“Were you a co-writer or a ghostwriter?”
“Being a ghostwriter is easier than being a regular writer, right?”
“Does a ghostwriter write down what someone tells them to say?”
“So you were basically an editor, right?”
“Wouldn’t you be happier writing your own material?”
Those are just a few of the questions I’ve been asked since I co-wrote Falling with Wings – A Mother’s Story(Macmillan/March 2018) with Dianna De La Garza. I even had one college instructor smugly tell me that the book really wasn’t a memoir if I had done the writing! It all goes to show that very few people understand what a ghostwriter does. So let me explain …
- Ghostwriting and co-writing duties often overlap
Both titles refer to someone who agrees to do the researching, writing and editing needed to create a book. And, all of that work is done in partnership with the person who did the hiring and who also will be considered the primary author. Whether you’re a ghostwriter or co-writer, the amount of time needed to complete the job will depend on the preparations and thought put into conceptualizing the book beforeyou were hired. The term co-writer is generally used when the book needs to grow from a mere idea to a working concept. In other words, a co-writer is a ghostwriter with more responsibilities.
Co-writers help with both the writing process and the scope and structure of the project. Another distinction is that co-writers generally get their name on the cover of a book, while ghostwriters may not. (This is something fleshed out in the agreement made between the two parties.) In Dianna De La Garza’s case, she had a collection of stories she wanted to use for her memoir but no clear message or sequence. Therefore, we spent a great deal of time investigating possible ideas as we discussed the arc of her life experiences, which meant my role as ghostwriter quickly evolved into that of co-writer.
- Ghostwriting is just as hard as writing your own story or creating a fictitious one.
Good stories, regardless of genre, require elements like setting, dialogue, complex characters, plot, crises, and solutions. They also need structure and meaning. As ghostwriter/co-writer, it was my job to help Dianna sift through all of these elements and bring clarity to each and every piece of the story she hoped to tell.
Most people who want to write about their lives tend to focus on the plot, as though the series of events they have lived equals story. But that isn’t how story works. Meaning and purpose have to be present or else it’s just as series of random events. Dianna thought she wanted to write about raising three successful show-biz daughters, so our early conversations amounted to a timeline of milestones and failures. We were a long way from creating a memoir, though, which requires looking at one’s life through a certain lens. Much like a photographer, I needed to determine: From what angle were we looking at her life? What themes kept appearing? What hesitations did we keep stumbling over? Paying attention to those details allowed me to see the consistent threads running through her life story.
Months into the process, we decided that the arc of the memoir would follow Dianna’s career and then later, how she had helped her daughters with their careers. The focus and message of the book, however, would be about mental health. Specifically, we looked at what Dianna had failed to do to stay emotionally healthy and ultimately, what she did to put herself and her family on a better path to wellness.
From that point on, I had to collect, shape, and combine Dianna’s experiences into meaningful, true-to-life chapters that reflected her voice, not my own. To say it was a time-consuming undertaking would be an understatement! More than two years passed before we were ready to submit the final draft to our agent. During that time, every single chapter was read out loud, multiple times, to make sure that details, voice and sequence were correct. Because we were collaborators, Dianna and I needed to be in agreement about each and every aspect of the story.
- A ghostwriter is not a secretary.
My job in overseeing this memoir entailed wearing a lot of different hats. Some days I was the investigative reporter, other days an empathetic friend or counselor. I was always a writer. The process of organizing and writing the book was far more complex than typing a collection of oral stories and arranging them into narrative form. Every meeting that Dianna and I arranged began with a list of a dozen questions that I had prepared ahead of time; yet, we seldom made it through half of them. Why? Because each answer created more questions! I was constantly asking for more details. More clarification. More examples. After two or three hours, we were both worn out. I always knew it was time to quit when Dianna started rubbing her eyes and I started dropping my pen!
Curiosity must be part of the process. Good listening skills are required as well. Understanding every detail, every nuance, and every emotional response is essential for capturing an authentic story. Learn what makes your subject laugh or cry, learn what gets her excited or angry. Find out what you have in common and what you don’t. Every morsel you discover helps to define the main character of the story that you will portray as you write. Listen for distinctive phrases. Watch for gestures. Notice when information is being withheld.
Remember, the story needs to be written in the voice of your subject so it’s crucial to know how she thinks. Jump into her shoes, feel her pain, and see the landscape of her life. When you and your co-writer suddenly are weeping together or laughing so hard that neither of you can breathe, you’ll know that you’ve struck a vein of understanding.
- Being a good editor is only part of a ghostwriter’s job.
Learning to omit unnecessary words, spot spelling and grammatical errors and recognize when a chapter has too much or too little information is important, but each of those tasks comesafterthe story has been written. The first order of business is creating a readable, engaging and factual story with the material you have gathered.
Record every conversation and take notes as backup. Admittedly, the transcribing process is time consuming, but I highly recommend you make the effort to do it yourself. Hearing conversations for the second time is quite different than the first time. Undoubtedly, some phrases or details will leap out at you as though you’re hearing them for the first time. Pay attention to those moments and try to figure out why they got your attention. If you do, you’ll begin to see the threads and the patterns of the story that needs to be told.
Putting all the pieces together requires time. Be patient. Eventually you and your collaborator will determine the sequence of how the story unfolds. Don’t rush the process. In the meantime, develop a system for organizing your transcripts and notes. Dating each set of notes as well as highlighting important points was helpful for me. So, too, was making multiple copies of the transcripts because once the sequence of story is laid out, you’ll realize that various snippets from a single conversation need to go in one chapter, while other snippets go somewhere else. I kept one set of transcripts in tact, but once I started writing, I cut apart the copies, dropping pertinent pieces of information into the folders that corresponded to that chapter’s focus.
If you’re having trouble understanding why such a system is necessary, try recording the next conversation you have with a friend. Ask a simple question such as, “What do you remember about your high school graduation?” and then listen to what happens. Your friend’s answer might begin with a story about Aunt Mabel, who had too much to drink at your party and then started to flirt with your Uncle Ted, which leads to a story about how Uncle Ted loves to hike, which then leads to a story about a random encounter he had with Charlie Sheen the last time your Uncle hiked the Santa Monica Mountains.
Conversations rarely follow a straight line. Our thoughts bounce from one topic to another like Mexican jumping beans, even when we try to stay on point. Sometimes my job as ghostwriter was simply to steer the conversation back to the original question to get a better, more detailed answer. And sometimes I just let the conversation go where it wanted to go. I never did have a single transcript that stayed on point.
- Ghostwriting is helping someone else tell their story, which has its own rewards.
If you want to become a famous writer, ghostwriting probably isn’t the right route for you because once the book is published it’s no longer your project. Falling with Wings– A Mother’s Storyis Dianna De La Garza’s memoir, not mine. I helped to create it, but it is her story, through and through. That’s why she’s appearing on television and at book signings, and I’m not.
So why spend so much time and effort on something that you have to give away? Because I love the process of writing! And, I thoroughly believe in the power of our life stories. I love digging through the layers of people’s experiences and I love helping people see the hidden gems in their own history. Too often people are caught up in the mistakes and disappointments of their lives, which prevents them from seeing how they’ve grown and changed. Sometimes people are stuck in their failures. Sometimes they can’t see how big their own hearts are. And sometimes, they’re oblivious to the heroic adrenalin running through their veins. But all of that becomes evident when I piece a story together. Nothing is more thrilling than pulling back the curtain of people’s perceptions and allowing them to see themselves in new, more positive ways. Writing is my gift and I want to use that gift in meaningful ways. If that means telling other people’s stories, I’m okay with that.
Let’s face it, we all have blind spots about our lives and we all have lines that we don’t want to cross. But with my guidance and encouragement, Dianna was able to face those challenges and embrace the idea of telling a truthful, honest, and engaging story about a topic that was too intimidating to do on her own. To know that I was a part of that process is reward enough. (Of course, getting paid was important too! No one actually wants to be a starving artist.) Ghostwriting isn’t for everybody, but I loved the process of working on Dianna’s memoir. If the opportunity comes along again, I can’t imagine saying anything but, “When can we start?”