Ghostwriters in Disguise, Part II

So if you’re often deprived of glory on the cover of a book, why ghostwrite at all? I think that’s all explained in this excellent article on NPR. But I can see from the look on your face that you won’t click the link and read the article. You want me to tell about my experiences as a ghostwriter.

Okay, here we go. But let me say that the number one reason, and the entire raison de etre of the NPR article has to do with financial stability, especially when one’s own projects aren’t selling well.

That was part of what was on my mind when my agent called me up way back in the mists of time ago – what’s it been, twenty years? He told me that the person whom I will refer to as Client #1 was writing a new novel with a science fiction flavor, and needed an actual SF practitioner to make sure it all hung together. When he told me the Client’s name, I was taken aback. I definitely knew the name, and was surprised that this person needed help writing anything at all, their backlist being full of all sorts of writing, including other novels.

Nevertheless, I agreed to the project. I am always interested in new experiences, and I saw it as being more of a book doctor or maybe a midwife to the project. Terms of the deal were disclosed to me. My name would not appear on the cover. I would get one-third of the proceeds. And I was never, ever, ever, ever, to say what I had done for the Client.

So I flew to New York and took a meeting with Client #1, his agent, my agent (the two agents worked in the same agency, which is how my name came up in an earlier meeting) and the Editor. Client #1 brought an outline of the book, some seven typewritten single spaced pages, and read it to us, giving us some asides about the direction the book should take.

And I had an epiphany. I don’t read people at all, to the point where if it’s not obvious, I don’t have a clue, making me wonder if there are a few Asperger’s genes in my makeup. But as Client #1 read the outline, I suddenly understood something: Client wants to be the main character in the book. Badly.

Then I had another epiphany as I looked at the outline: I have an incredible amount of freedom in what this book is to be. Imagine if your client gave you the outline to the book, and when you took out the manifesto part (which made up some 5 pages of Client’s outline), the basic plot of the novel looked something like this:

Two friends sneak into an orchard to pick apples. While picking and stuffing themselves with apples, the two get into an argument. One kills the other with a shovel and buries the body under one of the trees, then tries to live life normally. But then things go wrong. There’s a police investigation, and the family of the deceased wants to know what’s going on. Finally, the murderer’s guilt turns into insanity, everything comes to a head, and the book concludes with an inevitable, yet shocking twist ending. The book’s thesis is that murder is a bad thing.

Can you feel the wheels turning in your head? There are a handful, a dozen, a million ways you can tell this story. Add to that your insight that this book is, say, an allegory for your client’s very public and messy divorce. Writer, you’ve just been given the keys to the playground. All the equipment is there, but you and you alone decide what you play on and when.

I went to town on the book. I wrote about some things I’d wanted to write about but could never fit into my own books. I tried methods and tricks of writing that I would never, ever use in one of my novels. I easter egged some things into it so if I ever had to defend myself as the ghost, I could prove it was my work. I had long phone conversations with… the Editor, one of the last of the hard-drinkin’ literary editors, about where the book was going and things we could do to move it along. I had a lot of fun with the project, even if at the end of things there was some creative dithering at the publishing house, and I kept having to rewrite passages so they would appeal to this or that demographic.

Most importantly, Client #1 loved the book. My insight had paid off. I took the two pages of vague idea that was given me and run with it. As for the manifesto, I took that five pages almost verbatim and turned it into a speech that one of the characters makes in the third act. It was all about the Client, and the client was happy indeed.

And then the roof caved in.

Late in the publication process, the book became orphaned. That means that the Editor behind the book leaves the publishing house for whatever reason, and there is no longer someone there to Champion it. After I had cleaned up the Client’s final edit, and after I had gone over the galleys of the book, a new editor came in with a blue pencil and decided to clean house. I didn’t know about this until a copy of the finished book came to me in the mail. If the editor had only called or asked, I could have helped… but he or she was dealing with an orphan, and so what?

It was a nightmare. I had done things like written A, B, and C – and then later came D, and it was a payoff of some kind. The editor had cut A, B, and C. Clues and characterization disappeared, and the end result was a messy potboiler. I’m not saying I had written some kind of literary masterpiece, but a lot of the structure was butchered, and, well, the critics picked up on it, and they weren’t kind. They especially picked up on the “D’s”, which sorely needed their respective A’s, B’s and C’s to work.

But God Bless Client #1, who soldiered on and promoted the book, and for all I know, it was treated as lovingly as that original outline I had been given in New York months before.

After all the hoo-hah had passed over the book being a bust, I asked my agent something that had been on my mind for some time. “Did Client #1 actually write those other novels that I see on the bibliography?”

There was a pregnant pause. And then, “It is the expressed position of this literary agency that the Client’s books are all self-written.”

So there’s that story. Like everything I write, it has run long – so it’ll be another day for my remaining adventures in Ghostland.

But I still think about that book and what a great time I had in its creation. I still feel bad for Client #1, who so badly wanted it to be something special, but lost control of the whole thing. Then I think in this era of DVD’s with author’s commentaries, why couldn’t the publisher go back and do a restored version without all of the butchery, with A, B, and C put back in. Then I go back to my own writing, and vow to fight to the death if one of my own books is ever orphaned.

Next Episode: The Movie Star. And no, it’s not Shatner.

2 responses

  1. I’m so glad I stumbled onto this site–automation suggested this post as being like one I just blogged, which it is not; my blog is a how-to; How to Write an Outline. Being that it’s about writing a WORKING outline for a client to give a ghostwriter, though, automation connected us. Anyhow, this is fascinating, since I’ve only been ghosting for two years. I’m bookmarking you.

    1. Thanks! Always nice to meet another inmate in the asylum.

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