Saturday, September 21, 2013

Milt Toby, Equine Author

Welcome Milt!… an awarding-winning author, photographer, attorney, and world traveler. Milt has written professionally for some 35 years: on the editorial staff of The Blood-Horse magazine (where he covered Thoroughbred racing in the United States, England, Panama, and Japan); a six-year stint as a freelance photojournalist living in China, Costa Rica, and Colombia (where his clients included Soldier of Fortune); and more recently as a frequent contributor of articles to The Horse magazine. He also is the author of five books about Thoroughbred racing and equine law, plus award-winning short fiction…and so much more….

Where are you in the world?

I live in Georgetown, Kentucky—spitting distance from the Kentucky Horse Park—with my wife, equine veterinarian Roberta Dwyer, and a complement of animals four-strong: Burdock, a headstrong Dalmatian that hates other dogs and was expelled from dog school because of it; Echo, an adolescent Doberman who is the only dog Burdock can abide; Plumpkin, an orange and white rescue cat who looks like his name sounds; and Sherlock, another rescue known to the vet only as “New Cat.”

Tell me about your horses…

We don’t have any horses now, but I’ve been involved with them in some capacity or another for as long as I can remember. I grew up showing American Saddlebreds, but I’ve also competed with hunters and in combined training and dressage.  I was a steward with the American Horse Shows Association before the organization morphed into the USEF and I’ve served on the Board of the Kentucky Horse Council and as Chair of the Kentucky Bar Association’s Equine law Section.

When did you begin writing?

I’ve been writing professionally since 1972, when undeterred by a total lack of experience I talked my way into a job as sports editor for a small newspaper in Aiken, South Carolina. Aiken was—and still is—an important winter training center for Thoroughbreds. My first day on the job, I was assigned an interview with Greentree Stable trainer Jack Gaver, about his horse running in the Belmont Stakes a few days later.   Problem was, Gaver was in New York, I was in South Carolina, and I had absolutely no idea how to interview someone—or, for that matter, how to type.  (Still don’t know where the keys are!)  I tracked him down, made my deadline, and the rest, as they say, is history.  It was a wonderful introduction to journalism, and I haven’t missed a deadline yet.

I left Aiken after a year to work for The Blood-Horse magazine in Lexington, Kentucky.  I was on the editorial staff until 1984, covering races all across the US and in Japan and England as a writer and photographer.  I left The Blood-Horse for six years doing freelance news photography in China, Costa Rica, and Colombia, and then returned to the States for law school.  I kept working as a freelancer all the while. I’ve been to the races on every continent, and I’ve thrown away a lot more losing tickets than ones I’ve cashed.

More recently, I’ve been sending more and more time writing.  I’ve done seven books, along with two years of monthly equine law columns for The Paint Horse Journal and three years as a weekly blogger on assorted equine law topics for The Horse.  I also interview authors as a Contributing Editor for the online newsletter of International Thriller Writers, and I contributed an essay about Lionel Davidson’s The Rose of Tibet for ITW’s Thrillers: 100 Must Reads, which was nominated for an Edgar Award.

What books have you written?

I write non-fiction, mainly because that’s what I like to write, but also because I haven’t found an editor or agent with the foresight to take on my two unpublished novels.  My latest book is Noor: A Champion Thoroughbred’s Unlikely Journey from California to Kentucky, which was released by The History Press in early September.  I call Noor the best horse no one remembers because he beat Citation four times in 1950, and set three world records in the process, but then dropped off the map for years. It wasn’t until a commercial development project threatened his gravesite in Northern California that Noor returned to racing’s collective consciousness.  Charlotte Farmer, an avid racing enthusiast, took up Noor’s cause and launched a one-woman campaign to locate his unmarked grave, exhume the remains, and move them to Old Friends, a Thoroughbred retirement farm in Central Kentucky.

My previous book, Dancer’s Image: The Forgotten Story of the 1968 Kentucky Derby, also was published by The History Press.  It won the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award for the best book about Thoroughbred racing published in 2011 and an American Horse Publications Editorial Award as the best equine book of the year.

Earlier books included the Complete Equine Legal & Business Handbook and a biography of the ill-fated filly Ruffian.
Where do you like to write?

When I’m working on a project, I think about writing just about everywhere. For me, this preliminary mental organizing is the heavy lifting.  The writing itself goes fairly quickly as long as I know where I’m going.  I’m not a big fan of outlining, although I know some writers live and die by their outlines.  I use a similar technique called “mind mapping” when I have something complicated that I need to help a reader understand.  It’s a visual flow chart that helps organizes information.  For Dancer’s Image I had to condense two weeks of complicated and technical racing commission hearing testimony about the chemistry of drug testing into one chapter that made sense and the “mind map” helped me sort things out.

I get some of my best ideas when I’m walking the dogs, and some of the worst when I wake up in the middle of the night with what sounds like the best turn of phrase in the world.  For me, the latter hardly ever pan out when the sun comes up and I try and decipher the writing in the notebook on the bedside table.

I have an office at home when I finally get around to actually writing.  I also travel with a laptop, and on occasion I’ve managed to get some substantive work done on the road.

How do you maintain thoughts and ideas?

Because of the subject matter, most of what I write is very research-intensive, and keeping track of information can be a real challenge.  It’s also an absolute necessity, though, because readers are knowledgeable and will call you out when you make a mistake.  For me, research often is the best part of a writing project.  Conventional wisdom is that you should “write what you know.”  I think you should write about something you want to learn more about.  For me, that involves a significant amount of digging.  It’s a great feeling to come upon a fact or a connection that you weren’t expecting to find.

There’s nothing more frustrating than remembering some interesting tidbit of information that I want to use, but not being able to locate the source.  I’ve got four large white boards scattered around the house and I feel like a stockholder in the Post-It Note company.  I try to carry a small notebook around with me, but I usually forget that, and I’ve had some luck with using a small digital recorder or the memo function of my smart phone for notes.  One of the neatest gadgets I’ve come across is a small, battery operated scanner that I can carry around in my briefcase.  I scan books, magazine or newspaper articles, and photographs, download the files to my computer, and organize them for future reference.  It’s faster and more accurate than taking notes.  I’m experimenting with Evernote and One Note for organizing information, but I’m not sold on either one yet.  So far, what works best is a big stack of file folders crammed with notes.

What are you currently writing?

I’m researching topics for a book proposal and for a few magazine articles.  I’ve always been intrigued by the kidnapping of Shergar in Ireland during the early 1980s.  He raced for the Aga Khan and was one of the best Thoroughbreds of the 20th Century.  He was taken from his stall one night by an armed gang (probably from the Irish Republican Army, although they never claimed responsibility) and held for ransom.  The money never was paid and the horse never was recovered.  The affair has turned into racing’s most famous cold case.

I’d also like to write about the history of performance-altering drugs in equestrian sports and about how a dozen or so landmark legal cases have shaped the way sports are conducted these days.

Do you have suggestions for beginning writers?

I’ve got a few suggestions for people who want to write:

First, start from the ground up.  Learn the rules of grammar, punctuation, spelling, how to structure sentences, paragraphs, chapters.  Getting the fundamentals right doesn’t guarantee you’ll be published; getting them wrong almost guarantees you won’t be.

Next to my computer are the two-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the Chicago Manual of Style, The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and Bill Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words.  Within arm’s reach are a shelf of other reference books about writing, copyright and publishing law (I’m Chair of the American Society of Journalists and Authors Contracts and Conflicts Committee and I speak to writers groups about copyright and contracts), and whatever topic I’m researching at the moment.  Good writers break the rules all the time, but always for a reason.  It’s not a good idea to break the rules because you don’t know any better, or just because you can.  Break them only when the end result is better.

Cormac McCarthy, one of my favorite authors for fiction, writes dialogue without quotation marks.  That’s technically wrong, but he knows what he’s doing and he uses the technique to great effect, and to win a Pulitzer Prize.  It’s okay to break the rules if you know what the rules are, and why you’re breaking them.  Walk before you run.

Second, write.  I attend several writers conferences every year, often as a presenter, and the mantra these days seems to be market, market, market.  That’s fine as far as it goes, but when you come away from a conference with a list of things to do—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, web sites, the list goes on—writing often is near the bottom.  Writing is a skill that needs practice.  It isn’t something you learn through osmosis. 

Third, read—a lot.  You need to read enough good writing so you can recognize it in your own work.  A few of my favorite authors are Mark Bowden (who wrote Blackhawk Down), historian David McCollough, and David Halberstam for non-fiction; Cormac McCarthy, Jeffrey Deaver, and John Sandford for fiction.

Finally, find a mentor.  You want someone who can read your work objectively, tell you what’s good and bad without the inherent bias of a spouse, or family member, or friend.  Then don’t be afraid to toss your mentor’s suggestions in the trash.   

Do you have any suggestions for beginning riders?

I haven’t been on a horse in years, but riding—like writing—is a skill.  Learn the fundamentals from a good instructor and practice.

Follow Milt…


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