Friday, 26 April 2013

Still time to enter

Some terrific entries coming into the April Global Short Story Competition. Still plenty of time to enter at

A sense of place

As a writer, I am always inspired by a sense of place. Whether it be a gloomy city or a stunning hillside, a glass-strewn council estate or a majestic waterfall, something about my surroundings triggers ideas.

Let me take you back to a hillside in the North Pennines in an attempt to show you what I mean. I was on a family holiday and we were staying in a village on the Durham/Cumbrian border. There was a play area in the middle of the village and every evening my two children would go for a swing and I would wander out to keep an eye on them - they had gone past the ‘Dad, give me a push’ stage but had not quite reached the stage where they could be left alone.

In such circumstances a person has a lot of time to think and, as they swung, so I found myself staring at the hillside opposite.

Something about the hill’s slopes and its late evening shadows, the way the buzzards hunted across the ridge, the sound of the sheep bleating and the distant barking of a farm dog, worked their magic on me and by the end of the week, an idea was born, eventually turning into The Dead Hill, my seventh crime novel published by Hale in 2008.

My experience as a journalist meant that I knew a lot about wildlife crime and the more I looked at the buzzards on the hillside, the more the place and the idea came together as a good theme for the book.

Character arrived third when striding into my mind came Detective Chief Inspector Jack Harris, an officer working in the rural area in which he grew up, dragged back by the pull of the hills despite his attempts to stay away.

Mix in a bit of gangland intrigue, a few friends with secrets to protect, the DCI's re-awakening as a detective and the ever-changing northern landscape and The Dead Hill assumed a life of its own.

I do a lot of creative writing teaching and I always contend that despite the many elements of fiction, it comes down to a triangle, three things that come together to make the story work right from the off - story, character and place. Get them right and pace, economy of words, themes, emotions, the lot, fall into line.

Different writers would put a different thing at the top of the triangle, identifying it as most important. I know writers who would say it all starts with the story. Others would put characters at the top. Me? I start with the place, always the place.

John Dean

Free competition launched

We have re-launched our latest free competition on our Facebook page, which can be found at or through

It’s the year 2013, add 2, 1 and 3 and you get six, six is the number of words in supposedly the finest flash fiction story ever written For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn (attributed to Hemingway but probably not by him).

The challenge is a short story in six words. Prize is £50, deadline July 18. All you need to do is become a Friend and drop your six words in the appropriate section.

Apologies for those who entered just before we lost our previous social networking site. Please drop them in again.

Keeping it real

I am always struck by the way many writers are drawn to the very toughest of times in people’s lives.
That thought came into mind again when reading some of the stories entered this month.
Story after story focuses on tense moments, difficult encounters, powerful emotions and draws you into the drama so that you can feel the tension, experience the pain and empathise with those in the story.
I am always heartened when I read writing like that. Sometimes, you read a story and think, good set up, decent writing and yet something is missing. Something essential.
For me, if you are going to tackle a tough subject - serious illness, betrayal, separation - the best writing is the writing in which the author plunges him or herself deep into the action and drags the reader with them whether the reader wants to go or not.
Still plenty of time to enter the April Global Short Story Competition at

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Top tips

The great Ernest Hemingway had four tips for good writing.

They were:

* Use short sentences - keeps the pace moving

* Use short first paragraphs - keeps the reader turning the page

* Use vigorous English - makes the stories live by infusing them with passion

* Be positive - telling people what is rather than what is not ie instead of saying that something is ‘inexpensive’ say it’s ‘economical’.

My four (not that I am comparing myself to the great man!) would be:

* Do not write for yourself, always write for the reader.

* Be disciplined - you may wish to pack lots of information in but does the reader need it?

* You may not have put enough information in - you can imagine where a scene is set but have you given the reader the information they need? You may have drawn a character but can your readers see them?

* Be brutal - if you have overwritten, chop out the fat.
The question is ‘what would your four top tips be?’ I have started a discussion at

Why do you write?

Came across an article on the excellent Guardian website, in which writers explained their approach to the job. Here are one or two of the quotes; be interested to see what other people think about their own process:

AL Kennedy: “Sitting alone in a room for hours while essentially talking in your head about people you made up earlier and then writing it down for no one you know does have many aspects which are not inherently fulfilling. Then again, making something out of nothing, overturning the laws of time and space, building something for strangers just because you think they might like it and hours of absence from self – that’s fantastic. And then it’s over, which is even better. I'm with RLStevenson – having written – that's the good bit.”

Hari Kunzru: “I get great pleasure from writing, but not always, or even usually. Writing a novel is largely an exercise in psychological discipline – trying to balance your project on your chin while negotiating a minefield of depression and freak-out. … But when you're in the zone, spinning words like plates, there's a deep sense of satisfaction and, yes, enjoyment…”

John Banville: “The struggle of writing is fraught with a specialised form of anguish, the anguish of knowing one will never get it right, that one will always fail, and that all one can hope to do is ‘fail better’, as Beckett recommends. The pleasure of writing is in the preparation, not the execution, and certainly not in the thing executed.”

Joyce Carol Oates: “Most writers find first drafts painfully difficult, like climbing a steep stairs, the end of which isn't in sight. Only just persevere! Eventually, you will get where you are gong, or so you hope. And when you get there, you will not ask why? – the relief you feel is but a brief breathing spell, before beginning again with another inspiration, another draft, another steep climb.”

Geoff Dyer: “When I was young, I thought that the fun part of writing would be the "creative" bit, making stuff up and inventing things. The older I've got, the less fun this has become. I dread it. The part I enjoy is the re-writing. Increasingly, I enjoy the dullest, most clerical stages of the process. Having said that, there always comes a point, after I've amassed enough material and can start knocking it into shape, when I begin looking forward to working on something.”

Julie Myerson: “writing gives me such enormous pleasure, and I'm a much happier (and therefore nicer) person when I'm doing it. There's a place in my head that I go to when I write and it's so rich and unexpected – and scary sometimes – but never ever dull. …It is a joyous thing. I feel very lucky to be paid to do it, but even if I'd never been published, I think I'd still be writing. I love being read, but the person I'm really always writing for is me.”

If you want to tell us why you write, you can do so on our Facebook page at


Friday, 19 April 2013


I was working with a group of writers yesterday and we had two stories that got me thinking about starts. They were, in their own ways, object lessons in how to start a short story, but which took very different approaches.
However you start your story, you need to grab the reader from those first lines and both writers realised that there are no beginnings in stories because every tale begins in the middle of something.

One of the stories had us arriving in the middle of an event with the writer effectively saying: ‘Welcome to my story, stand here, next to me, you’ll pick it up.’

The second story hooked the reader through sheer force of writing, through a sense of place so strong you could so easily be there. Both worked beautifully.
The April Global Short Story Competition is a really quiet one. You can have ago at the £100 first prize at

Our Facebook page is or can be accessed through

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Half way through

We are half way through the April Global Short Story Competition and it’s a fairly quiet one so far. The competition, which began five years ago and runs monthly with a £100 first prize and a £25 highly commended payment, is administered by Inscribe Media Limited, of Darlington, County Durham in North East England.  Entries come from all over the world and the judge is North East author Fiona Cooper. Approaching £9,000 has already been paid out to winners.

You can find more and enter the competition here at
Our Facebook site is

Monday, 15 April 2013

Inspiring music

One of the things that interests me about writing is ambience (no, not the white things that take you to hospital) and how authors create it.

I always write to music. It helps create atmosphere. Favourite artists for writing? The Irish band Clannad trigger something deep in me, as does some Mike Oldfield stuff. And Mercy Street by Peter Gabriel is so haunting that it takes my mind to the places from which stories spring.

While researching this, I came across a blog by Indra Sena, who said: “If you are struggling with writer's block, looking for inspiration while crafting, or having trouble getting started when you sit down to write, music just might be the perfect muse. Music can relax or invigorate you. The lyrics often refer to timeless themes, much the way writing does. Instruments can also express a wide variety of emotional nuance. Anger, sorrow, joy and despair are all common emotions music seeks to express. You can use music to bring you into these states of feeling and infuse your writing with rich emotion. I like to listen to music the entire time I'm writing. However, even if you prefer to write in silence, music can give you the jump-start you need to begin moving your pen.”

I have started a discussion at our Facebook site at asking: what gets you in the mood?

Friday, 12 April 2013

Avoiding the pitfalls when dealing with agents

Have been talking recently to one or two writers about the challenges of getting published. It can be a dispiriting business so perhaps this will help. There’s a terrific survey that came out several years ago about the mistakes that aspiring writers make when approaching literary agents.

Based on responses from more than 50 agents, it included the following no-nos when submitting manuscripts to agents (and publishers, I would suggest):

* Saying ‘Go to my website for a sample of my work”

* Talking about the book’s sequel

* Pitching more than one book at a time
* Writing a submission that lacks confidence
* Writing a submission that is over-confident or pompous
* Sending a submission that has clearly not been proof-read
* Queries addressed to "Dear Agent" (or anything similar)
* Vague letters.

* E-mailed submissions with more than one agent listed in the "To" field
* Submissions that have no clue what the agent represents, or that have no clue what the agent's submission guidelines are.

These are absolutely spot on. Avoid these pitfalls and at least you give yourself an edge.

One I would add relates to the covering letter. Do try to avoid the words ‘my mum read this and she reckons it’s the finest novel she has ever read’ or something similar. That’s a good way to get your manuscript heading its way bin-wards!


I have always believed that what differentiates good writing from less effective writing is detail so here are some notes from a class I delivered recently, which may interest.

It started with a passage from D Robert Hamm: “The first thing one needs to understand is that all fiction consists of the judicious selection and revelation of “significant detail”. Learning the craft of writing does not dictate which details are counted as significant in any given work, nor how to present those details. Rather, it (hopefully) provides one with the skills to judge those things in light of the desired end result and choose from a variety of options. Just as a serious painter learns what combinations of materials, brushes, strokes, and pigments he or she can use to achieve different effects and guide the viewers’ eyes through the painting, a serious writer must learn how various writing techniques can achieve the desired effects and guide the reader through the story.”

I then looked at using details for Fiction. For instance:

* Create details about character. Ask questions about your character. What does your character look like? How does he walk or talk? Does she part her hair? What kind of clothes does he wear? What nasty habits etc? And which facts are relevant? What matters, what does not? Keep what matters, kick out what does not.

* Create details about your settings. What does your character’s living room look like? Is it messy or is it tidy? Are there paintings on the wall etc etc? Create details that bring the settings to life. A story comes alive when the reader can see, smell, taste, hear, and touch the world you’ve created. But if it does not matter that a certain painting is on the wall, don’t mention it. If it‘s there for a reason , to reveal something about the character, plot etc, then keep it hanging there

In short, use only what is necessary

Thursday, 11 April 2013


Recent Global Story Competitions have been characterised by the arrival of a number of very powerful stories. Stories which show the writers’ instinctive understanding for the way readers can be moved.

What do I mean? Well, in my view, good writing is about triggers. What is the point if the reader gets to the end of your story, shrugs and goes to make a cup of tea? How much better if, before they go and make that cup of tea, they sit for a few moments and think back on what they have read? Maybe they will feel emotional, maybe they will feel moved to tears, maybe they will say a silent prayer for a remembered loved one, maybe they will smile at memories, maybe they will laugh at jokes just read, maybe they simply cared for the people in the story they just read. As long as they feel and do something.

Tales that bring forth such reactions often draw in some way on the writer’s own experiences but they also trigger something in readers they have never met. And we all have those triggers inside us. Fears, insecurities, emotions, experiences. Like everyone, I have had, still have, deep sadness in my life. Loved ones lost and damaged, deaths witnessed, things unsaid, lives un-lived.

So when I read some stories, they trigger something deep within me. It will not happen with all stories but it happens with a fair proportion that I see entered into our competitions. For others, different stories will move them and in different ways.

Now, I am not saying that to succeed a story needs to have all that power - we should never lose sight of craft, of the sheer joy of good writing - but if it has the ability to move someone somewhere then it’s achieved something.

I think that sometimes writers forget the power in our hands when we pick up that pen, switch on that computer. Yes, it’s fiction but in so many stories you can see the truth running through it.

That is certainly the case with my own writing. In a way, my characters tell parts of my life story. Changed, adapted, developed but part of my life story for all that. Does it trigger something in the reader? Do you know, I reckon it might just do for some of them. Not all of them but for some.

And did those writers who entered stories into our competitions trigger something in me as I read them? Well, I didn’t go off to make that cup of tea straightaway. I reckon that answers the question.

Facebook page launched

Want to have your say on writing and the Global Short Story Competition? Then go to our brand new facebook site at

February winners announced

Judge Fiona Cooper has selected her winners for the February Global Short Story Competition and the successful writers come from Wales and Hong Kong.

The £100 first place prize goes to The Prague Violin by P J Vanston, Swansea, in Wales, of which Fiona says: “The language of this story is exquisite, and the writer catches atmosphere with a touch so light and deft, it sweeps the reader along through a half century of political and social change with real feeling. The microcosm of Petr’s life perfectly reflects the macrocosm of global events and the reality of human experience from ecstasy to tragedy. A wonderful experience. “

The £25 highly commended story was Birds written by Ciaran O’Riain, of Hong Kong, of which Fiona says: “This story is gripping from the first line to the last full stop. To produce a multi layered experience in the confines of a short story shows an admirable talent and discipline. There are enough unanswered questions to keep one thinking long beyond the end of the story, but enough answers within the story to satisfy and provoke the reader to want more. Excellent.”

The writers on the shortlist were:

Adriaan Odendaal Durbanville, South Africa

Ceri-Lowe Petraske, Bristol, England

Thomas Szendrei, Johannesburg, South Africa

Chris Brereton, Egham, England
Well done to our successful writers.

You can enter the competition via its new home

Monday, 1 April 2013

April Fool story

Paul Freeman, a past winner of the Global Short Story Competition,. has posted an April Fools' Day story, titled April Fool, up today at Everyday Fiction if you'd like to have a read and perhaps leave a comment and a star rating: