In a recent episode of a sitcom set in the offices of a New York publisher, one of the super glamorous editors holds up a manuscript and says, ‘We want the author because she’s a big name, but her manuscript is limp,’ (wrinkles nose in disparaging way). ‘We’d better send it to a book doctor.’
Hnnnrrmmf,’ I remarked. ‘Grrm myffyd ng wah. Wuggel marghh drrrg.’ The dentist laughed. ‘You’re always so enthusiastic about your work. Can’t stop talking about it, can you?’
Creeping out of my cave and going back to the dentist after nearly two years away wasn’t something I was looking forward to. Teeth wait for no man, and I knew mine wouldn’t have miraculously improved in the course of the Covid era.
If ever (or, should I be honest and say ‘the next time’?) you’re watching a hokey standard-issue romantic comedy movie and you get to the inevitable scene where boy and girl have a tearful break-up, look at your watch. You now know you are exactly two thirds of the way through and can therefore predict to the minute when the movie will end.
When Ernest Hemingway was asked how you could know whether you could trust someone, he growled: ‘Trust ‘em’, before banging his empty glass on the El Floridita bar, trusting that the barman would give him another daiquiri as perfect as the last.
At least, that’s how I imagine it: a casual but typically succinct and challenging response; a brush-off to send a would-be worshipper on his way.
Not that it’s not good advice. I have followed it myself – albeit with mixed results. An unpromising tenant (on paper) has turned into a lifelong friend. But another ‘trust him’ punt ended in one of my flats being turned into a cannabis factory. Embarrassing and costly, but not the end of the world, and on balance, trusting the Hemingway precept has served me well.
But I wouldn’t trust it in more serious scenarios. Take a rope. Would anyone just trust it to take their weight, or would they test it in some way before throwing it over the edge of the cliff and climbing down it? When it’s a matter of life, I imagine we’re all rather more circumspect.
And this is at the heart of the relationship between the ghostwriter and the client who is indeed trusting them with his or her life. If it’s going to work, it has to reach levels of intimacy normally associated with therapy. Interviews will need to go deep to get at the full story, and this may mean uncomfortable questions. But the hope is it will make for a much better book – and, again, hopefully, prove therapeutic.
Once trust is established, the levels of candour can be surprising. Ghosts can find themselves entrusted with secrets that would come as a shock to close family members, let alone the wider circle of friends and colleagues. Obviously nearer the end of the project, the question of how much sensitive material really needs to see the light of day comes into focus. And all responsible ghostwriters will warn of the dangers of being sued for libel. It’s not necessarily true that all publicity is good publicity.
Of course, trust is a two-way street. Which is why the initial telephone conversation is so important. The client needs to feel that his or her life will be in safe hands; and the ghost has to assess whether the relationship is going to work. While we will bend over backwards to realise the vision of the proposed book, everyone has experienced clients who prove difficult to satisfy, change their mind about the direction of travel, and in some instances simply disappear like mountain goats into the mist. (I still have on file a contract signed by a client with whom I spent hours on the phone. I’m still waiting for the initial payment. Suing for breach of contract is not a great start for a ghostwriting collaboration.)
But to end on an optimistic note. Only last week I got a call from a friend of a friend who recently lost his father through motor neurone disease. A heartbreaking story, especially as the diagnosis came late, meaning his dad was still working long after he should have stopped. His son had kept a diary of his painful decline. Could it be turned into a book?
Send a sample, I replied, and a little while later I responded in a text saying Yes it could be turned into a book and that I was happy to help with the process. The writing was direct, uncomplicated, and the narrative thread straightforward. The old English teacher in me felt for my red biro, but it won’t need much more than a light edit. I’m not charging for this little service (the original friend has bought me too many beers over the years); it’s a good project and will certainly be some help to those who find themselves in the same crushing predicament.
And the book I am just about to start writing came about through another phone conversation. This one was initiated by me in response to a request for guidance by a potential client to United Ghostwriters. It didn’t seem promising, but as there was a phone number, I thought I’d report the bad news in person.
Half an hour later, things had changed. The author is quite a personality and I started to see ways in which a rather unorthodox book could satisfy his desire for a memoir as well as find a potential audience.
I wrote a chapter synopsis and a pitch and sent it to a specialist agent, who turned it down. I then sent it to my own publisher, just to get his opinion, and he phoned back within an hour saying he’d like to publish it. Contract in the post!
It doesn’t often happen like that, but the importance of that first telephone conversation cannot be emphasised enough.
Make that call. You’ve got nothing to lose.
If you’re considering writing a book, you might be asking yourself how do I even start? If you look around for advice, there are about as many ways as there are authors.
For fiction, broadly, the advice can be parcelled into three or four approaches. Some writers start with a basic plan, some a meticulously thought-through plot, others a character or situation while Stephen King starts with nothing but a ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if…?’ question.
(As an aside, I recently came across a writing method that would make 99% of writers call their therapist. The fabulous Sarah Moss whose recent work includes Ghost Wall and Summerwater described her process like this:
‘For every novel I write a full draft and then I delete it and write it again properly. I even delete it from the trash can. It’s like being a dressmaker – mocking it up in a cheap fabric, to then make it in silk later.’
For non-fiction, at the very least there is a subject to work with rather than the novelist’s blank page. And as a non-fiction author you will have at least an idea of what you want to say. That doesn’t help get words on the page though: a book is such a complex entity with many and various components that creating something coherent is no easy task. If you’ve hit a wall, you might decide to look for a ghostwriter. Why do that? Well, at the start of any potential collaboration, an experienced ghostwriter can help you in ways that you might not realise. Ghostwriting isn’t ‘just’ about helping you express yourself on the page, it’s also about helping find the right structure, the right length, the right tone, and level for your market. It’s about making your book stand out and giving it the best chance to succeed.
There are thousands of ghostwriters out there – some hugely experienced (like everyone in our group http://www.unitedghostwriters.co.uk/meet-the-ghosts/) and others not so much. Finding the right one is an essential first step to a successful collaboration and you’ll find blogs on our website that help you refine your search before you start talking to likely candidates. Most good ghosts will tell you if they think the partnership won’t work and suggest other ghosts to talk to who they think might be a better fit.
I can’t speak for all ghosts, but when I first start talking to a potential author, there are two parts to the conversation. The first is logistical: timing, availability for interview, whether the author wants to go the agent/publisher route or to self-publish, and the fees involved are typically the areas we need to cover.
The second is the creative part. Here I ask the author to think about the kind of book they want to write. This can be modelled on a book they’ve read and admired, or one that ‘feels’ right (length, tone, structure, readership), or we start with a blank sheet of paper and map out the sorts of things the author wants to say and discuss different ways of achieving that. Either way, it’s an editorial discussion out of which we lay the foundations and draw the blueprints for the book. All experienced ghostwriters will guide you through this process and by the end of it, you should have a much clearer idea about whether you can work together and what sort of book might come out of the collaboration.
That, believe me, is a great place to start.
But, if we do work together, I beg you not to delete the first draft.