Catherine Rankovic

Writer, with 30+ years' writing and publishing experience, 20+ years' teaching experience. Last book read: Mrs. Lincoln by Catherine Clinton.

Nov 30

The Review Says:

A rave review for client Andrea Jackson's book Who Am I and Where is Home? An American Woman in 1931 Palestine from The Midwest Book Review. Reviews of "privately published" books are rather rare. The book has to be of more than personal interest, and well edited ("a book is judged by how well it is edited, and nothing else"). Congratulations to Andie and a pat on the back for BookEval.com. The book was published May 29, 2017.

The Biography Shelf

Who Am I and Where Is Home?

Andrea Jackson
Privately Published
9780692872383, $10.00, PB, 264pp.

Critique: An absolutely fascinating, deftly crafted read from cover to cover, Who Am I and Where Is Home?: An American Woman in 1931 Palestine is an extraordinary, candid, engaging, account of an inherently interesting woman in an inherently interesting time. While very highly and unreservedly recommended for both community and academic library biography collections, it should be noted for personal reading lists that Who Am I and Where Is Home? is also available in a digital book format (Kindle, $2.99).

Nov 30

Before Planning Your Book Launch

Copies of your new book have arrived, a whole box full. Now’s the time to plan your book launch. Now? Not six to 12 weeks before? Not before.

Publishers give publication-date estimates and advisers tell authors to plan launches far in advance, but anything can happen before a book is ready to sell. Before planning a book launch, please:

  1. Have the hard copies on hand.
  2. Check them all thoroughly for any printing mistakes.
At a book launch listed in a quarterly newsletter and then announced via postcard, the date clearly chosen well in advance and in accordance with the publisher’s pub date, we found at the venue no books because the publisher didn't have the book ready. Everything else was ready. The author did the reading, but—no books.

At another first-timer’s launch, held in a bookstore, buyers—not the author, who’d simply brought the box his copies arrived in—discovered that about one-third of the copies had been bound upside down. Readers who’d pre-ordered on Amazon posted complaints. Those can’t be removed. Refunds to those buyers, and 1.5 stars on Amazon, equaled zero for his five years of labor on his novel. That's an error he could not have caught in the galleys. It happens more often in digital printing than before.

A self-published author scheduled signing events as soon her box of 150 books arrived. Paging through her own book she found six glaring typos (she’d proofread the galleys on her own). One typo is forgivable. Six will cost an author his or her reputation. She dumped the entire printing, ordered and paid for a corrected printing, and paid yet more for expediting the order so she could keep the signing dates.

Hope for the best, yet be aware that printers today are not people but machines. That makes them less reliable, not more. Treat a given pub date as an estimate because your editor might be assigned to serve in Afghanistan for a year, and that really happened. If I’d witnessed only one such delay or snafu, I wouldn’t ask that you be concerned. As with so many other things, it's up to the author today.
Jul 13

True-Life Editing, Example 1 - The 35 Tips Series

anthology bookeval35 Tips for Writing Powerful Prose Poems is the second in a series by writer Kaye Linden, the “35 Tips” series. She sent me the manuscript of the first book, 35 Tips for Writing a Brilliant Flash Story, to work on two years ago; it now sells well on Amazon.com. Veteran of many creative-writing courses and programs with an MFA in writing, editor for a literary magazine, a teller of tales from the Australian outback, Ms. Linden distills what she has learned about writing into instructional texts boiled down to their basics. These are presented without fluff but with prompts, examples, and exercises to help student writers gain skill and confidence.

I like her advice: “When in doubt, keep it simple.” Simple is good: A middle-schooler could use these books as easily as a college grad.

I checkedas I always doand found no other books resembling the 35 Tips. No instructional texts about writing flash stories or writing prose poetry existedan undiscovered gold mine! As a literary editor, Ms. Linden read many flash stories and prose poems which she said were “almost publishable” except it seemed their authors could use a little advice. This was further motivation to write the books—which were not as easy as they sounded.

Ms. Linden drafted the chapters and I arranged them in an order starting from square one, total novice, with lessons and challenges that keep the student growing toward success, whether or not he or she has a teacher or workshop. How do I know where square one is? I taught writing, particularly creative writing, for 31 years. You’re welcome. I know when a new writer’s questions arise and what they are: “How long should it be?” “Are prose poems stories?” “How do I know whether my poem is good?” 

I also suggested exercises and prompts and asked for more examples in the book of good, clear, successful prose poems not necessarily by the author. Ms. Linden obtained permission from other authors to reprint in 35 Tips some of her favorite prose poems previously published in the journal she helps edit, The Bacopa Literary Review.

35 Tips for Writing Brilliant Flash Stories was first an Amazon.com e-book only, and the author received requests for hard copies. That was arranged, but the hard-copy product wasn’t optimal. It was too skinny and had a blank back cover. Ms. Linden hired the people at CreateSpace to design and upload the second book in the series for print and electronic media. Yes, it cost money. My services cost money too. The result is excellent--a beautiful, useful, evergreen book that fulfills a need.

If your book fulfills a needit markets itself!

Jul 13

True-Life Editing, Example 2: Who Am I and Where is Home?

Selling well in the categories Travel>Israel (#5!) and Biography/Memoir, in ebook and paperback, is Who Am I and Where is Home?: An American Woman in 1931 Palestine, by Andrea Jackson. Ms. Jackson’s Brooklyn-born mother Celia, an idealistic Zionist, lived in Palestine for a year when young single women didn’t do that, and Celia’s letters, and those from family and friends, all survive. The letters also expose a love triangle that altered the destinies of all involved.

The challenge for the author was how to interest an audience in her mother’s old letters. First we determined their value for readers. What was this story about, and who might care? Or should the Ms. Jackson narrate the story and call it fiction?

Oh no, oh no, I said. Nonfiction sells much better.

These well-written letters qualified as historical documents, available nowhere else, about a lively young Jewish-American woman’s life and work in Palestine during the 1930s. Her love triangle, growing ever more intense, could serve as a very personal and suspenseful “subplot.”

Now we had a focus and possible readerships who might be interested in:

·      that era in Palestine, and Israel’s development and infrastructure--in which Celia was very much involved

·      Jewish activists in Depression-era New York

·      pioneering young Jewish women

·      twentieth-century American Zionism

·      social pressures on politically active women

·      portraits/memoirs from that social class and generation

Ms. Jackson, a retired lawyer and a writer, edited the letters accordingly. Most letters to Celia from her family (“When are you coming home?”) were cut. It’s natural to want family photos in a book about your family, but it’s not good for the book, so I advised reducing the number of photos. Fictionalized portions and author commentary woven throughout the draft became the final three chapters, powerfully answering the reader’s inevitable question, “What happened after Celia came home?”

The author and I worked hard to find a book title that would “say it all,” accurately reflecting the content and maximizing its appeal to our array of target audiences. One of nonfiction’s most popular tricks is the subtitle. Who Am I and Where is Home? captured Celia’s search for meaning, and also her youth and personality: those are questions only yearning young people ask. The subtitle then had to say everything about the text’s historical and social context: who, what, when, where. With An American Woman in 1931 Palestine we nailed it.

Ms. Jackson chose a cover both attractive and apt. The book designer, Cathy Wood, did a great job; the book’s interior is gorgeous, easy to read, the typeface not too small: a product worthy of all the human experience that went into it.
Jul 13

True-Life Editing, Example 3: Escape from Hungary

A first-time author came to me with 36 creative-nonfiction pieces about escaping with her parents from wartime Croatia and then from revolutionary Hungary, and what happened in between and afterward. Family members in those countries starved in camps or lost everything; the government cut up people’s houses into apartments and soldiers or families of strangers moved in while the owners now dwelt in what had been their pantry. All these stories were well told. Then, in chronological order, followed nonfiction pieces about the author’s adult life in the U.S., ranging from comic to deeply tragic. Together these pieces formed a memoir.

They were a lifetime’s work built up over years of writing-workshop attendance, and the author either published them now--in her seventies--or never.

The manuscript’s content was as the author wanted it, including the 10 poems appended. My job was to copyedit and provide feedback on whether the manuscript was good, and, after publication, because the self-publishing company was waiting for my edit, how best to sell it.

So I copyedited and pronounced it good and ready. A self-published author has every right to append her poems to her memoir although I would have advised against it because poetry either frightens people or turns them off, but I said nothing. Through the self-publisher the author had already obtained an ISBN for her chosen title. I wished she’d chosen another title. Life, Love, and Loss could be the title of every memoir ever written, and maybe most novels, too. But after registering the book’s ISBN the title cannot be changed.

I wished the title (subtitled “Short Stories and Poems Based on True Events”) had referred to or highlighted her truly dramatic escapes from country to country, or Hungary, refugees, or immigrants, or a lost old Europe of tailor shops and music lessons. Those childhood wartime memories were the book’s unique contribution to literature, and might interest a readership beyond the author’s friends and family. She modestly told me that the book was for friends and family only, but no author truly means that.

This book cannot be found by googling, even on Amazon.com, where its title is drowned beneath scores of similar titles. Please consult an editor before settling on a book title--if you want to sell your book. Titles matter very much, and the title and cover together are 70 percent of a book’s appeal.

The author took some books to Hungary and happily sold some there and found a demand for a Hungarian translation. Her question to me is: Should she ask her husband to translate it, or a professional translator? Dear readers, what is your advice?
Feb 09

Talking With: Xu Fangfang about Writing Biography

Xu Fangfang was 18 when Red Guards tore apart her family’s house, defacing artworks by her famous father, Xu Beihong, and destroying their classical record collection. Under Chairman Mao and especially the violent Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) all works of music, art, and drama, and their creators, teachers, and performers, had to meet strict ideological standards. A classically trained concert pianist, Xu Fangfang was among the many young artists Mao sent to farms to be “re-educated.”

Part biography and part autobiography, Xu Fangfang’s book Galloping Horses describes how Xu Beihong, one of the first Chinese artists to study in Europe, modernized Chinese painting and how his widow, son, and daughter, denounced as “bourgeois,” realized his hopes for them and preserved his contributions to art and art education. The Xu Beihong Memorial Museum in Beijing is the first government-funded museum in China devoted to the work of one artist. Xu Beihong is internationally known for his iconic ink-brush paintings of free-running horses. See his artwork here.FangfangPianoCropFinal

Galloping Horses is available in English in paperback and in Chinese as an e-book. Born and raised in Beijing, China, Xu Fangfang graduated in piano performance from Beijing’s Preparatory Music High School affiliated to the Central Conservatory of Music. She moved to the U.S. in 1981 and earned a B.A. in history from University of California, Berkeley, and an M.B.A. from Stanford University. She now lives in St. Louis. Her website is BeihongChinaArts.com.

BookEval: Now that the book is published, have you been surprised by anything? If so, what surprised you?

Xu Fangfang: During my book signings, I was surprised by the responses of some Americans with no Chinese background. They were passionate about Xu Beihong’s art, believing his talent should be recognized by all the world, not just in China. 

BookEval: Galloping Horses took years to complete, requiring several trips to China for fact-checking and interviews. What motivated you?

Xu Fangfang: My book honored my mother’s wish for me to write about these things. She read what I wrote and gave me feedback. I am hoping the spirit of our family and the stories of other artists and music students under Mao will inspire readers to persist in attaining their own goals. My widowed mother, Liao Jingwen, worked for more than six decades to sustain the Xu Beihong Memorial Museum.

BookEval: How and why did you choose self-publishing?

Xu Fangfang: I was offered contracts by an academic and a non-academic publisher, but decided to self-publish because I wanted to control the credibility and accuracy of my stories. I needed to discourage potential attempts by some mainland Chinese people who might publish a Chinese translation without my permission. I wrote my own Chinese translation and simultaneously published the Chinese e-book and the English paperback.

BookEval: What was the hardest thing about writing or publishing this book?

Xu Fangfang: The hard thing was being objective about my emotions in order to tell the most accurate story while writing from the heart the trauma my family and I had lived through. I tried my best to document Xu Beihong’s experiences under Mao so historians and art historians can quote from my book.

Photograph of Xu Fangfang copyright Xu Fangfang

Oct 16

Realistic People Don't Become Writers!

For a friend who wants to write a novel I suggested doing National Novel Writing Month, telling him it was a joyful experience and November was coming up soon. Write-ins with fellow “NaNoWriMo” novelists are scheduled at your local libraries, coffeehouses, church basements, private homes, all 30 days of November—every day. We set word-count goals (about 1600 words a day). The discipline is heady. Your goal at the end of the month: 50,000 words of a first draft. You find depths of creative power you didn't know you had. Do it and feel great. By the way, it costs nothing.

He said, “Well, it might not be realistic to crank out a novel in one’s first try.”

I said, “Realistic people don’t become writers.”

Is novel-writing on your bucket list? Visit Nanowrimo.org and sign up. You get tracking tools, prep talks, pep talks, notices of meetings in your area. At meetings we got coffee, pizzas, and roomsful of novelists from age 10 to age 85, all typing like mad. More than anything, a writer needs support from other writers. If you’re isolated, scared, think it's unrealistic, or never got around to it, this is an opportunity to deal yourself a wild card.
Apr 14

“My Poems Used to Get Published. . . But Now, Nothing”

The following is a recent  exchange between myself and a poet acquaintance, used here with her permission.

Catherine,


I’m looking for some advice from an expert.

I’m working on a manuscript and, in doing so, have submitted the poems to literary magazines. I’ve gotten a lot of rejections. Also I’ve lost contests when I thought my poems should have at least gotten an honorary mention.

So what to do? If I can’t get poems in magazines, I’m surely not going to get a manuscript or chapbook published. Should I just write because that’s who I am and give poems to friends or what? I don’t have an MFA. I’m 66 and don’t have the desire to get an MFA.

Very confused as to what my next step should be, if any. As you know, I’ve self-published two books. Should I try for a third and to what end? I’m not requested to do readings, and I have more than 50 of my second book sitting on the floor of my study.

If you have time to answer this e-mail, I’d appreciate your advice. I know you’re probably pretty busy. –E.


Dear E.,


Your poems are very good but like mine are not contemporary or spectacular. Nor are they the snow-globe type that wins more conservative contests. It is okay. I am thinking of going back to writing what I really think with no holds barred now that no one cares.

Eff contests that will only make you sad and mad.

No accounting for tastes.

Why not volunteer to read more often, or ask organizers who are always looking for someone, and then you will be asked.

Publish a third book because you are made of stars and God wants you to.

I have dozens of unsold books! So does every writer! Love. -Catherine



Catherine,


I love that you think we’re all made of stars and God wants us to publish.

I didn’t think about my poems being contemporary or not. Back in 1983-1986 everything I sent out was published. Now, nothing. And I think my poetry is a lot better now than then.

Well, I think I’ll take your advice and just write “my thing” and not worry about submitting. No, no one cares.
Organizers say they really like my poetry, but never ask me to read even though I continue to tell them I’d like to.

Shown below is a recent poem, “Answer,” and attached is another, “Directions for My Funeral.” I don’t understand why they’re not contemporary.


Answer


Dying at home
in her hospice bed,
mother asked for her
Conservative Lutheran Pastor,
wearing cross, carrying Bible.

Pastor, she whispered,
I believe in evolution.
What he said into her ear
wasn’t heard by any of us.

Then she slipped away

into the answer.

Didn’t you win Poetry Center first place? Congratulations. -E.



Dear E.,

I really think “Directions for My Funeral” is outstanding, especially the first stanza, but it and the “Answer” poem break three laws of contemporary poetry publishing:

-Don't write about writing.

-Don't write about aging.

-Don’t write about old people dying.

Forbidden phrases: “my mother,” “my father.” Overused, and no one really cares about other people’s parents, especially if dead.

Most editors are in their 30s and 40s and don’t see themselves aging, and in their view only old people die and old people don’t count. Your poems in the 1980s got published because editors were around your age and you probably didn’t write about aging.

Poets who write nostalgia about the barber chair and The Parkmoor restaurant—it is so sad no one wants their poems although I like them. Younger cannot appreciate them.

I won Poetry Center’s 1st in 2010 or 2011 with poem about submarine war movies. It also had a masculine pseudonym on it. Anything that could possibly be labeled as “women’s poetry” is devalued. Try new subjects. -Catherine



Catherine,

I really appreciate hearing this. It makes a lot of things clearer. Again, thanks for your time and advce. You’re the best! Thanks for letting me bend your ear and patience.

What poets should we be reading to get a sense of what they are writing? –E.



Dear E.,

Read not poets but litmags. Many are online free or have online samples. I have Rattle magazine deliver me a daily poem. They’re pretty good (except for the children’s poems) and they are what let me know my work doesn’t meet the current standards. Read River Styx to see mid-level poets and poetry. Read Midwestern Gothic to see high-level regional poetry. If they ask for money, invest a few bucks, the education is worth it, and you write it off as an expense.

My favorite poet I wish I wrote like is Cate Marvin. Look up online her poem “A Windmill Makes a Statement.”

Good luck, star person. God loves poetry. -Catherine

Jan 30

Who Called "@" "The Strudel"?

Received an eccentric little book of poems from Tim Leach, Corncurls for the Medulla Oblongata (Word Tech Editions, 2016), mostly poems of three or four lines, called aphorisms, and what charmed me is his short poems about punctuation marks. Although it’s only part of our job, editors have intense relationships with punctuation marks, and people think editing is a very dry business and that editors are dried-out and irritable nitpickers precisely because we used all our juices tending to proper punctuation.

It was refreshing to find in the middle of the book this untitled poem about commas:typewriterkeyboardtop

 Commas are tadpoles
 that surface for breath
 when read.

and then a poem titled “&”:

 Asking for more,
 the ampersand is a squatting monk
 who holds up a begging bowl.

 He sits in for “and,”
 who always wants more too.

Leach looked closely at the punctuation marks’ appearance and function and gave them life. Corncurls includes more punctuation poems, including the @ (“at”) which came out of utter obscurity—it wasn’t even on typewriter keyboards!—to rule the digital age. I used to work with an Israeli engineer who called @ the “strudel.”
Nov 19

Clients Who Published Books in 2015

This was a record-breaking year for the number of  BookEval.com clients served and the number of books my clients published:

35 Tips for Writing a Brilliant Flash Story (nonfiction ebook), by Kaye Linden. See it here.

Icarus Flees the Garden of Earthly Delights (poetry) by Tim Leach. See it here.

Limping Along (memoir) by Mary Elizabeth Moloney. See it here.

Fixed Stars Govern a Life: Decoding Sylvia Plath (scholarship) by Julia Gordon-Bramer. See it here.

Attitude + Advocacy + Adaptive Technology = Academic Success (nonfiction) by Natalie Phelps Tate. See it here.

No Time to Say Goodbye: A Memoir of a Life in Foster Care (memoir) by John William Tuohy. See it here.

Through the Eyes of an African Immigrant (fiction ebook), by Unknown Melody. See it here.

Sun Sign Confidential: The Dark Side of All 12 Zodiac Signs (nonfiction ebook), by Sylvia Sky. See it here.

It was fun to work on such a great variety of books, with authors who are a pleasure to know and guide. Three forthcoming books, edited this year, are scheduled for publication in 2016. Congratulations to all; finishing a book is a monumental accomplishment. If you're not published yet, I hope to see your book in 2016. Here's what my clients say.