Monday, July 27, 2015

Author spotlight: Hilary Liftin

Hilary Liftin's Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper, written like a celebrity tell-all, takes readers inside a fairytale Hollywood romance that turns out to be very different under the surface. Below, Hilary sheds some light on how her years of experience as a celebrity ghostwriter helped her shape her first novel.

Q: Where did you get the idea to write your novel as a celebrity tell-all?
A: The idea for this book came one day when I was reading People magazine and saw yet another celebrity marriage exploding. I thought, "I don’t have to wait to land this job or any other. I can just write it myself—write the celebrity memoir of my dreams."

Q: You’ve been ghostwriting real-life celebrity memoirs for more than a decade. What was it like writing your own novel?
A: I’ve never written or studied fiction, but by now I’m very comfortable with writing memoirs. I’m used to taking on someone else’s story and voice and helping bring it to life. So it made sense for my first fiction to write a faux celebrity memoir. But there were definitely new challenges. I’m used to working with true stories, most of which I incorporate into the book in some form. For Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper, I had to face the daunting notion that not every idea was worth keeping. I probably wrote and discarded a couple hundred pages.

Q: Without naming names, can you share a little bit about what it’s like to work with celebrities on their books?
A: Ghostwriting is a true collaboration. We talk for hours—usually at my clients' houses—with me typing at high speed on my computer. I don’t know about other ghostwriters, but I would never put made-up stories in a memoir. Instead, as a client tells me what they think is most important and entertaining about their life, I’m helping them find connections and structure the narrative. Most celebrities work hard to manage their brands. They speak carefully, worrying about soundbites. Something that they and I both enjoy about the process is that it’s completely liberating. I’m on their side. I work for them. They can trust me with the truth, and then we can decide together how much of it to reveal. I always encourage my clients to be honest. If they’ve done something that’s potentially controversial, I figure if they can make me understand it and feel sympathetic, then we can achieve the same with the reader.

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from reading your book?
A: So many of us devour the “just like us” celebrity photo section of magazines. In a way, I hope that the book is the ultimate “just like us” experience. But instead of realizing that stars pump gas too, Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper is meant to go a little deeper, exploring what happens when you discover that your spouse (megastar or no) isn’t all that you had hoped. I want it to be satisfyingly juicy, but also surprisingly romantic.

For me, reading about celebrities is part of my job, but it’s also a bit of a guilty pleasure. I feel sympathetic toward anyone who has to deal with paparazzi, no matter how much fancier their lives are than mine. I hope the book is a way for people to fulfill that voyeurism through fiction. No celebrities were harmed in the making of this book!


Hilary Liftin is an award-winning, New York Times–bestselling ghostwriter who specializes in celebrity memoirs. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and children.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Three Ways to Collaborate as a Ghostwriter

by Graciela Sholander
This post originally appeared on Ghostwriting Plus.

I have ghostwritten over 25 books for a number of clients, including doctors, lawyers, and motivational speakers. Today I want to share with you three effective ways you can collaborate with your client.

1. Rewrite a Raw Manuscript

These days, this is my favorite way to ghostwrite a book. If your client has written most or all of her manuscript, you’re in a great position to help her reach the next level. She’s written down her ideas. Now it’s your turn to do your magic.

Starting with what she’s put together, rework it to produce the most engaging, professional product possible. Hack away! Create new chapter titles and section headers. Rewrite to your heart’s content. Remove redundancies. Expand points. Add anecdotes and examples to support her points.

Keep the main messages, and make sure your client’s voice comes through. But use your own savvy to rework the manuscript, transforming it from amateurish to a highly professional work of art, with every sentence a joy to read.

2. Write a Manuscript from Interviews

At the other end of the spectrum is the client who has written nothing and has a million ideas floating in his head. He’s brilliant, and his ideas are worth sharing with readers, but as soon as he tries writing anything down, he loses them. He’s an eloquent speaker, not a writer.

In this case, schedule a series of interviews. They can be conducted in person, by phone, or through Skype. I interview clients by phone, and since I’m a fast typist I go ahead and type what they say, creating a written record in real time. This saves me the expense and extra step of having an audio interview transcribed. Then as I piece together a manuscript from scratch, I simply copy and paste sections from the written record, rewriting and expanding them as needed.

By the way, in this case it’s a good idea to charge separately for the interviews. I typically charge clients a per-page rate for ghostwriting plus a per-hour rate for phone interviews.

3. Piece Together What You’ve Been Given and Gather More

In this approach, the client has some material to give you. For example, she might hand you 19 pages she’s written with rough ideas for her book, plus five articles published about her in different magazines, and two YouTube videos of her being interviewed on the subject you’ll be ghostwriting about.

Your job is to take this hodgepodge and incorporate it into a new work. In addition, you’ll need to figure out what’s missing and schedule a few interviews to gather more information.

Since I enjoy writing a hundred times more than I enjoy talking, I try to conduct email interviews whenever possible. This won’t work for clients who love to talk and hate to write. It does tend to work for very busy professionals, though, since they can sit down and address your emailed questions at their leisure.

When I conduct email interviews, I do not charge extra. I charge only a per-page fee for ghostwriting the manuscript.


Graciela has been a professional writer for 21 years and focuses on ghostwriting, editing, proofreading, articles, social media, marketing, and website content. She is also the co-author of Dream It Do It: Inspiring Stories of Dreams Come True, a motivational self-help guide.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Book Spotlight: "Business Writing Today: A Practical Guide"

This week, we caught up with author Natalie Canavor, whose new book, Business Writing Today: A Practical Guide, is out now.

Business Writing Today is a self-help book for people who want to write better at work. Canavor, who has written several books on this topic, is brimming with great ideas and strategies to improve your business communication. Check out her take on business writing in the digital era in our special Q&A.  

GG: What made you want to write this book, and who is the target audience?
NC: Research, and my own experience, tells me that most young people today write badly. Few are able to figure out what to say, and even fewer are able to say it well. This hurts them when they compete for career opportunities, and if they are hired, most don’t function as well as they could. But it isn’t just young people’s poor writing that produces a huge problem for today’s organizations; most business communication is awful. This results in very expensive mistakes, misunderstandings, and unnecessary conflicts.

Business Writing Today is a self-help book for people who want to improve their everyday writing—emails, resumes, elevator speeches, proposals, blogs, and so on—in order to get what they want.


Why do good writing skills matter in today’s digital marketplace?
In the digital world, so much depends on writing. You won’t get in many doors without a good elevator pitch, resume, proposal, sales letter, blog, and/or networking message. In a world where we meet less and talk less, we make decisions and judge others based on their writing.

And there are no captive audiences anymore. Surrounded by so much to read, so much media, we are all extremely selective. If we want to be read, the academic models most of us learned in school don’t work. Good business writing isn’t about strict correctness and impressive language. It’s about knowing how to attract and hold your audience. It’s about understanding other people’s viewpoints. It’s about building relationships.


Can you share a tip or two from your book?
Here are two of my favorites.

Before writing a message, visualize whom you’re writing to. Hold a mental conversation. If you’re asking for something—which, in a way, every message does—“hear” the other person’s reservations and think about how to answer them. Then when you write, you’ll almost automatically adopt the right tone, know the best content to use to make your case, and be able to frame your message to that individual. Always figure out why someone should give you what you want, from his or her perspective rather than your own, and then write from that understanding.

On a micro level: After you’ve drafted your message, look at each sentence (or say it aloud). When you find more than one “of,” “to,” “in,” “for,” or “that,” or more than a single word ending in -ing or -ed or -ious or -ly, rewrite the sentence so there is only one. (Or two, if you absolutely can’t help it.) This is a surefire way to edit yourself out of abstract, wordy, dishwater-dull writing. Simple words and present tense usually solve the problem. To avoid a choppy rhythm, alternate long and short sentences for a cadence that carries people along.


What are some additional resources for those who want to learn more about business writing?
Everyone should read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. He makes the best-ever case for clarity, conciseness, and simplicity in all writing. Of course, I’d like it if people checked out my other books as well! In addition to Business Writing Today (which is a second edition of Business Writing in the Digital Age), there’s Business Writing for Dummies and The Truth About the New Rules of Business Writing, which delivers the ideas in 52 bite-sized pieces.


Natalie Canavor is a business writer, journalist, and communications consultant. She gives workshops on practical writing and workplace communications. Natalie also teaches advanced writing seminars for grad students in PR/Corporate Communications and young professionals at NYU.


Friday, May 15, 2015

"Lincoln Speaks": A Review

By Dana Rubin
“Public sentiment is everything,” declared Abraham Lincoln in 1858 during his first senatorial debate with Stephen Douglas. “He who molds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statues or pronounces decisions.”

Lincoln thought public speaking was a more profound tool for influence and persuasion than the legislative or executive arenas. And his tool of choice was language. The development of his linguistic and rhetorical skills is the subject of "Lincoln Speaks: Words that Transformed a Nation" at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York.

Reflecting on his use of language, Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer—himself a onetime speechwriter for Mario Cuomo—calls Lincoln “an aspirational model for the modern politician.”

But was Lincoln truly a modern writer? In notes, letters, poems, pamphlets, scribbles, and speeches, the exhibit traces the growth of his literary and persuasive skills. It was language that helped him win his senatorial seat and the Republican nomination and presidency, sway public opinion during the prosecution of the Civil War, and pave the way for post-war reconciliation.

Growing up poor in a frontier town, the son of an illiterate and abusive father, Lincoln found refuge in books and poetry. With limited access, his reading was broad but not deep. He read the same works over and over—the King James Bible, Dickens, Aesop’s Fables, Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories, and Edgar Allan Poe. It’s the exact opposite of our reading habits today.

In an age without television, radio, or internet, the public had a tolerance for a certain windbaggery. Speakers at debates, rallies, and conferences would routinely drone on for two hours or more. Their words were then printed as a pamphlet or broadside and quoted in the newspapers.

Lincoln broke with convention by using language more sparingly. His speeches, which he wrote himself, were tighter than his contemporaries, his word choices simpler, his arguments more direct.

Prominent in the exhibit are copies of the three speeches now considered his greatest: the Second Inaugural, his Cooper Union speech, and the Gettysburg Address.

The Cooper Union address, which won him national attention and helped him gain the Republican nomination, was printed as a pamphlet in 1860. In it Lincoln anchored his anti-slavery argument in the thinking of the nation’s founders and predicted the ultimate end of slavery.

The Second Inaugural was published not long after the inauguration itself on March 4, 1865 as a large broadside in blue ink. With the Confederacy weakening, he used conciliatory language to reach out to his enemies and heal the wounded nation. He ended with the vision of “binding up the nation’s wounds”—borrowed from the Hebrew psalms.

Many today consider it Lincoln’s finest speech, but at the time Southerners detested his message and bitterly fought his nomination and election. After the assassination on April 15, it was reprinted—this time in black ink.

Then there’s the Gettysburg Address. Only 272 words, it memorializes the sacrifices of those who gave their lives on the battlefield in now iconic language. Tony Kushner calls it “a spectacular prose poem.”

For those of us who might want to learn from Lincoln’s craftsmanship, there are no original drafts in the exhibit, no notepads filled with scratched-out lines and ink blotches. We know Lincoln revised his speeches over and over, up until the last minute. But once the speech had been delivered, proofread, and typeset, he threw the drafts away. He wasn’t thinking of the archives.

So what kind of model was Lincoln for wordsmiths like us? To contemporary audiences, his spare and direct language is clearly more modern than his contemporaries. Yet there’s a quality of restraint that still sounds antique. I think that’s because Lincoln believed that to win public sentiment, a speaker must appeal to reason, not emotion. As a speechwriter he relied on principles and rational argument to do the heavy lifting.

Today we do the opposite. We enthusiastically use raw emotion to sway our listeners. We whip tension into frothy peaks and sloughs of despair like the most heavy-handed and manipulative Hollywood scriptwriters. Our professional gurus tell us a good speech has to play to our audiences’ emotions. Make them feel it in the kishkes.

We also worship at the altar of happiness. As professionals, that’s the state we’re all striving toward, right? But Lincoln was a gloomy guy. He suffered nervous breakdowns, bouts of melancholia, a dark and macabre dream life.

So how was he able to summon the language that would define so profoundly those turbulent times? How did he carry on despite so much suffering? Despite the wealth of documents, this exhibit can’t explain it—except to suggest he prevailed through language.

See it quick! The exhibit ends June 7.

This post originally appeared on Vital Speeches of the Day.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Your Speechwriter: An Operator’s Manual

by David Murray
This post originally appeared on The Strategist via PRSA

[ikon images/corbis]
As far as PR positions go, the speechwriter probably has one of the most interesting (and borderline absurd) jobs. One describes his marching orders from the CEO as: “Write down my thoughts as if I had them.”

Until recently, this group didn’t have a formal forum to share what they do. But with the advent of the Professional Speechwriters Association (PSA) this past winter, we can now look into the realities of this position, thanks to the recently released results of its first-ever membership survey. The survey yielded insights about modern speechwriters that their managers and colleagues might find useful, as they try to coax sustainable excellence from this peculiar, but potentially powerful PR position.

The first thing to know about speechwriters is that many of them prefer to be referred to as something else. In fact, an argument broke out among the delegates at the first World Conference of the PSA about this point:

“The term ‘speechwriter’ is limiting,” someone said, questioning the wisdom of the name of the new association. One suggestion was to call it the “Leadership Communication Association,” in order to acknowledge the broader role that so many speechwriters have: building thought leadership platforms, crafting executive messages for many media and coaching executives through various communication opportunities.

But other speechwriters rose to the defense of the old term. One person said it’s useful because “it fences me off” from others in the organization who would water the job down with other duties. A self-proclaimed “speechwriter” is a kind of brand that “excites people,” as opposed to broader but blander descriptors such as “executive communicator.”


Don’t hide your speechwriter

The PSA survey revealed that speechwriters are older, more likely to be male, better educated, and better paid than their colleagues in public relations. The typical speechwriter is a 51-year-old man with a master’s degree. More than half of the speechwriters surveyed make more than $100,000 annually, with 23 percent pulling in more than $150,000 (and half of those making more than $200,000).

Speechwriters are also more likely than their well-coiffed PR colleagues to be unkempt, unruly, unconventional—or all of the above. But do not punish them for this. Every organization should have one person who is deeply—and perhaps even a little single-mindedly—devoted to helping the leader articulate the organization’s point of view as compellingly as possible.

Most leaders know this and will tolerate—and sometimes embrace—a little eccentricity in a person who helps them sound, look, and feel better in front of important audiences.


Help out your speechwriter

Even with the best client-speechwriter chemistry—JFK called his speechwriter Ted Sorensen “my intellectual blood bank”—the speechwriter struggles to get sufficient access to achieve a real mind-meld with the boss.

Now add the litany of common troubles that PSA members listed in the survey: solitude, short deadlines, slow workflows, lawyers, and indifference.

Speechwriters resent clients who “don’t care about content”—and bureaucrats who care too much: “I have to contend with constant micromanaging by people who see risk lurking in every corner and are afraid of letting the CEO take any kind of position,” one survey participant said. “They also have no feel for what constitutes good writing, yet exert a huge influence over the process.”

A PR manager should not be one of those risk-averse bureaucrats. And when the lawyers or the HR staff or the compliance people start sucking the life from a piece of leadership communication, fight valiantly on your speechwriter’s behalf.

Even if you don’t win, your speechwriter will appreciate having an ally instead of one more institutional enemy.


Know what makes your speechwriter happy

Asked what they like most about their work, speechwriters said “shaping public debates,” “finding and telling stories,” “intellectual and creative challenge and reward,” “the variety of topics and amazing people that I get to work with” and “the silent hours when I, through writing, try to understand and share something important.”

Speechwriters are like snowflakes; some succeed precisely because they’re CEO whisperers. But many of the ones worth keeping around are the oddest and most difficult to please. They have razor intellects, a restless curiosity and healthy—if not slightly obese—egos.

But remember, lots of speechwriters are older. So they know by now that life in leadership communication will not lay itself neatly before them. So if they can see that they are achieving something significant with their work, if they can be intellectually stimulated, if they feel that someone, somewhere in the organization believes that the corporate strategy can be advanced by articulate rhetoric and communication, they will stick around and keep giving their best, despite it all.

Thirty years ago, a corporate speechwriter wrote, “No one is recording these speeches. There are no books of them that readers save and treasure. Our files will be tossed on the scrap heap when we leave or retire. But we have been sitting at a typewriter making land, a sea, a sky, burning words. That’s enough. It is more than most have.”

In the end, it’s all your speechwriter requires. That, and a salary somewhere in the low six figures.

But in exchange for helping your organization’s top leadership communicate compellingly, is that too much to ask?

Friday, April 10, 2015

Blank Page, Blue Sky

by David Murray

I get it on the golf course every time I'm paired with a stranger. There's a wait on the fourth tee, and the guy says, "So what do you do for a living?"

(I generally want to avoid this conversation because I like to keep golf separate from life—the reason I play in the first place. Similarly, I don't take my business cards to bed with me in case I meet a potentially useful new contact in my dreams.)

"I'm a writer," I say, never able to hide the pride. It's cool to be a writer. It's old. It's elemental. It's a little like announcing that you're a fisherman or a hunter (or a clown or a prostitute). "Am a writer," my novelist mother once wrote. "Get to call myself that because I write."

But then there is dread. Dread because the response is so perfectly predictable.

"Oh, wow!" Pause, two seconds. "What sort of writing do you do?"

That last question means, "How on earth do you make a living? Or is your wife an investment banker and you're actually a bum and that's why you're on the golf course in the middle of the week?"

My pride forces me to convince the fellow that I do make a living, by hook and by crook, an exercise I resent. Once I've achieved this, his next line, if it's not the worst case ("I've got a story you should write!") is something to the effect of how interesting my work must be.

Which I take as a confession about how boring his life must be.

My old man, an advertising writer, used to see everyone else's job as a nightmare of tedium. Even a doctor! He said: "Can you imagine, day after day, hour after hour, patient after patient, describing the same symptoms over and over as if they were just the most important thing in the world? And you having to listen gravely, even though in most cases you know from the moment they walk into the office that you're going to prescribe amoxicillan."

Glad Dad wasn't a doctor? Me too. But maybe he was on to something. Maybe a writer does have a kind of blue sky that others don't. But the writer also has a blank page to contend with. (A bus driver once told me he pitied writers when he opened up the newspaper and tried to imagine some poor wretch having to write all those words!) A writer's work isn't done for him in the form of a full waiting room. A writer's work, however familiar the subject has become, must be done from scratch.

“People would say I must have had such a great life doing this, people who were engineers, doctors, insurance salesmen or whatever,” said radio comedy writer Tom Koch, who died last week. “But it was the kind of work where every morning I would wake up and think, ‘My God, I wonder if I can do it again today.’ There is no way you prepare to do it, or even know how you do it.”

And maybe that's the best thing about it.

This post originally appeared on Vital Speeches of the Day.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Around the Word

Here's the latest in our regular roundup of literary news.

Cover chosen for Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman
Michael Morrison notes that the jacket “draws on the style of the decade the book was written, but with a modern twist.” The cover, featuring a 1950s train forging off into the distance, touches “literally and figuratively on the book's content.” Surely, in contemporary celebrity fashion, Harper Lee’s fans will line up for half a mile just to catch a glimpse of the 88-year-old author’s winning smile.

Nine Launches, One Book
Can you be in nine places at once? In May, he folks at McPherson & Company, in an innovative experiment, will inhabit nine parallel universes—well, nine different bookstores—to launch the multi-author essay collection Every Father’s Daughter. Nine of the book's 20+ authors will host a simultaneous talk, with readers at one shop being able to Skype their questions to authors across the country. Join Gotham Ghostwriters (in nine separate realities) as we congratulate their achievement.

Centennial Stories
Best American Short Stories is celebrating its 100th birthday! Far from being infirm, crotchety, or behind the times, the series is vigorously planning a special anniversary edition to celebrate becoming a centenarian. 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories will feature seminal works from the last century, with contributions from literary luminaries such as George Saunders, John Cheever, Sherman Alexie, Edna Ferber, and many more.

To Self-Publish or Not to Self-Publish?
Lulu recently published an infographic based on a survey conducted by Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest, touting the benefits of going indie (self-publishing). Traditionalists beware! The revelations of the changing publishing landscape are gothic and dire. However, while the enticing “Indie Math” may lead writers to believe that navigating the dense forest of self-marketing is profitable, the article goes on to describe how difficult a venture this can prove.