Working with ghosts: what does the author do?

Getting a ghostwriter to write your book is not like handing over a barn-find car wreck to a specialist and returning six months later to receive a magnificent, polished motor. It is a collaboration.

The collaboration begins even before a ghost is commissioned and cash changes hands. I’ve talked a lot in these blogs about ghostwriters finding the ‘voice’ of authors, which is essential for an authentic book. Much of this is down to the chemistry between an author and their ghost. Thus, when an author first contacts a ghost to discuss a potential project, rest assured the ghost is checking the author out as much as the other way around. Both parties should be thinking: can I work well with this person? Do I find them credible? Will we be able to do justice to this story together?

To help this initial approach go smoothly, it is always helpful for a ghostwriter if an author has a clear idea of what their book is about. This doesn’t mean the ghost expects a mini precis of the book, with a beginning, middle and end all nicely mapped out. It’s largely the ghost’s job to recommend the best structure and flow for the book. However, it is helpful if an author can briefly outline the key points the book needs to get across and perhaps some events, or colour, to the story surrounding them.

At this stage, something most ghosts will want to know is why the author thinks they are the person to tell the story. If it is a biography and the events happened directly to the author, fair enough. But, if they are an observer, or are explaining how to become an expert at something or other, what gives them the credibility to write this book? Would a reader be impressed by their background and pick up the book because of it, or would their reaction be: who are you to be telling me this?

Once contracts are signed – therefore all communications are legally confidential – it’s really helpful for the process if an author can provide as much background information on the subject matter as possible. If this happens at the beginning of the process, it helps a ghost to do their background research, weigh up what is important and work out where things go. The information might be emails, links to presentations, YouTube clips, letters, photos or newspaper cuttings. Anything really. Authors shouldn’t be afraid of overwhelming a ghost. Trust me, I like nothing better than receiving a box full of material at the start of a project. This is generally a cue for me to sit down and read everything there is about my newest client and it is the best possible way to immerse myself in the story and find the voice.

In some types of books, it is quite helpful for a ghost to interview people close to the author. In a biography, that might be a spouse, or son or daughter. In a business book, this could be close associates from the past or present. If it is agreed that this will definitely add something to the book, it is again something that the author should arrange early on. It’s really helpful for two reasons. Firstly, if it gets pushed back to the end of the process, it can become a distraction, or may never happen at all. Secondly, these interviews frequently produce treasures that can be used to unlock the main author’s memory.

‘Your colleague was telling me about the time you…’

I’ve often uncovered many fantastic stories in this way that have really enriched the books I have written.

My previous blog covered the interview process, so I won’t go through that again. I will only add that, generally, ghosts will want to spend up to twenty hours or so with an author, depending on the type of book in question. My personal preference is to do so in one, to two, hour chunks. This, I feel is the optimum time to get the best material before an author gets tired of talking about his or herself and starts drifting off topic. However, this is not always possible, and I have been in situations where an author will only be available for, say, a solid week of interviewing. It is all doable. It is the lot of a ghost to adapt to a situation. The author simply needs to make themselves available for enough hours to relay all the necessary information.

While it is important for a ghost to check facts and question inconsistencies in a story, the onus is very much on the author to tell things as they happened. It’s not unusual for people to ‘adjust’ their stories to a certain extent, to make them sound interesting, but it is an author’s responsibility to remain in the right side of truthfulness.

The final important task in any collaboration is feedback. It is usual for ghostwriters to send draft chapters on a regular basis once they have enough material to start writing. It is crucial that authors read and review the material and send back comments. It is not just about factual accuracy either. This is the way to make the collaboration really flourish. Now they see their story on the page an author can indicate words and phrases they would never dream of using, which helps to get the voice more accurate. It also helps jog the memory so certain stories can be put into context or enriched with additional detail.

The best collaborations are those where the author is involved as much as possible and forms a good working relationship with a ghost which is marked by mutual trust and admiration. It really shows in the highly readable end product. Not quite a gleaming vintage vehicle, but it will produce a highly polished, authentic reflection of the author’s intention when they first engaged a ghost.

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