‘The thing that fascinates me about what you do, Susan, is how every time you’ve finished ghosting a book for a client, you go through a whole worrying process – speculating about whether they will like what you’ve written, and whether you’ve done justice to their story. . . And then every single time, the client comes back to you to say that they love it! Why do you put yourself through it each time, when you know it’s most likely going to be ok? Surely you know by now that you always do a good job?‘
This observation was made to me last week by my husband, Paul. I’d been casting around for possible subjects for this blog and I’d asked him what he thought people might most want to know about the ghostwriting process.
Paul works in book publishing himself, so he knows what writers can be like. Creative fiction writers in particular seem to spend their time lurching between the conviction that they have talent and can write, and the gnawing suspicion that nothing they do will ever be good enough. However, since I’m a ghostwriter, mainly of memoirs and other non-fiction, as such I’m dealing with fact, things that have happened in real life and I will, ideally, have all the information at my fingertips. So it’s not so unreasonable of Paul to assume that I shouldn’t feel the same anxiety about what I produce. And yet it doesn’t seem to quite work like that – for me anyway.
Before going any further, in the interests of accuracy I should say that, while the majority of my clients have responded very positively to the books I’ve written for them, there have been a (very) small number who haven’t been instantly enamoured with the print version of their story . . . When this has happened, it’s usually been because of one thing – namely, that sometimes it can be a bit of a shock to see for the first time in black and white your life as you’ve recounted it to a third party. Perhaps that’s when the reality of what you’re doing begins to sink in – and everything else can be initially overshadowed by your anxieties about what those who know you might think when they read your version of your childhood, or your teenage years or some other important period in your life. Fortunately for me, once these clients had more time to reflect and to get used to seeing the their story in print, they were able to come back to me to say that they were actually pretty pleased with it! Though perhaps I’ve also just been lucky in the clients I’ve worked with.
In any case, when it comes to my tendency to worry once I’ve submitted a first draft to a client, I’ll admit it, some of my self-doubt is probably a writerly thing – part and parcel of a need to get the formulation of the words just right, and to ensure that what I commit to paper will be the best possible version of itself. But there are honestly no histrionics in this – I’m not deliberately being a drama queen to get other people’s attention or sympathy (though Paul might take issue with this!).
The truth is that as a ghostwriter, you need to be vigilant about a lot of different of factors to have any chance of doing a good job. Here are just some of the considerations you need bear in mind:
Factual accuracy – depending on the type of memoir, you have to ensure that everything cited as fact in the book is just that: names, dates, places, chronologies, and so on.
Factual comprehensiveness – have you incorporated everything the client wants included in the book?
Emotional authenticity – have you correctly understood the client’s interpretation of their experiences; have you got a true sense of the significance of certain events or people for them? Have you understood their thoughts, their perspective and their purposes in writing the book; does the end result reflect this?
Veracity of ‘voice’ – have you managed to recreate the client’s unique style of expression? Does the narrative voice sound like them; does it come across the way they intend it to?
Overall impact – will the book as a whole work for the client? Is it going to resonate with their intended readership the way they need it to?
Once you take all of this into account, perhaps the worrying as you wait for the client’s response doesn’t seem quite so irrational or theatrical after all.
As well as all of the above, there’s another, less tangible dimension to the work of writing someone’s book which is very important to most good ghostwriters. The most successful collaborations are those where you’ve built up a great relationship with your client – one of mutual trust, reciprocity and real connection. As a ghost, particularly when it comes to memoirs, you tend to put a lot of yourself into the process – after all, to recreate on the page what another person has lived, you need to get inside their head, to truly enter their psyche and ‘inhabit’ their perspective for the duration. And because of the relationship you’ve built up with your client, you genuinely want to do justice to their story; you want to support them in their desire to relay what they’ve learned about life to the wider world.
There are, of course, other less noble but nonetheless important reasons you hope that your client will in the main like what you’ve done. You don’t relish the idea of having to rewrite large swathes of the text – and of course you want and need to get paid the final instalment of your fee for your work, preferably sooner rather than later. At the end of the day, however, especially when you have a great connection with a client, you want their book to be the best it can possibly be, and to honour their unique experiences and take on life.
Now that I’ve set down all of these thoughts here, I think I’ll insist that Paul reads this . . . That way, the next time he thinks I’m being overly dramatic as I anxiously await a client’s first response, he’ll have to acknowledge that there’s a lot more at stake for me than he might first have thought!