Thursday, March 23, 2017

Scratching a Familiar Writing Itch in New Way Keeps Horses on the Page

I've mentioned before that themed calls for submission—announced by literary journals, mainstream websites or magazines, or anthologies—are an excellent way to spur writing and create outside deadlines. For any writer struggling with maintaining a disciplined writing practice, or those overwhelmed by too many writing ideas, or dismayed by not having enough ideas, submission calls can help define writing time and energies.

Peruse the calls at various sites and listservs (some links here), pick one or two that appeal, and…you're off. Writing a piece that addresses the theme, adheres to the required word count, fits the style or tone of the venue, and meets any other criteria noted, are powerful ways of developing writing chops. And of course, meeting the deadline is paramount, especially for those who start but don’t finish writing projects, or just have trouble with deadlines.

The unspoken rule is that you must, of course, have something to say on the topic of the submission call. Such was the case last fall when I noticed a planned anthology on writing about animals. In my 20s and early 30s, I made a living writing about horses. In the last few years, I've been itching to write about horses again, but it's been two decades since I've been around horses on a daily basis, so I've been finding new ways of integrating horses into my writing life, resulting in many personal essays. And here was a chance to combine horses and writing into an essay about, well, horses and writing!

Off went my piece to the anthology, a combination personal essay and advice on one aspect of writing about horses. And a few weeks later, back came the rejection. That's okay, it's part of the writing life. First, you wallow. For minutes, hours, days—depends on your personal rejection wallowing style. Then, you decide: Scrap it? Make a few tweaks and send it right back out? Revise, rethink, rewrite?

I rarely scrap something, though I may let it sit for weeks or months (or longer) before I gin up the interest or energy to revise, or have the time to do so properly. That's okay, too.

With my writing-about-horses piece, I believed it had merit as it was, so I made only a few minor tweaks. The next question was where to send it. "Advice for those writing about animals" is not that common a themed submission call! So I turned to venues that publish all kinds of essays about writing craft and the writing life; in fact, I've begun to maintain a list of such outlets because I want to write and submit more pieces on writing craft.

Then, as often happens, serendipity intervened in the form of an announcement that the literary journal Hunger Mountain (published by the Vermont Center for Fine Arts, which runs a fine MFA program), was seeking new work for its writing craft website series.

And off went my piece again.

Hunger Mountain published it two weeks ago in Ephemeral Artery, the Hunger Mountain Online Companion. Here's an excerpt:

"… On the “A” level horse show circuit where, even in the 1980s, top jumpers were bought and sold for the high six figures, one of the most reassuring relationships I witnessed was between these high-priced performers and their minimum-wage earning grooms…. A fiery Thoroughbred ex-racehorse could be snorting, galloping might in the ring, but transform, once handed by the professional rider to his groom, into a cuddly, frolicking pony….My advice to those who want to write about modern horses at work or play in America: find them with their caretakers. The ones who love them whether they’ve had the fastest jump-off round that day, or if they spooked at the stray plastic bag at the side of the ring, tossing a rider on his duff. That is when you will see the real horse, the one who knows he’s safe and seems to understand when nothing is expected of her except that she exist…"

You can read all of  "When Prose Turns to Horses, Remember the Humans," here. And, for more on the horse-writing connection, see Annie Penfield's essay in the same section, "On Rhythm—In Sentences."

Let me know of your experiences with writing to themed calls for submission. Or writing about animals, or horses, or whatever's going on in your writing life now!


Roz Morris aka @Roz_Morris . Blog: Nail Your Novel said...

Hi Lisa! How could I have missed that you're a horsewoman?
I love this piece of advice to show the horse's character by watching it when it feels secure.
I've owned an Irish hunter for 22 years and seen how he changes with different human influences. I could go on all day about that, but in writing terms it's a brilliant example of how characters change according to how secure they feel.
I come across the horses/writing connection constantly. I was teaching a masterclass at The Guardian newspaper and a student said, quite unexpectedly, 'I think of my characters as though they were horses'. Eureka, I thought! Actually, first of all I thought I'd misheard, or was asleep and waiting for the alarm to go off. But she elaborated, which led to an interesting conversation about fundamentals of animal behaviour - comfort, threat and trust. Wonderful triggers for thinking about our characters as complex beings.
Have you ever written a horse book? I have to confess I have. I put my long years of trying to understand my bold, scaredycat equine into my second novel, Lifeform Three. In doing so, I also had to assess how I'd handled those challenges - an interesting project of self-reflection as well as fictioneering.
I'm off to share this post!
Roz x

Nina B said...

I love that advice to use the themed submission calls as prompts. I do find I write best for an assignment, even a self-imposed one like this.