Thursday, December 2, 2010

Blog Will Resume Around January 1

Dear Readers: A new website is being built and, good news for anyone who missed it, this blog will be restarted around January 1. I am having it designed by a team in Santa Monica which intends to surprise me. See you soon,


Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Beginning

The story of this picture: These are the Guilty Pleasures authors, the Doves, my writing group from 2000 to 2007. We got a book accepted in 2002 and published in spring 2003. In August of 2002 we had a group author photo taken. We fooled around with all sorts of different "guilty pleasures" props (tiaras, etc.) and were inexperienced enough to choose as our jacket photo a more serious one than this, but this remains my favorite. The original is indeed in black and white -- remember, I think all book-jacket photos should be black and white! Left to right: Patti Smith Jackson, Jane Holwerda, me, Cathy Luh, Holly Silva, Karen Hammer, Sue Caba and Laurie Vincent.

This blog has been moved to classier quarters: the Sanity Bubble at I'm still posting there! Every visit, every comment, is an honor for me. Go there, be confident, and take care of yourself, because....

. . .you are fate's finest instrument.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Pseudonym! Gesundheit!

One Halloween when I was in grad school, I borrowed a suit and tie, glued on a mustache and went about disguised as a man. What fun that evening was! What power I felt! What confidence! So different to feel sure that the whole street was mine, instead of feeling that muggers and harassers owned it. The whole world was mine! (Because of the double takes I got, I know I looked at least somewhat like a man.) Told people I was George. (Who else remembers George, from the Nancy Drew books? I do! Who remembers that when George Orwell (pseudonym)'s school chums saw his obit, they said, "Eric Blair? He was George Orwell?") For one evening, parts of my psyche that are usually undercover got a chance to play the field.

I'm trying to rationalize my use of two pseudonyms. I research, revise, polish to a sheen the work that appears under these names -- but "what certain people will think" does matter should the work be linked to me. Others' power to judge, to grant and withhold, is a fact, and I would be stupid to flout it just to be reckless or "be myself." Yet I like writing and publishing these things and don't feel like stopping. It could be said that a pseudonym means I'm cowardly -- or that it cleverly gives my entire array of traits and impulses a chance to play the whole field.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Invisible Writers

For the past seven weeks I've been reviewing online horoscopes twice a week and posting reviews -- 20 of them now -- that have been read over 2,000 times. I'm an astrology student from way back, and one day started doing this both to write and to perform a public service. I exposed two fake astrologers and dug up the truth for two others, honest and sincere people who had no idea how their work was being exploited. Laugh, but it's no joke: Astrology is big business, and specifically it's a writing business. There are astrology sweatshops where young writers -- the job description solicits recent college grads -- churn out horoscopes according to style sheets. It sounds like the porn factory a schoolmate spent a summer working in, where he was required to write a certain number of sexual acts per page.

Doing this work I'm amazed all over again by how much we depend on the written word for our opinions and personal guidance as well as our education and entertainment. The Internet has made us more dependent on the written word, not less. What we hear on TV, or from politicians, or read on the side of a cereal box, is all scripted. ("Talking heads" go on camera having studied written lists of "talking points"; their ideal is to get us to believe there are no writers behind them at all.) Somebody selected and wrote every word you see. Who says writers are a tiny, powerless minority? How were we ever made to believe that? The sum total of our power just bowls me over.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Touring a Bookstore

Every writer should tour a bookstore in the company of a manager. Did this yesterday for a class. The manager had 24 years' experience in the business. Bookstore facts:
  • A new book's lifespan on the displays "up front" is seven to 21 days. The book then moves to "the stacks" or regular shelving.
  • A new book's lifespan in the stacks is 90 days.
  • After 90 days the bookstore and publisher begin the process of returning the unsold books to the publisher for credit.
  • The bookstore's "bestseller" rack may be the bookstore's bestsellers, not the NYT's.
  • New hardcovers can be priced at 20 to 30 percent off the cover price because the publishers have given the bookstore a promotion subsidy.
  • Today's big-box bookstore carries about 95,000 titles. At peak in the 1990s, it carried an average of 135,000 titles. What got cut? Books from small publishers.
  • At a chain bookstore, the displays at the ends of aisles, called "endcaps," are subsidized by publishers.
  • On the shelves, some titles are displayed facing front, while others show only their spines. The publishers of the full-front books have paid the bookstore for the privilege. "It really sells books."

Friday, September 17, 2010

Girls and Goals

I asked a classroom of adult women writers what their writing goals were. They all said, more or less, "I'd like to publish a book one day."

"Great," I said. "Why do you want to publish? To make money? For fame? To leave a mark on the world?"

"Just for my own personal satisfaction," was the response, and everyone nodded. "Just to know that someone else, one publisher, thought my writing was good."

"Just one book?" I needled them. "No plans for another? Or for a series?"

They said, "I can't envision my next project until I'm finished with the current one." "Just one book would make me happy." "I've spent years writing my book, and don't plan on writing more." "I'm just starting out."

"But still, you could dream big,"I pleaded. "Just picture yourself--"

Then I realized their ambitions were modest and their dreams very small because they were women.

This was a job for SuperAdjunct.

I said, "No male writer would ever say what you just said. Men dream big, think big, and go after what they want. Even the crummiest male writer foresees himself writing tons of books, shaking hands in New York, and raking in money. It starts with dreaming big."

And we're going to practice doing just that and shedding our quiet modesty, a virtue not appreciated in the publishing business.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Paid at Last

Is it a coincidence that the same day the blog below appeared, complaining of an account gone 12 weeks unpaid, that I received an email from the account in question, saying sorry for the delay but the check was on its way? It arrived in the next day's mail. All settled now.

This teaches me: Don't give up!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Stiffed at Last

Since 2000 people have asked me to edit their manuscripts, both people I knew and those I didn't, and unless it was clearly a long and massive job, I did not bother to ask for money up front.

Then I was asked to spend half an hour on a manuscript sample I found so sorely in need of editing, formatting, and fact-checking that correcting the first two and a half pages took up the whole thirty minutes. I returned the heavily annotated manuscript with with an invoice for half an hour's work. I have now billed the author every week for 12 weeks, adding, "It is not too late to pay me." It is the first time I've been stiffed, fortunately for only a small amount, but there's the principle of the thing. (The manuscript was about principles, and how "these are the times that try men's souls.")

New rule: Strangers pay up front for a minimum of one hour's work. Make that your rule too!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

You Never Know...

When the money or spirit gets low I begin to lose my trust in the universe or whatever gave me the desire to write and some talent. I know it does not give these things and then fail to support you. But things bottomed out about a week ago: Unpleasant bills and notices arrived. My Internet was down for four days. Doctor visits left my arms tracked up like a junkie's. I was draggin' my wagon (and people would have said to me, "Why the long face?" had I bothered to raise my eyes from the pavement). And then in the space of a few days almost everything changed:
  • More work -- four almost simultaneous requests -- came my way!
  • Internet connection repaired!
  • Awesome financial news!
  • Good health report!
  • Pushcart Prize nomination (my first, I heard about it yesterday) for a poem to appear in November in the annual Kansas City Voices
  • Gift of bagful of pears direct from a tree!
O me of little faith!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Reaching a Balance

As writers, our work can go on all day, all night. Always something to revise, send out, work on, create, prepare, organize. Always the research, meetings, workshops, deadlines. I have a great work ethic. And this is work I like to do.

This summer my mind rebelled. It wanted to see friends, have a glass of wine, go fishing, cook an elaborate recipe, watch stupid TV, shop, go on a date.

I said to it, Oh, no -- YOU are supposed to be working! Every minute counts! No glass of wine for you! No time off for you!

That was a good way to get my whole being to go on strike and acquire a cough, an infection, an injury, hayfever, depression. No appetite, no energy. Too much trouble even to read a novel. (I felt obliged to read this novel.) Energy only to play the video game "Jewels" on my droid.

Last week I was out doing errands and had no choice but to take myself to lunch; either that or I wouldn't get any food until after 10 p.m. Wow, I had a sandwich and coffee, wasting my time and money (I should have brought a bag lunch to eat in a park!!) -- and how great that felt! This week I took 24 hours to drive downstate seeking beauty (even though I actually brought work along!). Felt much better.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Is It the Readings, Or Is It Me?

Went to a reading, enjoyed parts of it and have analyzed what I enjoyed. I liked a well-told story, which let me ride a rollercoaster of emotions, such as tension, pity, triumph, and "oh no, not that," all in various shades and tints. If there was a story, I dug it. If there was humor, I dug it. If it was a descriptive passage or a scene instead of a full story, or was emotionally monotoned, or if it was beautifully written and only that, I liked it less. Meeting and chatting with the people there was pure pleasure.

Reluctance to attend readings might be a phase I'm going through. Maybe the trouble isn't with the readings, or the book promotions (why should bookselling ever bother me, of all people?!!?). It might not even be trouble. It might just be that getting older I feel more strongly the very distracting snap, crackle and pop of passing time. Or I have saddled myself with too much to do, and going to readings feels like just another obligation, and because I must sprint to the car and get to the next thing I must do, the readings don't refresh and inspire me as they used to.

Friday, August 27, 2010

An Alternative to "Readings," Anyone?

I remember a "reading" at a glittering hall rented for the occasion, set with 150 chairs. $35 per person included the distinguished writer's new book, and cocktails, and shrimp on ice. There were 20 attendees. We circled through the echoing hall, all embarrassed for the distinguished writer (a personal friend) and trying to be more people than we were.

Where did it go wrong, the "reading"? Laypeople love the sign "Free Poetry" the way they love "Free Pregnant Cat." And increasingly only the readers, or their close friends, attend. (True friends are those who will attend your reading, your opening, or your slam performance. Your "fans" don't care to see you more often than every two years.) It's not that art these days is bad or irrelevant; it isn't. There's a lot more of it to delight in, and audiences for the fine arts have always been sort of small, and now more specialized. But no writer goes anymore to an "open mike" night just to listen. It's to network, scout the place, to be seen or counted, buy the book and get off the hook; and enjoyment, including surprises, has taken a back seat.

The "reading" is now pretty much a setup to promote oneself or one's book or club. There is room for book "launches," but each book needs only one launch. It is nice to have another chance to sell or buy a new book, meet the artist, hope he will buy our new book. But if the audience is largely those who feel obliged to show up, no wonder we become exhausted by the very idea, unless we are scheduled to read. Attempts to give readings a service orientation, as fundraisers for good causes, never brought in anyone who wouldn't normally be there, except for some of the readers. And in the end the experience differed only in where our money went.

The "reading" is moribund. What should we do instead?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Degrade Yourself at

Speaking of mental health, did I ever go nuts when emailed to ask why I hadn't worked for them. features calls for articles and other material by freelance writers; you bid on the jobs. You get paid -- maybe -- and if so Odesk gets a 10 percent commission. Like everyone else I could use some more work, and registered. Lots of contract jobs were available: write someone's resume, write ad copy, ghost somebody's little handbook on vitamins, write series of 750-word articles on auto care, and so on.

What sent me reeling is the compensation offered -- and accepted. Check these out:

I need 50 articles to be rewritten on Halloween niche. Each article has be 450 words and at least 80% unique. I will pay $1 per rewritten article. Please bid with a sample. Thanks

High end copywriting requiring high quality work; Must be english BA or MA graduates; Must attach short word files of writing files or will be disqualified immediately; Individuals only, no company affiliation. If affiliated, will be disqualified immediately. -Candidates for this job so far have bid a titanic $3.34 an hour.

The series of articles on auto care had a total budget of $70.

Not all of the posts are quite this extreme, but a lot of them come pretty close.

So, why haven't I worked for Odesk? The "O" must be short for "online sweatshop" -- and it's not the only one. An underclass of writers. That's just what we need....

Friday, August 20, 2010

Regarding the Winning Writers website, for a while I took only their free email newsletter listing poetry contests without entry fees. Curious, and so you don't have to, and so I have the info for the people who ask me, I finally subscribed to their Poetry Contest Insider, for which I pay $9.95 per quarter. This admits me to a well-organized database of more than 750(!) U.S. and U.K. poetry contests, both free and with entry fees.

Winning Writers sponsors its own 2 poetry contests, and "assists" in 3 more, all prominently offering top prizes in the unusually high and attractive $1500-$2000 range, and judged by their staff. One contest has no entry fee. The others do. As a premium subscriber I am permitted to see the prizewinning poems and the honorable mention poems. They tend to be lengthy and craft-free, in the way beginning poets' works are. And now I have a better sense of how the site and its staff support themselves, and who supports them: thousands of poets artificially hungry for artificial prizes.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Easy Stuff

Frequently asked questions about manuscript submissions, answered:

Q: Where should I put the page numbering on my manuscript? A: Top right. That's where editors look.
Q: I can't figure out how to turn off the thing that puts a "1" on Page 1. A: Either look it up in Help, or don't worry about it. Your main concern should be perfecting the creative work you are sending.
Q: Should I include the exact word count? A: For book manuscripts, definitely yes. For shorter works, look up the publisher's guidelines for submissions and do what they say.
Q: Should I put a "c" in a circle on the first page of my manuscript to indicate that I am claiming copyright? A: You can, but to editors it has long signaled that the author fears that her work will be stolen by the same people to whom she has sent it. Does that make sense? If you are still worried, see the blog entry below on "Top Four Questions."

Writers should have peace of mind, not nerves and worries, regarding formatting. Nerves and worries are in fact backed-up creativity that has become poisoned with fear.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Use for Twitter

I am not into Twittering as myself. I have in fact denounced Twitter as "impacted madness." However, my alter ego reviews online horoscope sites, writing and issuing short little articles on that topic twice a week, and she finds Twitter quite useful.

She got a free account at which gives each of her articles a separate URL. She uses Twitter to announce a new article and what it's about, giving a link to the URL. To locate followers, she sought out names indicating an interest in astrology, horoscopes, the zodiac, stars, and so on. She "followed" the ones who didn't seem like nut cases. (She herself is not a nut or a flake, but merely interested in explanations as to how this universe operates; and she knows others want to know, and that they also want to know if they're being well served or made fools of.) In turn, some have done her the favor of becoming her "follower." She needs only eight or nine good established followers to get the word out about what she's doing. Regular, informed, and trustworthy reviews result in referrals and more followers. It also helps to sift through followers' followers seeking more people to follow.

She finds (and has informed me):
  • When it comes to Twitter, quality beats quantity. Twice a week is plenty.
  • Tweet in the a.m.; the p.m. is less active.
  • Tweet on a regular schedule. Announce this schedule and stick to it. This establishes your reliability not only as a tweeter but as a source of information.
  • Tweet when you have something to offer, not to "P.R. yourself," or to tease people, or for the heck of it.
  • Twitter is good if you have a highly specific target audience or niche.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Handy Reference Books for Writers

Beyond the standard dictionaries and thesauri, writers need reference books-- yes, "books." I find there's a frantic quality to wracking the Web for fact-checking and grammar answers, and all those other intimate things writers find they need to know while wrestling with their work. Few writers ever feel sure they're doing these things correctly. A book waits and watches until it is needed. It won't overwhelm you with answers. Favorites:

Brunner, Borgna, Time Almanac 2006. Information Please, 2006. A fat expensive book that when superseded by the next year's edition, costs a quarter, and 99 percent of its information is the same.

Buchanon-Brown, John. Le Mot Juste: A Dictionary of Classical and Foreign Words and Phrases, Vintage, 1981. How often I hope to use this book to insert smart-sounding Latin, French, Spanish, German, etc. words and phrases into my work and conversation -- and almost never do, except for "Schadenfreude."

Dornan and Dawe, The Brief English Handbook, Third Edition, Scott-Foresman, 1990. For grammar conundrums.

King James Bible; get one with a built-in concordance so you can find who said, and where, "if you do it for one of the least of those, you do it for Me," the number-one Bible quotation appearing in personal essay drafts.

Maltin, Leonard. Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide. (Buy them a few years old, for a dime), Signet.

Packer, Tenney and White, All the People and Places of the Bible, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982. You will need this when it is time to pronounce the name "Habakkuk" (Ha-BAK-uck) and inform your readers that it's Hebrew for "love's embrace."

Sambuchino, Chuck, and the Editors of Writer's Digest Books, Formatting and Submitting Your Manuscript, Third Edition, Writer's Digest Books, 2009. (Pictured.) Model manuscripts and query and cover letters. For $22.95 you can forego all that inner-Q&A stress about formatting.

Siepmann, Katherine, editor, Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia, Third Edition. Harper and Row, 1987. 1100 pages of short bios of writers, synopses of famous books and plays, and the literary significance of things such as mandrakes and The Mauve Decade (the 1890s).

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Top Four Questions About Copyright (with Answers)

St. Louis Writers Guild today hosted Mark Sableman, attorney from the offices of Thompson & Coburn, who discussed publishing contracts and copyright law. He answered many questions and cleared up a lot of myths about copyright. I'm passing along his answers to four of the most-asked questions:

1. At what point in writing something can I claim a copyright?
As soon as you write it on paper or save it on your computer's hard drive it is copyrighted in your name. This is called "fixed expression in a tangible medium."

2. How can I best protect my written work so nobody steals it -- or if they do, I can sue them?
File a copyright form, Form CO, from, and upload your text; online filing will cost $35. Filing by postal mail is more complicated and higher-priced. Do it within the first 90 days after completing a work and then, if you someday have to sue for infringement, you may collect money (statutory damages) -- if you can prove they actually did it and that it caused you to lose money. You can't sue for damages just because they used your work without permission.

3. Can I legally prove my copyright by mailing myself a copy of my text?
No. Absolutely not. That's an old myth.

4. How long before my copyright expires?
This law has changed this several times, but currently, it's the author's life plus 70 years.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Finally, It's on Amazon....

Meet Me: Writers in St. Louis was published April 1, and the first copy was sold (to Lynn Obermoeller) April 12. For four months I've been lugging copies around, selling them one-on-one to interested people, or taking mail orders, because's listing said "Not in Stock"!

Two local newspapers printed reviews: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the West End Word. Too bad for any reader who wanted the book, because said, "Not in Stock"!

You get the point. If you want to sell a book, it absolutely must be buyable from My contract specified that it HAD to be there, and I would not proceed with any promotional efforts until it was--because that's where people expect books to be. They don't buy books from publishers or from author websites. They go straight to And if it's not there, they can look at plenty of other books.

The publisher apologized for this agonizing and infuriating delay, citing busyness with other matters and a change in distributors requiring a trip to Chicago and negotiations. Taking things into my own hands, I placed Meet Me on as one of the Amazon Marketplace dealers, and consigned copies to, another Marketplace dealer just as good. But friends emailed me that said, "Not in Stock." They didn't even see there were sub-dealers. This reinforced what I have always said:

A book must be available through! says "In Stock" as I write this, but who knows, the next hour it may be "Not in Stock"!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

How'd the Ballet Turn Out?

Here I'm with my teacher, Mimi MacDonald, on my eighth lesson and last day of adult-beginner ballet class at the Center of Contemporary Arts. I took it for the challenge. I never got good at it, but we all made progress and Mimi (trained by a Soviet ballet master in the strict Vaganova method) understood that maybe my hip sockets aren't like those of classmates 35 years younger; thus my difficulty with the basic turnout. I enjoyed the variety of people in the class, all dressed alike and reaching for the same ideal. It wasn't at all like writing, unless it was like learning the fundamentals, such as the alphabet and how to hold those fat pencils--so long ago I don't remember. I do think now, however, of the people who had the patience to teach me. Thank you.

I practiced between weekly classes with a beginning-ballet DVD (cursing, perspiring, at best making it through 65 minutes of a 90-minute DVD), thinking about what Martha Graham said in her autobiography: "Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired."

Sunday, August 1, 2010

More About Miss Mousy U.S.A.

I held the above title for 15 years. My frazzled, untrimmed hair, saggy Land's End calf-length full black skirt (with elasticized waist), downcast eyes and lack of affect (some people thought I didn't have any feelings) I hoped signaled that I was a rebel artist, giving the world back as good as it gave. It gave very little. Not entirely because of my mousiness, but I realize now, looking back, that my appearance said:
  • My employer doesn't pay me enough, and although I don't have the nerve to change my situation, let me serve as a reminder that the poor are always with you.
  • I'm depressed and it's partly your fault.
  • To hell with bodies. Minds are what count.
  • I can see your inner beauty, so why aren't you astute enough to see mine?
  • I'm punishing the capitalist patriarchy for its unattainable feminine ideals.
  • I'm lonely -- but uninterested in commoners like you.
  • I'm at one with the wretched of the earth.
  • I've been abused; want to hear about it?
  • What, fuss about looks and manners while our planet is dying?
  • I'm above everything you think is important.
  • Please notice my awful suffering and help me.
Then, bit by bit, I began to re-connect with other writers and play the cards the world dealt me. The things that restored my self-respect were 1) fellow writers, 2) self-publishing, and 3) money. That's why I'm always urging fellow writers to join groups, self-publish, and ask for money when they work.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Take Me Serious

Sunk in the bottom of an ocean of books at a big-box bookstore, I realized how insane it is to hope to make a mark, much less a splash, writing books in this world. But the would-be authors I saw there contrasted so sharply with the crisp and handsome new books that I got keenly critical, and as the former Miss Mousy USA I know it helps, if and when one wants to be taken seriously as a bright and disciplined person with a future, to show your material self some dignity:
  • Get a haircut.
  • Don't wear dirty green T-shirts.
  • Clean your shoes.
  • Conceal your bra straps and g-strings.
  • Crocs are for home wear only.
  • Don't carry big, lumpy bags.
  • Women: Wear a bra that holds 'em.
  • Don't gnaw at, or carry around, plastic or foam containers of food and drink.
  • Don't flap your hands. Don't gnaw at those, either.
  • Pick one of your good features -- nice hair, nice butt, expressive eyes, strong chin, pretty ears -- and deliberately enhance it.
  • Sit straight.
  • Over 40? Ditch the baseball cap.
  • Harmonize your socks and shoes.
  • Save your all-in-black look for funerals.
  • Don't let everyone see you surfing Asian-bride sites.
None of the above are prohibitively difficult or expensive. Look as much as possible like a brand-new book!

(More on my life as Miss Mousy in the next post.)

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Check Your Work's Readability

Is your text at the 8th-grade reading level? 12th-grade? Is it smarter than a 5th-grader? On a scale of 1 to 100, how readable is it? (Normal documents score between 60 and 70). Writing for a designated reading level may be part of your mission. Or do a "readability analysis" for fun. Microsoft Word can do this for you.

It's not a default function, so here's how to set it up in Word 2007:
1. Click the Microsoft Office Button, and then click Word Options (near the bottom right of the box).
2. Click "Proofing."
3. Make sure "Check grammar with spelling" is selected.
4. Just under "When correcting grammar in Word," select the "Show readability statistics" check box. Click OK.

Now it's ready when you review any document. Click on Review> Spelling and Grammar, and click through your spelling and grammar check. When you are finished a gray box will appear with your stats, including word count, words per sentence, readability scores, and more:

This was a business letter that scored 63.4 on Reading Ease and a Grade 9.5 reading level.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Unagented? Expect No Advance

Trending, I just heard about it: Book publishers who'll consider unagented submissions if the author agrees to forego any advance should the work be accepted. Last night I met a first-time novelist (genre: psychological thriller) who signed such a deal. Thrilled to pieces, she is, and her friends are impressed. That's her compensation. Unagented, with no one advising her, she has no clue that she has sold herself short and made it yet harder for all other writers on the face of the earth to obtain an advance.

Expect the "non-advance contract" to become the norm, because it's great for the publishers and because the authors are so desperate and vain they don't care. When you yourself find a publisher, expect to be handed a non-advance contract, and that your objection will be met with the response that such contracts are now standard industry-wide.

(Extended useless tirade goes here; instead, watch Pay the Writer, 3 minutes 25 seconds.)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

New Literary Journal in Town

Just announced: A new literary magazine from Lindenwood University's M.F.A. program, deadline for its first issue December 15, 2010. Start the new decade right (or, rather, "begin the new decade correctly"), and send good poetry, fiction, essay, or flash fiction. Read the submission guidelines at The editor is Beth Mead, head of Lindenwood's newish M.F.A. program, who as a University of Missouri-St. Louis M.F.A. student helped edit Natural Bridge. Mead will be using that model to teach the course in journal editing that will culminate, next June, in issue #1 of The Lindenwood Review. She says, "[M.F.A.] students will read submissions, discuss all pieces, and play a large role in the selection of published work." Lindenwood's upstart Untamed Ink magazine will publish its third and final issue this fall.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Talking With: Robin Theiss, Owner,

Robin Moore Theiss founded and operates the online independent bookstore, dealing in new and used books and offering boutique services such as book-finding. Theiss has published short stories, articles, essays, poetry, photographs, and a wide range of business communications. A former marketing executive, since 2001 Theiss has worked to further writers' organizations, most recently as president of the St. Louis Writers Guild from 2005-2008--during that time, tripling the Guild's membership.

Is a labor of love, or do you make a living at it?
It's been a lifelong dream to own a bookstore, but I didn't plan to start one. In 2006 I decided to get rid of some books to make room for others. My daughter suggested I sell them on Amazon. When they sold quickly, I looked for more, going to estate sales and buying collections. I'd caught the fever. I especially enjoy buying the books and watching orders roll in. I love to provide personalized services to book lovers. I can't believe I get paid to do this.

Does StLbooks specialize in St. Louis and regional books and authors?
We offer a financial advantage to St. Louis and Missouri authors who will consign us their books in order to have them listed in multiple online booksellers' catalogs, including all the megastores. We also purchase regional books from publishers and distributors for resale. Optionally, we include interviews of regional authors and reviews of their books. We promote regional titles on both our Amazon pages and StLBooks' catalog and Bookscape blog, including them in our Recommendations List. We host book fairs that feature regional titles and authors. We're open to new ways to further Missouri's literary legacy, too.

What does StLBooks do that other book outlets, like Amazon, can't or don't?

We love our books and our buyers. We don't have a lot of overhead or maintain a storefront, so our efforts go into choosing books our buyers want, helping customers find rare books or the perfect gift, and offering personal services such as reading recommendations. Like all independent bookstores, we find it difficult to compete on price alone with the megastores. However, we care if you like the book you buy, and we'll help you find other books you like.

Tell us about the market for books.
While the pendulum swing has favored the megastores for a decade or more, it's self-correcting. Book buyers today want both selection and service. Indies offer both. The book industry is currently in flux. I don't see electronic books replacing hardcovers and paperbacks in the near future, but they are clearly replacing a substantial number of books and they're not going away. The used-book market is unscathed by this; people still seek rare books, inexpensive books, books they read and loved in their childhoods, their grandmother's favorite cookbook.

How do you choose which books to stock?

We specialize in literature, cookbooks, graphic novels, books on writing, military books, and a few other niches. By specializing, we develop a deep knowledge of specific kinds of books. Some customers submit "wants" and we're on the lookout for books they'll enjoy. Sometimes we find gems that are not on our radar screen, but we recognize them as keepers.

If you could tell authors only one thing, what would it be?

Write to be read--not to sell books, not to become famous, not to justify your MFA tuition.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"I Always Worked Until I Had Something Done"

"It was wonderful to walk down the long flights of stairs knowing that I'd had good luck working. I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day. But sometimes when I was started on a new story and I could not get going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, 'Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.'

"So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut the scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written." - Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Calls for Submissions: Poetry

Verbatim from Facebook: "Call for female writers located in St. Louis, MO! Bad Shoe is our region's only lit mag devoted to female writers in the St. Louis area. Please send poetry (2-5 poems) or prose. Send your work, pasted into the body of an email with your contact info, to We look forward to reading!" (Note: I had thought Bad Shoe, when I bought its first issue, with its handsewn binding, in a basement a year ago, was a flash in the pan. Apparently it's doing just fine.) Deadline July 23.

Missouri or Kansas poets: Get your work carved in stone along the Riverfront Heritage bikeway/walkway in Kansas City and win $100. Missouri and Kansas poets are invited to submit 3 poems of not more than four lines each; they are EMPHATIC about sending three poems and only three poems max. No fee to enter. See contest guidelines; they want certain subject matter. They want submissions by email. Deadline Sept. 15.

Love and good luck, Catherine

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Agent Famine

Dr. Oz talked on TV about the "sex famine" in the U.S., saying hardly anyone's getting any because cultural rules make it artificially difficult: too young, too old, too tired, too jaded, too fat, too poor, too kooky, and so on. I have no opinion on whether it's true or not.

But the agent famine is a fact. In the past two days three first-novelists have asked me about getting agents. Two said they had no further manuscripts. I told them politely to stop hungering for agents and get busy being their own agents and seeking alternatives: small presses, subsidy publishing, self-publishing, e-publishing, broadcasts....or at least to go to a local writers' meeting and start networking. The third writer had her romance novel rejected by a big publisher, but she'd also sent a proposal for a book of nonfiction about a sustainable farm. The publisher said that topic was hot, and asked to see chapters. At what point, the author asked, should she get an agent? I said, you've got a publisher's ear. That's very rare. Do a good job with the nonfiction and don't add an agent to the mix until your nonfiction book is published and successful. Then your novel may find an agent.

Just as you prefer to hire contractors that have been in business for a few years and have references, agents want the same from you. I wish agents were just aching to represent your first novel. They are not. Artificial difficulty. But there are genuine solutions.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Strange & Wonderful Literary Events

July in St. Louis, and I wouldn't leave the house except for the strangest and most wonderful literary events:

Writers win cash, Saturday, July 10. Why wait for a contest when you can get instant grat at the annual Throwdown--this year open to those reading original poetry, short-short fiction, and short-short memoir, two pages max. Or come just for the drama. $5 gets you in the door unless you're a member of the St. Louis WRITERS GUILD (NOT Poetry Center, sorry for the error) then it's free to get in; $10 fee to enter one of your works, $5 for additional works. The cash prizes (separate for poetry and prose) depend upon the number of entries. Judge (yours truly) is just as tough and buff as Simon Cowell. Saturday July 10th, 1-4 p.m. at The Focal Point, 2720 Sutton Boulevard, Maplewood, MO 63143.

See an antique press in action, Saturday, July 17: Join us for an exciting hybrid of poetry and printing. At two p.m. we’ll host readings of two St. Louis poets, Joe Sulier (of now-dead Get Born), and Richard Newman (of River Styx). While they read, steampunks will be setting up and printing a broadside of their finest works on antique presses. What’s more, you get one of these hand-printed works of art for the price of admission! $5 per person. Space is limited, so call & reserve your seat today. Saturday July 17th at 2 PM at The Firecracker Press, 2838 Cherokee Street, Saint Louis, MO 63118; Phone: (314) 776-7271.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Middle-Aged Beginner

It is fascinating learning an art from square one. The dance-supply store unnerved and thrilled me. I needed a leotard, tights and ballet slippers. Pale-pink tights allow the the instructor to check if your leg muscles are correctly engaged; I never knew that. "What size shoes?" "Don't know..." "Leotard with long sleeves, short sleeves, tank style, camisole style?"

I am taking ballet lessons for the first time, and am terrible at it. What they call "first position," arranging the feet so toes point apart (ideally) 180 degrees -- I call the LAST position I ever imagined. Merely standing correctly is a workout. I can hardly tear my eyes away from the mirror that reflects me, the oldest member of the class, in an unprecedented and ludicrous outfit. Best are the pink leather slippers with cat's paw padding. I cling to the barre with a death grip. I'm out of step. Everyone cheers when after five tries I make it across the room.

The teachers speak using stunning imagery: "This is like writing your name with your toe in wet sand," "Imagine you're holding a mini-marshmallow between your knees," "lift your chest as if you're wearing a necklace and someone is pulling at it"

And last week the teacher was a professional ballet dancer, formerly a student in my Introduction to Creative Writing class. She took me to dance performances and got me interested. Now she gets to be the expert and I get to flail and ask for extra help and have my foot grabbed and correctly positioned. She laughs and I laugh, and I experience the trackless universe that is the beginner's mind. I'm learning that messing up is normal and okay, and enjoying it is all that matters.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Re: Dedications

Writer friend Anthony Di Renzo of Ithaca, NY just published a collection of witty, zestful essays about Italians, Italian-American culture, and food, plus recipes. Four of these essays were first published in River Styx, starting in 1997; allow me to take about 5 percent of the credit for that. Tony titled the collection Bitter Greens (193 pp., Excelsior Editions: State University Press of New York) and sent me a copy. This is the first time a book has actually been dedicated to me: "To Catherine Rankovic / Always Welcome at My Table."

None of my books or individual works are dedicated. That's 'cuz I saw it as just one more thing to worry about, maybe one more thing for the dedicatee (who of course would be sufficiently intimate to complain) to complain about. You might divorce or fight with a dedicatee, or mess up their marriage, or something. Or you might offend somebody who thought he or she ought to have been the dedicatee. An artificial difficulty.

Well, this has taught me: Dedicate books and other works to other writers. Non-writers may feel happy and proud, but I think only writers can appreciate what an honor it is, and all it means.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

So Much Good Writing

Why are there so many good creative writers these days? Having recently read some litmags -- the Spoon River Poetry Review, Rattle, the new issue of Natural Bridge -- and some collections of poetry and nonfiction, I'm awed. Today in the U.S. there is more good writing by more good writers than ever.

One can reply "Leisure," pointing out that a great many people (but not all who want to, not by a long shot) may now pursue what was formerly an elite activity. Along those lines of practical reasons you'd have to include "literacy" and "education" and "freedom of speech."

But, from a spiritual angle, the swell of creative writing is perfectly parallel to the swell of lies and con games invented by those who use life and language and imagination not to enlighten us but to make us smaller, needier, more complacent, and more anxious. Creative writing is a form of resistance. The more lies we are told, the more we are urged to be ignorant -- and that's not natural -- the more we resist. Simple. And, writers: GOOD JOB!!!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Why I'm Entering Contests Now

A few years back I was terrifically anti-writing-contest. My basic desire is to write well, not to compete.

But times have changed. Publication is no longer the top criterion and recommendation. Today, winning and trumpeting prizes is how one establishes or re-establishes credibility with strangers, editors, and those who hire. Before 2006, my last cash-bearing poetry prize came in 1987; the last for prose in 1994. Nice awards, but literature now is a culture of prizes -- it feels like a blizzard out there, as you well know -- and many good young writers are now in the mix, so that old awards could make me seem like a has-been on resumes or in author bios.

Considering how many prizes there are, and the things that win them, for the best writerly mental health the appellation "award-winning" is best seen as decorative, or, more precisely, cosmetic. One's work can be beautiful without it.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Psychic

It's bad luck to be superstitious, but yesterday I impulsively saw a "reader" -- I didn't know or care what sort --who was on duty at Mystic Valley. I bought a half-hour of a psychic's time. Of course I asked her about writing.

She said I had grown comfortable in my small pond and it no longer fit me, reminded me that my original dream was much grander, and that I should face forward, enlarge my life, move physically if possible, apply for employment out of state or at the very least submit works to publications on the coasts. I said, some of those I can and will do. She said nonfiction was the way for me to go. I said, I can do that.

She did not consult the Tarot deck I saw on the table. I said, Please pull a random card for me. She did, and it was the Queen of Pentacles, a very good card for a mature, ambitious woman. Felt better. And that's how I coped with my questions, fears and doubts that day.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Ideal Writing Space: Kim's

Kim Lozano writes, "When I started writing, I decided that I needed to be able to shut my door against the children (the sweet little darlings) and have a little place of my own. So I cleared out an old chair and table out of my bedroom and moved in a desk and bookshelves. On that upper left-hand shelf, beside the Bud Light bottle with the birthday candle on top, is a framed copy of my first rejection letter. On coolish days, I like to sit on my porch in one of my new, comfy yellow chairs ($25 each at Target) beside my peacock, Flannery."

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Talking With: St. Louis Poetry Anthology Editor Matt Freeman

Mark your calendars: Friday, July 16 at 7 p.m. is the launch party for Floodstage: An Anthology of St. Louis Poets (Walrus Publishing, $18), at Left Bank Books downtown, 321 North 10th Street, St. Louis. Editor and well-known full-time poet Matt Freeman talks about assembling this landmark anthology of 55 area poets -- it took two and a half years:

Who came up with the idea of this anthology, and how did you become its editor?
Even before I knew very many St. Louis poets, I thought an anthology might be a really neat thing to do for the city. I was lucky to meet Lisa Miller at a friend's workshop, and she mentioned she had just started a new publishing house. I pitched her the idea and we were underway.

What was the best moment while you put this anthology together?
Trite though it is, my best moment during this project came only recently when Lisa emailed me the cover of the book. I had a strange sensation of pride. And I'm still astonished that it came together.

What was the toughest thing about this project?
The toughest thing has been that since completing the editing, I've met so many wonderful poets who really should've been included. I'm sorry for that.

What were the criteria for the poets you included?
I decided to select the group of poets from all the acquaintances I've made hitting the scene pretty hard for a couple of years. The criteria only came into play as I selected the poems for inclusion, and got to come forth with my own voice. I am sorry that a few poets out there seemed to resist sending me some poems!

Why should people buy this anthology?
Anyone interested in St. Louis culture and anyone who has a lot of pride in our city ought to consider buying the book. Maybe parents of budding poets; maybe the poets for whom this is their first publication ought to tell friends about it, maybe social workers; maybe avant-garde painters too.

Anything else you want to add?

I've just had a good time here in St Louis. I'm glad for all my brilliant friends. I've been delivered and surprised in a variety of fashions.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Give and Take with an Editor

Kansas City Voices, an annual, last week chose a poem of mine for its 2010 edition, but the judge (his assistant called him "the poetry editor of the Kansas City Star") had suggested some changes in it. Open to suggestions? I always am; that's the nature of our business; plus, I had submitted that work in March and have since revised it, so I knew it needed revision. The assistant e-mailed me the judge's version of the poem. Golly.

Knowing that editors are not writers' enemies but their best friends, I gave the suggestions their due. About half of them would not harm the poem; about a quarter of them would help.

I printed out "their" preferred version and came up with my "corrected corrected" version. Naturally they were on deadline, so the assistant and I then worked by phone to reach a meeting of minds. I had cut out an image she liked. I explained how it was "over the top," and she suddenly saw that and agreed. I had deleted another line she said she hated to lose, so I let it back in. This mutual tweaking took about twenty minutes.

The result: The poem is better than when I sent it, and we are now both satisfied. How did that happen? Respectful. Calm. Informed. Orderly.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The One Wealthy POET, the URL, is owned by POET, a midwestern biorefinery, now with 26 plants, established in 1986. POET makes ethanol out of corn (grain-based ethanol), and is planning to make even cheaper ethanol from corn stalks and cobs (cellulosic ethanol). That's billion-dollar business and POET is the biggest such operation in the nation. On their rather mystifying website I tried hard to find how a biorefinery got the name "POET," searched to see if it's an acronym, and these are the best I got:

4/13/2007 8:45:11 AM, Countdown to Cellulose, by Jeanne Bernick

"Broin Companies has changed its name to Poet, “a short, memorable name that evokes energy and creativity.” Expanding its Emmetsburg, Iowa, plant to include cellulosic processes is its latest innovation. . ."

and another article: ". . .Broin said they wanted a name that would reflect the unique nature of their organization. "We wanted a name that would represent, rather than describe, who we are and what we do," Broin said. "As a poet takes everyday words and turns them into something valuable and beautiful; we use creativity that comes from common sense to leave things better than we found them."

Wonder if they'd ever hire actual poets.

Thanks to Gaye Gambell-Peterson, who saw a commercial with a steel-jawed guy in a hardhat labeled "Poet" (bet he was embarrassed, and I bet somebody on the set called him a fruit) and forced me to investigate.

Monday, June 14, 2010

What is a Magazine?

Looking through an airline's in-flight magazine I found to my surprise it's not a magazine anymore, but a catalog full of purchasable items, titled Sky Mall. I kid you not. In vain I searched it for articles, advice, horoscopes. The items were fascinating and I probably read the catalog more thoroughly than I ever read those in-flight magazines with ecstatic descriptions of trips I would never take.

I think about magazines, talk about magazines. I receive magazines. So what the heck IS a magazine? A wanna-be book with a shorter lifespan? A paper-bound, two-dimensional variety show? A newspaper on steroids?

Etymology: "storehouse, granary." Sense a) "a storehouse of information on any subject." The term used to be applied to books. But more recently, b) "a periodical with miscellaneous papers, esp. critical and descriptive articles, stories, poems, etc., designed for the entertainment of the general reader." (Then a qualification: "Magazines are now often specialized...") (because there is now no general reader. General readers read, like, catalogs. Magazines are slanted toward certain demographics.)

The dictionary points me toward the word "review." What, I ask, is a "review," as in Paris Review? Threepenny Review? I have never looked it up. Anyone can see that "to review" means "to look again," but the noun is defined thus: "a periodical containing critical articles primarily."

What is a magazine? I love magazines, so I have to give this more thought.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Ideal Writing Space: Julia's

Poet and teacher Julia Gordon-Bramer writes: "It's very suburban, but this is where I get all of my reading and writing done, when I'm not actually typing it up on the computer inside. I call it my 'outside office.' For me, it's bliss. And with my citronella candles, it's not too buggy, either."

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

When a Writer Leaves Stories Behind

My late husband, Robert H. Kneib, wrote fiction and nonfiction, and published two essays (one, "My Last Great Reading Binge" nominated for a Pushcart Prize) during his lifetime. But I always liked his short stories, was sorry they never found a publisher, believe he quit trying too soon. I thought Bob's fiction had vanished along with his computer, but in cobwebby boxes in the garage, I found hard copies; he had kept all manuscripts which had workshop comments on them. Re-reading for the first time in ten years, I see that two of the five extant stories are excellent, and one nearly so; for these, successive drafts exist, showing ever-higher levels of polish. Only now has it occurred to me that they ought to be published and shared.

First I thought to set up a blog. But considering there are two excellent stories of significant length, a fiction chapbook would be ideal. Fiction chapbook competitions exist. I will see if being a living author is always a requirement. Failing that, nothing stops me from publishing such a chapbook myself.

While I consider what to do, I'm typing up the stories, digitizing, so that his best work may survive him.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

A Schedule: Days 5 , 6 and 7

Thursday, June 3: About 2 p.m. I plop down into a place at home I don't normally write in, and write prose for two hours. I realize I do need to change places now and then, and that I require a computer that boots quickly, because once I am ready to write I'm impatient to start.

Friday, June 4: Half the day, great pleasure. Cheered by lunch with writer friend at a groovy new venue. Errands and exercise are joyful. Differences threaten another friendship. I try hard to tell myself it's not my problem, to distract myself, to cage and tame my feelings, to put it in perspective next to the Gulf oil spill. But I'm overwhelmed and I don't write. Up much of the night reading Puddn'Head Wilson.

Saturday, June 5: St. Louis Writers Guild holds a poetry-writing workshop outdoors at the Botanical Garden, 10 a.m. to noon. About 20 people met, heard some poems, then separated and each went off to sit alone and write, and then met again to hear the results of our exercise. Interesting and entertaining. It is an exercise in hope.

I have found a rigid writing schedule to be intimidating, and it is not for me at this time. But trying to adapt to it, I assembled and sent out a chapbook, wrote some prose and some poetry, mailed out some poems, and astonished myself by registering for a course that is waaaay out of my comfort zone: Adult Beginner Ballet.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Ideal Writing Space: Gaye's

Gaye Gambell-Peterson writes, "Picture 1 is a collage/painting done by me. My extended family has two beach houses, one in each Carolina. I've always found my muse sitting in one of the old wooden rockers on the respective porches. Those chairs not only prompted lines of poetry, but inspired a whole series of Portraits of Rocking Chairs. Photo 2 is my real writing spot. The Poetry Chair. I sit here (alone during the day, except for Rossi Cat) and write longhand. Once I've got a computer printout, I sit here and edit, and re-edit. You can see my clipboard, with dictionary and thesaurus in easy reach."

Ideal Writing Space: Lynn's

Beautiful! From Lynn Obermoeller, who says: "Here's a picture of my back yard - if I sit out on the deck (which you can see in the upper left corner), I can hear the waterfalls from our ponds and see this tiny botanical garden, that I created myself (okay, well landscapers actually put the ponds in, but I did all the planting - okay, 85% of the planting. The other 15% between my sister and husband and nature itself). Norm (husband) took the picture."

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A Schedule: Days 3 and 4

Tuesday, June 1. Morning errands that should have taken one hour took four hours. Workout at noon. Lunch on foods that need only warming up so I'm not distracted by cooking, which is my third-favorite activity and a great way to waste writing time. Afternoon, try to read Puddn'head Wilson. Fall asleep, waking in time to watch Judge Judy. After that, read a friend's essay draft, being very judgmental. After dinner, begin to sort through papers, throwing away drafts, duplicates, and obsoletes. Online I find an excellent writer's resource site, Read some of their very pointed and frank reviews of litmags. Check in with St. Louis Writers Guild and my publisher. Yoga before bed. Didn't write.

Wednesday, June 2. After a half-hour with journal and one hour of yard work I clean myself up and sit down at computer. Wondering what to start with, suddenly I'm in every writer's dream: I open up a file drafted months ago, one I thought was dross, and re-read it for the very first time. Darn, it's good! It wanted for nothing! Tinkering with it only ruined it! I printed it out, added it to packet I mailed to Southern Poetry Review (their contest closes June 15). Now every decent poem that I have written is circulating. I am aware that some people would prefer that I write essays, and while the poems circulate, am considering topics.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Ideal Writing Space #1

First in a series. Do you have an image -- inner or outer -- of a dream-place, ideal place, for a writer to write? Email them, if you would like to, and I may post them. Please give a photo credit. This one taken by me on a desert-blooming morning in Mesa, Arizona.

Monday, May 31, 2010

A Schedule: First Two Days

Sunday, May 30. Wake 5 a.m. in dread (nothing's really wrong). Coffee on porch, paging through a friend's poems. At 7:30 a.m. decide I must use the cool of the day for brushcutting and lawn mowing. After three hours of that, I shower, lunch, create no-knead bread dough and set it to rise, then, unbelievably, needing to escape the house, I go to the gym, grocery, and gas station. After dinner look at a friend's poems. Decide it's now or never to do my scheduled work. So tired I feel poisoned, but that has killed the dread. Taking up a copy of Rattle, Summer 2010 issue, I find exceptionally good poetry and interviews with Carl Phillips and Aram Saroyan. I read also the author bios. Gemma Mathewson's includes this: "Poetry is, for me, a kind of skywriting. It involves melding the twin vertigoes of altitude and disclosure, in the medium of vapor. " Good read. Want my work in that mag. Bed 9:30 p.m.

Monday, May 31. Wake 6:30 a.m. Feed birds. Bales of straw are required to complete my yard project, but it's too early to shop. I could plant tomato plants, but remembering yesterday, I halt myself and at 7:30 a.m. begin assembling chapbook for Midwest Chapbook Series competition run by Laurel Review, litmag from Northwest Missouri State University. Deadline is June 1; do it now or never. First chapbook competition I have ever entered, following my own advice to attempt the local before I try national. Picking up the contest guidelines I see I've scribbled on it a possible chapbook title: Soviet Life. I like it and use it. Manuscript and mailing package assembled and finished by 11:30 a.m. Manage to do it by literally gritting my teeth. Relieved it's done.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Schedule?

Annie Dillard, a prolific essayist, wrote about having a writing schedule, concluding that it's a net that traps that fleeting commodity, time. So I embark tomorrow (not today! Too busy today!!) upon an entirely scheduled writing week as an experiment. I think four hours a day, in the morning, let's say 8 to 12, is reasonable for writing and writing-related duties (writing in journal does not count; reading literary magazines does count); two hours a day for exercise, housework or yard work; two to six hours for paying work; & the rest open. I will let you know whether rigidly dedicated writing time turns out to be productive -- so many writers have said it is -- or if I can't make myself do it for seven straight days, and why.

I tend to start with unfinished material, tinkering and thinking, and within a few days get totally in gear, ready to draft new material.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Usually I refrain from offering the information I am a writer, and recommend this practice to all writers. "English Teacher" is so nicely cut and dried. But walking on the wild side this week I said "Writer" to a shoe salesman who said he's been in the same business since 1954. He asked what I wrote. My mom chimes in, "Oh she just wrote a book on St. Louis writers," pegging me as a local in a place rather far from St. Louis. Shoe salesman begins recalling many trips to St. Louis to Brown Shoe and International Shoe headquarters, 15th and Washington streets. I tell him that area has changed, is mostly loft dwellings now. "I'm a poet and an essayist," I added rather desperately. "She just won a poetry prize," my mother chimed in. "Yeah. This poetry stuff," I joked, "is really paying off," and I escaped with my new sandals, however sheepishly and lamely. Next time: English teacher.

Monday, May 17, 2010

They'll Do It Every Time

Poets who have poems accepted frequently tell each other, "...and from the set of poems I sent, the editor picked the one I liked least," or "the one that I thought was weakest," ....thereby creating a "Can I Get a Witness" moment:

"That happens to me, too!"
"They never take what I think are my best poems!"
"They took the one I sent as 'filler'!"
"I sent that one just to patronize them, and that's the one they printed!"
"They always do that!"

This phenomenon needs a name. Why do editors single out your least favorite submission when fellow poets, your teachers, and critics (who may or may not know you) zero in on the best ones right away? Is this a "Smells Like Teen Spirit" or "Come On-a My House" thing, where the artist freaks because his lamest song becomes the biggest hit?

In my case, I notice "they" "almost always" select the shortest of the poems I send, and then they always want changes in it. Either that, or it will appear with a typo or misprint (most recently: "indefinitely" instead of "infinitely"). It seems to be a joke that the universe plays on poets. But I say that only because otherwise I must conclude it's a joke poets play on themselves.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Good News for Old Writers

Refreshing: A group of 150 TV writers age 40 and over sued Disney, Fox, NBC, Paramount, talent agents -- more or less their whole industry -- for age discrimination. Execs had "graylisted" them, wanting only younger writers, assuming only younger ones had the schtuff to attract the coveted younger audience. The gray ones didn't take this lying down. After eight years in court they got a settlement of $70 million. I read this in AARP Magazine; click here to see the article.

For an energizing 3-minute YouTube rant called "Pay the Writer," by screenwriter Harlan Ellison, click here. I watch it often to remind myself that writers should get paid for writing.

I like it when writers get mad and pull together. Remember, they can't hire hot young interns for everything!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Magical Thinking About Agents

The creatures from the Magic Kingdom of Art, specifically writers, want to attract creatures from the Kingdom of Business called "agents." A great gulf separates the two. Because agents are few and remote and do not care to bridge the gulf, and because we writers are so creative and so broke, we have myths about them. Thus almost everything writers believe about getting an agent is a misunderstanding.

Getting an agent is not "the next step." Just out of school? Just completed your first book? The real next step is to develop grit and a professional attitude, because for the next several years you will have to learn how to act as your own agent, pitching and querying, knowing your market, and selling your own work, and maybe self-publishing it. When you have a track record and your work commands five figures, then getting an agent is "the next step."

"It's almost impossible to publish a novel without having an agent" is untrue. Three times in the past year I have seen first novelists, writers I personally know, get published because they looked for years for publishers, not disdaining small publishers, and they had manuscripts good enough. The hard truth is that most of the time if you can't get a manuscript published it's because it's not yet ready for publication.

Or, you may write very good manuscripts indeed. But agents want manuscripts that appeal to large, established sectors of the book-buying public, and not "writers" as we know them, but writing machines who can crank out similar manuscripts every 18 months or so, if not faster. They get paid only when you do. They don't want to get paid only once.

"I want an agent so someone else will take care of the business stuff so that I can write" is a rosy illusion indeed. An agent has many clients, is not at your beck and call, and is not necessarily accountable to you. What you are really asking for is an accountant.

"A starter agent" is not necessarily a boon. Researching the only agent who asked to represent us, my writing group discovered that he was a newbie, the largest part of his career having been spent in Europe coaching kids' soccer. We decided it was not good business to accept his offer. Later, however, he did develop a track record. We contacted him again, but by then he did not want us. I am so glad we didn't sign on with such a fickle creature.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Sneak Peek at St. Louis Anthology

"Anthology" comes from Greek roots meaning "gathering of flowers." And here, just a bit too late to give to your mom for Mother's Day, is a glimpse of the coming An Anthology of St. Louis Verse from Walrus Publishing of St. Louis, gathering poems from 56 area poets. It's an advance copy so it's not finalized; the cover may be different, the interior tweaked, but what matters is that editor Matt Freeman, in a heroic effort, made sure it contains poetry of consistently good quality: two or three poems from most of the poets. You will find some familiar names (Castro, Finkel, Newman, Van Doren, Revard), and some very young and new. Freeman says, "There's only one bad poem" in it, so I've been trying to find it. No word yet on publication date or price. How did I get a hold of this? We have ways.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Chuckin' Books

Time to weed the bookshelves, always difficult because of course the book you toss today you will need tomorrow, but I'm parting with:

Griffith, Bill. From A to Zippy. Compedium of Zippy the Pinhead comix. Loved Zippy in the freaky '80s but I've read all the strips 50x now. The original Zip the Pinhead was a 19th-century Barnum sideshow freak, an African-American, so celebrated that he was photographed by Matthew Brady.

Jonas, M. Rose. Can I Lie on My Resume?: Strategies that Win the Career Game. In this economy, all bets are off. There are no strategies. It doesn't matter if you look hard or not. There is either job or no-job. By the way, welcome to Wal-Mart.

Sabin-Wilson, Lisa. WordPress for Dummies. Obviously I don't use WordPress; I use Blogger.
What possessed me to imagine I might have time to read 350 pages on how to migrate?

Lorelei, Mistress. The Mistress Manual: The Good Girl's Guide to Female Dominance. I will let you guess whether this one was a gift.

Murdoch, Tom. Streamkeeper's Field Guide: Watershed Inventory and Stream Monitoring Methods. I got this when I joined the volunteer Missouri Stream Teams to monitor the purity of Missouri streams, and became Team #1340, along with two friends who are now dead. Later I belonged to ad hoc Team #2701, Brush Creek Sewer District. Those days are gone.

Zinsser, William. On Writing Well, 5th edition. Celebrated text I found unreadable in every edition, but I managed to write well anyway.

Miller, Sue, ed. Best American Short Stories 2002. Not a book but a monument to who was who in 2002.

Grant, Beata. Daughters of Emptiness: Poems of Chinese Buddhist Nuns. An example of faultless scholarship and faithful translation. But I now believe self-abnegation is morally wrong.

Campbell, Susan. The Couple's Journey: Intimacy as a Path to Wholeness. The kind of book that would help your husband so much if only you could persuade him to read it.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Talking With: Novelist Claire Applewhite

Like the photo? Read on. Claire Applewhite's second novel, just out, is Crazy for You, about obsessive love among St. Louis's wealthy elites; the first was murder mystery The Wrong Side of Memphis (2009), both published by L&L Dreamspell. She is also the new President of the Missouri Writers Guild, potentially a very powerful organization. She wrote novels for a decade before getting published, and has an MBA.

Your novels are fun to read. And they have a satirical edge. Did you have fun writing them? Whom do you picture as your readership? I hope that my novels take my readers to another world, and that there is a message waiting for them there. The challenge is to deliver the message couched in fun. I don't believe a writer's job is to judge, lecture or preach. I think it is to suggest, question and/or present--and allow the reader to form a conclusion based on individual experience and imagination. I hope that the "fun" in my novels encourages readers to read them. As far as my readership, anyone who enjoys a story with quirky characters, multiple dilemmas, and a Midwestern and/or Southern setting.

I know some people very much like Bunny, the spoiled St. Louis heiress in Crazy For You, and her parents and friends. Do you? I think everyone knows a "Bunny," don't you? For this reason, a lot of physical description almost wasn't necessary--again, the suggestion of her appearance and mannerisms are left to the readers to form their own conclusions based on individual experience. The challenge as a writer was to expose the part of the characters that was not stereotypical.

How were sales of your first book? Sales of The Wrong Side of Memphis were very competitive for a first book from a small press. However, I actively and aggressively promoted it, assisted by a publicist. I lectured at luncheons and book clubs, made multiple public appearances, scheduled many book signings and distributed complimentary copies. I asked for blurbs from other authors and journalists, and obtained reviews from book reviewers and Kirkus Reviews. Promotion was as integral as writing in launching the book.

You once said you got up at 5 a.m. to write. Do you still do that? Actually, I have become a night owl. I find that the writing is best between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. The world is quiet, and the characters' voices are clear.

What is your ultimate career goal? To become the best writer that I can be. I would like to pick up one of my own books someday and say to myself, "I couldn't have done any better," or, "Hey, I'm impressed."

Where'd you get those extra-foxy photos of yourself in evening wear? And why did you have them taken? Ah, the photos! I got those photos taken in response to my "readership" regarding the professional photos I had been using. To quote one younger reader, "You look like Meryl Streep in the Manchurian Candidate," or another well-meaning friend, "You look like a banker." I concluded that I did not look like a writer. I asked people in journalism for the name of a good photographer. We did a ten-hour photo shoot, with six outfits, and, well, these were the best ones.

As the new president of the Missouri Writers Guild, what is your vision for its future?
I am excited to promote literary talent in Missouri--and there is a wealth of it. My vision is to encourage new writers with the accomplishments of those Missourians who have achieved success.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Loosely Identified Poetry Night, May 17

The women's poetry workshop "Loosely Identified" (LI), active now for more than 25 years, consists of about 40 poets, about 25 of them active members of the group, and at every monthly workshop, attendance totals about 15. Every two years, some of us read our best poetry in the River Styx at Duff's series. This year is remarkable for the quality of its poets, of course, but also for the publicity poster custom-designed by LI member gaye gambell-peterson. Trust me, each figure resembles the actual person.

I joined LI in '07, and we meet monthly. I value this workshop group in particular because of its warmth and humor, and the feedback my poems get from 15 very different minds. Because we're Loosely Identified, the group doesn't fall apart if anyone takes an extended leave to care for a family member, travel abroad, and so on. New members join, and if former "Looselies" come to town, they visit. The group published an anthology, Breathing Out (Cherry Pie Press) in 2002.

Any women poets who would like to join or visit a meeting, please ask me; you will need a member to introduce you. Or talk to one of us May 17 at Duff's!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Mom Gets My Book

Mom phoned from Arizona to tell me through her tears -- she lost a brother, 88, last week and a sister-in-law, 81, on Monday -- that she received my book in the mail, thought it was nice, and although it was not written for people like herself, she was reading it. How glad she was, too, I had sent her something she didn't already have.

This is the first book I have ever sent her. Mom is not a reader or a net surfer; it is unlikely that she knows previous books exist. Close relatives who received the earlier books responded, shall we say, frostily -- a response richly deserved because I sincerely don't care whether they like what I write. I don't write for family. This time, instead of bothering them with a new book, I sent them my new author photograph. Sounds awful, but we manage to get along only through denial and ignorance of what we each care about; there is so much more, like blood, that unites us.

Doris Lessing was once asked if her mother was not mortified by her novels, which include sex scenes and whatnot. Lessing replied, "Mothers die much less readily than they would have you think."

But why risk it?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Are You a Writer, or an Author? Part III

Webster's etymologies, as far back as they can be traced:

: "to increase, produce"

: "to scratch; to tear"

I think writers do both. The difference seems to be that writing is composing, and authorial actions are quantifiable or measurable. As in:

Have you written the next chapter of your novel?
Have you authored your 1500 words today?

"Author" and books are related because published books can be counted. Most people have no other way to take the measure of a writer.

OK -- this question's settled. Now: Have you written the next chapter of your novel? Have you authored your 1500 words today?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Are You a Writer, or an Author? Part II

Literary theorist Roland Barthes said of the difference between an author and a writer, "The former performs a function; the latter an activity."

What is an author's "function"? To go on lecture tours, like Mark Twain? To be on Today? To appear at signings and banquets? To inspire writers who aren't at the touring/Today Show level yet? Twain , the most famous touring author, wrote (1896):

I got horribly tired of the platform toward the last -- tired of the slavery of it; tired of having to rest-up for it; diet myself for it; take everlasting care of my body and my mind for it; deny myself in a thousand ways in its interest.

Seems that without actively writing, an author is decorative -- they do call it "an appearance" -- or at best a pawn in his own money-making game.

And doesn't a writer have a function as well as an activity? Like, to stir people's minds? To entertain them? To educate? To stand for something?

Those literary theorists...I'm sure Barthes explains his statement well and in depth, but I read more than enough theory in the 1980s, before we all found out that literary theory ("literature means nothing") was the brainchild of a former Nazi collaborationist, Paul de Man, who in the rest of his lifetime neglected to mention that rather telling fact.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Are You a Writer, or an Author? Part I

Common sense says an author is a writer who's published a book. But according to the national Author's Guild (AG), "authors" are those who've published a book "by an established American publisher" who gave them an advance.

I know someone who joined AG because it excluded people like myself whose books were not "legitimate" but still somehow a threat. Mine were published by my choice and with my money -- that is, with courage and confidence. But with my fourth book I qualify for AG now, and if I needed to feel better about myself I could cough up $90 dues and join.

But I feel fine, and won't join a club whose point, apparently, is to exclude the riffraff: the vast majority of American writers. The AG makes further fine distinctions: Writers having a contract with an established American publisher but no book yet may apply for Associate-level Authors Guild membership. Freelancers qualify if they've published three works in periodicals commonly found at newsstands, receiving in return "significant" payment.

In my 35 years of writing, I have never received a "significant" payment. (I once won a "significant" prize, but it wasn't a publisher who gave it.) My guess is that you, like most writers, haven't received "significant" payment either. It's always been peanuts.

How about we forget all this hierarchy business -- it's too D.A.R. for me -- and respect and help each other, especially to get paid what we are worth.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Lessons from the Conference: Saturday

At the MO Writers Guild conference, I led a workshop on chapbooks in the morning, and in the evening had dinner and gave a keynote speech. I am not a speechwriter, not at all. I learned:
  • Be organized; it helps when so much is going on around you.
  • People are impressed if you appear organized.
  • Far from feeling cheated that I wasn't doing everything ex tempore, the workshop attendees appreciated it when I read from something I'd written years ago about chapbooks.
  • Real-life examples -- I brought along every chapbook I own -- practically did the workshop for me.
  • There's a speech in every writer's future.
  • A speech is a transfer and amplification of energy.
  • Nobody minds if you read your speech rather than memorize it or make it up as you go along.
  • When I couldn't find a topic to precisely fit the title I'd announced six months ago, in desperation I chose an unrelated topic, but one that really gets me started: writers accepting less than their due. I was concerned it might end up a harangue or a Howard Dean Scream. There wasn't time to try it out on a friend. But I did rehearse. I am never, ever sorry that I rehearsed.
  • Speeches need not be as highly polished as essays. You don't need "good transitions" or perfect grammar.
  • Be yourself, with all your quirks. Onstage, you are as good as naked. No use trying to be somebody else.
  • People like it if you express your true feelings because likely you are also expressing some of theirs.
  • I had a "speaker shepherd," Judy Moresi, at my side during the cocktail hour and dinner, chatting me up as the hour of the speech approached, and I am so grateful to her, and to David Lucas for the whole concept of "speaker shepherds," because, although I was among fellow writers, like anyone in the spotlight I might otherwise have felt very chilled and alone.
  • Listeners appreciate it if you speak with spirit, not withholding or droning. I knew that, but didn't know if I could do it in a prose speech lasting 35 minutes. Sure I could.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Lessons from the Conference: Friday

First glimpse of my new book, Meet Me, last Friday; it was already being sold by St. Charles' Main Street Bookstore owner Vicki Erwin (yes, the writer) who ran the book sale at the Missouri Writers Guild conference, carrying 100 titles, all by conference presenters and workshop leaders. Amazing, the number and variety. Who had the most books? NYT bestselling novelist Bobbi Smith, "Queen of the Western Romance." If you like handsome, emotionally available cowboys, Bobbi's your author.

Authors were to be present from 3 to 4 p.m. for signings, and I had the pleasure of meeting my book's first buyer and second buyer.

My publisher, Winnie Sullivan of Penultimate Press, met me there Friday, bringing my authors' and contributor's copies, plus my order of 100 copies for my personal stock. This cost me $970 with tax, but I got that over with, and Winnie helped me shelve them in my personal rolling bookstore. I was destined to sell two copies from the trunk before the weekend was over. Winnie and Vicki talked business.

Lessons learned on Friday:
  • authors at "signing events" mostly stand there doing nothing.
  • at conferences, dress to look prosperous, not like the ink-stained wretches we all really are.
  • offer your business cards, if you leave them on a freebies table, in something that will hold them upright, or at least hold them.
  • don't be afraid to bring your books even if not asked. Don't be afraid to want to sell your books or -- very classy -- have them sold for you.
  • always carry copies of your books in your car.
  • it is nice to have a publisher who'll help you move heavy boxes of books and talk business and promotion with a bookstore owner.
  • have a good idea or two about how you will inscribe the books you sell.
  • it takes two or three weeks for a new book to get on