Category Archives: Inspiration

Using screens to reduce screen use? (Can we fight fire with fire whilst helping our local libraries?)

Hi, how are you coping? Are you self-isolating? Sorry for referencing the current crisis again but the thing I’m talking about today is pretty close to my heart.

I’ve always had a soft spot for my local library, it’s where my love of reading was fed with endless piles of books from the age of nine/ten onwards. This post is about screen use but it’s also about libraries.

Losing access to a vital source of entertainment

Sadly, as has been the case for many such institutions, Culture Perth and Kinross (the organisation behind museums and libraries where I live) has temporarily closed all the libraries (even the mobile one) in our area. Given the number of vulnerable individuals who must use these facilities each day this isn’t a surprise. I get it, but it doesn’t make it easier.

You’re probably now looking at the title and wondering what this has to do with screen use. Bear with me, I do have a point.

All bored with nowhere to go?

Let’s now combine the loss of libraries with the fact that a lot of us are now spending a lot more time indoors than usual. We could (and probably will) spend a lot of that time on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, or just watching the old trusty TV.

However, I’m starting to get a bit fed up of TV already (and I’m speaking as someone who has a solid thirty-odd year addiction to telly) and I imagine a few other folk are too. The big issue for me is the fact that I can’t really go above ‘PG’ in my viewing habits until the kids are in bed and by then (currently at least) I just want to go to bed too.

On top of this our kids are now there. All the time. If your kids are home from school like mine are, then you’re under surveillance all day. They see everything! We parents are under more scrutiny now than we ever were, and could easily be caught out in the hypocrisy of ‘no screens’ as fast as a kid can burst in on you sneaking a watch of a ‘This Morning’ clip or a quick catch up of ‘The Witcher’ while you’re ‘sweeping the stairs’.

So, is there a way to encourage your kids away from YouTube and Netflix and onto something more ‘educational’ without sounding like a hypocrite?

(Though I should plug my own Youtube videos here just to confuse things further).

Can you get access to some sort of non-hypocritical grown-up entertainment that might stop you climbing the walls to escape yet another episode of Scooby-Doo, Gumball, or whatever else Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, or Disney has to offer?

Is that even a thing?

Can you be entertained like a grown-up during the day without emotionally scarring your kids?

The answer is ‘YES!’ and it’s by accessing a technology that pre-dates TV and even radio by decades (though admittedly with a modern spin). Better still it’s FREE! Simply put, you can get a book (or audiobook) from the library!

But wait, didn’t I just say the library is closed?

Yep!

So how am I supposed to get a book out?

I’ll tell you!

(Sorry for the format here, the shops had run out of decaff and the caffeinated alternatives are proving a surprise. Feeling a bit ‘high energy’ at the moment 😉 Anyway, back to the post…)

Our library (and your library too, I expect) offer a digital catalogue of ebooks and audiobooks which will work on almost any device (Android, Apple, though NOT Kindle). You maybe knew this already, maybe you even use it. If this is true you’re probably already tuning out from this post.

(If this is you then thanks for reading this far and if you’re interested in some new ebook titles to read then check out my last post for a selection of books by nice people who also happen to be great writers, and me. Just scroll to the bottom of that post for the list. Here’s the link.)

If you haven’t used this facility before, I’ll talk you through the process to set it up on your device.

Free entertainment!? Educational? Stuff for grown-ups? Stuff for kids? How do I get it?

The following information assumes that, like me, you live in the Perth and Kinross area but it should apply for your own library service too (though the links won’t be relevant in your case (you’ll have to rely on Google):

1) First off, make sure that you are a member of your local library. If you’re not currently a member of your library, then you’ll need to follow this link to join as a library member of the CPK library service. (Please do this if you aren’t a member. It can’t hurt our now closed libraries to have a growing list of members during this time. It’s always good to support your local library and adding to their member numbers is an easy way to do this)

2) Next, you’ll need to join the RB Digital service using your library member information (you’ll need a library card number for this bit so make sure you have it on hand). Follow this link to join RB Digital.

3) Then, download the RB Digital app on the device you want to use (you can put this on more than one device and let your kids read ebooks and audiobooks too).

4) Sign in to the RB digital app using your new RB Digital account. You can select up to eight titles to have loaded on your phone/other devices at once.

5) That’s you, select titles and read/listen to the books of your choice. Enjoy your free (and low bandwidth) entertainment and feel good about the fact that using library services shows how much you value them.

Show Digital support for a cultural institution

We can’t support our libraries with footfall while they’re closed but by using services like this we can show that we still see them as vital resources for the community. (Hopefully, this will help the ‘powers that be’ to see how important our libraries are too)

Do yourself (and your library) a favour. Join online and access a few digital titles today. You’ll always have a book to enjoy just tucked up in your pocket and it gives you a grown-up break from youtube videos, cartoons, and your own back catalogue of Disney DVDs.

All that and you can also get your kids doing something educational while fiddling on their phones. Total win-win.

Let us know your favourite books to pass the time during house arrest (…I mean self-isolation)

Please feel free to share your secret escape titles in the comments below (you know, those books that help you tune out for a few minutes and disappear into another world).

I’m currently reading ‘Ways of the Doomed’ by Moira McPartlin (mine is an old-fashioned paperback though). It’s a gritty, dystopian sci-fi, set in the near future in Scotland (and a far cry from an animation by Disney 😉 ). What are you reading/ will you be reading?

As always thanks for reading (and hope you’re doing OK),

All the best, John

 

Can authors help you homeschool your child?

schools cancelled scotland perthshire how can authors helpSo life seems to be a bit different now. Increasing school closures due to coronavirus mean that kids up and down the country are going to be home from school for an unknown amount of time. While there are perks to being out of the day-to-day grind of the school run, the clear difficulties jump out from day one.

One of the obvious things is work. Parents are struggling to find ways to give our kids the education they receive at school whilst also desperately doing what little we can to work from home or get out to work at ever more problematic jobs. It can be a challenge to find educational activities that will allow your kids to be absorbed for any period of time.

I’m hoping that this is only for a few weeks but the realist in me says it’ll probably be longer. In many ways, this is probably going to become the ‘new normal’ for us parents (at least for the foreseeable future).

Losing some important parts of childhood education

stay interested in school workTeachers do a phenomenal job in retaining and growing energy in their pupils. Should we call it adding a spark? Sounds a bit new age, but I think it fits.

Anyway, we might have access to some amazing resources at home (like the free printable sheets provided by Twinkl) but adding that much-needed spark of energy to your child’s activities (normally provided by teachers) now falls squarely on our shoulders. As we’ll all be finding in the coming weeks, this isn’t easy. Kids naturally find enjoyment in what they are good at; what immediately interests them.

For some kids their favourite subjects may be literacy and reading, for others, it might be science and maths, for others, it might be sports and projects. Every child is different and their energy will be focussed towards what best suits their tastes and abilities.

However, all children should get a chance at a comprehensive education. After all, children won’t know how good certain subjects can be if they don’t at least try them.

This means that for some subjects children will need considerably more encouragement and energy. Teachers are incredible at this, I’m always amazed at the level of organisation and energy I’ve seen from teachers when I visit schools. To be honest, I’m not sure how we’ll all go about replicating this in a home environment.

As the weeks go by we’ll come to see that educating children is like juggling cats during a house fire and it will become patently obvious that teachers do not get paid nearly enough for what they do.

The extracurricular element

Occasionally schools find that an outside resource can add a quick boost in pupils’ interest in a particular subject (being one of these ‘visitors’, I like to hope we help the teachers at least a little).

In the case of literacy, this is where author visits can help. Authors (children’s authors at least) do a lot of their real ‘work’ with schools; either in the form of school talks or more prolonged workshops. We interact with pupils and do what we can to help bolster their knowledge and encourage participation in literacy.

In my own experience, most of my talks have resulted in pupils showing a lot more interest in writing activities. This boost in interest can sometimes be pretty amazing (and a bit humbling).

At a recent talk, one teacher even amassed a stack of short stories (one from each pupil) in a little under two hours after a talk. We read through stories during lunch and announced a couple of ‘winners’ in an on-the-spot writing contest after lunch. I’m always happy to work alongside teachers in helping develop an interest in literacy, so this was a fun surprise add on.

I know that this isn’t something unique to me (my ego can probably take that). To be honest, the vast majority of visits from authors have this effect on pupils. We’re a launching point for teachers, we give them an excuse to talk about literacy more and hopefully engage children who may not be the biggest fans of reading and writing.

What happens to the stories?

A science and engineering event can prompt renewed interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths). A visit from a professional coach can open pupils’ eyes to new sports and forms of movement. So what does an author event do?

In short, an author visit can help children see that their own stories are important and that their own experiences are interesting to others. They may be young but there’s no time like the present for them to start writing their own thoughts down.

Writing can be a great way to deal with difficult emotions or situations. In many ways, it’s a form of personal therapy, and it’s one that I think all children should have access to.

From now until some unknown time in the future these school-level resources won’t be available. Home-schooled children will find it harder to encounter a new coach, or a wild science event (though the Glasgow Science Centre has a brilliant live science demonstration broadcast every morning at 10am on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter).

Children also won’t get to meet a ‘real live author’ (as we’re often described in class). This can be tricky to replicate on a smaller scale but it’s not impossible. In fact, it’s the whole point of this post.

Introduce your kids to some authors!

We live in a very interconnected age and, as a result, children can reach out to the people who write the things they enjoy. Authors like myself may not be able to visit every home and talk about writing (probably not advisable at the moment anyway) but we’re still on hand. Children can still reach us.

There are a number of authors I know who have active social media accounts and who, I’m sure, wouldn’t mind answering the odd question about their books, or about writing, from their readers:

John Bray (Monsters, magic, ghosts, and macaroni cheese)

I’ll start the list with myself (since I’m volunteering everyone, it’s only fair that I offer to participate too). I primarily write fantasy stories (think magic, bizarre creatures, adventure, and macaroni cheese) for children aged seven and up. (Though I’ve also written a dark fantasy/horror/ghost story for kids aged ten and up called ‘Marcus‘. This one is set in a Victorian school in my home town of Crieff)

You can find my books in Fun Junction shops (who can post them out if you prefer) and they’re also available on Kindle (here’s a link to the John Bray author page on Amazon). You don’t need a Kindle e-reader to read kindle books, a free reader app is available for Apple and Android devices, and for PCs. This means that you can read my books on pretty much any device.

If readers would like to talk to me you can find my author page on Facebook and you’ll also find me over on Twitter, either on the Jack Reusen account or on my own Twitter account (still pretty family-friendly). I’m happy to talk about anything to do with my books or writing in general, at any time. If your child would like to talk to an author about their own writing I’m happy to do that too.

David MacPhail (Nice Vikings and crime-solving Ghost-Grandads)

David was supposed to have an author event at Fun Junction in Perth this week but they’ve had to cancel it. David writes books about a nice, kind Viking (a type of Viking that isn’t normally in stories) called Thorfinn.

These books are for younger kids but older kids will enjoy them too as they follow the adventures of Thorfinn who doesn’t like being nasty and is often trying to get the other Vikings to just be a little nicer. They’re hilarious books and I’ve enjoyed them with my own kids. Get hold of them in paperback from various places (Fun Junction included), or you can get these on Kindle as well.

David also has a new series of books out called ‘Top-Secret Grandad and me’ about a boy who solves crimes with his Grandad (who happens to be a ghost). For slightly older readers who enjoy a mystery with a twist, this is a great way to go.

You can find David MacPhail on Twitter by clicking this link.

Danny Scott (Football mad)

Danny is a HUGE football fan. My kids and my wife have met him at football events in Crieff a few times and he sounds like a lovely guy. His books revolve around a boy called Calum and his triumphs and tribulations on the football pitch.

These are a great series of books for football fans and are available in paperback (also at Fun Junction) and on Kindle as well.

You can find Danny Scott over on Twitter by clicking this link.

Alex McCall (Giant Robot Chickens causing terror)

Alex is the award-winning author of ‘Attack of the Giant Robot Chickens’ and ‘Revenge of the Giant Robot Chickens’. Both books take you on a wild ride as the people of Aberdeen try to figure out how to defeat some giant robot chickens who have arrived in their city and are causing mayhem.

They’re a fun couple of books and well worth a read. You can get them in paperback (also at Fun Junction) and they are also available on Kindle (click this link).

You can find Alex over on Twitter by clicking this link. He’s apparently currently writing a novel about a clockwork city which could be interesting for kids to ask about.

Lari Don (Mystical mysteries and more set in Scotland)

Lari is a prolific author. She has so many books to her name that it puts most of the rest of us to shame. The books I have the most experience with are books from her ‘Fabled Beasts’ series and her picture storybooks of traditional Scottish tales, but she’s written a lot more than that.

You’re in for an adventure with Lari Don’s books, she sets a rich atmosphere even in the picture books and has a great sense of pace (exactly right for a story filled with adventure).

Her books are available in paperback (also at Fun Junction) and on Kindle.

You can chat to Lari Don over on Twitter by clicking this link.

*OLDER (TEEN) READERS* Helen Grant (Thrillers and gothic romance set in Germany and Scotland)

Helen is a bit of an urban explorer, as you’ll discover if you follow her on Twitter. The landscape of abandoned buildings and strange, disused spaces has influenced her writing in some really striking ways.

Helen mainly writes thrillers and a lot of her earlier books are set in Germany (don’t worry they’re available in English). Up until a few years ago, Helen lived in Germany so this isn’t a big surprise.

However, with her move to Scotland, she took her urban exploration in a Caledonian direction. One of her more recent books ‘Ghost’ is clearly inspired by the slightly uncared-for stately buildings and castles which you can find throughout Scotland.

Ghost‘ is a gothic romance (of sorts) and is probably my favourite of Helen’s books. It doesn’t hurt that it’s set in Crieff (Perthshire) where both myself and Helen live. A lot of the landmarks that turn up are very familiar and it’s really interesting to see such familiar places used in different ways.

Her books are available in paperback and on Kindle. You can find Helen Grant on Twitter by clicking this link.

*OLDER (TEEN) READERS* Moira McPartlin (Dystopian Sci-Fi set in Scotland)

I met Moira at an author event in Fife last year and grabbed a copy of her book ‘Ways of the Doomed’ (I did buy it, I realise ‘grabbed’ sounds a bit ‘light-fingered’).

This is the first in her ‘Sun Song’ trilogy which is set in Scotland in a dystopian future where ‘Natives’ (Celtic people) are treated as lower-class citizens. We follow a young man called Sorlie and find out (as he does) just exactly how this state of affairs managed to come about and how things might be changed.

As a sci-fi fan myself I found Moira’s world to be a really interesting departure from what you typically expect to find in sci-fi/ future stories. I thoroughly recommend them.

Her books are available in paperback and on Kindle.

You’ll find Moira over on Twitter by following this link.

Stay in touch

As I say, I love to talk about books and about writing with children and with adults. If you’ve had a read of my books and would like to ask any questions, please feel free to contact me either here, on my Twitter account (or the Jack Reusen one), or on the Jack Reusen Facebook page.

Apologies for the long post this time, I hope you find it useful, and as always thanks for reading,

All the best, John

 

 

 

 

Writers, don’t get too big for your boots!

Are you ‘serious’ about your writing? I’ve taken my writing ‘seriously’ for about twenty years but what that means has changed a lot in that time.

At first, being a writer was a very teenaged whim; I wanted to be the artsy, brooding intellectual, the ‘thinker of deep thoughts’.

Since then I (thankfully) came to realise how important it was to keep my feet on solid ground. (I’m really stretching the ‘boots’ analogy here aren’t I? To be honest I also needed an excuse to share this picture of my youngest from a few years ago.)

Anyway, back to my teens. I took Sixth Year Studies English, chose English Litt and Philosophy at University, and immersed myself in the work of ‘serious’ writers. (I’m ashamed to admit that back then I even refused to read Harry Potter because it was ‘too popular’ and ‘just for kids’.)

Nothing wrong with being bit ‘serious’

Some of the work of these ‘serious writers’ was incredible; it touched a nerve, struck a chord, all the things you would expect of great works of literature. Only when I stepped back and spoke to other students did the inherent problem with studying literature become apparent.

We didn’t all like the same books. Even worse, when we did, it often wasn’t for the same reasons. What’s more, I came to realise that we sometimes couldn’t even agree on what some of the books were about.

It became clear to me that the hunt for any strict rules on how to write a ‘great book’ was likely to be fruitless. Despite our seemingly ‘objective’ study and analysis, we were still coming from a subjective place, so I wasn’t going to get any ‘rules for writing’ there.

The books themselves were pivotal in helping me see what I enjoyed most in what I read. I wouldn’t take back reading a single one of them. OK, maybe I wouldn’t read ‘Catcher in the Rye’ again if given the chance, but the rest were really informative and (generally) enjoyable reads.

Isn’t reading supposed to be enjoyable?

That’s the crux of it, something that took me too long to realise; I have always read fiction for enjoyment. For big thoughts, I go directly to Philosophy (I studied it/researched in it for ten years after all) but fiction always needs to give me some form of interest and escape.

When you consider the fact that most reading will take place outside of an academic environment, the issue of how we make good literature becomes even more compounded.

My own perspective on it is that, as writers, the most we can really hope for is to offer our reader an experience for a day/ a few days/ a week (maybe two).

The lucky few of us who leave a lasting effect often won’t even know they’ve done so.

But people don’t always read because it makes them ‘happy’

We might not always bring our readers happiness, but that’s not really what a book is for either. Happy endings are great but sometimes a happy ending isn’t what’s needed. Sometimes we need catharsis. Enjoyment isn’t always about happiness.

In some moments a flaming ball of nihilistic rage might be the order of the day (may I recommend Fight Club). Alternatively, someone may be in need of some cathartic release due to some personal struggle or tragedy (I’d recommend ‘The Girl of Ink and Stars’ by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, or ‘Nation’ by Terry Pratchett).

As authors, we can’t second-guess our readers. They’ll read our work and they’ll either love it or hate it, or more likely (if we’re being honest) their response will fall somewhere in between.

We make something special, we give people a taste of what it’s like to be in someone else’s mind (our own). We spend a year/ two years/ even more sometimes, on a project that will give someone that sensation for a matter of days or weeks.

Is it worth it?

For me it is, every word quietly typed at 2am, every sentence scrawled down on the bus ride home, every story idea jotted into digital notes while waiting at the school gates for my kids.

I gave up my old ideas about writing ‘great literature’ years ago. I’m happy to share my writing with those who want to read it.

I have to hope that what I write is enjoyable for someone and if I’m lucky perhaps it could prove to be special as well. Whether any of it is seen as ‘profound’ really isn’t up to me, I’ll just have to leave that to the readers.

Yes…but look after yourself

Having ambitions beyond this is potentially self-destructive and, at it’s worst, it could lead to leaving your work in an endless loop of perfectionism.

After all, it can hardly become a ‘great work’ if no one else ever gets to read it.

So, as I say, we should try not to get too big for our boots. Or more accurately don’t get too big for our books. I’ve got my (now) nine-year-old son to thank for that wee play on words. He popped in and wondered why I was adding an old picture of him to this post, then promptly showed me that his copy will surpass mine pretty quickly.

If you’re a writer and you feel I’m off base, or if you agree and would like to add something to the discussion, please feel free to click the ‘comment’ button below and let me know what you think.

As always, thanks for reading,

All the best, John

It’s hard to say goodbye…

One of the hardest experiences when writing a new book stems from the connections you make with a new collection of characters. As some characters inevitably don’t behave the way you expect, you can’t help but like them as a result.

Part of the process of creating a convincing individual involves a close focus on character motivation. After drafting a moderately coherent plot you’ll inevitably realise that a character needs more motivation to follow your plot than they start with. This can lead to reworking the story.

Part of this process includes writing extra scenes that deepen your character’s personality in order to explain their actions and choices. This extra familiarity with the character typically leads you to feel more connected to them.

The fear creeps in

With this in mind I’m now nearking the end of my newest book and I am definitely apprehensive about saying goodbye to a few of my characters. This creates an odd tension for me as a writer because I obviously want to take the story through to its natural conclusion, but I also don’t want to say goodbye to these characters.

This particular book is set to become another stand-alone title (like Marcus was) which means there will be no going back to revisit old friends. For a reader the book may only represent a few hours of reading but my experience is markedly different.

How long I’ll spend with these characters

I’ll spend a month (possibly more) on this first draft and the second draft could take another few months. After this I’ll get someone to pass an objective eye over it, before using their responses to create a third draft.

At this point I may even pass copies to ‘beta testers’ to check readability and appeal, taking their feedback to work out a fourth draft. Then I have a final formatting draft to get page alignment, fonts, etc.

When all is said and done I will have spent between a year and eighteen months on this book. More than a year getting to know these characters, honing my picture of them, and gaining sympathy for who they are and why they behave the way they do.

All of this means that by then I may even ‘know’ some characters (as much as knowledge is the correct term for facts about fictional people) better than some friends or more distant family members.

One of the tougher jobs

As you can imagine, it’s hard to go through so much with someone and then say goodbye forever, but at its core that’s my job. In the grand scheme of things it’s not exactly the hardest job in the world to do, but I can’t pretend there isn’t a wee pang as I write the final lines.

It’s the last day of NaNoWriMo tomorrow and thankfully I’m on target for my 50,000 word total (though the book will be a little longer than this in the end). It’s definitely worth being excited about but I can’t deny that it’s also a little bittersweet.

Soon I’ll be saying goodbye to a new character that I’ve grown really attached to. She’s pretty great actually. The one silver lining is that once I get her out into the world and more people get to know her, she’ll get that little bit more real. I’m looking forward to introducing her sometime in 2020/21.

As always thanks for reading, all the best, John

How does a Writer make money?

Many don’t. I didn’t for the first five years or so. However, I stuck at it, I kept the day job going but put in consistent writing time too. It isn’t an easy route to being a full time writer (and if I’m honest I’m not 100% there yet myself). All the same, it does seem to work. Step by step, book sale by book sale, copy-writing job by copy-writing job; I am getting there.

But what does it mean to be a full-time writer?

This is where I have to draw the distinction between ‘writer’ and ‘author’.

The real end goal (for me at least) is to be able to write books full-time. This is when I’ll comfortably start calling myself an ‘author’.

For now I’m a ‘writer’ and to be honest I’m pretty happy with that. There’s a lot of interesting work to be done in the sort of wordplay and language use that I’m employed to do as a copywriter.

It makes me a better writer by forcing me to acknowledge the real effects of the words I write (occasionally these are even real-time effects).

What’s more, it allows me to meet more people from more walks of life. I’m reminded daily that it’s important to meet as many people as possible if I want to write believable characters.

So many people, so many characters

My own copy-writing work puts me face to face with dozens of different people on a weekly basis. I’m writing a lot of blog posts and other copy about local businesses in my area.

Our conversations often encompass hopes and dreams, the development of rare and unusual skills, and how they feel about what they do.

It’s a rich experience in character and in stories. Every business is a story, every owner or manager has their own dreams for that business.

They are so passionate about such different things, they know about worlds that I have never encountered; from equestrian husbandry, to jewelry making, to the challenges and triumphs of running a social enterprise.

I wouldn’t dream of simply inserting one of these people directly as-is into my books. It would feel wrong for some unplacable reason. All the same, I pay attention. They are such interesting people.

An entrepreneurial spirit seems to draw them together but their own loves, skills, and passions set them apart from one another. I would be foolish not to see this as a chance to understand a lot more about what makes for a gripping character.

I often get asked about how a writer makes a living, but I’m starting to see that making a living can also go a long way to making me a better author.

But how do I make money?

Here’s the big question. I’m not sure how to answer it simply. I have a background in retail, accademia, and I have a small amount of experience in town management. I’ve used this to set myself up as a freelance copywriter. I’ve got a growing list of contacts who know what I do and know they can contact me to create copy of a certain standard when they need it.

There’s not much room in that sort of business for being introverted (unless you have someone fighting your corner for you). This means that a fair bit of my month is spent chasing down content for clients and looking at new avenues which might bring me more work.

Writing with pen on paperIn short I’m a self-employed writer but a lot of my time isn’t spent writing; it’s spent with people. I interview people for blog content. I visit people to see if they need the services I offer. I try to figure out how to write things that will catch people’s attention. I like people, and I enjoy being sociable, so this isn’t a problem for me.

However, if you suffer from social anxiety or anything similar this path might not work for you. Here would be the stage to look at your list of talents to see which might combine to make writing a source of income. Perhaps a podcast would work for you, perhaps writing reviews for products, movies, music, or books.

There are places where you can apply for a ‘job’ as a writer, some of these jobs might be brilliant, I don’t know. All I do know is that so far I’ve personally found more fulfillment from doing things this way.

On top of the copywriting I also do author talks in schools about my books and about writing in general. This probably isn’t as lucrative as the copywriting but these talks are the times when I get to feel like an ‘author’. It’s me at my most celebratory about creativity.

You need to find a balance where you find a way for your writing to pay, where you still feel like you’re being creative, and where it makes sense (to you) in tems of money earned and time spent. If you’re aiming for this life, I sincerely hope you find a way to make it work.

I hope this post helps. It’s a question I get asked a lot (at school talks etc.) and this is a rough summary of my usual answers.

Thanks for stopping by and feel free to leave questions or comments in the comments section below (or over on Twitter, or Facebook)

 

Lore

Sometimes we struggle. Motivation fails us. I got a taste of that recently as I neared the 30,000 word point in my latest book. Knowing that I was writing horror a friend (thanks Jo!) recommended I check out a podcast called Lore.

Humans are the real monsters

Lore is a fortnightly podcast (or web radio programme for those who prefer that term) that discusses the paranormal, the odd, the unpleasant. However, its primary focus seems to be the darkness that dwells in us all. The selfish voice, the creature that panders to fear, the red eyed monster of rage; all of these are distinctly human, distinctly internal, monsters.

Listening to tales of Lore drew me to that dark place, allowed me a closer view of those nastier human foibles that are the true basis of horror. Aaron Mahnke (the host/researcher/creator of Lore) introduces the listener to a selection-box of human awfulness. From the true story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin (NOT for children or the faint of heart), on to multiple tales of witch hunts through the ages, to the story of H. H. Holmes, a conman who created, and utilised, a hotel full of secret passageways and an underground ‘lab’ for his own sick ends (this hotel has since gained the name ‘The Murder Hotel‘).

The events in ‘Marcus‘ don’t come close to the horrors Mahnke describes in his show (for starters mine is pure fiction). However, I’d like to give credit to Lore, and Mahnke himself. He produced something that offered a custom set of blinkers for this first-time horror writer at those times when sitcoms, kids books, and social media, threatened to draw me away from my writing.

More to learn

There’s something else that Lore helped me see though. Mahnke persisted, every two weeks he got another solid bit of work out into the world. Well rehearsed, well researched, well performed. You can go back to the very first podcast and see the show evolve, gain a following, and importantly offer Mahnke the recognition he deserves.He made something people enjoyed and the world rewarded him. It’s an important takeaway whenever you come across this sort of creativity. The word ‘inspiration’ is banded about a lot, it has transient, insubstantial overtones. Instead I would say that Mahnke’s efforts provide more confirmation than inspiration.

Listening my way through the first episodes gave me confirmation that the right content, found by the right audience, and offered up consistently, will yield positive results.

Mahnke has his own Amazon TV series now (based on the podcasts) but he has also demonstrated his mastery of storytelling through the podcast in a way which has allowed him to market his own writing. Author of a host of books, and clearly working purely within a field he enjoys. What he has done has given me confirmation that all the slog is worth it.

Thank you Aaron.

Why listen to Lore?

Simply put it’s fascinating (if disturbing in places). Often we hear that the world has ‘gone to the dogs’ or that society is being eroded by one modern creation/concept or another. A step back in time (and in some cases it’s an uncomfortably short step back) is enough to show us that human beings have always found ways to be awful to each other.I’m not trying to suggest that we’re living in a golden age but lore can take the rose tinted glasses off of the reminiscence to ‘yesteryear’. We get by, we look after one another, we do what we can to help one another. The stories in Lore highlight this as well. It’s in our nature; the flip side of our darker internal demons.

Watch the news and you can be forgiven for thinking that we live in an age of terror. I find it odd that comfort can be found to remedy this perspective by looking at the horrors of the past.

I hope you take a moment to pop by the Lore podcast page and give it a try yourself (and no I’m not being paid to promote it/endorse it/otherwise send traffic his way).

As always thanks for reading, and feel free to pop back and tell me if you enjoyed the podcast,

All the best, John

Mist or Fog

Fog makes it harder to write but it’s essential. (No I didn’t leave the window open to add atmosphere to my morning writing). 

The reason fog both helps and hinders in equal measure is research. In order for my books to make sense I have to research what I’m writing. It’s time consuming but necessary.

In my most recent writing stint I decided it was important to know the difference between fog and mist. A character has the power to disperse into a cloud. 

I thought the distinction between ‘fog’ and ‘mist’ would be an important one, and planned on using it in the book. Turns out it’s basically arbitrary. The distinction even gets cloudy (see what I did there) from one country to the next.

Apparently, for most of Europe it’s ‘fog’ when it impedes visibility for 1000m or less. Whereas here in the UK we don’t call it fog until one can eat it.So I went back and rewrote. My research felt fruitless but it actually saved me from writing something convoluted, hard to follow, and worst of all something that would have been nonsense.

Writing is often like that. You wait for the fog to clear. Do some research. Find out it’s just mist (at least in the UK) and get back to work.

Writers reading this, what odd facts have you discovered in your research? Did they force a change in your book?

I love getting comments so please feel free to have a blether in the comments section below. 

As always, thanks for reading, 

all the best, John 

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 and 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? Do you find that writing helps you 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

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