Thirteen years ago, the first book I worked on – Beg, Steal or Borrow, the authorised biography of Babyshambles – was released, and my freelance writing career was set in motion. For the two years prior to that, I had the unbridled joy of balancing night work at a media monitoring firm and spending time with the nation’s hottest, most chaotic indie/rock band as they rode numerous waves of controversy, due in large part to the media obsession with frontman and vocalist, Mr Peter Doherty.Read more “Revisiting an Old Friend”
Allowing a manuscript time and space to settle is a fundamental component of the ghostwriting process. Building a solid structure upon which the manuscript can thrive is, for me, a necessarily painstaking task, and the writing itself can hit some speedbumps, when things don’t quite sit right on the page. Minor deviations on the planned route to completion are absolutely fine, expected, and actually welcomed, should they result in a stronger story that looks even better than planned and communicates all that the client desires.
Another essential part of the process is deliberately distancing myself from text for a period of time, in order for it to settle, and to return to it with a fresh set of eyes, so to speak. Not only do any typos/mistakes become more obvious, but any problematic sections of the text itself are apparent. It’s a bit like watching a film for a second time. Unless you’ve got a tremendous ability to recall pretty much every scene, character arcs, and twists and turns in the plot (I certainly don’t), there’s a good chance that parts of the film will appear fresh – unseen, even – and the same process applies to ghosting. I’ll remember most of the client’s story, but other elements feel less familiar, and it’s often here that I find finesse is required.
Rewriting is so much easier than the process of laying down a first draft. Even with a roadmap to follow, finding the right tone isn’t an entirely straightforward procedure. I need to echo the client’s voice, if memoir, or find the best characterisation, if fiction, and this requires a great deal of thought and reflection; and, sometimes, heading down a few blind alleys, if material doesn’t work. With a rewrite, however, most of the hard work has already been done, and there’s an opportunity to identify and bridge any gaps, and maximise the manuscript’s potential.
It’s like that expression: being too close to something. When you’ve engrossed yourself in a particular project, its flaws aren’t immediately obvious, so time and space help to highlight defects. Another means of achieving this is when other people read the piece. With my own work, it’s something I do regularly, as alternative perspectives often open up other avenues for further consideration. My readers might identify areas of plot that could be improved upon, or turns of phrase that don’t hit the spot.
As a ghostwriter, this isn’t something I’ve done with other people’s work very often, as confidentiality is paramount, and I would require the client’s permission to allow somebody else to take a read. Sometimes, I’ll suggest a client asks their friends to read their manuscript and feedback their thoughts, but for the most part they want to keep the material between us both, which is why our collective judgement is so important to improving the manuscript as it stands at that point.
I try and leave text to settle for a good few weeks, if possible. It isn’t always, as I may be on a deadline, which is where years of ghostwriting experience come into play, and a nose for identifying the weaker aspects of a project are required. So even if you aren’t able to give a piece of work as long as you might like to settle, at least a little distance will undoubtedly help when preparing to deliver the final product.
For a successful ghostwriting collaboration, both parties need to be on the same page. This is why it’s crucial to establish, in advance, what the client expects from his/her/their project, in order that the ghost has a structure to adhere to. With a clear direction in place, each person has a roadmap of sorts to follow; and while some deviation from that is expected – and, often, necessary, if the prescribed structure needs some refining – a complete overhaul is not only unhelpful, but a highly disruptive process.
In preparation for the actual writing, the client will need to be able to instruct the ghost as to the various intricacies of their story. This will include character descriptions/traits, and their arcs/overall plot, if fiction; and a well thought out rundown of content if non-fiction. Memoir is a little different, as the story is already in place, so in this instance, it’s more a case of what to include, and what not to, for personal and, sometimes, legal reasons.
When a client changes their mind about a project’s direction, though, it puts the ghost in a very difficult position. It might be comparable to, say, asking a plumber to fit a new boiler, only to request an alternative model once they have all but finished the job they were originally tasked with. Not only does it jeopardise the trust that has developed between both parties, it means the ghost’s work to date potentially counts for nothing, while loading them up with what could well feel like an entirely different story.
It’s fair to say that this has happened to me very rarely, with the overwhelming majority of clients sticking to their original idea; but on the occasions it has, it has resulted in my workload effectively doubling, which doesn’t strike me as a fair outcome. There may be some rescuable elements from work already laid down, but that can feel like crowbarring content in, and that’s something I avoid.
Building a good structure is like constructing a house. Solid foundations are essential for the resulting premises to stay in place and, likewise with a manuscript, those foundations need to be strong, so that the end product is as robust as possible. It helps that most of the people I’ve worked with have had their stories in their heads for years, and are thus at least fairly well established. But for anybody with only a vague idea of what’s required, I would advise that you take some time to work out what it is that you wish to say, and how, because the end result will be so much more pleasing, and save your collaborator a potentially enormous workload. And that extra work might well be chargeable, which isn’t in the best interests of either person.
For some people, publishing their story is a complex task that risks the possibility of litigation – sometimes from the source of distress that has been life-changing. For victims of domestic violence, for example, telling their story, in the absence of a conviction, not only risks said litigation, but the wrath of their abuser. Not that I would ever dissuade anybody from telling their story, their truth; but in the wake of what has in many cases been years of appalling mistreatment, people can be understandably reluctant to reveal exactly what happened to them, and by whose hand.
Often, when about to embark on a ghostwriting collaboration, my client will want to know how the right kind of information is extracted from the interviews I’ll carry out. Well, the process normally starts like this: I’ll try and establish, prior to recording, what the spine of the story is, before scribbling down some questions pertaining to the text that will most fundamentally shape the manuscript.
When answering, the client almost always segues into adjoining material that helps build the overall narrative. It’s a bit like walking backwards from a main road to the paths leading to it; and, from there, I’ll ask, in subsequent interviews, questions that spring from the additional information. After a while, the story starts to assume a different shape – rarely a wild deviation from the original direction I had in mind, more often a far fuller shape encompassing greater depth and intensity; an entire body slapped onto the spine, if you like.