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About Writing Right: The Blog

HOW SHORT IS TOO SHORT?

That's what someone asked online the other day when inquiring about the viability of a four-page chapter. I gave him my most tempered response.

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You know, enough people have given you enough good responses so that I don't feel I can add much to their replies. But, with that said, I do feel I need to remind you of something you seem to have forgotten, and the best way I can do that is to ask you a question:

 

Whose book is it, anyway? Yours or someone else's? Seriously. It makes a difference.

 

You say your longest chapter is four pages, but is it really your chapter, or did your English Lit professor write it for you and ask you to find out if short chapters are acceptable in literature today. Perhaps your teacher isn't comfortable portraying such ignorance; so, he chose, instead, to make you the foil.

 

Or, perhaps your mother is really the author, and you're asking on her behalf. Or possibly J. K. Rowling. Or Clyde Crashcup. Or, who knows? Maybe even the ghost of Elvis! Anyone other than you! Would you still want to ask the question as if you were actually the author of the book you claim you are if you weren't? Well, would you? Read More 

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PROBLEMS WITH ENDINGS

Here's the scenario. You work your butt off, creating an outline for your novel. Then, as you sit down to begin writing, everything goes smoothly. Until you get to the ending. Then you freeze up. Nothing you write seems to work. You're at a standstill. Now, you want to know why. Here's the answer:

 

You're not trying hard enough. Seriously. Oh, I know you think you are, but you're leaving too many "holes" in your outline so that, once you get to writing that part of your story (the ending), you find yourself wallowing in doubt. And despair. And anger. Have you tried taking an Oreo-cookie break?

 

Better yet, if you want a drop-dead gorgeous ending that works, think it through. And I don't mean at the writing stage. By that time, you've missed the bus. I mean at the outlining stage. Keep going over the outline's beginning, middle, and end, and keep refining the ending. Dig deeper. Ask yourself questions such as, "If this, then what?" And if the answers you receive don't appeal to you, ask different questions such as, "What if this happens instead?" or "What happens if someone shows up and throws a monkey wrench into the works?" or "What's the least logical thing my main character can do that later turns out to make sense?" Read More 

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WHY AVOID PLAGIARISM?

Someone asked this question on-line the other day, and you wouldn't believe the ridiculous answers people sent in. Here's how I responded.

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There are lots of problems with several of the answers you received, beginning, of course, with the Queen of Wrong, who said incorrectly that "the very best outcome you can expect is a cease and desist letter, being banned from every possible platform you published on, and having your name known in the publishing industry as poison." Dead wrong. The very best outcome you can expect is to have no one notice your plagiarized material; so, you walk away thinking you outsmarted the world. All of the things Queenie mentioned as the "best" are actually varying degrees of the worst you can expect—just the opposite of what she said.

 

Now, add to the list of worst things a plagiarizer may experience are a criminal complaint, a court injunction against the plagiarizing author, and—yes, let's dig deeper into the well—a legal finding for the plaintiff in a court of law. That could indeed leave the plagiarizer paying a hefty fine, all court costs for both sides of the action, and punitive damages. How likely is that to break the financial back of the plagiarizer? That depends upon the severity of the infraction, but in the case of an entire book, for example, the total could run into the millions of dollars. Read More 

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PURCHASING REPUBLICATION RIGHTS

A question came up the other day on how to go about buying republication rights for copyrighted material. That's relatively simple to do--once you know the answer. Here's my take on the situation.

 

First, whether or not you'll have to pay for using copyrighted content depends upon the amount of content, the attribution you provide, and when, where, and by whom the original content was published. It also depends upon where and how you propose to republish the content. Some publishers welcome limited use of their content with appropriate credits as effective, free, word-of-mouth promotion. Others don't. The only way to find out for sure is to write the Rights and Permissions department of the publisher, which information should be listed on a book's copyright page or on a magazine or newspaper's masthead.

 

In your request, provide the publisher with the exact material you'd like to republish, the original publication's name, publication date, and author's name plus any other pertinent information you can think of. Then, propose an attribute, such as "Reprinted with the permission of Random House, Inc." or whatever is appropriate. Don't mention paying for the rights. If the publisher gives you the go-ahead, you're home free. (Retain a copy of the permission for future use, just in case.)

 

If the publisher replies to your request positively and suggests a proposed fee, feel free to negotiate. If they ask for $500, for example, offer them half that amount. You'd be surprised at how many books a publisher has to sell to make up $500—or anywhere near it. By granting limited republication usage rights, the publisher is raking in what is in effect "free money." And that contributes to the publisher's annual statement, which looks good to the corporate offices.

 

If you can't reach an agreement with the publisher, of course, you can always sidestep the entire rights situation by rewriting, rewording, and republishing your own interpretation of the material you had hoped to purchase. Remember: Thoughts, ideas, and concepts can't be copyrighted. Their stylistic rendition (how those thoughts are written) can be.

 

Present the same concepts in your own words, and you're home free. And you won't have to pay for republication rights. Simple, no? Who would have thunk it?

 

Smoke if you've got 'em.

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D. J. Herda is author of the new series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available in eBook, paperback, and hardcover formats at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can check out his column, "The Author-Ethicist," which runs at Substack.com weekly. Well, almost weekly. Occasionally weekly. Sometimes weekly. (Hey, I do my best!)

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IS RAPUNZLE COPYRIGHTED?

In effect, that's what someone wanted to know when he asked online if he could use characters already in existence, such as a kidnapped princess with long hair and healing powers. He received some answers that were predictably ridiculous. Here's how I responded.

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I see you've received a couple answers so far, both of which are dead wrong and horribly misleading. Your character can have long hair, can lower herself on it like on a ladder, and even have the same name. (Most likely—more about names below.)

 

Ideas cannot be copyrighted, or else all of humanity would be in court defending against copyright infringement continually. Names cannot be copyrighted for the same reason. Likewise common descriptive words such as blonde, brunette, and redhead. Ditto for commonly used nouns such as tire, train, and fart (which is a bit like what the responses you've received so far smell like. And likewise for verbs such as run, procrastinate, and litigate.

 

People who have no idea what copyright means and what the U.S. copyright laws are shouldn't be telling other people what's copyrightable and what isn't. Phrases taken from a published work word-for-word may be copyrighted (assuming the work isn't old enough to be in the public domain, in which case you can do whatever you want with that work, including republishing and even selling it yourself). Entire sentences from a published work not in the public domain are taboo to use subject to the previous exception. In other words, the form an author uses to express himself in words—and not the names, descriptions, titles, and individual words—can be copyrighted.

 

Now, with that said, you can use the name Mickey and you can use the word mouse in your own writing without any fear of repercussion from copyright violation. But you can't use the name "Mickey Mouse" because, although not copyrightable, Walt the Disney Person was smart enough to take out a trademark that prevents anyone else from using that moniker. How you find out what phrases are trademarked or in the public domain is another issue entirely. You can begin with an online search of the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office. You'll find them at THIS address:
 
https://www.uspto.gov/trademarks/search
 
You can also contact an attorney, but that will cost a few bucks. You may want to do that in the end, anyway, if you want to be certain something isn't trademarked before you use it in your own work and risk getting blowback from the trademark holder, which is more likely than not a large, well-heeled corporate entity with a large, well-heeled legal staff on retainer.

Just my thoughts on the matter. Before taking any actions that might result in your legal embroilment, you should check with an intellectual rights attorney or, if you're a member of a writing association such as The Authors Guild, run it by their legal department. That won't cost you anything more than the cost of annual dues for membership.

 

Meanwhile, smoke if you've got 'em.

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D. J. Herda is author of the new series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available in eBook, paperback, and hardcover formats at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can check out his column, "The Author-Ethicist," which runs at Substack.com weekly. Well, almost weekly. Occasionally weekly. Sometimes weekly. (Hey, I do my best!)

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FORGING AHEAD WITH THAT NOVEL

A novice novelist asked online the other day how he can overcome the problems he faces whenevere he sits down to write. It seems that, despite all kinds of great ideas, he can never quite make it past the first chapter. Here's my advice, something that has worked for me for decades as well as for my students and mentored souls.

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Congratulations. You asked a relatively simple question to which you received a ton of convoluted, incorrect, or inappropriate responses. I think that's a Quora record!

 

Of course, you may want to hold off on rushing to the 'phone to tell dear old dad about your achievement just yet, since you're certainly no closer to receiving an answer that will actually help you to accomplish your goal than you were before—that is, writing a novel past the first chapter.

 

You were no closer, at least, until now. Read More 

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ON SIDONIE-GABRIELLE COLETTE

A reader named Graham Lindsey asked the other day why I thought the stories of Colette resonate so well more than half a century after the author's death. I was happy to respond.

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I think quite highly of the stories. Not so much for their literary scholarship as much as their unbridled ribaldry and shameless guile, which was quite shocking for the era, even in the Gay Nineties. I think even more highly of the author Colette who, as a child of the country, basked in innocence until realizing an entirely new life waited just beyond the confines of the hinterlands and prairies. By that time, she had already begun playing role-reversal games, fantasizing, trying on new hats, tinkering with gender-bending thoughts and activities, and writing.

 

Her husband, a vile and self-fulfilling prophecy named Henri Gauthier-Villars, who went by the name of Monsieur Willy, was the quintessential villain of his day. While forcing his considerably younger wife to toil away at creating titillating and often sexually explicit works, he published them under his own name, made a fortune promoting the "Colette" character's brand of everything under the sun (including cigarettes), and pushed his wife's sexual acquiescence to its limits and beyond. Read More 

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NOVEL, NOVELLA, OR WHAT THE HECK?

When someone recently asked what he should do with his 47,000-word "novel," first into the fray once again was a remarkably misinformed and misinforming would-be author with a ton of garbage novels in print. They, of course, make her the quintessential diseminator of authoritative information. Don't they? Here's what I told the writer-in-making.

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Well, the Queen of Wrong missed the mark yet again. Does anyone actually pay attention to her responses anymore? I hope not, because they can be damaging to a young writer's future. If not deadly. Here's how.

 

First, she says your novella (it's not long enough to be considered a novel) needs to go through "at least five edits." She can say this with all impunity because she's clairvoyant. No one else could know what skills you possess, the amount of determination you have, and the editing abilities you enjoy. Nor could anyone else understand just how much editing your opus will require—if any! Does it sing like a wren with every word that's read, or does it drop with a thud like a hollowed-out Wiffle Ball? Without her clairvoyant qualities, Queenie couldn't possibly know. Thank you, Uri Geller. Read More 

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DUMPING AN AGENT AFTER A SALE

The question of whether or not someone can fire an agent after getting a book published came up online the other day, and the usual detachment of dullards responded--some more responsibly than others. Here's what I had to say.

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Wow, the Queen of Wrong missed the mark yet again. Can you imagine that!

 

Contrary to the shoot-from-the-lip advice she gave you, of course you can terminate your contract with your literary agent at any time. Just be certain to follow the terms in your agency contract for doing so. And, by the way, Queenie is also wrong about not being "allowed" to get other representation or represent your work yourself. Dead wrong. Unless your contract is one of those contractual rarities so one-sided and unfairly skewed toward the agent with nothing for the writer, you're as free as a bird after you sever agency ties. And, if your contract is that badly skewed against you, you need to talk to a good attorney to get you out of it. Pronto!

 

Queenie and some other respondents were also outright inexcusable in criticizing your intent to fire your agent after the agent got you published. They can't possibly know why you want to go your own way without your telling them, which (if I can still read correctly) you didn't. Read More 

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COPYRIGHT ... OR COPYWRONG?

Someone I never met asked someone he never met if he could legally change the book cover and rewrite the copy for a book originally published in 1937. It has no copyright notice anywhere inside. Interestingly enough, several people responded. Here was my buck-and-a-half reply.

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I see you have received several answers to your question. Congratulations. Unfortunately, none of them adequately advises you on the legalities of what you're asking. One respondent's advice to wait another decade before proceeding is woefully inadequate. Another one's suggestion to check the title with the Library of Congress likewise may tell you when the book was published but not whether or not it's still under copyright or ever has been. And a third respondent's suggestion that you Google it is absurd. All that will tell you is whether or not the book has been mapped by Google's spiders.

 

To know for sure what the law is, why not go directly to the horse's mouth? Here's what the U.S. Copyright Office has to say about it: Read More 

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