Dare To Dream

“DARE TO DREAM” – FINALLY FINISHED!

Finally!  My new book, “Dare To Dream”, is finished.  After months of rewrites, I got it to a place where I was happy with it, and it has now been unleashed into the wider world to see if it can find a publisher.

I am cautiously optimistic about its chances, but keep your fingers crossed!

‘Dare To Dream’ is the story of 15 year old Marley Carmichael, who lives with her two older sisters and has spent her whole life training and selling ponies for other people.  Marley has grand ambitions to jump in Pony of the Year, but every good pony she’s ever had has been sold out from underneath her to pay the bills.  Finally it seems as though her dreams are about to come true, when her sisters promise not to sell her top pony until after the Horse of the Year show, but when Nimble is injured in a paddock accident, Marley is back at square one.

Then the most unlikely of ponies comes into her life, a half-wild pinto pony who was only supposed to be broken in and sold quickly, but whose willing attitude and incredible jumping ability reveals him to be the kind of superstar that Marley has always dreamed about. In no time at all, Marley and Cruise have risen to the top of their sport, and it seems as though Marley’s dreams of Pony of the Year might come true after all.

But money and time is running out, and as the countdown to Pony of the Year begins, Marley is forced to risk everything she has in the pursuit of her ultimate goal, and face the possibility of losing the pony she has come to love more than anything else in the world.

Dare To Dream

More than just a good idea…

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.”

VS

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.

Dare To Dream

And so the editing continues…

Well, I finished the first draft of “Cruise Control”, the day before I headed overseas on holiday. I printed out three copies, posted one up North, gave one to my mum and took one with me to read on the plane.

It wasn’t long before I realised that the book has problems. When I start skim-reading my own writing because it’s over-written, that’s not good. When I find myself getting bored, that’s even worse. And when I cringe at how some of the characters’ actions just don’t make sense, that’s a big problem.

But there were plenty of good parts, and the ending worked really well. I restrained myself from crossing out entire pages as I’d promised the book to a friend, settling for just editing the odd typo. My friend that I was travelling with read it, and she said the book was great.

I heard from my mum a week into my trip, telling me that the book just wasn’t working for her, and she was finding it hard to get through, because the plot was stalling in the middle. I’d felt the same way, and told her so. Relieved, she sent me a list of things that she didn’t like. I can always count on her for honesty!

Meanwhile, however, several other readers have read and loved the book, said it kept them up reading all night, and that it made them cry, and are instructing me not to change it too much.

But it needs help. It’s not yet the book that I want it to be. I think right now it’s good, with some parts that are great and some parts that are just okay. But I’m not here to write “good” books. I’m here to write great ones! Like anything in life, there’s no point striving towards mediocrity.

When I start to tell a story, it is alive in my mind. The characters, their nuances, the details of their lives slowly come to light as I write, but from the very start I have a strong feel for these people. I know who they are, and the story that I’m trying to tell. “Cruise Control” isn’t there yet. In its current form, it’s still hazy, still an idea not yet fully executed.

So I sat down one evening in Canastota, NY and started writing notes. Picking apart the characters, trying to work out how to make the story flow better. Which characters to bring into the book more, and which to push aside. Which characters needed more fleshing out, and which needed less help. Which scenes should be cut, and what scenes needed to be written in.

It’s going to take time, as writing always does, and unfortunately there are no real shortcuts. But I feel more focused now, and I’m confident that what people loved about the book won’t change. It’s just that everything around those parts will work better, will read better, and will feel more real.

I hope.

Dare To Dream

The most tedious process of editing …

As I work frantically towards finishing the first draft of my latest book, “Cruise Control”, I thought I would take a few minutes to rest my brain and explain a bit about the editing process of a book (or at least, my editing process, as everyone is different).

When I started writing this story, I had only the vaguest idea what it was about. I will talk about the inspiration in more detail at a later date, but basically I wrote the opening scene straight off the top of my head and went from there. The entire book was written in a fairly organic manner – I didn’t sit down and plot out the storyline before I started, I just wrote! Another chapter, and then another one. I would sit down at the laptop, read the previous chapter, and think about what might happen next in the lives of these characters. When I was about two-thirds of the way through the story and started building towards the climax, a plotline occurred to me that would make for a much more dramatic finale than I had anticipated. Excited, I started writing it, but found that the plotting was more intricate than I’d realised! I wrote the final scenes of the story, but left big gaps in the middle to be filled in at a later date.

Then I got sidetracked with other things (including the release of “Flying Changes”) and it was quite a while before I went back to “Cruise Control”. By this stage, I knew what was going to happen to Marley and Cruise, so the urgency to write had died away. But time ticked by and I realised that I was too attached to this story to let it sit on my laptop and not share it. I decided to finish it off, but when I went back to the file and started writing, I realised that the plotline I had planned wasn’t quite going to work. I had to rethink it, and that took a few weeks. And then I had to decide how to tell the story – how much information should I give? How many people’s perspectives should I provide? I wrote and deleted PAGES of text, trying to make the story continue at a good pace, and still struggling to get it to flow and make sense.

And then one day as I drove home from riding my horses, I had a breakthrough. I suddenly knew exactly what had to happen in the lead up to the big moment at the end of the book. I drove straight home and started writing. Now the ending worked better, and I saved the file with great satisfaction. I still had a few bits and pieces in the story that needed fine-tuning, but they wouldn’t take long. I decided to let the book ‘rest’ for a few days, and then go back and re-read what I’d last written once I had a bit more perspective on it.

But when I went back, I realised that while the ending is now a lot better, the lead-up to it no longer made sense. I had to go back and fix quite a bit of that, which led me to realise that I had to write an entirely new scene.

Okay, I could manage that. But now I was getting concerned about page count. At its fattest, “Cruise Control” was over 350 pages! I re-saved the file and several scenes that didn’t drive the story forward, or provide any new information to the reader. I got the page count down to 300 pages, but didn’t feel as though I could lose any more. This cutback forced me to take out one of my favourite scenes, but sometimes that’s just part of writing. (Of course, anything that I delete I simply cut and paste into a new file and resave – nothing is lost forever, and I would love to continue writing about these characters, so it all might come up in a later book.)

Now I felt like I was on the right track. I still had that scene to write that I mentioned earlier, but that wasn’t going to be too difficult, I hoped. I let the story rest while I mulled it over and searched for inspiration.

And then a couple of days ago, I decided to try something more drastic. I went on a deleting spree, ruthlessly cutting out parts of the story that I liked, but that didn’t contribute to the plot. Once Cruise arrives in Chapter 2, he needs to feature in every chapter. But there were whole chapters around Marley riding her other ponies, that really had no place in the story. So I culled them out. I deleted an entire pony, three horses and seven or eight tertiary characters, took out more scenes that weren’t related to Cruise, and suddenly “Cruise Control” was only 228 pages long.

Now I had room to re-insert that scene that I had loved. And I put back in another scene, although I trimmed it down significantly. And then I decided to cull it back further, and change the impact of one character. I can’t discuss this in too much detail without spoilers, but I think I’m on the right track.

Unfortunately, there are still plenty of edits to do…and I’m running out of time if I want the first draft completed before I go overseas next week! But I’m going to keep trying.

And so I’m going back to it…wish me luck!

Clearwater Bay series · Dare To Dream

Writing to music…

As I write, I like to listen to music. I have a playlist set up on my iTunes titled “Writing pony books” that has 45 tracks that put me in a pony-book-writing mood. The tracks cover several genres, and although folk and country are the most represented, there’s a bit of regular pop and the odd rock song in there too.

Anyone who has read Flying Changes won’t be surprised to know that this track is included in the list:

Yesterday I was working on plotting out the sequel to Cruise Control (I know, I can’t keep up with myself!) and opened the playlist, starting it at random on The Finn Brothers’ Won’t Give In. iTunes was on random, but of the 44 remaining options, it selected the one song that for me, most represents the story being told in Dare to Dream (the Cruise Control sequel) – I Won’t Give Up by Jason Mraz. It definitely gave me one of those ‘wow’ moments…how did iTunes know that was the song I needed to listen to, right at that moment?

Dare To Dream

“CRUISE CONTROL” – coming soon!

I thought I would give you a taster of what my newest book, “Cruise Control” is all about, so here’s the draft back cover blurb:

Saying goodbye to the ponies she loves is never easy, but it has become a way of life for Marley Carmichael, whose family makes their living by training and selling show jumpers. But when a half-wild paint pony arrives on their farm one afternoon, Marley knows instinctively that he is going to be something very, very special.

Her faith in the pony is soon rewarded, as he proves to be a remarkably quick learner and it’s not long before Marley and Cruise are out on the competition circuit, cruising to victory against some of the country’s top show jumping ponies, with a firm eye on the coveted Pony of the Year title class.

But her family is struggling to make ends meet, and as Cruise’s value skyrockets, Marley knows that soon the money offered for her superstar paint pony will be too good to refuse. With Pony of the Year fast approaching, Marley has one last chance to prove herself.

Can Marley save the farm she loves, without sacrificing the pony she can’t live without?