How to write a book

Living the stuff of novels: the ghostwriter’s lot

In this season of the notorious Zoella ghostwritten novel, I’m getting deluged with questions from people who know I ghostwrite. What’s it like? Who have I done? Well, I can’t tell you that because it’s a trade secret. Also because to divulge the details might get me shot. (Though I can give advice on how you get into it – here’s my recent post on that.) As the nation sings Zoella, Zoella, I thought you might like this piece on ghostwriting, originally penned for Authors Electric.

nick_blickWrite what you know? Ho ho ho

An acquaintance from my dance classes read My Memories of a Future Life last month and has since been seeing me in a whole new light. I can tell by the thoughtful looks he gives me as we wince through stretches and wobble through pirouettes; an expression that says ‘I never knew you had that weird stuff going on…’

After class the other day he said to me: ‘that freaky scene with the hypnosis in the underground theatre… you must have been to something like that?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘It’s research and imagination.’ He looked a little disappointed.

I stomp on your dreams

Had that taken away a little of the magic? Do readers prefer to think they’ve been led through your rearranged memoirs than the fruits of your persuasive art?

Some clearly do. There’s a long tradition that people who’ve had extraordinary lives sit down to dash off a novel. Many of them are not writers, and so the actual words came from people of ordinary amounts of courage and glamour, in charge of something no more racy than a blank page.

I know; I’ve done it. This is the lot of the ghostwriter.

The ghostwriter

A publisher introduces me to an ‘author’, and I write the novel they would if they could.

A surprising number of writers ghost for others, leaving behind our literary egos to live on the page as someone totally different. (It’s great discipline and allowed me to develop a method for getting novels ship-shape to order – all boiled down into my writing books.)

No, I didn’t do Jordan or Madonna. For some reason, I’ve trended in testosterone, with a run of adventurers and special forces types. I don’t know why. I don’t have a Y chromosome, for starters.

I now have an arsenal of rather wonderful faked experience. Just as you never forget how to ride a bicycle, I’ll never forget how to fly a plane, microlight, glider, hang-glider, helicopter. Or handle guns. Or hotwire various vehicles. I’m a dab hand with plastic explosive. I can make you believe I’ve abseiled out of helicopters into thin air, tracked assassins through jungles and India’s most impoverished slums, humanely killed a fatally wounded rhino and inhumanely despatched drug bosses. And done a whole rainbow of hallucinogenics.

In real life, my passport rarely gets any outings. But between the covers I’ve out-trekked Michael Palin.

After all that, hypnotising someone in an underground theatre is child’s play.

Fake to fake

Once, I went to meet my publisher and arrived in time to see my ‘author’, giving a presentation to the sales reps. Behind him was a wall of advance copies, floor to ceiling like bathroom tiles. I stood at the back and watched while he enthralled them with titbits of the characters and plot in the book I’d built on my hard drive.

We were faking, both of us. He was faking being a writer. I had faked being the soul who lived the stuff of novels. I watched for a while, then like a good ghost, slipped out, unseen.

It always amuses me to hear that maxim, ‘write what you know’.

Any questions? You can ask whatever you like, but I may have to answer with a seraphic smile. Or tape over my mouth.

Thanks for the pic NIck_Blick

ghostwriter red smlInterested in learning more about ghostwriting? My professional course is here



21 thoughts on “Living the stuff of novels: the ghostwriter’s lot

  1. Great post on the intrepid. One thing you don’t mention is you never have to take the can for the plummet to the remainder pile, or sell the bleedin thing! I could enjoy that, given the chance. Do you effect the writer’s natural ‘voice’? Bring in his tendency to verbosity? Or duff jokes? Or is it the complete costume change like your namesake in ‘As You Like it’?

    1. Hi Philippa! Yes, you’re right, I never saw whether the books sank without a trace. I also had to do considerable sleuthing to discover the opposite – that they sold like billy-oh.
      Good question about the voice. I was often taking over from other writers, so I adopted the voice they’d already established. It wasn’t hard, as so much of it was adopting a different outlook anyway. The voice came naturally with that for me.
      Most of all, I was taking on the ‘author’s’ way of seeing the world, writing the kind of story they would write if they could. I tried to imitate their taste in stories, to give readers what they would expect. It’s probably like acting.

  2. The obits this week of Katie Price’s hugely successful ghostwriter, Rebecca Farnworth, have been sadly enlightening about the traits of Rebecca that, despite outward evidence – she was the daughter of a judge – made her highly effective as the ghost of ‘Jordan’s’ memoirs and novels. Empathy with, if not admiration for, the world, life-style and accomplishments of the subject seem to be essential – and one can see why.

    1. Hi Hugh! Yes, indeed, empathy is essential. I found my ‘subjects’ genuinely interesting – and way more so than I’d ever be allowed to put in one of their books. They were people who had lived quite different lives from me, and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to get to know them if not for the ghostwriting. And it’s all great material.
      With one of my ghosting authors, I apparently lasted longer than any of his other ghostwriters. I think this was because the others didn’t get on with him.

  3. Ghostwriting allows me to pen the type of stories I enjoy, but would never create under my own pseudonym. It also helps to bring in relatively quick funds (I only ghostwrite short stories) rather than have to wait years to be paid.
    And, as you said, Roz, it has the additional plus of helping to hone those essential writing skills.

    1. You ghostwrite short stories, Andrew? I hadn’t thought there might be a market for those. Mind you, many people who’ve heard of ghostwriting think it’s all memoirs, not fiction. Thanks for stopping by (though with your mention of pseudonyms I realise you might be incognito…)

      1. Yes, I do a lot of work through oDesk, and there is a huge demand for short stories. Most disappear once they’re sent off, to be published under a variety of names (I guess). My pseudonym arose because a ghostwriting contract turned (unexpectedly) into a full publishing contract.. 😀

  4. Aren’t most ghostwriting contracts essentially work for hire? You do the work; you get paid (often handsomely). You don’t get royalties or necessarily have any further contact with the “author.” As you said in your post, you’ve written what the “author” would have written if he/she could have. What’s nefarious about that? The people who put their names on the cover are the ones claiming to have written a book that they didn’t. But again, I personally have no problem with that, because the book was written *for* them, and usually to their specifications. They are often the author of the concept even if they aren’t the author of the actual prose, although I’m sure that varies in degree.

    Even some *writers* have an oddly skewed view of ghostwriting. They act like it is some horrible deception, or that it is somehow taking advantage of the ghostwriter. It makes me shake my head in wonder.

    1. Hi Daniel!
      Contracts vary hugely. Some are work for hire on a flat fee, others are advance plus royalty. Some are paid handsomely, but not always – and certainly not ‘often’.
      As for the deception point – well, it’s business, isn’t it? When you make business out of the arts, you have to come to compromises. It’s true in music as well – any place where you can’t see, in real time, who’s singing, playing or writing.
      Some ghosted books or series are keeping the publishing economy going, which is why they’re produced. I think it’s readers who are most worried. They think they’re getting the contact with the author’s soul, but that person may not have had much to do with it at all. Some ghosted writers don’t even read their own books! Others do, and I’ve worked with ‘authors’ who were very engaged by their books, so it felt like a good collaboration.
      It’s an interesting ecosystem.

    2. “When you make business out of the arts, you have to come to compromises.”
      ~ Roz Morris

      Brilliant! I’m adding that line to my quotes file. A lot of artistic angst roils around those compromises.

      Thanks for the additional insight on ghostwriting contracts and the relationship with the client. I’ve done some ghostwriting myself, although only on non-fiction projects. For me, it has always been a simple work-for-hire scenario. And as you say, I didn’t get paid handsomely. 😉

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