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The secret life of a ghostwriter

In the vast landscape of literature, where authors are hailed and their words celebrated, there exists a silent partner in the shadows — the ghostwriter. The unsung heroes behind memoirs, biographies, and articles, ghostwriters navigate the delicate terrain of capturing someone else’s voice, experience, and essence.

As someone who has ghostwritten seven books (I don’t count the ones still in the pipeline), I’m here to shed light on the intriguing life of a ghostwriter.

My foray into the field began rather unexpectedly. While dabbling in content writing, I stumbled upon an opportunity to ghostwrite a memoir for a quirky businesswoman.

She had the voice, the ideas, the face, and the brand value. But, unfortunately not the words.

I was hesitant to lend my writing to someone else, as handsome as the compensation was. I was also low in confidence, having never done it before. However, I have always been up for expanding my writing horizons. This thought propelled me to take up the project. It was the start of a captivating yet challenging voyage.

Commissioning tango

Clients, who may be celebrities, experts, or individuals with compelling life stories, seek out ghostwriters to transform their ideas into a polished manuscript.

The process often begins with a meeting or interview, where the client shares their vision and expectations. This is crucial to tell if there is synergy between the content of the book and the skills of the writer. The interview works both ways. While clients interview me as a potential ghostwriter, I try to determine if he or she is someone I would be comfortable lending my writing to.

Often, ghostwriting projects get terminated or are left incomplete due to incompatibility between the two main parties involved. You know what they say, it takes two to tango, and finding the right partner is everything.

In my case, the initial meeting with my first client was an illuminating experience. We had decided to connect online as she had a busy schedule. That’s another reason many turn to ghostwriting — they just don’t have the time.

I vividly remember that first call. The business woman, despite the scrubby grey t-shirt she was dressed in, had all the grace and charm in the world. She spoke to me as she leant against a floor-to-ceiling window in her hotel room in Kolkata, her layover for a couple of days. “Writing in my diary has come easy, but the diary already knows me. Will you be able to help the readers know me?” she asked.

The way our conversation flowed, the call seemed like a catch-up with a friend rather than a meeting with an illustrious woman. At the age of 27, she was already rivalling well-established tycoons.

We discussed the narrative arc along with my commission which was directly related to the word count and the layers of editing needed. The conversation wasn’t justabout her successes; it was about thejourney — the raw, unfiltered moments that shaped her trajectory. She insisted on using her real-life dialogues as much as possible.

Another line that etched itself into the narrative was a candid reflection on a challenging period. “In those tough times, I reminded myself that a setback is the perfect opportunity for a comeback,” she shared. Beyond the boardrooms and challenges, she also shared lighter moments that added depth to the narrative.

I believe one of the reasons the identity of a ghostwriter is kept under wraps is because of the vulnerability we witness.

During one of my projects at The Write Order, a self-publishing house, there was a particularly challenging client. She had changed two writers for multiple reasons and finally, I was roped into the project. While my style of writing resonated with her, we locked horns a lot. The story was an exposé of all her inner battles, unknown to even her closest friends and family. We couldn’t agree on how we were going to end a story.

She had wanted to end it by paying tribute to an important influence in her life. I was strongly against it. I told her, “This is an embodiment of you and all your struggles. It is only appropriate that you are honouredin the conclusion of the story, and not anyone else.” She finally replied, “You have come to know me better than I do. So surprise me with the ending.”

Research odyssey

One of the defining aspects of ghostwriting is the extensive research involved. Ghostwriters must become experts on their clients’ worlds, understanding their subject matter, experiences, and perspectives.

This does not imply that with enough experience a ghostwriter can write on any topic. It’s quite the opposite — we try various subjects and then choose our forte.

Some clients won’t listen to anything the writer has to say and will want everything done their way. The profile of one particular client was eye-catching to me as a publisher. However, after the second call and submission of the draft, it was clear that I would not be able to write it. The client had no idea how to share the story. The issue was that they were writing a book because it was just another way to cash in on fame, not anattempt to connect with readers. Unfortunately, that does not embody a core ingredient of writing — authenticity. Readers will pick up on that. So the project was dropped.

Each client has a distinct way of speaking, a particular flow to their thoughts, and a set of idiosyncrasies that make their narrative authentic. As a ghostwriter, my job is to embody these traits while maintaining clarity and cohesion.

This process requires meticulous attention to detail, listening intently during interviews, and reviewing the client’s existing written work, if any. It’s about understanding not only what they say but also how they say it — their choice of words, sentence structure, and tone. This helps me recreate their voice in a way that feels genuine to the reader. This reader, in most cases, is firstly some close confidante or family member.

While writing for a north Indian entrepreneur, I heard him speak fondly about his wife and children. “There are many people who know of me, but only my parivaar (family) knows me,” he said.

His wife had shared, “I met him just a few times before the wedding. He had admitted to not having much but promised to give me all that I asked for and more. This book is his present to me for our 35th anniversary!”

Selection dilemma

Ghostwriters, like many other professionals, face a pivotal question when accepting projects: What can they write about effectively? The answer often lies in a blend of their interests, expertise, and adaptability.

I found that my comfort zone was in creative writing, journalism, and general nonfiction like biographies. They aligned with my background and passion. However, the allure of ghostwriting lies in the challenge of stepping out of one’s comfort zone. I eventually did that when I worked on two projects — a dramatised narration of the dynamics of an Indian family, and a children’s book.

I picked up both these projects around the same time. I was supposed to be a grief-stricken daughter who had lost her father at the age of 40 and a 10-year-old girl simultaneously. At one point, it felt like there were three personalities living in my head!

The demands of multiple clients with varying expectations and timelines can be overwhelming.Yet, the rewards are immeasurable.

Truth be told, the rewards take a little getting used to. I distinctly remember the launch of the first book I had written for the female entrepreneur. The event was lavish, the crowd eager, and the energy palpable. I was credited as the content curator and editor of the book, which is typically how ghostwriters’ contribution is recognised. Our non-disclosure agreements forbid us from claiming authorship; however, this way of crediting is completely fine.

My client — author to everyone else — presented the book and spoke proudly about her achievement. Hearing someone else call your words theirs is never easy the first time.

I made peace with it after telling myself that those stories were never mine to begin with.

The most common question I get asked is ‘How do you get work if you cannot disclose that you ghostwrite?’

Getting work as a ghostwriter involves a delicate interplay of skill, networking, and a reputation for discretion. Building a strong network within the publishing industry is crucial. Personal relationships can open doors to opportunities that may not be publicly advertised.

Literary agents have a pulse on theneeds of authors and can pair ghostwriters with projects that align with their skills. Many ghostwriters find work through freelance platforms and agencies that specialise in connecting writers with clients. Sometimes, the client will allow the ghostwriter to use their book as a sample of their work to get clients as long as certain conditions are met. This is my preferred mode of operation.

Not uncommon

Did you know almost 60 per cent of the last three decades’ bestselling nonfictionworks were written by ghostwriters? I was blown away by the number when I found out. And then it hit me — how so many authors manage to have an extensive number of titles under their belts and churn out quality content despite overlapping deadlines. Ghostwriting was suddenly not as elusive as it seemed.

I’ve gotten to know so many sides of this industry in the last couple of years, as a content writer, publishing manager, and ghostwriter. We wear a lot of different hats in this field.

One may wonder why clients would be okay sharing the truth about hiring a ghostwriter and giving referrals to me. In all honesty, everyone knows that most eminent personalities who seemed to have become wordsmiths overnight have not actually penned down heart-wrenching prose in their first attempt. It is an open secret.

For instance, Prince Harry took the world by storm in 2022 with the release of his tell-all confessional ‘Spare’. The intimate and revealing memoir, which granted readers an inside look into the messy personal affairs of the British royal family, was written by perhaps the most successful ghostwriter of all time — Pulitzer Prize-winner J R Moehringer… or so they say.

This also defeats the most common misconception that ghostwriting will not earn you money. Trust me, if you know your worth and build your portfolio, projects flow in steadily.

The life of a ghostwriter is a mysterious and multifaceted one. It demands adaptability and a deep commitment to storytelling.

While as a ghostwriter I may not claim credit for my work, I have come to enjoy the quiet satisfaction of bringing others’ stories to life and the thrill of holding secrets. I often remind myself of the immense privilege of being entrusted with the stories and ideas of others. Ghostwriting is not just a profession; for some, it’s a deeply personal voyage into the heart of storytelling.

(Published 20 October 2023, 17:16 IST)

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