What it is
Of the dozens of published books by clients, perhaps half of these I’ve ghostwritten. As a result, I neither mention the book title, promote book covers, or share my client’s press.
I’m often asked how ghostwriting works. The short answer: ghostwriters may receive higher compensation than a co-author would, and agree to zero visibility. The reader will never know I was there—I’m a ghost.
That scenario is different from co-authoring a book, or editing a manuscript. Sometimes my client has already written a draft and I rewrite it; sometimes both client and ghostwriter develop the story (fiction or nonfiction) together from the start; on occasion I write the book from my client’s vision and ideas.
What it’s like
REVELATIONS OF A (GHOST)WRITER
My life is full of ghosts—those of my grandfather, father, and uncle, all of whom wanted to be writers. My grandfather sailed from Ireland and became a Boston shoe salesman instead. My father was a stockbroker in New York City. My uncle, however, was a copyright lawyer who became a well-known writer of young adult and children’s books. John Donovan also became the Children’s Book Council president, “a non-profit trade organization dedicated to encouraging the literacy and the use and enjoyment of children’s books.”
Throughout my childhood, John sent boxes of books. I breathed them in like air—picture books, adventures, nature, classics, astronomy, popular fiction, biographies. Mostly, I inhaled the novels, rested my head on them, opened their pages with awe, escaped the real world into theirs.
To understand why that was so surprising, it must be understood that my father was the type of Bostonian who embodied its cliché: conservative, unemotional, inexpressive. In short, uptight.
My uncle, the opposite of his older brother, loved books, theater, dance, film, writing. Once he told me that he had fallen in love only fifty times. In short, he thrived.
While my father expressed little emotion, my uncle did the opposite. Was there a tie between expression and talent? The biggest complaint my father had about me was that I was too emotional.
Was I? In third grade, I started to read the dictionary for fun. I wrote my first book—of jokes—in fourth grade. Throughout childhood and high school I wrote and directed plays, bribing siblings and pals to perform them at the grown-up cocktail parties. I started writing picture books during puberty. I received triple A+’s on my English assignments, which praised my imagination but implored me not to write “this way” in college, to instead follow the rules.
Off to college I went, led by my emotions. I wrote as much as I could, exactly the way I wanted to. By graduation, I had become a big fish in a little pond. I had published poetry. I learned how little any of that mattered the instant I arrived in the big pond of Manhattan. Like a fish far from water, I finally landed work in a small advertising agency. Then a bigger one. I wrote copy, assisted clients, developed administrative and organizational skills.
During that time, my father became ill and died a year to the day of his diagnosis. A few years later my sister was diagnosed with a fatal illness. After her life ended at age thirty-two, at twenty-nine I quit the full-time job that paid my bills while it bankrupted my spirit. I left Manhattan for Montauk—at the eastern most tip of Long Island, and dived into the writer’s life.
Meaning, the starving artist’s life. Winter came, I knew nobody, there was no work to be found. After a year writing it, and the next year trying to sell it, I sold my first young adult book. It didn’t make me rich, but I got legs out of it; (mostly) positive criticism; Publishers Weekly and The New York Times articles, workshop gigs at writing conferences, public readings.
I joined a local writing class and began to develop skills as a fiction editor. I couldn’t help it, my pen would lift as if possessed, and I would edit my colleagues’ stuff. When fellow scribblers began offering to pay me for that, my editing business bloomed.
While I wrote my second novel, I started ghostwriting. Just as my editing sprang from reading others’ work, my writing for others arose from editing others’ work. I worked with doctors, lawyers, fishermen. Psychoanalysts, master carpenters, entrepreneurs. Ophthalmologists, painters, car mechanics—you name it.
While writing my third novel, I started a writing workshop of my own. Writing is lonely; I longed to be around others who were grappling with issues that tend to inhibit the creative process: Is this book any good? Should I go to law school? Are twenty-seven rejections too many?
I don’t imagine any writer’s life is without doubt; it is part of the process. To be in the position to assist another writer toward publishing his or her dream book is a privilege for this ghost.
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Stacey Donovan is a consultant for Book Editing Associates,
a small, carefully vetted group of elite editors.