Has any book ever before so dominated the news agenda on both sides of the Atlantic (and beyond) for what feels like months and months? In the lead up to publication of Spare on 6th January, the Mail, Express and others frothed daily over the possible story lines, prejudged slights, and predicted apocalyptic damage to the reputation of the royal family and even the country.
‘Could you do a bit of research about psychopaths?’ a client recently asked me.
‘With pleasure.’ I said, rubbing my hands with delighted anticipation.
The book we’re working on is a sordid tale of family fraud involving millions of dollars and a particularly ruthless, potentially psychopathic, family member. And so off I went, starting with Jon Ronson’s wonderful The Psychopath Test to establish some basic character traits.
I’ve been working with an adventurer for the past few months. The book, when it comes out, will be an account of his many expeditions every one of which has provoked observations about the nature of life-changing moments and how to handle them. The author is interesting, the experiences compelling, and the insights he has are challenging and stimulating. It’s a great book to be working on.
If you’re considering writing a book, you might be asking yourself how do I even start? If you look around for advice, there are about as many ways as there are authors.
For fiction, broadly, the advice can be parcelled into three or four approaches. Some writers start with a basic plan, some a meticulously thought-through plot, others a character or situation while Stephen King starts with nothing but a ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if…?’ question.
(As an aside, I recently came across a writing method that would make 99% of writers call their therapist. The fabulous Sarah Moss whose recent work includes Ghost Wall and Summerwater described her process like this:
‘For every novel I write a full draft and then I delete it and write it again properly. I even delete it from the trash can. It’s like being a dressmaker – mocking it up in a cheap fabric, to then make it in silk later.’
For non-fiction, at the very least there is a subject to work with rather than the novelist’s blank page. And as a non-fiction author you will have at least an idea of what you want to say. That doesn’t help get words on the page though: a book is such a complex entity with many and various components that creating something coherent is no easy task. If you’ve hit a wall, you might decide to look for a ghostwriter. Why do that? Well, at the start of any potential collaboration, an experienced ghostwriter can help you in ways that you might not realise. Ghostwriting isn’t ‘just’ about helping you express yourself on the page, it’s also about helping find the right structure, the right length, the right tone, and level for your market. It’s about making your book stand out and giving it the best chance to succeed.
There are thousands of ghostwriters out there – some hugely experienced (like everyone in our group http://www.unitedghostwriters.co.uk/meet-the-ghosts/) and others not so much. Finding the right one is an essential first step to a successful collaboration and you’ll find blogs on our website that help you refine your search before you start talking to likely candidates. Most good ghosts will tell you if they think the partnership won’t work and suggest other ghosts to talk to who they think might be a better fit.
I can’t speak for all ghosts, but when I first start talking to a potential author, there are two parts to the conversation. The first is logistical: timing, availability for interview, whether the author wants to go the agent/publisher route or to self-publish, and the fees involved are typically the areas we need to cover.
The second is the creative part. Here I ask the author to think about the kind of book they want to write. This can be modelled on a book they’ve read and admired, or one that ‘feels’ right (length, tone, structure, readership), or we start with a blank sheet of paper and map out the sorts of things the author wants to say and discuss different ways of achieving that. Either way, it’s an editorial discussion out of which we lay the foundations and draw the blueprints for the book. All experienced ghostwriters will guide you through this process and by the end of it, you should have a much clearer idea about whether you can work together and what sort of book might come out of the collaboration.
That, believe me, is a great place to start.
But, if we do work together, I beg you not to delete the first draft.
I don’t know about you, but when I pick a non-fiction title in a bookshop, I flick straight to the back in search of the index. It’s an old habit formed of an awareness that a well-constructed index is perhaps the most reliable and efficient means to understand what a book is really about and a good gauge of whether I’m going to enjoy it.
Indexes (not indices – that’s for mathematicians) have been around in English-language books since the sixteenth century and were, until relatively recently, an integral part of any self-respecting work of non-fiction. And yet over the course of the past year, my sense, as a writer, an editor and a reader, is that they are increasingly being seen as dispensable nice-to-haves. A couple of books I’ve ghosted and others I’ve edited have appeared without an index and, when I queried the decision, I was told that the cost couldn’t be justified.
But for some of the books I’ve worked on and read over the past five years that have been published without one, the cost wouldn’t even constitute a drop in the ocean of profit the publisher has made. By way of example, I’m reading Michael Lewis’s The Premonition – a superbly told story (no surprise there) about the people at the forefront of the US’s pandemic response. It’s selling like loo roll in 2020. It doesn’t have an index. That’s just perverse.
A good index represents outstanding value for money. Indexing is a highly skilled professional discipline and, as with everything else, you get what you pay for. Before even starting to select headwords, an indexer must have a decent understanding of the ideas the author is trying to convey, a sympathetic appreciation of the writer’s style, a tight grasp of the weight and priority given to the different arguments in the book and a forensic thoroughness to make sure that each important character, concept, event and place is included. In other words, it’s not a job that can be replicated by an algorithm – it requires human intelligence applied to a sensitive reading of the text.
But that’s not all. An index can be inventive and entertaining, as well as being supremely useful. There are famous examples of creative indexing. Paula Clarke Bain, a professional indexer, blogs about some of the funniest and most successful indexes she has encountered. One of her posts pointed me first in the direction of Francis Wheen’s Strange Days Indeed,
Falkender, Baroness (Marcia Williams): squabbles and screeches, 210-16; hates whitebait, 211, 215; takes sedatives, 215, 220; fear of military coup, 218; fear of orgies, 222, 270
Moore, Roger: regrettable lapels, 2
Morgenthau, Hans: mistaken for Robert, 97
Morgenthau, Robert: not Hans, 97
wash, reluctance to: of Lin Biao, 152-153; of Mao, 153; of American radicals, 171; of author, 272
And then she featured Charlie Brooker’s The Hell of It All,
letters of the alphabet, variously configured, 1–388
numbered pages, 1–388
random page numbers, 8, 44–9, 70, 84, 213–28, 337
words, sung aloud at Shane Richie, 149; all the remaining words in the book after that bit, 149–388
I dug a bit more and found that Lewis Carroll, unsurprisingly, had fun with an index in his novel Sylvie and Bruno,
Barometer, sideways motion of; 13
Bath, portable, for Tourists; 25
Books or minds. Which contain most Science? 21
Boots for horizontal weather; 14
Brain, inverted position of; 243
Bread-sauce. What appropriate for? 58
Happiness, excessive, how to moderate ; 159
Honesty, Dr. Watts’ argument for; 235
Horizontal rain, boots for; 14
House falling through Space, life in a; 100
Hymns appealing to selfishness; 276
If you picked up any of these in a bookshop and read those entries, you’d buy the book, wouldn’t you? There are many, many more examples.
The point is that an index is not only an extremely efficient tool for getting to grips with a book’s contents. It can also be an extension of the entertainment, an additional creative element that enhances the body of the text and potentially garners more readers.
In the course of researching this blog, I discovered that Penguin Press is publishing Index, A History of in September this year. I hope that its publication will at least provoke a bit more discussion about just how valuable a good index can be and perhaps start to reverse what I perceive to be its slight marginalisation.
If nothing else, though, I will always cherish the index in Strange Days Indeed for bringing to my attention the phrase ‘regrettable lapels’.