Ghostwriting – How This Weirdness Works

A lot of people have the same reaction when I tell them that I ghostwrite fiction. It’s a mixture of curiosity and confusion. Ghostwriting sounds like an exciting thing to do, but what does it actually mean? And how does it even happen?


What I Do

Fiction work for hire, whether as a ghostwriter or a named contributor, is extremely variable.

Sometimes I get hired to plot a novel, then never touch it again.

Sometimes I get hired to write a novel based on a plot someone’s already written.

Sometimes I get hired to do the whole thing, based on a concept the client has or a genre they want to publish in.

Sometimes it’s consulting with a client, helping them to develop their ideas.

There’s also a lot of editing work, though I don’t often do that.

The genres vary. There’s a lot of work out there for romance writers, as that’s a huge part of publishing. But it’s not my genre, so I only write romance as part of something else. I’ve been hired to work on space operas, dystopian sci-fi, urban fantasy, thrillers, hard sci-fi, folktales, and historical fiction.

I also do non-fiction ghostwriting, but that’s a post for another time.

Finding Work

I find most of my working through freelance hiring websites. Clients post details of jobs they want done. I browse the jobs and find ones that I’m interested in, based on the budget, conditions, and how interesting the work looks. Then I make a bid, saying what I would provide, how much I would charge, and what relevant skills and experience I have. The clients pick between bidders.

These sites are incredibly helpful. Partly, that’s because they put a bunch of jobs in one place. But it’s also because of the feedback mechanisms. Clients and freelancers leave feedback for each other. After several years of work, I have a lot of positive reviews and ratings. This lets potential clients know that I’m reliable and have the skills that I’m laying claim to.

Sometimes clients even single me out and invite me to bid on their jobs. The process is pretty much the same, except that I know in advance that they think I might be a good fit.

I also have work away from these sites. Some of this comes through friends and some comes from previous clients approaching me directly.

But Why?

This is the question that seems to fascinate most people – who is hiring me and why?

It’s a natural question to ask. We tend to assume that, if someone has a story to tell, they want to tell it themselves. Despite many examples to the contrary, we think of authors as lone creatives driven by passion and inspiration. My work doesn’t fit that image.

Most of why I get hired stems from the current book market. Thanks in large part to Amazon, it’s possible for small presses and independent authors to make a living off publishing. To do that, they need to have a firm grasp of marketing. And for that marketing to work, they need a steady stream of books. So marketing-minded people, whether authors themselves or not, hire the likes of me to produce books for their publishing machine.

There are also the passion projects. Maybe a client has a story they really want to tell but they don’t know how. Maybe they want to write but aren’t sure how to structure their plot. Maybe they just want a professional’s perspective on their ideas and they’re willing to pay for a few hours of my time.


It’s always tricky to talk about this stuff. Discretion is an important part of my work. There are often non-disclosure agreements. Even when I can technically talk specifics, I’m wary of doing so.

But if you have questions, if you want to know more, then feel free to ask in the comments. I’ll answer those I can. Because this is an odd job and a brilliant job, and I’m happy to talk about it.

Why Write?

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Ghost writer at work

I write because I enjoy creating imaginary people and places.

Because I find satisfaction in putting words together the best way that I can.

Because it’s an excuse to read.

These days, because it pays my bills, and though other jobs could pay them better, those jobs always frustrate me.

Because I love it when someone reads and enjoys  something I’ve written.

Because I love collaborating with others on telling their stories.

Because I get a bit low if I go too long without writing – anything can become an addiction.

Because writing, from personal journals through to blog posts and stories charged with real emotion, is a way of dealing with the crap and the clutter in my head.

Because many of my heroes are writers.

Because maybe, just maybe, something I write could live on beyond me.

Because stories are the coolest thing in the world, and writing them makes feel just a little bit awesome.

Why do you write?

Contemplating a Ghost Writing Great – Rose Wilder Lane

Rose Wilder Lane - she wore one heck of a hat
Rose Wilder Lane – she wore one heck of a hat

Ghost-writing is a weird business. The boundaries of individual authorship and intellectual ownership aren’t in their usual places. The rules of the game can vary from one project to the next. The writers themselves often remain unknown, however famous their works.

Take the case of Rose Wilder Lane.

Little House in the Bookstore

Rose Wilder Lane is primarily remembered as the daughter of the more famous Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House on the Prairie books. The novels were based on Laura’s experiences of growing up in a pioneer family as the United States of America expanded to fill its continent.

What’s less well known, though no secret, is that Rose played an uncredited role in writing the books. The extent of her involvement is debated, and she seems to have played a less significant role over time. Unlike her mother, Rose was an experienced professional writer, and her part may have gone as far as massively re-writing the early books. Certainly, her mother’s literary success came in large part from Rose’s contribution.

Standing on the Shoulder of Relatives

Rose was a successful writer in her own right, as a journalist, travel writer and biographer. During the 1920s, she was one of the highest-paid female writers in America. She had collaborated with others as well as writing on her own and was a political thinker as well as a creative.

Yet the collaboration with Laura was beneficial to Rose as well as her mother. Her experience with the Little House novels led to some of her most successful writing in her own name. These later novels were commercially and critically successful. With the proceeds she paid off her debts and bought a house.

The Difficulty of Collaboration

My friend Joanna, who pointed Rose out to me, mentioned the extra feelings of obligation that must have weighed on Rose in collaborating with her mother. It’s a really interesting point.

Family relationships are always tangled. So many years of interaction pile up good and bad feelings, old memories and patterns. Artistic collaborations are usually tricky relationships as well. Something as apparently simple as editing a book can be a minefield of recrimination and bitterness, as the editor tries to take the rough edges off something the original author is extremely attached to. I know I’ve been in at least one editorial relationship that went sour.

Add to that the fact that Rose was not credited as co-author oofbooks she is alleged to have largely written, and you have a relationship that must have become fractious at times. Did Rose collaborate out of love or obligation? In truth, the two are not always separate, and we can’t know how much the project was a source of shared joy or of resentment.

And the Joys

On the other hand, Rose and Laura got to share a great deal through working together. The fun of creation and the sharing of family memories may have added to their closeness. I certainly hope so. I know that when I’ve collaborated on books with people I get on with we’ve had a great time and it’s made the work more enjoyable. It’s one of the things you gain from working in a creative business, even one where you aren’t credited.

Writing always emerges from relationships with others, all the more so when working for hire. Thinking about Rose is a good way of remembering that those relationships aren’t just functional but have an emotional place in writers’ lives.And it’s

And it’s good to see that, just occasionally, a ghost-writer can get the credit in the end. Good on you, Rose Wilder Lane.

The love of bit characters

gal-jeff-conaway3-jpgDo you have characters in books and shows who you love out of all proportion to their role in the story?

I know I do. A number of characters get killed in the books I’m currently ghost writing. Because I didn’t develop the plot, those deaths aren’t my own doing, and I still feel that emotional tug you do when you’re reading a book and a character dies. I feel some sad for these guys.

You’d have thought that the deaths of significant characters would be the most emotional, but so far the one that’s hit me the most was a minor character who existed to meet a horrible death. Knowing he was coming up in book two, I introduced him in book one as a friendly extra, so that he’d at least have a bit of significance. And it really worked. I hated to see that guy die. The extra effort I’d put into building him up meant I cared way more about his death, even though he hadn’t featured all that much.

The same thing happened to me as a viewer when the character of security officer Zack Allan appeared in Babylon 5. First the actor turned up as an extra in a security uniform. After he’d done that a couple of times I recognised him as ‘that security guard’. Then he got a few lines. Then a name. Then a place in the show’s credits and his own character arc. As a concept, he was one of the less interesting characters in the show, mostly there to fulfil some plot functions. But because I’d seen him emerge from obscurity, because I’d been cheering him on to become someone significant, I loved that character.

I have a vague idea that this is an underdog thing, or about a sense of ownership over the character, but really I’m just guessing. So what do you folks think? And do you have minor characters who you really love? Leave a comment, share your thoughts.