Wednesday, 16 December 2015

The Ghostwriter as Hero

We live our lives episodically, like the detectives, doctors and lawyers who are so often used as the narrators, protagonists or, dare I say it, heroes of fiction and drama. Each episode opens with the story arriving in the protagonist’s life or with a mysterious email or phone call from a stranger that leads to an adventure and the unearthing of a story.

Detectives then solve their cases, doctors cure their patients, lawyers win their cases and ghostwriters create their books.

That is why two of my novels have ghostwriters as narrators. Not only do I have the background information on how the ghostwriting business works, and not only does my profession lead me to a variety of exotic locations, from palaces to brothels, but it also supplies an endless stream of interesting characters with interesting stories to tell. 

In Pretty Little Packages (Thistle Publishing), the ghost is informed by a girl called Doris that someone has “stolen her beautiful breasts”. She asks for his help and he finds himself plunged into the dark and dangerous worlds of people-trafficking and modern slavery. Much of the action happens in the Far East, a part of the world where I have worked a great deal as a ghost.

At the other end of the social scale from sex slaves are the rich and the powerful, who also like to write books. Since they are always short of time they also need to employ ghostwriters to do the actual writing, particularly if English is not their first language. The global elite, whether they are political leaders, business leaders or celebrities, live in a world which ordinary people seldom get to see inside, which puts ghostwriters at a huge advantage. They also live the sort of lives which produce endless story-lines.

Secrets of the Italian Gardener (RedDoor Publishing) is a novella I have written as a result of those encounters, again using a fictional ghostwriter as the narrator.  In this case he has been hired to tell the story of a Middle Eastern dictator during the Arab Spring. Trapped inside the dictator’s besieged palace the ghost, who is harbouring a terrible secret of his own, forms an unlikely friendship with a wise and seemingly innocent gardener and unearths more than he expects as the dictatorship crumbles around him. He discovers that the regime, and indeed the garden itself, is not all it appears to be and he discovers the shocking truth of who really holds the power and wealth in the world.

Like detectives, lawyers and doctors, ghostwriters are the holders of other people’s secrets, the raw material of all fiction and drama.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

A Day in a Ghostwriter's Life

Some days there might be an invitation to fly to a private island on a private jet, or to spend a night lurking in the shadows of a back street brothel with a girl forced into sexual slavery. Most days, however, ghostwriters are like every other sort of writer, bashing away at our keyboards for hours on end. So, let’s pick one of the more interesting days.

Their enquiry had stood out from the usual half dozen that arrive on my screen each day. James emailed that he and his girlfriend, Penny, lived in Switzerland and were looking for a ghostwriter to tell their love story. He warned that it would contain sexual elements that many would find shocking, but that there would also be many lessons to be learnt from it. He told me they would be in London the following weekend and would be staying at the Dorchester in Park Lane. Since I was going to be in Mayfair that Sunday anyway, interviewing an African President whose memoir I was ghosting, I suggested I pop into the Dorchester once I was finished.

The President, an easily distracted man of almost infinite good humour, had to break off from our meeting to deal with a crisis and I found myself free in the middle of the day. James invited me to join them for lunch at Zuma’s, a famous Japanese restaurant in Knightsbridge. Even if nothing came of the book it would be an interesting lunch and would pass the time until the President was free to resume talking.

The couple waiting at the restaurant were extremely good looking, reserved and charming at the same time, intent on making me feel comfortable in their company despite being completely wrapped up in their adoration of one another and being about to share some amazingly personal details about their lives. One chilled bottle of wine followed another as they shyly revealed their tale of true love.

They had met as teenagers and, like Romeo and Juliet, were forced apart by family pressures. Unlike Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, however, these two had been given a second chance, which they had turned into something magical and deeply erotic. By the time the espressos came I was hooked and had agreed to fly out to Switzerland the following weekend so that I could start the process of “becoming Penny” in print.

I was so in thrall to their story I only realised the whole afternoon had sped by when my phone buzzed to tell me that the President was now ready to talk again over dinner. Grabbing a cab back to Mayfair I set the tape recorder going once more and realigned my brain, submerging myself inside the head of a man clinging to power in a dark and dangerous world, many miles from the hushed luxury of the room we were going to be spending the evening in.   

Thursday, 12 February 2015

"Pretty Little Packages" from Thistle Publishing

Fifteen years ago I was ghostwriting books for the most disenfranchised members of the global community; victims of enforced marriages, sex workers, orphans, victims of crimes, bonded labourers and abused children. Out of those experiences I wrote a novel, (initially entitled “Maisie’s Amazing Maids”, and now re-launched by Thistle Publishing as a sumptuous paperback and e-book entitled “Pretty Little Packages”).

Thistle is an enormously successful imprint set up by London agents Andrew Lownie and David Haviland to keep books alive and available when the more traditional publishing organisations are no longer willing or able to do so. While there have been some grumblings in the industry about the possible ethical problems of agents acting as publishers, and the Society of Authors recommends careful scrutiny of the contracts, Thistle has shown exactly how an agent/publisher can fill this gaping hole in the market, providing another potential stream of revenue for authors.

Electronic developments mean that publishers like Thistle can operate with minimal capital outlay, able to be nimble and responsive to the demands of both authors and readers in ways that are impossible for organisations that have invested in vast, glass, riverside tower blocks and mighty wage bills.

Until a book or author becomes a phenomenon, (step forward J.K. Rowling, E.L. James, Patterson, Donaldson, Walliams, Paddington et al), we authors are really more suited to the cottage industry style of production and marketing than the corporate. A book that can provide a good living to an individual author and an individual agent/publisher is often hard pushed to make any significant contribution to the bottom line of one of the mighty glass tower corporations.

Joe Tye, the ghostwriter protagonist at the heart of Pretty Little Packages, is definitely working at the “cottage industry” end of the business when he is approached by a girl called Doris, who informs him that someone has “stolen her beautiful new breasts” and asks for his help. Responding to her plea plunges him into the dark and dangerous worlds of people trafficking and modern slavery – his discoveries making the glass tower publishers suddenly eager to open their cheque books to him.

At the same time as dealing with the amorous advances of the sixteen year-old daughter of a gangster, who also happens to be his client, and navigating his way through drug dens and backstreet clinics from Brighton to Manila, Joe is trying to be a responsible, newly divorced father to a young son who constantly does the unexpected – and then things turn really ugly.

At the heart of everything sits Maisie, and her network of “Amazing Maids” – all called Doris and all having their breasts stolen. But behind Maisie lie much more powerful and sinister forces. People for whom other people’s lives are entirely expendable. People who do not want Joe telling stories.

Back in the real world; the more publishing companies there are like Thistle the more chance that stories will be told which the denizens of the glass tower blocks would otherwise allow to disappear – stories like Pretty Little Packages.   

Monday, 2 February 2015

The Greatest F***ing Love Story

“How about ‘The Greatest F***ing Love Story?” the publisher suggested as we brainstormed possible titles for an erotic love story that I had ghostwritten for an anonymous European lady, hereafter known simply as “Penny”.

The book had worked out well and one of the biggest agents in London had agreed to take it round the publishers for us. The reactions were dramatic. Some were shocked by the contents and thought it too strong for the general trade market, others were worried that the general public wouldn’t like the fact that it was non-fiction rather than fiction, (they were all at that stage scrambling over one another to find the “next 50 Shades of Grey”). We received some offers but they didn’t seem to reflect the value which we believed the book could have. The advances on offer weren’t dramatic enough to distract us from the paltry percentages we would earn in royalties.

Penny and James, (her lover), decided we should take control of the project ourselves by working with the new and dynamic selective partnership publisher, Red Door, which is the baby of Clare Christian, an editor whose previous venture was The Friday Project, (now part of HarperCollins). We also felt we needed to address the “discoverability” side of the challenge right from the beginning. To that end we hired Midas, probably the country’s best known publishing PR and marketing consultancy, and they worked with Clare on the design and packaging of the book right from the start. We now had all the elements of a traditional publisher in place, but without the overheads of a huge Thames-side building and everything that is required to support such an edifice.

The marketing gurus within Midas liked the idea of “The Greatest F***ing Love Story” as well – it did after all sum the story up at several levels – but were fearful that, even with the asterisks, it would frighten off too many of the potential retailers. More titles were bandied around until we settled on “Chances”.

With the book due to be published in February the mighty Midas marketing machine fired into action as soon as Christmas was out of the way and I found myself writing articles and doing a succession of interviews to promote the book, culminating in an encounter with Claudia Winkleman on her late night Radio2 Arts Show.
Whenever I mentioned to anyone that I was going to be meeting Miss Winkleman I always received the same response - “Oh, I love Claudia Winkleman”.

It didn’t seem to matter what age or gender the person was, or whether or not they were likely to be fans of reality shows like “Strictly” or cultural offerings like “Film Night”, her puppyish glamour had somehow worked on all of them. It appears the woman is fast-tracking towards being a national treasure. What, I wondered, could be the secret of this magical spell she was casting over the nation?

Listening to so many paeans of adoration rang alarm bells. How could the reality possibly live up to this awesome reputation? Was I going to have to report back to all these devoted admirers that in reality the woman was a monstrous confection of insincerity and vanity, propped up by armies of sycophants and hangers on? Could she possibly live up to everyone’s heady expectations?

I have to report that fifteen minutes in a studio with Miss Winkleman is like being enveloped in a particularly cosy nuclear explosion, flattened by a steamroller of charm and wit so overwhelming that you barely notice the pain when she skewers you with an unexpected stab of journalistic enquiry. She opened by caressing the book lovingly, purring with pleasure at the production job Red Door had done on it, and continued in much the same vein from then on. All in all it was the most exhilarating and enjoyable quarter of an hour I can remember ever spending with a total stranger. I felt like we had been friends for ever and that, I suspect, is the secret of Miss Winkleman’s magic.

Chances is the true story of the most erotic of love affairs, of the most intense and rewarding relationship possible between a man and woman – a relationship that blossomed out of heartbreak.

“What” the cover asks “if your first love was your soulmate and perfect sexual partner but you made the mistake of letting them go? What if you were reunited with that first love after fifteen years of unhappiness and you were then able to fulfil every romantic and erotic dream you had ever had?”   

Monday, 17 March 2014

The Future of the Book is Authors

The Spring issue of The Author, the invaluable house journal of The Society of Authors, is out and the opening article – “The future of the book is you” – is by Dan Franklin, Digital Publisher at the Random House Group.

Being unquestionably one of the leading thinkers in digital publishing, Franklin admits that he occasionally gets asked to comment on “the future of the book”.

“The answer is simple,” he says, “The future of the book is authors. Or rather, the future of the book is whatever authors want it to be: ‘the writer leads, (s)he doesn’t follow'.”

He ends the article concluding that he sees a space continuing to open up in which publishers can play “an important part”, although he doesn't know exactly what it will be.

He puts a key question to authors. “Where do you want to go, and what experiences do you want to create? And,” he continues, “can I come with you, to help you get there?”

Is that the politest and most respectful request any publisher has ever proffered to the writing profession? I would certainly like to hear if anyone has heard anything more heartwarming.  

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

How Much Should Writers Worry About Sharing Credits?

The media rumour mill has it that director, Steve McQueen, and screenwriter, John Ridley, have fallen out over credits regarding their Oscar-winning movie, “12 Years a Slave”.

If that is true it’s a shame that something which should be a monumental life achievement for them both has been tarnished by what could appear to many as egotistical petty-mindedness.

 As a ghostwriter the twin subjects of professional credit and extreme ego-management are of particular interest to me.

Harry Truman is believed to have said “You can accomplish anything in life provided you don’t mind who gets the credit”.  

Monday, 3 March 2014

Why Most Writers End Up Starving

In The Observer this weekend Robert McCrum wrote a fascinating piece entitled “From Bestseller to Bust: is this the end of an author’s life?”

Partly it is fascinating because nothing much really seems to have changed. To be financially successful as a freelancer you need to be entrepreneurial and most creative people are not. The exceptions, from Dickens to Archer, Rowling to Blyton, are blindingly obvious.

Most writers, like most designers and most musicians, need someone else to take care of business for them. Sometimes that person will be an agent, sometimes a traditional publisher, sometimes a lawyer. It might even be Amazon or a freelance publicist.

Finding the right person and being able to make it worth their while to put in the necessary hours on your behalf, has often been a matter of serendipity. If Rupert Thomson, one of the authors that McCrum cites as falling upon hard times, had had a business partner they would probably have advised him not to hire himself a work space in South London, for instance – rule number one for any freelancer must be to keep the regular outgoings down because you are never going to have regular in-comings.

Yet again, however, we are left at the end of the article not really knowing what figures we are talking about. I wanted to know exactly how much these writers have made each year of their careers. Would it be comparable to the lifetime earnings of a nurse or a doctor? A teaching assistant or a headmistress? These sorts of figures are particularly instructive when you have authors who have been working for a long time, so that blips like occasional large advances or arbitrarily cancelled projects can be ironed out. If we knew those figures we could judge better whether the rewards or the sacrifices of a writer’s life might be deemed worthwhile.