This is a very special blog post to celebrate the collaboration of Spellbinder magazine with Exeter University’s creative writing society and their literary journal, ENIGMA. Spellbinder has been fortunate enough to receive a number of submissions from the talented student community in Exeter, a number of which have been published in the Winter and Spring issues. Although Spellbinder is a Durham based magazine, its Drama editor, Emily Attenburrow, is also a student at Exeter University.
In order to foster this stimulating creative friendship between Spellbinder and Exeter University, we have decided to write a collaborative blog post which offers tips for writers and artists seeking to submit their work to ENIGMA (if they are an Exeter University student) and Spellbinder. Both of our incredible teams of editors have put together their own selection of tips to help and inspire those wishing to enter into the literary and artistic worlds. We all hope that you find this collation of tips useful.
Tips for dramatists
Emily Attenburrow (Drama Editor at Spellbinder)
Seasoned script writers often say that you must become an actor to write for stage and screen. It is not just about creating a story arc that compels and engages. It is also about creating believable and interesting characters that the audience can journey through that story with, compassionately, empathically or on an emotional level, whether they like or dislike that character. Understanding the reality and logic of your character and how they behave in the world you have created, will serve your script in so many ways.
Exposition can be clumsy, and scenes and sentences can become ‘information dumps’ that don’t excite the audience, this is often because the integrity of the character has been lost in favour of the writer’s need to tell the story, rather than showing or letting the information arise naturally within the story-world. Always ask yourself, ‘Would this character say this? Or am I forcing this information into the dialogue?’.
If you feel you may be forcing this information, get creative with how else you could tell the story. Does the audience need to know this information yet? Could you be showing it, instead of telling it? Is there another character that can hint at something and the mystery can be drawn out for another scene or two? The moment you lose the integrity of your character is the moment you have lost control of your audience, their emotional investment, and their suspended disbelief.
Once you have your characters and their specific voices, thoughts, subtexts, motives and speech patterns, start playing around with basic storytelling tools, such as: mystery, logic, dramatic irony, suspense and narrative tension and create some ‘practice’ scenes using these. Place your characters in different situations and see how they interact and react. If they aren’t reacting in an interesting way…perhaps you need to change something about them. Remember drama is often imitating real life in an appealing way, just because it is naturalistic or is based on a true story, doesn’t mean it will make good and engaging drama. It is the role of the drama writer, to tell the story of the every-day, in an entertaining way or to submerge the audience into another world without the audience questioning the logic.
Tips for fiction writers
Michael Deng (Fiction Editor at Spellbinder)
Hi writers, I’m here to share my own creative process in the hope that it might help you all! Firstly, I gain inspiration by three means: goal, atmosphere, and life.
By goal, I mean what you want to express at your core; I find that this is best learnt by living life. To me the best goals are intimate – the things you’ve experienced, but also the things you’ve wanted to experience but have not or cannot experience, provide you with another goal such as a critique, a desire, and so on. In the end, it’s about making the most of your experiences or lack-of experiences.
Onto atmosphere – how do you want to express your goal? Atmosphere is built on your experience and your own perception, what your reader observes from a scene reflects what you want from it. In a field of towering sunflowers, what do you think about? The sky lazily strolling above you as you brush through? How will these flowers crumple in a vase as you smash them all down? Or the stem’s shadows winding around your throat as the sun sets? Ultimately it’s up to you! How your written words sound when spoken, your ability to appeal to the senses, how you tinker with time – there are infinite ways to frame your reader’s perception and often you can improve by actively learning from other works.
Finally, I have life. That is how to create believable characters. A character must respond to their surroundings and their surroundings must respond to it. Picture your character’s life in a timeline, drop them in, and imagine how they’ll respond to the norms and values of cultures they experience and how they are molded by it.
That’s all I have for now, good luck writers!
Anna Young (Fiction Editor at ENIGMA)
One of the main things I look out for when editing fiction submissions is clarity. From my own experience, I know that an outside perspective is incredibly useful in this regard. As writers, we have the context behind our thought processes guiding how we read our stories, making it hard to ascertain what, if anything, needs to be changed. When an editor reads our work, they aren’t clouded by knowledge of the piece, making it easier for them to pick up on details that need to be changed. It’s no wonder editors often say they help the writer write the book they think they’ve written. If you want to check your piece is clear, you can try: reading your work in a different font, taking a break from your story before revisiting it or asking for an outside opinion.
Two pieces of advice I’ve been given are: ‘Less is more’ and ‘Go big or go home’. These might seem like conflicting pieces of advice, yet both can be applied to the same story. For instance, one section in your story might be overdeveloped, whilst another might be underdeveloped. Sometimes too much detail can come across as jarring whilst not enough can be frustrating. It’s important to find the right balance. Is there a paragraph that’s too cumbersome or long-winded and disrupts the pace of the story? Is there an idea that could benefit from being fleshed out some more?
Reading aloud is another good way to check your work. You’ll get a better sense of the rhythm when doing so. You’ll be able to hear whether there is any unintentional repetition or see whether you need to vary sentence lengths to aid the pacing.
I hope these tips are useful. Good luck with your submissions!
Sylvie Lewis (Assistant Editor at ENIGMA)
Something that stands out in a good piece of short fiction is when a writer has found a distinct narrative voice and style. While of course it’s great to read as much as you can and find inspiration in other texts, particularly if you’re writing within a specific genre, it’s also important that you don’t let your influences cloud your own sense of what you want to create. So don’t be afraid to take a risk with a story — go for an unusual premise or unconventional story structure if that’s what interests you. Unexpected elements of a text are often the ones that stick in my mind for the longest after reading a story. Essentially, don’t ask yourself whether or not you ‘sound like a writer’ when you’re writing; ask yourself if you’re writing the story you want to write.
I’d recommend sharing your work with other people before submitting it to publications. Even if you show it to a friend who just points out an odd typo, I think that maintaining a discussion around your work is always a productive thing to do. Plus, it definitely makes the experience of sharing your work feel less daunting! It’s also worth reflecting on your story’s strengths and potential areas for improvement before submitting. This can be difficult, seeing as you can’t read your own work with a fresh mind, but it’s helpful to get into the habit of reading your work critically. For instance, if your story is filled with beautiful descriptions, but you notice that your dialogue comes across as unrealistic at points, it may be worth going back, reading some passages aloud, and making changes to improve the flow of the piece.
This being said, have confidence in your writing! Important as it is to be a critical reader and writer, we’re open to all sorts of styles and ideas, and look forward to reading thought-provoking submissions.
Sophie Blake (Fiction Editor at ENIGMA)
The first thing that I notice when reading through submissions is voice; every writer is unique, and so is their narrative style. It’s incredible how the first few sentences can tell a reader what kind of writer you are. You’ll want to make sure that whatever you’re writing aligns with your intention. Who is speaking here, and how are they meant to be feeling? What emotions lie under the choice of words? Has what you’ve written matched those feelings and that character, or is it coming from someone else? Clarity is key.
I love it when writers are able to incorporate a twist, but these are often hard to execute. The best piece of advice given to me was to show the story to a friend. If the twist comes out of nowhere, they’ll be able to let you know if it seems unrealistic. Good twists are when a reader might suspect something is going on underneath the surface but can’t quite put their finger on it. They’ll want to predict the ending, but reveal too much; leave some breadcrumbs and keep them reading for more.
Try to avoid cliches. These can be distracting and you’ll lose engagement with your reader. You want to keep them so immersed they forget that they’re reading. It’s also best to avoid overwriting – and I am so guilty of this myself! If you notice that you’ve suddenly gone off on a slight tangent, or that the voice has broken slightly from the original style, go back and see if you can shorten your paragraphs. Think: what am I trying to say here?
Lastly, enjoy what you write! Don’t force anything that isn’t natural for you. As I said, everyone is unique in their style, and this is what creates a successful submission.
Tips for nonfiction writers
Linda Arrighi (Nonfiction Editor and Illustrator at Spellbinder)
Do you want your nonfiction writing to stand out? You have come to the right place! I have just the tips that can instantly make your nonfiction piece more impactful and provoking. “Alright then”, I’m thinking as I get ready to share my three favourite nonfiction writing secrets. All you need to do is use short sentences, implement dialogue and deliberately format your text.
Whether you are writing an essay, a memoir or a piece of creative nonfiction, using long sentences and uniformly formatting the text could make your piece formal and stuffy. Write your piece as it comes naturally to you. When you revise your draft, try to break up the sentences and paragraphs. After that, you can play with bold, cursive, and underlined text. This will place emphasis on words that matter to you and to the argument or story you are writing about. In turn, the text will look less monotone to the reader.
Something that works particularly well with longer essays and creative nonfiction pieces is the division in sections or chapters accompanied by catchy, short and even alliterated titles. This trick can get the reader excited for the next section and they will appreciate the fact that they can take short breaks while reading your piece. Adding sections can also help you find the right structure for your piece. Once you have added sections, make sure that the order of sections and paragraphs makes your piece straightforward for the reader.
In summary, all of these tips help to make the text visually appealing and easier to read. This can help get the reader interested and captivated by your writing, regardless of the specific topic of your piece.
Izzy Warner (Print Assistant and Nonfiction Editor at ENIGMA)
We are always so excited to see nonfiction submissions, as I believe nothing is more exciting or extraordinary than the truth. In that regard, the subject matter of nonfiction pieces is extremely important, as you cannot rely on complex form to convey your point of view and are instead restricted to prose. As such, the best nonfiction is always specific and stays on a subject which the writer is particularly knowledgeable about; the major editing I have had to do in the past is correcting pieces which become too generalised. As such, if you are writing about a broader issue, try to keep it specific, as it is in the specific and nuanced elements of the story that you will find the most emphasis and thus the best pieces of writing.
Similarly, nonfiction has a far greater range than you might originally think; the submissions commonly take the form of personal essays, and these can be hugely successful in correctly conveying your story or point of view, particularly with political or theoretical essay subjects. However, we are also open to any form of nonfiction prose, and so creative life-writing, such as an extract from a memoir or a creative dramatization of events, are also very welcome and encouraged. This emphasis on creative life-writing is essential to a successful nonfiction submission. Particularly with emotive and intimate subject matters, using figurative and descriptive language can often be the most effective ways of conveying emotion. In summary, my tips for nonfiction writers are… be authentic, be specific, be creative, and be brave! It can be scary writing nonfiction, but the end result is worth it!
Tips for poets
Amber Natalie Kennedy (Editor-in-Chief and Poetry Editor at Spellbinder)
Poetry is such an exciting form of writing because of its diversity, rich history and performance potential. I would encourage any budding poets to engage with many different forms of poetry, including formal and free verse.
Think about metre and rhyme… How can you challenge expectations and conventions? How can you exploit these techniques to add rhythm and musicality to your poetry?
Read widely and learn from your predecessors. Engaging with tradition is an extremely valuable process and will enable you to understand how beautiful it is when writers are able to capture so much and make you experience intense emotions within such a brief form like poetry.
Learning about the history of poetics will enable you to see how much the genre has changed over time and across different nations. Thinking about this should be an inspiring process and also give you a sense of what it means to write a distinctly modern or contemporary poem.
Many people have noticed the close affiliation between poetry and music and therefore, it is perhaps no surprise that poetry is one of the textual arts most readily adaptable for performance. Whether you are a spoken word poet or not, you should still read your work out loud and hear it as a piece of music. Beautiful imagery and layered meanings will not suffice to make it a good poem unless you have that added ingredient of sound which is what enables poetry to have such a profound effect on its readers.
If you are an aspiring poet, learn from others, enter the writing community, and submit your work widely to increase your chances of getting recognised. Some lines will take a thousand redrafts, others will flow perfectly from your pen on the first try; whatever happens, stay confident and keep writing!
Sebastian Lewis (Poetry Editor at ENIGMA)
The Basics: metaphors not similes. Good verbs not adverbs. Concrete nouns not abstract nouns. Most of the time, at least; it’s all situational.
A couple of don’ts: don’t try to put all of human experience into one poem. Don’t try to write the definitive love poem or nature poem or revolution poem. Though these are good aims, they will come with time. A little known fact is that poets, except for a select few, mature comparatively late, usually in their thirties. If you’re submitting here, chances are you won’t have hit that level of poetic experience yet. So cut yourself some slack and don’t overthink it.
Though writing is often caricatured as a solitary pursuit, no work of writing ever exists in a vacuum. As Amber has said, it is important to look at others’ writing (particularly from the last 20 years or so) when finding ideas for your own, and always read it out loud. This being said, to straight up copy anyone else’s style is an exercise in futility. Allow yourself to become inspired, and feel free to steal whatever you’d like, but make it your own. Read your work back or, better yet, read it to others. Does it sound like something you’d really say?
It’s far better to come up with one image, one solid meditation, than it is to try to cram ten different ideas into a single poem. This one idea can be personal but, preferably, not sentimental: the difference is that sentiment is unearned emotion, whereas personality adds your own, personal shade to the dulux colour chart of life.
Sound and form are deadly important. That’s not to say that you need to write rhyming sonnets: quite the opposite. Feel out your poem, how it looks, how it sounds, and (crucially) where the line breaks are. Poetry (unless it is prose poetry, which is equally valid), is a form of writing that keeps inviting you back to the start of the next line: try to make sure that each line ending is a hook that performs this function.
Don’t be afraid of rejection. Rejection happens at all levels and all of the time. So write like nobody’s watching, don’t become too attached, try to be grateful for criticism (if you find out how, tell me), and move on to the next one. Everyone volunteering at ENIGMA and Spellbinder are here to try and help you improve, so feel free to disagree, debate, and deliberate with us: we’re more than happy to chat.
This is all one man’s opinion. It’s your work. Take pride in it and put love into it. I cannot wait to read it.
Abbie Walker (Print Director and Poetry Editor at ENIGMA)
Poetry is such an excellent form of expression as it expands across so many forms, styles, purposes, reflections, and intentions. Poetry can be both an expression of private thoughts and at the same time a performative, musical medium. Due to this expansiveness, it can be hard to know where to start when writing poetry. My advice would echo that of Amber and Sebastian – don’t sit down expecting to write the greatest piece of revolutionary poetry ever written! This presents an unachievable challenge and an insurmountable amount of pressure to place on yourself. Always make it personal and reflect on subjects that you yourself have experienced or think deeply on, instead of writing about abstract conventions, like the seasons or the meaning of life! Amber is correct in that studying the history of poetry is vital to the process of placing yourself, as a poet, in the rich history of the form, but also make sure to read contemporary poetry widely as well. Observe what today’s poetry scene has to offer – inspiration is pretty much guaranteed.
In terms of writing itself, always read aloud! If you find yourself stumbling over lines or hearing problems with the rhyme or metre (if any), then reread, redraft and read aloud again! Experiment with form and free verse – it won’t always work but have fun with it! Contrary to popular opinion, poetry doesn’t always have to be a solemn and sombre thing, it can be hugely fun and entertaining! Sebastian’s right – the editing teams at ENIGMA and Spellbinder LOVE talking about your work and discussing poetry, so feel free to submit something before it’s entirely perfect (if that were even possible) and we’ll always give you feedback! We do this voluntarily, because we love writing and are writers ourselves, so any opportunity to discuss writing makes us happy!
Good luck with your submissions- can’t wait to read and discuss! 😊
Tips for artists
Kate Cooper (Art Editor at Spellbinder)
The term ‘art’ encompasses and liberates a wealth of possibilities in every possible direction. It has the power to evoke feeling, to communicate emotion, and to bridge the gap between the intangible and the tangible. Art can not only be experienced through sight, but through other senses such as hearing and touch; it can be shaped through culture and is constantly evolving. It is with this in mind that you, the reader, can start to release any bounds you may have in what you might assume art to be.
Considering this, it can be daunting to begin to create something without having any guidelines, or boundaries, or without knowing your own style. The possibilities of creation are truly endless, but hopefully this little guide will give you somewhere to start.
A good place to begin your journey with art is familiarising yourself with artistic language. Texture, mood, subject matter, brushwork, lighting, viewpoint, style and media are all examples of terminology that you can explore and play with. For instance, if you were to express the feeling of oppression from authority, what viewpoint would you use to convey this? Perhaps the viewpoint would be from below, looking up at the subject to communicate power, and the abuse of it; the brushwork might be broad and forceful portraying the sheer force and violence of the authority, and the tone, deep and intense, depicting the anger and fear of the persecuted.
Now, in contrast, take the feeling of tranquility; what texture would you use to convey this? What lighting? What subject matter? Write down your answers.
However, words can only get you so far, at some point you need to take the plunge! Don’t expect it to be perfect, and perhaps, don’t even expect to like it, but persevere. Begin to appreciate the imperfections as part of the beauty and individuality of your work.
Look around and look within, the world is rarely short of inspiration.
Another collaboration, that is due to take place on the 31st of May, is a virtual spoken word showcase which will offer the opportunity for successful past Spellbinder contributors and Exeter University students, as well as individuals involved with The International Student Theatre Festival to perform their work in front of a digital audience.
This is Spellbinder’s first outreach event and we are so excited to have such a brilliant team in Exeter to work alongside.
The University of Exeter Creative Writing Society has previously hosted a variety of arts events with many of ENIGMA’s contributors performing their work for the Exeter community. We are looking forward to expanding our audience across the Exeter and Durham areas and beyond at this upcoming showcase with the help of Spellbinder’s brilliant team.
Although Spellbinder has been established as an international magazine, our friendship as editors began during our time at Durham University Creative Writing Society. For this reason, we are very keen to foster relationships with university groups as we believe that these supportive and enthusiastic communities can be truly transformative and have the potential to be continued and developed beyond the university groups themselves. Exeter University has one of the most exciting extracurricular arts scenes in England, and it has been an absolute pleasure to plan this post and the spoken word showcase alongside such committed and talented students.
The ENIGMA journal is a fairly young platform, having only been founded by a group of Exeter students with an avid interest in creative writing in 2019, publishing original writing online and producing an annual print journal. We are passionate about inspiring creativity in others, so this collaboration with Spellbinder is important to us as we have thoroughly enjoyed working with another team who also have a real passion for artistic expression to achieve our goal to promote as many diverse voices as possible. We are also delighted that their illustrator, Linda Arrighi, will be designing the cover art for the 2021 ENIGMA print edition.
If you have read this post and feel inspired to attend the spoken word showcase, do not hesitate to get in touch with us. In addition, if you are interested in collaborating with either Spellbinder or ENIGMA, we would both be more than happy to hear from you. Creative communities are stronger together; let’s reach out and support each other!
I want to finish this post by thanking all of the editors at Spellbinder and ENIGMA who have taken the time to write these invaluable tips for our readers, writers and artists.
Please take a look at the website for ENIGMA at the following link:
Finally, you can follow us all on the following social media platforms:
- Instagram @spellbindermag
- Facebook @spellbindermag
- Twitter @spellbindermag
University of Exeter Creative Writing Society:
- Instagram @creativewritingexeter
- Facebook @creativewritingexeter
- Instagram @exeterenigma
- Facebook @ENIGMAjournal
Thank you for reading,
Amber Natalie Kennedy (Spellbinder Editor-in-Chief) and Jessica White (ENIGMA Journal Director)