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The Ghost: Susan Feldstein on Ghostwriting

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Susan Feldstein

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Given what I do, I was very keen to see a film by Roman Polanski which came out a couple of years ago, in 2010. Entitled The Ghost, imaginatively enough (!), this tense thriller focused on the fortunes of a rather toned-down Ewan McGregor as a ghostwriter whose agent has secured for him the deal of a lifetime – the chance to complete the memoirs of a colourful ex-British Prime Minster now living in luxurious isolation on an island somewhere off the East Coast of the USA. Any lingering anxieties McGregor’s character feels on learning that his predecessor on the project suffered an untimely death in an apparent accident are dispelled by the publisher’s offer of a six-figure advance for his efforts. Almost as soon as McGregor arrives in the high-security retreat of his subject’s island home, he intimates that his predecessor’s death may not have been an accident after all: it seems that the unfinished draft of the manuscript contains a coded message relating to an explosive secret from the ex-Prime minister’s past life, and that the original ghostwriter had made this discovery shortly before he died. It is not until the end of the film, after further mysterious deaths and a number of attempts on his own life, that McGregor’s character works out the coded message and its significance.

Huge advances, dark dealings with terrorists, the CIA, M15 and a series of assassination attempts are all part and parcel of this character’s world. Fortunately – and in some respects, unfortunately also (I’m thinking here of the six-figure advance!) – the lives of most ghostwriters are not as fraught with danger, excitement and dirty dealings as that of Ewan McGregor’s ‘ghost’. The film does however highlight some of the key issues which anyone in this profession faces, such as the importance of confidentiality, the need for absolute discretion when dealing with the intimate details of a subject’s life, and an awareness of the possible legal and personal repercussions of putting something into the public domain. And – as neatly encapsulated in the contrast between McGregor’s low-key, diffident and really rather dull persona and the high-octane glamour and public stature of Brosnan’s compromised politician – that one of the biggest onuses on a good ghostwriter is the ability to put his or her own ego aside in favour of the subject’s perspective; to take a metaphorical backseat at all stages in the publishing process, so that the author can shine.

So, why hire a ghostwriter in the first place? From a publishers’ perspective, could a talented editor, tasking with knocking into shape a first draft attempt by the subject, not do just as good a job? From the private individual’s perspective, would it not be better to try to put one’s story down on paper and then entrust it to a publisher’s editorial process, instead of contemplating working with a ghostwriter at the outset and the additional time, energy and financial outlay which that may entail?

Any in-house editor who has ever been presented with a script which is poorly written from line to line, has no proper structure and which does no justice at all to the story of the subject at its heart, will appreciate the advantages of having a professional writer in on a project from the outset. As an editor, I have had to work on manuscripts which required nothing less than word-by-word rewriting – a painstaking process which is extremely time-consuming but usually needs to be done to a very tight deadline. On such occasions, I’ve often thought that starting from scratch would probably be a far better option. Ideally, a ghostwriter will be someone who can work closely with the author and has the time to truly understand their perspective and the significance of their story, who knows how to tell that story in a way which others can relate to, and how to use language, structure and editorial judgement to maximum effect. While hiring a ghostwriter will of course mean a greater financial investment upfront from a publisher, when it comes to an important project, this will invariably be worthwhile, when weighed up against the assurance of having a well-written, high quality manuscript delivered on time, one which will require minimal editorial intervention while maximising the project’s potential saleability.

If you are an individual with a story to tell, the advantages of working with a ghostwriter are evident too. The truth is that not everyone can write – and that even those who do have the necessary ability, time and inclination may find the task of shaping their experiences into a narrative of between 80 000 to 100 000 words, which will keep the reader engaged throughout, a daunting prospect at best. A good ghostwriter will be able to help you formulate your story in a way which captures the essence of who you are; they will also have the distance and perspective to be able to quickly identify what aspects of your experiences your readership may most be able to relate to.

So, to get down to practicalities, how does the process generally unfold?

In my case, where I am working directly with a private individual (and no publisher is involved as yet), things usually start with the all-important first meeting. Prior to this, we will most likely have exchanged e-mails and established the basic tenets of the author subject’s story, as well as their motivation for getting published, and whether or not they have anything down on paper themselves as yet. Before the meeting too, I will have given some thought in particular to the issue of the publishing potential of the proposed book. I am an agent as well as a ghostwriter and, while as a rule, I will not combine both activities (i.e. I will generally not take on for representation a project on which I am the ghostwriter), I am in a good position to be able provide some well-informed professional feedback on the likelihood of securing a publishing deal, the types of publishers who could be approached and the sort of deal they might be able to offer. Publishing is a very tough business these days and no one can say with 100 per cent certainty whether a project will be signed up or otherwise. I always try to be as realistic as possible with potential authors, and like, anyone else in my position, can never provide cast-iron guarantees.

At the first meeting, as well as discussing all of the above at length and talking about a tentative schedule and timeframe for completion of the project, the most important thing is for me and the author to get some sense of whether we will be able to work together successfully. The relationship between an author and the ghostwriter is obviously key – the author needs to feel that I will empathise with and understand their perspective, that I have a feel for who they and what they hope to achieve from writing a book, and hence will be able to relate their experiences using an appropriate style and tone. If you are Katie Price, it won’t ring true if your prose has the clarity and pace of Hemingway, or, more realistically, if you are a straight-talking detective, you will most likely not want to write with the abstract language and optimism of a New Age guru. Getting the voice of the author right is essential.

After the initial meeting, I will send the author a quotation detailing my proposed fee for the project, taking into account such factors as the proposed length of the manuscript, the timeframe for completion of the work, the nature and extent of the author’s participation in the process and so on. In terms of costs, my fees for ghostwriting typically start at about £5k (€6k) and may go to £15k to £20k (€18k to €24k approx.), depending on a number of factors.

Once these basics have been established, I will send the author a draft contract relating to the job. As well as covering all of the above – fee, schedule, the apportioning of responsibilities, this contract will address other key issues, most importantly the matter of the ownership of copyright and the attribution of authorship – i.e. whose name will appear on the cover, and what form of acknowledgement – if any – the ghostwriter will be given in the finished copies of the proposed book. There are a number of possible scenarios here: the ghostwriter may be named as a co-author, as an ancillary author (i.e. ‘with X’), may simply be named in the acknowledgements or may not be given any mention at all. I have most often worked without difficulty on the basis of the last scenario – i.e. not receiving any mention in the book. Anonymity is part and parcel of the ghostwriter’s role, and needs to be accepted as such: a good ghostwriter will not be precious about such matters. But it is crucial for all such issues to be clearly delineated from the outset in order to avoid later confusion or difficulties.

As well as this general contract, I usually propose drawing up a separate letter of agreement between the author and myself regarding the issue of confidentiality. Putting such a contract in place before the work is an important assurance to the author that I take the issue of confidentiality very seriously and will enhance the level of trust in our relationship – a crucial consideration for a successful collaboration. Incidentally, it is for precisely for reasons of confidentiality that in this article I cannot give specifics on past projects I have worked on!

Once all these contractual matters are sorted out, the work proper can begin. The approach I adopt will depend on how much material the author already has on the project. Often people will have no more than a few general ideas and some rough notes. In such cases, I find it easiest to start by scheduling a series of interviews over a number of weeks/months. I will try to make such meetings as focused as possible, addressing a specific topic or section of the story – this will involve a fair amount of preparation on my part, but will ensure the most efficient use of the author’s time. In interviews, I tend to use a dictaphone (with my subject’s consent, of course), so that I can transcribe and replay certain sections at a later point while writing. While I always try to start with a general structure in mind, writing a book is an organic process of course, and so the proposed structure and emphasis may go through a number of changes and evolutions.

Very early on in the collaboration process, I will produce a sample chapter or section of text, so that the author can get a good sense of the style and tone I am proposing to adopt. It is crucial to know early on whether the author feels comfortable with my approach and writing. If they don’t feel it’s quite right, I am always very happy to rework and revise the text until it hits the right note. Fortunately, however, I’ve been lucky, in that in the majority of cases, authors have liked what I’ve done the first or second time around.

A good ghostwriter will always do their best to glean, during the first few meetings, as much as possible about the author and what style and approach will best suit them. Again, it’s about setting one’s own ego aside and entering into the world and mindset of the other person. In a very specific way too, a successful ghostwriter must have the ability to pick up a lot of specialist knowledge about a particular area of activity within a very short space of time, and be able to use any associated jargon and terminology with ease, all the while keeping the text accessible to a general reader. Since working as a ghostwriter, I have effectively done a ‘crash course’ in a number of very different fields of expertise – libel law and courtroom litigation, the day-to-day modus operandi of someone working in government intelligence services and the professional practice of psychotherapy and psychiatry – to name but a few!

Once a basic style and approach has been agreed upon and the interview process is completed, I will focus on getting the story down on paper as quickly as possible – but I always prefer to send the author completed chapters at regular intervals, so as to keep a check on whether they are generally happy with what I’m doing. Once a first draft is complete, the author is free to set about the process of finding a publisher. While I always prefer not to act as agent on books I have ghostwritten, I am happy to provide advice on the types of publishers which could be approached and will also recommend an agent if the author wishes to proceed that way.

For publishers looking to recruit a ghostwriter for a specific project, much of the above will also be relevant, in terms of how the process tends to unfold and the approach I favour. As for what a publisher should look for when taking on a ghostwriter, all of the qualities and skills I’ve already mentioned are obviously crucial. It’s important of course too to be confident that a ghostwriter has the necessary writing skills and past experience, as well as a sound knowledge of all the stages in the publishing process, an awareness of the importance of deadlines, a sensitivity to legal issues such as libel and the importance of factual accuracy, and the interpersonal skills to establish a strong working relationship with the author throughout what can often be a difficult process. The right ghostwriter will be a valuable ally to the publisher and can act as an important intermediary between publisher and author if required.

In terms of financial arrangements, it is up to the individual publisher to decide whether to proceed with the ghostwriter on a flat fee, or on an advance plus royalties, basis. I often prefer the former scenario, as it means that my job and my engagement with the book are finished once I have delivered the final manuscript and seen the editorial process through. But I am of course very happy to discuss other scenarios with a publisher and author, depending on the proposed book.

Each ghostwriting project I take on is, in many senses, a new adventure into the uncharted territory of someone else’s perspective. I always feel a certain level of excitement at the prospect of embarking with the author on a journey which will which enable them to share their story, experience and insights with others and lead to a book they can be happy with and proud of. Although if one day an assignment involves travelling to a remote island off the East Coast of the USA, and I discover that my ghostwriting predecessor died of mysterious causes, I may have to think twice before taking it on . . .

About the author

(c) Susan Feldstein 2012

If you are interested in talking to Susan about a ghostwriting project, you can find out more about her at www.inkwellwriters.ie or www.thefeldsteinagency.co.uk

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