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.
Is this something to strive for or suppress?
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?
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.