Normally when I talk about my ghostwriting services with a prospective client, I simplify. “You talk. I listen. I write it down and clean it up. You look it over and make corrections. And that’s it.”
And very often, that is it. Someone without the time or skills to undertake a large writing project looks for someone who can. If they find me, we sit down and talk through a subject they know, and about which they want to produce a book. I turn their raw commentary into a first rough version, get their input on it, and then turn it into finished prose.
It isn’t that hard. It doesn’t even have to take place in person. I’ve written books for people I’ve never met face-to-face, communicating via Skype, GoToMeeting, the smartphone, even plain email.
Sometimes you can even skip the discussions altogether. There are clients who simply want to be an author, period. They don’t care what you write, so long as the subject is one they want to be seen as having written about, and so long as people can agree that it’s competently done. These noble souls give you complete carte blanche, asking only that you write a competent book about something to which they wish to attach their name. If each chapter you write along the way pleases them, you receive a check for that chapter. And in the end their names appear on the shelf at Barnes and Noble, or on stacks of books for sale at their seminars
Is it that important to be an author? Well—yes. In the academic world, it’s publish or perish: promotions, invitations to conferences, tenure, all rest squarely on your list of publications. In the business world, being the author of a book gets you media attention, establishes your expertise, distinguishes you from the competition, sells your services, describes your innovative new business concept—not to mention bringing in a lifelong additional stream of income that pays the cost of getting it written in the first place. The authors of books on politics and religion win power and change the world: Dianetics founded the religion of Scientology, Profiles In Courage (ghostwritten by Ted Sorensen) helped put John Kennedy into the White House, Das Kapital brought down Imperial Russia. Yes, books make a difference.
But actually writing them can be absolute hell—time, research, revision, the sheer despair of looking at a truly bad first draft and realizing that if the world sees the rubbish you wrote, they’ll regard you as a fool. Even worse, the dread suspicion that you really don’t know what you’re talking about, and you may be a fool. Writing is not just technically hard; it’s emotionally hard, even humiliating. It’s no wonder that aspiring authors want help.
But sometimes that help can be subtle. Ghostwriting isn’t pure transcription. If you think so, open up the recorder on your smartphone and talk for twenty minutes on a subject you know. It’s, like, uh… it’s like… the stuff, I mean the stuff you want to like, um, SAY, y’know? It’s, it’s, it’s not… it’s not like… well, it just isn’t! Y’know?
I’m a ghost. So I do know. I also know how to take material like the above and turn it into something clear, lively, persuasive, and entertaining. Kind of like this! But it’s a little more complicated than it looks. And there are some major benefits to it that are not always immediately apparent. And so I’d like to touch on some aspects and rewards of ghostwriting that aren’t quite as obvious or well advertised.
So. What does a ghost do that is generally not well known—but critically important?
First and foremost, before even starting to write, a ghostwriter does his best to locate valuein the proposed book. After all, people read books to find something there that matters to them. It can be information they want to learn, stories that entertain them, insights that challenge them, comments that make them laugh, outrages that make them cry. They want to go from a bored, passive, everyday state to a more alive, higher, stronger one. What is it about a client’s story that can spark that interest, that fire?
Say, for instance, a client hires you to write a book about becoming a successful real estate investor. That story can be entertaining—if the client has dozens of hilarious stories about crazy renters, crooked sellers, wild auctions, falling roofs. It can be inspiring—if the client rose from awful poverty or severe handicaps to wealth and generosity.
It can also have no personal elements at all, and even no fundamental originality, and still work. Content, strangely enough, can be the least important thing about building a book. After all, there are dozens of books on successful real estate investment, and the techniques are much the same. Simply reading several existing books and synthesizing all their soundest points can produce a very valuable book all by itself. The client doesn’t have to meet you, speak to you, or say a thing—just give you the assignment and cut a check.
What the ghost must do, however, is be sure that the book is meaningful to the audience the client wants to reach valuable in some important way. And it has to be a way that conforms to the client himself. Some clients are wild, funny and full of stories. Some are a cold blank wall, as perky as an undertaker’s hearse. You can get a good book out of either, but you can’t produce a book that that person could not possibly write. The suit must be tailored to fit.
The assessment of a book’s value is often much more technical than just this. When a client or agent proposes a book, I generally go to Amazon or Kirkus or Goodreads or Publishers Weekly and check out the competition. Are there books out on the subject already? Are they selling? Are they perennial best sellers? How are they trending? Books take time to write. Will that paranormal Zombie romance novel the client wants still be a booming category six months from now? Or will it be deader than the protagonist?
It’s more than just a matter of sales. Books fall into particular kinds of categories and genres, and readers have certain expectations. A murder mystery has to have a murder and a detective, for instance, and the murder should happen in the early pages, not on the last one. It shouldn’t be the detective who dies in either case, while the murderer gets away. And the mystery needs to be solved, not (like the victim) left hanging.
You can write a kind of book that violates all these expectations, of course, but if you violate enough expectations, you lose readers and you get bad reviews. This principle applies to every kind of book. Readers of financial books expect charts. Readers of books on sales want to see sales figures. Readers of cook books want recipes. Readers of nonfiction want chapter headings that tell you what’s in those chapters.
These expectations, these traditions, are a gift. Reading books that are popular in their category gives you a treasure chest of tips on how to lay out and arrange the book, what tone is appropriate, what topics need to be covered, even what the cover should look like. Fabio’s oily pecs and a misty pirate ship in the background? That’s one kind of book. Three-eyed aliens emerging from silver saucers? That’s another. I don’t need to say which is which.
But there’s more to research nowadays than this. I rarely undertake a book without doing considerable keyword analysis. Call it a personal tic from my years in marketing, but I never fail to go through Google Trends, Amazon’s search engine, Adwords’ Keyword Tool, and a few other tools as well beforehand. These ready online options and more are invaluable. If the topic is hot and people are searching for it, a book on that topic is viable. Period.
Not that a book has to sell a lot of copies to be valuable. A book that doesn’t sell one single copy can be still transform a career. Its mere appearance on a resume distinguishes the client sharply from all other applicants for a job or position. Who do you want to manage your portfolio, some guy in a suit who looks like every other guy in a suit, or the author of Tripling Your Portfolio Profits In Six Months?
Authors, whether they have large sales or small, gain an automatic presumption of expertise. They are subject matter experts purely by having published on a subject. They’re invited to speak, to present, to appear, to be interviewed. Sales, buzz, popularity certainly don’t hurt. But a book has been called the ultimate business card for a reason. Present it to someone interested in the subject, and a conversation is all but guaranteed. Because it’s the subjectthat matters dearly to them, not the position of a book on that subject on a sales list. A presumed expert on that subject matter will always be greeted by an open door.
Aside from a book’s value and viability, a good ghost always seeks out a third V: voice. For a true ghost is a mimic. It isn’t enough to just write a book. You want to write a book that sounds like the client—ideally, a book that sounds like the sort of thing the client would write if he had all the time in the world, and had not skipped all those English classes. A book purporting to be by Donald Trump should not sound like Abraham Lincoln, and a book by Lincoln should not sound like Trump. Such books scream “Fake!” and they are worse than no book.
Clients’ voices vary. Some clients are blunt, coarse and direct. Some are quiet, nuanced, ironic. A few are witty, others deadly serious. A ghostwriter assumes that individual voice: he writes as though he himself were the client. I remember once a client reading aloud from a chapter I’d just finished. His wife was in the other room, and after a few paragraphs he turned his head in that direction.
“So what did you think of that?” he said, calling to her.
“Think of what?” she said.
“What I just read.”
“You were reading something?” she said. “I thought that was just you talking.”
I have received no higher praise.
It’s for this reason that I always like to talk to a client, or see any first draft material they’ve written. It allows me to catch their characteristic pauses and emphases and habitual verbal expressions. It’s also why I often ask clients to read what I’ve written for them aloud. If it sounds right and feels right, it is right.
Ghosts need constantly to remind themselves that what they are writing is the book the client would have written had circumstances allowed. It doesn’t have to read like their casual chat, and it shouldn’t. But it does need to sound and feel like the way they normally put things.
Mind you, there’s a little leeway. Prose is expected to be cleaner and tighter than casual chat. The way we write isn’t exactly the way we talk, and the readers know it, which cuts the impersonation some welcome slack.
But what if the ghost gets an assignment for a book by several co-authors. What then?
In that case, I personally try to blend them all, throwing in a characteristic phrase or comment from each co-author. But the criteria there is not what the clients would all say, but a range in which the comments of any of the clients mightreasonably fit. If it’s something each one might just possibly have said, it still comes in under the wire. If one co-author sounds like a professor and the other swears like a Marine, I’ll write lines that are plain and clear and sayable by both. Both Marines and metaphysicians say “I’d like a cup of coffee” all the time. Not too coarse, not too literary—just right: between the extremes.
This emphasis on talk is another interesting aspect of the ghostwriter’s job—something I think of as elicitation.
I’ve said that ghostwriting involves conversation. Indeed it does. In most cases I’ll find myself talking to a client for hours and hours—hundreds of hours, in some cases. Sometimes (with their permission) I record the talk and go over it. Sometimes it takes place in person, over the phone, over Facetime or GoToMeeting. Sometimes we’ll exchange emails about their unfinished proposals and abandoned or rejected draft manuscripts, and those emails may grow larger in size than the manuscripts themselves. Sometimes the talk will go entirely off-topic.
This personal exchange is something more than an interview. An interviewer looks for a quotable remark, or tries to catch the person in some gaffe or outrageous comment, or is intent on extracting some particular nugget of information. The ghost is not simply looking for information. He’s attentively following the client’s tone or voice, their expressions, their motivations for wanting a book, delving for an overall sense of the client’s style and message and goal.
The ghostwriter’s technique here is closer to that of a therapist. He tries to keep the conversation within the bounds of certain topics, but principally he draws back, so as to allow the client full freedom talk at length.
It’s surprising how liberating this is for certain clients, particularly in the business world. I remember one client who hired me to do a book and then gradually stopped caring about the book entirely, but had me keep coming in to talk to him about his business anyway. His work load was extremely stressful, his home life was a wreck in consequence, competitors outside the company and critics within it made many a working day a nightmare. He simply needed to vent. Needless to say he couldn’t talk to a therapist. If the remotest hint of mental instability got out he’d be ruined. But he’d read on my resume that I had a degree in Psychology and certification in a related field. On that basis I got the job, and it was fascinating. No other client showed me as much about the inner life of business. And, surprisingly, not a few of his business challenges cleared right up. Stating them clearly out loud for the first time not only cut them down to size, but pointed the way to their resolution.
Of course, a ghostwriter who only listens is not doing a proper job. This is why I call it elicitation, not interviewing, and not therapy. You’re not looking for a snappy remark, or the Oedipus Complex: you want the client to share something with the world that they know or believe or have experienced; something that will help their readership too, and lift client and reader both to the next, better level in their life and career.
But finding out exactly what that is can be a tricky process. Writing a book has been compared to a blind man exploring a dark room at night by slowly feeling the walls and furnishings with his hands. Gradually a sense of its contents and dimensions emerge.
So with books. The book that evolves in the course of the process is never quite what you thought it would be at the beginning. In the course of writing it the client may get new ideas. Or, after talking and thinking about it, realize that he’s changed his mind completely. Orrealize that some section he thought was important is trivial and needs to be cut, while some trivial remark is the key to the whole book. Or have an idea for an entirely new and different book. (It’s rare, in fact, not to have ideas for several new books while working on one. Staying focused on the current project is a task in itself.)
The ghostwriter does not always so much write the book as help the client find the book; and, through the book, the client’s unique idea or breakthrough or individual take. It’s truly satisfying to be a part of that process, to be there when the Aha! moment strikes.
It’s also dangerous. Sometimes a client only wants to be an author. He or she may not knowwhat they want to say, and this is an almost insurmountable problem. A ghost can’t elicit something that isn’t there in the first place.
But he can provoke it. I’ve occasionally had to write passages and pages that are not at all what the client wants or thinks, purely because I know the client will then correct it.
“No, that’s not what I mean,” the client will say.
“Well, what do you mean?”
“I mean this.” And in clarifying, the client will score his breakthrough. Seeing what they don’t want to say helps them realize what they do want to say.
But a ghost floats over thin ice in such scary cases. The client may just assume that you two are not on the same wavelength. Time to find another ghostwriter!
That said, a sometimes contentious relationship can also be the most fruitful. Clients rarely hire ghosts to criticize their ideas, but it’s exactly that sort of creative, sympathetic criticism that allows the ghostwriter and client to pass into active collaboration, not merely exchanging flat information but co-creating new, novel ideas. All ghostwriting is mutual, and involves building something together, of course. But this is more than building sentences and paragraphs. This is a matter of building new insights and new solutions—or to call it by its proper name: brainstorming. One is less a ghostwriter than a creative consultant in such cases.
The listening part of ghostwriting, the collaborative part, the imitation of voice, the careful attempts to think like the client, lead to one of the more mysterious benefits of ghostwriting: empathy. (I almost wrote: telepathy.)
Sometimes, with clients that allow me the leeway, after enough time working together, I’ll find myself writing sentences and paragraphs that I think the client would say. And then the client reads it, and recognizes the lines as his own. “Yes, that’s what I wanted to say, or should have said,” they’ll say. Or, “How did you know I thought that?” I may describe them in a situation I have not seen or been told about, and I’ll be asked how I knew about the incident, and how I knew what they felt and how they reacted to it. I don’t know how I know. I just do.
Spooky? Not really. Ghostwriting is not a kind of writing, it’s a kind of thinking. And what it involves is following another person’s style of thought, paralleling and imitating their internal reflections and impressions, aiming at almost becoming that individual, like an actor playing a real person instead of a part—a perfectly articulate version of that real person.
One fails, of course: individuality is unique and impenetrable. But at times, for a while, one comes close; and when it happens, ghost and client link up in a way that is hard to describe—like completely understanding someone, and being completely understood by someone, for the first time. It’s an illusion, as all ghosts are. But a fascinating and productive one.
Not all ghostwriting assignments are as complicated or require as much immersion as that. Some really are as simple as a few interviews followed by a great deal of typing, erasing, and re-typing.
But the key takeaway for clients is realizing that hiring a ghostwriter not a matter of shrugging off the job of creativity: it’s a way of enhancing that creativity. The real difference is that now you’re not scaling the mountain alone. There’s someone there to help pull you up, to catch you if you fall. To ensure that you reach the peak.