Ghostwriting – How It Is For Me

I recently got to see the cover for a novel I had ghostwritten. This landed in my mailbox around the same time a big controversy broke over an indie author combining ghostwriters and plagiarism to churn out books, leading to lawsuits, scandal, and some not unreasonable outrage. It got me thinking about the strangeness of being a ghostwriter, how ghostwriters fit into modern publishing, and why I do this job.

First up, let’s talk definitions. Ghostwriting is when I get hired to write a book or article that will be published in someone else’s name, on the understanding that I can’t lay claim to it. Plagiarism would be me copying other people’s work without permission. The two are different, but can be combined.

Ghostwriting of novels – my main concern here – happens when someone with an established brand or a head for the business side of writing wants to put books out quicker. It’s a way of keeping the attention of readers and so making both the new and the existing books more profitable. At the moment, this is appealling to indie authors because it lets them game the Kindle algorithms and so increase their sales.

Some people see this as dishonest. Of course there’s some truth in that, but the same could be said of politicians and celebrities getting help with their autobiographies, and we’re OK with that. I suspect that what’s really upsetting some people isn’t the dishonesty so much as the breaking of their expectations. We’re socialised to see authorship as a work of solitary creation, when in reality that’s never true. Every book is a collaboration with editors, but their names don’t appear on the cover. We want a name to latch onto, so credit for books is a solo thing. Even when authors collaborate they sometimes adopt a pen name, as with James S. A. Corey, the author of The Expanse – actually Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. A single author name makes it easier to sell the books, so that’s what they do.

If an indie author wants to create a successful publishing brand, they build it around an author name, because that’s how people identify the fiction they want to consume, not by publisher but by a named author personality, whether that person exists or not. Yes, I’m sure some of these indie book mills are churning out crap, but that can also happen in traditional publishing. That doesn’t mean that everything produced this way is garbage.

From my point of view, the process of ghostwriting works something like this. I see a ghostwriting job advertised on a freelancing site or am approached through one of those sites. I apply for the job like I would any other, demonstrating my skills and experience. We agree terms and set up a contract through the site. Then the person hiring me provides me with details of the book they want written – usually a plot outline and character descriptions, sometimes with a style guide. And then I write, producing X thousand words per week for Y dollars a time, providing the best work I can given the timescales and the pay.

That last part is important. Someone who gives me longer to work with and pays for more of my time will get a better result, because I’m not in a rush. But a lot of this work is done for a marketing strategy that relies on speedy releases, and that affects quality no matter who’s writing.

So why would I do work like this? Wouldn’t I rather be writing my own stories with my own name on? Isn’t it weird seeing stories I’ve written and not being able to tell people about it?

Well, yes to both of those last two questions. And in answer to the first one, because it’s a job I enjoy. This doesn’t take the place of my own writing. It takes the place of my day job, meaning that my working hours are more satisfying, more fun, and help me practise my craft. The feedback from clients is useful in sharpening my skills, and believe me, when things aren’t right a ghostwriter definitely gets that feedback.

In the best cases, ghostwriting fiction has let me take part in some marvellous collaborations, producing books that I’m genuinely proud of and would happily stick my name on given half a chance. In the worst cases, I’ve worked to outlines and themes I wasn’t entirely happy with but that the client was determined to have. It got frustrating, but it was still more satisfying than any other job I’ve had. And at the end of the day, I wasn’t the one putting my name to those books, deciding they were good enough to be associated with me. Maybe I was wrong about those plots, themes, and ideas. Maybe readers would love them and they’d become bestsellers. And if not, that’s on the person who hired and briefed me, the one whose business will depend upon these books succeeding.

Where does that leave me, as the interent gets up in arms about ghostwriting? It leaves me with a job I love, despite its lack of security. It leaves me developing my writing skills on a daily basis. It leaves me producing the best work I can in the conditions I’m given. Yes, there are problems with the way that some people use ghostwriters, and the current state of publishing is exaggerating that. But that doesn’t mean that ghostwriters as a group are the problem. Ghostwriting is a logical result of how we currently produce and consume novels. Until those structures change, it’s here to stay. For those of us who get a creative job out of it, and for the readers who get more of the stories they enjoy, that’s surely a good thing.

2019 Aims

I’m not big on new year’s resolutions. I do a lot of self-assessment over the course of the year, setting myself new goals and sometimes even hitting them. Associating that stuff with one time of year is too limiting for me.

Still, this is a good time for self-reflection, so here are a couple of writing-related things I’m planning on doing differently this year.

First, I want to put more focus on style in how I write. I know how to structure a story and I’ve spent a lot of time studying that. But beyond using plane, stripped-down language to convey information, I’m not much good at reflecting on and working on style. I want to develop more of a style for my fiction, so that’s one of this year’s goals.

Then there’s marketing. I’m terrible at it, which means that much of my effort at self-publishing goes to waste. It’s only possible to be a creative freelancer if you’re willing to overcome the small embarrassed voice that says “don’t talk about yourself”. So this year, I’m going to learn more about book marketing and start investing more time and money in it.

How about you? Do you have any resolutions around writing, publishing, or creativity? Let me know, let’s see how we can get on with our goals together.

Writing Space

I’m not the only one who values these bookshelves.

I’ve just spent half a week unable to work in my study, during the gap between painting the walls and waiting for new carpet to arrive. It made me realise just how much I need this space. It’s not just having an ergonomic desk setup and standing desk. It’s not just having my reference books accessible. It’s not just having my calendar and whiteboard up by my desk. Those are practical things and there’s far more to a working space than what’s practical.

Having a room I use specifically for work creates an effective working ritual. When I come in in the morning, I know I’m here to work. My brain shifts into that gear. When I leave at lunchtime or the end of the day, it shifts gear again, letting me relax. It’s something I used to get from a commute, and while I much prefer the speed of this version, the ritual element is important. The physical transition creates a mental transition. The doorway to this room becomes a magical portal that transforms me from ordinary Andy Knighton to Writing Man.

It’s been a tough few days without, but order had been restored. The carpet’s in, the shelves are back up, and the books are in better order than ever.

Writing Man is back.

Detachment

One of the weird features of working as a freelance writer is a detachment from my immediate economy.

I’m used to the fact that, in the modern world, we’re often detached from our physically immediate communities. Our jobs are often a commute away. Our social lives come from communities of interest. Our casual socialising is largely online. I chat with a few of my neighbours, but the desire for social contact doesn’t force me to get close to them. I get that elsewhere.

For me, there’s an extra layer to this. I’m increasingly detached from the British economy.

I realised this by considering my financial future. My freelance work is going really well. This August I had my best monthly¬†earnings ever and on average they’re set to keep rising. While people around me are bracing for the economic shock of Brexit, with jobs and wages at risk, I’m not concerned for myself. Most of my customers are outside the UK. If anything, my earnings will improve after Brexit, as a weak pound increases the benefits of being paid in dollars.

It’s a strange experience. Any marginal personal benefits I gain aren’t enough to make up for Brexit, but it’s made me look at my life differently.

There’s something almost cyberpunk about this, existing as a free agent in a world where national boundaries are dissolving. As with anything cyberpunk, there’s a bleak side to it, the erosion of old bonds creating problems as well as opportunities. Those fading national boundaries make it harder for governments to raise taxes and support services people need. Uncertainty is creating a nationalist backlash, not for the first time in recent history.

But for better or for worse, I’m able to watch this with some detachment. My career exists in the ether and it’s likely to survive local shocks. The world is changing and, for once, I’m near the forefront of that change. Safe, comfortable, but increasingly unsettled by what it all represents.

We’ll never reach a point where those local ties don’t matter, whether they’re economic, social, or political. After all, we live in physical bodies within a physical world. But the importance of locality is changing. For better of for worse, maybe we’ll all end up a little more detached.

Elmo is Watching

I haven’t done an Elmo post in ages, so here he is, watching a truck from the office window. I haven’t seen much of him recently, as he’s usually out enjoying the summer weather. It always feels weird to wish for cooler weather when you live in England, but I’m looking forward to him being at home more. The writer’s life can be a lonely one (plays smallest violin, gets back to decadent life of sitting around working at home).

Breaking Habits

My poor car, halfway into someone’s garden.

Getting into good habits has been vital to me, both in dealing with my mental health and in building my writing career. A lot of the time, changes to habits take hard work and planning. But just occasionally, they’re thrust upon you.

Back in March, I had a car crash. It was a lot less scary than the last one I was in, and I wasn’t hurt. But my car, not being worth much to begin with, was an insurance write-off.

That left me with a tough choice. It was just about possible for me to buy a replacement, but it would make my finances uncomfortably tight. Or I could stop driving for a bit. The latter seemed like the smart option.

Over the past few years, I’d got into the habit of using my car a lot. I’d done exactly the sorts of things I’d tried to avoid by not learning to drive in my twenties. I used the car for journeys I could walk. I used it over the train for long-distance travel. My own personal polluting machine became my default mode of getting about.

Going without involved some serious adjustments. I now order in shopping rather than going to the supermarket. I spend 45 minutes walking to a friend’s house rather than ten minutes driving. Some places take me two or three times as long to get to, thanks to the limits of public transport.

And the end result is that I feel much better. There’s more exercise built into my day. I’m doing lots of reading and listening to audiobooks as I walk or sit on public transport. Not only am I living a life more in line with my personal values, but my mood has improved. And the money saved on petrol, insurance, taxes, and so on more than pays for the bus and train tickets.

Changing habits takes hard work. But sometimes a moment of disruption can make it easier to make that change. When you get the chance, those moments are worth seizing.

Balance

Being a freelancer is a lot about balance. Applying for new work vs getting the current stuff done. Working now vs working later. Working out how much I can handle.

Sometimes the balance shifts. Last year, I was all about work that interested me, even if the pay was only so-so. Right now, I’m accepting less interesting¬†work for the higher financial rewards. Either option has its stresses and its rewards.

The good thing is that, as my own boss, I get to choose which I do, and to change it up as I see fit. I might have to keep finding points of balance, but at least they’re in my hands.

Enjoying Editing

I’ve picked up some corporate writing and editing work again. While it’s far from my dream writing job, this stuff can be surprisingly satisfying. I’d forgotten how good it feels to go through a garbled document and make it coherent, to purge the worst of the management jargon and make the words fell human.

Have I mentioned lately that I love my job? Becuase I really do.

Dealing With Bad Editing

I’ve just had another experience with bad editing. I say “another” because this is a recurring theme for me, working as a freelancer. Clients don’t always have a good regular editor. Sometimes they’re trying someone new and inexperienced, and I end up dealing with the results.

Responding to bad editing is tricky. As a writer, I know that I’m going to make mistakes and get things wrong. Sometimes an edit I don’t like will be the right thing. So it’s only when the mistakes keep piling up, when the misplaced commas and unnecessary changes litter the page, that I let myself believe that I’m right and the editor is wrong.

Dealing with this can be tricky. Sometimes it’s easy to explain why an edit doesn’t seem right to me. Sometimes it’s more nebulous. I’ve lost hours to figuring out what’s wrong with edits and searching for the words to explain it. Because if I’m going to disagree with an editor then I need to be clear on why. I need them to understand my perspectives if we’re to debate a point of language. And I need the client to understand my misgivings if I’m going to suggest that they find a better editor.

It’s frustrating. It’s awkward. It can undermine my faith in myself, as I face changes that don’t fit my idea of good writing, and I wonder which of us is mistaken. But dealing with bad editing is part of being a writer. It makes good editors into prizes worth their weight in gold.