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?