Learn travel writing

Manukan beach, BorneoIf, like me, you’re prone to keeping travelogues whenever you skip out of town, why not have a go at turning your holidays into magazine features?

Tina Walsh is a freelance journalist with more than 25 years’ experience of writing about travel for publications such as TIME, the Guardian, Daily Mail, Daily Express and many more.

She’s leading a five-week online travel course, providing an insight into what travel editors are looking for from freelance journalists and offering tips on how to sell your stories.

What does it cover?

* How to find engaging story ideas
* How to write a pitch
* How to structure your story
* How to get invited on press trips and organise your own trips

The course is suitable for beginners and more experienced travel writers looking to brush up their skills.

Start dates are ongoing, so you can sign up whenever you’re ready and complete the course in your own time.

Taking part costs £250 (inc VAT) for five individual one-hour sessions. It could be the start of a brand new career, or at least add a new string to your writing bow.

Find full details at tina-walsh.com.

The why, what and how of writing poetry

Coriolis Effect by Sarah Dncan

Coriolis Effect by Sarah Dncan

Poet Paul Deaton explains how he came to write Black Knight, his debut poetry pamphlet for Eyewear Publishing’s Aviator Series.

Writing for me has been an intuitive adventure. It first kicked off when I was a teenager; the need and struggle to place myself and where I was; to find something in my life to hold on to. Sounds a bit dramatic, but that was the genesis.

Why I write

Words can offer us a means to place ourselves within our own worlds, when perhaps you don’t feel well placed. Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis calls this a “sacred place, where I allow myself to express my true feelings.”

Poetry offers this self-private room, where words are the outlet and the poems can find balance, meaning and say things that might seem ordinarily, in one’s daily life, unsayable. The words become a mirror to your life.

Talking specifically about my pamphlet Black Knight, all those previous years are in it – many, many years of clandestine writing.

It started taking real shape around eight years ago after I’d done an adult learning poetry course through Bristol University with Totnes poet Julie-ann Rowell. That was actually the point when I started to take my own writing seriously, because someone else, who I respected, took it seriously.

I’ll use that word again and I realise now, without good mirroring it’s quite easy to neglect those things we might have a talent or gift for.

The course in 2008 with Julie-ann was a moment of change. Finally I took some self-responsibility towards my writing. Sadly, I’ve been very good at self-sabotaging, a bit of an expert, which is, to put it another way, and again drawing on poet Gwyneth Lewis from her Sunbathing in the Rain, “I do have a responsibility for the maintenance of the gift.” Previous to 2008 I’d never quite respected my responsibility towards the gift. I’d let the writing flounder as much as I’d let it happen.

Black Knight really is the result of me responding to the ‘call’, and finally embracing it and actually working at it before it’s too late to do something about it.

I decided I couldn’t carry on letting it sleep lifelessly in me and then die. The poems for Black Knight come from this period when I started to graft and push beyond beginnings. It was about the writing and also a personal thing, a statement and a commitment saying this is what I’m about.

In that sense I think the pamphlet is declarative. There’s a new relationship hidden in there too amongst the scenery and also an acceptance of bloodline; a painful one with my father.

Parallex by Sarah Duncan

Parallex by Sarah Duncan

What I write

In terms of themes, the collection draws on two preoccupations or prisms; relationships and then my deeper sense and need for geographical topographical location which draws on a sense of place and the natural world. For me there is very much an interaction between the two, but this subject matter hasn’t been arrived at deliberately. It’s just the way it is for me.

I don’t think I’m capable of writing deliberate poems. In a good way, the poems happened inevitably, which I think is in line with what Seamus Heaney says; you’ve got to write without self-consciousness.

The themes, though, are just a reflection of a sensibility I have that comes to light sometimes, of being alive in the natural universe.

I find the natural world a huge store for correspondences and I’m curious about the interplay between the private subjective and this huge living cosmos, the universe, of which our consciousness is a part.

Like I say, it feels like a sensibility. I try and stay open to that, both of my own processes as a human being and the bigger on-going processes of sun, Earth, seasons, plant, bird life and so on happening around me and outside my back door.

In this way I try and keep the pores open and take it all in – Blake’s idea that we should “see heaven in a wild flower.”  I feel whole as a human being when the two can be brought together in some way; can touch and spark, when the psyche can find those images ‘out there’ in the natural world that can name its sense of itself and the interplay ‘of the big’ that sometimes we can feel a part of.

Undertow detail by Sarah Duncan

Undertow, detail by Sarah Duncan

How I write

In terms of structuring the pamphlet, it was a case of reviewing quite a strong period of new work. It was a bit like I had in my creative garden a load of fallen leaves and I just went about gathering together the ones that seemed most beautiful.

In that sense I wasn’t really writing for the pamphlet – in fact, after having got nil response after a few years’ attempts at pamphlet competitions I’d given up thinking about pamphlets – and this probably helped. I was just writing poems and trying to get them published. And thinking that maybe one day I’d go for the pamphlet or book.

But actually I wasn’t in any rush. For me, when the poems started to get published I worried less about the need for having a pamphlet. Publication felt like its own reward. So Black Knight is really just a bundle of closely connected fallen leaves pretty much off the same tree; that new relationship and the death of my father.

I’m delighted it’s here though, and delighted to be part of Eyewear and Todd Swift’s Aviator Series.

My full-length collection A Watchful Astronomy comes out with Seren next year, and will extend on from this starting point. And some of the poems for that book have moved on too, just as I have.

Paul DeatonAbout the author 

Paul Deaton’s poems appear in The Spectator, PN Review, The London Magazine, The Dark Horse Magazine, Gutter Magazine and anthologies. His debut poetry pamphlet Black Knight was published by Eyewear in March 2016. A Watchful Astronomy will be published by Seren in 2017.

All images in this post (other than the pic of Paul) have been generously supplied by Sarah Duncan. Thanks Sarah! Find more of Sarah’s art at print.sarahduncan.net.

Got some writing insights to share? I’m always happy to receive feature pitches on writing genres and writing tools. Send an email to Judy(at)socketcreative.com.

How to turn memories into memoir

Giraffes, South Africa Image cr Toko LosheIn a special guest post, author Toko Loshe guides us through the thorny issue of turning real, raw and emotional experiences into a memoir.

Life in Africa was not easy, with hurt, anger and revenge rampant all around you, yet the little Zulu girl, her swollen tummy hiding strings of brightly covered beads wound around her waist, was giggling. Playing hide and seek behind her mother’s legs as she bargained for some small fish we had kept for bait. Bargaining for life, for just another day before hunger gripped again.

The little hands reached out as the fish were gently laid in them. A tear ran down her mother’s face as she bowed with thanks, and the little girl’s face beamed with joy – a smile just visible through the hard crust of snot running from her nose, as a raspy cough gurgled up in the tiny chest.

Xhosa Lady, South Africa Image cr Toko Loshe

Stay true to yourself

Having a balanced view of your life is always a challenge. It may be riddled with personal hurts and experiences. Specifically when loved ones are still around, you might ask yourself whether there’s any point in dragging up that old stuff again. “Move on, stop being a victim,” a little voice in your head keeps telling you.

“We all went through it,” your siblings, children and partners may warn you. “If you mention that I will never forgive you. Do not under any circumstances include my name in your story.”

Worst of all, your own little voices may be telling you: “For God’s sake, nobody wants to read about that.”

Wrong, many people may want to read about that. In fact, many readers are looking for answers, to their own torments and hoping to see that someone else understands. They may hope that reading a story of a hardship or emotional upheaval similar to their own will help them to make sense of and cope with it.

Fountain, South Africa Image cr Toko Loshe

Let the memories flood in

Don’t get me wrong, you must have shades of light and dark in your writing, and a good story should have more light than dark. The light side of your life is there hiding behind your emotional scars that you have not allowed to heal. You will be amazed how those memories will come flooding back once you allow them to.

Telling stories became a part of me when I was living in South Africa. Whenever a topic was highlighted in the media, I would remember another time when just such a thing had happened. Sometimes it made me sad that society was not learning from their mistakes. Every story will trigger a memory, no matter who you are or where you have been, no matter what life you have lived.

These memories that linger can be the foundation of your story, but remember that yours is just one of many. Even within your own family, each person will have their own version with its own little twist. Tell is as you recall it. Don’t try and make everyone happy by telling it their way, unless of course it is also your way and a shared experience with the same recollection of joy, love or horror. Be true to yourself.

Don’t shirk from the uglier truths

Creating a vision in the mirror of a perfect life, this is the story that you tell people. The lies we tell ourselves are much worse than the lies we tell others. Cracking that false image, be it yours or someone else’s close to you, is extremely painful.

Start with the good life, the fun things and the love that may not always have been expressed yet deep in your heart you knew it was there. That is the depth of your story. The ashes of your life. Pull out that love, display it and talk about it by bringing out the love in your mother’s eyes as she tucked you in while smiling through a split lip and bruises around a swelling cheek, as she managed to kiss you on your forehead.

River, South Africa Image cr Toko Loshe

Identify your message

There is joy and love in my story, yet I was very aware of the desperate battle of survival many families faced around me as they tried to keep themselves and their children alive. Ask yourself: “What am I trying to say?” What is the message you are to put out? Behind all good stories is a message as you invade someone’s space and get into their head.

Tell a love story with love – say it, feel it and most of all mean it. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to say how much you loved someone, how they made you feel. If it is a romantic part of your life, when you were in love for the first time, even the first time you experienced sex in a loving union, try to summon up what you were thinking and how your emotions were in a turmoil with these new feelings.

Choose your starting point

Decide where you are going to start your story, then create chapters by the turning points and changes as your story evolved. Where were you? What did you look like at that particular time, and most of all, what were you thinking? This is you, this is your story. Even if you stole the rosary beads from the bibles in the church on Sunday and feared that God would never forgive you!

There will be many ups and downs in your life, you must display them all as you seesaw through your chapters bringing each episode to a climax before moving on to the next. Most of all, you must enjoy your writing, it will not be easy and there will be tears both of joy and sadness. Write those feelings down.

About the Author

Toko LosheToko Loshe lived in South Africa during some of the most turbulent years in the country’s history. Born in 1944, Loshe experienced racism, political unrest, violence, and social upheaval as South Africa’s divisions grew deeper. Her new book Shades of Africa is an intensely personal account of the dangerous world in which she lived. The book has been described as “a photo album in prose about the brutality of life in British South Africa.” Loshe now lives in Australia.

Writing as therapy

Southbank cr Tom GreenThe idea of therapeutic writing certainly isn’t new. Done for yourself it can help you to understand what you’re experiencing on an emotional level and find coping strategies. Done well, and engaging imagination and narrative, it can result in a publishable work. This week’s guest post comes from Will Green, the author of Default Setting, an unflinching fictional account of a nervous breakdown. He tells us how his own mental health issues drove him to write the novel.

Mental health issues affect one in four people. I have experienced such issues since I was a teenager; namely Clinical Depression and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Taking regular medication kept me on a level playing field for a while but during my 20s things took a turn for the worse; I self-harmed, abused drugs, and drank excessively. That was how I dealt with my feelings and it went on for years before writing found me.

A lifeline to sanity

Writing became a form of therapy for me. It was something I did to help me process what I was feeling. An emotional blowhole through which I maintained a lifeline to sanity during some of my darkest days. In fact, it was a psychiatrist at my local hospital that first suggested I should try writing things down.

So I did. I kept a notebook to write down little stories about how I felt. Sometimes it was the laying bare of autobiographical facts, and sometimes I would twist the story to fit my own acceptable version of reality. It was all just part of a coping strategy. I never had the intention of writing a novel. I wrote for myself and I wrote to let go.

Will Green cr Tom Green

But as anyone who has suffered any form of mental illness will tell you, there are up days and down days and as such my actual creative output was sporadic and usually in short bursts. Sometimes I would go weeks and even months without putting pen to paper but there would be something that always dragged me back to it.

It was my brother Tom who first believed I could write, and he encouraged me to make something of it. Looking back, that was the first step I took towards writing Default Setting.

Mile End Hospital cr Tom Green

Don’t expect a miracle cure

Writing was by no means a miracle cure to end all of my mental health problems. It was one of many factors, along with family and friends, regular medication, counselling, hospitalisation and support sessions that helped me get better, and continue to get better. But I cannot overstate how having this outlet gave me a bit of purpose. Something to focus on. I started looking at situations differently, imagining how I could write about them.

It detached me from the overtly emotional response I was having to my life. I got so into it that I even started to carry a notepad around with me everywhere I went. As my interest in it grew it became more important for me to make it as good as I could. I felt that if I could actually do this and turn all my negative energy, heartache and depression into something good it would make sense of it. Of all of it.

And that’s something I held onto. The shift in my mindset from scribbling down notes to producing a full novel allowed me to start to let go of some of the things in my past.

The completion and subsequent release of Default Setting allowed me to finally lay to rest a particularly dark part of my life. I clearly remember how I felt as I watched promotional shots being taken of the book. It was like I could finally let go.

Mile End Tube station cr Tom Green

Default Setting chronicles a period of the protagonist, Edward Staten’s, life as he descends into alcoholism, drug abuse, self-harm and ultimately a nervous breakdown. Those of you who are familiar with London you will recognise places and details as you follow Edward’s journey.

Opening up can be scary

Default Setting front coverI think the toughest part of the process was actually telling people about it and making it available to read.

When I got the call to say that it was now available online at iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and Kobo it felt like I was coming out – sharing something with the wider public as I never had before. Very unnerving. I remember the anxiety I felt just before posting the status update on Facebook and Twitter that informed all my friends and family in cyberspace that Default Setting existed.

It was like handing over all the skeletons in my closet to anyone that was interested and packaging it as one neatly presented download. However, the response so far has been overwhelmingly positive with it currently having an average 5-star rating on Amazon. People are describing Edward as being engaging and easy to connect with. Reading reviews like this mean so much to me as Edward Staten is a character that has helped me deal with deep seeded psychological issues. His experiences reflect mine and hearing that so many people can identify with him made me feel that I wasn’t isolated and freakish. Everyone, to a degree, can associate with feeling down and trying to deal with bad things that happen to them.

The response to Default Setting has shown me that I shouldn’t be ashamed of my illness, but proud that I have come through it. I am truly grateful to everyone who has supported this project.  I hope that publishing it makes the issues it focuses on less stigmatic. Remember, the stats say one in four right? So if you don’t suffer yourself you will almost certainly know someone who does….

Will Green authorAbout the Author

Will Green lives in London, which is the backdrop for his debut novel Default Setting. With 1 in 4 people suffering from some kind of mental health problem and suicide remaining the biggest killer of men under 50, this work of contemporary fiction, based on his own experiences, is both relevant and topical. It is available through a distribution deal with Help For Writers as a download for £2.99 on iTunesAmazonGoogle Play and Kobo. Will has committed to making a donation to a mental health charity from some of the profits made on the sale of the book.

Rewriting urban fantasy

Avon Gorge Bristol cr Judy DarleyThis week’s guest post comes from author L.E. Turner and explores how you can give old genres fresh blood.

Writing can be daunting. There’s always the worry that everything has already been done and there is no way to create something original that will capture the imaginations and interest of the readers.

Feedback I’ve received many times regarding About the Nature of the Creature is an expression of surprise that I’ve managed to do something new and fresh with vampires and werewolves. If I’m honest, it was quite by accident that I ended up writing a novel that puts a fresh twist on a well known and popular genre. I say it was by accident because when I started writing I didn’t set out purposely to do something different – it just happened.

Although that was the case with this work, it is something that I am keeping in mind whilst writing the two remaining volumes in this trilogy, and is something other aspiring authors can think about when writing in a genre that has been extensively covered, especially since moving into the mainstream in the way we’ve now experienced with vampires and werewolves.

About the Nature of the Creature coverI started writing About the Nature of the Creature in 2002 when I was studying for my undergrad degree in Archaeology, and between studying, working and redrafting as I matured as a person and writer, it wasn’t published until 2011. Even so, the basics of the story and characters were there from the beginning. This is especially true of the origins I use, giving vampires, werewolves and other supernatural creatures and elements a mythic root in ancient history. These origins came to me in an inspiration from my university studies and I ran with it, happy to have stumbled onto something different from the usual Transylvanian, diseased or religious roots of these creatures.

In recent years we’ve seen huge successes from the likes of Kelley Armstrong’s Otherworld series and Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire series, to name but two, and in the Young Adult genre via the Twilight Saga and its subsequent imitators. When I compare About the Nature of the Creature to these as examples, I can see some clear differences. I describe my novel as a gritty British urban fantasy with elements of gothic horror in order to highlight the aspects in which it differs and these have met with positive feedback from readers.

Avon Gorge Bristol cr Judy DarleyFind the right setting

  • Think carefully about your setting and chose something that feels right for the story
  • Don’t chose a setting just because you think it will appeal to a wider readership

The setting is important to all stories, whether a type of location, specific town or city, or just to create a necessary atmosphere. Most well known urban fantasy novels are set in the United States. I have read several in the genre that are written by non-American authors who have chosen to set their stories in either specific or non-descript US towns or cities, which can have the feel of trying to appeal to the widest readership rather than be necessary to the story.

Some of the best urban fantasy and YA stories I have read from British authors in the last couple of years have been set in the UK, and if anything this makes them stand out from the bevvy of US set stories.

Arnos Vale gravestone cr Judy Darley

Know your origins

  • Try to find a new slant on an old myth or take it in a new and unexpected direction
  • Create an entirely new, well researched, myth

A lot of urban fantasy focuses on well trodden myths that dates back over a century in fiction covering vampires, werewolves, zombies, and general dystopia. Often it can be hard to find new ground, or at the least cover old ground in a new and original way. I was fortunate with About the Nature of the Creature to be inspired to create a whole new origin and history for vampires and werewolves based on my personal and academic knowledge of ancient history.

In the last few years I have read some very good books that have done just this – breaking from a traditional or popular culture view of the subject. I have also read some that have fallen slightly short, and the reason for this has been a lack of research. A good idea, especially one historically based, cannot always stand on it’s own – it needs to be backed up with fact (historical or scientific for example). Even fiction as fantastical as urban fantasy should be grounded in enough cause and effect reality so as not to jar the reader.

Experiment with your genre

  • Think about setting your story in a completely different genre
  • Blending genres can give a new angle on known genre tropes

A good tip for any writer is to keep reading! Read widely and often. Although you should never copy anyone else’s ideas, you can often find inspiration from other genres that will take your story into a new direction. With About the Nature of the Creature I always wanted to blend together two stories – the then and the now. When writing, it felt quite natural for the ‘then’ to fall into historical gothic fiction, and the ‘now’ into modern urban fantasy. Arguably many stories do this to a degree – maybe there has been a murder mystery involved or combines strong horror elements – but there is still plenty of scope out there. I haven’t yet read a zombie apocalypse story from the point of view of the Mob yet, have you?

Author L.E. TurnerAbout the author

L.E. Turner lives in Bristol, the setting of her first novel About the Nature of the Creature, in which she turns the city into a home and haven for a variety of supernatural creatures. She started writing stories in small notebooks at the age of six and struggles to go a day without writing, whether fiction or blog post. She has a BA and MA in Archaeology and has previously worked in museums and heritage. She describes herself as a nerd, feminist, performer, blogger and slightly surreal writer of urban fantasy, gothic horror and science fiction. She is currently working on the sequel to About the Nature of the Creature and regularly posts short stories on her blog, leturnerwrites.wordpress.com.

For the love of flash fiction

Windmill Hill City Farm textures cr Judy DarleyFlash fiction aficionado and writer Jude Higgins tells us what prompted her to launch the Bath Flash Fiction award, and how you can get involved.

I launched the Bath Flash Fiction Award in February this year, specifically for writers who, like myself, love reading and writing micro fiction and enjoy entering competitions as a spur to finishing stories. I’ve been hooked on the form since 2012, when my colleague Alex, at Writing Events Bath, and I organised a flash fiction workshop with Tania Hershman.

The Bath Short Story Award, which I have been co-running for a few years with my writing group colleagues Jane Riekemann and Anna Schlesinger, has no lower word limit, but the stories writers submit are usually near the upper limit of 2200 words. Flash fiction is flourishing worldwide and I thought it would be good to have another international award, specifically for very short stories.

A different kind of writing contest

I also wanted to try something different. Most entries for big prize competitions, which are open for around six months, pour in during the final month. Last year, in the Bath Short Story Award, more entries came in during the final two weeks than in the first four months put together! In this competition, I aim to avoid this deadline effect by doing away with the deadline altogether. Instead, the award will close at 1000 entries – no fewer, no more. This means that writers have ownership of the end date and know they must submit as soon as they are ready instead of waiting until the last minute, or they might miss the chance to submit at all. It is an interesting process from my end. Like the writers, I have no idea when the competition is going to close.

The pleasure of unpredictability

It’s been six weeks since the award opened and entries are coming in steadily from around the globe. Who knows if it will end in a great rush of entries in the next few weeks, or continue for much longer? It’s entirely unpredictable. We don’t disclose the running total on the website due to the risk that could immediately infer a deadline and encourage writers to procrastinate, which is exactly what we’re aiming to prevent. It’s exciting to be receiving such a diverse mix of stories from countries so far including, UK, US, Eire, South Africa, Australia, Mexico, Israel, Brazil, New Zealand, Singapore. I am working hard on twitter to spread the word. All genres and styles are welcomed, traditional and experimental.

The prizes and fees

The money for the first prize of £1000, the second prize of £300 and the third of £100 is here waiting and I am delighted that Annemarie Neary, an award-winning short story writer and anovelist who has recently secured a two-book deal with Hutchinson, is judging the short list. She has judged other flash fiction competitions previously and has interesting things to say about writing to a small word count in my interview with her on the website.

There are other innovations in the competition. Writers can choose from three different entry options. Standard entry is £9, but Membership at £5, payable via Paypal or credit card, gives unlimited entries for just £4. Group entry means that five or more writers from a group, a creative writing class or a band of friends can, via one person, send in entries for £6 each. All the maths is worked out on the website.

The award is constantly evolving and the website team are working on another innovation for writers, coming  soon. I’ll keep you posted on that one.

Thank you to Judy for asking me to say more about the award. If you have any queries please get in touch through the help desk on the site bathflashfictionaward.com and we would love you to follow us on twitter @bathflashaward.

Jude HigginsAbout the author

Jude Higgins has an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University and has won prizes and achieved success in several writing competitions, including the Frome International Writing Competition. Most recently, she was long listed in the Fish short story competition 2013 and the Fish Flash Fiction competition 2013 and in 2014; her flash fiction ‘The Lottery’, received an Honourable Mention and is now published in the Fish 2014 Winners’ Anthology. Her short story ‘The Caravan’ is in ‘Reaching Out’ an anthology published by Cinnamon Press, 2013. With her friend Alex Wilson, Jude co-founded Writing Events Bath in 2009 and organises events with authors, agents and publishers in cafes, bookshops and other venues in Bath. Jude and Alex also lead popular writing groups for beginners and experienced writers. In 2012, Jude co-founded the Bath Short Story Award with Jane Riekemann, Anna Schlesinger and Caroline Ambrose and continues to work with Jane and Anna in organising this rapidly growing yearly competition. In February this year, Jude launched The Bath Flash Fiction Award.

How to write fantasy fiction for children

The Snowbirds by Jim FitzsimmonsEver fancied writing fantasy fiction for children? In today’s guest post Jim Fitzsimmons, author of The Snowbirds, tells us why writing fantasy stories is really no different to any other kind of writing, “because there are certain elements which are common to every genre of fiction.”

Have the idea

First of all you have to have an idea, and this can come from anywhere, a chance remark, something which happens while you are out walking, an interesting news item, or even someone you know or meet. It is important that you keep your eyes and ears open.

You need to try and think of something that hasn’t been done before if you can. This is obviously proving more and more difficult, but you can sometimes get around it by taking a familiar theme and looking at it from a different angle. I find fairy stories and traditional folk tales from around the world are an immense source of inspiration.

My inspiration for The Snowbirds came from a holiday in Sweden where I visited an Ice Fair. On the final day when the sculptures were completed, candles were lit in each of them and that night the flickering flames seemed to bring the statues to life.

Develop your plot

For my novel I took the art of  ice sculpture, set it in Japan where there is a wonderful annual Ice Sculpture festival in Sapporo. I combined this with the character of Jack Frost and linked him to the Russian character of Grandfather Frost to create an adventure involving two ice sculptures that come to life.

For me it is very important that I work out the plot as much as I can, even before I start, because I personally need a strong framework to keep me focused. This doesn’t mean that you can’t deviate from it if you suddenly have a brainwave, but it saves a lot of wasted time sitting at the computer wondering what is going to happen next. Plus I always strive for a strong beginning, middle and ending.

Shoji, the protagonist of The Snowbirds by Jim Fitzsimmons

Shoji, the protagonist of The Snowbirds by Jim Fitzsimmons

Create your characters

It’s difficult to say which comes first, character or plot – it can be either or both. Of course, you need to decide where your story will take place. This can be an imaginary world, inhabited by weird and wonderful characters in which case you can let your imagination run riot, or you can set the story in a more realistic and down to earth place and let the magic unfold. This has the advantage of heightening the magical fantasy element by contrast.

When creating characters of any sort it is important to make them as realistic and interesting as you can. They must be believable in order for the readers to want to know what happens to them. A good idea is to write down as much as you can about each one. Not just what they are like in appearance, but also their likes and dislikes. You may not use all of this in your story but it will help you to identify more easily with your characters as your story unfolds.

The world of The Snowbirds by Jim Fitzsimmons

The world of The Snowbirds by Jim Fitzsimmons

Know your world

If you’re writing about dragons, fairies, witches or any other of the usual fantasy characters, you must be clear about the world you are writing about. This is why I tend to stick to magic happening in the real world.  It’s the one I know best and you can always add magic to it.

If you’re creating a total fantasy world you’ll need to make plenty of notes about the characters, where they live and their purpose. That’s why some fantasy books include a map of that world so that children can get a good idea of where things are in relation to each other, and if the characters set out on a quest, it can show the path of their journey.

Consider the age of your readers

When you start on your plot or storyline it is important that you think carefully about the sort of story you want to write and the audience you’re aiming for. It’s no good creating a really complicated plot with lots of twists and turns for very young children as most will find it hard to cope with.

Most plots are concerned with the characters having a problem and trying to find a way to solve it. In The Snowbirds the  problem for Jack Frost is deciding which of the two snowbirds carved by rivals Shoji and Orochi will make the best companion for his Grandfather Frost, and he devises a cunning plan to send them both on a journey to the North Pole, during which the true character of each snowbird is revealed as they react to various meetings and situations.

The basic formula for most stories is to decide:-

Who your story is about;
What happens to them;
Where it happens to them;
Why it happens;
How your characters respond.

The quest of The Snowbirds by Jim Fitzsimmons

Introduce conflict

Your plot can involve your characters embarking on a quest to find something, or they can be transported to a different world where they have to overcome an evil tyrant or monster. Or you can create a beautiful world where everything is wonderful only to have it destroyed by the arrival of someone or something.

In each of these situations there’s an element of conflict and drama to keep readers interested. Th conflict can be between your protagonist and other characters, with themselves or with their surroundings.

In The Snowbirds there’s conflict between Shoji and Orochi at the beginning when they’re rivals in the ice carving competition, and there is conflict between the two Snowbirds as they travel on their journey.

The major point of any story is how the conflicts are resolved.

Surprise your readers

Finally, try and think of the unexpected. A neat twist at the end of your story will really add to your readers’ enjoyment. I hope I achieved this with The Snowbirds but you’ll have to read the book to find out what it is.

It’s important also to remember that you’ll probably need to re-write your story several times. For me a great way of checking to see whether the story works is to read it out loud to a friend. You’ll find as you read it that some parts are great, but other parts might sound a bit clunky or laboured. I usually have a bright marker pen to underline those parts and I re-write them later.

Also try and read it to a group of children and gauge their response. You can tell immediately whether they are interested or not.

Above all don’t be afraid to get rid of any characters or situations that simply don’t work. In the end it will make for a far better tale.

Artwork from The Snowbirds by Jim Fitzsimmons

Author bio

Jim FitzsimmonsFormer primary school teacher Jim Fitzsimmons started writing educational books in 1987 for Scholastic – Bright Ideas Series. He subsequently co-wrote books for Hodder Headline Home Learning series, The Blueprints series for Nelson Thornes, and wrote other educational books for Ladybird, Folens, and Harper Collins.

Jim began writing children’s fantasy fiction about three years ago and decided to self publish using Troubador. He lives in the Northern Lake District near the Scottish Borders with two cocker spaniels named Casper and Fergus, and enjoys writing, and painting watercolours.

A cuppa with cartoonist Rolli

RolliRolli is a writer, illustrator and cartoonist from Canada. He’s the author of two short story collections (I Am Currently Working on a Novel and God’s Autobio), two books of poems (Mavor’s Bones and Plum Stuff), the middle grade story collection Dr. Franklin’s Staticy Cat and two forthcoming novels – Kabungo (Anansi/ Groundwood, 2016) and The Sea-Wave (Guernica Editions, 2016). His cartoons appear regularly in Reader’s Digest and Harvard Business Review, among others. Find him at rollistuff.com and follow him on Twitter @rolliwrites.

Kettle’s on. What can I get you?

Coffee.  Or failing that, very strong tea.

What made you want to become a cartoonist?

I never wanted to be a cartoonist, funnily enough. I did early on want to be an artist—maybe like Van Gogh only with both ears—and a bit later a writer, but cartooning was never a desire of mine, burning or otherwise. I could draw, though, and believed I was clever, and on a whim doodled a few things and sent them off and had success straightaway.

Bankrupt cr Rolli

Bankrupt © Rolli

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How to adapt a graphic novel for the stage…

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil poster…And not just any graphic novel, but Stephen Collins’ award-winning, darkly humorous and surreal The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil. Director and writer Stephanie Kempson talks us through how she and a team of twenty young actors collaborated to take the story from page to stage.

Choose your material

I discovered The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil through a friend who’s into comics. I don’t generally read graphic novels, but I really love words and I’m a big fan of picturebooks. Something about all the space in them is exciting – it offers up lots of possibilities. Stephen’s work is like a picturebook in a way – there are lots of one-panel pages and plenty of space for ideas.

The story is quite fantastical, yet political too, whimsical but also very melancholy, which appealed to me. It’s a book about confronting your own mortality. It’s far more than a simple allegory – it’s very rich, really exciting and fun.

Find your cast

I suggested the idea of adapting The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil to the Bristol Old Vic Young Company, and they were instantly interested. We then needed to get the rights to the book, which wasn’t easy. Stephen had turned down several companies, but the Young Company have a fantastic reputation for innovative work, and that helped. There are 20 cast members aged between 14 and 23, and you don’t often get that.

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil_rehearsal photos by Kitty Wheeler Shaw2

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil rehearsal © Kitty Wheeler Shaw

As soon as we had the go ahead, I began auditions, and discovered there were some really talented singers in the group, as well as excellent actors. Oscar Adams, who is 16 and plays the lead role of Dave (who grows the gigantic beard) is just brilliant.

Get to know your material

I took the opportunity to talk to Stephen about the piece. He’s well known in comic book circles and writes strips for The Guardian. The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil was his first full book and had been shortlisted for Waterstone’s Book of the Year and won the Edinburgh Festival’s inaugural 9th Art Award. He told me he’d been influenced by the 1993 film Groundhog Day, which stars Bill Murray and is about the importance of really living your life.

While writing it, Stephen also listened to a lot of Kate Bush but opted for The Bangles Eternal Flame as the story’s repeating refrain. In the play you hear fragments of it five times in the beginning section of the performance, but only the whole way through twice.

Begin collaborating

We had a really decent chunk of time to work with. We started in September, working in groups of four or five with each group devising something different for each scene. It was an incredibly exciting process. The Young Company are full of energy and original thoughts – in the end I had to say, stop with your ideas!

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil_rehearsal Photos by Kitty Wheeler Shaw

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil rehearsal © Kitty Wheeler Shaw

As well as the book, we drew inspiration from the real world, including the recent Question Time debate with Nigel Farage. It gave us the chance to look at the ways The Gigantic Beard ties in with issues to do with immigration, intolerance and how quality of life can be reduced due to a single characteristic.

Make essential changes

We had to make some tough calls to achieve the transition from graphic novel to the stage. The whole middle section was a real challenge – we needed a narrative and characters that could be followed from beginning to end. Professor Darren Black, who is played by 23-year-old Elliot Winter, doesn’t appear in the book until half way through. We needed to bring him in far earlier. It’s about choosing which of your characters to develop. We also expanded the role of the Prime Minister, who is played by Kate Alhadeff.

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil_rehearsal photos by Kitty Wheeler Shaw

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil rehearsal © Kitty Wheeler Shaw

Survive some drastic cuts

We needed to change the play’s ending drastically in the last week before opening night – which meant a lot of rewriting. We cut out around 25-minutes worth of material and lost a third of all the scenes. That part of the process can be a challenge, particularly if one of your favourite scenes has to go. The young people understand that it’s all about making the best show possible. You will find your moment in the show, even if the scene you loved has been cut.

Draw on everything at your disposal

Stephen’s story has a touch of Roald Dahl about it, and to this end we wanted to recreate the melancholic grey-scale of the graphic novel. We were able to do this partly through shadow puppetry, thanks to Tim Streader, a hidden gem at Bristol Old Vic who is overseeing all of our lighting. We also have fantastic music by Verity Standen, has created wonderful, moving a capella arrangements with our four singers, and some bizarre soundscapes too. It all serves to bring the graphic novel to life.

Stephanie KempsonAbout the author of this post

Stephanie Kempson is a Made in Bristol graduate and JMK Assistant Director Bursary recipient. She previously worked at Bristol Old Vic as Assistant Director to Sally Cookson on Jane Eyre. Stephanie runs Sharp Teeth, hosting nights of theatre, storytelling, poetry, music and more.

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil performed by Bristol Old Vic Young Company will be at The Bristol Old Vic Studio between 7-10 January 2015.

To submit or suggest a guest post, please send an email to Judy(at)socketcreative.com.

How to write a travel memoir

Sunset and sea cr Emma BamfordAuthor, journalist and adventurer Emma Bamford shares her experiences of writing a travel memoir, and offers her tips on turning your journeys into a book.

They say everyone has a novel in them somewhere. What I never expected, though, was that I would have a travel memoir in me.

I hadn’t lived a particularly interesting life up until recent years, so there wasn’t much worth committing to paper. I’d been to school, university, made friends, been in and out of love. Sure, my career – as a news editor on a national newspaper – sounded glamorous to outsiders, but really it was just a desk job and, chained to my computer for 12 hours a day, I rarely got anywhere near the kinds of stories that might be woven into an interesting autobiography.

But then I did something unusual – I answered an advert on the internet for ‘crew wanted’ and bought a one-way ticket to Borneo to live on a yacht with a man I’d never met.

Emma Bamford at helm

Do something different

That’s when things got interesting – and when I became interesting. A colleague in the newsroom put me in touch with a literary agent. I emailed him, mentioning what I was about to do, and he was straight on the phone, asking questions. “Sounds like it could be the new Castaway,” he said, referring to Lucy Irvine’s 1983 best-seller that was made into a film starring Oliver Reed and Amanda Donohoe. “Keep in touch and let me know how you get on – but it all depends on your writing, of course.”

Emma Bamford and pygmy elephant

I didn’t think much of it after that. I was out in the beautiful wilds of Borneo, chasing wild pygmy elephants up jungle rivers and swimming with turtles. I was making friends with Buddhists up in Sri Lankan tea plantations, hiding from Somali pirates and hobnobbing with billionaires on the Amalfi coast. I was having too much fun to think about writing.

I kept a diary, though, and eventually, when the itch to do some work finally came back, I started to write it up, fast and quick, my notebook on my parents’ sofa next to me, my small laptop on my knees. I didn’t think much about what I was doing.

Andamans beach cr Emma Bamford

Speak to the right people

A friend of a friend, Brendan Hall, had published a sailing-related book, Team Spirit, and I managed to get an invite to the launch party in London. I felt overawed as I stepped over the townhouse threshold into the centre of Bloomsbury Publishing’s HQ. After building up some Dutch courage on the complimentary white wine, I wandered up to Brendan’s editor at Adlard Coles Nautical, Liz Multon.

“Borneo! …Journalist! …Stranger!” I slurred at her. Luckily, she finally worked out that I was trying to pitch a book to her and gave me her business card.

She asked for two chapters, ‘showing different styles’, a synopsis and sent me a detailed form to fill in, for which I had to research other similar books in the market (there weren’t any close matches).

I sent the same material to that agent I’d spoken to two years earlier. His response: ‘This is a mess, too much of a mix of style and genre. You’ll never get a publisher interested.’ Ah.

The publisher’s response: ‘Send me everything you’ve got’.

Excited, I did. Her feedback was disheartening, to say the least: ‘I’m afraid it doesn’t quite work. There’s not enough of a narrative arc.’

Henry goes head to wind cr Emma Bamford

She was right. What makes a good memoir, first and foremost, is a good story. You need to have something to tell. Then it needs meaning, a message – you need to have something to say. Finally, it needs good writing.


Find the narrative in your story

While Liz said she liked my writing style, it was clear to her – and to me, now I had her feedback – that what I’d written was a 100,000-word-long ‘What I did on my summer holiday’ essay of the kind that nine-year-olds write each September.

Kindly, she promised to re-read it if I wanted to re-write it – and who turns down an offer like that?

So I set to work.

I worked on drawing out a stronger story line. Like a novel, I needed a beginning (deciding to quit my job and answering that advert), a middle (the adventures I had and how they affected me) and an end (a Hollywood-style happy romance ending). I decided that what I wanted to say, my theme, was ‘learning to let go’.

Gillaroo and damaged coral cr Emma Bamford

I went through the MS with a fresh pair of eyes and I looked for gaps where I could add inner thoughts, explanations for my actions and more detail about the romance sub-plot. I described the other characters more clearly, moved chapters to help the flow of the story and removed entire sections if I thought they weren’t adding to the flow of the story. I furiously pencilled notes in the margin and plastered the printed pages with Post-it notes.

Don’t be shy

Then I re-submitted

It took Liz an age to get back to me, but eventually she did. ‘I don’t know how you’ve done it, but it really works,’ she emailed.

She had to get it through two sales and marketing board meetings before she could offer me a contract, and then it was a case of two more drafts, proofs to go through and legal changes to make before Casting Off was published in July, to coincide with the summer holiday market.

Casting Off coverLaunch week was intense – I had two launch parties, spoke to a standing-room-only hall at Lowdham Book Festival, appeared on the radio three times and saw my face on the cover of my old newspaper, i.

Casting Off went straight to #1 in the Amazon chart for sailing books on its first day of release and reached #632 overall, out of 6million books. I started to receive kind reviews, both in magazines and newspapers and on Amazon and Goodreads. I was sent my first piece of fan email, and it made me cry to think I had touched someone that deeply.

And then people started demanding to know what happened next. I hadn’t thought about a sequel but now, due to popular demand, I have started to write it.

So that novel will have to stay unwritten inside me for a little while longer.

Emma BamfordAuthor bio

Emma Bamford is an author, journalist and sailor who has worked at The Independent and the Daily Express. Tropical settings and the seas inspire much of her writing, although she lives in land-locked Derbyshire. She teaches Life Writing at Nottingham University and is working on a sequel to Casting Off and a novel set on a paradise island in the Indian Ocean. Find Emma at www.emmabamford.com.