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.

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