Sunday, April 26, 2015

When Characters Speak

                                                                    Milton C. Toby photo
by Milton C. Toby

Congratulations to Andy Plattner, winner of the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award for the best book about Thoroughbred racing published in 2014. Winning an award always feels better than losing—I won with Dancer’s Image in 2011; Cañonero II was a semi-finalist this year—but the disappointment fades quickly when the winner is a friend and a talented writer. Andy teaches creative writing at the University of Tampa and his writing skills effectively shoot down the oft-repeated line lifted from George Barnard Shaw’s Man and Superman that “those who can, do; those who cannot, teach.” Andy does both, well.

He won the Flannery O’Connor Award for a collection of short stories titled Winter Money a few years ago and was a finalist for the Townsend Prize for Fiction with a second short story collection, A Marriage of Convenience. Andy's writing has appeared in The Paris Review, Fiction, Epoch, and The Sewanee Review.

Andy was a two-time finalist for the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award before winning this year with Offerings from a Rust Belt Jockey. Originally called the Castleton Lyons-Thoroughbred Times Book Award, the literary competition was renamed in 2008 to honor the memory of Dr. Ryan, the Castleton Lyons Farm founder who died in 2007. Dr. Ryan drew upon his passions for horse racing and fine writing when he launched the award in 2006 and his family has continued the tradition.

The Ryan Award honors the best book about Thoroughbred racing published the previous year and carries a first prize of $10,000, a princely sum that places the Ryan Award on equal footing with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

Andy picked up his check and a custom Waterford crystal trophy during a reception held at Castleton Lyons Farm near Lexington in mid-April. His comments about the award and his writing process should resonate with writers everywhere.

It’s wonderful to be recognized for doing work that you enjoy doing, he said. Writers all know that sentiment is true, whether the recognition is a national award or a kind word from an appreciative reader. The writing process was relatively straightforward, he added. Paraphrasing here, Andy said that you get out of bed, make some coffee, pull up a chair in front of the computer, and ask the characters what’s going to happen today. Writing is not that simple, of course. If it were, just about anyone could do it. Andy is much more than a mere scribe channeling his characters.

 Head judge Kay Coyte had this to say about Offerings from a Rust Belt Jockey:

"Plattner has taken a short-story kernel and nurtured it into a novel that’s an unflinching look at real lives that revolve around racing’s low-rent district. It is a backstretch noir that captures the hope and desperation of a struggling, middle-age jockey who tasted major-league success. In Rust Belt, he is dead-on in his descriptions of a rider’s far-from-glamorous day-to-day, season-to-season hustle. It’s not easy to write racing fiction free from cliché, but Plattner does that here. He’s a master of dialogue.”

Having characters who take on lives of their own and who drive the writing should sound familiar to fiction authors. The process is different if, like me, you write non-fiction. I often wish for the luxury of creating characters and situations, but I’m stuck with the facts.

For fiction authors out there: do characters hijack your writing?


  1. Not only do they hijack storylines, they won't go away when their stories are over! On the upside, I always have someone to talk to ;)

  2. They do, they do! I basically set them on the page and then watch what they do next! (You should try it, Milt!) Thanks for the book recommendation. I will surely find this one and read it!