FantasyCon is Coming!

It’s almost time for FantasyCon, that magical time of year when a bunch of fantasy fans and professionals get together in a hotel to enthuse about our shared passions. This year we’re near Glasgow, my first foray into Scotland in twenty years, and I can’t wait.

I’m only on one panel this time, Franchises and Ghostwriting, at one o’clock on Saturday afternoon. There, I’ll be moderating a discussion with Charlotte Bond, Una McCormack, and Mark Morris on some of the less-discussed options for professional writers. So if you’re at the convention this weekend please come along, or at the very least find me to say hello in the bar.

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.

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?

Well…

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.

Questions?

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.

Copying Myself Could Be Plagiarism – the Weirdness of Ghostwriting

Sometimes two different books can look a little too similar.
Sometimes two different books can look a little too similar.

Working as a ghostwriter leads to some odd situations. One that struck me recently is that I could commit an act of plagiarism just by using my own words.

Not Owning My Work

As a ghostwriter, I don’t own the copyright on what I produce. There are hundreds of thousands of words out there that I crafted but that have someone else’s name on them, whether it’s the name of a real person or a made up name. Not only am I not associated with those words – I have no legal claim on them.

Legally speaking, I’m effectively not the author of those words. Someone else owns them.

Riding the Roundabouts

Recently, I’ve started to return to territory I’ve covered in previous works. For example, I’ve been writing about the Tudors. So when I did that, I opened up previous writing assignments I’d done on them. If nothing else, it would save me from replicating my research – why reinvent the intellectual wheel? I’ll even copy and paste something I’ve written before into the working document, so I can keep track of what elements I still want to include. But I have to be really careful that those same phrases and patterns of words don’t appear again. Because if they do, I’ll be plagiarising work that belongs to my client, which would be illegal and bad for my career.

Favourite Phrases

It’s weird not to be able to copy myself. Weirder still to think that, sooner or later, I’ll probably do it by accident. If I come up with a phrase I really like and use it a ghostwriting project, what are the odds that it won’t occur to me again later? And if I forget that I used it before, then a tiny bit of repetition slips into the mix, and I can come close once again to plagiarising myself.

None of this is meant as a complaint. I have a great job, and when I ghostwrite I accept the consequences of that – I get my money, I lose my words. But it’s very strange to think that, however unlikely it is, I really could break the law just by writing in my own voice over and over again.