Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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November 28, 2011

6 Key Writing Lessons I’ve Learned From Horses: The Key of Knowledge

This is the second installment of a three part series. The first post focused on attitude.

"Prior and proper preparation makes for peak performance. Like creating a novel that takes readers somewhere, amazing."

There are only three places to go: somewhere, nowhere or somewhere else. Whether riding, writing, or reading, I wouldn’t want to go nowhere, would you? On horseback it’s my job to decide where my horse and I are going, and to focus on the task of taking us somewhere. How’s that?

First, I ASK, . . . then, I SHOW/TELL, . . . and finally, I PROMISE.

 "We are going somewhere."    

Let’s say, I want to canter the sandy trail along the creek. I focus on the trail ahead. My body energy and expectations ask, “Canter?”

Now if my horse doesn’t respond, I show/tell her. Showing/Telling is a little louder than asking, like squeezing my legs, and adding more pressure along her side.

If she still isn’t responding to my focus, then I respectfully promise her we’ll canter by rhythmically tapping (not whacking) her butt with my hand, reins or crop. I promise not to stop until she does what I ask, or I’ll lose her respect.

Yes you are!

And in horse sense that means I’m the jackass.

 First, I ASK, . . . then, I SHOW/TELL,
. . . and finally, I PROMISE

ASK                         SHOW/TELL                    PROMISE

 As storytellers we also focus on where we going. We ask our readers to willingly suspend disbelief. “Trust me to tell you a story,” we ask and our readers will go along for the ride as long as we don’t break our promise. Not breaking our promise means we do not take our readers somewhere else--or worse--nowhere at all.

One of my favorite books, A Story is a Promise, by Bill Johnson, shows us how best to tell a story through the elements of effective storytelling. The knowledge of craft is in the telling. By seamlessly stringing sentences together, authors dream of creating a bestseller tweeted, blogged, and bought. Telling the story takes work, and it’s the little things that add the resplendent polish to make a story shine, for instance:

  • Knowing when to show most important scenes, and when to tell other scenes as narrative or exposition, as explained by Dr. Vicki Hinze.

“Narrative and exposition (in contrast to scenes with action and dialogue) are essentially stagnant blocks of information inserted into scenes.  These blocks create psychic distance between the reader and character; remind readers they're reading.  Sometimes you, the writer, want that and sometimes you don't.”

  • Tweaking scenes and sequels: Turning it ↑up and turning it↓down; tension, pacing, and emotion for both scene and sequel is broken down in  Randy Ingermanson’s (The Snowflake guy) great blog on Dwight Swain’s “must have” book, Techniques of the Selling Writer.
  • Don’t forget the piece de resistance. It’s that all inclusive telling detail describing something utterly unique about a main character as demonstrated in James Scott Bell’s blog post (another favorite author on craft), The Geyser 5-Step Approach to Revision. You’ll cut your teeth on that one, I promise.
  • Contrived deus ex machine, characters too stupid to live, gratuitous scenes and shock gimmicks can’t hide a lazy ending or a sagging middle. Fiction Editor Beth Hill  offers some great tips on fighting the bulge.

I’ve barely chipped the tip of the iceberg of story knowledge. If you’ve found that special book or blog that brings to fruition How to Write a Damn Good Novel, by James Frey, then please share your chips with us (not the buffalo kind).

As you can see, gaining knowledge is easy, but application of new material creates growing pains on the brain, because it's life changing. Most of us are expert at the “Do as I say, not as I do,” way of life, at least, I am.

Why is that? Because we learn in layers, from “ignorance is bliss” to the semi-enlightened block head who begins to see the light until finally--we get it. The newly wired pathways in our brain switch on, and . . . let there be light!

But it ain't always pretty.

Don't feel bad. Hindsight tells us the many mistakes were necessary to get somewhere.

Mistakes are mind manure, fertilizing the ground of knowledge. But watch for stinking thinking, and don't let rejection and self-doubt ruin you. To come out smelling like a rose, do battle. For instance, I might exercise to sweat out the negativity, rant to a trusted friend (as a last resort, no one needs more negative vibes), or repeat affirmations.

My newest affirmation comes from the bestseller, and movie, The HelpI've memorized the maid, Aibileen's (played by Viola Davis) kind words to the chubby toddler, Mae Mobley,  in her care. Hoping to negate the hurtful remarks made by Mae's foolish Momma, Aibileen sits the little one on her lap and says,

 “You is smart, you is kind, you is important.”

It's as if she's talking to me. So when I’m feeling like a moldy buffalo chip, I sit myself down, look in my mind’s eye and say, “You is smart, you is kind, you is important.”

Who knows? Maybe I'll have a fighting chance for my novel to be tweeted, blogged and bought by my readers. Maybe even make the NY Times bestseller list?

So, if stinking thinking’s been getting you down, remember, You is smart, you is kind, you is important.”

By the way, Kathryn Stockett, was rejected by 60 literary agents before her novel, The Help, was picked up by Susan Ramer (Bravo, Ms. Ramer, bravo!)

Join me next time for the last installment of 6 Key Lessons I’ve Learned From Horses.  I’ll cover Imagination and the three T’s; Tools, Techniques, and Time.

I leave you with Lorenzo, the flying horseman, and perhaps my next action hero:

Do you ever suffer from "stinking thinking?" How do you combat it?

0 comments on “6 Key Writing Lessons I’ve Learned From Horses: The Key of Knowledge”

  1. D.A., the analogy of horses is wonderful and although I personally haven't had much to do with the care, feeding and loving of one, because of two experiences I had in the lower elevation of the Pocono Mountains, I sent my son to a ranch camp. He needed focus and God knows, he needed to burn off that city-anxiety he carried with him ten months a year in Manhattan. It worked wonders and his love for and caring about horses carried through in everything he did for years afterwards. My experience was the love one one girl I barely knew. The daughter of a friend of my parents. She woke me before dawn and took me to the back porch of their house which sat across a mountain stream and told me to wait for the magic. The sun rose over the moutains with a blue haze, the Pocono range being an extension of the Blue Ridge Range and when she saw I understood, she handed me my clothes, and we drove to their stables. There in the middle of early morning, while this kid from Brooklyn rode up into the mountains, the trail curved and before my eyes was a clear mountain lake. I don't know that any of this has actually helped me as a writer, but it convinced me that what my children needed was a little of that magic. I only went their twice, both times she took me riding, and both times I was awe-struck. I don't remember her name, but I will never forget the gift she gave to this hyper-active street kid. Today, you brought back that magic. Thanks 🙂

    1. I am glad for your magical memories, and riding in the Poconos certainly would have been a release of adrenalin for a hyper-active steet kid, which of course would calm a hyper-active street kid. Good for you, bringing magic into you family, which reminds me of a horse called Magic. . . .

  2. HI! Great analogy with the writing and horsemanship. Love it. Look forward to the next blog. the videos are just perfect and enhance the story. HAve fun.

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