Friday, June 28, 2013

Capturing Another's Voice

by Gwen Moran

When it comes to ghostwriting, one of the most challenging aspects of writing the manuscript is capturing another author’s voice. Writers typically have a cadence and style to their work that reflects certain word, construction, and other preferences. Sometimes those can be easily recognized. Developing a strong, recognizable voice is a work-in-progress for many writers. 

Ghostwriters, on the other hand, seek to be invisible. Our job is to capture and present the voice of the author. We are successful when someone says, “That sounds just like me!” And while that almost never happens in the first draft, there is a process I’ve found very effective when aiming to sound less like Gwen and more like the individual whose book I’m ghosting.

Listen. The way the individual speaks and tells his or her story, whether it’s a memoir or a nonfiction service book, tells you what’s most important. When you discuss the content, what are the areas that the author tells with enthusiasm and detail? What does he or she address more casually? These are important clues to what the author thinks matters. It may be your job to challenge that and get beneath the surface to richer material, but those initial conversations can give you strong insight into the author’s mindset.

Read. If the author has written other material, read it. Memoranda, email messages, newsletter articles, speeches, presentations—it doesn’t matter. Get a good collection of the author’s own written words. Of course, not everyone is a professional writer, and it’s your job to make the work sparkle. But notice the author’s style. Does she favor long, conversational sentences? Is he funny? Does she use numbers or bullet points to break up her correspondence? Are there style clues that you can incorporate into the writing you’ll do on this person’s behalf?

Record. A digital recorder is a ghostwriter’s best friend. I record my sessions with authors and note key sections of the audio file. I listen to the audio file while reviewing the transcription. This helps me relate the words on the page to the author’s voice, so when I’m writing, I can hear in my head the way my author turns a phrase. I’ll ask the author to present the material as if he or she was pitching a client or explaining something to a friend. In those familiar monologues, I look for well-worn terms and favored anecdotes. Words prefaced by “I always say…” or “I usually tell people…” are gold to be woven into the copy, bringing the author’s voice to life.

Revise. In most of my ghostwriting relationships, I manage expectations upfront: It’s very rare that I will nail the author’s voice on the first round. That’s where revisions come in. When we discuss the work, I record those conversations. Often, the author does much of the voice transformation as we talk about changes and additions. When she looks at a passage and tells me, “I like that, but I would say it another way,” the next words give me the infusion of her voice that makes the work uniquely hers. When he shares an additional fact or two he forgot in the first discussion, suddenly I have his voice to insert into the copy. And I know I have done my job well when the client says, “You made me sound like me—only better!”

Gwen Moran is a Jersey Shore–based freelance writer and ghostwriter specializing in business and finance topics. She has collaborated on more than 20 books and ebooks, and is the founder of, an online information resource for small businesses.

This piece originally appeared on ASJA's The Word.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Takei To-Do, Take Two: The Ghosts Speak

Last week we asked our writers to boldly go where no ghost has gone before, to tell us whether they thought George Takei’s ghostwriter committed a major faux pas by revealing that he wrote some of the former Trekkie’s funny Facebook posts. The general verdict from our ghosts was, not surprisingly, largely critical: no matter the medium, ghost Rick Polito should have had his phaser set to silent.

Some of our ghosts, like speechwriter Bernard Lipsy, argued the traditional, absolutist line: “In my 35-year career at IBM, only my immediate colleagues knew for whom I wrote. Once the speaker opens his or her mouth, the words belong to that speaker and nobody else.” Echoing this sentiment, speechwriter Lisa Schiffren said, “It's always wrong to take credit for work that is supposed to come from the principal in question.”

Others were more conditional in their condemnation. Ghost and novelist Kerry Zukus said, “We don't know what was in the agreement [between Takei and Polito] or what went down behind the scenes,” but even without an agreement, “it should not be assumed that the ghost is free to brag about his or her work on a project. [He should] still ask permission from the client before telling the world.”

Sarah Wachter also said that consent was the key determinant. “When a ghostwriter decides to part the curtains and reveal himself, it should be done with the tacit consent of the client, and without divulging many details, keeping the statement general, casual, and understated. That’s what Polito did in his back-pedaling statement, saying: ‘I've had no direct contact with George. I've sent him some memes, as have other comedian types, and I was happy for the exposure.’”

But in the end, Liz Vance spoke for most of our ghosts when she said, “A ghost is a ghost, and shouldn't ever intentionally reveal that to the public.”

There was a much greater diversity of opinion about the ethical questions this episode raised for the new world of social-media ghosting.

Speechwriter Juli Branson suggested that the Takei case points to the dangers to and responsibilities of authors. “Social media has its own set of expectations from readers, who believe they are communicating directly with the person listed on the [social media] account,” she said. “Therefore, even if a celeb hires a ghostwriter, the celeb needs to be the one reading the posts and telling the writer how they would like to respond. If there is no connection between the celeb and the social media venue, isn't that like a speechwriter not just writing a speech, but also delivering it, and even saying they are the celeb?”

Other writers were softer on the scandal, suggesting that social media ghost-posting was something to be expected. Bookwriter Bob Fancher said, “I think the relevant question isn't the medium, but what the audience has a right to expect. I don't mind ghosting for corporate types or politicians or public office holders, because no one thinks they write their own stuff. Celebrities, it seems to me, fall into the same category. Maybe love letters and religious testimony shouldn't be ghosted. But celebrity Facebook comments? Really?”

In the end, some thought the most trenchant revelation from the whole hullabaloo was not about the morality, but the money. “I think the real embarrassment here is Takei paying just $10 for the postings, which have helped him resurrect his career and command decent appearance fees,” said Howard Rothman. “I'm not swayed by fact that the going rate for such work is appallingly low; it wouldn't be if people making a good living off this stuff offered fair remuneration.”

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Fly Me to the Moon—A ghostwriter reviews "Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations"

In the 1980s, legendary Hollywood beauty Ava Gardner hired ghostwriter Peter Evans to pen her memoirs. She was broke, aging, childless, living alone in London, in ill health, and very lonely. She told Evans that it was a choice between selling her book or selling her jewelry, and, as she said, “I’m kinda sentimental about the jewels.”

Known as an outspoken, independent, over-the-top playgirl, Gardner was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars in the 1940s and '50s, working with Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, and Burt Lancaster, among others. Her personal life was even more sensational. She’d been married to a bizarre trifecta of celebs (Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, and Frank Sinatra), had many torrid love affairs (she was especially fond of bullfighters), and then, in later life, sank into alcoholism and depression.

She was, in short, the perfect client for any ghostwriter—if he could get her to talk.

He did, especially in boozy late night gabfests on the phone. Then, after many months of hard work and interest from a major publisher, Gardner suddenly stopped calling. She fired Evans and canceled the project. (Man, we all know how that feels.) What apparently happened was that Sinatra paid her NOT to tell their story.

Twenty years went by, both Gardner and Sinatra went on to that big Silver Screen in the sky, and one day Evans pulled out his tapes and notes and decided to write his own version of Gardner's life. Only this time he put himself into the story, much in the same way that Charlie Kaufman inserted himself into his screenplay for Adaptation. That is, Evans became a character in Gardner's life, and part of the book became his struggle to get her story on paper.

Evans describes in exquisite detail how to work with and around a reluctant client, how to flatter without pandering, how to tread the fine line between friendship and a working relationship, and how to establish boundaries—including sexual ones—between oneself and a moody client. He details how ghosts have to maneuver between being a confidant, a shrink, a best friend, a detached observer, and, yes, a gossip monger. Of course, we ghosts want to present our subjects in the best light, but we sure do need those juicy details, not-so-flattering inner thoughts, and questionable motives to move the story along.

All through my reading of the book, I kept thinking it was like a primer for anyone who has ever attempted to ghostwrite someone else’s autobiography.

For me, the difficult part of ghostwriting is not the writing, it’s getting the material needed to tell the story. So reading about the ways Evans pulled it off was just one of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much. The other, of course, was learning the intimate details of Gardner’s life, particularly what she had to say about Sinatra’s biggest asset—which, trust me, was not Ole’ Blue Eyes' vocal cords.


Linda Sunshine, a former NYC publishing executive, is the author of more than 50 books and a ghostwriter for many unrepentant clients. Currently, she is the only writer in LA who isn't working on a screenplay.

Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations, by Peter Evans and Ava Gardner, is now available from Simon & Schuster.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Takei To-Do (Take One)

In case you missed it, a journalist named Rick Polito recently created a minor media sensation—and some great discussion fodder for our field—when he casually outed himself as a ghostwriter for George Takei's highly popular Facebook page.

Yesterday Polito apologized for spilling the beans, and the former Mr. Sulu issued a statement essentially asking what's the big deal. But Polito's actions nevertheless raise some interesting ethical questions for the ghosting community. Did he cross a line by revealing his work under Takei's name and taking credit for it? Or does Takei's reaction indicate otherwise? More broadly, are there different rules and expectations for ghosting social media blurbs versus long-form content?

We've invited our network of network of pros to boldly go where no ghost has gone before on this subject and offer their views on the Takei To-Do. We'll share the results of our poll here in the next few days.