Dare To Dream · Dream On

Two more paragraphs…

The pinto pony butted Marley with his nose, and she gave him a chunk of carrot to crunch on before wrapping her arms around his neck and leaning her cheek against his thick coat, closing her eyes and breathing in his warm scent. The events that had brought them together, torn them apart and then seen them – miraculously, Marley still felt – reunited all lay behind her in a haze. She had her pony back, and every morning that she could get out of bed and find him in her paddock, waiting for her, was one to be savoured. She would never, ever let him leave her side again.

And Cruise was equally dedicated to Marley, always pleased to see her, always calling out to say hello whenever he spotted her anywhere on the farm. He never missed an opportunity to remind her of his presence, a habit which had caused her considerable agony only a few months ago when he’d been at shows with his new owner. Every time Cruise had seen Marley, he had whinnied out a welcome, and had seemed disappointed when she’d been unable to bring herself to stop and speak with him. Seeing him belong to someone else had just been too hard for her, but those days were behind them now, because Cruise was back to stay. And this time, when the talented pony went out competing, Marley would be the one loading him onto her truck. She would get to ride him, feed him and muck him out every day; she would be the one grooming him and saddling him and screwing in his studs, warming him up and cooling him down, hosing him off, wrapping his legs and rugging him up; lying on her stomach on the warm, dry grass and watching him graze peacefully nearby at the end of a long, exhilarating show day. She couldn’t wait – but she would have to. The show season was behind her, and months of cold, wet weather lay ahead as winter settled in across the country.

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As if there was any doubt…

If you read yesterday’s post and thought “is this…can it be?” but weren’t quite sure, well you can rest easy. All of your concerns are about to be laid to rest, because here is the third paragraph of what is quite clearly book 3 – looks like “Dare to Dream” is going to be a trilogy.

Marley’s paddock boots were battered and cracked, and the short walk from the house to the hill paddock had already left her with wet feet. She hadn’t bothered putting socks on – what was the point, when they’d only have to be wrung out and rewashed when she went back inside? Her smallest toes rubbed irritably against the edges of her boots, but calluses had built up years ago to provide for this. And it wasn’t as though she noticed. She only had eyes for the pony ahead of her, nickering a greeting as he picked his way down the steep hill, trotted a few paces at the bottom, and halted in front of her with his ears pricked.

She smiled. “Morning, Cruise.”

Stay tuned for a couple more paragraphs and more details over the next few days, and feel free to comment below (or on Facebook) who your favourite character is from my books and why.

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…

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On writing ‘Strong Female Characters’

I wrote this for the Horse Crossings blog a couple of weeks ago, and will repost it here for anyone who missed it on the other site.

On writing “Strong Female Characters”

What is a Strong Female Character? There’s a lot of debate and discussion going on about that right now across the internet. What constitutes a Strong Female Character? How do you make sure to write one (or several)? There is of course, no hard and fast rule, but let’s start with a definition.

One of my favourite definitions comes from this blog, which quite simply points out that “A female character should have the wits and a big enough part in the story to propel and shape the plot significantly of her own accord. We all enjoy seeing women kicking ass, but we’d enjoy even more watching a woman whose decisions are important and taken seriously by the characters around her.”

This goes for girls too.

Many girls around the world love ponies, and they love to read stories about ponies. The success of the “pony book” genre has hinged for many years on the relationship between a girl and her pony, that unbreakable, magical bond that they share. One of the most popular and enduring pony book series in the English language is Ruby Ferguson’s “Jill” series, which contains plenty of wit, charm and realism, and a wonderful protagonist in Jill Crewe. And although written and set in the 1950s, one of the most endearing things about this series is that Jill herself possesses a great deal of agency.

What is character agency? There are boundless definitions, but here’s one that I particularly like:

The character makes things happen. They move the plot forward. They make choices — even if they are bad ones — that propel the story. They make a difference. They do not wait for the story to happen to them. They do not wait to be rescued. They do not let somebody else handle the hard stuff. If your character is sitting around the house gnawing their knuckles and hoping everything will work out okay, you need to punt them into the middle of the action.

Anyone who has read any of the Jill books can scarcely imagine their heroine sitting around waiting for everything to work out, and it is Jill’s tenacity and determination to get things done that make these books so timeless, despite being set in an era that many of today’s readers won’t recognise.

As Ada Hoffman succinctly pointed out on Twitter: Agency is not about characters being good or bad characters, it is about what the characters are given the opportunity to do.

As a writer of YA fiction, I am very aware of my target audience. (Sure, the books are read and enjoyed by many adults as well, but that’s not really who the books are “for”. Their enjoyment is, in some ways, incidental to my purpose.) The young women of today are growing up in a tumultuous, unnerving and difficult world that is quite different from the idyllic lifestyle that Jill and her friends enjoyed in Ruby Ferguson’s series. Today’s girls are hyper-aware of what is going on around them, of what other people think of them, of society’s expectations for them. They are viewing themselves and the world around them through a lens that is at once incredibly narrow and unbelievably wide.

They are looking for characters that they can relate to.

They are looking for role models.

They are looking for strong female characters.

So there’s that question again – what is a Strong Female Character? How do you know whether or not you’ve written one? This blog provides a useful checklist to consider:

  1. Give her a goal and a reason for having that goal
  1. Give her flaws
  1. Let her change
  1. Have her act under her own initiative.

Notice that none of the above has the slightest thing to do with being physically strong. That’s not what it’s about, although it can be an element.

A quick comparison:

Van, one of the characters in my novel Dare to Dream, is described as physically strong. At eighteen years old, she does the heavy lifting around the family farm, building fences and fixing water troughs and riding horses that others have consigned to the scrap heap for being too unruly and difficult. She’s also emotionally sturdy – stubborn and often tactless, determined and passionate, argumentative and resilient. One of her sisters is warned against ever telling Van that she can’t do something, “because she’ll kill herself proving you wrong” (which interestingly enough, is one of the most highlighted passages in the Kindle book).

Her older sister Kris is the opposite of Van in many ways. She’s physically weak, after a riding accident left her with a back injury that severely limits her capabilities. But more than any other character in that book, Kris is possessed of a great deal of emotional strength. Far more world-wise than her twenty-one years, she has given up on her own dreams to raise her sisters after their parents’ death. She struggles on, day after day, complaining as little as possible, selling the horse that she built her own dreams on in order to help her sisters’ dreams to continue to come true. Kris is a pillar of strength, although she never sees herself that way, and (for me at least) is one of the most inspiring characters I’ve ever written.

I want people to read my books and be inspired. Not just because of the way the characters treat their horses, but because of the way they treat one another. In the sequel Dream On, youngest sister Marley is witness to the ongoing bullying of a rival competitor. Marley has ample reason to despise this rival, because the prior actions that she now is being stigmatised for affected Marley more than anyone else, but she believes that this girl has seen the error of her ways, and doesn’t participate in the bullying tactics. And when she eventually sticks up for her rival and helps her out, she is immediately chastised by one of her friends, who calls Marley “naïve” for thinking that the other girl could’ve turned over a new leaf. Marley’s response is, in my mind, one of her greatest and proudest moments.

“Maybe I am,” Marley conceded, starting to walk away. “But I’d rather be that than a bully like you.”

If any of the young readers of this book felt inspired in that moment, if it gave them pause and made them also feel proud of Marley, and think that “I could do that”, then I have succeeded.

It’s about agency, and it’s about emotional strength, and it’s being unafraid of the opinions of others. I do a lot of work with young people and I see a lot of what they are thinking about and worried about on a daily basis. Being an individual, being confident enough to have different opinions and tastes from other people, being resilient enough to keep getting up when you get knocked down, knowing who your friends are and being self-reliant enough to walk away from bad relationships. Teenage girls are not worried about being able to beat up the world, they just want to be strong enough to live in it with confidence.

The people that young women surround themselves with will have huge impacts on their lives, and this goes for the characters they read about as well. Whether male or female, the characters we write do not have to be physically strong in order to be role models. But if their actions can make us smile, make us cheer, make us want to step inside the book and give them a pat on the back, then I reckon that we’re on the right track.

Clearwater Bay series · Dream On

Twenty-fifteen

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2015.

A new year.

I’m hoping for a good one. Fifteen has been my lucky number since I was a kid, when it was the number of my winning raffle ticket at a school gala. I took home a big basket of junk food, the kinds of things my mother wouldn’t usually buy, and although I don’t remember what was in it, I remember the shock and absolute thrill of having won.

I haven’t made any new year’s resolutions, other than to resolve that I will finish and release Against the Clock sometime before my birthday in mid-April, and that I will get another book finished and released before Christmas. (It may be High Jump, the third in the Clearwater Bay series. It may not.)

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I saw in the new year at Pony Club Camp, sitting at a trestle table underneath the main grandstand at the Otaki-Maori Racing Club, playing hand after hand of P&A as we waited for the clocks to tick over to midnight. I won a few rounds and I lost a few too. Mostly I finished in the middle, content to be mediocre. The children hung around, summoned by the bell at ten minutes to twelve, and we counted the new year down together. Poured sparkling wine and fizzy drinks into plastic mugs, and clacked them together. Thought about what 2014 had brought us, and what our hopes would be for 2015. And then we all drifted off to bed, knowing that we had several hours of riding ahead of us the next day.

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There was a scene (well, a handful of scenes) in the original draft of Dream On that I removed before I published it, because they slowed the story down too much. But I have put them online for any interested parties to read, so if you want to know how Kris, Van and Marley celebrate New Year’s Eve, you can read those deleted scenes here.

I hope 2015 has found you well and will do right by you as the year progresses. Ngā mihi o te Tau Hou – Happy New Year!

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

You only know you love them when you let them go

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

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

But I can’t let go.

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

And the day after that.

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

I need to move on.

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

And yet…

I still can’t let my girls go.

Dare To Dream · Dream On

X-ray enabled

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

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

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

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

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

Cruise Control is next, and the list goes on.

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


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


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

Here are a few of my favourites:


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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Dream On is now available on Amazon!

Dream On is officially available to download and read on Amazon!

E-books don’t need back covers, but I designed one anyway for the paperback version, and it looks like this:

DO front and back

Download “Dream On” on Amazon.com (US) here

Download “Dream On” on Amazon.co.uk (UK) here

Download “Dream On” on Amazon.com (AUS) here

So please – click one of the links above, download the book (or Try a Sample first, if you like – it goes a few pages into Chapter 2) and let me know what you think in the comments or by posting a review on Amazon.

Thanks, and enjoy!

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Sing for the laughter and sing for the tears

It’s hard to believe that it’s been three years. We miss you Marley. I still feel so privileged to have known you, and to continue to have you with me as I write these books.

I wanted to release Dream On today, in Marley’s memory, but unfortunately it’s not quite ready yet. So as a compromise, I’ve uploaded the first chapter here in PDF format. Click the link to read it, and let me know what you thought in the comments.


Marley polaroid 2I met Marley Sirjane at summer camp in NH, USA, where I worked for five summers between 2004 and 2010. Marley, like many of the girls who came to the farm at the end of the road, was a regular fixture, returning year after year. Each year she was a little taller, a little older, but little else changed. She always had a boundless enthusiasm for getting the most out of life, and loved her time there. Always surrounded by friends, always with that magic smile on her face that never failed to light up the room.

Part of my role at the camp was to help with camper/horse assignments. Each camper was assigned a horse to ride each week, and one by one they would come to me and tell me which horse they wanted to ride. There were always perennial favourites, and there were always a few that not many people wanted to ride. Montana, affectionately known as Monty (or Monster), has always been one of the latter. A stocky chestnut mustang, he’s a stunning and extremely intelligent horse that was assigned to very few riders, due to his difficult and unpredictable nature. He had come to the farm after our director had seen him tied to a post in someone’s yard without any food or water. The story goes that he’d belonged to a young woman who’d left him behind when she left her boyfriend, and so he’d been abandoned. Never one to let a horse suffer, Tom bought Montana and took him back to the farm. Even if he’d known then how difficult Montana would end up being, I don’t think he’d have done anything differently that day.

Montana polaroid 2004Montana is a horse that chooses his riders – no matter how skilled or experienced you might be, if he doesn’t like you, you don’t have a hope of getting any constructive work out of him. He was never an easy horse to assign, and would regularly be left in the feedlot unridden if nobody suitable was available for him. As one of the most advanced rides on the farm, he was sought after by the experienced riders looking for a challenge, but over the years there have only been a few people who really ‘clicked’ with him. Marley was one of them.

I was not. I rode Montana three times, back in 2004. The first time was one sunny afternoon in the advanced ring, and he was an angel. Extremely quick to pick up new ideas, he tried hard to do as I asked and his canter was the smoothest, most comfortable I’ve ever had the joy of sitting on. His proud bearing and sensitivity made him an extraordinary horse to ride, and I still treasure the memory of that day. What I don’t treasure were the next two rides I had on him. Both times taking him out on trail, with a group of riders behind me. The first time he was almost foot-perfect, only getting a little hot coming home, but I made myself stay relaxed and sang songs to him as we returned to camp. I’ve never been a particularly brave rider, and Montana is an extremely powerful and strong horse. As much as I liked him, I was becoming slightly nervous of him, and I knew that I couldn’t afford to be, for either of our sakes.

Our next ride was problematic. He got upset, and his anxiousness transmitted itself to me. Unable to calm myself down sufficiently to give him the reassurance he needed, I eventually dismounted and led him home. One of my fellow counselors had spent many weeks that summer training him and getting his confidence back after a nasty accident the summer before, and I didn’t want to upset him any more than he already was. As I walked him home, I apologised for not being able to be there for him and give him what he needed. I felt a slight disconnect from him then, as though he pulled away from me a little, and I never rode him again. It was by choice, because I don’t think it’s fair on a horse who need so much reassurance and confidence from his rider to not be able to have it, but I still always liked him, and regarded him fondly.

Montana Marley polaroidBut Marley was one of the riders who could handle Montana. She never became flustered by him, even on his bad days, when he would panic and just canter endless circles of ever increasing speed. She never got mad at him, or asked him why he couldn’t be more like the other horses. She accepted him for who he was, helped him through his difficult times, and loved him unconditionally. And every time she rode him, the bond between them increased. She became one of his special people that he trusted, and there are precious few of them in his world.

When it came to writing Dream On, it was this bond between horse and rider that I wanted to capture. In some ways, Dream On is even more Marley’s story than Dare to Dream was. In that book, Marley and Cruise have a powerful bond from the very start. There is no baggage with Cruise, no trauma in his past to get through, no trust issues to deal with. They have a connection almost like telepathy, and they understand and relate to one another from day one. I’ve had that kind of relationship with a horse, and it’s a magical thing to experience.

Marley polaroidBut that story has been told, and it was time to look at a different type of relationship. One that has to build that foundation. One with a horse that has been through so much that she can’t bring herself to trust people again – and a rider who has to learn how to allow herself to share the love she has within her with others. Although Marley (the character) has always been her own person, the strength of Marley Sirjane’s bond with Montana came back to me time and again as I wrote this next book. I hope that my words can do their relationship justice.

There is now an apple tree planted next to the main riding ring at the camp, in Marley’s memory. I’ve heard it said that when Montana first returned to the ring after the tree was planted, he stood and stared at it for a long time. Everyone waited with tears in their eyes until he finally walked on. Maybe he was reacting to the sight of a new tree, although none of the other horses were overly bothered by it – but he has always been more sensitive than most. Or maybe he knew, somehow, what that tree means. Maybe he was saying goodbye too.

Marley polaroid treeIt’s a special place, underneath that tree. When I went back to the farm for the first time after Marley’s passing, I went up there and sat with her as the sun went down. The sky slowly turned pink above us, and I thanked her for coming along on the journey while I wrote “Dare to Dream” – I had just given her mother the first draft of the completed book to read. Then we sat in silence for some time, before a huge flock of birds came overhead. They swooped and turned and flew back and forth in perfect, chaotic formation, and then all of a sudden, as one, disappeared into the woods.

I brushed away my tears and as I got up to leave, I reminded Marley of what our camp directors always told the girls who didn’t want to go home just yet, who weren’t ready to leave the farm behind.

“It’s not goodbye. It’s just see you later.”

See ya round, Marley May.

Marley polaroid plaque