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,

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 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 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

Continue reading

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)

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

Poetry – seen and heard

Speaker cr Judy DarleyWritten and performed poetry are often classified as completely separate genres, but until you start to place words on a page, or step onto a stage, how do you know which one you are creating? Here Joanna Butler attempts to untangle what it is that sets written and spoken poetry apart.

It’s possible to become a poet almost by accident

First things first, not every poet starts out by making it their life’s goal to become a poet, performance or otherwise.

“Writing and performing poetry was not my life’s ambition,” Joanna Butler say. “I always loved reading and listening to poetry when I was younger, and poetry and performance were always connected in my mind because of Shakepeare. But being a poet just never crossed my mind as being a career choice.”

Joanna comments that she “seriously underestimated poetry’s seductive power over the course of a life. I got to the age of thirty-five and poetry just fell out of me. It had slowly been creeping up on me all that time.”

Joanna began by writing poetry, but felt that “it just seemed like the words wanted to get out into the world and be heard – not just stay within the pages of a book.”

Let the poetry out

Of course, there is a distinct difference between poetry being read aloud, and poetry being performed, but in either of these instances the poet makes contact with their recipients that goes unnoticed when confined to the page.

Joanna feels poetry as  “a physical impulse in my chest. A compulsion to capture something in words and share it with someone else – an aching to make a connection.”

And that’s all before the writing even happens. “It feels like something that has to get out,” she says. “Then my job is to craft it into a form that can then be given to someone else. To share moments that strike me as amazing.”

Don’t take yourself too seriously

Joanna sees herself as the audience when she’s writing poetry, as opposed to preparing to perform. “I’m more interested in how the words sound to me. I have my fantasy audience, of course, when the writing’s not going well. The audience are big, appreciative and have come specifically to hear my work. This usually allows my ego to have the free rein it wants, enables me to stop being too serious, laugh at myself and continue to play with the writing and avoid mentally stiffening up. “

Expect conflicts between the ‘writing poet’ and the ‘performing poet’

While for Joanna, the writing poet and the performance poet are both parts of her, she admits that she’s met poets who hate performers and performance poetry and performers who think poets are the dullest people on earth. Everyone has an opinion and they always will. I don’t worry about it too much. I just do what feels right to me.”

Embrace the fear

However experienced you are, getting up on stage to perform poetry can be terrifying.

“I’d worked as an actress and drama teacher so I had a personal history of performance, but you need a different kind of courage to take to the stage with something you’ve written yourself,” Joanna says. “Always the worst moments for me are when I realise I am performing after another poet whose words have just blown me away. That’s tough. There’s nothing else that makes me feel like my own work is suddenly inadequate, when half an hour before it seemed like it could stand up to anything.”

But, she adds, this fear can be useful too. “Afterwards, moments like that actually drive me forward in my own work. One of my best moments was when, six months after a reading I’d done in Bristol Central Library, I bumped into a guy who’d been in the audience. He told me he couldn’t get a couple of the poems I’d read out of his mind. He could recite some lines word for word. This was after one hearing. That was pretty special.”

Joanna ButlerAbout the author

Joanna Butler is a multi-disciplinary artist who produces poetry, prose, songs, sculptures, photographs, films and live performance. She has given poetry readings at Bristol Poetry Festival, The Poetry Cafe, Covent Garden, Bristol Folk Festival and Tate Modern. She has made spoken word recordings of her poems ‘twisted history’ and ‘Snowstorm’ with musicians Paul Nash (North Sea Navigator), Doug Bott (Angel Tech) and Ian Wood (Cubeshiner). Joanna is currently developing an inter-species performance art project with dancers and horses.

Joanna will be performing her poetry and short prose at Travel, Home & Identity on November 7th 2014. Get tickets here.

How to write science fiction

The Mark of Man coverOwen H Lewis, author of the recently published The Mark of Man offers his tips for writing powerful science fiction.

Get to know your craft

The Mark of Man started out as three short stories which had been in development for quite some time. Following an extremely vivid dream that I woke up from believing I was truly in the world of The Mark of Man, I realised I’d finally found my premise to link the three together and was  able to embark on my triptych.

Decide on your themes

The result is a dizzying ride that provides a window into mankind’s soul, whilst casting a glance on our constant internal struggle with science vs. religion and nature vs. technology.

Aim to bring something new to the genre

Science fiction novels often break down into two distinct camps, with the cerebral and intelligent grouped on one side and with the laser battles and starships lined up on the other. I believe that my new novel The Mark of Man manages to bridge these views well whilst also inviting a new audience to the table; the cultural female!

Tackle big subjects

The central premise of The Mark of Man concerns a mark on the wrist which indicates the death age of the beholder and contrary to other tales of this type, this is a genetic anomaly. So the race to find a cure is not a simple chase and pursuit tale with evil overlords and an over reliance on the familiar clichés and tenets, but one that concerns the whole of humankind and compels everybody to try to find an answer to this ticking doomsday clock.

Challenge expectations

With most of the world clamouring for the next vampire saga or Game of Thrones clone, I’m of the conviction that the world is now ready for a more intelligent and challenging story. Science fiction shouldn’t just be about shiny spaceships or flesh eating aliens, it should challenge and create discussion; perhaps even arguments.

Be willing to think beyond the genre

The Mark of Man isn’t necessarily a sci-fi novel – in time it might be considered as the first of a long line of anti sci-fi’s. However, when using such a paradigm, I’d suggest that you must firstly forget the environment whilst you shape the story, then set up the premise based on your own views and experiences – then you insert the techno babble.

Relish both the genre and real life

Sci-fi provided me with a blank canvass to posit my theories and ideals. It gives me a clean slate to start over again; with our culture, our systems and the environment. I can challenge the reader without alienating them and I can keep them guessing because there are no rules.

I studied English at university and worked in TV & Film until family life took over and compelled me to move into Real Estate Investment. However one’s interests and skills never leave and with almost another 20 years living a varied existence, I hope that I have now acquired enough life experience to be a social commentator.

Consider the changing marketplace for novelists

It’s a hot topic right now in both literature and film. I guess, as we all broaden our horizons through our use of technology, we re-educate ourselves and therefore reach the point where it is acceptable to question our own beliefs and convictions; those that were formed before the advent of the web.

Seek publishers as well as agents

Not knowing the publishing world, I went through the usual painstaking route of researching the most appropriate, making contacting and then waiting for a positive response – over the succeeding months I received a lot of encouraging notes from a whole host of agents but no one wanted to wanted to take The Mark of Man any further until one day, out of the blue, I received two requests for the manuscript, direct from separate publishers.

Get to grips with promotion

I get support from my publisher and, contrary to my formerly naïve view of the marketplace, I have had to become quite the modern author with accounts on Twitter, Instagram, Goodreads, Shelfari, Facebook, Linkedin and Google. I’ve recently learnt that the writing of a novel maybe one thing but that the promotion is something entirely different – something that has to be done regularly and comprehensively.

I recently had a launch in Mayfair, London which was a huge success, where just prior to the occasion I momentarily reached the dizzy heights of number 3 in the Metaphysical & Visionary charts on Amazon.

The premise of The Mark of Man hinges on the date 14.12.14 and therefore I have no doubt that there will be another launch.

Be true to your story’s heart

Ensuring that there is a beating heart to the story – that it never waivers nor meanders. Much sci-fi involves a web of deception and hidden truths that makes it hard to keep control of your characters. Your job is to leave your readers enlightened by their journey, feeling as if they’re active participants in the tale.

Owen H Lewis authorAbout the author

After working in film and television in  London and Madrid, Owen H Lewis  settled in Los Angeles with his own production company. Outside pressures led him to adopt a more conformist career path and he moved instead into real estate investment before turning to writing. Coloured by his experiences, Lewis started work on what was to become The Mark of Man, his debut ‘anti-sci-fi’ novel. Owen lives in Kew, with his wife and two children, and is already writing a companion piece to his debut, which promises to be darker and even more contentious.

If you’d like to share your own writing journey on SkyLightRain, get in touch! Just send an email  to Judy(at)

How to create fiction from family treasures

Terri Wiltshire 4 generationsAuthor Terri Wiltshire offers her tips for using family stories to create fiction, or, as she’s been fondly calling it: ‘Pilfering the Family Jewels.’

There’s an old Jewish saying that goes: “God created families because He liked stories”.  Since the time humans could draw pictures on cave walls, we’ve been collecting and sharing stories of our “clan”. It’s how we connect to others. And we all do it. When we gather for holidays, weddings, and funerals- the stories pour out from each generation to comfort, to celebrate, to reminisce, or to laugh out loud at our outrageous human foibles. The place and time might change, but the struggles and joy of “family” are universal.

Listen and Collect

Writers are constantly told to write-what-you-know and the most fertile resources are the tales we grew up hearing over and over again: the whispered rumours of an ancestor with a criminal past, the hilarious pitfalls of raising six kids with one outhouse, the practical jokes associated with Uncle Dwayne’s paralysing fear of snakes, and the disastrous day that lightening struck your grandmother’s washing machine and killed the cat.

As a child, I looked forward to family gatherings and begged to stay up past my bedtime when I knew the stories would continue into the night. But I was in University before I realised the importance of our oral history and started keeping a file of names, phrases, and recollections.  The stories were spread out over a hundred years and included those that had been passed down from my great-grandparents. Some were funny. Some were heartbreaking. I wasn’t sure how they were connected and I wasn’t sure how I would use them, but I knew I needed to keep them handy.

Terri Wiltshire and cousins

Start Small

Novels based on family experiences don’t have to revolve around a large, life-changing event.  Sometimes we worry so much about finding the BIG story, that we miss the tiny details that make it worth the journey. Good stories can emerge from the smallest snippet of memory.  In my case, it was the shuffling gait of a gentle, reclusive great uncle who seemed to know so much about the world, but so little about how to fit into it. In writing “Carry Me Home” he became the catalyst. I took his sweetness, his awkwardness, his stubbornness to live his life his own way, and created a character and a set of circumstances (the BIG story) that allowed those traits to shine through.

Woven in, are tiny threads of family experience, which I’d heard along the way, including: riding the rails during the Great Depression, making sorghum syrup from sugar cane, and sharecropping. I also added a generous sprinkling of family recipes and cooking tips, along with family phrases, and habits.

The great thing about developing fiction from family stories, is that they are both universal and unique. The emotional aspect of human struggle is universal but the circumstances of that struggle, the dynamic of the relationships, is unique to each family.

Terri Wiltshire Sunday after church

Tread lightly

If you feel My family isn’t that interesting, you might try interviewing a few of the older generation. You’ll be surprised what nuggets will be uncovered. It’s important to remember that family stories are not blueprints for a work of fiction. They can serve as that first seed of inspiration, or a rich source of seasoning, but sticking rigidly to a historical truth (in family terms) will create more problems and limit the scope of your story.

There is also a certain anxiety in using our kinfolk as a resource. We worry about offending or taking advantage of private experiences, so above all, it is important to treat your family “treasure” with respect. I never duplicate a real person or a real event, but there are enough trinkets from the family vault to keep them happy searching for the bits and pieces we’ve shared over the years.  I make sure that whatever I choose, it is used with fondness and care, and not ridicule.

Be true to your heart, not your geography

True places are not found on maps (Herman Melville)

Just as I created fiction from the jumble of memories and recollections of my past and my ancestor’s past, I created a fictional town to set it in. I didn’t want readers to get distracted trying to recognise, or uncover discrepancies, of a specific town. It was the heart of the place that mattered most.  I called the town Lander, which was my grandfather’s first name, and which means ‘of the land.’

Lander, Alabama is a composite of many small southern towns I lived in as a child with a central square borrowed from one place, a railway yard borrowed from another, and a cotton mill borrowed from yet another. Lander is all of those towns, but none of them in particular. Likewise, “Carry Me Home” is sprinkled with traces of my family, but they are there to support the fiction that emerged from a specific time and place.

There is a wealth of raw material that can be collected just by sitting around the kitchen table. Listen. Ask questions. Record. And create… but honour those who have trusted you with their slice of family history.

Terri WiltshireAbout the author

Terri Wiltshire was raised in the Deep South in America. For the last 25 years she lived and worked in the UK, where she ran a role-play company before relocating home to Alabama recently. “I’m surrounded by family and old high school and university friends so I’m pilfering away!”

A former journalist and NBC News presenter, Terri is also an actor and director. Carry Me Home is her first novel.

If you’d like to share your own writing journey on SkyLightRain, get in touch! Just send an email  to Judy(at)

How to write a dictionary

DICTIONARY FOR DYLAN - DOOZIEToday’s guest post comes from award-winning poet Emily Hinshelwood, and offers details of her Dictionary for Dylan project, shares her passion for words, and invites you to get involved.

Two years before his death, Dylan Thomas said: “words are the most important things to me ever.” He commented that as a young child he had fallen in love at once. “There they were, seemingly lifeless, made only of black and white, but out of them, out of their own being, came love and terror and pity and pain. Out of them came the gusts and grunts and hiccups and heehaws of the common fun of the earth.”

Relish a literary legacy

When I was invited to be the writer in residence in one of this year’s centenary projects, The Dylan Thomas’ Pop-up Writing Shed, I knew I wanted to do something that enjoyed words and involved people in playing with them. Dylan Thomas crafted his works with such skill and dedication that this seemed to me to be a fitting tribute to a man who had lived for and loved those black and white shapes.

I also wanted to encourage people to explore their own use of language, and not to feel restricted to using words as they appear in our dictionaries. So I decided to invite people to invent entirely new words and their associated meanings. It’s something that anyone of almost any age can do – and at the end of the year I’ll be compiling the words into a Dictionary: The Dictionary for Dylan.

teacher in Dylan's writing shed

The pop-up writing shed is a replica of Dylan’s iconic shed in Laugharne where he worked for the last four years of his life. It has been faithfully re-created down to the curled pictures on the walls, the cigarette butts, the beer bottles on the desk, and his jacket on the back of the chair. And it’s on wheels!

Gorslas school with shed

Tap into the hwyl

So since February I have had my head in the shed, visiting schools and festivals, talking with people about Dylan Thomas and being witness to the birth of literally thousands of new words.

People’s eyes light up when they hear that their word will go into a dictionary. Often it is a family word that they’ve used for generations, or a word one of their children coined when they were learning to speak. Some people make an anagram their name or splice two words together, or do what Dylan did and write them backwards. There are those that give me the detailed etymology of the word, those that produce onomatopoeic words, those that give multiple definitions. And so far I have not had the same word twice!

people invent words at hay

I’m delighted with the response, the imagination and the hwyl with which people are embracing the project. (in case you were wondering, hwyl means ‘stirring feeling of emotional motivation and energy’) And it’s not restricted to people who come into the shed. We have an online form and a postcard for people to send me their words.

hay words

Marvel at what rolls in!

I find it fascinating the different kinds of words people invent. In primary schools they are often about superpowers and magical creatures, the world with infinite possibilities; in secondary schools there seems to be a lot of words that reflect teenage anxieties, the loss of friends, or being hurt by gossip; then there are all the situational words, eg in Hay Festival (pictured above) there were plenty of words about mud and waiting around too long for friends!

I have many, many favourites and I tweet a word of the day @dylandictionary; but just to give you an idea here’s a few:

MECHANAISSANCE the period 1860-1980 when machinery & typewriters were used. (Euan Sinclair)
BOOZEFUMBLE to botch any activity while under the influence or drink (Alan)
WELLIBRATION a happy event where everyone wears wellies (Rebecca McGrattan)
TWACKERED To be exhausted from looking after twins (Daniel McCallum)
KETTELAK When there’s not quite enough water in the kettle for all the cups of tea (Annette Edwards)
KLANGSKRUNT hatred of piped ‘music’ in cafe’s, shops and other places (Kathryn Stone)
EXPAEDIATE to win time away from your children (Randal Turner)
NOGARD someone who doubts the existence of dragons (Nuala Reid)
HONKY-PONKY the sexual activity of geese (Mike Maguire)
FRAMBOIDLED sunburnt (Peter C. Frost)
BAGSEA to secure a place by the sea (Sarah Jenkins)
GOBULUS talking endless jibberish (Sarah E Fenton)
SNOZEFELDE a favourite blanket or piece of material which aids sleep (Claire Neville)
MEMDIMION A moment when you forget a long-standing acquaintance’s name (Delyth Eirwyn)
NOXILATE to perplex someone with endless facts (Lara Gardner)
LILLENPOP a person who refuses to take life seriously (Olivia Field)
POSICULT A collective noun for optimists (Leigh Keen)

If you would like to contribute a word to the dictionary, please do send it to us via the online form at, and keep your eyes peeled for the shed. It really is popping up all over the place!

Emily Hinshelwood at writing shed

Author bio

Emily Hinshelwood (pictured above) is a freelance writer, performer, animator and community arts facilitator. Winner of the John Tripp Award for Spoken Poetry, Emily performs her poetry in a variety of settings, from outdoor poetry walks, to the sitting rooms in IKEA, to sustainability conferences as well as traditional arts venues. Her recent poetry collection, On Becoming a Fish was inspired by a series of walks around the 186-mile Pembrokeshire coastal path and took seven years to complete. She has won many literary awards for her poems and is especially interested in engaging audiences with poetry. Emily also runs a programme of Arts and Climate change projects for the charity Awel Aman Tawe, which engages people in the issues of climate change through a variety of arts genres.