Help Me Write My Story

April 25, 2007 | Written by admin

Lots of questions today about writing and writing-with-others…

Jennifer wrote to me and said, "We’ve got some people in our church who just returned from years away as missionaries. When they heard I was doing some writing, they suggested I help them write their story as a book. Do you think that’s a good idea for someone trying to break into the market?"

If a person walks up to you and invites you to write a book that tells their interesting personal story, my advice is to look them straight in the eye, smile, and pretend you’ve gone deaf. Maybe start talking about the 1962 Mets. Or begin to babble incoherently, flail your arms, and, if necessary, wet your pants. Anything to make them go away. As an alternative, you could simply say "no," or even, "No…and by the way I don’t like your shirt," which works even better. I’m not negating the power of personal story, but there is simply NO market for personal story books these days. Oh, sure, occasionally there will be some incredible tale of overcoming the odds that makes it to print (this year we’ve got "Why I Jumped," last year brought us "90 Minutes in Heaven," and the year before was "The Last Dance but Not the Last Song"). But they’re rare. Even great stories of personal triumph are a hard sell and generally don’t do well in stores (so while "90 Minutes" is selling like crazy, neither of those other two books, though given lots of marketing attention, really hit the big time).  The idea of people racing out to buy somebody else’s tale of woe or success (or both) is pretty far fetched in this day of 24/7 entertainment. You want a great personal story? Turn on the talk shows or watch Hallmark or Oxygen or CourtTV and you can find a dozen of them, every day, in  medium that requires far less work than reading a book. From my perspective, there’s simply no sense in using your limited writing hours to create a book that nobody is going to buy.  I’m not saying it will be a bad story — only that you’ll find it’s an uphill climb just to get it sold to a publisher. And on the off chance you do sell it, you then face a sheer cliff in trying to gain your book any attention in today’s marketplace. 

Cara noted a related problem: "I have a chance to do a book with someone who received a lot of media attention recently. The problem is simply that I don’t know if his story is big enough to sustain a book."

Don’t assume that because a situation has received media attention, the stories of the people involved will also. It might, but it doesn’t always happen. I represented Lisa Beamer’s Let’s Roll, a book that hit #1 on the New York Times list but the media was incredible in those days after 9/11. Lisa was on Larry King more than a dozen times in the year after the tragedy, so her "personal story" resonated with a public eager to learn more about what allowed her to be so poised in the face of such tragegy. On the other hand, I helped Nancy Mankins tell her story, about her missionary husband taken captive and eventually killed by Columbian terrorists. It’s a well-told tale that received tremendous media attention, so it seemed a good risk at the time…but it languished in stores. Even a huge story, with lots of media attention behind it, can fail to capture an audience. And you can bet a personal story without that sort of attention has almost no chance. Lisa was on every TV show on the planet. Her husband Todd was a genuine hero, coining the phrase "Let’s roll!" and undoubtedly helping save lives by participating in a desperate attempt to re-take Flight 93 from terrorist nutjobs. Lisa was standing next to Laura Bush during the President’s address to the nation a few nights later. It was a great American story — but that doesn’t mean anyone is going to be interested in what somebody else was doing on September 11. Let’s face it, we were inundated with crummy books from people who wanted to write poetry about the World Trade Center, tell about getting stuck in the Holland Tunnel, and emote about watching it all on television. Who cares? Hey, Lisa’s book has been written. Find something else.

Jim sent this question: "I have a chance to do a book with a celebrity. Does a project like that really help my writing career?"

I purposefully linked this question to the topic because it illustrates the exception to the rule: If you come across a story that involves celebrity or heavy media attention, you might want to listen to the idea…but don’t fall in love with celebrity. These are about the only personal story books with a chance of actually creating a payday for you, but it’s not automatic. A buddy of mine was approached by a guy who owns a famous chain of fast food restaurants, and was invited to "tell the story" behind their success. He wrote the book, which was self-published and sent to all the franchise owners and managers (plus they sell a few in their restaurants). I don’t believe the book ever made it into bookstores, but the restaurants and personnel combined to make it a profitable venture. Still, it didn’t break out, didn’t really move the writer’s career forward, and didn’t make him a lot of money. So be wary of saying "yes" just because someone is a celebrity. And…well, I happen to know the person you’re talking about is a former professional athlete, and I can tell you first hand that (A) nobody cares one bit about an athlete the moment after he retires, and (B) nearly every professional athlete on the planet is a pompous ass. Sorry. I think it has something to do with being treated as royalty from the time they hit puberty — they don’t live in the same world you and I do. They’ll tell you it’s because of living life in the fishbowl, blah-blah-blah. From my perspective, it’s because they make an obscene amount of money playing a game, soon mistake that for actually having to work for a living, and can never leave behind those heady days when they were heroes and everybody told them how wonderful they were. Be very wary of agreeing to do a book with a former athlete, Jim.

I’ve had more than one person write to ask about "helping my pastor do a book." Again, if you feel God is telling you to do the project…well, He outranks me. But be aware you don’t have to do a book with your pastor just because he (or she) is in a position of authority.  It’s easy to get caught in the trap of "helping" people who have no ability with words — and nothing is more frustrating to a writer.

My solution: If somebody comes up and asks you to "help" them write their book, learn to keep it businesslike: "Well, I charge $300 to review your manuscript, and I’m paid a minimum of $1500 to help you with manuscript development. Which sounds like it would be better for you?" That line, said with all politeness and sincerity, will usually drive away the beggars and wannabes. (And I apologize if it sounds cold…but I approach this as a business, not as "Chip’s Helpful Writing Service for the Poor and Orphaned.") If it doesn’t work for you to help, suggest they get in touch with a professional editorial or critique service — they’ll pay a couple hundred bucks and get lots of good writing advice.

And one additional question: Jim also mentioned he’d been "invited to do a family reunion book" and wanted to know what I thought.

ACK! In the words of medieval cartographers, Here dragons dwell. NEVER take on a "family writing project" if you can possibly help it. These are books done for family reunions, 50th wedding anniversaries, 75th birthdays, and the like. I did two of these, was well paid both times, created two beautiful hardbound books, and proceeded to get yelled at by just about everybody involved. Why? Because the principals are old, and memory is a creative thing. So Grandpa Joe’s recollection of events won’t jibe with Aunt Sarah’s. And Uncle Henry’s reminices about the family might be colored by time (or by Jack Daniels, depending on the family). And you can bet that Cousin Bob ain’t gonna like you revealing that his mama got married in April but had her first baby in October. Yikes. When asked to do one of these, run the other way.

Gee…this all sounds overly negative. The fact is, you may stumble upon a personal story and want to tell it. That’s fine…just be aware that the probability of even a great personal story seeing print is fairly small. Our world is filled with funny, exciting, and hopeful stories of people — they’re just hard to sell in book form these days. If you’re a newer writer looking for good experience, consider interviewing these folks and writing them up in a magazine article. Because while telling these in books is a tough market, the world of magazines and newspapers are filled with great personal stories, usually with a strong undercurrent of humor or romance, and an ending filled with hope and joy. Besides, the process of interviewing, finding a voice, and boiling a long story down to 500 or 1000 words will prove invaluable to your writing future.

Happy writing!

Posted in Collaborating and Ghosting

  • Jules Quincy Stephens

    This is all excellent advice, in your own voice. Newspaper and magazine publishing seems less sexy to some people, yet those outlets are excellent, and often more consistent, sources of pay. And yes, they are honing grounds for larger projects, such as books.
    I’m curious, though — do you differentiate between biographies and memoirs? A college professor (who is also a writing professional) told me memoirs are the It genre right now, easily shadowing novels.

  • chip

    It’s true – spiritual memoirs are a fairly hot item right now. After having been in the tank for years, they’re once again selling (thanks to Anne Lamott, Lauren Winner, and Kathleen Norris). But those are different from biographies in that they are not necessarily a linear re-telling of one’s life. They are generally topical or event-driven stories around the themes of grace and growth and redemption.

  • Amy Jane

    Tmely advice–
    My MIL was just telling me about how she’s trying to find time to write the family’s story (Patriarch Harmon Helmericks began the practice decades ago), and I was beginning to wonder if my combined credentials of “writer” and “good DIL” should compel me to offer my services.
    I think I’ll just lie low.

  • Crystal Miller

    Another venue for these kinds of stories–newspapers. A lot of small town newspapers like to have features on people. (And most of the staff reporters don’t like doing these stories.)You could approach the feature editor with a batch of these kinds of stories for the newspaper. Great training ground.
    I laughed at the family reunion book experiences (sorry. Didn’t mean to laugh at your pain.) My own brother who grew up in the same house as I did doesn’t even remember the FACTS as they were while we were growing up.(He’s blonder than I am.) Nothing starts arguments faster than “recalling” family history–it’s kinda like that story about the blind men describing the elephant.
    There’s something to be said for telling stories that YOU feel passionate about, because this will help to narrow down the many stories to tell. Everyone has a story.I usually refer these people to a writing conference or class, and tell them MY writing journey. That shuts up about 99.9 per cent of them.
    This was a great post. Thanks for addressing this issue. It’s one that every writer will run into at one point in the game. I still stutter with a reply when asked.

  • Julie

    Gee, Chip, thanks for the heads up. I’m known as ‘the writer’ in my church and have been approached by someone to write their story. I won’t be wetting my pants any time soon, but I am working on my sprinting capabilities.