When the 2010 film The Ghost Writer came out I was quite curious to see its portrayal of my profession. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t expect it to be a bland, ‘how to’ type, portrayal. I know that a movie needs a gripping storyline, dramatic flair and lots of twists and turns. I suppose I was just interested to see how my solitary profession came across.
Nevertheless, within half an hour I was shouting at the screen in front of me. (Luckily I was watching a DVD at home and not in a crowded cinema.)
‘If you don’t get started on the writing you’ll never hit the deadline!’ I yelled, much to the squirming embarrassment of the rest of the family.
The problem, as I saw it, was the ghost, played by Ewan McGregor, was far more interested in a lengthy secret investigation into his client, the former Prime Minister, Adam Long, played by Pierce Brosnan. He suspected that the first ghost to get the gig may have met an untimely end after discovering a dark secret about the ex-PM. The story by Robert Harris was entertaining enough, but I’m afraid I became too distracted by the fact McGregor didn’t even seem to be writing notes.
This reaction says a lot more about me and my day job than the film. It is crucial that I complete books to an agreed deadline since I make my living from ghostwriting. The only way I can do this is to be disciplined and set myself a strict word count each week, then ensure I stick to it.
Generally, most ghostwriters estimate it can take about six months to complete a book. This can vary by a month or so either way and there is time built in for collaboration and edits from the named author. The weekly word count I aim for does depend on the complexity of the subject. However, if a great deal of further research and investigation is required, this is not a signal for me to wander off getting into scrapes (I am looking at you Ewan McGregor!). I try to combine my research with a lower word count, so the manuscript continues to grow steadily.
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule and never more so when it comes to writing books. A cash-strapped Anthony Burgess reportedly wrote A Clockwork Orange in just three weeks after being offered an advance from a publisher. Georges Simenon took just two weeks to turn out each of the 76 novels in the Inspector Maigret series. When I was researching my book The Complete Guide to Ghostwriting I interviewed a few ghosts who had done something similar on the odd, exceptional, occasion. This urgency is invariably prompted by a publisher setting an extremely tight deadline to complete a manuscript because the named author was suddenly in the news. The author may be a celebrity who suddenly has another go in the limelight after winning a reality TV show, or an ordinary person who has hit the headlines for doing something exceptional. In this case, the publishing contract depends on striking while the iron is hot and getting the book into the shops asap. It is not uncommon for a ghost to pull 20-hour days for three weeks or so to get it done. The consensus is that it is not ideal and utterly exhausting too.
When I speak to clients about timescales I advise them to stick to a six month deadline if there is no tearing urgency. Getting a book into the best possible shape is not something that should be rushed if you can help it. And, of course, if I discover something deeply suspicious about my author’s former activities, I will be sure to keep writing while I investigate.
Teena Lyons is the author of The Complete Guide to Ghostwriting and her regular blogs on ghosting can be found at www.professionalghost.com