On being a ghost

Creepy or creative? It definitely works the muscle. A publishing house I wrote a psych thriller for asked me to provide some answers to frequently asked questions. Here are a few of my responses (or you can read the full post HERE).

How did you first begin ghostwriting? What was the primary attraction?

My first request came quite out of the blue. I had been working as a newspaper reporter for five or six years when a local family reached out to me through LinkedIn, asking whether I might help create a memoir. I had contributed to one small piece of non-fiction, a book about church architecture, at that point, but I had never undertaken anything more substantial. I was uncertain, but I wanted to help. This woman had carried a book around in her heart for more than 10 years, and it was clearly burdensome to her to not be able to get it on paper. I said I would give it a shot! We learned together. It took about nine months, but we wrote a book that later became a national award-winner. That was a turning point for me; I realized how much it could mean to help someone in this way and knew I wanted to do more.

What is the biggest misconception about ghostwriting?

I think the concern is that it is somehow sneaky. I understand that point of view, but for the work I do, the important part is that both parties (author/publisher and ghostwriter) understand clearly what is expected and what the outcome will look like. One person may have a story on his or her heart but needs a guide to create a narrative. I’m happy to help in that way, and if I understand exactly what my client needs and is paying me for — and can see the benefit I get out of it (practice, experience, and joy) — then I see it as fair and no different from any other job I may be hired to complete. I enjoy collaborative creation and the process as well as what I get out of it.

How do you find working from an outline and someone else’s vision?

I love it! It takes away the pressure of coming up with your own perfect story or plot and allows you to just enjoy making the story feel real and exercising your writer’s muscle. No matter whose book I’m writing (my own or a client’s), a clear, navigable outline is probably the most important step. An outline helps you see exactly where you’re going, so you don’t sit down and feel lost or risk losing momentum or direction. When someone else has done the hard work of creating an outline, I get to just write. That’s a treat. If I’m working in an environment where I feel like I can make suggestions to the outline or reach out for clarification or brainstorming, even better. Mostly though, I just take the “script” and run with it. Pure joy. In some ways, actually, it’s not all that different from being an actor, bringing a storyline someone else has written to life.

How does the writing process for a ghostwriting project differ from your own personal projects?

Well, as noted above, ghostwriting takes away a lot of the stressful part of the work if someone else has created a detailed outline already. In other ways, of course, it keeps me from practicing that hard work and takes away one creative step. Also, if it’s client work, I make it a priority over my own projects. That’s not ideal, but it’s life. In a perfect world (and once I realize my goals), my own writing would have a dedicated time/space in my schedule. Beyond the outlining phase, which typically involves pages and pages of overthinking, sketching, and many index cards when I’m going it alone, the writing itself is not much different. I’m just creating a world and people and conflict that I’ve designed without collaborating with someone else. I do find that I miss having someone to bounce ideas off when I’m going solo on a book.

How do you deal with not having your name attached to a book?

People think this must be excruciating. It’s not, at least for me. For me, the joy in writing a book is mostly in the process. In fact, when my book with James Patterson’s name and mine was out and on shelves, people kept asking me how I felt. It felt lovely, but not as lovely as writing it and thinking about writing it. For me, there’s a moment when you’re just finished with a whole book, when you feel light as air and divinely accomplished. That lasts up to a week, and then I need to focus on a new project and launch the process all over again. The book-on-shelves step comes so far after that elation that I’m on to some new adventure by then. Also, I don’t see creativity as finite or something in extremely limited supply. If I’ve spent months working on a book that will be published without my name and it becomes successful, it’s evidence, to me, of potential. There will be more books. There are many books in me.

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