Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Making sense of it all - creating structure in your fiction

So how do order your great idea, brilliant characters and compelling sense of place into something that people will actually read?
When it comes to structure, some authors opt for the beginning, middle, end approach, a traditional and proven format which has served short story and novel writers well down the decades.
Others go for deliberately confusing the reader, creating stories which are
not clear at the start but which slowly reveal themselves. They may do it by
concealing where the action takes place, or perhaps who the central characters are. Or keeping back the salient piece of information that the reader needs to make sense of everything.

Some writers go for the flashback approach, beginning the story with an incident then working backwards to explain how we arrived at this moment. Knowing what happens at the end can make the events that unfold that little but more poignant.
However you do it, a bit of planning at the start – what happens when? – will save a lot of rewriting further down the line.
John Dean

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Open mic night

The Open Mic night for authors season continues on Thursday October 29 and organisers are hoping for some ghost stories given its proximity to Halloween.
The nights, supported by Darlington for Culture and which offer a forum for writers to read their material and audiences to enjoy it, run at Voodoo Café/Cantina, 84 Skinnergate, Darlington, on the last Thursday of the month. Each session starts at 7pm and the cost of entry is £3 paid on the door.
More information is available from Inscribe Media Limited at

Frightening your reader

I am currently teaching a course on targeting your reader – writing to illicit a particular reaction and that includes inducing fear in them, particularly for ghost stories. Here are some thoughts:

Everyone fears the unknown. People don’t know what’s making that noise in the other room, so they call it a ghost and get scared. If that is the information needed to create scary scenes then use it, fluttering curtains, scraping chair legs, footsteps etc

Withhold information. Don’t bog stories down with long visual descriptions of a ghost, be more subtle, use glimpses, hints

Don’t keep mention ghosts, let the reader guess what is happening here. It keeps them intrigued

Build up fear gradually

*       Describe the setting. This builds up atmosphere

*       Keep it real – ghosts may not exist but it’s more believable if a story is something that could happen to anyone

Emotion is vital in any form of literature. Make the reader feel what the protagonist is feeling so explain the character’s reactions, clammy hands, pounding heart etc.

John Dean

Monday, 28 September 2015

Why description still has its place

Further to my previous blog about the modern writer, this is an article I wrote on sense of place in 2011, which develops the theme and shows how there is still a place for description


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 repeatedly triggers ideas.
Before I explain where I think sense of place fits into the creative process, 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. And as with all writers, ideas started to swirl around in my mind.
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. But place came first.
Character arrived third when striding into my mind came Detective Chief Inspector Jack Harris, a disillusioned 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.
The story itself told about the discovery of a dead gangland figure in a quarry that brought back dark memories for Harris and the hilltop community in which he works. As the detective investigated the murder, not only was he forced to deal with hostile villains, frightened townsfolk and colleagues who doubt his capacity to bring the killer to justice, he also has to confront part of his past that he had hoped would be forgotten. And in doing so, he was forced to re-evaluate the loyalties of those closest to him. And all from that hillside!
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, a strong idea which drives the narrative and everything else follows. Get the idea then search round for somewhere to set it.
Others would put characters at the top. I have worked with writers who contend that their stories begin with a person, a character from whom everything flows, whose experiences and views shape the narrative.
Me? I start with the place, always the place. Another example. We went on another family trip to an old wartime POW camp not far from where I live. Standing in the huts, looking at graffiti left by the Germans and Italians, their scrawled pictures of home, seeing the dust of ages flying, feeling the spirit of long gone men, I was gripped by the emotion of the moment and within 15 minutes the plot for what became The Long Dead came to me, set in a wartime camp where secrets abounded even fifty years after it was abandoned. Never had a plot come together so rapidly and it hardly changed during the writing.
That story was the fifth in the John Blizzard series and they are mostly set in a fictional northern city, based on cities in which I have lived and worked. For me, I was fascinated not by their ‘nice’ areas but by neighbourhoods in decline, the peeling paint, the shadowy tower blocks, the converted Victorian houses turned into seedy bedsits. For me, the sense of place overwhelms in such locations and characters and storylines emerge from the surroundings.
So how do you go about creating a sense of place? Well, I think there are three things you need to do, the first of which is to give the reader enough visual information to create a picture of the place.
There’s a lot of debate among writers about how much description you should use and I can see the argument for being sparing on the details although having said that, I do agree that done well, longer description can make for compelling reading.
My best advice would be to keep it relatively tight because too much description can slow your pace. However, do you need to provide at least some clues. Take a leaf out of flash fiction’s book, identify what you think the most important things are about a place and describe them. Even if you do that sparingly, the reader will build up the place for themselves in their mind because good writing is about triggering a response in the reader, bringing out memories.
For instance, you could spend three paragraphs describing the differing colours and hues of the forest - and it might be wonderful writing to book -but it might be enough just to say that the conifer woodland stretched away into the distance until it gave way to moorland. We all know what a forest looks like and we can all visualise a moor. If my instinct is correct, in my giving you those two facts you will already have thought of a place you know. So what if you see a different forest than I did when I typed those words? As long as you see a forest what does it matter?
Apart from visual clues a writer needs to go further and use the senses - take the forest, again; one of the most striking sensations is the smell, of the dead and dying brown undergrowth beneath the canopy perhaps, or maybe of the sound of a stream somewhere through the trees, unseen but heard. Again, two or three fragments of description but I bet you have conjured up a forest you know. And if you haven’t but want to create one  -  pull on your boots and head out on the forest path with a notebook.
But for me there has to be a third aspect to this and that is what does it feel like to be there?  I know that many writers, myself included, would say that the narrator should never impinge on the story directly because he or she can get the message over through their characters. If a normally brave character becomes scared in the forest, you have told the reader how the place feels and you have triggered off all sorts of reactions in your reader - the time they got lost in a forest, the time the kids vanished in among the trees, the time the sky turned black and a sun-dappled scene turned to one of darkness and menace. You will have made them feel.
Back to how sense of place inspires and the continuance of the story which started when my kids went swinging in that North Pennines village.
The second novel in the series was  To Die Alone,  published by Hale and again featuring Jack Harris and his North Pennines beat.
The idea came when we went on a family holiday (funny how often that happens, must be something about having time to think). This time we were in the Isle of Man and went for a walk on a wet and windy morning. Our attempts to follow the path along the river valley were repeatedly thwarted by trees brought down by the ferocious winds the night before and now strewn across the hillside.
Standing there, my connection with the place took  over and a storyline unrolled itself there and then, a man alone and fleeing for his life on a tree-strewn hillside.
Knowing that such a landscape would slot beautifully into the North Pennines, I picked up that Isle of Man hillside and moved it over to the world inhabited by Jack Harris.
So for me, sense of places goes on top of the triangle - it inspires, it enthuses, it moves, it evokes - and by God, it doesn’t half make me write!

John Dean

The modern reader

I find myself teaching more and more about needs of the the modern reader, that modern fiction is increasingly all about action - people doing things.
Some writers argue that today’s readers just want the story and nothing much else. To attain that, they say, any superfluous wordage is excised and novels are ruthlessly edited.
All very well and good but I would argue that there must still be place for the passage of striking description, the striking image, the use of the senses, the development of tension.
Yes, take out all the excess words but don’t forget to keep the beauty that our wondrous language allows us to create in the rush to engage readers who can’t concentrate any more!

John Dean

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Writers on writing

You can check out or home page for writers Myra King, Roger Barnes and Mike Beck offering some insight into the art of writing

Crime fiction course

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

Why conflict is so important

I have started teaching a course on the theme of conflict but why is conflict 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

Monday, 7 September 2015

Using the landscape

I am reading the utterly brilliant novel Dark Matter by Michelle Paver at the moment. In addition to her sublime gift of storytelling, the book shows how crucial it is if you write about a place that the reader can see it. 
You have choices: do you write rich and vivid prose to paint a word picture or do you keep it minimalist - describe a tree in a park and we all see a different tree and a different park?  Perhaps we only need to say it is a tree in a park? Or do you go for detail? Michelle Paver chooses the latter.
If you do the same, make sure you:
Describe physical characteristics - what does it look like, any quirks which bring it to life?
Use your reader’s senses - what does the place smell, taste, sound like?
What does it feel like to be there?
Michelle Paver’s book, set in an ice and snowbound world, does it brilliantly as it weaves a truly terrifying ghost story into the landscape.

John Dean

Open mic returns

The new Open Mic night for authors season will begin on Thursday September 24.
The nights, supported by Darlington for Culture and which offer a forum for writers to read their material and audiences to enjoy it, run at Voodoo Café/Cantina, 84 Skinnergate, Darlington, on the last Thursday of the month. Each session starts at 7pm and the cost of entry is £3 paid on the door.
More information is available from Inscribe Media Limited at

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Don't waste your good ideas

Sometimes, I find myself telling a student that they ‘have given their idea’ away, by which I mean that the idea for a story is a really good one but that it has been wasted.
For instance, I worked with a writer with an idea for a crime short story, based on revenge, an old theme but one that was being presented in an original way.
However, although I liked the idea, the short story format meant that none of the characters were well drawn.
I could not help thinking that in order to make the concept work, we needed to learn more details about each of the victims so that we could sympathise with them more.
I appreciated that a shorter piece did not permit much detail but I felt that in this case, it was required and if that meant it became a novel to do the story justice then so be it.
And yes, I know some of the most brilliant ideas have made terrific short stories, and that in the hands of a good writer, 2,000 words can be as effective as 65,000, if not more so.
But sometimes I do think that by choosing a shorter format for whatever reason, the potential for a truly great piece of storytelling is lost.

John Dean

In praise of young writers

Returning to my occasional theme of young writers, we run an open mic for writers in our home town of Darlington (next one Thursday September 24, Voodoo Café, 7pm) and several of the writers who read from time to time are teenagers.
They remind me of me at that age, writing feverishly, honing their craft, making mistakes and learning from them.
I know a lot of youngsters who write and in an age when exam pressures threaten to crowd out young people’s creativity, it’s a joy to see.
John Dean

What are your golden rules for writing?

Here are my golden rules for writing. The question is, what are yours?
* Consider the reader - 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.

So what are your golden rules? You can tell us at our Facebook site


John Dean

Authors on the writing process

It is always fascinating to read writers’ thoughts’ on the process of creating their work.
If you go to our home page here at you, can read the insights of three of the authors we publish – Mike Beck and Myra King, pictured here, and Roger Barnes. Well worth a read


John Dean

More thoughts on starting stories

Here’s some more thoughts on starting stories. The cardinal rule is to include most of the individual elements that make up the story. An opening paragraph should have a distinctive voice, a point of view, a rudimentary plot and some hint of characterisation.

You might be tempted to begin your narrative before the action starts but far better to begin at the first moment of something interesting happening, which is more likely to grab the reader‘s interest.

If you feel compelled to begin a story with dialogue, keep in mind that you’re thrusting your readers directly into a story in which it’s easy to lose them early on. So keep the dialogue to a minimum. One way around this is to begin with a single line of dialogue then offer some context before proceeding with the rest of the conversation.

Sometimes a story evolves so significantly during the writing that an opening line, no matter how brilliant, no longer applies to the story that follows. The only way to know this is to reconsider the opening sentence once the final draft is complete. Often a new opening is called for.

John Dean

In the beginning

However you start your story, the beginning should have The Question, something that hooks your reader. You need to grab them from those first lines.
One way do to this is intrigue the reader. For instance, “Bill Bloggs was dead” may give the end away but the readers wants to find out why he died and if he deserved it.
The dropped introduction can also work: “Betty was a pleasant woman. She would do anything for anyone. Everyone liked old Betty. A true angel, they used to say. Which was why it was such a shock when she was killed by a Mafia hitman.”
There is another way of hooking readers, in which the writer can draw us in with the sheer quality of their writing, as in books like Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee.
Whatever you do, remember that all stories begin in the middle - the people you write about have already plenty of history. What you are doing is catapulting the reader into their lives.

John Dean

Interesting stuff

Theres loads of free hints on writing at our blog here at and you can also check out our free writers toolbox, which can be downloaded off the home page.
You can also follow us on Twitter at @InscribeMedia or check out our Facebook page with its news and views at

Nurturing new talent through our ebooks

A reminder that we have published seven e-books

Lost Souls by Roger Barnes When young women start to go missing in Africa, an  International Strike Force is assembled to rescue them.

White Gold by Roger Barnes A thriller by Roger Barnes taking the reader into a world of intrigue and danger set amid the poachers of Africa.

Harry’s Torment by Michael Beck Set in the fictional east coast port of Thirlston and centred on investigators tackling the heroin trade. 

Cyber Rules by Myra King. The novel by Australian writer Myra tells the story of a farmer’s wife in isolated rural Australia. Caught up on the addictive side of the Internet, she holds a secret which may prove to be deadly.

Global Shorts - an anthology of short stories taken from the early years of the Global Short Competition.

Vegemite Whiskers - a selection of some of the finest writing from Australian authors who have entered the Global Short Story Competition.

Haghir the Dragon Finder by John Dean, a comic fantasy for older children. Haghir 

and his hopeless comrades are dragon slayers seeking a new challenge.

All the titles can be obtained by keying their titles into the search field of the Kindle shop at  Australian readers will have to purchase via Amazon US at

* If you don’t have a Kindle, there is a free Kindle reading app for your PC at 

* You can find more about the books on our website. You can also check out our ebooks on Pinterest at


Wednesday, 2 September 2015

So how do you write?

My only writers’ joke is:
Two authors meet in the street.
One says: “I’m writing a novel.”
The other one says: “Neither am I.”
It does sum beautifully up the capacity of writers to do anything but write – walk the dog, make a cup of coffee, stare out of the window. So how do you make yourself knuckle down to work?
You can tell us on our Facebook page at our Facebook site
John Dean

Writing film scripts

I am working with a writing group who are working with some film-makers which got me thinking. So how do you write a script? Here’s some thoughts:

* Read plenty of scripts and see how the experts do it - get used to how the script looks on the page. Then watch the film itself and see how the script translated when filming actually began.
* About half of the content of a screenplay should be dialogue and the other half should be visual.
* Keep camera directions to a minimum. Let the filmmakers decide how to film the script.
* Action is important you need to keep the story moving.
* Keep the story well-paced - generally, one screenplay page is one minute of screen time.
* Develop true-to-life characters. Know their history and why they react to events the way they do. And keep it consistent: if they are aged fifty in one scene make sure you do not have them celebrating their sixtieth birthday in the next unless it is part of the plot.
* If it helps, focus on a few key details that tell us what kind of person your character is. Maybe the person cannot wear a tie smartly, maybe their clothes are always grubby, maybe they never look anyone in the face. And when you write your scene, ask yourself if your character would really react like that?
* Before you write your script, write a list of scenes you want to include and what happens in each one. That way you can make sure your story develops in the right way.
* And finally, keep the balance right: you don’t want the first half of the film to be all dialogue, followed by 45 minutes of car chases.

John Dean

Creative writing course to run

Creative writing tutor John Dean is taking bookings for the Autumn 2015 term of his popular courses at the Friends’ Meeting House in Skinnergate, Darlington.
The adult learning courses, previously staged at Darlington Arts Centre, 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.
Winter term 2015 (10 weeks)
First session September 15
Half term - No class October 27
Final session November 24
First session September 16
Half term - No class October 28
Final session November 25
Fee £46 (Concessions £37)
Bookings are now being taken for the Winter term course 2015. Booking in advance is to be recommended as these courses are very popular. Cheques made out to Inscribe Media Limited should be sent to 18 Milbank Court, Darlington, Co Durham DL3 9PF, making clear which course you wish to book using the slip below. Please include a s.a.e if you wish an acknowledgement. More information is available from John on 01325 463813 or email
I ………………………… of (address)…………………………….......... Would like to book on the Autumn creative writing term (Tue/Wed, delete where applicable)
I enclose a £ payment
Contact phone number/email address
Concession rates applies to pensioners or those on unemployment benefit