The Next Big Thing Blog Hop

I was invited by Angie of Love Romances and More to participate in the Next Big Thing Blog Hop—a sort of pyramidal branching hop where one person sends questions to five people, who post their questions to five people, who select another five people and post the following week, and so on and so on, like that old seventies shampoo commercial. I liked the idea of it—for one thing, I like blog hops. For another, it’s fun to see how different people answer the same questions. The best part I think, though, lies in the fact that your commitment is to only five people a week. I’ve found for me personally, if there are over 200 people participating in a weekend hop, I’m lucky if I get to more than the top 20-30 on the list. So yes, I thought this would be great fun!

The plan was to answer preset questions about your latest release or your WIP. In this case, my answers are for one and the same! If that sounds strange, it’s because I’m currently working on an expanded version of my sport horse story, Lightning in a Bottle, which is part of the Going for Gold Anthology from MLR Press. So, without further ado, the questions!

The Next Big Thing:

What is the working title of your book?

Hold the Reins, which is an allusion to the fact that not only can there only be one person in charge of where the horse goes, but also to the behind-the-scenes manipulations of Jake’s father. Jake and Rich have found their way back together at the end of Lightning in a Bottle, but being together is never simply a case of Happily Ever After, The End. Relationships are hard work, and relationships that have trust issues are even harder. The two men will have to feel their way into their repaired relationship, all the while dealing with the pressures of Olympic competition and living in the spotlight.

Jake will have to decide if he will pursue his tentative relationship with Rich or hang on to all he knows, particularly when that includes the health and well-being of the man that has always been a father figure to him, Jim Banks. There are no easy answers because of his tumultuous relationship with his father, Patrick Stanford, and the lengths Patrick has gone to in order to keep Jake and Rich apart.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Oh, that’s an easy one! I recently had to retire my own sport horse from eventing, a very bittersweet decision on my part. When I read the submission prompt for a short story involving Olympic athletes for the M/M anthology, I confess, my first thought was that I bet there would be a lot of submissions about diving and swimming (and why not? SPEEDOS!) but that I’d probably be the only one to sub a story about eventing—one of those sports that only gets 3 minutes of airtime on the main broadcasting channel and you have to have cable and a TiVo (or a very patient boyfriend with these things!) to see any of the rest of it.

Well… 10 K became 25 K, and the next thing I know, I’m staring at a story that is too big to tell in the allotted space. I didn’t know what to do! Fortunately the terrific people at MLR Press let me make all kinds of last minute revisions so that an expanded version would make sense, and I’ve been working on it ever since. Slower than I would like, but moving forward just the same. I’ve had both heavy work commitments and some pressing family health issues, so writing has taken a bit of a back seat at the moment. I’m about 2/3 of the way done, though, and I hope to have it completed in short order.

What genre does your book fall under?

Definitely contemporary M/M romance.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

This was an incredibly tough question to answer. I don’t have a lot of time to watch television or go to the movies anymore, so I tend to be behind the times on the latest, hottest actors. Also, my characters are a bit older than your average Olympian, as eventing is a sport where people can compete for decades—one of the reasons I love it is because your partner is a horse, and this makes it one of the few sports where men and women compete directly against each other as well.

I ended up having to ask friends who’d read the story for help, and this is what we came up with:

For Rich Evans, I would cast Joshua Jackson (Fringe). It isn’t just about the blue eyes and the boyish good looks—there’s something about his presence and the kinetic energy in his hands that makes him a good fit for Rich.

Jake was much harder. I had a strong mental image of what Jake looked like (being kind of partial to that ‘type’) but I was looking for something a little less scruffy than my usual go-to look. I needed someone who had the smoothness of being raised in wealth and the benefit and polish of a prep-school education, while still retaining that bad-boy toughness about him.

One of my friends suggested Sebastian Stan (Bucky from Captain America) and though I couldn’t see it at first, the more I looked at images of this actor online, the more I did. He has that ageless quality about him that only gets better with time, and that is definitely Jake!

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Horse-crazy boys fall in love, are separated by circumstances, and learn to overcome obstacles to find love and trust again.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m hoping MLR Press will pick up the option, but a lot of that will depend on my ability to meet their deadline. If I can’t, then the book will just have to sit on the shelf for a while until the rights for the novella return to me. That’s okay if that happens–I’ve got plenty of other projects to work on! I hope that I can get this finished on time however, and that the end product is something that pleases everyone.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Um, still working…

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

That’s the fun part, I can’t think of any off the top of my head—most of the horse-related stories in the M/M genre that I’ve read have been about cowboys, not event riders! From the standpoint of a contemporary m/m romance set in a realistic sports background, maybe Alan Chin’s Matchmaker? I know that’s presumptuous of me to place my name in the same sentence with Chin, but I’m thinking in terms of the storyline here. 🙂

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

Well, I was galloping along madly with the novella for submission to the anthology, when one of my beta readers said, “You realize you have the makings of a really good novel here, right?”

I realized she was right, only I was already committed to the anthology. Fortunately the people at MLR Press have been *very* accommodating!

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Let’s see… have you ever seen eventing? It’s the triathlon of horse sports, with a dressage phase (Tall boots! Breeches! Gloves! Riding crops!) that combines elegance, precision, and strength to move your horse through a series of elements. From there, you go on to the cross-country phase where you gallop across miles of challenging terrain, leaping unusual and tricky combinations of fences at speed. A lot of horse and rider teams get eliminated there. The final element is show jumping, where the fences are bigger, the turns are tighter, and the stakes are higher as the remaining competitors go for the gold. What is there not to love about that?

Going for Gold is available now from MLR Press: 8 novellas by your favorite M/M authors featuring Olympians vying for that greatest award of all–love.

My other blog hop contributors will be posting their answers to these same questions next week:

Xanthe Walter

Clare London

Cooper West

Sue Holston

Whitley Gray

Aundrea Singer

You can also follow the rest of The Next Big Thing bloggers on Twitter with the hashtag #NextBigThing

 

 

Going For Gold: the Primer in Olympic Eventing continues!

As promised, here is part two of my primer on the equine sport known as Eventing.  For part one, check out my blog post here.

A quick recap: eventing is the triathlon of the horse sport world, made up of three phases, dressage, cross-country, and stadium (or ‘show’) jumping.

Dressage is often the hardest phase for the observer to understand. Each horse and rider must perform specific elements of a test where they ride a precise pattern. Unlike the straight discipline of dressage, the individual elements are usually a bit less complex, and the scoring is different as well. In straight dressage (also an Olympic event), horses are scored out of a possible 100 points, so a high score is good.

A short excerpt from Lightening in a Bottle to describe the importance and scoring of dressage in eventing:

Having a good dressage score is critical to winning. Each movement in the test is scored on a scale from zero to ten, with the total score depending on number of movements and the difficulty of the test itself. The marks are then added together, converted to penalty points, and subtracted from 100. Because of this convoluted scoring system, the lower your dressage score, the better the rank. After dressage, the only way to move up is by someone else making a mistake.

The purpose of dressage is to show that you are able to ride in a controlled manner, communicating complex changes of direction and movement with your legs and hands in such a way that it doesn’t look like you are signaling the horse at all. A well executed dressage test is like watching a dance between partners who know each other so well they do not have to speak. Dressage means ‘training’, and it was originally a discipline created around military maneuvers and the ability to riding horses in formation, changing direction at will, while still having hands free to fire a weapon or wield a sword. The upper level movements that some of you may have seen the Royal Lipizzaners perform are called Airs Above the Ground, and all have their origins in defending a rider from attack.

Did you see Colbert’s report on dressage on his show, the Colbert Report? Though it was a hysterical tongue-in-cheek report (full of risqué allusions as well), it does give you an idea of the difficulty involved in the training. The dressage movement in the video, the piaffe, is not performed in evening dressage, that is considered an upper level movement for the pure dressage format. Colbert on Dressage

I include it here because, damn, Colbert cleans up nice. And in his final outfit, he is dressed in the appropriate attire for the show ring, wearing a top hat, a coat known as a shadbelly, white breeches (pronounced ‘britches’ by most people in the US), and tall boots. So when you are picturing Jake preparing to enter the show ring, that’s what he’d be wearing.

The cross country phase is admittedly my favorite. I suspect that had a lot to do with the fact that my very first horse (purchased for eighty-nine cents a pound when I was a freshman in college), enjoyed it too. He would light up when he spied the first fence on course, flattening his body and making for the fence at a hard gallop. When you consider that I normally had to push him into doing anything, it was a surprise and a joy to find my horse’s heart singing with mine as we took the obstacles.

Because that’s what they are: obstacles. The cross country phase has you jumping down off banks, over ditches, into ponds of water, out over stone walls, you name it. You might have to jump through the center of a hedge, or in out of a tricky combination of fences designed to encourage your horse to run out to the side to avoid them. Typically done at a gallop the entire way, the course can be as long as 3-4 miles. There are usually multiple possible approaches to a fence, to allow for an easier jump that might earn you time penalties. The course must be finished clean with no refusals or falls, and under the optimum time to avoid penalties. Due to the challenging nature of the course, elimination at this phase is not unusual. Three refusals, a fall anywhere on the course, failure to wear appropriate medical information in a band on your arm, or the rider’s decision to pull the horse from the course—these are all reasons why a horse might get eliminated in this round. In the 2012 Rolex Event in Kentucky this past April, nearly half the field was eliminated on cross country.

The riders here typically wear ‘colors’ similar to a jockey on a racehorse. Often the colors represent a barn if there are more than one rider/horse combination present. The riders typically wear breeches of any color (though on single day trials, riders often remain in the white breeches from the dressage phase), and a pleasing combination of colors—mine were Kelly green and black, though I have Jake wearing red and black, another combination that I really like. There are no rules on color here—only that you wear the appropriate protective helmet and body protector (which we jokingly call ‘body bags’ around our barn).

The final element is stadium jumping, which is a bit of a combination of the two former phases, in that you are asked to ride your horse through a series of challenging obstacles, but due to the tight turns, tricky combinations, and the precise spacing between the fences, you must have precision riding through the entire course. The fences are laid out in a manner such that if you come into a combination wrong, it will be very difficult for you to get out of it without knocking something down. And unlike cross country, where the fences are large, immovable objects, the stadium fences are designed so that brushing against a rail can bring it down. Competitors are penalized (given ‘faults’) for dropping rails, refusals, and going over time. The winner of the event is the horse and rider with the best score after all three phases.

I look back on this summation and think, “Man, you have to be a little nuts to be an event rider.” It’s true, you do. It’s hours of training no matter the weather or the time of day. Unless you are riding a minimum of four to five days a week, neither you nor the horse will be safe out there. You will ride until every muscle in your body begs for mercy, and you will break bones and your bank account too. Prepping for an event takes a full day of cleaning tack, shampooing and braiding your horse, and loading the van so you can pull out of the stable in the pre-dawn light and drive to the event hours away. It’s sunburn, and heatstroke, and hypoglycemia, and nerves that make you want to throw up. Your day isn’t done until you’ve taken care of your horse, cleaned the van, and stowed your gear so that you can come back the next day and wash everything for use the next time you head out. It’s a brutal way to spend a weekend.

And I miss it very much.

I chose to retire my horse from the sport earlier this year, after having almost lost her twice in the past six months. I don’t need to compete her to know that I have the most marvelous horse in the world, but I miss it just the same.

Which is why I chose to write about this world for my submission to the Going for Gold Anthology soon to be released by MLR Press.  I can’t tell you how excited I am about this story.  This environment and the characters are so real to me, it was as though I was a reporter recording their story as it played out in front of me.  Jake, his determination and fearlessness over fences, but his need to guard his heart.  Rich, who has lost everything and put his life back together from scratch, setting aside his own dreams to help others chase theirs. I can’t wait to share their story with you!  Hear those hoofbeats?  The horses are coming very soon!

Out now! Going for Gold from MLR Press!

Going for Gold: the new Olympics anthology coming out soon!

I’m pleased to announce that my novella, Lightning in a Bottle, will be part of the new Olympic-themed anthology Going for Gold, soon to be released by MLR Press.

I thought in anticipation of this exciting event, I would offer a short primer about the sport at the center of my story–the equestrian Three Day Event. I got so involved in the ‘short primer’ however, that I’m going to have to break this blog down into sections, so stay tuned for further installments as we get closer to release day!

First, let me preface this post with a disclaimer: although I have competed in this sport myself, it has only been at the baby levels! I am no expert here. The rules of the sport are quite complicated and constantly changing. My summation here is a bit like Cliff Notes: it may help you grasp the general idea of Much Ado About Nothing, but you’d better not use them for the final exam essay in your Shakespeare class.

 

(Hey, don’t look at my form over fences here–it was my first recognized event and I was very, very nervous!)

If you’ve been able to catch a glimpse of eventing during the 2012 Summer Games in London, you might have heard this sport referred to as the ‘triathlon’ of horse sports. I think that’s a fair description. The sport evolved out of testing maneuvers for the cavalry. It can be held as a one day event (often called a Horse Trial) where all three elements are performed on the same day—this is most often done at the lower levels and is the sort of competition that I’ve participated in. The three components of the competition are dressage, cross-country, and stadium jumping. I’ve provided a link here for more detailed descriptions of each phase.  At the higher levels, the events are rated by the Concours Complet International, a governing body that ranks the events as one star, two star, and so on, up to four star (or Olympic) level.  These events are typically depicted in writing as as CCI*** for a three star event, but I’ve chosen to write them out in Lightening In A Bottle for better reader comprehension.

At the more advanced levels, the competition is spread over a course of several days. For many years, it was called “three day eventing”, and each day was devoted to a different phase. These days it is more commonly held over four days, with the first two days devoted to dressage (as many riders compete more than one horse, it takes a lot of time to finish all the dressage tests). The cross-country phase used to be called the “Endurance” phase, but more and more venues have adopted the ‘short’ format of the cross-country phase, which eliminates the Roads and Tracks portion, as well as the Steeplechase. The final phase is the stadium jumping. Eventing is one of the few Olympic sports in which men and women compete directly against each other.

Eliminating the long format of the “Endurance” phase has been a pretty controversial decision. Ostensibly, it was made because few venues have the land to hold such extended events, or the capability to run all the phases of the “Endurance” portion in the available space. The change in format now favors the heavier, European warmblood breeds over the lighter, faster Thoroughbreds which used to dominate the sport. The warmbloods tend to prevail in the dressage phase as well, which is crucial to scoring well overall in the event. Perhaps not coincidentally, there is a lot of money to be made in breeding sport horses these days. In the early days when the sport was moving away from cavalry horses, the mount of choice was an ex-racehorse. A nice off-the-track Thoroughbred can be purchased for re-training for around $1500. Contrast to the cost of the average purpose-bred sport horse, which can easily run in the $150,000 range.

There are many people who feel the elimination from the more challenging endurance elements, as well as the drive to breed winners for sale, has created a situation in which riders are bringing horses to competition too young, and pushing them too hard. The sport has taken some heat in recent years for the sharp increase in the number of fatal injuries among both horses and riders. The change in format has been blamed for this by some, who point out that the types of fences and challenges really haven’t changed all that much over the years.

After the recent fatalities, some major safety measure were instituted, including use of more ‘skinny’ and ‘corner’ fences that challenged a rider’s skill to get his mount over it, while still allowing a horse to run out to the side to avoid it. Other changes included automatic elimination after a fall of any sort, regardless if a fence was involved, and changing fence designs so that a horse was less likely to flip over it if striking it mid-chest, causing the horse to crush the rider. Protective gear and medical arm bands are mandatory pieces of equipment and the horses are required to pass a vet test both before and after the event.

By this point, you may be asking yourself what does any of this have to do with a romance between two men in this challenging sport? Well, um, tall boots. Riding crops. Form-fitting breeches. Are you getting the picture? Now add to it the competitive drive and a thirst for a dangerous sport, and you have an inkling of the reason why I was drawn to telling a story about this world.

Next up, part two, where I give you a break down on each phase of the event and a sneak preview of the characters, Jake and Rich, and how they went from being friends to lovers to opposite sides of the rail.

Out now! Going for Gold from MLR Press!