Chip MacGregor

September 25, 2012

Should I write my friend's memoir?


After yesterday’s post, I had someone write and say, “I’ve been approached a couple times to collaborate on a book, but I’m not sure I want to go that route with my writing career. Any advice for me?”

1. Collaborating writers come in four basic packages: COLLABORATORS (they take the miscellaneous meanderings of a smart or interesting person and shape it into coherent text, often finding pertinent material to supplement the content), CO-AUTHORS (they add their own content and generally get some credit for having a mind of their own), GHOST-WRITERS (they create the material, which is often used by a putative “author” with an ego too big to acknowledge the use of a writer), and EDITORS (they simply re-shape or sharpen the cogent thoughts and writings of the author).

2. What’s most important? Clearly define your roles. No sense writing for someone who really wants you to edit. (This has happened to me on more than one occasion. I do great work…and they toss it out so that they can use their own, lousy wording and feel better about themselves.)

3. What’s also important? Clearly define your agreement. “I will do THIS for THAT AMOUNT OF MONEY. It should take me THIS much time, so if you give me the material you’ve promised, I should have it for you on THAT date.”

4. One more thing: Define what “success” is. If they’re paying you for a rough draft, produce it. If they’re paying you for a polished manuscript, produce that. If you don’t define success, you’ll find that YOUR expectations may not match up with the OTHER’S expectations.

5. Make sure you can do the job. I love writing, and I love learning new things, so I always enjoyed taking on collaborative projects. I learned about guns, about investing in stocks, about fathering, about history — writing collaboratively was as good as any class I ever took in college. (Not that I was paying attention in college anyway…I was a theatre arts major. We just emoted a lot.) If you don’t like this sort of thing, or if you don’t enjoy trying to mimic someone else’s voice, you should stay away from collaborating.

6. Don’t take on the project if you don’t really understand it. Preachers have a saying: “If it’s a mist in the pulpit, it’s a fog in the pew.” Same goes for writing. If it’s a bit misty when you’re just talking about the topic, you’ll find yourself lost in total fog when you’re trying to write.

7. Don’t take on the project if you don’t like the author. Never. Ever. No matter how much they’re going to pay you. EVER. You get my drift? 

8. By the same token, don’t take on a project if you don’t agree with the basic premise. True story: I was once hired to write a study guide for a famous Southern Baptist pastor who preached an entire sermon on the notion that “Jesus didn’t really drink wine.” I thought it was one of the hokiest, most contorted uses of bible verses I’d ever seen. But I did it. And I’ve felt guilty about it ever since. To this day I’d like to have it back so I can destroy all copies of that stupid document. Save yourself the trouble. If somebody asks you to write rot, say no.

9. I might have been different from some of the other collaborative writers, but I didn’t always feel a need to develop a close relationship with the author. Instead, I felt a need to write well so I could (a) get paid, and (b) get another author or publisher to hire me to do another one. Becoming everyone’s best friend wasn’t my goal. I’m sure that shocks you.  So understand that you’re going to have to accept the fact that, as a collab or invited co-author or ghost, you are not going to get the credit. All the credit will go to the celebrity. Just accept that fact now, because nobody is going to want to hear you whine later, when you explain that life ain’t fair, and you should have received the invitation to go on Larry King, and you’re really the brains behind the whole shootin’ match. Too bad. If you can’t live with somebody else getting the credit, don’t do the job. 

10. Sooner or later (probably sooner), you’re going to be approached by somebody with a great personal story. Something fabulous happened to them. When they tell it at the Rotary Club meeting, old ladies weep. And now they’re going to want to hire you to write their book for them. They won’t be able to pay you much, but it’s a dynamite story, and soon they’re sure they’ll be able to sell it to a publisher, who will in turn put it on the bestseller lists and make a movie out of it, probably starring George Clooney. The individual approaching you will be nice. He or she will be earnest. They may even tug at your heartstrings. Say no. Don’t explain, just say no and walk away. Trust me on this. If you want to do it as a gift to help a friend, that’s fine. If you have a couple hundred writing hours to waste on this sort of project, by all means go ahead and leave the real jobs to the rest of us. But listen carefully to this well-meaning crank: THERE IS NO MARKET FOR PERSONAL STORIES. Yeah, yeah, personal stories are supposed to be growing in the digital market. And I love reading about them once in a while in a magazine. And maybe if you could transport that person around the country, so that he or she could explain the story to every potential book buyer… well, it probably still wouldn’t sell. So forget it.

Sure, I sold Lisa Beamer’s book to Tyndale and they sold a bajillion copies. I sold Mike Hingson’s wonderful story about being a blind guy on the 78th floor of the World Trade Center, and it made it to the New York Times list. But Lisa was a unique case. She was on every media outlet in the world. Everyone knew who she was, and with her grace and poise, everyone loved her. Mike has an incredible, over-the-top story that everyone wanted to read. That happens about once every ten years. And, having checked Poor Richard’s Almanac, I see that it’s not scheduled to happen this year. So say no. Just smile, nod, and move away. 

-Chip MacGregor

Chosen “Boy of the Year” by his high school graduating class of 1976

(Really! Wouldn’t that make a great book idea? Doesn’t it tug on your heart strings? Let’s do a book!)

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  • Peter DeHaan says:

    A few years ago, before I read your sage advice or fully knew what I was agreeing to, I was hired by a business man to write a biography of his partner. By the time I finished, there had been a falling out between the partners, so my work will never be seen by anyone. It was a great learning experience and I was eventually paid, but I sure would like to have seen it in print.

  • Julie Surface Johnson says:

    I don’t know. I was chosen “Girl of the Year” by my classmates in 1963. Maybe we could collaborate–tell it like it was from both a male and female perspective . . . across the years . . . .

  • Lynette Sowell says:

    Good common sense tips. Thanks! I know someone who has survived what I call a “high-profile” national event, but it was 20 years ago. He’s now wanting to write his book about life “after” surviving. I told him he needs to find a good ghost writer and an agent. He has a built-in platform and speaks; however, his story is only back in the public eye when mass shootings occur (something he survived).

    I like him very much and consider him a good friend, but I couldn’t write his story. First, I’m way too busy and I’m not a nonfiction writer. I do happen to know some excellent agents . How are ghost writers paid? By the publisher or the client?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Ghostwriters are usually paid by the author (that is, not by the publisher). Usually, though not always

  • i once wrote sample chapters and a book proposal about near-death experiences, collaborating with a physician at his request.

    After a NYC agent had trouble placing it, the doc gave the proposal to a retired editor friend of his who sold it to a well-known Christian publisher.

    I found out after the fact…when he planned on moving ahead without me.

    I reminded him that as the author of the proposal and sample chapters, I owned the work and that he had a big problem.

    I took his entire advance and we called it even stephen.

    I can understand people not understanding copyright law. It’s harder to understand people not understanding common courtesy.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      That’s a risk you take doing a proposal, Stephen. Glad you got paid something for your work.

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