Recipe for an Instant Bestseller
Apparently, it is this: take one downtrodden horse, preferably from humble and/or cruel beginnings. Tell how he came to be a superstar a) racehorse b) showjumper c) cavalry mount d) ooh, has anyone done a reining horse?
Evoke lots of emoting, dig up a few hysterical (er, sorry, historical — family joke) photos, rake in the cash, pack for the book tour, and wait for the movie rights to be optioned.
This recipe has been working since the days of Anna Sewell, but in recent eons true stories (or, at least, those “based on a true story”, such as Hidalgo, which in actual fact was NOT based on a true story … Google is your friend) have been all the rage.
Even people who don’t ‘get’ horses seem to flock to movies like ‘Seabiscuit’, ‘Phar Lap’, and ‘Secretariat’. Now, for the record, Secretariat had anything but humble origins, despite the movie’s attempts to play up Penny Chenery’s supposedly desperate state of affairs. Still, he was pretty damn impressive and it’s a good tale. I remember getting quite a thrill out of seeing Secretariat win his final start at Toronto’s Woodbine racetrack, when I was 10. I certainly don’t begrudge anyone retelling his life, however many goofy liberties might have been taken. From my selfish perspective, anything that encourages interest in racing might indirectly score me another gig or two.
And Seabiscuit … loved the book, loved the movie. Bear in mind that I usually loathe horse movies, because the researchers can’t seem to get the most basic details correct. I mean, it’s not like this stuff is all that obscure, people … horses may not be daily transportation in most parts of the world anymore, but riding and driving are still practised by literally millions and millions of yobs worldwide, so you wouldn’t think it would be all that impossible for the writers to find someone with whom to consult, who knows what the parts of a saddle are called, or can tell a bay from a chestnut or a stallion from a mare. (Sheesh. Lassie may well have been played by boy collies, but most horses don’t have quite that much hair camouflaging their naughty bits.) I mean, it’s just cringeworthy.
Did anyone see that movie supposedly about the sport of endurance racing from a couple of years ago? I could only stomach about three minutes of it on The Movie Network, so can’t remember what it was called, but it featured endurance riders in tweed caps and elbow patches clumsily tally-ho’ing through the woods (because of course they had cast people who couldn’t ride their way out of a wet paper bag) on Quarter Horses with picture-perfect Western pleasure headsets. (Is peanut-rolling the ideal way to navigate Cougar Rock, I wonder?)
And then there was ‘Sylvester’, which suggested that getting around a Preliminary cross-country course could catapult one onto the United States Equestrian Team (though there was some lovely footage of Kim Walnes and The Grey Goose to make up for that ridiculous conceit) … and maybe worst of all, ‘International Velvet’, that celluloid gem of 1978 which springboarded off the theory that The Pie, of the original National Velvet fame, had produced offspring, when anyone who has ever read the original children’s book (everyone has, right?) knows that The Pie was clearly described as a gelding. (And, ahem, a spotted one, hence the name, The PIEbald — Hollywood got that one wrong, too, while they were busy casting Liz Taylor and Mickey Rooney.)
Sorry. I digress. Loved Seabiscuit. The movie was (for the most part) well done, to my shock, and Laura Hillenbrand researched her book meticulously, which gave it a depth and colour any number of other horse books have lacked. Still, once upon a time Laura and I were contemporaries, of a sort … both freelance writers who churned out copy for Equus magazine, though I sincerely doubt I was ever on her radar. It was simultaneously heartening and disheartening (if you know what I mean, Laura?) to see her career launched into the stratosphere with that book. You know? 90% ‘Bravo’, but with 10% ‘Wow, I hate you just a little for that’ in the mix.
So now I am reading “The Eighty Dollar Champion”, which is the story of Snowman, a draft cross gelding who was rescued from a knacker’s van and went on to be a top US showjumper in the late 1950s — or as the cover says, “SNOWMAN, the Horse That Inspired a Nation”. (Well!)
I’m a little too young to have witnessed Snowman’s story, but I knew the basics of the yarn, and it’s one of those things that I am now kicking myself for not having seized on as the basis for an Instant Bestseller. Elizabeth Letts beat me to it, dammit. 90% ‘Bravo’, Elizabeth. (I hope I have made up for the other 10% with the link to your website!)
I am only 31 pages in on The Eighty Dollar Champion (hey, I just got it for Xmas, and it’s been a little busy, okay?) so this will not be a book review. Plenty of other people doing that, I’m sure … heck, to plummet down another tangent, I seem to be the only horsey blogger who hasn’t done a movie review of ‘War Horse’, either, for the simple reason that I haven’t seen it yet. Though maybe this week I’ll accomplish that, wadded tissues in hand.
If I were to quibble, and yes, I will, I do have to remark that I’ve already come across a couple of eensy weensy things that rankle about the text I’ve perused so far — considering that The Eighty Dollar Champion comes from the Very Considerable Publishing House of Ballantine Books. Before I was 20 pages in, I spotted the first typo — “story” describing a multi-level building. Yeek. (Oh, please, if you don’t know what it’s supposed to be, see earlier in this post. Here’s a link for chrissakes if you’re really that helpless.)
Soon after, there was another one — draft horse breeds described as Belgian, Percheron, or shire (lower case). Visions of hobbitom immediately danced in my head, but a capital S surely is required to describe the towering breed of horse with the lovely but high-maintenance feathering on its legs?
And there have been some other little bits of phrasing that don’t quite sit right. Page 25: “… and the United States brought home the team silver medal in dressage, the demanding equestrian sport sometimes called “horse dancing”, which was normally ruled by the Europeans.”
Horse dancing? In what universe? At best, it might sometimes be compared thusly (see the semi-viral video of Blue Hors Matine remixed with L’il Kim — bringing dressage to the masses!). But I don’t believe I’ve ever actually heard the phrase “horse dancing” in general usage. Small mercies.
Yes, I am being an extraordinarily nitpicky wench, but I am always a copyeditor, and always a horseperson. None of this, my readers will be swift to note, I blame on Elizabeth, who I do not know but am sure is an extremely accomplished writer to have landed a publishing agreement with Ballantine. I can just imagine her wincing and reluctantly acquiescing as her non-horsey editors took their vicious red pens to her copy, trying to keep her eyes on the larger prize — a prize which after all, includes bringing the aged Harry de Leyer, long known as the Galloping Grandfather, back into the limelight for a bit, and that’s just fun, isn’t it.
Yes, you have to have a bloody thick skin when you’re a writer. Gawd knows I’ve had more than my share of editors have their weird and inexplicable ways with my copy as well, and I’ve learned that the important thing is them spelling my name correctly when the invoice goes to Accounting. So I do not fault Elizabeth for the errors I’ve encountered in this first 31 pages … I just wonder how many others made it into print in the remaining 298, and have to ponder whether the standards haven’t slipped just a smidge in the non-fiction division at Ballantine. In which case, you’re up to 95%, girlfriend, purely in empathy. And I’m still going to really enjoy the rest of the book.
I think my skin is tough enough to survive the Bestseller Experience. I just have to come up with a heretofore-unexploited Downtrodden Horse with a Heart of Gold. Preferably, one whom we can insert into an interesting epoch with quaint historical costumes, to add depth to the tale… but not one so ancient that there are no historical records available to dig through (sorry, Bucephalus). One that Hollywood can have its merry way with as long as they spell my name correctly on the cheque.
One that, post my editorial critique, will no doubt NOT be published by Ballantine.
Suggestions, as always, welcome. I’ll get straight on it.
I’m too busy crying thru horse movies to notice their naughty bits. Guess most of us don’t know our horses very well. You make a good point though – why don’t writers do more research into horses? I mean, we wouldn’t put up with WWII fiction with botched facts. Would we?
I imagine there will be a book/ movie about Hickstead soon.
Yes, I thought about Hickstead, but I imagine someone has already pounced on that! It’s such a bummer of an ending, too … unless one of the few babies he’s got on the ground turns into a superstar, which is going to take a few years (IIRC the oldest of his offspring are only two-year-olds).
Mind you, my friend Alex Brown has written a book about Barbaro — also a serious bummer of an ending — and it is doing really well. So maybe it’s the kleenex content in the middle that’s important?
As long as Hickstead starts off an underdog and dies a hero, you should at least win a Giller 😉 Will look into the Barbaro book!
You are a kind and generous person. My ‘Wow, I hate you just a little for that’ is generally far greater than 10%.
You are kind and generous for saying so. 😉
Think the sub-editors at Ballantine will regard me as such?
I always loved the story of Little Squire, which I believe has only been done as historical YA fic. 🙂
That’s a good one! War Horse — the original novel — was also YA fiction, written in 1982 so I bet it’s a bit of a surprise to Michael Morpurgo that all this is happening now!
You’ve got me thinking about all the little underdogs I’ve cheered on over the years. Poltroon, for example, the little pinto mare Torrance Watkins campaigned at the highest levels of eventing. Wonder what her back story is? And of course Stroller, and Marcus Aurelius the Bionic Pony.
Even Theodore O’Connor, though that’s another real bummer of an ending ….!
Stroller… still the smallest to take on Olympic courses. Nice ending. But hey, the bummer endings? Well it happens — if you listen closely, you’ll discover that Secretariat, Phar-Lap, Seabiscuit, Joey the Warhorse… like Spiderman, everyone retires, and like the rest of us, at some point everyone dies. It’s the blaze of light they leave trailing behind, like comets, that makes the story. Going out, fast and unexpected, stage left, at the very top of their game, that’s not such a bad ending. Black Beauty’s Ginger — now that’s a bummer ending.
WWII as accurate depictions? Well, we play pretty fast and loose with the facts in the classic movies — after all, it is the right of the Victorious to write the history.
I’m with you all the way on the spelling, grammar and general sloppy use of language, on the whole. If one more person talks to me about their horse’s lovely Confirmation I’m going to cause a bodily injury.
Good confirmation is a religious experience. 😉
I love me a good horse book or movie and even though I’m not as entrenched in horse lore as you, wondered about Secretariat and his owner’s supposedly impoverished origins. Was that why they had to put up with John Malkovich? Keep slogging away, I’m sure there’s a humble horse worthy of being immortalized by your bad self!
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