Roddy Doyle has done me a favour. In taking on Roy Keane’s autobiography, he has given the art of ghost-writing a new respectability. In a recent interview, he said he thought hard before taking on the task, but not because it was beneath him. He had to decide if his interests and set of skills made him a suitable ghosting scribe.
When you announce that you’re a ghost-writer, people look at you askance. Some say,
“You’re writing about ghosts?” Others, with some condescension, ask you when you’re going to write your own book, the inference being that ghost-writing is for those who can’t make it up. And whilst there is a grain of truth in that, to my mind, ghost-writing is a skill and an art of its own.
To ghost a book you need to be able to write well and with clarity; you need good narrative skills, and the ability to structure well, and keep the pages turning. And at times that, surely is harder, when you can’t make it up.
Writing skills are not the only ones a ghost-writer needs. You need to be good with people too. You need patience; warmth; tact, and amazing listening skills. Because you end up being a writer, friend and counsellor wrapped in one.
So what exactly does a ghost-writer do? There is no blueprint. It depends very much on the project. It can be a massive editing job; rewriting someone’s finished work, and it can be, in effect, an 85,000 word interview. Generally it falls somewhere in between.
The person may have written part of a book, and then find they haven’t sufficient skills to finish it. You come in, edit the writing they have done, and fill in the gaps by interviewing the person.
How do you get into ghost-writing? There are various routes. You could do as I did, and simply tell publishers you are interested in ghost-writing. My first three books came this way. If you have an agent, he/she might think of you for a project, as happened to me with my fourth book.
You’re an unknown? Then you can find someone who has a story to tell, write a synopsis and three chapters and approach an agent or publisher. Or you could write an entire book for the person to self-publish, if they are prepared to pay you to do so.
Is it rewarding? Yes; and no. It can be lovely collaborating with someone; and takes away from the loneliness of the writer. You have a great story to tell without having to make it up. And for a journalist, it’s great to have a long project.
But there are disadvantages too. There will most likely be disagreements along the way. You need to have great confidence in your writing and, sometimes, a thick skin. Ultimately, this is not your book, and the best stories, in your mind, may have to go. Your subject might insist on it.
Then there’s the money. If you’re lucky you get half the money going, but more often you get a fee and no contract or royalties. You’re unlikely to have your name on the book, and in some cases may not be able to tell people that you wrote it.
My own experience has been positive. I’ve always wanted to ghost-write, but in the boom years I was simply too busy. I eased my way in, by interviewing fourteen people who had suffered from depression and learned to cope, published as Keys to the Cage, (New Island, 2010) then ghosted my first two books within that same year.
The highlight, for me, was being approached, last year, and asked to write Marie Fleming’s story, An Act of Love. Famous for fighting in the Irish Courts for the right to be helped to die, this inspirational woman, who was had terminal MS, had an incredible story to tell.
Forced to leave school at 14 to care for her siblings when her mother ran off with a senator, she became pregnant at 16. Escaping from a mother and baby home, she fought the local priest and kept her baby. Two marriages failed, but meanwhile, through adult education, Marie reached the status of University Lecturer, even though her MS had started to bite.
Marie had written a childhood memoir; and there were some segments about meeting her partner, Tom, coping as her illness worsened, and making the decision to end her life when the time felt right. My job was to fill in all the gaps, bring the information together, and provide structure.
This had its difficulties, as meetings with Marie were curtailed as she suffered infection after infection. Were it not for her wonderful family, who talked to me over copious cappuccinos, with much tears and laughter, the venture would not have been possible.
It was a gift; but one that carried a burden of responsibility. In essence I was to give Marie back the voice she was so cruelly losing. Would I manage this, and would she live to see her book published – and her lifelong ambition realised?
Marie died last December, five hours before the first copy of An Act of Love had been printed. Our editor, Ciara Considine and I, presented the book to her partner, Tom Curran at Marie’s wake, and it is now with her, in her coffin.
She never saw her book in the shops, nestled as it was between Benjamin Black and David Park. She didn’t know that it reached number one; or that the reviews were universally enthusiastic, and that causes me, and her family inordinate pain.
Yet according to Tom Curran, Marie knew that her book was safe. She had read the final draft, chosen the cover, and, the evening she died, Anne Enright’s words had been read to her. ‘The heart of a true writer beats in these sentences, and a writer’s hard work is seen on every page.’ She knew her work was complete. Rest in peace Marie.
(c) Sue Leonard
Sue Leonard will be in conversation with fellow ghost-writer June Considine at the Dalkey Writers Festival; and with Karen Perry at the West Cork Literary Festival.
Sue Leonard is part of The Inkwell Group team, providing manuscript assessments and ghost writing services.