The Complete Guide to Ghostwriting
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The Complete Guide to Ghostwriting
Why use a ghost?
The first question anyone considering a collaboration might be asking themselves is: do I really need a ghost at all? For many people, particularly those in the public eye, the answer is usually clear cut. They may even get approached by a publisher and asked the question:
'Mr (or Ms) celebrity, would you consider letting us publish your autobiography?'
Implicit in the offer is an understanding a package will be put together to make the process as smooth as humanly possible and that will naturally include the offer of a ghost to pen their story.
Alternatively, a well-known personality might be persuaded by advisors to write a book as part of a wider marketing push and will be told professional help is integral to its success. As publisher Trevor Dolby at Preface, puts it, they've done the calendar, they've put out the 'best of' DVD and embarked on the 16-date UK tour, so now it is time for the book.
It is the next logical step to promote the brand. Usually though, when agents suggest it, the personality will say: 'yeah, great, as long as I don't have to write it'. In many ways these books are not books at all. They look like books, but they are a piece of merchandise. It is part of buying the t-shirt and the rest of it. It is all part of the career-end of things.
That doesn't mean it doesn't have to be good though. That old adage of churn it out, they won't care, isn't true here. The end-product has to be their voice, it has to reflect what the fans are seeing on the television, or reading in social media. It has to be as clever, assiduous and detailed as anything else. You can't take the mickey out of people. That is very important and why you need a ghost writer.
What then for mere mortals who don't have publishers offering tempting deals, or advisors pushing the idea? Why write a book and why use a ghost?
Let's tackle the reasons to write a book to begin with. There are a multitude of reasons for producing a book. The first one most people cite is to earn money. This is usually the point where ghosts will hopefully step in and dissuade a would-be author when they are approached on a collaboration. While bestselling books can be highly lucrative, there are thousands that never make a penny.
No, there needs to be more pressing reasons.
The author may be an expert in their field, for example, and want to tell the world about it. A book reinforces a person's credibility because it makes them a name in a given area and being the 'go to' expert increases their visibility and earning power. There may, however, be more personal reasons, such as relating a story of a difficult period, a tragedy or an injustice. Some authors find relating their experiences an important part of the healing process.
Occasionally, authors will be unclear about what it is they want to write. They know there is a book inside them, or at least a burning desire to write one and leave a legacy in words, but they are just not sure what it is about. People like this may need their ideas teased out, sorted through and assessed for their interest value to a wider audience.
Once anyone makes up their mind they want to write a book and reflect that a ghost might just be what they need to make it happen, it is time to weigh up what a ghost will mean to the success, or otherwise, of a completed book. After all, a ghost won't be free and while we discuss the different payment options later in the book, it is important to think about the financial implications from the off.
If an author is relying on securing a publishing deal working with a ghost could make all the difference between success and failure. That is certainly the view of leading literary agent Andrew Lownie.
I often tell would-be authors, particularly those with real life stories, they probably won't get placed if they don't work with a ghost. Plus, if they do get picked up, a good collaboration should double their advance.
The other way of looking at it is, as well as securing a bigger advance, a ghost could actually save an author money. If the named author is a public figure, or even just a busy person, they will probably be doing ok and making money out of their day job. Devoting four hours a day to writing just won't be cost effective when they might make a considerable amount more for public speaking, or doing what they do. If they carry on doing what they are good at, while handing over the book writing to a ghost, it should work well for both sides.
Once they start thinking about giving up a large part of their advance, or paying a fee to a ghost, some authors do get cold feet and begin to wonder if they would be better off writing it themselves. After all, anyone at the top of their profession, as a TV celebrity, politician, or businessman, is likely to be pretty eloquent. Similarly, anyone of those ordinary folks with an extraordinary story would surely be best placed to tell it. So, why do so many people turn to ghosts?
The first, and most obvious reason, is time. In an absolutely ideal world, all of our 'famous names' would have the time and craft to write their own books beautifully. But very often they have neither, so ghosts are completely necessary. Self-written celebrity memoirs are very rare animals.
The first, and most obvious reason, is time. As Jonathan Taylor, Headline Publishing group's publishing director says;
In an absolutely ideal world, all of our 'famous names' would have the time and craft to write their own books beautifully. But very often they have neither, so ghosts are completely necessary. Self-written celebrity memoirs are very rare animals.
Planning, structuring and writing a 80,000 word-plus book is no easy undertaking even for someone who does it for a living. Even working full time, it can take ghosts up to three months to finish a book. It can take more time than that if the subject is more complex and requires a lot of research. So, time is a real factor. Anyone who is busy with a job, running a business, helping with family or just living their life, might struggle with setting aside up to four hours a day to write their story. Or, as many aspiring writers find, they might start off with good intentions and then rapidly find real life intervenes.
Discipline is another major reason why many people don't give book writing a go themselves. They just can't ever seem to find the right time to sit down and get the words out. Even if they do vow to set aside an hour a day in the first flush of enthusiasm, it is never long before a distraction or two slips in and the book gets put on the back burner. Before they know it, they won't have touched their novel for weeks and the momentum will be lost. For a ghost, on the other hand, it is their full time job. If they don't write 1000 words a day, or 2000, or whatever target they set themselves, that ghost won't make a living. If they don't finish a manuscript, they won't be paid. That always concentrates the mind.
None of this is to say a ghosted book requires no time commitment whatsoever from the named author. It does. For a truly successful collaboration the author needs to meet their ghost on a regular basis either in person, or by phone, or via Skype. If a book is to make any progress, it has to be given the time it deserves. Working with a ghost will shorten the time investment for the named author, but it won't do away with it altogether.
Closely aligned to time and discipline is the element of skill required to pen a book. Some people assume anyone can write so it stands to reason they could get their story down if given enough time. If they are talking about the pure mechanics of getting a sufficient number of words written, they'd probably be right. But, knowing what to write and presenting it in an engaging, thoughtful and sustained way that will keep a reader hooked for chapter-after-chapter, that's a different proposition entirely. As one leading publisher admits; 'A lot of celebrities today don't have the vocabulary, imagination, or skill to make their jottings into something that is halfway readable. The same goes for would-be tellers of real life stories.' It's a brutal assessment but, knowing what to write and tailoring it to a reader's needs in a way that keeps their attention, isn't easy.
Another, perhaps less considered aspect of book writing, is whether or not the subject actually enjoys writing at all. Sure, there aren't many people on the planet who wouldn't like to airily hand you a paperback and say that's their latest novel, but would they actually see themselves sitting down for hours on end, agonising over writing, plot development or structure?
While most business leaders and politicians and a fair smattering of celebrities would quite rightly argue they have the verbal skills to produce a compelling piece of writing, there is a big leap between writing an interesting 'think piece' for a magazine, or a report for colleagues, or a first person review and producing an interesting, 80,000 word book. Writing a well-structured work of this length is a huge undertaking. It can take some ghosts years to perfect their style to the stage where they are regularly published. Even veterans will have experienced rejections and extensive edits in their past. It is difficult to write a book, which is why there are ghosts in the first place.
There are also more aspects to book writing than simply knowing how to construct a sentence. Often there is a large amount of careful and time-consuming background research that needs to be done too. This is certainly the case in anything other than a straight biography, or true-life tale where the author is simply relating their own story. This might happen when, say, a well-known figure is invited to write on a subject they are associated with, rather than on something they have seen or done first hand. In January 2014, for example, actress Gillian Andersen, best known for her role as FBI Agent Dana Scully, Agent Fox Mulder's sceptical partner in the hit sci-fi series The X Files, announced she was writing a series of sci-fi books with a collaborator. She said at the time her nine years of living in a 'semi-science-fictional universe' gave her an ingrained knowledge, but conceded her co-writer Jeff Rovin brought in the sci-fi expertise. Andersen is undoubtedly a great actress, but she was big enough to admit she needed help to produce a convincing book on 'her' subject.
For the sake of literary variety, it is a great thing that it's not just actors who want to cast their nets further afield and therefore turn to ghosts. While first time authors are often advised to write what they know about, perhaps drawing upon their knowledge or experiences in the field, this doesn't always follow. After all, it would be a pretty dull world if a civil servant from Croydon only wrote about being a civil servant in Croydon, or a horticulturist chose to concentrate on the trials and tribulations of tilling the land. We'd certainly never have had great novels such as Hitchhikers Guide, Watership Down or The War of The Worlds, which explore subjects beyond our everyday life. Thankfully many authors have more ambitious plans for their work and are happy to work with ghosts to display their versatility by tackling subjects out of their comfort zone. This can be challenging for a ghost, but with the right collaborator it can work out well for both sides. This was the experience of David Long who is both a ghost and an author in his own right. He collaborated with a well-known businessman who he only identifies as an 'internet squillionaire'. The book in question was not biographical, or even based on the author's successful career. Instead it focussed on environmental issues, a subject close to the author's heart.
He is very clever and imaginative entrepreneur, rather than a scientist and constantly came up with all sorts of wacky ideas about how the world could be made a much better place. My job was to go away and validate his theories by doing my own research, or by speaking to an expert in the field. Then every fortnight or so, I would go back and argue the case with him. Often he would completely disagree with what I had uncovered, so I would have to go and find yet more evidence. That is how we bashed out the book.
Long's experience demonstrates another important characteristic which is essential for good collaboration between author and ghost: perspective. If the entrepreneur in the example above had the time it would have been very easy for him to jot down his own musings with very little scrutiny. The fact a well-known businessman was motivated enough to write his own blueprint for environmental nirvana may well have been enough to attract the interest, or at the very least curiosity, of a publisher. However, had David Long not argued over the substance of each point and repeatedly validated or refuted the arguments the author was putting forward, it is quite unlikely the book would ever have seen the light of day. Any publisher would have taken a look at the raw copy and dismissed it as unsubstantiated nonsense.
Working with a third party brings a fresh viewpoint to a story, which is something any author needs, however well they know their subject. Ghosts automatically have distance from an author. When someone shares their memories with a co writer it is the equivalent of stepping back, looking over everything and judging what is important from a reader's point of view. It's hard to do that when you've been fully immersed in something for years and years, particularly if it is an emotionally gruelling subject. A ghost can steer a story in the right direction. They will see what holes need filling in a narrative, what might be important to a reader and what isn't, where there are obvious flaws in characterisations or settings and what elements the author might need to consider beefing up. In short, they'll say what they think the book really is about as opposed to what the author thinks it is.
It is quite hard to get this rational perspective when you are close to a subject and that is why inexperienced authors can get bogged down in irrelevant detail of a story. An even worse tendency is for an author to get so carried away that they see their book as a tailormade opportunity to settle a score or two, as Louise Dixon, a senior editorial director at Michael O'Mara books found:
We had one instance of a personality who was writing his own book and the end result was fabulous, but we couldn't publish it. It was all about his family and was terribly uncomplimentary and totally actionable. If we took out all the bits about the family we would have had no book left at all. Our lawyer told us if we published we would be sued.
Publishers are a lot more cautious today and we have to be. There have been so many high profile legal cases. Privacy is one issue you can be really hanged for but most lay people don't understand it. They'll say, but the event in question definitely happened and it was all over the newspapers at the time. I have to tell them that doesn't mean it can be written in a book. In the eyes of the law a book is seen as a more formal document with longevity, whereas a newspaper will be the next day's chip wrapper. A ghost would know that, while a less experienced author probably won't.
This is where the professionalism a ghost brings in is so important. They know about privacy and confidentiality and all those other issues we have to skirt around in some way or another. They can come to the publisher early on and say something like; I am not sure how far we can go down this road talking about Aunty Val being a raging drunk.
Considering legal aspects of publishing might seem dull when writing a gripping opus of triumph over adversity, or of loves won and lost, but it can't be ignored. Again, a decent ghost will come into their own here and will be able to advise on such thorny subjects as copyright law, libel, defamation, warranties and, of course, privacy.
Are there any downsides to working with a ghost, aside from the cost? Some people might be reluctant to hire one because they are worried that handing over their story might damage their credibility. A public figure might be nervous that their potential readers would question why they can't do it themselves. They can probably almost hear them saying: aren't they up to the job? How hard can it be? The knowledge that ghosting is an anonymous pursuit won't assuage their fears, even though very often the reader has no idea that the person who wrote the book and the person with their name on the cover are not one and the same.