You are a ghostwriter of memoirs, works of non-fiction and novels. This is surely the dream of any freelance writer. So why do the writers I speak with keep quitting before they land their second job? The fact remains that working as a ghostwriter is not something all are suited for, have the patience for, or know how to do. It’s basically very very different.
Working as someone else (your client) requires you to become them and the man or woman that you become is only one thing: their writing voice is another – the one that they would use if they were able to write. If you find all of this too confusing and opt for a neutralised tone of voice that is ‘easier’, more accessible to read and generally quite ‘normal’, don’t expect to write anything unique, great or deliver a ground breaking piece of work to your client or into the inbox of any literary agent. To quote an agent I recently e-mailed, when asking what the likelihood of landing an advance would be, to pen the memoirs of a singer songwriter who was up for a Brit awards, had won a MOJO and sung for Obama, ‘it’s about the writing’, she told me, ‘as well as the story – what is remarkable about that? And what is she willing to say?’ It seems it still doesn’t matter who the subject is, or who the agent is – it’s about this: is it written in a way? Is it written from the heart? Does it have a voice that is authentic, genuine – and is the experience the reader is going to have with the subject’s experience going to be special? One that they will remember?
If your writing voice is different to your real voice, then so might be that of your subject. When working as a ghostwriter your job is to find their voice and mix that with their writing voice while meshing your style into it with a tone and tense that is correct for the confessional autobiography or the piece of pop academia that you are writing. This plus that special edge will allow your manuscript to reach up and through the inbox levels of your agent while keeping your client happy, but how do you find that special edge? The key is not to think too much, not to try too hard, but to allow the secret information that your client isn’t telling you in words to sing through – and for you to intuit that.
Don’t therefore establish a tone and work that in – no no – begin instead by writing what your client is telling you and listening closely to see what else comes. Gradually the correct style will emerge and as you keep feeling your way into the book, your writing will bend toward the correct style, almost as if the answers are all in-built anyway and it is more as if you are simply allowing the answers to come. This is known as understanding by being. If you try to establish what it is before moving in, then caution will get the better of you and you will procrastinate further. Meanwhile, the clock has already started ticking and your deadline is set.
This high hurdle is the main reason most writers ‘tried to ghostwrite’ at one time but… the excuses often start with ‘the client I was working with…’, as opposed to the more accurate – I didn’t know how. Writers who try to work as a ghostwriter – and after a few jobs slip back into their normal copy writing role – and blame their client are choosing to blame the most special person of all – that client who came to you, quietly whispering for help – but because you didn’t know the nature of the process – that it was about empathy and listening closely in, you fell back into the freelance writing career as a copywriter, and the dream of working as a ghostwriter muddied again. The answers are in ‘being’ and not in the ‘doing’. Be with your client, don’t force them to ‘do this’ or to ‘do that for you’. Being with your client will allow the information to purge out of them, and this is your book. Have a recording device close by and don’t write anything down, simply listen, and allow them to open. When they don’t, then guide the way – but don’t force a person in a direction they don’t want to go just to serve your step outline that you wrote in ten minutes on the bus from Luton.
I’m not suggesting that you enter the interview or the process without a plan. Have a goal, have a plan and keep on track – but remember that the route to the goal can change. If the goal is to write the memoirs of a sailor from his POV in the first person, and the story is about his adventures at sea, remember that your subject might start talking to you about his love affair with a woman he met. This affair may in fact be significant to the entire book – the insight into his psyche, the reason he set sail? So don’t be too quick to bring him back on his boat as you guide the interview. It is possible that what set out to be a story about one mans life sailing the seas is now about his search for the woman of his dream. The goal hasn’t changed. It being, to write his story. That which it is, you see – has now emerged. The intention starting off has not changed. You have simply encouraged the creative flower to open.
As a ghostwriter, getting good at working with people is half the job and this isn’t something to stray from – which is really hard for writers or… ‘the people who are meant to be read and not to be “seen or listened to”,’ but instead, we have to get over our introversion – or learn to understand it if we are to transcend the copywriting world and ghostwrite best-selling biographies – ones we may even have the chance to co-author. It’s worth the work, trust me.
Ghostwriting also allows the space for you, the writer to upgrade your own work via the prism of your own client. Writers who want to just stick to their own work and not write ‘bullshit’ about a ‘nobody’ may believe their life and their ideas are superior but then why have you spent seven years finishing your great work? Channel everything you have into your ghostwriting project and perhaps that will allow you the space that was otherwise too claustrophobic.
Make a list of your ten favourite local celebrities from the eighties and nineties. Go online and start researching where they are today. If they already have a book written then cross them off the list. Keep adding names until you have ten and always have ten – and then approach them directly as a ghostwriter, not as a ‘writer’. Once you finish with celebrities, move on to your next subject. Offer your services, make sure your web-site is up to par and go go go. Once you land the job, dedicate your everything to it, believe in yourself and power on through. If you’re struggling, then good – that struggle as a charge will merge into the work and gradually clear as you get further into the book – and as the story gradually moves into its third act where revelation, apotheosis and clarity comes, so will the frequency of your words. The main point is not to quit, but to keep pushing on in and through because that push is what the reader will feel and the thing that grips them to the page. Your purge will mix with your client’s and the end result will hold that magnetic ‘edge’ that your agent is hungry for. Your nerves are there for a reason. Understand them. Understand yourself. Go write a masterpiece.