You’d like to write a book about your business, your ideas, or your personal story. But you’re not a writer. What do you do? I discussed these questions and more with author, journalist, and one of Content Writers Group’s resident ghostwriters Wendy Dennis.
CWG: How do you know when it’s the right time to put out a book?
WD: Typically, people toy with the idea of writing a book when their business or careers are at a transitional point. Often they’re entrepreneurs or CEOs who are at the stage where they’re considering re-branding or taking their brand to the next level. In some cases they’ve acquired a level of expertise or had a life experience that they’d like to share with a wider audience. Some want to raise their profile, clout, and get on the speaking circuit. Some people consider a book when they start thinking about their legacies.
A lot of businesspeople think they could write a book themselves if only they had the time. They hold off because they fear it will take up too much of theirs or aren’t sure where to begin. Many don’t realize that virtually all business books and celebrity memoirs are ghostwritten. It always surprises me how many people are unaware of that fact, although it shouldn’t, because if the ghostwriter’s a pro the book should feel as if the author wrote it.
All of which is to say that there’s a lot more to writing a book than most people realize. So if you have a good story to tell (or think you might), and are willing to invest time and money in the project, unless you moonlight as a professional writer on top of your day job, you’re going to need a ghostwriter’s help.
One client for whom I ghostwrote a leadership book was a pitch consultant who wanted to highlight his unique pitching process for clients. I’m currently ghostwriting a book for a CEO who also has a moving personal story to tell. I’ve even ghostwritten for a dog! (The “author” in that case was a Shih-Poo who was the voice of the brand for a company that sells apparel for the “urban pupster”.)
CWG: What’s important to know about the ghostwriting process?
WD: Most of the authors I’ve ghostwritten for knew virtually nothing about the process before they embarked, but once they decided to dive in and embrace it, they almost always found it to be instructive, enjoyable, and rewarding — even when it took more time than they’d anticipated, which it usually does, because the process is extremely collaborative. I think one of the reasons authors wind up enjoying the process so much is because it often provides them with insights about their lives or business philosophy that they’re too close to — or too busy running their companies — to see.
If you’re imagining spending a few hours with a ghostwriter and then shooing them away to write your book, that’s not how the process works. The ghostwriter needs material to start writing, it takes a lot to fill a book, and it’s your job to provide it. Most of the heavy lifting happens in the interviewing stage. How much time you’ll have to devote depends on the nature of the project, but generally speaking there will be a few intensive interview sessions up front and follow-up interviews along the way. You’ll also have to review drafts. But once you’re holding a beautifully packaged book in your hands, it will all be worth it.
CWG: When it comes to personal and professional material, how do you know what’s appropriate to include in a book?
WD: That’s a really important question. You’re always making judgments as a ghostwriter, deciding what to keep in and leave out. The author may tell you a story that is very meaningful to them, but you may think it lacks narrative punch, or worse, will cast them in a negative light. Besides conveying their ideas and capturing their voices, my job is to make sure that authors come across sympathetically, so I’m always protecting them — and sometimes the people I have to protect them from most are themselves. That can be a delicate business. (By the way, by “sympathetically” I don’t mean without flaws. Authors have to have flaws; otherwise, they won’t be relatable.)
There are always debates about what to keep and what to drop. Sometimes authors shy away from expressing controversial opinions or ask me not to include a story they fear will make them look weak or foolish. Maybe they pulled a rookie move as a leader or mishandled a situation with an employee. I lobby to include that material not only because I believe it will humanize them, but also because I know it will make for a much richer read. (I don’t just protect the author. I fight for the reader.)
I don’t always win those debates, but I generally find that if the author and I have built a good working relationship we can weather those moments and resolve the matter in the story’s best interests. Ultimately, it’s the author’s call what winds up in the book, but I’m not shy about telling authors that if they only want to talk about the pretty stuff, they’re going to have a very boring book.
CWG: How do you capture the author’s voice?
WD: There are lots of storytellers out there with strong interviewing and writing skills, but a good ghostwriter also has to have the ability to get inside the head of the author in the same way that I imagine a Method actor gets inside the head of a character they’re playing. You have to know how the author sees himself and how he sees the world. You also have to be a keen observer because you’re not just conveying the author’s thoughts and ideas. You’re channeling their voice, expressions and speech rhythms. Some people swear a lot. Some have a folksy manner. The pitch consultant I mentioned earlier (who’s Australian) used a lot of politically incorrect Aussie expressions. They were colourful, funny, and absolutely integral to his voice. You have to pick up on stuff like that. You have to become a bit of a ventriloquist. It’s not about mimicry. It’s about empathy. And perception. But having a good eye and ear aren’t enough. You have to be able to translate what you observe to the page. That’s where the Method acting thing comes in.
CWG: Do you have ever have to push authors to let go of generalizations or marketing-speak?
WD: Definitely. Often the author is so close to their story they can’t see it clearly. They’re used to expressing their ideas in a big picture way. Or they’ve repeated their message so many times they’ve completely internalized it. Since their business philosophy makes perfect sense to them — and they’re not in the habit of being questioned about it — they assume it makes perfect sense to everyone else. But that’s not necessarily the case. Sometimes they use so much jargon they might as well be speaking in tongues. In that case, I have to wean them off the corporate Swahili so I can figure out what they’re trying to say. Once I start probing their ideas, they’re forced to parse and clarify them so they can be expressed in a way that’s accessible to all.
So yes, I have to pull teeth at times, but that comes with the territory. The New York Times reported that the collaboration between world champion tennis player Andre Agassi and Pulitzer Prize-winning author J.R. Moehringer for Agassi’s memoir Open was so intense that their taping sessions sometimes resembled psychoanalysis.
Moehringer told the Times that their first few interviews were “just painful” because Agassi was “completely locked — stilted, resistant, halting.” He had “crystalline” memory about his matches but not about his relationships. Gradually, though, Agassi “loosened up”. He said that during the interviews and later, when the two pored over transcripts together, he sometimes felt as if he was in an intense tennis match. “I have a lot of capacity for pain,” he said. “But I didn’t understand how hard this process would be. I was being asked to talk about the subject I know least about: me.”
Most people who work with a ghostwriter don’t have a story like Agassi’s. Still, even if they’re not inclined to clam up, many have honed their story into a set piece, which is a problem, because the real (and inevitably more interesting) story is always operating at a deeper level. So a good ghostwriter doesn’t just take dictation. She knows how to dig beneath the surface and draw that story out.
CWG: As a published author and magazine writer, you’ve written under your own byline for years. Do you find different professional satisfactions as a ghostwriter?
WD: I definitely find different satisfactions. That was one of my big surprises when I first started. I have a very strong voice as a writer, so I wasn’t sure that I’d be any good at ghostwriting. Nor did I know whether I’d be able to sublimate my ego in the service of the author’s, which you have to do as a ghost. Having spent most of my career as the lead singer, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about singing the doo wahs. But I discovered I really enjoyed the work. I get to meet interesting people, learn about worlds I would otherwise never encounter, and draw upon my own life experience to help elucidate theirs. I also get to play shrink and live in someone else’s head for a while, which I love, partly because I’m fascinated by the nuances of human behavior, and partly because it gets me out of my own for a change. In addition, I get to use my journalism skills in a different forum and learn some of the tools of the fiction writer’s trade in the bargain, for even though I’m writing about a real person, I’m also creating a character, a persona. Finally, I really enjoy the collaborative nature of the work. A lot of a writer’s life is spent sitting alone in a room. I enjoy the meeting of minds.