Thursday, January 9, 2014

Guest Post: 5 Lessons Learned from Ghostwriting Memoirs

by Heather Hummel

One of the first statistics I heard when I started ghostwriting over a decade ago was that 80 percent of people want to write a book, and no doubt most of them are referring to writing their memoir. I can say that the same 80 percent applies to the types of books I ghost for clients—memoirs in one form or another.

Among the books I've written for philanthropists, corporations, and public figures, each of my clients have striven to achieve one goal: sharing their story in order to benefit others. Whether that is done in a traditional memoir or a prescriptive self-help book, there are many ways to approach these projects to ensure the best experience and outcome for all involved.

Here are five lessons I've learned along the way:

1. Leave Your Personal Agenda at the Door
This is a critical requirement of ghosting. It doesn't mean the ghostwriter shouldn't offer advice, but at the end of the day it's the client's message, not any agenda of the ghostwriter, that should shine through.

Along the same lines, I believe that a particular ghost can be too close to a topic. For example, a book about raising a child with autism might be better served by a ghostwriter who doesn't have a family member with that particular condition. Otherwise, either consciously or subconsciously, the ghost might end up drawing too much from his or her own experience, thereby clouding the client's message, which might come out of very different experiences. A ghost who hasn't contended with that specific issue, but is empathic and open to understanding what the client wants to express, is likely to write a comparatively more genuine book.

2. Determine Your Client's Engagement Level
An important conversation to have at the onset of the project has to do with the amount of involvement the client will assume. Some clients want their ghost to take the pen and just run with it, whereas others want to be more hands-on each step of the way. Knowing what kind of commitment to expect from your client will help you assess how to structure the work you do together.

But even for the most hands-off clients, a ghostwriting project is still a team effort: the ghost needs information to work with, as well as feedback on the work that's been done. Make sure your client understands this before you get started!

3. Keep the Project Moving
Because ghosting a book can take six months to a year to complete, one of the most important tasks for the ghostwriter is to keep your client engaged and energized. My remedy for this is to set many small deadlines. Agree on the date by which you'll have each chapter to your client, and then a deadline for the client to respond with feedback. This will keep the project constantly moving forward.

4. Know How to Combat Cold Feet
J.K. Rowling once said, "The idea of wondering off to a café with a notebook and writing and seeing where that takes me for a while is just bliss." When I heard this, I thought about those people who want to write a book, and how they must all envision themselves sitting in cafés journaling what will become their message to the masses. Although such a large number of people want to pen their memoirs, more often than not, and at some point in the process, the romantic appeal of sharing one's life publicly is replaced with cold feet when reality sets in. Time and time again, a client's cold feet will be exposed—sometimes one toe at a time, sometimes all ten at once.

It's imperative to have a conversation with your client about the "cold feet" factor at the start of the project—before fear sets in and overrides excitement. Discuss the fact that these feelings may come and are perfectly normal, and that the client is in complete control of how much of the story is divulged, and in what way.

4. Keep Very Good Records
This may seem like common sense, but it's an important lesson that bears emphasizing. It's crucial to keep clear, detailed records of every interaction you have with your client, from e-mail and phone correspondence to each draft incarnation of the manuscript. This practice will serve you in many ways.

Say, for example, that halfway through the project, the client changes his or her mind about the scope of a book. Naturally, the new scope may actually benefit the book—it's normal to have breakthrough ideas during the writing process. But this could also require a reassessment of the contract and the client's fiscal responsibilities to you, especially if you have already allotted considerable time to the project. Having documentation to compare what was originally agreed upon to what is now being asked will help greatly.

To give another example: I won a court case against a client who was in breach of contract, and I credit my win, in large part, to the fact that I had saved every single text message over our year-long working relationship. After combing through hundreds of texts, my lawyer found one that gave ample evidence that the client's in-court argument was a lie.

Heather Hummel has ghostwritten more than a dozen books for a diverse array of clients, including philanthropists, corporations, politicians, realtors, and public figures. Heather is also a featured blogger for the Huffington Post and a land- and seascape photographer, represented by Agora Gallery in New York. A graduate with high distinction from the University of Virginia, Heather holds a Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies degree with concentrations in English and Secondary Education.