Thursday 6 February 2014

While the spirit moves me…

I want to write something about one of the trickiest arts of a good writer. Ghost-writing. Why is it tricky? This has to do with mutual expectation and the gaining of trust between the writer and his subject.

I say ‘subject’ because the subject is of course the man or woman for whom you are writing. And ghost-writing is of course not merely bound to a book, it may also be in the form of a speech, a presentation, an article for trade, journal of national newspaper publication – anything where the subject tells his version, his story, to the audience; and where the audience is broadly speaking of his choice.

Under the above terms I have mostly been a ghost-writer. I get paid by the commission and if I am acknowledged I am pleased to be able to augment my personal and attributed portfolio. In probably 80 per cent of all the work I have done there is no such attribution or there may be an odd footnote in the acknowledgements. For this I am grateful enough.

So to mutual expectation? When you meet a new client who is sounding you out on the basis of, let’s say, a book he wants written about an area in which he has special knowledge or interest, you need to assure him right from the outset, with no apparent money on the table, that you can do it, that it would take this or that long to accomplish, and that you have the talent and experience he is or should be looking for.

Above all, there is expectation and negotiating to be done about the cost of the project.

If the client chortles with derision at the very outline suggestion that a 70,000-word book on the sex life of the Brazilian fig wasp might cost somewhere in the region of £10,000, with caveats, you might be well advised to wrap the conversation early. For if he wants an excellent book – and you must do no other than excellent – of any kind and wants to buy your copyright by contractual agreement, you need to stick to your intuitive guns whatever the outcome. If he does too much chortling you really need to get him to the door and preferably hold back the dogs. But always be polite, offer him into his coat, smile nicely and gently close the door.

Then there is expectation about process – how you will fish into his brain and squeeze your own to make a happy coupling that leads to a book which might sit up and sing in the right marketplace. If you find the subject sufficiently general, or one that plays to your strengths and expertise AND you can agree a sum that suits you both, it would appear the path is open for another meeting.

Perhaps the next meeting is a pre-start one; one that has allowed the tentative opening discussions to take route and enables you and your client to ask a few more practical questions about process, price, expenses and what exactly it is that the clients wants in his hands when the task is done. Does he, for example, want your help with finding a suitable publisher or is he going to go away with a text tied up with a ribbon so he can present it where he so wishes? You might, by the way, suggest that this second meeting is rated by the hour so that you lose no further time on the matter. You should also suggest, if you are both in agreement, that that at the end of this meeting some kind of practical contract can at least be spelt out if not actually signed between you.

What then of building and gaining trust? That purely depends on the well of loneliness into which you may have thrown yourself. In my opinion trust is sacrosanct however wonderful or ghastly your client might turn out to be, however good the book you write for him. If you have dedicated your time and value according to an agreement you have made, stick to it. Your reputation and inner good will are more important than a lost cause costing you three months intense labour in which you apply a lifetime of writing experience. 

Remember that the deal you make as a ghost-writer is to give everything to the cause to which you have initially agreed. That is what you are paid for. If you write something that you know is good and on the ticket, and the client is delighted you have made something from nothing, you have been creative, positive, purposive and useful. If by chance your client doesn’t even mention you, even in passing, in the book – entirely and utterly written by you for him – even whisperingly in the acknowledgements, he’s still bang on the deal.

I write all this just in case anyone out there thinks there is some glamour and reward in being a ghost-writer. There is, at least, reward. Apart from some precious funds, it is mostly that of knowing you did a good job and might have the strength to do it again sometime.