Cards on the table. Not all potential author ghostwriting relationships are a match made in heaven. This is why authors are advised to speak with a number of ghosts before they choose their collaborator. It’s also why ghosts don’t agree to take on every project they are offered.
Even if it looks like there might be a possible writing relationship, it is crucial that both sides do some very careful due diligence before signing up to work together. Part of this process is to make very certain that everyone understands their respective roles.
To explain, it may be useful to recount a story where a book project didn’t go the distance, even after initially positive discussions. The author in question is a hugely successful businessperson, in a very specific and complex field. ‘His people’ spoke with me at length about the project and agreed, based on my past work, I’d be perfect for the gig.
The next meeting was with the would-be author himself. Everything seemed to be going well, the chemistry was good and, in a good sign for me, this person had also read and admired some of my previous work from a broadly similar field. Then, out of nowhere, he stopped the flow of conversation and said there needed to be an in-depth, thorough understanding of the field in question. Before I knew it, I was being asked highly complex questions, which I would have needed a PhD in the subject to understand. I half expected to be locked in a room with an exam paper, a pencil and an hour to complete the assignment.
My knowledge of maths, science and other subjects away from the literary world is not bad. I even have a number of formal qualifications. However, my knowhow was not even close to the level this person operated at. (If it was, I would perhaps be a millionaire rival to him!). I very much doubt there is a ghost in the world that operates at this level. The point is, though: there does not need to be. If both parties stick to what they are good at, it is more than likely that they’ll be able to achieve a very readable and successful outcome.
My response was to remind the author that I bring the words, and he brings the expertise. That is how the ghosting/author relationship works. Since he wanted to target a broad business readership, it was up to him to explain his thinking to me in a way that this broad audience would understand. I’ll do the rest.
Needless to say, we needed to agree to disagree.
The experience made me think a lot about what makes for a successful writing collaboration. It is important that both sides are very clear from the outset about what they want to achieve and who brings what to the table. When I work with authors, I always begin the process with a lengthy interview, where the author will lay out the areas/themes they feel should be covered in the book. This is not a one-way process though. Often authors will speed through certain events, or gloss over others, which scream out to be a significant part of the book. This initial stage is an opportunity for a ghost to raise parts of the story which they feel might be more important to the reader and probe them more deeply.
During this same interview, it’s useful for a ghost to set out their expectations in terms of access to the author for interviews. They may need, say, 20 hours of interviews at an hour to two hours at a time. It is up for discussion whether or not this will be on a regular basis, or via a bunch of interviews at the beginning of the process. (And will very much depend on an author’s availability).
Also up for discussion are the main communication channels during the process. While the bulk of the information a ghost uses is gleaned from interviews, I find it really helpful if it is possible to ping over a quick text or WhatsApp to clarify certain points. I always encourage authors to send me any thoughts, or additions, as they come to them. One I worked with, would send me two- or three-liners on an almost daily basis. They all made their way into the text – often in real time. From a ghost’s point of view, there is nothing worse than complete radio silence from an author and it can seriously delay the process. A quick burst of texts can really move the collaboration along. In a similar vein, a ghost will commit to sending over regular drafts once the project really gets going. This is the opportunity for their co-writer to check that the book is going in the right direction and that the ghost has a complete grasp of the brief.
My next step, following the first, wide-ranging interview, is to write a chapter-by-chapter plan. This is very helpful as a guide or road map to follow as the book is written. It is also a useful document because it outlines my understanding of the project, key elements of the agreement, such as expected length of the book and the time earmarked to write it.
With a clear brief and an early discussion about roles and responsibilities, it’s easy to move on to the exciting part: writing the book. After that, keeping things on track is a question of keeping those channels of communication open. Any deviation from the early agreement can be caught early on and an open, honest and respectful discussion will easily get things back on track. No exams required.
Teena Lyons writes regular blogs at www.professionalghost.com