Ghostwriting

I’ve hesitated to write this post, because I know people have some strong feelings about ghostwriting. These feelings are legitimate. Reading can be very emotional, and I can see why someone might feel betrayed if they found out that a book they loved and went to a book signing event for, for instance, had been written by a ghostwriter. As a reader, I understand and even share some of these feelings at different times. However, I want to share my experiences being a ghostwriter for those of you thinking of doing the same, and to provide some perspective on underlying assumptions we have about art. Read on, and absolutely let me know what you think in the comments! -M

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One of the three questions I get the most often is, “don’t you get resentful to see someone else taking credit for your work?” The truth is, no. I need to pay my bills each month, and using my skill at writing to ghostwrite helps me fulfill that need quickly. If I were to write a story for myself, I would not only need to spend more time formatting, uploading, and editing (most of the people I write for have their own editors), I would also need to wait 2-5 months for the royalties to start coming in. While I’m building my own back list right now and someday may not need to ghostwrite to pay monthly bills, right now that assured paycheck is very useful (for one thing, royalties fluctuate month to month).

Another question I get a lot is, “doesn’t it feel a little bit soul-crushing to write stories you don’t care about as much?” and this one is a really interesting, very layered question. We all have a very complicated relationship with the concept of art, but my personal belief is that there is no correct way to make art and no correct or incorrect reason to make art (as long as you don’t really mess with people, and I do know that for some people, ghostwriting falls into that category; more on that soon).

To phrase this “correct and incorrect reasons” concept another way, consider if I had an incredible talent as a waitress. If I had a knack for suggesting meal items, refilling water glasses discreetly, and being a cheerful, unobtrusive presence, most people would have no qualms about me using that talent to make money while I was working on my novels. Likewise, if I were a trained accountant, working part time at an accounting firm would make sense to most people. However, because we regard writing as art, the concept of using that art to make money is a bit alien to us.

The truth is, anything you do to make money will have good and bad days – just like parenting, relationships, hobbies, and chores. Some days and some projects are very difficult, and some are not only fun, but informative. Some days I look for freelancing jobs that will have me utilizing a different talent than creative writing (data entry, blog posts, etc). Overall, however, I enjoy creative writing, and especially enjoy learning how to write new genres and try out new writing styles. It makes my own work better by expanding my repertoire, and I’ve found that there’s a distinct difference between writing stories I don’t care about, and writing stories I didn’t come up with. It is perfectly possible to care about a world that isn’t a product solely of my imagination!

That said, when I wrote that we have a complicated relationship with art, I really meant all of us, and I’m no exception. Sometimes it feels soul-crushing to write stories that I can’t manage to breathe life into, and unlike my own work, I can’t set a contract project aside. Sometimes my feelings are too complicated to put into words (ah, the irony). It’s difficult. But then, every job is at times.

The third question I’m often asked is, “why do people hire ghostwriters?” The truth is, I don’t always know the reason, and I don’t always feel comfortable asking. However, I do know some of the reasons. Some people love creating concepts, but have incredible trouble writing. Some people write well in one format (short stories, screenplays, novels, video games), but have trouble in another format, and want to hire someone to adapt the concept, while keeping a cohesive author or brand name across the whole set of media. Some authors are looking to try out the market potential of a new genre, and might write their own stories in that genre later, but want an inside look at sales data and promotional difficulties before investing their own time. Some people, as in any other business, have more of a knack for marketing and promo than they do for writing, and want to build a back list of stories with a particular style or set of tropes. This is another place that our feelings about art give us pause, but I don’t think we’d expect any of the executive team at Nike, for instance, to have a hand in making the shoes.

The major question that remains, and to which I have no clear-cut answer, is whether or not ghostwriting is immoral. I have zero problem with a public figure hiring a ghostwriter for an autobiography or other non-fiction book, but others might, and their opinion is valid. Likewise, I often effectively function as a co-writer, developing a story and helping people give voice to their vision of a story they believe the world needs, but do not feel comfortable writing themselves, and I have no problem with that, either (though some might, and again, this would be a valid point of view).

For me, the real question comes when a new author is brought in as a ghostwriter to handle an existing series (sometimes writers are brought on publicly, such as Brandon Sanderson on the Wheel of Time series; this is different, as readers have more information). A good-faith effort can be made (often very successfully) to replicate plot structure and style, but it’s impossible to replicate another author’s style exactly, because authors learn from the manuscripts they’re writing as they write.

On the one hand, there’s no guarantee that a reader will like a new installment of a series, no matter who writes it – I think most avid readers have had the experience of getting six or seven books in and just not enjoying the direction in which the author took things (or a new writing style). On the other hand, one could quite reasonably say that the author has made an implicit contract with the readers in which they take a chance on the book on the assumption that the author is the same person.

The truth is, I spent so long answering the first question that I didn’t think of the morality until a friend mentioned it two projects in or so. I’ll be honest that I’ve been struggling with it ever since. On every project, I push myself not only to write the best manuscript that I can, but also to replicate tone and style. Is this enough, however? I don’t know. I have turned down projects that I did not feel comfortable writing for various reasons (in one case, for instance, I would have been effectively claiming to represent an ethnic minority I was not a part of), but in general, in terms of hard and fast rules? I don’t know.

I don’t know.

What are your thoughts?

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