Epic Fairy Tales writing workshop

From one kind of workshop to another… at the weekend I went to a writer’s workshop at Southsea Library run by Zella Compton and William Sutton. The workshop, entitled Epic Fairy Tales and Mysteries at Our Own Doors, was part of a project called Portsmouth Fairy Tales, which involves 11 local writers, including Zella and Will.

On such a lovely sunny day I think they were quite surprised that a good number of us turned up, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I first met Will at the launch of his book Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square last summer, and have been delighted by his energy, creativity and kindness ever since.

Epic Fairy Tales workshop

The workshop began with a few warm-up exercises, including what I have termed the paper-throwing game. We were each given a sheet of paper with one sentence typed upon it, then had to write just one sentence in response. We then scrunched it up into a ball and threw it (nicely!) at another member of the group, who opened it, smoothed out the creases and wrote another sentence. This went on a few more times then we all opened out the sheet of paper we were left with, now containing four sentences, and were invited to read them if we wanted to. There were some quiet poetic combinations, just going to show how you can create something from just a single sentence – a useful thing to remember when staring at that daunting blank page.

We then got down to business with a brilliant little worksheet from Zella (see picture). It was to help us plan our epic fairy tale, and it gave us a list of protagonist names, settings, villains and magic objects to choose from. The idea was to just give it a go and see what we ended up with, spending no more than five or so minutes on the worksheet. Down the right-hand side was a column for us to briefly plan the start, middle and end.

Epic Fairy Tale worksheet

Once upon a time I would have spent far too long deliberating over my hero’s name, and worrying whether I had got everything ‘right’, but the more you practise letting go the easier it becomes. All these improv workshops, acting exercises and the writer’s group I went to – all activities and environments that require the ability to be spontaneous and go with the flow – have helped me reach this more creative state of mind.

On the back of the worksheet or in our notebooks we chose either our hero/heroine or villain, then answered several questions about them from Zella. Again, this wasn’t a case of leisurely pondering over each minute detail, but about putting pen to paper and getting an answer down, often the first thing that popped into our heads. This produced some pleasantly surprising results, with many of us discovering hobbies and characteristics we didn’t originally realise your characters had. The questions ranged from what is their favourite hobby (spear-throwing for my heroine, Faith), to what is underneath their bed (a rottweiler), and my personal favourite, what are they most ashamed of (apparently Faith has a third nipple!). It was a quick, incredibly productive exercise and great fun.

We finished the workshop by starting to write our story not at the beginning, but at the point of climax where the main action happens (in my case, Faith kills her evil twin sister with a spear). Hard-working writers need brain fuel, and Will kindly supplied this in the form of home-made brownies, which I must say were bloomin delicious. It took all my willpower to stop myself having more than one!

After 20 minutes of writing Zella and Will drew the workshop to a close and we said our goodbyes before heading back out into the sun. I may have missed two hours of tanning time, but it was well worth it, and if these guys run another workshop any time soon, I’m there!!


You can download the Portsmouth Fairy Tales for Grown-Ups ebook here (priced £3.97 on Amazon).

Local writers in Day of the Dead

Portsmouth BookFest is in full swing. If you haven’t yet made it to one of the events on offer, take a look at the BookFest website to see what literary treats are still in store.

Ahead of this evening’s ‘Day of the Dead’, I caught up with William Sutton, one of the authors taking part in this year’s festivities. Writing for Strong Island, I asked him about tonight’s event, an evening of spooky tales organised by Portsmouth Writer’s Hub, what literary festivals like BookFest do for writers and the local community, and how it feels to be taking part this year as a published author.

Writer Will Sutton in action

Writer Will Sutton in action

Below is a taster of my chat with Will – for the full interview and others related to art, literature and culture generally in Portsmouth, check out the Strong Island website.

Why did the organisers choose to do a ‘Day of the Dead’? It sounds a bit grim! 

Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, is a huge festival especially in Mexico which is a counterpart of Hallowe’en, and it’s anything but grim, celebrated with feasting, skeleton models, amazing food. We’ve adopted the title to bridge all aspects of death, from spooky to gory to elegiac. 

What can those attending the event expect from the evening? 

Expect the gut-wrenching, the terrifying, the mind-blowing, the fantastic.

Last year’s BookFest featured a brilliant evening in the atmospheric Square Tower about Dickens and Conan Doyle, with a ghostly flavour. We wanted to unleash the imaginations of our own brilliant writers. Among our writers are Diana Bretherick (appearing on ITV3’s Crime Thriller Book Club and nominated for Specsavers Crime Awards); award-winning short story writers, Lynne Blackwood, Jack Hughes and James Bicheno; and Matt Wingett, whose work with The Three Belles scored a sell-out hit at the New Theatre Royal.

What are the benefits of an event like this to the local writers taking part? 

It’s fun. Writing is a lonely game. Writing and performing for a specific event is a welcome challenge. This is a way for wonderful authors, including published novelists and award-winning short story writers, to entertain local readers, to connect with each other and to push our writing skills in new directions.

Read more at Strong Island


Criminologist to crime writer

For Portsmouth lovers of crime fiction, today marks a special day – the release of not one but two crime novels written by local authors.

City of Devils by Diana Bretherick and Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square by William Sutton, both available to buy from today, were launched at an event at Blackwell’s bookshop in Portsmouth yesterday. With wine, nibbles and the chance to mingle with some fellow creative types, this was right up my street.

William Sutton and Diana Bretherick at the book launch with their novels, released today. Image courtesy of William Sutton.

William Sutton and Diana Bretherick at the book launch at Blackwell’s bookshop in Portsmouth with their novels, released today. Image courtesy of Nina McIlwain.

As I stepped into the bookshop I noticed a lady with a scarf draped elegantly around her neck, clutching a glass of wine. Introducing myself, I was met with a warm and open smile, and eyes that sparkled with the excitement of the evening. A former barrister, nerves would ordinarily have no place here, but the launch of a precious first novel inevitably stirs up the butterflies.

Diana, a criminology lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, won the 2012 Good Housekeeping Magazine New Novel Prize with City of Devils, a crime thriller set in 19th century Turin.

As Diana signed my newly purchased first edition, I asked her: what prompted a criminologist to start writing fiction?

“I have always enjoyed writing stories and started (but never managed to finish) a few novels too. Having completed my PhD in Criminology I started to look for another challenge and the MA in creative writing seemed exactly the thing to provide it.”

Diana wrote her novel while studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth. “I loved every minute of it!” she said. “The structure of the course was extremely helpful as was the feedback provided by my tutors and fellow students. It gave me an invaluable support network and without it I would never have finished the book.”

Investing the time and money in a taught course in creative writing is something I’ve often toyed with. It would force me to give my writing the priority it deserves, and needs, if I’m ever going to fulfil my dream of being a published author. However, there is a certain amount of criticism of such courses, including from established writers. For some, there is the notion that good writing cannot be taught. I asked Diana whether she thought of writing as a craft or an art.

She said: “I believe that it is a craft and it can be taught but only up to a point. There are lots of mistakes to be made for a beginner. I have probably made them all at one point or another! But good tuition and feedback can help you to avoid them. So some things can certainly be learned but you have to have a feeling for language and story-telling in the first place otherwise all the teaching in the world won’t make you into a good writer.”

The flyer for the book launch

The flyer for the book launch in Portsmouth

Guests at the book launch were treated to the authors reading their work. This is always a delight, as you hear the words in the tone and colour of their creator, as they were originally spoken. William delighted us all with a song he had written for the occasion, accompanied by both the ukulele and mouth organ, and involving audience participation for the chorus. Both writers then read bits of their work, Diana the opening chapter of the novel and William a short story featuring his novel’s protagonist, Campbell Lawless.

As I said my goodbyes before heading off for an evening with McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists, I asked Diana one last question: what advice would you give to anyone with that half-finished novel manuscript gathering dust at the back of a drawer because they’re too busy with their day job (ie me)?

She said: “It won’t write itself so get it out of the drawer and start! You can write 500 words in an hour and if you do that most days then before you know it, you’ll have a first draft.”

Sound advice indeed, and as I made my way home clutching my precious signed copies and looking forward to devouring their every word, I dreamt of that being me one day, accepting praise with grace and a smile, and basking in the warm glow of finally being able to call myself a published author.

Follow the antics of writer, musician and Latin teacher William at www.william-sutton.co.uk, and keep up to date with Diana and her work at dianabretherick.wordpress.com.