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Confessions of a Ghost (Writer): I Dodge a Bullet

sherlock holmes

This is a true story. The names and titles have been changed to protect the guilty.

A longtime collaborator whose movie script I was novelizing referred a client to me. ”He approached me to do this,” he said, “but I just don’t have time with shooting schedules and all. I thought you might be willing to help. I should warn you, though, he’s … interesting.”

I’m fine with interesting, even by Vulcan standards, so I reached out to see what the potential client—I’ll call him Marley—wanted. Marley wanted a script novelized—which is one of my favorite types of ghostwrites. So far so good.

When I contacted him, he told me he’d shown the script to a NY publisher (happened to be the publisher of four of my novels) and they’d read the first 10 pages and wanted more. This I took with a grain of salt; I’d had clients inflate important persons’ reactions to their ideas before, and because these tales remind me too much of the pickup lines of men who, during my tenure as the lead singer of a top 40 cover band, told me they’d been instrumental in the success of [my fave band here].

As I had two other projects going on at the time, I wanted to get a sense of the scope of the work and to make sure Marley was okay with sharing the proverbial ’barn’ with other horses. “Before we chat by phone,” I wrote, “could you give me some idea about your project: projected word length, genre, audience, that sort of thing. If you have some sort of written outline or treatment of your script, it would help me greatly. I need to know some basic facts about the project before I consider it.”

And this is where things began to get … interesting.

”Because of things that are going on in New York, Hollywood, and the internet about the script,” my would-be client told me, “until we have a contract all I can tell you is: THE GAME IS AFOOT! Here’s a link to the website, which has film clips of three scenes in the movie and will tell you everything you need to know.”

Thoroughbred Stallion?He also gave the helpful information that the audience was aged 15-99, and that the book would be about 85,000 words. The genres were many. Suspense, action, mystery, romance, supernatural. He took exception to the fee that my collaborator mentioned and said we’d have to talk about that. Not a problem, as the quote had been high. Oh, and he was fine with his lack of exclusivity: “I don’t mind being the only Thoroughbred Stallion in the barn,” he replied.

Okay—interesting, but not “Danger, Will Robinson!” territory.

I went to the website–which was actually a Facebook page. There were, indeed, three “film clips”. They were not scenes, however. They were smartphone videos of the landscaping at the front of a mansion or country club. All three of them. One of them was labeled Scene 3: Guys arrive. It was a video of the unseen cameraman’s journey along a cobbled path to a flight of steps and back again. The other ”scenes” were also walking tours of someone’s front garden … from outside. 

Other than this, the page contained pictures of the potential client driving hot cars and being photographed with equally toasty women. There were family portraits and there were reiterations of the title of the proposed book/movie couched as a response to a question: “Are you GAME? THE GAME IS AFOOT!” There was no information other than this, except that the story was based on real events and that two different colors of sports cars would be driven by two different characters in the story.

Also, prominent was the assertion that this was a hot property that both a famous studio and a famous publisher were interested in. That was it.

I explained to Marley that I needed to know more before I could sign a contract—at least as much as the studio and publisher mentioned apparently knew. I at least needed a logline, but seeing the treatment Marley had mentioned having given the studio, would be even better. I offered to sign a non-disclose.

He shot back that he needed to see writing samples. I duly sent links to my work on Book View Cafe and Amazon where the ’Look Inside’ feature would give him an idea of my style(s). I also sent my bibliography, reviews, and CV, so he could get a sense of the breadth of my work, see that I had publishing credits, was a New York Times Bestselling author, had award nominations etc. etc.

He responded this way: ”My first screenplay was made into a Hollywood movie on the silver screen. I’ll read your work when I can and may consider you as a ghostwriter. Here’s how it will go: We’ll agree on a price and then sign a contract. I can’t show you any more material before you sign a contract—non-disclosure agreement or no. There is enough material on my website with the three film scenes for the overall stated purposes, and due to the sensitivity of what’s going on in Hollywood and the first result with the publisher.” (Yes, that really was the way that sentence ended.) He added: ”No professional would post there logline’s (sic) on the internet.” (Yes, that, too.)

Danger, Will Robinson!At this point, Robot B9 was bellowing ”Danger, Will Robinson!” at the top of his electronic lungs. Curiosity notwithstanding, I bowed out. I let him know that his evasiveness was concerning (I didn’t tell him I was considering firing a client for that at the time). I cited the fact that he wouldn’t even tell me the name of a movie he said he’d already had produced and explained that most professional writers would react similarly to being kept in the dark. 

I allowed myself a moment of ironic snark: ”No professional would sign a contract without some idea of what they’re going to be asked to write.” I referred him to an editorial service I sometimes work with (which, now that I think of it, was a dopey idea because they probably would’ve assigned him to me—hold that thought). I wished him luck finding the right writer.

His response? That the website did so have enough info for a writer to know what they could write. He said I was being negative and that the correct order for the documentation was: ”…price agreed, contract, and then disclosure…Not ur way around those things backwards.” (Yep, that was an actual sentence, too.) For the record, in every project I’ve ever entered into that required an NDA, it was the first document signed, not the last. In all other cases, the NDA was part of the contract I signed after I had seen enough materials to get a sense of the project’s scope and subject matter. Only at that point, after all, would I know what would be a fair price range for the work.

I checked back in with my collaborator/friend and told him what had happened. “I should have known,” I told him, “when you said ‘interesting’ in that tone of voice, that this was probably a disaster in the making.”

”You’re well rid of him,” my friend said. ”I’ll keep my eye out for prospects that won’t be so much of a challenge.”

I don’t mind a challenge. In fact, I thrive on them. What I do mind is clients who are challenged to provide necessary information about the project they’re going to give me responsibility for.

I checked Marley’s Facebook page again months later and saw that the last update was made around the time I declined his “offer”. The addition was a reason for the secrecy about the project. It seems that Marley and the movie studio have … wait for it … signed a non-disclosure agreement.

That thought I asked you to hold? Over a year later, the CEO of that editorial service I mentioned called and left a message saying he had a new client for me if I wanted him. He sent an email with a link that read: THE GAME IS AFOOT! – Fred Fictitiouson.

Yes, Dear Reader. It was indeed the same fellow with the same pitch. I followed the link and found that the Facebook posting looked pretty much as it had the last time I saw it. He had also failed to share more than this with the CEO of the editorial service he hoped to engage, and for the same reason—he’d signed an NDA with a Hollywood studio.

Did I take the job, you ask, Dear Reader?

I did not.


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