Another quote from my first book, “Flying Changes”. I would guess that anyone who has read the book knows which scene this comes from!
Another quote from my first book, “Flying Changes”. I would guess that anyone who has read the book knows which scene this comes from!
When I sat down on my bed in Ireland two years ago and started writing, I had only the vaguest idea of the story I was trying to tell. All I knew was that I had just been watching some YouTube videos of the 2010 NZ Pony of the Year winner, Showtym Viking, and his owner Amanda Wilson. I wasn’t watching POY footage, but some bareback and bridleless jumping they’d done at home, and I was struck by the bond that they shared as they cleared 1.30m fences with ease, seemingly completely at one with each other, happy and confident and loving life.
I was more than impressed. I was spellbound. And it immediately struck me that this was a story I wanted to tell.
So I started writing a story about a girl who had a spectacular young paint pony that took the show jumping world by storm. But it was also to be a story about a relationship between pony and rider that transcended the competition arena. A combination who jumped for the love of it, who worked as a team, who didn’t argue or fight with each other, but simply went out there with the determination to do their best – and do it together. And a combination who clearly enjoyed one another’s company, and who weren’t all about winning. A girl who didn’t wrap her pony in cotton wool, but took him bareback down the beach, swum in the river at home and mucked around bareback – just enjoying life, and letting him be so much more than just a competition pony.
I didn’t even really expect to ever turn it into a full novel – it was just a fun exercise. But the characters turned from vague ideas into real people, and their story wanted to be told. I wrote the first few chapters in Ireland, and even now as I read through the scenes, I picture them in the same kitchen that I sat in on so many wintry Irish evenings, up against the warm stove, writing and dreaming and telling their story. That story soon became known as “Cruise Control”. I picked it up and put it down several times over the years, as I not only cemented the story in my mind but also came to meet Amanda and Viking, as well as her sisters Vicki and Kelly, and the rest of their family. Their support and encouragement, as I took the plunge into self-publishing my first novel, was invaluable. And from the moment I first saw some of Kelly’s photos, I knew that if anyone should be taking photos for the covers of pony novels, it was her. One of the draws of self-publishing was the opportunity to pick my own cover photo, and I immediately lined Kelly up to do the cover shoot for me. And I was so happy with the results – the cover of Flying Changes is a testament to Kelly’s awesome photography, and she gave me so many options to choose from that I have plastered them all over this blog – not one terrible photo amongst them!
But I digress. What I wanted to talk about here was the difference between having an idea for a novel, and actually writing it. They say that the hardest part of writing is to WRITE. In some ways, this is true. Sometimes the motivation isn’t there, sometimes the words just won’t flow, and sometimes it’s just plain frustrating, wanting the story that’s so clear in your mind to be down on paper already!
But that’s the trick of writing. It’s not having the idea, as much as being able to tell it, and crafting it into a cohesive plot, that truly reflects the story that lives in my mind. If I could draw my books out of my head with a wand, as they do in Harry Potter, stick it in a Pensieve and download it onto the laptop, I’d have over 20 books published by now! But I have to do things the hard way. And maybe that’s for the good. Certainly if the prolonged editing process has taught me anything, it’s just how important it is to learn to tell a story in a cohesive way.
I finished the first draft of “Cruise Control” in a rush before I went overseas. I’d been promising it to Amanda and her family for months, and finally I got it done. I never read it all the way through before printing and posting it to Northland – just popped it in the post, packed my own copy in my backpack and jumped on a plane. I was looking forward to reading it, to seeing the characters come alive on the page, and to be able to share them with other readers, which really is the point of going to all the effort of writing it down.
I eagerly opened “Cruise Control” on the plane, and started reading. I finished it in the hotel in NYC. And I sat back and thought, “uh oh.”
It’s not a bad book. In fact, judging by the feedback that I got from the Wilson family on it, I’d say it’s already a pretty good book. But it’s not a great book. Not yet.
In my mind, the characters are completely alive. I feel as though they’re real people – I know the way they walk, the things they say, the way they might react to any given situation. I know who they are, what inspires them, what depresses them, what frightens them, what excites them. To me, they’re real, three-dimensional people, and I thought I’d translated them effectively onto paper. But as I read through the draft, I realised that I’d left gaps. I hadn’t told the reader enough about these girls – not just what they do, but who they are. What makes them tick. Why the reader should care about them. That’s the difference between a good character, and a great one. Good characters feel real. Great characters are the ones you want to be real.
There’s a great maxim in writing that goes “show, don’t tell”. This is particularly directed at scriptwriters, but it also applies here. When I write, I don’t want to tell the audience what to feel. That’s something that annoys me, whether I’m reading a book or watching a movie/TV show – I hate being dictated to. I want the freedom to make up my own mind. I don’t even like it when a TV show, for example, will give a dramatic drum roll before announcing a plot development or twist – if I’m shocked or in suspense, I’ll be feeling it! I don’t need help. It’s like a laughter track on a comedy show. If you’re laughing along, you don’t even notice it. But if the show’s not funny, the laughter track is irritating, and seems patronising. I don’t need to be told what’s funny! And I especially hate being told that things are funny when they’re not.
So when I write, I try to show, not tell. I try to depict a character’s emotions through their actions, and dialogue. For example:
TELL – “Marley was feeling nervous as she buckled Cruise’s throatlatch. This was her last chance to qualify, and if she didn’t place in this class, her Pony of the Year dream would be all but over.”
SHOW – “Marley’s hands shook slightly as she fastened Cruise’s throatlatch, and her meagre breakfast was sitting like a lump in her stomach.
“All set?” Kris asked as she walked down the ramp of the truck.
“Yeah,” Marley croaked, trying to speak past the dryness in her throat.
“Just relax. Ride like you did yesterday,” Kris said reassuringly, “and you’ll be fine.”
Marley tried to smile, then turned away. Relax, she thought. Yeah right. She knelt down to buckle her spurs, trying to calm herself down, but it wasn’t working. There was too much riding on this result.”
(That’s not from the book, I just made it up. But it could be.)
In the first example, I am telling the audience that “Marley was feeling nervous.” Yet in the second segment, the word “nervous” isn’t used once. But right away the reader knows that she’s nervous, because her hands are shaking, and because her breakfast is sitting in a lump in her stomach.
So both examples tell you that Marley is feeling nervous, but the second one lets you work that out for yourself. Granted, it’s not exactly subtle. If I was going for subtle, I would have written something like:
“Marley fumbled with Cruise’s throatlatch, missing the hole more than once before finally getting it secured. Her stomach felt strangely empty, and she realised that she’d forgotten to eat breakfast. It didn’t seem all that important.”
This is more subtle because firstly there could be a number of reasons why Marley is fumbling the throatlatch – “fumbling” doesn’t tell us as clearly as “shaking” hands that she is nervous. Secondly, we have already learned by this point in the book that Marley is a big eater in the mornings and never skips breakfast. It’s out of character for her to do so, and especially for her not to have realised! She must be feeling nervous.
The second example also has some dialogue, and we learn more about Marley’s nervous state from her interaction with her sister Kris. When she speaks (or rather, “croaks”), we learn that her throat is dry. When she attempts to smile but can’t bring herself to manage it, it backs up her nerves, and she internally grumbles at Kris for telling her to relax. I couldn’t have written any of those little moments without her interaction with Kris.
There’s also more action in the second version – things are happening. Kris walks down the ramp, Marley buckles her spurs – these little details and actions make us as readers feel as though we are there, and we can visualise it so much better. (Perhaps this tendency comes from a love of TV and film – there’s no coincidence that I learned most of my writing skills from watching TV, and that could definitely explain my propensity towards writing plentiful dialogue.)
But the problems that Cruise Control faces are not just in the way that the story is being told, it’s the story itself – it’s not quite there. The story of Marley and her pony Cruise, their bond and relationship, how hard they fought for what they wanted – the version on paper is not yet the story that it is in my mind. It’s almost as though it’s being told in fractured glimpses, instead of a flowing narrative. It jumps from show to show to show, rarely pausing for breath to bring us back to the real world. Characters appear, feature heavily for a few chapters, then vanish again without a trace. Arguments come out of nowhere, ideas and storylines get repeated, characters react in unlikely ways to situations as I manipulate their actions to suit my story, instead of letting their actions tell the story. In short, it just doesn’t quite work.
But there is a good story in there, trying to get out. And when I sit and look at the copious pages of notes that I’ve written, at the entire pages that I’ve crossed out in the proof, as I move scenes around and struggle to keep the timelines straight in my head, and wonder if I’m fighting a losing battle, I go back to the feedback that I’ve received from the Wilsons. Kelly called it “phenomenal” and said she “couldn’t put it down“… Amanda said she “absolutely LOVED it” and called it “amazing”…their mum Heather described it as “engrossing, interesting and vivid“. Rumour even has it that it made Amanda and Vicki cry.
I call that a success. But watch this space, because if I can tell Marley and Cruise’s story the way I can imagine it in my mind, “Cruise Control” isn’t going to be a good book. Heck, it’s not even going to be a great book.
It’s going to be amazing.
Well, I finished the first draft of “Cruise Control”, the day before I headed overseas on holiday. I printed out three copies, posted one up North, gave one to my mum and took one with me to read on the plane.
It wasn’t long before I realised that the book has problems. When I start skim-reading my own writing because it’s over-written, that’s not good. When I find myself getting bored, that’s even worse. And when I cringe at how some of the characters’ actions just don’t make sense, that’s a big problem.
But there were plenty of good parts, and the ending worked really well. I restrained myself from crossing out entire pages as I’d promised the book to a friend, settling for just editing the odd typo. My friend that I was travelling with read it, and she said the book was great.
I heard from my mum a week into my trip, telling me that the book just wasn’t working for her, and she was finding it hard to get through, because the plot was stalling in the middle. I’d felt the same way, and told her so. Relieved, she sent me a list of things that she didn’t like. I can always count on her for honesty!
Meanwhile, however, several other readers have read and loved the book, said it kept them up reading all night, and that it made them cry, and are instructing me not to change it too much.
But it needs help. It’s not yet the book that I want it to be. I think right now it’s good, with some parts that are great and some parts that are just okay. But I’m not here to write “good” books. I’m here to write great ones! Like anything in life, there’s no point striving towards mediocrity.
When I start to tell a story, it is alive in my mind. The characters, their nuances, the details of their lives slowly come to light as I write, but from the very start I have a strong feel for these people. I know who they are, and the story that I’m trying to tell. “Cruise Control” isn’t there yet. In its current form, it’s still hazy, still an idea not yet fully executed.
So I sat down one evening in Canastota, NY and started writing notes. Picking apart the characters, trying to work out how to make the story flow better. Which characters to bring into the book more, and which to push aside. Which characters needed more fleshing out, and which needed less help. Which scenes should be cut, and what scenes needed to be written in.
It’s going to take time, as writing always does, and unfortunately there are no real shortcuts. But I feel more focused now, and I’m confident that what people loved about the book won’t change. It’s just that everything around those parts will work better, will read better, and will feel more real.
I thought I would give you a taster of what my newest book, “Cruise Control” is all about, so here’s the draft back cover blurb:
Saying goodbye to the ponies she loves is never easy, but it has become a way of life for Marley Carmichael, whose family makes their living by training and selling show jumpers. But when a half-wild paint pony arrives on their farm one afternoon, Marley knows instinctively that he is going to be something very, very special.
Her faith in the pony is soon rewarded, as he proves to be a remarkably quick learner and it’s not long before Marley and Cruise are out on the competition circuit, cruising to victory against some of the country’s top show jumping ponies, with a firm eye on the coveted Pony of the Year title class.
But her family is struggling to make ends meet, and as Cruise’s value skyrockets, Marley knows that soon the money offered for her superstar paint pony will be too good to refuse. With Pony of the Year fast approaching, Marley has one last chance to prove herself.
Can Marley save the farm she loves, without sacrificing the pony she can’t live without?
“Flying Changes” is the first in the four-part series of novels set in fictional Clearwater Bay, New Zealand, about Jay Evans and her spirited chestnut pony Finn.
When Jay moves from her home in England to live with her estranged father in rural New Zealand, it is only his promise of a pony of her own that convinces her to leave her old life behind and start over in a new country.
Change doesn’t come easily at first, and Jay makes as many enemies as she does friends before she finds the perfect pony, who seems destined to make her dreams of show jumping success come true.
But she soon discovers that training her own pony is not as easy as she thought it would be, and her dream pony is becoming increasingly unmanageable and difficult to ride.
Can Jay pull it together, or has she made the biggest mistake of her life?
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO WRITE PONY BOOKS?
I grew up reading every pony book I could get my hands on, and always wanted to write my own. I was inspired while working in the UK and experiencing a different horsy culture. I wondered – what if one of these English girls who keeps their pony on a livery yard moved to New Zealand? How much culture shock would she experience? What would be the pros and cons of moving into a far more DIY environment? I started playing around with ideas, and so “Flying Changes” was born.
I wrote it in segments, and the process spanned several years. In the end it was longer (260 pages!) than I had intended, but I couldn’t bear to cut anything out, so that’s how it’s ended up.
WHO WILL LIKE THIS BOOK?
So far – everyone who has read it! Lots of people within New Zealand as well as readers from the USA and UK – and that’s only the ones I know about 🙂
As the book’s protaganist is a 14 year old girl, the target audience is girls aged 12 – 16 years, but really there is no age limit.
CAN I READ IT BEFORE I BUY IT?
You can read the first few pages of Chapter One on this site, or “Flying Changes'” page on Amazon.com.
HOW CAN I PURCHASE A COPY?
I opted to self-publish this book, which means I have paid a company to edit, layout and print the book for me, as well as make it available online through many major retailers. While the outset costs for this were quite high, I’m excited that my book has now gone from being a (large) Word document to being a real novel!
There are three options for purchasing a copy:
1. You can order a copy directly from me, which can be personally signed on request, by emailing me at NZPonyWriter@gmail.com.
2. “Flying Changes” is also available online on Amazon.com (including as an E-book on Kindle), BarnesandNoble.com, and Fishpond.co.nz amongst others.
3. You can visit one of the following New Zealand retailers who have it in stock – The Children’s Bookshop, Kilbirnie, Wellington; Paper Plus Coastlands, Paraparaumu; Moby Dickens Bookstore, Paraparaumu Beach; Take Note, SH 1, Waikanae; One Black Horse, Settlement Rd, Te Horo.
IS FLYING CHANGES AVAILABLE AS AN E-BOOK?
Yes, via Amazon.com for Kindle devices, and at BarnesandNoble.com for Nook e-readers.
WHO TOOK THE COVER PHOTO?
Full credit for that goes to Kelly Wilson and the Showtym crew in Northland, NZ. Thanks to Kelly for the stunning photography, and to Jess and Molly for being such photogenic models. See Kelly’s website at http://www.kellywilson.co.nz and check out Showtym Sport Horses on Facebook.
WHEN WILL THE SEQUEL BE PUBLISHED?
When I finish writing it! I started work on Clearwater Bay #2 “Against the Clock” as soon as “Flying Changes” went to print, but I then became sidetracked with another story that demanded to be told, so “Against the Clock” was pushed onto the back burner. However I expect to pick it up again in the next few weeks, with the aim to have it available for purchase by Christmas.
HAVE YOU WRITTEN ANY OTHER BOOKS?
Yes, I’ve just completed the first draft of a book called “Cruise Control”. Coming soon…
Writing is a time-consuming process and I am doing it for the love of writing, rather than financial gain.
So if you have read it “Flying Changes” and loved it, please – tell your friends! The more copies that sell, the more likely it is that there will be more books. I have heaps of ideas for stories…there is no limit to the number of books I could write about ponies!
CAN I ASK YOU QUESTIONS AND POST MY FEEDBACK?
Absolutely! I would love to get your feedback, and when you have read the book, it would be great if you could post a review here, and on websites like Amazon.com, to entice other readers!