Sunday, 20 November 2011

Living the stuff of novels: the ghostwriter’s lot - by Roz Morris

An acquaintance from my dance classes read My Memories of a Future Life last month and has since been seeing me in a whole new light. I can tell by the thoughtful looks he gives me as we wince through stretches and wobble through pirouettes; an expression that says ‘I never knew you had that weird stuff going on...’
After class the other day he said to me: ‘that freaky scene with the hypnosis in the underground theatre... you must have been to something like that?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘It's research and imagination.’ He looked a little disappointed.
I stomp on your dreams
Had that taken away a little of the magic? Do readers prefer to think they’ve been led through your rearranged memoirs than the fruits of your persuasive art?
Some clearly do. There’s a long tradition that people who’ve had extraordinary lives sit down to dash off a novel. Many of them are not writers, and so the actual words came from people of ordinary amounts of courage and glamour, in charge of something no more racy than a blank page.
I know; I’ve done it. This is the lot of the ghostwriter.

The ghostwriter
A publisher introduces me to an ‘author’, and I write the novel they would if they could.
A surprising number of writers ghost for others, leaving behind our literary egos to live on the page as someone totally different. (It's great discipline and allowed me to develop a method for getting novels ship-shape to order - all boiled down into my writing book Nail Your Novel.)
No, I didn’t do Jordan or Madonna. For some reason, I’ve trended in testosterone, with a run of adventurers and special forces types. I don’t know why. I don’t have a Y chromosome, for starters.
I now have an arsenal of rather wonderful faked experience. Just as you never forget how to ride a bicycle, I’ll never forget how to fly a plane, microlight, glider, hang-glider, helicopter. Or handle guns. Or hotwire various vehicles. I’m a dab hand with plastic explosive. I can make you believe I’ve abseiled out of helicopters into thin air, tracked assassins through jungles and India’s most impoverished slums, humanely killed a fatally wounded rhino and inhumanely despatched drug bosses. And done a whole rainbow of hallucinogenics.
In real life, my passport rarely gets any outings. But between the covers I’ve out-trekked Michael Palin.
After all that, hypnotising someone in an underground theatre is child's play.
Fake to fake
Once, I went to meet my publisher and arrived in time to see my ‘author’, giving a presentation to the sales reps. Behind him was a wall of advance copies, floor to ceiling like bathroom tiles. I stood at the back and watched while he enthralled them with titbits of the characters and plot in the book I’d built on my hard drive.
We were faking, both of us. He was faking being a writer. I had faked being the soul who lived the stuff of novels. I watched for a while, then like a good ghost, slipped out, unseen.
It always amuses me to hear that maxim, ‘write what you know’.
Thanks for the pic Nick_Blick
Roz can be contacted on Twitter as @Roz_Morris


Dan Holloway said...

Mm, I got some very strange looks after publishing The Company of Fellows. I think people who write about the dark and the twisted suffer greatly form "steer clear of the freak" syndrome.

As a writer, i'm not sure what to make of it. On the one hand I want to scream "I made it up. I write fiction. That's what I do. Make. Things. Up." On the other hand, I spend a lot of time writing articles about the importance of confessional art (SEO random info - we get an average of two hits a day at eight cuts from people searching for "confessional art"). I think how I see the heart of it is that what we do as writers is tell our personal truth, but the "facts" of our fiction - the story, the plotting, the characters and settings - are simply the dressing we give that truth.

Elly said...

Interesting post.

It makes me realise I *must* be a writer because no matter how busy/famous/interesting/bad at writing I was, I couldn't cope with someone else writing my books for me!

My latest is a collection of shorts. I agree with Dan, I may not have had all the experiences contained within, but it very much expresses something about me.

dirtywhitecandy said...

Dan - screaming 'I made it up'... oh yes, I get that. But I sometimes think that what we do as writers is similar to what actors do. We start with a character or idea that maybe isn't us, but bugs us because it speaks to us anyway. Then we inhabit it and find the way to make it real.

Elly - yes, I couldn't stand anyone else to write my books for me either.

madwippitt said...

Of course, after the tantalising post, now the guessing starts!
So ... Are you Dick Francis? :-)

dirtywhitecandy said...

I could tell you, but obviously I'd have to take you up a mountain and dangle you where you couldn't get down. :)

Marianne Wheelaghan said...

Hi Roz, it's really interesting to get this insight into 'ghost writing'. Sounds like hard work. Do you and the "author pretender" get paid royalties, or is payment done differently?
Does the work subsidise your own writing?

Regards 'faking it', yes, I agree, to 'write what you know' seems a silly axiom, crime authors have never murdered and Hogwarts never existed and you can't really hotwire a car, can you?? Maybe the phrase really refers to the integrity of the author: it's not the lie, or the fiction, that we need to be true to, it's the truth behind the lie. I think readers don't mind being 'hypnotised' or 'duped', as long as they believe we writers have the best intentions at heart, if you see what I mean? That said, I don't think any reader likes having it pointed out to them when they have been taken for a ride ;o)
Cheers for an interesting post!

dirtywhitecandy said...

Hi Marianne
Ghosting contracts are all different. It's whatever you and your agent can negotiate.

Your point about underlying truth is the real crux of the matter. Although we are all faking in fiction, we are trying to find the universal, the relatable and the depth of the experience. You're probably right that readers don't like to be told this - I never minded because I always had the temperament to make things up, but many people feel that's lying.

I should be more discreet in future...

Linda Gillard said...

I think what we're straining for in good fiction is not truth, but emotional authenticity. That's why readers cry at things they know aren't true - because the author has created an emotionally authentic experience. "True lies."

re acting & writing: I've been a professional actress and now I write fiction. The two jobs are very similar and require similar feats of imagination. Plus you have to love the sinner, not the sin. Accept and not judge. (Judging is for audiences and readers.)

IMHO acting is much easier than writing novels. As an actor you usually only play one role and if you're doubling on stage, you'll never be playing two parts simultaneously. But when writing fiction you have to be everybody - all the time.

dirtywhitecandy said...

Linda, I didn't know you'd been a professional actress. How very cool.
What you said reminds me of an interview I heard with Jonathan Miller, about directing. He said a scriptwriter says 'she looked out of the window'. A director has to decide 'what kind of window and what did they see'. So although writers have to be inside everyone's head, at least we can leave a window as a window. Perhaps someone has an even more demanding imaginative job than we do!

madwippitt said...

Is that a clue?

Enid Richemont said...

You must be a very committed and genuine writer to be willing to do this in the first place, and you must possess a huge amount of healthy self-esteem to be able to stand back and watch someone else getting all the credit for your words.
I have very mixed feelings about this, though - relating to Katie Price and her 'children's books'. Are there people you'd refuse to ghost for?
The acting connection is interesting. Linda - I didn't know you'd been a professional actress.

Lee said...

Hi dwc,

I'm not sure I agree with Miller. Not describing a window is not the same as not knowing what it looks like. The clearer your inner eye as a writer, the better your writing is liable to be. I think it was Minghella who said that what you cut from a film still has a profound influence on what remains.

dirtywhitecandy said...

Madwippitt: No. Guess again :)
Enid: thanks! At the time I get caught up in making a good book, and the undiscussed side of ghosting is that if you click with the other person you make a novel that's different from what you would have made on your own. Although handing over is hard.
As for whether there are people I'd refuse to ghost for... I haven't felt like that yet. But if I felt I couldn't work with the 'author', that they didn't want to make a book that was good read, I would find it hard to work with them.
Lee - yes, you're right of course. I guess what Miller was getting at was that as a writer you don't necessarily have to have painted every last brush stroke, but as the director he does. I totally agree that what we cut out gives solidity to what is left - a worthwhile thing to be reminded of. Writesr can, if we wish, have blind spots - but the person who has to translate the story literally on the screen has a harder job.

madwippitt said...

Ho hum ... Are you Lee Child?

dirtywhitecandy said...

Ho hum... no. But then I would say that, wouldn't I?

madwippitt said...

AHA! ;-)

dirtywhitecandy said...

I lied.

madwippitt said...

Grrrrr ....
That means you must be Dan Brown then.
I am spending way too much time thinking about this. Obsessive jigsaw puzzler!

dirtywhitecandy said...

Dan Brown... you sure know how to flatter a girl.

madwippitt said...

Raymond Khoury!

dirtywhitecandy said...

That's more flattering. I like that.

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