Protecting Your Work, a Quick Guide to Copyright

Everyone is afraid of having their work stolen.

The Internet is full of second hand advice on how to protect your writing from theft, however, most people don’t understand the simple process of securing your work. So here, in as few words as possible, is the low down on what you need to do.

First off let’s get rid of a suggestion that always comes up in writers circles: the “poor man’s copyright”. This technique involves sealing a copy of your draft in an envelope and snail mailing it to yourself. The postmark is supposed to be proof of when you created the material.

Besides not being submissable in court, this technique also misses the point of registering a copyright. You don’t register a copyright to claim ownership, you naturally own whatever you create, instead registering gives you the ability to sue for damages.

You read that right. If someone steals your work and you take them to court you can win with or without a copyright. But, you will not be entitled to any compensation unless the work was registered. Hopefully that put some fears to rest for writers out there.

So when do you register? The simple answer is not until it’s published. That’s another misconception writers encounter. True, you can pre-register work for an extra fee or even expedite registration for a very large fee, but typically the work cannot be registered until it has a publication date.

Now that all that’s cleared up, how do you actually register? Simple. Go to copyright.gov and click the box titled “register now” (it’s in the lower middle-left.) You will need to create a login and password.

Once inside, click on the “log in to eCo” button. You will then be greeted with a rather archaic looking system. What you want though is “file a new claim.”

The system will then guide you through the information you need to register your work. For a single author the process is very simple, however, it can get tricky if there were multiple contributors, hired illustrations, or other people involved that can claim ownership of part of the manuscript.

You will need to provide a digital file (PDF and Word are both accepted) at the end of the form along with a $35 processing fee. You can mail those both in, but this is the Internet, why slow things down!

If there are no issues, you should receive your copyright certificate in around seven weeks. Once you get it, store it somewhere safe and pray you never have to use it.

If something does arise, and this has happened to me a few times, a nice agent will contact you and go over what needs to change. In my case I tried to register a compendium of work, rather than each individual story. That’s a no no and will cause your claim to get rejected. If you have a pen name, as I do, you will also need to fill in on the form your real name as well as the pen name (you can claim just the pen name, but then in court you would have to prove that the pen name is you.)

Protecting your work is a lot easier than most writers imagine. With a little bit of money and some time you can give yourself peace of mind. Just be sure and finish your book first. 😉

Protect Your Blog

This is a crosspost from A.J. Cosmo


Eagle eyed readers may notice that my site recently underwent a major transformation. That’s no accident. On the contrary, it was forced.

My web host service (IXWebhosting.com) notified me that my website had been compromised by malware. To be more specific, my WordPress blog had been infected and was busy sending out spam email to heaven knows where.

The spike in traffic raised a flag, IX shut down my site, and I lost everything. The malware had been installed through brute force password cracking (a computer kept trying to log in until it guessed right, literally millions of times.) Once inside, it created an account for itself, gave it full permissions, and started executing PHP scripts while modifying the other PHP files that were there already.

PHP files are what makes WordPress function. They are basically programs that can be run server side. Once the malware virus started changing these though, it made it almost impossible to recover from. IX cleaned the server and removed the bad files, but the damage was done. The malware had changed critical WordPress PHP files and I couldn’t get them back without reinstalling everything.

If all of that sounded confusing or full of jargon, don’t worry, I only understand it because I had to. You don’t have to understand PHP though to protect yourself. Here’s three easy steps you can take right now to keep this curse from happening to you.

  1. Install a firewall program on your WordPress blog.Under plugins search for Firewall and find one that both stops robots from accessing your page and also limits the number of password attempts. WP Security and WordFence come highly recommended.
  2. Make your password stronger.Your last name combined with your birthday won’t cut it anymore. Even adding extra characters and punctuation won’t help much either. Use the password generator under Users to create a strong password. Those are usually around 16 characters and have random numbers and letters. Copy and paste into a password file if you can’t remember it.
  3. Backup your files.I didn’t have any backups so I had to start from scratch, however, WordPress supports backups and restores. Follow this tutorial to learn how to save your work.

Preventing an attack is much easier than recovering from one. I’m lucky that it was isolated and that I have such an awesome and supportive community, however, if I had known better earlier it would have saved a ton of stress. These steps only take a few minutes but they can save you weeks of work.

As for me, I’m making a tall pitcher of lemonade out of these lemons.

😉

Get Writing, Part 2: Developing Your Idea

In Part 1 we discussed where ideas come from. Now let’s talk about what to do with your ideas once you have them.

Ideas can come in a trickle or they can arrive in a flood, but it’s what you do with them once you have them that really matters. Once you have selected an idea to pursue, you then need to grow it into a workable piece. Here are a few techniques to do just that:

 

Sound boarding

Have you ever asked a friend for advice, had a conversation, and then went away knowing exactly what to do without your friend ever really contributing anything? That’s sound boarding. In effect the technique is a one way conversation that allows you to ask questions about your idea and then receive answers from your own mind. Ideally you can have another person there to parrot back what you or talking about, or even add their own ideas, however you can use this technique alone. Simply ask yourself questions about your idea and then answer them on the fly. Imagine this was a conversation between me and a wall:

What’s your story about?

“A baby is in charge for a day.”

Cool, in charge of what?” (Whenever you ask yourself a question, don’t think, simply say the first thing that comes to mind. If it isn’t right, you can change it, just don’t get stuck.)
“Um, he’s the president of the United States.”
What?
“Okay, no, he’s the president of a company.”
How did that happen?
“Okay, maybe he’s not the president of the company, but he somehow ended up in his father’s office and there’s something there that allows him to control how the company operates.”
“Oh, neat! Like an intercom? I think people would know it was a baby though.”

“You’re right, it’s a computer, and the baby- no, toddler- thinks it’s a video game.”

It’s a silly example, but do you see how simple questions about your idea cause you to explore and then defend what you’re saying? Most people stop at the initial idea and never fight with it and the fight is where the interesting stuff develops. If I were to pitch this new  idea it would be:

“A toddler, left in his father’s office, causes havoc as he plays with a control pad as if it was a toy.”

It’s a better idea, but we can use another technique to develop it further.

 

Brainstorming

While soundboarding is great for auditory learners, Brainstorming is more suited for visual or tactile learners. Take a sheet of paper and write down your idea in the center of it. Circle that idea so it’s a bubble and then draw lines off of the bubble with questions (details) about the idea.

Circle those ideas and then add more lines with more questions and answers connected to the previous questions and answers. You’ll end up with a map of ideas that are all connected to one another. For instance, one of the lines coming off of the idea could be “characters.” We only know one for sure: the toddler, that would be its own separate bubble, but the text implies at least two more: the father and an employee.

Each of the character bubbles have their own lines that come off concerning their names, occupations, personalities, and eventually their character arcs. Brainstorming works because it shows how everything is interconnected. Ideas lead to questions, questions lead to answers, which then lead to more questions. Brainstorming maps can expand almost infinitely, so sometimes we need a little help keeping track of it all. Coggle is a pretty sweet brainstorming webapp that works with most browsers while Freemind is a free program that you can use without an internet connection. Both should handle whatever you throw at them.

I’d guess most people have run across this technique at one time or another, however, I’d also guess that most people stop when they run out of questions to ask themselves. So let’s talk about that.

 

Pulling Thread

Everything is interconnected. Good ideas, like seeds, contain all of the genetic material that’s needed to expand into a fully formed tree/story. Pulling the information out of the idea is a lot like pulling string out of a sweater. You simply have to find that loose thread to pull from. It’s an exercise in logic and can be really fun when you get into it. So let’s go back to the idea and find a loose thread:

“A toddler, left in his father’s office, causes havoc as he plays with a control pad as if it was a toy.”

Right off the bat, I zero in on the father. We need an explanation as to why the toddler was left alone in the office in the first place. What is the family like? Is he a single father? Maybe he had the child for the day and was so stressed out over work that he just had to bring the baby in with him. Logically, if a father has his own office but can’t afford daycare he would be middle to upper management. Powerful enough to oversee workers, but low scale enough to still feel the pressure of his work. This would make him middle class, so any kind of big disturbance at work could mean disaster for his family’s finances. The baby wouldn’t know this of course, he/she just wants to play.

All of the above were assumptions on my part and a few small decisions along the way. There are of course a multitude of other ways to explain the situation and that’s where the personal experiences of the writer comes in. There are no right or wrong answers, only lapses in logic, and you will only lose your audience if they don’t understand why things are happening (or don’t agree with why things are happening.)

Already we’re starting to see the story develop. However, there’s still a long way to go. We need to figure out what type of factory would be computer controlled and in doing so, figure out the kind of havoc that the baby actually produces. Again, using logic and personal choices, we can discover just what that is. Assembly lines have these types of controls and any little kink, a stop in one part of production, a change in output speed, can dramatically throw things off. So we now know that the toddler was taken to a factory, but what type of factory? What do they produce?

Now we have a question of Genre. Why? Because the type of factory he wrecks can have different levels of danger and outcomes. Wrecking a Q-tip factory will probably cause less death and mayhem then a car plant. So what type of story are we telling? I’m thinking comedy. So I’m reminded of some classic comedy…

 

Archetypes and Similar Stories

Everything has been done before. New writers and armchair authors often site this cynically. While it’s true that there are essentially eight stories that we keep telling over and over again, within their framework is room for endless variations and improvisation. It’s not what you tell that’s important, it’s how you tell it.

There is nothing wrong with looking at what has been done, and done successfully, and taking instruction and inspiration from them. Just be sure and add your own creativity to the mix. You are, after all, creating a new work of art.

Two famous pieces come to mind when I think of a factory and havoc. I Love Lucy’s famous conveyor belt scene and “Tummy Trouble” the short that preceded “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and setup the rest of the movie. The Lucy skit can provide us with an example of how to make the mayhem in the factory funny (things pile up until the workers are forced to do insane things to compensate) while the short from Roger Rabbit actually gives a glimpse of a working structure for our piece.

This is incredibly valuable. Again, we’re not ripping anything off. We’re simply seeing what has worked before, stripping away the flesh, and using the structural framework to develop our own story.

Right off the bat we have a setup: Roger is left with the baby. As soon as the mother leaves we have a problem: the baby swallows his pacifier and roger rushes off to the hospital to help. From there the problems mount as the mistakes of the baby are transferred to Roger. The baby pursues its own desires (getting a bottle) and causes more trouble that Roger then has to suffer for. We don’t get a resolution until Roger and the baby are in the same place and safe.

The two are in conflict, even though they don’t hate each other. That’s the structure of the cartoon and that’s what we can use for our own story. Our toddler will cause havoc and the father will suffer for it until the time that the two are together and at rest again. Our story will not take place in a hospital, and I doubt if we will torture the father as much as Roger got tortured, but the archetype, the idea of a frantic father and an innocent babe, will remain intact between the two pieces.

Rejecting Ideas

Not all ideas are good. That’s a given. That being said, it’s strange how defensive writers can get over their ideas. If you find that you have to explain your idea after you’ve pitched it, you need to do more development of the idea to make it clearer. If you find yourself actually defending it, fighting with people over your idea, you may want to consider discarding it entirely.

Ideas need to be clear, concise, and expandable. This isn’t just so the query letter to the literary agent sparkles and grabs, it’s because good stories come out of good ideas. One, two, five years, maybe even a decade of your life can be spent realizing a work, so make sure that your idea is worth the amount of time it will take to bring it to life.

Everyone has ideas. Few people have finished books.

Don’t be afraid to discard what isn’t working and start over from scratch. This is the stage you want to do that. Blank pages are pennies. New Word documents are two clicks away.

Make sure you love what you’re going to create.

Unexpected Developments

I didn’t start writing this blog post with the intention of ending it with a story about a toddler in a factory. I simply knew that something would come out of me when I asked. That something isn’t always good, logical, or original, but it was there. When you start pulling thread and asking questions of yourself don’t go in with any expectations. Embrace unexpected developments. The best material comes from places you never even knew existed.

So now we have a semi-developed idea. Not perfect, but much further along than what we started with. What’s the next step? What single factor contributes the most to the development of stories?

Find out in Part 3

 

 

Get Writing, Part 1: The Idea

Solve a Problem

Some people look at books as a tool to solve a problem. If that’s your view, then your idea should come from trying to solve an issue. Take bullying for example. If you want to solve bullying for a child or their parents, first do some research about why bullying happens. Talk to parents. Brainstorm about your own experiences. Read other books on the subject. Research will help you discover the “hooks” of the story and the narrative threads that you can later pull to create your work.

 

Tell a Story That Has to be Told

While some people look at stories as a tool to solve a problem, others look at them as ways to transfer personal meaning. They have a story or an idea that has to be told, no, it needs to be told. Stories that need to be told come from our own personal desires to express the meaning behind the story. Stories of dealing with the loss of love can come from our own heartache. These stories are often times a form of therapy for the author and as such become very personal through the course of writing (and can lead to a lot of pain if criticized improperly.) Personal stories require personal research. You need to explore where the idea came from, how those events effected you, and what you want to tell the world you learned from going through it. Remember that a lot of what you may have to say has already been said, and that’s okay, we often times don’t write to break new ground, we write to let others know that they’re not alone.

 

Follow a Trend

Some people write for money (shocking, I know.) If this is your reason for writing, and I don’t judge you for this in a capitalistic society, you’re in for a difficult ride. Right now Disney’s Frozen is still tearing up whatever charts its content happens to fall on, so if you were to word-map popular phrases “Sister” and “Princess” would be at the top of the list. So it would be safe to assume that writing a book called “Sister Princess” would get you to the top of the sales charts easily. Well, not exactly. The danger of following trends is that they are trends because everyone else is also chasing them. If you are determined to write for the market, instead go searching for books and categories that don’t have as much competition. In other words, look for books that people want but don’t have.

 

Observe Reality

Some people get their ideas from observing the world around them. These ideas can be great but often times need elaboration to make them satisfying. If something interests you, say a person you see grabbing french fries out of the bin at a food court, explore why you were interested in them in the first place. What would make someone grab food out of a trash can? Were they poor? No, they were too well dressed for that. We’re they cheap? The woman who looked like his wife seemed agitated, so maybe. What must their home look like? Was he just forgetful? Where else would this behavior come from? What if he went to church? Oh! What if he put twenty in the collection plate at church but only meant to put ten, so he went to the other end of the row and took out money from the collection plate? Now we’re getting somewhere!

Reality leads to characters and characters lead to stories. Observe them and ideas will come.

 

That Nagging Feeling

I find that my best ideas are the ones that I write down and then forget about. The good ones seem to bubble back up and bother me until I get fed up and write them away. If you are flooded with ideas, and what a blessing that is, put them in a notebook and let them rest for a while. Come back to them later and find out which ones are happy to see you again. Those will be your best ideas.

These four examples are just a tiny selection of the endless ways ideas can come to you. What’s important is to capture those ideas when you have them. Once captured, think of them as seeds that need to germinate. Seeds that you care for until the plant grows.

 

Continue to Part 2