Getting Feedback: So You Want to Write a Horse Book, Part 5

I was going to title this installment, “Feedback Sucks.” I mean, I want to be honest with you, and, for at least the first few books, feedback really, really sucks.

But it’s also kind of awesome (once you get used to it) and it’s completely indispensable, so it’s time to talk about feedback: soliciting it, accepting it, and putting it to work.

The fact is, we all have a massive blind spot when it comes to our writing. It’s ours, and because it’s ours, we love some parts beyond all sense, and we hate other parts with a blinding passion, but can’t quite figure out how to do without them. This is probably true of most things we have immense emotional attachment to.

horse-1808727_1920

The best turn-out in the world can always be a little better. Feedback: it sucks, but it’s so necessary.

Like: you love your horse to bits, and your horse has the best gaits you’ve ever ridden, but you could really do without the cribbing thing. If your horse were a book, you’d lend him out to five other riders. Some of them would come back to let you know you’re right about his trot, you’re dead wrong about his canter but here’s how to fix it, and oh by the way–the cribbing isn’t so bad, just put a collar on him and forget about it. Plus, bonus, you really need to teach him to ground-tie, even though you ride dressage and that’s literally never come up before… for you. 

That’s what feedback on your book is like. Some things you thought were perfect aren’t, some things you thought were awful are just fine, some things are lovely, and some things you never even considered.

Who should you ask for feedback? 

This is different for everyone. You might find it easier to ask people you’ve never met IRL, like an online writer’s group. That way, you don’t have to cringe while they’re in the other room reading it. Or you might give it to your best friend, and just deal with the cringing.

No matter who you choose, I think it’s best if that person shares some of your sensibilities about reading and writing. If you’ve written a torrid romance, don’t hand it off to a friend who rereads The Saddle Club over and over. If you’ve written a contemporary fiction, your friend with the vampire obsession might find your prose lacks teeth. (HAH DID YOU SEE WHAT I DID THERE– you saw, I’ll stop.)

I say this because I’ve made the mistake of giving a manuscript to someone who had completely different sensibilities than me. This person gave me back thorough and well-meaning feedback which simply tore my novel to shreds. I didn’t agree with any of it. And there were pages of recommendations. I was beside myself, because they didn’t make any sense to me, but I respected the reader and wanted to take their advice.

Ultimately, I realized I couldn’t work with their suggestions and released the novel anyway, only taking two or three of the suggestions. As it turns out, the book was incredibly well-received by my readers. The disconnect had been between myself and the beta-reader, who didn’t typically read my style of writing. The feedback, generously given, worked for their genre, but not for mine.

My beta-reading group includes authors who write similarly to me, readers of my previous books, and my husband. Now, a lot of people will say that loved ones make for bad editors, but my husband and I share both a similar taste in books and viciously judgmental attitudes. It makes for a good team. He removes some of my favorite sentences and tells me to fill plot holes, and I scowl at him for weeks. It’s how our marriage works. Your results may vary.

Once you’ve asked, be two things. Be patient, and be grateful. It’s not easy to read critically, especially if you’re not a professional, especially if you’re someone’s friend. And chances are decent that at some point you’ll be asking a friend. It can take some time, and it can make people nervous to decide what to point out. Let them know how much you appreciate their time and their feedback.

What should you do with feedback?

When you get back the email that says, “I really liked it, but I think…” you should pause, pour yourself something soothing, and make sure you have time to read carefully and think about what’s being said. Remember that this is not an attack on your writing–unless you chose a beta-reader who is secretly your nemesis–but an honest assessment of how your writing works for someone else.

Nothing works for everybody. There are books out there you despise that other people adore. That the majority of people adore. They re-read them over and over, rather than read other books. And you can’t get through two pages. Reading fiction is never objective.

But if you want your novel to work for more than just you, beta reader feedback can be a clue as to how the wider world will receive your novel. Does the storyline work? Do your readers care about your characters? Do you close up your plot neatly by the end? Are there confusing sentences? Contradictions?

coffee-1076582_1920

This might be an excellent time to chat over a cup of coffee. Or, you know, something a little stronger.

Chances are, you’ll hit the scoreboard on each of those questions. No book is ready for publication as soon as you’ve finished writing it–I don’t care if you’re on your third draft. You’re too close to it. You need someone removed. You need fresh eyes. Ever work in retail? Ever count a register three or four times and it just won’t come out even, so you ask a coworker to count it, and they have no problems? It’s the same thing. Whatever mistake you were making, you were destined to just keep making it until someone else stepped in and took a look.

It’s okay to set your book aside for a while after you’ve received feedback. You might not want to look at any of it for a little bit. That’s okay. Get removed from it. Start to miss your characters a little bit. Get yourself revved up again to power through the next round of edits. Then read the feedback and decide your next course of action. Are you going to make changes? Go for it. Do you need clarification? Email or set up a meeting to discuss the feedback in more depth.

Once you’ve put your book out there for feedback, take heart. Someone else has read it. Things are getting very real! You’re getting closer to a finished novel. And thanks to your beta readers’ feedback, it’s going to be even better than you thought.

 

 

New Horse Stories for the Holidays!

It’s time for some holiday spirit!

I’m excited to announce that Deck the Stalls, a holiday anthology written especially for horse lovers, is now available for pre-order on Amazon! And not just because it includes an all-new story about Jules of The Eventing Series fame, but for all the other writers as well.

Deck the Stalls: Horse Stories for the Holidays

Deck the Stalls: Horse Stories for the Holidays

Plus, it’s for a great cause: all proceeds go to benefit Old Friends, the retirement organization for racehorses, where you can meet heroes of the turf like Silver Charm, and more than one hundred fifty other horses, including the largest population of stakes winners in the Bluegrass. We’re so thrilled to be able to help this wonderful cause.

Here’s more about the book!

From the cover:

Deck the Stalls

Get in the holiday spirit with this Christmas-themed set of short stories from some of your favorite equestrian writers!

Some of the top authors in the genre have banded together to share Christmas stories from the heart. Look for best-selling authors Maggie Dana, Mary Pagones, Mara Dabrishus, Brittney Joy, Kim Ablon Whitney, Kate Lattey, and Natalie Keller Reinert — plus an all-new Canterwood Crest holiday short story from Jessica Burkhart! And in the true spirit of the holidays, all proceeds will go to benefit Old Friends, a Thoroughbred retirement home providing life-long homes for former racehorses.

Inside, you’ll find stories from some favorite characters and new ones:

– Jessica Burkhart returns to Canterwood Crest with an all-new holiday story.
– Mara Dabrishus takes us back to Saratoga with July from “Stay the Distance.”
– Natalie Keller Reinert visits her best-selling Eventing Series with a peek into Jules’ early days as a working student.
– Brittney Joy offers a warm-hearted holiday tale with characters from her Red Rock Ranch series.
– Mary Pagones contributes the prequel to “The Horse is Never Wrong” and “Fortune’s Fool.”
– Kate Lattey revisits Pip from “Flying Changes,” along with a new friend.
– Maggie Dana, author of Timber Ridge Riders, writes an all-new holiday story, “The Ticket.”
– Kim Ablon Whitney, author of hunter/jumper series The Circuit, shares a Christmas story in “The Barn Party.”

With prequels, new stories of old friends, and brand new characters to fall in love with, “Deck the Stalls” is a Christmas gift from your favorite authors that you’ll want to read again and again.

Not reading on Kindle? Look for an edition to be released for iTunes and Kobo soon. Looking for a paperback? Due to time constraints, we don’t expect to release a paperback before Christmas 2016. We are looking at our options for Christmas 2017, however.

Join Me at Equine Affaire 2016

I can’t believe Equine Affaire is only a couple of weeks away! Mid-November still sounds like months in the future, maybe because we’ve only just had our first cool spell here in central Florida – it’s about sixty degrees this morning, guys! But it’s true: Equine Affaire’s Massachusetts expo, November 10th through 13th 2016, is in less than three weeks.

(And I only own sleeveless dresses, so please pray to the weather gods it’s unseasonably warm. Last time I went to Equine Affaire, it SNOWED.)

Join me at Equine Affaire 2016 - presentations, book-signings, or just a good chat about horses and books!

Join me at Equine Affaire 2016 – presentations, book-signings, or just a good chat about horses and books! Friday, Nov. 11 at 10 AM.

This year I’ll be on an author panel discussion about the importance of horses in fiction. If you’re here reading this, you know that horse books are the best books! What makes it that way, though? Is it just a mirror to the lives we love? Or is there something about horses that just makes any book better?

I’ll be in conversation with authors Laura Moore (who has a beautiful romance, Remember Me, set on a Thoroughbred farm in Virginia) and Holly Robinson (whose new novel, Folly Cove, features horses in a coastal northeastern town. Maybe she has some winter clothing advice for me). Our moderator is the talented Connie Johnson Hambley, whose novelsThe Troubles and The Charity are set in the horse world. It’s going to be a (slightly nerdy) amazing time.

Add our panel to your schedule: “Capturing the Essence of Horse in Fiction: How authors use horses to tell you a better story” on Friday, November 11th at 10:00 AM

And Hambley will be presenting with some of my favorite writers in another panel, as well! Mara Dabrishus, author of the remarkable and amazing (can you tell I love them) horse racing novels Staying the Distance and All Heart (among others) will be alongside also remarkable and amazing Maggie Dana, author of Timber Ridge Riders, and (also remarkable and talented) equestrian thriller writer, Patti Brooks.

Add their panel to your schedule: “Favorite Fictional Horses: From the Black Stallion to My Little Pony – What our favorites say about us” on Thursday, November 10th at 11:00 AM. 

Natalie Keller Reinert at Tampa Bay Downs.

Here’s a helpful photo of me looking intense and writerly so that I’m easy for you to spot and avoid – I mean spot and chat with – at Equine Affaire

Along with these panels, there will be plenty of chat-time at the best booth in all of Equine Affaire, Taborton Equine BooksI’ll be at the book-signing table, daring you to come talk to me, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

There will be paperbacks of my novels for sale, or bring your own!

If you’re on the fence about attending Equine Affaire, go visit the website and see all the other incredible presentations available. Then come see me. Because I can’t wait to meet you!

 

 

 

Join Natalie Keller Reinert at Equine Affaire 2016:

At the Seminar Stage

Friday, November 11, 2016: 10 AM

At Taborton Equine Books

Thursday, November 10, 2016: 3 PM – 5 PM

Friday, Nov. 11: 1 PM – 4 PM

Saturday, Nov. 12: 10 AM – 12 PM

Making Writing a Habit: So You Want to Write a Horse Book, Part 4

So now you’re blogging, right? You’ve read the first three parts of my series, and you’re following all of my advice, not in a crazy follow-the-guru kind of way, but in a she’s-been-down-this-road kind of way. You’re thinking about the way you want to write, if you’re going to write as true-to-life as you can, or if you’re going to create a new universe for your characters to inhabit. You’re ready to start making this thing happen.

(This is the 4th in my series on writing your horse book. Click for the first, second, and third in the series.)

Whether or not you plot your book is another blog post. For now, I want to talk about writing habits.

Horses like routines. It turns out, horse books do too.

Horses like routines. It turns out, horse books do too.

There are always people to tell you that award-winning best-selling author Junie Efficiency Jones gets up every morning at 5:30 AM to write a chapter before she goes off to feed her heirloom chickens and then heads to her Fortune 500 executive position. That’s great for her and I’m excited for her productivity level. But I’ve always fought against those arguing that habit is the only way to write a book.

For one thing, I would argue, my schedule is too up-and-down to have a daily time set aside. I might have to work at 8 AM one day and 2:30 PM the next day — was I really supposed to write at 6 AM regardless? Not possible. Since a lot of writers are supporting themselves in the service industry, this is a common problem.

By the same token, if you’re in the horse business, you might have an early show one day, a farrier appointment that takes three hours longer than you expected and pushes dinner back to nine o’clock the next night, and quite frankly not have the energy to even look at your computer on the third day.

So no problem, I’ve always said. Write when you can. Carve out time. Write when you feel creative.

This method works, and it’s the kindest on your body, for sure. But I want you all to stop and consider for a moment how long it takes me to write a book. (Those of you who read my books are nodding slowly.) And how long I have to fend off requests for sequels. (Those of you who asked for a sequel to Ambition for two years are nodding emphatically.)

Now I’m going to tell you that I’m finally a convert to the writing routine.

My last (fairly) routine job was with the NYC Dept. of Parks and Recreation. Here I am on Monte in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. (My son came to visit.)

My last (fairly) routine job was with the NYC Dept. of Parks and Recreation. Here I am on Monte in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. (My son came to visit.)

In mid-June I started working a Monday-Friday, 8:30-5:30 kind of job. It’s the first time I’ve had a job like this in several years (the last time was when I taking care of horses and riding with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, during which period I wrote Other People’s Horses and Ambition), and I was faced with the very real possibility that I was not going to come home from work and feel like staring at yet another computer for an hour in the evening.

(I also wanted to work out. Call me crazy, but when you take a lifetime of riding and caring for horses professionally and cram it into an office chair, bad things happen. The work-out was pretty imperative to my well-being.)

I decided to write a thousand words every morning, before work. The only thing I was really giving up was my morning Twitter time. And since I work in social media, I was already spending plenty of time on Twitter. I really didn’t need the extra.

It was a struggle at first, I admit. But I stuck with it because it was the only time I was going to write. There was no way I was going to get home from work at six o’clock, work out for half an hour, take a shower, and still find the time (and energy) to work.

Here’s the thing: after a couple of weeks, writing that thousand words became hard-wired into my brain. I woke up thinking about my story. I started writing fifteen hundred words. I started writing two thousand words. Useful, good words — not filler. In fact, I was moving so fast on the plot, I realized I’d have to add in atmosphere and environments in the editing phase — the opposite of my usual writing style.

In short, I’d never written so much, so quickly, wish such ease.

It’s so frustrating!

I held off on the “get up in the morning and write” doctrine for so long, convinced it wasn’t for me, and all this time, I could have been pouring on the creativity.

An added boost: stopping to go to work no matter where I am in my thoughts. Have you ever heard of closing your story mid-sentence, to boost your creativity when you return to the document? It’s the same thing. It works. There’s less wandering around, and more action.

I’m also more aware of where I am in the story, which leads to fewer loose threads to tie up in edits. If you’ve ever read through a draft only to discover you introduced a plot point in chapter three but completely forgot about it by chapter six, you know what I’m talking about. It’s a problem. 

By the time I finished the first draft of Courage last month, I was writing two thousand words in about forty-five minutes each morning. Standing at my kitchen counter, drinking my coffee, I’d written a novel at least twice as fast as I’d ever written anything of comparable length… 85,000 words, with plenty of room to grow in edits.

Now I’m editing in small bites each morning (still standing at my kitchen counter–it turns out that I think much better on my feet than in a chair, which should come as no surprise to any horseman) and I’m about halfway through. The book is growing in beautiful ways. I still wake up and open my laptop without even thinking about it… writing as soon as I get up is completely habit now.

So this is it… possibly my number one piece of advice to you. Get a habit. Force yourself into the habit. And the habit will reward you richly.

Just for giggles, I looked up “famous writer’s habits.” This was the first hit: The Daily Routines of 12 Famous Writers. Here are a few quotes:

E.B. White: A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.

Haruki Marakami: The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.

Barbara Kingsolver: My morning begins with trying not to get up before the sun rises. But when I do, it’s because my head is too full of words, and I just need to get to my desk and start dumping them into a file.

I really love that last one, because this is the state you can work yourself into through a habit of morning writing! This is the place I’m at when I’m writing a draft now, and it’s just so delightful.

Even with the lack of sleep.

What’s your writing routine? Have you tried and failed one, or do you have a routine that’s working for you? If not, what’s getting in your way? Maybe we can find a solution together.

The Hidden Benefits of Betting on Horse Racing

Do you bet on horse racing?

There’s a sizable portion of the equestrian market who don’t ever bet on horse racing, even if they do enjoy the sport itself. But you might be missing out on more than the excitement of shouting home your winning horse. You’re also missing the opportunity to contribute to an equine industry that has a tremendous impact on the health and well-being of all horses, from Shetlands to Shires.

This is a sponsored post. However, all opinions are my own.

Horse racing benefits all breeds and disciplines of horses with funding for medical breakthroughs.

Horse racing benefits all breeds and disciplines of horses with funding for medical breakthroughs.

That’s because so many of our scientific advancements in veterinary health come from the racing industry. Universities such as UC Davis set up labs to research orthopedics, or nutrition, or a myriad of other veterinary research opportunities that directly affect racehorses and indirectly, as research filters in commercial products, to show and pleasure horses. Racehorse-based studies inform everything from the footing in our arenas to the drug testing at our horse shows. Research labs such as the Equine Science Center at Rutgers University include racehorse-specific study programs — Rutgers’ operates the Equine Exercise Physiology Laboratory — and on their website state, “The work of the Equine Science Center has a measurable and direct impact on all users of horses in the state of New Jersey, irrespective of discipline and breed.”

Show horses enjoy advancements in sports medicine found through racing-funded studies.

Show horses enjoy advancements in sports medicine found through racing-funded studies.

So let’s talk about the backbone of horse racing revenue: betting. The horse racing betting industry is worth billions in the economy, and it’s from wagering revenues that we see race purses, and it’s high race purses that can attract big financial backing for horsemen, resulting in better breeding, better training, and better horses.

Going to the races and placing a bet is easily the most exciting way to bet on horses, but if you’re like me, you can get just as much excitement from watching racing at home. (Maybe more — if you’ve done the schlep between the paddock and the rail a few too many times, you know the true meaning of exhausted feet.) In this case you can use an online betting app or website like William Hill. Horse racing betting at William Hill is just one of the opportunities the site offers, but I think we all know it’s the most interesting!

william_hill_logo

When I bet on horse racing I’m getting more than just excitement out of it — I’m getting the satisfaction of supporting horsemen who pour their lives into their horses’ wellbeing, and supporting the future veterinary advances which keep all our horses healthy and happy. If you’ve been with me online long enough, you know I’ve spent time in every aspect of the racing industry, from breeding to training centers to exercise riding and grooming horses at major racetracks. If you have questions about racing, or how things are done at the racetrack, please ask! I’m happy to answer them! You can also find a collection of writing I did at the racetrack over on Retired Racehorse Blog.

Blogging Matters: So You Want to Write a Horse Book, Part 3

When you’re getting ready to write a horse book, it’s important to get one major hurdle out of the way first:

Your thin skin.

Look, we’re all pretty tough. We’re horse-people. We’re used to getting beat up and dragged around — both physically and mentally.

But you have to be ready to take some heat when you publish your first book. (And all of your other books.) Because even if you write the best book in the world (and I have no doubt you have it in you), you are going to deal with the following:

  1. Reviews from people who hate your book because it doesn’t do what they wanted it to do.
  2. Reviews from people who hate your book because they hate ALL first-person books, third-person books, books with swear words, books with children, books with adults, books with German Shepherds, books with anything at all that they could have figured out your book would contain just by reading the description or by reading the free first page on Amazon, and yet which somehow they decided to read anyway.
  3. Reviews from people who didn’t read your book but just think it sounds awful.
  4. General meanness which was never meant for your eyes, but which you saw anyway because you dutifully set up your Google Alerts and followed them to a message board where you should not be.

White horse in shadows

Life in the (sort-of) spotlight can be a little scary. Step into it a few paces at a time.

Now, with the wonders of blogging, you can experience all the meanness the Internet has to offer AND set up a support system of people you can email/text/snap/maybe even get a coffee with if you actually live in the same region, all before you’ve got a book out. Sounds great, right?

It actually is. Remember, I started out by blogging. In 2008 (?) I was blogging about my farm, and making a lot of blogging friends. In 2010 I started Retired Racehorse Blog with the idea of chronicling the OTTB training experience. I asked a large retirement agency if they would sponsor it or house it on their site and they had to say no, because of the possible backlash if someone didn’t like a training method I used.

Wasn’t that a good warning, friends?

I went after Retired Racehorse Blog anyway, and admittedly, I didn’t receive a lot of criticism for it. I got some, especially when I got away from training and went into more philosophical state-of-the-industry posts. I had some warmblood people gang up on me — one of those situations where you should really read the cover description before you buy the book. But that’s okay. I was learning how to share my writing and my opinions without being afraid (or, at least, being TOO afraid) of negative response.

And while I was building up my courage to publish a work of fiction, I was also making friends. I don’t want to call it an audience, because blogs are free and books are not (usually) which makes them two different animals. It does help, however, to have a thousand blog readers when you publish a book. You might sell ten books in your first month, and this will be good for your self-esteem.

I made friends who regularly read my blog, and I regularly read their blogs. We met up on Facebook. We met up on Twitter. We met up on Instagram. We met up in real life. Some of them are fellow authors with me now, and we support one another. We have someone to email when we see a review so mean or misguided that we’re one whiskey away from clicking “reply” on Amazon and GoodReads (AKA author social suicide, don’t do it).

Blog Topics:

So let’s say you’re going to start a blog. What’s it going be about?

The great thing about blogs, in my opinion, is that they can be about absolutely nothing. I mean this in the most Seinfeld of ways. I watch a lot of Seinfeld. It’s about daily life in New York, which is everything and nothing all at once. The same thing can be said of barn life. If you have a horse, whether at home or at a boarding barn, you have instant blog material. There are probably hundreds of fairly well-read blogs which are just about daily barn life. They’re more fun than training blogs, which have to be written in a fairly clever style to keep them from getting dry.

The other great thing about slice-of-life blog posts is that they teach you to find the story in everything. You start looking at the world through different eyes, picking up on potential for full stories in the scenes around you. A girl walking out to the pasture with a halter over her shoulder — that can so easily inspire a story. A horse leaning on the cross-ties, dozing while a farrier leans over his hoof, gossiping as he grinds away with the hoof file — what’s the story there?

It takes time, but once you start seeing story potential in every little thing, those silly words “writer’s block” simply disappear from your vocabulary.

Later this week I’ll share some examples of popular barn life and training blog posts at Retired Racehorse Blog to give you an idea of what I wrote about in those days. All of these posts still get hits, by the way. So pick a blog title you like and you can stick with. Because throughout the years Retired Racehorse has gone through some changes, such as when I went to Aqueduct and started galloping racehorses, but I was stuck with the name. Thanks to Google and SEO and site rankings, you can’t just change the names of websites whenever you want.

Your most thoughtful blog posts might also get republished, which is a great way to pad your resume if you are going to start looking for published writing work. My intro post, “You Can’t Hug A Thoroughbred,” was actually published in a few newsletters and print magazines around the world, in addition to getting reposted on commercial websites. I’m seeing this quite a lot from some of the more prominent equestrian lifestyle bloggers, like A Yankee In Paris — The Chronicle of the Horse, HorseNation, and Horse Junkies United all like to pick up blog posts going viral and repost them.

But that’s down the road. Don’t worry about going viral just yet. Make some friends. Practice your writing. See what works.

Let’s continue the conversation. Do you blog already? How is it working for you? How do you find topics to blog about?

Authentic Settings: So You Want To Write A Horse Book, Part 2

For me, writing horse books is rooted in authenticity.

(This is the 2nd post in the series, So You Want To Write A Horse Book. Read the first post here.)

This can get tiresome for a writer, when you’re trying to follow a plot thread and find that it leads to a dead end, or a “that wouldn’t happen in real life” situation, but it’s the price we pay for writing for the pickiest group of readers in the universe.

horse-419156_1280

A casual viewer sees a beautiful horse in a field of wildflowers. An equestrian wonders what kind of flowers they are, if they’re poisonous, zooms in to see if that’s a manure pile in the background, and starts wondering when that horse last had a fecal exam for parasites. Horse people. Think. Differently.

(You think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. Here is an excerpt from an actual review left an Amazon:

“I tried, I really did but I couldn’t get past chapter 3. Chapter one was bad enough where the supposed “expert” horse trainer expresses his concern that the horse has injured its ANKLE (seriously????).”

Now, this was my first book, and I’d slaved over the details, and I was selling it on the virtue of its details, so this review felt like more than just the usual slap in the face sensation I get from your regularly scheduled bad reviews. So I broke a major rule of writing and responded to the bad review with an editorial example of using the word “ankle” in horse-racing circles:

‘The “ankle” issue is a verbiage commonly used in horse racing. For example: “Havre de Grace Retired With Ankle Injury” (The Blood-Horse, April 25, 2012: http://www.bloodhorse.com/horse-racing/articles/69168/havre-de-grace-retired-with-ankle-injury). The term “ankle” is generally used when speaking of the fetlocks and lower-leg issues. Again, that’s a horse racing quirk; it might not be true of everyone’s equine experience, however.’

I’ll never know if the reviewer forgave me for using a word she wasn’t familiar with, but I would assume not. And there you have it, an example of writing for equestrians.)

I guess a very real question a potential writer might have right now is, “Why would you do this to yourself?”

We just do.

Authentic settings: this is a decision you have to make before you begin typing your first paragraphs of your book. It’s not just about using the right brush on your horse; it’s also, it’s a a lot, about settings. You have to decide: will your book reflect the real world like a window, or like a mirror?

It’s easier to make your own rules when you’re dealing with show horses, to set up a kind of looking-glass version of reality, with your own divisions and point systems, and avoid wading into the sea of mysteries that is double-A rated shows and Marshall & Sterling points and getting qualifications for entering an Advanced level Three-Day Event, unless you are incredibly comfortable in that environment.

By incredibly comfortable, I mean, you’ve been riding, training, and showing in those divisions for years. You can fill out an entry form with your eyes closed. It’s part of your normal daily life.

The need for this precision is real. Most people might not notice if you get a couple of show-ring details wrong, although if you call a fetlock an ankle, watch out! (…kidding…) But there are people who will, and they will call you out on it. There will be A-circuit kids reading your A-circuit novel, and you’re going to say something that annoys them.

It’s just a question of keeping those annoyances to a minimum.

Everyone comes up with a different solution to the window/looking glass problem. Here are three examples:

img_9709

Choosing real vs. fictional locations is all about your comfort level. Photo: Natalie Keller Reinert

Reality for the Setting; Fiction for the Close-Ups:

I use real governing bodies (The Jockey Club, The United States Eventing Association) and real championships/stake races (The American Eventing Championships, the Kentucky Derby) along with fictional competition. My horses run in races of my own invention (The Mizner Stakes) and in made-up events (The Sunshine State Horse Trials). For locations, I only write about racetracks I’m very familiar with, like Saratoga (the setting for Other People’s Horses), or Aqueduct, Tampa Bay Downs, Gulfstream Park, and a few others. I write almost exclusively about Florida and New York because I know those places so well. I wouldn’t be able to write a compelling, authentic story about a barn in Arizona, or California, or even Illinois, because I just don’t know those places at all.

I do make sure my timing is right as well. If I’m running a horse in a fictional stakes at Gulfstream, it’s when Gulfstream would actually be open for racing. But I make up the races to avoid A) stealing glory from horses who have actually won those races; and B) to avoid getting caught up in the pesky details of condition books, qualifications, weights, etc., which is just way too much effort to put into a novel, however correct I’d like it to be. I would consider this the middle-road for authentic settings.

Keep it Real:

Fellow racing writer Mara Dabrishus isn’t afraid to get completely into real-life competition in the Breeders’ Cup and other major stakes races, and she does a great job of depicting American racing without feeling the need to spend a lot of time explaining what the hell she’s talking about. She spends more time on the actual backstretch of actual racetracks than I do. When I have Alex retreat to a rented barn or back to the farm, Mara’s characters are still slugging it out on-site at Belmont or Gulfstream. I have a lot of admiration for her discipline in this regard. I also find that when I’m reading her books, my eye is drawn to the details of places I recognize and know intimately. I’m always testing her descriptions against my memories. Be aware that when you use a real locale, you will have readers who know that place inside-out, possibly better than you do. This style is a gutsy move.

Create a Fictional, but Believable, Setting to Support the Story:

My friend Jessica Burkhart went with entirely fictional lower and collegiate-level organizations for her series Canterwood Crestwhich features secondary-school competition. Rather than get wrapped up in different sports, governing bodies, and the intricacies of Young Riders Championships and the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association, she simply developed a series of district, regional, and national championships which her characters could compete in, with the end-goal being the real United States Equestrian Team. The wisdom of this approach: it gives you so much more time to concentrate on story, and it allows riders (and hey, non-riders) of all disciplines to enjoy the series without needing technical explanations of how the discipline is run. Your story has plenty of room to shine.

What’s Right For You?

I think I can speak for anyone reading this when I say we’re all on a quest for authenticity. That’s what our readers tell us they love, over and over again. Even this one-star review for my first novel contained this caveat: “Writer was good with the horse terms and nailed the references to the life of a rider.” (The first part of the review, of course, was that it was a terrible story.)

So I believe it goes without saying that we’re all going to write the truest thing we know when it comes to our horses and our riding. We will never be allowed to gallop out of the arena after a jumping class without severe consequences; we will never feed our horse a celebratory pizza on his birthday; we will never put our neighbor’s kid on our Grand Prix dressage horse that we adopted from the BLM when we were 12 years old and had in the Olympics by the time we were 15; we will never wear a red coat to a short stirrup class, or a shadbelly to show-jumping class. I don’t have to actually point that out because we all know better. I just do it to point out what we’ve been reading all our lives, and why we’re so excited to change all that.

One good way to decide on your commitment level is to write (or think aloud in the shower, whatever works for you) the general plot-line of your book. And we’ll talk more about that in the future, but in the meantime, think of it like this. You say to yourself, “And then Michelle finds out she has a shot at the Young Riders Championships.”

You pause and think about the Young Riders Championships.

-How much do you know about it?

-How much research will you have to put into accurately portraying the Young Riders Championships?

-Will this present obstacles to your timelime? Maybe you’re writing a story with a big Christmas climax or a new foal is born at some point, but the Young Riders Championships is in July and that would throw everything off. Do you really want to change the entire story because now it needs to end in July instead of January?

-If any of these things feel problematic, consider how easy it be to simply make Young Riders into something else plausible. Why not just make up a championship called the Eventing Youth Nationals? Boom, done, easy. Your problems are solved.

Deciding on the level of authenticity in your story’s setting has much to do with your comfort level with the topics you’re tackling. If you feel at all in over your head, back away and do some serious soul-searching about how important that setting really is to your story. It might be everything. Or it might make more sense to just wave your fiction wand and make a new, more suitable setting come to life.

If you choose this route, you are not giving up your equestrian street cred. You’re actually cementing it by committing to the details you know — the nitty-gritty of equestrian life, the ins and outs of the days we spend with horses — and not compromising the knowledge level you’re presenting to your also-knowledgeable readers by winging it with some of the things they know by heart.

What are your thoughts on this subject?