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…

Dare To Dream

More than just a good idea…

When I sat down on my bed in Ireland two years ago and started writing, I had only the vaguest idea of the story I was trying to tell. All I knew was that I had just been watching some YouTube videos of the 2010 NZ Pony of the Year winner, Showtym Viking, and his owner Amanda Wilson. I wasn’t watching POY footage, but some bareback and bridleless jumping they’d done at home, and I was struck by the bond that they shared as they cleared 1.30m fences with ease, seemingly completely at one with each other, happy and confident and loving life.

I was more than impressed. I was spellbound. And it immediately struck me that this was a story I wanted to tell.

So I started writing a story about a girl who had a spectacular young paint pony that took the show jumping world by storm. But it was also to be a story about a relationship between pony and rider that transcended the competition arena. A combination who jumped for the love of it, who worked as a team, who didn’t argue or fight with each other, but simply went out there with the determination to do their best – and do it together. And a combination who clearly enjoyed one another’s company, and who weren’t all about winning. A girl who didn’t wrap her pony in cotton wool, but took him bareback down the beach, swum in the river at home and mucked around bareback – just enjoying life, and letting him be so much more than just a competition pony.

I didn’t even really expect to ever turn it into a full novel – it was just a fun exercise. But the characters turned from vague ideas into real people, and their story wanted to be told. I wrote the first few chapters in Ireland, and even now as I read through the scenes, I picture them in the same kitchen that I sat in on so many wintry Irish evenings, up against the warm stove, writing and dreaming and telling their story. That story soon became known as “Cruise Control”. I picked it up and put it down several times over the years, as I not only cemented the story in my mind but also came to meet Amanda and Viking, as well as her sisters Vicki and Kelly, and the rest of their family. Their support and encouragement, as I took the plunge into self-publishing my first novel, was invaluable. And from the moment I first saw some of Kelly’s photos, I knew that if anyone should be taking photos for the covers of pony novels, it was her. One of the draws of self-publishing was the opportunity to pick my own cover photo, and I immediately lined Kelly up to do the cover shoot for me. And I was so happy with the results – the cover of Flying Changes is a testament to Kelly’s awesome photography, and she gave me so many options to choose from that I have plastered them all over this blog – not one terrible photo amongst them!

But I digress. What I wanted to talk about here was the difference between having an idea for a novel, and actually writing it. They say that the hardest part of writing is to WRITE. In some ways, this is true. Sometimes the motivation isn’t there, sometimes the words just won’t flow, and sometimes it’s just plain frustrating, wanting the story that’s so clear in your mind to be down on paper already!

But that’s the trick of writing. It’s not having the idea, as much as being able to tell it, and crafting it into a cohesive plot, that truly reflects the story that lives in my mind. If I could draw my books out of my head with a wand, as they do in Harry Potter, stick it in a Pensieve and download it onto the laptop, I’d have over 20 books published by now! But I have to do things the hard way. And maybe that’s for the good. Certainly if the prolonged editing  process has taught me anything, it’s just how important it is to learn to tell a story in a cohesive way.

I finished the first draft of “Cruise Control” in a rush before I went overseas. I’d been promising it to Amanda and her family for months, and finally I got it done. I never read it all the way through before printing and posting it to Northland – just popped it in the post, packed my own copy in my backpack and jumped on a plane. I was looking forward to reading it, to seeing the characters come alive on the page, and to be able to share them with other readers, which really is the point of going to all the effort of writing it down.

I eagerly opened “Cruise Control” on the plane, and started reading. I finished it in the hotel in NYC. And I sat back and thought, “uh oh.”

It’s not a bad book. In fact, judging by the feedback that I got from the Wilson family on it, I’d say it’s already a pretty good book. But it’s not a great book. Not yet.

In my mind, the characters are completely alive. I feel as though they’re real people – I know the way they walk, the things they say, the way they might react to any given situation. I know who they are, what inspires them, what depresses them, what frightens them, what excites them. To me, they’re real, three-dimensional people, and I thought I’d translated them effectively onto paper. But as I read through the draft, I realised that I’d left gaps. I hadn’t told the reader enough about these girls – not just what they do, but who they are. What makes them tick. Why the reader should care about them. That’s the difference between a good character, and a great one. Good characters feel real. Great characters are the ones you want to be real.

There’s a great maxim in writing that goes “show, don’t tell”. This is particularly directed at scriptwriters, but it also applies here. When I write, I don’t want to tell the audience what to feel. That’s something that annoys me, whether I’m reading a book or watching a movie/TV show – I hate being dictated to. I want the freedom to make up my own mind. I don’t even like it when a TV show, for example, will give a dramatic drum roll before announcing a plot development or twist – if I’m shocked or in suspense, I’ll be feeling it! I don’t need help. It’s like a laughter track on a comedy show. If you’re laughing along, you don’t even notice it. But if the show’s not funny, the laughter track is irritating, and seems patronising. I don’t need to be told what’s funny! And I especially hate being told that things are funny when they’re not.

So when I write, I try to show, not tell. I try to depict a character’s emotions through their actions, and dialogue. For example:

TELL  – “Marley was feeling nervous as she buckled Cruise’s throatlatch. This was her last chance to qualify, and if she didn’t place in this class, her Pony of the Year dream would be all but over.”

VS

SHOW – “Marley’s hands shook slightly as she fastened Cruise’s throatlatch, and her meagre breakfast was sitting like a lump in her stomach.

“All set?” Kris asked as she walked down the ramp of the truck.

“Yeah,” Marley croaked, trying to speak past the dryness in her throat.

“Just relax. Ride like you did yesterday,” Kris said reassuringly, “and you’ll be fine.”

Marley tried to smile, then turned away. Relax, she thought. Yeah right. She knelt down to buckle her spurs, trying to calm herself down, but it wasn’t working. There was too much riding on this result.”

(That’s not from the book, I just made it up. But it could be.)

In the first example, I am telling the audience that “Marley was feeling nervous.” Yet in the second segment, the word “nervous” isn’t used once. But right away the reader knows that she’s nervous, because her hands are shaking, and because her breakfast is sitting in a lump in her stomach.

So both examples tell you that Marley is feeling nervous, but the second one lets you work that out for yourself. Granted, it’s not exactly subtle. If I was going for subtle, I would have written something like:

“Marley fumbled with Cruise’s throatlatch, missing the hole more than once before finally getting it secured. Her stomach felt strangely empty, and she realised that she’d forgotten to eat breakfast. It didn’t seem all that important.”

This is more subtle because firstly there could be a number of reasons why Marley is fumbling the throatlatch – “fumbling” doesn’t tell us as clearly as “shaking” hands that she is nervous. Secondly, we have already learned by this point in the book that Marley is a big eater in the mornings and never skips breakfast. It’s out of character for her to do so, and especially for her not to have realised! She must be feeling nervous.

The second example also has some dialogue, and we learn more about Marley’s nervous state from her interaction with her sister Kris. When she speaks (or rather, “croaks”), we learn that her throat is dry. When she attempts to smile but can’t bring herself to manage it, it backs up her nerves, and she internally grumbles at Kris for telling her to relax. I couldn’t have written any of those little moments without her interaction with Kris.

There’s also more action in the second version – things are happening. Kris walks down the ramp, Marley buckles her spurs – these little details and actions make us as readers feel as though we are there, and we can visualise it so much better. (Perhaps this tendency comes from a love of TV and film – there’s no coincidence that I learned most of my writing skills from watching TV, and that could definitely explain my propensity towards writing plentiful dialogue.)

But the problems that Cruise Control faces are not just in the way that the story is being told, it’s the story itself – it’s not quite there. The story of Marley and her pony Cruise, their bond and relationship, how hard they fought for what they wanted – the version on paper is not yet the story that it is in my mind. It’s almost as though it’s being told in fractured glimpses, instead of a flowing narrative. It jumps from show to show to show, rarely pausing for breath to bring us back to the real world. Characters appear, feature heavily for a few chapters, then vanish again without a trace. Arguments come out of nowhere, ideas and storylines get repeated, characters react in unlikely ways to situations as I manipulate their actions to suit my story, instead of letting their actions tell the story. In short, it just doesn’t quite work.

But there is a good story in there, trying to get out. And when I sit and look at the copious pages of notes that I’ve written, at the entire pages that I’ve crossed out in the proof, as I move scenes around and struggle to keep the timelines straight in my head, and wonder if I’m fighting a losing battle, I go back to the feedback that I’ve received from the Wilsons. Kelly called it “phenomenal” and said she “couldn’t put it down“… Amanda said she “absolutely LOVED it” and called it “amazing”…their mum Heather described it as “engrossing, interesting and vivid“. Rumour even has it that it made Amanda and Vicki cry.

I call that a success. But watch this space, because if I can tell Marley and Cruise’s story the way I can imagine it in my mind, “Cruise Control” isn’t going to be a good book. Heck, it’s not even going to be a great book.

It’s going to be amazing.