Tag Archives: Children’s fiction

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.

 

Knocking the mentor off his pedestal

Most fantasy fiction has at least one ‘mentor’; Harry had Dumbledore, the hobbits had Gandalf, and Luke Skywalker had Obi Wan (and yes I do count Star Wars as fantasy more than Sci-Fi). They all take the form of that perfect expert with all the knowledge/wisdom to ensure that the hero knows everything they need to.

Most of the mentors listed also come with glaring flaws (SPOILERS AHEAD): Dumbledore knowingly coaches Harry in preparation for the boy to sacrifice himself, Gandalf does much the same for Froddo, and Obi Wan neglects to tell Luke some pretty important stuff about his dad in the hopes that it would make it easier for Luke to kill Darth Vader.

In fact all of these mentors seem to share the exact same flaw embodying a shocking degree of ruthlessness. I didn’t want a ruthless mentor for Jack but I did accept that Fynn would eventually have to demonstrate flaws.

I waited till the second book to investigate those flaws and decided to tackle an issue that adults often shield kids from; us ‘grown-up’ types sometimes find it hard to cope with things. In Spark of Dreams I allowed the pressure of being the ‘expert’ to get to Jack’s mentor, specifically because I felt that Fynn’s reclusive nature wouldn’t have combined well with his new degree of responsibility. It made him crack a little, showing a side of himself we hadn’t met before.

I think it’s important for kids to know that sometimes they won’t react to challenges the way they’d like to. It takes you less by surprise if you can prepare for that. Life throws all kinds of stuff at us, sometimes we cope and sometimes we don’t. For a short while I wanted to see how my characters would react when their mentor didn’t cope.

Don’t worry, Fynn gets back to himself soon enough, but it allowed me to show all of the characters in a different light. Some became more fragile and others grew stronger and in the end they do what needs to be done.

We’re bigger then ourselves and our support network is more a part of us than we realise. I enjoyed getting the chance to experiment with that in Spark of Dreams but most of all I found it refreshing to see how well the younger characters coped.

Do you think it’s important for kids to learn a lesson like this? What other aspects of our lives do you think we hide from children unnecessarily? 

As always thanks for reading, all the best, John

George’s marvelous medicine

For over a year I’ve struggled to get my eldest to read independently. To be honest that’s not entirely true as he’d happily jump into reading Star Wars encyclopaedias at the drop of a hat. However, with the encyclopaedias he’d put them back down after a page or two.It was pretty clear that we needed to track down a book that really spoke to him.

With p4 and the step up in reading it brings on the horizon I realised that he’d need to get more accustomed to longer stretches of reading than he had before. I hunted for books that would pique his interest but every time we simply find another story for me to read to him and his brother (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing).

We hunted and hunted, I trailed him through a serious number of bookshops over the past few months. Then, about a month ago we took a trip to Glasgow, walked in to Waterstones, and with the promise of a comfy seat and a chocolate he finally reached a decision; George’s Marvellous Medicine.

Picking the book in person had its own charm to it and I think the setting definitely helped. However, the general idea of a boy messing with a grouchy granny seemed to catch him straight away.

It was a favourite of mine when I was his age but I’d forgotten how good it was. George is precocious and empathetic, and also a bit of a chancer. To be honest I think it was a good match for my son’s personality. On top of this the granny (the recipient of the medicine) is a whole new character once you look at her from an adult’s perspective.

My son read the first few chapters aloud but he’s starting to just grab his book, curl up, and read. Last night he skipped bedtime story and just brought the book into bed with him to read by torchlight. The book geek in me couldn’t be happier, but on top of this I know that what he’s doing will make the change in reading level this year all the easier to keep up with.

It’s a simple book that has been expertly crafted by one of the greatest story tellers I’ve read. Our new challenge will be to find the right book to follow it, but I’ve a feeling that the Roald Dahl back catalogue will keep him occupied for a while.

What were your favourite books when you first started reading? Can you remember any of them still? Let us know in the comments below.

As always thanks for reading, all the best, John

School visits

apple-256261_1920I think we may now have officially hit the point where all local school children have returned from their holidays (or thereabouts). In light of this I thought I’d put out a quick reminder to any teachers reading about school visits. I’m available for book talks and writing workshops and I currently have a fairly clear calendar (though it is starting to fill up with other things).

I’ve never charged for school visits but I do normally bring along books for sale at a special price (I’ll figure out pricing long in advance of a visit to leave teachers time to get information out).

In the past I’ve hosted book talks for whole schools, for individual classes, and for middle-sized groups sorted by age. I’m also happy to spend a little more time with older children who might want to learn more about the writing process in a workshop setting.

If you think you’d be interested please get in touch. For those who want to do a more focussed book talk I can provide class copies of the Fey flame to give you/ your students a chance to read it in advance (either to review it or to let pupils get to know about the books before I come along).

If you are interested in arranging something please get in touch by e-mail (click this link) or by messaging below. I hope to hear from you soon,

All the best, John

We didn’t have TV so we all read a book together (it was amazing!)

first aid for fairiesI recently wrote about our lack of connectivity on holiday but another side effect was a complete lack of TV. No cartoons, no youtube minecraft videos (OK they were hard to miss, sorry Stampy, no offence meant), basically no falling back on TV at meal times and other times that we wanted to chill out. This made us fall back on an another old favourite; reading.

Even when we’re at home we read a story together every night, often this becomes a family occasion (like we had with Pugs of the Frozen north). However, this time round I ended up reading myself hoarse as we discovered Lari Don’s ‘First Aid for Fairies and other Fabled Beasts’. We normally read for about twenty minutes to a half hour each night but I’ve been reading for hours to the kids. We read at meal times, we read in the tent, I read in the car on the way home, and of course we read at bed time.

Back home technology has jumped back into our lives (I’ve found my way back on here as well) but we’re still hooked. We’re so close to the end and I’m at that ‘scared to read because it’ll be over soon’ stage. However, with three other books to go in the series I can relax a little.

The first of the ‘Fabled Beasts’ series follows Helen as she discovers that the world of story book creatures is all too real when a centaur appears on her doorstep.

The pace is fast and adventurous whilst giving you a chance to get to know the characters and the stakes get higher as we find out more about the quest that Helen is being drawn into.

It’s a book that has entertained two full grown adult-type people, an eight year old, and even a five year old (who normally still needs a picture or two during a story). No pictures are necessary and it’s been a joy to read the dialogue as well. I can’t recommend this book enough. Please go and check it out.

I’m always interested to hear about good kids books so if you’ve come across any please let me know (I can count it as ‘product research’ 😉 ). Feel free to tell us about it in the comments below and as always, thanks for popping over to read my blog, all the best, John

A new beginning

Karen (the cover illustrator) and I did an official/unofficial launch of the new cover for ‘Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame‘ a couple of days ago. It was great seeing the reactions on social media and I’ve been singing Karen’s praises since.

I thought I’d use this post to point out that the cover isn’t the only thing that’s changed. I’ve also spent a fair bit of time trying to shrink the book down a little. The font is still the same (hopefully easy to read) size, but I’ve edited the word count down a bit to make it easier for kids to get through a chapter.

The finished result should be a book with chapters that are just over two-thousand words long (Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone is about five-thousand a chapter) which should work well for children who are just past first chapter books (which are about a-thousand words per chapter). As a rule of thumb I’d say the starting age for readers will be about seven or eight years old. However, children as old as ten and eleven (and some big kids of unspecified age 😉 ) have said that they’ve enjoyed reading the books too.

It’s taken me a while to figure out readership. When I first wrote the books I was writing as a parent who reads books to his kids. I wanted a book that I would find meaty and enjoyable whilst being short enough per chapter to retain my son’s interest. With this in mind I told people that the books were for children aged five or six and up, and I’d say they’re still fine for that age, if you’re the one reading (though ‘Jack Reusen and the Spark of dreams is a little scarier than the first).

However, I’m coming to realise that my readership is starting to include an age group of readers who are a little older than my son and I’m finding this an odd experience. For starters I can only guess at what will keep them interested as I have no recent experience of which books appeal to an eight or nine year old. 

Here’s a check-list of things in book one (and a little beyond) that seem to have gone down well at book talks:

  • A girl who can turn into a polar bear (and who eventually learns some awesome magic) CHECK
  • A tiny man who can knock out a powerful Eldar with one kick (and who rides a ‘war chicken’) CHECK
  • A Granny who won’t think twice about slapping a bear of a man right across the face for mistreating animals CHECK
  • A boy who discovers more about himself and his family in three days than most people do in a lifetime CHECK

In talks in schools these things seem to always get a good response and so it’s been a tough job figuring out what subsequent books will involve. I don’t want things to become formulaic but at the same time I don’t want to ignore the ideas that have gone down well in the past. I like to think I’ve managed a decent balance by taking these characters and throwing them into the middle of two very odd situations in the next two books, (‘Spark of Dreams’ is a ‘zombie’ book, and ‘Children of Fate’ will be similar in tone to a disaster movie).

As I say, I like to think that these ideas have worked well for the most part (at least from what I’ve heard from readers) but I’m always interested to hear advice about the books and about what seems to be able to keep kids interested and entertained. I’m in the middle of editing the third (and fourth) book(s) at the moment so I genuinely value any feedback you might have. If you’d like to share your thoughts please take a second to add a comment below or over at the official facebook and twitter accounts. As always, thanks for reading, all the best, John

Falling for the Villain

438px-Villainc.svgNot long ago I had a twitter conversation with ‘Amber Medley‘ (a fellow NaNoWriMo writer). The basic idea was how to move forward in writing (tackling the dreaded writer’s block). I suggested a technique I use where I take a character out of the book and look at what they do in different settings.

Eventually the conversation moved on to how we draw believable characters, especially villains; viz. not writing a bad guy who just goes ‘Mwahahahah!’.

The interesting point that came up was the fact that the more human your bad guy gets, the easier it is to like him/her and, as a writer, you typically don’t feel you should like your villain.

I have a confession to make. Originally the primary villain of ‘Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame‘ (the ‘Wishmaster’) was going to be the overarching bad guy for the series. The ‘Wishmaster’ was to follow Jack throughout the book series, building in malice and in his capacity for harm in natural stages until Jack would have no choice but to face up to him in a huge final showdown.

This sounds dangerously close to the story of another non-magical boy who discovers he can do magic and faces off against a deadly foe. You can imagine my relief then when, at some point in November 2014, I sat down with a cup of tea, started my writing for the night and, for the first time, was properly introduced to my ‘Wishmaster’. I had gotten him all wrong.

He was still just as dangerous, still as malicious, and cruel, but then I started to realise what had brought him there; a need to share his gifts with others and his discomfort at finding that others actually got by fine without his gifts. He had grown resentful of these people’s lack of gratitude and I suddenly understood who he was and the story he needed to need to tell me.

I still couldn’t let him take over my first book, and I still needed him to take a back seat for ‘Jack Reusen and the Spark of Dreams‘ but I made him bide his time. I knew his story now and I knew where he was going to have to go. He would remain a frightful memory for Jack and his friends for a while. After all, their story was just beginning. However, I was sure to set aside space in ‘Jack Reusen and the Children of Fate’ and, to an extent, in ‘Thea’s Quest’ (Book 4).

I grew to care for my villain and in doing so I grew to enjoy what I was writing a lot more. It gained more depth and I found it easier to connect with all of the characters (even bit players).

During my twitter conversation the other day ‘Amber Medley‘ pointed out the fact that she was worried about growing to like her villain but if I hadn’t grown to like mine I don’t know if the books would have moved forward at the pace they did. Perhaps sometimes it pays to like the villain.