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DonHartshorn.com

All about the author and his current work

Tag: Decisions

Character – Motivation

I thought I’d discuss character motivation, because that’s such a frequently misunderstood concept.  Motivation is not the thing that gets your characters moving within your plot – that’s incentive – it’s the drive that gets your characters out of bed in the morning.  But it’s not usually passionate or all-consuming.  It’s boring and workaday, and your task as a writer is to instill a different motivation in your characters.

Previously, I’ve discussed Character – Position vs. Interest and Creating a Scene with the Ws.  A character’s motivation runs parallel to both these things.  You’ll see writing advice that tells you a character’s motivation is a conscious thing, like it’s something they think about every moment they’re awake.  Nobody thinks about motivation all the time, not even your noblest character.

Think about your own motivation, what makes you get up in the morning?  If you work for Corporate America, your motivation is probably very basic in Maslow’s hierarchy.  You need to make rent, buy food, and pay bills.  This isn’t a motivation you think about a lot, but it certainly comes up when the ‘downsizing’ emails start flying.  Unless you’re very lucky, in Corporate America your motivation almost never rises to self-actualization.  But what if you work for yourself?  Same thing, you’re working to pay the bills.  Maybe you’re working at something you love to do, maybe you’re just good at it, but your work probably doesn’t rise past ‘Safety’ in Maslow’s hierarchy.

The same is true of your characters.  They lead regular lives, for the most part.  Until your plot starts, when their motivation should change.  But even with a new, more urgent motivation, the old motivations are still there, and possibly even more powerful.

Let’s use Batman as an example.  He’s just a man, with a man’s courage, but he has an epic motivation: make Gotham the kind of city where no little kid ever has to see his parents gunned down.  He’s got a long row to hoe there, Gotham sucks.  But that’s why he does what he does, so no other eight-year-old has to endure what he did.

Is that his motivation all the time?  Yes.  And no.  If that were his sole motivation he’d probably end up a billionaire social worker, using his money to put orphans through college and rehabilitating crooks.  But he also has a secondary motivation, to stop crime that’s happening right now.  And revenge, there’s a strong streak of vengeance in his work.  And justice, of course, he wants justice too, after all the punching is finished.

That’s a conflicting mish-mash of motivations: societal change, crime fighting, vengeance, and justice.  And trying out cool toys, that’s a large part of what Batman does.

Do your characters have multiple, conflicting motivations?  Of course they do.  In my novel I have a character who is very motivated to fight the good fight for the little guy against the system.  It’s what drives his career, even if most of the time his work is pedestrian and low-paying.  But he’s also very strongly motivated to be right all the time, even to the point of cutting ties with his brother for ten years.  Those two motivations  wage war inside him although nothing changes until outside elements (the plot) force him to reevaluate those motivations for a third one: finding the truth, even if the truth shows him to be wrong.

Motivation is not all-or-nothing, not for real people and not for your characters.  Any all-consuming passion usually turns out to be cartoonish.  Your characters should have many things that motivate them, that also drive your plot forward.

 

 

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Proofread Edits – Trouble in Paradise

Up until now the editing process has been pretty sweet.  I felt it was a collaboration, my editors making recommendations based on their experience and their reading of what’s best for my story.  You need someone to point out your blind spots, you know?  Keep you honest.  And it was going well.

And then 17 May happened.

Houston, we have a problem.  During my regular proofread edit I came upon a ‘suggested’ change that I did not agree with at all, not in the slightest.  I felt it was arbitrary, with nothing behind it but the editor’s preference.  To make it worse, that edit changed a foundational element of my story, a main character’s reason for a decision he made 10 years prior to the story, that directly led to the story taking place.  It was like deciding that Bruce Wayne’s parents weren’t killed by a robber, they were just inconvenienced by a kindly panhandling hobo.

I fixed the suggested edit as best I could, without changing the tentpole premise of the entire story, and sent it back with the rest of the proofread edits.

On 17 May my manuscript came back.  There was a ‘plot change comment that was not addressed.’

Well… I addressed it, I just didn’t gut my story to suit someone’s whim.  To make matters worse, I got that email after a 16-hour day working the job that pays my mortgage.  The phrase ‘did not take it well’ would be something my neighbors might say if you asked them.

Now I was in a dilly of a pickle.*  Up until this very last minute, all my publisher’s suggested edits made my manuscript stronger.  This one made it much weaker.  I really, really, really disagreed with their suggestion.  What could I do?

There is very specific language in my contract that states if the author (me) refuses to make edits the publisher deems necessary, the publisher has every right not to publish my novel.  To pull the plug and never look back.  This is my debut novel, I can’t make waves, I can’t stand up and fight, I can’t adamantly refuse to change a very, very basic story element.  I have to surrender.  I have to be someone else’s bitch, or I won’t see my name on that nifty cover.

So I made the change.  23 words out of 83,204.  I tried to face down the playground bully and ended up stumbling home bruised and shoeless, with my mouth full of sand.

Am I overstating this?  Possibly.  Am I concerned that this edit changes my story for the worse? Absolutely.  Am I right now stabbing voodoo dolls of editors I’ve never met in person? No comment.

I don’t think I’m being a touchy author here.  Sincerely.  I took the notes they gave me, I made the changes they suggested, I engaged in the process fully.  I played well with others.  Until the very last day, when they wanted a major change that made the story weaker.

No, I’m not going to tell you what that change was.  When my novel is published, you tell me what the weakest part of the story is.  If it’s the change I’m talking about here, I will definitely let you know.

 

*dad joke

Storytelling – The Basics

I thought I’d share some of what I know about storytelling, since I seem to be good enough at it to land a book deal.  At least one book deal, anyway.

I’ve had many people tell me they want to be authors, that they think they have a story to tell, but they don’t really know where to start.  I usually smile and nod and give them some sort of platitude like ‘start anywhere, you need to learn by doing.’   But that’s really just me being polite, most people who tell me something like that aren’t ready to write.  They might be ready to think about writing, but that’s not the same thing as writing, not by a longshot.

Everyone knows where to start a story.  At the beginning.  If you have trouble with that concept, sit down with a five-year-old and tell her a story.  She understands how it goes, and she’ll correct you when you get it wrong.  You start at the beginning, work your way through the middle, and finish up with the end.  Easy peasy.  Yet, somehow, when you’re an adult, you forget all the very, very basic storytelling structure you knew by heart when you were five.

So here it is, the breakdown of the story parts:

The Beginning – this is the bit where you introduce your characters, the world they live in, and the problems they’re likely to face.  ‘Once upon a time, a princess lived in a poor but happy kingdom, across the lake from a family of ogres.’

The End – this is the bit where you wrap up the tale you just told, giving everything a conclusion, though not necessarily a happy one.  ‘And the princess realized that, despite her best efforts, she had been as cruel and hateful as she supposed the ogres were.  She resolved to be better, and to listen first, instead of reacting.’

Everyone has the beginning of a story.  Literally, everyone.  Ask a random stranger on the street if they have a story they’d like to tell and you will get an answer every time, and that answer will be the set-up.  The beginning.  Many times, though not always, people also have an ending to their story, even if that ending is ‘it was all just a dream’ (my father pitched me a story with this ending once.  I’m not joking).

The Middlethis is your story.  All of it.  The ups, the downs, the betrayals, the sacrifices, the twists, the red herrings, the daring deeds, and the vile crimes.  How did the princess come to the realization that, perhaps, she wasn’t as pure and noble as she imagined?  That’s the story.  What did the ogres think of her and her actions?  That’s the story.

No one has a middle to their story.  Literally, no one.  Unless you’re a writer, because writers realize the meat of the story, the most delicious bits, come in the middle.  Everything you remember about a story happened in the middle.  In the Watergate story, the break-in has already happened, before the action begins and off-screen.  What people remember is the revelation of the break-in, and the slow unwinding of the truth, all the way back to the White House.  The story is the investigation, and how all the bits come together.  If you took that story linearly, it would be a boring procedural, maybe a court record.  The drama comes in gathering the pieces.  The middle.

Think of the three parts of a story this way, with font size indicating the importance of the part and effort you should put into writing it:

  • The Beginning
  • The Middle

  • The End

Remember that everyone has the beginning of a story, many people have an end, but a writer – a real writer – spends her time on the middle.

More in a later post.

Dev Edits – FINISHED!!

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I have finished my round of Developmental Edits!!

Yay me!!

This is the first round of edits, from my editor to me and back again.  I’ll have more feedback in a later blog post, but I figured I’d let everyone know that I completed this major first milestone.  Only four or five more to go.

Also: my publisher has come up with a different title.  I have some opinions on that, too.  More to come.

It’s been two weeks of work, and I’m going to go outside now, to refamiliarize myself with fresh air and the sky.  More posts this weekend.

 

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Out Of My Comfort Zone – Author Community

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My publisher has formed an authors’ support group. They asked me to be part of it. I agreed. It’s very strange.

Let me explain: I’m not a joiner. I do my own thing, hoe my own row, tread my own path, etc. etc. I’m very used to doing things on my own and by myself. The idea that I would get together with anyone – let alone other writers – to… I don’t know… share? doesn’t sit well with me. It’s a little touchy-feely to be honest. It makes me uncomfortable even to think about, let alone do.

So I’m leaning in. I’m old enough now that I know myself pretty well, and if I’m shying away from something like this I need to shove my misgivings aside and jump in the deep end. Its for my own good.

We had our first meeting yesterday, a technical review of how the platform works and etiquette while logged in. There were writers from all over in attendance, of varying degrees of technical competence, and of varying degrees of commercial success. Lots of laptops, so I’m kind of the odd man out there, but I prefer a straight spine at a desk rather than a slumped spine on a couch. Plus, when I’m beaming an image from a desk people don’t have to look up my nose.

This group is only for clients of this particular publisher, so I can’t invite anyone else on my journey, but I’ll let you know how it goes. The idea, as far as I know now, is help with marketing and getting the word out, but also general help and support. I have no idea what that means, as I mentioned, I’m trying to get over being the lone wolf.

There’s the concept of liminality in life, acting, writing. It’s the idea that you can get stuck on the threshold (limen in Latin, for my old students) between one thing and another. This job or a better one, that romantic partner or a different one, success and failure, moving forward and status quo. You can’t stand in the doorway forever, you either have to step through, or step back. Despite my every instinct to the contrary, I’m stepping through.

It’s still weird, though.

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What To Do When You’re Stuck

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Publishing News: they’ll start on the Developmental Edits before too long. Probably next week. There’ll be back-and-forth with me for over a month on this part. I’ll let you know what’s happening and how it’s going as soon as I have news.

I recently got involved with the #writerscommunity on Twitter. I recommend it, even if you never post anything or respond or even make yourself known other than following other writers. It’s tough out there on your own, and most writers are absolutely on their own. Friends and family might be supportive (or not), but that only goes so far. You need to interact with people going through the same things you are, and modern social media certainly helps. A lot. If you’re not already part of it, get on Twitter and find the threads. You are not alone.

I noticed a definite trend in the #writerscommunity postings, of writers who are ‘stuck.’ That is, they’ve come to a certain point in their work and they can’t see a way forward. A variation on that is writers who reach a certain point in their work and realize they’ve been going down the wrong path and have to regroup and start over. I’ve been there, and I know exactly why this happens. Some of you are going to agree immediately, and some aren’t going to like this next sentence at all.

You don’t know what your story is.

I’ll try to soften this by saying again, I’ve been there. I’ve done this. You have a really great hook, or a really great setting, or a really great main character, or a really great theme. With this really great thing in mind you dive into the deep end and start writing. The problem is, you haven’t done the very basic work you need to do in order to write a book: Understand thoroughly the story you’re trying to tell.

‘I’m not a plotter,’ you protest, ‘and I don’t work the way you do. I let my story sing through my fingers on the keyboard. Don’t shackle me with your notecards and plot points and character arc notes. I do things my way.’ Fair enough, but I’m not talking about how you do your work, I’m talking about the story you want to tell.

At its most basic, a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. When a writer gets stuck, it’s because they’re missing one (or all) of these parts. This is the ‘and then…’ excitement you get when you tell a story to child. This happens, then this happens, then another thing happens, and then… and then.. and then…

If you don’t have an ‘and then…’ all the way to the end, you don’t have a story.

Twenty years ago (yikes!) South Park had an episode that was an indictment of the booming pre-Y2K tech bubble in the stock market. The allegory was gnomes who were stealing underpants with the aim to make a profit. The only problem was the gnomes had no idea how to connect stealing underpants with making money. They had a beginning and an anticipated end, but no middle at all.
underpants-gnomes-business-plan.png

This exact thing is happening with writers who don’t know what story they’re trying to tell. They’re trying to connect the thing that excites them – their hook, character, setting, or theme – with a finished book. They don’t understand the middle part, the actual story, at all, and that’s why they’re getting stuck, or having to rework it, or abandoning it altogether.

So what’s the fix? What do you do when this happens? You’ll have to find what works for you, but when I’m working on a story, I talk it out. I tell the story, just like Homer did 2,800 years ago, out loud, over and over and over. It helps that I live alone. Talking out the story, telling the story, helps me get a handle on it, to understand what I want to say and how I want to say it. Pretty quickly I also get to know what I’m missing. Once I know the story then I can get to the technical parts and start constructing the narrative.

Maybe next week I’ll have details about the developmental editing process? We’ll find out together.

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Create A Scene With The W’s

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Last time I described some of the tools I use when I’m outlining. I also included a list of ‘The W’s’ I got from my acting teacher many moons ago. For reference this week, I included them again:

WHAT has just happened? The Moment Before. The Characters’ emotional states.
WHAT is happening? The Apparent Event. Actions/Behavior
WHAT do you want? The Objective or Actual Event. Emotional need.
WHERE are you? The Environment. Create a setting.
WHO are you? The Characters and Relationships.
WHAT is the obstacle? The Conflict.

I came to this list as an actor, and it’s invaluable for breaking down a scene into bits an actor can use to create a believable performance. It’s also really great for a writer to get a handle on each character in a scene. In order to illustrate this point, I’ll break down one of the first scenes in Special Circumstances. From the first chapter, it’s where one of the main characters, Travis Lynch, goes to witness the execution of a man he tried to save from death row ten years earlier. While in the viewing room, he meets Christine Morton, the reporter who almost ruined his life, also ten years before.

For Travis:
The Moment BeforeTravis spent four hours driving through Texas in a car with no air conditioning in August to get to Huntsville, where the executions take place. On the way he was recognized from his disgrace ten years ago.
The Apparent EventTravis agreed to be a witness to the execution of Reilly Wayne Sutton, and act as a proxy for Sutton’s family, who will not attend.
The Actual EventTravis comes face to face with the reason for his estrangement from his brother, and with the instrument of his public disgrace, Christine Morton.
The Environmentthe viewing room on death row, where people watch the condemned die.
The Character and RelationshipsTravis has become the black sheep of his family because of his conscience and morality. He hates Morton because of the way she used his crisis ten years ago to make her career.
The ConflictTravis doesn’t want to be there, and is unprepared for the shock of watching another human being die. He also loathes Morton but needs her experience with this situation to hold it together until the end.

For Morton:
The Moment Beforeshe saw Travis Lynch walk into the one place she never thought she’d see him, the viewing room on death row. She considered leaving him alone, but her reporter’s instinct would not let her do that.
The Apparent Eventshe’s doing what she’s done many times before, being the media witness to a Texas execution.
The Actual Eventshe realizes Travis is in way over his head, and she helps him through the experience even though she knows he hates her.
The Environmentthe viewing room on death row, where people watch the condemned die.
The Character and RelationshipsMorton has the strength of her convictions behind her, and her ethic as a member of the Fourth Estate. She knows she rubs many people the wrong way, but she views her job as a public trust. She also wants to completely understand events from ten years ago, and Travis is the only one who can provide her closure on the remaining gaps. She needs to talk to him, but he’s clearly unwilling.
The ConflictTravis needs her help, though he doesn’t understand that at first and resists even looking at her. She wants to use this opportunity to cultivate Travis as a source. She also thinks she’s immune to the emotions of watching an execution, but she really isn’t.

That seems like a lot, doesn’t it? But it’s the skeleton on which I can hang the meat of the scene. This provides me relationship, tone, backstory, and conflict. I know where the scene begins and where it (sadly) ends. I know the middle part. I know how the characters are changed as a result of the scene, which then is ‘Moment Before’ for their next scenes.

These two are major characters in this story. You don’t need to go into quite so much detail with other characters. For instance, the condemned, Reilly Wayne Sutton, appears in this scene. It wasn’t necessary to define him with The W’s, because his role here is to provide emotional energy and some exposition, and then, ultimately, to die. One and done, as it were.

I hope you find this method as useful as I do. It takes guesswork and uncertainty out of things for me, and lets me focus on making the characters and their interactions as real as possible.
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Creativity – Use Your Friends and Family

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In a previous post I wrote about how I manage my ideas. TL;DR – Notice Stuff, Write It Down, Read It Again.

This is fine, it’s a method for not relying on your flawed memory. But a story is much more than a laundry list of stuff you noticed during the day (unless you’re talking about a Seinfeld episode, then it really is just a laundry list). You need characters and plot points and emotion and conflict and resolution and all that stuff. No matter how cool, accomplished, and savvy you are, you’re only just one person. Despite your best efforts, you can’t know, do, or be everything. Your personal scope is very limited.

So how do you expand your scope? Travel is a great way. International travel. To a place where you don’t speak the language and can’t read a newspaper. I used to work for a government contractor, and I traveled all over the world. I can tell you for certain that my perspective expanded immensely in those three years. I was not the same person on my last day as I was on my first, and I came out the better for it.

But what if you don’t have the good fortune of being paid to travel on the Federal government’s dime? What if you can no more afford a trip abroad than you could pay off your mountain of student debt? What if the court says you can’t leave the county? What if you’re agoraphobic? You can read non-fiction, but even better, you can watch non-fiction. You can find slice-of-life videos everywhere online. Search them out, people are eager to show others how they live, and visitors are eager to show differences, too. Google ‘Japanese toilets’ for a good start on how different other cultures can be.

Absent travel, what’s a fantastic way of expanding your scope? Exploiting your friends and family. You go to work every day, and you do stuff and know stuff that’s a combination unique to you. Nobody else does your job quite like you do, nobody else has the exact same interests and hobbies you do. The same is true for every other person on the planet, including your boring family and idiot friends. Everybody you meet knows something you don’t. So ask them about it.

For instance, I have an attorney friend (mentioned previously) I can bounce stupid legal notions off of. I am always wrong, and Attorney Don gently corrects me, but his regular work day is labyrinth of interpretation and ambiguity that I just can’t wrap my head around. Talking to him lets me appreciate how a good attorney is like a good chess player, always thinking one move ahead.

I have a friend who spent years as a lab tech, and just this week I had lunch with her to pick her brain about what happens to a person who dies of liver failure. This is for the sequel to Special Circumstances that I’m writing now. She’s forgotten more about that kind of thing than I’ll ever know, and she helped me pin down a terrible, terrible death for a terrible, terrible character. It’s what friends do.

Talk to strangers. I know, I know, it’s a scary world out there, and you have to pick and choose who you let into your circle of trust, but I have learned so much talking to complete strangers. Like why you don’t want to weld in the rain but sometimes you have to do it anyway. Like how slowly the plane I was a passenger on would have to fly to drop out of the sky. Like how many different diagnoses it would probably take to get on full disability. Like how complicated the chemistry of toilet paper actually is. Like how emergency rooms have printed protocol on how to get stuff out of people’s butts because getting objects stuck in their butts is a thing people regularly do.

I encourage your curiosity. Find out what makes people tick. Find out what makes YOU tick, your writing can only benefit.

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My Process – How I Work

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Since I have no assignment from my publisher yet, I thought I’d share my process. I’m currently planning the sequel to my novel that will be published next year, neck-deep in details and ideas and beats. I know everyone’s process is different, but perhaps learning mine will help someone else.

My Step 1 : Decide what the story is.
This sounds deceptively simple, but it really is straightforward. I’ve talked to writers who launch into a ten-minute dialogue about their book, and at the end, as they catch their breath, I know a lot of detail around the story, but I don’t really know what the story is. For my money, these people have wasted a lot of their time on window dressing without making sure the foundation of their house is solid.

You may see other advice about building the story out of elements that come up as you’re writing, but I think that approach is bankrupt. If you don’t know the story you want to tell, starting to write is just an exercise in futility and frustration as eventually, when you discover what your story actually is, you’ll have to discard much of the work you’ve already put in. Work smarter, not harder, as my grandfather often said.

Here are some examples of stories. Each of these examples presents a simple enough story, but the outcomes of those simple stories make masterpieces of literature.

  • The Iliad – this is the story of a few weeks during the Trojan war when the commander Agamemnon and his best soldier Achilles have a falling out over a girl taken as a war prize.
  • Hamlet – this is the story of how a Danish prince exposes his father’s murderer but also brings ruin onto his entire family as a result.
  • The Great Gatsby – this is the story of how a self-made millionaire uses his fortune to win back his old lover who has married into old money and respectability.

My novel is the story of two brothers, attorneys, estranged for 10 years over a death penalty case, who try to settle the score over a different death penalty case.

My Step 2 : Start taking notes.
This part of my process is essentially brainstorming. Kind of. Maybe brainstorming with a little critical thinking thrown in.

During real brainstorming you just throw out idea after idea after idea, with no censorship or editing. There are no bad ideas. It’s only after brainstorming is over that you can go back and critically evaluate what you’ve come up with.

When I take notes, it’s not really brainstorming, because I already know what my story’s about. I’m past the ‘no bad ideas’ phase. I do censor myself, and I can have stupid ideas (often), but I try to keep the ideas flowing. What I’m trying to do with my notes is discover the individual stories inside the larger stories. In writer jargon, I’m trying to find the themes (overall subjects or motifs) and the beats (plot points).

These notes take several forms, I usually start with a notepad where I write down what I’m thinking about the story. I keep this pad with me most of the time, but in a pinch I’ll use the notepad on my phone and then transfer to paper. I prefer to keep these notes handwritten, because writing forces me to slow down, which lets my idea settle into my brain. I find when I type things out they stay in my brain as long as it took me to type them, only a few seconds.

After a while – half a notepad or so – I’ll have enough to start making note cards. These are regular 3 x 5 cards, and, yes, I do use the analog ones, the kind you hold in your hand. Again, typing is not my friend here. I need my own handwriting. I need the cards, so I can arrange them and rearrange them, and discard them, and recover them. I’ll tack them to my cork board, I’ll spread them on the table or on the floor. The cards are as much a tool to me as a chisel is to a carpenter.

Step 3 : Turn the notes into an outline.
When I have what I think is a decent story – or a decent start, anyway – I’ll create an outline. This outline is not your standard I.A.1.a sort of outline. I’m not making assembly instructions. Rather, this outline is more of a mind map, Plot point is connected to character is connected to theme is connected to story arc, and so on.

Before I start an outline I always know where the story starts and where it ends. I usually know major parts of the middle. Most of the rest of the story – the meat and potatoes – comes up when I create the outline. With an outline I can see where the story is thin, or where I’m jammed up with too much junk, or where there’s a gaping hole when I thought I’d built a wall.

The most important concept here is that my outline is a living document. It’s not a rigid blueprint, it’s a web of relationships that the story emerges from. My outline changes over time.

I’ll leave off here, I’ll revisit this topic the next time I don’t have anything to do for my publisher.

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The Contract pt. 1 – to sign or not to sign?

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In the beginning there was the contract. An agreement, a meeting of the minds, a legal document that outlines the responsibilities of both parties regarding that agreement. Offer, acceptance, consideration. But what the hell does all that actually mean?

When I got that emailed contract I was almost there. Just a hair’s breadth away from my ultimate goal of getting my writing published and available for people to purchase. Now I had to read this document, digest and understand it, and then determine if I agreed with it. Even though my novel is about a murder case, I am not myself an attorney. But I know people who are. I sent the document to my friend, also named Don, to get his professional opinion.

The reason you send legal documents to an attorney is because, as your advocate, your attorney reads that contract with an eye to any potential harm to you. In my situation, Attorney Don pointed out a certain section where I would be surrendering all rights, and two other sections that needed clarification on fairly technical legal specifics. Attorney Don made the corrections he felt were necessary to protect my rights, and I sent his suggestions (three total) to the publisher.

Within half an hour the publisher roundly rejected the corrections.

Among the things that fill my day, I am a mediator, I help other people resolve their disputes. I can recognize when someone is negotiating from a disadvantaged position, and in this matter I was that guy. I had never been published before, and this offer was a close as I’d ever gotten. They had what I wanted, and if I walked away chances were good another opportunity wasn’t going to come along. The worst case scenario for them, if I didn’t sign, was that they moved on to the next author; the worst case for me was going back to Corporate America with its enforced mediocrity and 10 Federal holidays a year. I absolutely had to sign. Right?

Not so fast. People make bad decisions when they’re rushed. That’s why those timeshare sales places are terrible, they want you to buy TODAY. I mulled my options over: sign a document that was almost but not quite what I thought it should be, or refuse to sign it because it wasn’t precisely to my liking. The details are unimportant to this story, the point is I had a choice to make, one I’d seen many, many people face during my time as a mediator. When is ‘good enough’ not really good enough? When do you walk away?

I did sign. I decided that the details of the contract meant the publisher was as invested in me as I was in them. Aside from a few quibbles about wording where I didn’t get my way, I believe they’re approaching it as a partnership, just as I am. In it together, which, honestly, is a fairly freaky proposition for me (see Publishing vs. Writing).

More on the details of the contract in part 2.

Signing a contract checklist:

  • Get an attorney to read it. Yes, this will cost you money.
  • Take your attorney’s suggestions seriously. They’re your advocate, they’re looking out for you.
  • Read the entire contract yourself. Understand every part of it. You will probably need your attorney’s help here.
  • If your attorney suggests changes, understand what those changes will mean for a revised contract.
  • Recognize your position, there’s always a strong side and a weaker side. Understand your side when you negotiate.
  • Negotiate in good faith. That means you don’t have a hidden agenda and you’re not trying to cheat, swindle, or screw over the other side. You’re going to have to trust the other side is approaching it as honestly as you are.
  • When you have a final proposed contract, read and understand it thoroughly. Do not let anyone rush you. If you’re pressured to sign before you’re ready, walk away.
  • After you sign a contract, make a list of everything you’re obligated to do. Post this list prominently, and add any dates to your calendar. Structure your work towards these obligations.
  • If questions arise, talk them through with the other party. Over-communicate. Bad things happen when people don’t talk to each other.

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Next – The Contract, part 2

Publishing vs. Writing

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When my publisher contacted me with the tentative offer of a contract, I got very excited. Which, if you know me, doesn’t really happen all that often. ‘Giddy’ isn’t an adjective people associate with my face. After the initial five minute high, though, I got to thinking. That’s what always messes me up, thinking.

I’d been working alone for years. My writing schedule was my own, my choice of project was my own, my creative decisions were my own. Once I signed that contract, though, I wasn’t alone. I would have obligations and timelines and other people depending on me and my creative drive.

That’s a huge change. Going from a one-man shop to part of a highly-specialized team. Could I do it? I’m not a hermit, in my day job I work with and around other people all the time. But this was my writing. My soul. Could I share it?

I really did have to consider this carefully, and it took me more than a day, including an almost completely sleep-free night. Getting published was my end-game. The ultimate conclusion to all the effort I’d been putting in. Of course I had to sign the contract. Right?

I did sign, and I know that things are going to change. I’ve entered into a partnership, there’s a quid pro quo. My hobby is now my business. I’m going to have to roll with the punches, and I anticipate I’m going to take a lot of punches. But the end result will be worth it.

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