Funny how things rub you up the wrong way, isn’t it? There it is again. “Writing’s not that easy,” says the smugly irritating ad-girl’s voice that gets in the way and sends me lunging for the “Skip ads” button every time I want to watch a YouTube clip.
Not that easy, indeed! No one ever said it was, did they?
I remember Clive James quoting Thomas Mann’s opinion – “A writer is someone for whom writing is harder than it is for other people” – and adding that the whole point was to make it look easy, like a conjuror extracting goldfish from your auntie’s ear. The trick (in both cases) is to hide the amount of skill and preparation that’s involved.
Writing – writing properly – is a professional skill. It has to be learned, usually over many years, and practised over many more. Like dentistry, pole-vaulting and arc welding, it’s hard to pick up from an instruction manual. And because it’s about much more than getting the spelling and punctuation right and plucking a few posh-sounding adjectives from an online thesaurus, there’s a limit to how much Grammarly or any other bundle of slickly packaged software can help you.
The reason writing really isn’t that easy is that anything more ambitious than a business email needs content, structure, style and a distinctive voice.
If you’re setting out to write a book – whether it’s going to be a dazzling first novel, an ingenious crime thriller, a deft and penetrating biography of a well-known public figure, a moving survival memoir or an original and important popular science or travel book – it’ll need all these elements to help it stand out from the crowd. (And when we say “crowd”, did you see how many new books were published on one day last Thursday? According to the BBC story, it was 579.)
This, of course, is where the art of the ghostwriter comes in.
The content is the core of your book and you’ll probably have been thinking about it for months, maybe years. You’ll still need to push and pull it into shape, though, and you’ll definitely want a reliable sounding board to tell you what’s working and what isn’t.
But getting the structure right is something you may not even have considered. Shaping and pacing a book – fiction or non-fiction – is a major challenge. And it can make all the difference.
I came across a valuable contribution to this some years ago, in the form of a book by a New York agent, Noah Lukeman, called The First Five Pages. To be honest, it’s not particularly well written, but its central theme – that most readers and most publishers will have made up their minds about a book by the time they’ve read the first five pages – is absolutely correct. It’s worth any amount of effort and rewriting to make sure your book gets off to a strong start.
Once you’ve done that, though, you’re faced with the problem of keeping up the momentum, varying the rate at which new ideas or characters are introduced, modulating through different moods and textures and bringing the whole thing to a satisfying conclusion. Structure is tricky, and it’s one of the areas where the instincts and experience of a professional ghostwriter can really help you make the most of your material.
As for style and tone, it’s important that your book remains true to you and reflects your personality. It’s your voice that should be coming through. But working with an experienced ghost can help you develop your voice and ensure that you maintain the kind of consistency of tone that will make your readers comfortable to stick with you through two or three hundred pages.
Your book is your creation, not the ghostwriter’s. You are the playwright; we are the producers, directors and actors who help you bring your work to the public. You are the composer; we are the orchestra.
You may not need us. You may have the skills to do it all yourself. But we have a lot of experience behind us. Our small squad of United Ghostwriters members has handled more than 350 books in recent years, including lots of repeat customers. We know how to make your book work.
And after all, writing’s not that easy…
Ian Shircore’s latest book is So Brightly at the Last: Clive James and the Passion for Poetry (Red Door Press)