Oct 09
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'Tis the Season to Rip Off New Authors

Friend had her first novel accepted by a very small press (two owners, a couple, fighting) and excitedly signed a contract that said the press would edit her work for publication. But instead it referred her to an editor they knew who wanted $450. My friend, eager to see her book published, paid it. The edit/rewrite horrified her. She called me and added that she hated the book's new title, and had paid $250 for the cover image (what?!) and more for her own author photo (that's normal, paying for your own photo), and the press was pushing her to have the book out by November 1, "in time for the holidays," and expected her to do all her own marketing and sell 500 copies by Christmas. My friend asked the press how she could possibly do that, and they said, "Hire a hall and then invite everyone you know and and sell them the book."

The owners weren't speaking to one another and one was secretly trying to establish her own separate press, and secretly asked my friend to come and be HER author, although this entailed having the manuscript edited again by another editor, with my friend responsible for the cost.

What should she do, my friend asked.

I said, "Pull out, today. Call. Tell them you don't want to work with them. Send a registered letter. They broke contract when they made you pay for an edit. They sound too penny-ante to hire a lawyer and fight you, but if they did, they broke contract and they will lose."

But oh...they'd accepted her first novel! She so much wanted to see it in print. And she knew that if she pulled her book, ahead of her lay months of submitting her manuscript until someone else accepted it, and she didn't want to go through that again, and self-publishing, well, that was death; so what should she do?


Oct 04
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The Joy of Printing

jenwithpressPhoto is of poet Jennifer Tappenden who decided she could either take a vacation or start a press. And she started Architrave Press, hand-setting and hand-printing a first edition of 250 copies each of 10 poems selected after she called for submissions. She learned the letterpress printing process from scratch and uses this 1957 press that was once motorized but now operates entirely manually, cranking out with a sound like thunder finished poems inked on beautiful paper. Jennifer re-conceived the poetry book or anthology, asking, Why can't people buy and collect only the poems they like, the way they download only the songs they like? When the poems are offered separately, a buyer can build his or her own collection, and the hand-created nature of the pages gives them value.

I spent an evening in a Cherokee Street storefront watching this process, all hand-done from setting up the poems as Ben Franklin or Walt Whitman had done it, with lead letters, backwards, in little frames. Then there was the piling of quality paper, the skilled inking of the roller, which has to be just right, and the roll of the ink over the letters to make: poems. At hand was the print shop's black dog, named Smudge. What's an "Architrave" you ask? A stone or wooden beam held up by columns, usually over a doorway, as in classical architecture. Architrave Press is holding its first reading event Friday, Oct. 7 at 7:30 p.m. at a venue new to me, The Tavern of Fine Arts, 313 Belt Avenue in the Central West End. I hope to see you there when my "Self-Portrait on Greyhound Bus" makes is debut in print.
Sep 30
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The Writer's Hangover

Writing 13 hours a day indoors during this oppressively hot summer and enjoying it, I knew it was technically unhealthy not to do anything else, so decided to drive 500 miles for a trip north to get out, take a break, cool off and see family. Started up through Illinois and for the first two hours could not stay awake. Stopped for coffee, stopped for lunch with coffee, stopped at a rest stop for 40 minutes and did jumping jacks and yoga, and stopped at another rest stop and splashed and slapped my face and lay down on a stone bench gazing up at fizzing summer trees, thinking, What's the matter? Illinois I-55 is not a challenging drive, it's a long straight line!

Then it occured to me that driving is a linear, objective task, a left-brain task, and for weeks I'd been waltzing in a right-brain ballroom of swirling words and limitless inner pictures and ideas. Even taking daily walks, very early or very late in the day, I didn't "do" straight lines; mostly I took gorgeous photos of gorgeous summer butterflies and wildflowers, and did only the barest minimum of anything else. Too swirly even to follow a DVD; Lost in Translation sat on the top of the player for three months and when I watched it, it made no sense. House was a wreck. I tried to construct and sew a simple skirt: disaster, thrown in trash. Presence in one place meant absence in another. Then I wondered if it was just the way things are for writers. Most of us have had a writing hangover. Binge on writing and you get a skull-buster of a writing hangover. It's not a joke; it can really impair you.

The problem was the transition from one type of task to another, and given one day and one night I got better at making the switch. I read an article that said it would have helped to do crosswords, Sudoku, or math problems. But I'd really like to live the high life in that right brain all the time.
Sep 30
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Making $ on The HubPages "Content Farm"

I read at least 10 online horoscope columns per day, seeking my destiny, and figured I might as well write what I thought about them and the others I consulted or discovered or rejected: I've bookmarked about 80 in all. And so the "Horoscope Review" by astrologer "Sylvia Sky" was born in August 2010 on HubPages.com.

HubPages.com is a host site for articles by anybody about anything (except porn or hate speech), but you can make money if people click on the ads appearing on your pages. Such host sites are derisively called "content farms." People post poetry, novel chapters, articles about relationships, recipes, political rants, whatever, and hope for readers. But as the HubPages chiefs advise, you build a following by carving a niche and staying in it, and the best way to rise to the top of Google Search is to write quality articles. I've now published 54 HubPages articles that have been read more than 64,000 times; Google Ads pays me about $150 a month, and more each month as my readership grows, because they're good articles I work hard at. Nobody else was writing good solid knowledgeable reviews of online astrology columns. Some online astrologers are genuine; I recommend Rick Levine, Sally Brompton, Susan Miller (for monthly horoscopes), and Daniel Dowd (for weekly horoscopes). I've corresponded with some of these astrologers who have huge followings. All online "psychics" who have their own site are, without exception, fakes, and Sylvia can tell you why because she investigates their claims and calls their numbers.

Sylvia gets letters from all over the world thanking her for exposing fakes; about these matters, even the most intelligent people can be terribly gullible. I have fun and use my journalism skills, my ability to write for the Web, my critical talents and astrology hobby, and perform a service for thousands of people. Some writers hate "content farms." I don't. Sometimes I am asked if I provide psychic readings. I don't; I write horoscope reviews. Sylvia Sky is the Consumer Reports of Internet astrology. Sylvia embodies my weird interests. She is a successful subself. How about you? More about HubPages, coming up.
Sep 10
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The Bar Code Scandal

If you are publishing your own book, you need a barcode on the back cover. The barcode, based on your book's ISBN, goes into a database and will identify the item when merchants scan it. It does not encode a price. It's simply an identifier used for inventory. If you want merchants to stock and sell your book you need a barcode.

I had paid for a barcode to be placed on the back cover of my current project, The Woman Who Values Herself, and when I got the final cover PDF it occured to me to print it and test it with a barcode reader app. It wouldn't work, although the app read other barcode labels. I kept trying, freaking out incrementally. Because the book is so small, the barcode had been shrunk proportionally and it was too small for the app to read. Online I found that there is indeed a minimum size for barcodes: 80 percent of the original, or about .825" high.

Having advised the cover designer of these facts I was in turn advised that she'd never had any problems with shrunken barcodes, but she'd enlarge it just  for me, and so it was on the next proof. The barcode scanner could not read this barcode either. Feigning great patience (THIS BOOK HAS BEEN IN PRODUCTION SINCE JUNE for PETE'sSAKE!!) I advised her of this and asked her to test it on her end.

The project manager contacted me and swore it worked on their end, and it wasn't working for me because my proofs were electronic PDFs and low-resolution (high-resolution PDF proofs are so huge they'd crash a mailbox) although they didn't look it. So I chose to just drop the issue, now  that I had his email saying it worked--in case it didn't. So ended this tiny nightmare, and I learned:

1. You need an ISBN and a matching barcode.
2. Test the barcode.
3. There is a minimum size for barcodes, and even if it is plug-ugly and out of proportion to the book's size or design, you still need one if you want stores to carry the book, and of course you do.
4. Understand that your electronic proofs are low-resolution.
5. Get written assurance that the darned thing really works so that if it doesn't, this can all be done over again at somebody else's expense.
6. Everything in publishing works far more slowly than you'd think.
Sep 10
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What's Best For Young Writers

In high school I submitted to my English teacher three poems for a regional contest. She sat down with me to discuss revisions. She said a certain stanza "cheapened" one of the poems. Would I agree to take it out? What did I think about that?

I had no sense of separation from my work and did not know enough to judge it, so I didn't have thoughts; I had feelings. Swamped in a wave of embarrassment and horror at having cheapened a poem without knowing it -- it was my first "workshop" experience -- I listened to the teacher and "agreed" to remove that stanza, and also to jettison one of the poems entirely. I remember being relieved that this latter was done without detailed discussion of what was wrong with it.

I won first place and $10. This set me on the path I walk to this day.
Sep 03
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Walrus Publishing Interviews Me

After conducting and writing up scores of interviews, including literary interviews in Meet Me: Writers in St. Louis and on this blog, I now get my turn. Walrus Publishing requested an interview with me, out of the blue, and I took it as an honor. Here it is on Walrus's great new website: http://www.walruspublishing.com/feature/sitting-catherine-rankovic/.

I hope to soon be back to you writing regular entries here after a period of dawn-to-midnight work and adjustment to new routines!
Aug 25
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Veblen on Vacation

Coiner of the phrase “conspicuous consumption” and author of Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), economist Thorstein Veblen built his own summer house and study cabin on Washington Island in Lake Michigan, at the tip of Wisconsin’s peninsula (its “thumb”) where he stayed every sumveblen study cabin 2011mer from 1896 to 1926. In 2009 somebody moved the cabin to its current spot on Little Lakeveblen with plans to restore it. On vacation I found it by chance. It’s not much to see, now or back then. It's built in Norwegian-immigrant style, boards and logs arranged vertically so as to channel wetness to the ground. He also made all his own furniture and a boat. He wrote nine books, all still in print. The photo of Veblen with his cabin was taken about 1915. 

The man was eccentric; he has been called the Frank Lloyd Wright of economics. An American with his name of course had to be a Norwegian from Wisconsin, which explains his progressivism and contempt for non-productive activity. Until I visited the cabin, all that had never crossed my mind.

We have Veblen to thank for his contributions to the theories of consumerism and the business cycle, and in the Gilded Age he accurately foresaw a U.S. economy that would benefit mainly the very wealthy. He taught at Mizzou for seven years, hating it and calling Columbia “a woodpecker hole of a town.” For a year he was one of the editors of The Dial, which became a litmag that first published the likes of Marianne Moore.

When Veblen first came to Washington Island he stayed in a boarding house and looked for people who could teach him to speak Icelandic so he could translate an old epic poem. In 1957, for her master’s thesis, a graduate student collected islanders' memories and stories about the great man, and incidentally was given the books and papers left in the study. Veblen wore really old clothes, people said. But he was generous with money and liked anybody who could teach him anything.

Aug 06
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The Sensitive Artist, Part 2

The first thing I believed about artists, and I don't know how I got this idea, is that artists are sensitive, especially poets, and if that was so I had to be sensitive, which I'm not good at except in relation to myself. But I didn't know that, so I dabbed on some Sensitive and wore black. At 24 and pale from hanging out in basements and libraries, I went to listen to poet Denise Levertov, who seemed an impatient and not-so-pleasant woman, and she declared to her audience, as if it were a retort, "Poets are not more sensitive than other people; just more articulate." And I thought, Denise is sooo wrong.

About five years later I meet and talk with famous poets and see them just about every day. They were the most insensitive, self-absorbed, preening, neurotic, swaggering, and  jealousy-ridden candyasses I had ever seen outside of high school. (Think not that I was unaware that it takes one to know one.) I met some other famous poets: brilliant, hard-as-bunions cynics, spouters of poisonous jokes and legendary put-downs, authors of some of the most gorgeous and sensitive poetry of their time. And I thought, Denise was right.

So there's the quotation (two entries down) by Pearl Buck, Nobel-winning novelist now dismissed as a pulp-fiction writer, and it seems to me that hers is a quite 19th-century view of creativity as a sort of rare, terrible and wonderful spiritual commodity, like being born with a caul, permitting the owners to exist in perpetual spiritual infancy. I still buy what she says, believing it's true of everyone, particularly in this highly self-aware day and age. Name somebody you know who sees everything from a balanced, reasonable point of view, whose injuries and transports are merely physical. Those are the rare ones now.
Aug 05
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Celebrating 25 Years of Teaching

This month marks my 25th anniversary as a teacher of writing (and sometimes Afro-American Studies). It is my 14th year at Washington University evening school (University College), my first year as an online instructor in the MFA program at Lindenwood University. I have twice taught graduate creative nonfiction writing at UMSL (which seriously needs a creative-nonfiction prof), three times in the Washington University Summer Writers Institute, taught  undergraduate composition and creative writing at St. Louis Community College, Wash U and Syracuse University, and taught for the first five years of the St. Louis Writers Workshop, plus half-day workshops in UMSL's "Just Write" program and various and sundry guest teaching and lecture spots at OASIS, Lifelong Learning, Lindenwood U, Webster U, and Poets in the Schools.

 I've got a lot to share. So if you want to take a course or workshop with me--you will not be sorry! And thank you for letting others know, too!

Fall 2011:
Washington University, University College (online registration is now open)
  • U11-225, "Introduction to Creative Writing," Thursdays, 6-8:30 p.m. Try out poetry writing, fiction writing, and creative nonfiction writing in this workshop class. Class 15 weeks, 3 credits, begins August 31. Half-price for over age 60. University College
  • U11-320, "The Art of the Essay," Wednesdays, 6-8:30 p.m. Write and workshop essays and read historic essays. Class 15 weeks, 3 credits, begins August 30. Half-price for over age 60. University College
  • "Online Graduate Creative Nonfiction Workshop" at Lindenwood University begins in September. You need not be enrolled in Lindenwood's Online MFA program. For details or to enroll click here.
  • St. Louis Poetry Center Workshop, "Liberty Hall" Freewriting and Creativity workshop, Saturday October 1, 2011, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at my home in the woods about 35 minutes southwest of St. Louis. Hosting a day-long workshop at my home is a first! Includes lunch for the group.Cost is $50 for members, and $60 for non-members. Space is limited so send in your reservation ASAP to feeworkshop@stlouispoetrycenter.org.

  • Women's Writing Weekend, Sept. 9-11, to be held at Lafayette Square; details TBA. The people running this event are first-time organizers and not quite focused--but I am!
Aug 05
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Kindle for PC

The right Kindle for me hasn't been made yet, but in the meantime I envied the Nooks and Kindles friends and acquaintances had, knowing too that I did not really really need one and had other things to spend money on, and I might drop or lose it. Sometimes I even have to use my landline to call my cellphone so it'll ring and I can find it. And I am still somehow loyal to good old-fashioned books.

Until it came down to looking online for an Abraham Lincoln speech. Imagined there'd be an open Lincoln archive of all his works, but the most you can find is his famous speeches and quotations, and the one I sought wasn't famous. Drove to library (12 miles, one way), checked out thick book of Lincoln's speeches and letters. Took it home and searched. What I wanted wasn't in there. Contemplated driving to another library (27 miles, one way) and said, well, maybe when I'm next around there I will stop in. But that didn't happen and I realized I should probably just stop fooling with libraries and go online and buy other collections of Lincoln speeches and letters, maybe even the 7-volume set of his collected writings, and thumb through for the one thing I wanted. So I went to Amazon to see what that'd cost; maybe someone was selling it used.

There it was on Amazon, the 7-volume set in Kindle version for 99 cents. No joke. Lincoln's whole mind for 99 cents! Immediately I downloaded the free Kindle for PC--not as cool and nuanced as the Kindle, but it let me buy the books. And in one minute I had it. The collection was indexed and had live links. There are 900,000 other ebooks I could buy as well. And some Kindle users tell me they never pay for books; they download only what's free and in the public domain and they love it.

P.S. Abraham Lincoln was not only an admirable man but an admirable writer. (Those traits so often go together!)
Jul 29
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The Sensitive Artist

The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this:
A human creature born abnormally, inhumanely sensitive.
To him...

a touch is a blow,
a sound is a noise,
a misfortune is a tragedy,
a joy is an ecstasy,
a friend is a lover,
a lover is a god, and
failure is death.

Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create--so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating.

--Pearl Buck--