Monday, July 09, 2007

You Lucky Writer

Local author Jack Sheehan had me laughing out loud with his column in Sunday’s Sun, “How this getting words down on paper gig isn’t really all that bad, once you get past the first line.” For some reason, I assumed that authors of his standing – his list of published works is beyond impressive – didn’t get approached by literary panhandlers.

In case you’re a writer who hasn’t experienced this phenomena, let me just assure you that it’s only a matter of time before someone corners you with his Incredible Idea for a Bestseller that you, you lucky writer, can write for him, so that you can then share in the bountiful sales that his Truly Amazing story will generate. All you, you lucky writer, have to do is to agree to donate your time and talent for an unspecified amount of time to accurately transcribe the genius idea that the non-writer is just dying to share with you. Take my advice on this one and RUN AWAY. Make something up – if you’re a writer, this shouldn’t be too challenging. Tell the non-writer that you suffer from a highly contagious disease. Tell him that you eschew modern devices like computers in favor of writing everything by hand with an authentic quill pen. Tell him anything, but make sure that you are leaving the area when you toss off your pearls of wisdom. He won’t notice, anyway, because he’ll be scouting for the next Lucky Writer to corner.

Two major problems generally plague the arrangement that the non-writer seeks. First, the non-writer doesn’t want to pay you anything. Why should he put any money up front when his book is a certain bestseller? Aren’t you willing to eat dirt for a couple of years and live in a cardboard box so the non-writer can fulfill his dreams? You must not be visionary enough to see that his book will top every best seller list and make you both gazillionaires. Second, the non-writer hasn’t a clue as to how much time and work goes into a book. Once they’ve finished a first draft, these are the people who are appalled to hear that you must then edit your work. They’re also the same people who’ve never heard of writer’s guidelines, word counts, line editing, or any other detail associated with the business of writing. These are the pesky details that you, you lucky writer, will be handling. Telling this non-writer he needs 80,000 words for a novel is like me explaining trigonometry to my dogs: useless and frustrating.

What if you find the non-writer’s idea irresistible? If you do decide that you want in on his Incredible Idea, make sure to address a few key points:

--Insist on a deposit or some sort of up-front payment, even if it’s minimal. People rarely value anything they get for free, and that includes writing services. Agreeing to work for free on a project that can go on for years is a mistake you’ll regret.

--Get an agreement in writing that specifies EXACTLY what you’re going to do. Are you ghostwriting or co-writing? How will you be credited on the book’s cover? Will you be doing promotional work?

--Who makes the creative decisions? If your partner decides he wants three chapters in his children’s picture book devoted to his theories about JFK’s assassination, how will you handle it?

--What will happen if the author chooses to self-publish? Make sure to address this in your written contract. Since the whole idea is that you’re working for a share of revenue, what will happen if Putnam isn’t interested?

--Google your prospective writing partner. This can uncover all sorts of interesting details that he may have forgotten to tell you. You may discover that you’re not the first writer he’s approached.

You, you lucky writer, will feel much luckier if you’ve done your homework on these points. Better yet, why not just work on your own stories? I know you’ve got a bunch of them. Or how about writing about the non-writer and his idea? Sometimes these folks make great profiles or human interest stories. How about going for a different kind of relationship? You could tell him you’ll give him your best hourly rate for your services as a personal writing coach or editor. Or you could just smile and run away. Sometimes that’s the luckiest move of all.
Photo courtesy of Steve Woods at

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