Some stories will always stand the test of time – especially if they involve sex, big-name celebrities and a shot of humour. Try this.
The famous Nell Gwynn, stepping one day from a house where she had made a short visit into her coach, saw a great mob assembled and her footman all bloody and dirty.
The fellow, being asked by his mistress the reason of his being in that condition, answered: ‘I have been fighting, madam, with an impudent rascal who called your ladyship a whore.’
‘You blockhead,’ replied Mrs Gwynn. ‘At this rate you must fight every day of your life. Why, you fool, all the world knows it.’
‘Do they?’ cried the fellow, in a muttering voice, after he had shut the coach door.
‘They shan’t call me a whore’s footman for all that!’
Perfect, isn’t it? It’s got everything your readers could wish for, including two great punchlines.
This little anecdote, included, with very slight justification, as an entertaining throwaway in Tom Jones, kept me chuckling through the next hundred pages of Henry Fielding’s 850-page monster. More than 250 years after it was written, it zips off the page like something from Fleabag or The News Quiz.
So why am I quoting it in this blog? Two reasons. You can’t not read it. And you can’t not love it. (That’s one reason – it just comes in two parts.) And it’s a great reminder of the power of really good, lively writing.
That’s a key issue if you are looking for a ghostwriter to help you write your book. If you’re going to pay someone a lot of money and work with them for months, you want to know you can create something together that’s more than just adequate, professional and informative. You want to make a book you can be proud of. You want people to read it with pleasure, to enjoy the form as well as the content.
Even if they guess – and they’ll never know, unless you choose to tell them – that you may have worked with a ghost, you want them to be unsure, at any given point, whether the glittering turn of phrase that catches their eye is yours or something your collaborator has cut and polished for you.
Where there’s a joke or a pithy anecdote, you want your reader to recognise your own distinctive voice, even if the phrasing has been distilled into its purest form. It has to be your voice, but your voice at its very best.
So the actual quality and texture of the writing is important. But so, of course, is the content. Not necessarily what goes into the draft manuscript – that can be a mechanism for deciding what you really want to include, as in the hundred-year-old EM Forster quote: ‘How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?’
The only content that matters, in the end, is what’s in the revised final version, the file that’s attached to the email at that moment when you press Send and wave it off to the publisher.
Every author has too much to say, and a key part of the ghostwriter’s duty is to rein things in when the author is galloping off on a personal hobbyhorse, plunging into too much boring detail or being too unremittingly intense for too long.
Pacing is important – as important in non-fiction as it is in a novel. And most of the people we work with haven’t got a clue about pacing. Why should they?
I haven’t got a clue about engineering, military history or AI – or CFDs, fMRI, F1, KS3, CRM, APTs, CITES, athletics or economics – as I’ve been busy doing books all my life. But I don’t need to know about these things. My authors know what they’re talking about. I’ve been focusing on writing, while the authors I work with have been developing their skills and expertise in their own specialist fields.
So I know when a book needs to speed up or slow down. I know when a whimsical digression or a lighthearted anecdote is going to be more welcome than another volley of worthy, well-researched facts or well-meaning advice.
Henry Fielding knew when to interrupt his story to slip in an old joke about Nell Gwynn’s debased morals and refined humour. Your ghost needs to know when the reader needs a break. You bring the content; we bring the form. When they come together so neatly that you can’t see the join, you’ve got a book that people will read, love and remember.
Ian Shircore’s latest books are the bestselling Conspiracy (John Blake, 2022) and So Brightly at the Last: Clive James and the Passion for Poetry (RedDoor, 2019)