If I asked you about the most important skill for ghostwriters, chances are you’d respond; ‘writing’. The clue is in the title, right? But there is another, equally strong requirement. (And no, it is not being a ‘ghost’). Ghostwriters need to be expert interviewers too. People like me can be the best writers ever, but if we can’t get the story out of the author’s head and onto the page, the collaboration will not be successful.
The interview is where an author conveys to their co-writer exactly what they want in their book, from crucial facts and details, to the overall tone and emotion around their story. It is, by far, the most collaborative stage of the collaboration.
There is an art to interviewing well. Experienced ghosts are very well aware that it can take time for authors to settle into this stage. They may have all the information in their heads, but it is not always easy to relax and let it all pour out. Besides which, there is so much to tell. Where do you start? The onus is very much on a ghost to help an author feel at home and steer them towards a meaningful narrative.
It’s helpful to kick off the interview process with a lengthy session covering all the areas the book might cover. The stories don’t need to flow in any particular order. This is the author’s opportunity to speak freely, and voice what they find important. This initial interview won’t cover every aspect of the book, but it should provide enough material for a ghost to draft a chapter by chapter plan. This plan will include a brief summary of the key points of each chapter and will form the basis of the future sessions. After this, each interview can focus on one specific chapter. The advantage here is that the author will know ahead of time that they are going to be speaking on the subject of, say, ‘their first big breakthrough’, which gives them time to mentally prepare.
It’s important to say that this chapter plan might very well change as the interview process progresses. Indeed, it almost always does. But having one gives both parties in the collaboration something to work to. Often, as the author becomes more comfortable with their ghost, entirely new information will emerge. A candid disclosure may change the entire narrative flow of the book, requiring the plan to be adjusted, or even entirely restructured. And that’s fine. In fact, it is a sign that the interview process is going very well indeed.
Some ghosts prefer to run the interview process by talking through events chronologically. The first interview could be used for childhood and growing up, the next for early career and so on. Authors occasionally prefer to recall events in this way and it can also be very useful for the ghost. On a purely practical level, they will be able to easily locate material on tape, or in their notes. It also helps build a picture of the author’s motivations: childhood experiences often explain a lot about a person’s character.
There are often aspects to a story an author will find it hard to discuss. While the plan, or chronology, might indicate that these stories are covered early on in the interview process, a ghost might possibly wait until both sides know one another better before raising them. Even then, a ghost will always keep questions on another subject up their sleeve in case the very mention of the event sees the author clam-up completely. In this case, a ghost can steer the conversation onto safer ground and return to the tricky subject at a later time.
From a ghost’s point of view, two of the most essential elements here are careful preparation ahead of the session, and then well-crafted questioning during the interview.
If a ghost has prepared well and found out as much as they can about the facts surrounding key events beforehand, they won’t waste an author’s time by stopping the flow to ask detailed, yet already available, factual information. During the interview itself, authors can expect that the questions being asked will dig below the surface, yet be couched in a way that they still feel comfortable answering them. They will be asked open-ended questions, beginning with words like ‘how?’ ‘what?’ ‘where?’ and ‘when?’. These conversation starters encourage expansive answers and produce an abundance of information.
Authors should be aware that ghosts will ask for an astonishing level of detail. It is not enough for someone to say, ‘I grew up in a village near Manchester’, before moving swiftly on. If it is relevant, the ghost will need to know the name of the village, the size of the house, if it was a blissful bucolic childhood and so on.
Having asked the question, ghostwriters should always know when to shut up and listen to the answer. This does take some skill, not least because in the relationship-building process ghosts are always tempted to help their authors out by prompting them when they look stuck for an answer.
Interviewing is a two way process, where both sides play a key role. Get this crucial stage right though and the actual writing part of the process will flow.
Teena Lyons publishes regular blogs on ghostwriting on www.professionalghost.com