Writer/editor Miranda C. Spencer explores the challenge and triumph of ghosting.

People tend to imagine a ghostwriter as an anonymous scribe penning an entire book for a time-pressed CEO or TV star who, after scribbling a check for a chunk of the advance, then slaps his or her name on it and basks in glory. However, hiring a silent collaborator at any point in one’s creative process to serve as manuscript midwife is an appropriate and affordable option for any author.

Whether we labor side by side, or – more typical --via e-mail, phone, and fax, my goal is to form a sort of Vulcan Mind Meld with authors such that I become an extension of their minds and hands. Through my ministrations, they can realize and embody their ideas in a finished work.

My clients are often individuals who are accomplished in their fields, knowledgeable about their topics, and have something intriguing to say-- but who don’t like or haven’t the knack for writing. Or they may simply be paralyzed by the idea of transforming their material into an actual book.

Such was the case of an author I’ll call Sally. For decades, she’d run a successful business and personal training business, and for half that time had been trying to write a book about her techniques. She came to me with about two-thirds of a manuscript –much in decent shape, some stream of consciousness – and a lot of angst. It had a lot of different fingerprints on it -- many friends and associates had critiqued her work along the way, and each time, she’d go back and change it again-- never satisfied, never publishing.

As is often the case, the material needed a single “voice” and a sense of organization, so the first thing we looked at is constructing what I call the skeleton, or logical undergirding structure. For Sally’s book, which was a step-by-step self-help guide, it was pretty clear how to break it down. Once we (re) organized things, the work process defined itself: Each step was a chapter, and the book as a whole was divided into three sections. We proceeded section by section and step by step.

As also often happens, we wound up going back and forth numerous times to craft and hone the text. I’d take the original and reorganize, copy edit, and write in a bit of new material in Sally’s voice (something I get a sense of from reading an author’s drafts and conversing with her, then becomes imprinted on me in a subconscious process even I don’t fully understand). Then Sally would review and revise my changes, ask questions, and make additional suggestions; I’d do another round of editing and rewriting, and so on until we were both satisfied. I made myself available nearly 24/7 so she could contact me when ever an issue arose about matters large (Which case studies are best for which sections?) and small (Do we want to capitalize or lowercase this term throughout?). The final step was both of us doing a full read-through (“cover to cover”) and making further tweaks. In this way, we worked through the entire project, several hours a week, over the course of about six months.

I also advised Sally on various aspects of publishing and marketing. Serving as touchstone and hand-holder, I helped her find a self-publisher (because she wanted to get out there right away); hooked her up with a graphic designer who created the book’s cover; and wrote the jacket copy with her.

Along the way, we got to know a little about each other’s personal lives and backgrounds. For me, that deeper, mutual understanding is part of the job. Ghosting is a unique relationship built on intimacy and trust; you can’t really develop the Vulcan Mind Meld without it.

Sally gave me a thank-you in the published book, and of course I got paid (an hourly rate that wound up in the mid-five figures). But I gained much more than that: the satisfaction of the midwife-- helping someone to achieve a dream and give birth to a creative work that in turn affects readers’ lives.

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Tags: #publishing, Miranda C Spencer, editor, self-publishing

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Comment by Miranda C. Spencer on July 6, 2010 at 9:00am
Hi folks, sorry I haven't responded. I'm working out in the country with no TV and only dial up!

First off, sorry about the erroneous link! The Editorial Freelancers Association's site is www.the-efa.org.

Yes, Karen, please go ahead and post the entry with changes as noted. I'm flattered.

And Lisa, I'm not writing the book or the screenplay. For this book, by a "regular person," I'm acting more as a manuscript doctor, though it doesn't need a lot of work (which is a pleasure to see for a first time author). She has an option that will soon expire, but there is no screenplay yet. What's cool about this book is that you could almost write a screenplay directly from it, scene by scene.

Let's see...Gwyn, "Sally" and I worked only part time; it wouldn't have taken so long if we'd both not been involved with other projects. Also, the mid-five-figures is affordable if you are spreading it out. I tend to do pay as you go ("here are chapters 1-5 and an invoice for the hours on that.") That said, most "regular" people that come to me are committed enough to their project that they've set aside some money for help. I think people are more willing to wind up paying $5K for something in increments than up front, because that's how they tend to get paid themselves. Strategy!
Comment by Gwyn Nichols on July 2, 2010 at 12:11pm
It made my day to see "affordable option for any author" and "mid-five figures" in the same post. May all our clients feel so prosperous this year! It does take that kind of time to collaborate as extensively as you did on this project, and you're so right about it being "a unique relationship built on intimacy and trust" and about the satisfaction of the work. Go, ghostwriters!
Comment by Karen Propp on July 2, 2010 at 11:14am
Miranda,
I love your phrase Vulcan Mind Meld! My ghosting ethos and process is very similar to yours and it's a pleasure to see it articulated so well. I often prefer charging a flat rate than hourly fee because a) both of us know what the costs will be up front and b) I find it difficult to put an hourly fee on a project I will carry around in my head when away from my desk. Plus sometimes the work goes faster, sometimes slower. I've never actually tracked my hours, though, so not sure how it comes out.

I'd like to post this entry to my website: www.karenpropp.com -- with a couple edits (i.e. delete sentence about hourly pay and also about being available 24/7) along with comment that article written by Miranda C. Spencer is a fair description of how ghostwriting works. Would that be okay?
Comment by Kay Ross on July 2, 2010 at 9:58am
Hi Miranda - in one of your comments, the link you gave for the Editorial Freelancers Association website, www.efa.org, actually goes to the Epilepsy Foundation.
Comment by Lisa Cerasoli on July 2, 2010 at 9:50am
typo below....with chapter 23 OF the novel....
Comment by Lisa Cerasoli on July 2, 2010 at 9:49am
Are you writing the manuscript and the script? Having reading thousands of scripts, I'll tell you that the "transition" is often not as A-B-C as one thinks. On the Brink... is a screenplay. I started the script with a monologue from chapter 23 or the novel. As Nora Jo... both the pilot and the film are "a day in the life" (a really bad day) with characters sort of "coming out of the story" to express their thoughts directly to a black & white camera. If hers is already optioned, is that production company writing the script or are you? Also, On the Brink... has been optioned 3 times, but the options all ran out and it's not made yet. Hers sound more solid though, esp. if the manuscript isn't written yet. Is she a Hollywood person?
Comment by Miranda C. Spencer on July 2, 2010 at 9:32am
Very impressive! I'm doing some light ghost work for a novelist right now who already has a film option on her yet to be published ms. Any advice on making the fiction-to-film or TV transition? (that might be a How She Does It of its own...)
Comment by Lisa Cerasoli on July 1, 2010 at 3:29pm
Miranda, thank you so much! this is perfect advice. I have two books out, one is romantic fiction and just took the SILVER in Fore Word's Book of the Year Awards, and my newly released memoir, As Nora Jo Fades Away just WON the Paris Book Festival (about caring for my gram with Alzheimer's). I also write scripts and pilots. I'm 10 years in-the-making as a writer, and On the Brink of Bliss and Insanity is my debut in '09. You've been amazingly helpful. Happy 4th! I'll check out that site.
Comment by Miranda C. Spencer on July 1, 2010 at 3:13pm
Hi Lisa. Well, I tend to charge by the hour for projects where I'm coming in midstream -- if you go to the Editorial Freelancers Association website, www.efa.org, they have a range of suggested hourly rates for ghosting. The more complex the work and the tighter the deadline, the higher the rate one can typically charge. I usually start with a question, though: "What's your budget, and how much flexibility do you have with that?" Because if they've set aside only a grand there's going to be a limit to how many hours you can give them and you adjust accordingly. As with most of ghosting, it's very personal and individual. I'm not comfortable actually saying what I personally charge because I don't want to be boxed in. I'd say you should charge based on your level of experience. Finally, I didn't start out with a head for business. I've made it up as I go along. Just keep really good records, whether that's on the back of an envelope or using some advanced Excel spreadsheet system!
Comment by Lisa Cerasoli on July 1, 2010 at 11:04am
I am being asked for the 3rd time to be a ghost writer for someone. The first two haven't lead anywhere yet..but this 3rd may be the real thing. I don't have a natural "head for business." When you say hourly rate, Miranda, can you give me some sort of loose spectrum as to what that means? I understand "advance" and have learned many good tips from my lit. managers, but...

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