When I sat down on my bed in Ireland two years ago and started writing, I had only the vaguest idea of the story I was trying to tell. All I knew was that I had just been watching some YouTube videos of the 2010 NZ Pony of the Year winner, Showtym Viking, and his owner Amanda Wilson. I wasn’t watching POY footage, but some bareback and bridleless jumping they’d done at home, and I was struck by the bond that they shared as they cleared 1.30m fences with ease, seemingly completely at one with each other, happy and confident and loving life.
I was more than impressed. I was spellbound. And it immediately struck me that this was a story I wanted to tell.
So I started writing a story about a girl who had a spectacular young paint pony that took the show jumping world by storm. But it was also to be a story about a relationship between pony and rider that transcended the competition arena. A combination who jumped for the love of it, who worked as a team, who didn’t argue or fight with each other, but simply went out there with the determination to do their best – and do it together. And a combination who clearly enjoyed one another’s company, and who weren’t all about winning. A girl who didn’t wrap her pony in cotton wool, but took him bareback down the beach, swum in the river at home and mucked around bareback – just enjoying life, and letting him be so much more than just a competition pony.
I didn’t even really expect to ever turn it into a full novel – it was just a fun exercise. But the characters turned from vague ideas into real people, and their story wanted to be told. I wrote the first few chapters in Ireland, and even now as I read through the scenes, I picture them in the same kitchen that I sat in on so many wintry Irish evenings, up against the warm stove, writing and dreaming and telling their story. That story soon became known as “Cruise Control”. I picked it up and put it down several times over the years, as I not only cemented the story in my mind but also came to meet Amanda and Viking, as well as her sisters Vicki and Kelly, and the rest of their family. Their support and encouragement, as I took the plunge into self-publishing my first novel, was invaluable. And from the moment I first saw some of Kelly’s photos, I knew that if anyone should be taking photos for the covers of pony novels, it was her. One of the draws of self-publishing was the opportunity to pick my own cover photo, and I immediately lined Kelly up to do the cover shoot for me. And I was so happy with the results – the cover of Flying Changes is a testament to Kelly’s awesome photography, and she gave me so many options to choose from that I have plastered them all over this blog – not one terrible photo amongst them!
But I digress. What I wanted to talk about here was the difference between having an idea for a novel, and actually writing it. They say that the hardest part of writing is to WRITE. In some ways, this is true. Sometimes the motivation isn’t there, sometimes the words just won’t flow, and sometimes it’s just plain frustrating, wanting the story that’s so clear in your mind to be down on paper already!
But that’s the trick of writing. It’s not having the idea, as much as being able to tell it, and crafting it into a cohesive plot, that truly reflects the story that lives in my mind. If I could draw my books out of my head with a wand, as they do in Harry Potter, stick it in a Pensieve and download it onto the laptop, I’d have over 20 books published by now! But I have to do things the hard way. And maybe that’s for the good. Certainly if the prolonged editing process has taught me anything, it’s just how important it is to learn to tell a story in a cohesive way.
I finished the first draft of “Cruise Control” in a rush before I went overseas. I’d been promising it to Amanda and her family for months, and finally I got it done. I never read it all the way through before printing and posting it to Northland – just popped it in the post, packed my own copy in my backpack and jumped on a plane. I was looking forward to reading it, to seeing the characters come alive on the page, and to be able to share them with other readers, which really is the point of going to all the effort of writing it down.
I eagerly opened “Cruise Control” on the plane, and started reading. I finished it in the hotel in NYC. And I sat back and thought, “uh oh.”
It’s not a bad book. In fact, judging by the feedback that I got from the Wilson family on it, I’d say it’s already a pretty good book. But it’s not a great book. Not yet.
In my mind, the characters are completely alive. I feel as though they’re real people – I know the way they walk, the things they say, the way they might react to any given situation. I know who they are, what inspires them, what depresses them, what frightens them, what excites them. To me, they’re real, three-dimensional people, and I thought I’d translated them effectively onto paper. But as I read through the draft, I realised that I’d left gaps. I hadn’t told the reader enough about these girls – not just what they do, but who they are. What makes them tick. Why the reader should care about them. That’s the difference between a good character, and a great one. Good characters feel real. Great characters are the ones you want to be real.
There’s a great maxim in writing that goes “show, don’t tell”. This is particularly directed at scriptwriters, but it also applies here. When I write, I don’t want to tell the audience what to feel. That’s something that annoys me, whether I’m reading a book or watching a movie/TV show – I hate being dictated to. I want the freedom to make up my own mind. I don’t even like it when a TV show, for example, will give a dramatic drum roll before announcing a plot development or twist – if I’m shocked or in suspense, I’ll be feeling it! I don’t need help. It’s like a laughter track on a comedy show. If you’re laughing along, you don’t even notice it. But if the show’s not funny, the laughter track is irritating, and seems patronising. I don’t need to be told what’s funny! And I especially hate being told that things are funny when they’re not.
So when I write, I try to show, not tell. I try to depict a character’s emotions through their actions, and dialogue. For example:
TELL – “Marley was feeling nervous as she buckled Cruise’s throatlatch. This was her last chance to qualify, and if she didn’t place in this class, her Pony of the Year dream would be all but over.”
SHOW – “Marley’s hands shook slightly as she fastened Cruise’s throatlatch, and her meagre breakfast was sitting like a lump in her stomach.
“All set?” Kris asked as she walked down the ramp of the truck.
“Yeah,” Marley croaked, trying to speak past the dryness in her throat.
“Just relax. Ride like you did yesterday,” Kris said reassuringly, “and you’ll be fine.”
Marley tried to smile, then turned away. Relax, she thought. Yeah right. She knelt down to buckle her spurs, trying to calm herself down, but it wasn’t working. There was too much riding on this result.”
(That’s not from the book, I just made it up. But it could be.)
In the first example, I am telling the audience that “Marley was feeling nervous.” Yet in the second segment, the word “nervous” isn’t used once. But right away the reader knows that she’s nervous, because her hands are shaking, and because her breakfast is sitting in a lump in her stomach.
So both examples tell you that Marley is feeling nervous, but the second one lets you work that out for yourself. Granted, it’s not exactly subtle. If I was going for subtle, I would have written something like:
“Marley fumbled with Cruise’s throatlatch, missing the hole more than once before finally getting it secured. Her stomach felt strangely empty, and she realised that she’d forgotten to eat breakfast. It didn’t seem all that important.”
This is more subtle because firstly there could be a number of reasons why Marley is fumbling the throatlatch – “fumbling” doesn’t tell us as clearly as “shaking” hands that she is nervous. Secondly, we have already learned by this point in the book that Marley is a big eater in the mornings and never skips breakfast. It’s out of character for her to do so, and especially for her not to have realised! She must be feeling nervous.
The second example also has some dialogue, and we learn more about Marley’s nervous state from her interaction with her sister Kris. When she speaks (or rather, “croaks”), we learn that her throat is dry. When she attempts to smile but can’t bring herself to manage it, it backs up her nerves, and she internally grumbles at Kris for telling her to relax. I couldn’t have written any of those little moments without her interaction with Kris.
There’s also more action in the second version – things are happening. Kris walks down the ramp, Marley buckles her spurs – these little details and actions make us as readers feel as though we are there, and we can visualise it so much better. (Perhaps this tendency comes from a love of TV and film – there’s no coincidence that I learned most of my writing skills from watching TV, and that could definitely explain my propensity towards writing plentiful dialogue.)
But the problems that Cruise Control faces are not just in the way that the story is being told, it’s the story itself – it’s not quite there. The story of Marley and her pony Cruise, their bond and relationship, how hard they fought for what they wanted – the version on paper is not yet the story that it is in my mind. It’s almost as though it’s being told in fractured glimpses, instead of a flowing narrative. It jumps from show to show to show, rarely pausing for breath to bring us back to the real world. Characters appear, feature heavily for a few chapters, then vanish again without a trace. Arguments come out of nowhere, ideas and storylines get repeated, characters react in unlikely ways to situations as I manipulate their actions to suit my story, instead of letting their actions tell the story. In short, it just doesn’t quite work.
But there is a good story in there, trying to get out. And when I sit and look at the copious pages of notes that I’ve written, at the entire pages that I’ve crossed out in the proof, as I move scenes around and struggle to keep the timelines straight in my head, and wonder if I’m fighting a losing battle, I go back to the feedback that I’ve received from the Wilsons. Kelly called it “phenomenal” and said she “couldn’t put it down“… Amanda said she “absolutely LOVED it” and called it “amazing”…their mum Heather described it as “engrossing, interesting and vivid“. Rumour even has it that it made Amanda and Vicki cry.
I call that a success. But watch this space, because if I can tell Marley and Cruise’s story the way I can imagine it in my mind, “Cruise Control” isn’t going to be a good book. Heck, it’s not even going to be a great book.
It’s going to be amazing.