Oliver Rahman, former journalist and now new member of The London Ghostwriting Company team is set to handle all investigation and finance assignments. He chats with founder Luke Shipman about what potential clients need to know, and finds out how Roman Polanski’s “terrible” film has helped the ghostwriting industry.
Thanks for taking the time to talk today Luke. I wanted to start the conversation by asking you a simple question: What is ghostwriting?
A: Essentially… it’s a writing service. A ghostwriter is a person with a trade who has learnt how to make a living by servicing people who need things written. And many authors will ghost in their career, it’s just – few will set up shop as a ‘ghostwriter for hire’. Separate from all the mystique of ghostwriting – it is servicing a need and monetising a particular skill. The thing I like about the majority of ghostwriting, compared with the majority of freelance writing, is that it is normally associated (if not always) with writing books. And this is where the mystique kicks in.
Many times we are drawn to the page. It happens in a persistent manner throughout our lives, sometimes at the most inconvenient times. It’s as if we are being pulled by an invisible attractor field. Many times we allow something to interfere with us connecting to that page. We rationalise the calling – the duty of writing and use reason to excuse ourselves from the obligation. Writing, after all, is not a priority—is it? We develop sophisticated well reasoned positions about why we can’t do it now and why we should not, and the voices begin…
It’s irresponsible, now that you have a child, a second child, a third, you just don’t have time—now that you have started a new job, have begun thinking about moving house. You’ll do it once you clear your overdraft, move out of your parents home and are free to explore your creative self. Only then will you do it. You’ll do it when you move into your own one-bed flat, once you have got that desk you have always pictured having and when the kids bugger off to uni. You’ll start writing your book then, because it’s not of ‘prime concern’ right now. Only then when everything is in position, will you accept the call – to connect to the page. Right? Bullshit! The thing is this…
When has writing ever been a concern? Why not just drift to the page like you were going to? Why are we making such a big deal out of this? I know what happened… something interfered with you connecting—it involved itself and barged its way into your flow, like venom it introduced itself, and like poison it lessened you. That may feel like a hard description but this is how incrementally cunning the mind is, it acts like a poison and is the enemy of the writer. The secret is to learn what it is. Only then, can you master it.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably looking for a ghostwriter, or perhaps you’ve stumbled here because it’s the word ghostwriter that is interesting to you. More mysterious? You may be a freelance writer or someone researching ways to tell their life story. I shall attempt to write for both —
Which is which? The main distinction is that ghostwriters are completely invisible. They are the enigmatic wordsmiths of the trade – the ones who write books that you read—by famous celebs, fat cat politicians and king pins of the criminal underworld. Word on the street—some of the big authors now have their books ghostwritten. I didn’t believe it at first, but with an audience demanding two books a year from one person, decade in—decade out, and a publishing contract demanding it too, I can get my head around it. A lot of people do it. Why not?
If you want a book written and you are looking to hire a writer, do you want a ghostwriter for hire, or the more simple freelance writer… the copywriter? Answer: you want a ghostwriter who works with a copy-editor.
Most copywriters I meet would love to one day work on an autobiographical project as a ghostwriter. Most ghostwriters that I know have at one time or another worked as copywriters—or written copy. If a copywriter is someone who is well skilled at working on different types of copy and a ghostwriter is someone who can write different kinds of books, is a ghostwriter then not someone who has simply upped their game? Reached for the bigger project? We are all freelance writers and a writer at any level, especially the published author will require a proofreader and copy-editor to ensure that their writing is error free. Proofreading and copy-editing can all sit under the copywriter job title—in a way—but when it comes to writing books, the author at work should be working with his or her—editor. I even have a copy-editor proofread these blogs – somewhat late after they’ve been published I’ll add, and so for a period of time may even get published with errors inn.
‘When we put the pen to paper, we articulate things in our life that we may have felt vague about. Before you write about something, somebody says, ‘How do you feel?’ and you say, ‘Oh, I feel okay.’ Then you write about it, and you discover you don’t feel okay.’—Julia Cameron.
In November, I will be celebrating my fourth year working as a ‘professional’ ghostwriter. In this time I have observed and learnt many things of our human condition. The most significant being, that it is rarely in balance.
With my work, what I have noticed is that a client will have something they need to wash themselves of. Once they have done this, they appear more ‘free’. They have entered a type of—cleanse and after which, they feel much better. Writing I have witnessed—is a medicine. With my background as a personal trainer, healing and rehabilitation, I have taken an interest in medicine and I will attempt to combine that interest with my ability to write. Over these next few months I will publish a series of articles explaining the ways in which writing is healing, good for soul and in fact takes on all of the attributes a medicine does.
In Dealing with Swindlers and Devils: Literature and Business Ethics, Christopher Michaelson writes that ‘One instrumental function of literature is to imitate life, thereby expanding our vision beyond our parochial interests; to see literature merely as a didactic instrument to serve business interests misses the point that literature should expand understanding, our sense of what in addition to business is interesting and valuable.’
I wanted to write a series of articles for business owners who are interested in writing books. I have always been drawn to the entrepreneurs of the world and in a way, I consider myself one and due to the stresses and the challenges of running a business or company, we often find ourselves too close to the action – too connected to the drama, when all we need to do, sometimes, is sit back – and write about it. I have begun to talk to business owners about why a ghostwriter is so fundamental to their business. To begin, the question here is wrong. Why is a book important to a business? This is the question. But to avoid disappointment, please turn back now if you are expecting a blog about ‘business’ or anything like that. This article reminds us what words can do, what books can do. Understanding this helps encourage us to write our great works. So… why a book?
Preceding this question, what is a book? An object with images in it (letters) that link to form words. What are words? What is communication? Understanding what is happening when we are writing a book will help shine a light on these fundamentals, because what happens to a person when they write one can be nothing short of magic. Sometimes that’s what businesses need… a touch of magic. Sometimes what business owners are in need of is a new best friend. As Groucho Marx said, ‘Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.’
Ghostwriter or ghost writer? Who cares, right? Tut tut.
To be honest, I thought I knew – one word, ghostwriter because that is what was established. Andrew Crofts says ghostwriter, Wikipedia says ghostwriter and in the kids’ TV series, the character of Ghostwriter ‘can communicate with the kids only by manipulating whatever text and letters he can find and then using them to form words and sentences,’ quite a thing to do really – manipulate words, and this seems to be what happens with language, and in many different complicated ways. But is this manipulation of the word from one to another wrong or natural? In the 2010 film by Roman Polanski “The Ghost Writer”, a ‘British ghostwriter (Ewan McGregor) is hired to complete the autobiography of former Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan).’
I wanted to know what I was, what my job is called – and I still do. Consulting my SEO engineer ‘Steve’, more people are in fact looking to find a ‘ghost writer’ than a ‘ghostwriter’, so is my changing ghostwriter to ghost writer to appear more ‘there’ on the Google rankings the thing to do or is this me ‘re-writing’ the word to accommodate a mis spell? To understand this, we need to understand what language is. Or maybe Polanski just knew how to spell ghostwriter and ghostwriters the world over have been wrong all along? How does change happen? What is the English language?
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.
It was 2010. I was working on a screenplay at a Starbucks on Ventura Blvd, Encino, Los Angeles. By the end of the first week it was clear: I was not the only freelancer in LA! After counting, I was actually just one of fifteen in this Starbucks who weren’t just popping in to pick up latte’s and frappuccinos. Mid California summer – we were spending the entire day inside, safe in the tranquility of the air conditioning with our butter croissants, laptops and MacBook’s – some of us on just one espresso a day, others one an hour. ‘Do you come here every day?’ I asked one of the writers thumping away at his own movie script. ‘Brother, this has been my office for three months’. I looked around, we were all focused in on our writing, we were ‘the freelancers’ of Ventura Blvd.
Four year later, I find myself working at a different venue, a restaurant encircled by Macbook’s, tablets, iPhones and laptops. But I was not at a Starbucks in the LA valley, surrounded by designer logo’s, botoxed skin and beaming white teeth. No no, I was at a farmhouse converted into a restaurant in the Himalayas… North India, surrounded by yogi’s, backpackers, babas and buddhist monks. The hoards of passing Harley’s had been replaced with mules, goats, cows, monkeys and shepherds, burritos replaced with bhajees, the LA Times with the Hindu Times. My location had changed but the situation had not. It didn’t matter where I travelled, I was no longer the only freelancer in the village. Everyone was at it!
1. Learn about ghostwriting. Becoming a ghost writer is still a relatively new idea. Talking about ghostwriting and introducing yourself as a ghost writer has an appeal that is more attractive than being just a writer. Even the idea of a ghost writer is unusual to people. You will find that people ask further questions about the work because it sounds and is secretive. You will need to be up to speed on what a ghost writer does. So to become one, you must first learn your industry. I recommend Andrew Crofts book Ghostwriting – this was the first book I read on the subject and it helped me secure my first job.
2. Build a portfolio. Your client will want to see examples of your work. If you haven’t written in a variety of styles and to a high degree – get writing. I have been writing all of my life and professionally since I was eighteen years old, always building and refining my portfolio. This way, I can pass a prospective client examples of work for them to review. The longer you leave this, the worse a position you will be in. Furthermore – are you not a writer? If so, write. I average 500 words a day but sometimes 1000 words or 5000 words a day.
3. Market yourself as a ghost writer. With a strong portfolio prepared or even a self-published book to point people to, and a thorough knowledge about ghostwriting, and the services you will be providing, it is time to start marketing yourself. This can be done for free with a web site, a twitter account and a basic understanding of SEO. Talk to people as a ghost writer and see stories everywhere and in everyone. Offer to write them for people. What is the worst that could happen?
The flow, the secret information and the intuitive knowing a ghost writer will need:
Ghostwriting and working closely with your subject on their life story or fiction screenplay is an art in itself and will become mastered only through experience and reflection. It requires time, patience and an attuned understanding of the individual in order to find their voice. Only that will make the piece their own. Sometimes, people do not have a voice – but a good ghost writer will be able to help with this. We will discuss this further in later posts. A ghost writer is someone who is observant, intuitive, detailed and creative.
Because each job and client is uniquely different, the book or screenplay, and writing experience in completing it – shall be a different one. Therefore, being adaptable and able to flow with your client is key – they are different to the last client, so different rules apply. One must gauge people’s personalities on a day-to-day basis and working with our clients is no different – so flow accordingly. If your client is showing a heavy amount of confidence and leadership with how they want their book written, we may need to realise that this behaviour can often be a projection and not necessarily how they really feel. Deep down, such a personality may need to be led – and in doing so, you may fill your client with the confidence they were looking for in their writer. Similarly, a person showing a lack of confidence and leadership may not want you to take total charge and play the authoritarian bad cop, but may in fact be unconsciously testing you to see if they can work with you: finding that bond of trust with your client is what is needed and only you will be able to make that happen. Without that, the creative process is already stunted. Nor are they likely to want to work with you as a ghost writer and sign over your get to work deposit if there is no chemistry.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.” ― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
To become a good writer, one must develop a broad and thorough general knowledge, otherwise a specific knowledge of a few key subjects. I recommend both. A good writer is well educated and not always traditionally – but well read a width and breadth of subjects and will often know more in specific areas than even postgrad students. Writers should have a strong general knowledge of world history, geography, politics, psychology, human behaviour, literature, the sciences, art, varying cultures and current affairs in a number of countries – as well as a high knowledge in specific areas – ideally two to three. This will help you as a ghost writer because you will be able to talk with customers about things other than the content inside the book. In turn, proving, along with your portfolio… that you are not a phony.
Everyone has a story to tell. Writing a book or film screenplay appears high on many people’s lists of things they want to do before they die. Why is this? And how can a ghost writer help?
Writing takes a lot of time, patience, dedication, research… blood, sweat and tears! As Hemingway once said, ‘There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.‘ Writing requires an understanding or intuitive knowing of narrative flow, and how to structure a story, which are skills you may simply not have the time to develop.