Monday, February 24, 2014

Divorce Warrior: Post-Apocalypse Survival Tips

(This article also appears on Huffington Post.)

You’ve made it through to the other side. Both you and your spouse signed the settlement agreement – it’s got those fancy notary stamps, and every page of every copy was properly initialed. The judge signed the final order or judgment, and the county clerk stamped it. Everything’s official.

That darn agreement took months, maybe years to negotiate and finalize. The court papers? They followed what feels like a lifetime of anguish. Yet, after all that, you’re not completely sure you know what you need to do next. The agreement is longer than The Bible, and full of legal gibberish. The court papers have the same problem.

You think of asking your lawyer to distill everything to its comprehensible essence, except you don’t want to prolong that relationship or add to the already ridiculously high legal fees, right?

I can’t say I blame you.

But after enduring and surviving the nightmare (see my recent blog post, Divorce Warrior Survival Tips, also published on HuffPo), you do not want to run the risk of violating what cost so much money, so much heartache, and so much energy to finalize. Your head might reeling, but it’s still on your neck. So let’s keep it there, okay?

Here are ways to sort through the mess, before you heave those nasty papers into your bottom drawer:

Parenting Time

Enter the days and times in your computer/phone calendar as far out as you can.
If you’re not a techie, buy a five-year planner and manually enter the dates.
The dates should include all ‘notify by’ dates.
Try color-coding your time versus your spouse’s/partner’s.
Include important school and camp dates as soon as they’re available (e.g., teacher conferences, plays, due dates for forms, parent events, etc.).

Forms

List every form that still needs to be exchanged, now or in the future.
Those could include medical information forms, educational and camp forms, passports, changes of address, insurance, and estate documents.

Notification Information

List all necessary addresses, telephone numbers and email contacts.
Those may include third parties like doctors, therapists, court officials, accountants, real estate brokers, and financial institutions.

Asset Transfers

Use your calendar to enter when and what remains to be done.
This could include dividing your bank accounts, notifying the human resources department about your pension and insurance information, advising account representatives to change the name on your accounts, working with your real estate broker to list your home, moving your personal property to the agreed-upon location, signing tax returns and tax refund checks, placing orders to exercise stock options, and paying or receiving funds.

Support

Calendar/list the amount of spousal support to be paid, specifying the starting and ending dates.
Same for child support.
Same for tuition, extra-curriculars and camp.
Note the percentages to be paid or received for medical, dental and professional fees.
*You may be unhappy with the award or agreement – in fact, it could infuriate you -- but until it’s changed by court order or agreement, it is binding.


The above is by no means comprehensive, but I hope it provides useful ideas for regaining control over your life.

Your agreement or decree is complicated -- I confess that most of mine have been guilty of both complexity and length. Lawyers on both sides of your case probably insisted on language, or litigated issues, that may still seem ridiculous to you; indeed, they may have been, although only those in the trenches of your case can opine on that.

But you’re done now. Really, you are. Don’t go back if you can help it. Your sanity -- what’s left of it -- depends on it, along with your remaining miniscule funds, and the two or three people who are still speaking to you. If your ex forces your case back to the lawyers and the courts, at least you’ll have a better handle on the results of Round One…

If all this is too overwhelming, you may well need to hold your nose and yank out your checkbook (again), to ask your lawyer or other professional for help in organizing the life ahead of you.

And then? Breathe, and live.


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Divorce Warrior Survival Tips

Punishing court orders pelt you until you can hardly see straight. The motions keep coming; you're in court all the time. Child Protective Services is pounding down your door and your in-laws are pressing charges. You're broke; you're incarcerated; you're terrified.

Sound like a nightmare? For many, it’s reality.

It isn't limited to gender, race, age, or economic status. And when it hits your home, and your family, you must have inner fortitude, and external resources, to stay on your feet. Without both, chances are you'll be putty, or worse, by the time it's over.

I’m addressing YOU. Yes, YOU. The one who hasn’t stolen or concealed any assets. The one who’s never threatened or abused anyone. (Cases of violence and abuse fall outside the scope of this article.) You might have had an affair or two -- no, not in front of your kids, not like that excuses infidelity. You might not make as much money as you should, but you haven’t deliberately suppressed your income or tried to fail at life. You’ve bellyached about the bills, but you’ve paid them, although they may have been a day or two late while your paycheck cleared. You always made the kids available to the other parent who never made any time for them, until it became pointless to try anymore. In short, you’re not entirely blameless for the relationship’s demise. No one ever is.

Even so, although you might not love your spouse or partner anymore, you don’t hate his/her guts. If you had your way, the old Soviet concept of peaceful coexistence might be your creed.

But you don’t have that option.

Because your husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend or ex hates your guts, down to the very fiber of his/her being.

There’s a remote chance of disarmament that could avoid mutual assured destruction. (Interesting how old-school international relations jargon is so applicable here.) Make the effort at rapprochement, even if s/he appears unwilling. Try to recognize what pushes buttons, including yours, and avert avoidable problems. If relatively civil discourse is still possible, talk to him/her -- without lots of extra bodies around to muck it up, because that’s exactly what will happen if you don’t grab the opportunity. In fact, don’t ever shut down the communications pipeline, or at least the possibility of it, no matter how implausible it may seem at any given moment.

Okay, fast forward to tomorrow. You tried your best to keep the peace, and it didn’t work. Marriage counseling proved hopeless or counter-productive. Home has become a combat zone, where you’re ducking grenades lobbed at you from every corner. Then it gets worse. Your spouse/partner/ex calls in heavy artillery: The cops, CPS, in-laws…

Trust your eyes and ears; trust your gut. Recognize what’s happening. And then brace yourself, for heaven’s sake. Prepare before the proverbial fan spatters your space with unspeakable slime from the court system. Remember what I said at the outset: Inner fortitude, external resources?

Let’s start with external resources. This isn’t the time to be a martyr or pretend you’re self-sufficient. Delusions are a luxury you can’t afford -- you need all the help you can get. You’ve got to locate and accept that help, in the face of the impending onslaught. And no, no, of course drugs and alcohol don’t count.

There have been plenty of discussions about therapists. I’ve seen rotten ones who stir the pot, and decent ones who really do help people cope. Either way, mental health professionals aren’t the only resource. Many in crisis search for guidance from clergy, too -- even non-believers. And sometimes the best, or only, available shoulders are those of friends and family (but those communications aren’t privileged, so your well-intentioned BFF or your favorite cousin could tell your ex everything without legal repercussions). In any event, a solid emotional support system is imperative.

Along with legal support. With your personal DEFCON level moving from yellow to red, i.e., increasing in intensity, you have no choice but to consult a matrimonial lawyer. What is said during the consult will be a privileged communication (even if you don’t hire that particular lawyer). You must tell the lawyer all the facts. Leave nothing out; assume nothing.

Sure, matrimonial lawyers have seen it all, but that doesn’t mean we can sense what’s going on in your case. The Think Method in ‘The Music Man’ was a total scam. Experienced practitioners may suspect how nasty your case could get, based on the identity and reputation of opposing counsel. But if there’s no lawyer on the other side yet, or opposing counsel is either unknown or schizoid (I’m not being overly facetious here), there’s no way for your lawyer to predict very much -- especially when you don’t disclose everything you know.

What if you don’t tell the truth about the facts in your case, like what caused your spouse’s/partner’s/ex’s anger to fester and boil, because you're afraid the lawyer won't take your case? And what if you don’t disclose the name of the other lawyer, for the same reason?

Not a smart move.

When your lawyer finds out afterward that you’ve been concealing vital underlying facts, chances are that s/he will dump out of the representation. You’ll be lawyerless again. Try finding a new lawyer, when the old one explains to potential counsel that you, the client, were ‘fired’ for lying. Or when potential counsel reviews the court order that granted leave for your old lawyer to withdraw from the case due to the ‘irretrievable breakdown of the attorney-client relationship.’ Any fool can figure out what that really means.

Assuming your lawyer has stayed on the case despite your non-disclosures, you’ll face this equally nightmarish scenario: Mounting, astronomical bills that you can’t afford and could never pay, unless you win the lottery. Wars are expensive – just look at our national debt after near-simultaneous triple engagements in the Middle East. So you’ll add suffocating debt to your personal misery, and your lawyer will not want another uncollectable receivable. Then, as the barrage nears thermonuclear proportions and you can’t pay your legal fees, guess who’s looking at a motion to withdraw? That’s right. You again.

Honesty will dramatically improve the odds of hiring a lawyer you can afford, and who will stick by you as your case spirals.

What if you didn’t expect a war? Look into your heart. Look at the relationship between you and your spouse/partner/ex. Really, was war so unexpected? If you’d confided in your therapist, priest, rabbi, sibling -- or lawyer -- sooner, you might have gotten a reality check and a head’s up. And you might not have gotten in over your head.

But that was then and this is now. You sincerely believe you gave your lawyer all the information, and that you provided ample warning that yours was the case from hell. Alternatively, you never thought your spouse/partner/ex would take the dispute so far. Regardless, you’re in a hot zone, right here, right now. And you’re screwed, because you are where this article put you in its opening paragraph: Broke, in jail, and scared witless.

Which means you need money. (Yes, I’m still talking about external resources.) Money solves all three problems: It pays the bills, it bails you out, and it buys some peace of mind.

I can’t speak to the other professionals, but regarding your lawyer, you need to find some source of funding. Depending on your case, the money might come from court-ordered funds of your spouse/partner/ex; it might come from a financial institution in the form of a loan; it might come in the form of periodic payments from a third party or from you. You might qualify for legal assistance or even pro bono representation in your jurisdiction. Note, however, that the law flatly prohibits contingency fee-based divorces.

If no money is forthcoming for legal fees, a court may direct your lawyer to stay on your case anyway. Or you may be forced to hire a cheaper one, or proceed without counsel altogether (pro se is the legal term for going it alone). Divorce insurance, union-covered divorce lawyers -- those might be options for some people. But for you, the unlucky soul who doesn’t qualify for any financial assistance, because you make too much and too little? All I know is, there’s no escaping the reality that lawyers need to be paid, like roofers and plumbers and vets. Although we didn’t hook you up with your spouse or partner in the first place, you can call us a necessary evil. Or unnecessary, if you prefer.

With or without counsel, you still need another person in your corner. That emotional support system I referred to earlier is vital when your case is banging a stake through your heart. Without friends, family, a therapist, clergyperson, and/or a lawyer, you will have a near-impossible cliff to scale.

You absolutely, positively cannot be alone.

This brings me to the heart of this article: Most of all, you need you. Without the will to survive, you’ll fall off the precipice. Tighten your resolve because the time has come -- the time is now -- to call on every internal resource you have. The war won’t have any winners, but it will have survivors. You must be among them.

Many believe that inner fortitude comes from religious faith. Others believe it comes from personal qualities, either innate or developed over time. Some say it derives from love of family, of self, of life…Perhaps it’s simply a combination of obstinacy, anger, and instinct, after you’ve been repeatedly mauled.

I don’t care where it comes from; I only care that it exists. And that YOU have it. So that you can truly tell yourself, No, I won’t give up; I will get through this. No matter how terrible things get, you must have complete conviction that the war will end someday -- hopefully sooner rather than later, and that your life will be happy again.

It will, too.
 
I’m not a motivational speaker; I’m no coach. I’m just a lawyer and a writer. Nonetheless, I firmly believe in the power of self, and the drive to endure in the face of almost insurmountable odds. ‘No’ is not a viable option, not for any human being who is facing one of the worst crises in his/her life.

Maybe you didn’t need a matrimonial lawyer to tell you all this. On the other hand, maybe you didn’t realize that we get it. Sometimes, you find compassion in unexpected places. And if you don’t, well, take a deep breath, hold your head higher, and wait for morning.



This article also appears on Huffington Post and Divorce Saloon

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Great Literary Agent Race: Part 13

Thirteen is a lucky number in my house. Both kids were born on dates with multiples of thirteen. So I'm using thirteen to post my last article in this 'agent race' series. I'm hoping that what would have been number fourteen will, instead, be number one in a new beginning for my book and for me.

Back to the race, though.

Actually, it's not a race anymore. It's a waiting game.

I've done everything I was supposed to do: I added a few scenes, I created a website (all by myself!) at terrilweiss.com, I checked over my manuscript again (did I say again?!), and I'm increasing my activity on the Web. I'm so obedient! Every day, I thank my lucky stars that I've gotten this far.

So now what?

Well, my agent did what she promised, too. My book blurb is in her January 2014 newsletter. I was afraid to follow up, so I waited two weeks to ask what to expect. She told me the blurb had yielded some requests, and she set a submission date: On February 25, she will be sending my manuscript to all the publishers who've requested it. She'll let me know who or how many as the submission date approaches.

After that, it will be anywhere from two weeks to six months for an editor to request more information or whatever. (I'm confident Jane will keep me posted, but I'll probably email her in mid-March if I haven't heard anything by then.)

I say 'whatever,' because I've never had this experience. I have no idea exactly what will happen, if anything. And I sure as hell don't want to jinx myself by even thinking about it anymore!

So here I am, being, umm, cool, calm and collected.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Face To Face With Big Baddd NYC Agents

I just wrote a guest blog post for the NYC Chapter of the Women's National Book Association. 

Honest, their annual 'Query Roulette' is the best author-agent meet-up out there. If you're an aspiring writer in the NYC metro area - male or female - this event is worth every penny. (I've frittered away a ton of money on miserable experiences!)

Here it is:

***

Four years of my life. I poured them into taps and clicks, data losses and backups, writing classes and conferences, webinars and online critique groups. Awake in the middle of the night, with my computer screen reflecting against the blackness of my windows, everyone else in my time zone was asleep. Well, unless they worked the night shift. Meanwhile, my kids grew older and my dog died.

Still, like most writers, I dreamed the Big Dream: Literary representation. And all I ever heard was how minuscule my chances were. I don't know what kept me going: Obstinacy, maybe.

I attended quite a few writers' conferences. Some had two-minute 'pitch slams' that were harried, nerve-wracking affairs. Herded into enormous conference rooms with hundreds of other anxiety-ridden writers, I waited on lines that wrapped around corners, hoping the dozens of writers in front of me wouldn’t use up all the available time with the fifty or so agents in attendance. Sometimes, the agents I wanted to see never showed up, or left before I made it to the front.

At other conferences, many agents made themselves available to attendees after their presentations, surrounded by swarms of writers, initially polite but exhausted by the time it was my turn. And some agents weren’t so polite – one even refused to shake my outstretched hand. I won’t name names…

At conferences that had breakout critique groups, I endured ‘read alouds’ where agents read my opening paragraphs to others in the group. I would shrink into my seat while an agent ripped apart my verb choices. And it wasn’t just me. Those lucky few writers in the group who were complimented were looked upon by the rest of us with awe – would they be among the Chosen? 

Reflecting on those conferences, I shudder -- publicly humiliated, and privately demoralized afterward. Recovery time varied, but it was usually weeks before I felt like writing again.

My first Query Roulette was in 2010. It promised to be a more civilized affair: Ten minutes, one-on-one, with agents whose names and bios I could fully research in advance; no onlookers; no competition for the time slot I reserved; and I would actually get to see the agents selected, without fear they would leave. And no humiliating ‘read alouds!’ I also noticed that many of the agents were top names from top agencies. I was sold.

And the WNBA delivered, each time I went: In 2010, 2012 and 2013.

I prepared for each QR just as I had for the conferences: I researched agents by combing their websites, plowing through every interview I could find. I checked their client lists, looking at Amazon write-ups when I didn’t know who the clients were. I even read Twitter posts to see what those agents were looking for.

I prepared queries for each agent I chose, filling in individual names and addresses, specifying why I chosen them in my actual query letter. I made two copies of each letter to bring with me, along with printouts of agent bios and relevant information.

On the night of the event, my papers assembled in a tidy folder, I showed up fifteen minutes early. Yes, the atmosphere was charged at the venue, a smallish space where writers gathered in one waiting room, while agents hung out together before the event started. The writers were supportive – some had even formed groups in advance that reviewed queries. A few sat alone, looking frazzled; others were a bit too gregarious. I was, however, pleasantly surprised at how friendly the crowd was, especially the event organizers.

When the QR started, though, I braced myself for more negativism and more rejection.

Instead of the writers’ conference insanity, QR was tightly monitored. The ten-minute time slots were strictly controlled, so there was no risk of not seeing the agents I had selected. Most agents were friendly, upbeat, and positive in their feedback – and most asked me to pitch my book after they read my letter. Requests for pages, and for full manuscripts, came right away. Sure, there were a few arrogant or unpleasant agents, but instead of feeling exposed and helpless, I felt secure, knowing the WNBA had everything covered.

Some of the most helpful feedback came from agents who weren’t even interested in my book. One told me to beef up my bio; another suggested ways to reveal more of the story plot while still keeping it enticing. Others suggested altering my comps, moving paragraphs around, and how to streamline language so that the query would ‘pop.’ 


Last August, after three QRs and a million rewrites of my query letter and manuscript, I felt like I was finally ready. Most of the agents I contacted were those I had met at QR, but I also ‘cold queried’ a few, incorporating the QR feedback I had received. Incredibly, I landed an agent – from one of the ‘cold’ queries. That’s how good the QR advice and feedback was!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Great Literary Agent Race, Part 12.

So, if you read 'Part 1' of this series, you're just about caught up to me.

It turns out that Jane and her partner really liked my revisions, so -- heavy sigh of relief from me.

They have suggested that I wait until after the holidays to have them market the book. And they want to market it by featuring it in their January 2014 newsletter, which goes to  about 2,000 industry insiders. How cool is that?

In the interim, I received three assignments from them:

1. They asked me to do a conversational bio that didn't look like a c.v.  Yikes. The only other bio I have is the three-sentence deal that I used in my query letter, or the one paragraph thingy that has been used for introducing me at CLE lectures.

Another mental block that I had to overcome ... It took me a week or two, but I did it. It wasn't as bad as writing a synopsis!

2. Next, I needed to draft a sales-pitchy blurb. For some reason, that wasn't as awful as doing the bio, maybe because I know Jane will be editing it.  Blurb is now done.

3. My final mission is to read the whole book again and make sure it's as perfect as possible, without adding or changing scenes. I.e., without messing with it. This one's going to need another week for me to gain a little distance from it.

As to communication methods with my agent, well, right now I'm mostly using email. With my continued lunatic hours, it's the best way for me, and I'm sure I won't be interrupting her day with intrusive phone calls. Besides,  I'm a brand new client of a top tier agent, and I know she's got to be rocking and rolling with year-end deals. I'm not about to be a pain her ass, even though she's welcomed me to call  anytime. I see no need to bother her.

Come her January newsletter, though, I may be more antsy!

My best advice after this incredibly grueling journey?

1. Believe in yourself.
2. Believe in your book.
3. Be open to learning.
4. Be open to criticism, even though it sucks.
5. Finish. A bunch of times.
6. Edit, revise, until it's right, but it'll never be right until you can't do another damn thing to it.
7. Treat writing as a business because it is.
8. Research the hell out of everything.
9. Work your ass off.
10. Don't give up.


And that, dear readers, is the end of this series -- unless/until I have more to report...

The Great Literary Agent Race, Part 11

Most of us writers think about getting an agent's offer the same way a romance reader thinks about the heroine getting a marriage proposal from the leading man: 'And they lived happily ever after.'

Except this is real life.

First, I contacted all the agents who hadn't rejected me yet (the 'exclusive' e-mail I had sent around eventually yielded a few 'congratulations and no thanks' from two or three previous non-responders). My email had in the subject line "OFFER OF REPRESENTATION -- CLIENT RELATIONS.'  Can I even describe how awesome that email made me feel? Actually, I can't describe it - I was in a state of suspended animation.

My 'offer' email resulted in a few more auto-responses, plus one or two more rejections. And from the three lecturers? Two agents admitted to 'sour grapes' for lecturing me about the exclusive, another asked me to give her a week to read 'Client Relations' before accepting the offer. And that agent was also fabulous. So suddenly, after all these years of writing, revising, getting smacked around at conferences, attending wild and wooly writers' classes, dealing with faceless Internet comments -- suddenly, I was wanted.

That was beyond disorienting.

Anyway, I agreed to give the other agent a week to read, but you know what? After talking to Jane on the phone, a lot of things clicked into place. I checked her website, Publishers Marketplace, and a bunch of other blogs and sites over and over, giving myself my usual headache. I'm such a pain in my ass.

The next day, I told Jane 'yes' and the other agent 'no.' And sent all the vacationers and remaining non-responders an email notifying them. Which really did feel great. Even better in retrospect, since I can now accept that this actually happened to me!

Then what?

The agency sent me their contract. Back to my usual ways, I researched what clauses to look out for, searched for a publishing lawyer to review the contract, and got one to review it for me -- over Labor Day Weekend, no less. I discussed those comments with Jane's partner the following week, which was far easier than negotiating separation agreements! She finalized the contract.

But it wasn't until I received Jane's countersigned copy that I breathed again.



The Great Literary Agent Race, Part 10

So here's where things started getting really cool, really hairy, and really nerve-wracking.

My UPS packet to Jane Dystel was delivered to her office on Friday, August 16. On Monday, August 19, I received an email from Jane, asking for the entire manuscript. Via return email, not via snail mail. And me, being so cool, said, um, yeah, sure, uh, yipppeeeeeeee!!!! No, seriously, I wrote back, 'Thank you so much...' and, anal as I am, asked if docx was okay.

Formatting and technology. I'm such a nerd.

Three days later, she asked for an exclusive.

I wasn't sure what that meant in the agent world, but it sounded damn promising. Normally, I'd research the term 'exclusive' to death. But I was en route to the vet's office, my daughter needed a ride, and I was checking emails on my iPhone. I fired back an email to say I'd queried other agents and hadn't heard anything yet, which was totally true.

Jane then asked for a two-week exclusive, to which I immediately agreed. I mean, what am I, crazy? Hell if I knew exactly what I was agreeing to, but we're talking about a request from Jane Dystel, for crying out loud!! If she'd asked me to jump off a bridge (okay, what mom hasn't used that line on her kids?), I probably would've done that, too. I also agreed to contact all the other agents, to advise them of her exclusive.

Little did I know, until I got back home that night and fired out the promised emails to the other agents, what an 'exclusive' meant (no, I still hadn't researched it -- very unlike me, but sheesh, I was so excited!). I received auto-responses from the vacationing and otherwise-occupied other agents, of course.

I also received three very stern responses from agents, two of whom hadn't even gotten back to me at all over the preceding ten days. Those responses essentially lectured me that (1) I couldn't grant an exclusive when I'd already submitted partial or full manuscripts to other agents; (2) an exclusive inures solely to the benefit of the agent, who is locking out the other agents' ability to compete for the book; and (3) any agent requesting an exclusive is worried about competition, because they aren't A-List agents who can compete without exclusives.

That's when I scrambled to research what an agency exclusive meant. And I found out that, yes, I had screwed up because other agents had, in fact, received my manuscript (reason #1 above). I had therefore committed a big faux pas. But the two-week period, which ran basically through Labor Day, could hardly matter to the vacationers and non-responders, so if it inured to the benefit of Jane Dystel, who'd moved so quickly on my book? Well, more power to her. She SHOULD have an exclusive. And Jane Dystel is on the tippy top of the A-List. So ## 2 and 3 were, as I used to say in my briefs, utterly inapposite.

I clarified to Jane that I'd submitted fulls or partials of the manuscript to other agents whom I'd met at conferences, but that no one had gotten back to me on them yet. I didn't bother telling her that all I'd gotten the far was a lot of grief for granting the exclusive. Certainly no one had told me they had started reading anything I'd sent -- not even the synopsis! So why was I feeling so defensive and worried?

I've since read on many other sites that granting an an exclusive under these circumstances is a bonehead move. And -- something that had occurred to me -- if the exclusive agent rejects the book, everyone else will know about the 'no.' But you know what? NONE of the blogs or posts or comments I've read on the subject has said that the agent asking for a brief, two-week, exclusive, was the amazing Jane Dystel.

And, given that it was Jane, well. I'd do it all over again.

Between August 23 and August 27, all I knew was that Jane had been reading the book. It was a hell of a longgggg weekend. I checked email incessantly. Nothing. I went back and forth with the other three agents, apologizing for my breach of etiquette, wondering if they'd still read 'Client Relations' once Jane nixed it.

On August 27, Jane sent me an offer of representation.