"It's impossible to discourage the real writers; they don't give a damn what you say." Sinclair Lewis

Friday, March 4, 2011

Ride Your Own Horse

(This blog post also appears on Linda's blogspot, Writing Out West. Photos are from author's personal collection. Not for reuse without permission.)

When I was growing up, we always had a bunch of horses around the farm, and most of them were too wild for us kids to ride. My dad was always afraid we'd get hurt so he wouldn't put us on anything that wasn't broke really well or ridden down for a few days before we climbed up on its back. Many times if he was breaking a colt, he would "snub" the colt to an older horse. By this, I mean he would put a lead rope on the colt's hackamore (he preferred hackamores to bridles). The person on the older horse would help control the colt with the lead rope. The person on the colt had the reins, but the snubbing rope was an added insurance in case the colt started bucking or decided to run away.

One of my dad's favorite horses was named Dan. He was a spirited Appaloosa. Dad wouldn't let just anybody ride that horse because he was afraid if the rider "didn't know what he was doing" he'd "ruin the horse." I'll never forget the day when he decided he was going to let me ride Dan. Needless to say, I was pretty nervous – more about ruining his horse than getting bucked off. Dad decided we were going to ride to the top of Blue Mountain at our ranch, a steep climb through pine trees and over rocks. Even though he'd ridden Dan pretty good ahead of time, we started out with Dad snubbing Dan to the horse he was riding. By the time we got to the top of the mountain, Dan was tired (or at least I hoped) and Dad wrapped the snubbing rope around my saddle horn. I was on my own on the ride back down. It was quite a thrill to ride that horse. I made it back to the ranch in one piece and didn't ruin Old Dan.

I know you're wondering what this has to do with writing. Well, I'll tell you. We all like to have some help now and then with our writing. We like someone to hold that snubbing rope and keep us from getting bucked off; i.e., rejected. We want to hear what others say about our work. We want their advice, their critiques that will kindly and gently point out bad plotting, punctuation mistakes, weak conflicts, poor characterizations and so on and so on. But sooner or later, we have to gather the reins, put our foot in the stirrup, and settle our butts down deep in the saddle. We might be a little afraid to put our heels to that horse, but there comes a time when we have to trust ourselves, our knowledge, our instincts, and all we've learned along the way. Sooner or later we have to let go of that snubbing rope and ride our own horse. What's the worst that can happen? If you get thrown off, just dust off the dirt and swing into that saddle again.

--Linda Sandifer

Linda is the award-winning author of thirteen novels. Several of her books have been translated into Norwegian, Swedish, Romanian, and Russian. She has won such awards as Idaho Writer of the Year, Affaire de Coeur's Reader's Choice Award, and Women Writing the West's Laura Award. She has worked as a secretary, a bank teller, a technical editor, and once even trained to be a beautician. Born and raised on a ranch, she has spent most of her life in Idaho. A mother and grandmother, she and her husband own and operate the ranch her grandfather homesteaded in 1915. You can see more about her books on her website.

The Rocky Road to Publishing (And I’m not talking ice cream! However, if you’re treating....)

Thirty-two years ago my sister, Kathie, and I took a creative writing course from a very gifted author and wonderful teacher, Patti Sherlock. This was where we met Karen Finnigan and the other ladies who eventually made up our first critique group. More about that later.

In the first class, Patti, let us book-selling-wannabes in on the difficulty of getting published. Sobering news. Then she gave us our first assignment. I can’t remember the topic, but that coming week we put our whole hearts and souls into our stories. We handed in the work we sweated over, eager for her comments. Finally, we arrived at the next class, anticipating her remarks.

What did she think? Were we on target? Did we capture her attention? How about talent? Was it there somewhere hidden among our carefully structured prose? We could hardly wait for the results.

Patti passed out our papers along with a typed, crisp, impersonal...rejection letter! Our hearts sank; our disappointment great.

This was our first taste of the real world of publishing. And it tasted sour.

Patti taught us many things, but the one gem I’ve passed on is while going for that book contract, try the smaller markets for publishing credits. Magazines need vignettes and fillers to fill a page. Taking that to heart, I wrote a whimsical poem lamenting a problem I have–spelling– and I sent it to Writers Digest Magazine. I can’t remember it all (undoubtedly a good thing), but the last line was, “I would buy, I would sell, if through my life, I could spell.”

As anyone can guess, they didn’t print it. However, Lawrence Block, the editor at the time sent me a personal note that said, “You can always hire someone to check your spelling, but you can’t hire anyone to come up with ideas.”

His advice sticks with me especially when I have to, once again, look up a word to make sure it’s spelled right. Yeah, I still have problems with spelling. You could call it a mental block.

Yes, I can have someone go over my manuscripts. I can’t hire anyone to give me talent.

One Sunday on Mother’s Day I gave a talk in church called, "What Makes a Mother." I later sold it to a parenting magazine. My first Publishing credit! They didn’t pay very much, but a credit’s a credit.

When the course finished, Patti suggested we form a critique group. Several of us met that first night at her house. We were the only class she’d taught to take her up on her offer and stay with it. Eventually, we decided to write a round robin. Our name? Tucker Sage. We named ourselves after a grizzled figurine prospector. We picked a general western, plotted it out, and decided each person would write three chapters then pass it on to the next in line.

One evening we met at JB’s restaurant to discuss our endeavors. Someone had written in a baby. A couple of ladies didn’t want to deal with said baby in a western. What ensued was a lively discussion about what we should do.

“Kill the baby!”

“No! Don’t kill the baby.”

Imagine, there we were, women ranging from young mothers to senior citizens, in a popular restaurant, arguing about whether or not to kill a baby and laughing at the audacity of it. I’ve often wondered what those other patrons must have thought! (For the record, Karen and I voted to keep the baby.)

Later I had written a one-act Christmas play for my church, "A Rented Christmas Family." It was for our annual adult dinner/dance evening we all look forward to each year. The booked talent program had cancelled, and I was asked to help. I wrote the script in a day. We had two weeks to practice. As it turned out, we were a smash hit! I sold the play for a flat rate to Eldridge Play Company earning another credit. One year I was told a corporate office in New York paid “big bucks” to have it shipped overnight so they could put it on for their company.

I read that Eldridge paid three hundred and fifty dollars for three-act plays or 35% royalties for exceptional scripts. Needing the cash, I submitted my first melodrama. To my disappointment, the editors liked my play so much they bought it on a royalty basis. Altogether, I’ve sold four plays, and, after twenty-plus years, I’m still receiving royalty checks for two of them.

So if anyone asks me for any advice on writing, I tell them what Patti told us so long ago: While chasing that elusive book contract, submit to smaller venues for publishing credits. They look great on a query!

--Sherry Roseberry

Sherry Roseberry won Idaho Writer of the Year with her first novel. Besides her historicals, she's the author of four plays, short stories, and articles. A dedicated thespian, she's given workshops on using acting techniques in writing at local, regional, and national conferences of Romance Writers of America. Her lifelong dream came true when she had the opportunity to appear in the movie, HANDCART. The experience was glorious even though the winter scenes were filmed in (average) 20-degree weather. Writing is in her blood, but her greatest treasures are her five children and nineteen grandchildren.