Pony Jumpers series · Six to Ride · writing

Sticks & Stones

sticks stones

The following post contains spoilers for SIX TO RIDE. Consider yourself warned.

One of the best – and sometimes worst – parts of being a writer is being reviewed. Good reviews make your heart sing, inspire you to write more, make all of the tedious hours of self-imposed exile seem worthwhile. Indifferent reviews are can be shrugged off with matching indifference, and while bad reviews are an inevitability, you just have to try not to let them get you down. Not everyone is going to like your books, after all. That’s just life. But every so often a review comes along that halts you in your tracks. I got one of those today.

It started promisingly enough, awarding the book five stars because the reader loves the series (and I’m immensely grateful and happy to hear that). She then went on to explain, at length, what she didn’t like about Six to Ride.

Let me clarify something quickly – I’m not here to complain about this review. I honestly didn’t mind getting it, because constructive criticism is a good thing, and I’m the first person to ask for it. It was a well-written, well thought out review – something else I’m grateful for. But the reason I’m writing this is because this was a review that challenged me, and made me stop and think about what I’d written, what I’m writing next, and where I’m going with the whole series. It forced me to evaluate the path I’m on, and to be sure that I’m heading in the right direction. I wasn’t sure I would ever post this, when I wrote it, but I think it’s important enough to say out loud.

So here goes.

The three key points that the reviewer made in her dissection of the novel related to Tori, Phil, and Katy.

Tori

This book barely mentions the new horse and it is relegated to a sub plot role so that Katy can get her flirt on with a boy.

Tori was a tough one to write, because she’s an ongoing plot line for Katy, and this book was mostly providing set-up. I wanted readers to see what she was like, to learn why, and to also understand and appreciate that difficult, psychologically-damaged horses can’t be fixed by love alone, and especially not in the space of three weeks. These things simply don’t happen overnight, unfortunately.

So every section of the book that featured Tori was, by necessity, a down beat, a negative moment. There isn’t a breakthrough and there isn’t a golden moment. So to balance out that negativity, it was important for me to limit these scenes, to avoid the whole book being dragged down into a negative quagmire, and temper it with lighter, more optimistic moments. Usually AJ is a good provider of those, but there’s some distance between AJ and Katy right now, and Katy is feeling isolated from her friend, so that wasn’t going to work. Phil was the obvious choice to shift the mood and provide some lift to the story, while Katy slowly works out that she can’t help Tori without first swallowing her pride and asking for help (and admitting to her father that she couldn’t do this on her own, or right away).

Phil

A boy who, lets not forget, was a total a-hole in the last book… I hope Katy dumps his ass in the next book but it seems likely that he will stick around or will dump her instead.

There have been times in the past when I’ve read a book and found myself absolutely and utterly loathing a character that the author was clearly very fond of. A character in whom the writer clearly found some redeeming qualities, but who left me extremely cold.

Phil is not that person to me. As the author, I’m extremely fond of him. But he’s complex. He’s light and dark, sunlight and shadows, and he flickers from one to the other at the drop of a hat. And yes, he will be sticking around. But he won’t be universally beloved by all of the other characters  – one person, in particular, has no time for him at all. Yet despite some of his less endearing qualities, I want him in the story because he has a story to tell. He’s a non-horsey person growing up surrounded by people who are obsessed with horses, and that’s a dynamic that I want to explore.

And now we get to the meat of it.

Katy

My main complaint about this book was the set up for Katy to develop an eating disorder – the classic pony box (sic) trope of the already skinny girl who becomes anorexic due to family drama stressing her out. It’s been done to death and does not need to be repeated. 

Trope
1. b. common or overused theme or device: cliché <the usual horror movie trope>
– Merriam Webster dictionary

This is what really threw me, when I read it. Because I didn’t set out to write a cliché, or to follow a pony book trope. Generally I try and do the opposite – take what you think is likely to happen next, and flip it on its head. But somewhere along the line, I must have missed the fact that this was a pony book trope, because clearly I’m not reading the same books as this reviewer. Aside from Tudor Robins’ excellent Objects in Mirror, I actually don’t ever recall reading a pony book about a girl with an eating disorder. The reviewer did list a couple, which admittedly I haven’t read, but to me, it wasn’t an obvious storyline thrown in there because I couldn’t think of anything better, or to add extra drama. It wasn’t that at all…

Let me explain how it happened. When I started writing Double Clear, I was fresh off the end of First Fence, and ready to step from AJ’s head into Katy’s. It was an easy transition – I felt like I knew Katy already, as she’d turned up even before First Fence, making her debut in a handful of scenes in Dare to Dream, then reappearing in Dream On. She was part of a backlog of characters that I have in my head, ready to be drawn upon when the moment demanded it, and so when I’d needed someone just like her in First Fence, she’d stepped into the story and owned it.

So I started writing Double Clear, with only the vaguest idea of where I was going with her side of the story. I’d written First Fence almost entirely off the cuff, chapter by chapter, literally making it up as I went along. And I started Double Clear the same way. I stepped into Katy’s head and looked around. Where was she? In the yards, in the dark, in the rain, with her favourite pony Molly. Why was she still out there? Because Molly wouldn’t eat her feed. Katy does her best to persuade her, but without success.

Moments later, Katy goes inside the house, refusing her own dinner because she’s feeling overwhelmed with her homework and everything else she has to do. She doesn’t want to take the time to sit down and eat, despite her mother’s nagging. This scene pretty much wrote itself, as it drew a neat parallel between pony and rider that helped to underline the bond between them – because it was this bond that was about to come under serious threat.

But somehow, almost without me noticing, it had become more than that. Because the opening scenes of Double Clear are about not wanting to eat. And that stuck around in my head as I wrote on, and worked my way deeper into Katy’s character. And I started to wonder, and I started to worry. And as I began to worry about her, she resolutely refused to worry about herself.

The plot thickened.

You might assume at this point that I thought “well clearly this character is anorexic, so I should expand on that theme and make an ‘issue’ out of it.” But what I actually thought was “I know how she feels.” Confession: I’ve skirted around the edges of eating issues in my own life, and have been fortunate that I’ve had a strong enough will and family support to always be able to nip it in the bud. But I know what it’s like to be too anxious to eat. To have to force yourself to put something in your stomach, when you know it’s going to make you feel sick afterwards. To experience physical pangs of hunger until the moment food reaches your mouth, when it abruptly becomes almost physically impossible to chew and swallow. It’s not fun. It sucks, and it’s scary, and honestly I hesitated to put Katy through that, because I’m fond of my protagonists and nobody needs that in their life. But by then it was too late. The story was waiting to be told, and honestly, I felt like it needed to be told.

I don’t know how those other books that the reviewer cited depicted eating disorders. I don’t know whether those other authors wrote from personal experience, or because they’d heard that anorexia is an ‘issue’ that many riders face and thought they’d touch on that in the midst of their book series, before moving on to something more entertaining. I do my best to write books that feel real, with characters that seem real, who live in the real world. I look around myself when I’m at shows, at Pony Club, in the equestrian environment, and I write what I see. I write with an eye on the people I know, and I know girls like Katy. I know girls who’ve suffered terribly, and hidden it successfully. Girls who seem to have it all together, but who are fighting a desperate battle on the inside, striving frantically for an unattainable level of perfection. Their self-confidence is all a mask. Deep down, they’re hurting. They just don’t want to let anyone see.

And that brings me back to Phil, because that’s also why he’s in the story, and why he’s so important. He, too, has pain he can’t express, and no outlet for it. Like Katy, he’s battling against the tide of others’ expectations, only he’s stopped trying to prove himself, has quit trying to fight back. It became too hard to care, so he gave up. A nonchalant shrug and a closed off expression. Keep them at arm’s length. Pretend everything’s fine.

But he’s been friends with Katy for too long to really be able to hide from her. And he can see through her as well. Slowly, tentatively, they’re opening up their wounds and trying to heal each other.

I hope Kate Lattey reconsiders where she is going with Katy’s story because this book was disappointing.

Sorry, but I can’t. I’ve set these characters on a path, and it’s too late now for them to turn around. They’ve got a story to tell, and a reason to tell it. And I’m not going to change that.

Because when I think about those girls I know, who have battled silently, struggling along thinking everyone else had it together and they were the only ones who were getting it wrong, I want them to know the truth.

That they’re not alone. That we’re all fighting our own battles, and that there is hope. There is a way forward, and there is a way home.

Be brave. Keep fighting. Keep moving forward, because it’s not over until you’ve given up.

This is their story…Katy’s story…my story…your story…our story.

And it wants to be told.

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