Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Please Don’t Write What You Know

All kinds of theories you get told in writing workshops, ‘Write what you know’ and that sort of thing, which I don’t believe at all. One of the great joys in writing is to try and explore what you don’t know. That’s exciting to me. – Kiran Desai

Write What You Know.

What does that mean, in practice? The trouble with a lot of writing what you know is that no one wants to read it. Because readers see through fiction-which-is-fact, sniff out wish-fulfilment and close their ears to lecturing. If they want any of those things, they can switch on the TV.

Fiction isn’t life. Otherwise, why bother? Toss aside Fifty Shades of Grey, grab the restraints, drag him away from the PlayStation and get creative. Just don’t write about it afterwards.

Here are seven ways WWYK can backfire:

But It’s All True!

Just because an experience happened, doesn’t make it a good story. When you’re telling a story, you’re giving a reader an experience. Relating yours, no matter how well you dress it up, is always going to be second-hand. Take the reader on their own journeys; use their own experiences to breathe colour and intelligibility; allow them the privilege of relating to the narrative first hand. Maybe reignite old memories or establish new ideals. Give them something new.

Same goes for character. One author used real people twice in her work. Both times beta-readers picked them out of the line-up at first glance. They stick out like Bob Hoskins in Roger Rabbit. They aren’t part of that world, they have no place there and the author’s crude attempts to disguise personal feelings towards those individuals are as obvious as a teenage blush. There’s nothing wrong with using the odd trait, mannerism or look from someone you know to add realism to a character, but make sure each person you create has a life and history of their own.

Even if a story is true, it must be believable as a story. Reality often makes the worst fiction. Add those details which bring the piece to fictional life. Omit those which don’t. – Janet Skeslien Charles

Dear Diary

JJ Marsh: “Someone I know spent a long time writing up an incredible round-the-world adventure. I’d heard so many of these stories; in the pub, in the park, around dinner tables. The storyteller possessed drama, humour, vocal range and facial dexterity. Those verbally recounted stories were always applauded. The book? I couldn’t finish. The equivalent of several thousand holiday slides.”

Contrast such a disappointment with Susan Jane Gilman’s Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven. Not only a distinctive voice, but more than one level of alienation and an increasingly tense plot involves the reader in an adventure. Yes, it’s a true story, but one hell of a way to tell it. Memoirs such as Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It or Just A Boy by Richard McCann break the mould because the story they tell compels a reader through compassion. It should be fiction but it’s not, that’s how the reader copes with such gritty realism.

And if You Look To Your Left ...

Lecturing, something most writers have fallen foul of many times, can make a reader’s toes curl in embarrassment. Much like a bound foot. Foot binding was very popular in 10th century China because men found it to be highly attractive, and therefore became Chinese women's way of being beautiful and to show that they were worthy of a husband. The foot binding process begins with a young girl (4-7 years old) soaking her feet in warm water or animal blood with herbs. (Thank you, Wikipedia).

This is nothing more than another adage – Show, Not Tell. Don’t inform the reader, allow them to glimpse the details, catch a peep behind a screen, hear the muffled cry of a young voice expressing old pain.

Look at writers such as Eowyn Ivey (Alaska) or Monique Roffey (Trinidad) and absorb how they select and employ geographical detail like seasoning to enrich and attract, without drowning the reader in reportage. Read Salman Rushdie or Louis de Bernières as a lesson in how historical segues act as mortar to the story bricks, whilst rendering the two part of the whole.

If you need to be an expert in a given field – maybe a pathologist in crime fiction or WWII fighter pilot in a historical romance – make sure it’s the characters who sound like they’re living the life. Not the author trawling the internet.

One tip – our own Gillian Hamer took an Open University Forensics’ Course. In her novel where a pathologist takes the lead role, she must sound like she knows her DNA from her CAP – and sound like she means it. If the language and the words become second nature to the writer, rather than something quickly cut and pasted from a website, it adds so much more depth and gravitas to the characters. And the readers will appreciate the effort without even knowing what went into it. Making something incredibly difficult look incredibly easy is vital.

Me, But Better

Another pitfall is the writer who uses fiction as wish-fulfilment. This story’s hero/heroine is IRRESISTIBLY sexy, tall/petite, witty/winsome, glamorous/gifted, muscular/feisty, handy with a Colt 45/cauliflower coulis, genetically/genitally enhanced, an arrogant bad boy/a sassy sex kitten, a horse-whispering human marshmallow in leather trousers/a free spirit who sits naked in a peacock chair while her lover paints the sunset.

This kind of fantasy belongs in teenage notebooks or in locked jewellery boxes, encoded and set to spontaneously combust if any other eyes but the author’s should happen upon them. Unless you're E.L. James.

Just as your average teenager tries on a variety of identities to see which suits, a writer should experiment, move away from oneself and stretch beyond what is comfortable.
I became interested in writing different points of view. And I think I came from a student background and cultural generation which was very nervous about writing outside one’s own experience; gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and cultural space. I think The Slap is my attempt to resist that. Not to say those considerations aren’t important, but if I can’t write as a woman, a black person, an old man or a teenage girl, what the hell am I doing writing at all? – Christos Tsiolkas
Isn’t It Exotic, Don’t You Think?

At a workshop for non-Fiction Writers in Zurich in 2011, Andrew Crofts (The Ghost Writer) listened to various accounts of the expat experience and finally, with a deep sigh, told it like it is.
“Yes, but the only people who will be interested are other expats. Write a blog instead.”
This astute writer knows her audience and shows how it should be done.

Who are you talking to? Other versions of you? Or do you want to address a wider audience with a story anyone can access? Why will anyone else care about what you care about – and how can you make that happen?

Empathy is a key ingredient. The old adage of getting the reader onside from Chapter One is a rule to ignore at your peril. Whatever genre you chose, make sure that the characters and world you create encompass the reader, so that every emotion is heightened and explored. Hate is fine, sympathy is better. Anger is necessary, passion is perfect.

Write for a wide audience, so that people of all backgrounds and persuasions can live and involve themselves in your world. Fiction is not the place for walking on narrow ground.

Dull as dishwater

Another problem many writers face when they stick to safe territory and write what they know is that unless they are widely read or have imaginative scope beyond a normal person’s wildest dreams … life can be pretty crap. And often pretty dull.

Most of us in our daily life relive on repeat a pretty good take on Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5. It’s normal and banal and just life. We don’t make eye contact with a tall, dark handsome stranger on the bus and experience a life-changing frisson of electricity. We rarely see an armed robbery during our lunch hour while picking up an egg and cress roll from Greggs. No one is going to want to read about an eight-hour shift at a call centre, when the highlight of the day was a visit by the window cleaner.

There are, of course, elements of our life we can take with us on our journey into fiction. Emotions. Experience. Knowledge. Conversations. History. We have a melting pot of resource information bubbling away in our brains. But to make all of those ingredients come together in a perfect recipe, we need to transport the reader away from the normality of everyday life.

Even if we’re only transporting them on the Tube from Holborn to Greenwich. Even if we’re not planning on whisking them away to the Maldives or Great Barrier Reef. It’s still the job of the writer to create a believable world to relate their story, that although the reader can pick out bits they recognise, fits the story you have created – not the one you live on a daily basis.
From all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive.Ernest Hemingway
Location, Location, Location

Many of you will know that location is a strong theme in Triskele books. And while it’s clearly not practical for every author to visit the place they set their novels (our JD Smith may find difficulties visiting the lands of Palmyra circa 1st Century AD) a strong setting can really carry a story – and again it needs to be something that although the reader may recognise in passing, does not linger too long on the M25.

Some writers, take for example, Stef Penney and her wonderful The Tenderness of Wolves, admit they have never set foot on the land they so wonderfully describe. But they spend years researching the layout, the towns, the traditions and languages. This is a gift coupled with hard work.

Many writers prefer to visit the location to feel the atmosphere of a setting, and there is nothing more satisfying than to be told in a review that your description of a place has prompted the reader to pay their first visit.

But let's not forget that there are times when writing what you know is the most important thing you can do - for yourself, and for others. Jade Amoli-Jackson is a humbling example.

It’s a big world out there. So, whichever way you do it, take a chance. 

Break the rules. Open up and let the reader in.

by JJ Marsh

Friday, 26 July 2013


On the Triskele blog today, we are pleased to welcome fellow author collective, Five Directions Press. Even though they are based in the USA, most of the books from Five Directions Press are set in Europe.

Members –– Ariadne Apostolou, Courtney J. Hall, Diana Holquist and
C.P. Lesley (blog)  –– were kind enough to answer our questions (and ask a few of their own) about the rise of their author collective and indie publishing in general.

TRISKELE: What brought you girls together? And any particular reason why your collective is named Five Directions Press?

FIVE DIRECTIONS PRESS: Three of us formed a local writers’ group five years ago and have met regularly ever since. Diana and C.P. have been writing buddies and friends for even longer. Diana has published commercially; she mostly writes contemporary romance under her own name and as Sophie Gunn. But her parenting memoir appealed to a different audience, and she decided to publish it herself. When we set up our own press, we invited Diana to join us. We reformatted and reissued her book last year.

The Five Directions Press name grows out of C.P.’s series, Legends of the Five Directions. In Chinese cosmology, which the Mongolians and Turkic tribes of Central Asia adopted, the center is considered a fifth direction that brings the four cardinal points into harmony. Since we have a range of books—historical fiction (C.P. and Courtney), contemporary fiction (Ariadne), and memoir (Diana)—it seemed like a nice image of unity derived from diversity. We don’t quite have five directions yet, but that leaves us room to expand.

TB: What factors triggered your decision to go indie?

FDP: In part, the difficulty of breaking into publishing as an unknown author, especially if one is writing books that don’t fit neatly into a commercial slot. We came up with the idea after C.P. had sent both her books to literary agents and reached the point where she was getting comments along the lines of “I love this, but I don’t know who I’d sell it to.” In the meantime, self-publishing was exploding. But if commercial publishing has too many gatekeepers who operate too rigidly, self-publishing has too few. So the four of us decided to pool our skills, work together to ensure quality control on each book, and set up the cooperative as an intermediary. Our hope is that Five Directions Press can build a long-term reputation for books worth reading. Of course, that will take a while.

TB: Like Triskele Books do you each retain the rights to your own books, pay the costs of publication and receive the full royalties? What elements are done collectively?

FDP: Yes, to all of the above. So far, because we are so small, we have an arrangement where no money changes hands. Five Directions Press is a name and a group website rather than a business. What makes it work is that we have a good combination of skills: C.P. has 20+ years experience in academic publishing, including copy editing and typesetting, so she handles the actual book production. Courtney runs a graphic design business, so she works on covers and website design (she produced our logo, for example). Ariadne is the best of us at spotting flaws in story structure and characterization. Diana has a background in advertising. So both the writing and the production are, to some extent, a collective effort.

TB: What do you see as the key benefits of being in a collective? Any disadvantages?

FDP: We really don’t see any disadvantages, so long as the people in the collective are positive and helpful in their attitudes. We were very lucky to find people who were a good fit from the beginning. We have learned so much from one another in terms of improving our writing. For the press, the main advantages are having other people to brainstorm with and having people who can fill in the gaps in one’s own experience. No one can be an expert at everything.

TB: Do you share a designer? And do you try and go for a shared look or feel?

FDP: C.P. designs the books, with input from the collective. Usually, we work together on the covers, although if an author wants to bring in her own cover, that’s fine. We would fuss only if the new cover deviated too much from the Five Directions Press style.

We do try to go for a shared look and feel. Most of the covers have a textured beige back (which contrasts well with our umber logo), and we strive for a consistent layout on the back cover and spine. The interiors usually use the same header and footer style and similar layouts, although fonts and type ornaments vary. All our historical novels use Garamond, for example—a nice old font with a long history. The modern novels use modern fonts (Minion Pro, usually). Display fonts (chapter headings and cover type) are individual to each book—although the Legends of the Five Directions series, for example, will use the same fonts throughout to establish a consistent look for the series.

TB: How do you know whether an author is a good ‘fit’ for Five Directions Press?

FDP: Well, the primary qualification, besides the person having something to contribute (see next question), is to write well. Because we are trying to establish a reputation for the press as a whole, we need to involve writers who already have a solid grasp of the craft, even if their work does not appeal to a literary agent or commercial publisher for whatever reason. In addition, this is a “sweat equity” operation, so the person needs to be willing to put in the time, rather than approaching publication as a client, and have a generally positive outlook. Last, the book itself has to blend with the ones we already have, since the point of operating as a group is to achieve a certain level of cross-fertilization. Even though we have historical and contemporary novels, as well as novellas and a memoir, all our books can be considered some variety of women’s fiction. I don’t think there would be any advantage to us or to a prospective author to take on a physics textbook, but a historical mystery featuring a female detective would probably work fine.

TB: Are you actively seeking new members? And if so, what sort of criteria must new authors meet, to become part of Five Directions Press?

FDP: We are not actively seeking new members, but we are not averse to considering new members. At the moment, we have just one person to handle the copyediting and proofing; it would be nice to have another writer who has worked as an editor. Someone experienced in book publicity would also be useful, since none of us really has the contacts needed to publicize the books as much as they need and deserve. Publicity is our greatest difficulty, as it is for most independent and self-published writers, so that’s probably the area where we could use the most help. Hence the criteria would be those listed in my previous answer: good writing, good fit, willingness to participate, and skills that supplement those we already have.

TB: What are your plans for 2013 and beyond?

FDP: We have at least three books in the pipeline for fall and winter 2013. C.P.’s The Winged Horse (Legends of the Five Directions 2: East), is on track for release in November or December. Courtney’s Saving Easton should come out around the same time. Ariadne is working on a series of three novellas; we expect to release those one by one as e-books, then together in print, over the next year. We also need to get the e-book versions of Seeking Sophia up within the next few months. Beyond that, we have to see. But we all expect to keep writing, so there should be a slow but steady stream of books.

TB: How do you see the future of publishing generally?

FDP: It seems obvious that publishing is in flux. The current model, in which a few companies (five, here in the United States) control the bulk of the commercial market while millions of self-published books pour out through online and e-bookstores—most of them poorly written, edited, and designed; most of them unread—appears unsustainable. Some new system of gatekeepers will emerge, whether it is cooperatives like ours or review boards that can confer a seal of approval or an expansion of’s invitation-only publishing arm. As bookstores disappear, the advantages of commercial publishing also lessen, but the big houses still dominate access to premier publications such as The New York Times Book Review and The New York Review of Books. That will have to change before self-publishing and indie publishing can really take off. It’s also clear that people selling services to writers (editing, typesetting, marketing) are doing well and will continue to do well. Avoiding those expenses was part of the reason we decided to set up Five Directions Press.

Or (this is more of a doomsday scenario) will knock everyone else out of the market, at which point it may become much less hospitable to self-publishers and small presses like ours. On the whole, though, I think it’s a very exciting time to be a writer, because so many options for publication exist that did not a few years ago.

As a return match, Five Directions Press asked Triskele Books a few questions ...

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

TB: There were three original members, JJ MarshGillan Hamer and Liza Perrat. We met via an online writing group, and “knew” each other virtually for a few years beforehand, critiquing each other’s work. At the end of 2011, two of us had agents who were unable to sell our manuscripts, but none of us was keen on self-publishing individually. We got together and discussed the idea of a team collaboration, to make the process more feasible and less scary, and decided to form the Triskele Books
author collective –– a brand to promote our ideals of quality writing, presentation and design. We have since taken on more members, Catriona Troth and JD Smith, so we currently have a core group of five, with a few extras on the sidelines, supporting and promoting us. The other authors we also met through the same online writing group.

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

TB: Triskele comes from the fact there were three of us in the beginning. It has Celtic connotations, a tie-in with one of our author’s settings. The circles of the logo resemble three scrolls, and the joining of these three independent circles to create something entirely new. As regards style, “location” is an important theme to our brand. All of us share an enthusiasm for “place”, and we try to evoke that in our stories. We all use the same cover designer and formatter, JD Smith, whose gorgeous matt-finish covers are praised by readers.

FDP: How does your setup differ from ours? How do you select a Triskele author? Do you interact in person, or mostly online?

TB: Triskele Books operates very similarly to Five Directions Press. Each author retains her own rights, is responsible for publishing her own books, choosing between e-books, paperbacks and hardbacks, and commissioning her own quality design. We critique and edit each other’s work and comment on covers. We all employ a professional proofreader, as well as cover designer and formatter. We mostly interact online, via a private Facebook group, as we live in different places, from London to Birmingham, to the Lakes District, Lyon and Zürich. We get together in London every six months for the launch of the latest releases, which is always a great occasion for fun, chit-chat and champagne.

One area which is hard work, but we consider a benefit, is that we constantly evaluate ourselves. We check we’re still going in the right direction, especially when new challenges throw up questions, and we have to refer back to our fundamental principles in order to make plans for the future. This would be much harder if we weren’t a) a small group, b) communicative and c) willing to listen to other ideas.

FDP: What books have you published, and what do you plan to publish over the next year or two?

TB: We have published nine books so far, with another three due for release in November, 2013.

June 2012 releases:

The Charter by Gillian Hamer

Behind Closed Doors by JJ Marsh (first in the Beatrice Stubbs series)

Spirit of Lost Angels by Liza Perrat

December 2012 Releases:

Closure by Gillian Hamer

Raw Material by JJ Marsh (second in the Beatrice Stubbs series)

The Open Arms of the Sea by Jasper Dorgan

June 2013 Releases:

Complicit by Gillian Hamer

Tread Softly by JJ Marsh (third in the Beatrice Stubbs series)

Tristan & Iseult by JD Smith (novella)

Gift of the Raven by Catriona Troth (novella)

Future Releases:

November 2013:

 Wolfsangel by Liza Perrat

 Overlord I by JD Smith

 Ghost Town by Catriona Troth

May 2014:

The Crossing by Gillian Hamer

Cold Pressed by JJ Marsh (fourth in the Beatrice Stubbs series)

Overlord II by JD Smith

FDP: What is the situation in commercial publishing in the UK at present? Do you encounter the same problems in finding representation and publication that we do here in the US?

TB: We certainly did encounter the same problems finding representation and publication in the UK, as in the US. At the beginning of Triskele Books, Gillian Hamer and Liza Perrat both had agents, who were unable to sell their manuscripts, despite much praise. JJ Marsh’s international crime series was said to be “too cerebral”. Basically, it was the same story: publishers liked our stories, but couldn’t see where to slot them in commercially.

FDP: How has publishing changed in the UK, and how do you anticipate it will develop over the next few years?

Gillian Hamer: To me, publishers in the UK seem slow to catch up with current market trends and they seem for the most part, unwilling to look at the opportunities the rise in indie-publishing offers. A few are now starting to think about foreign rights and looking to utilise the work authors are putting in regarding self-promotion and marketing. Many of us have felt that agents have taken a very old-fashioned approach for years - for example many still only accept written submissions as if email was something out of a sci-fi movie! I feel everyone involved in publishing will have to change up a gear and accept and embrace the technology around today. E-books are only the start. Those that don’t will lose opportunities and be left behind.

Catriona Troth: One change I have observed over the past ten years or so is that as so many of the smaller agents and publishers get swallowed up by big multinationals, much less time is given for debut authors to develop. For most traditionally-published writers these days, if they don’t make the big time with their first book - or if they are very lucky, their second - that’s the end of their career. One things that self-publishing does is to give writers the time to build a following gradually and organically - the way all writers could expect to, at one time.

JJ Marsh: UK publishing is similar to the US, in that it’s marketing-led, in the main. Smaller presses, bookshops and agents who are willing to develop authors are suffering from the heavyweights’ advantages. It’s interesting to see agents such as Andrew Lownie and Rogue Reader taking the agent-assisted self-publishing model, which seems advantageous for both. People are beginning to wake up to the opportunities offered by the DIY route, and also beginning to realise that readers are highly discerning. Collectives such as Five Directions Press and Triskele Books, amongst others, have an opportunity here, to act as a hallmark of quality.

Our thanks and best wishes to Five Directions Press for a successful career in indie publishing through the author collective. Books from Five Directions Press are available here.

Five Direction Press Members:

Ariadne Apostolou lives in Pennsylvania with her daughter and Aristophanes, a pet guinea pig. She holds degrees in classical art and archaeology and museum studies. Seeking Sophia, the story of Kleio Platon, is her first novel. She is working on a series of novellas about friends who once lived in a 1970s urban commune.

While following the advice of a fortune cookie, a woman rebuilds her life and finds wisdom in the love of an abandoned child.

Courtney J. Hall lives with her husband near Philadelphia. She is working on her first novel, Saving Easton, a historical romance straddling the reigns of Bloody Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I, which she expects to publish in 2013.

A reluctant earl discovers that life with a tempestuous artist offers more rewards than he ever dreamed possible. Forthcoming in 2013.



Diana Holquist is the author of six novels, four written under her own name and two as Sophie Gunn. This is her first nonfiction work.

How one family fought the myth that you need to destroy childhood to raise extraordinary adults.

C. P. Lesley, a historian, is the author of The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel—her 21st-century take on the classic Baroness Orczy novel, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905), now in the public domain—and of The Golden Lynx, volume 1 of a series set during the childhood of Ivan the Terrible.

A modern-day graduate student enters the virtual-reality world of an eighteenth-century novel. Her life—and the novel—will never be the same.

16th-century Moscow hums with rumors about its newest hero, the Golden Lynx. Everyone knows the Lynx must be a man, but “everyone” may be wrong…

Sequel to The Golden Lynx


The Triskele books are available through our website

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

What's in a pseudonym?

 By Gillian Hamer

After the recent headlines about JK Rowling publishing her first crime novel under the name of Robert Galbraith, we wondered what makes authors publish under a different name.

JK Rowling clearly had huge, personal reasons for choosing a pen name. She says: ‘I had hoped to keep this secret a little longer because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience. It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.’

Whilst this is a position most readers would envy, I’m sure most of us can also sympathise.

But what other reasons take writers down this route? We researched a selection of authors – famous, debut, unpublished – to find out what drove them under the cover of a pseudonym.

It’s something our very own JJ Marsh has chosen to do, and she’s in good company, from the Bronte sisters to Agatha Christie to Stephen King, for decades writers have chosen to work outside the constraints a famous name creates. But for those less famous, what is the pull of anonymity?


I chose a pseudonym for my erotica to differentiate it from my more serious work, and also, initially, to keep my real identity secret. The secret is now out but I will still continue to use Barbie Scott for my two collections of erotic short stories - The Stiletto Heel & Other Stories and Dinner with Daniela & Other Stories, and a novella which will be out soon.

All novels and erotica can be found at


Both my grandfather and great-grandfather were called James Bain Elstob so I chose Jimmy Bain because I wanted to honour my Glasgow ancestors. Also, I thought it suited the genre and the style of my gritty humourous Glasgow crime novels better than my real name does. It's short, sharp and suggests there'll be no messing about.

The Bumble's End by Jimmy Bain - A tale of greed, death and toffees - is available now at and all good online booksellers. The Long Drop Goodbye, the next in the series, will be ready shortly.


I write children’s novels (the first will be published in the USA in March 2014) and didn’t want a situation where a child picked up one of my crime novels and said: “Oh, look, Mummy, a new book by Lorraine Mace. I like her books.” I had visions of the poor mother trying to explain the contents of a hard-boiled crime thriller to a traumatised child. It seemed safer to write crime as Frances di Plino (the feminine version of my Italian great-grandfather’s name) and keep my own name for the children’s novels.

As Frances di Plino, my latest novel, Someday Never Comes, will be released by Crooked Cat Publishing on the 16th August.



There are two reasons I use a pseudonym for writing. Firstly, because I have built a good reputation in my day job under my real name. I want to keep that identity distinct and separate. Secondly, my real name sounds like I write about rabbits – the fluffy, cuddly sort, not boiled by a deranged Glenn Close. JJ Marsh came about when I was writing a collaborative project with my sister, whose name also starts with J. I borrowed Marsh from my step-dad, with a nod to Ngaio.

You can find out more about my crime series here:


In 1850, Charlotte Bronte put a stop to the speculation about the sex of the Bells.

‘Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our names under those of Currer, Ellis & Acton Bell, the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple of assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because – without at the time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not that is called ‘feminine’ – we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.’


Christie published six romance novels under the name of Westmacott. Rosalina Hicks, Christie’s only daughter believes the pseudonym gave her mother the pleasure and opportunity to fulfil her wish to write something different.

She said: ‘Although Mary Westmacott never enjoyed the same critical acclaim, the books received recognition in a minor way and my mother was pleased people enjoyed them.’ And Christie certainly enjoyed writing them. In her autobiography, she said of her novel, Absent in the Spring, published in 1944: ‘This was the one book that satisfied me completely. I didn’t want to change a word. It was written with integrity, with sincerity, it was written as I was meant to write it, and that is the proudest joy a writer can have.’


As the great man himself explains: ‘Because in the early days of my career there was a feeling in the publishing business that one book a year was all the public would accept, but I think a number of writers have disproved that by now.’


Born Salvatore Albert Lombino, he legally adopted the name Evan Hunter in 1952. A prolific literary writer, Evan was advised by his publisher that publishing too much fiction, or indeed any crime fiction, may weaken his literary reputation. As a consequence, he wrote under many different names: Curt Cannon, Hunt Collins and Richard Marston for much of his early crime fiction work before settling on Ed McBain in 1956 with the publication of Cop Hater, the first novel in his acclaimed 87th Precinct Series.


Some reasons are purely personal and some come down to cold, hard business, but for Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland, it was a mixture of both.

He says: ‘The name Jonathan Freedland just doesn’t sound like a thriller writer’s name, whereas Sam Bourne does. Publishing experts said my surname has too many syllables. It’s too long. It’s better to be higher up the alphabet. All these commercial considerations. But for me, personally, it’s the idea of separation from the day job, just to keep the two distinct, in reader’s minds and my own.'

So, while there are varying reasons for the decisions to write under a pen name, many seem to have sexual connotations. Have times changed since the Bronte sisters decided to keep their gender ambiguous?

Back to JK Rowling.

Her publisher changed her name on the first Harry Potter book from Joanne to JK because they believed that girls do not care who had written a book, whereas boys would be unlikely to buy a book by a woman. Now, with her move into crime fiction, she has chosen Robert as a pen name, adding weight behind experts’ advice that as more women read crime, they prefer to read novels written by men.

Is this true?

I’m not sure Agatha Christie would agree!

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Everyone is a critic!

The Dos and Donts of Critiquing

by Gillian Hamer

There has been a lot of negativity in the past about the pros and cons of online writing sites and writing groups in general. It’s fair to say that it can be a source of tension, and more than once I’ve heard comments from fellow writers along the lines of – ‘so what does he know, he’s not published either’ or ‘so what makes her JK Rowling all of a sudden.’

Critiquing another person’s work can be a minefield. But done well, ie learn the rules of engagement, and it can be a rewarding experience – for both parties.

· Help yourself …

Working with other writers will hone your writing skills – whether you’re the one giving or receiving the critique. In certain dry spells of my own writing, getting involved with commenting and advising on another writer’s work has been instrumental in helping to get my own writing flowing again.

Often, as a critiquer, you begin to recognize faults that crop in up your writing, but were invisible to your own eyes until you saw the same faults in others. You can see from the other side of the fence what it takes for readers to connect or sympathise with characters, and use that knowledge to improve your own work. And for the cost of only your own time, you’ll learn invaluable advice for improving your own work whilst also helping someone else.

However, it can be a wasp’s nest and it’s best to have an idea of the etiquette and skills required to be a successful and helpful critiquer. There is an art form to providing well-constructed, thoughtful criticism, and it’s important to recognize the fine line between personal preference and quality of the writing.

· Don’t judge every book …

Writers are told early on they need to develop a thick skin. And that’s very true. While agents, editors and publishers are unlikely to sugar coat any criticism, as a fellow writer, that doesn’t give you the right to crucify another person’s writing without thought and wisdom behind the words.

Remember, if you’ve been writing for a decade and have achieved a decent level, don’t judge everyone against the quality of a published author’s work. Remember everyone has to start as a ‘Learner Driver’ and use that analogy to encourage and advise in the right manner.

I am a fan of the sandwich approach. If I have to impart bad news, I would rather begin with a positive comment – ‘I really enjoyed the fresh ideas you brought to this crime novel’ – followed by a piece of advice – ‘However, I think you need to put a lot more time into crafting POV’ – then ending with an encouragement – ‘I think you have an original idea here, I’d love to read another draft.’

Of course, not everything can be sweetness and light, but you can see what I mean. There are ways to impart bad news, and personally, I think the most helpful thing you can do for a newbie writer is to give examples or suggest alternatives.

· If at first …

Also, a good critique is a well thought-out review where the writing (rather than the writer) is put under the spotlight. If you have time, try to read the work twice. First as a reader, making notes as you go – then as a writer, red editor’s pen in hand. The more time and effort you put into a critique, the more it will assist the writer. There’s nothing worse than a half-baked list of comments and it’s usually blatantly obvious when the person hasn’t put any effort into their responses.

And if you find you need to impart bad news, which can often be the case and should not send you running for the hills, always try and be constructive. Don’t say – ‘you’re using the wrong words’ – try ‘that word is vague, how about something more compelling like …’ The same with sentence structure. Rather than just highlighting a poorly constructed sentence, why not rewrite it, once or twice, and give examples of how this would improve the work.

· You can’t please everyone …

It’s a sad fact that on some online sites, there are writers who do not want criticism, and when they ask for feedback what they really want to hear is how great they are. You will only learn by experience who they are, and should you review work and find the writer wants to enter into a huge debate, I’d be inclined to ask if they have specific questions. If not, try not to get into a back and forth debate where you feel the need to defend your critique while they try to defend their work! This is never beneficial to either party.

Accepting a critique also carries its own etiquette. Your writing will only improve if you can graciously accept a critique – no matter what its content. Always take from any critique only what connects with you as the writer. Do not go through a manuscript and blithely change every item the other person has raised … but do give every single point due consideration. Remember, this person has given their time and experience to assist you, and even if you don’t agree with everything (or anything!) they advise, always be respectful and gracious. DO NOT enter into a heated debate with a critiquer. They will not change their minds because you tell them too. If you have further questions, by all means ask, but if you cannot agree – then silently leave it at that.

· My top tips for critiquing …

1. Always start with strengths before addressing weaknesses.

2. Make solid suggestions for improvement, don’t be vague.

3. Be positive, even when you’re covering negative subjects.

I have over a decade’s experience on numerous writing sites and have asked some of the best critiquers I have had the pleasure of dealing with for some of their top critiquing tips. There should be at least one little gem here that connects with you.

· What’s the best piece of critique advice you’ve received?

“I would say read as a reader and don't over analyse. Trust your gut reaction, most prose only gets one chance to impress/hold a reader. And things that trip you are likely to trip others. Also take the time to mention the good bits as well as the bad, we all need a bit of encouragement from time to time.”

“Strike out every other adjective and adverb.”

“I can't remember the author now but one well known writer apparently has a bit of paper stuck to their writing desk saying ' BE THERE'. I think this is really great advice as it reminds you to keep the narrative realistic and helps bring the prose alive.”

“Characters based on real people are the least real on paper. It made me chuck away an entire book, and recently scrap two characters completely from the Beatrice series. It's like Roger Rabbit - the mixture of the real and the animated make one or the other stand out.”

“Origami. Don't have your characters asking questions you want your reader to be asking. Your reader should be asking these questions as a result of the unfolding story, and if they aren't, you haven't folded it properly.”

“A tip I was given from a very experienced writer on receiving critiques was, by all means take advice from others on plot, character etc, but always remember that writing a novel is not a team sport.”

“My tip is to read your work out loud. If you start cringing, you know it has to go.”

“Cut the crap.”

· What’s the favourite piece of critique advice you offer?

“SHOW not TELL. It's an oldie but a goody. Don't tell the reader it's intriguing, show them something intriguing.”

“The trick is to read as a reader, not as a writer. I'd add to that, we all know what kind of story we would like to see, but at the end of the day, it's the writer's story, not yours, and it is the job of a critique to bring out the best in the story that is there, not write a new one.”

“A critique should help a writer to find his or her own unique voice, not have it overlaid with the voice of the person providing the critique.”

“When cutting unnecessary words begin with adverbs and adjectives. And the only verb you ever need as a speech tag is ‘said’.”

“End every sentence, paragraph and chapter with the strongest word. Don’t sort of sputter to a halt in a, you know, kind of weak and wishy-washy … erm … way. And mind out for alliteration an’ all.”

“Take what works for you but DON'T feel that you have to take on board every bit of conflicting advice. On the other hand, if all critters are saying the same thing, you should probably listen to them.”

"Cut the crap.”

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Interview with Jess Ruston

·        Welcome to the Triskele Bookclub, Jess, so, to begin, can you tell us a little more about The Lies You Told Me, and its origins?

The Lies You Told Me is a sort of psychological thriller - a family mystery. It’s about a woman called Klara, whose mother left her and her father when she was a little girl, and later died. Klara grew up hearing stories about her glamorous mother, Sadie, from her father, and has a few memories of her, but that’s it. The book opens when Klara is sent a key in the post, along with a letter telling her that she does not know the truth about her mother. The key turns out to belong to a lock up garage in South London, which contains a trunk full of Sadie’s belongings, including a diary... So Klara goes on a journey of discovery through her mother’s past. The novel is a dual narrative, as we get extracts from Sadie’s diary, and the reader has to piece together some of what happened, because Sadie isn’t always the most reliable of narrators.

The idea for the book came from a line in one of my favourite poems, Autumn Journal by Louis MacNiece. The line is ‘all of London littered with remembered kisses...’ It got me thinking about the mental maps we all have of places, and how memories linger, and change, and I began to build on that idea.

       You have wide and varied range of characters in your novels, what do you look for in an interesting, unique character, and would you say your books are character-led or plot driven?

I’d say that my novels are plot driven in that I think a strong story is absolutely key for me - both as a writer, and a reader. But strong, interesting and realistic characters are always at the core of that plot - the two have to work in conjunction with one another, really. Interesting characters can come from anywhere, but it’s really important to me that they aren’t too ‘nice’ - most of my characters have at least one serious flaw, many of them are downright unlikable in lots of ways - but, I hope, plenty of humanity as well. I can’t bear characters that don’t have that depth and edge.

       When developing a new character, where do you start?

Getting the name of a character right is crucial - I tend to have a vague sense of the character that I’m building, and then I go to their name - once I have that, they crystallise in my mind and then they’re there.

       Who do you think are some of the classic all-time-great fictional characters and why?

Oh, so many! It’s such a personal thing, but I tend to like dark, badly behaved, often quite mad characters the best. Stella in Asylum (probably my all-time favourite book), Nicole Diver in Tender is the Night, all of Tennessee Williams’s mad Southern women such as Blanche Dubois, Neely O’Hara in Valley of the Dolls...

       Where do you stand on the subject of research – love or loathe? And how do you handle it?

I enjoy it - it’s one of the things about writing novels that is so interesting, really, you get to find out about all sorts of random things that you wouldn’t otherwise come across or need to know. Though it’s also possible to do too much research - it can become a procrastination technique if you’re not careful. The internet is hugely useful when it comes to this, not so much for simple fact checking, but things like video footage on You Tube and old photographs. I use visual research like this a lot. For The Lies You Told Me I looked at lots of old modelling photos and advertisements from the early seventies, when Sadie was working in the fashion industry. Things like this really help me get a flavour of what I’m writing about.

       You also write non-fiction, but are there any other fiction genres you’d like to try your hand at? Do you have an inherited crime gene itching to get out? (Jess is the daughter of crime author, Susan Hill.)

Oh yes, lots! There are plenty of books I want to write. I’m moving more into the psychological thriller/family thriller type genre with this latest book, and I think I’m more suited to writing that end of the crime genre as opposed to detective stories, but you never know. I have a long standing fascination with forensic and investigative psychology, so that may well feature at some point in the future... I like to keep challenging myself with each book, is the main thing.

       You’ve followed the traditional route into publishing, via an agent, but what is your opinion on the current move in the market towards acceptance of quality, independent published books entering the mainstream?

I think we’re living and working in really interesting times in publishing. Technology is changing the way we consume books, and the way they can be made available, and the industry is having to change in response to that. It’s maybe harder to make a living as a writer now than ever before, but it’s also a very exciting time to be doing so. There are people doing fantastically well out of self-published books, and I have huge admiration for anyone who does so - it’s not an easy route to take.

       Who were your favourite authors as a child, and have any of them influenced your writing?

I was obsessed with the Little House on the Prairie books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I used to pretend I was tapping trees for maple syrup and hiding from ‘Injuns’...! They really fired my imagination, so though I wouldn’t say they directly influenced the way I write today, they had a big impact on the writer I am.

       When did you realise you wanted to be a writer?

I started off writing screenplays when I was 20. I had one film that I co-wrote produced, and then drifted into writing non-fiction and journalism. It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I realised - or admitted to myself - that I really wanted to write fiction.

       Tell us three things about you your readers may not know?

Hm... I have a BSc in Psychology, and harbour a yearning to do a Masters in Investigative Psychology. I once appeared in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, playing the role of a fondant fancy. I got married in the church where Shakespeare is buried.

       What advice would you give to a writer trying to make their mark on today’s tough publishing market?

Listen to your own voice, your instincts as a writer. The market will always have space for something truly fresh, original, exciting. And be prepared to knock on a lot of doors - you have to develop a thick skin. Rejection is horrible, but it happens to all of us. You just have to get back up and keep going.

       Finally, can you tell us what you’re working on at the moment?

A new novel! Which will be my 5th. But it’s somewhat under wraps at the moment, as it’s based on some things that happened in my life. It’s in the early stages, as I had a baby girl last year, so have been somewhat slowed down by her arrival... I’m also going back to screenwriting, and I have a spec TV script being read by some producers, and various other TV and film ideas in development as well. I’m really enjoying writing drama again.
Interview by Gillian Hamer

Pinterest board that goes with the book -

Twitter - @jessruston