Appointing a ghostwriter is not the same as handing everything over to them and expecting to receive a completed manuscript at some agreed-upon point in the future. It is a collaboration. Both writer and author have clearly defined roles to play.
The ghostwriting process begins with setting out a specific plan for the book, which is then developed through a series of interviews. While a ghostwriter will, of course, take on the writing side of the collaboration, an author should also be prepared to fully engage at every stage, reading and reviewing chapters as they are sent over and making suggested edits.
To explain how this works, let’s take a more in-depth look at each stage of the process.
Collaborations begin with a fairly lengthy interview so a ghostwriter can get a complete overview of the project. Authors should be prepared to talk through what they feel are the main parts of their story and, if it is a specialist book reflecting, say, business, politics or sports, provide background for their area of expertise. The actual order these details are told in doesn’t matter; it is simply an exercise to get the key details out into the open so the ghost can begin to formulate a chapter-by-chapter plan. During this interview, the ghost will pick up on particular themes they believe are worth developing and ask further questions about them.
It’s now over to the ghostwriter, who will produce a detailed plan of how they believe the story should be told. Authors should expect this document to contain summaries of each chapter with an outline of the key points to be covered. Obviously, not everything the author wants the book to say will be in this summary, because that will come out in the interviews that will be held in the weeks or months to come. What they should be looking for in the plan is a good narrative flow that looks like it tells the story in a compelling way.
For authors seeking a deal with a traditional publisher, this plan can be used as the basis of a book proposal, which all publishers require.
Once the author has signed off on the plan, the collaboration moves on to the interview stage. How often and where these interviews take place will depend on the author’s availability. The interviews can be spaced fairly closely together over an intense period of a few weeks, or spread out over the agreed-upon term of the book project. The total amount of time a ghost will be expected to spend with an author will depend on the subject matter. Thought leadership and science books, for example, rely less on lengthy interviews and more on reading research. In these instances, interviews will be more for the author to clarify content and gain a deeper understanding.
Each interview will focus on one particular chapter or significant event, and authors should expect their ghosts to take a deep dive into everything that might add to the story. Logic dictates that the process will begin at chapter one and work through chapter by chapter. However, if there is any material that is quite sensitive, or that may be difficult for the author to relate, it is quite likely the ghost will leave discussion about it until later in the interview process, once both parties feel more comfortable with each other.
While it is important for a ghost to check facts and question any inconsistencies, the onus is very much on the author to tell the story as they see it. It is not unusual for people to adjust their stories a little to make themselves sound more interesting, but it is the author’s responsibility to remain on the right side of truthfulness. Often, new information will emerge from these sessions, but a skilled ghost will adjust both the plan and their line of questioning to keep the book on track.
The aim of the interview process is to get all of the best material for the book into the open—or at least onto the ghostwriter’s recording device. In some types of books, it is quite helpful for a ghost to interview people who are close to the author. In a biography, that might be a spouse, or son or daughter. For a business book, this could be key associates from the past or present. Even if these guest contributors are not quoted directly in the book, they can serve as a great “memory jogger,” which can add to the depth and quality of the material being gathered. If this an option that is going to be pursued, it is best to arrange these supplemental interviews early on. Otherwise, they might become a distraction, or may never happen at all.
Ghosts submit chapters as they are written, which can then be discussed in subsequent interviews. This is a really useful factor in getting the voice right because authors can point out any phrases or terms they don’t like and suggest others they prefer. They can also take the opportunity to clarify any parts of the story that have not come out quite right, or add elements they may have previously forgotten. If an author doesn’t immediately love the first draft of a chapter, they should not despair. Sometimes, it can take a little time for a ghost to find the exact right tone. Certainly, in the early stages of a collaboration, a ghost will be testing the waters to see how the author will respond.
Authors can really help things along by reading each draft carefully and raising any potential issues promptly. This is where the collaboration really starts to flourish. At the same time, there is nothing more demotivating for a ghost than to have their submissions be met with a wall of silence. The more an author contributes at this stage, the better the end product will be.
Once the first draft of the book is complete, it is usual for the ghost to go back and edit the entire book. They will be “sense checking” to make sure there are no forgotten threads or incomplete stories, as well as tightening up the writing to make it as readable as possible. If noticeable gaps are found, a final interview may be needed to gather extra information.
The completed manuscript is then submitted to the author for final approval. Ideally, the author will have been scrutinizing the chapters very carefully throughout the process, but this is a crucial step that is worth setting aside time for. Authors are advised to read the book straight through, from start to finish, as though they are a reader looking at the text for the first time. Avoiding the urge to make edits as they go along will help them get a feel for the strength of the narrative flow of the entire book. Then, they will need to go through it a second time, this time making corrections and comments as they work through the chapters. The manuscript is then returned to the ghost to make adjustments as indicated.
Aside from final tweaks and edits, that is pretty much the end of the ghost’s involvement. It is the moment for ghosts to fade quietly away from the scene while authors take their manuscript to the next stage: publishing. It should also be noted that in most successful ghost-author relationships, the partnership will endure right up to publication and beyond, with the ghost continuing to offer valuable advice and input about the way forward. Experienced ghosts are typically used to working with publishers, so they can be a useful on-going resource.
Both sides in this process play a key role in bringing the book to life. The author provides the story, while the ghost brings the writing expertise. Get the relationship right and, together, they will produce a formidable team.