Confessions of a Ghost Writer: When to Hold an Exorcism

I recently had to exorcise, er, fire a client. One I’d been working with for years. I have written three complete novels for this fellow, rewritten a fourth and outlined a fifth. The novel we were working on when we parted company was one we had been at for roughly six years from the time when he turned over a research binder, a long, detailed, Harvard-style outline, and a number of drafted chapters and scenes.

I freely admit that I allowed the situation to go on too long, but I really dislike quitting, and I have first hand evidence of the efficacy of the Golden Rule. I know that if you treat even contrarians with kindness and friendliness, you will end up with a good friend. I had thought I’d reached that plateau with this client, which was why the breakup was especially hard.

What I got out of it was an awareness of behaviors that bode ill for writers involved in ghostwriting, editing and even collaborations of alleged equals.

I wrote awhile back in this series of a client I called Rocky. He’d sent an extremely uneven proposal to a famous editor to whom he should have sent nothing but the best work possible. His rationale for sending what he claims he knew was flawed was that he’d established such a good rapport with the fellow that the editor would absolutely understand what he was trying to accomplish and would forgive the stumbles in execution. Didn’t turn out that way, alas. The editor couldn’t help but recognize the work of more than one writer and wonder what was up.

After this signal moment (and a glowing review of my work by a trusted source) Rocky agreed that when it came to dealing with editors, my experience trumped his “feelings”. We eventually established (I thought) a very good, amicable working relationship, even though the two novels I’d completed for him—which were both ready to meet some agents—got sidelined when he decided that a project for which he (or someone) had done the above-mentioned research, outline and scenes, needed to be the first thing shopped. It was, he told me, a more commercial property.

I realized what was happening. This new project was just one more manifestation of his fear of pulling the trigger. It was a stalling tactic. As frustrating as that was (because the finished books were really quite good), I figured it was his call, and he was, after all, paying me by the hour.

Long story short, we finished this new project—not without bumps and scrapes and starting over with new goals and rewriting entire character arcs and whatnot—but we finished it. It was “almost there”, Rocky said. He seemed pretty upbeat. He even agreed that I should show the two sidelined novels to my agent.

Almost immediately after that, he started picking apart work that he’d been happy with, questioning edits that he’d had me make. The biggest, reddest flag was when he criticized edits he’d made himself and blamed me for them. Oddly, some of his commentary hinted that he’d not actually read the parts of the book he was now criticizing. At one point, he denied having reread a scene that I’d revised from his notes (at least, he’d claimed they were his notes).

How could I be certain he’d read it, you may ask? Simple. He had returned it to me edited. A horrible suspicion dawned in my mind that gave me flashbacks to an earlier crisis in our relationship: the horrific moment when I realized I was not the only writer-editor working on the project.

I was now grappling with a ghost from the past: I was certain that a third party Rocky had claimed was off the project, was back, and not for the first time. When I asked if this was the case, Rocky simply ignored the question, thus answering it. The novel went from “almost there” to needing a chapter by chapter rewrite for reasons Rocky couldn’t really explain. He cast this as a collaborative process; he wanted me to tell him if his changes were wrecking character arcs or causing cascade effects. Whenever I confirmed that they would, he attributed it to ego on my part.

In all our years of working together, he had never developed a comprehension of how plotting and pacing worked, or how what happens between characters in one scene affects what happens between them in a later one, or how they interact with other characters.

Knowing that there was a mystery-writer in the project, I began to question if I could continue; Rocky’s communications were increasingly combative and he patently denied saying things I had a written record of him saying, As I was going back over some of our historic communications, I came across a report I had generated for the editorial service that had first hired me to work with Rocky. In it, I’d itemized exactly the same behavior I was seeing again now, ten years later. I realized that all progress had been lost and that we were quite literally back to square one.

That should have been it, right? But I am nothing if not stubborn and it was hard to stomach losing that relationship.

This is when things got even weirder. Sometime before this, Rocky had gotten another opportunity to use a personal contact as an entree to a potential contract. It had been on the back burner for some time, but suddenly, it became of primary importance that he work with a particular screenplay writer so that this novel—which was either  “almost there” or needed to be completely reworked, depending on when you asked—could become a blockbuster film. He shared the early pages of a screenplay this new player had written. All value judgements aside, it bore no resemblance to the novel in any aspect, from the jump cut sequence of horrific opening scenes in which a series of people died in bizarre ways, to the characters and their development, yet Rocky suggested that he wanted me to work with the screenplay writer on it, then rework the novel to match the screenplay.

I told Rocky the script was unworkable and suggested he offer a screenplay based on the novel. He couldn’t, though, because this new player was his only connection with Hollywood. No other route would give him a chance to show the project to a famous director. The problem, I tried to explain, was that if he didn’t have something of quality to show the famous director, it probably wouldn’t matter who had written it.

That’s when I performed the exorcism. I told Rocky I wished him luck with his chosen path, and that I was obviously not the writer he needed to bring his vision to fruition. It took several tries to get him to recognize that I was letting him and the project go. That I simply didn’t have the bandwidth to watch him go through the same self-defeating process he’d been through years before with a prestigious editor and throw away six years of hard work.

He tried to entice me to re-engage with the project a couple more times, but I have declined to acquiesce to his request, as Captain Barbossa (also a ghost of a different stripe) so eloquently put it.

My takeaway from this (and I’ve only hit the highlights) is manifold, and has contributed to my Beware list. Some of these behaviors, may be bearable under the right circumstances. Others, all by themselves, are deal-breakers. At least they are for me at this point in my ghostly career.

Beware of a client or collaborator who:

  1. Lies to you—about anything, but especially about the project and your place in it.
  2. Continually changes their mind about what they want or are trying to achieve, or changes the footing of your relationship, or the audience you’re supposed to be writing for.
  3. Refuses to admit things they’ve said or done, even when confronted with written proof.
  4. Repeatedly questions your judgment, talent, experience and skill, while telling you that they trust you.
  5. Blames you for everything they perceive is wrong about the project.
  6. Disagrees with you on the most basic elements of storytelling, character development, and craft.
  7. Can’t recognize poor writing (literally), which means they have no way of judging which of several advisors are telling them the truth about the quality of the work.

I put “lies” at the top of the list because, ultimately, the relationship between a writer/editor and client/collaborator, like any other successful human relationship, thrives on trust and dies in deceit.

I recognized that my ghost client’s return to lying was a red flag that should have probably prompted an immediate exorcism. That single behavior, especially combined with an inability to admit straightforward facts and casting blame on others involved (me, prior ghostwriters, prejudice or bias among agents and editors, etc.) should fire off every alarm a writer possesses.

At this point in my life as a ghost writer, I don’t like shifting goals, audiences, or character arcs, but they’re bearable. Lying is not, and while mileage may vary, and everyone’s tolerance levels are different, my best advice: if a client or collaborator lies about important issues, such that you can’t trust what they say, JUST SAY NO.



Confessions of a Ghost Writer: When to Hold an Exorcism — 7 Comments

  1. I can only imagine how draining it is, dealing with this in a writing situation.

    But I do know what it’s like in the corporate America workplace. In the end one or the other of you has to leave for the sake of one’s own mental health.

    • I’ve actually dealt with this type of destructive behavior in the corporate realm as well; it’s one of the reasons I’m a freelance writer. The upside of these client relationships is that, ultimately, I have control of if and when I step out of them. Plus, removing myself from a relationship like this one doesn’t mean losing my entire income stream and it frees me to take projects I might otherwise refuse because this one consumed so much energy.

      I really regret losing the friendship I thought I’d forged with this client and I regret that the novels I worked on with him will probably never get published, which is a shame, because he had good solid ideas.

    • It sounds very much like that list, Brenda. I understand about losing the entire ball of wax–I also lost a client who had to adjust how much they were spending on a hobby, and decided to cut line rather than scaling back. I’m sorry the friendship also had to die, but certain things had become difficult and were getting worse. So I didn’t have to cut the line. He’s now most likely someone else’s problem.

      But I learned when to cut line, and have several times since then.

  2. I had that kind of trouble with a collaborator. (NOT Kate Daniel, just to be clear.) I finally had to go to the SFWA Grievance Committee to “exorcise” him. The novel did get published, because I wrote 80% of it. 🙂

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  4. Like Brenda said, this sounds a lot like warning signs of a failing (or bad to begin with) romantic relationship. I’m sorry you had such trouble with this.