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About Writing Right: The Blog


Someone asked me the other day if he'd be stealing from the Terminator books if he wrote about a character with a retractable bayonet in its gauntlet. Oh, yeah. Let me at this one! Here's my response.

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Copyright pertains to specific creative expressions and how they're assembled in a precise arrangement. If, for example, you wrote about a character with a retractable bayonet in its gauntlet and described the scene in your book word-for-word as it's described in the Terminator work, you're committing plagiarism—that is, you're violating copyright by stealing someone else's work. But, if you use a different description than the original (paraphrasing by using a different word order, words with similar meanings to the original words, changing sentence structure), you're not. Regardless of whether or not the bayonet is "logical," as one commentator foolishly advised, it's not infringement. Logic has NOTHING to do with copyright.


Remember: For a writer, WORDS in their specific arrangement in original works are copyright-protected by their creators or assigns from the moment of creation; concepts, gizmos, and gimcracks aren't. And, no, it doesn't matter whether or not the gizmos go back a thousand years into history. Words written in a specific order can be copyrighted; concepts or things can't be. Read More 

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One day back in the Sixties, PBS television host Bob Cromie had author Gore Vidal on his show, Book Beat. At the time, Vidal was riding high on everyone's list of favorite authors. Toward the end of a fascinating interview, Cromie posed a question to Vidal similar to the one you ask. Vidal replied something along the lines of, That's easy. Give up writing. Quit.


Cromie, slightly taken aback, said that Vidal surely didn't mean that the way it sounded, to which Vidal added, Absolutely I do. The best advice I can give struggling young writers is to give up writing for good.


By this time, Cromie, never one to surrender a battle without a fight, said that Vidal must not be serious because there were hundreds of thousands of fledgling writers in America just waiting for some advice and a chance to succeed as published authors. Surely, he cajoled, there must be something Vidal could offer in the way of advice, to which the author responded:


Look, for every new author who comes along and makes it, that means there's one less book for me to write. I don't like those odds, so my advice is for all of them to quit right now. Read More 

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To Create or Appropriate?

Someone asked me the other day if I thouight she could use "short phrases" from another author's work as long as they weren't related to the plot or essential to the author. Now, I had to think about that one for some time before responding (about a second-and-a-half). Here's what I told her.


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Absolutely, you can use short phrases from another author's work. Just remember that, if you do, you should be prepared to go to court because you're going to be sued.


Can you use short phrases with proper acknowledgement without being sued? Possibly, and possibly not. That depends in part upon what your definition of "short phrases" is: You never do define it, which I find interesting. Are these short phrases three pages, three paragraphs, or three words in length? It makes a difference.


Peculiar, too, is your contention that these appropriated phrases are not related to the plot or essential to the author. I'm curious: Upon what do you base those two assumptions? Are you an analytic literary expert? An attorney who specializes in copyright infringement? A justice on the U.S. Supreme Court? A mind reader? Obviously not. If you were, you'd know that neither one of your contentions offers legal atonement for infringement. Read More 

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When I began writing five decades ago, I found editing my own work a painfully difficult experience. I agonized over what to change and why, mostly because I didn't know a dangling particple from a split infinitive. After taking a few college journalism courses, I picked up a book on etymology and studied several classic works on how to write better. I began stringing for a local newspaper before landing an entry-level job as an editorial assistant for a national magazine. And, do you know what? Editing suddenly got easier.


Thank goodness, too, because even the most poorly written books can be improved with effective editing. Unfortunately, not all editing is "effective."


A case in point: I wrote a nearly perfect book a few years ago. No surprise. I'm a perfectionist. I've worked as a professional editor for most of my life; I've taught analytic grammar and creative writing workshop at the college level, and I ghostwrite, book-doctor, and edit for other authors. And, I'm a perfectionist. (I know, I know. I just wanted to hear it again).


My publisher assigned my manuscript to an editor who introduced herself in an e-mail. Not having worked with her before, I told her I was looking forward to any substantive suggestions she might make but that I didn't want her editing my work to change the book's voice or style to meet her own literary preconceptions and preferences. She said she understood. Read More 

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Daily Writing Output

A number of beginning writers have asked me how many words they should crank out each day. The truth is, the number doesn't matter. Getting faster as you practice doesn't matter. What Isaasc Asimov did when he was writing doesn't matter. What DOES matter is how well you write. Thirty words a day of perfectly crafted prose beat out thirty thousand words of hastily scribbled crap any day.

You may have heard the admonition to spit the words out while they're fresh in your mind and get them down on paper because you can always go back and edit them later. My advice: Don't buy it. If you were capable of going back and editing them later, you'd most likely be working as a professional proofreader or editor for some major magazine or book publisher and making a damned good living at it. I think it's safe to assume you're not.


The plain truth is, you need to do the best you can possibly do in any given time frame. A day, a week, a month—hell, a year, if you're comfortable with that. Take your time, and get it right. Read More 

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As far as the public is concerned, neither one will box you in. So, by all means, start with the memoir. It will give you a solid financial base, a cushion to fall back on when future novel sales slow to a trickle, and name recognition. All this is assuming that "Kari" is a pen name and that the real byline you're going to use rhymes with Odell Ohama. If that's true, then you can't miss!


Seriously, memoirs sell poorly. Period. That's the sad reality of it all. Unless you have a HUGE name and are actually in the news cycle every night, a recognizable name alone won't pull its weight, as most publishers have learned. The name has to belong to someone interesting, lovable (forget it, I'm not in the running), controversial, and responsible for important breaking news on a nearly daily basis. Anyone else, and you won't find a publisher within this universe who will take a chance on it.


Since I'm guessing that your goal is most likely to begin writing more "fiction novels" (please do me a favor and research "novels," "fiction," and why all novels are fiction whether or not you specify so), why not go for that from the start? Read More 

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Someone recently asked me how he could find a reliable editor for his first novel. It seems the last people he'd hired stole his "uncopyrighted work," which left him with a bad taste in his mouth for this whole writing/publishing business. Understandbly. Adding to his trauma, he wants to publish his novel by the end of 2021. Is that even possible?


Well, first, I corrected some fallacies that others were throwing his way, so he didn't waste time running down a blind alley. Here's what I told him in a nutshell


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  1. You don't have to register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office to protect it, and, in fact, you can't do so unless you're a U.S. citizen. Registering your work, while having some advantages, also takes time, and that's something of which you don't seem to have a lot. The good news is that, regardless of where you live, virtually all countries recognize the copyright of a work from the time of its completion. If you could afford an attorney or a legal counseling group's recommendation—or even learn more about copyright law yourself—you could go to the thieves of your work and demand in writing that they cease publication and reimburse you for any monetary losses you may have suffered. In lieu of hiring an attorney, you could join a writing association such as the Author's Guild, which provides complimentary legal advice and services to their author members.
  2. As for getting an agent, you can't just look in a guide and select one to represent you. Agents are overwhelmed by requests for agency representation and, thus, can afford to be incredibly selective. I've long said that the only thing more difficult than getting a book published conventionally is locating a receptive literary agent. And I say this, having had six to date. But I'm the exception and not the rule.
  3. Similarly, while you search the Web to find conventional (that is, advance-paying) publishers who accept unagented manuscripts, the chances of anyone even reading your material, let alone contracting with you to publish it, are minimal. The reason, as in finding an agent, is that the ocean is filled with swimmers, and there are only so many lifeboats to pluck them out of the sea. Besides, conventional publishers take an average of anywhere from one to two years to bring a book to market. Read More 
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Someone asked me the other day who my favorite authors are. I had to think about it for a while, because I appreciate good writing and quality craftsmanship, and that combination isn't easy to find these days. In the end, I came up with several favorites whose works I've enjoyed over the years, some of the longest lasting being Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dürrenmatt, Kafka, Dostoevsky, and even Donald Barthelme for his mastery of the short story. But only one writer changed my life forever more than fifty years ago. It was a guy who went by the name of J. D. Salinger.


I was a freshman in high school when our teacher assigned the book, The Catcher in the Rye, for a report. Thinking it was a story about baseball (freshman, remember), I decided to read it rather than merely peruse Cliff's Notes and skate through the assignment, as usual. Well, it wasn't long before I fell in love with Holden Caulfield's brashness and the power of his creator's literary voice. They got me thinking about how cool it would be to be an author and how fortunate Salinger was to have a name as distinctive as J. D. You know, only those two initials out front.


Just for fun, I began contemplating what sort of by-line I would have used had I ever decided to write a book. You know. J. D. Salinger. D. J. Herda. J. D. Salinger. D. J. Herda. Read More 

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When I was a kid of 17 or so, I wrote a satirical stage play and tried to find a publisher/producer for it. When that failed, I decided I could produce it myself. (How hard could it be?) I happened to know a man at Follett Publishing in New York. Which is to say, I knew of him from some book rejection slips he'd sent me over the years. So, on a lark and desperate for notoriety, I gave him a call to tell him what I had in mind. I explained the plot, told him about the characters, and said I was looking to produce the script and had heard he might be interested in backing an upcoming young playwright.


To my surprise, he said, "Sure. I'd like to hear more. When can we get together to talk?"


Naturally, since I lived in Chicago and he lived in New York, I had to do some fancy shuffling before the opportunity arose for me to go knocking on his door. I had by then scraped together a few bucks, and I prevailed upon a couple of friends to kick in a few more for a third-class train ticket, and I called Louis Zara and told him of my plans.


He sounded delighted and suggested he pick me up at the airport and take me to his home for dinner. I sounded delighted and replied, "Sure. Great. Except I don't like to fly, so I'll be taking the train."


"Even better," he said. "I'll see you at Penn Station when you get in." Read More 

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I never cease to be amazed at the literary skills (or lack of them) that some people possess while nonetheless thinking they're equipped to write a book and make a killing. It's not that I object to people seeking reasonable answers to intelligible questions. That's how we learn. But, I received this question the other day: "How many sales before a 275-page book shows a profit at $100 a copy?"


Naturally, it was too enticing a question to pass up; so, I didn't.


You didn't exactly give a whole lot of thought to this question, did you? I mean, first of all, what's your definition of "profit"? If you mean something so obtuse as to how many copies you'd have to sell to cover the time, sweat, and tears you spent in writing your book, I haven't a clue. The variables are too great. Nor do I have an inkling of the rate you ascribe to your hourly toils or how many weeks, months, or years you spent busting your butt.

Ahh, but I see now in reading between the lines that, since neither the book's total number of pages nor its oversized format would affect your bottom line, that must not be what you mean. Read More 

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