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.