How to deal with a diva? This is really freaking me out...
May 13, 2015 5:09 AM   Subscribe

A few years ago I interviewed a locally-based but internationally-known folk musician about her life and work. Her stories were great and I thought she should write a memoir, but she said he didn't have the time. So I volunteered to help.

I ended up working with "Alice" as an editor/agent. I had never done a book before and had no publishing contacts, but I was finally able to get a book deal last year.

We were going great guns, and had a substantial book put together a few months ago. As we got closer to the deadline, Alice called me up and started attacking me over a number of things she was unhappy with. I smoothed it over, but was taken aback. I had never seen her like that and it shook me up.

I asked our publisher for an extension, and they also raised our word count limit. So now we're coming up on our new deadline, and I get a message this morning from Alice: "There's a lot more to come. Don't submit yet!"

But if we don't get our book to them in a couple of days, our contract is void and we'll have to relinquish our advances. And this amazing book won't see the light of day.

The publisher is an outfit that produces entertaining, readable memoirs for the lay public, not huge tomes that look so intimidating they won't sell. But Alice seems to think this book should be the encyclopedia of her life. I'm afraid of going against her wishes -- afraid of some form of retaliation on her part. There's some kind of unhealthy mother-daughter dynamic going on. I realize that I'm so scared I'm becoming paranoid. I'm not in my right mind, and I don't know how to get back to feeling competent and confident about this project.

Also, what about the publisher? How much do they need to know about what I'm going through? Could I enlist them as an ally? Would they be able to reason with Alice? Or should I just do what I have to do? We don't have any more wiggle room, but I feel like I'm going against Alice's wishes in submitting the book, and I'll be in disgrace (just like with mom). Feeling very childlike and powerless right now.

I would love to hear from anyone with publishing experience, or anyone who's ever dealt professionally with a diva. How do you deal emotionally with this stuff? Thanks.
posted by cartoonella to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Do you have a contract with Alice about the nature of your relationship?
posted by crazy with stars at 5:38 AM on May 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

Oh man, I feel ya. I haven't been in this exact position but I spent eight years in a grad department surrounded by academic divas who were all just hungry for the next fresh-faced young person they could get their hooks into and bleed dry of time, energy, and emotional stability.

Here's what you should do:

First, I want you to repeat after me. "I am not the problem. Alice is the problem. I am not the problem. Alice is the problem." You are a person with a job. You are trying to do that job to the best of your ability. Alice is a whirlwind of chaos and need and disorganization and stress...but you - you are just a regular person trying to do a job.

Next, every time you feel yourself getting sucked into Alice's stress, I want you to literally visualize a glowing force field coming up around you and deflecting all the bad feelings. She is worried. She is angry. She is panicking. She is demanding. You are just a regular person trying to do a job and all her bad energy just bounces off of you and doesn't affect you. In fact, your job is - in essence - to keep that force field up; it is actually by doing so that you can best help Alice.

The thing to understand about people like Alice is that they want to offload not only work but stress and responsibility for their lives onto the people around them. You will accept the work, but you will not accept the stress. Alice's choices are her choices. They are not your choices. She has the right to make those choices and you will implement them because you are not her mother or her daughter or a younger version of herself; you are just a person who is doing a job to the best of your ability and then goes home and lives her separate, independent life.

So, because the book is Alice's book and her choices are her choices, this is what you do: you call her up and you say, "Alice, I understand that you want more time to work on the book, and that is fine, but as your agent, I want to make sure you understand that if you miss this deadline, we will have to relinquish our advances. It is also possible the book will not be published at all." And then she has to make that choice. If she tries to argue with you or deny that it's the case or negotiate with you as though you have a form of power you don't actually possess (which she will) you just have to stay calm and say again, "Alice, I'm sorry, but as your agent, I just want you to understand that this is the tradeoff - a missed deadline means that our contract is void and we have to return the advance." And then you let her make her choice.

If having to return the advance puts you in significant financial hardship, then I am very sorry about that. You are also within your rights to tell Alice that fact, "Alice, I also want you to know that returning the advance will be difficult for me, financially; if you put me in this position I'm afraid I won't be able to work with you in the future." And then you take the blow and recognize it as the cost of an important lesson learned.

Donot negotiate with the publisher except to convey factual information from Alice. ("She is not ready to submit the book yet; am I right in understanding that this means we will need to return the advance?") Just as with Alice, your relationship with the publisher is a business one; you have nothing to feel guilty or bad about and it is definitely not your job to go behind Alice's back in order to please them. At most, you could offer to put Alice and her editor in touch directly. She may have anxieties about the process that an editor could assuage, and once she's got her hooks into someone else she may start offloading her neediness onto them (and editors are, I imagine, fairly expert when it comes to dealing with these kinds of personalities.) I am a little curious about how you ended up working as an agent and negotiating a contract without any experience in that field - I hope the exploitation isn't happening at both ends of this equation, but that's a question for another post.

Good luck!
posted by pretentious illiterate at 5:39 AM on May 13, 2015 [29 favorites]

You are clearly not on the same page about what this book is supposed to be. She is not being a diva about what is important to her about her own life. She may be being unrealistic about what makes for an interesting book, which is not her job, as the person who lived the life you're writing about, to know. Your role is to guide her here, with respect and honoring the fact that her life, which is, you know, uniquely hers and therefore very important to her, and that she is probably not so comfortably opening up about.

The fact that you're calling her a diva and implying that she is somehow out of line by seeming to "think that this book should be the encyclopedia of her life" suggests to me that you are not equipped to handle this task. To you it's a project and a book. To her it's her LIFE. It requires incredible skill and empathy and experience to work with someone on something like this, to help them learn what should be left out and what should stay in, what's readable and interesting and what's too hard for people to understand or too much of a stress for them to care about. It requires a very delicate hand - because again - you're telling a person which of their life experiences are interesting and which are not, which may not line up with their emotions. Hint - implying they're being a diva or overly demanding is not a delicate hand. If the dynamic is unhealthy and you can't both speak openly and clearly about this, you should relinquish your advances and back out now.

I am not a diva, but I am a performer and a songwriter, and I have worked on business ventures with people that center around autobiographical stuff (i.e. co-writing an album). When talking about your personal experiences in an artistic manner, it often kicks up a lot of emotional dust. You're often mining difficult or cherished memories for the benefit of an audience. As her editor, it is not as simple as telling somebody that a sentence is poorly constructed. You are literally set to profit off of her experiences. You should commit to finding the time to discuss that with her respectfully and honor those experiences or you should walk away before it gets ugly. I have had this struggle in co-writing and producing before. Nothing will make it go sideways faster than being impatient, or judgemental with someone as they pore through things that have meant a lot to them both personally and professionally, without clarity on what their role in the process is.
posted by pazazygeek at 5:40 AM on May 13, 2015 [7 favorites]

Do everything that you can to separate emotionally. Go for a walk before answering text messages or returning phone calls.

Meet with her in person, in a very public place where she can feel like she is getting a lot of attention for being a published writer. And then bullshit the hell out of her. Tell her that you have enough material for three books at this point and you want her to consider a trilogy. But, for you to pitch that to the publisher, book one has to be in before, not on, the deadline. Tell her that, at this point, if she dawdles any longer then the publisher will consider her a flake and will not even show it to the department that turns these things into movies.

And then once the first book is turned in, fire her as your client and change your number.
posted by myselfasme at 5:53 AM on May 13, 2015 [6 favorites]

Have you tried telling her that all the other stuff can go into the sequel?
posted by Sophont at 5:57 AM on May 13, 2015 [8 favorites]

Sophont beat me to it. Tell Alice that the book has to be submitted by a certain date for legal reasons, but there's obviously plenty of material for a sequel. Then, depending on how the book does, either bite the bullet and do a sequel or break ties.

Don't get the publisher involved, if you can possibly help it. Don't tell them about the problems you're having with Alice. You want them to think you are a breeze to work with, no drama, so they'll hopefully want to work with you on future projects.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 6:02 AM on May 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

Having worked on collaborative publishing projects, I think this is fairly common, at least in broad outline. I was one of a group of authors doing a book, and almost every single person freaked out during the final edit time, with some trying to withdraw their material. The book got published and everything was fine. I think a lot of the misunderstanding had to do exactly with people not realizing it was a popularly-aimed book, with all that implies.

What exactly is the role of the person you deal with at the publishing house? It may be time to level with them. Perhaps they can talk to her.
posted by BibiRose at 6:04 AM on May 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

I think part of the issue too is the role you play here. There's no agent, right? It sounds like you are sort of an editor, sort of a co-author. Is the person at the publishing house an acquiring editor, or what? If the musician is thinking of you as basically a co-author, ghost writer type of thing, and you are thinking of yourself as an editor, it may be time to clarify all your respective roles.

The publisher doesn't need to know all the interpersonal stuff going on between you. But I think the decision needs to be made as to whether you can go forward with this project on terms that are acceptable to the musician. As the co-author who has been brokering the deal you are caught in the middle to some extent.
posted by BibiRose at 6:35 AM on May 13, 2015

Yeah, as Ursala H. suggests, a sequel. Are you overdelivering? Can you just submit 2/3 or 1/2 of the existing material and call it vol I, "thru 1990"?
posted by at at 8:21 AM on May 13, 2015

It's a memoir, a statement about her life that she's trying to shape, for herself, not just a lay public, and it's going to be open to criticism - she's got to live with any fallout in a direct way. Of course she wants to be happy with it. I know you've worked hard on supporting her and making it happen, but I guess, try to be sensitive to that.

Even if this agreement falls through, though, it's not certain that all's lost. If you, as someone with no publishing contacts or experience, were able to swing a deal, that suggests that your author may be attractive to other publishers. They might have a different idea for the book, but there's already so much work done, anyway, it'd be less of a risk for them.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:27 AM on May 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

But if we don't get our book to them in a couple of days, our contract is void and we'll have to relinquish our advances. And this amazing book won't see the light of day.

From one with a bit of publishing experience: Of course I haven't read your contract, but this sounds like catastrophizing to me, frankly; I would be extremely surprised if this were true. Of course book contracts have delivery dates, but they're not meant to be governed by a strict statute of limitations. Not criticizing you by saying that -- I understand you're very anxious about this, but it doesn't sound realistic to me that if you deliver the MS in a few days late, or even a week, they'll consider you in material breach of the contract and ask for the signing advance back. With a time sensitive manuscript, like one about current events, maybe, but this one? Highly unlikely. I'd be genuinely shocked. This is especially true since you said they modified the contract themselves by raising the word count limit.

I think you should get ahold of your editor and get a realistic assessment of what will happen if you miss your deadline by a little bit. I'm guessing they'll tell you that it's fine, that they really do have to have the MS by such and such date, but it's not going to be a disaster if you're somewhat late. Then you can breathe and stop worrying that the whole deal is going to fall apart.
posted by holborne at 8:43 AM on May 13, 2015 [7 favorites]

In re a sequel, btw: Not sure if that advice was supposed to be tongue in cheek (seems like maybe it was?), but unless you actually have a signed two-book deal, I wouldn't be telling Alice anything about a sequel.
posted by holborne at 9:43 AM on May 13, 2015

our contract is void and we'll have to relinquish our advances.

What does the contract say? Also have you received advances separately or did Alice give you an advance out of her advance?
posted by corb at 9:58 AM on May 13, 2015

Response by poster: Hi corb, we received advances separately. Our contract states that we need to get the book to the publisher by a certain date - otherwise our agreement is void and they wash their hands. They were great about giving us the first extension - I'm not super comfortable about asking for another.

At the time we got our extension, I had the feeling from Alice that she felt another four weeks would be sufficient to complete this. If she didn't like that, I wish she had mentioned it. Now we're up against the new deadline, and she's saying it still isn't enough time. I understand, she's had a full life. That's why I wanted to do this book together. I would love to spend another five years on it. We just don't have the time, at least not with this publisher.

This is a publisher who likes collaboration and is willing to take a hands-on approach with text problems. I feel my editor there could help shape this thing into something workable as is. I'm leaning toward asking her advice at this stage.

I appreciate the other responses here. Thanks so much for your perspectives on my issue.
posted by cartoonella at 10:12 AM on May 13, 2015

You have done the work and are ready to submit and honor the contract you have both signed; she is not.

So is she willing to courier you a money order covering your lost advance as partial compensation for asking you to break a contract and burn your bridges with the publisher? Because you do have implicit rights, whatever exists in writing between you, and if she's going to try to sabotage a completed project, the least you can do for yourself is to respond with firmness and self-protection.

The book may not be published, but that's not in your control. You should at least be able to keep the advance you earned. And she can try to add everything she couldn't be bothered to provide in a timely manner in the galleys, without you in the middle.

(Signed, someone who learned the hard way that attempting to work with one's musical favorites is a great way to never want to listen to their music again.)
posted by Scram at 10:39 AM on May 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think you need to call the publisher and the editor and explain. They have far more experience handling difficult authors than you do. The publisher wants to make money, so they'll want to work with you and with her to get this thing published.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:40 PM on May 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

Maybe the publisher can connect you with someone inside or other editors in general who can provide some advice on handling this kind of situation, which I have to believe comes up all the time.
posted by rhizome at 1:16 PM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Can you clarify Alice's message: "There's a lot more to come. Don't submit yet!" Was Alice referring to more content or more notes on the existing text?
posted by JackBurden at 9:36 AM on May 16, 2015

Response by poster: I just saw JackBurden's response here - Alice meant she had major revisions to do. It's seven months after I first posted this, and she's completed the book. She says she sent the entire thing to the publisher, so I wasn't able to see the final draft - I was supposed to do some section-head coding (the author guidelines handbook asks for this, so when they do the typesetting - or whatever it's called - they can distinguish a heading from the regular text.) I didn't get that chance, but I've let the publisher know I can do that for them if they need me to.

There was also a discrepancy in my introduction, which I told Alice about - I referred to something in a particular chapter, but now that she's changed the chapters and headings, I need to edit out that reference in my intro. I'm assuming I'll get the chance to do that at the galley proof stage.

You guys have had wonderful advice, and it helped me to hear the sympathetic responses stressing self-protection, as well as those that urged treading carefully when working on a project that consists of a person's life. There's much more at stake for her than for me.
posted by cartoonella at 7:40 AM on December 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

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