Catherine Rankovic

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

Jul 17

Whitewashing Your Characters

Fiction writers whitewash characters when, for example, they base a character on a person whose real name is Rosenstein, but they rename him Stone and erase anything Jewish about him or his family.

I would bet you meet many more Johnsons, Smiths, Thompsons, Robertses, Millers and Joneses in fiction than in real life. Authors do this "ethnic cleansing" hoping to "universalize" the characters or create a "blank slate" supposedly without ethnic or historical baggage. Screenwriters, actors, even toymakers do this too. Mattel's Barbie doll, Barbie Millicent Roberts, dumped her boyfriend Ken Carson for Blaine Gordon. Midge Hadley Sherwood was Barbie's best friend and Francie Fairchild her cousin. Barbie's darker-skinned friends, such as Christie, an African-American, have no surnames. It was a business decision to tiptoe around the issue. All "ethnic" names come with "baggage," it seems. Can't name her Christie Jefferson, or Christie Afolayan or Christie Muhammad. All loaded with baggage! Better no surname at all.

Paging through the short fiction in a recent literary magazine, all of it "realistic" and set in the U.S.A., I found characters named Freeman and Mr. Henry. All the other characters, perhaps 30 in all, had first names only. Yet in reality your surname rules your life. Why such a dearth of surnames? Tension around this issue -- do ethnic names trigger reader prejudice? Do non-Anglo names distract the reader?-- makes it simpler for creators to default to Anglo in name and in being -- or, simplest, to default to no surname at all. This is in tandem with the tendency not to describe or name the story's setting, thinking that's more "universal." (Editors call this "hoboes in space.") As fiction writers gain experience they do this less and less.

Anglo surnames for your characters are not universal or neutral. Simply be aware of that when naming characters. At one time we opened the phone book at random to break ourselves of the "Johnson" and "Thompson" impulse. Today, seek out the surnames of the football-team lineup at the college nearest you. Because of migration and immigration, legal or not, nearly every nation is a nation of immigrants. Is it too much trouble to imagine what traces of Germany might be left in a character who is a fourth-generation American named Hochmuller? And no fair substituting Irish or Scottish names. Not everybody is from the U.K.!

Jan 29

Joy$ of the P$eudonym

My popular and sought-after pseudonym has 2.5 million reads and makes much more money than I do. No field of study is more complex, ancient, and intellectual than astrology, and few things are more symbolic, metaphoric, and collective-unconscious, so my interest in it seems to me part of a continuum. I’ve spent many enjoyable years studying astrology and meeting and talking with astrologers. About 25 years into it I realized I had this vast fund of specialized knowledge I wasn’t writing about. I held back because I thought people would call me nutty. Astrology is not a religion. I’m not a psychic or a witch and I don't let astrology run my life. I'm curious, and fascinated because there seems to be something to it, and I realized there are many others just as curious.

I planted a second career seed by taking a pseudonym who writes about astrology. Began it in 1993, in a small way. It grew. I learned about the market, which is enormous yet demanding. The Internet has educated readers about astrology in the way newspaper columns and books never did, so today they know what's fake and know what's genuine. They know what sign the Moon is in today; they know what Mercury in retrograde means. And I found a niche. I got my toehold writing articles exposing "astrologers" and "psychics" who charge thousands of dollars but whose "readings" I can prove are fake and canned. I've saved many people their hard-earned money. It's satisfying. An editor read what I wrote and offered me a steady gig. So I have monetized a specialty I had, and the pseudonym allows me to separate literary work from popular.

How about you? What do you know about that you might monetize by writing about it?

Yes, you can still deposit and cash checks written to your pseudonym -- simply tell your bank, and on the account they’ll put “doing business as” or d/b/a. No, you needn’t register a pseudonym with the state or federal government, although I registered mine as a right away.

Jan 10

Tips on Writing Scholarly Papers

This past year I wrote two scholarly articles about Sylvia Plath based on research I’ve been at since 2013, and then, from gristly translations made in 1822 and 1940--in English so muddy it looked like Dutch--I wrote a fresh translation of a 2000-year-old astrology manual, Tetrabiblos, nicknamed “the bible of astrology.” I reworded the whole into plain contemporary English, 40,000 words, and sent it off. The manuscript is at its third potential publisher now. It's a hard sell, because as a reference book a thrill-a-minute it's not. The original text is in Koine Greek. I think the book is readable now, and useful, and the new translation fulfills a need.

If the writer knows the work is good, there is no reason to fear anything or anyone. When trying to publish a piece of writing I remember what a writing teacher told me: “If it’s good, it will eventually be published.”

I’ve edited works of scholarship, and of course read them, but was challenged by the task of writing a high-quality scholarly paper that 1) read well in plain English, no jargon 2) clinched its argument 3) presented both new and established but always documented facts and 4) would interest and serve an exceptional readership: Plath scholars. There are scads; by now I have met a few dozen and they know Plath’s life and work better than their own.

It took a month to draft each paper and the remainder of 2017 to reread, double-check, and incorporate reader feedback. My beta readers were a professor and a historian. One suggested a different structure for the paper. The other said he wanted more of an essay. For inspiration and models I re-read essays by James Baldwin, and also Joyce Carol Oates' well-known essay about Plath: "The Death Throes of Romanticism." It's very opinionated. Because I wasn't writing literary criticism but presenting research, I couldn't quite use an opinionated tone. Instead I tried to figure out why that essay is so learned yet so readable.

Tips I gathered about writing works of scholarship:

  • Open the paper with the treasured five Ws: who, what, when, where and why. Or start with an anecdote. Be reader-friendly.
  • Cross-pollinate with techniques of creative nonfiction such as:
  • Suspense. Yes, suspense in scholarship. That’s how to make people read and remember it. Save the conclusion for last.
  • A great title is worth its weight in gold. Brainstorm until you extract the right title from the universe. Don’t be hasty.
  • One must define terms. Imagine a non-scholar reading it. Would he or she understand?
  • Specify. For example, what does "she paid attention to her studies" mean? That she did homework? For hours? What was she studying?
  • There’s room, just a little, for personality.
  • Humanities scholarship is about people (duh).
  • Seek feedback. Scholarship is a conversation.
  • Always, the spirit of inquiry.
Oct 17

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 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).

Jan 12

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

35 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 edit two years ago; it now sells well on I found that no such books existed (!) so Kaye's books satisfy a need.

Veteran of many creative-writing courses and programs with an MFA in writing, and an editor for a literary magazine, Ms. Linden distills what she has learned about writing into easy-to-read instructional texts. Step by step, her book helps new and student writers gain skill and confidence in writing prose poems.

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.

Ms. Linden drafted the 35 short chapters. As editor, I arranged them in an order starting from square one, total novice, with lessons and challenges that keep the student growing toward success. How do I know which chapter is square one is? I taught writing and creative writing for 31 years. The book answers questions such as “How long should a prose poem be?” “Are prose poems stories?” “How do I know whether my prose poem is good?” 

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 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 then some about her life in the U.S. They ranged 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 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 also 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 friends and family. She modestly told me that the book was for friends and family only, but no author truly means that!
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

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 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.