Friday, July 14, 2017

How to Respond When Someone Asks You To Write for Free

or: Don't Say "No," Ask for Dough

"You're a doctor?" says the person you've just met. "That's great! I thought about practicing medicine, but I just didn't have the time, you know? Hey--"

Here, they lift up their shirt, baring more than you wanted to see, especially at the grocery check-out / wedding reception / gas pump.

"I've got this pus-filled invasive weeping sore. How about you remove it for me?"

You tell them you'd be happy to do the job -- just call your office and make an appointment.

The shirt comes down. The scowl comes out. "An appointment? Pay you! You should be honored I asked. It would be good exposure for your practice. Hey -- I'll tell ya what. Do it for free, and when I make modern medical history, I'll split whatever money I get from the AMA."



If you have difficulty imagining that scenario, then you are probably not a writer. Because we writers live countless versions of this Every Dang Day.

This summer, a writer friend whose novel is currently shortlisted for a veddy prestigious prize had an exchange that went something like this:

Movie Maker Acquaintance: I'm looking for my next project. Thought I'd do your book. What do you say?

Whoa, Tiger! All this talk of fundage harshes my creative mellow.
Writer: Sounds interesting. What option terms did you have in mind? Send me a contract and I'll consider it.

MMA: Whoa, Tiger! Who said anything about contracts or money? Sheesh! I thought it might be nice for you to work with a friend on a fun project. I'm not a mercenary like some people.

Whoa, Tiger indeed. For reasons that escape me, people who would never dream of asking an electrician friend to re-wire their house have no such qualms about asking a writer to make her skills available gratis.

Too often when writers suggest that they expect to be compensated for their time and expertise, they hear: "I can't pay you, but it'll be great exposure."

Exposure: not what it's cracked up to be.

Writers know: Money pays the heating bills. A person can die of exposure.

I know writers who refuse to tell other people what they do because of the inevitable "OmiGod! You should totally write my story. I don't know the first thing about publishing, but it's a great story, sure to be a bestseller. OmiGOD! I just had the best idea ever! You should totally write it for me and we can split the money it'll be great! It all started with a dream I had in 1987--"

We don't want to be rude. We don't want to say, "That is the worst story I've ever heard" or "Pleasepleaseplease don't tell me about your horrible childhood" or "You lost me at 'the day the aliens abducted me.'" But believe me when I say -- and this is important -- NO MATTER WHAT THE STORY IS, NO WRITER WANTS TO WRITE IT FOR FREE.


If, as a writer, you ever find yourself accosted by the equivalent of a pus-filled sore asking a doctor for freebie surgery, there is no need to get offended, nor are you obliged to listen to the entire "write my story" pitch. There is a way out. Act like the professional you are. Here is a handy script to help:

Thanks for thinking of me. If you're serious, I would be happy to talk to you more in-depth about this project at a later time. Expect a project of this magnitude to take 6 to 9 months for completion. For work of this nature, I charge $60,000*. One-third is payable up front. One-third is due when the first draft is completed. The final installment is due me upon delivery of the completed manuscript. I make no guarantees that the work will be published when it's complete: it's your story; that's up to you. Would you like me to draw up a contract and we'll get to work?

* Here in the Midwest, 60 K is a nice tidy sum of money that makes most projects worth a writer's while, should someone decide to retain their services. In areas of the country where living expenses are more aggressive, make it $160,000. The point is: don't be in a hurry to say "no." Remember that not writing someone's story for free isn't personal -- it's business.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

America's First National Anthem?

With Independence Day on Tuesday, many people are celebrating with fireworks and family this weekend. I've been doing quite a bit of research lately on America at the time of the Revolution.

(Said research was sparked in part because of my current Hamilton obsession, which is fed daily by the realization that in two short weeks I'll see it in Chicago. Be. Still. My. Heart. Since the heroine of my current work-in-progress is a teenage slave in Georgia in 1783, this research is all useful, as opposed to merely interesting...)

One of the things I came across is "Chester."

Though sounding like a fluffy orange tabby lying on someone's favorite cushion, "Chester" is, in fact, a song by prolific Colonial composer William Billings, a self-taught musician. It's the unofficial Anthem of the American Revolution.

"Let tyrants shake their iron rod,
And Slav'ry clank her galling chains,
We fear them not, we trust in God,
New England's God forever reigns."

The song is bright, grand, and memorable. Though written for four-part harmony, the tenors have the melody, rather than (as is more often the case) the sopranos.

Billings was an odd duck: he only had one eye, walked with a pronounced limp because one leg was shorter than the other, had a withered arm, and was addicted to snuff. By all accounts his voice was a hearty, booming bass. Uneducated and a shabby dresser, he worked in a tannery where, it is said, he wrote his first pieces of music on the sides of leather in the shop. Never wealthy, he still hung out with the likes of Paul Revere and Samuel Adams.
Frontispiece to New England Psalm-Singer, engraved by Revere.

"Chester" was first published in 1770, when Billings was only 24, in his book The New England Psalm Singer (which, incidentally, was the first published book of American music -- and Billings is widely considered to be America's first choral composer). The song and tune went through a few revisions, the best known of which was published in Billings' book The Singing Master's Assistant in 1778.

What does "Chester" mean, since the word does not appear in the song's text?

It's probably a reference to the city where Billings composed it -- a common practice at the time. It's a name derived from Old English and Latin meaning "camp of soldiers." There is no real evidence, however, that the song's name refers to any particular person, location, or battlefield. Why did Billings choose that title for his song? History isn't entirely sure.

Billings married Lucy Swan, a singer, in 1774, and they had six children. Lucy preceded Billings in death, leaving him with six kids under the age of 18.

At one point, "Chester" was as universally known as "Yankee Doodle." A variety of lyrics, both patriotic and religious, existed for the song, so it was as popular in church as in the barracks and on the battlefield.

An example of Billings' beautiful, though confusing, sheet music.
Sadly, Billings was a victim of our young country's lax copyright laws. Though he composed well over 100 works and published six volumes, when he died in 1800, two weeks before his fifty-fourth birthday, he was penniless and practically forgotten. (His friends were responsible for printing the sixth and last volume of his work, in an effort to help with Billings' financial situation. However, his four-part choral style had fallen out of fashion.)

In 1970, Billings was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Which is great -- really. But, like any artist, I suspect he'd have been happier with being able to make a living from his art while he was still alive, rather than being recognized for his talents long after he was buried in an unmarked grave in Boston Common Cemetery.

Now it's your turn:
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Sunday, June 25, 2017

Julius Caesar in Under 50 Words

Because Shakespeare's play, written in 1599, about events that happened in 44 B.C., continues to be relevant, provocative, and news-making (every writer should be so lucky)...

And because it is clear to me that a staggering number of people are discussing Julius Caesar without having the foggiest idea what the play is actually about...

And because every once in awhile I like to take a break from writing and dabble in drawing, if only to prove to myself that my talents lie elsewhere...

I present: The Illustrated, Annotated, and Abridged Shakespeare's JULIUS CAESAR, in less than 50 words, with additional Cliff's Notes-like salient points after the text:

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Happy Father's Day Redux

Dad in Fort Knox, 1957 B.C. - Before Child.
Last Sunday, I took my dad out to the Mason Jar, the tastiest eatery in Berrien County. The place was packed, as we expected, so we browsed the adjacent artists' shops while we waited for our table.

When our time came, we took our time as we enjoyed a wonderful meal. When I picked up the tab, I said, "Happy Father's Day, Dad."

"Thanks," he said. "It's a good one."

We headed back to the car and came back to our homes.

I thought about my daughter, who has no father to celebrate this year. Also, since two of my uncles have passed away in the past three months, many of my cousins are newly fatherless.

I thought about how fortunate I have been to have a great dad -- one who may not share my political views, but who shares my odd sense of humor (and, really, that's often more important).

Dad and me. I'm 2 months old.
 When I was growing up, he always made sure to schedule his time off so we could all take a family vacation, spending solid amounts of quality time together as we traveled North America.

He and Mom welcomed WunderGuy with open arms when we got married. I think he misses Robert nearly as much as I do.

My dad has been married to my mom for 53 years. For the past 3 years, Mom's dementia has grown increasingly pervasive. She is now locked in her own unreachable waking dream, whimpering to herself and barely able to interact with the real world. Yet, every day, Dad goes and visits with her, spending hours by her side, making sure she eats a good lunch, listening to the radio, and doing crossword puzzles while keeping her company. Dad lives his love.

Eatin' oranges. Mmmmm!
Later last Sunday, when I got on Twitter, I was mildly surprised that Father's Day wasn't trending. The world is changing, my inner curmudgeon grumbled. Nobody makes much of a fuss over parents anymore.

And then... Because not a single person on my timeline had anything dad-oriented to say, the teensiest suspicion began to niggle at me.

Less than three seconds later, Google was kindly explaining that while Mother's Day was the second Sunday of May, Father's Day was the third -- not the second -- Sunday in June.

Oh dopey me!

"Hey Dad," I said, when I called him later. "Did you know it's not Father's Day?"

He started laughing. "You're kidding!"

As I related this story to my friend Stacey, she snorted. "You and my dad are in the same time warp. He gave me grief for forgetting him today. Didn't believe me when I told him it was next week..."

Well, now it IS next week. Now it IS Father's Day. I shall celebrate again with my father. We shall go to Dairy Queen and indulge in the wonder that is hot fudgey delightful dairy goodness.

We might do the same thing next week, too. 'Cause some dads deserve more than one Father's Day. And I'm lucky to have one of those dads.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Blog Reboot: The Next Post

I've been meaning to post an update for what feels like a lifetime. Some days I'll even log on -- then I'll see my last post, my final tribute to WunderGuy, and I'll feel all the energy drain out of me.

Nothing I want to write seems appropriate for The Next Post. Compared to losing Robert, everything seems trite. Unimportant. Frivolous.

I thought of closing up shop -- shutting the blog down and calling it quits. Some days I could muster no answer to the question of "What's the point?"

But there is an answer: Life goes on.

I can't be blog blocked forever. Robert may be gone, but the world continues to spin. So I'm going to take Robert's fix-all tech-guy advice. Whenever I would get stuck and grumble with frustration (I can grump with the best of them, let me tell ya), he would ask: "Have you tried turning it off and turning it back on?"

For the past 6 months, this blog has been turned off. Now it's time to turn it back on.

This summer, God willing, I've got plans to launch another blog. And maybe a newsletter (further bulletins as events warrant). This will remain up and running, but it's going to go through a makeover.

By my estimate, there are roughly 13 bazillion blogs and websites out there that dispense writing advice. More power to them. In the near future, I'm going to spend some time archiving and culling a lot of the posts from the past 12 years. I'll leave some of the most popular ones up. (This post on "How to Write a Foreword," for instance, is one of the first things you see if you Google the question. It'll stay.) I'll also continue to help new and struggling writers in my workshops and at Write2TheEnd. But I'm going to blog less about the writing process and more about the way-cool stuff I keep running across in my research for various writing projects.

Eighth grade graduation. It's a thing.
[Lately, I'm all about runaway slaves in eighteenth century America and Pickett's Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. Oh, and historical UFO sightings. Research FTW!]

So this post kicks off life post-WunderGuy. It's greyer. Lonelier. Some days feel like they are encased in fog, cloying, thick, and heavy. But there are good things, too. A partial list of Things That Make My World a Better Place:

* My kid. She is awesome and funny and lovely; she laughs at my jokes and joins in on loud, word-tripping renditions of the "Hamilton" soundtrack. Plus, she rocks the tiny kitty headband like no one's business.

* Dogs. Mine (I've got four -- all essential for my health and well-being) as well as others'. Kestrel's dignity, River's enthusiasm, Zephyr's devotion, and Major's pure silliness make every day worthwhile.

Friends. Friends who brunch, breakfast, and lunch are invaluable. So are the friends who share their cool artistic talents, who shame me into going to the gym, and who indulge in over-eating sugar-based foodstuffs to counteract that whole gym nonsense.

Sunshine. Do not mock me. I live in Michigan. We do not take the Golden Orb for granted. Rather, we celebrate it when it makes an appearance.

Chocolate. And raspberry sherbet. And Hot Tamales. And anything salted caramel or toffee.

Coffee. Some days all it takes is a hot cuppa to make life worth living.

Creativity. No one lives forever. But when we're gone, the work remains. Plus, nothing matches the creative high. Nothing.

Maybe you're in a place that could use a little life rebooting too. Maybe you feel like you've been turned off and are ready to power back up. If so, why not try making a list of things that make your world better? See if it helps you. And feel free to add to my list. We're all in this together.

Keep on keeping on. Here's to reboots...

Monday, December 12, 2016

WunderGuy vs. The Brain Tumor: The Finale

or: Elegy for Half of Me

Canoeing the St. Joseph River in 2009.
It's over.

On Saturday, December 3, shortly before 10 a.m., Robert, my husband of 28 years and my best friend for over 3 decades, passed away.

Robert had a great sense of humor, but he was never a great joke teller. Though one of our first dates including trading increasingly awful jokes, punch lines were never his forte. For years there has been only one joke that he told often and well:

I want to die peacefully, in my sleep, like my grandfather... (slight pause for effect)
Not yelling and screaming like the passengers in his car.

He got his wish. No joke.

On Saturday, the house was crawling with people who came to pay their respects and to keep me company.

The Hospice nurse came shortly after I called her. Though Robert had been unable to communicate or to respond for several weeks, I'd gotten in the habit of speaking to him as if he could understand everything that was going on around him. I had to resist the urge to introduce him to the Hospice nurse and explain to him the reason she was in the house.

The nurse pronounced him dead, signed an official-looking piece of paper, and then began a seek-and-destroy mission for Robert's meds. With my husband's body lying behind me, those of us who were alive and remained dumped his medication into a plastic baggie full of kitty litter to create a goopy toxic sludge.

I spent the day calling friends and family to tell them the news.

My gorgeous 20 year-old boyfriend.
Later in the afternoon, Bryan and Kendyll, came from the funeral home. They put Robert's body on a gurney and covered it with a black plastic body bag. The bag had a multi-colored quilt design on it; oddly homey. I remarked on it. "He didn't strike me as a red velvet type of guy," Bryan said, which made me realize that every time he gets a call, he has to make a decision -- red velvet or homey quilt? -- about someone he has likely never met.

Friends came, and kept coming, offering condolences, bringing cookies, asking what they could do to help.

On Sunday, the medical supply company came and retrieved Robert's hospital bed that had dominated our little living room and the wheelchair that was parked at our dining room table. In the space of a few hours, much of the trappings of this past year, the physical markers of Robert's slow demise, were gone.

Robert and I met in the early weeks of our freshman year at Andrews University. In those days, before cell phones, night owl me stayed up with some friends and prank called the boys' dorm. One of the numbers I called was Robert's. We ended up talking for over two hours.

The next day, as I was standing in the cafeteria line with my boyfriend, I heard "Hey Ami!" When I turned, a boy waved at me. "It's Robert!" Shortly after that, we started dating.

On our second date, he asked me to marry him. Which freaked me out. Of course I said "no"! I told him to wait a year, and if we were still together to ask again. We married four years later, the week after we graduated.

Our engagement photo.
I suffer from Only Child Syndrome: I have enormous personal space and I enjoy being alone. Robert: not so much. He was the first person I was ever able to spend 24 hours with and not get totally sick of. For the past 10 years, with the exception of his hospital stays, we've spent practically all day, every day together. I never got tired of him.

The funeral home provided a form for me to fill out that helped Bryan craft Robert's "official" obituary. In a few short paragraphs, it mentions his education, his profession, his church involvement, and his hobbies. I approved it and they posted it. In a way, that's all there is to say. But the those few paragraphs don't do justice to my guy.

For instance, there is no mention of the fact that though he liked super spicy food, really hot stuff gave him the hiccups -- and that always made me laugh.

He had a true geek's love of all things Star Trek and Star Wars. C.S. Lewis, Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, Isaac Asimov, Terry Brooks, and Eoin Colfer were all quotable friends. We had such a shared repertoire of books and TV shows and movies that we practically had our own language of references and in-jokes. (One friend called it "Hendrickson-speak" and lamented that, though she understood every word we said, she had no idea what we were talking about!) I miss that.

I miss his bright blue eyes, his beautiful smile, his easy laugh, and his calm, genuine presence.

Robert was always warm, always generous, always honest, always real. He was my WunderGuy.

I will always miss him.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Crisis Cure

Earlier this month, my dear friends Barbara, Kathy, Kim, and Lisa put on a Reader's Theatre event to benefit our family as we deal with the fallout of WunderGuy's rapidly failing battle with this last brain tumor. I presented "The Crisis Cure" as part of the event. Here's the video:

The following is an updated version of that piece...


It’s mid-June. My husband, Robert, who had his fourth and final brain surgery at the end of January, has been home from the hospital less than two weeks.

Robert’s right side doesn’t work very well. He can’t walk more than a few steps, and that only with assistance. He thinks he can do more, so he randomly gets up off of the wheelchair or bed or toilet, only to crash to the floor. I’ve learned the medical description of  this is “his brain writes checks his body can’t cash.” He literally must be watched every moment of every day. He can feed himself, brush his teeth and use the urinal. His speech is limited. He sleeps 2 or 3 hours at a time. So I sleep 2 or 3 hours at a time. We are in crisis. We’ve been in crisis all year, it seems.

Obviously, given our situation, we are top-tier candidates to invite to a sushi party. Which is exactly what our friends Dana and Jeff Johnston do.

It doesn’t matter that they have to figure out a way to cobble together a ramp so Robert’s wheelchair can navigate the steps into their house. It takes five people, all crowded around my man, grabbing various pieces of his chair, heaving and pushing and pulling up two sets of stairs, but we find a way. 

The Johnstons go all out. The table is packed with big bowls of sticky rice, green sheets of nori, tofu, eggs, julienned carrot and squash and cucumber, pickled burdock root, marinated mushrooms, avocado slivers, and more. Little bowls of dipping sauces, ranging from salty to spicy, complete the set up. We take turns using the square bamboo mat, each assembling his or her masterpiece of flavors, then rolling it, slicing it, and passing it around for everyone to sample.

We roll and eat and laugh and talk for two hours. The whole time, I am thankful for my blessings: thanks to my friends, crisis is averted for awhile.

It is the end of July. Robert is on his second round of experimental chemotherapy. The docs aren’t suggesting that it will reduce the existing brain tumor. We just hope it will slow the growth. 

Robert can feed himself, but it takes effort. He can brush his teeth. He gets confused and mistakes the urinal for a waterbottle. So he wears briefs at night. I have learned to say “briefs” instead of “diapers.” I get up once or twice a night to change him. We are still in crisis.

Clearly, what we need is an arty party.

Which is exactly what my friend Kelly Smith (who had the audacity to move away because she found gainful employment elsewhere) brings when she visits. In addition to delicious homemade pesto and bread, she totes a stack of coloring books and a rainbow of colored markers and pencils. We sit at my dining room table and hang out and catch up; exactly as we would do if there weren’t a hospital bed taking up most of my living room floor and if my husband weren’t incapacitated. It’s not a way I’ve spent many Sunday afternoons in my life, but it’s the most normal thing I’ve done in months.

“This is wonderful,” I say, my mouth crammed full of chocolate banana bread. “Exactly what I needed.”

“I wasn’t sure,” Kelly confesses. “So I Googled ‘What To Do For a Friend in Crisis.’ It said, ‘Don’t ask what to do. Just do something. Something specific. Something you’d like if the situation were reversed.’”

Crisis cured. For now.

It’s August. Not only did the experimental chemotherapy not work, there is some indication that it contributed to two possible brain bleeds. No more chemo. No more experiments. No more... anything. The docs are out of options. They talk about hospice, but we’re not ready to go down that road yet.

Most of the time, Robert can still feed himself, but it takes forever. I brush his teeth. I bathe him. I dress him. He wears briefs all the time now. He no longer launches himself out of his chair or his bed, thinking he can walk. He no longer walks at all. The crisis continues. 

And yet...

Nick volunteers to watch Robert while I take our daughter to school so I don’t have to figure out a way to get him up and dressed and out the door first thing in the morning.

Thanks to Wendy, a surprise delivery brings eight big boxes of necessities to our door: briefs, exam gloves, mattress protectors. And I am overwhelmed with gratitude. Because, believe me, nothing says “I love you and I’ve got your back” like absorbent disposable underwear and diaper wipes.

Stacey, my roommate from college visits from Ohio and chucks her diet so we can spend a weekend self-medicating with chocolate.

Karen, whom we haven’t seen in years, flies in from California to spend time watching silly shows and reconnecting.

Alyson sends me two 10-pound shipments of high-end “bougie” coffee. A devout Mormon, she wouldn’t know good coffee if it scalded her. “I didn’t know what to get, but knew you drank decaf,” she said. “So I got some of every kind of decaf they had.”

Other friends help in ways too numerous to count.

Some sit with Robert so I can get out of the house.

Some are willing to make time in their busy schedules to meet for coffee or breakfast whenever I can get away for a moment.

Some send notes of encouragement. Some call to chat.

Some pray without ceasing for healing. For strength. For courage. For peace.

 Some collude together and plan a benefit for our family and talk me out of my initial prideful skepticism and into the idea.

Maybe they Googled “Crisis Friends” as well. Because each one helps part the clouds that hover overhead to let the sun shine through.

It’s the beginning of November. Robert cannot shift his own weight. He cannot feed himself. He cannot hold himself upright. He cannot hold a conversation. He responds best to “yes / no” questions – and even then, you have to double- and triple-check his answers to be sure of what he means to say. Often, the words he says make no contextual sense. He literally must be told what muscles to use to swallow his meds or to open his hand. Some nights he is so restless he gets no sleep. Sometimes he gets so frustrated he bellows with rage. Barring a major medical miracle, he will not improve, but will, instead, continue a slow but steady decline.

I have learned when someone calls and asks “what’s happening?” not to answer “my husband just literally pooped in my hand as I was changing him.” Despite what they may say, people don’t really want to know exactly what’s going on. Instead, I say, “Same old, same old. What’s up with you?”

Because I know we are not alone.

You see: we aren’t the only ones in crisis. Since mid-June, a dear friend has discovered he has advanced Lyme disease seriously affecting him both mentally and physically. Another friend is this close to needing a liver transplant. One person has been looking for work while simultaneously battling debilitating back pain. A client has a teenaged daughter who is terminally riddled with cancer. Everybody is going through something. No one escapes this Earth unscathed.

People are reading this who are not currently experiencing the Perfect Life. They are dealing with problematic medical tests, worrisome relationships, housing concerns, career issues, mental health challenges, loneliness, pain, and loss. Maybe one or more of those things is affecting you right now. If it isn’t, I bet someone you know is.

We’re all stewing in one big Crisis Crockpot. So what do we do?

Amazingly, Google is right. Just do something. Reach out. Connect. Be there. Do the thing you wish someone would do for you.

Don’t say “let me know if there is anything I can do.” Because when my hands are killing me from lifting a 200 pound man who has forgotten how to use his legs and I haven’t had a shower in two days and I really – really – didn’t know a single human being could possibly produce that much urine, frankly, there is nothing I can tell anyone to do to make things better.

I certainly would never say: “send me gourmet coffee,” or “text me a goofy picture of your cat,” or “bring over a bunch of tie-dyeing materials and let’s have a party.” Yet, when my friends do those things, they are exactly the things I need to keep crisis at bay for awhile.

Crisis is a part of life. It’s the price we pay for existing. But if we’re lucky, we don’t go through it alone.

Puppy Therapy: River won't leave Robert's side.
It’s today. My husband has not been out of bed in two weeks. He can no longer reliably swallow. To get him to take his meds, I have to depress his tongue and pull it forward, hoping he will swallow, but not choke or aspirate. It's all I can do to get any food into him. Boost and applesauce and pureed vegetable soups are keeping him alive... but we all know it's not for long. We prayed that he wouldn't pass away on Thanksgiving, and he didn't. But things aren't looking good for him to still be here by Christmas.

Still, thanks to our friends, we are not in crisis at the moment. Rather, we are overwhelmed with their kindness. Their caring. Take it from me: that is the crisis cure.