When I grow up I want to write stories

Words come easily to some people. Even at a young age it’s easy to spot those children who will never struggle to be heard or understood. I wasn’t one of these children.

The simplicity and directness of language fascinated me. However, I made things hard on myself. I favoured ‘big words’ because they seemed to convey so much in such a short space of time. 

For me ‘big words’ really were ‘simple’ words. It took me many years to see where I was going wrong.

Despite the seeming directness that a broad vocabulary offered, what I was really doing was alienating my peers.

Words are more complicated than I realised at the age of eight or nine. All the same, knowing what a change in word use can do makes it easier to tailor my speech and writing now.

At five years old I loved to write stories (you know the kind: you draw a colour it in (stay inside the lines!), then write a sentence underneath to make sense of it all). Teachers would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up and the answer always shifted between ‘archaeologist’ and ‘story writer’.

Eventually my love for dinosaurs was surpassed by my desire to be understood and to entertain. By my teens I had firmly decided on ‘writer’ as the end game.

It would be easy to say that I’ve always wanted to be a writer but it’s not quite true. My real motivation was to reach a point where people’s eyes wouldn’t glaze over as I spoke to them. 

I would let myself hope to be interesting or entertaining but most of the time I’d settle for people remaining focused after 30 seconds. 

As I entered university I also started to approach the idea of conveying ‘big ideas’. However, when I became a parent I realised that sometimes you can show big ideas with some very small actions. 

The Jack Reusen books are wrapped around family and magic but the ‘big ideas’ are hidden behind that.

How important is comfort/safety? Can a full life be had without stepping away from the familiar?  Who should have power? Does power imply a duty to do right by those who do not have it? Should ‘dangerous’ knowledge be locked away/hidden from others?

My desire to become a writer can be confusing to some. However, far more people seem able to sympathise with a desire to be understood.

Did you struggle to be understood as a child? Did you find your way writing as a way to get past that? Perhaps you found a different form of expression. If so, what was it? Do you find that voice helpful/therapeutic?

As always, thanks so much for stopping by this page. All the best, John

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Free Author talks for schools

free book talks author scotland perthshire john bray jack reusenI recently passed my driving test. The surest motivation in the weeks leading up to it was school book talks. I’ve ran school talks before but I’ve always been lucky enough to be able to get to the talk on foot, by bus, or on more than one occasion I managed to wangle a lift from a teacher (thanks Mr Scoogle!).

Now I’m fully mobile. I can get to the most remote little primary school in the middle of nowhere if I’m asked to. It’s a wildly freeing feeling and I can’t wait to see what it brings.

I’m aiming to have a new batch of ‘Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame‘ (book 1) printed up over the next few weeks and then I’ll be all set for book talks wherever the call is issued (within reason). For this reason my schedule will mean that the first talks will take place some time in October.

I’m based in Perthshire (Scotland) and I don’t charge for book talks but I do fund them by selling copies of the Jack Reusen books at the talks themselves. I can set up a pre-order option for teachers so that pickup and signing etc. is as smooth as possible.

However, I’m also happy to turn up on the day with a batch of books. That said, pre-order ensures that I have enough books on hand at the talk (I can also pre-sign books to help reduce wait time after the talk is finished).

Talks can be themed around the methodology of writing, book production, story-telling, research, or I can simply talk about the books (this allows me to cater to classes from primary 3 and upwards). I’m also happy to discuss a more regular visit schedule for things like writing or book making workshops (though I may have to charge a small fee for these to cover travel, and resources, etc.)

If you would like me to visit your class (or other children’s group, club, or organisation) to talk about writing and stories please get in touch using the form below. I look forward to hearing from you. All the best, John

The Wall

Teeth gritted in defiance, we all face moments that test our mettle. The past few nights I’ve been hitting ‘the wall’ again. It’s something that doesn’t improve with experience. (Apologies in advance, this post gets a bit weird).

I’m growing familiar with this gut-wrenching drain on all joy, all drive, and all ambition. The ‘secret’ is to drum up a ridiculous volume of drive and pep throughout the day in preparation. All the same I get an hour or so in and the wall appears.

A gaping maw opens in its centre and chomps at me. I rush to feed it my hard-won positivity and get on with the task at hand. Sadly the wall isn’t simply a barrier, it’s a predator. It bites my fingers and laughs. It eats and eats my experiences until I’m drawn out. I rest and welcome the meandering adventures of my dreams.

The next day comes with lumps and snippets of joy, comfort, surprise, and fulfilment. Every scrap of experience comes with me to sit in front of the keyboard. To toil at it and shape words to my will. Always waiting in the shadows is the barrier. I hit it and stick to it as he takes my experiences and eats them up once more.

Hours roll by and my barrier and I laugh at the absurdity of what I’m doing. We revel in his hunger and wonder what madness brings me to his door each night.

Many nights ago I hit the wall and it pulled me in. It is alarming in its ferocity, but I know that beyond it lies a finished copy of my third book. Completed pages pile up with each night. The book is taking shape, and for all its efforts, the wall will not win.

Sorry for the theatrics tonight. Felt the need to give the writing muscles a stretch. Hope this finds you well and, as always, thanks for reading. All the best, John 🙂

Why are Jack Reusen books so short?

harry potter page 1A long long time ago (actually it was only three years back) I tried to read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to my eldest son. It was a few weeks after his seventh birthday and he was on holiday from school. I thought that at last he was ready to sit down and enjoy one of the best children’s fantasy series ever written. He wasn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, he enjoyed it but his attention started lagging in the middle of each chapter. I tried to keep my reading as animated as possible but we still ended up stopping in the middle of some chapters. We would take a break, sometimes for a few hours, sometimes until the next day. For the most part it seemed to work. However, with each break he seemed to forget more details about the book.

At their heart Harry Potter books are mystery books in a fantasy setting. There are clues to remember and puzzles to solve throughout. Forgetting details in these sorts of books takes a lot of the oomph out of them.

I would be asked things like ‘Who’s Ron?’ ‘Why can’t Harry just do magic straight away?’ or possibly the most telling ‘Why does he live with his Aunt and Uncle?’ (asked when Harry has his first Hogwarts Christmas). It was clear he was forgetting more than he was remembering and at around chapter six or seven I could see that almost everything was going over his head.

We put Harry Potter away, to come back to when he was a bit older. All the same, the experience of trying to retain his interest lodged in my mind.

This sensation came back to me when November of 2014 rolled in. The nights grew long, and I discovered a new way to write. NaNoWriMo (national novel writing month) fell into my lap. They said something like ‘you have a book inside you waiting to get out’ and I realised that there really was.

Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame became something that I needed to write; something fantastical, exciting, relatable, and importantly, a book that could (hopefully) maintain the interest of an energetic seven-year-old like my son.

There are lots of books for seven-year-olds. Incredible, exciting, sometimes hillarious books, but I felt like I could write something a bit different. I wanted an element of the seriousness of ‘older’ fantasy books, and a slight taste of the danger and thrills that come with that.

From my own experience I realised that I could hold my son’s attention for about ten minutes, so (estimating a reading speed of about 250 words per minute) I worked out that my chapters needed to be no more than 2,500 words long.

I also wanted to make sure the story could be read all the way through in a relatively small space of time so I limited my chapter count to be sure that the whole book could be read in around a fortnight (at a rate of one or two chapters per night).

When I released the first book in the Jack Reusen series I began to hear that other families were having exactly the experience I’d hoped they would. (I was also pleasantly surprised to find out that some parents were sneakily reading ahead to see what happened next). These responses were brilliant, then, around a month after release, I heard something that changed the way I looked at the books.

At the time I worked in a local toy shop. One of our regular customers came in specifically to thank me for writing the book. I hadn’t been thanked for the book before.

It turned out that she had been trying to get her nine year old son to read chapter books for years. Nothing caught his interest. Then she gave him ‘…the Fey Flame‘ and apparently he read the whole thing in just a few nights. I was taken aback and told her how happy I was that he had enjoyed the book so much.

That boy wasn’t the last to say something similar about the Jack Reusen books. The shorter length seems to have made it easier for a lot of children to enjoy. Now that I know I’m helping kids get into reading I can’t bring myself to change the formula.

The original idea was to give families something that they could enjoy together, but a fantastic side-effect seems to be getting more reluctant readers caught up in a book. I love reading and the idea that someone might miss out on the enjoyment of it is disheartening. If writing short chapters and short books helps get a few more kids enjoying reading then I’ll write as many of these books as I can.

Thanks for reading and please feel free to share your own favourite short/quick reads in the comments below. All the best, John

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 blog post. 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