Confessions of a Ghost: Moonlighting to Freelancing

My first gig as a ghostwriter came about in 2005, within a week of my entire software team being laid off. I was furious on behalf of my staff, who had expected to be rewarded for the bang-up job they did on a major project, but I was ecstatic on my own behalf. I’d been on the verge of looking for a new job in high tech, and now I had three months of pay in the bank and a moonlighting page on my website. I figured this was God’s way of drop-kicking me out of my comfort zone and into a profession that I loved. I turned the moonlighting page into a freelance page, called Marc Zicree—creator-collaborator on MAGIC TIME: ANGEL FIRE—and told him I was looking for writing and editing work, then put my resume and bibliography up on

Within a week, two amazing things happened. Marc called back and introduced me to Michael Reaves, who needed a reliable writer to finish a media tie-in novel for him. Then a complete stranger, who had seen my resume on Monster (a whole three days after I’d posted it), hired me to ghostwrite a self-help book on making the best of a bad job.

These two relationships—both of which would endure for years—were very different, but both resulted in friendships.

My self-help guy was a motivational speaker, but not a writer. This, he knew. If there is one virtue that is to be prized in a ghostwriting or editing client, it is self-awareness. In fact, it is the king of virtues. My client, Bill, had it. His contribution to the project was a beautifully detailed outline of how he thought the chapters should flow and a huge warehouse full of stories that illustrated a variety of the situations he focused on. He let me decide which stories illustrated which points best and told me that what was most important to him was that his “voice” come through.

I spoke to Bill often by phone (he lived in Germany where he worked as a high tech recruiter) and he sent me most of his stories and anecdotes in short digital recordings. His tone was wry, laid-back and humorous. It wasn’t at all difficult to bring it to the page. He was a good collaborator. Meaning that besides self-awareness and an realistic sense of his own limitations and talents, he knew what he wanted the project to look like and how it should be organized, and he was able to articulate that clearly. It was ideal from his point of view as well, he told me, because I had my own work-related anecdotes and philosophies and he was happy to make use of them.

We reached, as they say. And that sort of rapport is also a core asset in a good collaboration and/or ghostwriting relationship.

All-in-all, it was a trouble-free collaboration and it lasted through two non-fiction books and a series of articles, press releases and a CV. It worked because it was a partnership of equals, each with their own realm of expertise for which the other had great respect. I knew Bill knew recruiting and workplace dynamics; he knew that I knew how to convey that knowledge.

My working relationship with Michael Reaves was, in many ways, completely different. There was one important common thread: respect. The project he needed my help with was (deep breath) a Riddick novel. He had started the project with another writer who had written several chapters and then disappeared. I read the chapters, which suggested minimal effort on the part of the missing writer. I also read what the creators of the character had to say about him—that he was a man of few words and fewer thoughts; little more than an animal. Since he was the hero of the adventure movie Pitch Black—which rather depended on his brutal, but enigmatic persona—I didn’t doubt that they saw him that way. To me, translating that to the pages of a book posed an insoluble mystery.

“I can’t relate to this character at all,” I told Michael. “There’s nothing in his head. That works in a movie, because no one really gets to see the inside of his head. In a book, the lights can’t be on with no one home. I’m not sure I can do this.”

“You can do it,” Michael told me. “You just need to find an angle.”

I sucked it up and read the chapters that Michael had written. I noticed he had Our Hero quoting Ben Franklin and I realized that that was my angle—Riddick only seemed simple and animalistic. On the inside, there was a great deal of very quiet subtext. The character was a mystery wrapped in an enigma or however the saying goes. He was also a challenge—a challenge that I accepted with Slavic grit and determination (aka mulish stubbornness.) If Michael believed I could write a character I had no particular affinity for, then I believed I could too.

In the end, the book was a hoot to write, hinting at Riddick’s complexity without changing what he showed to the outside world became a dance of words and images that I found I deeply enjoyed. And having done it, I am now convinced I can write anything I set my mind to.

My collaboration with Michael was distinctly different than the one with Bill. Michael would become my Jedi Master and I, the eager padawan. I gauged the success of my work on the Riddick novel by the fact that Michael asked me to collaborate with him on an original novel, MR. TWILIGHT. We followed that with collaborations on a Batman novel, and three Star Wars books. During the course of our working partnership, we fell into a process pattern: We brainstorm a synopsis for the novel, hash it out with the editors until everyone’s happy. Then we fill in some detail in the working synopsis and start work on the first draft. At first, Michael would give me opening chapters, but as his health became more of an issue, I took on most of the “heavy lifting” (as Michael called it) while he did a final polish and added brand-specific details to the DC and Lucas properties. Our writing styles are so compatible that we both have trouble identifying our own work.

That’s not a bad problem to have.

Oh, the Riddick novel? You want to know how that turned out? Well, it was never published because the movie tanked. Six months later, when the DVDs were released, they tanked too. The upside of these downsides is that the writers are paid up front. 🙂 As a post script, Michael told me to consider the entire novel mine since I’d done the bulk of the work on it. If I could file the serial numbers off and create an original piece from it, I should.

Dear Reader, I did and I’m working on the last third of the novel now.

More ghost stories to come—and I promise, some of them are a bit scary.



Confessions of a Ghost: Moonlighting to Freelancing — 2 Comments

  1. Sometimes the ones that got away can turn out to be most interesting.

    My first, way back in the Pleistocene Era when I was in grad school, came about through references via a professor. This extremely wealthy man had amassed what then was a ton of material for a novel about, of all things, the Shroud of Turin. He had traveled all over to collect the info personally. (This was years before the internet.) Okay. He was paying well, so we worked out the storyline. But . . . then he decided no, fiction didn’t do the project justice. He wanted non-fiction, nothing but the facts, the history of the item. Right. Then he wanted the scientific approach, not the historical . . . in short, I began to realize he would never be able to let that project go, he was always going to be playing with it. So, take the cash and move on.

    Then there were the two guys (didn’t know each other, different years) who were both very famous. One had just won a raft of Emmys. They had their Own Personal Stories to tell, and New York people clamoring for anything they wrote. I discovered–in fact, this was true for a lot of the people I encountered in the film industry–that both were very intelligent, but dyslexic. Couldn’t spell for the life of them. But they decided to tell their personal story–memoirs–and needed a ghost.

    But that wasn’t the problem. Though the statute of limitations on NDAs might have run out, I’ll just call them A and B. A’s started out hilarious and riveting as he spoke about stand up comedy as the Depression waned and Vaudeville dried up. But that was the first section. Then we got to what he really wanted to write about. He met his wife . . . and then came an avalanche about what a no-good, plague-rat rotten, #$%$&^%&#$ his wife was. In very personal detail.

    I don’t know much about law, but I could see the red flags of lawsuit all over this one. Turned out there’d been a recent, very bitter divorce, with a very famous property going to her, not him. This was his revenge. I knew no publisher was going to touch it. But he was adamant, so I got out of that one.

    Then came the Emmy winner, whose personal story started out absolutely riveting, with a childhood in Eastern Europe during WW II, then over to this country and teen years in gangland-run streets, and a backward entrance into film. But that was the beginning, and then came what he really wanted to write about. The inside story of his Emmy-winning piece? No, a paean to the teenager, nearly fifty years his junior, he’d fallen in love with, dumped his wife for, parted with his furious kids for. On and on about the Love Story of A Lifetime that made the most tedious reading ever as it was so clear that he’d pretty much been snowed: on and on about their love aboard the yacht he bought her, inside the house he bought her, on the Paris trip he took her on, yadda yadda. I knew it was going to get hard passes in NYC, I tried to explain, I was fired, I kept my ear out, and no, that book never saw the light of day.

  2. My first try at collaboration was a total disaster that nearly ended in lawsuits. I’ll spare the details because I believe the other party is still alive.

    My next opportunity started as an editing job. I ended up rewriting 99% of the existing manuscript. By that time I’d become best friends with my collaborator and we began feeding off each other’s ideas. The book was a best seller with the small press that published it. But then the publisher went belly up and we had to fight to get the rights back. When life calms down again–collaborator retires–we have a few ideas about a re-release.

    In one case collaboration was something I’d suggest no one enter into. In the other I found a friendship that will last a lifetime.