Recently I had a contact from a longtime, highly respected colleague inviting me to consider co-authoring a book. This was most welcome for a number of reasons: I like working with this author, I know he has the chops, and he is strongest in the areas where I am not.
So, when two people who know the scene set forth to work together on a commercial project they know will make money, how does that happen? And what does that mean?
Obviously, there is the initial approach: “let’s do this.” A thumbnail sketch of the general plan and how the financial aspects will work–because a commercial book is a business deal, never forget that–and some discussion and questions and brainstorming. All of that sounded equitable, doable and enjoyable to me.
When I said ‘yes, let’s do this together,’ then began the preparation phase. Commercial books are planned, not just typed out willy-nilly as Clio or Erato bestows her inspiration. I would develop a given number of topic ideas about which I felt competent to write. So would my co-author. We would schedule a time to discuss these, reach final agreement, and assuming that agreement, get to work. One may safely assume that we will, in the case of that agreement and plan, establish deadlines and expectations. We will hold one another to these.
That is how this works. One is sought out, considered, valued as a partner because one is believed to be a person of his or her commitments and, in the end, one’s word. This is business. In business, much may be done with a handshake, though some of it requires contracts and so forth. As with some collectibles markets, though, the fact that a handshake would probably suffice is what got you in the door. Reputation and professionalism are all, and those are oak leaf clusters earned by performance and consistency.
I mention this because I consider it among the very most important qualities any writer can have: handle your business. Be on time. Do as you say you will do. Back up your words. There is no such thing as ‘writer’s block,’ and you cannot blame anything on it. Most of the money I have earned with my keyboard came about because people believed, with cause, that I would perform. Cast aside all this baloney about ‘just not feeling it.’ I have completed assignments with a bucket adjacent to my swivel chair, or when I was close to using Immodium as a recreational drug. Do your work and do it well, in writing just as in any other profession, and no harm can come to you.
The icy reality of professional writing is that it is full of aspirants who, in the end, can’t or won’t perform. If you are pursuing a literary career, my advice is to offer results and product (and yes, your writing is a product), not excuses and extensions. The world is full of writers and those who would like to write. It is not so full of producers, who take deadlines seriously and will either deliver or perish in the attempt.
It’s work. Treat it like work. The difference between plumbing and writing is minimal that way.
On Sunday, I will have a neat outline of topics and subtopics to offer my collaborator. I will have thought them through, and will be ready to answer any question he might pose about any of them. Are we friends? Absolutely–but this is a business meeting. One of my deepest beliefs is that people do wrongly to shortchange friends and family, ‘because they can.’ No. That is no good; that is unethical and unprofessional. If they are friends or family, they are owed greater consideration and performance, not less. So I don’t care that my collaborator happens to be a friend with whom I have swapped stories, commiserations and so on. Not here and now. What I care about is that my job right now is to show up prepared for the discussion, and to bring my very best to the table. He’s a friend. My duty is greater, not less.
The sooner a writer learns to come to the table prepared to do business, the likelier he or she is to succeed. There are many ways to define professionalism. One of mine is “is willing to volunteer his or her time here and there for the common good, and seeks out those opportunities.” Another is “keeps his or her commitments and does a quality job on time.” All the flighty types, who think business and deadlines are icky, will be frustrating to work with until they mature and adopt professional attitudes. And when opportunities happen, you may easily guess to whom they will happen.
If it wasn’t work, they wouldn’t pay you.