Clearwater Bay series · Dare To Dream · Dream On · writing

You only know you love them when you let them go

After I finished writing Dream On, I knew that was the end of that series of novels. What I had to say about Marley and her sisters was done, and there is no third book in the series. (If there ever is anything, Van might get herself a spinoff, but it’s so vague in my head that it’s not something I’m planning on writing at this stage.) So when I finished the book and loaded it on Amazon and sent it to print, I knew that I was saying goodbye to the girls for a while.

The plan is to go back to Jay and finish Against the Clock, book 2 in the Clearwater Bay series. I have that book mostly written, and the next two planned out and pieces of them written, including the conclusion to the series. I know where it’s going and what I’m working towards.

But I can’t let go.

I don’t usually like reading my own books. It took me months to be able to sit down with Flying Changes and read it without cringing. I loved Dare to Dream when I wrote it but I couldn’t read it easily. When I released Dream On, I was reading it on my Kindle the next day. And the day after that.

And the day after that.

It’s not that I think it’s the best book ever, or that I don’t find errors in it when I read it back (I do…I’ll fix them soon). But I’m not ready to stop living in their world just yet. And I know what happens next. I know what Marley does next, and Kris, and Van. I know where they go and what they do and the good and bad things that happen to them in the next year or few years. There’s not enough there to write more books about, and I’m not planning on doing so. I need to walk away and leave them be, but I’m struggling.

I need to move on.

And there’s a lot coming up for Jay. There are conflicts and issues and problems and resolutions to discuss. There are relationships to delve into and out of, there are storylines to cover, new characters to introduce and familiar characters to reconnect with. There are even familiar characters to discover…people who have already turned up in Dare to Dream & Dream On who will also be part of Jay’s story. I’m looking forward to that – I want to tell those stories.

And yet…

I still can’t let my girls go.

Dare To Dream · Dream On

X-ray enabled

There’s a feature on Amazon’s Kindle books called X-Ray. It isn’t available on every book, and it’s not something that you have the option of adding to your book when you load it onto Amazon, but for some reason, it has turned up on my novel Dare to Dream. I don’t know whether it requires a certain number of downloads, or a certain number of highlighted passages, but whatever the reason, Dare to Dream now has it. And it’s fun.

X-Ray is a feature that allows you to “see the bones of the book”. When you click on the X-Ray tab, it pulls up a list of People and Terms (51 and 10 respectively for Dare to Dream, although some of those “people” are ponies and dogs) and shows you in a wee bar chart where they appear in the book with a black line.

Marley Carmichael is the first name on the list, and her bar is a solid line of black, meaning she appears on pretty much every single page of this book.

Van Carmichael is next, with only a couple of small white spaces where she apparently is less prominent in the story for a while.

Kristen follows, somehow losing her surname, and having a handful of places where she is missing from the story (although I suspect that if Dream On ever manages to get X-Ray enabled, those roles will be reversed – there is more of Kris than Van in the sequel).

Cruise Control is next, and the list goes on.

When you touch on each of these characters’ names, it gives a full list of quotes, showing every time the name is mentioned in the book. Obviously for characters like Marley and Cruise, this happens hundreds of times. For others, who are only mentioned once or twice, the list of quoted passages is much shorter. One of the cool things about it is that it helps if you forget who a character is. For example, when I highlight Laura Buckeridge in the epilogue, it pops up with an X-Ray box reminding me of the last time Laura had shown up in the story:

Laura Buckeridge
“I’m glad you caught him,” Laura said. “He was so scared, he might have busted through the ring ropes.”

When you’re in the main X-Ray box, for each character that you click on, it gives you a quote from the text at the top of the page, providing a quick insight into who this person is. For the characters who turn up regularly, like Marley and her sisters, it’s simply the first time they are mentioned in the text. But for others, who aren’t quite so prominent, it doesn’t seem to pick up just the first one, and it’s quite neat flicking through and getting the X-Ray descriptions of each character.

Here are a few of my favourites:

Cruise stood patiently, alert but relaxed, as she unclipped the lunge line and coiled it up.”

Pete had been a fierce rival of Van’s back in her pony riding days, but unlike his snotty little sister, he’d always been nice to Marley.”

“Their belief that their daughter was the best thing since sliced bread had built up Susannah‘s dangerously high self-esteem.”

“But some of them have been exceptional, she thought, and none more so than Nimble. She’d known from the start that he was special, and he’d definitely proven himself to her last year when he’d beaten all comers at Nationals to take out the Speed Pony Championship.”

Ajax’s muscles were bunching under his shining coat, his mane and tail were like silk and his eyes were bright and alert.”

Breeze flattened her ears at this unflattering analogy and sulked off to stuff herself with more grass.”

Buck fought for his head, trying to see the jump. Susannah gave him just enough rein at the last possible moment, and the honest pony found his stride and cleared the jump.”

“But Dad was always with her, and his touch was everywhere around the farm. He had built this place for his family, and the barn and yards and arena were all testament to his devotion to his three horse-crazy daughters.”

Dottie, an aged spaniel lying on a rug in the corner of the room, lifted her head and whimpered softly.”

Katy O’Reilly was lying on her stomach tearing blades of grass out of the ground and listening to a story being told her by a girl with curly red hair, about staying with her cousin in England.”

If you’ve read Dream On, that last one was for you.


The inherent creativity of human life

I’ve been listening to a lot of talks lately by Sir Ken Robinson, whose life’s passion is education reform. In short, he wants to see creativity and the arts being given as much value in schools as core subjects such as science and maths. Amongst other things, he wants dance to be a compulsory subject for school children … and why not? Why is creativity the scourge of education?

Why do we value the ability to get the right answer over the ability to construct a new answer?

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” – Sir Ken Robinson

I’ve spent many years being educated – from primary school at the age of 5 to 12, through to secondary school at 13 to 17, and straight on to University. In those years I’ve had a few memorable teachers – some who were exceptional, and some who were abysmal – and many in-between.

I remember one professor in particular who ran the English department at my university. He told our class that he had been teaching and marking the same Shakespeare paper for the past 20 or so years, and every year, he read similar essays arguing the same points. He then said that if we could argue a different side, if we could pull something out of the play that was different or unexpected and could cite enough examples to make it valid, we would likely get a better mark than if we just parroted the usual spiel about how Iago represents the dark side of Othello’s soul.

I remember this because I still remember one of the essays that I prepared and wrote for my exam. The essay was on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and my point of difference was to argue that Caliban was a victim, not a villain. Now I’m not claiming to be the first person to do this (I am certainly not) but as I went through the play, pulling out Caliban’s lines and redefining them to shape my argument around them, I began to feel a deep sympathy for and interest in the character. I can’t remember what mark I got for that essay – I think I finished the paper with a B+ – but to this day, The Tempest remains my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays, and Caliban my favourite character. And deep in the files of my laptop are several documents for a YA novel, loosely based on The Tempest, which casts Caliban as the heroic lead. Maybe one day I’ll write it.

“I define creativity as the process of having original ideas that have value.” – Sir Ken Robinson

We cannot be afraid to be wrong. We cannot be afraid to take chances. Without my professor’s caveat, I would probably have sat down and written the usual boring essays for my Shakespeare exam out of fear of being penalised for trying something new. Because of him, I dove headfirst into those five plays, and found out more about them and my own ability for critical thinking than I ever had before.

Not everyone got so excited by this opportunity. Some of my classmates were satisfied to work within the usual parameters and get the usual answers, and one of my classmates was concerned that if she didn’t give a non-generic answer, that she would be penalised, and had to be reassured otherwise. But I thrived on the chance to create my own opinion. People say there’s no reason to teach Shakespeare in schools – but what better reason than that?

“Education can be stifling, no question about it. One of the reasons is that education — and American education in particular, because of the standardization — is the opposite of three principles I have outlined: it does not emphasize diversity or individuality; it’s not about awakening the student, it’s about compliance; and it has a very linear view of life, which is simply not the case with life at all.” – Sir Ken Robinson

I was always a good student. I worked hard, I got diligence awards year after year after year, although by the time I reached the end of my final year of high school I was getting disillusioned and bored. I remember getting full marks for an English assignment on advertising, where we had to break down the words and images used in print advertisements and discuss how they attempted to persuade consumers of the need for their product. I thrived on that – I found it easy and could have done it for hours. I struggled with Maths and other subjects though – my strength has always been in critical and lateral thinking, not in memorizing facts and formulas. I went to University because I was deemed to be “bright” and because I couldn’t think of anything better to do. I learned a lot from being there, but I look back and wonder whether it was the best decision I could’ve made at the time. These days, I strongly encourage school leavers to take a gap year, or two, or three. To go overseas and discover themselves and learn about the world before they commit to a career path and a student loan.

“Many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not — because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized.” – Sir Ken Robinson

When I was nine (or so), my teacher encouraged me to write a short novel as a school project (yes I still have it, no it’s not very good though it got an excellence award, and yes of course it’s about ponies). In high school, one of my English teachers so loved a short piece of creative writing that I did for a mock exam that she would read it out to students, year after year, as an example of what to strive for. (I know this because my sister had to sit through it, much to her disgust and embarrassment.)

Writing has always been my forte, and I’ve never felt discouraged in it. My parents in particular have always encouraged it, although they were not quite so encouraging of my inability to put a book down while eating breakfast or (supposedly) going to sleep. (Sidenote: Kindles must make that a whole lot easier for kids these days. I had to get really good at turning out a lightswitch silently.) But although I come from a family of artists, I am not overflowing with visually artistic talent. (In other words, when I draw a tree it only vaguely looks like a tree.) My sister is a very talented artist (she did the cover for How the Unicorn Lost his Horn, which I love) and has always had a flair for drawing and painting. I didn’t take art at school because I figured I would be no good at it. Now, I wonder if I should have. I like art. I enjoy visiting art galleries, and can sit and look at paintings for hours. I am pretty decent at photography and videography and have a good eye for framing a shot. But I never considered myself to be in any way good at art.

Interestingly enough, some of my favourite artworks feature words. I love the work of New Zealand artist Colin McCahon. My mother thinks his work is rubbish, and one of my forms of teenage rebellion was to have a poster of his artwork Gate III on my wall (hardly high rebellion, but it was on the spectrum, nonetheless.) Mum doesn’t see the value in art that doesn’t look photo-realistic (to which I say, why not just take a photo then?).

She looks at McCahon’s work and scoffs. “I could do that,” she says.

My response is always the same. “Yes, but you didn’t.”

“I heard a great story recently, I love telling it, of a little girl who was in a drawing lesson, she was 6 and she was at the back, drawing, and the teacher said this little girl hardly paid attention, and in this drawing lesson she did. The teacher was fascinated and she went over to her and she said, “What are you drawing?” and the girl said, “I’m drawing a picture of God.” And the teacher said, “But nobody knows what God looks like.” And the girl said, “They will in a minute.” – Sir Ken Robinson

Click here for more quotes from Sir Ken Robinson, or listen to some of his TED talks.

And then write this down or print it off and stick it somewhere that you’ll see it every day, to remind you. (Quote attributed to Joss Whedon.)



You cannot afford to have any cardboard characters, anywhere

Last night, while I was working on the revised story outline for Against the Clock, I discovered something about one of my characters that I never knew before. It was one of those weird moments when I was writing, and I tapped out a quick filler line of dialogue for her, and then looked at the words and thought Wait, does that mean…? And as clear as day, she looked at me and said, with conviction and grace and a fierce determination – Yes, it does.

Characters take on a life of their own. It’s a weird phenomenon that I can only liken to the way that sometimes your brain will pluck a completely random and obscure thought out of mid-air, surprising you with it. Characters do that too. I never saw this revelation coming, but goodness it makes her a lot more interesting and layered. And I’m really excited now to explore that new dimension.

In my previous blog, I rattled on about Joss Whedon, one of my writing heroes. Another writer whose work I greatly admire is the much lesser-known Doris Egan, who has written for various TV shows over the years, including House, Smallville, Tru Calling and Dark Angel. Not the greatest shows, but her work was always excellent in it, and she also wrote a few great entries on her blog about writing. In one post from way back in the dark ages of 2006, she was discussing how important (or unimportant) it is to do your research, depending on what you’re writing (e.g. historical fiction = lots of research) and it evolved into a discussion on characterisation. I had the following passage printed out and stuck on my wall for years, and I read it almost every day. It has had a huge impact on the way that I approach writing, and characterisation, and I owe her a debt of gratitude for it.

Let’s move on to look at a hypothetical short story you decide to write about an encounter between a visiting handyman who’s repairing a kitchen cupboard and a ten-year-old boy — a conversation about a bird that strikes the window glass in the kitchen and knocks itself out. Your story takes place in the present day and is from the point of view of the boy. You need only one piece of information here: you want to initiate the conversation by having the handyman ask the boy to fetch him a tool from the box by the door, and you want to know what tool it might be. You could, conceivably, in the heat of creation, write that entire story out while it’s fresh in your mind and wants to be written, leaving a blank in one sentence for the name of the tool.

Those are the two ends of the spectrum: for a historical novel, you may have spent a couple of years reading all sorts of books; for the handyman story, you only need a word, and you don’t have to wait for it to write the first draft. But it is a spectrum, make no mistake.

Let’s go back to the handyman story, and this time do it from the point of view of the handyman. Now you have a bit more research to do, even if the dialogue stays the same — because you need to know the inside of that character’s head. When he walks into that house he’ll be aware, even if distantly, of whether he’s been there before; what kind of jobs he usually does; how long he thinks this will take; whether he sees it as simple or complex; and in a general sense, what he gets out of it. By that last, I mean you’ll want to have an idea, whether you reference it or not, as to why he’s a handyman. Does he like the freedom? Is he in the country on a work permit and this is all he could get? Is he actually making a fair living? Is he good at what he does? When the boy’s mother tells him the problem, does he reflect on how his clients tend not to know what the real problem is, and underestimate how long repairs will take?

Now let’s muddy the waters and say the boy’s encounter with the handyman is one scene in a movie about a ten-year-old boy who witnesses a murder. The handyman has nothing to do with the murder, and is only in this one scene; the point of it is to confront the boy with death (in the form of the bird flying against the window and killing itself). This lets the audience hear what the boy has to say, thereby subtextually referencing the murder and giving us an idea of thoughts he hasn’t been able to share with anyone. None of this is in the viewpoint of the handyman, so you don’t have to work out his life’s story — from a pure research standpoint, you still only need that one tool name. You’re on the extreme “easy” end of the spectrum here.

But. For the scene to mean anything, you’ll want to have an idea of who that character is — again, why he’s a handyman, how much money he makes, where he lives, whether he has a son of his own, whether he’s an easy person to talk to or a misanthrope (the latter could actually be more interesting in this situation) — all the things that give him shape and life. Assuming you haven’t set this story in some exotic locale, most or all of these are things you can work out using ordinary commonsense knowledge. But work them out you must, because in my opinion, spear carriers must live. He’s not going to spill out those details to the boy, but they’ll define how he talks and what his emotional reactions are; and you can’t afford to have any cardboard characters, anywhere.

Not everyone agrees. I remember, years ago, a writing teacher (a good teacher, too) criticizing another student’s manuscript, in which a traumatized crime witness is picked up by a passing couple in a van. They’re feminist activists who work with abused women, and they assume the traumatized woman was attacked, probably by a boyfriend. The witness says nothing to any of this, and the scene only takes a couple of minutes, but I remember thinking how well-realized everyone was. I said to myself, “If the walk-ons are this rich, I can’t wait to read the rest!” The teacher, on the other hand, thought that by making passing characters too interesting, you take away from the leads; a reader’s attention span is only so long. Pish, I say to that. And tosh as well.

Spear carriers must live. And one way to do that is simply never to have them behave as expected if you can avoid it. What really disturbs the attention span of the audience, in my opinion, is the boredom that comes from predictability.

You can read Doris Egan’s full blog post here.

Sometimes that unpredictability is intentional. I had an idea a few days ago for a plotline in a series of six novels that I’m planning (I’m ridiculously ambitious sometimes) that would really muddy up the waters in my protagonist’s life. It’s one of those cases where you think “Wouldn’t it be interesting if…?” and then your brain goes “Yeah, but wouldn’t it be even more interesting if…?” and then you’re just rubbing your hands together with glee thinking about working that story out, except unfortunately now you have to go to work and put stories on the backburner for the day.

But I digress. Several lines from Doris’s blog post above have continued to resonate with me over the last eight years since I first read it:

For the scene to mean anything…

Every scene has to mean something. It has to add to the story in some way, shape or form. It might be simply to establish a relationship between characters, it might be a building block towards a later scene, and the first time through, readers might not think twice about it. But when they re-read, when they come back to it, they’ll be able to see how it fits into the bigger story. They’ll realise why it’s important, and what it means. Every scene has to be there for a reason – another thing I learned from TV. When you only have 42 minutes to tell a story, you have to make every minute of it count. If you want to keep your readers engaged, you have to do the same thing when you write.

You cannot afford to have any cardboard characters, anywhere.

This. This one line, more than any other, goes through my head repeatedly when I’m writing, and when I’m reviewing. Every character has to have a backstory, a reason. One of the characters I’m most proud of is Susannah Andrews, from Dare to Dream (and Dream On, though in a lesser role). Susannah reads like a stereotype, the spoiled rich girl who treats her ponies poorly, and is only out to win. I needed a character like Susannah for the story to work – but I wanted her to be human. There is a reason for everything she does. She’s being driven by her parents and their competitive nature, and it’s her fear of failure and disappointing them that pushes her on. But when it goes too far, she sees it, and she finds the courage to change the course she’s been on.

There are many characters like Susannah in pony fiction – the spoiled rich girl is a staple of the genre. Sometimes these characters are redeemed, and sometimes they’re not. Often they’re redeemed for one novel, when we get a flash of insight into who they are as a person and why they behave that way, but by the next instalment they’re back to being the villain, because the writer only sees them that way in their head. To me, Susannah was never a villain – she was a victim. When I reintroduced her in Dream On, it was important to me that other people were able to recognise that too.

Spear carriers must live.

Which is to say, even the background characters have to have a backstory. I have a huge spreadsheet document on my computer that shows every character I ever have or ever plan to write a book about, and where they are at a certain point in time, so that the books can eventually all exist on a timeline. Characters will weave their way in and out of each other’s stories. (Hint: there is a character in both Dare to Dream and Dream On who will feature heavily in books 3 and 4 of the Clearwater Bay series – although notably all of the Clearwater Bay books actually take place earlier – if you look closely in Flying Changes, you’ll find Peter Andrews competing in Pony of the Year on his grey pony Flying High, who is being ridden by his younger sister Susannah by the time we get to Dare to Dream…)

Again, I digress. The point of this is that every character, no matter how seemingly insignificant to the story, has a background. I am excited to write books about one character where someone forms an opinion of another person and the reader agrees, then they read another book from that person’s perspective and realise that there was so much going on that they didn’t even know before. Because that’s how life works. We never know what’s going on in other people’s lives, and often operate on our own assumptions. I’m fascinated by that, and it is destined to become a hallmark of my work.

Because there are so many things that I know about my characters that readers don’t. Some of these details will eventually be revealed, others might remain only known to me. If they’re not pertinent to the telling of the story, I leave them out of it. But the characters have lives beyond the glimpses that are in my books – they’ve lived before them and will live on after them.

The boredom that comes from predictability.

Never have your characters behave as expected, if you can help it. I think about this a lot. Characters often behave unpredictably in books – and sometimes their actions are startling, but make sense. Sometimes they don’t, and that was a huge challenge for me in writing Dare to Dream – to have the big reveal at the end make sense to the reader, even though it was (hopefully) unexpected. It seemed to work. As pony book expert Jane Badger said in her review of Dare to Dream – “I do like a book where I haven’t worked out how it will end well before I’ve got there.” Phew.

Jane in particular found Susannah to be a compelling character, telling me that “I really liked Susannah, and I particularly liked the fact you sent her away into a complex, and ambivalent situation. Looking forward to see what you do with her next.”

Jane hasn’t read Dream On yet, but she does have a copy to review, and will hopefully have a chance to do so soon. In the meantime I’m trying to be patient, and hoping that she’ll like it as much as she did Dare to Dream. And that she will appreciate Susannah’s journey in this second novel.

Fingers crossed.


I write to give myself strength

I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things I’m afraid of.  – Joss Whedon

Writing is a passion. I write for all those reasons stated above. I write because I have stories in my head that want to be told. I write to share the stories I want to read. I write because there are characters clamouring in my mind to be written about. I write to reflect the experiences I’ve had, that I’ve seen others have, that I wish I’ve had. I write to live vicariously through my characters. I write because I love those characters, and as much as anyone else, I want to know what happens next. I write because I must. It’s so much a part of who I am and what I do and how I think and see the world that I can’t imagine my life without it.

All writers are influenced by other writers, and I’m no exception to that. I have favourite pony book authors, favourite YA authors, favourite fantasy authors and contemporary authors and I have favourite screenwriters. It might sound strange, but I didn’t learn nearly as much about writing from reading books as I did from watching TV. And I didn’t watch that much TV. My mum was pretty strict on that, and right through my teenage years, I was allowed to nominate one show to watch each week. ONE. So I had to make it count. I chose a little show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It sounds silly, and sometimes it was, on purpose. It was also sassy and poignant and dark and witty and horrifying and hilarious and heartbreaking, all at once. Week after week, it hit me in a new place and made me think and feel things I hadn’t thought and felt before. It’s a good show. Actually, it’s a great show, and it’s still one of my all-time favourites. And Joss Whedon was the man behind the curtain, who came up with the idea, wrote many of the most memorable episodes, and ran the show for most of its seven seasons.

Don’t give people what they want, give them what they need.  – Joss Whedon

Joss, and Buffy as a show, was never afraid to pull punches. It was never shy about killing characters, or betraying the audience’s faith in someone. It was never, ever afraid to make the audience feel, and that’s what I loved about it so much. In many ways, Buffy provided a guide to life. I watched Buffy deal with pain, betrayal, death, love, heartbreak, redemption, failure, and much more. I didn’t start out wanting that – I wanted to watch a show about a strong teenage girl who could kick butt and take names and still be a teenage girl at the end of it. I wanted that, and I needed it too, as a teenage girl myself going through my own experiences with failure and disappointment and heartbreak. And I got it in spades.

But I got even more than that. I got storytelling. I got a show that taught me to convey emotions through dialogue – not only through what is said but also what isn’t. That taught me how to pace a scene, how to enter and leave a scene, how to develop a character, how to give a character a redemption arc, how to slowly destroy another character. How to write a fantastic story, in the literal sense of the word, and still make it feel real – still make it resonate, still find the humanity amongst the monsters. Buffy taught me about the fine balance between comedy and tragedy and how you can fill the screen with both, almost simultaneously, if you get the balance right. It taught me how to show, not tell, and how to let the characters’ actions speak for themselves. It taught me how to end every scene with a promise of the next one to come.

Joss Whedon is actually pretty famous now, after a little movie he made called The Avengers made over a billion dollars worldwide. The movie that has been called the greatest superhero movie of all time – because it’s not just action sequences. It’s not just quips and banter and awesome fight scenes and CGI. It’s all those things, but it also has meaning. It also has a theme, and a cohesive plot, and characters who feel like real people in an extraordinary situation.

When you’re making a film, you have an obligation to fill the screen with life. – Joss Whedon

When I wrote my first novel, Flying Changes, I struggled for a long time with the opening chapter. It had a lot of information to convey, a lot of backstory to fill in and the scene to set for where our protagonist is and what it’s all leading to. And I wrote and wrote and re-wrote and edited it so many times that I got incredibly sick of it. In the end, I did the best that I could and I sent it out into the world with my fingers crossed. The first chapter of a story is incredibly important. It’s the one that leads people into the story, the one that needs to grab you and own you and make you want to keep reading. (It’s also the one that people preview on Amazon before they decide whether to buy the book, so it had better be good.) In TV terms, it’s the cold open – the part that comes before the opening credits roll – the promise of what’s to come, which needs to hook you in so that you won’t change the channel.

I have mentioned in an earlier post how I published Flying Changes and the process I’ve recently been going through to reclaim it (in short, I was not responsible before for its distribution online – now I am). As I went to put the e-book back on Amazon, I hesitated. I re-read that first chapter, and then I sat down yesterday and re-worked it. Nothing much has changed, story-wise, but I’m a more experienced, better writer now than I was then, and I can see what’s wrong with it. I can tell where it stalls, and why. I can see why readers find Jay difficult to relate to in the beginning, and why several of them have told me that they found it tricky to get into the story. So I’ve tidied it up. How well I’ve succeeded at doing so remains to be seen, but I’m confident that it’s an improvement.

When I wrote Dare to Dream, I made sure to throw the reader straight into the action. Marley is literally on the move – she’s running into the house and yelling to her sister to call the vet because there’s been a terrible accident. The stakes are raised from the start, there is immediate interaction between the main characters, and their personalities and roles in life are set up straight away. Kris is struggling with the overdue accounts, Van is taking care of the horses, and Marley is running barefoot around the farm, dreaming of winning Pony of the Year.

For Dream On, I knew the reader’s first question on starting the book would be So, what happened next? It picks up a few months after it left off, but the opening lines immediately deal with the questions that were left on readers’ lips after finishing Dare to Dream. I won’t go into any detail, since not many people have read Dream On yet, but those opening lines of dialogue are essentially the comments I was getting from readers – and my response. From there, we get a brief insight into how Marley’s feeling right now and then we’re straight back into the action as Marley saddles her pony and goes off to compete. We are re-introduced to familiar characters, we meet some new ones, and the story is off and running.

I am about to pick up Against the Clock (the sequel to Flying Changes) again soon. I have a whole opening sequence written, one that I like and am attached to. Problem is, it’s weak. It has no stakes. It doesn’t lead forward to anything. So I’m scrapping it, and trying to fit that sweet spot in the story where the action kicks off. The moment where everything starts to happen. I thought about starting Dare to Dream differently, at one stage. I wrote an extended opening, where Marley is going out to catch Nimble, and she finds him injured. But I got rid of it – it wasn’t necessary. When you ask someone to read your work, it’s your responsibility to make it interesting. To make something happen. To fill the page with life.

You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, you find out who they really are.  – Joss Whedon

Characters are as important as plot – more so, I feel. One of my favourite novels is The Catcher in the Rye, a book in which arguably nothing much happens. But it’s memorable because Holden is memorable. Characters have to be memorable. They have to live and love and learn, and take you on a journey with them as you read. They have to leap off the page, to feel as though you could just reach out and touch them. I had a moment while writing Dream On that startled me – I had been working on it all day and I was tired and in need of a break. I thought to myself, quite seriously, “I’ll just go and feed my horse, then I’ll pop round and visit with them… And for an instant, I thought I could. I was looking forward to walking into their house and sitting down in their kitchen, and having a cup of tea with Kris and a chat with Van, and teasing Marley while I patted their dogs and watched their ponies out the window, grazing in the warm evening light. And then I remembered…they’re not real. It was a strange sense of disappointment, mixed with a heady sense of joy, to have created characters so real that even I felt that they were actually out there somewhere, going about their lives, waiting for me to drop in.

Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke. – Joss Whedon

It’s about balance. Light vs dark, contrasting and complementing each other. It’s about letting the audience laugh, before you make them cry. Dare to Dream started out for me as a challenge. The story itself is so traditional, such a cliché in some ways, that I challenged myself to write this ultimate wish-fulfilment story and make it feel real. So I added conflict. I added tension. I added rivalries and struggles and catastrophes around the edges of this golden story of a girl and her pony, so that the reader would feel the same sense of joy and relief that Marley does when things go right for her. So that Cruise would be as golden for the reader as he is for the characters, and the thought of losing him would feel as catastrophic to contemplate for the reader as it was for Marley.

The pony part of the story in Dream On is in many ways the polar opposite of Dare to Dream. This is not a golden relationship, not by any stretch of the imagination. This pony doesn’t want to spend every minute of her day with Marley, doesn’t immediately throw her heart and soul over the fences with her. Scarred and hardened by previous bad experiences, this pony has no interest in Marley or her sisters, and fights them tooth and nail. Every success is followed by another setback, and ultimately Marley is the one who has to adapt, not the other way around. So, because the pony story is a darker, more difficult and challenging one, the surrounding stories lighten in response to that. Where everything with Cruise was happiness and light, and everything else was a struggle – this time the pony is the struggle, but the world around Marley is growing lighter, her burdens less heavy, her struggles less difficult. Most of the time, anyway.

It’s about finding the balance. You can have pain and agony and disappointment, but there has to be light moments too. They’re fun and they’re a relief and the contrast makes the pain that much more painful, and the disappointment that much more palpable.

It is the most fun I’m ever going to have. I love to write. I love it. I mean, there’s nothing in the world I like better. It’s the greatest peace when I’m in a scene, and it’s just me and the character, that’s it, that’s where I want to live my life.  – Joss Whedon

Writing is hard. It’s time-consuming and difficult, and sometimes you have to take out scenes you love, and sometimes you just can’t get a story to work the way you want it to. (And I don’t even work to a deadline.) But it’s also incredibly rewarding.

When a scene falls into place and you know it’s perfect.

When a character does something that you never saw coming, but that will define the whole novel and steer it in a new, fascinating direction.

When your theme seeps from the pores of every scene without you even realising that you were writing it.

When you love your characters so much that you forget they’re not real.

When you get five-star reviews on Amazon. When you hold your book in your hands for the first time.

When someone says that reading your book has changed them – changed the way they think, the way they feel about the world.

When you can make people laugh and cry and feel, just by putting some words on a page.

When you write because you must.

You either have to write or you shouldn’t be writing. That’s all.  – Joss Whedon