For this week’s Featured Writer profile, ghostwriter, bestselling author and 2012 Pulitzer Prize nominee Robert Bruce Woodcox shares an in-depth look at his career and provides deep and specific advice for managing a successful ghostwriting business. Visit his website at www.theghostwriter.net to learn more.
In 1994, I sold my international marketing and advertising agency at age 47 to relax and learn how to play golf (not a good idea at that age. There is a good reason GOLF is a heteropalindrome—spelled backwards, it’s FLOG). Finding the endeavor demeaning and exasperating I was compelled to write a funny, satirical book about the ancient game. This became a Los Angeles Times Bestseller: The Golf Gods Are Laughing—The Obsessions, Confessions and Insights of a Golf Addict.
I’d written advertising copy for 25 years, so I figured how difficult could it be to write a book? Turned out it was fairly easy, probably because of my immersion in the subject.
During that period, I began to think about what I would do for the next phase of my life. I’d grown weary of waiting for wealthy clients to pay me, Fortune 500 companies among them who often strung our company out for months on invoices. I was also tiring of managing employees. I vowed I would find a career that had the fewest moving parts possible e.g., no employees, no government intervention, some kind of writing I could do with a laptop on a beach in Tahiti and then “beam up” to publishers, magazines and newspapers and wait for the checks to flow in. The only other alternative without employees and no moving parts was to become a prostitute, so I opted for writing.
With that thought, I placed a tiny ad in the L.A. Times business section that read: Ghostwriter for Hire: 800-339-0551. My intent was to drum up freelance writing for local southern California ad agencies. That is not what happened. The next day, I got so many calls I had to take the ad out of the paper; they were all from World War II veterans in their late 80s who finally wanted to tell their war stories to their family and friends, sort of a pre-Brokaw look at the “Greatest Generation.”
I’d only seen the word ghostwriter a few times and it was usually associated with celebrity bios, so the thought of becoming one intrigued me. Turns out, it had a very magical ring to it for many people.
From that first “autobiography” or memoir I took on several others for more of the same audience. After that first book, I knew that I could make a good living ghostwriting. That first subject had been a hero at Normandy and his story was compelling. I charged him $7,500 which at the time, I felt was excessive. His experiences were so interesting to me, I wrote far more passionately and eloquently than I’d ever written in advertising. It was then I knew this was what I wanted to do.
Suddenly, I’d found I was reinventing myself seamlessly, almost by accident. I had no training or education in ghostwriting; there wasn’t and still isn’t a place to go for that even in today’s college curriculums. I was just winging it with a “fake it till you make it” attitude. My risk paid off however as I did eventually write business books, inspirational works, even novels including some celebrity memoirs.
By my third memoir, in the second year of my new career, I was charging $15,000. I had learned that writing a good memoir for someone required far more time, energy and thinking than I’d guessed. I discovered within three clients that memory is not very accurate, especially at the age of 80+. Those elderly memories were faulty, disjointed and exaggerated—that is, until I presented my work for approval several times each month and found out to my chagrin, their memories had magically returned and they had become very detailed and critical of what they sometimes felt were my lapses or misunderstandings. Oddly, it was that awakening which forced me to buy a tape recorder (bulky, heavy contraptions in those days). It also forced me to find ex court reporters to do the transcriptions—all part of my early learning process. Prior to that, I was only taking notes like the journalists I’d seen in movies who seemed to be able to capture every fact, date and spelling flawlessly with only a worn-to-a-nub number two pencil and a tiny note pad. However, I was relieved to find out, it wasn’t my poor note taking that was the problem (though that was also a snag occasionally), it was the client reading and seeing his story in print as he’d told it, realizing he’d “misremembered” certain experiences. Now, seeing it in manuscript form jogged their memories and I would dutifully fix everything each time going with the second versions. (Those transcriptions always came in handy at that point.)
This experience, as most of my ghosting history in those first four years, left indelible learning stamps on my brain. They also made me realize how serious this whole endeavor was: capturing stories that might never be told otherwise. I was transforming verbal history into a legacy and recording those lives for posterity, and I was helping people realize their dreams. I was not only becoming a much better writer, I was becoming a much better listener and a more compassionate human being.
From those early days, not only did my interview skills and writing grow in quality, my world experiences were increasing with each story; I was meeting and working with people whose lives were fascinating, worldly, bizarre and sometimes nearly impossible to believe, though all were true. I was also getting an education in client relations, contract and copyright law.
Each year, I raised my rates whether it was for a memoir, business book or a novel and each milestone was astounding to me. There seemed to be no limit to the body of individuals with very high disposable incomes willing to pay to write their stories (my rates within five years went from $7,500 to over $40,000 and today are in the six figures).
The most perplexing clients were those who wanted me to write a novel for them. I understood why a person would want to capture his/her life story or write a business book, but to have another person write the “art” that was in his/her head, baffled me. Nevertheless, I did it and I loved the experiences. To me, working together with another person on fiction, a story that at first is just the amoeba of a plot, is the ultimate collaboration and the true illustration of the adage, “Two minds are better than one.” Brainstorming, I soon found, unlocked creativity I didn’t realize I had, and it made writing fiction so much easier than doing it alone. It was also a lot of fun. In that first four years of ghosting, I began to develop my own process. That process grew strictly out of the experiences I was finding to be all too common with clients. It was also born out of trial and error (plenty of that) and expediency, sometimes deadlines (though I’d learned from my advertising days to loathe deadlines). I also began to develop relationships with fellow ghostwriters who were going through the same growing pains and we realized it was beneficial to all of us to share our experiences, horror stories, the evolution of our contracts (which we found, can both free and entrap you if not written to cover every contingency). For example, now on my 42nd book, a recent young client, too young to be worrying about death asked me, “What if I die while we are working on this book? Will my estate still owe you money?”
I had never thought of including that clause, so I did and I shared it with my colleagues who also had not thought of it. Our contracts had always contained rules about the client not being able to reassign their financial liabilities to us, but never about death. Why bring up negative possibilities? Today, I truly feel my contract is about as iron clad as it will ever be and still not exceed four pages.
So my process involved legalities as much as creativity. I also learned though process was important to me even if it wasn’t so important to clients. In fact, it was something they rarely wanted to hear, that was until it was time for them to be critics—especially in fiction. I based many of my first novels on standard contemporary fiction formats: Three act play, plot and character arcs, etc. Clients wanted to add their own formats or diversions and distractions to the stories. I learned here was no way out of “taking charge” when it came to process and to discussing it with clients in those instances, but I had to learn how to approach it with kid gloves, encouragement and good editing skills.
Process for me in the simplest terms involves beginning with a solid outline that is created with the client. It is your first lesson in collaboration. Upon our first meeting, which is prior to inking a deal, I decide if I want to work with this person for six months (we must like each other). I also determine if the concept is interesting, compelling and fresh enough to keep my interest, which is also to say, Will it sell? Will it appeal to agents and publishers? If it isn’t or doesn’t, I politely decline the project. Life is too short to work on boring stories and since they will never sell, why bother? If we like each other and the material is compelling then we agree on contract terms. I get the first of three advance payments for whatever the overall fee is and we are off to the races. (They also pay each subsequent payment in advance.)
It is important to note here, that when I started and even now the “industry process” has always been to get a “partial” advance and then get paid after each section of work is completed. I never bought into that. The ONLY way you can protect yourself as a ghostwriter is to be paid before ANY work is produced. This is Robert’s cardinal rule never to be broken no matter how delicious the project may first appear. Another important inclusion for my contract is that there are no refunds on any of the sections of work completed once they are approved by the client.
This clause also includes financial penalties for bailing out of the book before it’s finished and many other protective measures. Fortunately, these rules never seem to be a bone of any contention and, most of the verbiage in my contracts protects the clients even more than me in some ways.
As far as my writing process is concerned, that is also simple going back to my wanting to write on my laptop in Tahiti, I start with a timeline/outline. This is like the blueprints for building a house. I start by asking a new client to tell me his life story in ten minutes. At first, this surprises them but I explain that a timeline/outline is just like a story board for a movie—it’s mostly about the highlights, the most important and memorable events which shaped their lives. I record all of this in chronological order as best I can after a couple of meetings.
From these highlights we add details in between the spaces. These are usually any strong emotions, things learned, inspirations, scenes that were powerful. I’m a big proponent of creating story not only out of characters and plot, but within places. A sense of place is as important in a memoir as it is in a novel—business books, not as much.
Once the timeline is far enough along, it can be turned into a more detailed outline. That is when the writing begins. From there it is a matter of writing for two or three weeks, then sending that material back to the client for revisions, fixes or comments. Many ghostwriters will write more than one complete revision of a manuscript. I don’t approach it that way; I revise as I go. Each morning, I clean up the work from the day before and then I continue on. After the client has worked on it, and provided new input or fixes and approves that section, I complete that work first and move on to the next section. When that work is complete, I do one final edit and then send it back to the client. This routine is repeated over and over until the final manuscript is edited one more time by me and then on to my outside editor for the final, final. By using this process, I avoid writing more than one draft of a complete manuscript as many writers do. It’s important to me to “stay” in the story often and not wait until the end to redraft a complete work.
My writing routine is a different story. I write when I have something to say or when I “feel” new inspiration. Another old writing adage is, write X amount of words a day, every day, without fail. That doesn’t work for me either. I cannot force good writing because someone in publishing or in an English class made up that rule. It works for some, not for others. The quality of my writing suffers if I force it. Luckily, the thought of getting up early each morning having my cup of coffee and “getting at it,” meaning diving into the story and wondering where it will take me, is the combustible part of my day. I can’t wait to start (especially with fiction). When I am “in” the story and know where I want to go that day, I can easily finish 5,000 words.
I work from about 7:30 a.m. till about 3:30 p.m. I never work weekends, ever. As already stated, I begin the next morning by reading the previous day’s work, revising and then moving on in the plot or outline/timeline. The revisions give me the chance to get back into the story and characters. Another thing I do is to send my editor the copy after about 35 pages are complete. I use ProWriting Aid (an excellent quick editing tool) to give it two passes for style and grammar so she won’t think I’m an idiot (kind of like cleaning your bathrooms before the housekeeper gets there). Our routine is this: I ask her to read it for content only, NO editing allowed, not even typos and especially not for commas and semicolons. I only want her to read it for the story, who the characters are, what the message is. It is difficult if not impossible for her to do this because she is an editor, but it all works out in the end. After she’s absorbed the story, she writes me a letter telling me what she thinks about the story, my writing, the tone, voice and style, etc. I make adjustments there as well based on her input. At about every 50-page increment after that, she gets the newest version and repeats the process until the manuscript is ready for her magic. By that point, she knows the story inside out and is has already cleaned up a lot of it (against my orders) and can concentrate on the line item vetoes, etc.
I’ve often been asked, “How do you know if an idea is strong enough to develop into a book?” Since I come from a story telling background (sales, advertising and marketing), I know a good story when I hear it. And since I’ve worked with many literary agents in the process of getting my client’s stories sold to various publishers, I know what they are looking for. I also have a good ear for what people like and will buy. The key here is that what a client thinks is marketable and what a publisher knows to be sellable are often at odds. It’s human nature to think your story is a blockbuster that will sell millions of copies, but 50 years in the ad business, ghostwriting and publishing has been good training for my ear. For those who are just starting however, I would offer this: Does the story make you feel something? Is it compelling? Does it make you think? Is it entertaining and informative at the same time? If so, you are probably reading something worth publishing.
Another person recently asked me if there was anything I would change in my writing career if I could. My answer is yes. I would have started with a much stronger, more inclusive contract. I would have spent far more time on getting it right as early in my career as possible. I would have consulted other ghosts, picked their brains, same with publishers and agents. Had I done that the two negative things that happened in the last 25 years would never have caused me the pain they did both financially and emotionally.
My best advice for a writer to become a ghostwriter is to begin with the business side of this profession. If you are a passionate writer, your writing is probably good enough to at least “fake it till you make it” since there are no classes teaching it. Look up various ghostwriters by category on Google and that will take you to Google Adwords where I and every other professional ghost advertises their abilities, talents and resumes. Click on the ads for memoir ghostwriters, business book ghostwriters, etc., and read them; study them for what they are offering and then call a few and see if one of them can give you some pointers. You can start by calling me if you like. Do your homework. Get on Gotham’s website and see what they have to say. Follow those names and leads that are written about in their weekly emails. Devour any information from any professional ghosts willing to talk to you about process, client relations, marketing, contracts and all the rest. Ask a ghostwriter for his contract to help you understand what needs to be in one. Contact a literary agent in your area and offer to take her/him to lunch to pick their brains. You never get anything if you don’t ask. Join ASJA and the Author’s Guild. Educate yourself. Most of us in the profession did at one time and continue to do so; it is an ever evolving profession and everyone has a different process to achieve the goal at hand.
I am working in two universes at present. I have two memoirs going and each is in the beginning stages, which I love. I also offer my consulting services to writers all over the country. I teach the “business” of ghostwriting by the hour by phone or Face Time. That keeps me busy in the down cycles and there are times almost every year when things quiet down. Some of these last only few weeks, but you need to be prepared to survive for six months to a year without any books. My advice on how to handle that is to prepare your advertising and marketing well in advance. Have a plan to reach out when you know things are slowing down. Increase your Adwords budgets, make sure your social media is up to date and working well and in sync with any advertising. Involve yourself in writer’s groups. Stay current. My last piece of advice is to save every nickel you can. You’ll need them for your first three month lull.
Do you have a story idea? Pitch it to us below, and we’ll work to match you with a writer like Robert who can help you bring your vision to life.