Tag Archives: strong female character

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

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.

 

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

Staying on target

wpid-training_dummy_500.jpgToday I passed 12,000 words of ‘Thea’s Quest’. Chapter six is done and I’m close enough to my word-count target to feel fairly comfortable. It was a hard slog today (wrote almost 4,000 words) but I really feel like it was worth it.

It’s a lot of fun experimenting with what Thea will do in different situations, it’s telling me so much more about who she really is and what the tone of the other books in her series will have.

As I said in my previous post, I won’t have much time for blog posting during all the other writing madness this month but when things go right it’s nice to share. Hope you’re all well, and as always thanks for reading (and for stopping by). All the best, John

Thea’s Quest

11703059_507851296031556_3727381389049552295_nYep, the beginning of Thea’s story is already taking shape. The fifth book set in the world of Fey now has five (very rough) chapters and it’s surprisingly different from Jack’s books. This month also marks the one year anniversary of the very beginning of Jack’s (and Thea’s) adventures. I still can’t believe how quickly this year has flown by and I’m really thankful for the reception the books have had so far.

Thea is such a different character to write about. I now have a character that instantly understands all of the basic things about Fey, she’s a lot less surprised by magical creatures and events than Jack was and I’m really enjoying the fact that I can just let odd things happen and then drive the story forward. It was always fun to share Jack’s awe as a new world unfolded around him but there’s something really liberating about just taking that magic for granted now.

The new book series will be released more slowly than the first as I now realise just how demanding it is to do all of the additional stuff required of a book. First there’s editing, then there’s talking about the books (because otherwise how would people hear about them), and alongside all of this I need to go over cover designs etc. with Karen but to be honest the bulk of the work there is on Karen (she knows her stuff so well, I barely need to go into any detail with her, she just gets it).

Talking about the books is definitely the most fun of the two ‘non-writing’ jobs associated with writing, I’ve been for school visits, held an in-store book launch, joined in with an authors event to do a book talk at the Crieff arts festival, not to mention a steady stream of communication with readers through this blog and the social media profiles I set up for the books over on facebook and twitter.

The big bad EDITING job is never a thrill and it’s this that has prompted me to spread out my book releases a little. I’d rather be able to spend more time chatting about the books and doing a wee bit of editing each week than be locked to the computer almost every day desperately trying to catch up with editing. At least for the foreseeable future I think we’ll be on about two book releases a year. I just don’t think I’ll be able to do four in one year again for a while.

Speaking of editing the next two books are on their way but it is taking a while. Though it’s less work this time through (I’m definitely learning from my mistakes), it’s still work. I’m going to try and get Jack Reusen and the Children of Fate’ away to the printers in the next couple of weeks (should be printed by the start of December) and ‘Jack Reusen and the Christmas Fox’ should arrive a week or so later (it’s a Christmas story so definitely want to get a rush on that).

In the mean time I can share a wee bit about Thea’s Quest (though it probably won’t be out until next summer). In Thea’s first book we find that the polar-bear girl has discovered some pretty impressive powers (even more impressive than turning into a polar bear). She is struggling to understand them though and she’s having an even harder time learning to control them. Her quest will take her to parts of Fey she’s only ever heard of in stories and her journey will teach her a lot about herself and her friends. Where the Jack Reusen books introduced us to a strange other world, Thea’s books will take us on a voyage steeped in ancient magic and even older stories.

I’m really enjoying the research for these books, I started looking ahead to some of the places Thea might visit earlier this year, I even posted a few sample pictures on the Jack Reusen facebook page. I desperately want to get the third and fourth books out before Christmas so I probably won’t be blogging a whole lot over the next few weeks. Every spare minute I have this November is going to be spent on books. Hope it all works out, wish me luck. As always, thanks for reading, all the best, John

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

Some summer holiday reading

Kindle_UnlimitedIf you have a kindle (or something that can run the kindle reader app) then you can get hold of both of the Jack Reusen books (and a whole heap of books by other authors too) by signing up to a month’s free trial of Kindle Unlimited over at Amazon, here’s the link.

Once you’ve signed up you’ll see that both of the Jack Reusen books come up as free, so you can read the whole adventure so far, for nothing.

Jack Reusen and The Fey Flame‘ introduces you to the land of Fey, as creatures (and other things) make their way through to the ‘matter-world’ (basically our world). Jack and his family have to discover a way of closing a collection of ‘breaches’ between the two worlds to make their world safe again.

‘Jack Reusen and the Spark of Dreams‘ is a slightly different kind of cover with blurb and barcode 2 trimmedadventure. People are losing their ability to dream. Every night more and more people lose the certain something that makes human beings so good at solving problems and creating things; the spark of dreams. Jack discovers that he could be the key to understanding what’s causing this change, and he may even be the only person who can solve it and bring back the dreams and imaginations of hundreds of people.

I hope that both of the Jack Reusen books give you and/or your kids something to enjoy over the summer holidays. Let me know what you think, 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

Spark of Dreams

wpid-dreams_by_whisperfall-1.jpgSo the spark of dreams is finished, over a cup of tea at about 6:30 this morning I sat down and completed it. I’m currently writing up the epilogue and the taster of the (as yet unnamed) third book. I can’t believe that I have another book under my belt and it’s not even half a year since this all started.

There are a few things that I’m going to have to figure out pretty soon and the one that keeps jumping out at me is the cover. I want it to be subtle and intriguing, with just one symbol of what the book is about and a solid framing effect that I’ll duplicate (with a variance of colour) in future copies of ‘…the Fey Flame’ as well.

This sounds like a simple task but coming up with a universally recognised symbol for dreaming (apart from perhaps a cloud) is not as easy as you might think. So for the next wee while I’ll be editing (which I’m pretty comfortable with) and designing covers (which is a little intimidating).

The big issue is that if I make a mistake with either then it’s on every copy I get printed, so I want to be sure about what I send to the printers. I’d actually welcome any suggestions that people might have for the cover so if you’ve got your thinking cap on pop your suggestion below. The two concepts I’m playing with at the moment are a lumbering outline of a sleepwalker, or a picture of a small torch hidden under a pillow (yes Jack’s torch makes an extra appearance in ‘…the Spark of Dreams’).

More and more people seem to be hearing about ‘…the Fey Flame’ which is just brilliant and has given me the much needed boost I needed for the last leg of ‘the Spark of Dreams’. Book three is a very skeletal plan at the moment and books four to six (Thea’s stories) are coming to me like distant little smoke signals but the great thing is that it really feels like this series could keep on going (if people keep on reading).

Anyway for now I’ll sign off, I’m away to a ceilidh tonight with the family, should be fun. I’ll post again soon with updates on ‘the Spark of Dreams’ (and hopefully some sketch ideas for the cover. Thanks for reading, all the best John