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