Ghost Writing: The Inside Story

Neil Simpson reflects on what it entails to be a ghost writer. He recently helped Ben MacFarlane with the writing of Holiday SOS just published by Hodder www.holidaysos.com. For more details of Neil's biographies go to www.neil-simpson.com.

Are you comfortable asking about someone's sex life at 9am – even if you've only just met? Do you mind holding hours of entirely one-sided conversations where you learn as much as you can about your companion - but never have a spare second to talk about yourself? When you get a book published are you OK about being relegated to the status of 'plus one' at your own launch party?

If the answers are all 'yes' then you're probably a ghost-writer.

I've been ghosting books for nearly a decade. In that time I've been a teenage boy and a twenty-something girl. I've been in my forties and my sixties. I've been a millionaire businessman, an athlete, a chef, a doctor and a whole slew of pop stars, television presenters and suddenly famous names. Depending on my co-author my childhood has been miserable or wonderful. My life has been a success or a disaster. I've achieved great things or I've lost it all in a swirl of drink, drugs and bad decisions. I've never been to The Priory in real life. But in my head – and my co-authors' books – I've had more stays than I care to count.

As a ghost the trick is to envelop yourself in your new persona. For the six or eight weeks of the job you have to live and breathe your co-author's life. You ask so many questions and with each answer you build a sharper picture of the story you need to tell. You have to feel it, as well as to hear about it. Sometimes I think I get so close to the events that I think I could pass a lie detector test on them. On a good day I genuinely believe I won that medal or that public vote. I really think I gave up that child for adoption, built up that vast debt, saved that life, spent that night in the cell, slept with all those footballers, suffered yet another cycle of IVF or whatever it is that appears on my screen after each interview session.

Joking aside, the best bit of ghost-writing is the chance to live through all these extraordinary events. The worst bit is writing them up in your co-author's voice. When deadlines are tight you need to spend as much time with your subject as possible. But if you're to get 90,000 words done in six weeks you still need to put 3,000 of them on the screen every weekday. Ghost-writing isn't the right job for anyone who needs everything to be just so before they can write a word. It's the wrong business if you need the muse to strike before you complete a single page.

It's also the wrong job if you want to become as famous as your co-author. 'Don't you care that your name isn't even on the acknowledgements page?'friends ask when they look at books where confidentiality agreements were part of the deal. ‘The only place I want my name is on a cheque when the royalty stream begins,' I say. It's an old joke, but for me it's the truth. It's the same when we're lucky enough to get big launch parties. I'd hate to be the star of the show. Far nicer, for me, to be the mysterious 'author, plus one' on the guest list who can leave at any time.

If I'm trying to sound cynical I'd say I love pressing 'send' on a manuscript and knowing that my part of the deal is over. From then on it's up to the 'name' to give the interviews, smile through the photo-shoots and have sleepless nights worrying that no-one will show up for a signing. In truth, though, a ghost never entirely gives up ownership of his or her books. I've always thought that the key skill of any successful author isn't creativity, imagination, attention to detail or awareness of deadlines. Instead it's the ability to walk into even the largest or most disorganised bookshop, scan the shelves and spot your own books within a maximum of 30 seconds. Ten seconds more and each book is better positioned with several on the best-seller wall and at least one on the three-for-two table by the till. It's a slightly tougher task for a ghost, as the name and face on each cover is always different. But if you lived that person's life, even for just eight weeks, then you'll always recognise their book. Part of you will always, always, want them to succeed.

Click here for Neil Simpson last article for Andrew Lownie's website.

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Neil Simpson

Neil Simpson is a Sunday Times Top Ten best-selling biographer and one of Britain’s most prolific ghost-writers. His back list includes highly commercial books for the likes of Orion, Hodder & Stoughton, Virgin, Mainstream, Penguin and John Blake Publishing.He is happy to meet very tigh...More about Neil Simpson