Most writers have day jobs. Some of us ghost-write books for others – here’s my own, suitably censored, introduction to my ghosting activities. And some ghosts are also building our own body of work. I thought it would be fun to talk to some of my nebulous comrades to answer some questions: how do we balance the two types of writing?
Daniel Paisner @DanielPaisner – you might recognise Dan from his recent Undercover Soundtrack. He has ghosted more than 50 books for the great, good, notorious or extraordinary – including tennis champion Serena Williams, Ohio governor and Republican Presidential candidate John Kasich, and Academy Award winners Whoopi Goldberg, Denzel Washington and Anthony Quinn. He is the author of three novels: Obit, Mourning Wood and A Single Happened Thing.
Joni Rodgers @JoniRodgers – another Undercover Soundtrack veteran. Joni had a few novels published, then her cancer memoir Bald in the Land of Big Hair brought her offers from celebrities and other extraordinary people who wanted her to help them tell their life stories. Since then she has worked as a ghost-writer, book doctor and story strategist. Her own books include Crazy for Trying, First You Write, and Sugarland.
Deborah Ager @deborahager1 is the founder of Radiant Media Labs, a consultancy to help experts turn their big ideas into books. Behind the scenes, she has an MFA in creative writing, writes poetry, co-edited the Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry (2013) and Old Flame: Ten Years of 32 Poems Magazine (2012) and is working on a novel set during the Great Depression.
The big question is this: how different is their own work from their usual ghostwriting milieu? Do the two complement each other in any way?
Joni says she finds there’s considerable synergy and overlap.
Joni: ‘As myself, I write quirky, character-driven fiction informed by politics and travel. Right now I’m working on a screenplay to showcase five actresses over 40 in a story about strong, smart women. My little yop against Hollywood sex/age inequity.
‘My ghost-writing projects are all over the map, but there’s a lot of crossover in the big picture. Every ghost book I’ve written has taught me something that made me a better novelist. Some ghost projects are craft skill boot camp; others take me to places I never could have seen as a casual observer.’
‘I’ve seen things…’
I find this too. Here’s a post about the things I’ve learned to fake … But that trivialises the true nature of the ghost-client dynamic. The ghost-writer does more than write about derring-do they’ve never done. We climb inside the client’s inner life. We truly walk the miles in their shoes. It’s a privileged, trusted position.
Joni also found that ghost-writing opened unexpected doors for her own writing. ‘While I was working on a memoir with Kristin Chenoweth, I got to know Aaron Sorkin, who was incredibly generous with his time. Hanging out with him was like a personal masterclass in storytelling. He looked at an early draft of my novel The Hurricane Lover, gave me valuable feedback and encouraged me to explore the possibility of screenwriting. He gave me a stack of scripts and a long reading list, and the final draft of The Hurricane Lover was exponentially better because of that. A few years later, I got a call from a well-known director who was considering hiring me to do his memoir. As part of the vetting process, he read The Hurricane Lover. Though he ultimately decided not to go forward with the memoir, he was so impressed with the dialogue and story structure, he hired me to thrash out a story strategy and doctor some dialogue for a screenplay he was working on.’
While Joni finds her two writing worlds run in parallel tracks, Dan realises his fiction might be an antidote to his commercial milieu.
Dan: ‘The stories and characters I’m drawn to in my fiction tend to be small, out-of-the-way, under-the-radar. I look for moments where we live and work, quietly, where not a whole lot happens. What interests me are the ways we connect with each other, the ways we don’t, and the choices we make in the spaces in-between. What genre is that exactly? I don’t know, but judging from my sales history this is not the stuff of page-turning, best-selling fiction. Oh, well…
‘I’ve never really thought about this in just this way, but I suppose there is a connection. The ‘celebrities’ I work with in my day job tend to be larger than life. They live loudly, purposefully. Meanwhile, the characters I choose to spend time with in my novels are somewhat smaller-than-life. They live quietly, sometimes aimlessly. I guess without even realizing it, this is how I balance the scales.’
One for them, one for me
One for them, one for me: in theory that’s how it goes. But ghost-writing isn’t nine-to-five. Commissions often come at short notice, and clients, agents and publishers are all clamouring for a book they can sell as soon as possible. How do my friends here manage this balance? Do they have a routine to keep their own books alive while meeting their ghost-writing deadlines? Or do they clear a few months to retreat and create?
Dan: ‘There is no such thing as routine. The idea is to have two books going at once — one of theirs and one of mine. But the reality is that almost never happens. Deadlines extend, mutate, turn in on themselves. Projects overlap. I find that when I’m working on my own novel, I need to clear the decks — shut out all social media and other outside distractions. Very often, I’ll trade off by weeks. I’ll go hard on a celebrity collaboration for a week, eclipsing my goals, just to have a free week to work on my novel. Last summer, I went away for three weeks to our house in the mountains, just to have that uninterrupted chunk of time.
‘But I find I have to work to create those free moments. I don’t have the luxury of waiting around for inspiration to strike. I have to schedule its appearance, and if it doesn’t show up in quite the form I was hoping, I just have to work with what I’ve got.’
Let’s hear from Deborah Ager, who spends much of her energy on her Radiant Media clients. Meanwhile, she is persevering with her own poetry, her editing and her novel:
Deborah: ‘Writing is a lot like exercise. My brain will become flabby if I don’t keep chipping away at the writing on a consistent schedule. Even if I only have a short time, I aim to write on a regular basis. It’s too painful to do it the other way.’
‘A good life vs a good living’
And sometimes, a good ghost can be a victim of their own success. Although it’s tempting to take every gig that comes along, Joni Rodgers established early on that she needed to pull back sometimes, for a more fulfilling balance.
Joni: ‘When I was debating whether to take my first ghost gig, my editor at HarperCollins said, ‘Joni, with your skillset and temperament, you could make a better than good living as a ghost-writer’. Ten years and more than a dozen books later, I’ve realized a good life is more important than a good living. I’ve gotten very selective. For me, carving out time to write my own novels and screenplays is key both to my own happiness and to the sanity and balance I need to serve my clients.
‘As a ghost, you have to bring on all the craft skills and industry knowledge of a successful writer, but you have to set aside all the ego stroking, histrionics and other pseudo-luxuries that might be afforded a pampered author. You have to be the grown-up in the relationship, putting someone else’s needs before your own, listening instead of talking, and keeping to a task schedule so you can deliver the goods on time. You have to be willing/able to subsume your own creative voice and choices in order to stay true to the creative voice and choices of the client. In the publishing process, which is invariably fraught for one reason or another, you are now the Sherpa instead of the mountain climber. You do the heavy lifting and trailblazing; your client gets to plant the flag and ski down to the base camp for champagne. If you’re not genuinely cool with all that, you’re not going to be happy as a ghost-writer, and it’s unlikely you’d be successful — because you wouldn’t be able to serve your clients at the level they’re paying for. But I’m a creative tyrant when it comes to my own soul projects.’
Accept no imitations
Let’s pause on that phrase: the creative tyrant. Amen to that.
As a ghost-writer, I am at the service of another person’s vision. I serve their audience and their publisher or agent. It’s fun to be the missing piece that pulls a book into the daylight. I thought I was easy with the commercial demands of publishing and the inevitable compromises of fitting a market. Until the moment I finished my first novel as myself.
At that moment, I discovered a deep-seated streak of stubbornness. I would take any amount of advice on what didn’t work, but I wouldn’t make the book fit a copycat sales agenda. I think I see that in Dan too, with his quiet explorations, which he publishes through small imprints.
And of course, some of us have embraced self-publishing. We can keep control, nurture and discipline a book for as long as we need to until it’s ready, and make sure it’s true to our hopes. Let’s hear again from Joni:
Joni: ‘I love serving my clients, but ghost-writing can be spiritually and creatively exhausting. I don’t see how truly top-drawer ghost work is sustainable if we fail to stay firmly connected to our mightiest artistic selves. I end up losing ground because I prefer (for creative and financial reasons) to publish my own work, but I won’t compromise on the publishing process, which is time-consuming. Net result: I have three novels and a memoirella collection in my self-publishing queue, waiting for the TLC they need before launch. I keep waiting for a lull on the ghost front, but it doesn’t seem to happen. But I’m not in this to half-bake the books I care about most.
Might ghost-writing be a good career move for you? I’ll be exploring this tomorrow in a post at Jane Friedman’s site. Or if you’re already seriously toying with the idea, you can hop over to her domain right now and read about my course. Early birds get a substantial discount – you pay US$149 instead of US$199.
Any questions? Even if you don’t ghost-write, you might find yourself balancing passion projects and artistic vision with more commercial work. If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts.