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Writing: How to be a Ghostwriter

Photo of Roz Morris head and shoulders

British ghostwriter Roz Morris

Novelist, writing coach, journalist and broadcaster Roz Morris comes out from behind her cloak of invisibility to share top tips on how indie authors can become ghostwriters.

Could you be a ghostwriter?

‘So which books did you ghostwrite?’

You may know I have a show on Surrey Hills Radio  with independent bookseller Peter Snell, and he’s always trying to ferret out the answer to this question.

Quick recap: before I ever published anything under my own name I’d already sold more than four million copies of novels as a ghostwriter.

Ghostwriting – of both fiction and non-fiction – is much more prolific than you’d suspect. Many full-time authors moonlight as the pens of others. Established ghostwriters can get good deals. The books are usually well promoted.

So how do you get into it?

Roz with Peter outside his bookshop

Roz Morris with bookseller Peter Snell

Ghostwriting is not for beginners. Ghostwriters are hired by the publisher, and they use authors they know, or authors recommended by agents. That usually favours traditionally published authors, but if you’re an indie with a solid sales record in a commercial genre, your could contact editors or agents to let them know you’re up for ghosting. And if you have an agent, you can ask to be considered for ghosting work.

Does that mean you’re out if you don’t have a track record? No, you could try book packagers. These are companies that develop book concepts and deliver finished manuscripts to publishers. Sometimes these are big hits. BeastQuest is an example. It’s not well paid – and that’s a big stripy understatement. The books are devised by committee and the writer is often asked for endless rewrites when someone changes their mind. But they will consider untried writers.

Ghostwriting the totally indie way

In indie land, I’m now seeing productive partnerships between people who want to fund a book and writers who provide the expert skill. Here are points to beware of:

  • Don’t work on spec unless you know the person well. I see too many people who contact authors hoping they’ll write for nothing, or for half of the eventual proceeds. You might as well work on your own book if you’re not paid.
  • Make sure you have an agreement about who does what, what the final credit will be, who owns the copyright, what the profit share is, who provides the research, who will do the marketing.

What qualities do you need for ghostwriting?

Aside from proven craft skills…

Cover of nail your novel

Less ghostly – and containing Roz Morris’s ghostwriting system

A cast-iron ethic that puts your writing first. Deadlines won’t wait while you have a life crisis or a busy month in your day job. It helps if you develop a method. I once wrote four novels in a year, and I still use the system I developed. (I put it in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence.)

Abandon your identity. It’s not your book. It’s the book that the other person would write if they could. Good ghostwriters are like actors; they can adopt the voice and mind of another person. That’s part of the appeal as well as the challenge. When I was ghosting, I mainly wrote thrillers. Left to my own devices, I write story-driven literary fiction . Did I mind stepping out of my familiar patch? Not at all. It’s fantastic for broadening your character repertoire and writing horizons.

You also need to be good at interviewing and earning the trust of your subject. They’re laying out their life for you to poke around in or make fiction of. Saintly patience helps. Often these people don’t know how publishing works or the demands of the writing craft. The whole process might be infuriating. It might also be very rewarding. I’ve always had solid relationships with the people whose novels I’ve ghosted. I’m proud of the books we made and grateful to have crossed paths with such interesting people.

Here are some other ghostwriting FAQs. 

So which books did I write?

Well, like most ghosts, I’m sworn to secrecy, but I have promised Peter that if he guesses correctly I’ll fess up. It’s keeping him very busy. In the meantime, here’s a post I wrote recently that gives a glimpse of the ghostwriter’s lot.

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8 Responses to Writing: How to be a Ghostwriter

  1. Karl Drinkwater November 14, 2015 at 5:45 pm #

    I have to admit that I feel a bit uncomfortable about any book that is published with an author listed, when someone else actually wrote it. Maybe it is the librarian in me. Since the author is attribution, and metadata should be correct, it messes with all that; and it leads to questions in the future about who really wrote what, sowing seeds of doubt. With traditional publishers I see it as being dishonest if they don’t acknowledge the ghostwriter (since they are claiming something that is not true, in terms of authorship). Just to be clear – none of this is criticism of ghostwriters, it is criticism of any body/publisher that uses them but then doesn’t acknowledge it in the credits.

  2. Debbie Young November 12, 2015 at 10:13 am #

    Thanks for sharing (most of) your secrets, Roz! I’ve just been reading and reviewing Brian Blessed’s new autobiography, “Absolute Pandemonium”, which reads just as he speaks – his presence leaps off the page and fills the room, and you feel as if he must have written every word himself. But at the end, he is effusive in his praise for his co-author (for which I read “ghostwriter!”) It’s a real mark of a ghostwriter’s skill to be able to marshall such an unruly, larger-than-life character as Blessed and fool the reader that every word you’re reading was personally written by the subject – and it’s encouragingly generous of Blessed not to try to hide the fact that it wasn’t, which of course so many celebrities and their publishers won’t do, even in cases where the nature of the celebrity is such that you’re not entirely sure they know which way up to hold a pen 😉

    • Roz Morris @Roz_Morris November 12, 2015 at 5:34 pm #

      Brian Blessed is an absolute one-off, isn’t he, Debbie? What fun it must have been to channel him (though some of those people also put grey hairs on you).

      As for the unacknowledged ghosts, you would be shocked if you knew some of the ‘authors’ who get secret help. Shocked.

  3. Tahlia Newland November 12, 2015 at 12:59 am #

    Sometimes the books I edit need so much work that I feel i’m practically ghost writing and probably not charging nearly enough. I could certainly do it, but so long as I have enough editing clients, I don’t need ghost writing. I shall bookmark this though incase I do ever think more about it. i appreciate the information.

    • Roz Morris @Roz_Morris November 12, 2015 at 8:37 am #

      Hi Tahlia! It’s one of those fine-line situations, isn’t it? Glad to be bookmarked!

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