business of freelancing

How to become a ghost writer

By July 22, 2020 No Comments

There’s something quite mysterious and intriguing about being a ghost writer.

In the past couple of months, a couple of writers I know have asked about how to become a ghost writer.

I had to admit, I had no idea.

So, how do you become a ghost writer?

What is it like ghost writing a book for a celebrity or a well known personality?

How do you get ghost writing gigs, what’s the process like and how much do ghost writers make?

I put a call out to several writers in my network and received some fascinating replies.

Here are the most common ghost writing questions and answers.

Want to ghost write books?

Here’s how three writers got their first break

Photo by My Life Journal on Unsplash

What is ghost writing?

Okay, let’s start from the beginning.

A ghost writer is a person whose job it is to write material for someone else who is the named author.

As a freelance writer you can ghost write speeches, blogs, articles and so on, but this post explores ghost writing for books.

Sometimes you (the writer) might get a co-credit on the cover of the book, but other times you’ll go unnamed.

What kind of books get ghost written?

Carrie Hutchinson is a writer, editor and the head of content at Grin Creative.

Carrie has ghost written books for people in the entertainment industry (like Richard Wilkins).

She has also assisted a “health and fitness guru” get his thoughts down for a book.

“A few have been straight memoir, but I’ve also done a lot of non-fiction, where the person involved is an expert but not a writer,” Carrie says.

Celebrity biographies are big business in the publishing world.

 Simone Ubaldi has ghost written six books with high-profile people like Mark ‘Chopper’ Read and Libby Trickett.

How can freelance writers break into ghost writing?

I spoke to three writers who explained how they got their first gig as a ghost writer.  

Carrie Hutchinson

“For the Richard Wilkins memoir the publisher contacted me out of the blue and organised a meeting.

I assumed it was to meet the editor but Richard turned up to the meeting.

I had a few other offers after his from the same publisher – I started one but the person involved had a nervous breakdown (not from me hassling them!).

Another I turned down because the subject’s values didn’t align with mine.

One of the publishers at Hardie Grant got my name from somewhere, so I’ve had a lot of work through them.

Occasionally I get offered jobs through people I’ve worked with in the past.

One was from an editor I met more than 20 years ago, so you never know when your contacts will come into play.”

Diane Lee

Diane is a writer who lives in Hanoi and wrote a travel memoir for a Vietnamese client.

“He had an interesting life story, and while his spoken English was fine, he knew he couldn’t write in English to the standard expected,” she says.

“So he engaged me to work on his book.”

Simone Ubaldi

“My partner managed Chopper Read in the last five years of his life and sold two Chopper books to Pan Macmillian.

The editor sourced a ghost writer from their regular stable of writers for the first book.

But they didn’t have much of a budget for the second, so my partner recruited me to write it.

I was a music and travel writer, I had no experience writing books, so it was terrifying.

I was underpaid, I was working with a very tricky subject, and I was more or less making things up as I went along.

But it worked out very well.

I’ve now ghost written six books for the same editor.”

What does the ghost writing process like?

Carrie notes that it differs from project to project.

“Basically, you get a deadline from the publisher then you have to become a bully,” she says.

“Most people love the idea of writing a book, but don’t realise it’s actually hard work and mentally taxing.

Depending on what the project is, I’ll often do a long initial meeting, tape the chat and take notes on my laptop.

Then I go and write, write, write.

With the experts who can’t write, they often are just grateful to have someone take the job off them.

They [tend to] make a couple of corrections or additions then the manuscript goes off to the publisher. Job done.”

Diane

Diane’s process was slightly different – her client already had a lot written, but she says the English was so poor that it couldn’t be rescued.

“The memoir was about his journey from being a poor boy from rural Vietnam to hospitality entrepreneur,” she says. 

“My process was quite simple: I interviewed him two times per week for a couple of hours for around six weeks.

The notes I took from these interviews were then written up into prose.

The prose was then sent to my client to “fact check”, and then I edited the prose to incorporate any corrections.

From the prose, I worked out the structure of the book and divided it into three sections, based on his “journey”.

I would meet with my client once per week to discuss the progress of his project, any issues etc.”

Simone

Simone says while she was initially nervous about ghost writing, she is very comfortable doing it now.

“Every project is similar because the method and the emotional journey are similar.

My role isn’t just to write, but to draw people out and earn their trust.

It’s very intimate and can be very fraught.

The subject is understandably protective of their life story and I’m very focused on writing a decent book.

Those things can sometimes conflict.

There is always a point in the process when I hate the subject and they’re driving me nuts.

But by the end, I love them.

You can’t walk through someone’s life in that detail and not develop deep empathy and love for them.”

Lots of meetings

“For a memoir, the initial meeting can turn into many, many meetings and/or phone calls,” Carrie says.

“A person’s life story is obviously very precious to them, so there’s much more back and forth.

It can involve quite a bit of research, too, to fill in the blanks between the subject’s knowledge and that of a general reader.”

In the beginning, Simone spends time face to face with the subject to develop rapport.

“We’ll meet and chat about the themes and over-arching narrative for a couple of days, then I’ll go away,” she says.

“I’ll think about the timeline and whether the story needs to be told chronologically or if we can be a bit more creative with it.

After that, we’ll meet or Skype once a week to start talking through their story step by step, in minute detail.

As we progress, it speeds up to twice a week and then right before the end I’m usually working with them every day for an hour or two.

The actual writing process is difficult to explain, it happens on the page.

It’s partly transcription, but there’s a huge amount of rearranging and restructuring of words, sentences and events to get the narrative in order and hit emotional beats, but also preserve the voice of the subject.

Ultimately, it needs to sound like it came from them.”

Diving for detail

Simone notes that she often has to stop people summarising their life.

“People tend to use a handful of phrases to encapsulate their life and to sum it up neatly,” she says.

“They’ll fall back on them when describing every chapter or scene.

It’s like our memories condense down into neat catchphrases.

I have to work very hard to keep the subject in the moment, to dig into the way things looked, what was said, how they felt.

If I’m there as a ghost writer, it generally means that the subject isn’t generally great with words or narrative, which makes things even harder.

It takes a lot of patience and a lot of practice, but it gets smoother as we go along.

I then take away the two or three hours of tape from each session and turn it into a chapter.”

How long does it take?

“I’ve had books that take six weeks and others that have taken two years,” says Carrie.

“Although that [the two year book] was a very special case.

The subject, David Scott, died a week after I signed the contract.

So the writing process was going through a part manuscript, lots of notes and talking to his friends and colleagues to come up with a manuscript that was true to the man he was.”

Simone says her process takes between six and eight months.

“The hard writing could get done in a month or two if I was working on it full time,” she adds.

What is the hardest or trickiest part of being a ghost writer?

While Diane’s process was simple, she says her client required a lot of hand holding.

“I had to explain each step of the process many times as we were going through it,” she says.

“It ended up being exhausting, time consuming and quite frustrating.

Also, I found I couldn’t pump out as many words as I would have liked.

It was under 5,000 per week, and averaged around 2,000 words.

Because it was a memoir, I had to rely on my client’s memory.

What he considered important to the story wasn’t necessarily so.

Sometimes capturing the essence of a scene and the emotions behind it was challenging.”

For Carrie, the hardest part is a lack of investment on the part of the subject.

“The trickiest part is often getting the subject as involved as they need to be,” she says.

“They have a tendency to sign their contracts then go AWOL. That makes writing their book a reasonably hard task.”

When subjects see their memories on a page, it can be a jarring experience.

Simone says that many subjects want to pull back on how candid they’ve been at that point.

“As the ghost writer, I can only advise the subject about what should be kept in and what should be left out,” she says.

“But if I have a strong opinion about what will improve or hurt the book, I’ll tell them.

I can get very frustrated with them and they definitely feel the same way about me.

I warn them before we begin that we will get to a point where they will start crying and they may also hate me.

But in the end, they will love the book.

And that has been universally true.

I’m happy to say that most of the people I’ve written with have remained good friends.” 

How much do ghost writers get paid?

Simone gets a flat fee but notes that this is not always the case for all writers.

“I get half on signature and half on delivery,” she says.

There is a fairly standard fee for ghostwritten memoirs, but there are always variations, and higher profile writers and subjects can command higher fees, as well as royalties.”

“I’ve always worked with a flat fee paid by the publisher,” Carrie says.

“Usually it’s divided into two or three payments, depending on the deadline.

Always a payment on signature of the contract then another when the manuscript is accepted by the publisher.

There might be a midway payment as well if it’s a lengthy project.

Here’s the rub though: it’s not particularly well paid unless you are a big name already.”

Carrie adds that some ghost writers find their own subjects and team up with them to sell the book, using their established publishing contacts.

“In that case, you’d negotiate with the person you’re writing with as well as the publisher: a split of advances and royalties and shared credit on the cover,” she says.

Diane was paid an hourly rate although says she priced herself much too cheaply.

“If I were doing it again, I would probably price the memoir per completed project section,” she says. 

For example, one payment for interviews, another for the first draft and another for subsequent edits.

And deposits every step of the way because late payment became an issue.”

So, what can ghost writers expect to be paid?  

Without a track record in ghost writing, it’s unlikely (in Australia at least) to be paid any more than $15K for a book.

If you’re a proven ghost writer, however, it’s possible to command around $20 – $25K.

Experienced ghost writers can hit $35 – $40K.  

What’s the best way to break into ghost writing?

Carrie suggests having a good portfolio of story-telling before you send off your credentials to publishers. 

“There’s a fair bit of luck involved – most [publishers] have a handful of people they trust and will go to over and over,” she says.

“If you meet someone you think has an amazing story and they are keen to tell it pitch yourself as their ghost writer. 

Journalists are in a unique position to find these sorts of people.

For non-fiction and memoir, you often don’t need a full manuscript to pitch to publishers. 

Instead, a well-written synopsis, chapter breakdown and sample chapter/s can do the trick.”

Simone says that it was “sheer luck” that she got into ghost writing. 

“It’s difficult to know the best path in, but I think your best best is to find the subject and the story,” she says.

“Then pitch that to a publisher with yourself attached as the writer.” 

Are you an aspiring ghost writer or have you ghost written any books? Do you have any questions about the process?

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