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Previous Books of the Month > 2009-10 To Ride Hell's Chasm - The seed ideas for the story - no spoilers

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message 1: by Janny (last edited Oct 01, 2009 12:40PM) (new)

Janny (JannyWurts) | 984 comments A warm welcome to all!

This book was written in an eight month storm of full bore, flashpoint inspiration. I've never had a story pour out with such elegance and force, start to finish - so where did I get my ideas?

Here's the behind-the-scenes mix of starters that went in to stir the pot.

1) I'd been writing an epic series for so long, some folks claimed I had no clue how to finish a story, despite having written several stand alone novels earlier on in my career.

2) I'd read an article by a writer who mentioned that she felt the 'perfect novel' covered a time span of no more than one year.

3) I'd enjoyed and admired the elegance of Stranger at the Wedding by Barbara Hambly, in which an entire novel centered around just one event, over a time span of perhaps two weeks.

4) I was bored - to the point of retching over the shopworn plot, where the young princess A) gets married off to a stranger for political alliance and B) rebels against this, to C) fall in love after a ridiculous period of histrionics....or, C-alternate) her proposed husband is a jerk, so she falls head over heels and elopes with the lowly captain of the guard, and so on to happily every after.

5) I was sick, too, of massive, brick sized "epics" with huge, sprawling empires, with no geological SENSE to the maps or the boundaries.

We aren't going to start with my peeves over one dimensional heroines, cardboard bad guys, or boring dialogue, or predictable plots, or endings that just dissipate.

Some stories begin, for me, with tossing some dissociated items into a box, and shaking it until the Muse gets motion-sick or shocked enough to deliver.

So I began with standing Bother Number One on its head: and I'd top Admiration Number Two and Three: I'd do a stand alone novel, start to finish, that lasted no more than a week.

Bother Number 4: the "match" for the princess would be politically expedient, and emotionally perfect, but I'd twist the silly drama upside down: why would a princess bolt the coop, or duck the marriage - take the contrary position when she's offered what she knows to be a sublime union?

To Bother Number 5) I'd stage the whole thing in a kingdom SO TINY - as close as I could get to an isolate, homogeneous culture, tight and compact as Switzerland.

Add on The Wild Card Bit to shake stuff up: there is an endurance race, called the Tevas Cup, run by horses and riders that takes place once a year in the American southwest, where animals brought to a peak state of hardy fitness are raced for a distance of 100 miles, in 24 hours, over extreme terrain. Wow. The animals are vet checked, and sound ones alone are allowed to finish - the courage and stamina and heart required of the winners brings out what is astonishing and great about the relationship that can occur between man and equine.

Wild Card Ingredient, squared: put in the argument that more than one point of view can stand for "rightness".

Shake the box.

The muse not only screamed, she scorched the keyboard.

I wrote the outline in about a half hour flat. Sold it to HarperCollins in London, without a single word written.

This is where I'll pause for today. Because I thought I knew it all, had the whole idea in hand...little did I guess. As a career author since the age of 29, truly, you'd think I'd have learned better.

Let me say I am thrilled to be here with this group, and thank everyone present for creating the party. If anyone has questions, or wants to know anything about how the inside of the business of storytelling works, I'd be pleased to offer my perspective and experience.

The most unhappy words a writer ever hears from a reader: "I was there, but too shy to speak up."

Don't be. Those of us who are hermits don't peep up in public. More, I've never met a reader yet who didn't have thoroughly interesting views and piquant intelligence. Do jump in.

Anyone who wishes to "test run" this book can do so. There are text excerpts posted (to be read on site) of Chapter One on my web page at and also on my author page at

Audio readings of the three first chapters of this book are down-loadable in MP3 format at both locations.

message 2: by Chris (new)

Chris Cool! Thanks for posting this.

message 3: by Jim (new)

Jim (JimMacLachlan) Ditto. I really liked the way you handled the princess.

message 4: by Janny (last edited Oct 02, 2009 09:27AM) (new)

Janny (JannyWurts) | 984 comments Thank you, Chris and Jim for your kindly comments.

Post outline, post publisher's contract, I was faced with Chapter 1, possibly the most critical part of the book, since the ending is a punchline carefully set up.

First lines and first chapters set the stage for all that follows. For me, those first 20 manuscript pages for a book often take THIRTY DAYS. Every single detail has to count. This is the first impression, and the foundation that sets up all that will follow.

I had the image of those empty tables, with the settings unused, and the candles burned out - the party that never happened. False Start number 1, a year after writing the outline, I tried to open the story with that scene. It failed completely. After 3 days of hammering, I know enough to realize the narrative was taking the Wrong Course.

I tried to put the opening view in to perspective through the eyes of the King's right hand commander - failure again. 3 more days of hammering.

Who says pro writing to a deadline is EASY? Fools, that's what. "You just sit there and dream all day, how hard is that?" a pal who was a lady vet once said to me...and I turned, fast as that, and retorted: "Like #*#*. And all you do is pat nice horsies, all day, and let them rub their heads on your shoulder." Like *#*#, they stand like sweeties for getting stuck with BIG needles, and poked where they hurt, or poked where they don't hurt, till they do mind very much, thanks, all thousand pounds of solid muscle and flighty prey instincts set to bolt or fight back...hah!!!

In typical creative despair - where HAD the energy in this splendid outline gone? - I backed up again, and restarted the narrative from another character viewpoint - a fella who had been there all along, the intentional lead, really - and - wham! The story opened at the garrison, with all the secondary characters just there, completely realized.

Well - 4 pages in, this character throws me this CURVE. I have to phone London. "Did you know, this Character is not as I pictured him. Here's what he's said he IS, do you mind, it's just perfect?"

My editors are grand in their trust. They said - go ahead.

From that point the story exploded. I had 30 pages, first chapter, thence whittled that to only the details that mattered, the targeted "about 20" manuscript, in double space format.

There was the first scene, but dropped in later on, After the other character's introduction. Now it worked.

The last touch - I felt the uptake was too the time, I was reading a mystery writer who put a ten page opener to her story that consisted of a little child going out into the twilight wood on her bike to meet a friend, and you knew as the reader she was headed for deadly trouble...I didn't need ten pages. Only a line and a half of italics, above the chapter head, to light the fire and give a glimpse that trouble was afoot, and seeding panic, before the rest of the characters were up to speed on the problem.

I'd written in the action in that outline, mentioned these two characters engaged to find a princes - but one does not always know who will step in to fill the shoes and take the roles so blithely penciled in.

The characters who stepped up were both mature fighting men, of radically opposite background, and the girl, very young, perhaps eighteen or nineteen, with all the fresh innocence and hope in the world, but no adverse experience.

Not the cliched idea of the young males in positions of command - good - but startling me - now, the grounds for a cultural contention I'd not seen coming.

Curve number one. It is fielding those curves that makes writing fun. That is often where the life and the marrow of a book is going to be, no matter what the outline says at the outset.

That's the window into the creative process of chapter one. I won't go further, because later material (curve number 2, 3, and 4) would definitely spoil. Given that chapter one is available to all online, nobody need be left out.

message 5: by Jim (new)

Jim (JimMacLachlan) I like the italics above the chapters with additional information, although I occasionally have to make myself read them. The action is so intense that I just want to keep reading the main story, but I KNOW (especially because of a recent one) that if I skip them, I'll get lost. They are too important to the story.

I do read your books closely because I've found that you do precisely pick words & if I don't really grasp the meaning of each, you'll leave me in the dust when you take one of your signature turns in the story.

message 6: by Chris (new)

Chris I did like the fact that the two fighting men were older. I thought it was a nice change.

I also have to say, I loved all the bits with the horses.

message 7: by Jim (new)

Jim (JimMacLachlan) Absolutely on the horses! It is so nice reading about them, obviously written by someone who has lived with them as much as my family has. Poorly done horse scenes have harmed many a book for us.

My whole family has always had horses, grown up with them since... well, most of us came too close to being born on horseback, literally. My wife almost had Erin at 7 months because of a bucking horse. Anyway, we think of the horses like family, so it takes another horse person to write to our taste & not make horrible blunders.

Other authors have them running around like cars, like they never get tired or injured. They should see our vet & blacksmith bills! I'd like to send them a sample. They'd get over the idea fast.

Here we get to read about the different horse personalities with very realistic physical issues. Nothing boring or too technical, but it's obvious that the capabilities were taken into consideration.

message 8: by Chris (new)

Chris Yes, the personalities are what I loved about it. I haven't been lucky enough to actual own a living breathing horse, but I hate the way they are sometimes protrayed in fiction. I particularly dislike the stallion who seems to be gelded and then goes back to being a stallion once released back into the wild.

message 9: by Janny (new)

Janny (JannyWurts) | 984 comments Jim wrote: "I like the italics above the chapters with additional information, although I occasionally have to make myself read them. The action is so intense that I just want to keep reading the main story, ..."

Wry grin, Jim, my books are death, for skimmers.

I don't do window dressing - and to try that presumption here will bring a swift kick...also, being a painter counts heavily, because the selected bits of a backdrop setting can augment the mood in a story. If a writer is going to do description, I feel, it must a purposeful function.

message 10: by Janny (new)

Janny (JannyWurts) | 984 comments On the horses.

I've had lifelong time with them, both riding those that belonged to others, and ones of my own. We currently have three, one my own breeding, one out of one of my former mares, and a race track make-over (top bloodlines/hated her job).

Fouzette was styled after a horse I evented in my teens, though here, she was chestnut, not red roan. Kasminna sort of took on the feel of Phil, my current thoroughbred. Stormfront probably matched the personality of a liver chestnut horse I jumped and evented that was extremely particular about her riders. I've helped with neighbors' show Arabs, and the buckskin could have doubled for a grulla horse I rode who had one of the kindest personalities, ever.

Jim is right - many a book has been "spoiled" by silly use of horses - or main impossibilities - just get on a sawhorse with a stack of pillows and try to "knee" it, and see how quick you fall straight off!!!!

I had my reasons for wanting to make these animals the characters they are in real life - for drawing the reader's fascination to them - the horse has had such a huge role to play (along with dogs) in our human experience, I wanted to give them a tribute.

For the dogs, the hunting pack experience, too, was actual. But that's another bit.

message 11: by Jim (new)

Jim (JimMacLachlan) In one place, you used a horse term that might be confusing to some. Something about a scrape on the near shoulder. I got it right away - it's an equestrian term. The horse has a near & far side, the near being the left side of the horse, the one that you mount from. I wonder if some readers that don't know horses will read that sentence & think, "Of course it's the near side since she couldn't see the other!"

That one instance is the ONLY place that found where you didn't explain the equestrian term well enough that a non-equestrian would be able to understand it, though. Kudos for that. To get such realism & depth about horses in & yet not get readers lost by using jargon is quite a feat. I've noticed that in your other books, especially when you describe sailing.

message 12: by Janny (last edited Oct 06, 2009 03:06PM) (new)

Janny (JannyWurts) | 984 comments Jim wrote: "In one place, you used a horse term that might be confusing to some. Something about a scrape on the near shoulder. I got it right away - it's an equestrian term. The horse has a near & far side..."

Jim, that raised a blush, thank you - high praise indeed, what a delight. You know, I never thought about that term, near side...been a part of my lexicon for so long, never thought twice about it. Stray fact: horses are mounted on the left, or near side, because of the hang of a sword on the right side, for a cavalry man, would make a tangle getting on. Also, the practice of left side drive on the street (for the countries that still have it) is a remnant from times when people wanted their right, or sword hand, the closest to the approaching traffic, for safety.

Trivia - everything sticks.

message 13: by Kerry (new)

Kerry (rocalisa) | 474 comments Janny - fascinating trivia! So do you also know why driving in some places switched to the right? You've made me curious now.

message 14: by Jim (new)

Jim (JimMacLachlan) Kerry, that's a good question. It's not completely straight forward, but one of the big reasons is that royalty had the right of way on the left side of the road & everyone had to make way by moving to the right. Revolutions against aristocracy were a major factor in moving to right hand traffic.

Here's a more complete answer:
and another

message 15: by Jim (new)

Jim (JimMacLachlan) Janny, just giving credit where it is due. I talk to people about computers all the time & constantly have to watch for lapses into jargon. I can tell when I do it by the glazed look in their eyes.

A lot of folks think horses are stupid. (Yes, I've been known to say they are 1/2 ton animals with the brains of retarded chickens.) One thing they do know, no matter how flighty, is their right from their left. Try mounting a horse from the wrong side & see what happens. Some will almost fall down. Most will skitter away & others will try to bite or kick. Ponies, being the evil geniuses they are, will usually let a kid get just about on & then dump them.

message 16: by Clansman (new)

Clansman Lochaber Axeman | 24 comments Jim, I just had to have a wicked chuckle with your comment about "evil genius" ponies.

message 17: by Janny (new)

Janny (JannyWurts) | 984 comments Lochaber wrote: "Jim, I just had to have a wicked chuckle with your comment about "evil genius" ponies.

Jim - thanks for answering the trivia on road rights of way. Let nobody ever say stuff does not happen for a reason...and how fun, that the purpose has not been totally forgotten.

Evil genius ponies do exist. I've tangled with a few. And the wise horseman trains to handle a rider mounting on the "off" side - there is your other term for the right side of a horse. Otherwise, if an injury prevents a left hand mount, you are stuck and stranded. I had a horse I broke that rode fine with a saddle on, and I discovered, once, trying to ride her in from a long, far catch in a huge pasture to get her to the waiting farrier (horseshoer) that she had no IDEA about what to do with a rider, bareback. She just froze and refused to move. Yet some horses have enough imagination to open every sort of catch and latch, and they can be extremely inventive at foxing riders.

Jargon - yes, it can be a problem - there's that extremely fine line, though - where the word IS the word that precisely carries the meaning. And not using the "term" takes a paragraph. Sailing in particular is loaded with terms. They are necessary. Both in riding and sailing, situations can arise where you don't have time to explain a thing. You need the magic word.

Of course, if a term confuses a reader, you have me to ask, right here.

message 18: by Stefan, Group Founder + Moderator (Retired) (new)

Stefan (sraets) | 1667 comments Mod
Slightly off-topic (okay, more than slightly): did you hear that Samoa changed from right-side to left-side driving last month? I believe the official reason was that it is cheaper for them to import left-side cars. The decision was quite unpopular, with several groups forming to oppose the decision and even try to destroy the traffic signs announcing it. Can you imagine the chaos on the first day of the change? And then a month later, they get hit with the tsunami.

There's some info on it here:

message 19: by Jim (new)

Jim (JimMacLachlan) Oh, no! Changing driving sides?!!! If I ever need to write a description of chaos, I think that would be a wonderful example.

message 20: by Ron (new)

Ron (ronbacardi) | 302 comments Janny, your comment about jargon and the times "when the word IS the word" is well taken. I had wondered about your mention above of the model for Fouzette, the horse you said you had "evented" a few years ago. I thought perhaps this was another noun pressed into verb service, like "medal" and "podium". So I looked it up and found out about the three-day event, which sounds like the most thorough test of horse and rider imaginable, and for which "eventing" is the correct and only word. A tip of the bowler to you for your precision, a low sweeping bow to honour your competing in that gruelling contest, and an embarrassed curtsy to apologize for ever doubting.

message 21: by Jim (new)

Jim (JimMacLachlan) Yes, there's a reason for jargon. Making it understandable to the rest of the world is an art, though. I know. I struggle to do so constantly & don't do all that well at it.

Eventing can be hard on the horse. You need to have a good one & well trained, but it's a different type of difficulty from Fox Chasing or endurance rides. The long outside course can be wearing, but at least the footing is fairly even.

Even so, it can be dangerous. Christopher Reeves was doing this when he broke his neck. Those jumps are tricky & often push the limits. Two of my kids used to compete every year & we've been lucky to have courses available to practice on frequently. We've all taken headers through & over some of the jumps.

Fox Chasing, steeple chases or anything that's trying to make time over rough country is tougher on a horse because the footing is so uncertain. People think horses hooves are like rocks, but they're not.

My mother trotted a horse up a hill in the middle of a bunch of others a couple of years ago & when they got to the top someone told her there was blood on her horse's leg. Turned out he'd stepped on something & had a big slice just above the heel. Never figured out how, but the horse was out of commission for most of a year & came within a whisker of being lamed for life.

The soles of their feet aren't rock solid, either. Stone bruises can abscess & things can poke into them. My daughter's horse got a piece of corn stalk stuck straight up into his hoof that was over an inch long one time.

One of the worst injuries they can get is even a small cut on their cornet band - where the hoof meets the hair on their ankle. It's like the cuticle on your finger or toe. If that scars, their hoof can permanently have a crack in it, a weak point. A horse with bad feet is a nightmare.

message 22: by Janny (new)

Janny (JannyWurts) | 984 comments Ron - I could also have used the term Combined Training - which says only a little more.

Jim is dead to rights. Taking a horse around a cross country course for a Combined Training Event - the hazards are well mapped. The rider walks that course probably 3 times, and knows every bit of the pitfalls.

Riding point to point, or to hounds, is a whole other matter. You have to take the fences blind, and gallop over terrain that may have high grass, or brambles - no way to check for rock or holes. You need to keep a sharp eye and thoroughly trust your horse. And the horse must trust you. If you tell the animal to jump left or on an angle, or stop, the speed of the response can save an accident.

I have evented many breeds. My favorite choice is the American Thoroughbred. Just nothing beats their sensitivity of response and their boldness in a pinch.

More, most people do not realize the facts about a horse's eyesight. They have no depth perception, except by parallax. Moving their heads up and down, literally, to tell how far something is from them. This is because their vision is mostly oriented sidewards and behind, to cover for predators. When they jump, they cannot see the fence - their nose obscures what is immediately under their feet. This is why when something beneath them startles them, they have to skitter sidewards, or back, to see it, or else choose to run and get away.

message 23: by Jim (new)

Jim (JimMacLachlan) Don't horses also have two different fields of perception or ways of seeing/brain function? I seem to recall they can look ahead in overlapping fields of vision or out to each side & see/think differently depending on which they're doing. Something about the peripheral vision is tied tighter to the flight reflex while forward vision engages more cognitive reasoning & curiosity. It's vague in my memory. Could be completely wrong.

There are few things as fun as being on the back of a galloping horse, jumping a fence & galloping on. It's something like flying or riding a motorcycle, but more since you're feeling the horse & working with it. The live beastie adds to it in a way I don't know how to describe accurately. Kind of like teamwork, but more like when me & my wife are working together - seamless, without overt communication, but really efficiently & well. It's more cozy than just teamwork.

I don't know if that makes sense, but there's a special relationship between horse & rider that I've never found in any other activity. You get to know them as well as you know anyone & they all have such different personalities & quirks. It's all part of the allure, even obsession, that some folks have with them. My mother, wife & daughter are hooked on horse - sounds weird, but it's a fact.

message 24: by Janny (new)

Janny (JannyWurts) | 984 comments Jim, you're not wrong. When horses focus to the front, they engage a whole different set of cognitive behaviors. Part of what makes working with them so fascinating - one must become instinctive at reading their body language.

That bond between horse and rider is special, and the thrill, beyond almost everything, except, even riding the wind in small sail craft - because there one reacts to the raw force of the elements. With a horse, there is something more. The mystery writer/ex jockey Dick Francis calls it a telepathic bond, and he may well be right, there is a tuned partnership that develops.

The best riders make the most of it. The non riders may never quite understand the "addiction" - and some who ride just don't ever find the sweet spot of synchronicity...part of why I wrote the horses in this book the way that I see humans and animals at cross purposes is a cruel thing to witness.

Was it Ghandi who said that the consciousness of a country was measured by how it measured the treatment of animals?

message 25: by Janny (last edited Oct 09, 2009 07:55AM) (new)

Janny (JannyWurts) | 984 comments Ron wrote: "Janny, your comment about jargon and the times "when the word IS the word" is well taken. I had wondered about your mention above of the model for Fouzette, the horse you said you had "evented" a ..."

Ron - there is this, about jargon.

It gives the reader the "flavor" of being there....if the term is put in, and the reader may not know what it is, it delivers the mystery of "something just happened, peculiar to horses (or sailing) that I do not know" - the spice of that mystery can tantalize and grant the feel of being outside the envelope of an armchair experience. For the TRULY curious, it opens the option of looking up the term - and discovering what actually occurred in depth.

Where a word can lend atmosphere, even undefined, the paragraph of dull words to DESCRIBE the one bit of action, or give a lay definition - would paralyze the story completely. Dull its edge.

I've always felt that giving the reader the intelligent choice was the best course: to put in enough to excite them, and give them the sense that they are THERE at the edge of their known experience, and ready to step into more....leave them the personal choice, to remain mystified, or to pursue a look deeper.

The third choice does happen: I get castigated for "big words" or whatever...some don't get curious, they get mad on the Assumption I'm arrogant, or worse, addicted to a thesaurus...

Wouldn't such closed minds get sucker-punched if the only KNEW: my dictionary is infested with silverfish from disuse (I only open it when a query from a copy-editor raises a point), and another Author, a good friend, took PITY on me - and bought a thesaurus for me as a gift, thinking I was too strapped for cash to be able to afford it - never occurred, that I'd never needed it....sail, or shoot bows, or handle a sword, or spend some time in a stable, and better, READ BOOKS - you won't lack for your research, or words.

One of the sorriest things I observe, today, is the dumbing down of the language used in magazines, news casts, and TV shows. Sadly, indeed, one word is not just as good as another.

Be like trying to paint a landscape with only a limited palette of colors.

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