Monday, 22 February 2016

What makes a good poem?

I have been doing some teaching on poetry recently. It is not my thing really so I had to do a lot of research, during which I came across a few quotes on  of what makes a good poem. Here are one or two:
A good poem is a slip-of-a-thing that celebrates language, that takes you on a short journey and touches your heart, turns on your imagination, or tickles your funny- bone somewhere along the way.
Nikki Grimes.

A good poem makes you feel like you’ve been there before, or want to go. A good poem takes you to the city, to the sea, to the heart of any and all matters; you see it, taste it, belong to it. A good poem is a menagerie of craft; a spinning of sound, word choice, alliteration, rhythm and often rhyme. A good poem is the arrangement of enchantment, or as J. Patrick Lewis says, a blind date with enchantment.
Rebecca Kai Dotlich

What makes a good poem? Brevity, terseness, spareness, viewing something new for the very first time, creating an image like no one has ever been blown away by before in their entire life.
Lee Bennett Hopkins

Love and care for elemental details, for chosen words and their simple arrangement on the page... and a way of ending that leaves a new resonance or a lit spark in the reader or listener's mind—that’s part of it.
Naomi Shihab Nye

A good poem surprises your senses, shakes you awake, stirs your emotions, and startles your imagination. Each poem is an act of discovery. Poetry helps us widen our vision and our hearts.
Joan Bransfield Graham

John Dean

Friday, 19 February 2016

Writing for theatre

I teach the occasional class on writing for theatre and thought some observations might prove interesting.
The power of words is crucial when writing for theatre but so is a technical understanding of the staging process. Writers need to do the following:
Think where the person was before entering the stage and where he/she goes to eg if he/she has come in from the cold remember to write cold references of actions (stamping feet etc )
The writer needs to consider what the characters are doing as well as saying - a walk across a stage can take a long time as can a passage of speech. Find something for them do, making tea, putting the kettle on etc. It gives the scene more movement and avoids problems for actors who feel all they can do is stand like a plank and spout their lines.
Think of how long words take to say and how they will play in an audience. An intimate aside in a small room can fall flat in a large theatre.
Comedy needs to big and bold, drama can be more subtle and considered (the actor can be more introspective, address the audience, reveal much about what they are thinking)

Dialogue is crucial. The actor will make much of the business etc up themselves but they need guidance and that comes from the words.  Abide by the rules of dialogue:

A lot of the time, we do not speak in correct sentences - we often use short sharp phrases

We assume the listener knows a lot about us

Dialogue can impart information but we try to make that information interesting, lacing it with humour, personal interpretation etc

We can tell a lot about a person in a short snap of conversation - a few words of dialogue can say a lot about a character.

Dialogue needs to be crisp (and humour needs to hit the gag and move on, good comedy relies on timing and pace)

Dialogue needs to be in character

Dialogue must take the story on

Dialogue must not be packed with extraneous information. If you need to slot in information, find a way of doing it subtly.

John Dean

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Powerful writing

The best stories are those 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, their life unchanged by your efforts?
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 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.
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. For others, different stories will move them and in different ways.
Now, I am not saying that to succeed all a story needs is power - we should never lose sight of craft - but if it has the ability to move someone somewhere then it’s achieved something special.
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.
John Dean

Writing novellas

I have increasingly been working on crime novellas. As a result, I have been researching the world of short novels and it seems to me that their time could be upon us because of the e-book revolution.
Folks are happy to read 30,000 words of story on their hand-helds - particularly on holiday when a book that can be finished in a day or two is welcome.
So what exactly is a novella? Well, it’s an extended short story in many ways, constructed in episodes but written in a tight and clipped way to guarantee pace. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Nebula Awards for science fiction defined the novella as having a word count of between 17,500 and 40,000. Other definitions start as low as 10,000 words.
Why are novellas so effective as a genre? Well, usually I write novels that run to 60,000-70,000 words but with novellas I cut back big-time.
I look at my early novels and it’s a lesson I have needed to learn. Hopefully, my writing has become crisper as a result of that growing sense of discipline.

John Dean

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Open mic for writers

The Open Mic night for authors season continues on Thursday February 25. 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

How to write 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

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Bringing the reader into your stories

The key to good writing is making the experience feel real for the reader, a major part of my teaching of authors.
You need to evoke a reaction in your reader and this is done through triggers, using your reader’s associations to evoke a reaction. How do you do that?
Well, why not start by playing on:
Their memories
Their connections to places and people
Their prejudices and preconceptions?
Their response to weather conditions - snow, rain, heat etc
Their deeply felt fears and phobias?

John Dean

Layering in fiction

Layering is crucial for writers, especially those penning novels.
Layering is directly related to the way we work and very often happens when you go back over something you have written
For me, it comes as I write and the plot evolves. Suddenly something becomes important that was not important before or maybe was not there before so I add in layers.
Like me, you may want to go back to a scene you wrote and inject it with an emotion or add in extra information about a character. Was it too bland as it was, was the reader likely to be bored? Or confused?
All this layering is crucial and, for me, it can change stories for the better.
John Dean