EXPLETIVE: A Little Glimpse into the Professional Ghostwriter’s Life (Or, Rather, This Morning)
(CW: Contains offensive language in three….two….one…)
That’s the banner you could hang over the dining table/work station in my rented livingroom this morning. It’s Sunday, Father’s Day. Three hours until I need to be about sixty kilometres from here with my family, testing out a recipe for the potluck we’re doing for Dad (of course, he’ll be barbecuing, so I figured some vegetables and a bagna cauda dip would offer a nice contrast).
For now, though, I’m figuring out just what to write for my latest advtertorial on my Facebook page.
I’ve been at this freelance ghostwriting gig now for a few years, and was writing stuff well before that. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. If there was a motto for elder Millennials, this could be it. It should be it.
Raised on the notions of authorship being an experience that started with five figure advances and ended with idle days at home or carefree weeks spent traveling abroad off of one story, I realized quickly that the then-conventional view on becoming a full time writer (“then” being the mid 2000s) was, like many of the most desirable shiny objects, obsolete by the time I found it on the shelf. As a model for success doing what one loved, becoming a bestselling fiction author in the traditional sense was as astronomical as winning a billion dollar Powerball lottery or catching malaria in the Arctic (although with the way the Arctic is warming up, who knows what’s possible anymore?).
Ghostwriting — that is, writing books more or less anonymously for others who have something to say, but no time, talent, or patience to do the legwork themselves — presented itself in 2014 as a way that I could have a somewhat comparable income and lifestyle as some of the most opulent Cayman Island dwellers.
Freelancing has proven, at times, to work in just that way. My most recent big work paid for a trip to Colombia so I could see one of my oldest friends get married.
And there are times when it doesn’t quite work. The confidential nature of my services means that I do not get referrals, because very often, it would reveal that my past clients used a ghostwriter.
This is the problem with the term. “Ghostwriting” implies that the named author that you see on the book — the one who originated the ideas conveyed in the pages — is not the person who did the actual writing. Instead, that fell to a hidden or “ghost” writer, a professional who sat with the author for a recorded interview and lifted out of the transcript a high quality book that at once meets the linguistic and technical requirements of publishing and preserves the author’s unique voice. In these authenticity-starved days where everything is either curated feeds or fake news,the hidden nature of the ghostwriter’s work implies in the eyes of many yet another form of the ersatz manifesting itself in our creative culture.
Honestly, I’m mostly a technician. The nice faucet that you’ve got in your half-bath isn’t less legitimate because you didn’t install the plumbing yourself. Though I will offer some creative feedback here and there, I put my own ideas into my own books. Your ideas go into yours.
But “ghostwriter” is the most popularly-understood term. “Book writer for hire” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
There are two ways that I do what I do, but I tend to be hired just for the one.
The first is pure ghostwriting, my bread and butter. I do everything on the QT, never revealing to anyone outside my own contractors and editors (who also sign NDAs) the identity of my author client. This usually entails a pricier fee for my services, but in exchange, I get zero residuals from future sales and no ability to point to a bestselling book on the shelf at Barnes and Noble and say yep, I wrote that! Hire me!”.
The second, however, is co-authorship or collaboration. My name goes on the cover with yours and there’s no NDA involved. Make no mistake: it’s entirely likely that I’m still doing the lion’s share of the work, but for a lesser fee (and a small percentage of sales), I have a walking, talking portfolio sample of my work out there for all to see. No hiding involved. I’d love more clients like these.
In either case, however, it does mean I have to market myself. Every customer is new, so I’m perpetually in a state of introducing myself for the first time.
That part, I hate. Hence, the imaginary “Fornication Under Consent of King” banner hanging over my head as I try to write my next promotional Facebook post.
I regularly struggle with that “authenticity” part. Storytelling, like other forms of expression, carries with that kind of artistry to it, the notion that you shouldn’t sell out and should stay within the “integrity of your art” type of thing. It’s pretentious bullshit for the most part, as evidenced by the number of miserable, broke-ass barista painters who have real talent, but refuse to monetize it even though it would measurably improve their lives and make many of their own sought-after dreams and ambitions come true.
But I get the basis of the concern. I don’t want to pander, to be someone’s wind-up monkey toy for their own amusement. Contrary to what at least one Cartagenan hotel security guard believed about me, I am not a prostitute. (Yeah, don’t ask).
Worse, I don’t want to feed too much more bullshit into the world through my words (though the nature of any communication media requires every creator to be amenable to some bullshit, especially where sales is concerned. The key is minimizing it as much as possible within one’s chosen medium. I digress).
For me, five or so years ago when I went this route, it came down to me choosing between writing these perfectly-crafted, critically acclaimed stories that my English professors revered and that get regular accolades at the CBC Literary Tightass Club, but that no one would read VERSUS….well, enjoying my life doing something I loved. In that regard, I’ve no regrets picking the latter, even when it means occasionally having to sample what Elizabeth Gilbert so eloquently calls a “shit taco”.
But with this morning’s particular taco special being of the “need new clients to pay rent” variety, it adds to the pressure of mastering the skill of copywriting versus novel writing, two different animals that only share words in common, like comparing Anthony Bourdain to Vince “Slapchop Guy” Offer.
In other words, “fuck”.
As with most of the reflection pieces I write, I have no plan on how to end this little rant, but the physical constraints of time and space have done their thing, and I’ve got to wrap this up so I can make it to Father’s day dinner on time. That bagna cauda ain’t gonna make itself.
But all in all, I love what I do. The lack of a steady cash flow is a problem that I’m working to solve, and this freelance journey is very much an act of jumping off a cliff with the airplane parts and assembling them before you hit bottom.
The freedom, service, and benefits of what I provide here are a nice little niche that I would never trade back for a reliable income, set hours miles from home, and having to wear socks each and every day to go to work. That, my friends, would be hell.
Jody Aberdeen is an author, freelance ghostwriter/book writer for hire, enthusiast, and food hobbyist who’s been somehow nursing a two day long hangover that involved surprisingly little alcohol and a ton of walking. Jody wrote this entry in one go and didn’t proofread, so calm down if you see any typos: he’s got no gumption today for your pedantic nonsense.
Jody lives in Hamilton, Ontario, and if he’s able to keep up with the cost of living hikes, is very likely to stay there for many years to come