Paralleling the rise of celebrity worship, ghostwriting the autobiography has become a viable path for a coterie of talented scribes to make periodic small fortunes, while enjoying zero mainstream recognition for their hard work and storytelling chops. It’s a slick way to make a living, especially if you have no stomach for fame, but want your stuff read.
What do memoir ghostwriters really do?
They serve to permit the telling of a large, convenient lie. Whether it’s a white lie or a bright and shiny one is for each of us to divine. What’s unquestioned is that hiring a ghost is among the vainest and somehow most forgivable of false proclamations, namely: “I have written the story of me.”
Why is this so?
Because writing one’s autobiography is among the most arduous challenges a human could ever wish to embrace – I can tell you that from personal experience. Worse still, the more humble, the more adoration-averse, the more given to downplaying one’s own accomplishments one is, the more grueling the notion.
Hiring a ghost removes one from that entire discomfiting business – but only within one’s own conscience. If the ghostwriter writes you as beyond superhuman, but the audience reads it as a few hundred pages of self-serving narcissism, then it’s all back on you. So yes, it’s a squirmy decision to ponder.
And not you, the ghostwriter’s, problem.
How do ghostwriters plan a book?
Though I have ghostwritten both an autobiography (link to sample) and written my own biography, I would never lay claim to knowing the autobiography ghostwriting formula inside out. I confess to largely having made it up as I went along, but following a logical process. Below is the distillation of my own experience blended with the best bits of advice I could get from the experts.
Of course, this all assumes you can write.
Start with what’s written down and who was there
You need to build a story, even if you have no idea of what it is just yet. Start with letters, appointment books, emails, texts and other correspondence between the book’s subject and their friends, family and associates. These will help uncover what went down, was said, when it happened and what relationships existed between all story figures.
If your subject kept diaries, great, and not so great – you’ve got some serious reading and sifting to do. But do it you must. Great quantities of personal thoughts can be anything from overwhelming to insight-delivering to tedious. Likely, all three. Journal entries can be quoted from, to drop the reader right back into the times of the subject as it felt when it happened.
Do a timeline
As you start to get a feel for the project’s scope, create a chart of key years and events in the areas of interest to the story to use as a framework to piece together the whole. Could be on a computer, a whiteboard or on index cards.
Now start grafting chunks onto a timeline
Depending on your subject’s persona, some may find it easier to walk you through their lives using pictures and papers rather than to sit and recollect from memory alone. You will of course need to record it all, and edit down all these recollections to make a coherent tale. When in doubt return to the central question: What am I trying to say here, and how do I make these pieces work to say it?
Get to a small-ish first draft
Use the subject and the recordings to write a small draft. Listening to them will help you take on that person’s voice. Then start dropping in the story chunks where they fit best. Once your first draft is written, print it, read it and note in the margins all the missing bits that strike you along the way. Sit down with your subject and a recorder, ask them to fill in those blanks.
Feelings. Woe, woe, woe, feelings
Remember to ask how it felt and what it meant – feelings and meaning pick up where facts leave off. Meanwhile, now that you’ve got your facts, you have time to focus on tonality and style of writing. Take note of the person’s habits of speech, tics, and such, so you can incorporate the most interesting and telling (and one hopes, flattering) of them into the final manuscript.
You want it to sound like them telling it – not you having tidily edited it.
All books, including memoirs, need theme and purpose
I you know yours going in, lovely – the earlier the better. This knowledge helps you decide which people and happenings to keep and which to ditch. It may be much simpler to wait for a theme to emerge when the draft is still finding its feet, rather than at the outset, before writing. So don’t worry about that – theme and meaning often write or present themselves while in progress.
Stay fit and mentally acute
Ghostwriting is emotionally taxing, physically tiring work. You dive inside another’s soul and become a parasite upon it. They tend to notice. It gets intense. Especially traumatic tales. Be sure to make time for sports, movies, books and relaxation, so you don’t disappear down their mind funnel and lose the contexts and voice that make you the writer they hired.