In order to bring his creation to life, Victor Frankenstein had to pull together body parts from different human beings. Turns out, the process of ghostwriting is pretty similar because it brings together various voices into one story under the name of a single evil genius… er, we mean, writer. Author Chandler Baker knows a thing or two about both ghostwriting and Frankenstein. Baker loved to start stories, but struggled to finish them. Five years of ghostwriting helped her kick the starter habit and finish novels, like her latest: Teen Frankenstein. Here, Baker shares four of the most important lessons she learned while writing behind the scenes.
To many people, ghostwriters are an ill-kept secret of the industry akin to pop stars lip-syncing on stage. And, okay, I’ll admit that when I think about ghostwriting, I mainly think about coffee-fueled nights and ridiculously tight deadlines. But I also think about learning to build a story from the ground up with a team of people. I would venture to say it’s impossible to write a slew of books without learning a thing or two along the way. In fact, I thought of my time ghostwriting as a writer’s boot camp that I actually got paid for—come on, is there a better job out there? Here are a few of the things I learned from the world of write-for-hire:
Just finish the darn thing
When I first started writing, I was a starter. I loved to start writing novels, but near the middle, like clockwork, I would get a shiny, new idea that seemed much more promising. And so I’d begin that idea instead, leaving the other to languish. I don’t know if you know this, but it’s very hard to finish books that way. Likewise, it’s very hard to get a career going as an author if you don’t actually finish writing any books. Ghostwriting gigs gave me an idea I had to stick with. For the first time in my life, I became a finisher and experienced the rush of looking back at all those pages I’d written and, ultimately, of holding a finished book in my hands. In retrospect, I know that the starter version of me needed the confidence to see my ideas to their conclusion. Because with ghostwriting, I knew the ideas were “pre-approved” and I felt safe putting in the time to reach “The End.” Now I realize that ideas are ideas, the magic is in what you do with them, and you’ll never know what that is until you finish.
Don’t be so precious. It’s not like it’s your baby
We all know the old writing advice “kill your darlings,” which means removing the parts of the book that your writer-self loves, but that don’t actually serve the story. In ghostwriting, your darlings aren’t really yours to begin with. Someone else came up with and owns those characters and that plot, which makes it a whole lot easier to get the distance needed to get rid of parts of the book that just aren’t working. When an editor had a brainwave or realized a character would say this line, not that, I was perfectly fine saying, “Absolutely! It’s your book” the same way one might say “Sure thing, it’s your life, buddy.” I’d only realize when I’d finished implementing the change what a huge, positive impact it later had on the end result. Now when I get a critique, I remind myself, even when it’s my own book, it’s not my baby. They’re just words on a page, after all, and I have a real baby to be precious with.
Love the writing, not the idea of writing
A lot of people might think ghostwriting takes the joy out of writing because it removes opportunities for creative discovery and artistic ownership. I wholeheartedly disagree. If you’re anything like me—and, let’s face it, a lot of aspiring authors are—you love the idea of being a writer. In fact, I loved it so much that, for a time, I wasn’t sure if I was chasing the dream because I wanted the brass ring of being published, or because I actually liked writing itself. With ghostwriting, there’s no chance of accolades, prestigious awards, or bestseller lists with your name on them. Ghostwriting boils down writing to its purest form. You have to love putting words on the page one after the other to build a story. It turns out I did. I suggest everyone find a way to give yourself that litmus test. I think you’ll be pleased with what you find out and how that affects your joy in approaching craft.
The best idea in the room may not be yours and that’s ok
From characters to plot to title to line edits, a “packaged” (a.k.a ghostwritten) book is truly one that’s built by committee. A dozen different voices may actually wind up on the page, not just your own, and the end result is stronger for it. As a ghostwriter, I was more comfortable being the story’s vessel from idea to page than I would be for my own work because my artistic ownership of the project was technically less. But shouldn’t we, as writers, always just be a vessel for the story? If it serves the story, who cares whose idea it was? Let it be your critique partner’s, or your editor’s, or your agent’s, or your mom’s. It doesn’t really matter. We’re all just there to serve the story and turn it into a book that people can buy and enjoy.
Chandler Baker grew up in Florida, went to college in Pennsylvania, and studied law in Texas, where she now lives with her family and an ever-growing pile of books. Although she loves spinning tales with a touch of horror, she is a much bigger scaredy-cat than her stories would lead you to believe. In addition to the High School Horror series, Chandler is the author of the young adult novel, Alive.