Alright, I’m a lawyer. Make your jokes now.
Now, let’s get to it. There’s two kinds of lawyers in the world: planners and litigators. Planners live a life of quiet intensity. It’s their job to look everything over and get everything right so that there’s no lawsuits, no drama. The life of a planner is asking “what if,” and if the planners did their job right, then no litigation ever happens.
I’ve done a little planning work in my career. It’s not my cup of tea, though. No, I’m primarily the other thing; I’m a litigator. And the reason wasn’t personal choice; it was the clients who were available to me. When I did civil law, rarely ever did one of my small-town clients come to me until after everything had gone completely to heck. And half the time, my first interview with a prospective client went something like the following:
Me: OK, well, I see that you signed away basically everything under the sun in this ironclad contract that the people who are now your corporate masters paid an entire staff of planning attorneys their own weight in frankincense to draft. So what seems to be the problem?
Prospective Client: Well, I don’t like the terms now. They’re bad.
Me: Oooookay. But you don’t meet any of the criteria in the termination clause.
Prospective Client: But look at how unfair this is!
Me: Well…why did you sign it?
Prospective Client: I, uh, I didn’t read the small print.
Me: Yeah. You’re screwed. Maybe come talk to me before you sign a thirty-page contract next time.
Now, don’t get it twisted up; this isn’t the talk-to-a-lawyer-before-you-sign rant. I’ve got that rant, and I can bust it out at a later date if called for, but the subject this month is talking about what happens when things go bad.
So, I’m going to assume that you’ve already completely screwed the pooch. A publisher has your rights, they’re not giving them back, they’re not actually publishing your work, and everything you worked for is taking a spiral journey down the porcelain waste-hole.
Here’s a couple of things to remember.
1. Double-check everything.
Not everyone’s planning attorneys are great. Oh, I know I just painted a scenario wherein a lawyer tells a prospective client that they are screwed, and that happens a lot. But not always. It’s worth it to take the contract into a lawyers office, get it double-checked for something. Perhaps the termination clause has a trigger you can pull. Perhaps there’s a good-faith obligation on their part to do a thing that eases the pain. I have no idea what your specific problem is, so don’t take my word for it that you’re screwed. Take this thing to a lawyer who can look at it from every angle and determine that you are. If you’re a SFWA member, they have folks that can help with this. If not, well; find one yourself. It’s worth it to double-check.
2. Denial is your enemy.
I’m going to assume that your attorney didn’t find anything. Now you’re the client in the above scenario, you’re screwed. And you love this IP. You crafted these characters from portions of your soul. Now, thanks to some stupid small print in a contract that nobody ever reads, you’ve lost them. It’s not fair. It’s not right. And you hurt, and it sucks, and you feel like, for you, there is no justice in the world. And it is perfectly OK and legitimate to feel those things.
One of the most common ways we deal with emotions like that is good, old-fashioned denial. We convince ourselves, despite what everyone is telling us, that there is a way to make it all OK. Because if we can believe that, then we don’t have to face the cold, hard truth that we destroyed the thing we love. This right here? This is where so very, very many clients of mine have absolutely screwed the pooch. They believe that their side will prevail because, emotionally, they need to believe that.
As a result, anyone who tells them they won’t are either liars or incompetent.
This kind of denial is a downward spiral. It’s the worst possible thing you can do to yourself. Because if you are screwed, then the fastest way out is step #3 (see below). Denial makes you wallow in the past like a pig rolling about in its own filth. It keeps you fighting when everyone around you sees you’re tilting at windmills. Denial will suck away your pocketbook. It will prevent you from doing anything new. It will, in fact, destroy you more thoroughly than a bad experience with a contract ever did, because until you accept that you completely screwed the pooch when you signed that contract, you will never be able to:
3. Move on.
This is hard.
You’re hurt. You’re bitter. You’re disillusioned with this whole writing thing. You’re not in denial anymore; you know you screwed yourself over, but you had characters and a world you loved, and now they’re gone. You screwed up and sold them, and they’re not yours anymore.
Do the next thing. Work on the next project. The only way over it is through it. Some things can’t be fixed, and there’s not reason to quit being you. Learn from your mistakes, and go on to do the next thing. You can write more books, make more characters, and do more projects. Put a smile on your face, then go on with your life. Because milk has been spilled, and the thing to do here is to pour yourself another glass of milk.
But moving on is only possible if you didn’t sign one of the REALLY bad contracts, the ones that give the publisher control of your future work as well. For example, if you gave them first right of refusal on your next book without specifying limits, they can sit on that next book without making a decision for a long time.
I really think the talk-to-a-lawyer-before-you-sign rant is always appropriate.
Thanks for the heads up. I would be absolutely devastated if I got screwed like that, but would give them the finger by produce something even better than what was taken from me by scrupulous, cutthroat assholes. The experience of writing that book does not have to be a loss if I considered it as a practice piece, a stepping stone to elevate my work to a higher quality. This is the way I would want to fight back. I would take the energy of my “pissedoffness” and use it to become the best writer I have the talent for.