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.

www.ukghostwriter.co.uk

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A Belfast Child cover #2This week marks the end of a long journey (and hopefully the beginning of a new one) for Belfast-born author John Chambers, whose book ‘A Belfast Child’ is out on Wednesday September 3.

John’s story is truly extraordinary. Brought up on an ultra-Loyalist estate in west Belfast at the height of the Troubles, for many years John had no idea that his absentee mother was a Roman Catholic from the ‘other side of the fence’. The book explores the tribalism that has divided this city for many, many years, but it’s also about love, loss, family, humour and reconciliation. There’s even a dash of the ‘80s Mod movement thrown in for good measure.

It’s been a privilege and a pleasure to work on this story with John, despite it being far from an easy ride. He contacted me a good five years ago and immediately I was intrigued; not only because his was a great story but also that it hadn’t yet found a home. John had been trying to tell his tale for years but it seemed very few publishers were interested in Northern Ireland and the Troubles. Even when we worked on a  great submission and tried all the big names, we failed miserably to get a bite.

It was hard to know what to think, other than ‘Let’s keep going.’ We both knew this was a great story, full of drama and character, and that someone, somewhere must surely take an interest. At times we both wondered whether it was worth the bother, but we persisted nonetheless.

Then two things happened. The first was Brexit. In the wake of the 2016 vote there seemed to be an upsurge of interest in ‘backstops’, ‘hard and soft borders’ and lines down the middle of the Irish Sea. What was all this about, and why was Northern Ireland in this strange position? For those who didn’t know the story (or had simply forgotten) the dark history of the province was aired once again and now, publishers were taking an interest.

The second stroke of luck was that I contacted Maggie Hanbury, the redoubtable London-based literary agent, about John’s book. Immediately, Maggie saw for herself what John and I always knew – that this was a cracking story which deserved publication. Maggie got to work (and got me to work, writing two more sample chapters) and within weeks found us a publishing deal with Bonnier/John Blake.

Finally, we had a home and a few quid with which to fund the writing. Luckily, John doesn’t live far from my home town in Lancashire, so I was able to combine visits to family with interviewing sessions. John is a great storyteller, relating tales with native wit and humour, even in the story’s darkest moments, so right through the process he was a great interviewee.

Still, I wanted more, so I proposed a joint visit to Belfast for research purposes. Of course, it’s changed a lot (for the better) since John lived there; even so, there was plenty to see that related directly to the tough times he lived through during his childhood and teenage years. We had a great few days exploring the area he grew up in and meeting the people he knew back then. We even ended up in a holding cell in the former Crumlin Road jail, in which he’d carved ‘Up The Mods’ on the wall in the 1980s (unbelievably, the graffiti was still there). We had a few pints here and there too, soaked up the following day by the classic ‘Ulster Fry’ breakfast or pastie supper along the legendary Shankill Road.

Then it was back to the writing and by autumn 2019 we had a hard-hitting, heart-warming story to deliver to our publisher, ready for release in Spring 2020. Then Covid-19 struck, everything went skywards, and here we are in September, a few months late but still raring to go.

The story of this book’s journey to publication kind-of proves that you shouldn’t give up easily. Sometimes you really do know when to quit; other times you have an inkling that somewhere along the line you’ll get lucky. I wish John every success with ‘A Belfast Child’. He deserves it, not only because of what he went through but also because he had persistence, patience and humour. And my god, don’t you need that latter trio in the publishing game!

For more info about me and my work, visit www.ukghostwriter.co.uk

To buy A Belfast Child via Amazon visit www.tinyurl.com/wzpp5ra

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Typewriter with Story button, vintage

Below is a blog I’ve just written for my friend Anita Turner’s website: www.mindaloud.org

 

For the person who is anxious (and let’s face it, that includes pretty much all of us at one time or another) the current Coronavirus crisis is a rollercoaster ride unlike any other we’ve ever experienced.

 For example, last night I played a series of silly card games with the people I’m locked down with, before going to bed knowing that I’m safe and secure among those I love. But at 4am I was wide awake, worrying if my days as a writer are over and if they are, what lies in store for me beyond this traumatic period? At 8am, however, I was up and out with the dog, drinking in the spring sunshine and listening to the birds at their joyful best, while walking on roads largely free of traffic.

An overnight shower has made the morning air even cleaner, clearer, than it has been these last few weeks. The stream by the field gently burbles, seemingly taking pleasure in the fact that it can finally be heard above the day-to-day noise of human activity. To misquote Dylan Thomas, the very houses themselves seem to be sleeping now. And I realise that in the midst of fear and tragedy, there is so, so much to be grateful for.

These simple responses to nature are, in fact, hugely powerful; so much so that I don’t really want to go back to how life was ‘before’. Sure, I want to meet friends and relatives, visit places, get on with my life. But do I really want a return to the inevitable stresses and strains of 21st century living? Does anyone? Despite everything – loss of income, fears for health, the looming shadow of death – I can’t remember a time when I felt calmer and ‘in the flow’. I look beyond these current troubles to a world in which there is most definitely such thing as ‘society’, and I hope and pray for a complete re-evaluation of the rights and responsibilities for every one of us in this post-pandemic society.

The lockdown period is providing us all with golden opportunities to assess our place in the world, and to create something new from confusion, chaos and fear. People are re-discovering old skills or having a go at new things. Many are getting used to working from home, and are wondering why they bothered to sit in endless traffic jams for so many years. Shopping as a participatory sport is dead, temporarily, and we’re being guided towards simpler, less expensive pursuits. We’re re-connecting with nature in a big way, and we’re learning to appreciate the people closest to us whom we previously took for granted.

There’s a strange feeling of utopia generated by this crisis that we shouldn’t ignore, even when the bells eventually ring out and the post-virus parties begin. For better or worse we will never forget this experience, and maybe we will begin to understand why our grandparents and great-grandparents often spoke of the Second World War as the best time of their lives. I used to think, given all the death and destruction of the era, that it was a strange thing to say. Now I get it, and I wait with anticipation to see what we will all do with the lessons we’ve learned during this extraordinary period.

Tom Henry is an author, ghostwriter and journalist. More about him can be found here.

 

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Typewriter with Story button, vintageI should’ve done this before. I could’ve done this before. I would’ve done this before…shudda, cudda, wudda, eh? Never mind. It’s not quite the end of January yet so I can just about get away with this round-up of my adventures last year before lambs gamble in pastures green, buds burst forth from the trees, etc.

Right after New year’s Day I travelled to Manchester to begin work on a book with Maggie Oliver, the former police detective who blew the whistle on the Rochdale child abuse scandal after she witnessed a huge cover-up by police and social services. She resigned her job because of it, but has since been vindicated. Read the BBC news story here to find out more.

When I met her, Maggie had already been working with another ghostwriter but the results weren’t to her liking. So we started again, specifically on the complicated, controversial chapters that dealt with her growing recognition of the situation in Rochdale and her increasing discomfort at what she was seeing. However, Maggie speaks right from the heart and, armed with her account and a mountain of files and paperwork which evidenced her account, I was able to construct a path through the story to produce a clear and compelling narrative that has been critically very well received. Here it is on Amazon…

Maggie Oliver book pic

 

Maggie and I worked to a very tight deadline indeed but there was no cutting corners – she wanted this important story told in as much detail as possible, which included the coverage many aspects of her career and family life before the Rochdale scandal began to reveal itself. Not every reviewer appreciated this – wanting to get to the heart of the story, understandably – but I thought it was important to give background and context to why Maggie acted as she did. It made her human – a very important consideration in this story.

Anyway, Maggie was very pleased with the results and she wrote this about our experience of working together…

“I began writing my book ‘Survivors…. Maggie Oliver Fighting for Justice’ in 2018, and by late in the year it was clear I needed some help.

 

I was introduced to Tom and almost immediately I knew that I could trust him to write this really important story that needed to be told. My book was not only about my own personal life and the challenges that have been thrown my way, but it was also the story of how the police, social service, CPS and the establishment failed generations of vulnerable children who were groomed and sexually abused by organised gangs of predatory paedophiles.

Under incredible pressure to meet a looming deadline, Tom immersed himself in the detail of my story and studied the issues surrounding the Rochdale Grooming Scandal. I am personally very proud of the published book, and I know without a shadow of a doubt that without Tom’s professional expertise, guidance and encouragement the final product would have fallen far short of what I hoped to achieve.

Tom was kind, encouraging, professional and dedicated, working long hours to ensure a great outcome and I would now consider him a friend too. Should I ever decide to write a second book, I would definitely be seeking Tom’s help from the start next time!!

My heartfelt thanks and gratitude go to Tom…. and my book became an Amazon best seller too, which was the icing on the cake!!!”

Thanks, Maggie! We’ve stayed in touch since, and after publication I was invited to the launch of her charitable foundation at a swanky venue in Cheshire. Icing on the cake for me – quite literally!

Following that work I was contacted by a man called Nigel Roberts, who was keen to have his mother’s memories distilled into a book. He suggested afternoon tea at a hotel in Tetbury so I went along, met Nigel, his wife Bella, and his 92-year-old mother, Olive. From the start, I could see she had a twinkle in her eye and that she’d be a good storyteller – and I wasn’t wrong! Olive has had a fascinating life, from a very difficult start in the North East of England to her experiences in the Blitz and her subsequent meeting of the man she would marry. After the war he was drafted into the fledgling GCHQ and the couple spent many years posted abroad, mainly to the Far East. Olive’s account of her life is warm, engaging, insightful and funny, and she was an absolute pleasure to work with. Her book, ‘Stepping Stones’ is due to be published later this year and I’ll post on this again when the time comes.

In the midst of that I made contact with the literary agent Maggie Hanbury – a genuine legend in the publishing industry. She’s represented everyone from JG Ballard to Katie Price and she’s a forthright, insightful and very entertaining person. I wanted to talk to her about a project I’ve been working on – the story of a guy called John Chambers and his extraordinary upbringing in Belfast during the Troubles. John contacted me about four years ago with his story and straight away I was interested. Not only does it have a fast-paced narrative and an incredible twist, the man himself is a great storyteller, with more than a dash of the blackest Belfast humour. Back then we worked on a proposal but couldn’t attract any attention from the publishing world. Northern Ireland as the subject for a book was ‘over and done’, it seemed. Yet something really nagged me about this and whenever I met someone new, I told them about it. Luckily, I met Maggie Hanbury, who was immediately interested. She read the proposal, asked me to do more work on it (I was happy to oblige) and once that was completed, she said it out on submission. And we got a deal! Thank you, Bonnier Books for seeing what I always saw in John’s story.

I spent time at John’s home in the North of England, and we also travelled to Belfast to get a first-hand look at the places he grew up in. We had a terrific few days in what is surely one of the most interesting cities in the world, and I was definitely richer for the experience. What I saw and learned really helped with the narrative, particularly the Belfast accent and the complexity of the tribal divisions in the city, and from it John and I were able to craft a really excellent story. It’s out in May this year, and it will be called ‘A Belfast Child’.

All that took me up to late autumn, and with Christmas looming the pace slackened a bit – thank God! Now it’s January and again I’m on the lookout for a diamond of a story that might turn into a bestseller later this year or in 2021. So if you’re holding that diamond – whether you’re a publisher, commissioning editor or someone with an extraordinary experience to share – let me make it shine!!

 

 

 

 

 

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Stephen Hendry “When I decided to write my autobiography I met with 7 or 8 ghost writers before I met with Tom. I didn’t want to go down the route of a snooker writer or even a sports writer – I just wanted to tell my story and when I started speaking to Tom he told me that’s what he was interested in doing.

I immediately felt comfortable talking with him as he was so normal and easy going.

When we started working it was very relaxed and it was very easy to open up to him as it was just like chatting to a friend.

Writing an autobiography is obviously a long process but it never felt like a chore as we didn’t do 5/6 hour slogs. Tom felt it would be more productive to do shorter sessions to keep it fresh, and this appealed to me.

I think it was quite brave of Tom to take on a subject which he admitted he knew nothing about, but it’s exactly how I hoped it would turn out and for that I’m very grateful.”

Stephen Hendry. Professional snooker player and author of ‘Me And The Table’.

 

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