Literary Executors: Why you don’t want to be one, and how to know if you need one

Last Will TestamentSo. A writer friend asks you to be their literary executor. You’re not exactly sure what a literary executor does, but you know you should feel honoured: after all, your friend has just asked you to look after some of their most cherished possessions – their creative works –  after they have died.

How complicated can it be? you wonder.

How can you refuse? you ask yourself.

You are now well positioned to make a very big mistake.

This article is going to explain why you should consider your friend’s request very seriously before you say “Yes.” It’s also going to give you enough information to decide whether you need to find a literary executor for yourself. It is not intended to offer legal advice but rather to let you know when you might need legal advice –  in order to save yourself (or someone close to you) a lot of potential aggravation and wasted time.

Executors and Literary Executors

As most people know, an executor is an individual (or company) that you name in your will to manage and dispose of your estate when you die. (If you do not have a will, provincial legislation determines how your estate will be divided.) The responsibilities of your executor may include – among other things – making a list of all of your debts and assets; having those assets evaluated for tax purposes; locating beneficiaries; advising your banks, the government, insurance companies, and other institutions of your death; paying money owed by your estate; having the will probated, if necessary; distributing any remaining assets to your beneficiaries; filing a final tax return; etc. It is an onerous job, as anyone knows who has done it, but barring battles among beneficiaries, it can normally be concluded within a year or two.

A literary executor is an individual (or company) that a writer names to manage all issues relating to the written (or other creative) works that form a part of their estate. Literary executors are normally chosen on the basis of their familiarity with the writing and publishing world as well as the literary mind-set of the writer of the will: in other words, they have specific knowledge that most general executors don’t have.

Such assets as your home, your investments, and your mint-condition Star Wars figurines are known in the law as “real property,” while your written works (and any other creative assets to which you hold copyright) are called your “intellectual property.” As a writer, your intellectual property includes everything you have written during your lifetime to which you retain copyright – including published and unpublished works. These may range from poems to plays to short stories to essays to diaries to blog posts to novels to non-fiction works to letters to your lover, and on and on and on.

Generally speaking, your general executor manages your real property, while a literary executor manages your intellectual property. If you don’t appoint a literary executor, your general executor will be responsible for managing and disposing of the entire estate, including your intellectual property.

Most executors, knowing nothing about literary matters, will consider it too much hassle to do anything with your literary works and will simply let them languish. Unless you are earning a significant amount from your writing, this may be the sanest route for them to take. But then again, maybe not. Copyright in Canada lasts for 50 years. What if someone comes along forty years from now and wants to turn your first novel into a movie? Who will do the negotiating then?

What A Literary Executor Does

Your literary executor will need to take such actions as the following:

  • find all of your copyright works (including published and unpublished works) and have them evaluated for tax purposes;
  • figure out who pays/owes you royalties and what paperwork needs to be completed so the royalty flow continues;
  • destroy any documents that you have requested that they destroy (or make that kind of decision themselves);
  • investigate whether any library or university is willing accept your papers in exchange for money or tax receipts (unlikely, unless you are very well known) – and if not, decide how to dispose of those papers;
  • advise agencies like the Public Lending Right Commission, Access Copyright, writers’ organizations, etc. of your death;
  • create financial reports showing income and disbursements relating to the creative works in the estate.

The literary executor will typically have the right to make decisions regarding all aspects of the literary works you have created, deciding, for example:

  • whether your unfinished novel should be completed by someone else and then submitted for publication;
  • whether a contract with a publisher should be renewed;
  • whether your out-of-print books should be republished;
  • whether your blog posts should be published as books;
  • whether to take down all the books you are selling online;
  • whether to grant permission to an editor who wants to publish one of your poems in an anthology.

All proceeds that accrue to the estate as a result of the management of your intellectual property – after the taxes, expenses, and literary executor have been paid – will go to your beneficiaries, as set out in the will.

Think Twice before You Say “Yes”

As the lists above suggest, people who agree to serve as literary executors for their writer friends should expect to invest untold hours – often not only for months, but for years – to complete the winding down of a literary estate to the point where it can be managed by the beneficiaries.

Before you agree to be someone’s literary executor, interview that person closely about what they are asking you do to. Find out how you will locate all of the contents of their literary estate, including both published and unpublished works. Get them to put their specific directions to you down in writing, so that you can show them to the beneficiaries if necessary: it can be very hard to explain to a grieving spouse that the newly deceased’s draft novel isn’t worth completing, and that the author wouldn’t have wanted you to bother anyway, or to explain that the estate really needs to hire a professional editor to complete the work that is required.

Before you accept the offer to serve as a literary executor, think about how much of your own writing time you will need to give up in order to comply with the request. It might be in your best interests to tell that person that you have sought some kind of (legal, medical, psychological, spiritual) advice, and been advised against accommodating their request.

The Racehorse Analogy

In preparing this article, I consulted with Edward Olkovich, a Toronto estate lawyer and an Ontario Certified Specialist in Estates and Trusts Law, who has spoken and written widely on the subject of wills and estates. (He can be found online at Among the helpful guidance he provided me was the following analogy.

Edward Olkovich said, “Imagine that someone has recently purchased a young thoroughbred that has not yet run a race, but has extraordinary potential. The owner dies, and the executors – who know nothing about racehorses – say to the beneficiaries, ‘Do you know how much it is going to cost to feed and take care of this horse? And to find someone to train it? Do you know how much time and trouble this is going to be?’ The beneficiaries agree. The horse is sold, the taxes are paid on the income from the sale, and the estate is concluded.”

Mr. Olkovich then pointed out what might have happened instead if the racehorse owner had named a “racehorse executor” – someone who knew all about the business of horse racing and was an excellent manager – and charged that person with taking care of all aspects of the estate that related to the horse. The racehorse owner would also have been wise to have earmarked an amount of money that the racehorse executor could use to do all the things that were necessary to allow the horse to realize its potential. The horse’s future winnings (and maybe even stud fees, in the long term) would then ultimately have flowed to the estate, and thereby to the beneficiaries.

The Money Issue

Mr. Olkovich and I agreed that no one in their right mind – especially not those who knew how much work would be involved – would be willing to take on such a challenging and time-consuming task unless they were being paid. Not even if they really liked the owner of the horse and really believed in the horse’s future.

Mr. Oklovich explained to me that most professional executors charge five percent of the value of the estate to carry out the work. Then he said, “But what if you offered that racehorse executor 25 percent of the winnings?”

A light went on in my head (as I’m sure it just has in yours). If the racehorse executor stands to earn a significant amount of money from that racehorse, they will be highly motivated to do everything possible to ensure that the horse succeeds.

Do You Need a Literary Executor?

The racehorse analogy should help you decide whether you need a literary executor or not. If your written works are likely (a key word here) to bring significant benefits over the short and/or long term to both your literary executor and your beneficiaries, you should find a lawyer who knows something about how to set up a literary executorship or literary trusteeship in your will (this is not an easy task, as it involves copyright – a federal law – as well as estate law, which is provincial. The lawyer will be your first expense).

If you do need a literary executor, it is imperative that you ask the person you’ve chosen as far in advance as possible – i.e., while you are still hale and hearty enough to take “No” for an answer, and while the person you’ve asked is still able to say “No” without being crushed by guilt. Before you ask a fellow writer, consider the burden you are about to place on that person’s time at some point in the future, and think about whether all that work is going to be worth it to your beneficiaries. If it is, decide how you can adequately reimburse the person who is going to do the work – or even motivate them to do it exceptionally well.

If you do not need a literary executor, you should still consider what you are going to do about your books and blogs and other creative output. You own the copyright to all that material, and unless you legally entrust those rights to others in advance, the copyright is going to flow to your estate at the time of your death – and stay there for fifty years. Keep in mind that if you die without a will, and there are no obvious beneficiaries, any proceeds from your estate will go to the government.

It seems wise at least to think rationally about whether your literary estate can best be compared to an up-and-coming thoroughbred or a lame and aging hack (no offence), and then to share your expectations for your intellectual assets’ future with your beneficiaries before you hit the finish line.


For permission to re-publish, please send a note. Thanks.

The Perils of Being Married to a Writer

The Perils of Being Married to a Writer
Arnie at the helm, the day before the capsize

Arnie at the helm, the day before his misadventure

Last week my husband and I took a four-day vacation at a rustic but absolutely magnificent hideaway in Algonquin Park. One of the best things about Arowhon Pines (aside from the food) is that there is no internet access, no mobile access, no television. You can use the overpriced payphone if you must. If there’s an emergency at home and someone needs to reach you, they can call the desk and staff will come and get you. And at 9:30 each evening if you are desperate for digital entertainment, you can go to the recreation hall to watch a movie on DVD. Aside from that, you’re on your own with the trees and the stars and the lake.

Needless to say, this is a perfect place to be a writer, because you can’t get onto Facebook. If you’re on your computer, there is nothing to do but reorganize your files, see what books you remembered to download before you left the city, and then get to work.

Not that you actually have to open your computer. You can go canoeing, swimming, hiking or kayaking instead. You can sit on the dock, look out at the lake (where no motorboats are allowed), enjoy the quiet or listen for a loon, try to catch sight of a moose, a bear, a fox, or a great blue heron. You can write in your journal. You can take a nap. You can read a book (apparently some people call Arowhon Pines “Camp Library” because everyone is either carrying a book or reading one.). You can sit by a campfire, sing and roast marshmallows.

Aside from catching sight of moose or bear (thank god), we did all of the above.

If you’re a writer, a place like that makes you feel like writing. It doesn’t have to be Arowhon Pines, of course. It’s the remoteness, the quiet, the space – mental, physical, emotional – that makes you feel like writing. So after lunch one day, I told Arnie that I was going to sit on the covered dining hall verandah that overlooks the lake, and work on my new novel. He said he was going to take one the two small Hobies out for a sail: he’d done that the afternoon before, and he’d enjoyed it. Today the lake was a bit rougher and it looked like rain, and I told him to be careful. “I’m too young to be a widow,” I said, giving him a kiss goodbye. I assured him I’d keep my eye on him.

And for a while, I did. I settled myself in one of the Algonquin chairs on the verandah, where I had a view of the dock and about half of the lake, my feet up on the middle rail so I could rest my laptop on my thighs, and I opened my computer. I watched as Arnie prepared the boat and himself for his excursion, then waited for a sudden downpour to pass by and the sun to come out again. I watched him unfurl the sail (there’s only one on those little boats. No jib) and start out toward the middle of the lake. Then I got to work.

Occasionally I looked up to see where Arnie was, but the third time I looked up, I could no longer see him. I wasn’t concerned. I could see only half the lake and I was sure he’d simply sailed out of my view. He’d gone all the way across the little lake and back the day before, without incident. I got back to work. Soon I was utterly lost in what I was writing, and almost unable to tear my eyes away from the screen….

Some time later, my concentration was disturbed by the sound of a motor boat setting out onto the lake. This I found curious, as there is only one motorized boat at the lodge – a pontoon boat – and it is only rarely used. I looked out at the lake again. Nothing to see there. I was settling into work again when I heard a person farther down the verandah say to another person, “I think someone’s in trouble in a sailboat, and they’re going out to help.”

I felt my heart begin to pound as I looked up and out at the lake again. Sure enough, there was the pontoon, chugging in the direction of something and someone that I, on the verandah, could not see. But I knew what and who it was.

I closed my computer, gathered up my notes, and headed down to the dock to await the arrival of the rescue vessel, now heading back to shore with the sailboat – my husband once more securely seated in it – in tow. I was glad he was wearing his personal flotation device. I noticed that his (Tilley) hat was gone. I was incredibly happy to watch his slow return to shore.

There were several people sitting in lounge chairs on the dock, two of whom were women of about my own age, facing out toward the lake.

“That’s my husband,” I told them, nodding in his direction, hoping they didn’t notice that even my voice was shaky.

“I saw him go over,” one of them said. “He righted the boat, and then it tipped again.”

The other woman nodded.

“After I few minutes we decided we’d better raise an alarm. So I went up to the reception desk and told them, and they sent out the pontoon boat.”

During all of this time, I’d been buried in my novel.

I didn’t mention that.

“Thank you for saving my husband,” I said as Arnie, having let go of the pontoon’s tow rope, paddled the sailboat up against the dock. The pontoon boat motored off, back to its mooring on the far side of the dining hall.

“How are you?” I asked him.

“I’m fine,” he said.

After he’d  tied up the Hobie and climbed back onto the dock beside me he said, “These little boats without a jib are impossible to bring about. I got caught by a gust, and when the boat went over, the sail went straight down into the lake. There was no centreboard to climb onto, so righting it the first time wore me out. When I went over again, I just hung on and waited. I knew someone would notice, and they’d send the boat.”

“Fortunately, someone noticed,” I said, indicating the women behind me.

Still holding my laptop and my papers in one arm, I grabbed a strap of Arnie’s safety vest and held on tight with my free hand as we walked off the dock together.

In future, if Arnie insists we take two other women with us every time we head for the wilderness, at least I’ll know the reason why.


Mary W. Walters is the author of Rita Just Wants to Be Thin, among several other books.


Why do I let myself be muzzled by the PC police?

Thoughts from a first-world-Topic discussion on my Facebook page

Sorry I selected an image of a white male to accompany this article. There was a black male with a tape across his mouth on the iStock photo page but for about 100 reasons you can probably guess, I did not feel comfortable posting that. There was a young woman with a muzzle, but I did not want to go there either. People might think I was trying to avoid facing my age, among other things. Various subjects had both muzzles and chains. Nope. So I ended up with a white male. The PC Police will be right with you.

Apologies for selecting an image of a white male to accompany this article. There was also a black male with a tape across his mouth on the iStock photo page, but for about 100 reasons you can probably guess, I did not feel comfortable choosing that one. There was a muzzled young woman, but I did not want to be accused of denying my age. Various subjects had both gags and chains. Nope. So I ended up with a white male.
The PC Police will be right with you.

This morning I posted a statement on my personal Facebook page on a subject about which I have been thinking for quite a while. Here it is:

How ironic is it that the barbarians among us feel more free than they ever have in my memory to say aloud and do the most despicable things imaginable, while the humanitarians are often discouraged from speaking at all, for fear of being judged politically incorrect?
One of my many intelligent and interesting Facebook friends replied:
People gotta learn to speak up and damn the consequences. There is a word for that. It is called courage. And we must encourage people to say what they feel, or do what they feel.
Injustices were never corrected by not speaking up.
Evil triumphs when good men remain silent.
The future lies not in the stars but in ourselves.
Thus it has always been.
And then I said,
I agree, but when it reaches a point when I am hesitant to support a group or position that I actually agree with, not because I fear the reaction from people who disagree with the position, but because I have been made to feel that I have no right to comment on an issue where my demographic has been part of creating the problem (e.g., aboriginal issues, Black Lives Matter), or that I have no right to comment because I am one of the entitled (Caucasian), it makes my brain go into a twist that I can’t untie. I post comments [on FB, about current issues], and then I take them down.
And when I don’t agree with a position of a disadvantaged group (e.g., certain Palestinian leaders), I don’t even think about saying anything.
The same friend replied:
Yes, you are right Mary. Those who disagree are marginalized by the marginalized. You are immediately dismissed and your voice becomes irrelevant in the discourse.
If you do not support the prevailing ethos you are treated like a bad person with bad ideas whose views should be ignored and eradicated.
Then another of my intelligent and interesting Facebook friends said:
[W.B.] Yeats made the same point and I paraphrase: “A time will come when the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Written in 1922. Could have been yesterday.
And I marvelled at how much more clearly and succinctly Yeats had said it than I had. The line is from the wonderful poem “The Second Coming,” which contains another of my favourite lines: “Things fall apart: The centre cannot hold.” That, too, seems painfully relevant today.
On a more positive note, watch for an upcoming article here on The Militant Writer entitled How I gave away 19,159 copies of the ebook version of Rita Just Wants to Be Thin, and finally started selling the book on a regular basis in the US, the UK and Canada five or so years after it was first published under another title, thereby restoring my self esteem and motivating myself to get back to work on my next book.” Or something to that effect.
As always, I welcome and encourage your thoughts on these or any other matters relating to writing and the militancy necessary to get it done.

How do you beat writer’s block?

How do you beat writer’s block?

WritersBlock.jpgI suppose that some of you have never had writer’s block. I’ve heard about people like you. I’ve read about people like you. I guess I even know some people like you (I am thinking here of a long-time writer friend who seems to be writing morning noon and night, in pubs and coffee shops, on scraps of paper and in notebooks: his fingers fairly fly across his keyboard when he’s on a computer; and I’m thinking of another, more meticulous writer friend who sits herself down at a certain time each morning and writes for a specified number of hours every single day, then stops).

Life with a block is bad

I have been through several periods of writer’s block, some brief  (about one of which I have written previously on this blog) and some extended, and I detest them. They make me feel depressed and lazy. Most of them arise from a lack of confidence, and of course they also contribute to a lack of confidence. They are almost impossible to “will” away.

Sometimes the lack of confidence is in the particular piece I’m working on, and this has led me to abandon quite a few stories, articles and even books, half-written. Sometimes it’s a lack of confidence in my ability to write anything of value. In those periods I can write if I force myself to do it, but when I read what I have written I am overly critical and I start cutting everything out. There is no point to continuing, and I stop.

And sometimes I have no confidence in the entire enterprise of writing: particularly the closely crafted writing of long pieces that I particularly enjoy. I decide that no one is reading anything longer than a caption or more complex than a set of instructions any more, and that what I am doing is an absolute waste of time. In those periods I consider my decades-long writing career to have been pointless, and think about all the things I could have done instead that would have paid me better. However, I am unable to do anything but write, nor can I even begin to contemplate the act of giving it up. Despite my wonderful family and many friends, my life would be barren if writing wasn’t in it. So I am stuck.

Life without a block is good

Happily, at the moment I am not blocked. If anything, the opposite is true. All I want to do is write. I have recently completed three short stories that had been simmering for months or years, and I am pleased with them. I have dozens of ideas for blog posts that I want to write – not only here, but also on my I’m All Write blog site, and on my Success After Sixty blog site. Everything suddenly seems like a topic that needs to be explored with words. My confidence has returned.

What got me out of my writer’s block this time was a period during which I forced myself to write, despite how hard it was, no matter how pointless it felt – mainly because I couldn’t stand living in my brain if I wasn’t creating something. I started by leaving  my usual surroundings and writing in Second Cups and Starbucks, on airplanes, even on the subway. I used a writing competition deadline as my impetus, and tried to convince myself that the deadline was as inflexible as one for an editing client would be.  I got one story finished and submitted, and then I did another. Getting around to the third was easier – I was able to do even the preliminary work on that one at home. And now I’m eager to start the fourth. It’s fun again.

I’m not the only writer to have experienced writer’s block. A whole article about the condition appeared recently in the New Yorker. The author, Maria Konnakova, tells us that Graham Greene kept a dream journal to avoid it. She goes on to discuss opinions on the subject of writer’s block from psychotherapists and psychologists – two of whom concluded that we are not all created equal: there are four different kinds of blocked writers, they decided. (It is interesting to read their list and to figure out where on the spectrum you might fit.) These two – psychologists Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios – even developed a therapeutic intervention that seemed to help blocked writers.

When you have a writer’s block, no one cares but you, but you care about it so much that it affects everything else you do.  I hope I never have it again – maybe if I never stop writing again, I’ll never have to start again? – but if I do I’m going to re-read this post and Konnakova’s article.

So, how about you? Have you had writer’s block? How did you overcome it?

In confidence

“You will be glad to know that there comes a time when you no longer care as much as you once did about what other people think of what you write. Now you write primarily to please yourself. After many years of practice and of being your own worst critic, you see that when you are ready to let a piece of writing go, it is because it really does have merit. Nothing has changed except your perspective, and your knowledge that you’ve earned the right to feel the way you do.”

Becoming the Person I Want to Be

(Instead of the one I was afraid I would become) *

By my late twenties, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life: I wanted to be a writer. Not only did I love to read and write, I also loved the whole idea of being a writer. I imagined myself in the future, living a writer’s life – long days of creating fiction interspersed with occasional public readings from my newest book to audiences who hung on my every word.

I knew it wouldn’t happen overnight, but no matter how long it took, I was determined that I would get there. I would become that woman.

Ten years later, I’d published a novel, some short stories and some essays, even a radio drama. Reviewers for the most part seemed to like my work, and small groups of people came out to hear me read: sometimes they even seemed to hang on my every word. That part of my life was all I had imagined, and I loved it.

But writing is no way to make a living, so when I wasn’t writing, I was stressed. I was stressed about everything – my teenaged kids, my relationships, my work deadlines, my lack of money: you name it. And while I was stressing about everything, a few bad habits were turning into serious addictions. I was smoking too much, drinking too much, eating too much… sometimes all at the same time. Which added to my stress: now I also worried that my addictions were going to kill me – later if not sooner. My doctors’ advice just reinforced my fears, and a brush with breast cancer didn’t help.

By now I had a totally different image of my future self than I’d had when I was younger. Now what I saw was an enormous grey-haired woman rolling home from the liquor store, several bottles of fortified something tucked between her immense hips and the seat of the motorized wheelchair she now needed because her arthritic knees could no longer support her weight. An oxygen tank was strapped to the back of her wheelchair; tubes snaked into her nostrils.

In short, my image of the future was now fashioned out of fear, rather than from hope.

Gotta quit. Gotta quit.

For the next ten years, I was always trying to quit smoking. I was always trying to quit drinking. I was always trying to lose weight. Every day I made a new resolution and every day I broke it. I am pretty sure that I tried every single smoking cessation, drinking cessation and eating cessation program known to humankind – and I failed with every one of them.

Somehow I also managed to write and publish a few more books, but not as many as I would have if I hadn’t been so obsessed with my lack of money and my bad habits. (And, to make things worse, the price of cigarettes and booze kept going up and up, and the publishing industry fell to pieces!)

Finally, I hit bottom. And finally – with the help of a therapist I had gone to in despair – I began to realize that I had been taking the wrong approach. I began to understand that I could never quit anything when I was focussed only on the quitting. What I had to do was stop thinking about what I was afraid of, and start remembering what I wanted to become.

What I Did Next

At age 50, I took that image of myself as a failure and I essentially shoved her off a cliff. When I saw her trying to claw her way back up toward me, I shook my head at her. That wasn’t me. No more. After a long time, she grew weaker and stopped trying to return. Now I almost never see her.

In the meantime, I took that other image, the one which had become lost in all the stresses of the years, dusted her off, and put her back in front of me where I wouldn’t lose sight of her again. I did some fine-tuning while I was at it: imagining every aspect of what I wanted to become. I was getting to the age where if I didn’t do it now, I’d never get another chance.

The woman I wanted to become was strong and healthy. She was aging powerfully and well. She was a woman whose children and grandchildren would see her as a role model – and (this part hadn’t changed!) she was a writer whose books (and blog posts! And Tweets!) made people sit up and pay attention: hang off her every word.

First, I quit drinking… one day at a time. That turned out to be much harder and to take much longer than I thought it would, but it was nothing compared to quitting smoking. That I had to do one hour at a time. Both of those recoveries caused me to gain even more weight than I was already carrying around, but I couldn’t let myself worry about that. Finally I turned to the challenge of getting healthy, and a few years later, I was able to get serious about actually losing weight.

I didn’t do any of these things out of fear of what might happen if I didn’t do them, or because I wanted to fit into some outfit for a certain event. I didn’t do them because the doctors told me I had to, or because my loved ones said I should. I did these things for me – because I know who I am, and because the person that I am has goals. I did them because I want to live long enough to enjoy my life and the people I love for as long as I can – without sickness, without shame, and especially without fear.

I Am Getting There

I have not fulfilled my vision yet, but today I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I get out and exercise regularly, and I weigh 35 pounds less than I did four years ago (I still have 10 pounds to go).

And I write. My latest book – a novel called Rita Just Wants to Be Thin – is the story of a woman who, at 29, learns the lessons that it has taken me a lifetime to figure out.

Who knows? Maybe some day Rita (or one of my other books) will put me on that stage I’ve been imagining for so many years, in front of a room full of readers who are hanging off my every word. But if that doesn’t happen, it’s okay. Because what really matters is what happens offstage, where most of my life is lived. And there, at last, I am finally getting closer and closer to becoming the person I have always wanted to be.

* This article was written at the invitation of Jan Graham and originally published on her great blog site, Cranky Fitness. Check it out. Thanks, Jan!