Persistence

While I’m hiking The Long Trail, I’m reposting old favorites. This one originally published January 20, 2011.

ITWplainSeeing the galleys for my first book was like seeing a sonogram of a baby that’s been growing inside me for years. I was giddy with excitement to see the cover, the type, and the design of the chapters. Like one of those biblical matriarchs, I felt as if I’d been waiting six hundred years for this birth. In truth, it had only been twenty-five. 

In February, 1985, I received my first rejection letter for a novel I’d written the previous year. The letter arrived on my twenty-ninth birthday, and I despaired of achieving my goal of having a book published before I turned thirty. I didn’t start my next novel until ten years later, and I was well into my forties by the time it was complete – and it’s still not published. I wrote Into The Wilderness in 2002, when I was forty-eight.

During the twenty-five years I’ve been writing but not publishing novels, I’ve also raised a family and worked to help support it. I’ve done some interesting things, like taught literature to health care workers and writing to inmates; and I’ve done some less interesting things, like laundry. I’ve worried about my children, argued with my husband, witnessed my parents age, and – always – kept writing.

A few years ago, a published friend said to me, “The single thing that separates those who get into print from those who don’t is persistence.”

I persisted.

I have the requisite number of rejection letters to wallpaper not just the fabled bathroom, but also the interior of a small house. Some are simple form letters; others are full of high praise. I’ve come to prefer the form letters that start with, “Dear Writer” to those that say what a splendid writer I am and what a wonderful book I have – for someone else to publish. There were months when I could have been working in a boomerang factory, when all the typescripts I sent out kept homing back. But a year ago, I received the letter I’d been waiting for all this time, and now, my book is in print.

This long, slow, journey has made me wonder what gave me the tenacity to keep writing despite so many other things to do (help with homework, wash dishes, plant peas), and what gave me the chutzpah to keep refusing to accept repeated rejection. My answer: my cats and my dog.

My dog doesn't know how to read.

My dog doesn’t know how to read.

As Groucho Marx famously said, “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” My dog is a great companion, but she’s illiterate. She dislikes the indoor, sedentary pleasures of literature. She’d rather be outdoors, on a walk. I did a lot of thinking on those walks, which are a kind of moving meditation in which I work out narrative difficulties. I also watch my pooch in her mostly futile attempts to catch the chipmunks. Despite her dismal record of failure, my dog never fails to take up the challenge. She flings herself over stonewalls and gives herself whole-heartedly to the chase. And she’s never discouraged by her failure to catch a chipmunk, only by my failure, some days, to take her out.

My cats, on the other hand, want me to do nothing but sit at my desk all day, so they can drape themselves decorously across my papers, my lap, or my keyboard. They approve of literature, and like to lie across the page of any open book, but especially on the page I’m reading. One of them likes to watch the cursor progress across my computer screen; the other likes best to curl up in a manuscript box, anchoring the pages in place. As far as they’re concerned, the only reason for me to leave my desk is to open a can of cat food.

Between the cats and the dog, I’m blessed with companions who provide inspiration, in the case of the felines, and a model of persistence, in the case of the dog. They have been good company for this long haul. They’ve helped mitigate the loneliness of writing in silence, a silence that has at last come to an end.

Deborah headshotDeborah Lee Luskin will resume writing when she returns from hiking The Long Trail. Meanwhile, you can still receive An Essay Every Wednesday emailed directly to your inbox – just subscribe at www.deborahleeluskin.com. It’s easy, it’s entertaining, educational, and it’s free!

Friday Fun – Least Favorite Writing Rule

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, get-to-know-us question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

QUESTION: There are so many rules about writing, some more useful than others, some more universal than others. What’s your least favorite writing rule – the one that you think should be broken?

JME5670V2smCROPJamie Wallace: As a lover of all kinds of speculative fiction, I am not a fan of the oft-quoted writing rule to “write what you know.” I love reading stories that create previously unknown worlds filled with unique characters, landscapes, cultures, and possibilities. And, as a writer, I love the creative challenges of coming up with entire new worlds or realities.

I recently read a post (I wish I could remember where, but the details have slipped away from me) in which the author pointed out that even when we are writing about fantastical characters, settings, and plots, we are still – in a way – writing what we know by incorporating universal themes and emotions. So, basically, even when we’re writing about a story that takes place in a galaxy far, far away or a land from long ago filled with dragons and faeries, we are still writing about the experiences we know – the longings, heartbreaks, challenges, triumphs, joys, fears, and everything else that’s part of being human. Bringing in those elements that we “know” is what makes the really great speculative fiction seem as real and alive and true as our own lives.

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon:  “You have to know the rules before you can break the rules;” that’s the one that’s stopped me in my tracks many times over the years. I didn’t major in English in college, I don’t write for  a living, so I must not know the rules of writing well enough yet. I need to read about writing more before I can write, I need to take a class, or listen to a podcast, or something else that’s not actually writing. In the last few years I’ve ignored this rule more and I’ve gotten more writing done. I don’t need to study writing–I need to write! So I do. Later, as needed, I can look things up, show my work to my critique group, and/or hire an editor. For now, getting it down is what’s most important to me.

Deborah headshotI live by what W. Somerset Maugham observed: There are only three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.  I’ve found that these three rules are different for each novel.

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Lisa_2015Lisa J. Jackson: I like Deborah’s response. I’ve seen that saying in memes on Facebook quite often. Two writing rules jump to mind when I read this question – the first is to avoid starting a sentence with a conjunction. But I find it to be the rule I break the most. The other is to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition. Sometimes it’s fun to break the rules we speak of.

Short and Sweet Advice for Writers – Write Blind

These guys may have a creative advantage.

These guys may have a creative advantage.

So, for this post I’m trying something a little odd. I’m writing “blind.”

What I mean by that is that I’m not giving myself any way to look at the words as I type them. I picked up this trick from an essay by Vanessa Gebbie in Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction. In the essay, Gebbie suggests that you free up your muse and your creativity by simply writing without looking. (It’s kind of like the whole “Look, Ma! No hands!” thing.)  In the essay, she says,

On paper, this flash writing is easy. You just let your hand go, and don’t self-censor. On screen, it can be a little more difficult, as some people (myself included) tend to edit as they write as it is so easy to do on a computer. But this ruins the creative flow, and there are some tricks to help you write freely on screen. Try turning off the screen and typing blind. (And do try not to hit the Caps Lock key.) On a laptop, turn the font color to white. At first you may feel rather uncomfortable but you will get used to it, and what spills out will be fresh, clear writing. Just “let go” and allow the mind to produce its own fabulous connections.

For this post, I haven’t turned my screen off or changed my font color; I’ve simply angled the screen down so that I can’t see it. It feels odd to be writing while staring out the window, but it’s also kind of interesting how it feels so much more “direct” somehow. Sure, I’m making LOTS of typing mistakes, but those can be cleaned up later. There IS something very freeing about not seeing the words on the page – staring back at me in all their supposed “wrongness.” I can just type and it feels like it’s going no where. It feels “light.” It’s like they don’t really carry any weight (yet), and Im free to just mess around with different ideas and lines of thought.

Many writers have trouble editing while writing, but writing blind takes that possibility right off the table. After all, you can’t edit what you can’t see, right?

This would, I think, make a great brainstorming exercise as well. Instead of trying to work out an orderly outline for a piece, just start typing blind and then go back and pick out the good bits. It’s much more free form – more of an actual “brain dump,” as they say.

By writing blind, you get those little critic/editor monkeys off your back. This means you can write much (much!) faster. Without them chittering in your ear, you can fly through the first draft. Very cool.

So, I hope you’ll try this little trick, and – if you do – please drop a comment below to let me know how you make out.

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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Join me each Saturday for the Weekend Edition (a fun post and great community of commenters on the writing life, random musings, writing tips, and good reads), or introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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Photo Credit: zhouxuan12345678 via Compfight cc

Organizing Systems for Files

Papers to be filedTurning the calendar to a new year is always an opportunity to establish new and improved organizing systems of all kinds. Over the years, I’ve developed a few of my own, from celebrating Boxing Day by boxing up the year’s receipts to cleaning up my computer by archiving old files on a thumb drive.

I find the systems I have for December into January are easy compared to the filing that must be done day-to-day during the year. And as anyone who has spent any amount of time hunting through a hard drive looking for a misplaced document knows, not being able to find an earlier draft of an article can be a real time sink. So this is what I do:

First of all, I use folders: For this blog, I have a folder marked NHWN Blog. In it, I have sub-folders, one for each year I’ve been contributing (since 2011!). That’s where I park each post as I write it, creating a sub-sub folder if I write several drafts.

I always write several drafts.

And this is how I tell them apart:

I give each draft a title followed by the date. I use the title both in the header on the document and as a file name. The first draft for this post, for instance, is Organizing Principles NHWN2015_0104.

Placing the title and date in the header is especially helpful when I print a draft to work with hard copy.

When I return to a draft and make changes, I change the date. If it’s still the same day, I add a letter after the date. (The second draft of this piece includes a title change: Organizing Systems NHWN2015_0104A) When I’m sending drafts to an editor or client, I often add a time tag to the date, so we both know which is the most recent draft. With drafts zipping back and forth through cyberspace, date and time tags literally keep us on the same page.

Whenever I make substantial changes to a document, I use the “Save As” function. This way, I have preserved my earlier work, in case I do want to return to something I’ve cut. This system also makes cutting less painful: The deadwood is gone from the current version, but it’s not in the trash, and I can always go back and consult what I’ve written and tossed. (The third draft of this post is the last: Organizing Systems NHWN2015_0104B)

While I often write a couple of drafts of a post, I write countless drafts of my fiction, and keeping each draft is quite helpful during the initial stages of discovery – when I’m learning about my characters and what they have to say. I probably cut out at least as much as I save in the course of a novel, maybe more. In fact, I’m wondering if I cut the wrong sections of Ellen, and I’m comforted to know that I can sift through the outtakes and see if there are gems I need to reinstate when I’m ready to return to that novel.

I make no claims that this is a perfect system, but it’s an organic one I’ve developed over time, and it works for me.

What systems have you developed?

M. Shafer, Photo

M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin is a writer, educator and speaker who lives in southern Vermont and blogs at Living in Place.

Empowering Submission – guest post by Naomi Shafer

DLLRegular Live to Write – Write to Live blogger Deborah Lee Luskin recently posted Raising a Writer. Here’s a post by that young writer, who by changing the language, offers a new way to think about sending work out.

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It’s hard to get excited about submitting. Submission Opportunity sounds dirty. As a twenty-three year old, just starting out, I have far too many opportunities to submit in my personal and professional life. And I work in a literary office, so I know the odds: they’re grim. But working on the other end of the submission spectrum has offered me a new perspective: as much as I’d like to believe that the gatekeepers to literary success are ogres, this job has taught me that the opposite is true. Each work is read with compassion and dedication, read by people who have dedicated their lives to soliciting new work. So, regardless of whether I like the lingo or not, to assert myself as a writer, I have to bite the linguistic bullet and submit my work.

I offer this: Instead of submitting to a competition, agent, or publisher, submit for. Submit for the opportunity to start something new, to clear your head, to know the draft is done.  Submit for the personal satisfaction of having done your best. Or, if you really need to spin it, submit for the person who will read it, for the opportunity to share your work with a stranger, to make someone else’s day a little less lonely. Because it will. Reading new work gives me hope to know that there are so many writers brave enough to share their work.

My evaluation is only one step in the process of how work is chosen. I can’t guarantee anything, certainly not fame or fortune, but what I can give each writer is my undivided attention while reading her work. I step into the world she has created and then ask what it taught me about myself. That’s a gift I can never repay, certainly not one that can be quantified with a royalty check. The authors who crafted these stories may never receive validation from my office (although many, even those not selected, do), but their characters step away from the page and inhabit my day. Some of them accompany home and keep me smiling all week. Others visit unexpectedly, months later, and remind me the enduring power of stories.

Submitting your work is an act of generosity. You give someone the chance to read a story they’d never heard before. And you create an audience, even if it’s only one person. Now, my submission is empowered with the knowledge that my work will be read. For now, that’s enough. . . But still really hard.

I’ve made a submission schedule with the goal that the more I practice it, the less scary it will become; submitting my work will feel less like submitting my whole self. The added perk is that the schedule keeps me moving forward.  Having an outside deadline helps for the days I’d prefer to clean my toilet than write. And sometimes it’s fun to write within parameters I wouldn’t have thought of for myself.

But it’s not foolproof. This past month I chickened out.  Frustrated by the contest I should have heard back from weeks ago, I let myself slump. Then, angry at the judges for not giving me the courtesy of a response, I invited six friends over to read the play I’d submitted. I was one chair short. My attempt at gluten-free baking was a catastrophe. But the play came to life. Best of all, I got feedback and encouragement from the people I care about most. It taught me that there will be other opportunities for this play, ones I can make for myself.

And in the meantime, I remind myself that each work I submit is a gift for the person lucky enough to read it.

How do you get yourself to submit your work?

NGSjan13Naomi Shafer is a Dramaturgy/Literary Management Intern at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, where her play Lucid is about to premiere in a festival of short plays. She is the editor of the Intern Company Blog and a contributing writer for inside Actors, the theatre’s newsletter. Shafer holds a B.A. in Sociology and Theatre from Middlebury College.

5 ways to increase your exposure

You’re a writer who needs to get her name out in the world. You want magazines, businesses, and organizations to discover how talented you are and hire you to write for them. Here are five ways to get you started on a plan that will get yourself and your business better known.

Network, network, and network some more
You’re making writing your business, and like many businesses, it’s more about who you know than what you know, at least to get in the door. Networking, both in-person at events and online through social media, is a solid way to add new clients. Make sure to at least know who your target client is and what makes you the best writer for their needs. You can also think of who can introduce you to the person who can introduce you to the contact you really want to meet.

Ask for referrals
Sure you need to have clients to be in business, so you can’t ask for referrals until you have some satisfied customers, but referrals are a powerful way to build your credibility. When a client compliments you on a job well done, take that moment to ask them for a recommendation or referral. It’s nice to assume that that client will tell a friend who will tell a friend, but ask, and you’ll make sure it happens. Or it may be more comfortable for you to could offer a future discount to clients who refer new clients to you.

Publish content
You’re a writer, so, write something and publish it. It’s the best way to get exposure. You can publish online, through your blog or online article directories (as a way to start). Get your writing published in print newspapers or magazines. Starting with local and regional publications is fun (at least I’m enjoying myself immensely writing for community papers and a regional magazine). And then you can move up to  national and international publications. And a lot of print articles also end up online, so that multiplies your exposure.

Offer a freebie
Everyone loves giveaways, especially those that are relevant and helpful. Free reports can help you accomplish two goals at once. Report content can help establish you as a good writer and as a solid, credible source of information. Offering a useful freebie can entice prospective clients to your Web site and motivate them to hire you for your services.

Blog
Having a blog helps drive traffic to your business and your business site, and it builds your brand. Your writing ability will shine through in your blog’s content, but don’t make it all about you all the time. Make sure to include useful information for your visitors. Of course you want to share what you can do, but also offer helpful links to other sites, links to resources, ways for your reader to find events local to themselves, and other similar things.

What do you do to get your name out there and showcase your writing?

Lisa J Jackson writerLisa J. Jackson is a solopreneur who works hard to take her own advice. She’s also a New England region journalist and a year-round chocolate and iced coffee lover. She writes fiction as Lisa Haselton, has an award-winning blog for book reviews and author interviews, and is on the staff of The Writer’s Chatroom

Hoarding Gemstones

            In addition to my self-assigned task of drafting a novel, and the pen-for-hire work I do for a major medical center, I write five essays a month: two posts for this blog, two Commentaries for Vermont Public Radio, and a column for The Commons, my local, independent, newspaper. The wonderful thing about these essays is that I get to write about whatever I want to, within generous parameters: For Live to Write, Write to Live, I write about the writing life; for the radio, I write about Vermont life; and for the newspaper, I write about life in Windham County.

Most of the time, I have plenty to say, and the challenge is to focus on a single topic in an interesting and informative way. But every once in a while, I find myself hyperventilating with anxiety because my deadline is fast approaching and I’m parched for ideas.

Somehow, I’ve always managed to squeak something out, but I don’t like the race the to wire, so I’ve developed a two-fold strategy to avoid this eleventh-hour brinksmanship: I keep lists of ideas, and I walk.

My lists are like a safe-deposit box filled with uncut gemstones. When I need to find a topic, I open the box and sift through the raw ideas until I find one whose heft feels right. I rub my thumb along a rough edge, turn it in the light, and pocket it for further examination. Some of these stored ideas spend years in the box – until the season or politics or moment is just right, and some may never see the light of day.

Once I choose a rough idea, I pocket it in the back of my mind. Just carrying it around for a bit helps me think my way around an idea while I’m performing other tasks of daily life. But when I’m ready to get serious about thinking something through, I go for a walk.

I walk a lot – four to six miles a day. It is during this walk that I find my way in to an essay – often I hear the first line, which gives me the voice and the conceit of the piece. When I return to my desk, I write. Sometimes, I hear this voice before I’ve reached the end of the drive, and sometimes, I don’t hear it until I’ve climbed to the top of the hill. Once I’ve got it, I look up and see where I am, sometimes noticing the weather or landscape for the first time that day.

Walking is not the only way I find my way in to an essay, but it is my favorite. I can also let my mind freewheel when I’m at the wheel of the car. I keep a notebook and pen on board, so I can make notes when I arrive at my outward destination, in order to remember these ideas when I return home.  There must be something about forward motion that helps me shake ideas into place.

In addition to warehousing ideas so that I can meet my deadlines, these strategies provide other satisfactions: When I’ve used an idea, I enjoy crossing it off the list; and when I’ve figured out my way in to an essay, I enjoy the exercise and fresh air of my walk.

How do you find topics to write about?

Deborah Lee Luskin is novelist, essayist and educator. She is a regular commentator for Vermont Public Radio, a Visiting Scholar for the Vermont Humanities Council and the author of the award winning novel, Into The Wilderness. For more information, visit her website at www.deborahleeluskin.com

[gemstone image from http://galaxygemsbrazil.com]

Sometimes I Have To Trick Myself

I’ve been a runner for over twenty years, ever since I started medical school and learned that exercise was the “magic pill” that everyone was looking for. Throughout the years, there have been times when I didn’t (or don’t!) really feel like going out for a run.

So I trick myself.

I can tell myself, “just get dressed in your running clothes, then if you don’t feel like it, you don’t have to go.”

Sometimes, even after I’m dressed, I have to keep up the pretense:  “Just stretch a little, see how you feel.”

Then, “Just go outside, see how the air feels (or how cold it is, how hot it is).

Then, “Just jog a little, see how you feel.”

Well, by then I’m running and once I start, I don’t stop. Not even that time I ran the Disney World Marathon without training for it. (It hurt. A lot. I wouldn’t recommend it.) Took me six hours, but I finished.

These days, I also trick myself into writing.

With a toddler, a business, and a home to care for, there is never enough time in the day for everything. So sometimes I find myself putting off my writing, which I enjoy so much, in order to check more tasks off my to-do list. When I catch myself doing this, I trick myself. It works to get me running, why not try it for writing?

If I have a writing assignment I need to get going on, I’ll grab a notebook or a piece of paper and say, “I’ll just write for five minutes (or two, or even one), just free associate, see what happens.”

Or I might set my timer and say to myself, “just put something down, it doesn’t have to be good.”

Sometimes I have a first draft of something already finished, but I’m convinced it’s lousy and I’m not going to be able to use any of it.  Instead of continuing to avoid it, I tell myself, “just take a look and see if you can find one sentence that you can keep.” I’m usually (not always, but usually) surprised at how much I want to keep. And once I look at it, I usually want to keep working on it. Reworking a first draft feels easier than starting from a blank page.

Lowering my expectations and breaking the writing up into tiny pieces usually gets me past procrastination.

What are your tricks for getting your writing done?

Re-vision: To See Again

It’s November, National Novel Writing Month (NANOWRIMO), when ambitious writers pound out a novel in a notoriously short month – only thirty days, several of which are devoted to the preparation, enjoyment and digestion of Thanksgiving. I’m expecting twenty people for the feast, which is easy: cook a turkey, bake some pies and lay in plenty of wine.It’s feeding the dozen or so who will start arriving on Tuesday and stay until Sunday, and who need breakfast, lunch, dinner and beds, that’s a challenge. Add two birthdays to the mix (and homemade, decorated, cakes), and it becomes clear that there’s no time for drafting anything new. But the chopping, prepping, visiting and general mayhem are quite conducive to the act of rewriting, which is what I’m up to this month.

I’m working on a novel that I researched and drafted between 1995 and 2001.  A young and inexperienced agent represented it briefly, but she lost her job before she could sell it. Frankly, I don’t think anyone could have sold it. Back then, it was unwieldy and shapeless, but I was in love with my own effort and thought others would be, too.

In the intervening ten years, I’ve seen the flaws, and I’ve been episodically reworking this novel, whose word-count has dropped from a whopping 140,000 words to under a hundred thousand. I’ve lost count of the revisions – but never the story, which is a dark tragedy set in Vermont in 1958. And I’ve never given up on it, although I have put it on the shelf for long, dusty, intervals.

I’m a great believer in those dusty intervals, and I try to allow shelf time for everything I send out; I even try to let a blog post sit overnight before launching it into cyberspace. There’s a similarity here to romance, and how the hunky date might not look so handsome the next morning.

It’s misleading to think that there’s some kind of magical alchemy that occurs while words wait overnight, but I’m convinced it’s not the typescript that changes – it’s the writer who returns to a work with a little distance and a different set of eyes. Not only do the grammatical errors and logical lapses glare back in the morning light, but so do the overall structure and the narrative shape – the arc – of the story.

Oh, I know what it’s like to fall in love with your own work, to think that what has flowed onto the page is just perfect – inspired, even. And it may well be. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be improved. And this is especially true of a large work, one that grows by accretion.

Every time I have revised Elegy for a Girl, it has become a tighter, more gripping story. And now, I’m seeing it again, and adding more torque to the characters, language and plot. Sixteen years into this project, I’ve developed experience and faith in revision – and comfort in knowing I have the current best text to return to, if need be.

This is my second or third revision of this novel this year; I’ve lost count. What’s driving this work is the offer of representation from an agent who has read it as an advocate for the reader. She knows her stuff – and she loves the book.

What I’ve done this time – which maybe will be the last revision – is mapped the book, scene by scene. I’m reintegrating a character who I once edited out, I’m noting the pacing, and fine-tuning the overall rhythm of what happens, when.

Each time I revise this book, I learn something else about craft. In the beginning, I learned about characterization and plot and how to integrate research into a story. Another time, I learned that pruning and cutting improved its development – just as cutting away branches in the orchard promotes better tree growth and more fruit. Now, with an agent waiting for the typescript, I’m learning how to take my writing one step further up the professional ladder.

I’m thankful for learning patience over sixteen years: patience and the value of revision. What about your writing life are you thankful for?

  Deborah Lee Luskin is the author of the award-winning novel, Into The Wilderness, “a fiercely intelligent love story” set in Vermont in 1964. She is a regular Commentator on Vermont Public Radio and teaches for the Vermont Humanities Council. Learn more at her website: www.deborahleeluskin.com

Know your rights – owning your work

Congratulations, you’ve landed your first contract. A publisher (whether book, newspaper, magazine, Web site, or some other entity) wants to publish your piece. That deserves a celebration. Pop the cork! Enjoy.

Okay. After you’ve taken the time to savor the moment, you need to review your contract. All parties involved want to make the best deal for themselves, so make sure you know what rights you are giving up.

  • First serial rights / First rights – The publication will be the first to publish your piece. You retain the option to submit and publish the piece elsewhere.
  • One-time rights – You permit the publication the right to publish your piece once. (This could be your first printing or a reprint.) You retain the option to submit and publish the piece elsewhere.
  • Second serial rights – You permit the publication the right to be the second to publish your piece.
  • First North American serial rights (FNASR) – You permit the publication the right to publish your piece in a periodical. It’s common for a length of time to be added to this stipulation, such as “for six months after publication,” meaning they own your piece for six months before you can shop it elsewhere. (Terms can range from a month to several years.) It also means that if the publisher wants to publish your piece in different forms, they will negotiate separate contracts and pay for each.
  • Electronic rights – You’re giving permission to publish your piece electronically.

Beware of these:

  • All rights – You agree to give up all rights to your piece forever. You allow the publisher to do whatever it wants with your piece. You receive a onetime fee regardless of what is done with your piece in the future. (You could pursue buying the rights back in the future.)
  • Work for hire – Your written piece becomes the property of the publisher and the publisher can reprint it however and whenever it wants without compensating you further.
  • All rights for all media that exist now or will exist in the future – There’s always new technology on the horizon, so this caveat covers all ways to distribute written work including turning your piece into a longer piece, movie, book, digital recording, and so on. If you agree to this term, you’ll receive your one-time fee with no recourse for additional income.

If you are faced with any of the above three terms, negotiate for a better deal. Push for more money or limit the publisher’s rights in some way. (For instance, depending on circumstances, you can offer to not resell your piece to a competitive publication.)

It is crucial to read every contract you sign. Your agent may tell you it’s a great deal, and pages and pages of contractual lingo may be intimidating, but this is your piece, know what you are signing away. If you don’t understand something, research and ask questions until you do understand.

And, of course, you always have the right to say “no, thank you.” It may be tough, but it may be the right thing for you to do.

Celebrating receipt of your first contract is still worth doing, so do it and then delve into the contract.

Two resources to help with contract terms:

National Writers Union

American Society of Journalists and Authors – do a search for ‘serial rights’, etc.


How have you celebrated your first contract?

Lisa Jackson is an editor, writer, and chocolate lover. She’s addicted to Sudoku, cafés, and words. She writes fiction as Lisa Haselton, has an award-winning blog for book reviews and author interviews, and is on the staff of The Writer’s Chatroom where she gets to network with writing professionals on a weekly basis — and you can, too!