Jan 10
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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.
Jul 13
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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 Amazon.com. 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
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True-Life Editing, Example 2: Who Am I and Where is Home?

Selling well in the Amazon.com 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
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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
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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
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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
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“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.


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


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.


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


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
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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
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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.

Sep 26
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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
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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
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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.