How to work with a ghostwriter | Martin Toseland

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How to work with a ghostwriter

You’ll have discussed between you the content, the readership and target dates; you have your contract and are now excited about getting cracking on your book. It’s taken a while to get to this stage after all. 

But how does it actually work in practice? How does the process of getting your life, your experiences, your ideas, your thoughts and reflections into a form that can be read by potentially thousands of people?

Ghostwriters will differ in the way they approach things but if I outline how I tackle, say, a memoir, it’ll give you an idea about what you might encounter as your book takes shape. 

From the pre-agreement discussions with me, your ghostwriter, you will have related the basic outline of your story. Before our first meeting, I’ll ask you to think about the most significant events, and building on that, I’ll ask you to reflect on how those events might have shaped your outlook and how they relate to what might emerge as core themes of your book. This is groundwork that really has to be done early on. 

For any good piece of writing – fiction or non-fiction – themes are intrinsic. They provide backbone, structure and essential points of reference for readers: recognising events in a context that draws out the observations and reflections of the author. Matching experiences to themes will you’re your book both coherence and authority. This is the first thing we’ll work on. The themes will develop over the course of writing the book but it’s important as we set off together to have a basic list in our heads. 

Establishing and discussing themes will take up the first and maybe part of the second session. From experience I tend to limit, if possible, the length of the interviews to two hours. Beyond that energy can drain from the discussions and it becomes counter-productive to keep going. 

From the theme discussion in the early stages will also emerge a chapter list – the basic narrative framework of the book. I usually suggest following the chapter structure as a timetable – tackling each chapter in order, interview by interview. 

Ahead of each interview, a few days before it the schedule allows, I’ll send the main questions I want to ask. This is an opportunity to mull over the significance of the events, to gather (if possible) any memory props or evidence and also to push back if you think the questions aren’t tackling the real issue. This latter point is important – the book is yours. I can suggest directions, advise from my own experience about what readers might want but the book in the end is yours to do with as you will. 

And we might use the questions as a starting point but the interview doesn’t have to stick rigidly to the questions I have sent ahead. There will be moments of clarity and memory that take us off on different topics and different anecdotes. This is of course exactly what should happen. The questions are there to provide a bit of structure to the session. By the end if there are things that remain uncovered, I’ll make a note to revisit at the next interview. 

As with any interview, I’ll mainly be asking open questions (the classic ‘How’, ‘Why’, ‘What’ structure) trying to draw the stories, ideas and reflections from you. Let me just say at this point, you will be interrupted! When anyone recounts anecdotes of their own life, the experience is often polished to the point where the engaging details are lost or passed by without due attention. It’s my job to mine those details from you. You have been warned! 

With Covid-19 we have all got over-familiar with Zoom, Microsoft Teams and every other videoconferencing platform. For many people with what are called ‘office jobs’ this, as I write, has marked a shift away from a five-day-a-week commute. Ghostwriters, like journalists,  have also had to grapple with technology to ensure we can carry on working. The difference for us is that an interview is a ‘whole-body’ experience. Not in a weird way. But when I talk face to face with someone there are a so many extra-linguistic clues to what the author is telling me. Body language plays a huge role in understanding the true emotion, the degree of disclosure, the comfort or unease of the person you’re talking to. A shot of the head and shoulders peering down at me on a flat screen doesn’t do it. 

But we have all had to adapt and, while Zoom interviews aren’t perfect, they certainly aren’t a disaster. 

As the interviews progress, we’ll make more and more connections between the events and thoughts so that by the time we are halfway or a bit further through, we’ll be talking fluently in the language of your life or experience. 

I’ll continue to send preparatory questions in advance of each meeting but they might be more specific – about a certain idea or one occasion, person or experience. In the meantime, depending on your own preference, I will send chapters as and when they are written. Regardless of preference, I’ll send the first chapter – with a huge caveat – for you to read and to comment on whether, specifically, the writing matches your expectation as far as the voice, structure and level of readership are concerned. The caveat is that the content might well change. More often than not, the first chapter is the last to be completed – it will be influenced, like no other chapter, by what comes after it. 

How long this draft takes will depend on your availability, the complexity of the narrative and its content and the length of the book. I usually estimate at between three and six months – just as a rough guide. 

Once the first draft is complete, we will perhaps go to our separate reading spaces, read the entire book and re-convene to work on a second and, I’d hope, final draft. This reading picks up gaps, inconsistencies, re-works scenes where perhaps the emphasis is slightly skewed in the wrong direction, makes more links, and decides on deletions and additions. It is the ironing out phase. Again, depending on the changes required and the length and complexity of the book, this can take between two weeks and two months. 

This ironing can take place on the phone or via email. There really isn’t a need to meet face-to-face or indeed to Zoom. 

A final draft emerges and the book can go on to the next stage of life. And that’s, as they used to say, all there is to it!

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