Go hug your mum (most kids’ books would have killed her by now)

There’s an almost unspoken rule in kids fiction; before the story begins kill the parents. Harry Potter loses his parents, Sophie in the BFG is an orphan, etc. etc. Then there’s a whole other category of what you might call half-orphans; children who have lost their mothers (i.e. Danny [champion of the world], Hiccup [How to train your dragon], Belle [Beauty and the Beast].)

There must be some literary reason behind all this maternal slaughter but the one that seemed to flair up most for me (after I decided to keep my characters’ mums alive) came as a bit of a surprise.

Initially I assumed that all the parents were being killed off because parents would make the story too boring for kids. However, the more I write mum characters the more I see how brilliant, exciting, and shocking they can be. Turns out mums aren’t so boring after all. So why do so many children’s books commit matricide?

I can boil my feelings on it down to a moment I had when writing ‘Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame’. There’s a battle, a character full of malevolence and power is poised to begin a magical takeover of the non-magical world, and all the key good guys are lining up to stop him.

Key among these is a mum with more than enough power to take him on. Originally I had her set up to do just that and then something shoved that option aside; fear. Not her fear (she was brave, bold, and everything I needed her to be), instead I found myself burgeoned with ridiculous amounts of worry on the part of her child. This is when I realised the real reason that parents stay out of the action in children’s fiction; it’s all just too much for the children to take.

As a writer you’re faced with a choice between endless descriptions of a child’s concern for their parent, or you can avoid this and make the child seem uncaring or even callous in their disregard for their mum’s safety.

The simple truth is that you can’t write a believable child without addressing their relationship with their parents. When you take their parents out of the picture, your character can get on with the adventuring.

When you take the mum out, in a strange way, you remove the character’s worries about the possibility of losing a source of deep reassurance, support, and love. Mums can’t always be part of the action because the risk is simply too great for the child protagonists.

It looks like mums are sometimes too big, too emotionally all-encompassing to be included in children’s stories. In other words mums are a bit too awesome for kids books.

Can you think of any kids books that manage to keep the mums involved? Do you have any favourite literary mums? Feel free to share in the comments and over on Facebook or Twitter.

As always thanks for reading, and happy mothers day to all the mums out there.

All the best, John

Why a willful girl makes writing way more interesting

Strong female, character, agency, writing Thanks to a retweet by Ashleigh Bonner I recently came accross a blog post that significantly changed the way I’ve been looking at one of my central characters. The idea behind the post was to demonstrate what separates a good female character from one that is simply good at kicking butt. According to Chuck Wendig, the defining characteristic of a truly strong female character is agency; more specifically she asks writers to consider whether their story would have gone any differently if one were to remove or replace the ‘strong female character’.

If the story is not influenced directly by your character, if events don’t unfold as a direct result of her own decisions, then you’ve created a character without agency. No matter how physically strong she is, no matter what struggles she gets through, if all of her adventures simply happen to her then she isn’t demonstrating true strength.

To be honest a sense of agency seems so pivotal to the construction of any main character that I’d go so far as to say that the lack of it in any character (especially the protagonist or any secondary characters) is a key indicator that what you’re writing isn’t very good.

The main characters in my books are children, they can’t help but live in a world with a moderately reduced sense of agency (adults have a whole additional set of rules that they expect a child to follow). However, I try to ensure that even where the rules are followed, we nonetheless see a degree of choice from the characters.

Jack and Thea both typically do what their parents tell them to. However, I’ve been sure to include moments where circumstances change in such a way as to leave them the freedom to choose. When these moments arise I have to admit I could feel the personalities of both characters at their strongest.

Thanks to Chuck Wendig‘s post I’ve now got a clearer understanding of how important those moments of agency are when writing believable characters (even children). Children will experience a myriad of controlling forces during their young lives. In an ideal world most of these controls will be there to keep them safe. However, what shapes them as individuals are those very moments when they recognise grey areas in these rules and take the initiative to make their own choice.

Perhaps this is what makes young adult and teen fiction so popular; the very trait that we treat as the key indicator of adult agency is being explored in a raw and striking manner at precisely that life stage. We meet these fictional young men and women when they are claiming their own individual personhood. When thought of in this way, no matter how many butts your female character kicks, if you aren’t letting her make her own choices (good or bad) then you aren’t creating a person, at best you’re writing an exciting bit of furniture.

Thanks again to Chuck for opening my eyes, I’ve got an interesting new perspective on my writing now.

What’s your favourite female character, and why? Do you, like me, find yourself drawn to stories that focus on the development of a adolescent into and adult? Are there any books of this type in particular that resonate with you?

As always thanks for reading, all the best, John

(Also you’ll make my day if you pop over to have a look at the first book in the Jack Reusen series 😉 )

NOTE: The original post has been edited. I accidentally misattributed the author of the author. Many thanks to Ashleigh Bonner for helping me sort out my blunder. Ashleigh also writes her own awesome blog which you can find here.

 

This month I will be mostly reading…’Supergods’ by Grant Morrison

As is probably the case for most parents, I don’t get as much time to read to myself as I once did. My reading list typically comes from the children’s section of the library but, despite the fact that there are some phenomenal kids’ books out there, it is nice to occasionally read something for ‘grown-ups’.

My ‘grown-up’ read this month is ‘Supergods‘; an effervescent, detailed history of our comic book heroes: those costume wearing vigilantes and demigods who have become an integral part of modern culture. I’m not done reading yet but the thing that stands out most so far is how unusual superhero writing actually is.

In many cases a modern comic book writer or artist is being handed the reins to a character who is older than they are. It’s fiction writing but not as we know it, and to be honest I think I’d find the whole thing pretty intimidating.

If you’re really lucky you’ll create something on par with what has come before, if you have actual talent behind you as well then you may manage to create something that stands out as a new and definitive chapter in that character’s story. However, the flip side is the prospect of fending off negative reactions from fans, and when it comes to comic book fans I’m not sure I’d have the mettle to put myself up to that task.

Two or three of the characters that feature regularly in the Jack Reusen books at least seemed to have come from somewhere outside my own mind. However, it must be a whole other level of adjustment to draw together a tale involving a character that you know was never yours to start with.

What I’ve found from Morrison’s book though is that great comic book writers somehow manage to push past these difficulties. They take charge of a character and sometimes even see themselves as raising the flag for a new and more culturally relevant incarnation of the character.

I’m not typically a non-fiction reader but I’m pleased I picked this up. It’s proving to be an interesting insight into a type of writer that, I’m sorry to say, I never gave much thought to before. Their job clearly comes with its own set of challenges and rules. Their word count is alarmingly tight, yet at times they are expected to convey huge ethical, metaphysical, or even deeply human concepts.

I love comic books (I have a couple of suitcases full of them to testify to that) and now thanks to Morrison’s book I have a deepening appreciation for the talent and work that goes into creating them.

Is there a particular superhero storyline that has struck a chord for you? Do you have a favourite character, is there a version that you consider better than other incarnations?

As always, thanks for reading, all the best, John

3 easy ways to beat writers block

I’ve been writing ‘properly’ for a few years. One of the best things about getting more experienced is the fact that writer’s block is definitely less of a problem for me now.

I won’t pretend that I never experience it now but it’s definitely…different than what it used to be. When I look at what’s changed in the way I work there are three main things that stand out:

Routine: By this I don’t mean time-tabling writing sessions or anything like that. Life is messy and hectic and (to begin with at least) you’ll probably see writing as more of a hobby. This often means it takes second fiddle to other priorities.

However, there is an element of routine that you can develop for those times you do steal an hour or two for writing.

Here’s mine: cup of tea, bar of chocolate, playlist of music that matches tone of writing (e.g. I recently wrote a science fiction book for adults and listened exclusively to Sci-Fi soundtracks).

The more I write with my tea, chocolate, music accompaniment, the more I associate my routine with writing. It’s now my go-to means of getting into writing mode.

Simple rewards: This one could tie to your writing routine (e.g. like me, you could choose to only eat your favourite chocolate bar while you’re writing). However, your reward can be any small thing that means something to you. 

The important thing is that the reward becomes intricately associated with writing for you. It needs to be easily replicated, exclusive to those times you set aside for writing, and you need the will power to not partake at any other time.

There’s also a chance it could fit in with the third tip.

Read/watch something unfamiliar: If you always watch/read the same genre (and especially if that happens to be the same genre you write in) then it can be really refreshing to step away from that after a writing sessions  (or during breaks).
I’m a huge fantasy/sci-fi fan and these are my chosen genres to write in. However, I’ve experienced really satisfying changes to my writing through watching/reading horror, drama, thriller, comedy, and mystery.

Playing around with different genres is a great way of keeping your writing fresh and interesting for you as a writer. If you’re bored with what you’re writing then your readers don’t stand a chance.

That’s about it. I’m sure you’ll still have days where you ask the creative part of your brain for something golden and it just sits there handing you lumps of dirt. All the same, I get far less of those days now and these three things have definitely helped with that.
I hope you found these tips useful. Let us know in the comments if you have some hints of your own for dealing with the dreaded block.

As always, thanks for reading, all the best, John

The Yuletide Theives (a pressie for Crieff Primary)

Jack Reusen John Bray Crieff Primary summer king jenny copland grace russell

Last year I launched a book that is a little different to the other stories set in Jack’s world. It’s about making friends in new places and learning to enjoy new things, but most of all it’s about saving people’s Christmas presents (and even Christmas dinners) from being stolen by a ten eyed monster.
The whole story is the result of a character designing competition I held in Crieff in the summer of 2015. Three winning designs were selected and the story was created to give those characters a home.

Since all three of the winners were pupils at Crieff Primary School I decided to set aside all profits from sales of this book to the school.

If you’d like a wee Christmas story to read in the run up to the big day (and fancy supporting a great wee school) you can get your copy by clicking this link. I hope you enjoy it, please let me know what you think.

All the best, John

Is there a word for things that stop being cliche?

wonderful-life‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is apparently always on at Christmas but to be honest I’ve only seen the film about two or three times in my whole life. There’s an idea going around that things like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and other classics are on too much. It’s not unusual for people to call what I’d call ‘traditions’ cliche.

Recently they showed ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ in a one night only event at our local theatre, mini cinema, and all round entertainment venue; the Strathearn Artspace. I didn’t make it along to their showing (sick kids etc.) but it put me in the notion for it so I hunted down a streaming copy (found it on Netflix) and watched it a few days later.

It was better than I remembered, and far from cliche. It got me wondering whether, especially at Christmas, there’s maybe a shelf life to things being ‘cliche’.

Is there a set time period between something being repetitive and it becoming traditional? I haven’t seen ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ very many times but there are couple of films that I always associate with Christmas.

‘Elf’ only came out in 2003 but thirteen years seems to have made it pretty traditional for me. ‘Love Actually’ rolled out in 2003 too and I still enjoy it plenty at Christmas.

Maybe I’m a bit of a sentimentalist, maybe I pop on some blinkers at this time of year, but I like a bit of cheese. In fact I’m even pretty partial to some singing Santa decorations scattered around the house.

Are you a sucker for any Christmas ‘cliches’? What film/movie makes you instantly think of Christmas?

Feel free to share in the comments either here, over on facebook, or you can even tweet about it (if you’re into that sort of thing 😉 ). As always, thanks for reading, and merry Christmas folks 🙂

 

A second chance at a first impression (showing off the town) 

taylor park macrosty park bandstand crieff jack reusen john brayA few months ago I decided to rework ‘Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame’ with the intention of submitting it to a publisher. It’s safe to say the idea of a publisher looking at it is a little disconcerting.

I hadn’t done a full read through of ‘the Fey Flame’ for a long time. I’ve written four more books containing these characters since then and I was surprised to see how many ‘out of character’ things they do/say in the first book (at least from my perspective).

In the course of the other books the characters obviously grew and changed (how dull would a book be if the main characters learned nothing from their experiences?). However, reading the Fey Flame again has made me realise that I don’t know much about who they were before I first met them (if that makes sense). It’s been interesting getting to know this earlier version of these now very familiar characters.

I’m also discovering how hard it is to rework the Fey Flame without at least hinting about what will happen to them. I’m in a constant battle against spoilers.

Once this rewrite is complete I’ll have a shorter, snappier version of the book. (Don’t worry I’m not cutting that much, I just wanted to keep chapter length consistent etc.). I’ve also added a few wee touches here and there in places where I thought it would be nice to know more about some of the characters (Granny Reusen gets a wee mini story about her childhood).

One big change (but one that didn’t take much work to alter) is the fact that I’ve decided to be a lot clearer about the fact that everything takes place in and around Crieff. From the b….. with the W……… at the bandstand, to Jack’s first experience of Fey on Lady Mary’s walk.

All the books are inspired by the (admittedly slightly less extravagant) adventures I’ve had with my family in the town and countryside where we live. It felt only fitting that the books reflect that a little more strongly. If Harry Potter can visit Kings Cross station then it’s only fair that my characters can pop down to walk the Illohound in MacRosty Park.

It’s hugely intimidating realising that the Fey Flame will soon be in the hands of a publisher to await judgement. I’ll be sure to post once it’s been sent through and you can join me in my worries over the following months before I hear back. Wish me luck.

As always thanks for reading, all the best, John