Editor’s note: this is a guest post by Roz Morris of Nail Your Novel.
Most writers spend anguished years trying to find their voice and their literary hallmark. I started my writing career pretending to be other people. I brought out eleven novels, eight of them bestsellers–and not one of them had my name on.
I was (and still am sometimes) a ghostwriter. And here are my tips for entering this secret literary world. Or as many as I can tell you without having to kill you afterwards.
What Is Ghostwriting?
Ghostwriting is writing a book for someone–who then takes the credit.
Which Books Are Ghostwritten?
It’s no secret that books by celebrities might be ghosted. If someone has an interesting life story or is popular enough, it’s a safe bet that a ghostwriter will be approached to help them make a book from it. Usually it’s autobiographical, and then if that sells they’ll be asked if they fancy doing novels.
But it may surprise you to know that some fiction by bona fide authors is ghostwritten too. Sometimes the megabrand genre novelists use ghosts, outsourcing early draft work to keep up with demand. And if a big-selling author dies, a publisher might hire a ghostwriter to keep their brand alive beyond the grave.
The bottom line? There’s plenty of demand for ghostwriters. Especially as mainstream publishing becomes ever more keen to find sure-fire winners.
What’s It Like to Write Someone Else’s Book?
The short answer: nothing like writing your own novel.
- When I ghost I’m writing a book that is someone else’s idea, to please their readers–not the readers who would like my own work.
- I can’t use my own voice. I have to develop a style that is appropriate for the author I am ghosting.
- The story isn’t mine. Although I develop the plot and characters, I can’t always take it in the direction I want it to go.
- If the “author” (the person whose name is on the cover) doesn’t like what I’ve done, I have to rewrite until they’re happy. That’s not to say that I can’t put something of myself into the book, but I must be willing to change it.
Even So, Ghostwriting Is Still Fun
However, ghostwriting can also be great fun.
When I write my own work, I’m using only my instincts. In the early stages I don’t bounce ideas off my agent because they’re not familiar with the project or my hopes for it. But when I’m ghosting, the editor is involved from the start.
I also have the ‘author’ themselves–who is often a mine of fascinating experiences I wouldn’t otherwise have access to. When I get stuck on a plot problem, I ring my “author” and we chat about ways to solve it. I don’t have that when I’m writing on my own.
Of course, not all “authors” are easy to work with. Some will refuse to make time for me, even though it’s in their contract to. Some will tell me a juicy anecdote, but when I craft it into a fantastic twist they get cold feet and tell me I can’t use it. (Or the publisher’s legal department will.)
But to return to the good points… I find it liberating to work on a book where I don’t have to be me. I have to research subjects I would not otherwise have been led to. I return to my own fiction with my horizons broadened and my style stretched. And there’s the satisfaction of knowing that another book I’ve written will definitely be published.
Once I hand over, I’m finished. Signings, tours and talk shows are the author’s responsibility. It’s nice to see the posters at bus stops but hard to see someone else show off with the book I nursed on my hard drive for months. I console myself by taking a sneaky photo for posterity…
If you like the pros and can cope with the cons, maybe ghostwriting is a good option for you.
Some writers ghost full-time. Others ghost between novels of their own. Jobs usually come from editors or agents who know of a book that needs a writer, and they’ll approach someone who already publishes in a suitable genre. So if you’re interested in ghosting you should spread the word among your contacts.
Can Beginners Ghostwrite?
Most writers who ghost have a track record. I got in by a lucky break because I knew of a publisher who needed a book in a hurry. I had one chance to prove I had the craft and the versatility to produce the book they wanted. (I had, though, been writing virtually since I was an embryo.) Luckily I made the grade. But there aren’t many chances like that.
However, there are opportunities for beginners if you know where to look. Many first-time writers start with book packagers.
What are book packagers? They’re companies that dream up commercial ideas for novels, which they then pitch to publishers. They need writers.
They give you the plot in painstaking detail, so your job is to flesh out the story into scenes. Sounds a doddle? There are two downsides. One–the pay is rubbish. Two–you often have to do rewrite after rewrite because they design the story by committee and change their minds time and again. They also expect you to follow their brief to the letter, even when your writer instincts tell you their version won’t work.
But it is a way to get real experience on your CV, and some of the resulting titles do quite well, which is all the better for you. And since the industry works by contacts you might make useful friends along the way.
As a result, most writers work with book packagers for the experience and then move to better things.
How do you start? Look in Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, or the United States equivalent. Contact them and ask if they’re looking for writers. If you send them a sample and it’s good enough, they might ask you to try out for one of their live projects.
Journalism As A Springboard For Your Ghostwriting Career
Journalism is another way to break into ghostwriting, especially for non-fiction. You might meet someone who wants help writing their life story or a book on their area of expertise. If they haven’t got publisher interest they might not be able to pay you, though, so you’re taking a substantial risk. You need a watertight agreement on the proceeds you get–and if you’re expected to write it for nothing ask for 50%.
Ghosting can be a good living and a great way to flex and hone your writing skills. But of course I started, as most of us do, wanting to write special books of my own. And next month I’ll be coming out from under the sheet with my first piece of fiction.
Roz Morris is a ghostwriter, editor and the author of Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence, available from Amazon. Her website is www.rozmorris.wordpress.com and she blogs at www.nailyournovel.com. Her first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, will be available from the end of July.