The Challenges of Ghost Writing

As well as being a prolific and very successful writer, Debbie Young organises the Hawkesbury Upton literary festivals. She asked me to deliver a talk on 22nd April 2023 about the challenges of ghost writing. After I’d written it, I was unable to be in Hawkesbury Upton on the day, so Michael James McMahon read it for me. He’s an actor, so I’m quite certain that people enjoyed the delivery far more than they would have done if I had read it myself. Thank you Michael. Here’s what the audience heard:

Years ago, a colleague described a conversation she and I were having as “gossip.” Of course, I corrected her. It’s only gossip when other people are doing it. When I’m involved, I prefer the expression, “informed speculation about people.” My colleague said, ‘You enjoy it because you’re a nosy person.’ And she was right – I am a nosy person. And that is probably one reason I became a ghost writer.

I learned about ghost writing in my early teens. I was constantly in the library returning books I’d read and taking out new ones. I had a spell when I devoured sportsmen’s autobiographies. At this distance I may have got the names muddled up, but I’m pretty certain it was Tom Finney, Preston North End and England outside left, who described how he met his wife when he went into a restaurant with another player. The book recounted how he had looked at one of the waitresses and told his colleague, ‘I’m going to marry that woman.’ And he had. Well, there you go. Seeing someone for the first time and thinking, “That’s my wife I’m looking at” – it doesn’t appeal to me but I’m sure it could work for some people. Whatever turns your crank.

But then, a few weeks later, I read the autobiography of Nat Lofthouse, swashbuckling forward with Bolton Wanderers. Lofthouse described in identical terms how he had first seen the woman who would become his wife. I thought: What a coincidence! It was only when I read a third footballer’s story and found that he, too, had seen a previously unknown waitress and said, ‘I’m going to marry that woman’ that I realised what was going on. These three men did not have the same real-life experience. What they had was the same ghost writer. And not the best ghost writer in the world, either.

I’ve become cautious about telling people I’m a ghost writer because, amazingly often, I get the reaction, “But isn’t that cheating?” Why? Why should it be cheating? I imagine everyone sitting in this room is a reader – you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t read. And if you read, then I’m telling you: not all of the books you have read were written by the person whose name is on the cover. The number that were written by someone else may be as high as 30%. So I write, let’s say, a crime thriller set in Nevada and published under the name of someone who doesn’t exist – or who does exist and wants to be known as a writer but either didn’t have the time to write or can’t do it well enough. Who is being cheated? You, if you read the book? How? In what way?

Debbie asked me to speak today about the challenges of ghost writing. I said I would; it was only when I sat down to start writing the words that I realised what a big topic I had taken on, because ghost writing means different things to different people. So what you’re actually going to hear is the challenges I face in the kind of ghost writing I do.

Some ghost writers specialise in fiction and some only write non-fiction. I would prefer to stick to fiction but in fact my ghost writing today breaks down about 50/50 between fiction and non-fiction, and it’s with the non-fiction that the nosiness I mentioned comes into its own. You’re hired to write the life story of someone who was already well known for their achievements in some field other than writing. But a book that tells the public only what the public already knows isn’t going to sell – so the ghost writer is able to ask questions that would be impertinent if raised at the dinner table. Or, sometimes, even in court. The challenge here is getting to the little nuggets that will really sell the book. The things that will have people saying, ‘Well! I never knew that!’ And that is sometimes a licence to stick your nose much further into someone else’s business than they would like to have it stuck.

The big challenge in non-fiction is the challenge of getting the author’s voice right. (I’m the writer – the person whose name is on the cover is the author. Even if the author hasn’t written a single word). I might write the opening chapter 3 times before the author says, ‘Yes, that sounds like me. That’s how I would say it.’ Which can be a trial, because when you first write the opening chapter it’s scaffolding to get the book up and running – when the rest of the book is finished, you will almost certainly come back to the beginning and rewrite that first chapter because it no longer fits with what comes afterwards.

Finally with non-fiction, there’s the challenge of having enough stories to tell that illustrate the message the author wants to get across. You need a lot of these; to do well, you need one of those magpie minds that pick up all sorts of stuff and salt it away. Fortunately, I have one. Remember the story of the man who just, in 2023, used a piece of wood he’d put in his shed on the eve of the millennium “because it would come in handy one day.” Some of the stories I use have been hanging around in my head longer than that piece of wood.

Fiction is what I most prefer. Authors are told these days to make themselves into a brand – a bit like Boots, say, or Waitrose. Though I sometimes think, if I were a brand, it might be closer to Poundland. Now, if you read thrillers or romances by some of the biggest, best known names in those genres, there’s a very good chance indeed that a number of the books you have read weren’t written by the person you think wrote them. Some of those big names have a farm of ghost writers. They give the ghost writer a detailed, beat by beat outline of everything that is to happen in the story and an equally detailed description of the characters who will appear. They give instructions on style, grammar, things that can be said and things that can’t. I don’t accept assignments like that. There’s nothing wrong with them and I don’t disrespect people who do take them, but I write for the pleasure of creation and I wouldn’t get that if I was simply putting flesh on a pre-formed skeleton.

What I prefer is the kind of assignment that says, “We want it set in this American state. We want gambling, we want corruption, we want some humour, we want interplay between big-city law enforcement agencies and county sheriffs. We want murder, but we don’t want a lot of gore. If sex happens, keep it off the page and out of sight. And the ending must show that justice is done. Don’t let anyone seem to get away with criminal behaviour.

I enjoyed writing that one, and it was fairly easy because I was able to put quite a lot of me into it. But there’s a danger in that, because a significant challenge of ghost writing is that it isn’t my book. It’s the author’s – or, if the author doesn’t really exist, it’s the publisher’s book. I’m fortunate in having built up a level of trust with two American publishers – they know what they want and they trust me to deliver it – but I have to put my own ego out of the way. I might think, “Really, the two protagonists should come together at this point in an earth-shattering erotic storm” – but if that isn’t what the author or publisher would write, I can’t write it, either.

When you’ve worked as a ghost writer for a number of years, you get a reputation for certain things. For example, I’m known in America for true crime books written as thinly disguised fiction. Over the years I’ve written them from all the obvious viewpoints – the investigator who unravelled the story and got a conviction; the victim; and the person who committed the crime. The market for fiction drawn from true crime in America is huge and, if I wanted, I could do nothing else. But I don’t want. It would become boring. And sometimes a publisher will present a proposal for something I’ve never done before and it will really ring my chimes. A recent example involves time travel – but time travel with a twist. I can’t say more than that, because every book I write as a ghost is subject to a nondisclosure agreement. I can never say, ‘I wrote that book,’ and nor dare I say anything that might make me identifiable as the writer. But something all authors learn is that you never know how to write a book. All you know is how to write the books you have finished. And with that time travel book I had to start from scratch to work out the best way to tell the story – and that was a challenge. The sort of challenge I love.

As well as ghost writing, I write books of my own which are published under three different pen names. When I was writing one – it was called Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper – I had no idea what the book was going to be about, except that it was going to be a Coming of Age book and the theme would be: It isn’t the cards you’re dealt that count – it’s how you play the hand. I wrote the first sentence: “All I’d said was, I wouldn’t mind seeing her in her knickers.” And then I sat there, looking at the screen and thinking, ‘Where on earth did that come from?’ But I didn’t need to worry because the protagonist, a teenager called Billy McErlane who in the course of the book became a young man, materialised and stood just behind my left shoulder. He kept up a running commentary. ‘Don’t forget the anger management.’ ‘Tell them about the TV the creep stole.’ ‘Poppy wouldn’t have said that – she’d have put it this way.’ And if that doesn’t tell you you’re listening to the words of a nutcase, I don’t know what would. And you know something? I’ve met a lot of writers over the years. I don’t think I could describe any of the good ones as completely sane.

If you read genre fiction, you may or may not have heard of the narrative arc but you’re certainly aware of it. The narrative arc describes the shape of the story. It tells us where the story comes from and where it goes to. (Don’t confuse it with the plot – they are two very different things.) And each genre has its own narrative arc. For example, Romance begins in antipathy or lack of interest and ends in love. Coming of Age moves from dependent child to independent adult. And crime begins with an unjust act and ends in justice. Why do I mention that? Because of the importance of reviews to a writer’s success. A book with a lot of good reviews – three stars or more – is likely to do well. A large number of one star and two star reviews may well kill it. And the sad fact – sad from a writer’s point of view – is that most readers don’t leave reviews, even on Amazon which sells more books than anyone else in the world and which makes reviewing easy. But even people who never write a review will change that if they hate the book. And the fact is that a lot of people who read genre fiction HATE it when the book doesn’t stick to the narrative arc even though, if you asked them, they couldn’t tell you what the narrative arc is. Take that arc for crime fiction for example. It ends in justice. Now, I write crime fiction in my own name and in pen names. And, as it happens, I like to write books that don’t end in justice. In one, a young woman conned a rather innocent young man into stealing £400,000. Then she made off with the money, leaving him to face the consequences. Did she get away with it? Actually, the ending is ambiguous – she may have done and she may not, but she certainly wasn’t found out by the law. In another of my books, two women carry out revenge killings against a series of men. The police know who they are – but they are never able to bring them to court. In yet another, a man serves twenty-three years in jail for the murder of a woman who isn’t actually dead. In fact, she set up what looked like the murder scene. Is she brought to justice? No, she isn’t. Is the man released from prison? Not by the end of the book, he isn’t. After that – who knows?

But I can’t do any of that when I’m ghost writing. There are avid readers of crime fiction who love to find ambiguity at the end of a book. They know that justice is not always done, in our society or any other. But most of them never bother to review a book when they finish it, even if they love it. And there’s a whole other group of avid readers of crime fiction who will be incensed by the idea that justice may not be done – and react by visiting their own justice on the book by savaging it in a review. I can take that chance myself – and I do. I can’t risk it for someone else. And publishers won’t let me – my most recent assignment gave me a good deal of autonomy in how the story develops, but it makes a number of requirements very clear and one of them reads: “Uplifting, as in the good guys always come out on top, and order is restored.”

One last thing and I’ll let you go. I told you a few minutes ago that when I wrote that first sentence of Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper – All I’d said was, I wouldn’t mind seeing her in her knickers – I had no idea where it came from. That was a lie. I knew exactly who I had in mind when I wrote those words, though I hope she never finds out. And that’s one more challenge faced by someone like me who spends a chunk of every day, seven days a week, sitting at a screen making things up. I lose sight of what is true and what isn’t.

And, as you have listened to this, I hope you’ve lost sight of those things, too. And that’s a challenge for you.

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