it always it. It was the commuting that made it all possible, actually. I’d bought a stack of A5 note blocks from Smiths, and spent that precious 40 minutes on the train filling them with scribbles and ideas and diagrams. Then in the evening, after the children were in bed, I would type up what I’d written, editing as I went.

Can you explain a little about the research process?

My primary resource was the archive of the Coventry Evening Telegraph at the city’s Central Library. They were the only newspaper to cover what was going on. Apart from that, I read everything I could get hold of, from the Scarman report on that summer’s riots, to books (fiction and non-fiction) about the British Asian experience. As it happened, the second inquest into the New Cross Fire (which is referred to at the start of the book) was happening as I was writing, and one of the legal teams was posting transcripts of each day’s proceedings as they happened. I read those from start to finish, even though it was barely relevant to the book, because it helped so much to understand what it was like to be Black or Asian in Britain at this time.

I’ve described before how I ended up with a timeline spread across my wall – with one line for actually events in Coventry, another for events in Brixton and London, a line for story events and finally a line for the progress of Maia’s pregnancy.

Two Tone Panel_cropped

Catriona on the Two-Tone panel, Warwick University

When you finally had a first draft, what were the next stages?

Well, before I had a first draft, I had another ‘tear it all up and start again’ moment. About half way through, I realised that the main female character no longer belonged in this story. She belonged to the one I had originally conceived, and now the story was focused on the clashes between skinheads and young Asians, she didn’t fit. So all her chapters up to that point were torn up. Maia emerged, and of course, as she was a different person, that affected the chapters I had written from his point of view too.

But I did eventually have a completed manuscript. I edited it using the ‘triage’ approach recommended by David Michael Kaplan in his book Rewriting (which I would still recommend to anyone, by the way). Basically you start by looking for big problems (whole sections that aren’t working etc) and then work your way down to the minutiae of word choice etc.

Once I’d finished editing and created a submission pack, I started sending it off to agents. The first three or four I sent it to all asked for the full MS. But all eventually turned it down. I’d just started a new job and the book ended up lying fallow for a couple of years.

In 2007, I discovered online critique groups and thought I’d test the waters. It was an eye-opening experience. The first chapters I posted were ripped to shreds and it would have been very easy to give up there and then. But I kept going, posting a handful of chapters at a time, listening to the feedback and acting on it. The hardest thing was the response I had to the female lead character, Maia, who in some ways is quite close to me. Time and time again, I was told she was unsympathetic. To me, it felt as if I were opening veins writing her, but that wasn’t how she was coming across.

That complete start-to-finish rewrite took more than two years. And even after that, a brilliant friend, who is now a distinguished creative writing tutor, took a scalpel to it and encouraged me to cut almost 35 thousand words from the MS.

Back to sending it out to agents. Even though I knew I had a much better book on my hands, the reception was much frostier. In those three or four years since I last tried, the industry had changed. I ended up being kept dangling for two years by someone who would have been my dream publisher, until I finally wrote them a rejection letter and joined Triskele.

One of the things that most impressed me was your thematic use of black and white – it’s a very visual book. Do you think it would transfer well to the screen?


Coventry Cathedral

Thank you! Wouldn’t that be nice? It’s odd, because I don’t think I am a naturally a very visual person, but I have written one book with an MC who is an artist, and one about a photographer. Baz takes photos in black and white, and that forced me to look at the world in that way. The conjunction with that, and Two Tone music, and the racial themes, happened organically.


How different would this book be if you’d finished it in a year?

Gift of the Raven Cover MEDIUMI would have stuck with writing a sequel to Gift of the Raven – so the Coventry story would never have been told at all. But even if I take that as one year from when I started writing Baz’s story, then female lead would have been an entirely different person, the depiction of the background events would have been sketchy, unrealistic and with very little depth. And the writing would have been clunky as hell.

What are the benefits of taking your time over the work?

I wouldn’t recommend anyone to take quite as long as I did. I was basically teaching myself to write, and whereas saner writers have MSS tucked away in their bottom drawer that they have perhaps started and never finished, or written the first draft of then wisely abandoned – because I had become so obsessed with telling this one story, I kept writing and rewriting the same MS.

But it did enable me to burrow into the history of the events and into the characters, to give them a depth I could never have achieved in just a year. It allowed themes and symbols – like the black and white you mentioned – to emerge. And it gave me time to hone the use of language.

And how’s the next one coming along?

Slowly … again. I have three wonderful characters. And I have a premise. What I don’t have at the moment is a plot with enough momentum to drive the story forward. I’ve never been strong on plotting, and this time I don’t have a sequence of real events to piggyback on. Wish me luck.


Two tone

Members of the Selecter and the Specials at the Belgrade Theatre for the announcement of a new production of the Two Tone Musical, Three Minute Heroes, July 2014

Ghost Town

Ghost Town1981. Coventry, city of Two Tone and Ska, is riven with battles between skinheads and young Asians.

Photographer Baz—‘too Paki to be white, too gora to be desi’—is capturing the conflict on film.

Unemployed graduate Maia—serial champion of liberal causes—is pregnant with a mixed-race child.

Neither can afford to let the racists win. They must take a stand.

 A stand that will cost lives.

Website: www.catrionatroth.com

Facebook Author Page: https://www.facebook.com/catrionatrothbooks

Twitter: @L1bCat

Pinterest for Ghost Town: http://www.pinterest.com/triskelebooks/ghost-town/




I’m an indie author and proud of it.
But I didn’t exactly go it alone.
I chose the collective route.
Here’s why.


Triskele Books is an author collective spread over three countries and two time zones. So it’s no surprise that all Triskele novels have a strong sense of time and place.

How does it work? Answers from the gang.

How does an author collective differ from a small press?

Jill: It’s very similar to a small press, but the crucial difference is our independence. Legally, we wanted to retain our own rights, so we chose not to create a publishing house. Instead, we just act like one. We’re a group of people who can edit, proof, consult, advise, co-promote and market on a shared platform. Each of us works as an independent entity but we all benefit from mutual support. Financially, we contribute equally to any costs incurred, such as webhosting, print materials, etc, but each of us keeps the profits from our own books.

What factors triggered each of you to go indie?

Liza: We’d met each other via an online writing group, and found ourselves in a similar situation: Gillian and I both had agents, but they couldn’t find our books a home. Jill stopped trying the trad route after an agent called her work too cerebral. Catriona was left dangling by a publisher for two years, until she wrote them a rejection letter. And Jane (JD) loved the freedom of creativity found by going indie.

We got together and discussed our options. Going the independent route, as a team, felt more manageable. We established ideals: high quality writing and professional presentation, and committed ourselves to publishing the books we wanted to write, not what the market dictated.


Kat, Liza, Gilly, Jill, Jane

How did your publishing cooperative come together, and what made you decide to establish it? How many of you are there?

Catriona: I began reading about author collectives in the States. And I thought this has to be the way forward, the power in working together.
So four years ago, the original members of Triskele met in London to decide if the idea really had legs. Turns out it did. Ten of them.

Triskele has five core members and periodically we bring ‘associates’ on board, whose writing we feel we can develop. We were recently dubbed The Wu-Tang Clan of Publishing.

What elements of the publishing process are done collectively? How do you handle the finances, such as royalties and so on?

Gillian: We critique, edit and proof each other’s drafts before they go for professional proofreadings. If needed we all give advice on cover design too.

Finances have been relatively simple. We all keep our own royalties from sales of our own books. If we choose to market or advertise Triskele collectively, we all contribute equal shares. And for joint ventures, like The Triskele Trail, we divide initial outlay and profits go into our Triskele bank account to cover future overheads like webhosting, print materials, advertising etc.


Where does the Triskele name come from? Does a Triskele book have an identifiable style that sets it apart?

Jane: The name came from the Celtic symbol of the triskele, which shows three independent circles joining to form something greater than its parts. It represents the concept of our collective – authorial independence balanced by mutual support. Going it alone, together.

Triskele books are top quality – they must be well-written, tell a good story and contain a strong sense of place, which is Triskele’s USP. They’re also thoroughly edited, proofread, carefully typeset and have a professional cover.

What about the design aspects? Do you share a designer? And do you try and go for a shared look or feel?

Liza: We’re lucky enough to have talented designer JD Smith on the team, so yes, we all use the same designer. We don’t go for a shared look since we range across different genres, but we try to harmonise all our visual material.

heads soft

Triskelites in Porto

You are located in three different countries. How do you manage the communication issue?

Gillian: Skype! And email. And we have our own Facebook private page. We communicate every day but only meet physically three or four times a year. But when we do, it’s brilliant fun!

What do you see as the key benefits of being in a collective? Any disadvantages? What advice would you give someone thinking of doing the same?

Catriona: Two huge advantages! Firstly, you are not a lone voice crying in the wilderness. These days, it can be pretty hard to keep thinking of new and original things to say, so you don’t become one of those awful people on social media who just keeps bleating, ‘buy my book, buy my book!’ Being part of a group means you can take turns spreading the word in your own style.

The second advantage is having someone to answer questions and give advice. Among the five of us, someone will have had the same problem and know a solution. And on a larger scale, there’s the Alliance of Independent Authors, an amazing source of information.

Disadvantages? The classic downside of being a team player – if you mess up, it’s not just yourself you’re letting down. That adds a lot of pressure. But the flipside is the others are there to catch you if you fall.

My advice would be to learn from those who’ve gone before, then find the path that’s right for you. There’s no one way to do this.http://triskelebooks.blogspot.co.uk/How do you know whether an author is a good ‘fit’ for Triskele Books? Are you actively seeking new members?

Jane: Writing good books is a given. We as a group need to ‘fit’. When working so closely as a team, it’s important everyone pulls their weight and believes in the collective as a whole. We share experiences, snippets of information, the highs and lows, opportunities for genres, news stories relevant to an author’s theme, place or period. We’re really supportive of each other and the group. We’re not seeking new members at the moment. We’ve found our ideal balance.

What are your plans for the future?

Jill: Every six months, we stop and evaluate where we’re going. What’s working, what needs to be improved, and how best to move forward. We’re planning The Big Launch Party for November 2015, writing new books and organising festival appearances; exploring formats, such as audiobooks, boxsets, translations and adaptations, and finding more ways to connect good books to discerning readers.

Triskele_Group_041 bw



Gillian E Hamer’s novels are set in North Wales, blending modern crime, ancient history and an otherworldly element.

JJ Marsh writes contemporary European crime. The Beatrice Stubbs series explores ethics, politics and justice – from Athens to Zürich.

Liza Perrat’s historical fiction novels are set in rural France against the backdrop of the French Revolution, WWII and The Black Plague from the perspective of extraordinary women.

Catriona Troth’s novella, Gift of the Raven, takes place in Canada in the 1970s while Ghost Town tackles the themes of race and identity in 1980s Coventry.

JD Smith’s retelling of the Tristan and Iseult legend brings ancient Ireland and Cornwall vividly to life. The Overlord Series takes the reader back to 3rd Century Syria to tell the story of Zenobia, Warrior Queen of Palmyra.


This week, I spotted an article by Bookbub on eight trends for covers that sell books.

The key elements to lure readers? Animals, beaches, seasonal themes, friendship/sisterhood, shirtless men, great photography, chicklit glitter and cute kids.

Sure, I get that. Certain readers will buy stuff that guarantees satisfaction – stuff that does what it says on the tin. Yet I scrolled through those covers and not one appealed to me. No surprise there. I loathe anything mawkish or sentimental, rarely read chicklit/romance/erotica and I’m drawn to covers which promise beauty, intelligence, new ideas and experiences.

I know very little about design, but as a reader, I do judge books by their covers. Never one to keep my opinions to myself, here are ten indie-published covers which appealed to my own personal predelictions. In no particular order, this is my own subjective beauty parade with links to the designers.



by Jim Williams

(JD Smith Design)

Beautiful use of perspective and depth of field. Not to mention the glorious colours and light.

The positioning of the dramatic items in the foreground stand out against the inky canal and the Caravaggio lure of Venetian architecture is just irresistible.

*Covetous sigh*


These-Are-the-MomentsThese Are The Moments

by Jenny Bravo

(Kisscut Design)

That cover is a story in itself and suits the title to a T. A broken chain, a lop-sided swing… something is going to happen. The typeface also reminds me of the Jonas Jonasson books, hence the suggestion of quirkiness. I have no idea what the book is about but on the strength of this image, I’d want to find out.


Bitter Like Orange PeelBitter like Orange Peel

by Jessica Bell

(Jessica Bell)

Wonderful balance of images, colour and surreal swathe of flaming hair. What’s she doing? Running, dancing?

The juxtaposition of differing fonts not only adds interest but hints at a similar boldness within.

How could one resist picking this up?




Black Sun, Red Moon

by Rory Marron

(The Ebook Designer)

This book promises to take me to another place and inside a different culture.  and I’m intrigued by the figure.

The slightly distressed nature of the background adds a parchment-like texture and the typeface against contrast backgrounds is striking.


The-Mage-and-the-MagpieThe Mage and the Magpie

by Austin J. Bailey

(Bookfly Design)

This appeals to the child in me.

Doorways, the promise of change, forests and a bell with magic hinted at by the Potteresque font.

There’s a lot going on here, but it all works and excites curiosity. And didn’t I read somewhere that turquoise/yellow is an appealing combination?



An Unchoreographed LifeAn Unchoreographed Life

by Jane Davis

(Andrew Candy)

Elegant, intriguing and atmospheric. The image evokes thoughts of Shakespeare and the Penguin Café Orchestra. The shades of blue, as if the figure were subtly spotlit, the choice of delicate motifs such as rose stems, deer and ballet combine to lure you in, convinced the story must be equally beautiful.


kurinji flowersKurinji Flowers

by Clare Flynn

(JD Smith Design)

I’m not usually keen on having faces on the cover as I prefer to invent my own image of the characters. But I do love maps and greenery. For me, the 50s-style portrait, sliver of map and suggestion of landscape work perfectly here. The font is elegant and gives us an idea of the kind of story to expect. As with Black Sun, Red Moon above, the whole package tells us we’re going otherwhere and otherwhen.


We All Reach the Earth by FallingWe All Reach the Earth by Falling

by Bauke Kamstra

(Jessica Bell)

OK, the title would be enough to draw me closer, but the texture makes me want to grab this. Those feathers overlapping some of the letters is subtle and understated. The title is also perfectly balanced, leading me to imagine the poems within will be equally so. These colours remind me of Al Brookes’s The Gift of Looking Closely, another plus.


AbsentLordThe Absent Lord

by Jason Beacon

(Chandler Book Design)

Initially attracted because it bears some similarity to Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, I like everything about this,

The leaves/flames forming a frame, autumnal tones, the typewritten title and the way the light catches the eye all hint at a story within. Plus that strapline couldn’t fail.



With this Curse

by Amanda DeWees

(Bookfly Design)

The author has a whole series of these books, employing the same technique of silhouetted head as portal. They look fabulous.

This one is extremely classy, giving you the genre, central character and sense of polish in the way the cover is edged. You immediately know there is a world within and can’t wait to dive in.


There. Those were a few of my favourites. You?


Peter Jukes is a British author, screenwriter, playwright, literary critic and blogger. He has written for both The Independent and the New Statesman on themes as diverse as nationalism, art in the computer age, and apocalyptic religion. Jukes is also a regular drama writer for TV and radio, having started award-winning shows like Waking the Dead and the acclaimed Lenny Henry drama Bad Faith.

For his live Twitter coverage of the phone hacking trial in London, Peter was named the best reporter on social media by the Press Club, and his blog nominated one of the three best news websites by the Press Club this year.

New Book: Beyond Contempt: The Inside Story of the Phone Hacking Trial
Press Gazette’s UK Reporter of the Year on Social Media

Author, screenwriter, playwright, critic, blogger, and Twitter journalist – where are you most comfortable?

Somewhere in the spaces in between, probably with a guitar in my hand. I think we’re all probably more eclectic than modern professions allow us to be, but my fiction has always been driven by research, and my drama background certainly helped with the theatrics of the Old Bailey.

Why did you decide to devote seven months of your life to live-tweet the phone hacking trial?

As my haphazard career amply shows, I’m more of an improviser and adventurer than long term planner, and the hacking trial coverage was completely unexpected. I’d originally planned only to cover the opening the of the trial, and had no idea that the whole thing could be live tweeted, or that my coverage would attract so many followers wishing to fund me for the duration.

You’ve written about the Murdoch empire before – is the chief reason that it’s a fascinating story?

I’ve spent my whole adult life with Murdoch as a major figure, and his impact on Britain combines my interest in culture, politics and business. He’s an iconic if polarising figure, and his successes and failures tell us so much about the modern world – from the Freudian dynamics of rich dynasties, to the future of newspapers and digital media.

Conventional reportage versus new media. What are the pros and cons?

New media tends to be more narrowcast, and focused on a group of aficionados who want all the gory detail. It requires the audience to tune in and out, and forces them to make editorial decisions. It’s more interactive and direct, especially for British courts which don’t allow cameras. But the downside is apparent in my book about the hacking trial, Beyond Contempt. Rarely did a day go by without one of the defence barristers making some point about ‘prejudicial tweets’. In real time, with so many reporting restrictions, it’s hard to avoid pitfalls. And the level of vitriol and prejudice on Twitter would never pass muster in a printed newspaper.

How were you viewed by broadcast and press journalists covering the trial?

At first I think I was treated with a mixture of pity and bewilderment. Why would anyone want to tweet out such a long and controversial trial? Most the reporters were, however, extremely helpful and supportive, pointing out potential dangers, and retweeting me a lot. I have some residual guilt that – because many news agencies were following me – I might have put some other court reporters temporarily out of a job.

My own gripe with the way the trial was covered would be about the verdicts. The three major newspaper groups immediately went for the same line – £100 million wasted on one guilty verdict – overlooking the fact there were actually 6 convictions for phone hacking, and vast bulk of that cost was the corporate defence. I don’t blame the reporters at the trial though for this spin, but editorial agenda of their editors and a defensive mind-set in much of Fleet Street.

Tell us why you opted to crowd-fund the live tweets.

Because I couldn’t afford to stay the duration. I was broke. People offered to pay. It was completely improvised and accidental. There was a demand. I had the ability to meet it. Though I think my followers might have been a bit paranoid in this regard, many truly believed that only an independent blogger could cover a big media trial because – from the BBC to News UK – most news organisations could be seen to have a vested interest in the result.

Can you give an example of the kind of thing you were not allowed to report at the time?

My book covers much of the legal argument, fascinating and often extremely contentious which could only be reported after the trial – this ranged from sudden discoveries of thousands of emails, to how much of the Brooks’ love letter to Coulson we could report, to constant complaints about prejudice in the rest of the press. With many trials still pending, there are a dozen or so names we still have to redact when writing about the hacking trial. It’s a minefield, and one false step can blow up a trial.

As Nick Davies says, there’s never been a trial like it. Newspapers, celebrities, politicians and politics, tragedy and farce. Were there any laughs?

It wasn’t just Nick who said this – everyone, particularly the lawyers, knew this was a trial of century in terms of cost, number of high profile defendants, and length – it was officially the longest concluded trial in British criminal history. But fortunately, there were a lot of laughs. The judge, Mr Justice Saunders, has a keen wit. Sienna Miller and Rebekah Brooks had us rolling in the line – especially a Brooks comment about Tony Blair (more in my book – a whole chapter of which is called Commedia dell’Arte). And ranging from lesbian soft porn to Pizza deliveries, Charlie Brooks’ appearance was a comic masterpiece.

Do you feel justice has been done?

How long have you got? I feel that, in terms of the evidence the jury, they could not be sure Rebekah Brooks knew about phone hacking. Another jury might have gone another way, but the corporate defences were brilliantly mounted, and the burden proof for a criminal trial is very high. That said, I never particularly wanted people to go to prison – I wanted the truth to come out – and on that standard, the trial has seen transparency and accountability. Daylight is the great cleanser, and the mere fact the trial went ahead should prevent excessive privacy intrusions in the future. I also hold the higher ups more accountable than the foot soldiers for the toxic culture that developed among sections of Fleet Street. With the CPS still considering corporate charges, this might be the most effective way of ensuring these practices never become endemic again.

Where do you stand on the various options for press regulation?

My main feeling has always been that most the problems stem from concentration of ownership in the British press and media, and that where monopoly power accumulates, abuses will always follow. The fact that Rebekah Brooks was close personal friends with three successive prime ministers is just one example of the problem.

Despite its famed first amendment, the US actually has much more stringent laws governing press and media ownership: that’s the reason Murdoch is a US citizen (he had to be to buy the Fox network) and wasn’t allowed both newspapers and TV stations in the same city. But until we have better trust-busting laws, I think some kind of quick and cheap system of arbitration and redress needs to be instituted to protect the public from the more feral side of the press (the rich can always sue) IPSO promises this – but is still heavily indebted to the three main newspaper proprietors.

Beyond Contempt is out now. What can we expect?

Thrills, scoops, all the humour, legal manoeuvres, court gossip – dodgy hearts, burst appendices; me getting harried by Louise Mensch and Guido Fawkes, attempts to investigate my finances by the Daily Mail: and of course a running commentary (verboten during the trial) of how different lawyers, defendants, and witnesses fared under pressure.

What are you working on next?

I’ve been out to Ukraine to cover the role of social media both in the Euromaidan uprising and then in the war in the Donbas region. There’s also the up and coming panel in the murder of private detective Daniel Morgan in 1987: this is the deadly heart of the phone hacking scandal, and the corrupt collusion between police and press, the cradle where the ‘dark arts’ were born.

Who should play you in the film?

Neil Pearson from Between the Lines, Drop the Dead Donkey, and Waterloo Road has just recorded a play about my coverage of the trial, and played me (an odd experience). It will be broadcast on October 10th on BBC Radio Four. I hear George Clooney is unavailable because he’s directing the film of Nick’s book Hack Attack. So, given the more comic mishaps during the trial, perhaps Rowan Atkinson.



By JJ Marsh

First published in Words with JAM magazine

Yesterday I went to the Zürich Film Festival to see The End of the Tour, a film about writers. How fitting I should go with my colleagues from The Woolf, both of whom are authors, journalists and interviewers.

In 1996, over five days, journalist David Lipsky did a road trip/interview with author David Foster Wallace. After Wallace’s suicide, Lipsky turned his notes into a book, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, upon which the film is based.

Two people: Rolling Stone journalist Lipsky, profiling the most talked-about author that year, DF Wallace, and accompanying him to the last stop on the book tour for Infinite Jest.

Two people, just talking.

the end of the tour

I was enthralled. The performances were outstanding, the script (by Donald Margulies) is witty and well-paced with plenty of laughs at the beginning and philosophical insights towards the end. The direction (by James Ponsoldt) is so smart it’s almost invisible. Moments of awkwardness stretch until they began to affect the audience; motifs such as snow ploughs, seatbelts, Pop-Tarts and electronic key-fobs plumb deeper themes; and the delicate transactional dance between these two men: interviewer/interviewee, success/wannabe, older/younger writers is like watching a fencing match.

I’ve interviewed a few of my literary heroes and recall that suspicious stand-off while you try to use every minute to build a short-lived relationship and get the story, while dealing with a person who’d be much happier sitting alone with a piece of paper. For all the uncomfortable silences, the fidgety PR people, the interruptions and distractions, there have been some perfect moments of connection, when you see each other as people, not opponents.

It’s all there in this film.

Wallace, played by Jason Segel in a phenomenal performance, delivers his own shambling theories about writers, writing, intelligence and feeling a fake. His weaknesses and pleasures not to mention addictions are both endearing and puzzling.

the end of the tour 2

The film places us in Lipsky’s shoes. He’s out of his depth, and we all know it. Jesse Eisenberg puts in another impressive turn as Lipsky, the insecure, resentful, not-as-successful-as-he’d-like author, with a giveaway giggle and a grubby urge to dig. His ego is his worst enemy, but unlike Wallace, he doesn’t yet know it.

106 minutes well spent, leaving me with thoughts about the nature of satisfaction, writing, success, journalism, ambition, and connecting with other minds. Despite the sad reality of Wallace’s suicide, the final scenes, including the one after the credits, ensured a smile remained on every single filmgoer’s face as they left the auditorium.

A film for writers of all kinds. And if nothing else, this will make you want to read Infinite Jest. I’m tempted to call that book the authors’ Everest, but the metaphor doesn’t work. For even if you conquer this incredible work by reading all 1000+ pages, it’s still there, towering above you, making you feel like an ant.

Watch the trailer here:



IMG_1106I’ve just finished book five! Yes, by the end of November I will publish the fifth in the Beatrice Stubbs Series – Human Rites.

Writing a crime series is a curious endeavour. There’s all the tricky stuff of how much backstory, as each book is a standalone adventure, yet there must be an overall arc for those following the series. Each plot needs to be new and different, but bear the hallmarks of a Beatrice Stubbs novel.

As luck would have it, my Triskele Books colleagues and I have recently embarked on a creative writing course. We decided that amongst all the practical elements of publishing as a collective: writing, reading, critiquing, blogging, reviewing, marketing and networking, we had precious little time to focus on improving our writing.

So we scouted around and collected our favourite writing exercises to flex some writing muscles we might have neglected. We published one of the first in Words with JAM: A Character Interview

Not only has it been great fun, but interesting to see what the others thought and extremely helpful for my work. As I wrote the last scene of Human Rites, I reflected on the importance of character development over a series.

Despite the hefty cast of characters in each of these novels, only certain people remain constant in all. And they are the drivers of the overall arc. It is the interaction between individuals the reader knows and loves/hates that creates dramatic tension. I like Yvonne Grace’s visual analogy of a bicycle wheel, where you need to plait the spokes to make the characters’ stories intersect. Another successful writer I know uses grids to plot the development of character over a series. Maybe because I have a musician husband I found the system of musical notation a handy tool.

orchestral score

Like an orchestral score, each character has five horizontal stave lines while vertical bar lines represent the books. Usually, I allow three bars per book, indicating the three-act structure. I plot the emotional journey of every character over the course of each book, which gives me an easy overview. That enables me to see where one character is left stagnating in misery and needs some light relief. Or where I’ve played treble notes throughout and forgotten my bass line.

It’s also a good way of keeping track of the harmonies. Who’s up when the other is down? Where do they collide on the same note?

Another benefit of those whole book-in-three-bars system is the degree of change from the start of each adventure and the overall rhythm of ups and downs. If DI Stubbs starts each story full of enthusiasm and ends embittered and sad, the pattern becomes monotonous. Vice versa, where the reader leaves one book and begins the next should not have a jarring discord in character outlook.

Character relationships play a huge part in subtext. By doing in-depth character work, such as Beatrice Stubbs Box Set One_KINDLE KOBOthe questionnaire above for all your key players, you can use the detail only you know about these people to drop little breadcrumbs across the stories. So that when a secret emerges, the loyal reader is rewarded with a join-the-dots moment.

Lastly, how do they grow? What has changed between Books One and Two? How would s/he do things differently after the experience of Book Three? Use your reader’s emotional intelligence and memory. Of course he’s afraid of the attic after that spider episode in Book Four. Naturally she’s gone off rare steak because of what happened at the end of Book Two.

As I said, I’m curious. If you are writing a series, be it crime, fantasy, sci-fi or any genre at all, how do you track character development?


Orchestral score image courtesy of Creative Commons


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