Sunday, January 31, 2016

Getting It Right

                                                                    Milton C. Toby photograph

By Milton C. Toby

Writing nonfiction is, for me at any rate, a very research-intensive pursuit. I learned the ropes from Kent Hollingsworth and Ed Bowen, my editors during a dozen years at Blood-Horse magazine, and they both were sticklers for accuracy in reporting. I took their lessons to heart, to the point that I typically spend at least as much time researching a topic as I do writing about it. Sometimes the ratio of research-to-writing is skewed heavily toward fact-finding.

When the research goes well, the writing usually moves along at a relatively smooth and comfortable pace. When the writing bogs down, on the other hand, the reason often is that I don't have enough information. This is when I stare blankly at my computer screen and envy my fiction author friends who have the luxury of making something up to write themselves out of a corner.

After Dancer's Image was disqualified, owner Peter Fuller put
 up a bill board in a pasture at his New Hampshire farm
proclaiming that his horse remained a Derby winner.
The billboard is still there. Photo by Roberta Dwyer,
copyright 2011, all rights reserved.
If it sounds as if I'm knocking the research skills of fiction authors, I'm not. Many fiction genres require extensive research and my hat is off to authors who can weave a batch of sterile facts into a compelling story. I try to do the same thing with my nonfiction, to make the usually difficult leap from reporting to storytelling. Sometimes it works, sometimes not so much. The balance between success and failure often turns on research help from an unexpected source.

The story of Dancer's Image and his controversial disqualification for a drug positive in the 1968 Kentucky Derby focused on the proceedings at a lengthy hearing before the state racing commission. Without the transcript of the hearing--some 400-plus pages--there were serious gaps in the story and how I could tell it. The problem was that, more than 40 years after the fact, none of the usual sources had a complete copy of the transcript-- not the attorneys involved, not the appellate court, not the state racing commission, not the court reporters.

Working at the Keeneland Library with a deadline looming for my book about Dancer's Image, I found myself trying to write around the gaps in what I knew about happened at the racing commission hearing. The Keeneland Library is a wonderful treasure trove of information about Thoroughbred racing. Director Becky Ryder and Librarian Cathy Schenck are among the most knowledgeable and helpful people on the planet. A few months ago, Cathy was named winner of the prestigious National Turf Writers and Broadcasters 2015 Joe Palmer Award for meritorious service to racing. Way to go, Cathy!

Winner of the Dr. Tony Ryan Award for
the best book about Thoroughbred racing and an
American Horse Publications Editorial Award
for the best equine book of the year.
Another of the librarians, Phyllis Rogers, asked what I was working on. I explained about the Dancer's Image book project. She nodded, said there was "something you probably need to see," and vanished into the cavernous back part of the building reserved for storage. She returned a few minutes later with a battered cardboard file box covered in dust. It was apparent that no one had opened the box for years, probably for decades.

Inside was the complete transcript of the hearing. I was flabbergasted. I had given up on ever seeing the entire transcript and for some reason it never occurred to me to look in the most logical place of all, a library devoted to preserving the history of Thoroughbred racing.

Conventional wisdom holds that writing is a solitary activity, and that's true. Writing this, I'm sitting at my computer in the company of Plumpkin and Sherlock, our two rescue cats. (I count this as a solitary activity due to the almost complete disdain shown my work by the felines.) Effective research, on the other hand, takes a village. For me, The Keeneland Library and the staff are essential parts of my village.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Marketing Yourself as an Author

by Christine.

There are incredible resources online today that authors can use to sell their products, promote themselves and acquire new readers.  As an aspiring author or one who has many novels under their belt, are you using all that you can?

There are more than I am aware of, but I thought I’d list some here and their associated benefits:

  • Goodreads
    So many people today are keeping track of what they’ve read, what they thought, and what they would recommend.  As an author, you can add your books to the Goodreads database, list them in appropriate lists (e.g. best horse series), offer giveaways to promote your latest release and best of all, create an author page where all of your public works are listed.
    This list allows people to mark them as read, rate them out of 5, leave a review and even mark down that they want to read your books in the future!  If you’re not using this feature yet and have published works, I encourage you to look into it. 
  • Amazon
    Again, you can have an author profile and list all of the books that are authored by you.  Your profile can also include a biography, photo, recent blog posts from your own blog feed and Twitter updates.  It’s a great way for fans to keep in touch with your latest news and books.
    As an added bonus, if you have your books on Amazon, you can keep tabs on monthly sales, see how your book/s are faring on the best sellers lists and get reviews and ratings from purchasers. 
  • Authorgraph
    This is a nifty way to interact with your fans for free and offer them something they may not have the chance to request in person – an autograph!  The images of the covers of your published works are made available and you can create an autograph that is then placed across any of these images that a fan may request.
    For example, a reader of Horse Country – A World of Horses may fancy a signed copy of the cover from Christine Meunier.  Authorgraph is set up so that your signature is created by you and then saved – this is then sent out whenever you approve a request from a fan.  You can also personalise messages! 
  • Lulu
    If you are interested in creating paperback versions of your books, then I encourage you to check out this print on demand set up.  Lulu’s service is free to set things up – they can even help you out with book formatting, ISBNs for free and cover creation.
    You can determine if your books are available to yourself only, to only those who you invite or to the general public.  And from here, you can submit your works into bigger selling networks like Amazon and Barnes and Noble – all for free!
    They make their money through earning a percentage of your profit whenever a sale is made, not before.
    Once you have books set up on Lulu, you can set up your own author store and provide a biography, links, profile image and of course details of your released paperbacks.  You don’t have to pay to have your books printed (except for proof copies), but instead they are only printed when people order them (print on demand).  It’s a great way to cater to the one off buyers all around the world without making a dent in your pocket!

What author platform do you use that has benefited you greatly in the form of sales, reaching out to fans or keeping people updated on your latest releases?

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Judging a book by its cover

If a picture tells a thousand words, then a book cover must tell even more. One of the great benefits of self-publishing is the complete control it affords over covers, which are one thing that commercial publishers often get wrong – especially when it comes to horse books.

As part of Horseback Reads, a group of self-published equine fiction writers from around the world, I have been intrigued to discover that it’s not just me who obsesses over the covers of my books. In fact, I’m even less picky than some of the other authors in that group, all of whom are very dedicated to producing the best covers possible. Here are some of their efforts…impressive, no?).

I was recently looking through online stock photos on Pixabay (a website where you can download FREE! stock images for commercial use) and found one that seemed ideal for book 9 in my Pony Jumpers series. Trouble is, the horse is completely the wrong colour to be the protagonist’s pony. No bother, I thought, I can pretend that it’s her best friend’s horse, who will feature in the book. Except that her friend’s horse is black, and while the horse in the photo appears, at first glance, to be black with a blaze, on closer inspection it’s revealed to quite clearly be a very dark grey.

Will readers notice?

Does it matter?

After all, I’ve already used an image on the cover of book 5 of this series that has a horse of the ‘wrong’ colour. The heroine’s pony is a steel grey, but the horse on the cover is a light grey with a dark mane. And yet I liked the image so much that I decided it didn’t matter. It looks good, and that’s a bigger priority for me than whether or not the image matches the story perfectly.

I designed and set up the covers for the PONY JUMPERS books myself in Adobe InDesign after finding the images and fonts online. I liked the idea of using the sketch version of the font for the numerical part of the title, and the block text for the rest.

I do believe though that covers are massively important, and that things like font choice, layout, resolution (!), framing and more are absolutely crucial. You want covers to look smart, eye-catching and (above all) professional. Covers that are clearly home-made and just scream I did this myself in MS Publisher are a huge turn-off for me. If you can’t do it yourself, find someone else to do it for you. You might have to pay that someone, but it will be worth it. Trust me.

The amount you can spend on a cover ranges from $0 (if you do it yourself and use images you don’t have to pay for) to $100+ (if you hire someone to do it/commission a photo/both), with the in-between cost of between $10-$30 of doing it yourself after purchasing a stock photo. And first you’ve got to find the right photo…

Sometimes finding a cover image can be easy – an image might jump out at you and it just fits perfectly, like the cover shown below for my most recent release, SIX TO RIDE. Six bridles and a yellow background that would match the yellow strip at the top (even if one of the bridles is hung up by the browband instead of the headstall, I’ve done my best not to let that bother me too much! Like I said before, if everything else is perfect…). And the missing bridle is a little nod to the fact that one pony is sold during the course of the book, which technically brings the tally down to five to ride, but who’s counting?

When selecting images for the PONY JUMPERS books, I take three key things into account:

Is it the right size/shape? Because the covers are set up to incorporate a landscape image, it has to be one that will fit neatly into that space. As much as I may love a portrait shot, if I can’t get it to work in the space provided, it’s a no go. 

Is it the right colour? I’ve got a printout on my office wall of the covers I’ve mocked up so far, and there’s a theme running through each one. All of the covers for AJ’s books, which have the purple banner at the top, either have something purple in the image (like the saddle blanket in FIRST FENCE) or a blue/purple background, which ties it into the colour scheme. Likewise for Katy’s books, which have the yellow strip, and so on. It’s not an absolute pre-requisite – the placeholder image for book 16 has no green in it, but it works and so it’s staying for now – but it certainly helps.

If there is a horse/pony shown in the photo, does it match the story? Here’s where I am a bit more casual about things, as mentioned earlier. And I recently found two different images that I really like for book 11 – one has a grey horse, the other a bay. But the horse in the story is, in my head, chestnut. That’s okay though – she has time to change colour. Once I settle on a cover, I’ll write the horse into that book to match.

A quick aside:

The cover photo I used for DARE TO DREAM was one I commissioned from a friend, and she also took the photos for my CLEARWATER BAY series. In both cases, the pony that ended up being on the cover was a bit different from the one that I’d had in my head while writing – DARE TO DREAM’s Cruise originally had a blaze, and FLYING CHANGES’ Finn had a tiny white star – but I simply touched up the stories to match the covers.

“Between his eyes was a star shaped like a lightning bolt, and between his nostrils was a big splash of white, as though he’d dipped his nose into a bucket of white paint.” – Dare to Dream

My theme with the Pony Jumpers covers is to use little details or snapshots on the covers – a saddle on a fence, a pony’s eye, a bundle of rosettes, a pile of jumping rails.

When it came to finding a cover for book seven, SEVENTH PLACE, I was on the fence between two of them, so I put them on my Facebook page and asked readers to vote. The overwhelming winner was this one, which is a dynamic shot that has just enough red in the background and on the girth to tie into the pink at the top. It’s also  helpful that Susannah, the protagonist, has not one but two dark bay ponies, and the pony in the shot could be either of them. (Given the height of the jump behind her, in my head it’s her younger pony Forbes, but it could be Buck if you wanted it to.) And I can’t wait to reveal the cover for book 8 – it’s an image I’m particularly fond of.

Do you have a book cover that you particularly love, or loathe? Comment below!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Second Novel

This weekend, I published my second novel. It's a stand-alone YA horse racing novel, although I feel like I should say that I originally thought Stay the Distance would also be a stand-alone. I just started working on the sequel to Stay the Distance this month--entitled All Heart.

So, what's the use in saying it's going to be a stand-alone, right? Clearly it's going to have a sequel, and of course I'm planning it as I write All Heart, because I can't do one thing at a time. I must do all the things at a time. It makes it more interesting and less likely that I'll get anything done quickly that way.

But let's get down to the topic: second novels. I am lucky to say that people seem to have generally decided to like my first novel. Stay the Distance was a first person perspective on a girl neck deep in horse racing, dealing with her mother's abandonment, and trying to decide if the course she's always been on is the course she should keep following. Finding Daylight, the second novel, is a bit different. Here's the synopsis:

Georgie Quinn and the filly Sweet Bells are an unbeatable team. When they win the Breeders’ Cup Classic against colts, the world can’t seem to get enough. Overnight, Georgie becomes the face of horse racing, and Sweet Bells becomes its queen.

Although they’re the morning line favorites, Georgie feels like she’s barely keeping her head above water. Her parents’ farm is a crumbling has-been, her jockey career consumes her time, and Harris Armstrong, heir to Tupelo Stud and grandson of Sweet Bells’ owner, won’t forgive her for telling a lie that kept her family together as the truth ripped his apart.

Georgie refuses to apologize, so she’s stunned when Harris asks her to ride his new colt. The most tenuous partnership in racing has begun. One that threatens to swallow Georgie whole.

Safe to say, this novel takes things a bit further than I allowed myself to go in Stay the Distance. The stakes are higher, the romance less innocent, and the family drama acted out on a national stage. It was an intense writing experience, and vastly different from my previous book since I decided--out of nowhere, I admit--to write Finding Daylight in third person. The tenses are also different. It's just a radically different book, wholly unconnected to my first, and because I'm me, I decided this will be my second novel.

And second novels are tricky. A debut builds an audience, and the second novel will either keep them there or lose them. Sure, I might gain more people with a completely different story, but I might disappoint people by not immediately continuing to tell the story they know they want. All Heart is coming, I guarantee it, but I really wanted to write Finding Daylight first. I wanted that new challenge, and I hope that it works.That's all I can really do as I writer, find the shiny new idea and try to write the heck out of it.

So, I'm not going to fear the second novel. I should actually probably buckle down and get working on the third. I want All Heart to be out by late summer/early fall, which means I need to get moving on writing that first draft.

In the meantime, Finding Daylight is available on Amazon right here. Print will be available soon!

Mara Dabrishus is an author and librarian at a small college in Northeast Ohio. Horse racing is her first great love, but for the past several years she's ridden dressage, learning how to spiral in, half halt, and perform the perfect figure eight. Her second novel (gasp!), Finding Daylight, was released in January 2016. For more information, please visit

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Writerly Advice "Show, Don't Tell" For Trainers

by Lisa Trovillion

I read a post today from a Grand Prix trainer talking about teaching the student how to balance a horse in a methodical, systematic way rather than just telling her to execute a half-halt. I've synthesized down the content of the post, which was much more complex and nuanced, but I believe this was the gist of it. Or, this is what I took away from it. See, this is the problem. We as human beings rely heavily on words alone to convey our thoughts and emotions. The thing is, a word can mean various things to different people the same way as a color may look to be a different shade to different individuals. Having worked for years as a linguist/translator I'm acutely away of the micro-layers of meaning behind many words and expressions. In preparing or correcting translations from one language to another, fierce debates had been known to break out and carry on for days over the meaning of one little expression.

So, getting back to riding and the meaning of half-halt--a word that doesn't even exist in the dictionary by the way--what do we do when all we have is our very anemic and flat language to use when describing the dynamic, shifting and subtle art of riding? We try to give the feelings names and to codify this terminology into the lexicon of horsemanship so everyone will be on the same page and know what we are talking about...but we still have trouble. Debates still rage over what really is connection, on-the-bit, half-halt and a dictionary of other terms. Are we seeing or feeling the same thing as the horse person standing next to us when we call it by a certain term? The more I ride and train, the more I realize I had no idea what a half-halt really was. We humans are blessed with the gift of speech, but it is still an imperfect form of communication. We want to communicate with horses, but our language is of little to no use there. We have to translate our intentions into their language. When we become expert at doing so, it seems it is very hard to translate horse language back into human in order to teach others.

How good are we communicating with others? Not very, it seems, on too many occasions. The word is our building block to form sentences, paint images, share emotion, impart information, convince or coerce others. Words are powerful, but their meanings are at times obscure. In writing, we often are told to "show, not tell" because I think it's felt on some level that words are not as clear as action. Although I believe that piece of advice is sometimes overused (I've read stunning novels from authors who "tell" almost the whole story), the point is well taken. Words can let us down. The same in the world of riding. If our instructor stands in the arena shouting "half-halt!" and we think we are doing one, but are instead stopping the forward action with too much hand and not a re-balancing through the horse's body, can we really say we have learned anything? Can we instead have more instructors who, like writers, are warned "show, don't tell" and coach us into accomplishing the desired action without every putting a name to it. Perhaps then we will be freed from the tyranny of the horse terminology and further on the path towards becoming communicative riders.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Don't Quit Your Day Job

Work is something we all must do. For the self-published, with a few notable exceptions, the income generated from writing, while nice, is not enough to write full-time and live on that alone. While it may be a dream to "quit your day job", it's not always feasible, or even preferable. I had a rent-free living situation that involved a lot of work (comes with the territory when you live and farm off grid) but allowed ample time to write and do other creative pursuits, but I wasn't all that happy. Much as I hate getting up on certain days, I actually like the structure and purpose of having a job. There are certain perks that come with having one. For instance, I look forward to my free time and enjoy it more, planning more activities and being more motivated instead of just goofing off (mind you, I do still factor in goof-off time). Having nice things and planning nice vacations is a plus, so is medical and dental coverage, 401k blah blah blah ad nauseum.

That being said, I have taken a hard look at the activities I enjoy, and I wonder where writing factors in. It doesn't seem to much, if at all. It used to be such a huge part of my life, and now it's backburner, almost seeming like an obligation. It feels like work.

I think I'm having this feeling because I've moved on mentally from my current project. At one point I had high hopes for my adult equestrian series. I loved my characters (still do) and premise, and I thought if I could continue on with it I'd make some very nice supplemental income and be happy forever.

But after a very successful debut, the follow-up was met with a "meh" response. All the research I did had indicated that my sales would increase as I added onto my series, but the numbers didn't do what they were supposed to (when do they ever?). I never got to see the huge spike in sales that occurred with my first one. Instead, sales trickled in, but the few-hundred-dollars-es a month felt like a letdown. My reviews were "meh", my sales were "meh", everything pointed to "meh". And this was a book that was much better written, better thought-out and more mature than its predecessor. It was a book that I had been inordinately proud of, and a book that was much more in line with how I saw myself as a writer, and how I saw my series playing out. But for whatever reason, it wasn't what people wanted to read. They wanted my old stuff, which is honestly not as good. Nor can I ever write like that again, because I've evolved (and again, improved) over time, like a writer is supposed to.

I think that's why I haven't finished the third (and maybe, possibly final) one. Seeing my hard work and evolving writing style not being rewarded, or welcomed, really, was heartbreaking. I don't like feeling powerless, and in this situation, I am. No one should be in it all for the success, but my time is valuable. I have other hobbies I enjoy that are simply hobbies for the sake of hobbies, but writing is so isolating, emotionally taxing and time-consuming that, for me at least, there needs to be some sort of reward. I don't care to write in a vacuum forever.

I think, once I finish this WIP (and I will do that much, at least) any writing I do will be with the goal of getting published. It's what I wanted from the start (it's what everyone wants) and I think it should be attainable within my lifetime. I won't be e-publishing anymore, and I won't be writing subgenres either. I'll be writing something marketable, or at least what I think that is (I've been wrong before).

I have a concept in mind, a fairly simple coming-of-age plot with a hook that hasn't been done before. The potential is there, I just have to make it happen. There will be no rush, and maybe one day, I'll retire off it.

They say "don't quit your day job", but you can always write about it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Updates and Revisions

My literary agent recently arranged for me to get the rights to several of my earliest works back, a “work” being a book. This sometimes happens when a publisher closes their doors or changes focus on the kinds of books they want to publish. When a writer sells book rights to a publisher, the publisher then has the “right” to publish the book for a specific time period in ways, shapes, and forms that are detailed in the publishing agreement, but that are also usually left up to the publisher.

This means an author usually has little to no say about what the cover looks like, or the size of the type, or whether or not it ever becomes an audio book. The tradeoff is typically excellent editing; the support of sales, PR, and marketing teams; and often, a hefty advance in anticipation of solid book sales.

One of the books I got back, Success Within, is eleven years old and used to be one of my most requested books at my horse clinics and at horse fairs and expos. Used to be, until I couldn’t get copies after the publisher sold out to a company that had no interest in this particular title. Long story short, I am in the middle of the last of the revisions of the book for an updated second edition, and it should be out in March. If you are interested, my website will have news of the actual publication date.

In doing the revisions, I was both thrilled and horrified to find how much I had grown as a writer these past eleven years. Granted, I had never been happy with the final edit of the initial book, but far beyond that, I really hope this second edition will be much better written, and far more engaging. I found some of the passages in the first edition simplistic and more than a few thoughts poorly explained. Horror rushes through me when I think of people reading this early work, but that feeling is mixed with huge pride that the book touched a great many lives.

As writers, we all constantly work to improve our craft. We, hopefully, learn to streamline words when needed, develop beautiful passages of prose and place them in the right places, and both cut to the heart of the matter and communicate our point in ways that leave the reader wanting more. That is not an easy task and writers struggle every day to make that happen. When it does, we rejoice! As time goes on, the idea is that we should improve in this and in doing this rewrite, I am very glad to see that I have.

This process of updating and revising, and the strengthening of my craft of writing, is not all that different than what most of us do with horses. We constantly learn about the horse and find new ideas that will improve communication. Periodically, we reject older methods for ones that work better for the horse, and revel in the beauty of those rare moments of perfect partnership. In that way, the craft of writing and the art of riding are not all that different. 

Lisa is the author of My Horse My Partner and Horse Country, among many other books, and the award-winning Cat Enright cozy equestrian mystery series, now optioned for film and television. When not writing, Lisa is a therapeutic riding instructor who consults with PATH and other centers about their horse herds. She splits her time between Tennessee and Minnesota.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Banished Words

                                                                    Milton C. Toby photo
By Milton C. Toby

How often have you read or heard snippets of dialogue like this one:

"So, Mrs. Rottingham, what does this new information tell us about the missing horse?" the detective said.

What purpose, exactly, does the introductory "so" serve?

No purpose at all, apparently, which is why it topped Lake Superior State University's 41st annual "List of Words Banished from the Queen's English for Misuse, Overuse, and General Uselessness." The list first was compiled by the late W. T. Rabe, former public relations director at LSSU, who began collecting words he and his colleagues hated at a New Year's Eve party in the mid-1970s. Publication of the inaugural list generated hundreds of letters to LSSU, and the banished words selection soon was opened to suggestions from the public.

One of the nominations for banishing an introductory "so" from our speech came from Thomas H, Weiss, from Michigan:

"Frequently used to begin a sentence, particularly in response to a question, this tiresome and grammatically incorrect replacement for "Like," or "Um," is even more irksome . . . It hurts my ears every time I hear it!"

Scott Shackleton from Canada noted that "the word serves no purpose in the sentence and to me is like fingernails on a chalkboard."

Other words or phrases to make the 2016 list of banished words (with selected comments) include:
  • Conversation--We are invited to "join the conversation if we want to give an opinion. This expression is overused and annoying."
  • Problematic--A personal favorite of mine, "problematic" was described as a "corporate-academic weasel word."
  • Stakeholder--"A word that has expanded from describing someone who may actually have a stake in a situation or problem, now being overused in business to describe customer and others," according to LSSU. "Dr. Van Helsings should be the only stake holder," according to Jeff Baenen, of Minneapolis, Michigan.
  • Price Point--"An example of using two words when one will do."
  • Secret Sauce--I've never encountered this one, but it apparently is common in business communications touting the success of something or other.
  • Break the Internet--"An annoying bit of hyperbole about the latest saucy picture or controversy that already is becoming trite."
  • Walk It Back--Used to describe a politician who makes a statement and then has to either retract it or try and explain that what he said isn't what he really meant.
  • Presser--Ridiculous shorthand for a press release or press conference.
  • Manspreading--Used to explain the lack of seats on pubic transportation in larger cities as males take up more than their fair share of room.
  • Vape--A verb describing the use of e-cigarettes instead if tobacco products. Canadian David Ervin hopes the word "goes up in smoke."
  • Giving Me Life--A phrase that "refers to anything that may excite a person, or something that causes one to laugh."
  • Physicality--Common in sports broadcasting and writing, although no one knows exactly what it means.  
So, why should the LSSU list and others like it matter for writers?

For me, the list means a New Year's resolution to be more aware of trendy words when I write. Sometimes they work, sometimes not, but there always is a danger of confusing readers with a word that was popular yesterday, but not today. There also is a very real danger associated with trying to sound hip when you are anything but, as I've learned to my chagrin from time to time.