Catherine Rankovic

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

Nov 03

Adding Facts to Personal Essays and Memoirs

It should be obvious but sometimes isn't: Facts are basic to nonfiction writing. Even a personal essay or memoir relying mostly on the author's memories gains power by using "hard facts" from other sources: photos, reports, quotations, definitions, dates, and interviews. Maps, court records--facts are everywhere, and readers need them to fully enter the world of your essay. But surprisingly, writers of personal essays often don't think to mention what year they are recalling, what town they lived in, the names of their parents and siblings, the name of the rival school (Hamilton? Franklin? Something like that. Does it matter? In nonfiction, yes). They often neglect too even to describe themselves, as they were or as they are.

Some writers arrive at creative nonfiction thinking "creative" means "no research." (After those college research papers, what relief!) But even if you don't use all the facts you find, the ones you do use give your personal essay muscle and traction. Did "your father read books", or did the shelves he built in your basement overflow with his personal library of 200 Civil War biographies and histories? (Research the family photos! Open the old boxes!) Did "your family go to church," or did you and your mother and older brothers Allen and George take a slow-moving city bus every Sunday to the First Christian Church on Maple Street? (How far was it from home? How much was the bus fare? Interview your mother, or look those up.) Trying to recreate your reality in your nonfiction? As you revise, find and share with your readers the facts of who, what when, where and why.

Do it too for yourself, just to own your own facts. It feels like owning gems.
Oct 30

Random House and Penguin Merge

The other news from NYC today, besides Hurricane Sandy, is that Random House and Penguin, two of the "Big Six" publishers, are merging, and the NYT article adds that the remaining Big Four are considering mergers, too.

I predict that within a few years the two publishers remaining will issue and aggressively market 6 to 12 books per season. These and any other books they issue, whether electronic or paper, will contain ads or product placements and will be bundled with a related video game. This will allow the prices to be doubled. Ebooks and video games will collect the reader's personal information, and his or her reading and game habits. To read a book you will have to sign a privacy-policy agreement. Reader and gamer information then goes into artificial intelligence which will generate new books and games based on buyer preferences. Ultimately a novel will be a video game only, and the buyer will have the option of inserting himself as a character. People will dress and act like their favorite characters and many of them, given a fiction-writing template, will ultimately write spinoff books giving themselves further adventures.

Until the day that books are written entirely by computers, most writers will work really hard to copy this year's bestseller or prizewinner formula. Ultimately they self-publish, or publish with tiny independent presses, and rather than sell the book they mostly trade books with their self-published friends. These books become a form of business card or greeting card and almost nobody reads them, especially the fiction. Your true friends will be those who have read your book. Writers who still think stranger-readers are important will pay professionals or famous people to read and mention their books.

Then, regardless of quality, education, sales figures or status, everyone will become his own favorite writer, reading his own stuff wherever he goes, and writing more. I think everyone already is his or her own favorite writer. I hear lots of moaning about the death of the industry and the writing profession and quality going down the tubes, mostly from people who want to be other people's favorite writer. The time for that is just about up.
Oct 22

Is Blogging a Waste?

Writers are often told they "need a blog" to "get known" or promote themselves or their book, but I find that it doesn't work that way. It can't work that way when every writer has a blog and every blog has a writer. I've been writing two blogs, including this one, since 2007, and for various reasons and under various names have started 5 others, 3 of which still serve a purpose, and admit I spend a lot of time on them; if not writing, then reading them, because I'm fascinated by what I -- or my pseudonyms, because only two blogs run under my real name -- have written over the years. Some the blogs include photographs or videos. I write them only when I'm inspired to do it and work at making them good.

Should the energy going into blog posts have gone into poems or other literary work? And I realize that isn't a question. A writer should write whatever he or she likes. I'm far more eager to write blog posts and articles than I am to write poems that, like children, need not only to be born but need to be brought up and disciplined like a ballerina and then sent out to flutter and starve and freeze in a blizzard of poems, a wintry world in which everyone is his own favorite poet. Or a poem is like a single chip in a casino, one bought and played at great emotional expense, while knowing the house always wins. And you know what? Nobody cares what you write but you. The future of authorhood is everyone writing his or her own book and being its only reader. Technology is making that truer by the minute. And truer than ever are those old chestnuts that the only reason to write is because you enjoy doing it, or if you are driven to do it, or if you get paid for it. If you blog to "get known" or "get your work out there," that's what's futile now.
Oct 22

NaNoWriMo's Free Trial Software

National Novel Writing Month and the organized effort by the nonprofit NaNoWriMo.org to get us all drafting a novel during the month of November: Intriguing, but I'd sort of brushed it off, and then asked myself "Why?". Yesterday a local NaNoWriMo workshop attracted about 12 people, mostly under age 30, to a library on a gorgeous October afternoon, and the GenXer in charge said she'd "done NaNo" -- that is, completed a novel draft in 30 days -- four times. That doesn't mean any of her novels are complete or published; she's still revising her 2008 manuscript. But she's doing it again in 2012 anyway.

The National Novel Writing Month movement began in San Francisco in 1999 with 30 people vowing to draft their novels, with each other's support, in November's 30 days. The goal is 50,000 words, or 1,667 words per day, about 10 double-spaced pages, and it's acknowledged that what you'll produce is maybe a draft of a draft. But those who complete 50,000 words ("weighed," but not read, by the organization's website) win the challenge. That's all they win, except for a 50 percent discount on book-writing software called Scrivener. The GenExer demo'ed it for us and I liked it and you can download the trial version here, Nanowrimo participant or not, fiction or nonfiction writer. Use it free until Dec. 7. Very intelligently designed for book manuscripts. Yes, you can export what you write in Scrivener to Word, or import into it what you've already written.
Oct 10

Words I Mispronounced

Words I mispronounced and the ages at which my pronunciation was corrected:

mail (8)
guru (12)
Datsun (14)
Karmann Ghia (16)
writhe (17)
fuschia (18)
Job (as in "Book of") (21)
Cambridge (22) (How was I supposed to know it was a long "a"?!)
persona (24)
patina (25)
Peugeot (26)
Anais (27) (AN-na-eez)
Yeats (29)
Proust (29)
Quattrocento (30)
vermouth (31)
W.E.B. Du Bois (32) (Du Boyce)
wastrel (40)
decollete (42) (deck-o-TAY?!?)
Simone Weil (45) ("Vay")
esophageal (50) (soft "g")
decedent (52) (deh-CEE-dent)
bas-relief (55) (That bass I caught felt great relief when I released it!)

Aug 29

So You Want a BFA. . .

Young people considering writing careers sometimes ask about the BFA>MFA track and I tell them, "No! Anything but that!" And mean it. Biology! Classics! Business! Please, please use your undergraduate years to learn something besides creative writing! I know a New Yorker short-story writer who graduated from the Colorado School of Mines. The story that made him famous is about cavemen.

In my experience the best possible background if teenagers can't wait to see themselves in print before they're really ready is journalism. Journalism school teaches how to observe and write about something besides yourself. You learn to write hard news, features and profiles, all requiring fantastically different strategies and skills. You practice doing research, interpreting statistics and trends, doing interviews. I hope J-school still teaches ethics and accountability. It pushes you out on the street and tells you not to come back until you get and write the story.

That happens to be my own background. There wasn't a BFA in creative writing so I wanted to be an English major. My parents wanted me to learn a trade so I went to J-school and owe it everything. I was taught to write clearly and be responsible for what I wrote. Also, ultimately my work serves others, whether it's information or entertainment. All those apply to creative writing. I lived on what I learned in J-school while getting my MFA. BFA doesn't mean you learned anything about writing. Journalism means that you did. And you know the famous names who were journalists before they were novelists: Dreiser, Hemingway, and so on.

BFA>MFA>(and, oh no!) Ph.D in Creative Writing . . .and you'll still have to hand over your writing sample to answer, "Can you write?"
Aug 04

Make Big $ Writing Alumni Profiles

For all freelance writers who want to (or have to) write for college-alumni magazines, don't go crazy; save your soul and sanity by using this template. Copying or reprinting just this template, though, requires permission from me, the author.

On the job, NAME, class of ___, is busily working on ___________. NAME recently won the ___________award for ­­___________, but is not contented to rest on his well-earned laurels. “It was a great honor,” said NAME, “but there’s much more to be done.” He points to the ___________, adding, “___________.”

NAME, a native of ___________, has been ___________ for ___ years, and before that, ___________. “I was lucky to ___________,” NAME said. “And I am so grateful for my time at ___________University. A professor in the ___________department, Dr. ___________, was like a mentor to me and urged me to follow my dreams.”

In his [lab/book-lined office] NAME works most of the time on ___________ but also is responsible for ___________. He is the “go-to” person for ___________. And there is always the challenge of securing funding for his projects. “It takes a lot of time and teamwork,” he said.

NAME is married to___________, who is a professional ___________, and has two children: ___________, age ___, who attends [name of fancy private school], and daughter ___________, whom they adopted from China. The family lives in a renovated home in ___________, and NAME enjoys ___________ and ___________ when he can, although his work is always on his mind. “It’s not so much a career as a calling,” he explained.

His colleague ___________said, “I admire NAME’s commitment to ___________. On the job he always gives 110 percent. At the same time he’s very down-to-earth and approachable.” Another colleague, ___________, said “Although he’s achieved so much already, ___________. He’s a great inspiration and role model.”

NAME’s reputation for excellence is gaining him leverage in the ___________community, and funding is being sought for [expansion/equipment] which will ___________. “Not only will this ___________, but it will also, hopefully, ___________,” he said. That will fulfill a lifelong dream. He is already planning for ___________.

NAME says the values he learned at ___________University were crucial to his success. “Technology has certainly changed the face of the profession,” he said, “but the goal is the same. Ultimately it’s all about providing people with the best possible ___________.”

And “___________,” he smiled, “___________.”

Jul 27

Talking With: Peter Leach, About His First Published Novel

Peter Leach in 2011 won the Gival Press Award, its prize the publication of his first novel, Gone by Sundown, which is also the winner of a bronze medal from the IPPY independent publishers association. Set in St. Genevieve, MO in the 1930s, this vivid, class-conscious story is based on a real murder trial and resulting eviction of all the town’s black residents, ordered to be “gone by sundown.”

Leach stayed productive while his novel inched toward publication; he has 16 more books in manuscript. Peter Leach was born and grew up in St. Louis. He studied playwriting at Yale Drama School, had an NEA Grant for creative writing, and his fiction has appeared in many literary magazines. His short-story collection Tales of Resistance won the George Garrett Prize and was published by Texas Review Press in 1999. Gone by Sundown is available through Amazon.com and on the shelves at Left Bank Books. Leach says, “I don’t have a lot to show for my efforts. There were long patches between very modest publications and awards. I keep at it because it gives me satisfaction. It is what I do. I would become demented by strong drink, behave badly far more often than Igonebysundownforblog do, and who knows what, if I were not writing fiction.”

Q: Your fiction is rooted in real events and you research your books like a historian. Why not present these stories as nonfiction? They’d be easier to publish.

A: It’s certainly true that nonfiction sells more readily.  Many agents won’t touch fiction.  Let them pry the poetic license from my cold dead hands.  Fiction is what I do.

Q: You have 16 completed books in manuscript. What are you working on now?

A: I am now working on White Folks Bearing Gifts, about Cookie Thornton’s murderous rampage at Kirkwood City Hall, February 7, 2008.

Q: Tell us how you wrote Gone By Sundown.

Someone in St. Genevieve, I forget who, mentioned the driving out of the black people from St. Genevieve in the 1930s. I used as sources two weekly local newspapers, the St. Genevieve Herald and the Fair Play, reading on microfilm all the issues from 1929 through 1941. The two black men and the black woman accused of murdering two white limestone workers and inciting the eviction are real, as are the novel’s “old French Colored” characters, the Ribeau brothers. Attorney Sidney Redmond is based on a man who later headed the St. Louis NAACP. The excursion train that people took to see Holt Hardy’s hanging is based on actual events in Sedalia, Missouri.

I prowled Ste. Genevieve and the surrounding rural landscape with topographic maps, talked to people who had some memory of the events, took pictures, and toured the Mississippi Lime works on the edge of town, immense caverns eighty feet high, and their kilns.

The novel’s working title had been Negro Clean, to suggest analogies to the ethnic cleansings in Bosnia and Rwanda. My then-agent sent out ten copies of the manuscript, re-titled St. Genevieve 1937. The first replies objected to the dialect. A favorable letter came from a man at Ecco Press, who suggested making the character Redmond more central. I went through three extensive rewrites. After parting with that agent I finally changed my first-person narration to close-in third person. That was when I put it through yet another revision, to just about what it is now.

But where would I send it, when the ten most likely publishers had already seen it? Finally I went through the last two issues of Poets and Writers and submitted it to six or seven contests.  I almost did not send it to the contest it won, because the entry fee was $50.

Q: What started you writing fiction?

A: I won fourth prize in a city-wide contest sponsored by Scholastic Magazine when I was 14, and at 15 won second prize. My father dreamt of writing like Sherwood Anderson but ended up in advertising.  He cherished an encouraging handwritten rejection from the fiction editor of Esquire.  He subscribed to Story Magazine, a monthly. It had stories by Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Fitzgerald, Hemingway. Starting at age 14 I read through every issue he had. My catching the bug to write fiction pleased my father no end. 
Jul 21

Find Your Publisher in Less Than One Day

While your professional editor finalizes your book manuscript, begin seeking possible publishers. Taking one afternoon to do the following simple steps will save you days and weeks of scattershot effort.

1. Find books similar to yours in your personal library, public library and bookstore, and write down the names of the publishers. Don't quit until you have at least 20 names (there are so many publishers nowadays!!).

2. Take this list and find each publisher's website to see whether the publisher is still in business, has a current catalog, and, under "Writers Guidelines" or "Submissions," read about what kinds of books or authors they are looking for; and YOU decide whether it looks like a publisher YOU would like to work with. Make a note of your best finds.

3. While you are on "Writers Guidelines," check whether the firm likes to correspond 1) by snail mail or 2) by email; and whether your first contact should be with a) a query letter b) a query letter with sample chapters, synopsis, or table of contents ("T of C"), or something else, or c) if they want you to send the full manuscript. Write down the editor's full name so you will have someone to address your correspondence to.

4. Having now narrowed your list of possible publishers, Google each to find any news, reports, reviews, complaints, or other material confirming the reputation or economic health of this publisher.

5. Browse amazon.com or the shelves for recent books similar to yours. Make note of any books strongly resembling your own. These are "competing titles," and your publisher will want to know how your book differs from the books already available. That will be an important selling point.

Jul 15

On Giving Up My Land Line

Tripping and cursing, hurrying to the bleating phone and grabbing it, I'd gasp "Hello" to some solicitor who'd reply, "Ms. [butcher my name], how are you today?" Or it'd be a recording telling me to crab to my state senator about some issue. Friends and family no longer called my land line, because I'd gradually disclosed to ever-widening circles my cellphone number, a series of digits never printed, closely guarded, granted only to the chosen. I gave up hoping for an eager call from an old flame or potential employer; they could find me on Facebook or LinkedIn. And the two-page bills embroidered with exotic taxes annoyed me. Finally I gathered the nerve to phone American Telephone and Telegraph and say, "Please cancel my land line."

I had to have someone else in the room with me to actually do it. I was scared. I've had land lines all my life. Without a land line, 911 responders couldn't locate my house; I was cutting it from their map. Also, I had liked my phone number. They're assigned randomly, but some of mine have been more graceful or memorable than others, or were more fun to say, or suited me spiritually. This one had come with the dwelling and seemed like its foundation. I was fond of it. But my cell number is fabulous. It trips off the tongue and walks on air, and if forced to choose, I'd choose the cell number. So goodbye.

Reports about brain cancer and salivary-gland cancers from cellphones -- I believe in them, and had wondered how to handle long cell conversations, but there's an app for that:  a speakerphone function, so I needn't clamp it to my ear. Unlike the land line, the cellular phone sometimes drops the call, but we all understand that it happens and forgive each other in advance for the inconvenience.

The phone company's employee surrendered without argument, saying only not to pay the current bill (because they bill in advance for the month to come; why aren't I ever paid in advance for the month to come?) and they'd send a prorated final bill. He said "Service will terminate within 24 hours." I then made one three-minute call to family, and after that the phone was stone silent. Dead. It was chilling.

The system had "hung up" on me.

I moved furniture and released the wire from the jack. Eleven years had yellowed it and dust made it sticky. Bagging the phone was like bagging a body. Never again would I dangle its receiver in the air to unravel kinks in the coils, watching physics in action in its wobbly spin. Never again to hear its dial tone, that warm wordless whine, a sound of the twentieth century, pitched to resemble a human voice.