Susan Mihalic: Five Things I Learned Writing Dark Horses

Fifteen-year-old equestrian prodigy Roan Montgomery has only ever known two worlds: inside the riding arena, and outside of it. Both, for as long as she can remember, have been ruled by her father, who demands strict obedience in all areas of her life. The warped power dynamic of coach and rider extends far beyond the stables, and Roan’s relationship with her father has long been inappropriate. She has been able to compartmentalize that dark aspect of her life, ruthlessly focusing on her ambitions as a rider heading for the Olympics, just as her father had done. However, her developing relationship with Will Howard, a boy her own age, broadens the scope of her vision. 

At the intersection of a commercial page-turner and urgent survivor story, Dark Horses combines the searing themes of abuse and resilience with the compelling exploration of female strength.

I will never be in a “30 under 30” roundup of impressive young writers.

Although I showed early promise, I’m a late bloomer. I’m making my debut at age 59. It is the new 39, but even that isn’t under 30. While I’m all for nurturing young talent, I object to the suggestion that talent has an expiration date. Don’t write yourself off—and don’t let anyone else write you off, either—simply because of your age.

We write in an imperfect world.

One midwinter day in 2007, I received a rejection letter from Yaddo, where I’d applied for an extended residency. I would have rejected me, too. I’d written only three short chapters—later combined into a single first chapter—of my WIP. Ostensibly, the “P” in “WIP” stands for progress, but I’d made little of that. I began writing Dark Horses in the early 2000s, but for years at a time I didn’t touch the manuscript.

The Yaddo rejection was a dash of ice water on any dreamy notion I’d had of one day finishing my book. If I waited for all those perfect conditions I thought I needed—a stretch of uninterrupted time, a book-lined study (you know the one), no day job, no financial stressors—I would never finish this book or write any other. I would have to write in an imperfect world.

I made a deal with myself that day. Each evening when I got home from the day job, I would eat a quick dinner of cereal (perfect writer kibble) and then write. At the end of five days, I’d made more progress on the manuscript than I’d made in years. It felt good—so I decided to do it the following week, and at the end of two weeks, a habit was formed. That’s how I finished the book, writing for two or three hours every evening and indulging in write-a-thons on the weekends. I turned down invitations for drinks after work, dinner, coffee, and other social activities. No one else will make your writing a priority. Only you can do this.

In which I find an agent.

I finished the manuscript in August 2009 and spent the next year self-editing, a process during which I wasn’t nearly as hard on myself as I should have been, because all of us think, “This will be the cleanest, most perfect manuscript ever submitted to an agent.” HAAAAhahahahahaha. Clearly I hadn’t left all my delusions behind me. Have you seen the dragon in the kitchen?

I contacted an old publishing acquaintance who was now an agent. Of course I could send the manuscript to her. She read it and told me to cut 100 pages and send it back to her. I did. And—oooooooooo, children—she was never heard from again. There was only a hook dangling from my car door. A year passed, during which there were a couple of life-giving, hope-raising messages in which she promised my revised manuscript was next in her TBR pile, but in fact I’d been given the hook.

Slightly daunted, I regrouped and sent it to a friend’s agent, and exactly the same thing happened. After another solid year, another hook dangled from my car door.

Now deeply daunted and in possession of two useless hooks, I put the manuscript away for a year. At the end of that year, four years had passed since I’d completed the first draft. What was I doing with my life? Did I or didn’t I want to be published?

Welcome to the sim-sub (simultaneous-submission) route. I took a week off from my day job and created a spreadsheet with nearly 100 agents on it, most of them gleaned from the pages of Poets & Writers. I visited the website of each agency, where agents specified what they wanted in the way of a query, and contacted the ones I thought were the best fit for my manuscript.

By the end of the week, I’d found my agent. When we spoke on the phone, she asked if I were willing to revise. My reply: “Absolutely, but if I do . . . will I ever hear from you again?”

Her reply: “Yes, because I’ve already invested more time and energy in this than I would if I didn’t intend to represent you.”

Don’t be discouraged to discover you aren’t even close to being finished.

I love revising and editing, which is good, because my agent and I went through round after round of revisions. I was trying my best, but something wasn’t clicking. To my everlasting gratitude, she hung in there with me. Finally, when I thought I’d produced the best possible manuscript, she said, “Cut it by a third, and then I’ll read it.”

Part of me thought I couldn’t do it. The rest of me made a sign that read ENDURANCE, tacked it above my desk, and got to work. I brought Dark Horses in at a sleek 98,000 words and delivered a manuscript my agent could sell—and sell it she did, approaching exactly the right editor at exactly the right publisher. My editor requested further edits, which added slightly to the word count (I got to put back some material I’d deleted), but my agent had been so rigorous that at this point, editing felt like play.

Your path is yours, not ANYONE else’s.

In the critique group I’ve run for 20 years, I advocate heeding feedback that resonates and disregarding feedback that doesn’t—but this works only if you’re honest with yourself. My agent had a keen editorial sense, and I’d have been foolish not to listen to her.

“With your next book, you won’t have to listen to your agent and your editor,” one person said.

“Do you even feel like it’s your book anymore?” said another.

First, why wouldn’t I listen to an agent and an editor I trust? They want a book that will sell, and so do I. Second, it’s more my book than ever, forged by criticism and revision that burned away everything that wasn’t the story.

Only you can write your story, but regardless of whether you take the traditional route to publication, you’ll need to discern between advice that rings true and advice that’s off the mark. Know what to let go of, even if you’re attached to it. My words aren’t gold. Neither are yours. Be professional, listen to your team, and honestly assess their feedback.

Also, know what to hold on to. Tip: It won’t be as much as you think. Good editors, agents, and critique partners don’t want to make your story theirs. They want to help you make your story the best it can be.

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Susan has worked as a book editor, curriculum writer, writing instructor, and freelance writer and editor. She has also taught therapeutic horseback riding. Dark Horses will be released by Simon & Schuster’s Scout Press on February 16. It has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Book List, and Library Journal. Susan lives in Taos, New Mexico, where she loves riding her dream horse, Goldmark, on the mountain trails. She is working on another novel.

Susan Mihalic: Twitter

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