Enter the Villain

The year was 1967. I was standing in the store holding a copy of the first paperback edition of Frank Herbert's Dune in my hand. It was huge. I don't remember how many pages it was, but it was way larger than any single book I'd ever owned or read. The Lord of the Rings was the only single story I knew of that was larger. And it was priced at $0.95, which was an outlandish price for a paperback book at the time. Most paperbacks were either $0.40 or $.045, with $0.50 being the extreme. So Dune was running two to two-and-a-half times the price of a regular book. Of course, it was also about twice as long as a regular book. But I really had to talk myself into buying it. That was a lot of money for a sixteen year-old kid back then.

David 3It helped that a cover quote from a name author compared Dune to The Lord of the Rings. I had discovered Tolkien the previous year, and was absolutely enraptured by Middle Earth, so anything that compared favorably to Tolkien's masterwork certainly caught my attention. And that may have been the deciding element that ended up convincing me to buy it.

The quote author was pretty much on target. Dune is a masterpiece. It is absolutely the pinnacle of Frank Herbert's career, having won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards for 1966, the only time he won either of those awards. None of his earlier works approach it in scope and awesome world building, and of his later works, only The Dosadi Experiment comes close to matching it.

At age sixteen, I had no clue that I would one day be a writer. Nonetheless, I learned an early lesson in writing from Dune, and that is the proper handling of a villain in a story.

Every story has to have a protagonist—the character the story is about. Just about every story will have an antagonist—the counterfoil that the protagonist plays off of or against. But the antagonist is not necessarily either 'a' or 'the' villain of the piece. In Dune, however, the roles of antagonist and villain are united in one character: Baron Vladimir Harkonnen.

The Baron is a real piece of work. Herbert draws him with bold lines as a man who seems to have no redeeming qualities. He seems to be purely evil, although naturally so. There is no supernatural element to the Baron as there is to Paul Atreides, the protagonist and hero of Dune. This, perhaps, makes the Baron even scarier than he would have been had he been portrayed as some sort of Satan-analog or anti-Kwisatz Haderach to counterbalance Paul.

Herbert made the Baron stick in my mind by understating him. The Baron is an absolute sadist, a pederast, and an incestophile, yet very little of that is shown "on screen" so to speak in the novel. The reader is given glimpses here and there of the raw evil lying beneath the surface of what is otherwise a very forceful, articulate, and urbane man. This is so effective in Herbert's hands. I literally shivered when I first encountered the Baron in Dune. And even today, I can get a chill running up my spine if I reread those scenes, or think about them.

The other masterful approach Herbert took in limning the Baron for the readers is that his descriptions of the Baron's physical nature were relatively vague and restrained. He seems to be a fairly big man, with a basso voice and hands and cheeks that are described as "fat". He is described as being so large he needs "suspensor" units (small anti-gravity devices) to support his weight while he walks around. Yet there is little more given to the reader, so we are each allowed to visualize the Baron as we desire. Again, an understated style.

All of this combined in my mind to create an image of a very flawed yet very powerful man, a very sinister man. And it was all done without graphic or explicit presentations of violence, sex or debauchery. I was impressed by that character in 1967; I remain impressed with that character today, almost fifty years later. And the more I grow as a writer, the more impressed I am with the skill and craft and techniques by which Herbert evoked then and evokes now that most sinister of characters in my mind.

This was underlined in 1978 when the Dune calendar was published, which presented some of the illustrations the great John Schoenherr had done for the original magazine serializations in 1963-1965 of the early components of what became Dune. Frank Herbert praised Schoenherr's illustrations as really capturing the essence and feel of the Dune universe. The following illustration was shown to a wider audience in the calendar, and I believe it shows the genius of Schoenherr, as that figure sitting in the shadows to me reeks of sinisterness.

David 1

But we can't talk about Dune and not talk about the movie based on the book as realized by writer and director David Lynch, which was released in 1984. The movie has its fans, and it has its detractors. For myself, there were several things that I disagreed with the concepts of in the film (Bene Gesserit in pseudo-Victorian gowns, for example), but ultimately the film failed for me because of one significant element, and that was the presentation of Baron Harkonnen.

Even in 1984 I wasn't naïve about the film-making process. I understood that textual works need to be adapted if they move to a different medium, and particularly in moving to the screen. So I was prepared to make allowances for that—even great allowances. But when I was sitting in the first run theater and the Baron came on the screen, I was totally blown out of the viewer's trance, and I never really regained it.

David 2

Instead of the sinister figure of the novel, I was presented with a garish bumbler. Instead of the corpulent but smooth figure of the novel, I was presented with a not so large person covered by excrescences. Instead of the dominant controlling chess master who was coopting the Emperor, attempting an end run around the Bene Gesserit, and thinking and playing at least four moves ahead of Duke Leto, I was presented with a bumbling, almost slapstick figure who seemed to succeed in spite of himself and was himself being played by others. And instead of the smooth urbane deviant who controlled his passions and only expressed them when he was in control and when he felt it was safe, I was presented with a twitching idiot who would expose his lusts in public. (The whole heart plug scene fails on multiple levels.)

The nature and power of Baron Harkonnen is critical to the story that was told in the novel, yet Lynch gutted that character and turned him into a clown. And that, to me, is the major reason why the movie basically failed. I didn't want it to fail. I wanted it to succeed. I wanted it to live up to the potential it contained. I wanted it to at least be a workmanlike and competent telling of the story. But by so radically transmogrifying the character of the primary antagonist who was also the primary villain, Lynch basically foredoomed the movie to failure as a story. (Transmogrify—thank you, Bill Watterson, for that lovely word.)

I know there are those who will disagree with my opinions and judgments here, but I call them as I see them. And the purpose here is really not to downgrade the film, but to expose the contrast between the two treatments of the same character. As writers, we can learn from both.

Baron Vladimir Harkonnen—one of the absolutely most sinister characters ever written. We can learn a lot from Frank Herbert on how to craft a villain.

Excuse me while I shiver.

On Being a GPS Writer

GPS Author2015 marked my eleventh year as a professional writer.  2004 was when I first began getting paid for my writing.  But like all writers I know, I'm continuing to grow in both my command of my craft and in my understanding of it.  And this year I gained an understanding of how my writing process works that I hadn't had before.

True confession time:  I'm a seat of the pants writer/pantser/ organic writer.  One of those writers who doesn't draw up a written outline for writing anything, even lengthy novels.

I find that a lot of readers don't understand what the seat of the pants approach is all about.  Since it's usually contrasted with the outlining approach, many just assume that the seat of the pants approach means just throwing words together almost at random, much as a painter might throw splatters of paint at a canvas, in the hopes that he or she will end up with a story instead of a mess.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The fact is, seat of the pants writers do outline.  They just outline in a very different method than organized outliners do.  And I knew this.  I just couldn't articulate it very well.  Then I listened to a two-part interview with authors Lois McMaster Bujold, Wen Spencer, and Brendan DuBois on the Baen Free Radio Hour podcast (September 11 and September 15 2015 episodes) on the subject of creativity.  Listening to those fine authors discuss the subject caused my understanding of my own creative process to come into focus, and it definitely helped me shape what follows.

Keeping in mind that there is no one right way to write—they're all good as long as they produce good stories and novels—I'm going to give you a look at how I approach working a writing project.

Just about all writers I know will admit to having some sort of internal guide for how they approach the craft.  Depending on who you talk to, it might be referred to as "the muse", or "the back of the brain", or "the writer sense", or "the unconscious mind", or "the writer perception".  I'm sure there are other labels out there, but those are the ones I've heard the most.  Personally, since I tend to personify things, I refer to it as "the muse".  (Don't ask me what I call my laptop sometimes.)  I'll carry that phrase forward now.

The first thing that the muse brings to me is the main character, or sometimes the main character set.  I'm not going to call my writing "character driven", but every story I've written, no matter the length, began with the characters arriving in my mind.  Then I spend some time, anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of weeks musing on the characters.  (Pun intentional.)  This is who the story is about.

The next thing the muse delivers is the situation/problem/conflict that is going to be the driving force behind the story.  And I spend some time meditating on that, on the ins and outs of the issues, and how they will impact the characters and the story.  The situation also usually defines where the story is going to start.  This is what the story is about.

Mind you, this kind of thinking is not done in dedicated blocks of time, but rather is tucked away in the back of the mind to kind of roll around while I'm at the day job or doing family stuff.  Every once in a while a thought will rise to the top and I'll go, "Okay, that's cool," and add it to the mental file I'm building about the work.

The last major piece that the muse delivers is the ending.  This is critical to me in how I work:  I can't start writing until I know how the story will end.  This is where the story is going to go.

If the story is a shorter work, that's all I need to get started.  If it's headed for novella or novel length, I may have identified a milestone or two that I want to include in the path of the story.  But characters, situation, and ending—the who, what, and where—always delivered in that sequence—are the pieces I personally have to have in order to begin writing.

So far, the process probably isn't very different from how outlining writers work.  Things diverge now, though.

Let's use the metaphor of driving from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Miami, Florida.

The outlining writer will plot a course from Cincinnati, identifying the exact roads to be taken, the places to change from one road to another, where to stop for the night, and perhaps even where to stop for meals.  And the story that will be written from that outline will flow in exactly that manner.

I, on the other hand, being the enterprising seat of the pants writer, simply begin writing.  I don't have an outline on paper, but I do have the bones of an outline in my mind—beginning, milestones, and ending—and a destination fixed in place.  At this point, my muse begins operating like a good GPS.  She (I told you I personify things) points me in the direction of the goal and kicks me into gear and I head off down the highway toward Miami.  But somewhere along the way, I decide to take an exit and go see what's happening over near some little village.  And my muse, like any good GPS, recalculates while I'm checking out what I wanted to see, and rather than try to take me back the way I came, tells me the new direction I need to go to get back on track and get to Miami.  And no matter how many diversions I make, how many bakeries and amusement parks and historical sites I go see, nothing gets outside the reach of my muse/GPS, and she will infallibly deliver me to Miami and the conclusion of my project.

So the outlining writer and I, we both arrive at Miami; he by way of his carefully plotted out roadmap/outline, and I by way of my muse/GPS.  Yes, the roads thus traveled are different, and the sights seen and described are very different, but in both projects we arrived at the end.

As a seat of the pants writer, it's not true that I don't have an outline.  I do have an outline; it's just the barest hint of an outline residing between my ears, but when matched up with my-muse-the-writerly-GPS, it gets me to the end of the story.

So I think I'm going to quit calling myself a seat of the pants writer, and instead start calling myself a GPS writer.  What do you think?

Reminder

Fictorians.com is giving away books all month, and this week, one of them is a paperback copy of 1636: The Devil's Opera, written by me and Eric Flint, and signed by me.

Here's your opportunity to get one for free!

Sign up today.

D

Want a free book?

Allow me to introduce you to the Fictorians, who blog as a group at Fictorians.com.  We're a group of (mostly) young and up and coming writers who write about all aspects of the writing life.

Our 1000th blog will occur in this month, August, and to celebrate, we will be giving away free books every week!

We will have guest bloggers this month, as well.

So, if you already follow the site, great, here's a chance at a reward!

If you're a new writer wondering what being a writer is all about, come read our blogs and take a chance at a free book!

And if you like free books, come read our stuff and take a chance at a free book!

New raffles every week.  Instructions in Monday's blog.

Free books!

D

Connecting

1636-The-Devils-Opera-smallMost of us are not so egocentric that we write strictly for our own pleasure. We want our work to connect to readers. We want to know that we are touching someone; that our work creates a resonance in at least one reader who feels what we are trying to create in the stories that only we can tell because of who we are.

So first, writers write. That's the core truth of our craft and art. All of the writing rules boil down to: tell a good story; finish what you start; and edit/revise/polish enough to make it right. If that doesn't happen, nothing else matters.

Second, we have to connect with readers. You've been reading a number of articles this month on ways to accomplish that. I was asked to write about my own experience, because it's a bit different.

I broke into publishing through Eric Flint's unique alternate history shared writing universe that is based on his bestselling novel entitled 1632. (Details and background here.)

I believe this is the most successful shared universe ever. It's approaching seven million words in print, with fifteen novels in print as of next month, eleven anthologies of shorter fiction, and approaching sixty issues of the Grantville Gazette e-magazine (called GG by the regulars). The novels and anthologies, both paper and e-book, are published by Baen Books; GG is published by Eric Flint, but is strongly associated with Baen Books. So this experience is, for all intents and purposes, one in the traditional publishing channels.

I wasn't part of the core group of fans who started writing what amounted to fanfic and posting it to Baen's website after 1632 was published. (See details and background link above.) I didn't enter the picture until after the second issue of GG was published in 2003.

I'd been trying to write a novel for years; had absolutely no experience at short fiction. But I got hit with a story idea after reading the first two issues of GG. And the rest, as they say, is history.

It's been eleven years since I submitted my first story. As of now, I've published close to 300,000 words of short fiction with GG, most of which have been included in subsequent anthologies or my e-book 1635: Music and Murder, published by Baen in 2013.

The thing is, in this venue, I have no control over production, scheduling, or marketing. That's all in the hands of Baen Books personnel for the books or Eric Flint and the editor (Paula Goodlett) for GG. Nonetheless, I do contribute.

1632 is a group brand, and my contribution is to be professional in the ways I plug into the brand's operations. First, part of the uniqueness of the GG submission process is that prospective stories are submitted to a forum on Baen's Bar where they are peer-reviewed for mechanics and story universe continuity and quality of story. Even at this stage of my career I have to do this. Likewise, I am expected to participate in this exercise from the other side of the table; to read submissions and provide critiques. Both the submitting and the critiquing calls for utmost professionalism as I grow both as a writer and as a member of the community.

Second, when the editor(s) call for changes or modifications to the story, accommodate them without complaint or argument—within reason.

Third, contribute to the community:

One way is to share links and information about the 17th century with the rest of the 1632 community. You never can tell what will be helpful to another writer. I had a story jump-started by a list of lute-players at the court of Gustavus Adolphus that another writer had found and linked to the forum.

Another way: Eric schedules annual 1632 "mini-cons" partnered with other conventions around the country. They move around every year.  This year's mini-con will be held at LibertyCon in Chattanooga. Several of us make an effort to be there every year to support the group brand, to interact with fans, and to be a part of central planning and discussion with Eric about where the series is headed.

Yet another way is to attend other cons, spreading flyers, bookmarks, and other swag, and keeping the 1632 brand in view at other venues. (I have a 1632 Ring of Fire t-shirt I frequently wear.)

Most of the overt marketing is done by Baen Books or by Eric Flint. But I and the other GG authors contribute to supporting the group brand. And in so doing, I help to support my individual brand as well.

The GG enterprise has to date published over 130 authors, most of them first-timers. A significant number of those authors qualified for SFWA membership based on their GG resumes alone. Over the years, Eric has been watching the list of GG authors, and every once in a while he will reach out and tap someone and say "Let's write something together." I was the third one he tapped, and the result was my first published novel, 1636: The Devil's Opera. I was the first GG author he tapped, though, to work on a project outside of 1632. The result was the third novel in his Jao Empire series, entitled The Span of Empire, tentatively slated to be published by Baen in September 2016.

Writing a good story, and being diligent and professional in everything else, those are the keys. Everything else is details.

Shameless plug: Grantville Gazette is always looking for new writers. If you think you might be interested in writing in one of the most interesting alternate history universes around, check out the links mentioned above. If you can tell good character based stories, give it a try. They pay professional rates; currently six cents a word, if I remember correctly.

David CarricoDavid Carrico Bio:
David Carrico has been an avid science-fiction and fantasy reader since January 1963, when he encountered a copy of Andre Norton's novel Catseye.  He started writing (mumbledy) years ago, but has been selling professionally since 2004.  Most of his work is alternate history.  His first book, an e-book entitled 1635: Music and Murder, was published by Baen Books in September, 2013.  It's a collection of two different groups of stories which collectively provide the backstory for his second book, 1636: The Devil's Opera, a novel published by Baen Books in October, 2013, in both paper and e-book formats.  Both books are laid in Eric Flint's Ring of Fire alternate history universe, and the novel was co-written with Eric.
David is married, has three kids, five grandkids, two great-grandkids, and usually has at least a couple of Basset hounds lazing around the house somewhere.

Goal Setting: Another Perspective

"There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right!"

—     Rudyard Kipling, winner of the 1907 Nobel Prize for Literature, first native English-speaker to attain that prize.

The above is taken from a poem entitled 'In the Neolithic Age', which is a piece of comic poetry.  Kipling was good at comic poetry.  For that matter, he was good at a number of styles of writing.  Look up the Nobel committee's motivation for giving him the prize to see what they thought.

The reason I led off with this quote, though, is because, comic or not, it is a solid truth about writing.  You've probably gathered that already if you're a regular reader here at Fictorians:  there are many different ways of practicing our craft and art.

What does this have to do with this month's theme of goal setting and attainment?  Only this—I don't do the whole goal setting thing.  So I'm writing today from the position of heretic, or at least Devil's Advocate.

Do I have no goals at all about my writing?  Of course I do.  That's not what I mean when I say I don't set goals.  I agree that everything living has at least some goals in their lives, even if it is nothing more than to survive until sundown.  But I follow goals in a personal manner.

I do not set out at the beginning of a year (or any other regular time period) and establish a defined set of goals to keep in the forefront of my mind.  I do not try to shape my productivity and my behavior to attain those goals.  I don't have a list of bullet points pinned to the wall above my desk, nor do I have them serving as wallpaper on my laptop or tablet or phone.  I don't have yellow sticky notes with hand scrawled encouragements stuck up in my workspace.  I don't review my performance daily/weekly/monthly/quarterly to determine how well I am performing in attaining the 'current' goals.

Why not?  Well, I'm not really sure.  I haven't really thought about it much.  One possible explanation is that I am by nature an introvert, and the establishment of a rigid structure of goals feels to me like something imposed from outside.  Artificial, you might say.

Another explanation might be that I am a seat-of-the-pants (or organic, if you prefer) writer, given to much flexibility in my compositional styles and processes, so that I would find a lack of flexibility in other areas of my writing career somewhat distasteful.

A third explanation could be that I feel that all the brainstorming and monitoring sucks up energy that I would much prefer to pour into the creative processes.

And last, let's not ignore the fact that I am a champion procrastinator, as well as just a smidge on the lazy side.

So if I have goals, but I don't do the detailed specific kinds of goals that are very measurable, what are the goals I do have?

 

  1. Write. This, more than anything.  Just plant my posterior in my chair, put my fingers on the keys, and start flowing words.  If this doesn't happen, nothing else is of import.

 

  1. Tell good stories. Tell stories that make people feel the emotions of my characters.  Tell stories that make people laugh; tell stories that make people cry; tell stories that make people say, "Damn, I wish I could have seen/heard/felt/experienced that!"

 

  1. Keep my promises. If I tell someone I'm going to write something for them, then do it.

 

  1. Have some fun along the way, even if it's just imagining the look on the face of my alpha reader when he gets to this scene.

 

  1. Finish what I start. I can't sell incomplete stories.  I can't present my craft and art to readers if it hasn't been brought to fruitful culmination.  And, not-so-incidentally, I won't get paid for unfinished work.

 

Those are my goals.  I may come up with more as I mature in my craft, my art, and my career, but that's what they are today.

 

How well am I doing in following them?

 

—     Since 2004, I have written and sold over 400,000 words of short fiction, all but one story of which have been published.

 

—     Last year Baen Books published a story collection and a novel.  Let's just say that sales are good.

 

—     My co-author and I just turned in to Baen a novel in an established series which should be published next year.  (Approximately 175,000 words.)

 

—     The one short work which hasn't been published?  A 33,000 + word novella sold to a hardcover anthology.

 

I currently have four projects in progress:  one on the front burner, one simmering on a back burner, and two have been started but are waiting for my limited mental creative space to open up for them to be further developed.

 

My approach seems to work for me.

Remember Mr. Kipling's words above, ". . . every single one of them is right!"  If the rigid detailed goal setting doesn't work for you, that doesn't mean there's something wrong with you, just like it doesn't mean there's something wrong with you if you write organically rather than by outline.  It just means you need to explore other approaches until you find one that will work for you.

 

But goal #1 always has to be "Write."  Otherwise, the whole exercise is worthless.

 

Have fun.

Manage Your Business

The Fictorians and our guest bloggers have spent the month of March covering a number of legal topics and issues with which we feel every writer should have some familiarity.  If we didn't cover a topic you're interested in, drop us a line and we'll see if we can squeeze it in in the upcoming months.

All of these posts, however, rest upon a common premise; that is, as writers we should also be business people.  Writing a work is only the beginning of the story—getting that work published and in the hands of readers is the rest of it, and that takes some understanding of a lot of different aspects of the business.  And perhaps even more of the story is revealed when you consider how you're going to keep that work in front of and available to readers after the initial blush has worn off.  That's all part of the business world in which we writers—now more than ever—have to operate.

We have to be business people, and we have to be focused on our own business—the marketing and dissemination of our creative work.  Emphasize the 'we'.  Underline it, put it in bold italic 24 point Gothic font with flashing red lights.  If we don't manage our own business, if we don't take responsibility for managing our own affairs, we can't expect anyone else to do it for us.  We have to know enough to take care of the day to day work and decisions.  We have to know enough to know when we need to consult with or hire a professional to address a problem.  And we have to know enough to be able to tell if that professional is getting the job done.

I wish that Robert Asprin was still with us.  More than any other writer I know, he could have given a testimonial about this.

Robert was a pretty successful mid-list fantasy and science fiction author in the 1980s-1990s, who unfortunately ran afoul of the Internal Revenue System after one of his books actually made it to the New York Times bestseller list.  I don't know all the details of the story, but I do know that he ended up having to make monthly payments to the IRS for over a decade.  He died in 2008, literally just a few weeks after making the final payment to pay off his tax bill.

So, yes, paying attention to detail and keeping track of the information and getting the forms right and turning everything in on time is important.  Robert would bear witness to that.  Just like reading the contracts and taking the time to learn what each of those paragraphs of legalese really means is important if we want to continue to own and manage our works.

The problem is that most creative people really really really don't like the boring humdrum routine of doing what the commercial world calls the back office routines.  I certainly don't.  But if we don't stay on top of our correspondence, if we don't gather all the material together for tax preparation and payments, if we don't read those contracts before we sign them, etc., then we'll deserve the problems that come of them.

The goal of every Fictorian is to not only be a successful writer, but to be a professional writer.  Hmm, actually, that may be two different ways of saying the same thing; because every successful writer that I know is also very professional about taking care of business.

That's the consistent message of the Superstars of Writing seminars:  that to a great extent, a writer's success is founded on not just his skill at the craft of writing, but also how well he manages the business side of his career.

So in pursuit of that goal, we've spent this month talking about various aspects of the writing business.  Our hope is that you've found knowledge or confirmation among the various topics.  Keep in mind that none of what has been presented represents legal or financial advice.  Always consult an attorney or an accountant if you have issues arise.  Pay the money.  You'll be better off, and the fees are tax deductible.

I want to thank all the Fictorians and guest posters for their many and excellent contributions, most especially M. Scott Boone who gave us not one, not two, but three guest posts this month.

Stay tuned—we'll resume our themes about the writing side of the writer's life tomorrow.

And to round off the evening, a Fictorians blurb

The Fictorians writing blog dedicated March 2014 to blogs about various legal issues of which writers ought to be aware.  Lots of good topics, including taxes, contracts, copyrights, and other such legal stuff.  We pulled in a number of guest posters, including M. Scott Boone, who blogs at http://writerinlaw.com/.  (Go read his stuff.)  And yours truly contributed an article or three.

Go check it out at http://www.fictorians.com/.  You'll be glad you did.

D

Record Keeping, Part Two: . . . But Necessary

Okay, now for a couple of specific issues:

Tax Records (U.S. version)

It is a commonly held belief that the IRS requires you to keep your tax records for seven years.  Actually, according to the records manager of a company I used to work for, that's not quite the case.  According to her, the IRS regulations require you to keep your records for three years.  However, if they do decide to audit you, they can go back seven years.  And since no one would want to depend on an adversary for records concerning his or her own interests, everyone just automatically keeps seven years' worth of records.  And just so we're clear, that means not only your tax filings, forms, and schedules, but also all of the supporting documentation:  receipts, 1099 forms, spreadsheets, QuickBooks reports, e-mails that pertain to the taxes, and anything that would be necessary to defend deductions or interpretations, most especially any communications from the IRS.  In this area, it's better to err on the side of caution; if you're not certain you need to keep it, you should probably keep it in the file.

Contracts (U.S. version)

Every state in the U S has regulations that define certain types of records which businesses must keep, even self-employed businesses like writers. As long as you as a writer are a one-person shop, most of them won't be an issue.  If you get to the point, however, where you are paying people to perform business functions for you (accountant, secretary, researcher, etc.) then you need to educate yourself on what your state requires.

There is one type of business record retention about which even the one-person writer shop needs to know, and that is your contracts and agreements.  Almost every publishing contract between an author and a publisher or a publishing platform will contain a clause that says that in the event of disagreement between the parties, the contract is to be interpreted under the laws of a certain state.  Most of the traditional publishing contracts indicate they will be interpreted under the laws of New York.

Obviously you want to keep the contract or agreement as long as it is active; in other words, as long as there are obligations between you and the other party which must be observed or performed.

But at such point in time as the contract has basically terminated—all parties no longer owe anything to anyone under its provisions—what do you do with it then?

Hint:  don't throw it away.

Every state has statutes or regulations that stipulate how long such a terminated contract must be retained by the parties subject to it.  Here's the summary:  if you or your publisher reside or work in Louisiana, or if the contract says it will be interpreted by the laws of Louisiana, the rule is to hold it fifteen years past termination.  All the other states have settled on a term of five years.

In states other than Louisiana, the only caveat I would raise would be if the contract had provisions that dealt with finances, you should probably keep it until the last year it operated has passed its seventh year tax retention.

And finally, the contract file should contain anything that would have a bearing on the intent of the parties in drafting the agreement, as well as anything that might bear on how it should be interpreted.  So yes, you may need to keep some letters or e-mails to support that contract.

In summary: be organized, back everything up to protect yourself, and manage your records.

Record Keeping, Part One: Not Sexy . . .

Contrary to popular belief, you as a writer don't have to keep every single piece of paper or e-mail or e-documentation that comes your way.  And you especially don't have to keep it forever.  However, just like any business owner out there, you need to have a good idea as to what kind of records you need to keep, and you need to have some idea as to how long they should be kept.

This gets down to the nitty-gritty, detailed, organized, obsessive, and—dare I say it—boooooriiiiing part of being a writer.  Keeping your records updated, filed, and organized is a necessity; particularly in a profession that undergoes regular and sometimes heightened scrutiny from the taxing authorities, and also has to deal with contracts.

Get Organized

Yes, you absolutely need an organized filing system.  No, it doesn't need to be very complicated, as long as it's logical.  It can be totally paper based, or totally electronic, or both.  But it has to exist, and you have to maintain it, or the risk of you getting into trouble really escalates.

You can go totally electronic:  scan all your documents into digital memory, even your signed contracts.  There is case law now that has established that a scan of a signed contract is just as valid a record of the agreement as the signed paper original which was scanned.  And there are businesses out there that destroy their originals as soon as they are scanned.  No drawers full of paper, no clouds of paper dust.  But there are also disadvantages:  you have to stay on top of the scanning and not let it pile up, or you never get it done; you have to keep your electronic files just as organized as you would the equivalent paper files; and you have to remember to back up all the files regularly.  Daily, if you work frequently.  Definitely every time you add, change, or delete data.  More about that later.

You can go with all paper, but in the internet age, a hybrid combination of paper and electronic is more practical:  keep your most important documents in paper, but go with electronic copies of correspondence, work notes, etc.  But you still have to have an organization method, and you have to stay on top of the filing, both electronic and paper.  And make sure the electronic records are backed up.

The big thing is to have a method, to be organized in a manner that works for you and is efficient.  But make sure somebody else knows how you do things, because there are always those odd moments where you're not at home and something needs to be found.

This is especially important when it comes to your financial records, since they will be the foundation of your tax filings.  You can use an application such as QuickBooks, or you can just build all the revenue and expense records into a (relatively) simple spreadsheet.  But you have to do it.  And while you're at it, whatever method you use, make sure it's backed up frequently.

Myself, I organize everything by the writing project.  Work notes, drafts, contracts, payments, mail (both e- and paper), everything except tax documentation gets put under the header of a project.  I find it a simple yet convenient structure, because 99% of the time if I need to look something up, it's the project name I'm going to be searching under.  My tax forms and supporting documentation I organize by tax year.

Back It Up

And again I say, back everything up.  If your house or office floods, or burns, or is robbed/vandalized, or is in hurricane country or tornado alley, and you're in the middle of an IRS audit or a litigation about contract compliance when the disaster happens, just how valuable would that back-up file be to you?

Even if you like the paper records, there is good reason to scan all the important ones, such as your contracts, your tax returns, and all your current income and expense records.  This will allow you to back them up in a cloud service such as Carbonite.  If you don't want to trust a cloud service, then at least copy the files to flash drives or an external hard drive and store them someplace else.  That doesn't mean in your bedroom closet, either.  I mean someplace miles away from your location.  If you or your spouse has a day job, take them there and bring the older ones back home.

In the words of the old platitude, don't put your eggs all in one basket.  Do something to mitigate the risk.

(Be sure to come back tomorrow for the conclusion!)