The big problem with writing a book is that once it’s there, it’s there for ever. You fail to check one seemingly minor fact or you make one little typo that’s not picked up and it’s still there, reproaching you, ten or twenty years later.
Every time you open your masterpiece, it jumps out and hits you in the eye. Every time your friends wander over to the bookshelf and idly pick up a copy, you know that’s the page they’ll hit upon.
‘It’s not that important,’ they’ll tell you. ‘Everyone will know you meant to say the Prime Minister is a snob. They’ll know that the “k” is a misprint. You wouldn’t write something so rude, would you?’
Misprint or Freudian slip, whatever the reason, your sin is set in stone for all time.
Unless – and this is something that has never happened to me before – you eventually get a chance to overhaul your original book, right your wrongs and produce a second edition. I’ve been able to do this recently, after a very enthusiastic publisher decided it was high time to update a book I wrote in 2012 entitled Conspiracy!.
A lot has happened in this area in the last ten years. We’ve had Trump and Putin, QAnon and Russiagate, Covid lab-leak theories and vaccination conspiracy scares. We’ve had the disgraceful home-grown scandal of the Post Office, the government and a big computer company ganging up to prosecute, bankrupt and sometimes even jail hundreds of innocent sub-postmasters.
We’ve also acquired a lot of fresh terminology – ‘fake news’ and ‘false flags’, ‘crisis actors’ and ‘lawfare’ – that’s moved out of the shadows and into the mainstream. So much has changed between 2012 and 2022 that the publishers have even decided to give this second edition a new title. It’s going to be called Conspiracy (without the exclamation mark).
This is probably the only time I’ll ever get a second shot at a book, either in my own name or as a ghostwritten project.
And there’s an important point here for everyone who’s thinking of pouring their heart, their expertise and their life story into a book.
You really will only ever get one go at it.
So you’d better get it right and make it as good as it can possibly be.
Because even if the money’s no object, you won’t want to come back months or years later and invest all that time and heartache all over again, just to make the second version – what? – twenty or thirty per cent better.
It’s a horrible irony that all your book’s faults and weaknesses, big and small, will only become blindingly obvious to you, for the first time, when you hold the printed copies in your hand and it’s too late to do anything about them.
For most people who choose to commit to working with a ghostwriter, this is what it’s all about. Getting it right first time is what you’re paying for.
You need to know what your book’s really about, who it’s for, why people will start reading it in the first place and why they’ll stick with it to the end. And none of that comes easily. It takes experience and instinct – and the answers aren’t always obvious, even to someone who’s spent half a lifetime in this business.
For example, if you are talking about your own life and career or writing a biography of a historical figure or someone you admire, your first thought will usually be to tell your tale in chronological order. But that’s seldom the best option.
If the climax of your book is to be a great discovery or invention, a spectacular business coup, a sporting triumph or a dramatic High Court battle, your readers won’t necessarily want to wade through chapters about the protagonist’s blissful childhood and early career struggles before they get to the interesting bit. How many of the books that you’ve really enjoyed or learned from have followed a linear chronological pattern?
Much of the art of writing – in nonfiction, as well as novels and plays – is about knowing where to start the story and where to end it. It’s about knowing how many characters to introduce. It’s about keeping everything tight and relevant, varying the pace, building up tension and setting up surprises. It’s about clicking the shutter at the right time to create a portrait, rather than a snapshot.
Engaging an experienced, professional ghostwriter doesn’t mean your book will be a bestseller. It does ensure that it will be well written, properly structured and readable and that it will make the most of the ideas and material you want to put across. And it more or less guarantees, as far as anything can, that you’ll look at it afterwards and feel pleased and proud of what you have produced, without that nagging feeling that you could have made it just that little bit better.
Ian Shircore’s latest book is So Brightly at the Last: Clive James and the Passion for Poetry (RedDoor Press). Conspiracy will be published by Bonnier Books in July 2022.