How does ghostwriting work? A professional ghost writer shares his secrets.

Oliver Rahman, former journalist and now new member of The London Ghostwriting Company team is set to handle all investigation and finance assignments. He chats with founder Luke Shipman about what potential clients need to know, and finds out how Roman Polanski’s “terrible” film has helped the ghostwriting industry.

Thanks for taking the time to talk today Luke. I wanted to start the conversation by asking you a simple question: What is ghostwriting?

A: Essentially… it’s a writing service. A ghostwriter is a person with a trade who has learnt how to make a living by servicing people who need things written. And many authors will ghost in their career, it’s just – few will set up shop as a ‘ghostwriter for hire’. Separate from all the mystique of ghostwriting –  it is servicing a need and monetising a particular skill. The thing I like about the majority of ghostwriting, compared with the majority of freelance writing, is that it is normally associated (if not always) with writing books. And this is where the mystique kicks in.

So they contact you because they need help writing? Do you think that some people might object to the idea that they aren’t very good at writing?

A: They aren’t – and that admission takes courage. It’s an act of responsibility too. It shows accountability as well on that person’s part. There are many things that I can’t do and when those things are significant and are of importance I get to choose: Do I learn how to do it myself or am I in a position where I can hire someone to do the same thing faster and better?

Got it. Just to take you back to what you were saying, what is the mystique surrounding ghostwriting and where does it come from?

A: A lot of it is to do with the name – and a lot is probably to do with that Roman Polanski movie, The Ghostwriter, which focusses on an espionage and thriller type narrative. It has a glamour to it in popular culture but I would imagine my life and my work to be quite ordinary, compared with an investigative journalist. When I see journalists reporting home from Gaza or Sudan or Chad, I think – that looks tough and real. What I do is much more comfortable and I’d imagine easier…

I’m not really a fan of that film by the way. I hope you don’t mind me saying that?

A: It’s a terrible movie! The way it was filmed – it was as if it should have been a play. It was all interior long shots and no close up – which was strange considering it was a thriller. It was as if it was a combination of film and theatre and I didn’t like it at all – I turned it off. But it’s done my business the world of good! I guess I was annoyed because Polanski is the genius of suspense. One of my favourite films growing up was Frantic, it was so tense, it made me sweat, so when I heard Roman Polanski was directing a movie called The Ghost Writer, I wanted it to be like that – but it wasn’t! Anyway, like I said – people know about ghostwriting now, so I have more interesting enquiries because of it.

At least something good came of it. Moving on from Mr Polanski?

A: Sure.

If we put ourselves in your shoes for a minute, what kinds of things are you thinking about when you first receive a writing enquiry for say, a business book project?

A: My gut reaction is – boring! But then after that, I try to dig deeper. A lot of it is getting to know the person you are about to enter a six-month collaboration with. What’s the nature of the business? Where are they in their career? Is it a vanity project or is it to propel themselves into the next stage of their work? Are they looking back on their life in hindsight or is it a kind of confessional, reflective piece?

Initially, it’s understanding and drilling into what it is, not what you want it to be. There’s a big difference there. Providing the subject with what they want against what you know they should have. You should never give someone what you know they should have because you don’t know what they should have. You don’t know anything about this and this very specific subject that your client has just spent the last 30 years comprehending. Your job is to exhaust yourself in understanding it from their point of view.

And in your experience, how often is it – that – clients do have a clear idea of what they’re after when they make the approach?

A: Okay. There appear to be two types of project. One, where the client knows what they want and they have visualised and seen the book. They’ve often even bought books that they want to model. The second type of project seems to be the one which is more ’emergent’ and gradually reveals itself as the work is underway. It’s right down the middle as to which type it is. You either need to help a person get there, or follow orders to the letter.

So… if I’m a prospective client contacting you with a book or autobiography idea, what do you want to know?

A: I don’t want you to show off and try to sell it to me – I need to know exactly what this is. I don’t want you to elevator pitch me because we need to talk about what’s really going on: you need help, so it’s not about me investing in your idea, it’s about me helping you do the bit that you can’t. I actually need to take myself out of the subject and be as objective as possible. My advice to people is to look at me as a builder. That’s what I advise people do when they enquire. Tell me what it is and why we are doing this. Because meaning is the internal driver. When these things don’t mean anything to anyone it’s like I’m holding a person’s hand through the project. That’s fine because it can be scary, and I’m there for that too, but on many occasions you want meaning to reside within the subtext, because that acts as the fuel keeping the project moving, and the project strong as a creation.

That makes sense. Bu bu buuuuh…. is there anything else you ask?

A: Yes. I need to know what the budget is. I ask myself questions. Do I like the person? Do I like the project? Do I believe in it? Is it going to be fun? If you’ve ever been in a relationship which is not fun it’s very difficult to sustain for a period of thirty minutes. Well… try doing it for 15-20 hours and then 6 months in total. Yikes!

I’d rather not! Okay I understand, so I shouldn’t necessarily just dive into a collaboration?

A: Definitely not. But sometimes I have had to because, well.. I was hungry!

So if this client is still interested after the initial conversation, how much can a book project cost?

A: It can vary – hugely – but let’s just say – they are a considerable investment by both parties. Hence if the thing doesn’t ‘mean’ anything I wouldn’t recommend either party enter into the agreement. Why do it?

Fair enough. Okay, so, imagine that you’re signed into contract – and the deposit has been paid, how does it work after that?

A: Once we’ve cleared invoice, we’ve signed into contract, I know what this is – we’re good to go. It’s work as usual. To be honest it’s the path of least resistance after that – it’s fundamentally two people having a conversation, and drinking cappuccinos. And there’s nothing difficult about that as long as you’ve got Audio Hijack kicking in which is a good piece of software I recommend ghostwriters use.

I like to go old school and stick with the dictaphone thank you very much. Can’t I just do that?

A: What? You’re younger than I am!

So is this a face to face process, or are you doing most of this via Skype?

A: It can be at their house, a cafe, a hotel, an office, planes/trains. Skype is particularly good. You want them to be in a comfortable environment and you want to be hands-free and able to access the computer to cross-check what people are saying. There’s nothing worse than being in a noisy cafe with no internet connection when you could both be in your own homes next to your books and your printer and your coffee machine.

You have your own coffee machine?

A: Umm, I think it’s a machine. Yeh.

How long does the interview process take in your experience?

A: It averages around twenty hours. I tend to do it so that we do two days on and one day off. People are pretty drained after four hours.

I can imagine. I think most people would be. What happens after the interviews?

A: After that I turn into a hermit for around ten weeks and the rules are simple: if I contact you, I need you to answer because it’s important. If you have something on your chest that you need to get out, email it to me. I’m not answering my phone, I’m not replying to your text messages. For this period we’re not friends. I’m not your counsellor or your cousin or your next door neighbour. This stage is mostly writing and research. I know that sounds pretty harsh, and it’s not always the case, but a lot of the time, I need to work things out solo, and we’re only talking ten weeks for me to pump out the first draft anyway.

Keeping distance at that stage I’ve learnt is important. In the same way that a painter will step back from their canvas, it helps you to look at the whole picture. It’s important that you practise this very basic habit. It’s really important actually.

So, with the interviews, just coming from a journalism background, how much do you lead during them?

A: No idea. They just happen. I’ve never got a plan. Sometimes clients just want to go on an irrelevant tangent and attach themselves to an unimportant detail. I allow them to, as often – I find they’ve had a nice time and they realise that it’s irrelevant afterwards. If you don’t let them purge or have any cathartic normal human experience they don’t have a good time.

Sometimes they say “Can I tell you a story” and then go on a tangent. It’s important that you allow that because it can often shine a light on other things. It’s about not being a control freak but leading too. This is why you need to factor into the budget the amount of time a project can take.

You mentioned once that a prospective client will ask about publishing. What do you say to clients who ask about that?

A: I can actually service that for people, and I factor that in. My company handles publishing as well so that is something we discuss with clients. It can be quite expensive. It’s to do with the quality and the standard they want to attain. Which I respect. If you think about it, this is not something temporary. It’s there forever and ever and people want to get it right. I want to get it right and I want them to want to. Otherwise, what’s the point? I’ve always been a perfectionist and I think that’s a good quality to develop. Finishing what you start and doing it as best you can. I think this was in Gurdjieff’s list of things to do as person: finish what you start. There’s something with that, and it’s a good habit to develop, it adds to character too. Anyway…

If you’re pitching to agents and publishers you only need to wait twelve weeks to hear back. We need to throw mud against the wall. It’s free to submit a manuscript. So submit, approach fifty companies and go and do something for twelve weeks and wait.

So you can’t guarantee they will be published?

I can’t possibly speak on behalf of the entire publishing industry and very few people can, including agents. The client is basically aware that they’re paying me as a writer for hire.

Just a final question and then I’ll let you get back to work: What do you enjoy most about working as a ghost writer?

A: Good question. It’s satisfying to complete a marathon, and that’s what these projects are. Sometimes I recall the enquiry that came through, and the bridge that I walked along with the client, and then I look down at the book I am holding. It’s a good feeling, particularly, I think when you have a physical object that you’ve helped produce. I find the closure and the satisfaction of having finished very rewarding indeed. Because the book is normally a memoirs, you have been on a real journey together with your client, and it’s meant something. You’ve helped archive something really important – their entire life story, and I’ve been lucky enough to attend the launch parties, and it is wonderful when I get to stand back and look and my client be sat their behind a big table signing the inside page for all their friends and family guests. It’s about that moment and it’s satisfying, because it all meant something.

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