Confessions of a Ghost (Writer)—Zombie Apocalypse


I’ve never sat down and counted all of my ghostwriting/editing clients. Every once in a while, when I go in to clean up my file folders, I realize that I’ve had more than I thought and that I’ve actually forgotten about some of them. Some I work with once and that’s that; some I’ve been working with for years. A lot of them, in one way or another, came to me from one of several editorial services I’ve done work for—companies who, in turn, came to me through a wonderful (but, alas, deceased) freelance resource called Freelance Daily.

The clients that puzzle me most stand at two ends of a spectrum. At one end are talented people who have no desire or who lack the confidence to take the next step toward getting published. At the other are people with little or no writing talent, a seeming inability to understand how either the writing craft or publishing works, and the ambition and sheer moxie to believe that they can be or are writers just as good as Ray Bradbury or Shirley Jackson or Umberto Eco (you may add your favorites to the list).

Take the fellow who wrote a brilliant murder mystery set in the dotcom boom and bust then hired me to edit it. He decided to self-publish despite my strong belief that the book—which was 200,000 words in length and riveting through just about every one of them as far as I was concerned—could be a bombshell. His reason for self-publishing: he was unwilling to let anyone else control any aspect of his work. Having read the book—which was autobiographical in part (he really did write what he knew)—I understood the impulse. Still . . .

Then there was the fellow who penned rough drafts of one novel after another set in different time periods and who hired me to rewrite them. He had a few issues that . . . well, let me share a handful.

The Zombie Uncle: My client (I’ll call him Abe) had difficulty remembering when he had killed a character off. I was stunned to have a gentleman who died of the plague on page 50 walk into the middle of a conversation on page 75 in apparent good health. Put an entirely new spin on that old Monty Python skit about the Black Death. (“I’m not dead yet! Really like to take a walk!”) When I raised the subject of the walking, talking dead, Abe said he’d simply forgotten that the dear old fellow had succumbed. In this case it was easy enough to bump him off again by hitting the delete key a few times, because he played no significant part in the story.

The Sudden Sibling: Conversely, characters would suddenly appear two-thirds of the way through the book who had never even been even hinted at before. This happened more than once, but was most remarkable when the protagonist—who was traveling with a tiny band of rebels—suddenly acquired a little sister who died half a page after she was introduced. Naturally, I asked why this had happened.

“Oh,” said Abe, “I realized that I needed to create some pathos, so I decided to give my hero a sibling who would die tragically.”

“Ah,” I said, “but why didn’t you go back and work her into the earlier part of the book before I started reworking it?”

“I figured you’d take care of it,” Abe told me.

I tried to explain that taking care of it meant I would need to go back and insert the character earlier and strongly enough so that 1) she didn’t come as a shock to the reader (and the protagonist) and 2) the reader would care if she died. “You can’t generate pathos,” I told him, “by killing a character the reader has no emotional attachment to.”

I also suggested a price tag for such deep revisions and suggested that, since the character’s only purpose was to walk onto the page and die, it might be more cost effective to generate pathos in some other way. The sudden sibling was deleted from the book.

Abe also had problems with punctuation, grammar, syntax and information handling (some of which are stories unto themselves). And he had a nasty copy and paste habit. That is, he would abscond with entire paragraphs of wikipedia entries or travel website copy and paste them into his manuscript. How could I tell? Well, in addition to the fact that the prose would suddenly make proper use of punctuation, grammar and syntax and read like a travel brochure, he occasionally left the links in. I tried to explain that the prose in a wiki entry on Iceland, say, has a different intent and audience than the descriptions of the same territory delivered from the point of view of a fictional character desperately trying to survive in the wilderness. I suggested that he take the time to edit the wiki entries out and refashion the prose while looking at a photograph of the area the action was set in.

“Too time-consuming. I figured you could just use those as a go-by,” Abe said. “I’ll try to remember to take the links out.” He rarely did, so disabling them became part of my routine lest I accidentally find myself whisked away to the Internet while I was trying to absorb what he intended to appear on the page.

Now, Abe was a delightful client in terms of being easy to work with. He never complained, never questioned my suggestions and, when I told him he would save a lot of money if he would just edit his prose a little himself before he sent it to me (at least warn me about characters and plot twists he made up on the fly later), he made it clear he was content to pay my hourly rate to do what he had no patience for.

Abe was a writer with no desire to learn how to write. After working on three novels with him, I still could not wrap my mind around that reality. But it pays the bills and lets me hone my own craft. And that, if you were wondering, is what I enjoy most about ghosting and editing. It helps me become a better, more flexible, more clever writer and it challenges me every day.

Abe stands in stark contrast to a ghostwriting client I had for whom I produced what turned out to be a really lovely science fiction novel that I tried unsuccessfully to get him to try to publish. I felt there was a darned good chance that Analog would serialize it. My client said he’d think about it, but I doubt he really has. His goal was simply to have his ideas about Life the Universe and Everything put down in fictional form. I did that for him and he’s content. I’m the one who wants more for that pretty little piece of fiction than to exist as a collection of 1s and 0s on a couple of computers.

That, by the way, is the drive behind a number of my clients’ desire to tell ghost stories: they have an idea they feel is so revolutionary that no one would accept it if they set it forth it as nonfiction, so they hire me to render their profound insights into fictional form. I’ve found that raises some unique problems for a ghostwriter . . . which  I perhaps I’ll share with you someday.

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