Ghostwriting: How does it work?
by Adam Reger
This is the second installment of a brief series of blog posts relating to ghostwriting. In the first installment, I looked at some common misconceptions about ghostwriting.
In today’s post, I want to dive deeper into a question that can be a bit of a sticking point for many people who are thinking of hiring a ghostwriter.
“How does it work?”
Once you’ve found a ghostwriter and you’re ready to get started . . . well, how do you get started?
There are three main ways that a ghostwriter works with his or her clients. In my experience, writing a book for a client is typically a mix of these three methods, and very rarely is just a single method employed.
Any ghostwriter you consider hiring should be willing to work with you using whichever method you prefer. The name of the game in ghostwriting is flexibility and accommodating the client.
This one is perfectly straightforward. As a ghostwriter, I interview my client to elicit the information I need to do my work.
In my experience, this is the most common method for ghostwriters. I’ve talked to clients over the phone and in person. I usually scribble down tons of notes, or (with the client’s permission) turn on a tape recorder to catch everything they say.
The interviews can vary from me asking lots and lots of questions, including follow-up questions and things that occur to me only in the moment, to saying to the client, “Can you tell me about your childhood?” and then listening and taking copious notes over the next hour or so. (As I said in the last installment, I’ve found that most clients are fantastic at talking about their book idea, whether it’s their life story or an idea for a science-fiction novel.)
Part of the ghostwriter’s job is to prepare for these interviews and then lead them. In a future installment I’ll talk about the outline and how important it is for the ghostwriting process. But one of its greatest benefits is in lending a sense of structure to the interviewing process. The client and I are always on the same page about which part of the book we’re working on, and thus what topic(s) we’re going to talk about during a given interview.
If a client and I are working on chapter seven, which we’ve agreed is going to cover the client’s career as a professional rodeo clown, I am going to restrict my questions to that topic. (Of course, it’s often the case that the client will say something very interesting about another topic, to be covered in another chapter; when that happens, I’ll move those notes to a separate file for the appropriate chapter.) It’s a fantastic way of respecting one another’s time and breaking the task of writing a book into manageable pieces.
You probably have material that will help the ghostwriter with his or her work. This material can include newspaper clippings, old photographs, family trees, or books and articles that will help the ghostwriter to understand a topic or provide them with necessary information to include in the book.
Even if your book is fictional, there are likely to be some materials you’ve drawn up that would help the ghostwriter immensely: an outline of the book’s plot, a list of characters, photographs that match what you envision for the book’s setting.
Any material you can provide is helpful to the ghostwriter. One of my first clients, for whom I wrote a 400-page thriller novel, had a binder full of detailed character sketches, a plot summary, and photographs of the real people on whom he had based different characters. A more recent client has e-mailed me old scanned photographs, as well as social media posts that reflect her view of the world and her philosophy of life. In both cases I’ve found these materials invaluable in really getting to the heart of what the client wanted their book to be.
In some cases, a client may have already tried their hand at writing the book. There are many possible reasons why the client’s manuscript isn’t working yet, from problems with English to a vague feeling that the book just isn’t right yet. (In a future installment, I’ll talk more about the differences between a ghostwriter and an editor. For prospective clients who’ve already written most or all of their book, hiring an editor may make more sense than hiring a ghostwriter.) The ghostwriter’s job is to take the client’s words and rewrite them, shaping the book into something closer to what the client has envisioned.
It’s important to point out that the ghostwriter isn’t taking an existing manuscript and rewriting it in a vacuum. When I work with chapters or even a whole manuscript that a client has written, I’m not disappearing for three months while I rewrite the entire thing. I still have frequent conversations with the client about what he or she is looking for, reaching out to ask a question or see if the client is interested in an idea that has occurred to me. I may conduct research of my own, in order to answer questions that have occurred to me, or to enrich the book with additional information.
Just as valuable—and this is a tool that can be used no matter what method(s) you and the ghostwriter agree upon—is referring to a book that presents a good model of what you’d like your book to read like. If you like the casual, confessional tone of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, I’ll refer to that book as I write. If you want your novel to have the same grim, dark feel of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series, I’ll make sure I have a copy of one of those books beside me to refer to. (In the next installment I’ll say more about how to prepare to work with a ghostwriter.)
Regardless of which method you choose (and again, you are likely to combine two or even all three methods), don’t overlook revision as a key part of the process of working with a ghostwriter. Working on my own and with a few different agencies, I’ve found the standard to be that two rounds of revision are included in any cost estimate.
I am a big proponent of revision in my own writing, and I find it even more important as a ghostwriter. Because I’m in effect translating my client’s story, it is vitally important that the client gets a chance to weigh in on all the decisions I’ve made, pointing out places where that translation could be more successful and more faithful to what the client wants to say. Client feedback can range from correcting me on important facts to pointing out places where the tone is funny and it should be more serious, with a thousand other little details in between.
For that reason, revision is a key place where the book takes shape. For the ghostwriter, this is where I get vital feedback and information that I can incorporate into the next draft. For the client, this is where you get to tweak and reshape the text.
Many clients find it much easier to rearrange, critique, and correct text that already exists rather than wrestling words onto the page in the first place. It makes perfect sense: once there’s something there, you have something to respond to and start to change and to get into perfect shape.
In addition to these three ways that a ghostwriter can work with you as a client, there is a fourth way that I want to mention pretty much just to caution against it. In rare cases, a ghostwriter is tasked with coming up with topics, or generating material of his or her own. I cannot say clearly enough that this is not the ghostwriter’s job, and nor should it be.
When a situation occurs where the ghostwriter doesn’t have enough material to cover a book-length project, I’ve found that it is usually because the client’s idea is not fully fleshed out. When I find myself in that situation as a ghostwriter, my task is to work with the client on coming up with more ideas, more examples—more of everything so that I am not in the position of filling that material in myself.
Again, the ghostwriter’s job is to take the client’s ideas, experiences, and observations and present them in a winning and satisfying way, according to the client’s wishes. Asking the ghostwriter to be responsible for the book’s content by generating ideas is unfair to the ghostwriter, and it’s certainly short-changing the client, whose goal is to produce a book that represents their own experiences and ideas faithfully.
I’ll say more about this in the next installment, on preparing to work with a ghostwriter. That piece will include questions to ask yourself to know whether you are ready—including whether you have enough material that the ghostwriter won’t need to come back to you to develop additional ideas.
An excellent beginning to that process of self-evaluation would be to take another look at the three options I’ve listed above and ask yourself which most appeals to you.
Would you feel most comfortable talking to a ghostwriter frequently over the period needed to write the book? Would you prefer to send along useful articles and other materials, making comments on the ghostwriter’s drafts?
Consider, too, which of these methods best suits your situation. Do you have tons of news clippings, books, and other materials? Have you been tinkering with a draft of your memoirs for the last ten years? You may well find that you are more ready to start working with a ghostwriter than you imagined.
Next time: How to prepare for success with a ghostwriter.