The Beat Goes On and on and on….

My previous two posts, both about changes to the copyright law, generated a great deal of interest–way more site views than usual. And the saga continues, at least for a while.

After considerable plodding through the government’s stodgy website, I still had unresolved questions. That’s not surprising since the website is a one-size-fits-all approach to the curious and often confusing issue of copyrights. So I used their Contact Us form and submitted two similar but still different questions.

The first inquired about short story collections containing dozens of individual works. The “Group” form for registration has a hard limit of ten. Would a single copyright for the collection protect all contents even if each member work wasn’t listed separately?

The second query was about how to link registration requests for collections if the contents were strictly limited to ten enumerated works.

These questions generated the same automatic response thanking me for the inquiry and advising that an answer would be forthcoming within five days. I settled in to wait. But, wonder of wonders, the copyright office responded the very next day!

My excitement was short-lived, however. Both questions received the same form letter response containing a variety of links to commonly asked questions, none of which were even remotely similar to mine. Ah yes, bureaucracy in action, something to behold.

So, what’s a writer to do? Make the best of it I suppose. There are some websites which offer more in the way of how to deal with copyrights, but these typically focus on how one acquires permission to use already copyrighted material. I found one especially informative website. (And here’s the link.)

During my look-see into the copyright law changes, I was surprised to see a number of apparently brand new online services which promise to navigate the government’s labyrinthine webpages and Byzantine forms for as little as $99. At first, I merely laughed at these blatant attempts to reach into my already abused wallet. Now I wonder if that $99 purchase would also give me some peace of mind.

I suppose it’s obvious by now that I have a low tolerance for red tape. My patience level for politicians and politics of any kind–business, government, or homeowner associations–is similarly subterranean.

What really cobs me about the government’s approach to the copyright issue is simply this: the world has had the internet for decades. During that time, countless webpages have been designed expressly for use by the public. The majority of those webpages can be navigated quickly and easily. Very few are likely to induce rage. And yet the people who continue to come up with one bureaucratic obfuscation after another are the same ones who benefit from properly designed and executed software. Can they not tell they’ve constructed Frankenapps?

Evidently not.

Until next time,

–Josh

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The Supremes weigh in on copyright — Part 2

God must really love bureaucrats, or there wouldn’t be so many of them. I just wish we could rely on a higher power for a little help when we have to deal with them. Having spent several hours registering the copyrights for some of my work, I now have a reasonable working knowledge of the system as it pertains to publishing books. The system works, but it’s cumbersome, and it’s clear the process wasn’t designed by someone who gave a damn about the folks who have to use it. But wait! Isn’t that the definition of “bureaucrat?”

So, how did I get here? A quick recap of events (which you can read about here) is in order. The U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in the case of Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com, LLC, specified that actual approval of a copyright application by the United States Copyright Office is required before a suit can be filed.

Previously, one could hold off registering a copyright until they had reason to believe someone was trying to use their work without permission. That’s no longer the case.

My initial research suggested one could register up to ten items at a time. The actual line from the agency’s web page states: “Beginning March 15th, you may register up to 10 unpublished works using the new application for a ‘Group of Unpublished Works.’ A different limit will apply when registering a group of photographs.” 

Silly me. I thought “unpublished works” included novels and/or non-fiction books. It doesn’t. The ten items mentioned here refers to songs, short stories, or other components of a single work. I presume that includes recipes, sermons, poems and similar short pieces of intellectual property. If your collection of short stories runs longer than ten, you’ll have to register the others in a separate filing. However, I couldn’t find anything to explain how these subsequent listings could be linked. Like I said, it’s cumbersome. The answer is likely in there somewhere. I just didn’t have the time to dig it out. Sorry.

So, that meant the ten novels I intended to register each required a separate application, even though most of the information in them was repeated unchanged. Oh, and the charge for this “service” is $55 per title.

While I poured over the logic-challenged webpages at www.copyright.gov and https://eco.copyright.gov, I pondered what could happen if I just said to hell with it and left the copyright for my titles unrecorded.

With my luck, some joker would stumble upon a novel they really liked and decide to steal it. They could check for an existing copyright registration using the handy search function on the government website. And, upon discovering I hadn’t bothered to protect my work, they could–theorhetically (I don’t mean to suggest a methodology for the morally bankrupt)–republish it under their name.

Based on what I’m reading, there’s not a whole lot I could do about it.

But it could get worse! Imagine if the thief of my intellectual property took the time to register a copyright in his own name. He could then turn around and sue me for copyright infringement–on my own work!

So, guess who’s going to be spending some time recording copyrights. And in the future, I’ll do it before any new work is published. And I urge all the writers I know to do the same.

Don’t be stupid. Protect your work, and yourself.

–Josh

Posted in Historical writing, Memoir, novel writing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

The Supremes weigh in on copyright

Oy. As if we didn’t have enough to worry about already, the Supreme Court just ruled on a change in the way copyright law will be enforced. Writers, pay attention!

For years, it was common practice in the writing community to hold off filling out the forms and paying the fees to register copyrights with the U.S. Copyright Office. One could start the paperwork if they suspected an attempt had been made to steal their intellectual property, after which they could go ahead and file suit against the infringer. Now, however, thanks to a unanimous ruling by the United State Supreme Court, that’s no longer an option.

Ruling in the case of Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com, LLC, the Court specified that actual approval of a copyright application by the United States Copyright Office is required before a suit can be filed.

Keep in mind it takes a good long while for the government to grind through the process and issue a certificate. For filings done online, the wait time is 2-10 months. If done through the mail it’s currently 1-26 months. An expedited process is available, but it costs considerably more. Because of this most recent ruling, I suspect the system will be flooded with new registrations, so the delays will only grow longer. I also suspect the folks who plunder the intellectual work of others will be delighted by this.

Why is all this important? For starters, copyright law allows for “statutory damages” as high as $150,000, per work and attorney fees can be charged to the defendants. But these options only apply when an owner applies for registration A) within 90 days of first publication, or B) before the infringement begins. Neither is available if the registration process begins after the infringement.

In the past, writers would often send a copy of a manuscript by certified mail to themselves. The unopened envelope could be file away somewhere safe. The postmark on the envelope would effectively prove that a specific work existed at a specific time and could be used as evidence in a lawsuit. According to the government website (https://www.copyright.gov/): The practice of sending a copy of your own work to yourself is sometimes called a “poor man’s copyright.” There is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration.

The good news is that as of Feb. 13, 2019, writers may submit up to 10 works at a time for copyright registration. I will be doing this as soon as I finish working on this year’s federal tax return. I would offer a parting thought on this annual event which I anticipate with all the exuberance one normally reserves for a colonoscopy, but I’ll spare you that in light of all this other insight. <sigh>

Bear with me a little longer; I’ll report on my efforts–and the associated costs–of filing multiple copyright applications when next we meet. Oh boy, ten at a time. I can hardly wait.

–Josh

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St. Patrick or St. Magonus?

Ask just about anyone what holiday falls in March, and the answer will most likely be St. Patrick’s Day. There are others, notably Mardi Gras, followed by Ash Wednesday, International Women’s Day, and International Earth Day. We could also add the official start of spring (the Vernal Equinox) on the 20th or the re-start of Daylight Savings time on the 10th. But who celebrates changing their clocks?

One could argue for the celebratory primacy of Mardi Gras, but outside of a handful of cities, it’s not really a big deal. St. Patrick’s Day, however, is observed everywhere in the U.S. and in an ever-expanding array of international venues. So, it only makes sense to peek into the history of this yearly event. Right?

Yeah. I thought so, too.

Though not canonized by the church, Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland. But that isn’t the name he was born with, nor was he born there. Dubbed Maewyn Succat at birth, he later changed his name to Patricius, though he was also known in various times and places as Magonus and/or Cothirthiacus. Try saying that last one three times real fast.

According to two documents he wrote (in Latin), the Confessio and the Epistola to Coroticus (a letter to the leader of some Irish marauders), we know a fair amount about him. He lived on the west coast of Britain when the Roman Empire was busy crumbling. The legions which controlled the country had been called home to repel attacks by the Gauls in the late 300s and the Visigoths in the early 400s. Most were gone by the time Patrick reached his mid-teens and fell victim to Irish slavers.

Though his father was a leader in the early Christian church, young Patrick remained happily heathen. After six years as a slave, however, he lurched back to his religious roots. Two failed escape attempts later, he was captured by Franks and taken to the continent. In what is now France, Patrick learned first-hand from and about the monks who lived there. When allowed to return home, he studied hard enough to become a priest and vowed to bring Christianity to the Irish.

A very active clergyman, Patrick baptized countless people (some say 100,000), ordained numerous priests, vastly expanded the number of nuns, converted the sons of tribal kings, and helped establish over 300 churches. He did not, however, drive away any snakes. Ireland never had any snakes, except for the two-legged kind.

Irish folk living in Europe in the ninth and tenth centuries were already celebrating Saint Patrick’s feast day, but it wasn’t added to the liturgical calendar until the early 1600s. Oddly enough, back then the color associated with St. Patrick and the Feast Day was blue. It wasn’t until 1798 when Irish soldiers, dressed in green, fought the British during the Irish Rebellion. The Irish battle song was “The Wearing of the Green,” and it’s been associated with Ireland ever since.

And what about the emphasis we’ve seen on beer and booze in celebration of the holiday? That’s wildly out of historical character. In fact, Irish law didn’t allow pubs to be open on St. Patrick’s day until the latter half of the 20th century. It wasn’t until Budweiser began a big marketing push in the 1980s that the celebration became solidly linked to drinking. Thank you, Madison Avenue.

On second thought, I’m glad the holiday wasn’t co-opted by the folks who brought us green tea.

Sláinte! (Good health.)

–Josh

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Go ahead, create a scene.

Writers and non-writers have completely different notions about what a scene is. Non-writers rarely think about those that don’t feature someone being outraged over something. I suspect too many who spend time aligning verbs and nouns overlook how significant “our” scenes are.

I hate to use the analogy of building blocks since it sounds a bit trite, but I can’t think of a better one. Stories, especially novels, are built one scene at a time, and the best ones share some specific qualities.

A good scene is a mini-story in itself. It should feature a beginning, a middle, and an end. It should present characters in conflict, which then raises tension. To the extent possible, the conflict should reflect some aspect of the larger story. It sounds more difficult than it is. If you have a scene which offers little or no conflict, ask yourself what it provides that couldn’t be done in a more interesting (i.e., conflict-driven) fashion.

Like the novel itself, a scene should begin as close to the action as possible. Very few scenes require a great deal of backstory leading up to whatever changes the status quo. Good scenes dive into the conflict early and focus on the issues the characters face to overcome or resolve the ensuing problems. You don’t have to begin every scene in the middle of a fight to the death. But each one should challenge the reader’s imagination and make him or her wonder: what’s going on? Why are we here? Where will this lead? Who needs killing?

Think of your story as a road trip. Each scene represents a change of direction, a halt in the forward motion, or something else which effects a steady, straight-line, utterly uncomplicated trip. Think about it. Who wants to read about a steady, straight-line, utterly uncomplicated road trip? Bleah!

Each of those changes in direction will provide consequences for your characters. Be mindful of how they’ll change the overall story as well. These constant shifts are hallmarks of good stories. They provide the back-and-forth that keeps readers engaged.

Scenes need not go on forever. It’s fairly easy to become enthralled with the players or the action of a given scene, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but don’t let a scene go on too long. Know when to quit. Find a critical moment when you can shift the narrative to another point of view character or a different storyline. Leave the reader with an unanswered question. What’s in the box? Will he survive? Is she really out of bullets?

This doesn’t mean every scene should be short or that the story should be advanced in little bursts of frantic activity. If you can devise a way to make your scene do more than one thing, like advance the plot and examine a character flaw, by all means, do it. There’s no rule that says scenes can’t multi-task. In fact, the story will likely be better off if they do.

Think of scenes as chains of cause and effect. Scenes typically follow one storyline or subplot. Something happens to create the first link in the chain and subsequent events generate additional links. These chains also require a satisfactory end. If you can’t think of a way to do that, give serious thought to nuking the entire chain. Why is it there if it has no conclusion? What’s the point, except to annoy the reader?

At the end of the writing day, prepare yourself for the one to come. You’ve likely already thought about what comes next. Jot yourself a note or two about it. Identify anything you know you should include, anything you don’t want to forget. Then relax and enjoy the balance of your non-writing day. Give your internal storyteller a rest. Just be aware that most writers can’t completely turn that rascal off. And that’s okay, too.

When your next writing session begins, take the time to review what you wrote the day before, and be sure to dig out the plot line scenes which immediately precede the one you’re about to write. Refresh yourself with the details you’ll need to continue the thread.

Then write like your life depends upon it!

–Josh

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Thoughts on teaching–a retrospective.

I originally posted this about five years, seven or eight books, and a bunch of classes ago. I believe it’s still relevant and may be of interest. When I first declared myself a writer, long ago, I had no idea what the future held, but I never would have thought I’d also become a teacher. Since then, I’ve come to love that role nearly as much as I love writing. This may help explain why.   

Breathe in. Exhale. I just finished my first, multi-session course on fiction writing. And now I’m not sure if I’m a god or a slob. Could go either way, I suppose, depending on one’s viewpoint.

writer_cartoonMy class was titled “Creative Writing.” I went into it feeling confident in my knowledge of the craft. I’d written nine novels and countless short stories. I’d been through the publishing game, the agent game, and the conference game. I’d hobnobbed with great writers and commiserated with the not-so-great. I’d known the aggravation of selling my work only to have the publisher go belly up before my stuff slithered through the press. I’d been anthologized, awarded, nearly awarded, and ignored. In short, I had a lot of experience to share. I’d seen it all. I’d done most of it. Hell, I had a fan who’s not a blood relation! What could possibly be asked of me that I wasn’t capable of handling?

In a word: non-fiction.

Okay, that’s probably more than a single word; it’s hyphenated. Geez. How was I supposed to know that half my class would come from the world of memoir writing? I got my journalism degree almost 40 years ago; that was the last time I wrote non-fiction. And suddenly, half — HALF! — my class is smiling at me, pens poised, waiting for me to tell them how to write their life stories creatively.

Holy. Fricking. Moly.

I read non-fiction. I sure as sin don’t write the stuff. My last feature article was about a blind taxi cab dispatcher who directed me to a pick-up forty-something years ago when I drove a hack to make ends meet in college. (Sadly, they didn’t. But that’s another story.) It was a great feature article. My professor loved it. He wanted to run it by some of his old pals at UPI before the service went belly up. We’re talking profound. And I should know, I edited my college newspaper. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in a position to market the story and had to settle for a good grade in a journalism class instead. There are times when altruism sucks. Trust me on this.

Anyway, returning to the present — and half the expectant faces in my class — I’m talking about 7-point plotting (thank you Algys Budrys, Kris Rusch, and Dean Wesley Smith) while my students are thinking about the latest and greatest on Ancestry.com.

Holy. Crap. Time to get seriously creative.

I’m scrambling, trying to find common ground for the fiction and non-fiction folk. And there’s this guy sitting there, smiling at me. He’s somewhere in his 70’s — slender, quiet spoken, probably ex-military; he’s obviously seen a lot in his life.

“So,” he says, “an opening ought to have what, again? A person, in a place, with a problem?”

“Exactly!” I say. “That way, readers experience some sort of conflict — whatever the problem might be — and they know the writer will probably deliver something worth reading.”

“And that’s where you start to tell a story?”

kiss on the cheek“Yessir! Right there. On that very spot.” Did I know the man well enough to kiss him? Probably not. But as savvy as he was, I’m sure he could have handled it.

And suddenly, the pressure was off. It turns out there’s an amazing amount of cross-over between fiction and non-fiction. People are interested in things that matter. Conflict matters. The things we remember in our lives are almost certainly rooted in conflict. It’s the absolute essence of storytelling.

That wonderful man and I have since come to call each other friends, and I welcome his patience, wisdom, and experience, for he has many more lessons to teach me. And I look forward to them more than he will ever know.

–Josh

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Valentine, oh Valentine, where didst thou go wrong?

And whatever happened to Saint Valentine’s contemporaries: Saint Austrebertha, Saint Eormenhild, Saint Eulalia, and Saint Scholastica? February was their month, too. It all began a long time ago.

Based on my admittedly cursory research, it seems the Romans had a nifty thing going back in the day–the “day” being somewhere around 753 B.C., not coincidentally, the year Rome was founded. They called it Lupercalia, which to me, brings to mind supercali-whatever. Totally different deals.

Sorry. So, Lupercalia….

In the original version a handful of young males, presumably of noble birth, would be given the task of memorializing the occasion.  This was accomplished via a two-part ritual. The first involved the sacrifice of a goat and a dog. (Why a dog? Lord only knows. One early Roman writer blamed the tradition on the Greeks.) The animals’ blood was then smeared on the foreheads of the young volunteers who would run naked, laughing and carrying on around the Palatine amid a crowd of onlookers. Meanwhile, priests were busy skinning the goat and cutting the hide into strips.

Part two of the ritual involved passing out the strips of goatskin with which the naked memorializers would whip female members of the audience, presumably to ensure fertility. Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

To be fair, there actually was a sort of logic involved. The festivities were held in the approximate area where the legendary Romulus and Remus were raised by a she-wolf, the Lupercal. Goats were long considered symbols of fertility, so one might understand why the ancients would whack one in honor of the occasion. Evidently, dogs were considered the enemies of wolves, thus making their sacrifice somewhat more understandable as well.

I’m still pondering the business of naked lads whipping the ladies into a frenzy with strips of goat hide. That’s a bit of a stretch, even for me. But hey, we make a big deal out of a fat guy zipping around the world in a sleigh drawn by flying reindeer. What gives us the right to be critical of how others celebrate their holidays?

According to various reports, these rituals continued for centuries, undergoing subtle changes over time. One such change involved young married women who were encouraged to bare their bodies. That began in 277 B.C. (I’m not making this up!) The annual celebration continued without other major changes until 341 A.D. when the Pope decreed an end to sacrificial killings. This surely put a damper on things, and yet the event limped on until the late fifth century when either Pope Gelasius or Felix III quashed it. Evidently, Rome had run out of naked nobles, and hordes of uncouth and unclothed commoners had taken their place. Oh, the humanity!

News traveled slowly in those days, and the folks in Constantinople didn’t get the word until sometime in the tenth century.

It seems, however, that folks rather liked the idea of fertility, and since February marked the time when many European birds began mating, it seemed only natural to find a suitable date to mark the occasion. The church provided the martyred Valentinus, who may or may not have been three different people (the historical record is foggy). Renamed Valentine, and sainted, he was honored for performing marriage ceremonies during a time when the Emperor forbade Christians to wed (approximately 270 A.D.), a service which ultimately cost him his head.

Meanwhile, the Normans were busy celebrating their own fertility celebration around the same time of year which they called Galatin’s Day. Some historians claim there’s enough similarity between the names Valentine and Galatin that some morphing of the two events likely occurred.

During the dreadful “dark ages” little changed until Geoffrey Chaucer happened along in the 14th century. (Finally, something about writers and/or writing!) He penned the poems “Parlement of Foules” and “The Complaint of Mars” which put a more romantic spin on the holiday.

Roughly a hundred years after Chaucer’s poetry appeared, so did the first valentine love letter. The Duke of Orleans wrote to his wife from his prison cell in the Tower of London telling her he was “sick of love” (lovesick) and referred to her as “my very gentle Valentine.”

In the 17th century, Shakespeare mentions the day in “Hamlet” which seems to have sealed the fate of the date. And guess what showed up in the 18th century: Valentine’s day cards. Granted, they were originally done by hand, something we really ought to go back to doing. The Brits were printing the things in 1797, and a few of those early efforts now reside in museums across the pond.

And why, one might ask, would Josh delve into so much historical trivia? To sell books, of course! My latest features a cover adorned with yet another naked male, this one atop a writing instrument of great historical import. The book’s loaded with writerly stuff. And humor. Why not get a copy for YOUR favorite Valentine?

–Josh

Posted in Historical writing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments