Tag Archives: children’s fantasy book

The Illustrator: Karen MacAllister

karen macallister 1Back in April of this year I wrote a post asking for an artist or illustrator to help me by putting together a more striking cover for ‘Jack Reusen and the Spark of Dreams’. I even titled the post ‘Artist/Illustrator wanted’ but I was surprised at how few people got in touch with me but suddenly out of the blue Karen sent me a message on facebook. She asked me about my plans for the cover and we messaged back and forth about themes, colour palettes, and what kind of images I specifically wanted to see on the cover.

karen macallister 4She sent me some sketches within 24 hours and it instantly felt like the right fit and once she sent me colour samples I was definitely looking forward to seeing the finished product. Karen used her experience to simplify some of my design ideas and pulled the cover together into something intriguing, bold, and exciting.

To be honest we didn’t even meet in person until she was dropping off the original cover sheets for me to get scanned (well that’s not completely true, we actually had met before, as I found out that Karen had actually helped out in my first year German class at High School, small world).

karen macallister 2Despite the fact that we only communicated via facebook messages Karen nonetheless seemed to know exactly what was needed to get the cover exactly right and I couldn’t be happier, she’s even agreed to create a new cover for ‘…Fey Flame’ (which is actually already finished and I honestly can’t wait to show you, it’s amazing) and she’s also agreed to creating a cover for ‘Children of Fate’ once it’s ready. If you’re looking for some amazing colour work and a bold yet intriguing style then I can wholeheartedly recommend that you get in touch with Karen.

karen macallister 3For more of Karen’s work just click on any of the images featured here to visit her blog (and I hope that she doesn’t mind me borrowing them to add to this post) and if you would like to commission her to create something amazing for you then follow this link to her professional site. As always thanks for reading, all the best, John

Losing the plot

1470243032_a61e5f9309_oI don’t often put together a post on the way I write but every now and then I get asked by people about certain issues that all writers have to deal with. 

Plot and storyline are two key issues for writers of all types; often it’s hard to distinguish between a plot and a storyline as both are ‘stories’, and each can span the course of a book. 

Difficulties in distinguishing the difference can be at the heart of most of the problems that writers hit when they reach the half-way point in their work (often it’s what’s behind run-away characters and characters who don’t behave themselves).

We sometimes don’t notice that it’s happening until we’ve painted ourselves into a corner, but it is remarkably easy to end up treating a storyline like a plot and vice versa.

target-459833_1280A good rule of thumb is to generally understand storylines as contributors to the plot; think of the plot as whatever you could add after the words ‘we are gathered here today to hear the tale of…’. You need your work to have a point; only some very exceptional exceptions can draw a reader in with no hint of a plot, and often these authors can be recognised by a prose style that waxes lyrical and has you lost in description (think Virginia Woolf). 

In short, theirs is a style of writing that doesn’t always lend itself well to storytelling, if you intend to be a storyteller then, as obvious as it sounds, your first job is to tell a story.

The only times that exceptions can be made to allow non-plot-related storylines to take up space on your pages are either in cases where a small scene works as a precursor to a further book in a larger series or, very occasionally, a short storyline can be used to ease tension, teasing the way through the plot and allowing emotion to build and release naturally (it can’t all be build-up).

However, even in these exceptional cases readers can get lost and wonder why they’re suddenly being pulled away from the main story and here is where we lose the plot. Even these kinds of storylines can still be tied to the main plot, even if it’s done rather loosely. In short, if you’re going to lose the plot expect to have to do a lot of work to keep the reader on board.

Sometimes a storyline starts to take over, running in circles and dragging you kicking and screaming away from your main plot. The obvious answer to this is to backtrack and turn yourself back on course. 

In the vast majority of instances this is exactly what you should do (like me, you may even find that a chapter or so may have to be completely re-written or even deleted). However, very occasionally you might find that your new storyline has become more interesting than your original plot, and here you have a dilemma.

Dalian_zoo_bear_cages,_1997The reader will never know what you’ve done. Thanks to the drafting/editing process, you can easily go back and make it look like that this storyline was the real plot all along (warning: this approach can take even more time in editing than would have been spent if you simply remove the diversion, so use this approach carefully). 

Early on in writing ‘Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame‘ I ended up with two plots; basically I was worried that I didn’t have enough to do fill the book so I over-planned with a huge plot (too much to fit into a 35,000 word book) and a storyline that grew so large that it became big enough to function as a plot in its own right. A book never benefits from two true plots, it ends up with two masters who often want entirely different things.

I had made my life much harder than it needed to be; in the end I settled on the idea that the larger plot could be left in the background, setting the scene for the books to follow, whilst the exciting one (the Wishmaster) could be brought out to the front and take centre stage. 

I don’t regret that decision for a second as the Wishmaster has had a great reception from readers, what’s more he provided a host of opportunities for me to show off my characters in exciting and interesting ways that just weren’t going to happen otherwise.

You’ll be able to tell for yourself whether you’re looking at a storyline, a plot, or an overarching series theme/plot. It’s not hard, storylines contribute to character development but plots really change people (and sometimes the world in which they live), and an overarching plot is like a quiet pull drawing your story to a penultimate conclusion over the course of many books (in itself it may be less exciting, but will typically be more interesting, than the plots of individual books).

The Wishmaster returns in book three and he definitely tried to steal the show again as I was writing him. He’s a big character who’s not made many friends so the ripples of his arrival were difficult to smooth over. All the same the main plot is bigger than him and will likely be the launching platform for many more of the books set in Jack’s universe, so I had to reign him in tightly.

I’ll also need to have a serious think about whether to let him show up very much in Thea’s books for that exact reason, but at the same time I like him, I enjoy writing him, and when book three comes out I hope you get some enjoyment out of what I’ve done with him.

jack reusen cover front2I am by no means an expert but I hope that what I’ve shared here helps others to avoid some of the headaches I’ve experienced while writing.  

Believe it or not I don’t have a huge step-by-step plan when writing but I have learned that there is literally no point in writing something that’s all storyline; a book needs a point, it makes your job as a writer simpler, but vitally it also makes it easier for readers to engage with your work. 

It is so simple but also so important that you learn not to lose the plot, or at the very least that when you do lose the plot you do so on purpose and are prepared for the consequences.

If you have anything to ask, or any hints of your own to add, please feel free to do so in the comments section below.

As always thanks for reading, all the best, John

Neil Gaiman

stardustDuring my wade through a world of words I somehow managed to finish Neil Gaiman’s book ‘Stardust’. To be honest I’m surprised that it took me this long to pick it up, it’s a fantasy book about a town that lies right beside an opening into the land of the fairies. Familiar as this sounds it’s miles away from my own books in plot, themes, characters, and most of all tone.

It’s a book that’s definitely not for kids and as fun as it was for me to read, at times it could be quite jarring to go from reading Gaiman’s work and then delving into writing the wold of Jack and Thea. Sure there’s magic, other worlds, odd creatures, etc. but ‘Stardust’ was so much more adult that I had to be careful to remember to tone down the themes in ‘Jack Reusen and the Children of Fate’.

I normally make a rule of not reading while I’m writing so that I don’t get caught up writing in somebody else’s style but I was half way through ‘Stardust’ when NaNoWriMo started and I found that I needed some type of diversion whilst writing this time. I think I managed to keep the books separate in my mind probably first and foremost because of the main theme of each. Where ‘Stardust’ is a stand-alone adventure into a slightly Victorian take on the fantasy genre, ‘Jack Reusen and the Children of Fate’ is a modern disaster novel set in a fantasy setting.

I feel like I’ve had a chance to play with some of my favorite movie genres whilst writing the Jack Reusen books. ‘The Fey Flame‘ is a world building book with a big villain but beyond that I’ve had a chance to play around with some other ideas. ‘Spark of Dreams‘ was my take on the zombie genre (but toned down a lot to cater for children of seven or eight years old and up). Next, in ‘Children of Fate’ we get an ‘end of the world’ themed story (don’t worry, everything is kind of alright in the end), after that we have what I’m thinking of as book three and a half, it’s a Christmas/Yule story and for now that’s all I’ll say about it.

Book four is all Thea’s, in many ways (and yes I know this sounds totally nuts) she seems to be helping me write it but overall it will be a quest, one that takes her through many of the other nations to be found in Fey, it’s a strange place and it’s becoming a huge pile of fun to research.

Anyway back to Stardust, if you’re a fantasy reader like myself I imagine you’ll get a kick out of Stardust. The one unusual aspect I noticed about it was just how rigidly Gaiman sticks to the ‘show don’t tell’ rule for writers. Basically we’re supposed to explain the worlds we create using the characters reactions and by highlighting that world using carefully described action sequences.

Ordinarily writers do a good job of this but in fantasy the rules are often relaxed. It’s not easy to build a world in the first chapter or two of a book without having to occasionally allow the narrator to explain what’s going on. J. R. R. Tolkien basically writes a history of Middle Earth in the first few chapters of ‘The Fellowship of The Ring’. It helps you get to know where you are but it’s not the easiest thing to get through.

To be fair to Tolkien he was writing his books at a time when the modern fantasy genre was in its infancy (Tolkien being it’s godfather after all). A lot of modern fantasy harkens back to Tolkien so in a way he was doing a lot of world building for all of us. That said we don’t all deal in elves, orks, dwarves etc. and even if they did there’s still a sizable chunk of the population who still wouldn’t know what these races are. As a result many modern fantasy writers still have to explain the people of their worlds and describe what they can do.

Gaiman doesn’t really do that, you simply see the characters do what they do and it’s up to you to gauge what they are capable of and to establish what power level they have. Sometimes when two characters meet for the first time it can be surprising to realise that you may have misjudged just what that character is. ‘Stardust’ is a fantasy book but if you’re expecting a big expository element in the first chapter or two you’ll be waiting a while, the story just starts and it’s up to you to keep up. It’s an unusual yet refreshing experience for a fantasy reader and I definitely recommend it (I should also point out again one more time: ‘STARDUST’ IS NOT FOR KIDS).

a-burden_cover_smlAnyway, thanks for reading, and feel free to add suggested reads in the comments below (I’m editing now so the ‘no reading’ rule has been officially dropped). Next up for me is Hiraeth: a Burden (the second book in the Hiraeth trilogy), again not for kids but definitely worth a read, it ‘s a modern-day fantasy set in Wales, Ireland, England, (and a wee bit of Scotland too), and focuses on an underground (not literally) group of Druids who hide their true nature by means of working for the lifeboats service.

Let us know if you’ve come across any particularly good reads, after all the nights are fair drawing in (I don’t really remember having a summer) and nothing completes a chilly night-in better than a good book. All the best, John

Well that was intense!

Camp-Winner-2015-Twitter-ProfileLast night I wrote a bundle of words, they were all in an arrangement that I liked and for people who read English they will hopefully make sense. However, probably the most important thing about those words (at least for the time being) is that one of them happened to be the 50,000th word I wrote last month!

Once again I’m a NaNoWriMo winner and now I have a third Jack Reusen book, a Jack Reusen Christmas special, and there’s even a first chapter or so drafted for the first book in Thea’s trillogy (though I was so tired by that point that I’m fairly certain I nodded off pressing keys so I’m not sure what that’s going to look liiiii8iuijjjjiiujujuijke).

Once again National Novel Writing Month was an even mixture of a total blast and ‘that thing that makes me feel like my brain is about to melt out of my eyes’. What’s more I’m now going to be fairly confused if someone tells me they like my new book. I may accuse them of hacking my laptop to get at one of these new early drafts.

I now know what happens to Jack and co. next, and after that, and even a little after that, so expect some mini spoilers and short stories set after Spark of Dreams to be appearing on here in the coming weeks.

Speaking of short stories, I’m also running a competition in conjunction with Fun Junction in the run up to the Crieff Arts Festival. If you know of any children who would like to create a character (either pictures, descriptions, or both) that has a chance of appearing in a Jack Reusen short story then keep an eye out on here for more details. The easiest way to stay informed is to either ‘like’ the Jack Reusen facebook page or follow the Jack Reusen account on Twitter.

Today I am alarmingly tired but happy. I hope the new instalments are a fun read when I get them out into the world. ‘Jack Reusen and the Children of Fate’ should be ready in October. Thanks as always for reading, all the best, John

Stumbling in a world of words

542826322_0cc5218d63_oI got lost a week or so ago, it wasn’t writers block, I know what that feels like and this was very different. Exhausted, I had just reached the 30,000 word mark of ‘Jack Reusen and the Children of Fate’ and the end was in sight. I even wrote about how much I enjoy writing endings, I was psyched up and looking forward to writing, then one night whilst writing I was caught almost mid-sentence like a deer in the headlights.

I could still write but it was like the part of my brain that kept a hold of my characters started to unravel, scenes were easy but I started to lose track of how characters would react. I wrote one particular scene that felt pretty good at the time but when I looked back on it I really wasn’t happy.

Marathon runners encounter something called ‘the wall’ at the twenty mile mark; their body and their mind start battling for the last remaining dregs of energy and it becomes difficult for their mind to stay in control of their increasingly lethargic body. They start to make bad decisions, they find it hard to remember why they’re running in the first place, stripped bare of the mental support structures they’ve built up during training they are left to encounter the raw character of the person they are underneath.

I don’t doubt for a second that what I went through was something like a writers version of ‘the wall’, my motivation and capacity to write was still there, I even had ideas for storylines but the tools of the trade, the things that help me tell a story, seemed dulled.

I plodded on but couldn’t keep a grip on the road, I stumbled, tugging at plot lines from earlier in the book for support but still I fell. Unlike a marathon runner, I had time to let my mind recover. I had been on some hard-slog writing and paced myself very badly. I took some time to get my head back into magic and adventure, and enjoy a bit of family time.

One day later I felt rested but I still knew that I wasn’t ready to write, I needed to warm up those imagination muscles. I watched videos of magic on youtube, searched for mystical images on google, I watched the Turtles movie (OK that was kind of frivolous but it reminded me to have fun with what I was writing). On day two I got the laptop out, deleted a day’s worth of scenes, and I wrote some to replace them, then I wrote a couple more scenes, and before I knew it ‘Jack Reusen and the Children of Fate’ was finished! (it’s still a very basic first draft though)

However, my word count is still short of my 50,000 word NaNoWriMo target, so work has started on a little (almost side-) project that I’ve been thinking about for a while. I won’t share too much at the moment (it a long way off being seen in print) but I can tell you that it’s a wee mini book that I’ll be releasing for Christmas.

It’s a simple little story that I’ve been wanting to write up for a while. It was too big to turn into a short story on here but too short to make into a full Jack Reusen book. It has lots of snow and to be honest the cold weather over the past few days has been a blessing for me as it’s been easier to get into the mindset of warm drinks, cosy blankets, and powdery snow.

Finally I feel like I’m back on track, but it’s going to be hard, I’ve got two days to write 10,000 words. I’m off to plunge back into a land of snow, enchanted Christmas trees, and ‘war chickens’, wish me luck! Thanks for reading, All the best, John

The cocoon of Writing

2015-07-13 23.20.47So I’m a few weeks into another NaNoWriMo and as I knew would be the case I’ve barely been on here to blog. Part of this is due to my using all my free time to write ‘Jack Reusen and the Children of Fate’, however I’ve also just returned from a road-trip through the highlands.

The Highlands of Scotland are not well known for their connectivity and a part of me really liked that. I actually enjoyed a proper break from all the day to day facebook checking, watching blog stats, tweeting, etc. etc. that make up so much of my normal day-to-day life. We camped. Some sites were full of the bustle of people talking as they cooking meals on little camping stoves and played board games. Other sites were tranquil, and still, and so remote that I saw the stars more clearly than I have in years (and it’s hardly like I live with the light pollution of a city).

11217992_511936725623013_2636396095545308916_oHowever, I have to admit that my writing progress slowed a lot in the absence of prompting from my fellow NaNoWriMo participants over on twitter. That said I did get a bit of writing done on my first night in what is probably the coolest place I’ve written so far; a small gypsy caravan in Invernahavon. The kids bunked in a cubby-hole bed under ours, my wife fell asleep reading, and I popped the kettle on the little camping stove.

I took my cup of tea and my laptop out onto the wee outdoor seating area and braved the midges (they weren’t all that bad actually) as I wrote my way through to the end of chapter eight, marking the half way point in the book. The sky was deep and foreboding, I was barely aware of another human nearby. It was just what I always want writing to feel like. I even added a gypsy caravan to the book in tribute to a lovely night’s writing.

2015-07-14 11.15.34-2After that we moved around a lot and it became harder to find somewhere to charge the laptop. All in all I fell 10,000 words behind my target in just a few days, but I’m back home now and pushing on as fast as I can. As of last night the gap is just over 5,000 words and closing. More importantly I’m on the home stretch, I used to find it horribly difficult to write endings but it just doesn’t feel like that with Jack; I love writing endings. The pace, the emotion, tying up loose threads, intentionally leaving others open; it’s all such a rush, and I can’t believe I’m there already.

I’ve got a lot of other things to work on and plan for over the next few weeks so I’m afraid that I may still be a little silent on the blogging front. I am back in the land of wifi though so if you fancy a blether on facebook or twitter I’ll likely be able to respond in minutes. A lot of people now have copies of ‘Spark of Dreams‘ and I’m starting to get feedback. Touch wood, so far I’ve only heard good things.

11143402_513173932165959_305962227106098436_oThank you all so much for the support the books are getting, every new reader makes it all the easier to motivate myself to write down more Fey stories. I’ve heard authors gush about their readers before but I’m starting to get what they mean, without you these books would never have progressed as far as they have. As always (and I really mean this) thank you for reading, all the best, John

Crieff Arts festival (Crieff Literary festival?)

crieff arts festivalI’ve just been asked to join an event at the Crieff Arts Festival on 22nd of August. By the sounds of it I’ll be first in a solid line-up of local authors and poets; starting at 10:30am with myself and culminating with one of our best known authors; Helen Grant. I’ll add the names of other authors and poets on here once I know more.

Helen has posted her own description of the arts festival, and what she’ll be up to, over on her blog if you fancy getting a bit of an insight (here’s the link). As for me I haven’t really decided what to do yet. The most obvious will be a reading but there’s a chance that there might be a few readers of the books along for the talk so I might split the talk between reading excerpts and answering questions.

My kids quite often get impromptu stories fresh out of my mind (some of them set in Fey) for bed-time but I’m not sure if I’m confident enough to do the same thing in front of a crowd just yet. Jess Smith (one of the other authors who will be talking at the event) is a live storyteller and I really admire anyone who can do what live storytellers do, there’s something really absorbing about that kind of storytelling. I don’t think this will be my storyteller d├ębut somehow, I’ll wait and see.

If you’ll be in the Crieff on the weekend of the 22nd and 23rd and fancy popping along to hear me blether away about Jack and Thea, and read a wee snippet from one (or more) of the books, then pop along to the Strathearn Artspace on the 22nd of August at 10am (that’s when doors open, my talk will be at 10:30). Hope to see you then, all the best, John