A Ghostwriting Q&A

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A ghost reading ghost stories.

After a decade working as a ghostwriter, I take a lot of what I do for granted. So when I was asked to write an article about this work, I realised that I didn’t know what to say. I needed to find out what outsiders find interesting about this strange craft.

Fortunately, that’s easy research. I took to Mastodon and Twitter looking for questions, and quickly got them. The article will be up soon on another site, and I’ll link to it. But in the meantime, for the sake of posterity, here’s the ghostwriting QA I did along the way. A few questions have been edited together for brevity, and this isn’t my slickest work, but if you’ve ever wondered how ghostwriting works, then hopefully you’ll find this of interest…

Q:
How do you find “the voice”? Be it a brand, or another writer, what’s the process in learning their style? Also, how do you lose that voice to write something different

A:
I mostly find the voice through reading the client’s work, looking for patterns in their writing and distinctive features. The ticks I hate most are often the ones their readers love, & that I should imitate.

Sometimes for business writing it’s about reading competitors too. I’m crafting the voice the client wants, not the one they have.

And the real dirty secret of this, some people don’t have very distinctive styles. They follow familiar patterns for their genre/industry. That makes matching the style very easy, because there isn’t much of one.

Q:
I’d be interested to know how much of yourself (your own personality, interests, opinions) you find yourself drawing upon, and whether doing so seems OK or something to suppress. Also, how do you “let go”?

A:
This depends on the project. I’m more likely to get a job if it’s relevant to my existing knowledge & experience, & then drawing on my interests is part of the job. Both for that & for other projects, using things I’m interested in can lead to more passionate & informed writing.

But sometimes I just have to ignore my own tastes. I have clients whose books hold no interest for me, but their readers love them. At that point, my job is to set myself aside & write what those readers want, even if I think they have terrible taste!

As for letting go, take a deep breath and think of the money. It helps that this is a substitute for my day job, not my own creative writing, which I still have time for. Bitter experience has taught me to detach myself better from the work, because I’m the writer not the author, & the client has the right to use the text how they want. I’ve still sometimes winced at edits I don’t like, but then I let go & move on to the next page.

Q:
If you have ideas, victories, strokes of genius, unique and cunning plot devices, how do you stay dispassionate about someone else consistently getting the by-line?

A:
I’ve got no shortage of ideas, the problem is finding time to write them. So I save the best ones for myself, & that’s enough. Most of the time, the ideas I like best are ones that wouldn’t suit my clients & their readers anyway, & the stories they’re after aren’t ones I want my name on.

Q:
I guess mostly if you regret that you can’t tell people about certain lines or characters you’ve created that you adore and are proud of, but can’t claim as your own.

A:
Mostly I’m OK with that, because I keep my favourite ideas for myself. It helps that my clients often want the sorts of protagonists that I don’t like, so I don’t get attached. But I’ve had one or two side characters that I’ve got fond of, where it would be nice to tell people about them.

Q:
I’m interested in the how and where? Like how did you end up doing ghost writing? Where do you find the jobs? Are the schedules tighter than with other writing jobs? Do you deal with an editor directly or just hand in a MS that’s unedited to the middle person?

A:
I got into it through a mix of experience & bloody mindedness. I’d done a lot of business writing in another job, & sold some short stories in my spare time, so I knew I could write, but not whether I could make a living off it. I started bidding on small, poorly paid projects on hiring sites like Upwork, got ratings & reviews for those jobs, which let me get slightly better gigs, which over the months & years turned into things that pay well. Bidding on projects where I could use my existing experience & education was crucial, as it let me write with authority, stand out from the crowd, & do good work from the start.

I mostly find work through freelance hiring sites, though sometimes clients recommend me to others. Professional networking helps. I also got work once from someone who found my business website, but only once – this internet thing is overrated.

The schedules can be very tight. I sometimes write a draft of a novel each month for six to eight month stretches, with articles on the side.

Usually I just hand the draft to the client when it’s done, & they edit or hand it to their editor. I have occasionally worked directly with the client’s editor, & once worked on a project where the editor was editing a book I hadn’t finished yet, creeping up on me chapter by chapter through Google docs.

Q:
OK, here’s a question: what do you do when the person for whom you are ghost writing is clearly spinning you a pack of lies?

A:
I’ve never helped write an autobiography, so I don’t know how I’d handle it there.

The closest I’ve come to this was working for a cryptocurrency startup, before I learned about what a toxic garbage fire crypto is (I wouldn’t take that work now). As the job went along, it slowly dawned on me how much of what they were saying was hype & bullshit. I trod a careful line to stay honest while trying to stick to their narrative, & fortunately they ran out of real money to pay me before I had to say “too far, I won’t write this”.

Q:
Apart from that, what comes to mind is whether clients are hands-off after picking a ghostwriter or get more involved in needing to approve the text and/for asking for revisions.

A:
Depends on the client and my relationship with them. Some just leave me to it, some give regular feedback & direction as the chapters roll in. I often don’t see the final version, so I couldn’t say how many just accept what I give them without a few tweaks, but I don’t think many make big changes.

The oddest one (not in a bad way) was when I was part of the team producing stories for a non-existent author. We worked in Google docs, & I had notifications coming in when the editor made changes or comments to what I’d written. I could see them creeping up a few chapters behind me even as I wrote.

Q:
How did you get into it? Are the courses and classes I constantly see advertised worth it?

A:
I can’t advise on the courses and classes, as I’ve never taken them.

As for how I got into it, see above.

Q:
How does the pressure weigh up against your own writings?

A:
There’s more pressure time-wise, which means I get stuff done. That’s been good for improving my discipline as a writer.

There’s less pressure to write something bold, new, & exciting, because that’s seldom what my clients want, & because I’m not competing with other fiction writers for the attention of editors & agents.

Q:
Is there a minimum/maximum amount of input from the client you require/prefer?

A:
I prefer more input, as it means I’m more likely to write what they actually want, which avoids disputes later. But I’ve spun a whole novel out of a three-line brief, so actual requirements are low.

Q:
Is the connection to the story/world/characters as intimate as your own stuff? How do you prevent/manage bleed over inyour own work?

A:
The connection’s seldom as intimate – these aren’t my characters, even if I created them, they’re not designed to appeal to me, so it’s easier to let go.

As for bleed over, the sorts of stories my clients want are different enough from mine that I don’t think anything’s slipped form one into another. I approach them with a different mindset. I expect I’ve repeated a few notable phrases, because I forgot I’d already used a cool collection of words that pops into my brain, but at the macro scale, they’re very separate.

Q:
My question would be how one works with someone who has disagreeable views or problematic ones? Is one able to pick and choose, or are contracts flexible enough to avoid this?

A:
To some extenet, I pick and choose. For example, I don’t write for cryptocurrency people anymore, because of what I’ve learned about that tech.

Aside from that, I had a client once where hints of unpleasant views peeked around the edges of the project brief. I wrote the document within the boundaries of what I was comfortable with, submitted & got paid, & braced myself to say I was too busy next time he approached me. Never heard from him again.

That aside, I couldn’t ghostwrite fiction without sometimes having to write tropes I dislike, especially when it comes to the implications of gender roles. Unfortunately, that’s what some audiences & subgenres expect. I have lines I won’t cross, & I write these stories as progressively as I can get away with, drawing attention to the bullshit where I can. And the less problematic the client’s stories, the more likely I’ll work for them again.

Q:
How do you structure your rates? Did it take you a long time to be able to accurately estimate a project? What training did you receive? Do you only ghostwrite or do you offer other services too?

A:
My training is a mix of business writing experience from a past job & fiction writing experience I got in my spare time. No formal fiction qualifications, just a lot of time listening to Writing Excuses. The most relevant non-fiction training was the English element in my primary teacher training & on-the-job advice by a manager in a complaints team I worked in.

My rates depend on the structuring of the job. I have an hourly rate for research, planning and revision work, a per-word rate for fiction writing, & a different per-word rate for non-fiction writing. I put the rates up regularly, when I can get away with it, but sometimes accept lower rates when I need the work. If I have to provide an estimate for a whole project, it’s based on projected wordcount & the extent of planning, research, & revisions. Plus the inevitable sprinkling of guesswork.

I mostly only do writing for hire, which includes ghostwriting. Very occasionally I do editing or revisions, but I prefer writing when I can get it.

Q:
What do you like about ghostwriting, what kind of writers would you recommend it for?

A:
The best question!

I love writing as an activity, & ghostwriting lets me do that for a day job, instead of sitting in an office or a shop or something like that. The craft is the joy, & it’s made me better at my own writing.

I’ve also learned, from doing this, that I love working freelance. In an office, I had to tolerate the bullshit of people higher up the hierarchy. Now, if I don’t like working with someone, I just say I’m too busy for their work. Or if I need the money too much to say that, then the fact that I’ve made that choice makes the bullshit bearable.

I’d recommend it for writers who can sit down and force themselves to write when they need to. If you’re the sort of writer who can do that, then it’s a great way to develop your writing muscles. But if your writing comes to you in bursts of inspiration or brief flashes after which you need to go let your mind rest & the subconscious do its thing, then this isn’t for you.

Writing is exercise for the brain. It’s strengthening, but it’s also tiring. The merits of this work depend upon how you balance those two things.

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So there we go, a bunch of Qs and some rough As. I’ve written a more polished and insightful article based partly on this, which I’ll link to when it goes live. And if you’ve got a question that I haven’t answered here, feel free to ask me on Mastodon or Twitter, I’m always happy to talk about my work.