In search of world-class ghostwriter
May 7, 2009 12:08 AM   Subscribe

How do you find a top-notch ghostwriter? I have been told by many people over the years that I should "write a book" about my life experiences. Now that I have retired, I'd like to pursue the idea. Despite the urging of an accomplished fiction writer friend of mine, I don't believe I'm capable of writing a first draft. She believes that's the only way to have my memoir written in my voice. My other problem is I have been quadriplegic for 6 years now. I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking voice-activated software for all my typing

It's quite obvious to me I need the services of a highly skilled ghostwriter.
So far, I have been pretty unimpressed by the writing samples of the commercial ghostwriters who are represented by different agencies advertising online.
I know I have a very compelling story to tell, and I have given quite a bit of thought to how it should be written.
For instance, I don't want my story to be merely described, but "shown" in such a way the narrative comes alive. I would like the reader to feel as though he was experiencing as much of the events and feelings as I did at the time.
I would also like to retain the self-deprecating tone of Ulysses S. Grant in his extraordinary memoir.
I have a number of other characteristics I would like to incorporate into my book.
I realize the level of writing skill I'm looking for isn't cheap. I'm fully prepared to pay many tens of thousands of dollars for the right individual.
I will appreciate any and all of the excellent advice members of this community can provide.
posted by Daddysugar to Writing & Language (12 answers total)
If your nearby universities have good creative writing programmes, you could advertise there, asking for writing samples? It may be that a professional ghost writer isn't what you're looking for. If you have relatives at university, especially in the humanities/ social sciences, they may be good sources because in my experience some of the best writers, who are also respectful of tone and point of view are those who are studying anthropology or similar disciplines. They would probably also be less sniffy about working as a ghost writer than someone in a fiction programme.

Have you considered, instead, creating a oral memoir? Oral history is incredibly interesting and valuable, both as an art form and a historical document, and your survivors will be very grateful for it after you are gone.
posted by tavegyl at 1:06 AM on May 7, 2009

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posted by RoseyD at 3:31 AM on May 7, 2009

Just a few ideas: find a top notch, award winning reporter (not a news desk guy or girl, but the kind who goes out on the street to find and shape stories) from a national newspaper or magazine and approach them. The market should be flooded with them with the economy the way it is. If they don't have the time or the inclination to take on the project themselves, they will know someone who does.

Alternatively, approach a few professors in prestigious journalism programs and ask them to recommend someone (they should know the market).
posted by NekulturnY at 5:45 AM on May 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

For what it's worth. I think tavegyl's idea is a stunning one. Oral narrative can be powerfully moving. You can also get something basic done reasonably quickly and then find a professional editor to put it all together. If you do that, make sure you get a mic that really captures warm tones - a basic mic that plugs into your computer won't cut it. Get a professional one.
posted by jlstitt at 5:55 AM on May 7, 2009

Despite the urging of an accomplished fiction writer friend of mine, I don't believe I'm capable of writing a first draft. She believes that's the only way to have my memoir written in my voice.

I might agree. To be candid, reading something in a person's own voice - grammatically incorrect, unpolished, coarse - lends a vitality, a vibrancy to the tale. Having it polished to the nth degree can 'improve' a work, but improving it might remove the very pithiness that gives it it's essence (Or something like that. You know what I mean...) .

Want more persuasion? OK, I recall reading this book which was written by professional editor and novelist Sol Stein. He recounted dealing with Jimmy Hoffa when JH wanted to write his autobiography.

Have a look at the book (sign into Amazon if you need to) and start reading pg 71+. To summarize: Hoffa's manuscript was cleaned up by a ghostwriter. The editor found it to be 'blah' in his words. He went back and listened to Hoffa's original interviews on tape. He found the tapes to be vibrant and engrossing, as imperfect as they were. He then said that the ghostwritten manuscript needed to be abandoned and the work had to be authored in Hoffa's own voice, as incorrect or imperfect as that might have been, in order for the real story to be told.

Perhaps you aren't confident that what you have to say in your own voice is worthwhile. But if your friend is an accomplished author I would listen to her advice. If she is successful she will be able to judge this.

Why not create a sample manuscript and ask your friend to show it to some editors? They in turn can tell you what kind of extra work, if any, it might need.

When your book is published be sure to tell us about it.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 6:18 AM on May 7, 2009

I was going to suggest something similar to thermonuclear - first, write your own sample chapter. At least get it in the voice you want (eg, sefl-deprecating humor, etc.).

One option that you would have to then find a ghost writer (and please note that some will not do this) is to have a page worth of unwritten material (a recording) and ask ghost writers to write a page or two sample for that -- give them your chapter and tell them what you want. Limit the length - do not make it a chapter or something ridiculous because no one is going to write that much for free. This can be your writing test, and you can compare several authors this way.

I'm letting you know this as a medical (and sometimes ghost writer through the craziness of a med ed company or pharma company) writer. Although I may have a published sample from an onology journal, I can still write other types of material -- I may, in fact, have written other materials, but I can't show them to you because of agreements with a company. In addition, I always look at other journal articles for a particular topic and model the format, language, etc. I suspect most writers do this -- you look at a sample and use that as a model. So if you are looking at other people's samples, of course they are not going to match what you want - they used another sample or worked with another author. For medical writing, some companies/clients have given me brief writing tests, and as long as it is limitted in length or time, I don't mind. I think you can do the same, and your sample chapter is key unless you can find a voice close to what you want to accomplish. Good luck.
posted by Wolfster at 7:00 AM on May 7, 2009

I like NekulturnY's ideas above. However, I also agree with those saying that it might be worthwhile seeing if what you 'write' (I'll come to that in a bit) really needs a ghostwriter to be interesting. It sounds like you have a very decent grasp of how you want the story to be written, perhaps you could give it a go, if only for a short while.

Now about the actual writing: as a student, I did transcription work for someone who'd record dozens of tapes. I'd type them out, he'd edit them himself, or have someone else do it. The transcription (an ideal job for students) and the editing (for which you should find a high quality editor) might not be that much cheaper than getting a ghostwriter to write it, but it would be your own voice.
posted by Ms. Next at 7:11 AM on May 7, 2009

Best answer: I think the benefits of having a writer work on your story is that he/she would know when to ask more questions, when to delve deeper into themes and how to find story arcs where you might see none.

A good story is not written with words, and not with sentences, but with story arcs. A plot. It's a skill that you learn over the course of the years, and the supertalents that get it right the first time are very rare.
posted by NekulturnY at 7:38 AM on May 7, 2009

Best answer: Get an agent. If the agent likes the story, they'll find a great ghost writer to work with you.

You could start with your friend's agent. If that turns out not to be the right person -- perhaps because they focus on fiction and your work would be non-fiction -- they would be able to refer you to someone else.

But really, looking for a ghost writer first would be doing things in the wrong order. You get the book deal first, based on your compelling life story. Then the ghost writer part will work itself out.
posted by alms at 9:51 AM on May 7, 2009

Best answer: Right now, you're putting the cart before the horse. You want to pay someone to write the book and then... sell it to a publisher? Publish it yourself? That would be an unusual and probably quite soul-killing experience, because chances are good that by the end of the process, you'd have a manuscript that was about 30% better than blank paper.

Commonly, you would go looking for an agent or publisher first, and THEN start talking to ghostwriters. They'll actually set you up with a ghostwriter (although often these days it's more a cowriter, credited under your name) who is experienced in your kind of story and whom they know and trust. Agents might put you together with a cowriter who has sold material before and has strong relationships with the publishers who would buy your book. Sometimes the agent will feel your story is strong enough to sell directly to the publisher, and then the publisher will acquire the ghostwriter.

Read other books on the same subject as your memoir. Read everything you can that feels remotely like what your story might be. Understand what the market is like for a story of your type. You'll be better able to approach which way to go once you've looked at, I don't know, maybe the new Michael J. Fox book, maybe Running With Scissors. I'm assuming your story is triumph-over-adversity, struggles and losses and pain and victory?

Also, go through the top 100 memoirs on Amazon. Observe how many of them utilize Ulysses S. Grant's self-deprecating tone. Then observe how many of them are written by Tori Spelling.

Of course, if all you want to do is tell your story and your primary goal isn't to get published, then tell it in as best a way YOU can. This is what a blog is for.
posted by incessant at 9:52 AM on May 7, 2009

I would ask Catherine MacCoun
posted by Roach at 2:17 PM on May 7, 2009

Response by poster: Actually, incessant, it has nothing to do with my injury. My idea is for the book to be about the relationship between my extraordinary father and me, until his death in 1993. At that point the book would be about the relationship between my three brothers and me.
posted by Daddysugar at 12:42 AM on May 13, 2009

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