Archive for category The writing business

Is it cheating to use a ghostwriter?

A few months ago, a blogger challenged me with this question. Is it cheating to use a ghostwriter? (Why would anyone ask me this? I have a secret past.)

And just this week, John Doppler of the Alliance of Independent Authors wrote about the ethics of ghostwriting, how he was initially doubtful but is now using a ghostwriter for books of his own.

So here’s the short answer. It’s complicated.

Who wrote that book? Maybe more people than you think.  

Publishing has always been a team effort. This is often a surprise to readers, and also to inexperienced writers. There’s a belief that the published book is exactly what the author first sent to the publisher.

The reality is different. Your manuscript is only the start. It becomes a patient in a long and intricate operation. It will have editors, of several varieties – some for the big picture, some for the detail goofs you didn’t know were possible (how many Tuesdays did you put in one week?).  There are also designers, marketers and publicity folk.

Your book may have germinated from just you, but by the time it greets the world, it’s had many midwives.

With ghostwriting, you add one more midwife. The writer splits into two people – the person with the life, ideas and experience, and the person who crafts that into text.

But… (I hear you say…) all those editors, designers etc are assistants. It’s the writer who’s at the helm, who ‘invents’ the book. The writer might have guidance, sometimes heavy guidance, but they do the most work.

Up to a point, yes. But sometimes a person has the raw materials but can’t turn them into a book. Maybe they could learn; maybe that would be impossible. Maybe they could write but don’t have enough time. But when publishers spot a commercial opportunity, they are chasing an immediate market. They need it done fast.

Commercial

This is a crucial word: commercial. Ghostwriters are generally used in the high-volume sectors of publishing, The books are usually fronted by a person who is marketable because of fame or life or expertise, but doesn’t have writing-fu. Or perhaps they’re too busy running businesses, winning grand slams or saving the world. So a ghostwriter is brought in – who can write exactly what’s needed and in a timely way. If all goes well, everyone benefits.

But.. (I hear you say…) isn’t it a cheat? To imply that a person can write a book when they can’t?

Qualms

I agree with your qualms. Morally it is questionable. It might undermine the skills of real writers. We have a myth that anyone can write a book, probably because everyone seems to. Mumble-minded sports stars can do it, so it cannot be very difficult. Indeed, they apparently dash off a memoir or tome of life advice without pausing their all-consuming day job.

Thus the use of ghostwriters might make the public (and your aunt) assume that anyone can toss off a book. In their spare time, indeed.

There’s also an issue of trust. The byline is sacred, isn’t it? It’s the promise on the tin. It should be the name of the person who sweated the book personally onto the page.

Well, the ghostwriter’s sweat doesn’t go unacknowledged. Money is a good acknowledgement. Ghostwriting is paid at a commercial rate and there might be royalties.

Ghostwriters aren’t always invisible. Sometimes we get a co-credit. That depends on the individual deal and whether it looks ‘bad’ for the ‘author’ to have had help. Getting murky again…

Murk

Oh yes, there is murk. Sometimes the ‘author’ isn’t co-operative, or isn’t as interesting as the publisher hoped, or some of their content can’t be used because of legal issues. The publishing team must salvage what they can to get a book on the shelves. Usually no harm is done. Usually.

I can see you’re itching to mention Donald Trump’s Art of the Deal. Its ghostwriter has gone on record to say the book contained hardly any Trump, yet helped create his reputation (full story here ).

What other murk is lurking? Oh yes, the kinds of books you think should not be ghostwritten.

But surely not novels…

Do you assume ghostwriting is only for non-fiction? Memoirs, business books, self-help, autobiographies? You’d better sit down. A sizeable amount of fiction is ghostwritten too. (Writing fiction for others used to be my speciality.  Shhh.)

Remember: in commercial publishing, books are sold by names and notoriety. Verily, even in fiction. Put another way, if a celeb needed help to write their memoir, they’ll sure need help with their novel. Some are entirely up front about this.

Even among the ‘genuine’ authors, there are books that have many midwives. James Patterson makes no secret of using other writers to help him meet demand. Others keep their ‘assistants’ a secret, or possibly don’t realise how much is done to make their book respectable. Many editorial staff in big publishing imprints have had to rewrite a manuscript because the author reached the limit of their craft or the clock was running down. Editing and ghostwriting are two ends of a long and blurred spectrum.

Does that worry me? Yes and no. As a writer who works hard at their craft, I’m not thrilled if a book that needed substantial rescuing gets a good reputation it doesn’t deserve. But that is commercial publishing.

If that irks you too, you’d better sit down, because I’m about to reveal something bad. No, lie down; it’s thoroughly grubby.

Are you lying comfortably?

There are authors who are offered novel deals with en-suite ghostwriters because they are distinguished in other areas of life. If those novels do well, those authors become literary pundits, judge literary prizes etc.

With most ghostwritten books, the deception is largely harmless, because the writing is not the chief draw. The content is. But where the writing is the thing… Any writer who is struggling to be recognised for their skill and quality will find that hard to stomach.

And breathe.

But…

Before we write ghosting off as evil and underhand, we should consider one defining factor. For the writer (the actual wordsmith writer) a ghostwritten book isn’t the same as your own.

The ghostwriter creates a book that someone else would write…. If they could. They don’t write a book and have it torn from their hands. They create a book to a contract, for a purpose. They apply their craft and skill to raw material from another person – a life story, technical or business expertise, a special world. In that respect, the name on the cover and the face in the author pic are honest. They are the true soul of the book. (Though see the caveats above.)

Perhaps ‘ghost’ is the wrong term. Perhaps it should be ‘medium’.

Business

Ghostwriting is also a business arrangement, like any professional service. It has to be, in order to pay both ‘author’ and ghost – and at a decent market rate. Ghostwriters are hired by publishers or by people who’ll get a good return on their investment, and many writers use it as a second line to help fund their ‘real’ books.

Which means that, amid the chicanery and shadows, there is an honest living to be made by the ghostwriter.

Thanks for Venice carnival mask picture, Sweetaholic on Pixaby. Thanks Olivander on Flickr for the monkey. Thanks Actualitte on Flickr for the London Book Fair.

If you’re interested to know more about how to break in and how the industry works, I have a professional ghostwriting course.

And if you’re curious to know what I’ve been up to in my genuine writing life, here’s my latest newsletter

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Writing memoir, taking control, long-term careers – talking to Victoria Dougherty about the 21st century author

What qualities characterise a 21st century author? I got talking about this with my friend Victoria Dougherty and she wanted to chew over it properly on her podcast.

You might recognise Victoria because she’s been on this blog several times. She’s a prime example of the phenomenon we’re discussing. She writes historical thrillers and memoirs and develops into new genres as life goes on – because real authors don’t stand still and they know the world doesn’t either. We talk about indie and traditional publishing and the pros and cons of each, the peculiar challenges of memoir, how we love travel writing and places that are weird and adorable, Vladimir Nabokov, some guilty pleasures and how the fiction we’re writing affects the outfits we wear (very serious question). Do come over.

And if you’re curious to know more about my own adventures, here’s my latest newsletter

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Roger Ebert, Werner Herzog, Antarctica … and a manifesto for maverick creatives

Author life isn’t necessarily easy. Although our stresses are hardly big league – we’re not performing brain surgery or living in a war zone – we sometimes feel embattled and alone. If you’re having one of those moments, let this restore your courage.

First, watch this film by Werner Herzog, Encounters at the End of the World (enjoy the colossal glaciers, the eerie beauty of the sea under the ice and adorable nihilistic penguins). Then – the important bit – read this fan letter to Herzog by critic Roger Ebert (if you have the film DVD, there’s a panel discussion of it in the extras).

Ebert’s fan letter is actually about all of us – the creators with a powerful inner compass. It’s a fan letter for our values. Most of us could take ‘easier’ options, whether artistically, commercially or in life as a whole, but we must do otherwise. Yes, says Ebert, there are people who appreciate this spirit. Who applaud it.

Here’s why, in 7ish highlights.

1

‘This is … a letter to a man whose … vision … challenges us to ask … questions not only about films but about lives … their lives…’

Our personal vision. We notice, we feel, we create.

2

‘I believe you have never made a film depending on … formulas…’

Formulas? No.

3

‘…and you want every film to be absolutely original.’

We might not even follow our own, er, formulas.

4

‘Without ever … having a dependable source of financing, without the attention of the … oligarchies that decide what may be filmed and shown, you have directed at least 55 films or television productions …  because you have depended on your imagination instead of budgets, stars or publicity campaigns.’

Although we’re not financially naïve, we’ll do what we do regardless of whether it is commercial.

5

‘You have had the visions and made the films and trusted people to find them, and they have. It is safe to say you are as admired and venerated as any filmmaker alive…’

Independence leads to artistic identity, a distinctive style, and respect for our integrity.

5.5

…‘among those who have heard of you, of course…’ 

I admit that Herzog’s obscurity problem is not on the scale of, say, the obscurity problems that most of us have. But if we’re talking about scale, it seems Ebert regards Herzog as a tad obscure.

5.75

‘Those who do not know your work, and the work of your comrades in the independent film world, are missing experiences that might shake and inspire them.’

Making us feel a bit better about that obscurity thing.

6

‘You often say … the media pound the same paltry ideas into our heads … and that we need to see around the edges or over the top. When you open Encounters at the End of the World by following a marine biologist under the ice floes of the South Pole, and listening to the alien sounds of the creatures who thrive there, you show me a place on my planet I did not know about, and I am richer. You are the most curious of men. You are like the storytellers of old, returning from far lands with spellbinding tales… the world as we dream it… the deeper truth.’

That’s why we make what we make, and we take such care.

 

Interlude 

Let’s recap.

1 Be curious.

2 Invent.

3 Don’t be afraid to develop.

4 Be independent in the most important way, with your questing, communicative spirit.

5 Find your audience gradually and genuinely, with the distinctive character of what you do.

 

And back to Ebert… finale

‘You and your work are unique and invaluable…. You have the audacity to believe that if you make a film about anything that interests you, it will interest us as well. You have proven it.’

Go forth and be audacious.

PS Watch the film and look for the little penguin.

PPS If you’re curious to know what this little penguin is doing with all her creative time, here’s my latest newsletter

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7 ways to write with confidence – guest post at Ingram Spark

Some books never get out of the writer’s mind and onto the page … and when IngramSpark heard about my new workbook, they thought I might have some advice. Voila, 7 essential points for writing with confidence, which you can see over at their blog. Actually, I didn’t expect to be in your inbox again so quickly after the previous post, but launch times always get a bit frenetic.

Actually #2…

Special offer!

This extra post also lets me share a sudden, mad offer. This weekend, in honour of the Bookbrunch Selfie Awards, I’m having a flash sale for my novel Lifeform Three – which a few years ago had a nibble at a very prestigious award (I’ve never been able to tell the story before, but you can find it here).  For this weekend, the Kindle edition of Lifeform Three is  just 99c. Grab it now!

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How to choose a creative writing degree – the honest truth

We all find our own paths when learning to write. For some, a creative writing degree is the right one. Last year, when I fell into an email correspondence with creative writing professor Garry Craig Powell, I couldn’t resist asking some cheeky questions about his corner of the literary world – and he was game to answer them. I thought it was a conversation that would be useful to you guys… hence this series. We’re publishing it in parts at Late Last Night Books.

Last time, we discussed who might get real value from a creative writing degree (and, by extension, who wouldn’t).

This time, we weigh up how to choose a course. Including:

How to make meaningful comparisons between courses at different institutions.

Famous tutors – how much of their time will you get?

How much might the course cost you?

How are students selected – are you sure you’ll get in?

What are most students writing …

… and a few other things!

Grab a beverage and come on over.

And if you’ve taken a creative writing degree yourself – or considered it and decided not to – do share your experiences in the comments here. Also, post any questions you’d like us to tackle. If they’re not in one of the interviews, we can gather them into a special at the end. 

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It’s a workbook! Unlock your book’s full potential and finish like a pro

In my previous post, I mentioned how I’ve just hit my ten-year blogging anniversary and the surprising things that brought. So it’s high time to revisit the first book I ever published under my real name – and today I’m proud to present the Nail Your Novel Workbook!

(The title’s a bit longer than that… Nail Your Novel: Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence – A Companion Workbook.)

It enlarges the 10-step process in Nail Your Novel Original, with expanded questions to tackle all the creative stages. I’ve added sections to help you discover your best writing method, beat writer’s block, squeeze maximum originality out of your idea, keep yourself on message when the manuscript is having a rest. And an in-depth workshop to help you find a knockout title. It’s a contract with yourself to produce your best possible book.

A proper post is coming tomorrow – continuing the in-depth interview with creative writing professor Garry Craig Powell. Last time we asked when – and if – it’s worthwhile taking a writing degree. This time, we’ll be discussing how to choose one.

In the meantime, have fun with the new book – and if you want to take pictures of your workings, I’d love to see them. x

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Because I started a blog – 10 years as an accidental citizen of cyberspace

This time a decade ago, I was starting a blog.

I was rather surprised to be doing it.

I was not an online person. I did not tweet or Facebook. The internet hardly touched my daily life. I was fully and gainfully occupied without it. It might as well have been a separate and mythical dimension, like hyperspace.

But on a wet evening in February 2009, I was with a friend who had a worldwide reputation in his creative niche. He ran this thriving empire through the ether, from five well-visited blogs.

When he said ‘let’s make you a blog’, I said yes.

I was suspicious of the blog thing, because I am never an early adopter (see above) and also because I disliked the word ‘blog’. (Still do, if I think about it.) But I’d just come out of a mind-whirling experience (you’ll know this if you’ve read Not Quite Lost).

My blog helped complete the transformation.

Before the blog, I was an author in limbo. Skip this paragraph if you know my origin story, but in 2009 I’d just found an agent for my first novel. Before that, I’d ghostwritten novels for other people. Now I hoped I’d be published as me and start my proper career at last.

Alas, publishers wanted New Real Me to be like Old Ghostwriter Me because that was profitable. (Psst…. if you want to be like Ghostwriter Me, you might like my professional course )

And so I remained, both published and not; an author but not really – unless I denied my own creative drive.

That changed when I became a blogger.

  • On my blog, I could be whoever I wanted, and I would decide who that was.
  • On my blog, I did not have to wait for anybody’s permission.
  • Once I had a blog, I had a place to invite people to, a room of my own, a gallery to say who I was. I could go to other blogs and chat – anyone’s I liked.

Through my blog, I made many friends. I grew confident in my own aesthetic judgement as a publisher. I gained the confidence to publish books on writing, my novels and to vary my genres because I could bring readers along on the journey. (Contemporary fiction, speculative fiction, travel diaries… what next? Whatever I like.)

Bloggers have a gung-ho have-a-go mentality.

Because of this, I discovered I could speak on podcasts without microscripting everything first. As I am a fanatical polisher and editor, speaking off the cuff was squarely in my discomfit zone. Eek! Spontaneity! But bloggers feel the fear and do it anyway. This became professional speaking and teaching gigs both in indie world and beyond. Which I discovered I rather enjoyed.

So this blogging anniversary is significant. A marker of big life changes.

Now in 2019, is blogging still as powerful for authors starting now?

Maybe, maybe not. We still need ways to gather readers and discover common ground, but I think much of this now happens in the speedy, flitty public spaces such as Twitter and Facebook. I think blogs are still read because subscriber numbers are still growing (thank you, guys!) but the commenting is no longer as fervent – if I look back at old posts I’m astonished to see hundreds of comments on one topic, which now seems inconceivable. I feel authors still need a website as a home base and a blog to show they’re alive, but the more settled communication now happens in email newsletters (psst … here’s mine).

(And is that a new book you see there? Indeed it is. Hop onto the link to find out, straight from the horse’s mouth.)

What do I expect in another ten years? I have no idea. I’m not a goal setter, except for individual projects where my goal is simply to finish them well.

I could never answer that question in job interviews. ‘Where do you see yourself in x years?’ A truthful answer would betray that I hoped to have graduated far beyond their job, doing something that was much more ME. Though I couldn’t have said for sure what that was.

Now, though, I’d say that in another x years I hope to be doing this, or something like it, and doing it better, and finding other related activities I can add around the edges.

I’ve found what I was looking for. Creative integrity, confidence and independence.

Which I think shows that 10 years of blogging has been a jolly good move.

Do you blog? How long have you blogged for? If you’ve been blogging for a while, have you noticed any general trends? What has it brought you?

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Should you take a creative writing degree? The honest truth. An interview

There are many ways we can learn the art and craft of writing. One is a dedicated degree course, either at bachelor or postgraduate level. But what do they give you that you can’t get in other ways?

Last year I got in conversation about this with creative writing professor Garry Craig Powell – you might recognise him because he’s been an Undercover Soundtrack guest and interviewed me about Not Quite Lost. So I thought it would be good to write a proper, in-depth interview about it – and it turned out to be very long!

We’re publishing it in parts at Late Last Night Books. In part 1, we chew over the following questions, with actionable points at the end –

What are the benefits and limitations of creative writing degrees?

What experience level should a writer have so their work is enhanced rather than forced into a standard mould (the often-derided MFA novel)?

As writing is largely self-taught, do writers need formal teachers?

Misconceptions about creative writing teachers!

Thanks for the pic, Pixabay

Come on over!

And if you’ve taken a creative writing degree yourself – or considered it and decided not to – do share your experiences in the comments here. Also, post any questions you’d like us to tackle. If they’re not in one of the interviews, we can gather them into a special at the end. 

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I’ve finished my manuscript! What now? 16 ultimate resources to make good decisions about your book

A friend has turned into a writer. Unbeknown to me, she’s been chipping away at a novel and her husband just sent this email.

Her novel is more or less finished!!! I may need to pick your brains about marketing! We also think we need to get it professionally proof-read. We tried doing it ourselves with Grammarly, but realise it’s way more complex than it seems …’

Ah bless. If you’re well seasoned in the author world, you’ll already be counting the many erroneous assumptions. Carts before horses. Running before walking.

But we all have to start somewhere. And even if you’re already wiser than my beginner friend here, you might know a writer who’s effervescing in a similar state of enthusiastic, ecstatic, multi-plinged euphoria. High on all those well-earned Es, they can’t possibly know what’s coming next.

So this post is a gentle reality check, a bit of tough love, a bit of hand-holding and a jolly, genuine thump between the shoulder blades to say: well done, welcome to the club.

Marketing? Proof reading?

Let me explain about those production processes.

This post is angled for self-publishers, but it explains all the work that a publisher typically does on a book. Including proofreading etc

And here’s another post about production processes

NB Do NOT rely on Grammarly! To proof-read a book, you need a knowledgeable human. Also, you need to develop good grammar skills etc yourself. This may seem unsympathetic, but if you’re not sensitive to grammar, spelling and language use, how will you learn the linguistic and lexical control to write well? Seriously, would you expect a person who is tone deaf to play a musical instrument to a listenable standard? Here’s where I rant about that

But even with all that natural prowess, you’ll still need copy editors and proof readers because they read in a highly specialised way. They look for the mistakes you never dreamed were possible.

Did you say ‘self-publish’?

Are you going to self-publish or try for a traditional deal? Is this the first time you’ve ever been asked to think about it? Here’s a post about self-publishing vs traditional publishing – the similarities and the differences. They’re no longer mutually exclusive either – there are many options in between. And as you might expect, you’ll need to spot the rip-off merchants who are eager for your £££s, so I’ve pointed to some tell-tale signs.

You’ve heard of crowdfunding? Here’s how my friend Victoria Dougherty is using crowdfunding to support a creative departure

Do people still send manuscripts off to publishers and literary agents? Yes they do. And you can. But before you send your manuscript anywhere, read on.

Before you can walk….

Now you know how a book is made. But first, is the book really ready? Have you rewritten it until your fingers are in tatters?

Here’s the behind-the-scenes work that went into my last release, Not Quite Lost

Here’s a post about beginning with a muddle and rewriting into glory (with a dose of disco)

When you decide to work with an editor (and I recommend you do at some point), here’s what they can do for you

How much should you budget for an editor? And how should you choose one?

If those costs make you boggle, here are some low-cost ways to boost your writing skills

Will your editor trample all over your style?  No, a good editor helps you to be yourself

Have you looked for feedback and ended up in a pickle? Here’s how to find your way again.

Will your editor laugh at your naïve efforts? Au contraire. Here’s why they admire you and appreciate what you’ve already achieved.

Marketing

You asked about marketing. It’s not really my sphere of expertise, and each type of book and writer will require different approaches. But yes, you do have to make time for it. Here’s a post about finding a good balance

If you’re going to get on Twitter, for heaven’s sake use your author name. Here’s why

Wait, I’m overwhelmed! There are so many books already out there….

Yes there are. But the world still needs new voices. There’s never been a person like you, with your experiences, your perspective, your curiosities. You might have the unique outlook and insight that a reader needs to hear.

PS If you’re curious about what I’m working on at the moment, here’s the latest edition of my newsletter

PPS You should start a newsletter.

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Literary fiction – do we need a new term?

A review in The Times of Milkman by Anna Burns, which has just won this year’s Booker, has me worried. (James Marriott: ‘Booker choice is all that’s wrong with literary fiction’.)

I haven’t read Milkman so I can’t say if I’d agree with Marriott’s review, but I absolutely share many of his concerns. He finds the book ‘a tough read’, self-indulgent in style and not particularly elegant or original. He concludes:

Nowadays literary fiction doesn’t mean “good fiction” … it means fiction that adheres to a set of stylistic conventions … novels as status markers rather than life-changing entertainments’.

If this is what ‘literary’ now means, do we need a new name for the other sort? The ‘life-changing entertainment’?

Actually, that definition of literary isn’t enough for me. To me, literary is nuanced, intelligent fiction that might not conform to genre tropes and seems to be bigger, deeper, truer, perhaps more inexplicable than its plot and characters. (Yes: more inexplicable. You could disappear up your own omphalos trying to define literary. If you like that, here’s another occasion where I’ve had a go.)

Literary novels don’t have to be plotless or weighed down by their meanings and value (see my post here where I tackle the ‘plotless’ question).

Neither do they have to be difficult – see this interview where Joanna Penn is talking to novelist and TV dramatist David Nicholls about his adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. Nicholls talks of ‘the British literary tradition that feels modern, startling and original’. (If you want another highly readable gem from the Brit-lit tradition, try William Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil.)

All of this is a long way from Booker-lit, but unfortunately Booker-lit is becoming the benchmark for all literary. If you’re a writer of the other sort (like I am), what are you now?

And that’s why I’m fretting. If a new term is needed for literary fiction, what should it be? Contemporary fiction? Modern fiction? Upmarket fiction?

Let’s discuss.

Psst .. If you’re feeling plotless in an uncomfortable way, try my plot book

Psst 2 … If you’re curious to know how my current novel, Ever Rest, is doing, this is my latest newsletter.

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