Ghostly Reflections

Sixteen of the agency’s ghost writers share their five tips on how they work with their subjects and what they believe is needed to ghost a successful book. Mary Alexander, ghostwriter of Call Me Elizabeth, by Dawn Annandale. 1. You must connect with the person you are ghosting. It’s even better if you like them. You’ve got to almost ‘be’ them for 80,000 plus words, and it’s much harder to do that if you don’t want to be there and don’t believe in their story. I have turned down ghosting opportunities with people I don’t ‘get’. It always seems the right decision for both of us. 2. Capture their voice. You are the ghost but this is their memoir. Write in their voice, not yours. 3. Nail down the nuts and bolts of the project as early as possible. Agree a chapter outline early on. This way, both parties know what to expect. Agree a method of working at the outset. Who will do all/most of the travelling to allow for face-to-face meetings, how many meetings are anticipated, and ensure you have e-mail access to your subject for the further questions that will inevitably occur to you. It’s impossible to ghost well without sufficient access to your subject. 4. Don’t be too shocked if the line between truth and fiction blurs slightly for the sake of the narrative arc. 5. Since you’re doing the lion’s share of the work, make sure your agent asks for a writer’s credit, either on the front page or on the cover.  Lynne Barrett-Lee, ghostwriter of amongst others Never Say Die, Giant George, The Baby Laundry for Unmarried Mothers, The Girl With No Name, Mum’s Way. 1. Be upfront, assertive and audacious (I mean audacious in the sense of ‘being willing to take bold risks’, rather than ‘showing an impudent lack of respect’, obviously). In most scenarios you will be equal partners – equal risk, equal reward – so it’s important to establish your roles. Be gentle, be tactful, but don’t be shy about yours. Your job is to turn a story into a saleable book, which means taking final responsibility for style and structure. 2. Leave your ego in a drawer somewhere, because you’re not going to be needing it. Though I’m all for ghosts being credited for their work – why shouldn’t they be? – that’s more to build a reputation within the publishing industry than to bask in the heat of fame’s hi-beam. As far as readers are concerned, you don’t matter. What you will be able to enjoy is a wonderful warm glow when reviewers rave about how well the book is written. 3. Trust your instincts. Whether it’s about the story, the person telling it, or just the project’s viability, don’t ignore any inner voice telling you it’s not going to come together. This is important, and I tell it to my novel writing students too; if you work in a creative field, you are likely to be intuitive, so if something feels out of kilter to you, it probably is. Similarly, if you have an instant rapport with a subject, be joyous; for you will probably have made a friend as well. 4. Never make judgements. Though there will be projects and people that you know won’t work for you (see above) once you decide to ghost someone’s book, you become them. It’s their world, their voice, and their story. Always keep in mind that you must tell it from their point of view, even if you have to twiddle greatly with their syntax. 5. That said, at the same time, interrogate. If you’ve addressed point 1 this shouldn’t be too difficult. Again, don’t be shy about getting personal – ghostwriting is personal. So ask the sensitive, squirmy questions you know the reader will be asking. That way, you can pre-empt them and, hopefully, address them. And if they don’t like that, refer back to point 3… Website: Deborah Crewe ghosted Tracy Mackness’s Jail Bird and worked with Jack Straw on his autobiography Last Man Standing. There are lots of different ways of working alongside authors. As well as classic ghosting – where an author tells me their story, and I write it down – I have worked with authors to edit, polish and generally knock into shape their first drafts. These are very different roles, but with the same basic requirements: earn your author’s trust, find their voice, be good to work with, and be their champion. Earn your author’s trust. An author needs to be able to open up to you, and tell you everything about themselves. They need to trust that you will listen without judging, and use their material sensitively to tell their story in the way they want it told. They need to have faith that you know what you are doing and can pull it off. They need to be utterly clear about your discretion and loyalty. Work to earn and keep that trust. Find their voice. Voice is about words, phrases, syntax, rhythm, attitude. The voice is just as important when editing: how do you preserve the voice in all its richness and authenticity whilst imposing your own ideas on eg how long a sentence should ever be? Be good to work with. An author is going to spend a lot of time with you, so it’s ideal if they look forward to the moment when you breeze through their door. However lovely you are though, it’s unlikely to be fun all the time: be aware of how emotionally challenging it can be for an author to relive their past, and be sensitive to what they might be going through. Be their champion. Do not come with your own agenda. Find out what kind of book your author wants to write, and be their champion in ensuring that that is the book that gets written. Nadene Ghouri ghosted the international best seller The Favoured Daughter: One Woman’s Fight to Lead Afghanistan into the Future. Ghost writing is a huge responsibility – part journalism, part therapy and part literary endeavour. First you must persuade the subject of the book to tell you the most important, dramatic, traumatic, upsetting things that have happened to them, in absolute tiny detail. Trust is a huge factor. If they don’t like you nor have faith that you will tell their story accurately and with sensitivity, you may as well forget it. Then once you’ve got the story recorded you have to bring it to life on the page. I can only describe it as being a bit like being a literary method actor. One has to get inside a person’s head and hear not only to the most powerful or emotional aspects of their factual story, but you also have to listen to the rhythm of their voice, the quirks and characteristics, the way of speaking that makes that person them. It’s a very intense process, at times you feel completely taken over by the other person, especially at 2am when you wake up in a cold sweat and realise something dreadful, say, you’ve opened chapter 12 in completely the wrong style. The voice in your head admonishing you isn’t yourself, it’s the voice of the person whose memoir you are writing. Oh dear do I sound like Daniel Day Lewis now? Well, there’s a reason the man has won three Oscars. Ghosting is similar. Get it wrong and the end result will be crass and unconvincing. Get it right and, if you are lucky, you won’t win an Oscar but you might just have a best-seller on your hands. Philip Gomm ghosted Doug Beattie’s memoirs An Ordinary Soldier and Task Force Helmand. Having a story inside you is one thing, but getting it out can be quite another. As Frank Carson would have said; it’s the way you tell ‘em. Which is where a ghost writer can help, assisting those with enthralling experiences to translate what they have seen, done and felt into a lucid, captivating form others want to read and share. I have never thought of myself as a brilliant author, but I do believe I am an excellent storyteller. I suppose I bring lives to life. It is imperative that a ghost should not only have the ability to listen, but also to question, asking the things a reader will want to know the answers to, coaxing out important details the subject might think are of little relevance or is initially reluctant to divulge. There’s one thing I never forget. While I am involved in a collaborative process the finished product is not mine: it always belongs to the person whose name appears on the cover and they must feel comfortable with the final result. The great thing about being a ghost is that you never know where you will discover a project. When I met Doug Beattie in the middle of the Afghan desert I didn’t expect it to lead to a best-selling book. But that’s the thing about the world we live in. There’s something, or someone, interesting lurking round every corner. Lisa Higgins is a journalist specialising in celebrity stories and just embarking on a ghosting career. 1. The key to my ghostwriting is contacts. Without building up relationships with writers and managers, there is no subject to write about. 2. It’s important to be an excellent listener and not judge anything the author tells you. Your job is to help them tell their story. 3. You must be flexible and be ready to work around your author’s schedule. 4.You’ve also got to be looking for the best stories and not be afraid of asking questions that you think would improve the tale. You’re there to use your storytelling experience after all. 5. As a journalist one of the best things about ghostwriting is all the research. It’s great to be able to get really in depth about something as opposed to just writing short pieces. However, one of the challenges I face is keeping that fresh feeling in a text. Sometimes you might feel a little lost in direction and the best remedy for this is to take a day off and come back fresh. It’s also essential to look back at your original proposal and reengage with what drew you to this subject in the first place. Website: Kris Hollington has ghosted the bestselling Harry Keeble series – Baby X, Crack House, Hurting Too Much, Terror Cops and Little Victim as well as The Interceptor, Sailing the Dream and Warwick Davis’s memoir Size Matters Not. 1. Become a Mimic with Imagination
I’m a natural mimic with a wild imagination, so manage to find the voice of the person I’m ghosting for/subject I’m writing about fairly quickly, and am then able to put myself mentally into their world. This, I think, is essential, but can come with a psychological price if (like me) you’re writing about horrific crimes. To balance this, and to switch off, I do a lot of extreme sporting activities – it’s hard to think of anything work-related when you’re flying through the air without a safety net. This can backfire. I once wrote a book with a broken right hand, wincing every time I hit SPACE. 2. Maintain Brevity
Eight hours of talking is enough to fill a book (80,000 words), so do keep them on topic (although I always break this rule if I think I’m learning something useful). I touch type as they talk (which also helps to find their voice). 3. Find a Theme and Ending
The toughest part of any proposal (the bit we send to publishers to try and persuade them to commission a book) is getting the chapter synopses done (these are 1-page summaries of each chapter, essentially the book’s plan). The key, I find – once the initial interviews are done – is to break everything I have down into bullet points and build a theme to run through the book around them, then look for the ending and then build on the contents of each chapter with the theme and ending always in my mind. Once you’ve cracked this, the book is all but done. 4. Passion
I go for stories that I think have true meaning, need to be told and might actually do some good (Baby X, for example). If you’re passionate about your topic, you can’t help but do a good job. I’m friends with all my co-authors – except for one who can’t stop travelling around the world, which makes it tricky to stay in touch. 5. Work Quickly
If you want to make your living from ghosting, you have to work fast, with a maximum of three months spent on each book. And always, always meet deadlines, especially the ones you promise – reliability is the hallmark of a good ghost. Having said that, I would advise any budding ghost to take their time with their first book. Study the work of others and always listen and act on criticism from agents, professional readers and editors, the majority of them really do know what they’re talking about. Dave Jarvis ghost wrote Gypsy Jane, the true story of a female London criminal. When a convicted armed robber whose life story you are ghosting says on the first day of writing: “I don’t want you to name any post offices, banks or people I’ve done… oh and can you make me sound ‘proper’ because my dad would like that,” it poses problems to the ghost writer; factual accuracy, credibility of the text, finding the right voice and simply writing the story in a way that reads like fact instead of fiction. Having been presented with this scenario I found I was able to use a variety of ghosting techniques in order to get the job done. As a journalist factual accuracy is everything which means if you can’t stand up the truth of a story, leave it out. Imagine another writer is telling the same story and that it will be on the front pages of tomorrow’s papers. You have to get it right or you will be out of a job. It is a hard line to walk but it is the right one. Two skills required to handle a subject wanting to be economical with the actuality of their life are what I would call the Robert De Niro or method school of writing combined with a lot of patience. Without any doubt the writer has to get in character. In the case of an armed robber old episodes of the classic 70s TV police drama The Sweeney served me well. Convincing my subject that the entire book required just that feel with no compromises in order to keep the attention and belief of the reader at every page required patience and diplomacy. I have always worked to deadlines and a self-imposed discipline of producing a set number of words a day is crucial. Writing any book is a huge project and a daily discipline is needed in order to keep moving forward and avoid the awful feeling of treading water. Keep bashing out the words no matter what. Reading is in my experience where good ideas come from, be it newspapers, magazines, books or even news wires, blogs and websites. I prefer to avoid the obvious when reading for ideas and come up on the blind side as it were. For instance, in reading about a famous public figure there may be a personal assistant or friend who keeps cropping up. Occasionally their story can be more interesting than the main attraction and may make a feature article or even a book. In summary:
1. Factual accuracy
2. Find the voice
3. Patience
4. Bash out the words
5. Read
Ruth Kelly is an award nominated journalist whose ghosted books include the bestsellers Out of the Darkness by Tina Nash and You Can’t Hide by Tina Renton . 1.Read the newspapers and keep an eye out for any real life stories that could be turned into a book or celebrities that are consistently making the headlines. Don’t be afraid to approach anyone, people are often flattered to be asked to have their book written. 2.Unless working to a tight deadline, don’t rush the interview process as this it’s vital that you spend enough time with the subject so they open up. Sometimes this can take hours but other times it can take a couple of days before they tell you their page turning material. 3.Don’t be judgemental. Often the subjects see a ghost as cathartic way of releasing their buried emotions. By just listening and being understanding you can often get your best material. 4.If the subject is describing their childhood, ask them to take you to some of the places they mention as it will add colour and emotion to your writing. 5. Possibly the most important point is to always run the chapters past the subject as you go along so you can iron out any problems from the start. I suggest sending the manuscript in thirds. Teena Lyons has ghosted more than a dozen books since becoming a ghost writer, following a long career as a journalist on national newspapers. 1. Be choosy. Those who are thinking of working with ghosts should think very carefully about the chemistry between them and their co-writer. An 80,000-word relationship can seem like a lifetime if the connection is not there. More importantly, if your ghost doesn’t really buy into what you are saying, the end result probably won’t hold together terribly well either. 2. Plan, plan and plan. I am a great believer in getting a really firm chapter-by-chapter plan in place at the earliest opportunity. Things may change as the process progresses and they usually do, but if there is a plan in place, everyone will know what is expected of them and will arrive at interviews fully primed and prepared. 3. Be sure to commit enough time. As a ghost, I have spent my fair share of time waiting around for delayed interviews, or even climbing straight back onto trains after a last minute cancellation. That’s fine now and again and goes with the territory of working with subjects who are in demand. However, I would always recommend that my co-authors consider very carefully whether they have enough time for a book project. Ideally, I need at least 25 to 30 hours of a subject’s time to get the full story. 4. Face-to-face is best. Secondary to the above point, I much prefer to conduct interviews on a face-to-face basis. I have done some book interviews over the phone, or via Skype, but it is not ideal. Capturing a person’s voice is one of the most important aspects of successful ghosting and interviews via electronic media add an unnecessary layer of detachment. 5. Read it. Ghosting is collaboration and it is really helpful if a co-author reads the copy which his or her ghost will regularly send over for review. It can make for a very messy end to a project if at the 11th hour the named author goes through the book with a fine tooth comb and decides that they don’t really like any of the anecdotes. Often it is simply a case of cold feet at the thought of seeing their confessions in black and white, but it is really helpful if this can be thrashed out earlier. Website: Neil Simpson has ghosted numerous books including Cruise Ship SOS, Holiday SOS, All Fired Up: Tales of a Country Fireman, Great Bales of Fire and City Girl. Five years ago I knew exactly what I needed in life: a friend or family member at boot camp on The X-Factor or in the finals of Strictly Come Dancing. Celebrities sold books – and scandal-rich, time-poor celebs were every ghost-writer’s dream. They still are, of course. The right celebrity will still dominate the charts – especially in the run up to Christmas. But the good news for ghosts is that the star system might be crumbling a little. Five years ago I’d have cursed my parents if they’d said our most interesting relative was a woman who once worked as a midwife in London’s East End. Now I’m scouring the family albums for anyone with even the vaguest resemblance to Jennifer Worth. For a while now I’ve used the phrase ‘ordinary people who have lived extraordinary lives’ to describe my new co-writers. Alongside the celebrity beat I’ve now written with doctors, police officers, fire-fighters and financiers. I’ve enjoyed it hugely and I’ve been humbled by many of these new stories. So my advice to hopeful ghost-writers is to stay close to home when you’re looking for your first subject. Tell it well, and even the most humdrum job or life can capture the public imagination. It might take a while to top the charts – it did for Jennifer Worth. But publishers are now looking beyond the stars – and that’s exciting news for all of us. Website: Nicola Stow has ghosted Born Gangster. Ghost writing someone’s book is like taking on an acting role: you have to get into character, you have to become them. Only then can you re-create their story authentically. My five top ghost writing tips are as follows: 1: Connect with the author and capture their voice. This is probably the most important aspect of ghost-writing. Discover every facet of their personality – likes, dislikes, mannerisms, hopes and fears until you know them inside out. What makes them laugh, cry? Who have they slept with? Are they religious? You’re telling their story – every cough and spit is required. Study their speech pattern, mimic it, write it. 2: Interview your subject face to face. Body language and facial expressions can’t be interpreted over the phone; being able to visualise how your subject moves and reacts in certain situations enables you to bring their character to life. 3: Meet family and friends featured in the author’s book. Note their appearances, gestures and observe how the author interacts with them. This exercise will help create engaging dialogue in your text – and you will often stumble across additional stories in the process. 4: Surround yourself with images. Collect as many photographs of people and places you’ll be writing about as possible. Ask the author to take you on a guided tour of their favourite haunts, study Google Street View. Vivid imagery creates a strong sense of place and sustains the reader’s attention. 5: Meet other ghosts and share your fears. Writing is fun but also challenging. There’ll be days when you’ll be beside yourself with excitement: the words flow and you’re totally immersed in the project – you’ve nailed the acting role. Then there are the vacant moments – when you hit a brick wall and nothing makes sense. You feel totally alone, staring at a blur of text, realising a chapter isn’t working, events are out of sequence and you feel as though your brain is going to explode out of sheer frustration. Discussing your anxieties with other writers is therapeutic; you realise you’re not mad after all…and that the dark days are all part of the creative process. Clifford Thurlow’s ghosted books include Today I’m Alice and Runaway. It is unlikely that many writers set out to be a ghostwriter. It’s something that happens. A sports star asks a journalist to help with ‘his story,’ or a military officer finds an old school chum to ‘tidy up’ his memoirs. I met the actress Carol White in Hollywood and wrote what was eventually titles Carol Comes Home. Carol had only one stipulation, that her collaborator was from London. I filled the bill and the ghost rose from my career as reporter. There are many advantages to being a ghost. For a start, the information is ‘on tap,’ negating the need for much arduous research. It is an odd, sometimes voyeuristic pleasure then getting get to know another human being in great depth and with an intimacy that person may never have shared, even with parents and a spouse. To this extent, the ghost must also be a psychologist, a confessor and, at least for a while, that sounding board people need, especially when making major decisions – like writing a book. The ghostwriter needs some basic skills, for a start, you must love hearing and telling stories. You need the ability to get inside the mind of the storyteller, literally becoming an incorporeal spook. The ghost requires an overview that spots the diamonds and leaves the detritus. You need a good ear for word patterns and cadence, and the modesty to remember that it is someone else’s name that will go in bold type on the book cover. Website: Mei Trow has ghosted several books including Survivor on the River Kwai and Survivor: Auschwitz, The Death March and My Fight for Freedom. 1. Make sure there really is a story to tell. The old adage is that everybody has a book in them; they don’t! 2. Ghost writing is like looking after somebody else’s baby. They love it, gave birth to it, can’t see its faults. A ghost writer has to put things in perspective, without being cruel or didactic. 3. Never forget you are putting across somebody else’s ideas, experience, perceptions. They should never be your own even if you disagree. 4. Check your facts wherever possible. This is particularly true of controversial topics. 5. Find a ‘voice’ that is convincing. I am actually a retired male teacher, but as a ghost writer I have to be ‘for all seasons’ – rather as an actor has to pretend to be somebody else – male/female, young/old – go with the flow. The downside of being the ghost in the machine is that nobody knows who you are. Be prepared for fans to write to Mr X telling him how marvellous his book is – it is still very satisfying to bask in his reflected glory.  Katy Weitz has ghosted Daddy’s Little Secret by Tina Davis and Mummy is a Killer by Nikkia Roberson. 1. Be interested in anything and everything – you never know where your next great story might come from. 2. Go for full immersion. Root around your subject’s home. Get close – sniff around their fridge, meet their mother, look at their photos. You have to be them so you have to know them inside out. 3. Be a good audience. Your subject is sharing the most intimate moments of their life with you. Respond. Show you are on their side. 4. Share your work. Your subject needs to trust you completely so don’t be shy of showing them what you’re writing, even when it’s still very rough. 5. Look out for the details that bring the story to life – what they are wearing that day, the songs that are playing on the radio, the colour of the wallpaper. Get them to draw diagrams of the rooms and the places they are describing so you can picture the scenes perfectly before you start writing. Website: Doug Wight has ghosted actress Emily Lloyd’s memoir Wish I Was There and undercover agent Ross Slater’s True Lies. 1. Think about what you want to say. A good ghost will prize the necessary detail out of you but it always helps when people give careful consideration beforehand to what they want their book to say and how they want to say it. 2. Think dates. Constructing a timeline of your life not only helps a writer chart your story but also helps you remember key episodes. It’s surprisingly common for people to forget key events and how they slot together. 3. Write as much as you can. A skilled ghost writer will be able to construct a story out of precious little but if you attempt to write down some of your feelings, memories or key episodes not only will your voice be more authentically captured but you’ll have a greater feeling of achievement with the finished product. 4. Think sensual. Anyone can tell a good story but the more feeling that is injected into the narrative the more it comes to life. Whether you’re writing down parts of your own story or telling it to a ghost the more you can think of how you felt at a particular time the better it will read. Writers call it qualia – think emotions, sounds, smells, sights and even tastes. 5. Be available. It sounds obvious but crafting a book is a difficult and challenging process. It can take a lot of work to get it finished. The more time you can devote to interviews, background research, reading and editing the easier the process will be and the more fulfilled you’ll feel at the end of a job well done.