equestrian · Thoughts · writing

Horse Show Diary #2: The Pleasure Show

Another week, another opportunity to take the horses on an outing. I am not entirely sure what possessed me and my friend Alice to decide to compete in ridden pleasure classes at the Whanganui A&P Fundraiser Show, except that it was fairly local, cheap to enter and there were classes for Best Walk and Best Trot, which I figured even Flea could cope with…

So we loaded the horses onto the float (something Flea is getting progressively better at) and headed 1 hour’s drive north to Whanganui Racecourse. (Not every show in NZ is held at a racecourse, I swear – just all the ones we go to, apparently.)

The horses both travelled well and tucked into their hay nets when we arrived. We paid our entries and gave them a bit of a brush, flicked on some hoof oil, had some lunch, and discovered that Ace loves falafel (as in, will stick his nose in your tupperware and try to push you aside to get to it, LOVES it). We tacked up, brushed ourselves off and headed over to the ring. Flea had been very good when we arrived, but once I was on board and we were riding across the field, he became a little overwhelmed by the sheer number of other horses (100 or so) milling around in the large area. Some were walking, some trotting, some cantering, some standing still, some being led, but they were all horses he didn’t know (except for Ace) and his brain started to short-circuit from the overstimulation. Ace became his security blanket and Flea was quite unable to function without Ace within his line of sight at all times. I walked and trotted Flea around, attempting to get him to at the very least pay a marginal amount of attention to me, but aside from walking and trotting as requested, he was far more interested in LOOKING at everything and trying to see where Ace was and threatening to have a small hissy fit if Ace disappeared from view. So that was…fun.

There were 12 (?) or so riders in our division, Recreational Pleasure 16 years & over, with a broad range of horses on show.

The first class was Best Presented, and given that Alice and I had read “Plaiting and Jackets optional” on the programme and had thereby opted not to plait our horses’ manes or wear show jackets, we were not placed in this.

We then moved on to Best Walk. I positioned Flea behind Ace, and he walked extremely briskly to keep up. Ace was doing his best Morgan Horse walk, energetic and forward and exuding charisma and presence, as always. Flea was still wound up and yawing at the bit from time to time. We changed direction, during which Flea took the opportunity to itch his head on his foreleg and almost fall on his face. Once we were going the other way, Ace was behind us and Flea’s speed halved from brisk to hesitant shuffle with eyes rolling back to try and find Ace. This, it turned out, wasn’t precisely what the judge was looking for. Ace, on the other hand, was exactly that, and was called in first. Alice was delighted to have achieved her goal of getting a ribbon, so her day was thus declared a success at this point and she didn’t much care what happened next.

The next class was Best Trot, and Flea again participated with some unnecessary extravagance and flair. Now that the other horses were moving around him at speed, and some of them started to pass him, he got more and more wound up to the point where I had very little control over his speed and direction. He was determined to follow Ace, and when he got passed by a third horse on the outside of the circle, he threw a small temper tantrum and burst into canter. Not ideal in a Best Trot class! I got him back to a trot and kept him moving but unsurprisingly he was, once again, not what the judge was looking for. Nor was Ace that time around, and we both stepped aside while the ribbons were presented.

Next was Best Mannered, which at this point clearly wasn’t going to be Flea’s strong suit. Also, we would now be expected to canter all together, and I just wasn’t sure whether he would cope. He was very tense as it was, so although we started the class, once everyone began trotting and he again got very wound up and anxious, I decided to remove us from the ring and see if I couldn’t get him to calm down so he could actually process what was going on. He thought that Ace trotting past him as he stood by the side of the ring was a bit alarming, and when everyone started cantering he became even more worried, so I decided to dismount and see if I could get him to stand still and relax. It took a while – two more classes, in fact, in which Ace was a good boy but didn’t earn himself any further ribbons – before Flea finally decided that he didn’t NEED to move his feet, or push me with his head, or whinny to his friend, and that he could in fact stand quietly, lower his head, half-close his eyes, and sigh.

Once he could stand like that for a couple of minutes, I remounted and sat on him, aiming to get the same relaxation from him with me in the saddle. I don’t usually like sitting on horses at shows and using them as a grandstand, but felt it was important that Flea learned that he could still relax even with me on him. He did tense up quite a bit once I was on board, shifting around a little and calling out to Ace again, but he eventually found a more relaxed headspace and managed to stand still and wait.

Ace, meanwhile, had decided that it had been too long between winning ribbons, and picked up another win in the Best Learner’s Mount (Novice 0-3 wins) class. He was also getting a bit over it by this point, but Alice coaxed one more class out of him to place 3rd in Best Rider. He was then called forward for consideration for Champion and Reserve, and was just pipped at the post for Reserve by another horse that had been a little more consistent across all classes. But he seemed quite pleased with himself and Alice was thrilled with him.

We then rode the horses back down to the other end of the field and Alice dismounted to let Ace have a well-earned graze on some clover while I spent about 10 minutes schooling Flea. Once he’d stopped spooking at the practice steeplechase fences (and the tape reel, and that oddly shaped patch of lawn clippings), he produced some pretty nice work. His left rein canter transition was a little dodgy, but we got it after a couple of attempts. Back onto the right rein, and he cantered nicely, then back to the left and asked again. He was getting tired, more mentally than physically I think, and really struggled to pick up the lead. I let him go back to trot and decided to get some relaxation in trot before asking again, and he actually trotted so nicely, taking the rein forward and down and staying soft on the contact while being relaxed and rideable, that I decided to finish on that good note.

Although the day wasn’t a success as far as ribbons won (for Flea, anyway), it was still a good learning experience for him. By not pushing him to perform when he was already so tense and distracted, he had the time and space to calm down and actually process what was going on. I’ve been told by a lot of people that Spanish-bred horses are slow to mature, and he is just SO busy in his little brain that it’s hard for him to process a lot of new things at once. He’s also pretty herd-bound to Ace, which is not ideal, but they’ve been partners in crime for six months now without any other friends so it’s not exactly surprising.

Before we left for the show, Alice and I both filled in a page of a new project that I’m working on, a ‘Horse Show Diary’ where you fill in your goals and focus for the show before you go, then add in your successes and ‘homework’ afterwards. My goals were for it to be a positive experience for Flea, and for me to get him relaxed and attentive, and we achieved those goals, even though we didn’t participate in much of the actual showing part of the day.  (Alice’s goals were not to fall off, to win a ribbon and to have fun, all of which she also achieved. Good job team!)

I have always found that it’s really helpful to write down your goals, especially with young or green horses, because success isn’t always measured in ribbons and prize money. Since I had decided beforehand what I wanted to focus on and what I wanted to achieve, I was able to think logically when Flea’s level of tension and adrenalin early on at the competition started causing problems. Although I was tempted to just grit my teeth and keep going, I was aware that the goal I’d set was to help him find relaxation when he was out in a group. So I had to think about how I COULD achieve that goal, and work towards that. So often when we come home from shows without ribbons, we think that means we haven’t gained anything from the experience. But hopefully the show today will have taught Flea that he doesn’t have to freak out when he’s overstimulated, that he can be out in a situation with lots of horses all doing different things and still be able to focus and stay calm. It won’t happen overnight, but it’s a small building block towards having a more relaxed, rideable horse.

Pictured: Alice and the incomparable Moon’s Ace with their ribbons at the end of the day.

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equestrian · writing

Horse Show Diary #1: The Gymkhana

It’s probably obvious that I’ve been struggling a little bit with writer’s block lately, considering I released my last book almost a whole YEAR ago. (It’s true. IRISH LUCK came out in June 2018. That’s…confronting.) There have been quite a few changes in my life since that book came out, not least of which was the purchase of a new house and farm, where I have been joined by two horses, a very loyal dog and a very naughty kitten! (Regular updates on my Instagram @kate_lattey if you’re interested.)

I am still working on book 11 in the PONY JUMPERS series, and I do have large portions of it written, but it hasn’t quite gelled together yet. I find myself caught between the desire to write and release the best book possible, and the awareness that it’s been Almost. A. Year. since I wrote my last book. But I don’t want to just churn it out for the sake of it. I have been looking forward to writing this story for some time, and it is slowly coming together. It’s just taking time…and if I’m honest, I’ve been pretty slack about working on it!

So why are you writing a blog about a horse show that you attended two days ago, instead of writing book 11, I hear you ask? Good question. Because I keep getting stuck when I sit down to write. Because I keep talking myself out of just sitting down and doing it, which is the only way to actually get through writer’s block. So I thought I’d start by writing about something I know, something I can write about easily, where I won’t find myself agonising over each word or each character’s motivation.

So…here goes.

Currently, I have two horses in the paddocks at home. Ace is a 17 year old dark bay partbred Morgan gelding, currently on lease from a friend. He came to live with me a day or two after I moved into my new place, just before Christmas, but has been out of work for most of that time after slicing his heel open on a wire fence (because he was pawing at it, demanding carrots). It wasn’t a major injury, but it still cost me $$$$ in vet bills, largely because Ace kept chewing off every bandage that I attempted to cover the wound with. He is not a horse that likes a fuss being made of him – he’s pretty staunch and very independent. He has his own opinions about things, and is steadfast in them. We got off to a slow start together, when I picked a battle (or two) that I shouldn’t have. (Who would’ve thought that asking an experienced trail horse to walk through a patch of sand would have led to an outright refusal and two weeks of sulking? Not I.) Anyway, I eventually had to leave the wound well enough alone to heal, which it has finally done. He’s now back in work and thoroughly enjoying the outings.

Ace’s paddock mate is Flea, a 7 year old bright bay Andalusian x Welsh gelding who came at the same time as Ace, right after I moved in. (Both horses are around 15.1hh). Flea is a chirpy, slightly peculiar, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed little horse, who enjoys an adventure but also uses Ace as something of a security blanket (although he’d utterly deny this if you confronted him about it). Flea isn’t super keen on going anywhere by himself, as he is scared of flapping things – balage wrap is a particular phobia – and finds schooling to be quite hard work and gets rather grumpy about it. (He does, however, try – unlike Ace, who will occasionally flat out refuse to participate in what he believes is pointless circling. Once you’ve been somewhere once, there’s no point in going around and around again, in his mind anyway.)

Ace and Flea are, despite their differences, great friends. Fortunately, my friend Alice is also a keen rider, and she has taken a real shine to Ace, often getting up at the crack of dawn to come and ride with me before work.

Recently, I saw an upcoming pony club gymkhana advertised on Facebook. Hosted by one of our local branches, it was open to riders of all ages, with just a blanket $10 entry fee (with free entry for all local Pony Club members). Although Flea had – to the best of my knowledge – never done mounted games in his life, and hadn’t been ridden more than a dozen times in the past couple of months, I thought it would be a great idea to take him along to compete. Alice was keen to bring Ace too, and we prepped for the show by debating the relative likelihood of Ace even agreeing to leave the start line (marginal), and whether Flea would buck me off as soon as the races began (given his recent propensity for the odd handstand, likely). But we thought we’d give it a go anyway, so on Saturday morning, having done absolutely zero preparation other than hacking a few times in the days prior, trimming their manes to a presentable length, and cleaning our tack, we loaded the horses onto my float and dragged them half an hour south to the Otaki racecourse, where the show was being held.

We weren’t the only adults competing – there was one other.  Also in our group were two sisters, senior riders from the local PC branch. The other adult elected to not participate in the first few races, possibly because her pony was acting up a bit, so initially we only had four of us in each race. With four ribbons to be handed out for each event, this would make us appear quite successful by the end of the day!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We arrived at the show early (for once) and put our entries in, just as it started pouring with rain. After sheltering for a few minutes in a horse truck, the rain eased off, and we headed out to tack up. With 45 minutes to go before the show would begin, I got on Flea and started schooling him. Alice held Ace out to graze while I rode, and Flea, although distracted by looking at the scenery (and having a mild freak out about the number of Shetland ponies in the vicinity) was pretty well-behaved, leading Alice to state that “I think he’s going to be fine.” You know what they say about famous last words?

We went back to the float for a bite to eat and for Ace to get tacked up. Then we started warming up properly, with both of us riding, and several other ponies and horses trotting and cantering around as well. It was at this point that Flea became somewhat overwhelmed, especially when Ace attempted to leave his side and trot off in the opposite direction without warning. Flea had a couple of small tantrums that involved stopping, jumping in the air and then performing a controlled sort of levade that his sire (whose claim to fame was his starring role as Asfaloth in the Lord of the Rings movies) would have been proud of. I was not so pleased with these airs above ground, given that we were at pony club, not the Spanish Riding School, and did my best to dissuade him from continuing with the bad behaviour. I did this by raising my voice and growling at him, which had the effect of drawing attention to me while being utterly ignored by Flea. Good oh. I asked Alice to stick a little closer to me, feeling Flea winding up every time Ace went the other way, and being unwilling to get bucked off in front of all the children (and their parents). She conceded (I suspect in large part because she didn’t want me to end up injured, as she’d then have to tow the float home) and Flea settled down a bit.

We were then assigned to our groups and our judges, who decided to start the competition off with the Guts Gobbling race. (For the uninitiated, this involves riding up to a clothesline strung between two trees, dismounting and eating a jelly snake off a peg on the line without touching it with your hands, then running back through the flags leading your horse.) With only four of us electing to participate in this race – me, Alice, and the two pony clubbers – we all lined up together. I put Flea on the right hand end, so that if the other riders’ horses raced off the start line, I would at least have Ace as a steady buffer to dissuade Flea from leaping forward or bucking. Alice, for her part, was concerned that Ace might not stop at the clothesline but carry on beneath it, thus effectively clotheslining her, but it turned out that neither of us had anything to worry about, because when the judge cried “GO!” both of our horses left the start line at…a walk. In Flea’s case this was a rather anxious walk, and in Ace’s, a slightly confused one as he wondered what on earth he’d gotten himself in for. Happily, we made it the short distance to the clothesline without incident, and jumped off our horses. Alice’s first, failed attempt to eat her snake made the line spin around, and my snake snapped off its peg before I could even get my mouth near it. After checking with the judge that it was okay to pick it up off the ground (with my hands) and eat it, I did so. (Pony club hygiene for the win.) Now let me tell you, it is harder to eat a jelly snake quickly than you might think. Certainly, it was harder than I’d expected it to be! However I got it down and led Flea, who followed at a confused trot, back to the start line, beating Alice by a stride or two to finish in third place. And so it was that Flea won his first ever ribbon in competition for Guts Gobbling. (For anyone who knows Flea, honestly, this is entirely fitting, even though he wasn’t the one gobbling his guts.)

Our next game was the Bending race. To be more specific, American Bending, which in the parlance of New Zealand pony club mounted games means you race straight up to the top pole, weave back between the poles, weave up to the top again, then gallop home. In theory, anyway. While the two pony club sisters raced against each other, Alice and I ran a much more sedate race of our own. Again, I positioned Flea on the end row of poles next to Ace, so that he could be a steadying influence, as Alice was still under threat of having to drive home if she caused me to be bucked off. We trotted up to the far pole, turned around it, and started slowly weaving back down. The sisters, whose horses were equipped with studs in their shoes for grip on the slippery grass, were well ahead of us, even at this point. Flea was confused and excited, but obedient. We wove back up to the top pole, and had there been any bystanders, they would’ve heard me telling Alice that I would let her beat me so long as she agreed not to canter home! What a wimp. Kindly, Alice obliged, and Flea and I finished in fourth place, with Alice and Ace picking up the ribbon for third.

We rode on to the Barrel race, and I volunteered to go first. At this point, the light drizzle had turned into a much heavier shower, and we were all getting rather wet. I took Flea slowly around the barrels, going most of the way at sitting trot, but turning him slowly and carefully around each barrel as the rain came down. Alice followed me with a slightly faster run, and then the two pony clubbers ran a proper race. The ribbons were presented in effectively reverse order, with Flea easily being the slowest on the clock for another fourth placing.

We moved on to the Flag race. As, to the best of my knowledge, Flea had never been asked to carry a flag before, our judge kindly handed me one, allowing me to ride a few steps and put it back in the barrel before the game started, just to make sure that Flea had a basic understanding of what was expected of him. He was pretty quiet about it, although a bit anxious as the other horses were on the start line and he wasn’t sure what was going on. We lined up, with Flea once again on the end next to Ace, and were given the signal to start. Flea darted forward with his head in the air, feeling uncertain and a little overwhelmed, so I decided that instead of trying to grab a flag when he was in that unsettled frame of mind, I’d just trot him up to the top barrel empty handed, turn around it and trot back. We did this twice, while the rest of the field carried their flags, until Flea felt a bit more settled. Then we slowly and carefully transferred each flag into the top barrel and trotted quietly home. We finished in fourth place, but I think our exceptionally slow run had inspired the other adult rider at the gymkhana to join in with our group, clearly realising that she was well in with a chance at a ribbon if I was going to ride every race that slowly! Alice and Ace had again picked up third.

We went next to the Sack race. Yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like – start on the line, ride up to the other end, jump off your horse, get into a sack, and hop back. This is the kind of game that, as a kid, you enjoy. As an adult, it’s a form of cruel and unusual punishment, and that finish line looks a million miles away! This time, because our fifth rider had joined in by now, we ran the race in two heats. Flea and I were second in our heat, relegating Alice to the ribbon-less fifth position as Ace had decided that allowing his rider to hop along in a sack in an ungainly manner whilst trying to lead him was completely unacceptable. Rather than get into an argument with him, Alice elected to stop halfway, step out of her sack and lead him home in a much more normal manner, which I think Ace appreciated. We then had to do the Sack race again – of all the races to run twice, this was the worst – and by the time that Flea and I were back over the line, my legs were like jelly and my abs were on fire. I had, however, hopped fast enough to earn us third place. Woop!

Next up was Run and Ride. In official mounted games, this is a pairs or team relay, where the first rider will run up to the top bending pole, leap on and ride back, then their next team member will ride up, dismount and run back, and so on. In the past, when participating in mounted games training, I had elected to do the leg that required you to ride and then run. However, this game was not in the schedule as Ride and Run, it was Run and Ride, so that was the order we were doing things. I did line up with a small advantage over both Alice and one of the other girls – I can get on Flea from the ground. Ace is so round that his saddle tends to slip when you get on from the ground, and Alice didn’t rate her chances at gaining the saddle, and the other rider’s horse was too tall. However, the judge and steward conferred and decided to assist those who needed a leg-up. My concern wasn’t getting on, it was Flea standing still while I did so.  I’m not as quick at mounting as I used to be, and Flea is pretty round himself. The only time I’ve fallen off him was when the saddle slipped sideways, and the last thing I wanted was a re-enactment of that. We set off from the start, with Alice and I again keeping our horses to a steady trot while the pony clubbers (and other adult) raced ahead. Then we dismounted, and I took a moment to steady and reassure Flea. There was a brief window of opportunity in which I could’ve mounted and ridden back to the start line before Alice had got on Ace, but it closed almost before I was aware of it. With Alice legged swiftly back onto Ace, she headed for the finish line and I waited for our kind judge to hold Flea while I remounted. To be fair to him, he did stand still while I got on, so perhaps I was being overly cautious, but at a young horse’s first gymkhana, the key is to keep it all as relaxed as possible for them, as we still had a couple of games to go. We finished the race, narrowly missing out on fourth place and ending up as the ribbon-less fifth. Meanwhile, Alice’s attempt at a dash to the finish line had resulted in Ace discovering that he actually quite liked this mounted games lark, and throwing in what was, from all eyewitness accounts, a rather large and dramatic buck! As Alice had not bothered to put her feet into the stirrups before racing for the line, she was very pleased that she stayed on, but was unfortunately nosed out at the flags to finish in third place yet again.

We moved on from there to the Postbox race, which we rechristened the ‘Soggy Newspaper’ race, on account of the extremely damp rolled up newspapers that we had to ‘post’ through the postboxes at the other end. Again, I elected to take Flea steadily in this race, and he was getting the idea of it all by that point and performed pretty well. We ran a heat, in which we found the nerve to canter home and beat Ace by a nose, and then a final, where again we went slowly and finished fourth.

With the day almost done, there was just one more race to go – the Lemon & Spoon race. This is exactly what it sounds like, and I selected my lemon carefully, then balanced it on my spoon and lined up, again on the end of the line next to Ace. “Go,” said the judge and off we went. Now Flea, being Spanish-bred, has a very smooth trot. So much so that it’s almost easier to ride him in sitting trot than rising trot, as it’s honestly more of a shuffle than a trot. This is not always desirable but is of vast benefit in a lemon & spoon race, as it allows you to trot up the line of poles without your lemon moving at all on the spoon! We turned around the top pole, and managed to trot smoothly back home to cross the line first! Alice, meanwhile, had dropped her lemon between the first and second poles, and after deciding not to dismount and pick it up, had finished the game with just a spoon. Needless to say, there were no ribbons for Ace that time, but Flea was very pleased to receive his first place ribbon, which was somewhat amusingly recycled from a national Miniature Horse event.

As it was a recycled ribbon day, Alice and I decided to donate our ribbons back to the pony club at the conclusion of the show, for them to use again at a future event. (We did make the horses pose for photos with them first, however. #forthegram.) For us, the important part was that we’d had a fun day out, and had given the horses a chance to do something a bit different than hacking out down the road. The event was well-run, our judges and other competitors were very kind and friendly, and all up we had a great time. The horses even won themselves a couple of sugar treats each, although neither of them were particularly impressed. Flea is a bit of a scraggly bearded hipster, and his organic, free range, crunchy granola upbringing has made him quite suspicious of anything that’s not on his nutrition plan. (Honestly, this is a horse that will eat around pony nuts and any processed feed and just pick out the chaff.) Ace was still feeling a bit vulnerable after our judge had made a comment about the size of his neck, so he also declined the sweet treats, convinced they’d go straight to his hips. But both horses were very pleased with the carrots that Alice had thoughtfully brought along. (Just don’t tell Flea that they weren’t organic…)

We were back home within a couple of hours, and with plenty of daylight left to take the dogs for a walk. I have since scoured the internet for any more local shows to take the horses to, and luckily for them, there’s not one but two coming up in the next few weeks. Neither of them involve any mounted games, however…so we’ll see how Ace feels about going around in (pointless) circles in two weeks’ time. It could be interesting!

Jonty · Pony Jumpers series · Thoughts · writing

Let’s hear it for the boys

for-the-boys

It is a truth universally acknowledged that although a majority of top professional riders are male, equestrian sports in general are dominated by women. Perhaps as a reflection of that, the majority of equestrian fiction, especially juvenile or YA equestrian fiction, is told from a female perspective.

As someone who has read countless pony books over the years, and with over 200 volumes on my bookshelf with an almost comparable number on my Kindle, I can think of fewer than 20 that are told from a male perspective. From classics like Walter Farley’s Black stallion series and Mary O’Hara’s My Friend Flicka trilogy, through to contemporary novels such as Sheena Wilkinson’s brilliant Taking Flight and Grounded, there are some excellent equestrian novels with a male protagonist, but they remain the exception, rather than the rule.

Boys don’t ride

Even in looking for an image to use on this blog post, I discovered that typing “boy+horse” into a free photo search engine brings back markedly fewer results than “girl+horse” does. Why are boys so outnumbered? At my local Pony Club, we currently have eight boys enrolled, ranging in age from six to seventeen. That seems pretty good, but when you take into account that we have fifty-five riders enrolled at our branch, that’s a fairly low ratio! Most of those boys are under the age of ten, and it will be interesting to see how many of them choose to continue riding as they get older. (We did have one sixteen-year-old boy last season who has since decided to focus on soccer instead of show jumping. Just as girls often leave the sport for boys, boys leave the sport for, well, sport.)

In my experience, boys are more likely to start riding because they genuinely want to ride, rather than because their friends are doing it, or because they think horses are pretty. And if they persist through to their teenage years, they reap rewards that they perhaps weren’t going in for in the first place – being one of only a few boys in a swarm of teenage girls is not a bad spot to be, so they tell me.

Jonty was sitting on the fence watching me, giving me an encouraging smile when I rode past, but not offering much else in the way of support. I supposed that with Katy on one side of him and Susannah on the other, he was a little distracted. It was annoying me a lot more than it should have, but it was probably my fault for bringing him along. Teenage boys were pretty thin on the ground at horse events, and while Jonty wasn’t necessarily pin-up material, he was far from unappealing. I was just glad they weren’t going to see him ride, because his skill in the saddle was easily one of his most attractive traits.

excerpt from Four Faults (Pony Jumpers #4)

What’s the difference?

What is the difference then, between female and male protagonists – especially when it comes to a mainly female-dominated genre? Are most pony books written from a female perspective because the majority of riders and readers are female, and they want to read about people like themselves? Is it because the majority of writers in the genre are female? (Of the 21 books listed at the bottom of this post, only two were written by men.) Is it because horse books are often, essentially, romances – but between a girl and her horse, rather than a girl and a boy?

Boys tend to be slightly less soppy about their horses, less likely to shower them in kisses and have feelings of romantic attachment towards them. They are less inclined to declare their desperate love and obsession for their horse, but that doesn’t mean to say that they don’t feel that way.

My favourite pony book written from a male perspective is Pony from Tarella, by Australian author Mavis Thorpe Clark, and it is a story of a young man’s desperate love for a headstrong mare. Although this was published in 1959 and is now out of print, it’s well worth reading if you can get your hands on it.

For a second he stood very still, then his two fingers went up to his mouth, and the shrill insistent whistle floated across the hill. The horses kept on galloping, enjoying their game. Again he whistled. Sunflower was nearer this time.

Did she hesitate just a second? Did her ears lift?

His clear note echoed above the thud of the hooves. She was close this time, but still travelling fast. Another whistle. Her stride faltered, she eased the pace. She seemed to listen. Sandy’s heart bounded. She had heard him…

 excerpt from Pony from Tarella, by Mavis Thorpe Clark

Minority report

Even less common than a straight male protagonist is a gay male protagonist, and of the list of books below, only two of them feature a gay male as their lead character (Mary Pagones’ Fortune’s Fool and its sequel Quick Bright Things Come to Confusion, which share a protagonist, so possibly only count as one gay male voice).

In my book, Jonty is already well-established as a loyal boyfriend to Tess, another of the series’ rotating protagonists, so there is no question of his sexual orientation. But one of his closest friendships in the novel is developed with Frankie, a young gay man in his late twenties, who teaches him a lot about riding, horsemanship, and taking care of the people around you – often before you take care of yourself.

Frankie unclipped the lunge rope from the bridle and patted Last Chance’s sweaty shoulder. “Come on mate. Be a good lad, and we’ll find you a nice home with a teenage girl who’ll kiss you all over your face and give you all the treats you can eat.”

“That’s the dream,” I told the pony, and Frankie pulled a face.

“Maybe for you.”

excerpt from Jonty (Pony Jumpers – Special Edition #1)

Books for boys

But the question remains valid – as most of these books have been written by women, are they actually being written for boys? Do these horse book boys actually behave like boys, or are they teenage girls’ idealisations of boys, or boys who act and think rather more like girls?  (This is not to say that women cannot write books that appeal to a male audience, because that is of course completely untrue. S.E. Hinton, whose Taming the Star Runner I have listed below, has written from a male perspective in all of her novels, and done so very successfully.)

Writing from a male voice is not just about swapping out pronouns; boys think differently, and see the world in a different way to girls. I have spent a lot of time around teenage girls, and understand them pretty well, but I’d never even considered writing from a male perspective before Jonty came along. If you’d said to me “write a pony book with a male protagonist”, I would’ve struggled to know where to begin. But when Jonty was first introduced in Four Faults, he stepped into the story with such a sense of surety and self-determination that I always wanted to know more about him, and see further into his life. A few books down the line, I felt that he was familiar enough now for me to be able to write in his voice. And he hasn’t let me down. I thought I might struggle, but the hardest part of writing Jonty has been keeping the word count down – the only reason that it hasn’t ended up being the longest book in the series so far is because I deleted an entire chapter from the end! (Six to Ride still holds the dubious honour of being the longest, but Jonty is only around 1000 words behind it, and both books are more than twice the length of First Fence.)

There are a few female characters in the book – Jonty’s three sisters, his mother, and his neighbours Hayley and Tess are the primary ones – but the main characters that he interacts with during the course of the novel are male. From his alcoholic father to a grumpy old retiree, from a taciturn local farmer to a disreputable horse trainer, Jonty learns a lot from the men around him, lessons both good and bad.

And not too far down the line is another Special Edition in the Pony Jumpers series, which also has a male protagonist. Once you start something…


SE1 Jonty 150

Jonty is now available for purchase on Amazon – click here to find it online!


Books with boys

Are you looking for YA equestrian fiction with a male protagonist? Check out this list of recommendations below:

Taking Flight – Sheena Wilkinson

Grounded – Sheena Wilkinson

Boys Don’t Ride – Katharina Marcus

The Boy with the Amber Eyes Katharina Marcus

Moonstone Promise (Diamond Spirit #2) – Karen Wood

The Boy Who Loves Horses (Pegasus Equestrian Centre #2) – Diana Vincent

Joe and the Hidden Horseshoe / Joe and the Lightning Pony / Joe and the Race to the Rescue – Victoria Eveleigh

Fortune’s Fool / Quick Bright Things Come to Confusion – Mary Pagones

Out of print

Pony from Tarella – Mavis Thorpe Clark

Patrick’s Pony – Josephine Pullein-Thompson

Show Jumping Secret – Josephine Pullein-Thompson

Classics

Taming the Star Runner – S.E. Hinton

My Friend Flicka / Thunderhead / Green Grass of Wyoming – Mary O’Hara

The Black Stallion series – Walter Farley

The Red Pony – John Steinbeck

(Note: I have chosen to list books where the primary protagonist is male, and haven’t included ensemble books with a good mix of male and female characters. I have also left off books such as Caroline Akrill’s Flying Changes, because while a large part of the story focuses on a male rider’s career, it is never told from his point of view.)

Did I miss any? Comment your recommendations below!

Clearwater Bay series · Dare To Dream · Pony Jumpers series · writing

Almost Orphans: the absence of adults in YA fiction

almost-orphans

I recently came across a question on Facebook from a reader who wondered why the characters in YA pony fiction, in particular, all seemed to have absent, uncaring or incompetent parents. Describing these characters as “almost orphans”, she wanted to know if this was deliberate on the part of the authors, and whether there was a reason for this trope’s popularity.

She’s not wrong that it is very commonly employed, but why? There are a few reasons, which I will go over here, before looking at how this trope can be subverted by telling stories that involve parents in the narrative, rather than absenting them completely.

Parents vs adventures

Firstly, there’s the obvious reason that is particularly important within the equestrian sub-genre of YA – risk. Riding horses is an inherently risky pastime, and parents are far more likely than their children are to worry about those risks. Any responsible parent is also quite likely to get in the way of exciting adventures by simply refusing to give their child permission to do something, and these days there are a lot of parents who are highly involved in their children’s lives, allowing children and teens to have less independence and personal agency than they would have likely been allowed in the past.

Clearly there is no chance of a protagonist having an adventure with a responsible parent in tow, so parents must be either permanently absent (whether physically or emotionally), or the protagonists must go behind their parents’ backs to undertake adventures. Of course any reasonable parent or adult would refuse to allow their offspring to undertake a midnight rescue mission, or ride that wild horse that nobody else can master, so the protagonist must be able to escape that parental influence, either through subterfuge (sneaking out despite being told not to) or having parents so incompetent or oblivious that they don’t even notice that they are gone.

You’re on your own now

It is difficult, in this day and age, for children to be completely off the radar, so to speak. As my fellow equestrian author Maggie Dana said, when we were discussing this topic, “…these days with every kid from nursery school onward having a cell phone, it’s almost impossible to get them into trouble that they have to extricate themselves from without grownup help!”

That’s a problem in contemporary books that cannot be overlooked, and the rapidity and fluidity with which teenagers can now communicate with one another can make plotting more complicated for an author. Imagine how different the adventures of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five might have been if they were all carrying cell phones, and could just have called the police when they found a cave full of smugglers, then gone back to eating ham sandwiches and making beds of gorgeously springy heather under the stars. If they weren’t too busy Instagram-ing their adventure or scrolling through Facebook while they waited for the chops to cook…

Maggie’s way around this problem is a simple one that is often called into service by authors (pun intended) – “This is why I always point out somewhere in the beginning of my books that cell service on the mountain is unreliable, which it invariably is, in the hills of northern New England.” Having worked in southern New England myself, I can attest to the plausibility of that approach.

Live vicariously

Another theory as to why parents are so often conspicuously absent is that some of the most avid readers of equestrian fiction are those who never had the chance to live the horsey life for themselves, so they live vicariously through fiction. These readers are often far less exacting of details, and far more willing to suspend disbelief that anyone who has actually worked with horses simply cannot do. They embrace the fictional adventures of a young protagonist who is or was just like them, struggling to find a way to ride, dreaming of brilliance and glory, yet held back in reality by their location, or financial constraints, or unsupportive parents who didn’t place (in their mind) sufficient value on the dream of equestrian glory.

For these readers, wish-fulfillment through fiction is a panacea to their own disappointment, and thus unfulfilled or long-lost dreams. A lack of parents here is not a prerequisite, but these types of stories often tell of a character who succeeds despite these obstacles – a lack of parental understanding and financing being just one of many hurdles to overcome.

All by myself

There is also a metaphorical element at play here when it comes to YA, whereby authors are using the lack of parents as a literal embodiment of the loneliness and isolation that teens often feel at this point in their lives. It’s not uncommon for teenagers’ relationships with their parents to break down somewhat during their teen years as they fight for their independence, yet this growing-up process can also be unexpectedly isolating for a teen, especially someone who is used to relying on their parents for guidance.

One of my most popular characters is Susannah, one of four main protagonists in the Pony Jumpers series (Triple Bar and Seventh Place), who was raised by very protective, disciplined parents. Everything from her schooling to her social life was dictated to her, until her parents’ relationship starts to fall apart, and she is suddenly given an independence wholly unfamiliar to her, and one that she is not entirely able to cope with.

I was ready just in time. Dad pulled up as I reached the end of the driveway, and I hurried over to him and pulled the front door of the Audi open, sliding gratefully onto the cool leather seat. I could feel my father’s eyes on me as I pulled the door shut behind me, and I stared straight ahead at the streetlights, avoiding his glare.

“What the hell are you wearing?”

“Can we not do this right now?”

Dad shifted the car into park, and rested his hands on the steering wheel. “I think now is the perfect time.” He sniffed the air, his frown deepening. “Have you been drinking?”

I closed my eyes, not trusting myself to speak.

“I’m talking to you, Susannah.”

“I know. I can hear you.”

“What do you have to say for yourself?”

I took a breath, then let it out again. “Can we just go home? Please?”

I heard my voice crack on the last word, and felt the atmosphere in the car recede slightly. My eye were still shut tight, but I heard Dad moving the gear shift, and the car glided into motion.

“Don’t think this is the end of this conversation.”

I was under no such illusion. Nothing was ever over until my father had had the last word. But I didn’t want to deal with it right now, so I kept my eyes closed and said nothing.

When we got home, I went straight to my room and peeled the dress off, then kicked it across the room. It lay slumped in the corner as I changed into pyjama shorts and a t-shirt, feeling at once more comfortable in my own skin. I went into the ensuite and looked at myself in the mirror. No wonder Dad had flipped out when he’d seen me. My eyes were black smudges against my pale skin, and I turned the hot water on and grabbed a flannel, scrubbing at my face and eyes until I’d removed every last trace of makeup. My eyes were bloodshot and stinging, but I felt like myself again.

– extract from Pony Jumpers #7: Seventh Place (by Kate Lattey)

Whether we want them to be or not, for the majority of teenagers, parents are very much a part of their lives. It may be easier to structure a storyline around a character who is not being constrained by their parents, but doing so is a loss of opportunity to explore the dynamics between teens ad their parents, which are often at a critical point during that time in their lives.

When Susannah’s father does eventually confront her about the party situation, a few days later, the ensuing conversation is a little awkward as they both slowly lower their defenses and begin to communicate with each other.

“I’m sorry.”

“You said you wouldn’t drink. You promised,” Dad said, his voice becoming louder as he warmed to his subject. I wondered if he’d attract Mum’s attention, then remembered that she was out with clients again. Undoubtedly that was part of what had made this seem like the ideal time to speak to me.

“I know. I’m sorry,” I repeated.

“Sorry isn’t good enough,” Dad warned me. “You’re grounded. No more parties.”

“Fine.”

He seemed surprised by my easy capitulation. “That’s okay with you, is it?”

I sighed. “Dad, in case you haven’t noticed, I didn’t exactly have the best time at Callie’s. I’m not in a big hurry to go through all that again, so yeah, it’s okay with me. Ban me from ever going to another party, I don’t care.”

He must have been bracing himself for a fight, because he didn’t seem to know how to react to my compliance. “Well, good.”

He uncrossed his arms and turned to leave, and I picked my magazine up again and looked at the diagrams of shoulder-in exercises, trying to memorise them for tomorrow’s schooling session on Skip. From the corner of my eye, I saw my dad stop and turn back, one hand resting against the door frame.

“I’m sorry it didn’t work out the way you’d hoped.”

I met his eyes, unsure whether he was still talking about the party. I decided it didn’t matter.  “Me too.”

– extract from Pony Jumpers #7: Seventh Place (by Kate Lattey)

On the flip side of the coin from Susannah is AJ, another of the main characters in my Pony Jumpers series, who is the fourth of five children in her family, including an older sister with special needs. Her parents have bought her a pony, but have thereafter largely left the responsibility for his care up to her. It’s not until AJ meets Katy, and discovers what it’s like to have wholehearted support from a horsey parent, that she starts to feel as though she’s missing out. But when she realises that her cheap GP saddle is holding her back from progressing further, her parents are quick to remind her that she can’t expect to be given the world.

 

“Honey, I understand that you want to have nice things,” Mum said, missing the point entirely. “But riding is already an expensive hobby, and we’ve just forked out a lot of money for Squib’s new shoes. We just don’t have the spare change to be spending on a new saddle when the one you’ve got is perfectly serviceable.”

“But…”

Dad spoke up before I could continue. “How much would a new saddle cost?”

I shrugged. “It depends on the brand, and how old it is. I don’t need a brand new one,” I quickly pointed out. “Second hand is fine, or third hand. Just as long as it fits both me and Squib.”

“Ballpark figure,” Dad insisted.

“Two thousand?” I suggested. “Maybe fifteen hundred if it’s a good quality second-hand one…” I could see that I’d already lost them, and I was being conservative in my estimates.

“That’s what we paid for your pony!” Mum pointed out. “How can a saddle cost more than a horse?”

She looked at my dad, baffled. He shrugged, because he didn’t know any more about horses than she did, then spoke, each word making my spirits sink lower.

“We made the deal with you when we bought you a pony that we weren’t going to spend thousands on showing him,” Dad reminded me. “You told us then that you were happy just to ride, and go to Pony Club. Having a fancy saddle and going to lots of big shows wasn’t ever part of the plan.”

“I know. But Squib’s so good. I mean, he’s really talented. He could go all the way to Grand Prix, jump in Pony of the Year.” I could see the scepticism on their faces. “Katy says so, she says he’s got talent to burn and it’s a total waste not to shoot for it. And you’re not even paying for his grazing anymore, because Deb doesn’t charge us anything, remember? And she takes me to shows for free, and gives me lessons, and they have lent me heaps of gear.” They had no idea how cheap this whole thing actually was for them. “And I paid for Squib’s registration out of my savings, and his entry fees come out of my pocket money…”

“AJ, I don’t think you’re hearing what we’re saying,” Mum said, addressing me by my actual name for once, which meant that things were getting serious. “We are not prepared to spend thousands more dollars on your pony. It’s not fair on your brothers and sisters for us to put more money into your hobby than theirs, just because yours is more expensive. Now if Squib is sick or injured, we’ll pay for the vet bills. But outside of an emergency like that, the money just isn’t there to be spent. It’s not a matter of us sitting on it and refusing to hand it over – we simply don’t have it to spare. You know that.”

Dad tried to be less deflating. “You are more than welcome to sell the saddle you currently have, and put that money towards a new one,” he said, thinking he was being generous.

Mum beamed at him, as though that was an excellent suggestion, not understanding that my saddle wasn’t worth much at all. But I knew it was pointless arguing, so I just nodded.

“Thanks.”

I tried not to sound too depressed. I wanted to get mad and yell at them, the way that Katy would yell at Deb if she’d put her into this situation. But Deb never would. She’d go without groceries for a month to buy Katy a saddle if she thought she needed it, because their entire lives revolved around the ponies. I wished my parents were like that, but they weren’t, and no amount of sulking was going to change that fact. I was just going to have to accept it.

– extract from Pony Jumpers #5: Five Stride Line (by Kate Lattey)

With freedom comes responsibility

Of course, not all protagonists are ‘almost orphans’ – some are literal orphans, or as good as, with parents who are either deceased or almost permanently absent.

While not strictly a pony book, Monica Dickens’ World’s End series is a great example of this – the parents are almost always entirely absent through most of the four-book series, leaving the kids to run the household, scrounge up enough money to eat, and raise one another. To Dickens’ credit, and part of what makes the books so memorable, is that she never portrays her characters’ lives as remotely easy, but is still able to celebrate the great amount of freedom that they enjoy, which children growing up in more normal, civilised environments can only dream about. With freedom from parental supervision often comes hardship and responsibility, and the World’s End books (and S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders) were particularly inspirational to me while working on my Dare to Dream books.

The three sisters in Dare to Dream and its sequel Dream On are literal orphans, living on the edge of solvency while trying to raise each other and still find the time and money to compete a string of show jumpers. (This is not as impossible as it seems in New Zealand – entry fees and the costs of keeping horses are far more affordable here than in many other countries.) The girls are often forced to sell their favourite mounts to make ends meet, and when one pony suffers a career-ending injury, difficult decisions must be made about quality of life – not just his, but theirs.

The absence of parents in this story works in a variety of ways. Firstly, it puts the responsibility for keeping the farm going solidly on the shoulders of the sisters themselves, with no other adults to save them. Extended family are sympathetic, but unwilling to finance the girls’ riding careers, and they are, by and large, left on their own. This adds a gravity to the story that might not otherwise have existed – when youngest sister Marley faces the threat of having to sell her favourite pony, there is no parent who just doesn’t understand that is going to change their mind and let her keep him. By putting the responsibility for that decision onto the shoulders of her sisters, who are as horse-crazy as Marley and deeply empathetic to her plight, her refusal to concede to her sisters’ wishes drives a wedge between three very close siblings who need to work together if they are going to be able to stay together.

A scene where the eldest sister and primary caregiver Kris is speaking to the family’s social worker outlines some of the hardships that this family is facing:

“As for Vanessa,” she continued. “Isn’t it about time that she got a proper job?”

Kris was resolute. “Van’s an adult now,” she told Camilla. “What she does with her life is up to her, I’m not legally responsible for her anymore.”

“She lives under your roof,” Camilla replied. “She eats your food and uses your amenities, and as far as I can tell, doesn’t pay any rent.”

“She’s my sister.”

“So is Marley, and she’s the one you need to be providing for. I understand that your injury means that you can’t work, but Vanessa is fit and healthy and more than capable of finding a job. However…”

Kris was well aware of the point the woman was trying to make, but didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of leading her to it, so she sat silently until Camilla was forced to continue her own sentence.

“However, her options are limited, given that she left school without any qualifications,” she told Kris, clearly relishing the opportunity to say ‘I told you so’. “But I took the liberty of having a look around for her, and there are a few positions available at the moment that I think she should apply for.”

She slid a piece of paper across the table to Kris, who accepted it with a frown. Glancing at the list, she couldn’t help smiling ruefully.

“Waitress? Checkout operator?” she shook her head. “Van would be useless at those jobs.”

“She’s well capable of any of them, if she decides to apply herself,” Camilla argued. “There’s only so long that you lot can keep going on the taxpayer’s dollar, you know.”

Kris bit her lip, the ache in her back intensifying. She wanted so badly to argue, to tell this woman to stop being so rude and judgmental, but the words wouldn’t come. If Van had been there, she would’ve leapt down Camilla’s throat and given her a piece of her mind. If Marley had been there, she would have told Camilla to get lost and stormed out of the room. But Kris had never been any good at confrontation, and without her sisters to back her up, she stayed silent as the criticism washed over her like waves, slowly eroding her self-confidence.

Van’s response was exactly what Kris had predicted.

“Doubt it,” Van said, tearing the list in half and tossing it in the bin. “What business is it of hers if I have a job or not? Isn’t it Marley that she’s supposed to be pestering you about?”

“Don’t worry, I got an earful about her too,” Kris assured her sister.

“What does she think I do all day, sit around watching TV? Keeping this place going is a full time job.”

“I know.”

“Which reminds me, what time are we going to transport those yearlings for the Andersons tomorrow?”

“Not ‘til half ten, they’ve got church in the morning.”

“Sounds good, I’ll have time to work a couple of horses before we go. See, we’re making money. Camilla can go take a running jump. The world would be much better off without her poking her nose into our lives. We’re doing fine!”

Van drained off her cup of tea and stormed out of the room, slamming the back door behind her. Kris sighed as she stirred sugar into her tea, listening to her teaspoon clink against the edge of the chipped mug. Eventually she was going to have to face up to the reality of their situation. Money was running out, and fast. Van hadn’t sold a horse in months, and right now, it was Marley who was keeping the family afloat. Kris’s eyes lifted to the photo of her father that sat on the top of the cabinet, smiling down at her with crinkly-eyed confidence, and she knew she had to do whatever it took to keep them going. He’d always had so much faith in his daughters, and she wasn’t about to let him down.

– extract from Dare to Dream (by Kate Lattey)

Fortunately, for the most part, the three sisters in Dare to Dream get along. Sure, they do have some almighty dust-ups, but the bond between them is an integral part of the story structure and it is ultimately her sisters’ best interests, not just her own, that Marley has to face up to. And it is the bond between them that keeps them together, despite the adversity they face.

“Why does [life] have to be so hard for us, when so many other people have it so easy?” Marley asked angrily.

But Kris shook her head. “Don’t underestimate anyone else’s pain, Mar. Everyone goes through hard times. Life’s thrown us a lot of challenges, but we can’t back down from them. We’ve just got to keep going. Keep fighting, keep living, keep having fun and working hard and always doing the best we can.”

Van pulled Marley in closer to her own side as she made eye contact with Kris. “We’ll be okay,” she reassured her sisters. “As long as we stick together.”

Marley nodded, dropping her head onto Van’s shoulder as Kris leaned in tightly on her other side. Marley closed her eyes for a moment, feeling the warmth and strength of her two sisters, always there beside her, holding her up and keeping her strong. Their courage and determination, the sacrifices they had made and the love they shared for one another lifted her spirits in a way that nothing else could, and slowly the ache in her heart started to subside.

The girls sat still for a long moment, watching the sunset reflected in the gently rippling water below them. And as they wondered what the future held for them, all three were comforted by the knowledge that whatever was coming, they would face it together.

 

– extract from Dare to Dream (by Kate Lattey)

The search for support

Ultimately, my personal view is that while it is often easier to have parents or parental figures in YA be largely absent, doing so is a missed opportunity to tell a more interesting story. Absent or inadequate parents have become such a convention in YA that they’re almost a cliché by now. More challenging, but more rewarding by far, in my opinion, is exploring the stories that each of those parents have to tell. There is a rich web of storytelling on offer, if writers take the time to use it. This blog post is already long, yet I haven’t even talked about Tess, whose mother is a bully and whose father is so busy working that he barely notices; or Jay, who grew up far away from her father but has to learn to live with him, a confirmed bachelor, after her mother’s death; or Jonty, who is struggling to cope with an alcoholic father and a mother who refuses to leave him, despite the havoc it is wreaking on their family.

Not all parents are created equal, and that has to be shown in fiction as well. But whether a character’s parents are good, helpful people or not, there is one thing I try very hard not to do, and that is to ever leave a teenage character in a situation where they have literally nobody to turn to for support. In my mind, that is the most terrifying scenario of all, and one that no young person should ever find themselves in. Whether it’s a sibling, or a coach, or a friend, there should always be always someone out there who cares, and who is willing to help. They don’t have to save the day – it’s often far more compelling if they don’t – but to ignore the vital role that mentors and support people play in the lives of young adults is to set a dangerous precedent, in my mind. Young readers are easily influenced by their heroes and heroines, and nobody has ever succeeded without getting support from someone, somewhere, at some stage in their life. Writers of YA fiction are road mapping scenarios for young readers, giving them examples of trials and tribulations and ways to overcome them, whether by using realism or fantasy. Life was not meant to be lived in isolation, and the world is not out to get you on a personal level. Sometimes as a teenager it’s hard to realise those things, but for fiction to imply otherwise is, in my mind, quite simply wrong.


Do you want to read pony books where the parents (or parental figures) are not conspicuous by their absence or incompetence? Check out these recommendations below:

Young Adult:

Pony Jumpers series – Kate Lattey – click here to download #1 First Fence for free!

Dare to Dream – Kate Lattey

The Perfect Distance – Kim Ablon Whitney

The Island Trilogy – Tudor Robins

Junior / Middle Grade:

Timber Ridge Riders – Maggie Dana

Blue Ribbons – Kim Ablon Whitney

The Riverdale series – Amanda Wills

Any I’ve missed? Do you agree, or disagree with my post? Leave a message in the Comments below!

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.

Pony Jumpers series · Six to Ride · writing

Putting yourself out there

putting yourself out there

It’s always exciting to release a new book, but it’s a little nerve-wracking as well. It’s putting yourself out there, and every time I write another book, I get a little big nervous about how it’s going to be received. Especially when I’ve written something a bit different, or covered a different topic to something I’ve done before. SIX TO RIDE takes a firm step into serious YA territory, and SEVENTH PLACE is following hot on its heels. Without revealing any spoilers or giving too much away, it will suffice to say that this series is going places that your average pony book doesn’t. Seems to be a hallmark of my writing…unfortunately for my poor characters, I don’t like things to be too easy or predictable. There’s no fun in reading a book if you know what’s going to happen in the end, right?

I’ve never subscribed to the belief that pony books should deal with ponies alone, and ignore or gloss over the other details of life. Otherwise all of your drama and tension has to come from the horse storyline, and there are only so many injuries or colics or evil competitors that you can write about without ending up repeating not only yourself, but a hundred other writers of equestrian fiction out there. That’s one of the beauties of being self-published – there’s nobody to tell me that ‘you just can’t do that in a pony book’. I can write, essentially, whatever I like!

6 Six to Ride - DIGITAL (E1).jpg

Of course, that’s both a blessing and a curse. The difficult part comes in releasing a book that nobody (literally, nobody) else has read until the moment that it goes online. For my longer novels (the DARE TO DREAM and CLEARWATER BAY books), I have a group of beta readers who give me feedback before I release them, but none of the PONY JUMPERS books have been treated to that scrutiny. I write them, I read back through them (rarely more than once) to tidy up the spelling and grammar, then I release them into the world – and get cracking on the next one. (NB: If you spot a typo in one of my books – email me and let me know! I won’t be offended…in fact, I’ll reward you with a free e-book for your troubles.)

But it’s not just the threat of hidden typos that makes me nervous when I unleash a new book onto the unsuspecting public. It’s the fact that while I’m in the writing process, and even before that, in the drafting and imagining processes, I can change the story as much as I like. I’m constrained only by what has gone before, but going forward, I can do anything. I have a lot of plot points figured out, but I’m not married to any of them. I could change them all, completely, and nobody would be any the wiser. But once a book is published, the words on the page become real. Become canon, to borrow a term. Now that other people have read it, it has become a part of the story, and there’s no going back. I suppose it’s a bit like making pottery – you mould it and mould it until it’s the shape you want, and then you fire it in the kiln, and if you get it out and discover that it has lumps and bumps and uneven patches, you’ve just got to learn to live with it.

SIX TO RIDE both does, and doesn’t, feel like that. I’m sitting here second-guessing myself about a few things, but for the most part, I’m happy with the way the book turned out. (I don’t know whether I’ll ever be completely happy with a book – there’s always room for improvement – but I didn’t want to throw the laptop across the room when I was reading it back, so that’s something.) Are there lumps and bumps and uneven patches? Probably. Undoubtedly, in fact. Those things are natural byproducts of writing. The biggest challenge right now is to keep all of my facts straight, and I can’t tell you the number of times I had to open one (or all) of the previous books in Word and search for a name, or a reference…knowing I’d mentioned that character before, hoping like heck that I hadn’t said something that was going to negate what I’d just tried to write, and crossing my fingers constantly that I haven’t inadvertantly contradicted myself at any point. I do have a file that outlines every character and their physical characteristics, their behavioural quirks and prior descriptions, their backstory and their family’s names, and any tidbits of information I threw in there at random that might become important later.

With 20 books planned for the series (and 14 of them still to write) it’s becoming more and more important that I not only get these details right, but continue to plan ahead. When I wrote FIRST FENCE, it was on a whim. DOUBLE CLEAR was supposed to be a one-off opportunity to see Katy’s side of the story, and then I couldn’t resist writing from Susannah’s perspective, and so TRIPLE BAR came along. But from then on, it spiralled out of control, and now I have not only plots for those remaining 14 books, but all of the titles, covers and blurbs as well. (I just bought the cover images for books 7 and 8 today, and have been having fun designing back covers for when I get around to setting up CreateSpace and making copies available in paperback.) And I have notes. Countless, endless notes – some on my computer, some on my phone, some scrawled on the back of my shopping lists or in that 2013 diary that I never used.

First 6 covers 150dpi

And still, every day, something new comes to me. Some new storyline or scene springs to mind. Some books are clearer than others – I’m still very fuzzy on book 9, and I’m just hoping to have some inspiration by the time I get to it. Book 11, on the other hand, I could write tomorrow (and actually already have some scenes penned). A new character turned up today who will feature sporadically from book 7 onwards to the end of the series, and I have a sneaking suspicion that she’ll be around a lot more than even I’m predicting. Characters have a habit of taking control of their own narrative, and steering the story in directions that I never expected them to go.

But that, after all, is the fun part. I just hope that my readers are enjoying the journey, and are willing to continue the ride.

 

Jonty · Pony Jumpers series · writing

When characters write themselves

WCWT bannerHave you ever watched a TV series and found yourself rooting for a couple that aren’t the ones who are “supposed” to be together? That despite the storyline that the writers have planned, the chemistry between the actors (or lack thereof) creates a dissonance for the viewer and they lose interest in whether or not they will end up together, because in actuality the prospect of two different characters uniting is far more entertaining? (Dawson’s Creek is one such example. Veronica Mars is another. I’m sure you can think of more.)

This gets particularly awkward when the couple you’re rooting for do get together, but you just know that the writers don’t want it to end up that way. That their pairing is supposed to be a bump in the road, or the-one-along-the-way on the path towards true love, not the happily ever after, and you have to watch as they throw obstacle after obstacle in their way…

Well, the reason I’m waffling on about this is because it just happened to me. Only I wasn’t watching a TV series…I was writing a novel.

As I finished Triple Bar, I knew I had to get the first two chapters of Four Faults written before it was released, so that it could tag along at the end and (hopefully) inspire readers to look forward to the next in the series. This one was particularly important for two reasons: a) readers didn’t know Tess nearly as well already as they had done for Katy and Susannah in books 2 and 3, when I’d formerly employed this tactic, and b) I was about to go on a three week holiday to America and I knew that it was going to be a longer wait than usual between books, so I wanted readers’ appetites whetted.

So I started writing Four Faults. I wanted to set the story on a big working sheep farm, because I hadn’t done that yet. I love farming and the rural lifestyle, and my goal is always to give people reading from overseas an insight into the New Zealand way of life, and to give the Kiwi readers something they’ll recognise. I put Tess on the top of a hill, looking out over the family farm. I journeyed there in my mind as I wrote, watching as Tess patted her pony, swigged some water, talked to her dog, then looked back to see someone riding up behind her…

Sidenote: When I started writing Four Faults, I was chatting to a friend on Facebook and I mentioned that this book had another “farm boy” in it. (She’d just been saying how much she likes Alec, from the Clearwater Bay series, who is your quintessential farm boy.) She responded enthusiastically, and asked his name. I said “Bayard”. She approved. I went offline and continued to write.

As well as using a farm setting, I also wanted to throw a bit more of a romance into it. I knew that the main story points for Four Faults weren’t necessarily pleasant ones – Tess is being bullied into riding a pony she’s afraid of, her sister is being nasty to her, her friends are mostly oblivious to her, and then Hayley starts having unexplained seizures, and everything is turned completely upside down. So I needed something that would lighten the story, that would make you smile and make Tess happy, so that she didn’t spend the whole book being pushed around by other people and/or wallowing in self-pity (which nobody likes reading about, no matter how true to life it is).

But I struck a roadblock really early on, because Bayard wouldn’t play ball.

Often when I write a book, I start with a rough outline of a character – their basic looks (hair, skin and eye colour, physique, etc) and their essential personality – then build on it as I go, learning more about the characters as I write. Because I write the Pony Jumpers books so fast, and because the first two chapters of the books are always written well before the rest of the story, I’m writing those initial scenes completely off the cuff, without much prior planning. I’m also usually writing fast, because I’ve got the previous book finished and I want to get it released sooner rather than later!

Writing the first two chapters of Double Clear was easy. I already knew Katy well, as she’d not only been around since Dare to Dream but I had other stories already squirreled away in my head with her name on them. I was familiar with her personality and her lifestyle and the story I was going to tell. (Well, mostly. Katy definitely surprised me when I wrote Double Clear, but I’ll explain more on that when I have written book 6, I think.) Susannah was obviously another well-known character, if not well-liked, and she was really interesting to write. Both of those girls flowed easily off my fingertips, surprising and impressing me by turns, but never giving me pause or making me wonder if I was telling a story that would be true to them and worthwhile reading.

But I got myself into a pickle when it came time to write the first two chapters of Four Faults, because Bayard wasn’t doing what he was supposed to do. And I wanted Tess to be equally frustrated by him, to be trying to get his attention because maybe he was just oblivious to her and I could work with that, but nope. She wasn’t remotely romantically inclined towards him either. Bayard had been her best friend for a long time and she had never thought about him differently.

The pair of them were doing my head in. Alongside that, another strand of the story that I’d been planning to write, which had sounded awesome in my head, was not transferring itself to paper at all. I couldn’t make it work, so I removed it entirely. Problem was, that was supposed to be the part of the story that helped Tess out and made her a braver rider, which was what the book as a whole had to achieve. So now I was really stuck, and getting grumpier and more frustrated by the minute.

I shut my laptop and cleaned the kitchen. It’s amazing how sometimes doing something simple and menial can help. I was home alone, so I was talking to myself (I do this constantly – at home, in the car, while riding my horse…it is my favourite and most successful way to come up with characters and storylines). And out of the blue came the idea to have Tess realise that she liked Bayard, because there was someone else trying to get her attention, and only in first accepting and then rejecting that would she and Bayard see what was lacking between them, and close that distance.

Jonty sprang into my mind almost immediately, his name already picked out, confident and sure of his proper place in the story. I knew his personality at once, although his physical appearance flickered for a while before it resolved itself vaguely in my mind. (I didn’t care much about that anyway – it’s only important so that I don’t change his hair or eye colour halfway through. I never bother too much with physical descriptors, preferring to leave it up to my readers to use their own imagination and preferences). I finished washing the floor and went back to my room to meet Jonty and introduce him to the story. Opened the laptop, mulled him over in the ten or so minutes it took my old computer to boot up Word, and threw him into the story.

In those first two chapters, Jonty appears very briefly, standing in the doorway of his house in a pair of rugby shorts and nothing else. He waves to Tess, who ignores him and rides away.

Done. Right?

Not quite. I’d also dedicated a page or so to explaining who Jonty was and why he was there. I established that Tess didn’t like him because he was cheeky and gregarious and hung around when he wasn’t wanted. He had a pony called Taniwha that he used to ride when he was younger, and three little sisters that he complained about, and he lived in a rough house because his family were poor and his dad lacked ambition to better their circumstances.

That was the Jonty I was planning on writing. He was going to turn up and annoy Tess, who would end up riding with him over the farm on a regular basis (because reasons), and he would help her to overcome some of her fears by simply challenging her more than Bayard did. Tess would start feeling braver and more confident in her own life as her confidence grew with Misty, and start finding Jonty more appealing than she did before. At this point, Bay had to swing into action and get a little jealous, and Tess would roll her eyes and fend him off until Jonty did something that put her into danger, at which point Bayard would be there to pick up the pieces, and she would discover that she liked him better anyway…

That was the rough outline. I was prepared to make changes along the way – I always do, no matter how thorough or vague my outlines are. But I was not prepared for Jonty, because he clearly never read a word of it.

Jonty never once did what I expected him to do. He rewrote his own character at a rate of knots, and no matter how hard I tried to make Tess get snarky with him, or for him to annoy her, he would not stop flirting and she would not stop fancying him. And Bayard was just sitting in the corner, switching from being oblivious to outright sulking, but never doing a darn thing to try and change the situation.

So the story changed. I gave up trying to make Jonty into the character I’d first seen him as, and let the reins fall loose. Tess dropped back a little, unsure, but Jonty took the bit and ran with it. He knew who he was and what he wanted out of life, and his calm self-confidence and empathetic approach helped Tess exactly the way I wanted it to in the first place. Bayard went from being my intended romantic hero to shuffling around in the background, which irritated me for a while – but I got over it. (I’ve got plans for him down the road, don’t worry. He’ll be back.)

Some planned scenes stayed in but were adapted. When Jonty’s recklessness led to Tess getting hurt, Bayard didn’t swoop in to rescue her. Well, he tried. But he was well and truly fended off, because that scene had turned into something else altogether…

Four Faults ended up being a very different story from the one I’d planned to write. I wonder if this is why it ended up being a lot longer than the previous Pony Jumper books (which clocked in at 31k, 37k and 38k respectively – Four Faults was 55k by the time it was done!). It just took me that much longer to get my head around these characters, and I knew that the slow-burn between Tess and Jonty had to be slow enough to make it count. No insta-love around here!

But I am so happy with the end result. Jonty is one of my favourite characters, and he helped me build Tess into the person I wanted her to be. It’s so strange how easily what you thought you knew when you started can change. For me, that’s a big challenge of writing the Pony Jumpers series, because often even I have no idea where it’s going when I start. And it’s not over yet, because before I could release Four Faults, I had to write the first two chapters of Five Stride Line and that did the same damn thing.

Once again, I had bullet points. I had story and I knew where it was going, and that much of it did. AJ was familiar territory, as were Katy and Anders and Alexia, because I’d written them all before and I wasn’t anticipating any surprises. But I had another new character to bring into the story, and like Jonty before him, Harry ended up being nothing like I’d originally expected him to be.

But you know what? That’s a good thing. It’s a really good thing, actually, because sometimes when you let characters have a looser rein, they fill out into real people. They go from being an idea (or an ideal, which is a death trap in my opinion – idealised characters are dull to read about) to being a person, and now that Harry is ten times the smart aleck that I ever thought he’d be, the progression of his storyline is going to work even better than I’d imagined. So I’m excited.

I’m also excited to go back to Jonty and Tess later on, and I’m excited to move forward with Katy’s storyline too, and Susannah’s. I have rough outlines for several more novels, planning out each character’s complete arc, and all of the books so far are steadily building towards them. I’m sure to hit a few road bumps along the way, when more characters refuse to do what they’re supposed to, but you know what?

I can’t wait to find out where they end up.

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

Finding a way to the finish

As originally posted on Horse Crossings.Clearwater Bay covers 1&2

Today has been a big day. I have finally finished, and published, my fourth full-length novel. It wasn’t supposed to be my fourth novel – it was intended to be my second. But my best laid plans didn’t quite turn out the way that I’d expected…

After I wrote and self-published my first novel Flying Changes in 2011, I started work on the sequel right away. Partly because I wanted to, and partly because I was told to. Don’t stop! everyone said. Keep the momentum going. Don’t be a one hit wonder.

Small chance of that. Everything I write is part of a series. I can’t seem to do it any other way, even when I want to.

My first book was optimistically labelled Clearwater Bay #1. It was always going to be part of a four-book series. I had titles for four books, and I had commissioned four cover photos. I knew what happened in book 3. I knew what happened in book 4. (I’ve had the final chapter and epilogue of the last book written for at least two years now.)

There was just one problem. I didn’t know what happened in book 2. Other than the fact that it was called Against the Clock, it was a blank slate, a page without any words.

Looking back, no wonder it was hard to write.

Just skip it, suggested my mother. Move on to the story of book 3. Make it a trilogy instead.

Not terrible advice, except that there was no way I could do that. For the events of book 3 to have emotional resonance, there needed to be time and character development from book 1. I needed Jay, my protagonist, to grow up a little bit more before I could throw her into the dramatic events of book 3. But I was struggling. I looked over the first draft and knew that it wasn’t great. The story leapt all over the place, characters turned up for a few chapters then vanished without any resolution to their part of the story, and the whole plot just meandered along vaguely.

Eventually, I was so disparaged that I couldn’t even look at it, so I decided to write something that would just flow. Something that I had no stakes in or expectations of, just pick a scene in my head and start writing, and see where the storyline would go. I clearly recall sitting in my bedroom in Ireland, visualising that house’s cluttered front hallway, and starting to write.

She ran down the hall, bare feet slapping against the dusty floorboards.

I kept writing, intrigued, as my new heroine ran into the kitchen to find her big sister sitting at the kitchen table, surrounded by overdue accounts.

“Nimble’s caught in the fence! Van cut him out but he’s gushing blood all down his leg, and you have to call the vet.”

It was supposed to be one scene, a writing exercise full of action that would break me free of the net that I was trapped in. It wasn’t supposed to turn into a book, but those characters moved into my head and took over. A year and a half later, I had completed a novel called Dare to Dream.

I released it into the world, and went back to working on Against the Clock. Armed with more skills and experience and the newfound realisation that even pony books can’t be all about ponies all of the time, I started hacking storylines and characters out of the first draft. But then the story just lay there, apathetic and dull and uninspiring. I fumbled around for ideas, and found a few. I added them to the story, watched them settle in and become part of the fabric of that world. They worked, but they were small character moments, not big plot moments. And the plot itself was still feeble. It still didn’t work.

Meanwhile, Dare to Dream was gaining traction. It sold well, and consistently. It got five-star reviews. Readers loved these characters, loved this storyline, and wanted more. And the characters themselves wouldn’t go away either. They wanted their story to be continued. I knew what happened after the events of Dare to Dream, but nobody else did. I wrote the epilogue to the sequel, and it made me cry. So I decided that everyone else should get to read it too. I put Against the Clock aside once more, and started writing Dream On.

Just under a year later, Dream On was released to rave reviews, and I went back once more to Against the Clock. This time I was going to make it work. Armed with yet more knowledge and writing ability, I stripped the story right back to its bare bones, then slowly pasted the character moments back in around the plot. Slowly, slowly, it started to form into a proper novel. It fell into place, just needing me to write some additional scenes and trim back or rewrite a few existing ones. It was almost ready.

There was only one problem – I was really struggling to let go of Dream On. I don’t usually like reading my own work, but I kept going back and re-reading that book, just so that I could live in that world a little longer. I couldn’t help it. I didn’t want to go back to Clearwater Bay and deal with Jay’s smaller, more trivial problems. I didn’t want to go back into first person and not be able to explore different viewpoints, or jump to another character to keep the pace going. And I love the girls in Dare to Dream and its sequel. They’re the kind of people I’d be friends with (are in fact loosely-based on actual friends of mine) and I was still missing them. They’re sisters, with a strong sisterly bond, and I felt as though they were part of my family. It was really hard to walk away, but I made myself do it.

I made myself step back into Jay’s life and take her hand and guide her along the path towards book 3. And eventually she stopped snatching her hand away from me and telling me that her story was stupid and boring and I shouldn’t really bother, and we started working together. And when it got hard and stagnant and I wondered why I was bothering, the voice of one of Jay’s good friends in the book came into my head, as it does hers when things get tough in the narrative.

“Suck it up, buttercup.”

We both took his advice.

Against the Clock is done now. It got auto-delivered to the lovely people who have pre-ordered it on April 19th, and I can sit back and cross my fingers and hope that people enjoy it as much as my beta-readers (fortunately) did. So far, so good.

And so, on to book 3 in the series. I’m looking forward to this one, although it’s going to require a lot of research and a hefty dose of imagination. There are some dark moments in this book, and while I can’t wait to explore them, it’s going to take some work to get myself into the heads of these characters. Because the thing with writing a series in first person is that there are only so many things that can happen to and directly affect one character. For Jay, her journey is as much about learning from other people as it is about herself. It’s about learning to recognise other people’s problems, and understand their opinions, and expand her own view of the world through the framework of how others also perceive it, and how she perceives other people. I’m excited to explore that, and I can’t wait to get to the end. I’m on a roll now, and Jay has decided that yes, she does want her story told. It also helps that the next two books will involve more outside characters, and less internal monologuing. And in those moments that still creep in, when I’m feeling particularly dispirited and wondering if I can be bothered writing these books, I re-read the last chapter of book 4, and I know that it will all be worth it when I get there.

In the meantime, to stop myself from stalling when Jay has a tantrum and refuses to be written (it happens), I’ve started a new series. (Yes, I’m crazy.) I didn’t mean to do it, but I wanted to know how fast I could write a novel. Dream On took the shortest length of time, and it was still almost a year. So I set myself a challenge over Easter to write a novel in four days. Astonishingly enough (even to me!) I achieved it in three days. It’s short – only 30,000 words – but I’m intrigued to see if I can keep it up. To write short, complete novels in very short periods of time is a good exercise for me, and I already have characters and storylines for the next three novels. And these girls all desperately want their viewpoints shared. (Characters can be so bossy!)

You can read First Fence, the first book in the Pony Jumpers series, for free on Wattpad (http://www.wattpad.com/story/35897826-first-fence-pony-jumpers-1) and it will soon be available on Kindle as well, with a sneak preview of the upcoming sequel at the back. I hope to have the sequel out by the end of this month (the first two chapters are up on Wattpad, but the whole book will only be available on Kindle), and the third book in the series out by late May.

As for book 3 in Jay’s story, I’ve already got some scenes written. In fact, I wrote one last night, and it’s included at the end of Against the Clock to whet readers’ appetites for what’s to come. I’m excited to get going on it, because I’ve been wanting to write about these characters and tell this story for years. And now I feel as though I’m ready. It’s their time.

Trouble is, there are a few others out there who want their books written too, and they still won’t shut up…

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.

writing

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