Should I help my friend write her cool personal story?
April 3, 2013 | Written by Chip MacGregor
A writing friend 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 have a rule for collaborative writers to consider: 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. Those 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 well-known guy who owns a famous chain of stores, and was invited to “tell the story” behind all that success. He wrote the book, which was self-published and sent to all the franchise owners and managers for staff to read, plus they sell a few in their stores. But the book never made it into bookstores, didn’t break out, didn’t really move the writer’s career forward, and didn’t make him a lot of money. In many ways it’s sort of a paean to the owner’s celebrity status. So be wary of saying “yes” just because someone is a celebrity.
I’ve had more than one person write to ask about “helping my friend do a book” or “helping my pastor do a book. ” Again, if you feel you owe the person a favor, that’s your decision. Or if you feel “called” to somehow do this project… well, God outranks me. But be aware you don’t have to do a book with your friend just because she has a cool story, or with your pastor just because he 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: my friend also mentioned he’d been “invited to do a family reunion book” and wanted to know what I thought.
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 his good friend 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.
Okay… 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 an article for a magazine or website. Because while telling these types of stories in books is a tough market, the worlds of magazines and e-zines 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.