Those cute “throw pillows” make men hurl.
You’re a ghostwriter, but you’re not a hack.
You’re a writer, a story-teller, a narrator. Make it interesting.
Keep an eye out for detail, especially factual detail that adds to the reader’s experience.
Surely there’s humor to share, something in the client’s experience that will make the reader smile, nod his head in recognition or, better yet, burst into laughter. Now you’re making your client memorable.
Somewhere there’s drama, too. There’s nothing like a cliffhanger to keep a reader engrosses. Build the scenes, don’t just plod from Point A to Point B to Point C.
And everyone has faced rejection, heartbreak and life-changing events. Tell the reader about the client’s experiences and emotions. Resist the temptation to oversell the story with lots of flowery phrases; keep it succinct and on-point.
Whatever you do, avoid tired language and jargon like “thinking outside the box” and “utilize.” Sure, use these phrases in direct quotes if needed, but find some synonyms that are fresher and more down to earth.
Make the words real. I once knew a professor who always talked about “the word on the street” when referring to college gossip. Puh-lease, this was a college campus, not the ‘hood — another word that should be retired.
You’re a ghostwriter, not a stenographer.
Be brave and ask questions, even if the client may find the answers embarrassing.
You’re there to write a full account of the topic, not to shy away from touchy topics and just write down what the client says.
Of course, the ultimate decision is the client’s, and he may decide this area doesn’t need to be in the book.
Fine, it’s his book and his money. But ask the questions and judge the material before you decide to add or delete.
I once worked with a very successful businessman whose book explained his secrets to success. He flinched when I asked him if he had ever failed; it was not a topic he wanted to tackle.
But he told me the story of how his empire nearly went under, which I found very informative. It showed that even established businesspeople make mistakes. Furthermore, it underscored the value of his previous successes, which gave him the assets needed to ride out the storm that nearly sank him.
In the end, he agreed to include this chapter in the book, and he found that it resonated with readers. They saw a truer picture of the man, how he dealt with problems and how his tactics worked.
This tell-it-like-it-is approach doesn’t always succeed. A very successful man ordered up an “autobiography” that was fun to write because it was full of deliciously wicked digs at his enemies, and a few friends, too. Ultimately, he realized — after his grown children read the manuscript — that they didn’t want Papa’s reminiscences in print for all to see, which probably would have kept them defending libel suits long after he was dead and gone.
Still, it worked out OK. He got to tell his side of the story, even if it wasn’t published, and his grandkids can read a revealing manuscript of his life and personality. And I got paid to write the story of an intriguing person
Think of every interview as a first date. You want to learn all you can about this person and you want him/her to like you, so you ask lots of questions, right?
You lean forward, you smile encouragingly, you show you’re interested.
Sometimes you ask the questions in a direct manner, other times more flippantly or more circuitously.
Believe it or not, you occasionally will find a client reluctant to talk about himself or his victories. That’s OK, but you can encourage him to at least tell the story and then see how it looks on the computer screen before deciding he doesn’t want the world to know about it.
Research also helps, and it’s easy to do, thanks to Google, Bing, newspaper archives and other easily accessed resources.
Research related topics and events. You will be amazed at how they add details and texture to the client’s story and maybe remind him of other items relevant to his book.
It is his book, but it’s your job to help him make that book as good as it can be for his purposes.
Next: A rant against jargon.
You’ve got the client settled in a comfortable chair and ready to tell his story.
Maybe all at the same time.
Try to keep the exchange as conversational as possible while you’re writing notes, thinking of questions to ask and trying to capture details like the tone of his voice and the expressions on his face.
It’s good to be this caught up. You’re engaged, which means you will write a better story than someone just listening to a person talk.
Many people like to tape the conversations, but I only use a recorder as a backup, to get the quote exactly right if need be. I think tape-recordings can make us lazy — we don’t focus on the speaker as much because we have this crutch called a tape-recorder — and it creates extra work because many writers decide they must transcribe the whole freakin’ tape before they write the story.
They’re just procrastinating. Unless you’re writing about the intricacies of brain surgery you don’t need to transcribe all that conversation.
Pay attention, take notes, and the important stuff will be etched in your memory when you sit down to write.
You also will have opportunities to ask more questions and revisit topics, so relax and write about what the client discussed that day, and plan for your next session.
It’s also important that the client look ahead to the next session; I usually conclude a meeting by asking him what he wants to discuss next, which encourages him to plan for the next meeting by checking his memory, finding old documents and photos or simply getting details in order.
Generally speaking, each hour produces three to four pages of copy, plus a few leads and odds and ends that can be developed as the interviewing progresses. (We’ll talk later about how those scraps can be converted to good use.)
I find that the best sessions last no more than two hours. After that amount of time, even the most eager client is ready to stop talking, and I’m usually ready to quit listening. The secret is to make effective use of your time and the client’s time; keep him on track and focus on the angles he wants you to pursue, as well as the angles you think need to be developed.
Next: The art of interviewing… how a ghostwriter earns his keep.
First, get a good client.
That’s basic. You want someone who can pay your fees promptly and who has a good story to tell.
Pretty much everyone has a good story to tell, although sometimes it’s more like a paragraph than a book. But a good ghostwriter can find enough details by interviewing people and conducting research, and expand the paragraph into a book if that’s what the client wants.
The bigger issue is finding clients. I’ve been lucky in that some have found me, and I cold-called a few potential clients, which feels odd but actually brought me one of my best clients.
You’re looking for a client who treats you as an employee and realizes he must pay for your services. You shouldn’t be doing it for “the experience” or for a share of the profits or for the thrill of seeing your name on the cover. You should be doing it because you’re a professional writer, goddammit, and you can tell this person’s story better than he can. You charge money for this service, just as doctors, lawyers and plumbers charge for their services, and your service will make the client’s life better, just as lawyers, doctors and plumbers usually make our lives better.
In my case, I send the client a bill every month and expect to get paid promptly. I’ve never had anyone run late. But if someone did, the keyboard would stop singing until the bill was paid. While I like all my clients, I love living in a house, driving a car and having food on the table, so I expect them to pay me just as they expect me to work for them.
While you can find all sorts of sample contracts on-line if you want to make it legal, my clients and I do our business on the basis of a handshake, or maybe a simple agreement of terms. That’s the blessing of having good clients.
Once, I was about to ghostwrite a very technical book for someone; she wanted something that could be used as a college textbook. She sent over an eye-glazing contract about 15 pages long, detailing all sorts of miscellany that just reminded me that I don’t like an overload of technical stuff.
Fortunately, the next day I got a better offer and I told the client that I wouldn’t be working with her on her book. Incidentally, two years later, she still hasn’t written the book.
My preference is to meet with the client in person, although I once wrote a book for someone I never met. She simply sent me videos of all the classes she taught, and I distilled her lessons, along with some of my own research, into a book that she now sells as part of her business.
She said I made her seem much smarter than she really is, which I took as a compliment. The real reason she seemed so much smarter, however, is that you can say so much more in a book than in a series of classes, one reason why I would rather write than teach.
In an ideal case, you want to meet regularly with the client in a setting where he is comfortable. The home or office usually is best. You want few or no distractions — no dogs, no phone calls, no checking e-mail. You want the person to focus on his story, whether it’s about his business, his family or his life.
I once had a chance to write a book for a man who is both very rich and very colorful. I thought I had hit a home run, but he insisted on working full-tilt in his high-pressure business while talking to me.
This meant he and I would be constantly interrupted and get very little done. On one hand, that would be OK because I charge by the hour. But I knew that eventually he would realize that he had a very big bill and a very small book, and he would blame me for his unwillingness to concentrate.
I turned down the job and I felt good saying thanks but no thanks. I subsequently hit a dry spell for work and wished I had the money from that job, but I still feel I made the right decision.
Still interested in the life of a ghostwriter?
Read my next chapter, in which I discuss some ways to get the book underway.
SpellCheck is great at catching misspelled words, but it doesn’t distinguish between the words we meant to write and the words we actually typed.
DeWitt Nobles has been Milton’s city clerk for half of her 78 years. She’s proof that age is just a number, as she likes to say.
I wrote this for miltonlocal.com, a site maintained by the City of Milton, Fla. to tell people what’s happening there. Incidentally, it’s one of relatively few cities where the population is growing.
Here’s a column I wrote recently for FloridaVoices.com, a website that focuses on politics in the Sunshine State.
It’s a look at history that too often is whitewashed by Floridians trying to forget or hide mistakes of the past.
Here’s a column I wrote for the April issue of Splashpensacolabeach.com and Splash!, a magazine.
I’m a planner. Maybe a control freak, too.
That’s why I’m planning the playlist for an event hopefully far, far in the future: my funeral.
While people can say what they want about in me in their eulogies, I want them to leave the service thinking, “Hey, that guy had good taste in music.”
Funerals are for the living, not for the dead, but I want to leave on a good note, so to speak. If you attend, dress casual or fancy, but be sure to wear your dancing shoes. That’s why, first of all, there will be no bagpipes at my funeral. One man’s proud, sentimental tradition is another man’s bucket of noise, so leave the bagpipes home, please.
Instead, start with a great Joe Diffie song, which starts off so full of melancholy and angst before it hits stride: “Prop me up beside the jukebox if I die/Lord, I wanna go to heaven but I don’t wanna to go tonight.”
Then segue into a Travis Tritt song about a man spurned by a woman at a fancy country club. He sings about country music, which I have loved since I was a kid in Boston listening to Ray Charles and Roy Clark sing country on my aunt’s RCA hi-fi stereo. Country music is full of stories about real people, and it was the inspiration for me to be a writer, something I made a living at for 40-plus years.
“Well I’m a member of a country club/Country music is what I love/I drive an old Ford pickup truck/I do my drinking from a dixie cup/Yea I’m a bona fide dancin’ fool/ I shot a might mean game of pool/At any honky-tonk roadside pub/ I’m a member of a country club.”
Hit the audience with another Travis Tritt song, which summarizes my political leanings: “Would you tell me if you can/cause life’s so hard to understand/Why’s the rich man dancing/While the poor man pays the band?/Oh they’re billing me for killing me/Lord have mercy on the working man.”
Most of my life has been pretty happy, thanks to luck, family and friends, so here’s the spot to drop in three uptempo songs that should have the audience rocking in the pews: Chic’s “Good Times,” Lipp Inc.’s “Funkytown” and “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves.
Then we pop to a song that every Baby Boomer remembers, “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum: “Prepare yourself, you know it’s a must/ Gotta have a friend in Jesus/So you know that when you die/He’s gonna recommend you to the spirit in the sky.”
As we draw to a close, we need “Amazing Grace,” one of my favorites not just because of the message but because the writer, John Newton, started as a slave trader before he changed his life and became a minister, a reminder that we all can do better. For “Amazing Grace,” please make sure it’s the version by Leann Rimes. She may have a wacky personal life but that lady can sing.
The finale will be a Woody Guthrie song that’s been a touchstone for my life. Some people think it should be the national anthem, others think it’s Communist claptrap.
In any event, play “This Land is Your Land,” as sung ever so movingly by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. And remember, my fellow Americans, “This land is made for you and me.”
All this great music makes me wish I could be there. Well, I will be there — in spirit.