Friday, 28 August 2015

Tackling the tough stuff

I was telling someone about my crime writing the other day and it made me sound a right ghoul, reflecting on horrible themes as I do.

However, the more I thought about it the more I realised that all writers need to tackle the tough subjects.

Emotion is something of which some writers are wary, preferring to produce work without revealing too much of themselves or embracing difficult subjects. Perhaps it all becomes too personal.

However, for many other writers, there cannot be fiction without a sense of themselves in it. For some authors, there is always part of them peering through, their fears, their hopes, their aspirations, their unique take on life.

They may not say ‘and this is me’ but it is there all the same in their writing. For many authors, writing has to be a deeply personal art.

Of course, it is not all autobiographical - many writers write characters and scenes which readers find abhorrent and use language and ideas with which readers might not agree but which need to be there because they reflect the world about us.

However, in there somewhere are also tantalising glimpses of what the writer really thinks of the world.

John Dean

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Mentoring support for writers

Novelist John Dean is running an online mentoring and writing workshops programme for aspiring authors.

John, who is based in Darlington, in County Durham, North East England, and has had twelve crime novels published by Robert Hale, of London, is a co-director of Inscribe Media Limited, which is running the programmes.

John, who also runs creative writing courses in Darlington, said: “Writing can be a lonely pastime and our programmes help writers tackle some of the many challenges that it throws up.

“We focus on major issues, such as how a story hangs together, what characters are doing or could be doing, what is hurting a story’s momentum and what story elements are not pulling their weight.

“We identify the differences between good and great writing and point out an author’s strengths and weaknesses so that they become more confident.

“We help authors establish good processes and writing goals and suggest markets for their work.”

The programme includes long-term mentoring and short writing courses.

You can also access a free downloadable writing guide at,uk and find free tips on the blog at the site.

John can be contacted at

So who can the reader trust?

I recently taught a course part of which focused on the unreliable narrator, a character who tells a story that the reader cannot take at face value. Now, I am working on a novel using a similar approach, which is proving great fun.

The technique has been used for many centuries but only became known as such in the 1960s.

Sometimes, the narrator is unreliable by the nature of the character, such terrible people that they cannot tell their stories objectively and resort instead to lies and deceit.

There is another type of unreliable narrator. This narrator is unreliable due to having incomplete or incorrect information, although initially neither the narrator nor the readers is aware of this.

Or the unreliable narrator may simply be deluded, suffering perhaps from an illness which clouds judgement (dementia is becoming a popular theme for many writers).

All are terrific techniques but there are dangers. For a start, readers do not always understand that a narrator is unreliable. To counter that, the unreliability of the narrator can be gradually revealed as part of the resolution. It is important to plant clues along the way to ensure that the reader understands and perceives the situation in a way that the narrator does not.

How can a writer do this? There are a number of ways, including showing the reactions of other characters, thereby telling the reader that all is not as it seems.

Although usually, the unreliability of the narrator is gradually revealed, some writers opt for a revelation at the end which shocks the reader.

John Dean

Speaking out against library cutbacks

My previous blog praised a Scottish initiative to encourage library use among young people and mentioned my being a founding member several years ago of a Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) campaign to help promote libraries at a time when the service is under threat.
Libraries are vulnerable because many local authorities do not appear to see them as a high enough priority. Even though libraries may not close, they may find their staff reduced and their book funds cut.
Why does that matter? Well, not everyone can afford to buy new books on a regular basis and that is certainly true of families with young children, whose development into the readers of the future is often fostered at libraries.
Lose that and we lose the readers of the future. And that matters. The CWA has spoken out against cuts and so should all writers.
John Dean

Library initiative to be welcomed

Here’s a brilliant initiative much to be welcomed by writers everywhere. Every child in Scotland could automatically become a library member under new plans announced by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
Pilot projects are being developed in every local authority area to introduce automatic library membership at key stages throughout the early years.
The pilots – which will give all children a library card at birth, age 3 or 4 or in P1 – will see libraries working with schools and communities to promote the services they offer to families.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon joined new P1 library members at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow to promote the scheme.
The children are part of Glasgow Life’s pilot which will target 2,000 pupils in six areas with issues of lower literacy. As well as this, from September 7, every baby registered in the Glasgow area will be given a library membership card by the registrar.
Nicola Sturgeon said: “Libraries can empower communities – often in our most deprived areas where we know that young people can have lower levels of literacy and numeracy.
“Access to books and learning materials will help us to make sure that every child has the opportunity to get excited about reading.”
Councillor Archie Graham, Chair of Glasgow Life, said: “An appreciation for books and an enthusiasm for reading is one of the most important gifts we can give our children.
“Not only is reading vital to improving literacy levels but it also opens up a number of opportunities throughout young people’s lives; developing valuable life-skills, signposting them on to education and employment pathways and supporting our future generations to grow and prosper as active citizens.”
As a founder member of the Crime Writers’ Association’s group to campaign to promote
libraries under threat at a time of austerity I heartily welcome this initiative
John Dean

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Keeping humour alive in fiction

I love reading humour, and despair that these days the comic novel seems to represent too much of a risk for many publishers. Nevertheless, all writers need the comic touch.
There’s an old saying that if you are not a humorous person, don’t try to write humour. Well, it is only part-true.
It is certainly the case that a straight-laced, humourless person might well struggle to write side-splitting comedy but if you are an author, that might not be a good enough excuse.
Why? Because humour is vital to creating good fiction. Even if you are not writing an out-and-out comic piece, humour has a role to perform.
For a start, it can create light against the dark. Take an example: you are writing a sinister piece with the tension building as the tale unfolds. You might decide to keep the tension going right to the end, which would be one way of writing it.
However, you might decide that a flash of humour, a single line of dialogue by a character, could momentarily ease the tension, cause the reader to relax slightly, and provide an even greater impact when you suddenly strike with the next piece of drama, or horror or fear. Ghost and horror writers know that trick well - they are past masters at toying with their readers.
Humour also works well with novels because a relentlessly heavy theme in a story can benefit immensely from the odd break for something a little lighter.
There is another good reason for using humour in your writing because it reveals things about your character and can show another side to them that the reader might not have seen before. Or it can reveal in a brief conversation the depth of two people’s relationship.
And it does not need to be side-splitting humour, that is not the intention: it has other roles to perform.
John Dean

The importance of reading

Here’s one of those pieces of research which surprises … absolutely no one.

According to The Reading Agency, there is strong evidence that reading for pleasure can increase empathy, improve relationships with others, reduce the symptoms of depression and the risk of dementia, and improve wellbeing throughout life.

The study, conducted by BOP Consulting for the agency and funded by the Peter Sowerby Foundation, brings together a growing body of research that shows that reading for pleasure can bring a range of benefits to individuals and society.

The report is the first stage of a project funded by the Peter Sowerby Foundation and developed through partnerships with reading charities, public libraries and education organisations to emphasise the importance of reading.

Jonathan Douglas, director of the National Literacy Trust, said: "This report provides a solid foundation from which we can build a new and objective framework to understand how literacy transforms lives and can make society stronger, more successful and more equal.”

John Dean

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Durham Book Festival

The line-up has been announced for the Durham Book Festival, which will run from 6-17 October and include more than 50 events across Durham with headliners including Bill Bryson, Simon Armitage, Lauren Laverne and Mary Portas.
From poetry to family events, there is something for all and you can see the full programme at

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Pulling the trigger

Continuing my theme of evoking reactions in your reader, I think that good writing is about triggers - words, phrases, images, places, sensations - that reach deep into the readers mind.
That reaction will be based on something the reader has actually experienced, or maybe something that the reader dreads ever having to experience. It is why horror and ghost stories work so well.
Yes, you are messing about with the readers head, yes, you may be forcing them to confront difficult truths, but isnt that sometimes what writing is about?
If every story, every book, was about sugary-sweet people in lovely situations, then writing could never really move the reader as it should.
So, yes, writing can, on occasion, make the reader feel uneasy, uncomfortable, scared even, but, lets be honest, isnt that sometimes the way we feel in our daily lives anyway? Its simply art reflecting reality.

John Dean

Emotion in writing

If you are going to write about conflict, as mentioned in my previous blog, you need to trigger an emotional reaction in your reader. You have to make them care about the characters in your story.

Emotion is something of which some writers are wary, preferring to produce work without revealing too much of themselves.

However, for many other writers, there cannot be fiction without a sense of themselves in it.

For some authors, there is always part of them peering through, their fears, their hopes, their aspirations, their take on life. They may not say ‘and this is me’ but it is there all the same. For many authors, writing has to be a deeply personal art.

Of course, it is not all autobiographical - many writers write characters and scenes which readers find abhorrent and use language and ideas with which readers might not agree but which need to be there because they reflect the world about us.

However, in there somewhere are also tantalising glimpses of what the writer really thinks of the world.

John Dean

Why conflict matters in fiction

A lot of my teaching is about conflict in fiction but why is it important in writing? Because stories need things to happen and that usually comes out of conflict - characters argue, fight, feud etc.
It is through seeing characters in conflict that we see them at their truest, when their guard is down, when they are fighting something.
You can develop a character through conflict: the meek little parlour maid suddenly becomes the towering heroine of the story
Conflict takes the story on: a school is to be closed, two friends fall out, a community is torn apart by an event. All these types of conflict are a rich hunting ground for the writer.
Conflict can evoke a strong reaction in a reader
Conflict makes for good drama - and if that is happening then writing is easier
It also gives you a structure for your story, a story to tell.
John Dean

Creating characters

A lot of my teaching focuses on characters. They are, after all, our major tools as writers.

So how do you create them? Here’s some thoughts:
* Maybe base them on people you know but beware of the law. Don’t lift your local vicar wholesale and turn him/her into a cold-blooded killer! Make your characters composites of several people

*Describe their physical characteristics You can do it one bit or slot descriptions in as you go.   Describe their clothing etc but move beyond simple facts, try to capture their demeanour. How do they speak? Brusque, garrulous? How do they walk? Don’t overdo it, though, too much description slows down stories. I often think a line or two will suffice

* Visualise the person, think of small things which make them stand out

* Describe their views, their emotions, their thoughts

* Maybe come up with something that makes them different. A hobby, an odd phrase that they keep using

* If this is a major character get to know them particularly well. How do they react to things? Make sure they are strong enough to carry the story on their shoulders. And we must care about them - not necessarily like but care.

*Take care with minor characters as well as major, they’re important, not cardboard cut-outs.

Above all, ask yourself are your characters REAL?

John Dean

A question of ideas

I’ve been doing a lot of teaching on the idea of ideas lately and came across these excellent quotes.
·         People always want to know: Where do I get my ideas? They're everywhere. I'm inspired by people and things around me. (Gwendolyn Brooks, American poet)
·         My standard answer is "I don't know where they come from, but I know where they come to, they come to my desk." If I'm not there, they go away again, so you've got to sit and think. (Philip Pullman, English writer)
·         Ideas come to a writer, a writer does not search for them. "Ideas come to me like birds that I see in the corner of my eye," I say to journalists, "and I may try, or may not, to get a closer fix on those birds." (Patricia Highsmith, American crime writer)
·         It's very blurred, it's not clear. The plan is something which gradually evolves. Usually, I'll just start with one particular idea or certain image or even just a mood and gradually it'll kind of grow when other things attach themselves to it. (Jane Rogers, British novelist, editor, and teacher)
·         Anything can set things going--an encounter, a recollection. I think writers are great rememberers. (Gore Vidal, American novelist, playwright, essayist)
·         You can write about anything, and if you write well enough, even the reader with no intrinsic interest in the subject will become involved.
(Tracy Kidder, literary journalist)
·         "From you," I say. The crowd laughs. I look at the woman asking the question; she seems innocent enough. I continue. "I get them from looking at the world we live in, from reading the paper, watching the news. It seems as though what I write is often extreme, but in truth it happens every day."
(A. M. Homes, American novelist and short story writer)
·         My usual, perfectly honest reply is, "I don't get them; they get me."
(Robertson Davies, Canadian novelist, playwright, and critic
John Dean

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

The trick to good crime fiction

Following the news that we are to run an online crime fiction course (details on the home page) I thought it would be useful to look at how to write a good crime story:

* The story should be strong and one that can be told in a short story (most crime stories are novels)

* Create a strong sense of place - the reader must be able to visualise where the action happens

* Create strong characters - do not stray into cliché, make our investigators real people. Your hero must not be perfect, he or she must be flawed but be careful about writing in too many flaws

* If you create a sidekick, make sure they have a job to do - passing on information, allowing your main character to react so we learn more about them etc

* Make the villain real not some clichéd villain from the movies. The best thing is for them to have appeared earlier in the story so the reader knows them. Give them a good reason to commit the crime - secrets, secrets, always secrets

* Grab the reader from the start. Here is an extract from an interview with the author Nick Brownlee explaining how to do it:
Q The opening scene of Bait features a character being gutted alive on a fishing boat. Was it always in your mind to start the book with such a gory scene?

A I have been a journalist for the best part of 20 years, much of that time writing stories for tabloid newspapers. The first lesson you are taught is that you must grab the reader’s attention with the very first paragraph, because by the third they will have lost interest in the story. It’s the same with commercial fiction – especially if you are an unknown author. In order to get published, Bait had to leap out of an agent’s slush pile and then make a publisher look twice. I needed an opening that would catch the eye. Hopefully it will have the same effect on the casual reader.”

* Even with a short story, it is worth mapping out a synopsis because crime stories are be definition complicated and you need to get it right
* Keep the story moving - nothing holds a reader better than tension creates as the pace develops. Keep it driving on relentlessly

* Think about your ending - surprise the reader, have some drama, a chase, a fight, a killing, a dramatic revelation

* Feel free to makes us think - maybe you want to cast light on human nature, or perhaps a problem in society, Do not preach but feel free to let that idea come through in your story

John Dean

Crime fiction course launched

Crime novelist and creative writing tutor John Dean has launched an online Crime Fiction Course.
John, author of 12 novels published by Robert Hale, and the creator of DCI John Blizzard and DCI Jack Harris, also runs Inscribe Media Ltd, which is based in Darlington in North East England, which will be offering the course.
The online course, which runs in eight parts and can begin at a time and date to suit the student, will help writers to improve their technique and improve their chances of being successful, either in competitions or admissions to publishers.
When they enroll, students will be offered ongoing one-to-one feedback on their work, be it short stories or novels.
John, whose latest novel A Breach of Trust came out in January 2015, and who is a member of the UK-based Crime Writers’ Association, said: “Writing can be a lonely pastime and my aim is to help aspiring writers to improve their technique and improve their chances of being successful in a very competitive market.
“Crime fiction remains hugely popular and, hopefully, I can help aspiring writers to develop their ideas, and because it is online it does not matter where they live. In recent years, I have worked with writers from everywhere from Croatia to Australia and New Zealand.”
There is no official certificate of qualification at the end of the course, which will be led by John and features:

• Personal attention

• Exercises and practical work

• Discussions by email

• Because the tutor is on line, you can do the work at time and pace that suits you

Themes to be included are:
An examination of where ideas come from - what triggers ideas in writers?

Once you have the idea, how do you develop it? The course will look at the art of  plotting

How can you use places and landscapes to aid your story telling?

How do you pick characters to do the job? What are their functions in storytelling? This will include a look at creating villains

How conflict can be used to develop stories that assume a life of their own

That all important start to your story - how do you grab the reader right from the off?

Writing with pace - how do you produce a narrative that keeps your reader turning the page?

Pulling it all together - how to produce the finished piece of work.

Editing - how to make those changes that make all the difference.

Pitching to publishers and agents

The course costs £75. For further details you can contact John at

Inscribe Media’s website, which also has details of other courses and the company’s mentoring programme, can be found at

Courses to run

Creative writing tutor John Dean is taking bookings for the Autumn term of his popular courses at the Friends’ Meeting House in Skinnergate, Darlington.
The ten-week adult learning courses deal with all aspects of creative writing, focusing primarily on prose, including short stories, novels and other forms of writing as well as occasional forays into the world of stage, theatre and radio.

Each course is different and deals with everything from characterisation to plotting, creating strong sense of place to how to edit.
Each session runs between 7 and 9pm and the courses start in mid-September. More information is available from John on 01325 463813 or email