Man and typewriter

Recently I wrote an article about my ghostwriting work for ‘The Author’ magazine, published by the excellent Society of Authors. It’s out this week, and here it is in full:

By their very nature, ghostwriters are shadowy, spectral creatures and as a literary spook with 15 years’ experience I’m no exception. Like others in my chosen profession, I’ve learned to put my ego aside as I watch ‘my’ books race up the best-sellers charts, and I’m secretly relieved that it’s not me, but my author, parading in front of TV interviewers to sell his or her wares.

But, you know, when we’re not haunting publishers’ offices or seemingly waiting an eternity for our celebrity client to get out of bed on time, we do like the company of our fellow writers, of whatever genre. Which is why, a couple of months ago, I applied to join a writing community based in the South West of England. The proposition looked good – a group of published writers bunching together to support each other and newer writers, and willing to give talks, lectures, workshops, whatever.

So I sent off my spiel (“former journalist, highly experienced ghost, 21 books nationally and internationally published, given talks, workshops, etc..”) and waited. After a day or two, I received this:

“Thank you for your application to join us, which we have now had the opportunity to review.  We are very sorry, but ghost writers are not eligible to join.”

And that was that. No reason or further explanation. Somewhat surprised (to say the least), I pressed them on it, and was told that the inclusion of a ghostwriter in this writing community (which I’ll not name – part of my job is keeping secrets and in any case I’m sure they‘re doing a great job for other ‘real’ writers) could undermine newer writers developing their own work – i.e. that I might somehow waft in and offer to help such people by writing their books for them.

Well, that wasn’t the point of the application at all. I just wanted to hook up with my fellow writers, offer some tips to those needing a leg up and talk about what I do to anyone who might be interested.

But reading between the lines it appeared that I was not a ‘real’ writer to begin with……After all, isn’t it simply the job of the ghost to record the musings of his client and transmit them to the page with the minimum of effort?

Of course it isn’t. And now, having huffed and harrumphed a bit, I’d like to make the case for the ghostwriter not just as a ‘real’ writer, but also as a genuine literary talent and a force for good in the publishing world. Let me explain…..

In 2007 I fell into ghosting by accident. A friend was commissioned to ghost a book about a farm, but couldn’t make the deadline. He passed the project to me, then a freelance journalist, and a couple of weeks later, never having written anything longer than a 1,500-word feature, I found myself on the said farm, spending freezing nights in a derelict caravan full of hens and equally chilly days interviewing the two young people trying to make a success of this down-at-heel venture. After a week I returned home with chilblains and a tower of cassette tapes. ‘What now?’ I thought.

I transcribed the tapes in a week, giving myself RSI. But as I listened and typed some ideas for structure emerged. When I started to write the book, I found I was bringing the ‘voices’ of my interviewees to life on the page. Quite naturally I was introducing novelistic techniques including pace, tone, colour, dialogue and perspective, combining these with the journalist’s eye for a story. Many years of writing news reports and reading both fiction and non-fiction dovetailed into a reasonably decent first draft. There was some to-ing and fro-ing with authors and editor – there always is – but after three months or so we had something publishable.

The proof was in the pudding. The book was reviewed very positively, and was shortlisted for a campaigning journalism award. The authors appeared on TV’s ‘Richard and Judy’ and as I watched I thought, ‘I’m glad that’s not me’. By now, I’d realised this ghosting lark was a pleasant, interesting yet challenging way to make a living, and the rest is history – and memoir, autobiography, self-help, humour and many other genres I’ve been immersed in.

More than a decade on, my main source of income is writing books. It isn’t a big living, admittedly, and advances certainly aren’t what they were. Nonetheless, it’s been a fascinating journey that has taken me right around the world, and into the company of many extraordinary people.

Yet one of the most frequent questions I’m asked is, ‘Don’t you mind not having your name on the cover?’ No, of course I don’t. I’ve used all my literary skills -and a very high percentage of listening ones  – to craft a story from a  jumble of information and ideas. But that’s where the parallels with the novelist stops. I tell stories to the best of my abilities, but even when I’m deep in the world I’m helping to shape, renting out a temporary space in the head of the author, I’m still aware that this isn’t my story.  I might be writing it, but I haven’t lived it. So the credit isn’t mine to take.

And on that point….some of the best stories I’ve worked on have come from so-called ‘ordinary’ people (who are, of course, anything but). Never mind the cliché of the celebrity ghosted memoir, which seems to attract much of the sniffiness around the business of ghosting; my happiest work has been with people who have an amazing true-life experience to share and want to put it into print. To this end, I’ve understood how lonely it is to be a whistleblower in the face of injustice, what it means to grow up in a fiercely sectarian divide, how the loss of a parent early on can shape a whole existence and how one can find humanity, love and wisdom in the most oppressive of circumstances. None of these stories would’ve seen the light of day had it not been for varying degrees of what we might describe as ‘editorial help’. Personally, I’m delighted by that, and proud of the fact that such stories are now out there to be heard.

So I occupy worlds internal and external. I gnash my teeth at indifferent publishers, and I fall in love with them when they commission me. I’m forever aware of looming deadlines and sometimes I wonder how I’m going to make ends me. When a newly-published book arrives, I stick my nose into its woody pages before placing it on the shelf with the others. I keep an eye on what else is being published currently, and wonder what the advance may have been. All the things that professional writers do. And yes, when people ask me what I do for a living I reply, without feeling like a pretentious git, that ‘I’m a writer’. Well, how else to describe it?

Fellow ghost Mark McCrum concurs. He’s worked on books with characters as diverse as Prince Harry and Robbie Williams and has given masterclasses in ghosting and memoir-writing.

“It’s much more of an art than people realise,” he told me. “You need good writing skills, obviously, but you also need to be something of a barrister, a therapist and a best friend. You need patience, and diplomacy skills, and you need to know how to put your ego away in a box.

“That said, it’s an unrecognised art and people are very snooty about it. But actually, you’re giving a voice to people with excellent stories to tell, but not the training to write them, and you’re writing in the way that person might do if they’d had that training. That takes some talent. In fact, there really should be a literary prize for ghostwriting. When I die I’m going to leave some money to establish one!”

As someone with a reasonably low boredom threshold, ghosting is the perfect job for me. I’ll never be rich financially, but in terms of experience the cup of wealth runneth over. And I’ve learned a lot about the business of writing, and about people too. So maybe it’s time all us ghosts rattled our chains, stepped out of the shadows and learn to celebrate and share what is unique about this much maligned, yet vital literary art.