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Confessions of a Ghost (Writer): Who Does That, Again?


What? Who hires a ghostwriter for fiction?

I know, right?  

I frequently get asked that question when I’m on writing panels at conventions. And back when I was first approached to ghostwrite a novel, I thought it surely must be someone with more money than sense. 

At least, I thought that until I got my first fiction ghostwrite about a week into my career as a full time freelance writer. My client (or really, my collaborator), was a well-known SFF writer who had severe health problems and more contracts than he could cover. I did two ghostwrites with him, then four co-byline novels in which we went 50/50. One of those ended up on the New York Times Bestseller list. 

Since then, I’ve ghosted far more fiction than non-fiction and I’m usually juggling two or three ghostwrites at the same time—most from an editorial service I’ve worked with for over a decade. The circumstances by which I come by these projects are various. I’ve had clients who

  • are convinced they could totally write that novel, if they just had time. 
  • know they don’t have the chops yet, but really want to learn the ropes of writing a novel. So, I serve as a sort of ghostwriter and craft coach. I may write one book and they try their hand at the next or they may write pieces of the book under supervision. 
  • have an outlined story idea or ideas that they want to see in print, with no illusions about learning the craft. There’s a whole gamut of that variety, from the academic who just wants his pet theory couched in fiction to the wealthy jet-setter who has ”novel with my name on it” on his bucket list.
  • have written a screenplay and want a novelization, but have no idea how to go about writing one, or who just want to write screenplays and produce movies and not mess with publishers.
  • Eddie Munson guitar solo
    Rock Star!

    want to be ”authors” rather than writers. Kind of like the kid who wants to be a rockstar without actually learning to play guitar or write songs. These are folks who have ridiculous notions that they’re going to get published, sell millions of copies, quit their day jobs, do book tours signing for adoring fans, and get really rich. I mean, if Stephen King or JK Rowling can do it, why not? I try to disabuse them of this idea, but rarely can. And in the final analysis, their desire to dump their day job enabled me to dump mine almost two decades ago. These are some of the hardest ones to deal with because the failure for the book to get a high-powered agent and a fat contract will be laid at the door of the ghostwriter. 

I’ve had a number of clients fall in love with what I’ve done for them, recognize the amount of work and knowledge I’ve brought to their project, and insist that I get cover credit and consider me a full collaborator. I’ve also had one who actually got that high-powered agent and that big book deal, but refused to tell either his agent or his publisher that the book was ghostwritten. This, against the advice of a raft of professional writers and editors, who advised that he come clean to his agent. 

The first book got one of the best reviews I’ve ever seen out of Kirkus, but the trilogy seems to have stalled after book two and the poor author has been orphaned. He had decided he wanted to write the third novel by himself and call on me only if he felt he needed help or wanted to have me edit it. Sad thing is, he actually has a lot of writing talent, he just lacks craft and an ability to structure his work and keep his ideas manageable. The fact that his expectations were awfully high after having such quick success, haven’t helped. He was also one of my favorite clients to work with, a great collaborator and knowledgable about the science involved. 

The thing that puzzles me about some of my clients is the attitude that ghostwriters are disposable or interchangeable. My most recent brush with this was a well-known scientist who wanted his ideas fictionalized and wanted a highly qualified SF writer to do the work. My editorial service pitched me to him: NYT bestseller, rave reviews for most recent novel, getting a client a three book deal with a major house, the works. Not good enough. He wanted someone in the top five on Amazon, with a series of bestsellers not just one. In other words, someone who does not do work for hire and who would expect a collaborator’s deal up front.  He disappeared and I’m not sure if he ever found the writer he wanted. Too bad, really, I found his theories fascinating. 

Anyway, that’s the tip of a very, very big iceberg. Whatever the circumstances, my goal was to work well with each client, to educate them, to be honest, but never mean, and to write the best book I could for each and every one.


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