Riding (And Revising) With Ghosts

I’ve been riding horses, off and on, since I got my first paycheck out of college. One of the reasons I can still get on and (kind of) giddyup after years away from the barn is because I had great instructors. No matter how high my rent was, or what odd expenses came my way, I almost always managed to scrape together the money for a weekly lesson. One woman I rode with for over 10 years — she helped me find the first horse I ever owned free and clear, she taught me how to fall, she even came to my wedding, one of the few times I saw her dressed in something other than boots and breeches.

Another instructor helped me regain my confidence after some bad falls. She taught me how to observe what the horse was saying, not just what I wanted him to do. A third found me my dream horse and went out of her way to bring us together. Although there were other teachers, these three are the ones who mattered the most.

I’ve moved on from that part of my life, but I still remember them all every time I climb into a saddle, and at other moments as well. I learned so much from them, some of it about riding, most of it not.

My new instructor is funny and sharp, with her own ways of teaching, her own equine hangups.  She’s threatening to get a video camera system, so she can show those of us in her class how we really look, not just how we appear in our own heads. And it’s true — the way we think we ride, straight and tall, loose and limber, isn’t the reality at all. This week, something she said reminded me of an exchange I had a long time ago with my first instructor, who had seated me on a horse that was ready to leave the ground at any moment.  She kept telling me to turn him in circles and not to throw away my outside rein.  After the fifth or sixth time, I remember snapping that I was using the outside rein just #$#$ fine, thankyouverymuch.

“Well the horse disagrees,” she snapped back. “And so do I.”

In my last lesson, the current instructor was trying to help me get the horse on the bit going forward, and suddenly, I could hear the old instructor yelling at me not to give away that rein.  From the distance of 10 years or so, it suddenly made perfect sense.  So I shortened up the rein when I was turning, kept the tension in it as we circled, and voila! I had a horse on the bit, moving forward nicely.  (At least, that’s what I’m choosing to believe in lieu of videotaped evidence.)

Revisions in writing can be a bit like riding. How you think it looks, how it appears in your own head, can be radically different from what is actually on the page. If you have beta readers, resist the urge to tell them “That’s exactly what I’ve done,” if they suggest you need to tighten up the plot, increase the love interest, or ground it in a more realistic setting. Remind yourself that you’ve asked for their advice because you have respect for their abilities and judgement. Say “thank you” to them and as little as possible of anything else. Then put their comments away, along with your manuscript, for as long as you possibly can.

When you come back to it with fresh eyes, you just may see that they were right.

Such bad form, but such a happy girl!

Such bad form, but such a happy girl!



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Liz Michalski


  1. Vaughn Roycroft on April 8, 2014 at 1:52 pm

    I love this, Liz–particularly, “Well the horse disagrees. And so do I.”

    So I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to discuss my work at length with a wise mutual friend–Therese Walsh. It’s become clear to me over the years that my biggest stumbling point in getting published is the opening of book one of my trilogy. I’d like to say it’s more complicated than that, but why unnecessarily complicate it? I suppose the good news is that mine is a fairly unique and complicated world. Judging by beta-readers’ feedback, once they’re immersed, they are engaged.

    Anyway, I was explaining this to T, and that I’d rewritten the opening at least a dozen ways. Then we started talking about my fourth manuscript, which is set in the same world as my trilogy, but chronologically precedes it. She asked me if readers were easily drawn in to the “prequel.” I told her that it indeed seemed to be the case. Then she asked me if I had presumed this book would be read after the trilogy, and I confirmed that as well. Our wise friend then said: “Why don’t you throw all the old book one openings out, and start fresh, writing it from the mindset that your audience has already read the prequel.”

    It sounds so simple, but I’m really excited by the idea. And, from hired editors to beta-readers to advice from rejecting editors, I’d beaten the ideas for this opening to death. Fresh eyes. Praise be. 🙂

    • liz on April 8, 2014 at 9:25 pm

      That’s such a great idea, Vaughn! And Teri is a wise and experienced soul for suggesting it. I’m so glad you are excited about your manuscripts again — I’ve missed that enthusiasm. (And Teri is a lot nicer than my riding instructors. : ) )

    • Jan O'Hara (Tartitude) on April 11, 2014 at 1:45 pm

      That sounds sensible *and* exciting, V. Yay!

  2. Jan O'Hara (Tartitude) on April 11, 2014 at 1:47 pm

    From the meta-view, Liz, I’ve been noticing how riding seems to have fueled many fresh, vibrant writing understandings from you. Excellent. Both brain and body benefit.

    • liz on April 15, 2014 at 9:22 am

      I’m always fascinated by the mind/body link, Jan, as you know — I really believe stretching yourself physically is one way to keep your brain engaged. Hope you are finding the same with dance!

  3. sophiegodley on April 16, 2014 at 9:06 am

    Wonderful thoughts, Liz, so great to read this! A true pleasure to ride (and read!) with you!

    • liz on April 16, 2014 at 9:12 pm

      Thanks for stopping by, Sophie! And classes won’t be the same without you! : (

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