The Official Website of Author L.A. Mitchell

Category: voice


Six Indications Ghostwriting Isn’t for You

13th November

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I’m asked all. the. time. how it feels to gut myself on the page then watch someone else take credit for the work. Truthfully, I didn’t really know at first. The crinkle of cold, hard cash to do what you love tends to deafen for a time. But I’m going on four years as a ghostwriter (I know, right?) and with experience comes a healthier perspective. Many of you out there may be tempted and have questions about how ghostwriting might fit into your self-employed income as a writer. I can’t say my experience is indicative of the sub-closet, hyper-secret part of the publishing industry, but for those who have asked, this is for you. And though I’m a glass-half full person 99 percent of the time, my aim with this post is to shoot straight. Many articles sugarcoat and wax poetic about the freedoms and the cash stream. Ghostwriting is tough in more ways than one. If any of the following indications prove true, ghostwriting may not be for you.

One: You are possessive/defensive about your writing

Once you take on a ghostwriting client, you might very well be at the mercy of someone who knows less about story structure, plotting and character arcs than you. You may make informed suggestions, but there are no guarantees the client will listen. Bottom line: they’re paying you to write it their way, even if that means you know the story may derail down the tracks. Of course, some clients are more hands-on than others. Dream clients tell you their target market and genre and give you the freedom to knock it out of the park, but dream clients are like the Chupacabra – elusive and near-mythical.

Two: You can’t turn off your strong writer’s voice

Partial ghostwriting jobs are all about matching the client’s tone and cadence and style. Ghostwriters must have the ability to dissect the style coming at them and adapt. Early on, this is difficult. For one project, I chose to write in my natural voice then revised to match the client’s voice. While it worked well, it amounted to double the work. Sometimes it feels like you’re “dumbing” down your writing when what you’re really doing is elevating the client’s work. See? I told you I was a glass-half-full girl.

Three: You believe what you’re doing is dishonest

Let’s say you take on a self-help book from a psychologist who believes he has a revolutionary approach to disciplining children. Parents, no doubt, factored in the “author’s” degree when purchasing and buying into the premise, but you wrote from an outline and a mangled attempt at a first chapter. The pillar content the psychologist wished to convey is there, but as the ghostwriter, you weaved the tapestry of background and supporting evidence and anecdotes and trust. So the ultimate question becomes – are the parents leaning on your words or the good doctor’s premise? What happens when parents discover the psychologist didn’t pen the book? Does the implicit trust relationship between author and reader dissolve at this betrayal? The general public has no idea the staggering percentage of books that are ghostwritten – non-fiction and fiction. If they did, perhaps they would stop buying books altogether. If you believe any part of this model is shady, ghostwriting is not for you.

Four: You suspect that ghostwriting = money bags

It can and does, for writers who have been at it for any length of time. For beginners, you might as well be paying the client for the privilege to write his/her book. Until you build up a healthy stable of clients who bring in fresh clients through word of mouth, don’t count on a steady income. Eight out of ten potential clients out there want John Grisham for the price of a bag of Lay’s chips. They have no clue how many hours goes into a project to make it stellar. Factor in self-employment tax when you start pulling in the first year of positive income you may have ever made off this writing gig and you might just view sacking groceries as a promotion. That said, if you write erotica or specialize in business non-fiction, ghostwriting very well may = money bags.

Five: You cannot multitask in your writing

It’s unlikely you will get a lucrative contract when starting out as a ghostwriter. More often than not, ghostwriters have three, four or five projects at various stages going on at any one time. If you need the perfect alignment of the planets, a Starbucks triple espresso and one particular John Mayer song to get into the writing zone, ghostwriting isn’t for you.

Six: You value days off

I haven’t taken a day off in months. It really isn’t in my nature to be a workaholic, but my body is now conditioned to get up before the sun, figure out which pot on the stove needs attention and get to work. Deadline hell becomes a weekly thing to avoid so you ease the workload on any one day by spreading it out each day. That sense of accomplishment and relief at turning in a project is almost always eclipsed by work on the next project. Fires come and we put them out, usually on the client’s timetable.

You might be wondering what’s left. Why ghostwrite? The only thing I can think of that’s more rewarding than making a living doing what I love is making a living doing what I love and helping other people’s dreams come true. There is something mysterious and powerful about being a ghostwriter. Maybe we’re the Chupacabras of the publishing world. Or maybe that’s just my legs on deadline day.

Leave me a comment or contact me privately at la-mitchell (at) la-mitchell (dot) com if you’re thinking about dipping your toes into the ghostwriting pool but aren’t sure. I knew no ghostwriters when I began. I went it alone. You don’t have to.


An Author’s Fingerprints

22nd August

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I ask because I don’t know the answer. How much author voice is too much?

I know the strengths and weaknesses of my own. I also strive for deep point of view with each viewpoint character. I’m careful to select consistent vocabulary and tweak dialogue to match the character’s perspective and background. But if someone were to dump my pages in a sacrificial pile in the middle of a room with a dozen others, the cadence and word choice and description would give me away every time.

One scene contains the deep viewpoint of a less-than-educated Dutch immigrant in the 1880s American frontier. Another, a gritty cop from the present day. I’ve invested hours exploring the language they’d have used, the patterns of speech, distinctive words and phrases to set them apart. I’ve calibrated metaphors to their experiences and history. But somehow, when I read it aloud, the song is the same. The notes are me.

Is this something to strive for or suppress?

Despite the playfulness that trickles into my blog posts, my earnest writing is dark, introspective, dense. I come from the school of writing that believes not everyone desires to read a four hundred page novel at the speed of a bullet, like a quick fix of an illicit drug with no lasting impact. When did consuming a novel become a race? Are we thirsting for such quick gratification that we can’t wade in a bit and look around?

Sure, I worry about pacing and stringing conflict with the right level of tension-probably more than most-but when a note hits just right in a symphony, it should be appreciated-a blink, a tear, even a second glance to wade into its perfection. The unfolding text is, after all, one reason readers still choose to pick up a book before watching the same story on screen. For one moment during the novel’s course, let me savor a new detail of the human condition. An image as breathtaking as the sunset I forget to indulge in each day.

Probably separate topics for two different days, but they both speak to a writer’s desire to sneak into a room, lay out a puzzle and tiptoe away into the background. The question is: How much of the author’s fingerprints on the pieces is too much?

And since Sherry outlined the perfect song for her hero’s struggle, I give you mine.



The Migration of Our Voice

2nd August

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When I first began writing seriously, it was in a small-town diner in Kansas. Brown stoneware mugs. Mirrored birds in flight making their daily migration across the back wall. Retired farmers in vinyl seats clogging up the entrance with stale cigarettes and manly gossip. And two of the most amazing writers sharing a booth with me.

These two women had been writing for a time, one trying to break into literary short fiction, the other inspirational, but each participated in the most elementary of writing exercises in an effort to become stronger writers and to help me find a writing direction. I still have the journal we filled that year in the diner. One day I wrote about a murder on a river barge. The next, a woman whose obsession with her plumber rivaled that of her love for eclairs. All of them were seeds from a random garden. Mystery. Suspense. Self-indulgent literary character studies. The common thread? Love.
My two writing partners encouraged me to read romance novels for the first time, declaring it was absolutely the direction of my passion, as it had come through in almost everything I’d written. They were right. Like many romance writers, I began with Kathleen Woodiwiss, found my greatest admiration for LaVyrle Spencer and a true respect for Nora Roberts. For eight years, I never doubted the genre path I chose. Not until I looked up one day and realized I’d taken a less-traveled road. Just over the hill, where I could share the same breeze and inhabit the same woods, I’d written something that no longer followed that path. No amount of backtracking and re-writing would ever feel right. Straight romance was no longer the gravity of my passion that pulled me along. I’d migrated.

More times than I can count, I doubted the direction I’d taken. Were the dead ends and rocky drop-offs worth the effort it took to forage an unfamiliar path? Was it wrong that river barges and eclairs began to invade my work again? And the most stinging concern of all: Was I writing to write or to be sold?
Then, one day, when I found I could no longer see the smooth road so many others had taken, I realized my path had been inevitable. No sense of pseudo-control of my thoughts and emotions and voice would ever last. What comes from that nebulous place within us is inevitable, impervious to market demands and sales concerns. Success for a writer is when that honest and raw place within us aligns in the galaxy with others who recognize a new, undiscovered path can become an exciting place to be lost in. A place where words take flight alongside mirrored birds and seeds in a random garden take root.

What’s the strangest path your writing ever took?


The Click

26th June

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“It’s a reactive thing, like a Geiger counter; you click whenever you come close to whatever you were built to do.” ~Stephen King
Today as I was reading over the wide spectrum of writing histories in the First Sales column of the Romance Writer’s Report, I pictured the shape and form of my own in, hopefully, the not-to-distant future. How will the words wrap around the hopeful masses and will they read into it the same as I do now? How is it possible some sell on their first manuscript, having written for no longer than the gestation period of an elephant, while some labor ten, fifteen, even twenty years before the elusive “publication”? I’ve heard the average apprenticeship for writing is nine years. Does this, my ninth year, mean I’m pushing against the grain? Becoming more experienced, or merely slipping past something honest I can no longer ignore?
From the moment I found my college professor’s flowery memo sheet clipped to my essay, the words “Let me know when your book comes out” scrawled in blue, I made writing my path. I wrote my first book, a young adult novel set aboard the Titanic, and heard the Geiger’s “click.” I absorbed myself in author biographies and plunged into a dark romance set during the turbulent times of Colonial Massachusetts and in the emotional density of the piece, the Geiger clicked again. I tried my voice at a historical, a humorous ensemble cast of women traveling across the American West and heard nothing. To this day, I can’t recall anything redeeming about that book aside from the fact it redirected me to where I am today as a writer.
And now, with my first “time thriller” firmly in my pocket and its sequel dwelling in my head, I hear the click. Faster and louder with each word, each page, every plot milestone, I know without a doubt I’ve found the writing I was built to do. It doesn’t come as a lightning strike, but the mounting whisper of a collective body of work. For some, it came swiftly. For me, I hear the steady, creative pulse nine years later.
So what will my First Sale entry read? Whatever the magic number becomes, it will ring honest. No pretense of some God-given talent stumbled upon in a flash of brilliance. The number will represent dead-end detours and a life that sometimes cannot be ignored. Disappointments and a rising slope of awards, each more meaningful than the last.
And the static click will be deafening.