A few years ago I became interested in the opportunities presented by ghostwriting. Now, that wasn’t something I had considered earlier in my writing career. For one thing, I looked at the idea with a certain amount of disdain. I felt I was too good for it. I feel a bit embarrassed by that attitude now; the truth was, I wasn’t flexible enough to do it. I didn’t write my first novel, DETONATOR, until around 1976. It was eventually published by a small press in 1999.
My second one, USA INC., written in collaboration with my then-wife, has never even been submitted anywhere. That’s probably just as well—it wasn’t very good. My third novel remains unpublished, though it’s under consideration at an indie publisher. Other novels followed.
I passed up an opportunity to write a book using another author’s characters around 1978, as well. I told myself I was too proud to “stoop” to such a thing, but the simple truth was, I couldn’t have done it. I was not experienced enough as a writer. Time passed, and without my realizing it, I began gaining that experience.
Then, around 2009, I was offered the chance to ghostwrite an autobiography for a clinical psychologist of my acquaintance. I met him in the writers workshop of which I was a member, in Doylestown, PA, and he, along with his wife, had been one of the group’s founders. I more or less volunteered to write the book after he said at one of our meetings that he was looking for someone to help him. He had a pile of notes and some inexpertly written manuscript pages. But he was elderly and in failing health, and the project was too much for him. I interviewed him about the project, but what was even more helpful to me was my discovery that a friend of mine had actually worked for him during the period of his greatest renown.
This friend provided me with a ton of insight about the clinic’s policies and procedures and what it had been like to work there. With her help, I was able to turn the psychologist’s untidy mass of notes into a reasonably well-crafted book.
Somewhat to my surprise, I found that I really enjoyed the entire process. At the time I thought it was a one-off, but a few months later I answered a job posting on a website where jobs are posted and people bid for them. A young female writer of my acquaintance needed help completing an outline for her novel. I had by that time written several books on my own and thought I had a pretty good idea how to write an outline.
When it comes to writing, you see, there are plotters and there are pantsers. Pansters just start out without knowing where they are going. Or, if they know where they want to go, they don’t know how they are going to get there. Stephen King, for example, is a pantser. When he starts a book he doesn’t necessarily know how he is going to get where he wants to go. This approach has worked for me only in very small doses. When I write something, I want a clear road map of where I am going. Therefore, I tend to spend a fairly long time working on an outline—especially for books. I have found that if I can write a good, bullet-proof outline, I will find myself wandering down fewer dead ends. This means a given writing project gets done more quickly.
Returning to our story… the woman hired me to write a tight, chapter-by-chapter outline of her book. She had no real prose for it, just some notes and an idea of where she wanted the story to go. After a couple of weeks’ work, I provided her with a solid outline for her book, and she was very grateful. She gave me a good reference that I’d use to get more work. This is how I started collecting references from clients.
I used that reference to get my first real fiction ghostwriting job. That gig required me to write a science fiction novel. Although I had only one ghostwriting gig under my belt, and a non-fiction one at that, I had written and published a fair bit of science fiction. Additionally, I knew I had done a good job on the woman’s book outline. Without really expecting to get the job, I applied. Somewhat to my surprise, I was hired.
The novel was to be set primarily on Mars, so I set about looking for reference material. The man who’d hired me again provided a few pages of notes, some scattered bits of prose, and thoughts about where he wanted to book to go. We had a number of e-mail exchanges until the outline was agreed upon, at which point I set about the actual writing.
What’s the title of the book, and the author’s name? Well, I can’t tell you that. For one thing, my clients deserve their privacy, so I can’t reveal names or titles. In fact, some of my clients won’t even tell me the names under which they publish the books I wrote for them—or the titles! I know what I have titled the books, but there’s no guarantee they’ll be retained for publication. The people I write for are not celebrities, although one does have a famous family name. No, these are people who want to write but can’t bring a project to fruition for whatever reason.
I’m paid well for what I do, though I do not collect any royalties. These books are “work for hire,” paid for with the understanding that those are the only monies I will get for the project. I don’t really mind; I have made considerably more money as a ghostwriter than I have selling my own work. (At least, so far.) These jobs have seen me through some thin times by providing regular paychecks. For a freelancer like me, that’s good news.
To date I have about a dozen ghostwriting jobs under my belt, mostly fiction. I have ghostwritten novels as well as short stories, in the genres of mainstream fiction, fantasy, science fiction, and mysteries. A few years ago I took on a fantasy ghostwriting gig, and completed a 100K-word novel in six weeks—after I took two weeks to write a solid outline.
What all of that means is that I now know how to write for market, and how to write to length. In other words, I understand the tropes of various kinds of fiction, and I can bring a given story to completion if it needs to be written to a particular number of pages/words. These are skills I lacked as a young writer.
Another point in my favor is that I enjoy collaborating. I have co-authored a number of works of varying lengths, most of which have been published. I’m a good communicator, and I keep in close contact with my clients or co-authors. I find it fun.
Becoming a Ghostwriter
So how does one get started as a ghostwriter? There are a number of things to keep in mind.
First, what is a ghostwriter? A ghostwriter is someone hired to write something—usually a book, but sometimes shorter works—whose authorship is accredited to someone else. Unlike a co-author, the “ghost” usually doesn’t receive public credit. “As told to” co-authors are basically ghosts who are acknowledged. Because not everyone has the skills or the patience to write an entire book, the ghost is hired to put the named author’s words and ideas into comprehensible form, often mimicking the author’s style, such as it is.
A ghostwriting gig can earn you anywhere from $2,000 to $60,000, depending on how well-known the named author is. In all likelihood you won’t be stepping right off into ghostwriting—you’ll need some sort of freelance track record. By the time I got into ghostwriting I had published a number of short stories and a few books, so I had a good handle on how to manage a good-sized writing project.
One good way to start is to seek out opportunities to hone your skills in unexpected places. I check job opportunities on UpWork on a daily basis. Occasionally I see people or organizations looking for help writing the ‘About’ section for websites. This is where your storytelling skills can really make a difference.
I also see postings looking for writers to help with story structure or proof-reading. By taking on these kinds of jobs you’ll be getting some real-world experience helping clients refine their manuscripts without having to do all the “world-building” or characterization: much of that will already have been done for you. All you need to do is smooth things out.
Put in some time creating a website and perhaps a separate email address for professional work. It’s good to be active on social media: there are occasional opportunities on Facebook and Twitter, such as “open calls” for manuscripts in certain areas. If you’re on LinkedIn, add “ghostwriter” to your profile. If you comport yourself as a professional, other people will treat you as one.
Meanwhile, be writing your own stuff: stories, articles, books. Be alert for opportunities in your network. Also, be sure to get references from your clients. Top tier ghostwriters make good money, but you won’t be doing that out of the gate. Keep your rates reasonable when you start out, maybe $25-$40 per hour. Some gigs will pay by the word. For some of my mystery ghostwriting I get $90-$100 per 5000 words. That’s not a super high rate, but I work quickly. Plus, I enjoy what I do. Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it.
Which leads me to another point: you can’t wait for inspiration. You need to be quick off the mark, and able to deliver clean prose in a timely fashion. I’ve got many years of writing experience in a variety of modes, from fiction to non-fiction to tech writing. Because I can write to length, if I’m told to deliver a “book” in 40,000 words, I can do it.
Also be sure you have an easily understandable freelance contract that you can present if you need to. There are sample ones available online. And be prepared to sign an NDA, a non-disclosure agreement, which says that you won’t divulge information about a given project to anyone else.
If you keep your wits about you and act in a professional manner, ghostwriting can help keep food on the table. In these uncertain times, that’s a very good thing.
Bio: A.L. Sirois is writer, ghostwriter, developmental editor & graphic artist. His publication career began in 1973 with the appearance of the short-short story “War Baby” in Fantastic. (It would be called “flash fiction” nowadays.) He’s gone on to have fiction in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Fantastic, Amazing Stories, and Thema, and online at Electric Spec, Mystery Weekly, Every Day Fiction and Flash Fiction Online, among other publications. A.L.’s story “In the Conservatory,” from Thema, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Other works include a children’s book, DINOSAUR DRESS UP (Tambourine Press / William Morrow, 1992), a graphic novel, THE ENDLESS INCIDENT (2014), a fantasy novel, THE BOHEMIAN MAGICIAN, published in 2017, and JERSEY GHOULS, a horror novel published in 2018 from Azure Spider. A sequel, PHILLY GHOULS, also from Azure Spider, was released in June 2020. He has ghostwritten many works of science fiction and fantasy, as well as memoirs and cozy mysteries. Follow A.L. on Twitter @realAlSirois and visit his website at www.alsirois.com.