Thirteen years as a ghostwriter – what have I learned?

To celebrate 13-years as a professional ghostwriter, I thought I would dedicate this blog to myself to share some of what I have learned to date. Therefore, I have written a letter to the Teena Lyons who was just setting out on a career as a ghostwriter in the spring of 2006.

Dear Teena

So, you are a ghostwriter. Congratulations. Believe me, you are about to embark on the best career of your life. You will learn so much in the years to come. You will be in the privileged position of engaging one-to-one with experts in their field. You will hear extraordinary stories of courage, triumph over adversity and ingenious solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems. Oh, and there’ll be a delicious smattering of good ol’ celebrity gossip too. Your role is, of course, to get those stories onto the page so the narrative is just as compelling to the reader and, most importantly, so that they ‘hear’ the voice of the author, just as you did.

It is easy to assume that writing is a ghost’s most important talent. And yes, writing is crucial. That is what people are paying for. But, just like your previous career in journalism, finding the real story is also just as important. Very often, authors will be reluctant to tell the true story; the one that made them want to write the book in the first place. It may be too painful, or difficult to explain, or they just won’t know how to articulate it. Your job is to coax it out of them. You will need to learn how to ask questions without alarming your interlocutor. Interviews can’t be rushed, especially when the subject matter is difficult. Give people time to talk and listen to your instincts. When it feels like time to back away and return to it another day, it almost certainly is. If you fail in this endeavour, the book will turn out like a shallow puff piece. No one wants that.

Think carefully about the jobs you take. You may not always agree with what an author has done. You may even find some of the things they tell you harrowing, or even at odds with your own values. However, what matters here is that you need to believe what they are saying. Authenticity is the foundation of a true story. If they are making it up, or something isn’t quite right, you’ll know it. After that, it is nigh on impossible to get the story straight. Your own cynicism and scepticism will seep through into the pages.

When you worked as a journalist, everything was invariably black and white. There were the facts, but then there was the ‘good guy’ and the ‘bad guy’. With 300-words max for a news story, it was hard to go beyond that. It was easy to finish the day thinking someone was a terrible person for what they did. Or, alternatively, that someone was the kindest, most thoughtful person ever. In your new job, you will discover many, many shades of grey. Yes, there are terrible people in the world. Some are certainly irredeemable, but some people who don’t act as you would expect them to, do so for a reason. Cut them some slack, listen to their story. Really listen. Likewise, those people who shout from the rooftops what a fantastic generous person that they are, are not always what they seem. Philanthropy is wonderful, but what else is going along beside it?

Don’t expect to become lifelong friends with your author. It is an intense process, where you will sometimes learn more about them than their close acquaintances have ever known. Yet, when the process is over and the book is on the shelves, your relationship will often end abruptly. It doesn’t always happen and you will indeed stay in touch with many authors, even penning a second or third book for them, but be prepared for a complete break. There will, in many cases, be a tremendous sense of loss when an author walks away for good. The emotions you experience may feel almost like grieving, but it will pass. Be grateful for the relationship you once had and that you reached that level of closeness: it will be reflected in the authenticity of the book.

You will, however, make some unexpected friends through this career. Most professions like to keep rivals at arm’s length. This is not the case in ghosting. You will make friends with a large number of fellow ghostwriters, who will freely give their time to advise and assist on unexpected issues that arise. Two, of three, or twelve heads are absolutely better than one.

And yes, problems will occasionally arise. Some authors who are initially keen to tell it all, no holds barred, will baulk when they see their story on the page. They may try to accuse you of not relating it properly, or misunderstanding their intentions, or any number of things. Fortunately, it won’t happen often, but when it does, recognise the underlying issue and offer to find a way to resolve it. Most of the time the problem can be addressed by simply changing a few words, or softening an offending section. Patience is an important characteristic of a successful ghost.

Finally, I am afraid to say, you will never shake the ‘freelance fear’ that each job will be your last. As I write this to you, I have completed 50-books, and many of them have been bestsellers. I have, as I said earlier, had many authors come back to me for further books. Yet, as I near the end of every book, I always wonder if I am ever going to work again. The rational side of me would say: don’t be silly. There will always be work for good, experienced writers. And it is true. There are thousands and thousands of people with extraordinary stories to tell. So, have faith and enjoy every single book you write.

With very best wishes