I love going to Equine Affaire. Yes, it’s Massachusetts in November, which is… chilly. But it’s charming! The autumn leaves, the colonial towns, the SNOW FLURRIES (that totally happened last year). For me, a Floridian, it’s a wow.
Plus, Equine Affaire brings together so many horse people in one place. It’s an equestrian fun fair.
Every year my wonderful friends at Taborton Equine Books invite me to sign books and meet up with readers at their fantastic bookshop. Taborton is THE equestrian bookseller, with shelves and shelves of every sort of horse book, from classic children’s stories to the newest training manuals — and, of course, my favorite, equestrian fiction! If you love the pleasure of perusing bookshelves instead of skimming Amazon listings, you can’t miss this store.
Come and see me on Friday from 4 to 7 PM or on Saturday from 10 AM to 4 PM (I’ll be sneaking away for lunch around noon, but I’ll be back). If you already have one of my books, bring it along to be signed. If you need to pick up a paperback, Taborton will have some! But be warned, last year they sold out of Ambition before my Saturday set was over!
I’d love to chat with you, meet some new friends, and definitely catch up IRL with all of you fantastic social media friends.
This year’s Equine Affaire is November 7-11, 2019, at the Eastern States Expo in West Springfield, Massachusetts. Will I see you there?
The side-hustle is getting a lot of grief these days.
Having a side-gig is getting blamed for everything from millennial burn-out to the accusation that we’re turning our hobbies into jobs because of online/offline peer pressure (and thus hating our hobbies for being our jobs).
And while it’s true the entrepreneurial mood right now is focused on eradicating the toxic “always be hustling” culture we were taught to adore in the first fifteen years of this awful new century, the fact is, gigs and hustles and multiple hats are part of our culture and our economy now. Let’s be real: we live in a very disappointing simulation most of the time. Ah, 2019: wage stagnation, financial inequality, and an expectation that if we need anything in an emergency, or even the very basics of healthcare, a for-profit corporation will handle it… providing your job still fits into their latest business plan. We should be so lucky as to have a passion we can monetize, if that’s our society’s status quo.
So don’t hate the gig economy, hate the game — then learn to play it well. Start off by knowing thy enemy: it’s not the work.
The root cause of both burn-out and of hating your passion-turned-job is a lack of balance, not simply the monetization of hobbies.
Photo: Brianna Santellan/Unsplash
Here’s the thing: there is nothing more important than work-life balance. While it’s really common to get burn-out just from working your nine-to-five, it’s also true that side-hustles, even the ones you are passionate about, can easily upend whatever tenuous grasp you might have had on work-life balance–especially when they’re added to a nine-to-five day.
When I was working a full-time job and writing fiction and freelancing and trying to ride just a couple of days per week, my life was a series of precariously balanced appointments, with meticulously monitored commute times to make it all possible.
I had to give up freelancing, but even that wasn’t enough. I barely had the energy to write anything after work, I didn’t have time to work out so I could feel healthy and good about myself, and getting to the barn was an exercise in resilience and not going crazy in traffic jams.
One person calling “Hey Natalie, quick question?” from the office next to mine at 4:03 PM was enough to mean that, fifteen minutes later, I was sadly slogging out to my car to drive home, knowing I wasn’t going to get to ride that night. It was absolutely important that I stick to my timetable, from leaving my apartment at 7:20 AM to beat morning traffic, to getting out at by 4:10 to almost beat evening traffic. A few minutes’ diversion either way meant an extra 20 minutes or more of time stuck in the car, while daylight waned. (Orlando notoriously has some of the worst traffic in the country, so that was part of it.)
I don’t know if keeping to that strict timetable was work-life balance or a slowly soul-numbing descent into hell, but either way, once my full-time job was over, I realized I didn’t have to clock-watch in order to get to the things I loved. So I turned back to my passions and sorted out what parts of them I could monetize (or in some cases, hyper-monetize) and found actual control over my day. It is my day, after all.
Of course, there’s work to be done at balancing all of my side-hustles, turning my work day into one big succession of hustles.
At first I asked: can I write for a certain website I enjoy writing for and produce a novel in 90 days and pick up a freelance social media campaign and plan travel and teach riding lessons and have a family life? It turns out that no, I can’t. I’ve been back in the hustle life for less than two months and I’ve already had to make some adjustments to my expectations of myself. I had to do some calculations, figure out the ROI on the work I was doing, and choose to prioritize the work paying the highest ROI and eliminate the work paying the lowest.
As a result, I’ve now completed the first draft of a novel in record time (six weeks, thank you for asking!), booked some very cool vacations for some very cool people, started teaching riding lessons so we can rock a new generation of horsey kids, started working out (I can run three miles now without stopping, thank you for asking!), and spend what is probably too much time with my family, no seriously, I think they are tired of me.
And what I love most? This can change. I can change this up tomorrow. I could add a freelance gig, pick up a part-time job so that I can remember how to interact with other humans, jump on a contract and work in an office for a few months making something cool happen, write another book, write a series of short stories, start a podcast (okay that probably won’t make any money) — but the point is, my life is mix-and-match right now, and I’m running around the candy shop, picking my favorite flavors.
Let your hobby earn you some breathing room. Let your passions run your life. Let your side-hustles give you new meaning.
Just keep it balanced. You can do this.
The Internet gives us the opportunity to market ourselves with almost no effort. Want to sell your dressage-themed cross-stitch pillows, but don’t have time to market them? Start an Instagram and a Facebook, and spend an hour on Saturday evening scheduling posts for the week while you’re ignoring Netflix. (You’re on your phone anyway.) Tag some horsey influencers and ask if you can mail them a couple. There, you did some marketing for the week. No craft shows, no tack shop cold calls, no fuss. Now you can get back to ignoring Netflix in peace.
The gig economy is here and we can let it empower us, or we can let it burn us out. What we can’t do is deny it exists, and that it’s taking over our lives. How are you going to hustle it?
PS: if you’re marketing dressage cross-stitch pillows, I want to see them. And if you’re making something awesome – contact me! I’m going to start a monthly feature on equestrians with side-hustles!
So, here’s the thing. I love social media, because it’s given me a chance to meet wonderful people (like you, probably!) but we have to admit it, there’s a flaw in its design. All of those short sentences and catchy captions don’t give us nearly enough time to really get to know each other!
For that, I think it’s time to get back to blogs. Make a cup of tea, set aside some time to read, and enjoy some stories from people we’d like to get to know better–I think we could all use that once in a while! So without further ado, let’s start with Five Questions for author L.R. Trovillion.
Her books get great reviews with readers, who love her fast-paced, tightly-woven plots about teenage girls who find purpose and courage through equestrian life.
If you love coming-of-age stories (and who doesn’t, really) and a well-written story with plenty of horses in it, these books belong on your list.
I asked L.R. Trovillion five questions about her latest novel, her writing life, and her craft. Let’s go!
Hello! Thank you for being my debut subject for Five Questions!
First of all, thank you, Natalie, for giving me this opportunity to speak with you and for hosting me on your blog.
You have a new book! Tell us a little about Horse Gods and your inspiration for this story.
The story grew out of a unique experience. A friend invited me to accompany him and his hawk out hunting. When this bird of prey lifted off his arm to the treetops, I was amazed that it did not just fly away, free. That really got me thinking…
The sequel, Horse Gods, picks up the story of a new main character, Regina Hamilton. Her abusive mother, who we met in the first book, False Gods, is getting out of prison and Regina has only a few months to figure out how she can avoid having to live with her. As a minor, she doesn’t have too many options.
She falls into an opportunity at an elite dressage barn (even though she’s a jumper rider!) to work as a resident working student, if she can prove herself.
But things at this barn are not what they seem, and before long Regina finds herself in a dangerous situation. (No spoilers).
What made you decide to begin writing equestrian fiction?
Horses are the inspiration. I only started riding as an adult when I had a job that would support boarding and lessons, but I never looked back!
To help defray some costs, I worked as a groom for a hunter/jumper rider, which gave me a unique view into the world of big-time horse shows.
Later, my interests gravitated to dressage. I believe there is a certain magic in the horse-human connection and I hope to capture a little bit of it in my stories.
Horse Gods blends a lot of topics – you’ve got hawking, dressage, Irish mythology, and parents in prison, among other things. Was it hard to keep your plot in order and not lose any threads?
Ha, ha! I’ll have to let my readers answer that question, but I certainly hope I didn’t lose any threads! Yes, there’s a lot going on, but the various topics are all held together by one central theme—trust. The hawk, the wild mare, the Irish myths that surround Regina all symbolize various needs for and levels of trust. You see, Regina has no one to lean on, no one to help her (she thinks), and so has always just relied on herself. As she grapples with one problem after another, she slowly discovers how to trust in others as well. But that trust in people is severely tested in the end.
Can you tell us a little about your writing craft – how you schedule your time, how you plan your stories, that sort of thing?
I would like to say that I am very disciplined and sit down to write for a set period of time every day, but that would be a lie! So often I sit down to write and a million other tasks feel suddenly more pressing—‘Oh, maybe I should clean out the closet instead!’
When I do knuckle down to write, at the beginning of a novel, I get a germ of a story idea and start building the characters around it. I like to take a main character, give her a big problem, strip her of all outside support from family or conventional means, and set her loose to make bad decisions and see what happens. Secondary characters sort of turn up on the pages and some of them become quite interesting and get to be the main character in the next book. (Spoiler: Main character in book 3 is Willow).
Sounds quite haphazard, doesn’t it? I do usually have the beginning and the end destination planned, but that whole messy middle part is sometimes surprising even to me.
What’s on your 2019 reading list? Have you read anything amazing this year?
I am fortunate to belong to a book club, which has been together for about 23 years. In that time, I have been introduced to so many amazing books, often ones I would not have picked out for myself.
Recently, one of my favorites was A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I was a Russian language and literature major in college and this book captured so beautifully the culture, history, and mood of that time in Russia. Plus, I absolutely fell in love with the main character, Count Rostov! As for horse fiction, I’d have to say an all time favorite is Horse Heaven by the master storyteller, Jane Smiley.
I also love to read a lot of Young Adult. I really enjoyed The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon for her brilliant and edgy characters and Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo for amazing world building. On my list: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow. But I’m open to other suggestions!
Really solid choices. I love Amor Towles’ first book Rules of Civility, and A Gentleman in Moscow has been on my list for ages. And of course, Horse Heaven, I’ve been very open about how much I love that one!
Thanks to L.R. Trovillion for that excellent look inside her books and writing process. I especially love the idea of taking a character, stripping her of help, and seeing what she’ll do next. My process is generally to take a character, give her an opportunity, then think about all the awful consequences. Either way, you can’t have a story without being well-versed in a certain kind of worst-case scenario thought process!
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:
Reviews from people who hate your book because it doesn’t do what they wanted it to do.
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.
Reviews from people who didn’t read your book but just think it sounds awful.
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.
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).
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?
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.
(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:
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 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 Crest, which 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.
I’ve been writing horse books for the past eight years. It started out as a wish: I wish there were more horse books I wanted to read! It turned into a project: I’m going to write a book I’d like to read. It ended up as a career: in 2019, I decided to write horse books (and some other fiction) full-time.
So You Want to Write a Horse Book is a blog series I started in 2016 to help answer the questions I regularly get from aspiring equestrian fiction writers. Whether you want to write young adult, middle grade, chapter books, or adult fiction for equestrians, there’s a big beautiful publishing world waiting for you!
You’ll find posts in this series on everything from how to ask for criticism (and not die of embarrassment/horror when you get it) to how to choose your book’s cover image. And anytime you have more questions about how to write a horse book, just ask! Leave a comment or send an email, and I’ll try to answer it for you.
Are you ready? Let’s start!
What is a Horse Book?
A horse book, in my definition, is a book about equestrian life. It can be a romance, a literary fiction, a mystery novel, or even a steampunk combination of all three of those things. What qualifies the book as a horse book is that it has scenarios and characters recognizable to the equestrian community.
I classify what I write as Equestrian Fiction. That means my books are written specifically for equestrians to understand and enjoy. I don’t spend a lot of time explaining equine terms, trusting that non-equestrian readers can judge what I’m talking about based on context, use Google to learn more, or simply move on and enjoy the story. I also write with an adult audience in mind, although I recognize that in the equestrian world, teens are often living very adult lives, so I consider them my audience, as well.
This genre didn’t always exist, and if you ask a big book retailer, it still doesn’t exist. That’s why Equestrian Fiction dominates non-fiction categories like Horse Care, and Equestrian Sportson Amazon. It’s just one of those things you’ll have to deal with if you write equestrian fiction: this genre boasts the most popular books for equestrians, but no real category.
That’s a gripe for another time.
Equestrian Fiction is growing by the month. Established writers are continuing their series, and new writers are showing up with fantastic reads. If you’re tempted to join the fun, this blog series is for you.
Here’s what you should know, first and foremost: there are a handful of highs and a truckload of lows when you write your first novel (and your second, and your third, and your fourth…) and when we’re marketing our books directly to our readers, we have no choice but to face the criticism head-on.
While some writers with major publishing deals can say lofty (and probably untrue, but whatever) things like, “I never read the reviews,” if you’re a new, independent writer sharing good reviews to try to drum up good press, you’re going to have to read the reviews.
All of them.
And some of them will make you cry.
That’s okay! Your dressage (hunter/jumper/western pleasure/fill-in-the-blank here) trainer has made you cry, but you still ride, right? We’re equestrians, so we’re used to pain equaling gain. We’re used to falling down, dusting ourselves up, and mounting again. Maybe that’s why we’re hanging on, growing, and actually thriving in such a difficult industry.
It’s just really hard to mash down a determined equestrian!
Writing for any audience is tough, but writing for equestrians is exceptionally challenging. In 2012, I interviewed Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley for the equestrian lifestyle site, Dappled Grey. Jane Smiley stormed into the equestrian scene with her massive racing/showing novel Horse Heaven, and became as common a barn name as any big name trainer. I remember working at the Ocala, Florida branch of Barnes & Noble when Horse Heaven was at its height. I was selling copies one after another to well-known hunter/jumper riders in town for HITS. I was actually star-struck by some of the luminaries who walked in and asked for the book by name.
But Horse Heaven, for all its popularity with the equestrian community and the wider world, didn’t get a follow-up. Instead, Smiley began a children’s series, beginning with The Georges and the Jewels, which taught excellent horsemanship, but didn’t get into the complicated and very adult lives of modern riders, trainers, and owners in the racing and showing business–something I loved because it reflected the world I lived in so beautifully.
So I asked Smiley, why did she stop writing equestrian novels for adults, when Horse Heaven was such a hit with her own crowd?
Here’s what Jane Smiley told me about writing equestrian fiction:
“The horse audience will toss the book out of the window if the voice isn’t expert. The audience isn’t big, and they’re critical, although they’re enthusiastic when they’ve committed. Sometimes you can make it work and sometimes you can’t. It’s not an easy audience to write for.”
Imagine writing huge multi-generational trilogies, imagine winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and having your novels turned into movies, and then finding equestrians too picky an audience to continue writing for. That’s what you’re up against when you decide to write a horse book.
But that’s okay. There are ways around this. There are ways to find your voice. There are ways to prove yourself to your audience. And that’s what we’re going to talk about in this blog series.
Watch this space for a post each week on writing horse books. Feel free to chime in, comment, and ask questions. Send me an email if you don’t want to go public with your writing aspirations; I promise confidentiality. Let’s talk about writing. Because honestly? I want to read your books. I write for this genre because eight years ago, sitting at my computer, I realized that all I wanted to read was more Horse Heaven. And no one was writing it.
So I wrote the book I wanted to read.
I’ve come a long way since my first novella, The Head and Not The Heart. I’ve made it through bad reviews and good, vicious emails and heart-warming messages, and even found myself in Lexington, Kentucky accepting runner-up at one of America’s richest book prizes before flying to Pimlico for a festival-day book-signing. I’ve spoken about the horse in fiction at Equine Affaire. I’ve been invited to work on conference proposals exploring animals in literature. It’s an exciting adventure, being an equestrian fiction author. I never know what’s going to arrive in my inbox next.
I love my writing life; I’m grateful for my writing life, which readers grant me every day when they choose to read my novels, and I want to encourage, nurture, inspire, and help new writers join the ranks in any way I can.
Let’s talk horse books, and writing them, together. I think this is going to be a good time.
The first Timber Ridge Riders novel had me hooked.
This post originally appeared at Retired Racehorse Blog in 2013.
I’m a huge proponent of independent publishing, not least because it has allowed horse books to enter a whole new level. Gone are the days when I could choose between a $5.99 paperback from the Thoroughbred series or a $35.95 hardcover tome on dressage principles if I wanted to have a little horsey reading time. Equestrian writers can write for equestrians of all ages.
(And on a side-note, whoever decided that horse training books should be published on expensive glossy paperstock and with beautiful slipcovers was probably some accountant reading a report about the 35-55 married female with disposable income demo that represents the majority of Dressage Today’s subscribers, not a horse-person who knows a training book is best perused in the rather dirty and disheveled confines of the tack room immediately before or after a training session.)
Meanwhile, back at the ranch… Indie publishing lets horse-people publish horse-books that I actually want to read.
You’ve probably noticed that I’ve reviewed Barbara Morgenroth and Maggie Dana books quite often at Retired Racehorse. That’s because they’re not just excellent writers, they’re horsewomen, and they write horse books that make sense. No one is going straight to the Olympics after they went to a summer riding camp, taught an unbroken Mustang to jump logs in the woods by moonlight, and subsequently won the Grand Prix at the National Horse Show. (Any old Grand Prix will do.)
Instead, Maggie writes about tweens who are going about the very difficult business of growing up and working really, really hard to improve their riding because they know nothing else really matters in life.
As did the first Bittersweet Farm novel, Mounted.
Meanwhile, Barbara writes about teens who are going about the very difficult business of growing up (in a much more edgy manner, because teens) and working really, really hard to improve their riding even though they’re not entirely convinced that it’s the best way to spend their time (because teens).
The books lend to one another beautifully: As Barbara said, “Maggie’s books are a gateway to mine.”
And, I’d like to think, Barbara’s books lead to mine, which are written about adults in the horse business.
No more skipping from Thoroughbred to Mary Wanless in one not-so-easy step. Horse books have a progression now.
And indie publishing isn’t just wonderful because it allows us to read books we might never get to enjoy otherwise. Indie publishing also provides for a spirit of collaboration and friendship between authors who realize that by working together, they can provide the best possible reading experience for fans. Recently, they sent me this wonderful article:
How Two Rivals Came Together to Make a Team
The 3rd Bittersweet Farm book from Barbara Morgenroth, Wingspread
In the world of traditional book publishing, Barbara Morgenroth and Maggie Dana would be rival authors, both vying for the same limited space on bookstore shelves devoted to children’s and YA fiction. Very likely they’d be monitoring one another’s sales ranks and rejoicing if the other author dropped a few points.
“Hooray! Let’s break out the whips and spurs!”
But when it comes to indie publishing, all that has gone out the window. Independent authors are totally open about sharing resources and information and helping one another. Some have edited and/or proofed another’s books for free; other indies have provided their fellow authors with professionally designed covers, formatting, and typesetting (again, for free) because they believed in someone else’s book and wanted to help.
Six months ago, Barbara and Maggie only knew each other from their Amazon listings, but thanks to a chance encounter on a well-respected indie publishing industry blog, they connected in real time.
And they are loving it.
After getting to know one another via phone and email, they swapped information: Maggie has taught Barbara how to format her books for ePub and Kindle, and Barbara (whose multiple talents include writing for daytime television) has helped Maggie broaden her writing horizons. They’ve also swapped characters.
The latest Timber Ridge Riders release, Taking Chances, by Maggie Dana
Lockie Malone, Barbara’s enigmatic horse trainer who stars in her Bittersweet Farm series, makes a guest appearance in Taking Chances, the seventh book in Maggie’s Timber Ridge Riders series for mid-grade/tween readers.
At some point, one of Maggie’s Timber Ridge characters will show up in Barbara’s Bittersweet Farm YA books.
And who knows where this will lead? All bets are off as these two writers set aside any hint of competition and work together to make their genres the best they can be… and they’re having a boatload of fun while doing it.
About these two horse-crazy authors …
Maggie and Smoky show us how it’s done. Photo: Maggie Dana
Maggie Dana’s first riding lesson, at the age of five, was less than wonderful. In fact, she hated it so much, she didn’t try again for another three years. But all it took was the right instructor and the right horse and she was hooked for life.
Her new riding stable was slap bang in the middle of Pinewood Studios, home of England’s movie industry. So while learning to groom horses, clean tack, and muck stalls, Maggie also got to see the stars in action. Some even spoke to her.
Born and raised near London, Maggie now makes her home on the Connecticut shoreline where she divides her time between hanging out with the family’s horses and writing her next book in the Timber Ridge Riders series. She also writes women’s fiction and her latest novel, Painting Naked, was published in 2012 by Macmillan/Momentum.
Barbara Morgenroth, every bit as intense as her characters in the saddle
Barbara was born in New York City and but now lives somewhere else. She got her first horse when she was eleven and rode nearly every day for many years, eventually teaching equitation, then getting involved in eventing.
Starting her career by writing tween and YA books, she wound up in daytime television for some years. Barbara then wrote a couple of cookbooks and a nonfiction book on knitting. She returned to fiction and wrote romantic comedies.
When digital publishing became a possibility, Barbara leaped at the opportunity and has never looked back. In addition to the fifteen traditionally published books she wrote, in digital format Barbara has something to appeal to almost every reader—from mature YAs like the Bad Apple series and the Flash series, to contemporary romances like Love in the Air published by Amazon/Montlake, along with Unspeakably Desirable, Nothing Serious, and Almost Breathing.
My favorite promotion piece for Turning For Home – this Instagram friendly square.
Launching Turning For Home was my most challenging book launch to date. The fourth book in a series — how do you share that with readers who are new to the series? Compared to Ambition, I barely did any promotional work at all. I just plain didn’t know what to do.
After all, I couldn’t exactly send it to equestrian websites and blogs if they hadn’t covered the first few books. A few websites who had declined reading The Head and Not The Heart and Other People’s Horses (because they were racing novels) had been my most enthusiastic reviewers for Ambition — and here I was going back to racing for my newest novel.
And not just racing, but responsible racehorse retirement. Other People’s Horses was about horse racing, and while there were a few bad apples, it was largely positive. Racing people liked it; so much so that it was a semi-finalist for the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award in 2014. Turning For Home deals with retirement, animal rights activists, and the fact that some people just are not doing right by their racehorses. Would it hit a chord with racing publications, or just piss everyone off?
Well, at least I had my core readers, right? RIGHT? But what if I couldn’t get the word out to all the readers that had been clamoring for a new Alex novel for the past two years?
All of a sudden the year’s worth of work I’d thrown at Turning For Home was looking pretty crazy. Maybe, I thought, I should have spent all that time working on the sequel to Ambition, a book that was fresher in people’s memories — and which had a lot of support from traditional equestrian websites and magazines.
A Facebook/Twitter banner letting people know Turning For Home was coming.
In the end, I settled for awareness. I designed a few graphics to stick on my various social media pages. I used Amazon’s new pre-order feature for the Kindle edition, so that it could start climbing the rankings in the horse racing category where the other Alex novels already do well. (Happily, Amazon helped out by featuring it in their “Hot New Releases” section for a few weeks.) I tweeted (a little) and Facebooked (a little) and threw out a few notices on Pinterest and Instagram. Just enough to let folks know that the book was happening, and if they wanted to, they could read it!
How’s that working out for me?
Well, so far so good. Turning For Home made its debut in March on Amazon’s top ten horse racing titles, and it’s been up there consistently ever since. It’s also been sitting in the top five on Teen/Young Adult Sports & Outdoors, which is a new category for me, but I’m in good company there with several other equestrian authors, so I’ll take it! (FYI, I added the teen age group to my books based on the enthusiastic teen response to Ambition, but I still write these books in a mature tone as I always have.)
“I could not recommend this book more highly for horse lovers!”
“If you love horses, horse racing, showing, or just plan love Thoroughbreds… read Natalie.”
“You can’t go wrong with one of Natalie’s equestrian books.”
You GUYS! Stop it. I’m blushing.
So, all in all, the confusing promotion of a fourth book has turned out okay. I would love to know how much of it was my blog and social media, and how much of it was people clicking on Amazon’s suggested purchase or new release ads, that actually let people know Turning For Home was available. Either way, it’s good to know that I can concentrate on writing, and spend less time worrying about getting the word out about new books.
But if you really want to know… look for my next book, Pride, very soon. Yes, it’s the next book in my Eventing Series, which began with Ambition. Yes, Jules has a lot more growing up to do. It should be a fun ride.
I’m happy to announce that Turning For Home (Alex and Alexander Book 4) is now available for download at a variety of online retailers, with a paperback to follow soon!
Get a grown-up horse book!
This new installment of these “Horse Books for Grown-ups,” which began back in 2011 with the publication of The Head and Not The Heart, then continued with the 2014 Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award semi-finalist, Other People’s Horses and the holiday short Claiming Christmas, returns to the dark bay beauty that Alex fell so hard for at Aqueduct Racetrack, The Tiger Prince.
The charismatic Tiger has run his last race, and it wasn’t pretty. Alex is faced with an agonizing decision: how can she retire a hot-tempered gelding who has no place on a breeding farm, but is such a pet that he can’t be sold or adopted out?
Then, as if life wasn’t complicated enough, another scandal is breaking over the racing industry. Racehorses are found abandoned and starving in the Everglades — and a radical animal rights group pins the blame on Alex. Hate mail and death threats, plus a mysterious new neighbor who is making life downright dangerous, throw Alex’s training career into a tailspin.
Stuck on the farm, exiled from the racetrack, angry and shell-shocked, Alex and Tiger have more in common than ever. When a Thoroughbred Makeover event is announced for late spring, Alexander and Kerri both encourage Alex to seize the opportunity and show everyone that she’s fully capable of responsible racehorse retirement. It’s a move that could make — or break — her training career.
Turning For Home returns to some of my favorite places: the rolling hills of Ocala, the small-town feel of Tampa Bay Downs. And it takes on one of my favorite subjects, racehorse retirement. That’s actually what got me started in this whole writing game, you know — writing Retired Racehorse Blog back when I had a little Florida farm, some broodmares and foals, and one wonderful gelding that I’d gotten off the track and was training to be an event horse.
I actually trained that horse, in part, to prove to myself that I still could do it. I guess in that way, I’m a lot like Alex in this story. Is retraining a racehorse like riding a bike? At some point, muscle memory kicks in, right?
It seemed that way for me, when I was out riding Final Call. I used the memory of those rides to write about Alex as she rides Tiger. I hope that helps the story ring true for equestrians — that’s always my number one goal as a writer!
Enjoy Turning For Home, and be sure to let me know what you think! You can read the first chapter right here on the website, or see the previews at the links below:
The newest Alex and Alexander novel is almost here!
Are you ready for the first chapter of the newest Alex and Alexander novel, Turning For Home? Well, I have it here for you!
Here’s the story:
Every racehorse must one day retire from the track, and for Tiger, that day has arrived.
Alex isn’t ready for Tiger’s racing days to end, but planning his next career is quickly becoming the least of her problems. An animal rights group is accusing her of involvement in a horse-abuse scandal, and with death threats arriving daily, Alexander fears for her safety. Suddenly Tiger’s not the only one heading back to the farm — Alex is stuck at home, too, with strict orders to stay away from the racetrack.
Both horse and rider would rather be racing than hacking around the farm. A Thoroughbred makeover event seems like the perfect distraction, but as the activists ramp up their protests, Alex realizes she’s competing for more than just a blue ribbon. She’s fighting for her own reputation. This horse show could make — or break — her future in horse racing.
Ready for more? Here’s chapter 1. And don’t forget, you can pre-order the Kindle edition of Turning For Home now through March 2nd and have it delivered automatically on March 3rd! It will also be available at iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Scribd, and other retailers on March 3rd. Watch for a paperback in just about another week, if you prefer hard copies. Here we go! Continue reading →