Making sense of copyright for writers

Copyright. It’s a subject that seems to especially worry beginning writers. They’re sure editors will steal their ideas, their words and their pictures. They plaster everything with copyright notices and/or register everything they do with the copyright office, which is expensive and unnecessary. Editors are not going to steal your work. They’re too busy and deal with too many queries and manuscripts to even consider it.

The basic rule, at least in the U.S., is that as soon as you put your words into tangible form, whether on paper or on the computer, they are yours. You own the copyright. If someone steals your work, you could sue them. For more protection and more money if you should end up in court, you can register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office. For longer works, such as books, you certainly want to do this. But for single essays, articles, stories or poems, you probably don’t need to do that.

But there is some reason for paranoia these days. It’s ridiculously easy to copy things off the Internet, whether they’re words or images. Hit “save as,” give it a name, and there it is on your hard drive. If you just save it for your own education or enjoyment, that’s okay, but if you plan to publish it, in print or online, you’re breaking the law. People do it anyway, many without even realizing it’s wrong, especially in this age of constant sharing on Facebook, Pinterest and other social media sites. Sometimes it’s a compliment; they like your stuff enough to republish it. But they need to ask permission.

A friend recently complained that when we posted photos from our Nye Beach Writers Series events on Facebook, they were not covered unless we added copyright notices. She’s right. Facebook acquires rights to your posts and photos in the same way that a magazine does. You can protect who sees what through your privacy settings, but if you make your posts public, that’s what they are, public.

The same rules apply to blogs, websites, etc. Read the fine print in your privacy settings and put copyright notices on everything. You can type a notice into every post or do what I just did on this WordPress blog. I typed “All content copyright 2014 Sue Fagalde Lick” into the sidebar that always sits at the side of the page. People may still plagiarize, but they have been warned.

How do you know if someone has ripped off your writing or photos? Search for strings of words that are unique to your work. Set up a Google Alert for words and phrases you use often. Also try Copyscape’s free search feature to find plagiarized posts.

Copyright appears to be a simple concept: If you didn’t write those words or take that picture, you can’t use them. But it gets complicated.

Here are some more links to help you sort this stuff out.

“Five Things You Can Do to Protect Your Online Images—by attorney Carolyn E. Wright.

Now go write.


Watch out for sneaky little words that say nothing

Useless little words tick me off, as do words that are used incorrectly. I know, most people have bigger problems to worry about, but I want to look at some words we tend to put in the strangest places. I’m talking about to do and to have, and their variations.

Consider: “I do the dishes.” Do what to them? Do them as in have sex? Hard to get it on with a dinner plate. Some people even do them up. No. We wash the dishes, we dry the dishes, and we put them away. “Do” is so vague. How about throw the dishes? Fill the dishes? Scrub the dishes? Scour? Scrape? Soap? There are so many other words that actually do some work. But what does do tell us? I suppose do sums up the whole job. We take them off the table, empty the leftovers into the trash, clean them and put them away. The whole job.

Likewise, we do the laundry. We get our hair done, and people order steaks well done. Criminals do time.

Busy little verb, isn’t it? Do: To bring to pass, to perform, to execute, to make it happen. Do is a great word. When you’re speaking in the voice of a character, feel free to use “do” just like real people. “Let’s just do up these dishes.” But in other writing, stop and think: Is do the right word, or would another, more specific verb give that sentence more color and power?

Then there’s have. It has a lot of legitimate uses, including: to hold or maintain in one’s possession (I have five dollars), to hold or contain as part of the whole (the car has an automatic transmission), or to feel an obligation in regard to something (we have to pay our taxes). We use it as a helping verb to change tense with other verbs. “I have worked hard today.” “I have been to France.”

But what about when we say “I had a pizza”? What, did you keep it in your sock drawer? Did you have a pizza and someone took it away? No, you’re probably saying you ordered a pizza at a restaurant and then you ate it. Devoured it. Gobbled it. Wolfed it down. Shared it with your friends.

We have all kinds of weird phrases including the word have and its cousins: had better, have it in for, have done. What the heck do these things really mean? Again, if you’re projecting the voice of a character or a colorful narrator, use these words however you please. Have at it. But otherwise, think about it. Might there be another word with more power?

We’re guilty with other words, too. Like “get.” We “get” all kinds of things that we don’t actually “get.” And “make.” We “make chicken” for dinner. No, we cook it. And don’t get me started on all the ways we use is, was, and were when other words would work better.

We have so many great words. If you can’t think of the right word in your first draft, mark it and keep writing. Later, go back and find that word. Don’t settle for the lazy choice.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Now go write.

I feel sorry for anyone trying to learn the English language.

V is for . . . Virus–Watch Out for Bugs in Your Computer

Wednesday I was feeling all right, just a little tired. Then, about 3:00, things changed. I was still tired, but now achy all over, and my throat felt like it was full of coffee grounds. Uh-oh. I had to sing at church for the kids, then do choir practice. I made it through, hoping I was just tired from the steady stream of Easter singing events. But no. The sore throat turned from gravel to knives. My nose started to run. By bedtime, I was speaking to the dog in sign language. I looked in my medical encyclopedia and deduced that I probably have a virus, one I’ve had before. Rats.

Meanwhile, my laptop computer caught a virus, too. Have any of you had notices that pop up on your screen telling you that “you must download the latest version of Adobe Flash to view this content”? Don’t. I got tired of looking at it, so I clicked “okay” and installed the dang thing. Next thing I knew, ads and TV commercials were popping up all over my computer. I mean, I’m writing along and suddenly there’s a voice talking to me about cars or arthritis pills.

I was in the process of buying a new computer (typing on it now, love it), so I asked my computer guy about the popups. He shook his head. “You’ve got a virus. That program you downloaded was a scam. Not the Real Adobe Flash.” Nuts. I have been so careful with my laptop. I used an antivirus program and never opened any emails that looked suspicious. But one click, and it was sick. I ran scans, and I told my antivirus program to get rid of the infected files. Well, it tried. But the next day when I booted up, I got the blue screen, the fatal error screen. I rebooted. Same thing. I took it to the shop. Spent $69 to have it cleaned out.

As my computer guy said, every computer gets viruses. But there are some things you can do.

  1. Install an antivirus program and keep it up to date. If it doesn’t automatically scan your computer on a regular basis, take the time to do a scan on your own at least once a week. Don’t install more than one antivirus program; they’ll render each other ineffective.
  2. Don’t open emails or attachments that don’t come from recognized sources.
  3. Don’t click on links from people you don’t know.
  4. Don’t download anything just because a popup tells you that you need to. If you didn’t ask for it, you probably don’t want it.
  5. If you’re not a techie, don’t try to fix it yourself.

 I’m going to pick up my rejuvenated laptop today and hope that all of my files are intact. I welcome your suggestions for combatting viruses in both humans and computers.

V is for virus. I have almost reached the end of April’s A to Z blog challenge. My posts can be found in my three blogs, Unleashed in Oregon, Childless by Marriage, and Writer Aid. Visit Unleashed in Oregon tomorrow to find out what W stands for.

J stands for job–do you have one?

Is being a writer a job? It’s work. If you’re on the staff of a newspaper, magazine, or other publication, if you write press releases, instruction manuals or annual reports and you have to report in every day at a specific time, if you use your employers’ equipment to carry out the assignments they give you, and if they give you a W2 form for your taxes at the end of the year, you definitely have a job. With luck, your family and the IRS see you as gainfully employed.

Maybe you have a completely different kind of job that supports your writing. Most writers do.

But what if you’re a writer working at home, setting your own hours, using your own equipment, choosing your own assignments, and your earnings are sporadic? Do you still have a job?

A2Z-BADGE [2014] - Support - smallThis is one of the dilemmas of being a self-employed writer. People don’t see you as working if you’re writing poetry or essays in your pajamas. They feel free to call you on the phone or drop by or schedule you for activities during your prime writing time because oh, she’s just writing. Sound familiar?

It has taken me years to establish my morning writing time as sacred. Most of my friends and family now understand that I cannot chat, go shopping, attend a meeting or anything else before approximately 1 p.m. because I’m working. They expect a surly response if they interrupt my writing. When the receptionist at the dentist’s office says, “Can you come in at 10:00?” I say, No, it needs to be in the afternoon.” Of course, if I just broke a tooth, I will make an exception, but for an ordinary cleaning and checkup, I stick to my schedule.  It is not easy to claim this time. I have to tell people I’m working and then I have to actually use the time to work, even when I don’t have editors waiting for me and I’d much rather do anything but string words together.

Is writing a job? Yes. If you are hoping to earn money at it, it’s a business, and you are the sole employee, as well as the CEO, vice president, secretary, tech support, and janitor. If you really want to be a writer, claim your time and respect. Feel free to tell people, “I’m going to work now, and if I’m late, my boss will really be mad.”

Do you consider your writing a job? How do you claim your writing time? Let us know in the comments.

I am participating in the A to Z blog challenge this month. J stands for job. My alphabetical posts travel among my different blogs. Tomorrow, visit Unleashed in Oregon  to see what K stands for.

But right now, get to work. Go write.






Contests as a route to getting published

In recent weeks, we have talked about approaching agents and book publishers to get your book published. Another path to publication is by entering contests. Many university presses and small independent publishers, especially those who do literary fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry, hold contests in which they will publish the winning books. This can be a huge honor and a stepping stone to greater things in your career, or it may turn out to be much ado about not very much, a handful of copies that no one but you will ever see.

You can find contests in many books and websites. Here are a few: Funds for Writers, Moira Allen’s Writing to Win: Colossal Guide to Writing Contests, Poets & WritersWriters Digest,, and the Creative Writing Opportunities list at Yahoo groups.I  So, you read the listings and find some that sound good. Now you need to answer some questions.

Who are these people?

Who else have they published? Do you like the books they put out? Would your book fit in? Go to their website, take a look at their books and see if it feels right. Then study the guidelines. Do you and your book fit their qualifications? Many contests look for authors who have not published books before or at least not in that genre. Some have requirements for age, ethnicity or place of residence. Others only want to see books that have already been published.

What do they require for entries?

Usually they’re looking for a finished manuscript. Will yours be ready by the deadline? Will it be the right length?  Do they want hard copies sent by mail, email entries, or entries fit into a form? Do they want your contact information on the manuscript, or does it need to be anonymous with a cover sheet explaining who you are. You can lose a contest in a hurry by not following directions.

Is this contest worth it to you? Nearly all contests have entry fees, often ranging from $20 up. If you enter several contest, the fees add up. What will you get if you win? Is there a cash prize? Do they guarantee publication? How many copies will they publish? What rights will they take? Will they pay an advance or royalties? Will they help with marketing and distribution? Are there secondary prizes for runners-up and honorable mentions? Do they offer critiques for non-winners?

If you’re thinking entering book contests sounds like a lot of work, you’re right. It is. But if you win the right contest with the right book, it can be the best thing that ever happened to your career.

You can’t enter a book contest without a book, so …

Now go write.



Are Cell Phones Overused in Fiction?

Have you noticed the role that telephones play in our novels, TV shows, and movies these days? The next time you enjoy a piece of fiction on the screen or on the page, count the number of times a cell phone comes into the picture, with characters making or receiving calls. Add bonus points for texting or use of smart phone apps. Often those calls are plot-changers. In my almost-finished novel, that’s certainly the case. The phone interrupts what my protagonist is doing at a key moment. I did a search and discovered I had used the word “phone” 115 times in 350 pages. Doesn’t that seem like too much?

What did writers do before folks had easy access to telephones? When they had to write letters? When they had to find a phone booth and money to pay for the call? When maybe because they weren’t near a phone they didn’t know what was happening elsewhere? Does anyone reading this remember when you had to stay home and wait for a phone call that might or might not ever come?

Is it too easy to just say, “And then the phone rang.” Is this a modern version of the old deus ex machina, in which some catastrophic event suddenly ends the story with a plane crash, explosion, earthquake or other unbelievable device? Or is it just a modernized version of a letter arriving or a stranger riding up on a horse to deliver a message?

Maybe we’re just being realistic. Certainly we have all noticed how many people walk around staring at their phones. And why not? They’re so entertaining. My new smart phone is really a small computer. It does everything but make my lunch. But have I gotten any life-changing calls on it lately? No. Just the usual nonsense about work, a few wrong numbers, and Verizon wanting to sell me more apps.

We seem to be creating a generation of zombies who can’t look away from their screens—phone, tablet, computer—for more than a few minutes without going into withdrawal and who don’t know how to look directly at the world around them and the people in it. But does that make for an interesting story? A horror story maybe.

Gina Denny, a blogger who’s half my age, has a different opinion. In this post, “Cell Phones in Fiction,”  she scolds writers doing books about teens for NOT putting enough smart phones in their fiction because kids do everything on them. It would be unrealistic, for example, to have a teen character study a paper map or look up a word in a print dictionary; he would use his phone.  It’s something to think about. It’s important to consider who your characters are and how they use their phones.

So here’s my challenge. Write a story that has no cell phones. Put your characters in a place with no service if you have to. And while you’re at it, put your own phone down. After all, you can’t type with a phone in your hand. Although I suppose you could write the story ON your phone.

Humor me. Just power off. Now go write.

Write about where you live

Wherever you are right now, you can find a story. I’m at a Starbucks in Santa Clara, California, the heart of Silicon Valley, and I can tell you it’s way different from the Starbucks where I live in Oregon. The clothes, the people using computers and smart phones simultaneously, the ethnic diversity, even the drinks they order . . . I could write about how Starbucks stores cater to different geographic areas or how the people are different or why the smallest drink they have is called a “tall.”

What makes your hometown unique? What do tourists come to see? What people, places or events stand out? What problems face your town? Scan the newspaper, take a drive, ask around, gather enough information for an article query, an essay, a commentary or a poem.  What seems ordinary to you might not be to folks who live elsewhere.  Start looking around with the eyes of a writer. What catches your attention or makes you ask, “What is that all about?” For example, in northern California along I-5 between the Oregon border and Yreka, there’s a metal cow in a field next to a barn with a big sign that says “State of Jefferson.” When I looked it up, I discovered that years ago people tried to secede from Oregon and California to form a new state.  It didn’t happen, but there’s a story in it. And where did that cow come from? Another story. There may be other regions that tried to form their own states. If you can find out about them, you could expand this into a piece for a national publication.

Also look locally for publications to write for, especially if you’re just getting started. You can find copies in your local libraries, bookstores and coffee shops.  The editors are nearby, so you can meet in person, and the subject matter they cover is close at hand. They may not pay a lot, but whatever you write for them can be resold as is or revised for other markets.  One of my favorite stories in recent years was a roundup piece about the salt water taffy makers on the Oregon Coast. It ran in Oregon Coast Today, and I earned about $200. I could easily reslant it for Northwest Travel, VIA, newspaper travel sections or candy-making trade publications. I could also write about research being done on wave energy, our mayor who is also an artist, our tsunami preparations, the glass floats manufactured here, and lots of other Oregon coast stories.

What’s happening your neighborhood? There are lots of stories just outside your door. Look around.

And then, go write.


Please forgive my delay in posting. We are having a family emergency this month, and I don’t know when things will get back to “normal.” Also, my online classes scheduled to start Oct. 30 will be delayed until next year. If you want to get started by reading my Freelancing for Newspapers: Writing for an Overlooked Market book, Amazon has a pretty good discount right now.