Tag Archives: identity

Characters who write themselves into your world

No one warned me about this when I started writing but sometimes characters appear in your work by accident. They must come from somewhere but you have no way of figuring out where, it’s like they’ve made themselves out of nothing.

Tam was like that. I never included it in the books but Tam’s appearance was initially quite sinister. 

Jack had barricaded himself in a cabin (along with some others) to keep a host of dangerous magical creatures outside. I was picturing everything in my head when suddenly I was looking out of someone else’s eyes. Someone who was trying to break into the cabin.

Nothing in Jack’s world had been first person up till then and I had no idea who this character was meant to be. I had made no decision to add a character but here one was, breaking into the cabin, leaving the door open, and endangering everyone inside.

The overall feel was extremely uncomfortable and everything this character did broke away from what I had planned. Through this strangers eyes I saw my characters standing in Mick’s kitchen, sure they were safe. Then the stranger strode into the room and kicked their best hope right in the head, knocking him unconscious. I was even sure I felt Fynn’s head as Tam’s foot connected.

I’m still not sure how this happened and Tam definitely isn’t the only character who appeared from nowhere.

My academic background focused on the formation of the self. It was all about early years behaviour and stimulus, nature vs nurture, self-awareness, and importantly the vital role the stories we tell about ourselves play in all of this.

These ‘characters’/selves are always attached to a human body and I’d assumed something similar would be true of fictional characters. I thought I would be in charge of every character. I was definitely sure that I would be responsible for every character that appeared in my writing. I was very wring.

Perhaps this was a side-efdect of writing in the faster-paced style required for National Novel Writing Month (50,000 words in one month). Or maybe Jack’s world was already that vivid to me.

It all worked out well and I love the character of Tam (I even gave him a large role in book three). However, I still feel an odd shudder when I think of how I was first introduced to him.

Have any authors reading this encountered a character like this? Does your writing sometimes surprise you?

Feel free to comment below. As always thanks for reading, all the best, John 

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Crivens!

feegle3At the moment our house is enjoying a full-on adventure with the wee free men and their ‘Hag’ Tiffany Aching. Terry Pratchett’s ability to create a world filled with humour, excitement, intelligence, and heart is not compromised by writing for children. The Tiffany Aching series includes four (soon to be five) books, set in his iconic Discworld, and each book focusses on a young woman called Tiffany as she grows into a fine upstanding witch.

Out of my two my eldest is especially enthralled with the books. The first book (The Wee Free Men) went down a treat and he really got a kick out of the violent, loud, yet loyal and caring ‘Nac Mac Feegle’ (or ‘wee free men’). It’s a book series that I enjoyed myself years before I became a parent and there’s something really special about being able to share it with my kids now.

The thing that impresses me most is one simple fact that, in itself, shouldn’t be impressive: the main character is a girl. Every book follows Tiffany, sure the wee free men are there too, as are a few other male characters, but the character we follow through every page is Tiffany. This shouldn’t be a big deal but it is. So many books for children (my own included) focus on the adventures of a boy as the main character, and in most cases he’s also cast as the hero. It makes a refreshing change to see that a girl can be just as heroic, just as relateable for two young boys as any male protagonist (I feel I redeemed myself a little with Spark of Dreams, you’ll see Thea’s heroics near the end of the book).

Not once have my kids asked ‘but why is a girl doing everything?’ not once have they complained. Both my six (soon to be seven) year old, and four year old sons have barely noticed that they’re following the adventures of a girl. Perhaps it’s because this is one of the first chapter books I’ve read to them (smaller frame of reference), or maybe their generation has different expectations than mine did. Whatever it is, I’m getting a lot of enjoyment out of knowing that my two kids clearly know how brave, clever, and heroic girls can be.

I’ll be rectifying my own lack of a central female character in my books next year as I delve more into Thea’s story, and follow her on a voyage around the world of Fey. It’s in the planning stages at the moment, so very little is concrete, but I can’t wait to delve into the world of legends, mythological animals, and the downright made-up stuff that I’ve got planned for next year’s batch of books.

Tiffany-Aching-Poster-600x686In the mean time I heartily recommend Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books (‘The Wee Free Men’, ‘Hatfull of Sky’, ‘Wintersmith’, ‘I Shall Wear Midnight’, and Pratchett’s soon to be released, final Discworld book ‘The Shepherd’s Crown‘). In the first book you’ll follow Tiffany as she meets strange little blue men, discovers she might well be a witch, and has to fight the Queen of the Fairies. I’m sure you’ll enjoy them as much as we are. All the best, John

What Reading can do for you

Read for 1 minute or less a day with your children and they may end up in the bottom tenth percentile! (But should you care?)

I’ve seen this graphic (or something very similar) floating around the internet recently. While I agree with the idea that reading with your children is a good thing, I’m not sure if I agree with the hefty role being given to word volume, or the assumption that parents only care about test scores. It’s part of the growing inclination of so many to try and quantify childhood learning.

Of course, some skills are more quantifiable than others: vocabulary, memory, the ability to follow instructions (this list is far from exhaustive). In this sense it’s easy to see how an increase in vocabulary and memory might improve test scores. However, there are so many more important skills that reading helps develop than the capacity to have great test scores.

Children who read find themselves exposed to other ways of thinking, other worlds, and other people, in a much more intimate manner than you find in any other medium.

The characters, ideas, plots, scenarios, and places found within the pages of a book do not stay there; they find a home inside your mind. It’s about as close to telepathic communication as we can get.

When a child reads a story where a character loses their memories, they aren’t simply exposed to a vocabulary-building exercise; they have been given access to some fairly complex notions about identity. This might lead them to ask questions about whether we are the sum of our memories, or something more. In essence, books (and perhaps fantasy books in particular) provide simple, digestible ways of thinking about some pretty big questions.

It kind of bothers me to see test scores held up as the pinnacle of childhood achievement. Test scores can be a great way of gauging a child’s engagement with their learning, but I’m a little dubious about regarding these scores as anything more than that. 

A child’s ability to deal with the world outside of school will have a lot more to do with how much they understand, plus a host of skills that are even harder to quantify.

If a child opts for university they may be surprised to discover how important it is to have a collection of skills that go beyond reading speed, vocabulary, and memory (the more testable skill set). 

I used to tutor Philosophy undergraduates at Edinburgh University and it was amazing to see the way that some students (who came in with less than stellar grades in high school) would somehow overtake their higher scoring classmates. Often this hedged on far less tangible/quantifiable skills than memory etc.

We wanted to see students demonstrate an understanding of the nuances of arguments; memorising facts and figures simply wasn’t enough (though it was of course valuable). What’s more the ability to step outside rote learning and think for themselves enables students to create thought provoking and insightful essays. I learned that high test scores aren’t always a clear indicator that someone will perform well, even in an academic environment.

The abilities of a teacher are often assessed based on the test scores of the children they teach, but this can leave little room for some truly vital skills; like bolstered inquisitiveness, social understanding, and the ability to ground ideas within a real-world backdrop. 

Many teachers do a phenomenal job at encouraging these, and many more, traits (I’ve met a good number of these teachers on the various school talks I’ve done) and I’m fairly certain that these essential skills will be hard to locate by looking at where a child falls within the national ‘percentile’.

Of course we should read to our children for twenty minutes a day, longer if you get the time. For some of us it’s part of the ever-shrinking portion of the day in which we can spend time together, without necessarily having to deal with some kind of screen. 

Not only does it allow you and your child to discuss all kinds of topics and issues, but it also gives you a few moments in which to touch base and enjoy spending time together.

Reading, at least in this context, has much more to do with maintaining relationships and learning about the world we share, than it has to do with building vocabularies and assisting in academic scores. 

Reading shouldn’t be marketed as a fast track road to success (even if the numbers suggest it); it’s an activity that opens dialogue, builds relationships, and encourages inquisitive minds. In short reading opens us up to all of the fantastic skills that make us human, it doesn’t just help us test well.

If you have anything to say about any of the issues I’ve touched on in this post please feel free to share your ideas in the comments, or over on social media (here are the Jack Reusen facebook and twitter accounts). Thanks for reading, all the best, John

And…they’re off!

cover with blurb and barcode 2 trimmed

Another wee sample of Karen’s artwork

Jack Reusen and the Spark of Dreams‘ is ready! The artwork is done, the text has been edited, all files have been sent off to the printers, and now comes the waiting. (Though the wait won’t be too long for the kindle edition, which I’ll have ready sometime tonight.)

The process for print editions is fairly simple; first they send me a digital proof (which I expect to receive sometime early next week). After this comes approval of the proof, which is kind of an odd thing to do actually; basically I send them an e-mail saying ‘yes I like my own book, send me lots’. Once I’ve told them I like my book it can take seven to ten working days for them to to print up a bundle and send them to me.

I’ll probably end up posting a lot of updates on Facebook and Twitter once I’ve got a tracking number, so if you follow either account expect to see lots of posts about UPS on the day the books head my way.

To be sure that you get hold of one of the first copies you can pre-order one by leaving a comment below (they’re £6.99) and you can either pick them up at Fun Junction, get me to deliver them to you personally, or if you’re further away I can post one out to you.

Writing this book has been a totally different experience than the last one. Knowing that people have read the first, that some readers might be emotionally invested in certain characters (no I haven’t killed anyone, nor do I plan to), and knowing that there are many more books planned, has meant that I’ve had to be very careful with this one.

There are some scenes that had to be big and dramatic and they change characters in ways that might take them a couple of books to recover from. That’s what all these big delays have been about (I originally planned on having the book out in April). The trickiest part has been the fact that two key story lines run from just one early scene involving Fynn and Thea.

They come out of the event changed, but getting the balance between developing a character in that way, and just all-out changing them is difficult. Every change I made to that one scene (you’ll see what it is soon) had a heavy ripple-effect throughout the book, at times it was like playing Jenga with a sledgehammer. After a lot of work I think I’ve got it right and I hope you guys enjoy the journey that both of these characters go on.

Jack Reusen and the Spark of Dreams‘ is darker than the Fey Flame (though not by a lot), my proofreader/editor left me a note about three quarters of the way through the book that simply read ‘this is freakin’ scary!’. Don’t let this put you off though. I’ve left a lot of the scarier scenes open in a way that lets the reader fill in the gaps with their own imagination. This way, readers at my eldest son’s age (seven in a few weeks) will likely find these parts a lot less frightening than their parents.

Overall the story is based around what the world would be like if people didn’t dream, imagine, or come up with new ideas. Some of this is a little scary but mostly I wanted to deal with how important imagination is for everyone. Jack has to navigate a city that doesn’t dream and it doesn’t look like a nice place to live.

I’ve said before that there are ‘zombies’ in this book, but they aren’t undead, flesh-eating monsters; they’re innocent people who are sleep-walking through life and have lost something important because of it. Jack goes through a crisis of confidence but we all know that in the end he’ll have what it takes to help them.

Thea hasn’t been left out either; she gets to be an action hero in this book. Her fight scenes were some of the most enjoyable things I have ever written (though you’ll have to get a fair bit through the book to see them) and I’m really looking forward to seeing what kind of girl she develops into in future books.

Sorry for the long post, as you can probably tell, I’m a little excited about launching the latest Jack Reusen book. I really hope you like it (when the books finally get here). I’ll keep you updated here and on the Facebook and Twitter accounts about when to expect them. In the mean time I’ve got a school book talk to prepare for. I’m off to Comrie Primary on Monday (my school between the ages of five and seven) and I’m really hoping the children there enjoy their introduction to Jack and his friends.

All the best, thanks as always for reading, cheers, John

Magical Realism

Vasnetsov_samoletFiction is changing but what it’s changing into isn’t something new. For a long time a sub-genre of contemporary fiction known as ‘magical realism’ provided a mind-bending literary experience to those who came across it, but sadly it sat at the fringes while traditional fantasy, science-fiction, and even thrillers enjoyed mass-market backing from readers who would no doubt have enjoyed magical realism if they knew it was available.

I was introduced to it by a teacher of mine (Mr Johnstone) at High School. Famous fantasy writers have been known to denounce it as a fancy way of saying you write fantasy fiction but I think there’s one very clear distinction: just as you probably wouldn’t explain the way that electricity is created and sent down power lines to power your toaster, when describing a scene in which you cook some toast, a magical realist writer feels no demand for an explanation for anything that the reader might regard as ‘magical’.

Terry Pratchett said that saying that you write magical realism is “…a polite way of saying you write fantasy and is more acceptable to certain people…”. In some regards he could be correct, fantasy fiction is certainly seen as more populist (and less literary) than magical realism. What’s more, magical realism sports a host of connections to post-modernist art and philosophy that makes it positively intellectual-sounding. However, fantasy fiction can itself be, though isn’t always, a tremendous vehicle for highlighting philosophical concepts as well. Pratchett was one of the best at doing just that.

But now, within children’s literature, we’re finding works that bridge the divide somehow. Explanations of how the magic works are left to one side as authors launch their characters straight into the adventure. Magical Realist sympathies can be especially evident in works like Pratchett’s Discworld (despite his protestations to the contrary), Garth Nix’s ‘Keys to the Kindom’ series (‘Mister Monday’ etc.), Philip Pullman’s ‘Dark Materials’, and many many more. In these books we are witness to a change in the way that magic is introduced, it is left as part of the fabric of the story with minimal exposition.

However, the exposition is still there, as it probably has to be for children. Perhaps we need to delineate fantastical elements in fiction for children. They are still getting a grasp of the reality and physics of their own world so it seems prudent to provide some explanation as to how things work in an alternate one. What’s more the explanation of the magic can itself often serve as a component of the plot.

I’m in this boat. Jack starts in our world (or something very much like it) and is exposed to things he doesn’t understand, therefore a necessary part of the plot (and his character development) involves him gaining a basic idea about how the magic works.

There are things that I’ve left to one side for now and things that may never be explained but I’m happy to admit that there’s simply too much explanation of the magic in my books for anyone to call it ‘magical realism’. While I still enjoy and respect the genre and can see how it really can work in children’s literature I can’t help slipping into fantasy

For me part of the fun of our world is to be found in finding out things. I couldn’t limit my characters by not allowing them to discover the ‘secrets’ behind the magic any more than I could answer my children with the ever-unsatisfying ‘just because’. For a child I expect that a truly magical realist work of fiction could prove equally intellectually unsatisfying, perhaps its one of these odd cases where a literary genre simply doesn’t scale well into a children’s version.

The books I’ve described above have no doubt been enjoyed by more adults and teens than children of twelve and under, they certainly rank extremely highly within my list of favourite books. However, for children reading what’s known as ‘middle grade fiction’ (more about it here) and those younger than them, I can’t help but feel that authors need to be ready for the ‘why’s and ‘how’s from their readers.

What genre of books do you think would/does translate well into ‘children’s’ versions? Which genre’s simple don’t translate at all? Am I wrong about the books listed above, do you think that children between eight and twelve enjoy them as much as teenagers? As always thanks for reading and don’t forget you can buy a copy (paperback or kindle edition) of ‘Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame’ over on this page.

Was Enid Blyton a bad writer?

wpid-imag1413_burst008.jpgEnid Blyton is responsible for a huge portion of missed sleep from my childhood. The Famous Five books and the ‘Mystery’ series were staple components of my evenings (and long into the night) from the age of about eight or nine till I started high school at twelve (we don’t do middle school in Scotland). She opened a world of adventure to me but I have to admit she also wedged me thoroughly into a literary rut.

With Blyton’s books I developed a love of reading that became a core part of my identity, ever since then I’ve regarded myself as a passionate reader. However, her writing style left me cocooned from other works of fiction; she wrote in a relaxed, easily accessible, manner that demanded little of the reader and simply allowed the story to flow.

In many ways reading Blyton was like watching TV; I simply allowed the story to unfold before me, often going for chapters without feeling as though I needed to put much of my own thought in at all. This is the blessing and the curse of Blyton’s writing. Her books were published at a time when children were just beginning to migrate towards television as the entertainment medium of choice, Blyton appeared with an alternative.

I grew up in the eighties and by then we had access to so much more child-orientated TV than the generations that preceded us. The challenge was even greater for authors then than it had been back in Blyton’s day. Eighties children’s authors had to go foor the popular vote by whatever means necessary. They grasped for the ghoulish in the form of the Goosebumps series or pandered to a growing culture of pre-teen girls who aspired to a fantasised version of teenaged life in books like the Babysitters club. Meanwhile, in a dusty antique book shop on a holiday trip to Lincoln cathedral I came upon the famous five. I was hooked.

Blyton enjoyed (and still enjoys) the backlash from librarians, teachers, and other people who wish to promote ‘proper literature’ to children the world over for her work. Rhiannon Lassiter’s mother (Mary Hoffman) banned Blyton, you can see what Lassiter thought to that by following this link.

For many Blyton was low brow, pandering and, at best, akin to the type of bargain-bin paperback frivolity that adults buy at the train station or airport to help pass the time. In essence it was (is?) seen as just one step up from a magazine.

I can’t help but wonder if this is just a case of the anti-popularism which is often sported by the self-designated cultural elite, who seem to feel the need to put down anything popular as bourgeois and watered-down alternatives to ‘real’ literature/art in general.

I’ve never gone for this kind of thinking, I liken it to the idea that fine dining is always superior to fast food. Of course there’s something to be said for an excellently prepared meal but sometimes you really just want a greasy cheeseburger and fries from a burger van. (Neither fine dining nor fast food have the best credibility as sources of nutrition, in both instances it’s all about the taste, the aesthetic)

I think the same thing is true of literature, sometimes we’ll want to enjoy the complexities and nuances of an exquisite work of fiction but sometimes, and I think this goes ten-fold for those who are just beginning their literary journey, sometimes you just want to be swept up in an adventure.

So was Enid Blyton a bad writer? In my mind the answer is a resounding NO; she provided me a literary foothold in an era in which electronics and TV were taking over every aspect of the life of a child. She let me escape that world (a little) and allowed me access to the world of my imagination in a way that the alternatives simply couldn’t. Was she a literary marvel? Probably not, but the service she did perform well was to allow children to marvel at what a book could do.

I am the first to admit that moving on from Blyton’s style of writing was quite hard but as I noted in a previous post I found a way, as I’m sure many many more people did as well. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that the modern book industry would be an shell of its current state if it wasn’t for her prolific contribution to children’s literature, if for nothing else but that her works stood as an alternative to the proliferation of TV into the lives of children. In this sense, at least in my opinion, she stands up as a literary hero in her own right.

DON’T FORGET: Book one of the Jack Reusen series: ‘Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame’ is available in both paperback and in digital format. You’ll make me as happy as four kids and a dog with a picnic blanket and lashings of ginger beer if you click on this link to pop over to the ‘books’ page where you can find out more about the book and get details on how to get hold of your copy. I hope you like it as much as I enjoyed writing it 🙂

Book 3: working title…

moirai_by_pandorasconviction-d4njggqWho doesn’t like a sample of the next book at the end of a book they’ve just enjoyed reading? I know I like a wee taster, if for no other reason than it tends to prompt me to pre-order the next instalment so I don’t miss out.

Well I decided in “Fey Flame” to do just that, it was an easy move since I’d already written the first four chapters of the next book before I published ‘Fey Flame’ (NaNoWriMo needed me to get an extra 15,000 words done before I’d be able to submit).

Well roll around ‘Spark of Dreams’ and we get a wee dilemma: book three doesn’t (/didn’t) have a title, let alone a few chapters to work from. Aside from a fairly detailed idea of what will be happening in the next book, up until tonight, there wasn’t really any substance to it.

Well now there is, I now have some actual, solid, story writing down for it and I’m pretty excited to see how this one plays out.

Anyway, without further ado, may I present to you the working title of book three…

“Jack Reusen and the Children of Fate”

I say ‘working title’ and it is just that, I’d love feedback on what people think of it, especially if you have views on what children might think to it.

I’ll be asking my eldest son in the morning but it’d be great to get a wider perspective on what people think. The story will centre around the families of Fynn, Alyssa, and Granny Reusen and will tell us more about these characters and the magic they wield. What’s more we’ll also get a revisit from the ‘Wishmaster’ (though he may be less nasty in this book).

Anyway, it feels great to have that dealt with. I now have a complete book (along with epilogue and taster) to edit, some artwork to figure out to show off the books and hold them together, plus I’ve got book three taking shape before my eyes. All in all it’s great having a sense of where I’m going next.

Also, don’t forget there’s still the option of getting to appear in ‘the Spark of Dreams’ as a ‘zombie’ (plus some of these characters might get the chance to follow on into book three). There’s not much time so if you’d like to see your name appear in the book I’ll need to know in the next couple of weeks. As always, thanks for reading, all the best, John