March 1st, 2017

Top 5 Things Rodeo Taught me About Writing

Kari Lynn Dell

Yes, that’s Kari!

If you’d asked me twenty years ago, the idea that a ranch girl from Montana who majored in sports medicine could up and write a book would’ve seemed ludicrous. Then this story got stuck in my head. The characters—typical of many of the cowboys I’ve dated—settled in on my mental couch, hogging the remote and forever drinking the last can of cold Pepsi in the fridge. They brought along their horses, dogs, and in one case a goat, and the only way to evict them was to write them out.

Now that I’ve been involved in this crazy business for a while, I’m convinced that a lifetime of rodeo competition is actually the best possible preparation. And here’s why:

1. Even if you put in the time and effort, there’s no guarantee you’ll end up with a winner.

Training a rodeo horse is a two or three-year process, minimum. Some, like certain of my book ideas, are stinkers from the get go. Some start off great, but unravel halfway through. Sometimes you’re sure this is the ONE, only to have them fall just short in competition, the equine equivalent of a rejection letter that says, “Sorry, this book was good, but not great.”

So you train harder, try different techniques, go to a clinic in hopes of an Aha! moment that will transform average to exceptional. Or you rewrite, go to workshops, get your manuscript critiqued. And then you resubmit, or enter more rodeos, and see if you’ve found the magic key. Occasionally, as with the fourth rewrite of Reckless in Texas, the answer is yes.

2. The hardest part is knowing when to give up.

I wasted years on a barrel racing horse named Roo, who would show a flash of brilliance just often enough to keep me hanging on, sure we were almost there. We never arrived. On the other hand there was Scotty, who bucked me off three times in one week and was so cantankerous the first year we competed that merely surviving every rodeo was an accomplishment. I battled on, and when she finally got it all together, she became a champion—and so did I.

But how do you know which horses (and books) are a Scotty, and which are a Roo? And when to admit defeat and move on? For me…when I’m stumped and so are my little group of readers. We all know what we don’t like about the book but we’ve run out of ideas about how to fix it.

This is when it’s time to put that horse out to pasture. Amazingly enough, sometimes with horses (and manuscripts) just leaving them alone and letting them age for a while is all you need. When you stop pushing so hard and move on to another idea, your subconscious can run free, and if you’re very lucky, it may one day serve up the solution to your book problem.

Or not. Some books never come around. The characters or the plot have a bone deep, fatal flaw and it’s better to just leave them in the bottom drawer. But don’t consider it a loss. You learned things from that book, even if it was what not to do. And you may, like me, find yourself scavenging bits and pieces from it for later books—an image, a description, a secondary character, sometimes an entire scene. Don’t think of it as a loss. Just repurposing, like Roo, who turned out to be an awesome team roping horse instead.

3. First practices (and drafts) stink.

The other day we roped steers for the first time in over a month. We were rusty. The steers were fresh and wild. My horse had apparently forgotten everything he’s ever known. We trudged back to the barn exhausted, battered and disheartened. In other words, it was a typical first practice. The next night we returned to the arena and voila! We roped as if we’d never had a break. But we had to muddle through that ugly first practice to work out the kinks.

First drafts are also clunky and uncoordinated, and at several points along the way I’ll be convinced I’ve forgotten how to write. Still, I grit my teeth and stagger through to the end, knowing there are better days to come. I have to remind myself that for me, a first draft is mostly—other than a few scenes that leap onto the page fully formed—a pencil sketch. All of the pretty color, subtle nuances and best humor will be layered in during the second draft. Or third. Occasionally, much to my editor’s delight, even during final line edits.

So it also goes with roping. First practices are about not falling off the horse or roping yourself instead of the calf. But with each subsequent trip to the arena we begin to hone in on the finer points, like adjusting the set of my shoulders and the turn of my wrist to make my loops snappier with no wasted motion. Just like my dialogue.

4. The only thing I can control is my effort.

I practiced hard all of last May. My horse and I were ready. On the first weekend of June we drove a hundred miles to the annual Whoop-Up Days rodeo. I warmed up, stretched, went through my mental pre-game routine. Breathe. Visualize. Be in the moment. And then I backed in the roping box, nodded my head—and the calf ducked hard left, out of reach, before I could throw my rope. No chance. Just luck of the draw.

So it goes in publishing. I can’t control the whims of the reading public (sorry, no zombie cowboys this year), or whether that editor who was waiting breathlessly for my next book left New York to raise alpacas in Alaska. What I can do is write the best stories I know how and keep telling myself that every word, like every rodeo, increases the odds that the luck of the draw will turn in my favor. My job is to have a perfect loop ready to throw when it does.

5. No matter how good you get, on any given day there will be someone you can’t beat.

Let’s be honest. There are people who are exceptionally gifted—physically, mentally, creatively. And if that person also dedicates themselves to working hard and maximizing their talent, they will be better than you. Such has always been the case in my roping career. I’ve lived and competed in Montana, the Dakotas and the Pacific Northwest and in every region there was at least one woman I could not consistently beat. On my very best day, she could still out-rope me.

Harder to accept was the person who wasn’t as talented and never seemed to have a clue what she was doing, but who always seemed to get lucky at the right time. We all knew she wasn’t that good but somehow, when the biggest money was on the line, she would toss out a prayer of a loop and come out on top. It made the rest of us froth at the mouth.

You will see both of these scenarios in your publishing career. A writer whose prose is universally panned will hit the jackpot with a book that leaves you shaking your head and muttering, usually over an alcoholic beverage. Conversely, you’ll pick up a book and it will be so freaking brilliant it will make you want to toss your laptop out the window in despair, knowing that everything you’ve ever written and will ever write pales in comparison.

Measuring yourself against other writers is the road to crazy town, because—newsflash—life is not fair. The most deserving will not always be rewarded. What you can do, though, is pick those other writers apart, the way I study videos of the best ropers in action. Analyze their technique and see what they’re doing better than you, then up your game in that area if it suits your style. I will never be six feet tall with exceptional upper body strength. Patterning myself after a roper who is will likely make me worse, not better. By the same token, my gift as a writer is in the authenticity of my characters and settings and in my humor, not paragraphs of breathtaking, poetic description.

But I can still learn something from the way that Amazon roper positions her horse for the best throw, and I can weave touches of brilliant color into my descriptions to make it more vivid. In other words, I can do the same thing you should with this post and all others on craft. Take what suits your style and makes you better and leave the rest.

And as long as the desire drives you, keep on swinging. As they say in my world—you can’t win a rodeo you didn’t enter.

What do you think, WITS readers? What has another passion of yours taught you about writing?

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About Kari Lynn Dell:

Kari Lynn Dell is a native of north central Montana, a third generation ranch-raised cowgirl, horse trainer and rodeo competitor, most recently the 2013 Canadian Senior Pro Rodeo Association Breakaway Roping Champion. She attended her first rodeo at two weeks old and has existed in a state of horse-induced poverty ever since. She currently resides on the family ranch on the Blackfeet Reservation, loitering in her parents’ bunkhouse along with her husband, son and Max the Cowdog, with a tipi on the front step, a view of Glacier National Park from her writing desk and Canada within spitting distance.Kari Lynn Dell is a native of north central Montana, a third generation ranch-raised cowgirl, horse trainer and rodeo competitor, most recently the 2013 Canadian Senior Pro Rodeo Association Breakaway Roping Champion. She attended her first rodeo at two weeks old and has existed in a state of horse-induced poverty ever since. She currently resides on the family ranch on the Blackfeet Reservation, loitering in her parents’ bunkhouse along with her husband, son and Max the Cowdog, with a tipi on the front step, a view of Glacier National Park from her writing desk and Canada within spitting distance.
Her latest book, Tangled in Texas, was an Amazon Top Five of the Month pick and hit the Neilsen BookScan top forty list. You can find more information on Kari and all of her releases at KariLynnDell.com.

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