A Simple Act

No matter what time of day or night the phone rings, the voice that summons me sounds tired and desperate.

But that’s not the only reason I go. I’m known there, so I seldom wait long before someone comes for me, leads me into the little room, closes the door, asks to see my ID card.

This time it’s a young black woman who taps a few keys, looks at the computer screen and says, “You’ve done this before.”

“A few times,” I reply. She props my card on the desktop, enters some codes, glances at my bare arms, strikes a key or two.

Then she straightens the papers on the desk and picks up her pen to begin the questioning.

If I am nervous, she may become suspicious and uneasy, so I fold my hands loosely in my lap, place my feet flat.

She clears her throat, begins reading the first question.

My scars prove I’ve done this dozens of times, but my mouth is dry and my voice squeaky.

She glances at the computer monitor, perhaps checking to see if my answer matches the one I gave the last time I was in this claustrophobic little office.

The screen is tilted away from me, so I can’t tell what additional information she may have. My only chance is to tell the truth as I remember it and hope that the answers I gave last time were recorded correctly.

She reads each question quickly, not looking at me. I remind myself that I chose to answer that telephoned summons to come here.

Her questions grow more complicated every time she opens her mouth. I choose to reveal these intimate details of my past. I can leave anytime; the door is not locked. She has no power to hold me here.

She asks another question. Have I ever  .  .  . ?

I tell myself this facility promises confidentiality, and in twenty-five years I have had no reason to doubt it.

No, I tell her. I haven’t.

The truth is important here. In our world, some people are casual about the distinction between truth and falsehood; others get rich from telling lies.

But in this room, the difference between truth and a lie may be, in the old cliche, a matter of life and death. Not mine, but someone who will never know me if I am not truthful.

Do I know anyone, she asks, who has . . .

No, I say. Faces of my friends flash before my eyes. I resist the urge to cross my fingers. I’ve known people who might not have been able to answer that question honestly and remain in this room. But years have passed; I’ve lost track of them.

Have I been, she asks, in any of the following countries since 1977: Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo: the list goes on, countries of which I know nothing. Her voice has no particular inflection; she’s probably never been any of those places either.

She takes a deep breath. Have I traded sex for money or drugs since 1977?

I tuck a hank of gray hair behind my ear and think about 1977. She probably wasn’t born yet.

I was 34 and had just read an authoritative article insisting that I was more likely to be raped and murdered than to marry again. I was poor, but I did have a job, an old car, an apartment. Even then, I wasn’t tempted to trade sex for money or drugs.

In fact, most of my experiences with drugs had occurred a decade earlier, in the 1960s, when I was often in the presence of sex and drugs in some combination. Money usually wasn’t involved, since none of us had any.

I decide that attempting to joke about these memories with this serious young woman would not be prudent.

I answer quietly, honestly. Soon she drops her pen, clicks a few keys on the computer, and leads me to a couch under a glass ceiling.

I show the technician my arms, and she swabs the left one with iodine, chatting about the weather and suggesting I look away. But I watch as she slips the needle deftly into a fat blue vein. The spot feels briefly as though a match had touched it, and then a richly red stream begins to flow through the tube and into the bag rocking beside me.

UBS logoLying back, I watch birds fly across the windows and think of healing for whoever receives this transfusion.

I love cows, eat meat, carry a pistol, and have strong and specific political viewpoints. My blood may pour into the veins of someone who opposes everything I believe in.

That’s exactly the reason to do this. Blood donors can’t impose their will on the people whose lives they may save.

When I’m depressed about anything in my world– and these days that feeling sweeps over me fairly often– I find relief with United Blood Services.

Here the only thing that matters is giving freely that another shall receive.


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2006, Linda M. Hasselstrom



This blog is posted in honor of National Heart Month (February) and National Blood Donor Month (January).  If you are able, consider becoming a blood donor in your community.

This essay was originally published by Writers on the Range, October 2, 2006.

Writers on the Range is a weekly syndication of op-ed pieces offered by High Country News.  The writing selected comes from a diverse group of writers, all of whom are deeply concerned about the West.

For more information: http://www.hcn.org/

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Crotch Rocket Ride

No matter how far you have gone on a wrong road, turn back.
–– Turkish proverb



WYoHouse with dogs

[Our house in Cheyenne, WY, where this story takes place.]

It’s Valentine’s Day, often a frigid holiday on the Western plains. Some of us throw ourselves into heart-warming celebrations in an attempt to counteract the chill outside. Or maybe the revelry is intended to combat stress, as solemn newspaper articles usually report. Single people are “stressed” because they aren’t married, and married people are worried because they aren’t single.

This year, the unnaturally warm weather has brought out a few residents who usually stay hidden a little longer: a couple of flies bumble across the ceiling. Sparrows chirp in the trellis on the front porch. Some of the kids from the high school across the street walk resolutely over to this side to smoke their cigarettes, wearing only tee-shirts and holding themselves very rigid so they won’t shiver.


And, around midnight on this warm Valentine’s night, I hear the Crotch Rocket Boys coming. Until this moment, I have failed to give thanks for the icy weather that has kept them away from our neighborhood. I make up for my inattention with a quiet thanks, and brace myself.





There they go, sixty miles an hour on this residential street where the speed limit is thirty-five.

Crotch Rocket redI live right in the middle of a ten-block stretch of street between stop lights. If they go fast enough, they can probably make it through two green lights, one at either end of the run. Then it’s eight more blocks to a third light, followed by a stretch of pavement beside the airport where the legal speed limit is forty miles an hour. At that point, only two more lights stand between them and Interstate 25, where they can ride– legally– at seventy-five, and even blue-haired ladies drive eighty.

Sometimes, I curse the makers of these buzz-saw Japanese motorcycles, these mosquitoes on steroids. Sometimes I hope Crotch Rockets rip through their neighborhoods twenty-four hours a day– but they probably love the noise. They probably say, “Sounds like money.”


Perhaps the Rocketeers see themselves as road warriors, brave and independent, beholden to no one, part of no community, no group. They use defiant noise to proclaim themselves outlaws, outside the rules most of us follow. They are blowing a giant raspberry for the police who often park on the side streets in this area to catch speeders.

I’ll bet the Crotch Rocket Boys live near one another, or even room together, in one of the new apartment complexes built cheap and fast to appeal to young folks working away from home for the first time. Certainly the four of them form a community; I’m tempted to use the more judgmental terms. Mob. Pack. Gang.


I can see that they are young, probably in their twenties, all Caucasian. They are probably in the same income bracket. That is, they can afford– on credit says my censorious mind– to run more than one vehicle. I never see them riding past at a sedate speed, or riding during the morning rush to work. The Rockets are toys. The Boys can afford Toys. They are probably single. During the week I’ll bet they drive those new yuppy pickups with a two-foot cargo space, four doors, and a row of fancy lights on top. They probably threw away the tailgates because they never haul anything. Except maybe a dog, trying to hold on. My prejudices are showing.


In daylight, they laugh when they spot old fogy homeowners working in our yards on quiet Saturday afternoons. They see themselves as so different from us, free, riding in the sun, with the wind blowing through the hair on their heads and legs– because they sure aren’t wearing protective pants or helmets. Another reason I think they are unmarried.


Of course, I am generalizing wildly; I have no idea what they think, only that they, like their bikes, are identical. Well, the colors are different, yellow, red, black, orange. In their spare time, they may all volunteer to teach reading to disadvantaged children, or help elderly people across the street.

But even if they are all studying for the ministry, does that give them license to disturb the tranquility of our Saturday and Sunday afternoons, or our sleep at midnight? Does a little good behavior justify disruption of community in other ways?


“Threat posture” in animals, I recall, involves making loud noises, trying to look larger to frighten away predators. Many animals adopt a threat posture when they are most terrified: roar, pound their chests, flare their nostrils and neck hair, stand taller and inhale. So I tell myself to feel pity for these crotch rocket menaces. They think they are having fun, but I hear rage in their sound, just as I do all day long when the students of the alternative high school across the street arrive or leave the parking lot. Every time, they wind up the engines of their cheap little cars to make them scream, making the tinny parts clash against one another, glancing covertly up at the windows of the school as they bend over the engines. They roar onto the street, wasting gasoline, wearing out tires, throwing away money as surely as if they were tossing bills on the street. Noise, like fear, has always been part of aggression; the berserkers shrieked as they galloped naked into battle, defending their families and their private parts. Modern armies sometimes broadcast hideous music to beat their enemies into submission or torture prisoners.

They are all afraid, I tell myself: of bosses, perhaps, or impotence or boredom or nuclear war, hair loss, cancer, the heartbreak of psoriasis. I can sympathize with them, at least in theory. With what I believe to be sudden insight, I realize that maybe the folks who drive big SUVs are only afraid of running out of gasoline: “I’ll get mine first!”

I’m not suggesting that the police should chase and arrest them. In any town, the law has more important work than arresting guys on tin gas-guzzling noise-makers. If they hit anything–- a squirrel, even a bottle cap–- the lesson will be serious, possibly permanent. I just hope they don’t hit a child. I hope they have insurance so I don’t pay for their medical bills. But I’m not going to bet on it.

I might be more sympathetic if I didn’t know that they are aware of the community they are disturbing, and enjoy making it less pleasant. They laugh and point when they fly by. They don’t see the future, any more than they see themselves in my slightly overweight partner, sweating as he mows the lawn. Or in my startled neighbor two houses down, shaking his fist at them as he balances on a ladder cutting a dead tree limb. I wish them long memories.

Sometimes I indulge myself in a few moments’ fantasy. I recall the stories my father told about the local sheriff when I was growing up. We didn’t have enough population for a town policeman, so the sheriff patrolled everywhere. He was a calm, stern man with a twinkle in his eye. When I shook his hand, I was perhaps ten years old, but I still remember looking at those eyes, that smile, and understanding that if I broke the law while he was sheriff, he would find me, and I would be sorry.

What if these fun-loving lads had ridden their mobile chain saws three times the speed limit through the streets of our little town? He would never have given them the satisfaction of a chase with sirens. He’d have identified them, and then gone to see their parents, knowing that in some circumstances parental punishment was a lot more effective, and cheaper for our county. If that didn’t work, he’d have found another way, but he would have stopped them, I’m sure.

Have we changed so much as a society that no one can enforce community preferences without also enforcing community laws? Do we have to either pursue and punish these idiots, or wait until they or some innocent bystander is injured by their behavior?

I think The Boys are flaunting their disrespect for community. I suspect they ride more sedately near their homes, where someone might identify them. They behave themselves as they pass through downtown because the police station is only a couple of blocks off our street, and if they started speeding and making that racket just a little sooner, some feisty young police officer who loves speed as much as they do could be in hot pursuit by the time they screamed past here. They may have no consideration for our quiet neighborhood, but they understand self-interest.



[Our yard with extensive flower gardens in Cheyenne, across the street from the school.]

Sometimes when I am working in the garden, I hear the boys coming and stand, hose in hand, watching them. When they see several people working in our yards, they sometimes slow down a little, and rev their motors, and laugh. They look back over their shoulders to yell at each other over the roar, and watch us out of the corners of their eyes. Their speed is hazardous enough in these quiet streets with children and old people on foot, bicyclists, and wheel chairs. Squirrels and rabbits dart over from the schoolyard where they live to eat my flowers. Loose cats and dogs chase each other across the lawns.

Sometimes, still speeding, the Crotches do wheelies, pop their clutches, make the bikes lurch and lay hot rubber. Wearing shorts and tank tops, the riders speed up the street with the bikes spinning only on their back wheels, screaming with excitement.


With the hose in my hand, I reflect on what might happen if they hit a patch of wet pavement, or a few drops of oil, or even a very small cat. My partner, who was very careful when he rode his 800-pound Harley Road King, was hit broadside by a driver who didn’t bother to stop as instructed by the red sign. The driver was only going thirty five, as was my partner, who was wearing a helmet, t-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes. The wreck damaged every part of Jerry’s body, though his head was injured least. Seventeen broken ribs, a broken collar bone, cracked ankle– well, you get the picture. His shoulders, back, arms, and legs suffered what bravo riders call “road rash,” resulting from being scraped against asphalt. Very colorful; very painful. Four days in intensive care, ten days in the hospital, months of recovery, surgery, more recovery. Some damages will be with him for the rest of his life. I breathe deeply, proving to myself that I can stand this, too.

ZZZZZZZzzzzzz SCREECH zzzzzzz zzzzzzz zzzz  zzzzzzzzzz zzzzzzzzz

Lying rigid in the dark, I grit my teeth, listening carefully as the buzz dies away, knowing I’ll hear the sound begin to swell again in fifteen minutes, again in a half hour, an hour. As the wind moves the cottonwood leaves on the old tree hanging over my bedroom, I imagine the rustling to be the quiet rage of the people trying to sleep in hot upstairs rooms on this street. The asphalt is still scorching with the heat of summer and the rage of hurrying drivers. The riders are attacking the soft, quiet night and all who sleep in her peace. They believe themselves to be declaring with mechanical howls their hatred of calm and quiet and cool breezes and sleep, but we hear their terror as well.

If I imitate their fury, I’ll damage mostly myself-– ulcers, high blood pressure. So I pull the night around me, draw it in, breathe out calm and contentment.

In my kinder moments, I visualize a likely and charitable future for the boys. Thirty or forty years in the future, they will be lying in bed, sleeping soundly, their fears wrapped around their shoulders.


They will be awakened by the sound of crotch rockets, rousing them as they realize that their teenage children are not home yet. Their jaw muscles will clench as the sound builds:


And then I hope, as they mumble about needing their sleep, they will remember.



Perhaps they will blush in the darkness.


Hope, you will recall, is the thing with feathers. Nice quiet feathers.


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This essay was written when I lived in Cheyenne, WY.

I intended it to be published in No Place Like Home, University of Nevada Press, 2009, but removed it to shorten the book.



Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota


© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom



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The Top of the Refrigerator: A Writing Metaphor

How long has it been since you cleaned the top of your refrigerator?

Refrigerators are the least standard of modern appliances, but most are at least 70 inches tall— taller than most of us who are likely to be cleaning the tops of them.

Naturally, then, the tops of refrigerators make a great place to toss things— either decorative items, or things you know you’ll need but not right now.

Top of Fridge 2016The first thing to catch the eye on top of mine is a butter churn. Let me explain. My kitchen cabinets hold an assortment of antique and decorative items: cobalt blue canisters, wooden and pottery bowls, antique cups and a coffee pot. But the churn I used to make butter when my father bought a cow so I could learn to milk and make butter when I first moved to the ranch at nine years old is too tall for the cupboards. It’s on the refrigerator along with a basket into which my partner and I toss our receipts until one of us adds them up so we can divide our household bills evenly. Neither of us are tall enough to see the top of the refrigerator in the normal course of our daily activities. The cupboard over the refrigerator holds serving dishes I seldom use, but want to keep.

Out of sight, out of mind, runs an old saying.

However, recently I stepped up on a chair to reach a wooden bowl that was just right for serving some homemade rolls. Somehow I managed not to look too closely at the top of the refrigerator as I opened the cupboard, but I put a hand on the refrigerator top to steady myself.

Eeeuw! My hand slid in a greasy black film.

I was raised by a mother who believed a clean house superseded all other needs. I fought against her narrow views, but they affected me; once I’ve seen the top of the refrigerator, I’m doomed to clean it. I grabbed my spray bottle of the handy-dandy homemade cleaner for greasy sinks (recipe follows) and sprayed it liberally over the gunk.

As I scrubbed, it occurred to me that I had been having a hard time starting anything new the past few weeks. I’m immersed in the third or fourth or tenth draft of a book manuscript that requires daily attention as I work through its twists and turns. I need to pay attention to it, but I also need a daily lift of a new idea to inspire me.

So: how is the top of a refrigerator likely to inspire writing?

That refrigerator is in the center of our daily activities. We open it for juice and cream in the morning, for sandwich fixings at noon and to find onions for soup and limes for gin and tonics in the evening. And yet we seldom look at the top. In fact, knowing what we know, housewives may deliberately avoid looking.

Similarly, we may be searching the distance for writing ideas when we need to be focusing more closely.

The next morning, I followed my usual routine: got up, let the dogs out and back in, and settled in bed with coffee, my journal, and a book. When I opened the journal I realized that it had been days since I actually wrote anything besides the date, the weather, and what I needed to do that day, along with plans for lunch.

So on this morning I looked out the west window and noticed that the Black Hills were beginning to turn pink as the first light that would become sunrise shot up and over the house and fell on their tops. I described the almost imperceptible way the hills begin to change from black to peach-colored, a glow that seems to come from within, like a blush. As the light greCoyote 4 2015--11-26w I wrote about knowing that coyotes were working at their dawn hunts, slipping down the draws, sniffing at the rabbit holes and vole trails, and heading for their dens. I couldn’t see the coyotes, but knowing they are there reminds me that this grassland is healthy and its animals busy pursuing normal lives because I raise cattle here, rather than building Walmarts or trailer parks. And those coyotes are part of the work force that keeps the grasslands uncluttered and the air pure for the folks who are zipping up and down that highway visible out my window. Most of those folks live in one of the subdivisions popping up on former ranch land around me. They want to live in the country, but they don’t understand how dependent they are on ranchers, cows, coyotes, rattlesnakes and other prairie dwellers for the amenities that drew them out here.

Cora Corner 2016

My eyes fell on my “Grandmother Corner,” where I have framed five of my Grandma Cora Hey’s doilies, examples of her art, along with a bookmark made of needle-tatted lace from a friend and a tiny piece of Hmong embroidery that would have fascinated my grandmother. On the adjoining wall is a collage I created and framed, including photographs of Grandmother at her wedding, clowning with my mother, feeding her chickens, and reading in her favorite chair. Arranged around these photos are a handkerchief she prized, her biggest crochet hook, a buttonhook, a curling iron and a ring she treasured. Looking closely at these items, and listing them, reminded me of my grandmother’s smile, her wisdom, her hug.

LMH Coras items framed 2014--11-18 smallFifteen minutes of observation had provided me with a couple of paragraphs of writing that led me to a variety of thoughts about the world outside my bedroom, as well as reminding me of a woman I haven’t written nearly enough about.

I put down the journal and began to pet one dog while massaging the other one’s back with my feet. Before long I’d found and removed a couple of stickers, earning myself a growl, a reminder I need to check the dogs daily for stickers, parasites and good health. Though they sleep with me, it’s easy to ignore minor problems, distracted by their playfulness.

“Out of sight, out of mind.”

What is so close to you that you haven’t seen it lately?

And perhaps what have you carefully avoided looking at?

Try this tomorrow: sit down with your journal and look. Describe what you see. Tell your journal what it means to you. See where these thoughts may lead. My reflections here total slightly more than a thousand words, from fifteen minutes of paying attention.

And clean the top of your refrigerator. Here’s my homemade sink disinfectant, made from a recipe I found online; it cuts grease and kills most germs. I use it on my sink, stove, and counters too.

2 Tablespoons dish soap
1 Cup vinegar
2 Tablespoon lemon juice

Put this in an 18-ounce spray bottle and fill with water. Spray happily!


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

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© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom

Keeping Journals in an Electronic Age

In the same way that it’s more satisfying to eat food you’ve grown on your own ground and cooked with your own hands, writing from your own experiences can do more than create publishable words.

Writers who find material in their own experiences, beliefs and tastes learn to know themselves more thoroughly and can translate that information into knowledge of other people. Insight into others is one of the elements that makes writing universal, and thus appealing to a wide variety of readers.

Journals 2016--1-22One way to discover the evidence that leads to writing with broad appeal is to use a journal, writing in it anything and everything that interests you at the moment. Eventually, you will need to sort and winnow the collection of observations, but the more you collect, the more material you will have from which to select the best.

I’ve kept journals since I was nine years old when my mother married a rancher and we moved to the ranch. My journals included my first attempts to write, the beginning of my understanding that I might be a writer, and all the evidence of the things I learned about myself as a child and teenager and young woman.

During my first marriage, I left my husband for a couple of months to sort out my thoughts— and took my journal along. When my husband and I got back together, “to give our marriage another chance,” (that didn’t work, since his behavior didn’t change), I told him everything important that had happened while we’d been apart.

But he didn’t trust me, so he read my most recent journal.

My short-sighted response was to burn all the journals I had kept until that time, from the ages of nine until I was 24 years old.

My action was hasty and foolish, the most destructive thing I’ve ever done to my own writing in 70 years of making mistakes. For a long time I did not understand just how much harm my own action had done to me.

His reading my journals meant that he had violated not only my privacy, but the trust between us. I realized that just as I couldn’t trust him not to read my private papers, I couldn’t trust him to keep his promises. (I shouldn’t have needed to learn that lesson again; he had already violated our marriage vows several times.)

But more importantly, burning my journals meant I did not believe I deserved privacy. Burning those pages and pages of my own life meant that I thought so little of myself that I could add to his hurting me by damaging myself. I burned journals that he’d never seen and would never have read. I burned journals that were my record of my own childhood. Now, nearly 50 years later, I remind myself how foolish I was whenever I’m tempted to make harsh judgments on the actions of others.

Somehow I believed that destroying my most private self would help my marriage, a belief of such incredible stupidity that I still have a hard time admitting it, and believing that I did it.

Burning those journals was erasing much of my childhood from my mind. When I read the accounts of people who lose their memories as the result of injury, I know how they feel. I lost all the smells and sights and thoughts and emotions that I’d recorded— and I did this to myself. I can’t even blame my husband, because my action was not a logical response to his behavior. I should have left him immediately, taking my journals with me. Almost any action I might have taken at that time would have been better for my writing, and therefore for my soul, than burning my journals.

Your journals— and your letters, your photographs, and perhaps today your tweets and blogs— are your record of the experiences that will create your writing. They are the evidence from which your writing will arise and your life will find resolution. No matter who you are, or who you become, you need to be able to write fully and honestly. You can’t do that if someone may read your material without your permission.

LMHcomputer2011My journals were in paper books, so I could have put them in a locked box and kept them secure from any prying eyes.

What effect will it have on writers if they keep journals online, in a blog or other form that strangers as well as friends may read?

Many people seem to be using online writing forums the way I use my paper journal: to work out thoughts and ideas. Writing online is so easy; fire up the computer and pour those glib words out. Often one can receive positive comments, or clicks that indicate “like” within seconds.

But when I write in my journal, it’s in my hands, so it’s impossible to read without my permission. If your journal is online, anyone may read what you write, no matter how wise or foolish it may be. FaceBook, Twitter, public blogs, and other “social media” I probably haven’t even heard of make it possible for anyone to express their own views about your words.

Will someone’s anger or misunderstanding about your written words damage your faith in yourself, or cause you to drop an idea that might have taken you to another dimension?

Will the ease of writing and the joy of quickly seeing your words available to the public make you settle for facile thoughts? Will you write what you think people want to see in order to get those approving clicks of “Like”?

My first expression of an opinion is rarely my last thought on the subject. I shoot off my mouth in my journal as blithely as a drunk in a bar, without thought of the consequences. And I can do that, because no one is reading. Like the drunk in the bar, will I get punched in the snoot if I make stupid statements online?

LMHwrites2012In my journal, I can take time to carefully winnow through all the possible nuances of my opinion, considering my prejudices, my preferences, and all the other matters that lead me to express what I really think, and I need not consider the opinions of others.

The first draft of anything is highly unlikely to be the final draft. When I try to perfect my thoughts, I write and rethink and revise— that is re-vision — the piece dozens of times. If my first draft appeared in print and gained positive comments, would I bother to improve it? Or would I settle for writing, and thinking, that was inferior to my best?

Furthermore, to publish online is to publish legally. Your copyright is probably protected, but there is some uncertainty about copyright laws online. And some people don’t know that copyright is likely protected for online utterances, and believe they have the right to adopt your words as their own. Online theft may be harder to define, and harder to stop, than plagiarism.

In addition, publication online is giving your words to the public— the equivalent of putting them in print. I find it much harder to revise something that’s in black and white on a page, even if no one else has seen it. Once it’s gone out into the world and been read by others, it no longer seems like something I can change.

You cannot know what might be important in your journal. An experience you have recorded but that’s too painful to read this year might provide insight you need to survive, or material for a novel, in five years. But if you have posted that story online, and read reactions to it from others, will you lose its freshness, lose the impulse to revise and revise until you discover precisely what its meaning is to you?

And if someone compliments you on the writing, will you decide the writing is satisfactory, even if it does not say precisely what you mean?

Writing even, or perhaps especially, in the middle of terrible grief, pain, excitement or terror, can provide you with valuable information on yourself and your life at a later time. If your process of quiet contemplation over meaning is diverted or lost among the comments of others, might you miss the steps in development you need to take as a human being, and as a writer? I’m afraid writers who keep their journals online, open to the public, will lose important parts of themselves in the garbled, facile, momentary reactions of others who have access. Online, you have no control over who reads your work or what their reactions might be. By the time you have revised multiple times and your work is placed in a print medium, you’ve had time to consider possible responses to it, to protect yourself with reasoning from some of the extreme viewpoints.

Before posting online, consider writing in your own paper journal, or in a private computer file. Then refine the work either by retyping it into a computer file or by revising it. Once you have confidence in what you have written, consider carefully when and how to expose it to public comment. Does it belong on a page dedicated to a particular interest group where you might gain insights from readers’ responses? Perhaps you can learn from the experience, as some writers do when working with a group of sympathetic writers.

The key to understanding your life may lie in the thoughts you record in your journals as you live your life one day at a time. In order for those journals to be useful to you as a writer, you must own and control them. If you publish them online, you may lose that ownership in a variety of ways. “Life,” said Soren Kierkegaard, “can only be understood backward, but we must live it forward.”


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

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© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom


Writers Be Wary: Publishers and their Contracts       

Most writers, even if we begin writing primarily for ourselves, begin to dream of publication. So when someone finally offers us a book contract, we may be so excited we forget to be careful.

Be wise; plan ahead. Prepare yourself for that happy day by collecting information about the complexities of publishing before you see that first contract.

The first step should be to remind yourself that publishers are in business to make money; that aim does not always mean they are looking out for your interests.

Traditional publishing has changed greatly in the past decade, and many established publishers won’t risk publishing work by an untried writer. Your best chances of seeing your work in print are to work with an independent — “indie”– publisher or consider self-publishing. Both avenues can be very satisfying if you are careful to make informed choices, but both have particular dangers.

Publishing contracts vary so widely that it’s impossible in this short commentary to warn you against every possible infringement of your rights. Read carefully. Most importantly, if you don’t understand a contract provision, ask your prospective publisher– and seek independent information about that clause from a knowledgeable source, like a writers’ organization. If you prefer to consult an attorney, be careful to find one who specializes in copyright and publishing problems. Most attorneys do not study such matters, and you don’t want to pay their hourly fee while they research your problem.

Don’t sign anything you don’t understand. Remember: the publisher will always protect its interests, and that might not mean the same as protecting yours.


Questions to ask before signing a contract:

1. Does the publisher copyright for the author?

If the publisher copyrights the book in the publisher’s name, then it owns the copyright to your work. A legitimate publisher copyrights publications in the name of the author. Ask for samples of several recent books.

According to the most reliable source, the U.S. Copyright Office, (www.copyright.gov) the copyright notice should appear within the first few pages of the book and should contain all three of the following elements close together:

(1) The symbol © (letter C in a circle); the word “Copyright”; or the abbreviation “Copr.”

All forms of this word are acceptable, but some form of it must appear.

(2) The year of first publication.

If the work is a derivative work or a compilation incorporating previously published material, the year date of first publication of the derivative work or compilation is sufficient. Examples of derivative works are translations or dramatizations; an example of a compilation is an anthology.

(3) The name of the copyright owner, an abbreviation by which the name can be recognized, or a generally known alternative designation of owner.

An example of the full copyright notice might read: © 2012 Jane Doe.

The name following the year date should be the author’s name, not the publisher’s name. If the publisher’s name appears here, the publisher owns the copyright in perpetuity and the author has lost the right to his or her own work. Some publishers either don’t know this, or want to hijack copyright. In addition, some organizations which provide grant funding for authors consider any work produced during the grant period as a “work for hire” and do not copyright for the author but for the organization. When applying for or accepting grant funds, be sure to determine whether you will own the copyright to any material written during the granting period.


2. Does the publisher register the copyright in the author’s name with the U.S. Copyright Office?

In the past, when a publisher accepted the author’s assignment of rights in a publishing contract, the publisher assumed responsibility for performing all the tasks associated with copyright, including preparing an appropriate copyright notice and including it in the published work. Then the publisher forwarded the required number of copies of the book to the Copyright Office, and with the appropriate paperwork to register the copyright. Later, the publisher might assist the author or the author’s heirs to renew copyright. All this was considered part of the publisher’s job because it protected both the author and the publisher against copyright infringement.

This is no longer the case, but registration remains important to the author. If your publisher does not register copyright for you with the U.S. Copyright Office, it’s essential that you do it yourself.

Chicago Manual of StyleThe most recent edition (16th) of The Chicago Manual of Style includes this passage:

4.49 Benefits of registration

Registration is not necessary to obtain a copyright (which exists in the work from the moment it is fixed in tangible form; see 4.3) or to ensure its validity. However, the prudent course is to register copyright because of the added protection registration affords. In cases of infringement, registration is a prerequisite to bringing suit unless the work was written by a non-US author and first published abroad. Registering at the time of publication avoids a scramble to register later if infringement is discovered. Moreover, if registration has been made within three months of publication, or before an infringement begins, the copyright owner, instead of going through the difficulties of proving actual damages, can sue for “statutory damages” (in effect, an award of damages based on equity rather than on proof of loss) and, most significantly, is eligible to be reimbursed for attorney’s fees. Publishers fearing prepublication piracy of books in development should also consider the “preregistration” procedure at the website of the United States Copyright Office.

To summarize: if your published work isn’t registered, you might have to spend considerably more money to defend your legal copyright if it is infringed, as well as paying all the attorney fees yourself.


Who’d want to steal poetry? you ask. In several instances, a candidate for an advanced degree in Creative Writing presented an entire work written by someone else as original, received the appropriate degree and was hired to teach on the basis of it. With printing so accessible now, it would be easy to put a new cover on someone’s book, add your name, and sell it yourself.

For more information, search online for “Plagiarism Cases” and be amazed.


3. Does the publisher place ISBN numbers on its books?

The ISBN, International Standard Book Number, is a 13-digit number that uniquely identifies books and book-like products published internationally. The purpose of the ISBN is to establish and identify one title or edition of a title from one specific publisher and is unique to that edition, allowing for more efficient marketing by booksellers, libraries, universities, wholesalers and distributors. Each ISBN also identifies a specific publisher, and helps to identify and circulate books properly in the industry supply chain.

Beware unauthorized re-sellers of ISBNs, who may offer to purchase single ISBNs at special offer prices. This activity is a violation of the ISBN standard and of industry practice. A publisher with one of these re-assigned ISBNs will not be correctly identified as the publisher of record in Books In Print or any of the industry databases such as Barnes and Noble or Amazon or those of wholesalers such as Ingram. If you have questions, contact the US ISBN Agency for further advice.

The ISBN Agency assigns ISBNs at the direct request of publishers, e-book publishers, audio cassette and video producers, software producers and museums and associations with publishing programs. For more information, see http://www.isbn.org/


4. Does the publisher place bar codes on its books?

ISBN trioLook for a bar code on the back of the book. A bar code is a binary coding system consisting of varying widths of vertical black lines (called bars) and white spaces that when read by an optical scanner can be converted into machine language. Bars and spaces are just one of many “elements” that make up a bar code. Without a bar code, many wholesalers and distributors such as Amazon will not stock the book. Some wholesalers may put one on and charge the author for doing so. If this step has been omitted accidentally, it may be possible to apply labels with barcodes.


5. Has the publisher been accepted into the Cataloging in Publication (CIP) Program by the Library of Congress?

A Cataloging in Publication record (aka CIP data) is a bibliographic record prepared by the Library of Congress for a book that has not yet been published. When the book is published, the publisher includes the CIP data on the copyright page thereby facilitating book processing for libraries and book dealers. Every publisher/imprint must have already published a minimum of three titles by three different authors.  There is no charge for CIP processing. For more information, see http://www.loc.gov/publish/cip/


If an independent publisher does not have ISBNs, does not have CIP data, or has no bar code on the backs of the books, consider why not. The publisher may have published too few books to have explored these important steps. Or the publisher may be ignorant of the legal requirements and benefits of publishing your work, or perhaps does not take responsibility for selling the books published. Each of these steps makes it easier for libraries and bookstores to acquire the book, so your best interests will be served by a publisher who can provide these services.

If your book is a chapbook, or small volume and you expect to handle sales yourself, perhaps within a small regional area, you may not need an ISBN, CIP data or a bar code. But if you expect your book to sell to bookstores, libraries and a wider audience, consider your alternatives carefully before signing with a publisher who is ignorant of these benefits or unqualified for them.


6. How does the publisher distribute the books published?

ISBN numbers, CIP data and bar codes all contribute to better distribution, but the publisher should also have access to numerous major distributors, particularly Ingram, and others who sell online as well as market to bookstores and libraries. Ask for your publisher’s list and look for information on those distributors. Virtually all books can now be sold on Amazon, so check for the other possibilities.


How can you tell if your publisher is able to produce a quality book?

A major change in the publishing industry is that self-published books can now be listed on sites like Amazon, as well as sold in bookstores. Small and independent publishers have a long history of doing a good job of publishing books that larger publishers might not consider, but which are important in our history. However, some publishers may be new to the business and may know very little more than the author does about it. Anyone can learn to self-publish, and many sites exist that will walk you through the process attentively. You may not need a publisher.

Before deciding to publish with a small or independent publisher, consider some of the following and try to draw conclusions from the evidence offered by the publisher’s work.


— Is the publisher stable?

SFWA screen shotEven publishers with plenty of capital go broke fairly often. How long has your proposed publisher been in business? How many books has it published?

For an extended discussion of risks of signing up with a brand-new publisher, see this post from the SFWA.org Writer Beware blog, New Publishers: To Query or Not to Query.


— Is the publisher capable of producing high-quality books?

A publisher is responsible for overseeing the selection, production, marketing and distribution of new books. Many larger publishing companies require at least a BA in a related field, such as communication, English literature, or journalism, along with relevant work experience. Various colleges offer certificate programs in publishing that can range from two intensive weeks to 15-credit-hour courses, as students learn about editing, production, design and marketing. Emerson College offers a course that includes working on a business plan for their press or magazine.

Try to assess your publisher’s abilities. An independent publisher may not have an extensive educational background but still may be well informed about the responsibilities of the job. But all that’s necessary to become a publisher is to put up a website and call for submissions. The amateur publisher may have a great desire to publish good books, but lack the knowledge to do the job well. For an example of what this might mean to you, read “The Short Life and Strange Death of Entranced Publishing.” http://www.victoriastrauss.com/2014/03/28/the-short-life-and-strange-death-of-entranced-publishing/


— Does the publisher really intend to publish or is the supposed business a scam?

Traditional publishers, real publishers, invest in books. They are selective in their purchase of manuscripts, accepting books designed to enhance the reputation of the press. They pay for specific rights; larger publishers pay advances and royalties, and they promote their authors. Of course they hope to make a profit, but they take the risk that they will not, because they believe in the process.

A vanity publisher is one that requires the author to pay for some or all publishing costs. Sometimes the resulting book is so poorly produced as to be unsaleable. A little research can produce horror stories: a supposed publisher may take the author’s money but disappear without publishing. Some publishers have delivered unbound galley proofs, and when the authors read the contract, they discovered no specific language promising binding. Vanity publishers may pretend to be legitimate until the author has signed the contract and the payment is due. Read the fine print: the vanity publisher may offer “one-stop shopping,” promising to edit the book, design the cover, and publish the book– but in some cases the editing, the design, and even the ISBN number belong to the publisher, so that all profits accrue to the publisher instead of the author. The vanity publisher’s primary purpose is profit, so its services are usually priced far higher than those offered on the open market.

At every newspaper and publication for which I’ve worked, the official policy was to throw away books produced by vanity publishers without looking at them. Because the newspaper knew the press would publish anything for money, it would not review any of the books from the known vanity publishers.

Though vanity and subsidy publishers are often lumped together, some publishers operating on a subsidy basis negotiate costs with the author, accepting some of the costs but not all. A subsidy publisher may offer a package deal, wherein the author pays for some services, while the publisher pays for others. Thus a subsidy publisher may be legitimate, and may turn out decent quality work at a fair price.

Self-publishers do all the work themselves, pay all the expenses, and get 100% of the profits. They edit their own work, or hire an editor; design the book or hire a designer; hire a printer, and do every other step connected with turning a manuscript into a book.

Unfortunately, a writer’s eagerness to be published may make him or her gullible to publishing schemes. Writer Beware provides a distressingly long list of case studies of such scams; reading it can make you more aware of the language that can signal a scam. For the best discussion of the differences, see the Writer Beware site, which includes a list of the best-known vanity scammers.


— Can the publisher promote and sell the book as you expect?

Even if your publisher is legitimate and has good intentions, the limitations of a small budget may mean books don’t get promoted enough to reach buyers. How does your publisher promote your book?


— Does the publisher only sell online, but you want to see your book in stores? Does your publisher promote the books only on a website and social media? Bookstores have specific requirements for the books they accept for display and sale. They require a 40% discount on the retail price, and must be able to return unsold books, so costs of shipping or delivery must be factored into your arrangements. Some stores only accept books on consignment, paying only if the books sell; you might get all your books back in a month, slightly worn from being handled. Some publishers consider this all too much trouble; you might do better to handle local bookstore sales yourself.

Ask for samples of the publisher’s books. Then compare those books to those published by large and reputable publishers. Which book would you choose based on the book’s appearance?

Sometimes independent publishers set the books’ text with narrow margins to save paper, making the type look crowded. Some small publishers use odd types, difficult to read. Does the font chosen for the page numbers differ from the font used for the text? Does each book have an individual look or are they all similar? Both these situations may signal a book created online, not designed individually in a way that enhances your subject.


— Look at the covers of the publisher’s books. Are they readable and well-designed? Does the publisher have a cover artist or will you be required to furnish a cover? Does the cover fit the book’s mood and content? The cover is your first, and often your only, opportunity to impress a customer; it should be easy to read and informative as well as attractive.


— How much will your book cost the customer? Compare the price with that of similar titles. If your book is more expensive than books on similar topics, it may not sell.


— Ask for a clear accounting of what costs you will pay. (Look for information on Vanity publishing and Cooperative publishing to see if this publisher fits one of these profiles.)


— How much are royalties and when are they paid? Royalties can be confusing so seek information. Some print on net receipts or net margin, meaning that print and distribution costs are paid before your royalties. Royalties may be paid quarterly or yearly, but specifics should be included in your contract.


— Does the publisher answer your questions clearly without losing patience? Does he or she return phone calls and messages promptly and coherently? Does the publisher say he or she has made calls or sent emails that you did not get? How large is the publisher’s staff? When you telephone or email the publisher, who answers? Is the response professional? Is this a business or a weekend hobby?

You may not automatically decide to decline offers from a part-time publisher, or one with a small staff, but if publishing is not the primary business, or if the staff is small or inexperienced, you might encounter delays you did not expect.


— Look at the publisher’s website and other social media sites like Facebook. Are they easy to navigate? Is information clearly organized? When was the last update? What is the most recent publication?


— Study the comments from readers, book buyers and authors. Are they positive? Ask for contact information for several authors and ask privately how the publisher has treated them during the publishing experience. The publisher should be eager to provide you with this information.


— Does the potential publisher make extravagant claims for how many copies your books will sell and how much money you will make?

No matter who publishes your book, you will need to work hard at marketing to sell a substantial number of copies. The more visible you are– doing workshops, giving talks, appearing on media outlets– the more copies you are likely to sell.


— What is your author discount? Since you will have to work to sell your book anyway, you should not pay retail price for copies of your book that you purchase for resale.


— How long will it take to publish your book? Three to six months is usual and acceptable. Be sure delivery time is stated in the contract and that penalties exist for the publisher if the contract deadline is not met.


If you are happy with the answers to these questions, you may have found a publisher you can trust and with whom you can work. If not, keep looking, or consider self-publishing– and that means you must do more research.


Here are some reliable resources for learning more about publishing:


WritersLegalCompanionThe Writer’s Legal Companion by Brad Bunnin and Peter Beren: get the latest edition; this may be the best money you ever spend as a writer.


The Poets & Writers Guide to the Book Deal: again, get the latest edition; a download may be available. P&W is especially good on the definition of your rights as an author.


One of the best sites for general information about writers is the Science Fiction Writers’ Association’s  Writer Beware, which lists alerts for writers, names publishing scammers, provides information about provides information including case studies, editorial services, small and vanity presses, contracts, contests, agents and other relevant matters.


The website Keep Your Copyrights is written by Columbia Law School, and is packed with specific information. For example, the site provides copies of various kinds of contracts– literary, academic and so on– and rates them according to the advisability of signing them.


The Authors Guild:  https://www.authorsguild.org/
If you are eligible to join, you can get information packets, legal services and other perks including dental insurance. Eligibility criteria include income of $5000 from writing during the past 18 months, publication by an “established U.S. book publisher,” or other requirements. The Authors Guild also offers associate membership with requirements that are less stringent. See this link for more information:


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota


© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom

Scenes from Surgery: Seeing When I Can’t See

Fortunately, I have had little experience with surgery, and most of that came from accompanying a friend to her surgery a week ago, just before my first cataract operation.

I am as ready as I can be. My eye surgeon has furnished me with a formidable collection of informational pamphlets and a written list of instructions. More than a dozen friends and acquaintances who have already benefited from the surgery have offered advice and reassurance. I’ve done research and read statistics: according to the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery (ASCRS), 3 million Americans undergo cataract surgery each year, with an overall success rate of 98 percent or higher.

Still, I have probably feared loss of sight since I was fitted for my first pair of glasses at nine years of age, so I don’t sleep well in the days before surgery.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

My appointment for cataract surgery is for 7 a.m., and by 7:30, I am lying on a cot in a room with a dozen similar cots, separated by curtains. Nurses move back and forth among the patients, asking if we know what we’re there for, confirming names and birth dates. Someone asks if I’ve signed health care directives (Yes; and I recommend everyone do so). Is there a person who can speak for me in the waiting room in case something goes terribly wrong? My surgeon explains the procedure. Barry, the anesthesiologist spends several minutes reading through my medical history, asking questions, commenting on the fact that I am in good health and take no pills but vitamins. He advises me to let him know immediately if I feel pain. He says I’ll be awake throughout the procedure, and cautions me not to sneeze, talk or move.

“And if your nose itches, tell us; we’ll scratch it for you.” He says, “I’m mixing your first martini now,” as he administers what he calls the “I don’t care” drug.

A nurse places a sticky mask on my face to hold my left eye open. I feel the nudge of what I assume is a scalpel when the surgeon slices into my eye, and see a vivid square of pink as he works. After a few moments, the pink square becomes more clear, and I realize the surgeon is gone, the operation over. I am wheeled into the recovery room, though I remember little of what happens there.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

By 9:30 a.m., we’re home and I spend the rest of the day lying around, continuing not to care much about anything. I pick up a mystery, but can’t concentrate enough to read. My eye doesn’t hurt but I am happier when it is closed; the eyelid seems to be made of sandpaper, a sensation the literature predicted.

Cataracts fall grass pronghornFrom the living room, with binoculars and my new left eye closed, I can see twenty antelope and a flock of geese all lying companionably on the west side of the dam below the house. With my own spectacles, I can see well out of my right eye, but trying to coordinate my eyes leaves me disoriented. When I walk across the room, I feel as if I might fall, and I hold the handrail firmly while going downstairs; I have no depth perception. In the kitchen, I lurch into cabinets when trying to put clean dishes away or cook.

I’m dizzy, probably from the anesthetic and the disorientation of the change in my vision, but have no headache. I’m not nauseated, but my stomach feels a little fluttery. I cooked ahead, so we have interesting leftovers. My after-lunch nap lasts an hour and a half instead of twenty minutes. All afternoon I doze, think, and occasionally flip pages in magazines. I’m amazed that I can sit without reading or leaping up to do another job as I would normally do, but realize that I’m still under the influence of the “martini” drug.

Email lures me to the basement until I realize I am hunched over, squinting to peer at the screen. Later, we watch DVDs, though it’s hard for me to concentrate. I keep taking my glasses off and putting them back on. By nine p.m., without my glasses, I can see well out of my new left eye, or my right eye, but not both at once.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I rarely dream, but this night my brain puts me in a number of strange scenes. In one, I am standing on top of a white van that is driving itself around a green lawn, then eventually rising into the air and floating over the landscape.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I wake at five with a knot of pain in my shoulder and a cramp in my neck, unable to turn my head to the left or right. I attribute this misery to stress, and to using the computer when I should have been resting.

At my follow-up appointment, I tell my surgeon that every now and then, the view through my left eye seems to leap, as if the film in an old movie had jumped. He explains that since the new lens is slightly smaller than my original, the eye needs to shrink around it, and that natural process produces the jumping sensation. My operation is a success.

Every element of Day Two after surgery is filtered through extreme pain. I can’t read, write, sit or stand comfortably because of the agony in my shoulder and neck. Ice on my shoulder enables me to nap a little. I make an appointment with a massage therapist for the next day.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Day Three after surgery is a blur that begins in pain, soothed by a strong and aromatic early-morning massage. My muscles are so knotted in my neck and shoulder that an hour isn’t enough. “Mouse shoulder,” the massage therapist calls my ailment. I realize that two days before surgery I moved both my keyboards without making compensatory moves in my computers and mice. After my first massage, I eat lightly and lie on a heating pad until my second massage in the afternoon, thinking about how good I’ll feel when my eyesight is improved and my shoulder is back to normal.

When I’m not on a massage table or resting, I experiment with the position of my computer chair and keyboards, and discover exactly what I was doing to cause the aching misery in my shoulder. I raise the arms of my chair, fiddle with its height, shift the computer screens–and dust everything in sight. I’m usually too busy writing to pay attention to the tidiness of my office, so I do some filing and organizing as well.

I follow the recommendation of several people to remove the lens from the glasses on the side that’s been operated on. With both eyes open, I stagger as if I’ve been drinking those “martinis” the anesthesiologist mixed, because my vision is so different in each eye.

One friend pastes a sticky note over her glasses on that side, and isn’t afraid to drive. “The Interstates in Wyoming and Montana were fine,” she says, “but I was a little nervous on the two-lanes.” Hmm.  My father had a cataract operation, and came home wearing an eye patch. He died two decades ago; where is it now?

Cataracts eye patchI shut my eyes and visualize the eye patch. Black, with black elastic. I wore it once as part of a Halloween costume. After a few moments, I stand up, go to my dresser in the bedroom, open the top drawer, and reach inside: the eye patch is there, between the shotgun shells and a jewelry box of my mother’s. There is no logical reason I have kept it at my fingertips all these years. With a new strip of elastic, it fits nicely across my left eye. Immediately my balance seems to stabilize. I can walk a straight line! I can go downstairs!

Glancing up at the stern photo of my father above my desk, I thank him for teaching me to keep things I don’t know if I’ll need, and apologize for cussing his packrat ways at other times.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Exchanging messages with friends who have had cataract surgery, I’m convinced that everything I’m experiencing is normal, but I’m severely near-sighted, which accounts for the extra problems I’m having adjusting to one “good” eye and one still shadowed by a cataract.

Testing myself, I drive down our private road to the highway and across it to get the mail. I’m careful pulling across the four lanes of traffic, but the black eye patch does block a considerable portion of my peripheral vision, so I ask Jerry to drive me to other appointments for the week before my second surgery.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Even by leaning close to the computer screen, I can hardly read. Leaning forward awakens the pains in my neck and shoulder. I shut down the computer and resolve to stay away from it.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

What did I do, I wonder, before I began to spend my days reading and writing? I can’t remember. I thumb through my recipe file, finding new tastes to try, and tossing out old recipes I’ve never used.

Cataracts basket leaves chive seedpodTo change my focus from what I can’t do, I begin to concentrate on what I can do: pay more attention to texture, color and scent. In a few minutes’ walk outside, I appreciate the vivid red of a leaf from a tiny plum bush, the neon yellow and deep red of a gaillardia in my greenhouse plot, and a furry leaf of mullein. I’ve read that mullein leaves were used for diapers by Native Americans. Modern riders moving cattle have found them to be useful as toilet paper; that’s a personal observation.

Next to the gaillardia stands a culinary sage, its pointed leaves soft, but less dense than those of the mullein. The scent, too, is softer than that of the native sage. Lilac leaves manage to be red on the front and green on the back. The unripe seed head of a chive plant is knobby with pods that may not ripen now that we have had frost. I pinch a head of anise and inhale its purple scent.

Observing and touching these plants while I’m walking the dogs is not enough. Suddenly I want to study them more closely, so I pick them and take them inside. Searching for the perfect way to display them to myself, I find a tiny basket from a friend and notice again its colors and tight weave. Mentally, I thank her again for this thoughtful gift: another thing I didn’t know I needed until I required it.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Another question I ponder: when did I begin my habit of always doing something: of never sitting still and doing nothing? This is a good time to start following my own advice.

I regularly advise writers to simply sit and absorb their surroundings, to do nothing at all as their minds wander and create. Thinking, I assert, is the most important part of writing.

And yet here I am, fidgeting because I am unable to follow my usual schedule. I realize that I sometimes read or write as much as sixteen hours a day. I read and write in my journal while drinking my morning coffee; I read during meals. I think in the shower, but I read in a hot bath. I need to practice doing other activities. Perhaps even doing nothing.

Usually when I’m writing, I step outside once or twice in the morning to play with the dogs or to check the tomatoes or pull weeds. Today I walk outside with no particular aim. I stand in the sunshine and look over the hillside, noticing how colorful the grass is, blending every shade of red from maroon to pink, segueing into golds and greens. Somewhere on that hillside may be twenty antelope, their tawny sides and white bellies blending perfectly into their surroundings.

Cataracts viola empty seedpodsThen I drop to my knees to look at the plants in the raised bed. I spot a three-pronged seed pod, each lobe packed with tiny black seeds, and realize that it has arisen from the violas a friend gave me years ago. As I reach to pick the pod so I can plant the seeds elsewhere, I jostle it, and the seeds are fired in several directions at once, instantly invisible.

I’ve had these violas perhaps as long as twenty years, since a friend in Vermillion gave them to me, but I’ve never noticed the seed pods before. Now I’ll try to capture seeds so I can put more of the charming plants wherever I want them.

Because I write and advise writers, I probably pay more attention to my senses than many people do. But today’s concentration on what I cannot see well has been a revelation.

Cataracts cup beads crystalInside, thinking about the day, I look at the shelf above my sink and take down an antique cup I bought for its color and balance. I’ve never drunk from it, but filled it with glittering memories, displaying it, but not really seeing it. I picked up every shell on a favorite Pacific beach in the northwest; the beads were gifts from Jerry when he made my kaleidoscope for my fiftieth birthday. The shard of crystal came at a bad time as a gift from a good friend. Now I see a cupful of shining memories.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Each day after the surgery, I am able to move more confidently around the house. I wear the eye patch for reading, but take it off when I’m walking the dogs or playing Scrabble, struck each time by how bright and colorful the world is without it. I begin to cook without dropping utensils so often.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

On Day Six after surgery, I forget the eye patch when we go to the grocery store, so my left eye, with its improved distance vision, is uncovered. The visual stimulation is so disorienting I can hardly function. Faces seem to leap at me; colors swirl and shift as I turn my head; loud music seems to magnify every sensation. I can’t read the type on shelf displays very clearly with either eye; letters blur and swirl. I keep reaching up to cover one eye or the other, and can’t seem to stabilize myself. I lurch and stagger and catch expressions of pity on several faces: “poor old thing.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Back at home, I shade my eyes and look toward the west as the sun begins to drop toward sunset. From every branch flies a silver filament, the life lines of migrating spiders, moving in the fall air toward winter.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I have spent less time than usual at the computer, but too much; my shoulder and neck are still painful. My posture is terrible when I sit at my desk, and concentrate on straightening my spine and breathing more deeply. I move around more, running up the stairs to check on lunch, or throwing a ball for the dogs. These are changes in habit I hope I can carry with me through the next round of surgery, but also longer, into my daily life.

Once again a happening that was complicated and not always pleasant has reminded me of ways to improve the way I live. Surely this occurrence is a cliché, but such truisms become familiar because they prove to be right so often.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

By the seventh day after surgery, which is also the day before the surgery on my right eye, I realize that I am exhausted even though I have not been working at my usual rate. Why? I can think of two possible reasons. First, I’ve been working at the computer, and since my vision is so unclear, I lean forward, and twist myself into unnatural positions trying to see. Second, my confused vision makes me subconsciously fear that I’m about to fall every single time I take a step, so all my muscles are clenched in anticipation when I’m not sitting still.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

We’ve had frost three nights in a row and the tomatoes and squash plants are drooping. I’ve put most of the remaining fruit in a bucket to feed to my assistant’s chickens, harvested the last jalapeno peppers, and collected handfuls of marigold seed. Winter is coming, though several hollyhocks still stand next to the house, their silken blooms showing vivid yellow and pink against the gray sky.

The world outside is entering a different season. So is my vision.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The second surgery takes less time than the first since fewer explanations are necessary. My martini-mixer this time is Gary, but Barry is in the next cubicle and I realize that the team of anesthesiologists have developed their patter of humorous comments– “like a bad marriage” Gary quips– to calm the fears of patients by making us laugh. Again, I can see the tools of surgery and feel them in my eye, but I don’t care and nothing itches.

I’m dizzy enough to hold Jerry’s arm as I walk out of the clinic wearing the huge sunglasses that were part of my eye kit, and adorn half the people walking in or out. Even through black lenses, I can see every detail of faces, of parked cars, and of the men pouring concrete, with both eyes. I haven’t seen this well without glasses since about 1950.

But I can’t read the paper; my improved vision is for greater distances than my arms reach.

During the 24 hours following surgery, I feel better than I did last week because the aftereffects of the anesthetic are less severe, as Gary promised. By the time I try to describe what I saw during surgery, the memory has become too fuzzy to capture in words.

My eyelids feel enlarged, like flaps of cardboard and my eye feels a bit scratchy, as predicted. I’m occasionally dizzy and inclined to nap, so I do. At home, I can walk up and down stairs without flinching.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

On the second day after this surgery, I buy a three-pack of drugstore reading glasses, complaining because I can’t imagine why I need three. “I’ll be able to match all my outfits!” I mock.

Navigating around the house is easy without glasses, but when I need to read a recipe, play a Scrabble game, read a book or type, I need help. Soon I have one pair of glasses by my reading chair, one pair at the computer, and one pair in the dining room where I can take it to the bedroom for reading in bed. Having three pair has saved me dozens of steps by the second day; I mentally apologize to the folks who package them in threes.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

In the mirror, I hardly recognize myself without glasses.

With reading glasses, I can see a glow lighting the chin hairs I haven’t been able to see well enough to pull for a week, and the large bags under my eyes.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Happy to be able to see the keyboard and screen, I start transcribing my rough and nearly unreadable notes about the surgery from my journal into a file. My biggest problem is remembering to snatch the glasses off when I need to leave the computer or book and do something else.

Cataracts reading glasses chainWithin three days, I have purchased a gadget that I have always considered the ultimate Badge of Old Ladyhood: a chain to wear around my neck, keeping one pair of glasses on my person at all times.

As I work, I yawn and stretch and wonder why this week was so physically painful and nerve-wracking.

I’m overwhelmed with amazement and gratitude at how relatively easy these two operations have been, particularly when I think what people endured in the past. One friend tells me her grandmother had to go to Omaha for the operation and was hospitalized for a long time with sandbags on each side of her head. I recall watching another woman in our community struggle to live a normal life as her glasses grew thicker and thicker, and her eyes became opaque, covered with a gray film.

Perhaps I also feel guilty at being a person privileged to live in a country where such operations are possible, when millions of people worldwide have no such hope.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

My debilitation during the past week hasn’t been just fear of surgery, I decide, but that greater fear that haunts us all: the time we have to enjoy the world is always growing shorter. How, we wonder, will our aging bodies fail? Dementia? Disease? We don’t know but the end is sure. We can only enjoy every day we have.

Above my computer, flies bumble at the windows in the weak October sunlight. A persistent zizzzing shows me where one fly is caught in a web. A slender brown spider starts wrapping the fly in strands of web to end its struggle.

Taking a break just to go outside and enjoy looking, I hear them: Sandhill cranes, trilling, hooting and gurgling as they fly south. Authorities say they’ve been living on these prairies, migrating south each fall and north each spring, calling and purring over the land, for two and a half million years.

Through my oversized sunglasses, I can see a long and wavery V, each one a smaller V-shape as their wings flap. Each crane in the line provides some shelter to the one behind. Together, they fly over the prairie toward the warm grasslands of Texas and their winter of survival. If I am lucky enough to be here when they come back, I may be able to see them even more clearly.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Love Beside the Windmill: Know Your Copyright Law!

Writers, this article exists in two parts, like a lavish meal with a rich dessert. The meal is healthy and good for you, but you may find it tedious to finish every bit. Read carefully, though, and you’ll earn dessert.

Part I — The Main Course
Copyright: So Simple It’s Confusing.

CopyrightRedCopyrights are exclusive rights owned by the author or creator of an original work, including the right to copy, distribute and adapt the work. Copyright does not protect ideas, only their expression or how they are fixed on the page.

Knowledge of copyright is the author’s responsibility; you should not ignore this important aspect of your writing life. This knowledge is more important than your knowledge of grammar, submission guidelines or how to spell.

Here are three things you need to know about copyright.

1. When copyright exists
Copyright is created in a work once it is fixed into a tangible medium of expression. That means when you hit “save” on your computer, or finish hand-writing or typing your poem or novel, or post your blog or your comments anywhere at all, your copyright in your own written word exists.

The U.S. Copyright Office puts it this way:

Copyright law protects a work from the time it is created in a fixed form. From the moment it is set in a print or electronic manuscript, a sound recording, a computer software program, or other such concrete medium, the copyright becomes the property of the author who created it. Only the author or those deriving rights from the author can rightfully claim copyright.

2. The copyright notice
Putting a copyright notice on your work is only an announcement of your ownership; the notice does not change your copyright. Many authorities now say the notice is not necessary. Still, the notice on your blog, for example, reminds people who may not know the law that you own the rights to reproduce your own words and they cannot be copied without your permission.

The copyright notice consists of three elements:

1. the word or symbol for copyright:

or the abbreviation Copyr.
or the symbol ( c ).

2. the name of the owner

3. the year of publication.

So a copyright notice may read Copyright 1983 Gloria Writer or (c) Gloria Writer, 1983.

Until 1989, works had to contain a valid copyright notice to receive protection under U.S. copyright law, but no longer.

3. How to register your copyright
If you want– or need– to enforce your copyright in a court, you must have registered the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. Registration is your best protection in the event of a dispute over who owns what you wrote. Since you cannot know if someone is going to steal your work, requiring you to sue them for damages or to correct the record, you should register published work.

Register the copyright by:

1. Filling out the required form, obtained from the U.S. Copyright Office http://www.copyright.gov/

2. Sending the form with a fee and 1 or 2 copies of the published work to the Copyright Office (As of June, 2015, the fee for a book by a single author is $35 to $55. See http://copyright.gov/about/fees.html)

Only work registered with the U.S. Copyright Office is registered; there are no alternatives. “Poor man’s copyright”– mailing your work to yourself and keeping the envelope unopened– proves nothing; you might have mailed the envelope unsealed and inserted the work at a later date.

*   *   *

That’s it; now you know the most important things about copyright. But here are some additional details on various topics within the body of information about copyright that might help you understand the procedure.

Getting reliable information
Scams abound. If you have only a vague idea of what copyright law means to you, go immediately to “Writer Beware” at http://www.sfwa.org, the website of the Science Fiction Writers Association. No, you don’t have to write science fiction. This site has the most succinct, easily accessible and clearest information on copyright I’ve found.

The page clearly explains what copyright is, when and why you should register your copyright in published work, and the most common myths of copyright. (I have heard at least one of these myths from aspiring writers every time I have given a talk on writing.)

The Writer Beware site notes:

Unpublished manuscripts: you do not need to register this work; theft is highly unlikely.
Published short stories and articles: registration is a good idea, though the magazine’s copyright may cover your writing.
Published book-length manuscripts: registration is essential.

Recently I discovered that even trade publishers may no longer register copyright; small presses often don’t want to spend the money; and self-publication means it’s your job. So, no matter who is publishing your work, ask if the copyright is registered and then look on the copyright office website to see if registration has been completed.

What if you don’t register and discover that your published work has been stolen? You can register within five years of initial publication and you can still sue, though your damages may be limited.

Does all of this seem complicated and boring? Do you lock your house at night? Your car? You can always buy a new TV set or Chevrolet. Respect your work enough to put at least as much effort into protecting the work of your mind and heart.

Your rights
When you enter into a publishing agreement, remember that you are granting the publisher permission to exploit– that is, to publish and distribute for profit– your work. You have granted that publisher a portion of your copyrights for a specific period of time. You do not lose them, but you are allowing someone else to use them for a specific and limited time. During that time, the publisher intends to make money from your work, so the publisher’s interests may not always coincide with yours. Therefore you need to understand your contract and what it does to your rights. You should not publish a book without signing a contract.

There is one exception to the principle that you own what you write. As the U.S. Copyright office puts it:

There is, however, an exception to this principle: “works made for hire.” If a work is made for hire, an employer is considered the author even if an employee actually created the work. The employer can be a firm, an organization, or an individual.

The concept of “work for hire” can be complicated, but know two things: you do not own what you write for hire, and you cannot profit from it. When I knew less than I know now, I once signed a work for hire agreement. I find it frustrating to know that no matter how many copies of that book are sold, I will never make a dime from it beyond what I was paid in the contract– nor can I use any of its contents in any other context.

Copyright notice
A person’s creation should always be absolutely attributed to that person, for whatever profit, financial or otherwise, accrues. But the idea that a work belongs exclusively to its creator is being steadily eroded. Some folks think it’s perfectly all right to take a poem written by someone else and rewrite it, presenting the resulting piece as their own. Others think that if it’s on the Internet, the work is not protected. Including the copyright notice helps warn these folks.

However, do not put this notice on your work when submitting it for publication. Agents and editors who see this notice on unpublished work will think you are either ignorant of the law or don’t trust them– not the impression you want to give.

Registering copyright
You might lose your copyright not because someone is unscrupulous, but for other reasons. Ignorance can be destructive.

A publisher agrees to print your book of poems. You are ecstatic. You do not sign a contract; after all, we should trust one another and he’s putting his time and effort into creating your book. If the publisher offers a contract, you may be so excited you don’t read it, or you skip over anything that’s not clear.

Small presses sometimes operate with little income, or use the money they make at a paying job to help support their habit of publishing the work of new writers. They try to sell the work but rarely does a book published by a small press make back its expenses, let alone a profit. They may not know how to copyright your work, or they may be too busy, or think it’s too expensive.

Moreover, the Internet now sports all kinds of agencies who offer to copyright your work, or register copyright, for a fee, always considerably inflated from what you need to pay.

The warning published by Writer Beware about these folks is blunt:

In the USA, there are a number of online services that will register copyright for you with the US Copyright Office, for a fee. You can even purchase software that provides you with addresses and copyright forms.
Don’t waste your money. It isn’t difficult to register copyright yourself, and it will cost you a good deal less than the services (currently, registration costs between $35 and $65, depending on whether you register online or on paper). For freelancers and others wanting to register more than one piece or work, the US Copyright Office offers a multiple-registration option.

The benefits of copyright registration

Chicago Manual of StyleThe main reference work for every serious publisher in the country is, or should be, The Chicago Manual of Style. It’s now available online, and the publisher even offers a free trial period at http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org.

The most recent edition (16th) of The Chicago Manual of Style includes this passage:

4.49 Benefits of registration
Registration is not necessary to obtain a copyright (which exists in the work from the moment it is fixed in tangible form; see 4.3) or to ensure its validity. However, the prudent course is to register copyright because of the added protection registration affords. In cases of infringement, registration is a prerequisite to bringing suit unless the work was written by a non-US author and first published abroad. Registering at the time of publication avoids a scramble to register later if infringement is discovered. Moreover, if registration has been made within three months of publication, or before an infringement begins, the copyright owner, instead of going through the difficulties of proving actual damages, can sue for “statutory damages” (in effect, an award of damages based on equity rather than on proof of loss) and, most significantly, is eligible to be reimbursed for attorney’s fees. Publishers fearing prepublication piracy of books in development should also consider the “preregistration” procedure at the website of the United States Copyright Office.

That’s the importance of copyright registration: if it’s not done, and your work is stolen, you will have to spend considerably more money to defend your legal copyright, and you’ll have to pay attorney fees yourself.

Traditionally, registering an author’s copyright was part of the publisher’s job as protection for both the author and the publisher against copyright infringement, where someone copies another writer’s work and sells it.

However, I have recently learned that many publishers no longer consider registration of copyright part of their duties. I learned this by discovering that several of my copyrights had not been registered.

You may ask “Who’d want to steal my poetry?” The answers are various. I’ve heard of instances where a candidate for an advanced degree in Creative Writing presented an entire work written by someone else as original, received the appropriate degree, and was hired to teach on the basis of it. Even when the scam was revealed, the offending professor kept the job, and the author received no compensation.

Part II — Dessert
Copyright Infringement: My Story

When I first began publishing my work, even the smaller publishers like Fulcrum, High Plains Press and Barn Owl understood registration of copyright to be part of their responsibility. In fact, when my copyright was infringed upon, one of the smallest of those presses– Barn Owl Books– found me a good copyright lawyer and joined me in bringing suit. And we won, but we might not have if the copyright hadn’t been registered. Here’s my story.

As a writer, I have kept journals since I was nine years old. In the 1980s, I began to read a lot of stories in environmental magazines suggesting that one family ranches would be driven out of existence by “agri-business,” huge multinational corporations. I decided to record the work we did on the ranch, so that if one-family ranches vanished, a record would exist so we could recreate them at some future time. At worst, my record would be historical. I began collecting material from my journal to write a book on how ranching is done. By the time I’d read through about 20 years of journals, I was enjoying the journal form, and remembering how many types of journals have been published, so I put together some sample months from my journals, and, began sending those samples, one by one, to publishers .

Months later, after my book had been rejected 26 times, I noticed a listing for Barn Owl Books in Berkeley, CA. I wasn’t hopeful that a publisher in Berkeley would be interested in my book, but the “barn owl” suggested an interest in the rural, so I submitted the samples for the 27th time. The publisher turned out to be a woman who ran a publishing company by herself and had published only one other book at that time. But she loved my journal, and she and I worked on editing it for three years before it was finally published in 1987.

Linda signs WINDBREAK 1987--9-11 - Copy

Autographing my first copies of Windbreak at the publication celebration in California, 1987.

Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains is a daily journal covering one year on the ranch and was favorably reviewed by the New York Times Book Review. But the most enjoyable thing about it has been the responses it has generated from people all over the country. Old ranchers have written to me, telling me to hang on, because it’s a wonderful life; a young woman wrote to tell me of a cheaper kind of long underwear; a goat farmer sent me some homemade cheese; a North Dakota woman wrote to tell me she has kept a similar journal for 50 years. A book reviewer in California said she didn’t even LIKE cows, but after she read my book, she heard about a blizzard out here and found herself saying to her husband, “I wonder if Linda’s cows are all right.” Suddenly I have friends all over the country. Yesterday, 28 years after the book was first published, a man with a Southern accent called to tell me he had just read the book, and how wonderful it was; “I had no idea how hard it is to be a rancher,” he said, and promised to loan the book to a lot of other folks who would enjoy it.

The year after the book was published, I was named as Writer of the Year by the South Dakota Council of Teachers of English, and inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in honor of my writing. All of this was the good news.

Among the many letters I received about my book, however, was an anonymously sent copy of a letter a reader had sent to Parris Afton Bonds, the author of a romance novel titled That McKenna Woman. The letter said, in part, “I very much resent paying $2.75 for a book that I assume is original material, only to find that so many parts– the best parts in fact– are in no way original.” The letter explained that the “best parts” she referred to were taken from my book Windbreak. I later concluded that the letter alerting me may have come from a disgruntled friend of the author who knew about the theft and chose this way of informing me.

I bought a copy of Bonds’s book, and soon found more than 70 passages which echoed my own words. My anger increased as I saw that my published account of my life with my beloved husband had been used to give credibility to a trashy romance novel about a Hollywood actress, convicted on a drug-dealing charge, who is sentenced to six months labor on a cattle ranch. My husband, George, tried to appeal to my sense of humor by complaining that the sex scenes were unrealistic, since we were always too busy to make love beside the windmill!

I later learned that the author had given a writing workshop in Wyoming. Likely she bought my book there, since I had given workshops for the same group.

IMG_3189That fall, despite the death of my husband after a long illness, I went ahead with the lawsuit. With the help of my publisher, I brought charges of copyright infringement against the writer and Silhouette/Harlequin, one of the biggest publishers of romances. The romance writer had been paid $10,000 each for three romance novels; in the course of the lawsuit, I obtained copies of the two which had been published, and a manuscript copy of the third, which never appeared in print. All three contained quotations from my book. She made far more money for her books than I did from mine.

I won the lawsuit, but the expenses cost more than the money I was awarded by the court, and also considerably less than the romance writer made from my work. Still, the publisher recalled the first novel in the series, shredded the second before it left the warehouse, and cancelled publication of the third in the series. The author continued to advertise the books on her website for some years after the judgment, though the titles have finally been removed.

One clause in the settlement agreement was particularly galling. The publisher offered me more money if I agreed never to speak about the lawsuit. But I’m a writer and teacher; I thought it was important to be able to educate other people about the ugly realities of creative theft. I was, however, enjoined by the court from using the term “plagiarism.” I can only say that the author committed “copyright infringement.”

At the conclusion of the lawsuit, we issued a press release including some of the relevant passages and showing just how my copyrights had been infringed:

Windbreak, p. 26: A true Hunter’s Moon tonight—red-gold near the horizon, then shrinking to a silver disc as it rose.

That McKenna Woman, P. 40: “It was a true hunter’s moon tonight—red-gold near the horizon, then shrinking to a silver dollar as it rose.”

*  *  *

Windbreak, p. 126: “The women talk about who had babies and who died. The men talk about wetter or drier years and worse winters.”

That McKenna Woman, p. 107: “The women talked about who had had babies and who had died. The men discussed wetter or drier years, and worse winters.”

*  *  *

Windbreak, p. 72-3: “Why do we do this? No one ranches for the money, and it’s not that we’re all masochists. It’s as though we have a covenant with nature, that we’re bound to see it through, to figure out a way, every year, in every emergency, to survive. It’s less like a battle than a marriage. The problems perhaps serve to enhance our feeling of accomplishment when we succeed, and the more complex or dangerous the situation, the greater the exhilaration when we live through it.”

That McKenna Woman, p. 66: “Why do we do it? he asked himself. Certainly no one ranches for the money. It wasn’t as though he enjoyed suffering and hardship. It was as though he was honor bound to see this through every season, every crisis. When he succeeded, he felt as if he had accomplished something. And the more difficult or dangerous the circumstance, the greater the exhilaration when it was all over and he had come out triumphant.”

*  *  *

So: writers, be persistent in working to get your work published. But when you have interest from a publisher, rein in your enthusiasm until you are sure you understand what the contract offers.

Once your book is in print, get the proper form from the U.S. Copyright Office, fill it out, pay the fee and send the required copies to register your copyright. In doing so, you are not only defending your own rights to your work throughout your lifetime, but protecting a valuable asset for your heirs.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

# # #

For more information:

U.S. Copyright Office
The website of the U.S. Copyright Office offers all the information you need to register copyright, phone numbers to call for help, and a contact form; I have not used it, so I don’t know how quickly you could expect a response. The site has a list of frequently asked questions, and offers informative publications and tutorials to download. The website may seem overwhelming at first but stick with it and you’ll be able to narrow your focus to the one form you need to fill out for your particular copyright.
See http://copyright.gov/about/fees.html for information about current fees.

Beware of Copyright Office Imitations
Note that http://www.copyrightregistry-online-form.com and other similar websites are not the US Government’s site, though these website may show up at the top of an online search and may look very official with eagle emblems or other governmental words and logos. They are private companies that claim they can simplify the copyright registration process for an additional fee. The SFWA.org website puts them in the “unnecessary” category. Look for “.gov” in a website name to know whether you’re on the US government site or a private company’s site.

Science Fiction Writers Association
Another great writing resource is the website of the Science Fiction Writers Association. No, you don’t have to write science fiction to use this website, though a membership fee or donation will help keep the website up and running. While you’re there reading about copyright, explore some of the other information offered: “Alerts for Writers” names unscrupulous agencies that prey on writers, as does the “Thumbs Down Agencies List and Publishers List”. The SFWA website discusses literary agencies, editors, contests, self-publishing– virtually any topic that might be of concern to a writer who wishes to publish– and the language is clear. (Here’s the assessment of a press that held fraudulent contests: “Its Terms and Conditions, however, stink.”) I recommend keeping a shortcut to this site on your desktop for a check on anything puzzling.

The Chicago Manual of Style
The main reference work for every serious publisher– buy the book or buy an online subscription. A free trial is available online and you can borrow a copy of the book from your local library.

Here are some other sources of copyright information that seem legitimate:


http://www.copylaw.com (see copyright myths)

http://www.templetons.com (see copyright myths)