Buy-in

My reading for pleasure has disintegrated over the last few months. And that’s just a recipe for struggle as, for a fiction writer, there’s little more important than to refresh your well of ideas with plentiful outside influences.

Why it’s gone – well, once upon a time my primary opportunities for reading were work-related: the commute, the job itself (lots of quiet periods sitting with little to do), the coffee breaks.

Since then a change in employment has sabotaged these opportunities – and the pandemic has taken even these. I’m not good at taking time out of my home-day to read; this is, fundamentally, where I’m going wrong.

Fortunately, I’m currently going through one of my busiest periods ever as an editor, and I’m getting plenty of new fiction that way. It’s not the same – as I’ve said before on this blog, I think you consume stories differently when you’re searching out errors as opposed to just going with the flow – but it’s still a damn good way of keeping the inspiration-mines productive.

I’m experiencing the newest fiction and, for the most part, I’m overwhelmed with admiration for the authors, for their creativity, and I’m left wondering if I can ever achieve something that would make over people react the way these authors make me.

I currently have a novel out on submission to a publisher. I just have no idea how to gauge my chances. It’s a good story, I know it is. But it’s not going to win awards for its prose (decent is not the same as lyrical, or heart-rending, or haunting). Nor is the plot particularly original or earth-shattering. A good novel doesn’t have to be one that changes the world.

It might be commercial, but who am I to judge that?

Does it stand up alongside the novels I’ve been editing? Well it’s different, that’s all I can say for sure. Some I feel are better than mine, a (very) few worse. But I know that I’m not capable of reading my own work in the same way that I can read someone else’s. Maybe, one day, some lone proofreader will be reading my work with the same sense of admiration that I feel for other novels. Or maybe they’ll just be slogging their way through an endless slough of despond.

Maybe I’m unique; probably this is universal. I have no idea how my own writing will communicate itself to an outside reader. And it’s because of this that we try and get as much buy-in as possible: we trust beta-readers, we pay for editors; if we’re lucky enough we have agents and the editors are paid by someone else.

All because we haven’t the first idea. I still remember the feeling of being blindsided by the criticism I received the first time I took my work to a writing group. I thought I’d taken a piece that was beyond anything but minor criticism – ah, the arrogance of inexperience! But truly it’s never got any better, not for me, at least.

It’s foolish to put too much store in one person’s opinion, or one publishing house’s commercial judgement, but we do. Which is why it’s important to get as much buy-in as possible, to cast our nets widely.

There is no point to this. Apologies for wasting your time. You, at least, are wonderful.

On the writing of sequels

Never work on a sequel before you’ve placed the first book in the series. Simple, basic, advice, the idea behind which is that, should you never find a home for the first novel then all that work on the second will have been wasted.

And it’s good, sound guidance that holds up almost entirely. Except that it’s rubbish.

Your muse, for one thing, doesn’t care about actually getting published. If you have a story rattling around your head and insisting it be allowed out, there’s no real way to stop it. The words must be written and that’s an end to it – unless you can somehow twist it into a standalone story you’re gonna have a sequel.

Then there’s the fact that no words are ever truly wasted. All the time we spend writing, be it on our magnum opuses, kink-filled erotic fan fiction or potboiler thrillers, every word we write helps hone our skills and improve as writers. This whole idea of ‘waste’ is to misunderstand the process.

That’s even before we get into the issue of self-publishing.

Lastly, and most importantly, writing is supposed to be fun. Or if not fun then at least not torture. There are many reasons for writing, from a simple need for cash to the sheer unadulterated joy of it. But if it’s such a chore that you’re cursing the down of a new day then it is, at the very least, time for a rethink. Suppressing our true desires is not, I’d suggest, a recipe for a happy life.

It’d be lovely to be able to write one commercially successful book after another, but life is rarely like that. There will almost certainly be times when you’re waiting to hear about a novel – from publishers, from agents, from beta readers, from your own sense of ‘needing an edit’-ness.

So what do you do? Maybe – if you’re lucky – you have a butterfly mind and can flitter from idea to idea with barely a hesitation. As for me, I wrote the entire Antarctic trilogy, in draft form at least – before getting the first novel placed.

I’m now thinking of embarking upon the third novel in a series that began with Oneiromancer without any reward for any of them. Am I wasting my time? Maybe technically yes. But they’re the novels I need(ed) to write.

So, whilst I can see the merit in the idea of not committing to a sequel before the first is placed, it’s not advice I can get behind. Write whatever the hell you want to. It may not be the most efficient way to get a career, but there are no certainties however you go about it. Write your seven-book epic if that’s what’s burning through your soul.

Cold commercial decisions will determine whether you make a ‘success’ of it or not. But you might as well have fun along the way.

Next?

Now the dust has settled, it’s time for me to consider what to do next in my writing career. And, specifically, what to do with New Gods, the third in my Antarctic trilogy.

Having been dropped by my publisher after two books, it’s not an easy decision to make. No publisher is going to take on a single book in a trilogy – they wouldn’t have any share in the intellectual property (so no potential film/television rights, though that’s a very distant dream) and, with diminishing sales a massive probability, really what’s in it for them?

So my choices seem to be pretty much one of four. I can:

  1. Abandon the novel. This would be gutting, not only for me – I’ve put a lot of work into it and, as I’ve said before, I really regard it as the best in the series – but for the few fans who’ve persisted and really want to see the finale. But it’s perhaps the most realistic option
  2. Wait seven years. In seven years’ time I regain the rights to the first two novels. I could then try and find a publisher willing to take the series (though heaven alone knows how) as a whole and issue the whole lot as a reprint. Or I could self-publish the trilogy as a whole
  3. I could self-publish Book 3 now. There’s nothing to stop me doing this, as far as I’m aware – nothing except cold-hard economics. I’m under no illusions as to either my appeal or my abilities as an illustrator. I’d have commission someone – hell, I have to find someone – to do the cover art and that would cost money (all artists should be paid for their work. To hell with exposure). And even if I do all the typesetting and publishing and editing myself – a risky business, publishing without professional editorialness – there’d still doubtless be costs. I don’t believe that I’d ever cover these with sales as – at the end of the day – who am I? I’d sell maybe a dozen to family and friends, maybe a few more through this blog and via Twitter, and that’s all, folks
  4. I could release it free of charge, possibly serialised through this blog. I haven’t really thought this option through, yet. But I want to get this novel out there. It’s good. And, if I spend anything I’ll lose. So why not just save the costs and let you lot read it anyway? One potential downside is that my seven-year plan of reclaiming my rights and then seeking a fresh publisher might be harmed by this; I will have shot my bolt somewhat

So what would you do? All opinions gratefully received – and any options not yet considered would be appreciated also.

In the meantime, what do I do? Well, I’ve got Oneiromancer to flog. I’ve got Our Kind of Bastard to edit. I’ve got an as-yet un-thought-through new novel to start thinking through.

In other words, I need to get back into the word-mines. It’s what I do.

Sayonara, lovely folks.

Dropped

It’s finally happened. It’s over.

How to talk about this without overstating or making this into a bigger thing than it is? First of all, the bald facts: I have been dropped by my publisher. They have decided that sales of Night Shift and Human Resources aren’t good enough to justify picking up the third novel in my Antarctic trilogy and have decided to move on from me.

This is perfectly fair and, really, it’s hard to argue against. I too have been disappointed with sales (of NS; I’ve not seen any for HR yet) and I suppose the writing has been on the wall. I bear no ill-will to the publishers and wish them well. They gave me my chance and – hey – there’s nothing to say I’ll never work with them in the future. I still want people to rush out and buy my books from them!

My publisher’s decision has nothing to do with the quality of writing; they were keen to emphasise that. It’s purely a business decision, and I respect that.

But it is heartbreaking. I feel like my career is done. I don’t know what to do with myself.

Most immediately, I have the third book in a trilogy that I desperately want to get out there. I feel it’s the best in the series and provides a neat, satisfying climax to the story of Anders Nordvelt. Without it I’ll always feel like my work is incomplete – because it is. I want readers to know that there is an ending; there is happiness, of a sort, for my protagonist.

I have also lost my safety net. I have another complete, ready-to-go novel that I’ve been unsuccessfully hawking to agents. This now becomes my primary weapon. I now should be putting it out to publishers as well – but now I feel a much greater vulnerability. Without the option of Flame Tree Press, I feel rejection to a much greater degree, especially if my primary choice, the company for whom I do most editorial work, should take a look and turn me down.

I don’t dare send it out. I can’t bear the pain.

So it feels like my career is over. And I just don’t know what to do with myself.

Delay of game

Delay of game

Important news: Human Resources has been postponed. It will now be released in November, not July as originally advertised.

First off, I need to apologise to all you who have already pre-ordered it. What’s that, you say? You haven’t done that yet? Well, it’s still orderable from Flame Tree Press’ website and, presumably, all good bookshops. What are you hanging about here for?

Human Resources cover USE THIS

The delay, I hasten to say, is nothing to do with me. My copy-edits were in on time and the editor was happy with my work. It was instead a business decision. I’m not allowed to give any details beyond that a new deal has led to Flame Tree’s release schedule being rejiggered and my book is amongst those affected.

I can also say that it should work out to be a positive move both for me and the company; this isn’t one of those ‘oh my god it’s all gone to shit’ moments; it’s a good thing, I’m assured (I know very little about the actual business of publishing, though I’m learning).

Good thing or not, it’s a disappointment to me personally. I was hoping for some sort of launch event at Edge-Lit and maybe take in one or two more cons as an author with something to talk about. Now I have nothing to declare but my incompetence.

It’s also a short-term blow financially. Like most authors, the advance I will/have received for Human Resources is split into three payments: one upon signing of the contract, one on receiving of the finished text (though I’m not entirely sure when that arrives; I’ve done my copy-edit but not received this payment yet) and the last upon publication. Obviously I won’t now be receiving this last part until November. Not that it’s a great deal of money, you understand. But it’s money I won’t now be getting when I thought.

Long-term it may well be better for me to wait. Depends how this deal pans out, though in any case it’ll be very hard to judge cause-and-effect. We shall see.

Of more concern to me, however, is that it now feels like my career’s on hold until November.

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Normally I’d advise people to try and fill their downtime with either writing their next novel or trying to get other material published and that’s what I’m going to be doing myself. I’m somewhat limited, however. I’m not a writer of short fiction, which is bread-and-butter to a lot of writers, and I’m contractually unable to pitch my other big novel-hope out to publishers at the moment. I don’t have an agent (my perpetual refrain; sorry to go on about it) and so don’t have the benefit of their advice on how to take my career forwards.

So, although I will be continuing to write and my endless search for an agent goes on, I feel like I’ve nothing really to do until November. My career hangs in limbo, and has done ever since the release of Night Shift – a gap of two years between publications. Two years’ wasted time.

(It’s not wasted, of course it isn’t. I’ve been busy writing; I’ve edited two novels and a have a third on the way. But that’s how it feels. Like I’ve been twiddling my thumbs all this time.)

So what do I do? I fill my downtime with writing, of course. And trying to find an agent. And making more friends amongst the writing community. And getting better at what I do.

I just wish I had something to sell, something to get my name out there. Tiny steps; no miracle-hunter I.

Something to make me feel like I was making progress.

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Rejections redux

sorry

If, by any fluke of social media or suchlike, you see me as an established author then let me reassure you that I still get rejections. I want an agent, see, and I am at the moment completely failing to get one.

This Monday morning, first thing, saw a fresh rejection arrive in my inbox. It was kind. They said I wrote with intelligence and imagination and that they enjoyed my sample. But it wasn’t enough for them to fall in love with, to make them fall over themselves with the burning desire to read more.

The rejection contained the specific message: good is no longer good enough; to get a debut accepted you have to be special. And with it the unspoken criticism that my work is not special.

Now I’m not here to criticise this agent – or any agents – or the publishing industry. I’m writing this more of a self-analysis, and a sort of follow-up to the post I posted a few weeks ago. The thing is this: I want to be special. I want to be good at something – properly good. And I’ve been getting a little disheartened recently. I’ve been reading a lot of debuts and yes, in the main they are excellent.

I can’t compete.

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Which is a damn shame because I’m getting older all the time and this – writing – is my last hurrah. I’ve tried sports, tried music, tried academia and this is the last thing I think – I thought – I could actually be good at and build a proper career.

This is, of course, silly. Writing isn’t (directly) a competition. I should be enjoying these great new authors. And I am. I’m also learning from them, if by learning you mean shaking your head in admiration and finding your mind expanded by sheer proximity to their mighty, mighty brains.

But I want what they have. And it’s for all this that I want an agent. I want someone to help me with my work, someone on my side who can see the potential of what I’m doing and believes in me; who advises me on how hard I can push self-promotion and when I’m pushing my luck; who knows the industry and can show me wider audiences and greener fields. The money, the deals – they’re secondary.

I know, I know. I have a book traditionally published and another on the way. There are people who would (not literally, I hope) kill for what I’ve got. I’m shallow and selfish and egotistical. This is more of a confessional and a mental purgative than it is a true reflection of where I am.

Also I need to say that I don’t mean to put anyone off writing, or seeking representation, or going the traditional route into publication. It is often harder to find an agent than it is to get a book published; Peter McLean, for example, had three excellent books published before he found his agent. You can do it – I’m sure you’re better than me anyway. You really are special.

The other takeaway from this is that you should be reading as many debut authors as possible. They’re all brilliant.

A little about the business

Business

Authors are not employees. They are freelancers who aren’t tied to any particular business and who can be contracted to several – or more – at the same time.

I was reminded of this a few days ago when I got an email from my publishers that opened with ‘nice to be working with you again.’ As far as I was concerned I’d never stopped working with them. It also raises the possibility that, at some point, my work had simply dropped into a canyon of disinterest; that, once my novel wasn’t new anymore, they had no interest in either it or me.

This is both true and not true. Of course any publisher will prioritise new books and bestsellers; it’s the way of the industry, and they can’t keep trying to flog every old potboiler that just happened to slip through the quality-control net. There is a point where one is just throwing good money after bad. Or, to be less cynical about it, to take what slender earnings they received and move on.

But publishers still want to sell their back catalogue and so, once a relationship is forged, it never simply disappears. As long as a book is available – not remaindered, if such a thing has any meaning in this world of ebooks and print-on-demand – then both author and publisher want to sell it. They just don’t want to spend any money so doing.

So the relationship between author and publisher is always a bit confused. An author might want to promote a book that’s been out a year, but they’re not employees – and the industry has moved on. A publisher won’t simply forget an author but, ultimately, they have no responsibility to look after them once the terms of the contract have been honoured.

The agent-author relationship is even more complicated. Technically the author employs the agent but it can often feel like it’s the other way round. The agent deigns to accept a writer as a client; a writer doesn’t have hordes of agents clamouring to be selected. The agent critiques and edits the work and often has great creative say in what’s eventually put out.

But the money flows from writer to agent, and that’s ultimately what it comes down to. The writer hires the agent. Don’t forget that.

It’s all terribly confusing. But, if you’re looking for advice, allow me to present you to with a few quick bullet-points:

  1. Maintain good relationships. Try not to piss people off; you might only be working with them for a limited time but you might always publish more than one book with the same people. That’s surely the aim. Don’t get a bad reputation.
  2. Remember that, beyond the terms of your contract, you are beholden to no-one and no-one is beholden to you. Do a good job. Thank people who have helped you. But don’t be fooled into thinking you work for them. Be free!
  3. If you’re lucky enough to sign with an agent, don’t think you have to slavishly follow their every command. If it’s not working – for any reason – you have the power to make changes. No relationship is better than a bad relationship
  4. Keep writing. It’s ever so tricky, sometimes, to remember what you originally were: there’s so much publicity to do, so much business to clear. But you must keep on producing material because every new work is a new slice of freedom. Unless you’re tied in to a multi-book contract – in which case I doubt you’re reading this – each story is a new deal. And you can take that deal anywhere.
  5. Keep track of what you’ve sent where. All this freedom can all get terribly, terribly complicated – especially if you’re working on short stories, poems, or other things where you might be sending out multiple things to many places at the same time. Try and develop a system – even if it’s only the simplest of spreadsheets – so you don’t feel like you’re drowning

 

For the last time

the-last-time-i-saw-you-mens-premium-t-shirt

I am currently working through Human Resources for the last time.

This is, of course, untrue. There is no way in hell that it’ll be the last time I go through the manuscript, armed with a future list of corrections and clarifications and just a general sense of must-do-better-ness.

But it is the last time I’ll go through it before I send it off to my editor. I have no more to give – I’ve got my beta-reader’s feedback and, though I don’t feel able to address some of the larger points in the root-and-branch manner I should, this is one final pass to kill a few typos and to add a little bit of explanation where it’s needed.

This novel has dragged on for years. It has been through many different sets of clothes. Now it may not be perfect but I’m happy with its overall shape, the pose of the mannequin; and it’s time to dispatch it to my publisher in the hope that – while they too might not think it’s perfect – they can see enough good in it for it to be accepted.

It’s not a done thing. I’m talking about ‘my’ editor but I have no contract, no guarantees. This could easily die a death.

But there comes a point when one must draw a line under a project, bite the metaphorical bullet and move on with life.

I believe Human Resources is good enough to be published. But the journey won’t be over when I send it out into the scary world of editordom. Now…

  • The editor will read it and make notes
  • They might send it back to be to altered even if they want to sign it
  • It may go to a structural editor who will suggest changes
  • It will go to a copy-editor who will suggest changes
  • It will be proofread and there may be changes

So the work’s not done, not by a long shot.

But I can do no more. I console myself thus:

  • The novel is good enough to be published in its current form
  • It can be made better
  • I will be proud to see it released
  • It will not be a disappointment to those who liked the first novel

I believe in what I’ve done. I wish the road had been easier; I’ve found so much angst, so many hair-pulling moments through the process.

Now I have just another 130 pages to edit, then one more quick pass, and I’ll be done.

The last time until the next.

Work harder

Conversations with ghosts

conversation

What do Katie Price and Donald Trump and Alexandre Dumas have in common? That’s right, none of them wrote the books that carry their names.

In the aftermath of the #copypastecris controversy I got to musing about ghostwriting and the nature of ghosts. Now I should say that I’m currently leaning in favour of the ghosts in that particular plagiarism case and I’m not here to launch a diatribe against the practice. But, as a writer, I’ve never really understood why people (who aren’t celebrities, at least) hire ghosts.

And then I realised: I know a ghostwriter and she knows others. Why not ask her a little about the industry? Hell, I hardly ever do anything original on here. Why not use my powers for good and not fall back on my usual trick of lukewarmly microwaving other people’s leftovers and passing it off as original?

So, without further ado, here’s Ben Jeapes and Jan Greenough – excellent authors in their own right – to tell us a little about how they work. Jan works mostly in non-fiction and Ben in fiction:

Can you tell us how you got into the industry? I take it you didn’t start out with an advert on Fiverr

Ben Jeapes: Pure fluke. I did some work with Working Partners, which is sort of like ghostwriting. Their business model: think up a series; sell it to a publisher; hire an author to write the thing; everyone shares the profits, so no one loses out if you accidentally write the next Harry Potter. Publishers are fine with this because they know they’re getting quality work straight up that will require a minimum of work at their end. Then my Working Partners editor changed jobs and inherited a series by a well-known celebrity which needed a writer, and she thought of me.

Jan Greenough: I started out as a copy-editor in a distant outpost of the Pergamon empire – an educational publisher called Wheaton in Devon. When we moved to Oxfordshire and started a family, I needed freelance work I could do after baby bedtime (no nurseries in those Jurassic days). From contacts made when I was properly employed, I picked up copy-editing jobs from Hodder & Stoughton and a couple of religious publishers, one of which eventually emerged from various takeovers as Lion Hudson.

Gradually I established myself as a safe pair of hands, which meant that the commissioning editors sent me worse and worse manuscripts to pull into shape. I was the Department of Silk Purses. You might ask why the publisher had accepted these nightmares in the first place, but religious publishers work to their own rules. They are more interested in people with an inspiring story than in whether the author can write. Writing can be fixed – but in the realm of ‘how my faith helps me’, the valuable commodity is the real-life experience.

In the end the job changed from ‘Please can you rewrite this poorly-written MS?’ to ‘Oops- there isn’t a manuscript at all. Can you go and talk to this missionary/reformed drug addict/survivor of the Killing Fields and write the story for them?’

Welcome to the world of ghostwriting.

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How do you get work? Do clients come to you directly or are you commissioned by agents/publishers etc?

JG: The above explains it, really. As a publisher’s pet poodle, I am sent opportunities and asked to meet an ‘author’ and get the story out of him/her. Sometimes I report back that there isn’t a worthwhile/original story at all, and the project folds. More often, I submit a brief outline and the publisher goes ahead and draws up contracts. These are almost always ‘autobiographies’, and mainly conversion stories.

I have been approached many times by authors wanting a ghost writer. Usually I assess the chances of their story being of interest to a publisher as negligible, so I decline. They can seldom afford to pay properly and think you should share the risk with them. DON’T! At one stage I kept a file called ‘Loopy Requests for Ghostwriting’.

BJ: So far I’ve almost always been commissioned by agents and publishers, though I am trying to drum up business with adverts and a dedicated website. The one exception is an autobiography for Lion Hudson that I helped with last year, where the original ghostwriter had dropped out. I had to hustle for that one, but I was still hustling at the publisher, as I also know the Commissioning Editor socially and he had mentioned the project. The author still had to approve me.

How much input does the client have? Do they give you character notes, plot outlines and so on or do you just have a brief to ‘write a novel’?

BJ: I started by being given character notes and outlines, though I was always able to make my own suggestions. Everything I wrote went back to the client for the final say.
As my familiarity with the serieses I’ve written has developed, so I’ve been given more and more leave to do my own stuff, and hence the amount of work and concomitant income has risen to the point where I can make a living out of it (see below). So, of late, it really has been a case of ‘write a novel’: but I still have to prepare an outline, get it approved and so on, and I know the kind of thing they’re after. And the client still gets the final sign-off.

JG: It’s generally someone’s life story, so I interview them at length, generally one visit per chapter, which I write up and return, so they can check that I haven’t got the wrong end of any sticks. I’ve also written some non-fiction Christian books where I have had more creative input, but everything is shared and discussed at length.

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How do you feel about seeing your book released with somebody else’s name on it? Do you think it’s fair that they get the acclaim whilst you’re forgotten?

BJ: None of the series I’ve written would have even existed without the clients asking for them – they’re certainly not the kind of thing I would have written off my own bat. One series happened because the client had fond memories of the Willard Price series he had enjoyed as a child, and wanted something similar in terms of good, wholesome, moral adventure for his own kids to read. I also enjoyed Willard Price, so it was a pleasure to be doing this kind of thing for a new generation.

All the series trade on reputations the clients have built up in other spheres through their own hard work, and they incorporate the clients’ own hard-won knowledge and experience. For instance, one of my publishers also does a series – not by me – by Sir Chris Hoy about a boy with a magic bicycle. You automatically associate Chris Hoy with bicycles, and you know a book about a magic bike will do a lot better with his name on the front than with yours.

So, long story short, I think it’s quite fair that they get the acclaim.

I’m adequately paid, and – equally important – everyone who actually matters, i.e. agents and publishers, knows it was me. I have to admit I did feel a little odd when the Willard Price fan started dedicating ‘his’ book to his kids. He was essentially saying “this is how much Daddy loves you, he hired someone to write this book for you!” And then there are clips of him reading it on YouTube. But hey, I could smile and shake my head and get on with my life.

I have a client with an absolute tin ear for dialogue, and his edits always take precedence over mine – so there are times I am actively grateful not to have my name appear anywhere, in case anyone actually thinks I wrote that.

And, ultimately, I would rather be writing than not writing. It’s very hard indeed to make a living writing science fiction, which is where I came from, so if I wasn’t doing this then I’d probably be writing blog articles for a technical company, and I know which is more fun. However, if I was ever hired to ghost write science fiction then I would damn well insist my name was acknowledged!

JG: Christian publishers have an oversized sense of fairness. Almost all my books appear as ‘By A. N. Other, with Jan Greenough’ – after all, it’s their story. Occasionally, where I’ve had lot of input, it appears as ‘A. N. Other and Jan Greenough’.

Without going into too much detail about fees and costs, is ghostwriting worth it? Can you make a living as a ghostwriter?

BJ: I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. At first it was just handy pocket money, in parallel with the day job, which was a handy cash reserve for a man with a new family. Because I started doing the plot outlines as well, as mentioned, it became liveable-off just as I was badly needing to leave a terrible job anyway, and I’ve had an amazing 3.5 years since. Now that all the contracts that lured me out of full-time employment have expired … well, we’ll see, won’t we?

The doyen of ghostwriting is Andrew Crofts and I strongly recommend his books on the subject as a reference for anyone wanting to get in on the trade.

As shown in Robert Harris’s The Ghost, ghostwriting can also be positively lethal, but that kind of thing is probably rare …

JG: No, I couldn’t make a living from ghostwriting alone, but then I was swimming in a very small pool. Most of my books covered their advances, but except where the author was famous (Fiona Castle, wife of Roy Castle) or did a lot of speaking tours (Angus Buchan), royalty payments were minimal. It’s vital to get a decent up-front fee. Even then, you’d be better off (though more bored) filling shelves at Tesco. I supplemented the income with copywriting for a marketing agency, copy-editing and content-editing fiction. And I’m still not rich. But if you make your name, and write popular mainstream books like Andrew Crofts (author of Ghostwriting), you can make a living.

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Is it harder to motivate yourself to write someone else’s work than it is your own?

BJ: I’ve never found it so, since I always go into a contract with money and deadlines and outlines all settled, so I know exactly what and when I should be writing.

I’ve worked in publishing, so I’ve seen deadlines from the other end, and I firmly believe in sticking to them. Douglas Adams famously said that he loved deadlines – he loved the whooshing noise they made as they flew by. Ha ha, goes everyone, forgetting that this is a man who could have sold his shopping list and got it published. There’s people at the other end who aren’t multimillionaires and are depending on your deadlines for their own living – so I’m afraid that remark has always dented my otherwise very high regard for him.

JG: Nothing motivates a writer better than an electricity bill.

Do you think ghostwriting is ethical? Do you think legal steps should be taken to ensure that the ghost’s name should be on the cover?

BJ: You won’t be surprised to know I’ve thought long and hard about this … and come down in favour of it being ethical. Mostly.

For the kind of fiction I’ve always written, where I’m presenting the client’s experiences in different ways, or for autobiography – I think it’s fine. They are hiring my voice for their own thoughts. A positive worldview is being presented; customers are getting value for money; I’m supporting my family; I am telling stories exist that should, and otherwise wouldn’t, be told. There is no bad here.

I am surprised at one client’s insistence that my name not be mentioned anywhere. The artist, the editor, all fine – but not me. Again, I’m adequately paid, but it does leave an odd taste in the mouth. I think he just has overzealous, showbiz-type lawyers, and lives such a cossetted existence with ‘people’ who do everything for him that he thinks this is normal.

I’m not sure what ‘legal steps’ could be taken, but if, say, the Society of Authors pushed for all publishers to at least give the ghost a ‘With thanks to …’ in the front matter, I wouldn’t complain. For the Chris Hoy series that I mentioned, he apparently has no trouble at all about acknowledging the writer, and goes on tours with her and the artist. So, win some, lose some.

Some ghostwriters clearly behave very unethically. For a start, some people looking for a writer are clearly complete newbs who don’t know what they’re doing. I regularly peruse Freelancer.com (not Fiverr …) for writing opportunities, and time and time again I see someone looking for a writer for their novel, for which they will pay peanuts. These people obviously think that the idea is the big thing in a novel and the writing is just a tedious formality, when a (good) novel is in fact a combination of the writing and the idea. I’m sure there are ghostwriters who take the gig and just churn out text that is worthy of the sum being paid. Okay, you could say both parties are grown-ups, it’s not illegal and no one is being hurt, but the writers in that case are taking advantage of fools who are easily parted with their money.

Even worse is plagiarism. I hadn’t heard of #copypastecris until you mentioned, it but, now I’ve looked it up, this kind of thing isn’t new.

TL;DR – the ghostwriter for a fantasy novel simply copied the entire first chapter of a David Gemmell novel, changing the names … and (as, allegedly, in #copypastecris) the client didn’t notice. So what have you here is a perfect storm of unscrupulous shark meeting complete ignoramus who has no idea of how this business actually works.
There’s no regulating body for ghostwriting, but I suppose an advantage of always having dealt with agents and publishers is that I am dealing with professionals and – in the unlikely event of my copying and pasting David Gemmell, Courtney Milan or any other writer – they would put a stop to it pretty sharpish.

JG: Worthy Christian publishers ensure that both names are on the cover and copyright page. This is important when you claim your PLR and ALCS (you do, don’t you? Register your books at once!) No, I don’t believe it’s ethical to hide the ghost’s name – and the published book is your advertisement for getting more work.

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Is there a point, legally, when a work is determined to be co- and not ghost-written? What’s the minimum contribution a ‘writer’ can make before it becomes not their work?

BJ: If I ghostwrite, I sign a contract drawn up by publishers and agents that clearly delineates exactly how much of this work will be reckoned to be mine (none) and what my rewards for it will be. So, I don’t believe there is a maximum or a minimum. You’re being hired to do a job, and you do it.

If I was working on the basis of an informal gentleman’s agreement then that would be another matter. But it would also be the sign of a rank amateur. I will help family members and good personal friends of long standing out with writing work: anyone else, it’s the contract.

JG: Interesting. In my experience the terms are exchangeable – my publishers stopped mentioning ‘ghostwriting’ and started calling it ‘co-authoring’, but as I say, ours were non-fiction, and the ‘author’ was the one who lived the life, often of considerable hardship and trauma. I have always wondered how ‘authors’ live with themselves when the book is fiction, to which the author has contributed nothing.

Why, in your experience, do people hire ghostwriters?

BJ: For reasons stated. They have a story to tell but don’t have the voice, or the time, to tell it. (I’ve recently taken on a sequel half-written by an actor whose burgeoning career means he simply doesn’t have time to fulfil his contractual obligation to the publisher. The first book was genuinely all his own.)

If you’re already famous then of course there are commercial reasons: for the publisher it’s a guaranteed sale; for you it consolidates your brand.

And some people just want their name on the cover of book, and aren’t fussy about how it gets there.

JG: My publishers hired me – not the authors. The publishers knew they had located an individual with a good story to tell, but the person lacked either the time, the inclination, or the education to write. They were persuaded into print by the offer of someone to shape the story so it read well, and to put in the tedious hours at the keyboard.

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What do you do if you think that the brief you’ve been given is… um… dumb?

BJ: Thankfully I’ve never been there! There have been glitches in the plot that didn’t make sense, or the plot develops in such a way that a previous idea will no longer hold, but editors are amenable to logic – whenever I’ve pointed out something like this, they’ve always been happy to go with my suggestion. Again, an advantage of getting the outline signed off first is that it minimises this kind of thing when it comes to the actual writing.

JG: I was always free to reject a job. It sometimes happened if I really thought I couldn’t get on with an author – for autobiographies you’re going to live inside their head for the best part of a year. More often I found that the story was dubious or boring. One author who had been in the backing group for a Famous Name wanted to describe a tour, but since he was fairly grumpy, it would have amounted to a long moan and was definitely not inspirational. It was never written.


And there we have it. A little insight into the world of ghostwriting. Hope it’s been interesting and informative. Huge thanks to Ben and Jan for answering my hopefully-not-too-dumb questions; if it’s peaked your interest, Jan is retired but check out Ben’s website for ghostwriting at http://www.oxfordghostwriter.com/, or for his (excellent) fiction go to https://www.benjeapes.com/

And, just a tiny reminder, Night Shift is out now and is totally ghost-free! Unless one counts the input of all the beta-readers, editors and freelancer commentators who helped bring the damn thing to publication.

All my own work? Don’t make me laugh!

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The great release

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Today my book is released onto the great unsuspecting world. And today it struck me: there is no-one (save my wife, who doesn’t count, and my daughter, who calls me Momma most of the time so her evidence must be considered suspect) within an hour of me who knows who I am.

It’s out. And nothing has changed.

Hell, I’ve not even got any copies of the novel. I’m going on rumour and hearsay – well, the word of my publisher – that anything’s happened at all. There’s such a colossal disconnect between my daily life and my Twitter-life that, right now, I’m struggling to marry the two.

I’m still a writer trying to get work completed and out in the public domain. I’m still distracted by publicity, by events and by life, the universe, and – as they say – everything.
But now I have a novel out.

They say – those ‘they’ again – that, no matter what else you do, you should mark the occasion. A book release is a big deal, ‘they’ say. It must be celebrated. Frankly, I’ve been too busy with emergency proofreading work and with trying to organise trips to bookshops and conventions. There’s been no chance to even think of organising my own party too.

So: happy release-day to me! A quiet day will be had, unless I spend a little extra time on some promotionary tweets. But there will be no cake. No champagne. Really this is just another day; one spent with a sick child (just a minor snuffle with accompanying nasal oozage) and with no chance of hitting a bookshop or a library or anywhere else where I might see my work.

Maybe this evening I’ll polish this off

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Or maybe work on this

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But there’ll be no visit to the inebriatorium. That’ll have to wait until the much more tangible prospect of the few events I have lined up. They’re the things I’ve been working towards. The actual day of release has arrived as something of an afterthought.

So yes, I’m happy. Hell, I’m delighted. This is the day I’ve been working towards for years. It’s just that… nothing at all has changed. Nappies need changing. The bins need putting out.

Can you smell the glamour?

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“Life. Don’t talk to me about life.”