On Writing,  publishing

Throwing Away A Life

Estates and Writing and Some Observations…

Today I found myself back in the position once again of going through someone’s personal papers and tossing them in a black bag.  Old financial records, old pictures of her and her husband, a few journals, 4-H ribbons, letters from home during the Peace Corp years.

You know… details about a life well-lived.

Just over five years ago, I found myself doing the same thing for another friend. His name was Bill Trojan and was a well-known book dealer in the sf world. I realized he had numbers of degrees. I tossed away his old wedding pictures and all his medical records that told him just how sick he really was.

I knew more about Bill in death than I ever did when he was alive and I was his best friend. I had the task, since he had no family and I was his executor, of throwing away his life.

Someone had to do it.

Someone always has to do it for everyone.

Bill was also a hoarder and a collector.

Now I find myself in a similar spot. Not as bad by a long ways as Bill’s estate.

But similar.

The new story goes like this:

In 1999 Kris and I bought a house just down the hill from our other two houses. Actually, it was at the foot of our driveway and we wanted to protect our houses on the hill. Seemed logical at the time. Go with it. Every couple needs three homes overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

We decided to remodel the house and put a writer’s workshop in it. We had just started the remodel when two of our friends, two poker buddies of mine, were flooded out of their home on the Siletz River. Water came up sixty feet that year and you couldn’t even see the peak of their two-story home with a photo from five hundred feet in the air.

So we let them stay in our third house while they were searching for another house to buy. They loved the place, so after a month or so we just sold the house to them and did that first workshop somewhere else.

They were wonderful friends and neighbors.

He died about six years later and she lived in the house until about a week ago, when she finally died at home with her sister with her. Her battle with cancer had been off-and-on for almost twenty years.

After her husband died, she had turned into a hoarder as well. And she had good taste on many things. But her health and energy just didn’t allow her to keep things from getting out of hand. It happens.

Her sister (from another state and a few other relatives from another state) took the few personal things they wanted to remember her by. But the mess was just too much for them. They had supported her when she was alive and followed the details in her will with who got what. (She gave me her poker chip collection.)

Since I have the businesses and the crews here, I told her sister I would pay for all the garbage removal and get all the stuff to the right places in exchange for some of the stuff I might find to sell in our stores.

We are giving all the furniture and larger stuff to an auction to sell for the estate. We are giving all her clothing to a women’s shelter here in town. We are giving all the blankets and stuff to warming shelters. I’m in charge of getting all that done, but I have great help.

But that still leaves a lot of misc. stuff. Much of it buried.

So I am going through everything, a sort of a sad treasure hunt through someone’s life before the guys and trucks arrive to start taking things to the dump and to the shelters and to the auction.

What Does All This Have to Do With Writing?

Well, a bunch, actually.

My friend had one piece of property. The house.

All the rest was just personal stuff that is getting either tossed, donated, or sold. And the house will end up being sold and my friend will just sort of vanish into all of our memories.

But writers, well we have a lot of property. Every thing you write is a form of property.

(If you have no idea what I am talking about and are writing, you are in deep trouble. Go buy the Copyright Handbook from NoLo Press right now.)

You see, copyright property has value that could pay your family, your estate, for a very long time after you die IF SET UP AND HANDLED CORRECTLY.

My friend had a very good will. All clean and easy.  She had no children, her sister was her executor. Her sister basically hired me to do this.

But if my friend had been a writer… and only had the will she had, I would have been tossing her manuscripts into a black bag to be hauled to recycling. Not only would I have been tossing away the details of a life well lived, but I would have been tossing away her art, her work, her legacy.

Doing what I am doing is sad enough. Don’t let your relatives toss away your copyright property as well.

What Do You Do?

— Start by learning business.

— Start by getting books to learn copyright.

— Start by getting books to learn estates and trusts.

— Start by looking at those around you and figuring out who might be able to handle your work to try to keep it alive. Who might want to make some money from your work?

— Start by getting your work in order, with some sort of inventory so your family even knows what exists in an easy-to-find form. And then keep it up.

And that’s just a start.

But most importantly, get started. Don’t let it overwhelm you, just start.

And, of course, keep writing.

Keep creating property that, if lucky, will be a gold-mine for your surviving relatives when you are gone.

And then they won’t throw away your life.




  • Lassal

    While you were working on Bill’s estate and sharing your thoughts, you inspired me to start sorting out my own estate to avoid a similar outcome – more so because I do not have a “Dean” I could entrust with such a task. No one around me has any idea about what I am doing.

    Even though I did not have many books out at that time when you were dealing with Bill’s estate, the business part was already a lot of work – given that II was setting up all these new income streams, each with its own processes, procedures, and implications.

    The “fun” part is that when it comes to taxes, it’s a similar amount of paperwork regardless of the amount of money that is actually coming in through each channel.

    In my first round, I was dealing with no more than cents per channel! Still, I had to do the whole shebang of paperwork for my taxes – regardless of the amount of income. The next time around, I was dealing with a handful of Euros, then with double digits, then with triple digits … After a while it started to be worth my time, and then it started to REALLY be worth my time – yet the work was still the same. Not more, not less. I did not have to write more documents, I only had bigger numbers on each document.

    And I guess that’s the frustrating part for beginners, who have to do all the work for a couple of cents here and there. That’s just a dip you have to get through. It’s a part of the road. It’s the worst time to give up.

    But it is also a dip (and a part of the road) for everyone who is supposed to take over the business after you are gone.
    Granted, there are impressive numbers written on these documents now, but no one around me would even know what it means and what to do with it and how it fits into the bigger picture.
    They woule have to wade through all this stuff without understanding what is in it for them or how to keep the goose with the golden eggs alive. They would probably only see a nice duck-roast.

    No one around me would know how to go about this. Not that it is difficult – it is just that they don’t have a clue. And why should they? It’s not their business. They have different jobs and different processes and procedures for their lifes. They also have different passions.

    Looking at all my stuff here, especially the entanglement with German law and all the required registrations and online data maintenance, it was not difficult to realize that if something happened to me at this point in time my whole business would just fizzle out.

    So I started documenting all the processes & procedures. Everything.
    If this, then that …
    If this, then that …
    step, step, step, step, step.
    including screenshots, passwords etc.

    The whole guacamole.

    It’s all in a central folder.
    Some of it is on Google Docs as well. But not the sensible stuff.
    Now, no one needs to understand anything to keep the duck alive. The business, I mean.
    They just need to follow the process.

    It should work just fine until the processes change – which they will.
    But I trust that one changing process a time will not be too overwhelming to deal with.
    The people I have in mind for this job might not have a clue about publishing, but they are not stupid, after all. They can figure it out.
    All the more so if I make it really easy for them.

    As long as I am here I am keeping the documentation up to date.
    It’s actually kinda fun.
    Things are changing less and less …

    A nice side benefit is that It also helps me sort tasks out that could be handled by assistants.
    Not only that, it also relieves me from having to tell them what to do.
    It is all written down already.

    And, scarily, once you have the processes down, MOST tasks (apart from the creative or sensible ones) could be handled by assistants (virtual or not), because it is all not very complicated, it only feels complicated when you have it all stored in your mind and try to explain it to someone who has no idea what you are talking about.

    If something happened to me right now, these files full of procedures would hopefully allow anyone to keep my business going and making money. Basically, they could retire.
    That’s a nice gift, I think. And I hope, it’s a big enough incentive.

    Not more I can do at present, I fear.

    I am writing this because I actually never thanked you for the spark, Dean.
    My uncle, who is an attorney, is extremely pleased with me 🙂

    • Lassal

      Never type a long post on a smartphone. Otherwise, sensitive stuff becomes sensible, geese end up as duck roasts, and where the heck did I put the guacamole?
      I should just have stuck to “thank you”.
      (Sorry for the strange post 🙂 above – I guess I had too much duck roast for dinner)

      • dwsmith

        Actually, Lassal, I thought it was a great post and will help others a lot. So thank you for writing it. It will help others. Honestly.

  • Suzan Harden

    If I’m stepping out of line, please delete this.

    But please, PLEASE take care of yourself, too, Dean. Stress and grief take their toll on people, and I don’t want you to get sick again like you did in dealing with your friend Bill’s estate.

    • dwsmith

      No grief, no stress on this one. She was sick and going downhill for a long time and there is no hurry on the estate stuff. But thanks.

  • Chris

    Besides The Copyright Handbook, I highly recommend Trial and Heirs by Mayoras. A highly readable collection of estate horror stories, many of them involving celebrities. Several creative types (Michael Jackson, anyone?) left huge bodies of work without adequate provisions for their disposition.

  • Patrick R

    Hi Dean

    This makes me think about things, and feel too, on so many levels. The clearing aspect is powerful.

    Taking that, may I throw open these thoughts, and perhaps questions:

    – hoarding. What is that about, really?

    – “never-quite-finished-and-released” books, and ideas unexpressed, and choices unmade, and life not grabbed yet all piling and cluttering heads and hearts = is that a form of hoarding (of unrealised potential) that writers have, or at least wannabes?

    Best to all, and thanks Dean


  • Meg

    Speaking as someone whose estate will probably end up going to charity, since I have no one else to leave it to, I do wonder what will happen down the road (I have a will, etc., although it does need updating). I can’t say I’m all that concerned about my books outliving me, and I’m not sure what that says about me.

    • Lee McAulay

      The novelist J M Barrie gave all the rights to “Peter Pan” to Great St Ormond Street Children’s Hospital before he died. I’ve thought about a similar approach for my creative works to reduce the burden on those who’ll have to ‘tidy up’ after I’m gone.