Why be a Ghostwriter?

2016 has been about many things: celebrity deaths by the dozens, war, hatred, oppression and bad politics.

But for my writing, 2016 will go down as the Year of the Ghost.

That’s right, this year I am proud to say that I’ve actually been making regular money as a writer. Not writing my own work, you understand – but by writing for other people.

Ghostwriting is one of those beasts that most writers don’t like talking about. When we first start out, many of us see it as a bit of a sell-out – we’re not confident that our own writing will sell, so we write for other people so we get paid either way…

Most writers don’t like ghostwriting because it takes away from the glory of being an author. Sure you get paid, but someone else gets to take all the credit for your hard work. I mean, why would you do that to yourself?

Well, to understand that question, we have to examine what it is that drives us to writing. Why do we really do it all in the first place?

What do we get out of being an author?

Why do people want to be authors? Well, ultimately the reasons can be broken down into various different branches, but generally the instinct that drives us to become an author usually links back to a combination of these reasons:

  1. I want to be famous

In my opinion, possibly the worst reason to become an author. There are plenty of ways of becoming famous without needing to write anything – in fact, those who are driven by this desire for attention usually do so with their extreme (and usually ridiculously unhelpful) ideologies and they become hated relatively quickly – Katie Hopkins is a lovely example.

2. I want to be rich (or at least be able to quit my day job)

Again, not a great reason to become an author. Sure there are the E. L. James and J. K. Rowlings of this world who do make a bundle from their writing, but those examples are very few and far between. Most writers, by contrast, usually end up working a day job just to pay the bills whilst writing late into the night…

3. I want to write

You would have thought this would be first on my list of reasons, but it’s surprising how many ‘authors’ you encounter who can regale you with their novels and really drum up excitement, but when push comes to shove they haven’t ever written a single word of it – and probably never will. You’d assume that a desire to write is fundamental to being an author, but you’d be surprised how many authors out there are not – in fact – writers…

4. I want to tell stories

Arguably the best reason to become an author – you’re head is brimming with stories that keep you up all night and entertain you in even your darkest moments. And best yet you want to share them with the world.

5. I have a message that needs to be told

Possibly the most noblest of reasons to be an author, but also the most dangerous. We can all think of stories that are remembered for their political or social messages (generally 1984 or Of Mice and Men springs to my mind with this one), and it is certainly a good reason to write a story. But it shouldn’t be used as the sole reason for writing a story otherwise you end up with works of non-fiction that are utterly dark and open to fanaticism (Mein Kampf for example).

Generally, each author will have a combination of these reasons driving their writing endeavours. They may not necessarily admit to points 1 or 2, but they almost certainly are partly driven by at least one of them.

And it is actually these two points that make the biggest impact on a writer’s decision to become a ghostwriter…

What’s the benefit of becoming a ghostwriter?

  1. I want to be famous

Obviously, being a ghostwriter is not going to win you great acclaim from your adoring fans. One of the basic rules (usually) of being a ghostwriter is that you get little or no credit for the work you have done. Any credit you do get is usually concealed in the Acknowledgements section of the book, usually in the form of ‘Thanks to …. for all his/her help during this project.’

But, to say that you don’t get any recognition for your work is entirely untrue. Since I started ghostwriting, I have had people approach me to ask me to do little bits and pieces for them. Apparently, one of my earlier clients had been singing my praises, which led to my name being bandied about by those who were looking for a good ghostwriter to work with. And the more work you do, the more you get talked about – sure it’s in the very veiled world of ghostwriting, hidden far from the public eye, but it’s still fame of a sort.

2. I want to be rich (or at least be able to quit my day job)

Let me be absolutely clear on this: ghostwriting is the only for of novel writing where you can guarantee that you will be paid for your efforts (unless you’re already well established and the publishers are offering a huge advance). Better yet, you know exactly how much you are going to be paid before you ever start work (unless you do payment by time worked in which case you can make a relatively good guess).

When you write your own book, you are plagued by doubt: Will anyone buy it? Will I make more than a couple of quid after expenses? Is it worth me investing in a decent cover if no one’s going to buy it anyway?

All these questions become null and void when you ghostwrite for someone. Why? Because  it’s not your problem. If the book doesn’t sell, you’re not the one who will endure endless sleepless nights over it because you’ve already done your bit. You can move on to the next paying job and never have to deal with the stress of it all…

3. I want to write

Despite what some authors will have you believe, ghostwriting is still writing. Yes, you are restricted sometimes by what you can and can’t write, but that ultimately comes down to the client you work with (and guess what, you don’t have to accept a job if it doesn’t suit your style). But that, actually, is no different than working with an agent or an editor or a publisher. Unless you choose to become completely indie, you will always have to give ground to someone, so why not a paying client?

4. I want to tell stories

Now this is the difficult bit. Yes, you are telling stories – but they are someone else’s. Some clients are great and let you run loose with whatever idea you happen to have, but I (for one) don’t tend to go for those jobs. Whilst I have stories to tell, I want to be able to tell them in my own way (plus I’d quite like the recognition for the stories I come up with myself). I’m happy taking other people’s ideas and adding my own flair and storytelling style, but I draw the line at creating something from scratch. That is just one of my rules.

5. I have a message that needs to be told

This is the one thing that you can never guarantee with a ghostwriting project and – again – it ultimately comes down to the client you’re working with. Some are happy for you to insert your own political or social messages into the work, others may disagree with your view point and others still don’t want their work to be message-motivated at all. And, as with all ghostwriting projects, it is up to you as a writer to distinguish between the projects you’ll be happy working on and those that would feel like you’re losing a bit of your soul to.

That being said, it doesn’t mean you can’t sneak in your views in a subtle, character-driven way. In fact, most clients I’ve worked with seem to love that!

Ultimately, deciding to become a ghostwriter comes down to two things: what are your reasons for being an author, and how many of those reasons can be achieved by being a ghostwriter?

If you are in it all entirely for the fame and glory, then don’t bother being a ghostwriter. It will frustrate and depress you, and you’ll probably earn a reputation for being difficult to work with in the process (not something you want if you need to work alongside another author at some point in the future).

Likewise, if you just have a message you want to broadcast, piggy-backing off someone else’s project will only lead you to disaster. At the end of the day, the client calls the shots and I can imagine there is nothing more frustrating than putting in all that work and then being ordered to remove all your ‘message material’.

However, if you want to be an author because of a combination of factors, then it may be worth looking in to.

After the Year of the Ghost, I have learnt a lot about my writing skills. I have learnt what people appreciate about my writing and what people find annoying or distracting. But most importantly, I’ve received a huge amount of recognition for the work I have been doing – far more than I anticipated given that I was essentially acting as the hidden mistress of several people’s literary careers.

And it is for that reason that now, with 2017 around the corner, I can approach my own work with a renewed sense of excitement. Sure, the perils are still the same – I won’t know if any of my works will sell until they are finally published – but at least I now know that there are people willing to pay for my work.

And that, my friends, is all the confidence I need…



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