Catherine Rankovic

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

Sep 26

About "Finding Your Voice" as a Writer

You'll hear a lot about "the writer's voice" and "finding your voice" as a writer. I wish I had a dime for every time I've heard that. It makes me grimace. I think it's b.s.

Yes, you have a voice, but it will develop entirely on its own as long as you keep writing. This is true for poets, prose writers, fiction writers, dramatists, and all literary artists.

This "voice," when developed, will distinguish you from all other writers just as the voice in your throat distinguishes you from all other speakers. Emily Dickinson's poetic "voice" is not Walt Whitman's. Ted Kooser's "voice" is not Kim Addonizio's. Dave Barry's "voice" is not David Sedaris' "voice," although they are contemporaries and both are bestselling comic prose writers from America's white middle class. You could tell them apart even if the name wasn't on their work.

Stressing and straining to "develop your voice" as a creative writer (poetry or prose) is useless, because it happens on its own, the way your speaking voice happened. And it takes time, just like your speaking voice. You had a baby voice, a child's voice, then your adult voice. As an adult your voice doesn't exactly change but certain nuances appear. Same with creative writing.

Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats, and Wilfred Owen, for example, all began by writing frothy crap along the lines of public taste. As they went afield in life and took risks in their poetry, and they kept writing, their mature voices materialized and amaze us to this day.

That's how it will happen to you.  You can't rush it, or develop "your voice" by trying, or following advice. You can't stop it from happening, either. A teenage writer's voice, often inspired by or imitating other writers' voices, will develop into a distinctive voice at around age 30. Painters develop their individual styles much the same way and on the same timeline. Picasso, for example, was born in 1881; his famous breakthrough painting, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," was painted in 1907. If you begin artistic ventures as an adult, expect "finding your voice" to take 6 to 15 years.

After your voice finds you, workshopping won't water it down and trying to write like someone else will fail. Your voice will refuse to desert you. 

When anyone starts telling writers that it's really important to work on "developing their voice," I leave the room. The only important thing is to keep writing.


Sep 15

How Good Writing is Like The Beatles

Paul McCartney, on his own, wrote cute love songs. No one doubts his greatness—he fathered Sgt. Pepper—but after the Beatles broke up, Paul’s records seemed underweight and underripe. Although backed by hand-picked rock musicians, his forte as a songwriter and recording artist wasn’t rock but pop, or adult contemporary, the music of extended adolescence, played on heartstrings.

It was John Lennon who’d provided the group with gravitas, politics—fangs. “I Am the Walrus”—who’d give that up? He wanted his music to change and alter minds. As a solo artist, John wrote political songs (“Imagine”) and sometimes cynical lyrics: “All I can tell you is, it’s all show biz,” “Instant karma’s gonna get you.” He needed leavening. Without Paul, John became a bore.

George was a conjurer. Post-Beatles he wrote and sang about being the “dark horse,” and covered some oldies, yet his guitar is what we all wait for when we listen. George crossed borders, taking lessons from other greats and cultures. With his guitar and some spot-on songs he hallowed and spiritualized the Beatles. Nobody much wants to listen to a George without his guitar.

Ringo is faultlessly dependable. Underrated because drummers always are, he was the group’s true rocker: He provided the throb. Brand-new Beatles songs were fragile entities until Ringo’s drumming gave them legs. He was never provided with a score or a drum track; he invented his own, is as much a composer as the rest. You can listen to all the Beatles records and never once hear Ringo make a mistake.

Paul was the heart.

John was the conscience.

George had vision.

Ringo had precision.

Go back to the piece you are working on, or a work you quit on, and see if it has all these elements.

Aug 11

Talking With: John W. Tuohy, on Marketing a Memoir

John W. Tuohy and his five siblings were sent into the Connecticut foster-care system in 1961, and Tuohy lived in ten foster homes growing up. This year he published No Time to Say Goodbye, a brutal but good-humored Irish-American memoir which holds its own on Amazon.com because he works at Johntuohyheadshotselling it. I asked him about marketing. A former political-campaign manager, Tuohy markets through his flagship blog mywriterssite.blogspot.com and subsidiary blogs, and has a keen eye for further opportunities. After a Connecticut social worker wrote him, “Everyone who works or lives in foster care should read this book,” Tuohy and the social worker met with officials to discuss distributing No Time to Say Goodbye to all foster-care workers. Tuohy’s previous books were also nonfiction, mostly about true crime.

Tuohy: I think readers need to identify with you, invest in you, in the first chapter. The reviews on Amazon all say the same thing: “I felt like one of the Tuohy children and wanted to be there and protect them.” That’s so wonderful. People write me and say, “I just finished your book,” and then ask, “Are you okay?” They’re under the impression this happened last week.

I sent out 200 free books, to figure out where my base would be. I thought Connecticut, because it’s small enough, and people there will “get” growing up Catholic because it’s a largely Catholic state. I sent books to all its libraries and newspapers. Only one newspaper story ran. Then I found all the Facebook pages having to do with Connecticut and put a free chapter online. I gave its address on Facebook and said, “If you want to read about growing up in Connecticut,” and many people did.

I published the first nine chapters on all of my blogs. Readers then wanted to know what happened, so they bought the book. The first nine chapters is really only 40 pages; my chapters are short. So it worked. Now I’m posting different chapters and will continue to do that over the next year. It’s a year-long project.

The book’s having success. I set up the marketing to get people talking. I’m on Goodreads. It’s really confusing, takes a lot of patience, but on Goodreads I can take the entire book and break it down into quotes and they’ll put the quotes up for me.

So far nobody has given the book a bad review. Not like my gangster books. I was putting out those gangster books when CreateSpace just got started. That’s how old they are. I was just throwing them out there to be the first guy on that market. They sell steadily, about one a week of each book. But there’s no piece of me in those books. They’re just facts. There’s no emotion. I realize now that that’s what readers want: raw emotion.

May 06

Design Your Own Book Cover at Canva.com

Here's a rescue for self-published writers lacking training or talent for book-cover design, but who must design their book covers anyway: Canva.com. I tried it and liked it, re-designing a book cover for an ebook, and it looked much more professional than did the previous cover, which used Kindle's cover tools, and it was easy.  Canva.com has fonts and a bank of 1 million images, or you can upload your own. After your cover is finished and downloaded (as a PDF or a zip file) you have 24 hours to return to the site and tweak it.bondedsized

The free-image bank at Canva.com is lame, and they know it, so there are other images you can purchase for $1. You pay and then they'll let you download your book cover. I spent $3 on a cover design that took me 30 minutes (most of that time looking through the image bank) and is 100 percent better. See the "before" and "after" at right.

Canva.com also has design tutorials and other helpful information.

Self-published books too often have poorly designed covers--not because the author wants it that way, but because the author is an author, and book-cover design, which is a marketing tool, is best done by professional book-cover designers. My one rule for authors designing covers: No amateur images. That means not your daughter's painting, not your snapshot of a barn, not your own photo (a book is not a music CD). Those are death to your book because they're about you. After a book is published it isn't yours anymore. It belongs to the market and the readers.

Feb 04

Sylvia Plath and the Occult: Interview with Julia Gordon-Bramer

Julia Gordon-Bramer, poet and prose writer, just published Fixed Stars Govern a Life: Decoding Sylvia Plath (available through Amazon.com), the first of a two-volume study of occult themes in poet Plath’s Ariel. Julia says, “At 16 I read Plath’s novel The Bell Jar,and her poem ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song,’ printed in the back of my edition. I became fascinated. Almost 30 years later in graduate school, I realized her poetry and prose was full of tarot symbolism. That sealed the deal for me as I’ve been reading tarot cards also since I was 16.”juliaatlillylibrary2014 Gordon-Bramer is pictured at right working at the Lilly Library, University of Indiana-Bloomington, where Plath's papers are archived.

What do you hope to accomplish with this book?

Show the world that Sylvia Plath was a lot more than her personal drama. Because the world has held her in this very narrow perspective, we’ve been reading her wrong for the last 50-plus years. Beyond that, I strive to show the real magic of literature, Plath’s model of a divine order.

What were your best and worst moments while writing this book?

The best are in the discovery: when it all comes together and a poem is clarified. This is usually followed by sheer overwhelm that no one has seen it to date (often, Plath had made her meanings quite obvious, but again, everyone wants to read her only as autobiography). The worst moments have been the backlash. People feel they own Plath, that they have paid their dues to know her better than me. And who am I?, they say. Just this crazy Tarot-card reader. So they expound publicly and privately about how I am wrong, without having read my book.

How will you respond to scholars who have said there is no written evidence that Plath was an occultist?

It’s just not true. If you read the memoirs, letters (published and unpublished) and interviews of her friends and of Ted Hughes, it is all there. Her high school journals and art projects are full of Hermeticism. Her mother studied Paracelsus, the famous alchemist. As an adult, Sylvia Plath was photographed with her crystal ball. She journaled about needing to learn more astrology and to get better at reading tarot cards. She practiced hypnosis and meditative techniques with Hughes. She used bibliomancy to choose her apartment in London. Her Isis poster was prominent in every one of their British residences, and her journals show she identified with Isis. I have evidence of palmistry. Hughes claims her poem, “Dialogue over a Ouija Board” is basically a transcribed Ouija session between the two of them. Plath had been seen collecting nail clippings, hair samples, and chanting over bonfires. She’d taken friends to visit the village witch. Traditional Christian symbolism pervades the Ariel poems. It goes on and on. Hughes’ work has been widely examined for occult themes, and it is amazing to me that Plath has not. She didn’t advertise any of this stuff, of course. She had a professional reputation and young children to think of.

What if your readers aren't familiar with Tarot or Qabalah?

In Fixed Stars Govern a Life, I explain what Tarot and Qabalah are, how Plath’s work fits on these structures, and how this unlocks all the meaning within her poetry.

Why did occultism not save Plath from her final despair? Do you think she knew her own fate?

Occultism is not religion, and it’s certainly not salvation. It’s a pursuit. In its best form, it's a journey of personal growth and self-actualization. Part of this journey is destruction of the ego, the old corrupt self. There is some evidence that Plath had had too much of the physical world and took this destruction literally. There is also a good deal of poetic evidence that she knew her own fate.

Why are there so many avid Plath fans?

She was a contemporary American girl. She wrote from her heart. She was wildly ambitious, pretty, artistic, and incredibly brilliant. She lived for boys, beauty, good food, and lying in the sun as much as she did for literature and truth. We can’t help but love her.

What else would you like to say?

Volume Two is about three-fourths of the way complete. My narrative introduction became its own book, The Magician’s Girl, a biography of Plath and Hughes’ mysticism, complete, and I’m seeking a publisher now. I applied my qabalistic decoding to Plath's early work, and that became another book: Plath’s Early Poems. I published an excerpt of these reinterpretations in Plath Profiles . Their editor told me it was the most exciting thing he’d read on Plath in 30 years. Early Poems is also nearly finished. I have had a very busy seven years of work. To keep up on my projects, please visit www.fixedstarsgovernalife.com. I am the most fortunate person on the planet to have been given all the keys to her kingdom. I really believe that.

Dec 23

Getting People to Write Blurbs for Your Book

I saw a novice author asking a famous one if he’d read his novel in manuscript and write him a back-of-the-book-jacket blurb. I turned away, not wanting to see either of their faces when the inevitable "No" came. I’ve written blurbs and have always read the whole book before doing it. I've also been asked to read manuscripts and write blurbs for them when I was so overloaded with work I couldn’t possibly do it, and I even tried, but gave up after a few chapters and with regret told the author that I couldn’t write a blurb. But—silly me! How many books have you seen with blurbs from, for example, Stephen King? A lot! All those famous and prolific authors giving each other blurbs on the backs or even fronts of their books—they didn’t have time to read all those manuscripts and write blurbs for them either!

Do you know how that's done? A trick: The author of the manuscript writes the blurb and sends it for approval to the desired blurb writer. The blurb writer either signs his name to it or not. As long as the desired blurb writer is a friend or colleague it's easy. (Never ask a writer you don't have a reasonable personal connection to.) You might say the auto-blurb is not a genuine opinion then, but when you ask for blurbs you aren't asking for unbiased reviews. It’s a blurb: a marketing tool.

Nov 11

What to Do When You're Everybody's Expert


gangstersA true-crime author and historian sent examples of how strangers, via email, feel free to claim his time and work:

“Hi there, I manage the X restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin. Our original owners were gangsters from Chicago. I know you write books about gangsters. Any information you can send us would be appreciated.”

I’m writing a book about gangsters and cited your work in several chapters. I hope that's okay. Would it be possible to ask you some questions via email?” 

"Please send me two free copies of your book."

He simply doesn't answer such requests. It's a sign of maturity if authors can say to themselves, "I don't owe this," if they think they don't. Authors are writers who have successfully protected their time.

I looked up ways other prominent authors and experts handled the availability issue. Some websites claim the author "has no personal email address." Some post an email address whose mail they might open occasionally; others have email addresses for queries related to specific books. Some have message boards or forums for postings, or blogs or Twitter accounts that make them appear more interactive and accessible than they are. There are many ways to handle unwanted requests, if that happens to be a problem.

Oct 20

Create the Universe

Creativity is a force far greater than you or I. The only thing we know for sure about the force behind the universe (call it what you will) is that it is creative. Each leaf, each snowflake, each hair on your niece's head, the pen in your hand, is a creation. There is infinite creative power. That means you can have some. Actually you can have as much as you want, it's everywhere, and it won't run out.

When you draft, quit trying to sit on or control the creativity coming through you. Give up some control. Be an open faucet. Let your first drafts flow and freewheel. Don't censor, don't judge; trust the process. Poet John Keats called this state of receptivity "Negative Capability" -- "when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." Being a poet, or any kind of artist, requires some level of receptivity, of trust, the same kind you had as a child.
Sep 08

I Get Critiqued

Eagerly I went to the workshop meeting with the first five pages of my novel, which nobody has read and I haven't talked or written about. The readers had five minutes to read their first pages--those make-or-break pages--and then got a five-minute critique from the audience. I was eighth on the list. Nerves crept up on me. I told myself, "Fear is not real. Fear is all in the mind. Don't buckle. Don't let it win."

As the writers took their turns I saw that each criticism had validity and value. Ergo, that'd be true of the critiques of my work. And I grew nervous again, not for myself but for the transition about to take place: My story and characters have been so much fun to write, but the finished book is not mine anymore. It belongs to readers, and has a whole new face.

Jul 01

Reasons Why I Am Buying / Not Buying Your Book

book blue 300I’m buying your book because:

  • You are my close friend.
  • You are my former student or client.
  • The subject interests me.
  • I’ve read the first page and want to read more.
  • I’ve got the cash on me.
  • I want to encourage you to write more.
  • No one else is buying it and I’m embarrassed for you.
  • You’re selling it at a discount.
  • I was present at your reading and enjoyed the reading.
  • A pity purchase might put me in your good graces.