You know who’d make a very good ghostwriter, if he wasn’t busy doing something else? Paul McCartney. One of the highlights of the festive season, for viewers in the UK, was a long, meandering interview-cum-conversation between McCartney and the actor Idris Elba. If you missed it, you can still get it on the BBC iPlayer.
McCartney has a lot to talk about. He’s 78 now and he’s been one of the most famous people in the world since he was 21 years old. He’s written songs ranging from Blackbird, Yesterday and Here, There and Everywhere to Silly Love Songs, Your Mother Should Know and We All Stand Together (The Frog Song). He’s rich as Croesus and he has nothing to prove. He’s still touring, though that fabulous voice is starting to run out on him, and he’s just produced a very good album, McCartney III.
Watch him with Idris Elba, though, and you’ll see that he’s also a great listener – amiable, curious, interested and encouraging.
If Macca ghosted your book for you, he’d draw out the stories you’d never thought of telling anyone, the details you’d forgotten, the snatches of half-remembered conversation that add life and colour and throw light on people’s actions, motives and relationships.
He’d bring out the best in you – and maybe the worst, too, because no one wants to read two or three hundred pages of unremitting virtue and effortless success. By the time you’d done the interviews and assembled the raw materials for your book, he’d have built up a level of trust and understanding that guaranteed the project would go well.
But there’s another side to McCartney, evident in all his work since the Beatles’ early days, that would be equally important in getting the right results.
Cuddly, affable Paul is also a fiercely professional perfectionist. I know classically-trained musicians who have worked on recording sessions with him and been astonished by his minute and demanding attention to detail. He may not be able to read music, even after all this time, but he knows exactly what he wants and what needs to be done to make it happen.
Back in the days when the Fab Four had George Martin as their producer and arranger, it was always McCartney who was watching and learning, experimenting and suggesting new ideas. By the time it was all over, he was superbly equipped to go out on his own. You can hear the results on his first solo album, which was cobbled together in his house in St John’s Wood with Paul playing all the instruments and just a four-track tape recorder to capture the performances. Even at the time, it was criticised for being unsophisticated and lo-fi. But after fifty years the penultimate track, Maybe I’m Amazed, stands out as one of the great rock anthems of all time (and includes one of the few lead guitar solos that every music fan can sing note for note). The critics aren’t laughing now. In fact, most of them aren’t even breathing any more.
So whatever the decisions you and your illustrious ghostwriter made about tone and style, with Macca at the helm you could be pretty sure you’d end up with something that was attractive and credible and did what it set out to do.
Ghosted books rarely aspire to the status of art, but the least you should be aiming for is an end product that matches the editorial standards of a traditionally published volume. That’s why it’s a risky business to entrust your project to someone without the proven professional skills you’ll need and the toughness and resilience to deal with the setbacks and problems that can so easily arise.
Things can go wrong. The business environment may alter abruptly (as Covid-19 has demonstrated). Your own ideas may change and develop. Rewrites may be needed. Deadlines may have to be pulled forward. You need to make sure you are working with someone you can trust to pull out all the stops and get you through to the goal. It’s no coincidence that there are old McCartney tape reels labelled ‘Take 72’. Whatever it took, he would see it through – and that’s a quality you may need in a ghostwriter.
So why not give it a go? Perhaps you can persuade Paul McCartney to write your book with you. But if he’s got other things to do, or you can’t afford his fee, at least make sure you’re teaming up with someone who really knows both the art and the craft of ghostwriting.
There’s a lot more to it than just being able to write. And there’s no Ghostwriters Guild or professional qualification that can guarantee you’re working with an experienced specialist.
That’s why we set up the United Ghostwriters group a few years ago, to give our clients the reassurance of high standards they can’t get anywhere else.
We’re all independent, with no business ties between us. But if you’re looking for a ghost, what better recommendation could you get than the word of a dozen or so other ghosts?
As Macca would say, ‘We all stand together.’ That’s what makes us different. When it comes to the moment of decision, that’s what takes the guesswork out of finding the right ghostwriter for your book.
Ian Shircore’s latest book is So Brightly at the Last: Clive James and the Passion for Poetry (RedDoor Press, 2020)