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.!
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 dot.com right away.
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:
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 BookEval.com. The book was published May 29, 2017.
The Biography Shelf
Who Am I and Where Is Home?
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).
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 need—it markets itself!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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