Why writing is like horse racing. The Authors Collection

American Pharoah makes a mad dash for the finish line.
American Pharoah makes a mad dash for the finish line.

I GUESS EVERYBODY KNOWS American Pharoah won the Belmont race. That, coupled with his wins at the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, earned him the Triple Crown, the ultimate honor in horseracing and the first horse to accomplish that in thirty-seven years.

I thought about all the preparation and work that went into accomplishing such a feat. And then I thought, “That’s much like writing a novel.”

For the racehorse, there’s lots of training over some years, something like the work and preparation necessary to develop the writing skills. A racehorse must be lean and strong, just like your writing – lean and strong. Neither the racehorse nor the book can have a lot of fat. Both need strong bones (structure). For either to win, it needs superior muscles (strong verbs).

James R. Callan
James R. Callan

When the race starts, the horse must be out of the gate fast to secure a good running lane. Your book needs to start fast, with a compelling hook on the first page. Without a good start, the horse will have a long race of catching up. Forget the enticing hook at the beginning of your book and the reader may put it down and never read it.

With horse races and books there is a danger of a weak middle. This makes it difficult for both animal and writer to ever regain the lead and finish a winner.

And both need a strong finish. How many races have been lost when the horse in second place gives a little extra and finishes just a nose ahead of the frontrunner? For the writer, the ending must be strong. It’s the last thing the reader sees, remembers. The ending can cause the reader to immediately look for another book by this author, to tell friends about this great book, to recommend it on social media. Or, the reader can put it away, not mention it to anybody and avoid picking up another novel by that author.

A true champion horse needs little encouragement. He takes the bit and charges out. He intends to be ahead of the others in the race. He will do his best to finish first. A great story can actually lead the author in the right direction. Characters will speak to the writer, demand to be heard, dictate how the plot unfolds. The wise jockey gives the horse his head. The smart writer pays attention to what the characters need, and often will follow their lead.

Not all great racehorses win the Triple Crown, and not all great books will sell a million copies. But the really good racehorses will win races and the really good novels will gain a following.

Horses try to avoid being listed as, “Also ran.” And the writer doesn’t want to be listed as “Also published.”

Aim for more.

James R. Callan is the author of Over My Dead Body.


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