Friday, 30 October 2015

Getting inside the reader's head

I am always struck by the way many writers are drawn to the very toughest of times in people’s lives.
Why do they do that? Well, let this story suffice. Years ago, I co-judged a short story competition for teenagers, most of whom wrote about domestic abuse. It was harrowing stuff and the judges were disturbed at what we were reading. What kind of life do these kids led, we asked ourselves in trepidation?
However, when we met the winners, you could not hope for happier, cheerier, well-adjusted young people. And the abuse? Well, as one said, ‘that’s where the drama lies.’
As a crime writer I guess I should have worked that out. Sometimes, you read a story and think something is missing.
For me, if you are going to tackle a tough subject - serious illness, betrayal, separation, abuse - 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. Where they do not hold back on the raw emotion.
Ignore that and your story stays on the page, get it right and it makes its way into the reader’s mind.


John Dean

Viewing things differently

I have always thought - and I know I will be shot down for this in some quarters - that writers view the world differently than many people.
Talking to writers bears that out, though, the way a word, a phrase, an image, an idea can create a train of thought that evolves into a story.
I was talking to a writer the other day and he told how a line in a conversation triggered something deep within and produced a story.
Never is that process more pronounced, in my view, than when writers take something ordinary, routine, part of our daily lives, and present it in a way that is different.
That’s the beauty of writing.

John Dean

Pitfalls to avoid in pitching your manuscript

Following my recent blog on pitching to publishers and agents. I have been talking to one or two writers about the challenges of getting published.
As they say, it can be a dispiriting business so perhaps this will help. There’s a terrific survey that came out some time 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.

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!

John Dean

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Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Impressing publishers and agents

So you have completed your opus – how on earth do you impress an agent or publisher?
Well, appearance is important when submitting manuscripts- a tatty, dog-eared effort does not get the reader well intentioned to your work.

Here are some tips

The manuscript should be neatly and clearly typed. Make sure your printer is producing clean copy, without smudges

Print double spaced on one side of the paper only. Double spacing and adequate margins leave room for copy editing and note-making by the publisher

The title page should contain the following information: title of the work, your name and your address

Start each new chapter on a new page, give the chapter number and title (if any), and space before beginning the text.

Number each page consecutively throughout the manuscript. Do not begin each new chapter at page 1

Do not staple pages together - the publisher needs to be able to read it. Better go for rubber bands

You may make minor corrections to a manuscript by printing neatly and legibly in ink but any page with more than two or three corrections should be re-typed/printed

When you submit a manuscript, provide some general information such as whether you've been published before and something about your background

Enclose a self addressed, stamped envelope, but be aware that publishers are under no obligation to return manuscripts

Submit an outline of the story. An outline of two pages should give the publisher a clear idea of what the book is about.

Good luck!


John Dean

Me, me, I'm important, too - creating minor characters

Building on my theme of characters, remember that minor characters are important. Some may be so negligible that they won’t even get names but they are important, even if all they do is serve the pints or open the door.
Why? Because every single one of these people is designed to fulfil a brief role in the story, they all have a job to do.
For example they can reveal something about your main character -- someone who snaps at a chamber maid tells us a lot about themselves – or maybe their individuality will set a mood, add humour, make things happen; a scowling barman can do a lot for a scene. I use them all the time in my crime fiction.
Warning; if a character who isn’t supposed to matter starts distracting from the main thread of the story, either cut them out or figure out why you, as a writer, are so interested in them.
There’s nothing wrong with a background character attracting attention—as long as you realise that they are not part of the background anymore. The readers will notice them, too, and expect them to play a bigger part in the story.

John Dean

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

'Lost' Dylan Thomas poem to b performed

As a huge fan of Dylan Thomas, I was delighted to hear that a work by the Welsh poet will be heard for the first time in more than 70 years at an event this week.
Actor Celyn Jones, who played Thomas in the film Set Fire To Our Stars, will read the poem after a university professor found it by chance, according to the BB.
A Dream of Winter was forgotten after it was published by a magazine in 1942, before Thomas found fame.
Dylan, who died in 1953, became one of Britain's most-loved writers with works such as Under Milk Wood, my particular favourite, and the reading of the poem will take place in London on Friday at an exclusive event with an invited audience.
The poem was discovered when Swansea University Professor John Goodby was contacted by a teacher at his old school. Allan Wilcox had found the poem on a ripped magazine page amongst the pages of a book on Dylan belonging to the professor's recently deceased English teacher.

John Dean

Show not tell

There is a growing debate within writing circles about what has become known as ‘show and tell’.
No, this is not about small children excitedly showing manky things found on the beach to their classmates, rather an important writing technique.
The argument goes like this: for you to truly engage your reader, you must make them feel that they are there when the action is happening.
It matters because if you fail to draw your reader into the story, your tale will lack something, an immediacy, a sense of drama, a sense of narrative.
How do you do it? Think of it like this: reach out a hand to your reader and say ‘come into my world, walk alongside me.’ Show them what is happening as it happens, rather than telling them afterwards, Do that and they are hooked.

John Dean

Creating a sense of place in fiction

It is crucial 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?
Whatever you do, do not make it too long, you do not have a lot of words to play with in a short story.
If you seek to describe the setting, and the reader does need something to focus on, seek to use the following components:
1 Physical characteristics - what does it look like, any quirks which bring it to life?
2 Use your reader’s senses - what does the place smell, taste, sounds like?
3 What does it feel like to be there?

John Dean

Friday, 23 October 2015

Halloween with a literary twist

If you're looking for somewhere genuinely spooky and with a literary twist this Halloween, North Norfolk may be just the place.

At only 384 square miles, North Norfolk is one of the most haunted places in the UK, with scores of recorded ghostly sightings and haunted buildings.

Perhaps the most renowned of all North Norfolk's ghosts is the Devil Dog, known locally as the Black Shuck, and the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound Of The Baskervilles.

In 1901, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took a golfing holiday in West Runton and Cromer where he learnt of the tale of the Black Shuck.

The following year he published The Hound of The Baskervilles, which was the vehicle and notable return for Sherlock Holmes. Although Conan Doyle set his masterpiece in Devon, Cromer Hall is believed to be the inspiration for Baskerville Hall.

More information on Halloween events can be found at


Writing at pace

I am doing a lot of teaching on pace in fiction, which is so important. I have worked with several writers who create pace, who keep the story moving, then ruin it by putting in unnecessary detail, descriptions, back story etc.
The result is passages when the story starts to gather pace then we slow down again, which interrupts the narrative flow so that when we return to the story it’s like going from a standing start.  Such descriptions have their place but not when you are trying to keep things moving.
All books, but in particular thrillers and crime novels, rely on pace and the stop-start nature of some writing prevents the writer achieving it.
And yet with a few judicious cuts here and there, it is easily achieved.

John Dean

Thursday, 22 October 2015

In search of spookiness

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

Winding up the tension

I am teaching about creating tension on my latest courses. Building apprehension in the minds of your readers is one of the most effective keys to involve them in your story. If you don’t drive the story forward by making readers worry about your main character, they won’t have a reason to keep reading.

How do you do it then? Well, readers experience apprehension when a character they care about is in danger. This doesn’t have to be a major situation in which the character fights off dragons. It could be a big family decision, a crisis at work, an emotional quandary.

We need to escalate the tension in our stories and we do that by promising the reader that something is going to happen then building up the story until it does. But make sure it does; a promise without fulfillment is a big let-down for the reader.

Make every word count, put in only details that are necessary, leave out anything that slows the narrative. Make sure you describe the setting of your storys climax before you reach that section of the story. Let the reader know where they are early on then cut back on description later because it will slow the pace.

As you build toward the climax, isolate your main character. Make the reader fear for him/her and experiment with shorter sentences and avoid flowery language to keep the pace moving.
John Dean

Mentoring writers

A reminder that, in addition to the various free things we do, one of the paid-for services we offer is one supporting writers.
Why should you hire a professional writing mentor, though? Isn’t it enough to attend a class/workshop or a writing group? Or ask a friend or relative to comment?
Well, it depends what you want and need and bespoke mentoring from Inscribe Media can help some writers, providing the experience and expertise to -
• understand your work
• nurture you and your writing
• let you retain control of your ideas and your writing
* provide expert, specific advice about what is working and what isn’t.
We focus on major issues, such as how your story hangs together, what your characters are doing or could be doing, what is hurting your story’s momentum, what story elements are not pulling their weight.
We identify the differences between good and great and point out your writing strengths, so you become confident about what not to change.
We also give suggestions and help you establish good processes and writing goals and suggest markets for your work.
If long-term mentoring does not appeal, we run short writing courses as well.
You can find out more at
You can also access our free downloadable writing guide at,uk and find loads of free tips on our blog here.
John Dean

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Championing children's humourous fiction

At a time when comedy fiction is at a premium, I am delighted that Scholastic has announced the launch of a new book prize to celebrate the best funny books in children's literature. Poet and author Michael Rosen will chair the judging panel with other participants to be announced.

The Laugh Out Loud Book Prize, which Scholastic said will be known as the "Lollies", will be awarded in three categories: Best Laugh Out Loud Picture Book, Best Laugh Out Loud book for 6–8s and Best Laugh Out Loud book for 9–13s. Publishers will be invited to submit books for consideration from late October. The panel will select four books to make up the shortlist in each category, but the winners will be decided entirely by children, with voting taking place via a website:

The publisher decided to champion the new award after its recent Kids & Family Reading Report ( showed that funny books are really engaging for children, with 63% saying that what they want most in books is "books that make me laugh".

The shortlist will be announced in March 2016 and the final awards will take place in September 2016.

Michael Rosen said: "Everyone who is interested in children's reading knows that for many, many children, the thing that gets them going is a book that makes them fall about laughing. Weirdly, they're not always that easy to find. This prize will be like a great big signpost saying, 'This way laughs' and that could be the moment that a child who doesn't read, turns into one who does. I think that's really exciting."

The submissions process will be open between 23rd October and 6th November 2015 and publishers can download an entry form at when submissions open.

John Dean

Chance to vote for your favourite bookshop

The London Book Fair (LBF), in association with The UK Publishers Association has launched the search for 'The International Bookstore of the Year', as part of the new-look LBF International Excellence Awards.

The LBF International Excellence Awards 2016 are back for a third year to celebrate publishing success across the world and across sectors, with categories including Academic, Education and Trade publishing.

Companies or individuals can enter for the awards via the LBF website by 15 January 2016. Publishers are also encouraged to nominate companies or individuals who they feel deserve to be recognised for outstanding achievement in publishing this year.

Jacks Thomas, Director of The London Book Fair said: “It's always good to celebrate achievement and the global publishing industry has more than its fair share of innovation, success and triumph. These awards are a great platform to promote the best practice we see around the world.'

Awards include:
- The London Book Fair Lifetime Achievement Award (*)

- Bookstore of the Year Award

- Publishers Association Copyright Protection Award

- Academic and Professional Publisher Award

- Education Initiatives Award

- Educational Learning Resources Award

- Adult Trade Publisher Award

- Trade Children's and Young Adult Publisher Award

- Literary Translation Initiative Award

- IP Licensing Across Media Award

- Innovation Award

- Literary Agent Award

- Market Focus Achievement Award (*)

Entry by 15 January 2016. Full details on the entry criteria for each award category are below and on the LBF website -

Monday, 19 October 2015

Writing humour


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.

As one critique of the great William Shakespeare said: “Humour is a tool that allows us to see the subtle details of their minds; a glimpse at the inner workings of each character’s personality. It is through the humour that Shakespeare employs that we are able to see “roundness” in characters that could be otherwise doomed to exist as “flat” characters. Shakespeare uses humour to give his players new life, to help them expand beyond the bounds of mere characters and turn into real people.”

And look how well he did!

John Dean

Getting the minor characters right

Following on from my previous blogs on creating characters, a word about minor characters and the care you need to take when creating them.
But why, you may ask, spend unnecessary time on insignificant characters? Some may be so negligible that they won’t even get names: the servant who brought the drinks; the hotel maid who cleaned the room, the policeman who jumped out of the way of the speeding car and so on.
They deserve care because, although the reader isn’t supposed to care much about them, they still have a job to do. Their individuality may set a mood, add humour, make the story more interesting or complete. They may also reveal something about your main characters.
So it is worth spending a little time getting them right.

John Dean

Friday, 16 October 2015

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

Monday, 12 October 2015

Chance to support arts festival

We are big supporters of the Darlington Arts Festival.
Now, Darlington for Culture (DfC) is seeking to hear from arts groups, venues, performers and businesses who would like to showcase themselves in the fourth Festival due to run throughout May 2016.
The festival, again to be staged at a wide range of venues across the borough, is being co-ordinated by DfC, the group which speaks for arts and culture in the area.
Planning is well under way for the festival, which will include:
* A month-long literary festival, featuring readings and writing workshops
* Arts-based events involving a wide range of artists
* A Film Festival to be run by Darlington Film Club, which is based at the Forum in Borough Road
* A series of music events
DfC Chair John Dean said: “The festival has become a fixture in the Darlington calendar and last year saw eighty events at more than 25 venues. We are sure that the arts community will again respond to make the fourth one a similar success.”
Deadline for inclusion in the brochure is Jan 31, 2016. When submitting events, please provide:
Some info about yourselves/your venue

Name of event
Type of event (no more than 100 words)
Venue (if different from organiser)
Tickets and arrangements
Details can be sent to


When the writing gets tough....

I am fascinated by the way writers tackle difficult subjects. It is crucial that they do.
A story about two people getting on really well for 2,000 words can tend to be a touch on the boring side. Introduce something spiky into the narrative and your story comes alive.
Another reason writers tackle tough subjects is because their words can have an effect on those who read them, that they can, in some small way, challenge the way people view the world.
It is not the same for every writer - some stories are there purely to entertain, to make the reader laugh, to make the reader smile, without challenging them at all.
But for those who do tackle difficult subjects, there is one rule above all: keep it real. It makes sense to write about what you know. If you have not got that experience, research you subject before you start writing.

John Dean

Getting a reaction

Continuing my recurring 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

Writing science fiction

Occasionally, I work with science fiction writers - but what makes good science fiction? Here are some thoughts:
* The best science fiction writers create fantastic worlds but write about them as if they were completely normal. You need to do so as well
* Make sure the reader is able to suspend disbelief. The plot and events need to be believable
* Base your ideas on good science - that is what makes the best sci-work, it could happen.  If a story comes over as impossible, you are moving into fantasy rather than sci-fi
* You have to explain more
* Science fiction must evoke a sense of wonder in the reader. They must want to be in that remarkable world, to meet aliens, to travel in time and space
* Be visual - you can see what is happening, make sure we can as well
* Awe and wonder is all very well but what is also needed is a command of writing: a hatful of bug-headed aliens does not negate the need for skilful writing

What makes bad science fiction?
The great Science Fiction editor John W Campbell said that a science fiction writer should never put beings into a story that are so far superior to Man that we cannot understand their motives, we cannot overcome their will or we cannot meet them face to face in a fair fight. It’s a rule that stands true today
Don’t try to re-create popular sci-fi stories - we do not need another Star Wars. You can be more original than that!
Make your aliens alien - be original, it’s not enough to give them a pointy head. Think it through, make them realistic
No, it wasn’t a dream - keep loyal to the genre, no one waking up to discover they were in bed all the time!

John Dean

Friday, 9 October 2015

The unreliable narrator

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

Mentoring and online workshops 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 here at,uk and find free tips on the blog at the site.

The golden rules of writing

It’s worth pausing occasionally to consider the golden rules for writing. These are mine.
* 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

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Snow Birds is published

The latest thriller from Roger Barnes has been published as an ebook.

After a number of high profile drug related deaths from pure cocaine supplied through London clubs to their patrons from the Financial Sector, Political Elite and ‘A’ list Celebrities the authorities realise something out of the ordinary is happening and must take action.
A team set up to investigate and deal with the threat immediately realise it relates to a planned terrorist attack using biological weapons. The situation becomes increasingly more complex when it’s later found that similar attacks are also planned for New York and Berlin. 
The team, comprising Special Forces personnel, a retired Police Officer along with representatives of the British, American and German Security Services, establish the drugs’ route from Bolivia to the targeted cities. Subsequently they discovered where the biological weapons are being produced and put in place an operation to eliminate all those involved. With the deadline for distribution fast approaching it becomes a deadly race against time to stop the attack and the disastrous consequences.
The final resolution is hampered by the indecisive action of Politicians, who while they themselves are being targeted are more concerned about their own image then the welfare of the citizens that elected them. 
Roger Barnes is from Darlington in North East England and the ebook can be purchased from 

Roger’s previous works, also published through Inscribe Media, are White Gold and Lost Souls.