Tag Archives: literature

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

Respect the Editors

You can be your own worst enemy. It doesn’t take much and you’re either filled with self doubt or over-confidence. A lot of the time I am not in the ‘happy medium’ between these two perspectives, in fact I let these two factions of myself loose on one another, waiting to see which side will win the battle.

The ‘inner editor’

One prominent member of the self-doubt faction is a version of myself that many artistic/creative types might recognise. Writers talk about something we call out ‘inner-editor’; the little voice inside that makes you procrastinate over a single paragraph rather than get on with the five pages you’re supposed to be writing that day.

He was a noisy, persistent, pedantic, and energy sapping presence for years. One day I found National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and with it I learned how to shut him up (for the most part).

The ‘inner artiste’

However, another character resides in my mind. He’s brooding, wildly passionate about everything, and possesses an unbreakable sense of self-worth. Everything he makes is a masterpiece. A sentence carved an finished to perfection, offered up as bountiful fruits to be enjoyed by the generations of humanity to come.This guy is a pillock. However, I need him. At 2am, when I’m just five-hundred words short of my daily goal the ‘Artiste’ pops out, full of certainty that he can create narrative splendour on four hours sleep, a couple of sandwiches, and fifty cups of tea.

The ‘artiste’ is my ace in the hole. My lifeline. He is the only way I know to get the words down in the time I’ve set myself.

However, what he writes often falls alarmingly short of expectations. When this happens my inner editor jumps out, prepared to gouge whole paragraphs (I don’t think he likes the ‘artiste’ much).

The truth is I reach a point where I can go no further with the tools I have at my disposal. I no longer look to an internal editor. At this moment I need a real-world reader/readers to look at my work, with a critical eye but also (I hope) with a degree of enjoyment of what they’re reading. I need an editor.

The REAL editor

I currently can’t afford the services of a real, fully qualified, editor. I honestly cannot wait for the day I can.However, so far I’ve managed to get by with support from a group of people I regard as ‘beta-testers’. Readers who dive into what I write and who I know will be honest. In some rare cases I’m given detailed notes covering grammar issues, lax areas in storytelling, and continuity errors (I’m an awful one for forgetting which characters are at which locations). (My wife is a great ‘beta-tester’, it’s almost as though tearing me a new one is actually enjoyable for her).

The odd thing about a good editor is that they look at a raw piece of work and see what it could be. Not only that but they have the wherewithal to guide the author to change that raw manuscript into something greater than it would have otherwise been.

Editors gain little credit for this. If (like me) you’re the sort of person who reads acknowledgements you’ll be accustomed to seeing editors receiving high praise. However, this is an often skipped section of a book and so, to all intents and purposes, the editor often goes unacknowledged.

Out there somewhere are a host of individuals who have spent countless hours improving some of your favourite works. You might pass them on the street and never know what they did.

The world’s literature is richer, more nuanced, and more engaging, thanks in a large part to the efforts of a group of unsung heroes. The ‘artiste’ might tear shiny rocks from the ground but it’s the editor who cuts them and polishes them in just the right way to make them shine. (To any editors reading this I apologise for the tired metaphor, I am but a lowly wordsmith).

I’d love to hear your own thoughts on the role of an editor in the creation of a literary work. Please feel free to comment below.

As always, thanks for reading,

All the best, John

Free Author talks for schools

free book talks author scotland perthshire john bray jack reusen

I recently passed my driving test (at the tender age of thirty-five). The surest motivation in the weeks leading up to it was school book talks. I’ve ran school talks before but I’ve always been lucky enough to be able to get to the talk on foot, by bus, or on more than one occasion I managed to wangle a lift from a teacher (thanks Mr Scoogle!).

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

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

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

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

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

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