Publishers Who Prey, Part One: Don’t Be a Victim

Photo by Tara Winstead on Pexels.com

When I began writing for publication, in the mid-1980s, serious authors (myself included) frowned upon self-publishing. Ah, but times have changed! In today’s literary world, many traditional authors have also self (indie)-published. Writers’ magazines sponsor indie contests, awards are given for indie books, and so on. No longer is it frowned upon, at least not like it was in the old typewriter days.

I applaud indie publishing. It’s opened numerous doors for authors such as me, and it’s great for those who’ve learned how to write and produce quality books. These authors take the time and effort required to study and learn the craft, and they work hard to make their books the best they can be.

However, self-publishing has a downside. What is it? Scams. Thanks to modern technology, they inundate the internet. Nowadays, most anyone can write and publish a book. Scam artists touting themselves as publishers and/or agents prey on eager, inexperienced authors who’ve longed to see their books in print. In short, these authors become victims.

Many wannabe writers think all they have to do is put words and sentences together. They don’t revise, because they haven’t studied the craft to know what to look for. They don’t edit and proofread, because they don’t know how, nor do they hire those who know how to do it. They just want a book out there. The quality of their writing is of no concern. They pay these scam artist publishers lots of money—in the thousands of dollars—and often endure emotional pain in the aftermath of publication. We’ll go into more detail on this in next week’s post.

For now, let’s learn the basic difference between vanity publishing and self-publishing.

Vanity Publishers

  1. Vanity publishers publish books in a manner similar to traditional publishers, yet unlike traditional publishers, they accept most every manuscript that crosses their desks regardless of its literary quality.
  2. Vanity publishers make money from the exorbitant fees they charge authors. Traditional publishers take a percentage of authors’ royalties, which they specify in their contracts. Traditional publishers do not charge fees.

Self-Publishers, aka Indie Publishers

  • From cover design, interior format and back copy to finished book, self-publishers have total control of their book, even in regards to pricing.
  • Self-publishers do spend money for their book’s production, but they hire qualified people to do this work. Traditional publishers have their own people they pay to do similar things: proofreading, cover design, formatting, etc. So, in a sense, a self-publisher is his/her own traditional publisher.

Are There Legitimate Self-Publishing Companies?

Yes. We’ll discuss these in another post. For now, be sure to research a potential publisher before signing a contract. Many a “wannabe author” has had his/her potential career ruined by these scam artists.

NEXT WEEK: Red Flags of a Scammer. What to look for.

Characters and Their Arcs

As you work on your story, does it have events that change your main character(s), for better or for worse? Most stories should. This change is called a character arc. There are three main kinds: positive, negative, and flat arcs.  

Why Use Character Arcs?

  • They make characters interesting and relatable.
  • They make characters three-dimensional. A perfect character with no need to change becomes boring.

Must All Characters Change?

No, but the main characters should. There is, however, an exception to this which we’ll look at later.

Three Types of Character Arcs

Positive Arc

Three main ingredients of a positive arc: (1) the character believes a lie, (2) circumstances, conflicts, and events bring the character to a realization of the truth, and (2) the character changes for the better.

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is an excellent example of this. At the beginning of the story, Scrooge is a greedy fellow who doesn’t believe in Christmas. He believes the lie about wealth’s importance and the need to constantly work and make money, even during holidays.

Then the three ghosts arrive and show him his life and its events – past, present, and future – which result in his change of heart. By the story’s end, Ebenezer Scrooge has become a pretty nice fellow!

Negative Arc

Trailer from movie Anna Karenina

In this arc, the character starts out good but by the story’s end, he’s changed for the worse. In other words, he doesn’t grow into a better person. Just as in the positive arc, the events and conflicts that change this character must be believable. Negative arcs do not end “happily ever after.”

Leo Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina, provides us a good example. This novel has lots of themes, but I’ll focus on one of them: adultery. In the beginning, Anna is a popular socialite, the perfect model of a Russian lady in the 1870s. But she has a fatal flaw: her passions. These drive her to commit adultery with a character named Vronsky, and she abandons her children. As the story ends, she kills herself by jumping in front of an oncoming train.

Flat Arc

Sherlock’s First Appearance

Although I don’t recommend this arc, it can and has been used successfully. In this arc, the main character doesn’t change. Sherlock Holmes, who is actually too perfect and too smart to be believable in my opinion, is a good example. From one story and novel to the next, Detective Sherlock never changes. These arcs may work in a series that features characters such as Sherlock, but the character must interesting and the stories must have an interesting plot.

Do your characters change, for better or for worse? Or are they flat, like ole Detective Sherlock?

Edward Troye: The Horse’s Artist

Edward Troye, 1808-1874

For horse lovers and those who love Thoroughbred racing along with the sport’s history, we can thank a famous artist who played a pivotal role in chronicling many of the nineteenth century’s famous racehorses. His name was Edward Troye (1808-1874). According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, he was “nineteenth-century America’s first important portrait and landscape painter.”[1]

Though born in Switzerland, he eventually moved to the United States and later lived in Mobile, Alabama (1849-1855), where he taught painting and French at Spring Hill College[2]. He painted horses as well as people, but his horse portraits are what earned him fame. His accuracy and attention to detail are stunning, to say the least. His work included not just the horses, but jockeys and trainers as well, providing us with a visual chronicle of the antebellum era’s favorite sport.

In 1869, he retired and moved to a farm in Owens Crossroads, Alabama. Even though he’d now turned to farming, he never quit painting and died of pneumonia in 1874.

To view some of his paintings, visit the National Sporting and Library Museum at

http://www.nationalsporting.org/nslm/exhibition_details/562.


[1] Genevieve Baird Lacer, “Edward Troye,” the online version of the  Encyclopedia of Alabama,  accessed Jully 16, 2020, http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-2560

[2] “Faithfulness to Nature: Paintings by Edward Troye,”  Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame, accessed July 16, 2020,  https://harnessmuseum.com/content/edward-troye

Formula Fiction: Bad or Good?

Sherlock Holmes made his first appearance in this book.

As I opened a dresser drawer, my eyes fell upon a slender leather case. Tan in color and in mint condition, I knew what it was. Once I slid back its flap and opened it, I found inside it something else in mint condition. It was the slide rule I used in my high school’s physics class. Well, let’s say I bought it for that purpose, but I never used it much because I never truly learned how. And that’s why, after forty-plus years, it’s practically new!

You see, with the exception of archaeology (history-related), I never much cared for science. Numbers and letters and formulas, math and physics and chemistry … Just mentioning these subjects prompts my yawn.  

Other formulas, though, do hold my interest. Story formulas, such as in Westerns and mysteries. Some people ridicule these genres by calling them “formulaic fiction.” We’ll deal with this criticism shortly.

A Few Elements of Formula Fiction

Predictable/Familiar Plots. The detective, with his/her superior gifts of deduction and insight, will always catch the criminal. Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes are excellent examples of this. Agatha Christie was an expert on poisons, which is why she used it so often in her books.

Familiar settings.These can be reused in one story after another. For example, lots of Westerns have saloons and perhaps a showdown or two on the street. But as a matter of fact, showdowns were rare in the Old West, though there were a few, such as the Earp brothers’ fight at the OK Corral.  

Predictable characters. In Romance novels a strong, handsome hero and a beautiful sympathetic heroine fall in love, maybe have an argument and separate, then they come back together and get married. Readers of these books expect this.

Is Formula Fiction Bad?

Not necessarily. Many readers enjoy such stories. As stated earlier, I enjoy good Western and mystery novels and those of us who read them expect the authors to follow the genres’ formulas.

The main negative, though, is that if these stories aren’t well written, they can become boring. We all know the guy will get the gal, the sheriff will get the outlaw, and the detective will get the killer. Even so, we can still make these stories interesting.

Agatha Christie, for example, had a special gift for surprising readers with her mysteries’ endings. Her readers enjoy trying to figure out “who done it.” Our romantic hero may have an interesting flaw — perhaps he’s afraid of water and so, he doesn’t swim. In Westerns, maybe a sheriff can handle himself without needing a gun.

A Response to Critics of Formula Fiction

To one degree or another, lots of stories are formulaic. That is, every traditional genre has a structure with its own guidelines and rules.

On the other hand, experimental fiction is a different style of writing which I won’t discuss here.

The Author’s Job

Our job as writers is to concentrate on writing well. Strive for excellence in the basic elements of fiction: creating unique and interesting characters, including conflict and plot twists and tension, using fresh imagery, and writing powerful scenes with good dialogue. When we do this while following our stories’ formulas, no matter what those formulas are, we’ll keep our readers reading.

Epigraphs: What They Are and How To Use Them

Troy, with walls still far from old

Had been destroyed, that noble, royal town

And many a man full worthy of renown

Had last his life—that no man can gainsay—

And all for Helen, the wife of Menelay,

When a thing’s done, it may then be no other.

John Lydgate, Troy Book, circa 1412-1420

This quote begins Margaret George’s excellent novel, Helen of Troy. She doesn’t put it in the body of her writing. Instead, it’s on a page by itself, right before the Prologue. There’s a word for such quotes—epigraph.

An epigraph can come at the beginning of a book, like George’s, or at the beginning of each section of a book, or introduce a chapter. They can also be used in both fiction and nonfiction. In a book I’m working on about the Creek War (1813-1814) in Alabama, I use epigraphs to bring historical context to my story. In my epigraphs, I briefly quote historians and others to help these readers follow and understand my tale’s historical events and tie my various plotlines together.

Chief William McIntosh (c. 1775-1825), one of the leaders of the Creek War.

Epigraphs can be funny, serious, taken from the Bible, a philosopher or theologian, or even from one of the book’s characters. Also in my Creek War novel, I’m using quotes from a character’s fictional journal.

Using Epigraphs

  • Under copyright law, if the epigraph comes from a source published after 1923, writers must get permission to use it. Before 1923, a work is in the public domain—free for everyone to use without permission. Although copyright law has a Fair Use Doctrine giving authors a little freedom to quote from copyrighted sources without permission, it also has certain guidelines to follow. We won’t get into that here. But in my opinion, it’s always best to “play it safe” and request permission from a copyrighted source.
  • The epigraph must have a connection to the book’s, section’s, or chapter’s content. In other words, epigraphs cannot be used randomly. So if you use epigraphs, choose them carefully.

A Few Novels That Use Epigraphs

Helen of Troy, by Margaret George

The Fort, by Bernard Cornwell

Farenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway.

To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Helen of Troy, by Margaret George

An Incident in the Life of David Crockett

David Crockett, by Chester Harding

David Crockett, a sportsman whose name is well known to all the world, was more celebrated for his blunt honesty than for his good manners. Whilst in Congress he contracted a sincere dislike for a Mr. W—, who was in no wise a model of manly beauty, and moreover wore a monstrous pair of green goggles. Once visiting an exhibition of animals in Washington, Crockett observed of an enormous baboon, that “he would be as like W— as two peas, except for the goggles.”

          Turning round he saw Mr. W— standing by his side, and in order to retrieve his slip, he continued—

          “Oh! is that you, W—! Well, I s’ppose I owe an apology somewhere, but upon my soul I don’t know whether I ought to make it to you or the monkey.”

The above story is taken from the

American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine, vol. XIII, June 1842.

Hey, Let’s Get Verbal!

Authors enjoy debating writing and other literary issues. One issue up for debate is the verbs that end with -ing. Some authors don’t use these constructions, others do. Some editors don’t mind them, other editors do. So, what gives? Let’s look a little closer.

Photo by ArtHouse Studio on Pexels.com

A FEW DEFINITIONS

What is a verb that ends with ing?  Actually, they’re not verbs. In grammar, they’re called verbals. Examples: walk/walking, jump/jumping, sing/singing, etc.

What is a verbal? It’s a verb form used as another part of speech.

  1. Verbals used as adjectives are called participles.  Here’s an example: The cackling seagulls soared in the sky.

Cackling is the participle that modifies the noun seagulls.

2. Verbals used as nouns are called gerunds. Here’s an example: Jane enjoys sewing.

Jane is the subject of the sentence, and sewing is the direct object. Sewing, then, is a gerund (i.e. a noun).

Using verbals like those above is fine. Sometimes, we have to use them. However, the debate surrounds whether authors should use participial phrases. Now, let’s look at them.

The Participial Phrase

  1. What is a phrase? It’s a group of words that, when strung together, work together to carry a certain meaning. A phrase does not have a subject or a verb. Here’s an example: the duck on the water.
  2. What is the purpose of a phrase? It modifies other parts of speech: nouns, adjectives, and verbs. It can also modify a complete sentence.
  3. Types of phrases: prepositional, infinitive, gerund, participial

Since we’re discussing participles, we’ll limit our discussion to the participial phrase.

  1. What is a participial phrase? It’s a phrase that begins with a participle, contains an object, and is used as an adjective. Here’s an example: Running toward town, the dog chased a squirrel up a tree.
  • Participle: Running
  • Object: town
  • Modifies the sentence’s object: dog
  • Possible revisions:

Some Final Thoughts and Comments

Is it possible to have too many participial phrases in our story? In my opinion, yes. That said, I also believe it’s fine to use them sparingly. No more than two per page, as recommended by editors Renni Browne and Dave King in their excellent book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.

Why?

  • Too many on a page are amateurish.
  • Too many on a page hinder the flow and smoothness of our prose.
  • They present problems in clarity and believability. For instance: Getting into her car, Mary accelerated it past the speed limit. It’s impossible for a person to get into a car and accelerate it at the same time, yet this is what that sentence implies.
  • Where is the best place in the sentence to use them? In the middle of it, or at the end, are the strongest places.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you use participial phrases or none at all?


Bibliography

Browne, Renni and Dave King. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print. Second Edition. New York: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2004.

Thoroughbred Racing in the “City by the Bay”

Oakdale Race Track in Mobile, Alabama. c. early 1900s.

When most folks think of Thoroughbred racing in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the Deep South, one city usually comes to mind—New Orleans. However, another city on the Gulf Coast shared equal popularity during this era—the “City by the Bay,” that is, Mobile, Alabama.

While New Orleans had its Metairie Race Track and the Fairgrounds (the nation’s third oldest track still in business), Mobile had the Bascombe, Arlington Fairgrounds, and Oakdale race courses.

Bascombe Race Course. In the American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine, a popular magazine in the antebellum era, Bascombe’s 1838 racing schedule is listed, along with the names of the various horses competing, the days when different races will be held, the purse for the winner, and so on. These were the races the publication had omitted in an earlier issue. In 1860, the course was used as an encampment for volunteer troops called “Camp Montgomery.” Nowadays, Mobile uses it to train its Mounted Police Unit.

Arlington Fairgrounds. This track was located near the Bascombe Course, on a road that followed along the Mobile Bay southward for seven miles. Called the Bay Shell Road at the time, it was paved with oyster shells and to travel on it one had to pay a toll. Arlington’s track began around the 1870s, and its use for racing continued into the early twentieth century.

Oakdale. A track in this community was also in use at the turn of the twentieth century. Some local historians consider this one to have been Mobile’s best.  

In Turfmen and the Prodigal, due out this September, I use a fictional track in Spring Hill, Alabama, west of Mobile. During the antebellum era, Spring Hill was a late spring and summer refuge for many of Mobile’s wealthy citizens.

Bibliography

“Camp Montgomery,” Alabama Historical Quarterly 20, no. 2 (1958): 293

“Fairgrounds History Remembered in New Documentary,” Mid-City Messenger, November 18, 2014,https://midcitymessenger.com/2014/11/18/fair-grounds-history-remembered-in-new-documentary/.

“Horsing Around,” Mobile Bay Magazine 37, no. 4(2021):82.

McLaurin, Melton and Michael Thomason. Mobile: The Life and Times of a Great Southern City.  Woodland Hills, CA, 1981.

“Omissions in the Racing Calendar,” American and Turf Register and Sporting Magazine 10 (January and February, 1839): 94.

Preston, Ben C. “Mobile Alabama Nostalgia Back in the Day,” Facebook, December 23. 2016, https://www.facebook.com/groups/MobileNostalgia.

Scott, Mike. “From Horses to Corpses: How Metairie Race Course Became Metairie Cemetery,” The Times Picayune, April 12, 2017; Updated July 22, 2019https://www.nola.com/300/article_4d8f567b-5039-5e52-88b7-9e6a4331925a.html

Jimmy Winkfield, Hall of Fame Jockey

In the 1890s, an African-American jockey named Jimmy Winkfield was the last Black jockey to win the Kentucky Derby. Throughout the nineteenth century, African-Americans dominated Thoroughbred racing. Most of them in the South, before the Civil War, were slaves. Winkfield gained fame in America as well as in Europe and Czarist Russia.

Today, in Queens, New York, a race is held every year in his honor–The Jimmy Winkfield Stakes. I’ve attached a short YouTube video that tells about his fascinating life.

Turfmen and the Prodigal: A Novel of Antebellum Mobile, due for release in September, features some fictional jockeys as they train and compete against each other.

Lottie Deno: The Real Miss Kitty Russell

When Amanda Blake was chosen to play Miss Kitty Russell in Gunsmoke, it wasn’t an accident she was a redhead. The historical “Miss Kitty,” Charlotte Tompkins, was a redhead too, and she inspired Amanda Blake’s character.

But Charlotte wasn’t any ordinary saloon girl. In fact, in Kentucky where she was from, she was born into the state’s upper class. She was a well-mannered and attractive Southern belle whose wealthy father taught her how to gamble and win at cards, bet on horses in races and gamble on riverboats … all to support her sister when the need arose. During the Civil War, her family lost its fortune. So, she turned to gambling, first on riverboats.

In 1863, she went to San Antonio where a part-Cherokee gentleman named Frank Thurmond hired her to be a dealer at his University Club. He gave her a percentage of the profits.

In keeping with her upper-class breeding, she always wore nice clothes, maintained the manners with which she was raised and kept the men at her card table honest. “You gents will not swear, smoke or drink liquor at my table,” she told them while she shuffled the cards. Most players were agreeable to this.

Today, she’s known to history as Lottie Deno. No one is certain how she got this name. According to one story, when she was living in Fort Griffin, Texas she’d had a run of luck playing poker at the Bee Hive Saloon. At the end of the evening, a cowboy said to her: “Honey, with winnings like that, you oughter call yourself ‘Lotta Dinero.’” She liked the name and began using it to protect her upstanding family’s reputation.

Eventually, Lottie married Frank and they both quit gambling. She became one of the founders of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Deming, New Mexico. She used $40,000 of poker winnings in a game Doc Holliday had participated in to finance its original construction. Frank eventually became president of a bank. They were well-respected, and wealthy, citizens in their community.

Frank died in 1908. Charlotte (Lottie) died in 1934.

Sources

Lottie Deno and Mary Poindexter – POINDEXTERHISTORY

What do we know about Lottie Deno? – True West Magazine

lottie deno – Search (bing.com)

TSHA | Thurmond, Charlotte Tompkins [Lottie Deno] (tshaonline.org)