Ghostwriting is one of the most fascinating aspects of the publishing industry, but also one with very little information available about it — particularly from those involved in the process: writers and publishers. In our blog, we want to pull back the curtain and dispel some of the popular misconceptions, ultimately giving publishing professionals a real insight into ghostwriting.
How did you first begin ghostwriting? What was the primary attraction?
My first request came quite out of the blue. I had been working as a newspaper reporter for five or six years when a local family reached out to me through LinkedIn, asking whether I might help create a memoir. I had contributed to one small piece of non-fiction, a book about church architecture, at that point, but I had never undertaken anything more substantial. I was uncertain, but I wanted to help. This woman had carried a book around in her heart for more than 10 years, and it was clearly burdensome to her to not be able to get it on paper. I said I would give it a shot! We learned together. It took about nine months, but we wrote a book that later became a national award-winner. That was a turning point for me; I realized how much it could mean to help someone in this way and knew I wanted to do more.
What is the biggest misconception about ghostwriting?
I think the concern is that it is somehow sneaky. I understand that point of view, but for the work I do, the important part is that both parties (author/publisher and ghostwriter) understand clearly what is expected and what the outcome will look like. One person may have a story on his or her heart but needs a guide to create a narrative. I’m happy to help in that way, and if I understand exactly what my client needs and is paying me for — and can see the benefit I get out of it (practice, experience, and joy) — then I see it as fair and no different from any other job I may be hired to complete. I enjoy collaborative creation and the process as well as what I get out of it.
What do you find are the biggest challenges of ghostwriting?
The biggest challenge for me with ghostwriting, and any writing, is insecurity. Before I start a new book, I have the same question in my mind, no matter how many books I have behind me. Can I really do this? It may just be a matter of creative insecurity or the dreaded blank page, but it’s also a matter of the extent of the project. It’s hard to imagine the end of the tunnel when you know it is months away (though a strong outline does wonders in terms of helping me feel like I know where I’m headed). When it comes to challenges that are unique to ghostwriting, those deal with clearly communicating with your collaborative partner. If someone else has written an outline, I need to make sure I really understand all aspects of the plot and characters and what’s happening in each scene so I avoid extensive rewrites. I think these are challenges inherent to any collaborative process. Understanding and interpreting what other people envision is not a once-and-done step. It may take multiple iterations to achieve the best outcome, and that’s part of the fun.
Are there any unique challenges for your genre?
Thrillers are fun because they can be delivered in so many ways and points of view, and I love studying how other thriller writers create questions in the readers’ mind and how they let their stories unfold. I love the intimacy of first-person, and it’s truly my preference for creating pulse-pounding stories, but it can present challenges in terms of sharing information with the reader that your protagonist shouldn’t know, or shouldn’t know yet. (Likewise, there will be plenty your reader shouldn’t know, at least in the beginning, despite hanging around in your protagonist’s mind.) Again, a strong outline can help you map this out so you’re not writing yourself into a hole and so you’re raising the right questions in a way that is intriguing and engaging, not confusing and frustrating.
What’s the #1 thing you look for in a publisher/client?
I think the most important element of choosing whether to work with a publisher or client is clear expectations, which is key for any creative project. Creative output is different from selling widgets. You, the person doing the writing, have to make sure you know exactly what your publisher or client is looking to create and, often, their end goals. You have to understand where they want to fit in terms of genre and then you need to understand style, tone, characters — the list is really long here. It’s critical that the person you’re working with knows what they want and knows what they expect of you and that they communicate that to you clearly, right from the start. Otherwise, it’s likely to be a cumbersome journey and way more back-and-forth (and extra work) than you bargained for.
How do you find working from an outline and someone else’s vision?
I love it! It takes away the pressure of coming up with your own perfect story or plot and allows you to just enjoy making the story feel real and exercising your writer’s muscle. No matter whose book I’m writing (my own or a client’s), a clear, navigable outline is probably the most important step. An outline helps you see exactly where you’re going, so you don’t sit down and feel lost or risk losing momentum or direction. When someone else has done the hard work of creating an outline, I get to just write. That’s a treat. If I’m working in an environment where I feel like I can make suggestions to the outline or reach out for clarification or brainstorming, even better. Mostly though, I just take the “script” and run with it. Pure joy. In some ways, actually, it’s not all that different from being an actor, bringing a storyline someone else has written to life.
How does the writing process for a ghostwriting project differ from your own personal projects?
Well, as noted above, ghostwriting takes away a lot of the stressful part of the work if someone else has created a detailed outline already. In other ways, of course, it keeps me from practicing that hard work and takes away one creative step. Also, if it’s client work, I make it a priority over my own projects. That’s not ideal, but it’s life. In a perfect world (and once I realize my goals), my own writing would have a dedicated time/space in my schedule. Beyond the outlining phase, which typically involves pages and pages of overthinking, sketching, and many index cards when I’m going it alone, the writing itself is not much different. I’m just creating a world and people and conflict that I’ve designed without collaborating with someone else. I do find that I miss having someone to bounce ideas off when I’m going solo on a book.
How do you deal with not having your name attached to a book?
People think this must be excruciating. It’s not, at least for me. For me, the joy in writing a book is mostly in the process. In fact, when my book with James Patterson’s name and mine was out and on shelves, people kept asking me how I felt. It felt lovely, but not as lovely as writing it and thinking about writing it. For me, there’s a moment when you’re just finished with a whole book, when you feel light as air and divinely accomplished. That lasts up to a week, and then I need to focus on a new project and launch the process all over again. The book-on-shelves step comes so far after that elation that I’m on to some new adventure by then. Also, I don’t see creativity as finite or something in extremely limited supply. If I’ve spent months working on a book that will be published without my name and it becomes successful, it’s evidence, to me, of potential. There will be more books. There are many books in me.
Do you have any advice for writers interested in ghostwriting?
Ghostwriting is all about successful collaboration, so know what you want and need when you work with someone and make sure that person is someone you’d be comfortable working with for months at a time. Think about the qualities you’d like in a client or an ideal co-worker. These may vary depending on your own style (do you work better with lots of independence or would you need feedback on a daily basis?), but finding the right match for how you work will determine how well the project goes and how much you enjoy the process. Here’s an important piece of advice for ghostwriting or any writing: do your best but do not attach your self-worth to your creative work. If you have a bad day or a client doesn’t like a piece you’ve written, it’s not a reflection of your value. Keep at it. Do it for joy. I think you need to see your work as play and exploration, regardless of whether you’re being paid to do it. Write and write again tomorrow, no matter how today went, how well your last book sold, or how you feel about your ability right at this moment in your career.
If you’re interested in learning more about ghostwriting with Relay Publishing go to our Current Positions page to see available projects.