Friday, October 29, 2010

A Ghost to Most

It's Halloween this weekend, so it seems appropriate to talk about ghosts. Especially in the light of of Tim's post last Sunday about the forthcoming literary endeavours of Snooki. I don't know much about Snooki, as her unique talents are not widely known in the UK, and I'm sort of hoping that, like Everybody Loves Raymond and demented right wing political movements dominated by replicants in human skin, she's one of those things that fails to cross the Atlantic. Yet, while nodding my head sagely at the always-wise prose of Mr Hallinan, I couldn't help but think of one poor person: Snooki's ghostwriter.

It's not a bad gig - many applied for the job and I hear James Ellroy was turned down at the last minute, despite submitting a 427-page plot synopsis. It will be reasonably well paid and Snooki hardly seems the sort to fiercely argue plot points and character, if that isn't too ungallant, which will make the writer's life a damn sight easier. But ghostwriting fiction is a truly thankless task. I tried it once, and it really didn't work, for me or the celebrity. There is one thing turning the life of someone else into a narrative; another thing turning their imagination into one. That is, if they have one. My celebrity didn't even have a clue what he wanted the plot of his book to be about, which meant I ended up writing a novel, using an idea I originated, featuring a character I created, with a title I devised, but with someone else's name on it. To be fair to him though, he made a decent cup of coffee...

Next week I'm teaching a class on ghostwriting, though I plan to steer away from ghostwriting fiction, increasingly popular though it is is. Instead I'll focus on the task of turning other people's lives and stories into works of non-fiction, which is as old as the written word (what is the Bible, if not a series of ghostwritten tracts? Empress Josephine was also fond of using them to tell her tales of Napoleonic derring-do) It's a booming part of the business - just walk into a UK bookshop leading up to Christmas and see displays groaning under the weight of showbiz biographies, few of which are written by their subjects - and while it is galling that publishers are slashing the amount of time and money they are investing in new writers and writing, jobbing hacks can either gnash their teeth and bemoan their lack of opportunity, or roll up their jacket sleeves and do some ghosting. It doesn't always have to be about celebrity. One of the books I am most proud of is The Cloud Garden, a tale of two rather naive English lads who tried to walk through the Darien Gap, the most notorious and dangerous strip of jungle in the world, and were kidnapped by Marxist guerrillas and held for nine months. It was a joy working with the two subjects; amiable, funny and humble blokes who were truly apologetic for the upset their capture caused. It was well paid. I learned a great deal about structure, pacing, plotting and revelation of character that stood me in excellent stead when I came to write novels of my own. Most of all, I realised much of the skill in writing, in fiction and non-fiction, comes from voice: finding or capturing the right one is as essential to a ghost as it is for the most literary of novelists.

That's where the benefits of ghostwriting lie: each book, no matter how banal the subject, makes you a better writer. Of course, it doesn't suit everyone. To be successful you need to be able to suppress your ego and become the soul of discretion (I found the last bit very hard...what's the point of working with a celeb if you can't tell your pals down the pub he's a complete nutjob?) There is far more to the relationship between subject and ghost than switching on a tape recorder and asking them some questions. Sometimes you have to be friend, confidante, therapist, career adviser, or the person who delivers some hard truths. When the book is released to the world, and it bombs, you may get the blame. You might also have an irate celebrity calling you in the middle of the night to complain. If it's a huge success, it's unlikely you will be given much of the credit. It can also be enormously hard work; and often the money isn't great. Yet, despite all that, I'd recommend any young writer seeking to make it their career should consider ghostwriting. Doing nothing else but ghosting would be soul-destroying, and a writer should always aspire to writing their own stuff under their own name, but as one facet of a writing career, it has a fair bit going for it.

And Snooki, if you're reading love, give me a shout. I've got a great idea for an opening scene...


Dan - Friday

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