Chip MacGregor

April 3, 2013

Should I help my friend write her cool personal story?


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.

Happy writing!

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  • Peter DeHaan says:

    I worked for a couple years as a consultant in another industry. It took me too long to learn the lesson, but when I’d receive an inquiry for my services, I’d lead with my rates. That eliminated the tire-kickers and saved me a lot of time and frustration.

    As far as the above scenarios, I’d take them on as long as I was paid well. That’s not being greedy but valuing my time.

  • Becky Doughty says:

    I’m laughing hysterically here, not because this is so funny, but because I’m experiencing a slight panic attack and going into mild hysterics. I’ve been stuck in the mire with two of the above situations, and badly burned – no, HORRIFICALLY burned – by the “helping a friend write her story” one. In fact, I think I’m breaking out in hives now, too.

    My advice: Say ‘no’ and run like mad in the other direction. You cannot read anyone else’s mind, even if they pay you to do so.

    And I really like the word ‘paean.’

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Ugh. Sorry to hear that, Becky. But yes — run the other way! (And thanks for commenting.)

    • chipmacgregor says:

      And, just so you know, my mom always said I was a bit of a paean…

  • Meghan Carver says:

    Be careful even to take on a family speaking project! My parents 50th anniversary was in 2007, and I had to make the speech at the family reunion because my brother wouldn’t. I was quite careful with the dates in the chronology, but apparently some of the extended family got the impression that my brother’s wife was pregnant when they got married. Seriously, I have no idea what I said to allow them to think that. I saw my brother and his family on Monday, and my brother was kind enough to remind me of that. Well, maybe it’s good fodder for a novel.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Ha! Love that story, Meghan. And you’re right — it would set up beautifully for a novel.

  • Bonnie Doran says:

    Thanks, Chip. I’ve only been in this situation once, when a guy at church asked me to help pitch his story at a conference. His experiences as a Romanian smuggling Bibles into Bulgaria would have made a good magazine article but he was unwilling to consider that.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Bonnie. It’s funny — many times the ideas I hear would make good magazine articles, but the teller usually insists on turning it into a book (and thereby killing the idea).

  • Great advice. I’m only just in the beginning of writing for myself, and have had someone ask to help them with their own project. I’ve got to just be straight up about it.

  • Chip, Excellent advice. And a related request is generally, “My (son, uncle, nephew, pastor, golf partner) is thinking about writing a book, and they’d like to meet you and pick your brain.” Any sage advice to help get out of that one? I generally give them a list of blogs (like this one) and suggest they study them first. Of course, a few still do call, but by then I’m forewarned and let the call go to voicemail.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I usually say, “You really should call my friend Richard Mabry. He’d be HAPPY to help you write your book.”

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Oh… and thanks for telling others to visit the blog, Richard!

  • Ramona says:

    Spot on. This is one reason I only do family stories about dead folks, preferably when anyone who remembers them are gone as well.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      “And if they aren’t dead yet, I’ve got this friend Ramona who can assist with that part…”

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