Although I have made my living as a ghostwriter of business books for the last twenty-plus years, I’ve always thought of myself as a novelist. I’ve been writing fiction—short stories, plays, novels, even some poetry—since I was 14 years old. I’ve been in fiction workshops, poetry workshops, and earned an MA in creative writing from the City University of New York. As a volunteer, I’ve taught creative writing to middle-school students and to prisoners in two different state prisons. None of this, of course, says anything whatever about my writing.
I was brought up to believe that if a book were good enough, it would eventually find a publisher and an audience. After all, anecdotes circulate to prove it: The Bridges of Madison County was rejected by 29 publishers before Warner Books took a chance on it. Stephen King had given up on Carrie (and writing) when his wife rescued it from the trash. John Kennedy Toole had not only given up, he killed himself after A Confederacy of Dunces was rejected. But those are all books about which we’ve heard. How many worthwhile books are never published? (The flip side of that question—how many atrocious books are published?—is not a subject I want to address.)
In my experience, hundreds—thousands!—of reasons exist not to write fiction. There’s no money in it. The world doesn’t need another book. Your story is banal, the characters cardboard, the setting hackneyed, and what’s more you never learned to use the comma properly. So why do it?
I’m sure the reasons are as varied as individual writers. I do it because it helps me impose meaning and structure on experience. It helps me to live what I consider to be a full life.
An inmate student once asked me, “What is the meaning of life?” I did not have a good answer then, or now, but I’ve come to believe that one’s life means what you make it mean. Within a novel, lives and experience do have meaning or the writer wouldn’t have included the action, incident, or dialogue. In fiction, after all, you can’t get away with the preposterous, and meaningless, coincidences that routinely occur in life. As Harry Turtledove (of all people) is credited with saying, “The difference between fiction and non-fiction is that fiction must be plausible.”
All of this is to say that I like to read and write fiction that tells me something about the world and people in it that I cannot get from, say, a travel guide, a biography, or a history. I speak Japanese and have led tours of Japan. It seemed a natural step to put a dozen fictional characters in real Japanese locations in Getting Oriented: A Novel About Japan. Do readers learn something about Japan? Something. About the human condition? Something. About the way the world works? Something.
As a ghostwriter, I believe my role is to help the author say whatever he or she wants to say as clearly and effectively as possible. My stock phrase is, “all the ideas are the author’s, all the words are mine.” That’s not strictly true because I record my interviews and work from the transcripts, so many of the words actually are the author’s.
In my first conversation with a new client I ask what an editor asks: Is there a market for this book? If so, how big a market? Is the subject worth a book? What are the author’s qualifications? Do other, similar, books exist? In some cases, I work with the author to create a proposal that we sell to a publisher before we begin to write the book.
I spend as much time as I can with the author to immerse myself in that world. I went to one author’s day-long seminar then spent almost another day and a half interrogating him before I began the book proposal. If the author has speeches, white papers, presentations, whatever, I want them. Once we have a structure for the book and a tentative table of contents, I ask questions like: What do you want the reader to know at the end of this chapter? Is this the best order to present the information? What else should we include?
We meet regularly throughout the writing process, although today that meeting may be via phone or e-mail. For one recent book, I did not meet a California-based author in person until after the book appeared. I send the author every chapter as I write to ask for feedback, and some authors are far more hands-on than others, editing what I have written, which is fine. It is still his/her book.
Ideally, the relationship between author and ghostwriter is as intimate as a good marriage; no secrets, no hidden agendas, no lies or evasions. I don’t see myself as a pair of hands, pounding a keyboard on behalf of the author, but as an equal collaborating for a common goal. All of my authors contractually do acknowledge me inside the book.
I get asked about the relationship between my ghostwriting and my creative writing. With a business book, I have a wealth of material to work from. With fiction, I have to make everything up. While I use fictional techniques to great effect in non-fiction (description, scene-setting, dialogue), I have no limits—beyond plausibility—in fiction. In a novel, I can tell you what a character is thinking and feeling. In non-fiction I can tell you only what I’ve been told or learned through research and experience.
In any event, while writing Getting Oriented was immense work, it also gave me enormous pleasure. I can only hope that the readers who find it and read it receive half as much enjoyment as I had creating it.