Publishing U: How to Fall in Love with Ghostwriting

Our readers are often curious about the process of writing and publishing books, and we’re happy to provide access to the experts. In this installment of our Publishing U series, Joan Schweighardt (The Last Wife of Attila the Hun, 2016) explains how she discovered a passion for ghostwriting while forging a fiction career. 

I never thought about becoming a ghostwriter. I started freelancing after leaving PR, working as a pen for hire while composing short stories and novels that either got published—or didn’t. I wrote astrology books for a book packager, beauty pieces for a group of plastic surgeons, and fashion articles for a trade mag. It was exactly what I wanted to do.

When the opportunity to ghostwrite something first presented itself, I jumped on it. After completing a business book, my first real client was a Mexican-American woman who wanted to write about her brother, a baseball player well on his way to becoming a household name when he died in a car accident. She was local, so she came to my house once a week with a stack of photo albums, newspaper clippings, and a 20-ounce soda from 7-Eleven. She was a lovely woman, a great storyteller, and so eager that she sometimes left the front gate wide open behind her (once, my dogs escaped) and always sat on the edge of the sofa, her hands flying in the air while the albums on her lap threatened to (and often did) slide to the floor, her untouched soda sweating in its cardboard container on the coffee table beside the box of tissues I always provided for the occasion. She was also a drifter—in the middle of a story about her brother’s school days, she would digress to tell me about her parents’ wedding. (And what a wedding it was! In the village where her mother grew up in Mexico, suitors on horseback lifted their future wives away from their washing or prickly pear-gathering and carried them off into the sunset!)

Their agony is part of the appeal.

It was all so fascinating that I shifted my focus to stay with her. She was the kind of woman who loved “love” and fell in and out of it continuously, mostly with men who didn’t deserve her; the kind of woman who, when she couldn’t find a sponsor or even a companion for a trip she wanted to make to Mexico, went by herself on a fact-finding mission in the state of Chiapas where she slept in a tent city with 10,000 Mayan refugees in the middle of the Zapatista uprising. When we were done, we both realized that what we had was a remarkable, first-person story—it would have been shameful not to have her narrate it. The book got published, and the people who read it (except for a few family members who didn’t know they’d be included) loved it. A film director came across it and asked us to write a script based on it. Nothing came of the script, but it gave us the chance to extend the experience.

That was when I fell in love with ghostwriting. I wrote a memoir with an adrenaline junky whose hijinks landed him in jail and another with a woman who had to decide if a friend who betrayed his entire family deserved her loyalty. My most recent client lived 2,000 miles away, For years, she had been taking notes—on Post-its, paper napkins, whatever was handy when something occurred to her—in preparation for the telling of her story. These she mailed to me in nine or ten well-insured priority boxes.

As author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston once said, “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you.” The people who have found their way to me had been agonizing. They had to tell their stories, but not being experienced writers, they had to have help.

Their agony is part of the appeal, because even though I am not likely to have much else in common with my clients, I cherish their passion; it is the point at which we connect. And that connection is essential. Getting into someone else’s head is an intimate act, if somewhat one-sided. Also, without some version of entente, a shy person like me would have a hard time telling someone else they are dead wrong. My notes-on-paper-napkins client, for instance, wanted to put the kitchen sink into her book, for it to go on for thousands and thousands of pages so readers would know every detail of what she’d been through. I loved her story and I loved her, so we argued throughout about what should go in and what should be left out. Most times, she conceded, but she disagreed when I told her we had reached the end. She begged for one more chapter, and a postscript to follow it. She was relentless, and she made the point that she was paying me, not the other way around. She won that battle. The editor at the publishing house that eventually offered her a contract told her that she needed to cut the last two chapters; she acquiesced immediately.

I am sometimes asked what it takes to be a good ghostwriter, and I wish I had a definitive answer. Certainly, it helps to be a good writer who enjoys research. And it’s very good to be naturally curious about other people, to want to know what makes them tick, to relish the idea of working so closely with someone that you can ultimately write their voice as if it were your own. And since I spend so much of my time thinking up my own stories, it’s rather a thrill to have someone come by and gift me theirs, if only temporarily.

I am forever quoting early 1900’s American “ashcan” artist Robert Henri, mostly regarding the experience of writing fiction. But the truth is that my favorite quote, from his book The Art Spirit, applies to my ghostwriting experiences too: “The object of all art is intense living, fulfillment and great happiness in creation.”


Joan Schweighardt’s sixth novel, Before We Died (the first of three books in her “rivers” series), will be published by Five Directions Press in September, 2018.

About the Author:

Eugenia Williamson is the former Associate Editor of Digital Products at Booklist.

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