Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Guarding Your Rights as a Writer

by Susan

A few months back, we talked about copyright basics, and touched on the idea that you should be careful when signing an agreement with a publisher that your rights are adequately protected. Let's delve into that a little more.

Your copyright allows you to dole out publishing rights that can be split up numerous ways. The bundle of rights you grant a publisher affects what you can do with the piece down the road. These are not lawyerly descriptions, but some of the rights you might grant include:

  • First-time rights: the publisher gets dibs on printing it first, but you can shop it around to others or self-publish it afterwards.
  • One-time rights: they get it once, not necessarily first, and they aren't necessarily the only ones who can publish it.
  • Second rights or reprint rights: it's been printed at least once already, you're giving them permission to reprint it.
  • Geographic limits: such as North American rights or worldwide rights. This limits (or doesn't, in the case of worldwide rights) in which countries the publisher may reproduce your work.
  • Print, audiobook, ebook, serial rights: sets limits by format.
  • Exclusive rights: no one but the publisher has the right to publish it. This includes you. Even if you are the author, granting exclusive rights means you do not get to sell it to anyone else, nor can you self-publish it.
  • Non-exclusive rights: the publisher has the right to use it, but you retain the right to publish it elsewhere. 
  • Time-limited rights: you might give a publisher the right to publish your work for three years, or five years, or any amount of time up to the full length of copyright (your death + 70 years).

Another good concept to be familiar with are reversion clauses, that is, under what circumstances your rights will come back to you, such as if the book doesn't get published in a reasonable length of time, or if it goes out of print.

The thing to remember is that these rights are valuable. As you look at any contributor's agreement a publisher may send you, you need to evaluate whether they are asking for a fair grant of rights in exchange for what you are getting out of it. Do not rely on any assurances made outside the contract. The contract is the contract, and it says what it says.

Some recommended reading on this topic before you sign anything:

And a brief bibliography to educate yourself further. All of them are available in Wyoming libraries through WYLDCAT:
  • The Writer's Legal Companion, 3rd ed. by Brad Bunnin and Peter Beren. Reading, Mass. : Perseus Books, c1998.
  • The Copyright Handbook: What Every Writer Needs to Know, 11th ed. by Stephen Fishman, J.D. Berkeley, Calif.: Nolo Press, 2011.
  • Getting Permission: How to License and Clear Copyrighted Materials Online and Off, 5th ed. by Richard Stim. Berkeley, Calif.: Nolo Press, 2013.
  • The Copyright Guide: A Friendly Handbook to Protecting and Profiting from Copyrights, 3rd ed. by Lee Wilson. New York: Allworth Press, 2003.

Recently, I had to withdraw an essay from an anthology when the publisher sent what was to me an unacceptable contributor's agreement. The best piece of advice I got from a fellow writer during this was that if I was not comfortable with the contract, I shouldn't sign it. It was disappointing, but I decided to walk away.

Another writer might make a different decision. That's OK. The important thing is to know what you are signing away when you make that agreement. 

Disclaimer: This is intended for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015


post by Lynn

"Writers are the custodians of memory, and memories have a way of dying with their owners."
- William Zinsser

So, I get this email the other day from Debbie Sturman, librarian at the Niobrara County Library (hooray for librarians!). Basically she says that some gal from Wyoming Public Radio had contacted her, looking for information on the Mother Featherlegs monument for a Wyoming Minute segment. So, naturally, Debbie thought of me.

I say naturally, because my father, Jim Griffith, Jr., was one of the instigators of a project in 1964 to erect a monument to Charlotte Shepard, a.k.a. Mother Featherlegs, a madame who ran a road house along the Cheyenne-Deadwood stage line in the 1870’s. It is the only known monument erected to a prostitute in the United States.

Would I mind talking with the WPR gal? Deb asked.

I emailed back and said I’d be glad to. Then I called my sister, Laura, and said that I didn’t know how much help I’d be. I was only six years old at the time the Mother Featherlegs monument was put up. 

Laura’s response?

“Check Dad’s book.”


After my father retired from state office (he served terms as State Treasurer and Auditor) and moved full time to Phoenix, he typed up a bunch of memoir bits and put them into a book titled “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Wyoming Capital.”

Then Dad self-published the book and gave copies to friends and families. After his death in 2001, I had a lot of people say to me how much that little book meant to them.

Dad’s little book is no opus. It’s a collection of stories from his life. The longest one is only about two and a half pages long. He typed them up over several years, using his signature peck-with-one-forefinger typing style.

The topics range widely and include:

  • Details of Dad’s boyhood shenanigans, such as when he crawled under the tent wall to see a fan dancer at Cheyenne Frontier Days in 1941;
  • Anecdotes of Dad’s days in Wyoming politics, like the time he arranged for a bagpipe player to lead him to the stage at the Republican state convention, bearing a sign that read “Griffith is Scotch with the taxpayers’ money”;
  • Family lore, like when my sister Laura, at a young age, stole a horse, brought it home and told my father, “He was just lost out on the prairie.”

There are also lots of excerpts from The Lusk Herald, the newspaper my father and his father, James B. Griffith, Sr., ran for many years.

Whenever I read from Dad’s little book, I hear his voice. He was a storyteller, always, and as I read the words he wrote down, I picture him leaning forward, tilting his head and smiling his crooked smile. He is once again with me.  


I riffled through Dad’s book and made note of any mention of Mother Featherlegs. He talked about how he and his buddy, Bob Darrow, had decided to mark Charlotte Shepard’s grave, and how the whole of Niobrara County got in on the project. Lots of details, lots of Dad's quirky humor. 

I conversed via email and phone with the WPR gal. She had already found a lot about Mother Featherlegs and the monument from several websites, historical records and an article in Deadwood Magazine, but she wanted to clarify a few things. I read to her from Dad’s little book.

She seemed satisfied and thanked me. I don’t think the piece on Mother Featherlegs has aired yet, but I’m keeping an eye on the WyomingMinute webpage.


So, all I’m saying is to you this fine late summer day is this: write your stories down. 

It doesn’t have to be in book form, even. It doesn’t have to be in chronological order. Just write it down already. Do it for your kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews.

Do it for some random person from Wyoming Public Radio.

And by the way—thanks, Dad. 

I’m glad you wrote it down.


Here’s a sampling of memoir-friendly publishing outlets:

Away Journal (travel focused) http://awayjournal.org/
Neutrons/Protons (humor focus) http://neutronsprotons.com/

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Your Words Have Power

by Susan

A few years back, I was running Wyoming's piece of the Letters About Literature contest where students write a personal letter to the author of a book that affected their lives. A junior high student from Gillette, Wyoming, wrote to Laurie Halse Anderson, the author of Speak. The book is about a young high school student who is raped and is unable to speak of what happened.

In the letter, the student wrote of how she herself was sexually assaulted. I read it, then laid my head down on my desk and cried. I still tear up writing these words, even years later.

When Anderson wrote Speak, she made at least one young girl who'd endured a trauma feel less alone, perhaps feel less shame over it. There were surely more. When we write, our words have power.

Not all of us write about hard-hitting issues, so it may not be as obvious to us what impacts our words might have. Our words might make someone:

  • Smile, or even laugh,
  • Cry,
  • Learn some tidbit,
  • Try something new,
  • Experience beauty in the world,
  • Connect with someone with a similar experience,
  • Understand someone with a different experience, or
  • Escape from their daily grind.

I get paid to write these days, so I'm living the dream. Most of what I write are blog posts, newsletters, and press releases. It's mundane stuff, but it has value to the reader.

Recently, I had an essay accepted for publication for a Creative Nonfiction anthology on mental illness. This is a "naked moment" for me as a writer. I revealed many personal details. The first time my husband read it, he asked me if I really wanted to put it out under my own name. (As a matter of fact, yes.) After he read a second draft, he said, "Maybe it will help one person." 

Maybe. I can only hope. Humans are storytelling creatures. Whatever you are writing, your words have power. They have value. Never forget that. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015


I felt this post from May of 2014 deserved another go-round and so here it is...


Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road. 
- Jack Keruoac, On the Road 

Photo by Mike Carlson
If there’s one thing you and I most likely have in common, it’s that we spend a lot of time on the road. Long drives are a fact of life in Wyoming. So I’m of the opinion that it's essential to make good use of windshield time.

Here are some ways I use drive time to hopefully become a better writer, mile by mile:

For some reason, I get lots of creative “stuff” when I’m driving. Dialogue, essay angles, setting nuance (what color is that stretch of grass, really?) and plot tangles. I know I should get a tape recorder, but I’m pretty adept at scratching a few key words on a notepad that sits on the passenger seat, while I look straight ahead. You scoff— but it’s my story and I’m sticking to it. For this kind of drive time, I keep the radio off and my ear tuned to anything the muse has to say.

Sometimes I crank the tunes and let the music take me where it will. Lyrics enter my brain better in the car than anywhere else. Sometimes poems come out of this listening, but most of all I get character insights. I was listening to Tim Grimm’s song “Holding Up the World” one day and it occurred to me that it “belonged” to Keenan, one of my fictional characters. It sent me off on a whole new tone with him, followed by corresponding plot elements.

I have gotten some high-caliber education during long drives by downloading podcasts to my little iPod and playing them in the car. High tech? Not really. If I can do it (with a little help from my husband when I have questions) I bet you can too.

Just a few of my favorite writing-related podcasts are:

Writers On Writing: a weekly radio program on the art and business of writing, where an impressive cast of writers, poets and literary are interviewed.

Authors On Tour: Live! I don’t know about you, but I’d attend all of the writer events held at Denver’s Tattered Cover Bookstore if I could. With this podcast, I can be there for a lot of them.

KQED FM – The Writer’s Block: A weekly reading series featuring stories, essays and poetry by writers from all genres–includes accomplished beginners and established authors.

Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing: When my attention span is short or I’m just running a few errands, I use the time to brush up on little details--the kind that editors will nail you on. This podcast is billed as a “friendly guide to the world of grammar, punctuation, usage, and fun developments in the English language” and it delivers.

New Yorker: Fiction: I don't always make time to read short stories. The cool thing with this podcast is that well-known authors read works of fiction by their favorite authors, and talk about the story. Examples: Rick Bass reads Thomas McGuane’s “All the Land to Hold Us”; Margaret Atwood reads Mavis Gallant’s “Voices Lost in Snow” -- They've got a poetry podcast too!

And you? How do you make those miles count? 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Crafting Classy Cover Letters

Guest post by Rick Kempa

This was one of the handouts from Rick Kempa's "The Art of Getting Published" session at the WyoPoets spring workshop in April. He has graciously permitted Writing Wyoming to share it with you. You may also find his post on market research in our blog archives.

So you have explored numerous journals and magazines, on-line and in-print, and found some that feel right for your work. You've sampled their writing and said to yourself, "Yes, my stuff would be at home here, too." A flush of confidence wells up. You scoff at that timid voice inside you that fears rejection. By god, you're going to give it a go!

If you bring your full attention to bear on the specifics of the submission process, you will increase your odds tremendously and -- if you make such a professional approach habitual -- you will assure yourself of eventual success.

Editors are like microwaves and cell phones: no two operate the same way. They have all kinds of needs and preferences and downright quirks. It is your job to keep track of what they are. A close reading of the publication's website, and especially the Submissions Guidelines, should cue you in on how to format your work, what to name the file, what file types (.rtf, .doc, .docx) to use and avoid, what should and shouldn't go into the cover letter, what method of transmission is required (submission service, email or U.S. mail). And so on. Painstakingly observe these particulars, in both the cover letter and manuscript, and you will spare the editors some pain -- which is a good first goal to have.

First, a few words on the manuscript: make it clean and error-free. Unless instructed otherwise, put your name, address, email, and phone number at the top of the first page of each separate poem or story, and a simple header (last name and page number) for every subsequent page. Single-space poetry, double-space prose. Keep it simple -- no fancy fonts, embroidered borders, or perfume.

The manuscript is what matters most of all, of course. The world's best cover letter can't -- or shouldn't -- get lousy work in print. Still, a well-made letter serves a purpose: it establishes you as a serious, savvy writer (not a novice), and it puts the editor in a receptive mood. I favor the three-paragraph approach: introduce your work, introduce yourself and make a connection.

Introduce your work

"Dear Marco Polo," I begin, or whatever the editor's name is (I make a point of finding out). "Enclosed are four poems [or "two short prose pieces" or whatever] for your consideration," and I name them, putting each title in quotation marks. Sometimes I add a second sentence that characterizes the work: "As you will see, they all grapple with the disabilities that the Alzheimer's victim suffers, and the interactions between that person and her caregivers." Or, "All of them, as you will see, explore the surreal ground of childhood." Sometimes I don't.

Introduce yourself

The second paragraph is the place to give the editor a sense of who you are. If you have prior publications, say so: "Other work of mine has recently appeared in Oxbow Soup, The Praying Mantis Review, and the anthology Yours Truly, published by Peccadillo Press." or: "Several of my memoirs have been published in regional newspapers."

If you don't yet have publications, that's all right. It's your manuscript that matters most, not your reputation, and most editors take pleasure in finding "new voices." Instead, show the editor, in an honest, earnest way, that you live a life of words. Mention your placement in regional contests, your writing group, attendance at regional conferences, enrollment in writing classes. Or say something simple and endearing like: "I am a lifelong reader, who in recent years began pursuing the writer's craft in earnest." Don't overdo it; three sentences is enough.

Make a connection

Editors like to know that you are not mass-mailing your submissions, that you have taken a personal interest in their journal, that you are a member of their readership as well as a would-be contributor. The third and final paragraph is the place to make this connection. Examples: "I cam upon your journal through New Pages, and have enjoyed reading the work from your first volume." "I picked up the current issue of Image at the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver a couple of weeks ago, and have been relishing it ever since."

Avoid false compliments ("I absolutely adore your journal!"), over-familiarity ("I googled you and found out that..."), brashness("My work is a PERFECT FIT for your journal!"), and plaintive pleas ("My ailing mother's last wish is to see her son in print.") Be genuine, or be quiet.

That's it. Make a quick exit: "Thank you for your consideration. Sincerely, John Hancock."

By the way, these guidelines -- with some variations -- are the same whether you are mailing out your work in that good old-fashioned way or submitting it online, which is the new norm. For electronic submissions, the cover letter goes either in the body of the email or in the "comments box" that the submission service (Submittable, Submishmash, etc.) provides. When you copy-and-paste, check to see if the formatting has changed. Italics tend to vanish. Also, most of the time, editors what your manuscript -- the two stories, the four poems -- to be condensed into a single file, which can make for some maddening reformatting. But it's time well-spent. The manuscript must look good!

When you press send, or when you lick the stamp, take a minute to congratulate yourself. It is no small thing to seek an audience. And now that you have the hang of it, submit to somewhere else.

Rick Kempa earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona, Tucson, in 1987.  Since 1988, he has lived in Rock Springs, Wyo., where he teaches writing and philosophy and directs the Honors Program at Western Wyoming Community College. Rick’s essays and poems have appeared in more than 100 journals, e-zines, and anthologies. He has been nominated for five Pushcart Prizes. He has authored two books of poems, Ten Thousand Voices (Littoral Press, 2013) and Keeping the Quiet (Bellowing Ark Press, 2008) He has also edited two anthologies, On Foot: Grand Canyon Backpacking Stories (Vishnu Temple Press 2014) and, with Peter Anderson, Poetry of the Grand Canyon (Lithic Press, 2015).

Tuesday, July 21, 2015


post by Lynn

I learned how to take multiple choice tests from my oldest sister, Sally. 

“You don’t have to know the right answer,” Sally said. “You just have to eliminate the choices that are wrong. It’s the process of elimination.”

I got so good at taking multiple choice tests that in my junior year of high school, the school secretary announced over the intercom, “Lynn Griffith is the winner of this year’s Betty Crocker Homemaker of America Award for Niobrara County High School.”

My friends from home ec laughed out loud, since they knew the truth: I burned bacon, left pasta on the far side of al dente and produced cookies that spread out like wet manure.

The Betty Crocker Homemaker of America Award was presented to the person who scored highest on a test. You guessed it—a multiple choice test. I didn’t know the correct answers so much as I had, through the process of elimination, figured out the wrong ones.

This has been a useful skill in my writing life. Starting out in creative writing about nine years ago, I asked myself, what genre should I write in?

Some writers know what genre is right for them from the beginning. I wasn’t—am not—one of those writers. So I started trying different genres on for size. Screenwriting, for example. I took a class in this screenplays and found out a few things about myself:

1. I don’t write well to formulas. And Hollywood is all about formulas. When my teacher said that my set-in-the-West story should have a stampede, and “of course” my pregnant protagonist would have to confront the baby daddy at some point, I bristled.

2. I don’t collaborate well. When the teacher started to tell me that what my plot needed in order to become a good screenplay, I resisted with every fiber of my being. I wanted to yell, “Leave my story alone!” Yet this kind of collaboration is completely normal in the screenwriting world. Douglas Adams said, “Getting a movie made in Hollywood is like trying to grill a steak by having a succession of people coming into the room and breathing on it.” If you resist collaboration, you'd probably better stay away from screenwriting.

3. Writing without description makes me sad. In screenwriting, you write only action and dialogue. One director famously said, “You can’t film adjectives!” When I left screenwriting behind and started writing fiction, I was thrilled to be able to describe people, scenes, etc. once more.

Note to self: Check screenwriting off the list and move on.

Now don’t get me wrong—there’s nothing wrong with screenwriting. It’s just not for me. And I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t tried it.

There were also some side benefits to the experience. I improved my scene-writing and dialogue-crafting skills, and learned much about narrative arc. I am grateful for those lessons.

The advantage to eliminating some things from the genre list is that I can funnel my energies into the options that remain. So far, there’s plenty left on the list: creative nonfiction, personal essays, fiction and poetry.

I doubt I will ever narrow the list down to one thing. Fortunately, there’s always…

D: All of the above. 

How about you? 

Has the process of elimination helped you in your writing life? 

Or are you still looking? 

Or have you always known?

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Things Mr. Wonderful Says to Me

by Susan

I have another man in my life, one I see at the office. He says all the right things, the things women long to hear:

Mr. Wonderful, my workplace romance.
"You know honey, why don't you just relax and let me make dinner tonight."

"The ball game really isn't that important. I'd rather spend time with you."

"Actually, I'm not sure which way to go. I'll turn in here and ask for directions."

And my personal favorite:

"Here, you take the remote. As long as I'm with you, I don't care what we watch."

When Mr. Wonderful's battery dies, I'll be inconsolable.

I would like to have a writer's version of Mr. Wonderful as well.  One who would say things like, "You're funnier than Dave Barry," or "Here's that $10,000 advance for your poetry chapbook." 

A better aspiration is to simply keep going when I feel discouraged. I'd like every word to roll off my pen perfectly, every sentence to be brilliant, but the actual process is more akin to W. Michael Gear's "vomit and mop" method."

Michael once told me in an interview how relieved he was when packrats urinated on his first, dreadful, unpublished novel and his wife Kathy finally allowed him to throw it away. Anne Lamott extolls the virtue of "shitty first drafts," and I've often heard it said that "you can't edit nothing." But oh, how painful it can be to put words on a page and know just how far they fall short.

Writing well is difficult. It takes time, but it can be done. And it is so worth it when some Mr. Wonderful whispers in your ear, "Here's your book contract." Or says your article or poem has been accepted for publication.

Sometimes we have to tell ourselves that our stories matter even when we can't seem to get them in print. Rejection slips show perseverance, although few of us wish to have an extensive collection of them. All I can say is keep going. Find a cheerleader, even if it's yourself. Your stories matter.

Be your own Mr. Wonderful.

For the record: My husband tells me to relax while he makes dinner, although it's always pizza. He's not that into ball games, nor is he afraid to ask for directions. He even lets me have the remote now and again.