This is my summary of the Writing for Performance workshop (at Geneva Writers’ Conference) with Shaun McCarthy

shaun mccarthyShaun addressed a small workshop group of fourteen people for two hours. He spent the first section talking about three things an audience expects, whether it is theatre, television or film. We may not do this consciously, but our conditioned knowledge of storytelling makes us expert at assessing what works.

“It might be the first play/film/TV episode you’ve ever written, but it’s certainly not the first story your audience has ever been told.”


Shaun began with three key questions.

Plausibility: do we believe this could happen? Whether in reality or this fictional world? Is the action driven by character motivation as opposed to puppets serving plot? Does the piece raise questions, make us think about themes, incite us to argue over its message?

Coherence: where it starts and ends, the gaps filled in, the backstory and momentum from one scene to the next, is this logical? Is chronologically the best way to reveal the experience? Can the audience predict what comes next and could that be subverted?

Convention: The poster, title, image, strapline and marketing sets up a certain kind of expectation – viewers have an expectation of how they will feel at the end. Yet there is also an expectation of originality within the form. The space between satisfying preconceived ideas and challenging thought is an exciting area.

To illustrate the above, we watched the opening of Peaky Blinders and discussed what genres it referenced and what promises it set up.



Next, we explored the five act structure.

(Pick a play/film/TV series you know well and identify these for yourself. It’s a useful exercise.)

Establish the world of the play and then turn things around. Something must happen to challenge the normality of this environment and trigger a desire in our protagonist. This is the INCITING INCIDENT.


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Followed by Advances and Setbacks. One step forward, one back, with increasing threat and/or greater glory, the hero/ine progresses to a point where everything rests on one choice.

CRISIS. The action, the decision, the risk-it-all leap, which must be propelled by character or the changes s/he has undergone.

CLIMAX. Will he or won’t she? Do we or don’t they? This is where the protagonist wins or loses and creates a new play/film/ world order. Whether it’s a home run, a kiss or the jury’s verdict, nothing will ever be the same again.


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RESOLUTION: The success or failure of the choice in crisis now spool outwards, resolving all those lead-up moments for better/worse. This is where the tension is released.

Shaun split us into groups to write our own outline of a Five-Act Structure, entitled The Legacy. The formula proved a helpful framework, within which Shaun helped us see where we needed extra characters, thematic underpinning and shortcuts to tension.

Finally, one member of the group asked about turning a family member’s experience into a screenplay. Shaun’s reply:

Real life is often a great story. But usually a rotten script.


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Further reference material

Shaun McCarthy: Hooligan Theatre

Robert McKee: Story

Lajos Egri: The Art of Dramatic Writing



This talk is about the value of the writing community. I’ll explain how it’s helped me, look at three key problems facing writers today and what resources are available to tackle them.

I’m a founder member of Triskele Books, which is a European author collective of five authors To all intents and purposes, we operate like a small publisher, ensuring that every single book we publish deserves the Triskele logo.

triskele books 28.11.12

The difference is that we each keep our own rights, and 100% of our own profits. We’ve published 21 books between us and we stand for five key principles: high quality writing, professional presentation, a strong sense of place, ethical operations and support for other writers.

We publish a literary magazine for writers – Words with JAM

We operate a review site for readers – Bookmuse

Run events such as The Indie Author Fair – a farmers’ market, but for books.

4a739-triskele_logo_books_posIn Switzerland

I’m co-editor of The Woolf Quarterly, Zürich’s literary ezine, whose aim is to keep the English-speaking writing community connected, entertained and informed. We also organise WriteCon, an annual writers’ workshop weekend each spring. Next one coming up this May.

w-green-howlI’m also the Swiss Ambassador for The Alliance of Independent Authors. This is a global organisation supporting self-published authors. ALLi offers connection and collaboration, advice and education, advocacy and representation to writers who want to self-publish well. Our motto is Working together to help each other.imagesSo you can see why I’m passionate about the benefits a network of writers can offer.

Writers face three problems these days. And I’m not talking about backache.

One, creativity is undervalued. The availability of so much free content means an expectation that we should all be pouring out words for the privilege of exposure.

Two, the task of writing is a solitary occupation. Just you, in a room with your imaginary friends. Unlike many creative endeavours, writing is something most of us do alone. Which can be lonely.

Three, and this may sound contradictory to the previous point but I believe it’s a contributory factor, TMI. Too much information. The Internet is awash with advice for writers and publishers.

Some sites are excellent such as Jane Friedman, Roz Morris, The Creative Penn or This Itch of Writing.

IAF buzz

Others, however, can be confusing, erroneous or agenda-driven.

How can a writing community or network counter these problems?

My advice would be to find your tribe.

For example, you can join an organisation which represents your genre, such as the Romantic Novelists Association, the Historical Novel Society, the Crime Writers’ Association or SCWBI – Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America has an excellent section called Writer Beware, which flags up unethical competitions, service providers and so on for all writers.

There are broader organisations such as ALLi, the Society of Authors or the Society of Women Writers and Journalists (SWWJ). My colleague Catriona Troth put together a comprehensive guide to useful professional organisations, the reasons for joining, costs and entry requirements called Where Do I Belong?

Photography by Libby O'Loghlin

Or make your own. Find a critique group locally or set one up. (The members of Triskele Books met as we graduated from one online critique group to the next.) Form your own collective – pool your skills and play to your strengths. Short-term or project-specific alliances often bring about greater than the sum of its parts results. One team of seven indie authors collaborated on a limited-time boxset, containing one novel from each member. A group of traditionally published historical fiction authors I know offer themselves as a ready-made panel of experts to festivals and events.

Refine your information sources. You can’t keep up with all the developments in the publishing word, so filter according to your priorities. Subscribe to blogs which provide the kind of content that interests you, such as agent Andrew Lownie’s informative site or the Self-Publishing Advice blog from ALLi. Get the digest from The Bookseller or Publishing Perspectives to keep your finger on the publishing pulse. Seek out specialist resource sites such as DP Lyle for crime forensics, or if you’re seeking authentic speech patterns from The Old Bailey archives for historical crime.

Get out there. Join workshops, meet people, introduce those who might help each other and be altruistic about it. Networking is not a dirty word. Support other writers. Authors who view each other as competitors are missing out. I write crime and consequently read a lot of crime novels. Just because I recommend Sheila Bugler’s Hunting Shadows or Chris Curran’s Mindsight doesn’t mean I’ve shot myself in the foot or lost a sale. Readers buy more than one book per year.

And one last thing. Writers are readers too. If they’re not, they have no business calling themselves writers. So see the writing community as colleagues, potential collaborators, sources of information and support, valued creators, storytellers and maybe even future readers of your work.

I have a whiteboard beside my desk, cluttered with all kinds of precious round the edges. But in the middle, there is a white space containing three words I interpret differently each day.






… at the Geneva Writers’ Conference

Some quotes, insights and advice I gleaned from attending various panel discussions and Q&A events from the following experts:

Colin Harrison; vice-president and senior editor at Scribner, an imprint of Simon and Schuster, New York

David Applefield; guerilla publisher, media specialist and online publisher at Creating Bestsellers

Dinah Lee Küng; Orange Prize nominee, long-term reporter on China and e-book convert

John Zimmer; lawyer, writer and public speaker, expert on use of writers’ platforms

CH: Be realistic. A writer can rarely write a book in a year. If they say they can, and even if their agents say they can, I negotiate a contract which allows them to deliver in eighteen months. But I’d prefer two years.

DLK: Write good books. When readers find your work and like it, they will seek out more. Have it ready for them.

DA: Give something to your potential readers first. Be useful. On your website or better still, your blog. Grow your tribe and when you have a following, you can expect to sell something.

JZ: Build your platform and interact with people. Use Facebook strategically. You can have an author page on which only you can post. You can keep the content focused on you and your work. Online writing communities can be helpful, but beware yet another time suck.

CH: While writers’ platforms are essential, “protect the instrument”. Make a conscious choice to switch off and use your writing mind. You are a writer. Spend three days away from the internet. Protect yourself from that intrusiveness and the anxiety it creates.

DLK: Be focused with your time and with your readership. I write for two very different markets and so use two names. A pen name is very useful. It allows you to cross genres and appeal to various markets. It’s also very liberating if your mother is still alive.

CH: Agents and publishers are part colleagues, part adversaries. If I take on an author, it’s going to get up close and personal because we’ll be refining their work. I never talk to authors about money; that would be unethical. The agent is a vital practical link who provides more support for the writer, whereas my focus is on the book.

JZ: There’s no inherent contradiction between e-readers and paper books. Books are objects of veneration and hold a different attraction. Apparently, e-book readers buy 21% more paperbacks. Although an e-reader doesn’t show anyone the cover, so no one knows what’s making you laugh, cry or nod.

Kids are now reading Victorian novels such as The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins on e-readers, because they’re not put off by a huge great hardback.

DLK: Maximise your readership by using sites where readers go. Goodreads, or Shelfari, or Librarything. Use these sites as a reader and a writer. Be active and get your book in front of more people than you can ever hope to reach on your own.

DA: There’s confusion between literary merit and saleability. You may be rejected because your agent/publisher can’t see how to sell your work. Define your bottom line as a writer. Do you want your book to find an audience? That’s always possible. The old models are no longer working, so it’s time to create ones. For most books, there is a readership. You just need to find it.