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Confessions of a Ghost (Writer)—Who Does That?

Ghost (writer)

I have been a full time writer since 2005. During that time, I’ve penned eight original or shared-world novels, had six of them published, the last being my first mystery-crime novel, THE ANTIQUITIES HUNTER, in October 2018, and am working on a ninth book (well, and a tenth and an eleventh . . . you get the picture.)

That activity not withstanding, at least half of my income in a given year comes from work I do that 1) may never see print and 2) doesn’t have my name on it and which I did not count in the above paragraph.

You see, I am a ghostwriter and an editor in addition to publishing under my own byline. When I tell people this, they usually assume that I ghostwrite biographies or autobiographies or memoirs. I have done all three things. I’ve also ghostwritten or edited how-to books, self-help books and exposés. I’ve written about business, fashion, religion, and the Mafia all on behalf of clients who wanted to tell their story or sell an idea or right a wrong.

But most of what flows from my invisible pen has been fiction. This revelation inevitably leads to the question (delivered in a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me tone of voice): Who does that? Who hires a ghostwriter for fiction?

In my almost two decades of being a full time freelancer, my fiction clients have run the gamut from people who thought of themselves as writers, but who didn’t have the time or patience (or sadly, the talent and skill) to write, people who knew they weren’t writers but had an idea they wanted to see realized, people who knew how to write a screenplay but had no idea what to do with 300 blank pages of a book, and my favorite clients, people who had natural talent and wanted someone to write them through the process of crafting a novel so they could learn how it was done.

They’ve also run the gamut from active contributing partners in the process to absentee book lords, who had few opinions about what I was doing even when I was done. They’ve been amicable and respectful of my time and ability and they’ve treated me like a scullery maid. They’ve been willing to listen to me and completely unwilling to hear anything I had to say, arguing about every word and ultimately pulling rank. They’ve been savvy and smart and they’ve been . . . otherwise. They’ve contributed sound ideas and they’ve insisted on rewriting their favorite movies.

In fact, I’ve had a few clients who didn’t actually read books. They watched movies and wanted their readers to experience the same heady rush when they read my prose that they, themselves, did when they heard the words: “This is Sparta!”

This is where Stephen King would say, with all necessary gravitas and experience to back it up:

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Here’s something that will not surprise you, I’ll bet: The clients who are easiest and the most fun to work with are readers—often voracious readers. They know what’s been done and can tell when it’s been done well.

I’ve had great relationships with some clients and contentious relationships with others. I think I can safely say that all but one of the relationships were ultimately friendly even when they started out with fireworks, and I’ve only had to fire one client. No, he’s not the lone unfriendly. That honor goes to the gentleman who stiffed me for my fees and who, as a result, didn’t see his completed novel for over a decade, while it existed only on my hard drive and backup server.

Here’s something that may surprise you: I’ve only ever met three of my clients face to face—and two of those were for non-fiction projects. All of the work has been done long-distance via video conferencing, phone, texting, audio files, email and Dropbox. Very techy-tech, despite the fact that some of my clients and collaborators have been, shall we say, digitally challenged.

Some of those ghostwrites and edits have never seen print, others have been self-published by the “author”, or picked up by a small press, and one of them (two books of a trilogy) went to a major publisher of science fiction (no, I can’t tell you any more than that). Some of the ghostwrites were screenplays for which I was paid handsomely, and which may or may not have been filmed. I’m not being coy—I really don’t know.

All of them required hours and hours of research into different subjects (and thereby hang several tales).

Does it drive me crazy that I put so much work into someone else’s book? Yes, yes it does. In part because I honestly try to give every client—even the difficult ones—the best work I can. This is easy if they have a good idea and a clear, egoless sense of how good their own ability is. It’s hard if the idea is weak and/or the client believes they’re a better writer than they actually are. It can also be frustrating when a client who has great ideas and helps create a truly wonderful read doesn’t have the faith in it necessary to even try to publish. The words fall like a tree in the forest, with no one to hear them.

That is the downside of being a ghost: I have only as much control over the finished product as the client is willing to cede, and my own stories sit on the sidelines waiting to be told because the money for even a reasonably lucrative book contract comes in over a long period of time and one must pay the mortgage every month.

Once in a while, though, I get a ghost project for someone who’s such a great collaborator that I feel as much satisfaction as if I were working on my own novels. And sometimes, the ghostwrite goes so well that the collaboration becomes a real partnership—like my work with the late Michael Reaves with whom I ghostwrote Batman: Fear Itself, and the third book in the Coruscant Nights series: Star Wars: Patterns of Force before we wrote Mr. Twilight, Star Wars: Shadow Games and Star Wars: The Last Jedi (book four in the Coruscant Nights series) under our combined bylines.

So, with your indulgence, dear readers, I shall continue my Confessions next time with a few of my ghost stories. (Bwa-ha-ha!)


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