Why are ghostwriters like Hercule Poirot?
Why are ghostwriters like Agatha Christie’s moustache-twirling detective Hercule Poirot?
And how can a writing coach help you with your memoirs?
Denis Ledoux, founder of the Maine-based Memoir Network, has worked as a ghostwriter for over 30 years and shares some of his thoughts on writing and coaching.
Do you ever alter a client’s words or ideas when you’re ghostwriting?
Often clients will say, “Make me look good”. Usually not in the first round of working with the book because I’m just discovering the story, but when I get to the second edit, I’ll say to them, “If you don’t mind, I’ll do some rewriting to get more detail in or to make your theme more clear.”
I’ll move things around and add things that give context. Sometimes I’ll do a rewrite of the text and the client never really considers it as betraying his/her text - we call it developmental editing.
Just as there’s a blurry line between coaching and editing, there is one between developmental editing and ghostwriting. The flow goes from one to the other.
How do you handle projects where a client isn’t very forthcoming in interviews?
When they are a rather terse person, I’ll use material gathered in conversations and use it in the text. That’s the part of my work that’s more “undercover” ghostwriting—the Poirot part. You have to find a way to make people feel comfortable with your active input and enlist them as collaborators to share their story with you.
How do you structure a biography? And how do you go about conducting your initial interviews?
I’m a very organic kind of writer. I usually say, “What is it you want to tell me about yourself? They’ll usually say, “Do you want me to start telling the story from the beginning?”
Other clients often insist on starting at the beginning. That’s often fine, too. You listen to the client and try to pick up what’s important to them and to the story.
In time, there is the story that they really want to tell but often don’t dare or even don’t recognize. My task is to address that when I see hesitation coming, when I hear doubt in their voice. When I sense that they are not facing filling gaps in the story, I begin asking them questions. Then we place the answers into the text—not verbatim of course, but in some way to support the drama of the narrative.
How hard do you press authors in interviews if you sense they’re being evasive?
I would cease pushing, make a note in my notepad, and come back at a time when I can surprise the writer.. Later the topic will appear again and I’ll be able to ask about it in more detail. If a person says they’re not ready, you feel that you don’t want to press and realise you must wait. The other reason is a financial one - if you press too hard and they quit on you, you don’t have a client any more. It has to be done very sensitively—and strategically.
What kind of warning signs is there that you might have a problem with a client?
Well, to use a recent example, I had a person approach me who was very cantankerous. If I said something like, “It’ll probably take me a year to get your story down, and then 20 minutes later after getting more information, I’ll say, “I don’t know, a year and a half, two years.” He’d say, “Wait a minute, you said one year. Which is it: one year or two years?” He was really quite challenging with me and always looking for ways that I might be pulling the wool over his eyes. It was exhausting and I told him I did not want to work with him.
I also had one person who was very aggressive with me, and after a very, very short relationship, I was thinking “How do I tell her I don’t want to do this any more?” She really fooled me - I thought she was a client that I could work with. Luckily she quit before I could fire her.
These experiences are very much a minority. I think it’s important to know what you want as a professional and to work with people that you enjoy being with on a regular basis. The overwhelming number of my clients have been delightful. I have been spoiled!
Do you talk money early on?
I do because there’s no point in continuing the conversation if they don’t have the money. I usually say to a client that it will cost between $8,000-$12,000 US per hundred pages. If we’re talking about a 200-page book, it will be about $16,000-$24,000 US, and for a 300 page book, we’re talking about $24,000-$30,000 US. I ask if that is something they can afford. Some will say yes. Other clients, I can tell that they’re kind of blanching.” I don't like to waste my time or theirs.
I charge by the hour, by the way and not by the project. I have found that “by the hour” leaves the scope of the memoir entirely in the client’s realm. When the ghost charges by the project, what do you do with the client who wants to expand the scope of the story? Sure you can renegotiate the price but doesn’t that leave the client feeling a bit negative about you? By the hour, I can say. “It’s your choice entirely” and not have to renegotiate anything.
What do you do in those situations where a client can’t afford ghostwriting?
I sometimes ask them if coaching would be of interest. I ask how they’d feel about me setting them up with one of my writers to work in a coaching relationship. “You can probably get away with $5,000-$10,000 US working with a coach and doing the writing yourself.”
I have been able to convert some of them. Having options is good - I can move people up and down the scale. I have also developed some online memoir courses that take the investment to a lower level. From my own experience, being able to upsell and downsell people is an important aspect of your business.
What would a person get for that coaching money?
You would get regular bimonthly coaching as you write. As you work together, your coach would ask you to write some stories of your choice. You would send them in. Generally speaking, most clients have already written something. The coach makes annotations. Usually in the first draft we’re going for the who, the what, the where. We do annotations in Word Track Changes. The coach writes comments and sends it back to the client. They’ll then have a session where they discuss the manuscript. Many people will feel that going through their story with a coach once is sufficient, but it usually isn’t .The best product consists of several read throughs. The relationship ends when the clients have a book.
What kind of writing success stories have you encountered over your career as a coach?
I worked with a man who was a lumberjack. He was 88 years old, came up with his daughter and gave me 50 pages of stream of consciousness and he said to me: “I want you to put this into a book - I just want to see it when it’s finished. Can you do that?”
His daughter talked to me and said she could send me the digital form.
I began breaking it into paragraphs, moving paragraphs—and stories— around, creating a time sequence. I produced a book that he sold 800 copies of - he was so thrilled with it. He had never done anything like this. The man and his wife went around speaking at public spaces about it and selling copies. It is an inspiring story that I tell to our clients.
Do you have any experiences that still haunt you?
I once worked with a client who I thought had a fantastic story. She had been told that she had six months to live and had strategically survived and cured herself. She was a six-year survivor. She ended up leaving me for reasons that still confound me and going to another ghostwriter. Afterwards, she sent me a copy of the book and it was the flimsiest, lousiest book. It was painful for me to see that—because she did not have the courage to write the book that her story warranted. She had an extraordinary story, and she settled for a mediocre book. How could she be so heroic on the one hand and then crumble before the task of writing her memoir! I had to remind myself that it was her book, not my book. We all have to remember that we are always writing the client’s book not ours.
What do you enjoy most about ghostwriting?
I love it because I get to meet so many people on an intimate level They tell me things that are so personal. Also, I love the actual mechanics of the work. The client often doesn’t know their story. They know details and facts, events, sequences, but really don’t know many things about what he story means at a deep level. Then they know little about linking the various stories into an interesting and meaningful memoir, about dramatic development, about what to put in and what to leave out. It’s like a tangled ball of string that I spend many sessions unraveling, and then rearranging the story.
The detective aspect appeals to me. I’m like Poirot, finding a hair on the rug and trying to make sense of it all. I have to follow the clues and unravel the evidence, making sense of it all.
It’s a great gig and sometimes I am so amazed that I have been able to spend so much of my life doing what I love—and getting paid for it.