where the writers are
The Ghost Writer's Burden
James thinking about ghost writing

Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of being a ghost writer of books is trying to always keep in mind the vision the author has for the material, even when the research may lead you astray.

The risk is that as you write and write the text will take on a life of its own to the point where the author's vision is no longer driving the direction of the book, but rather the volume and influence of the research materials. What this will result in is over writing--meaning that you easily blow your page count--and frustration as the author barely recognizes their vision and sends you back for a time consuming and costly rewrite. This can be even more painful if you send material in chunks such as a section of chapters as opposed to a single chapter.

There is also the related issue of the author not really having a firm grasp on what their vision is for the book. They may understand what they want it to be about in general terms--memoir, history of the Civil War, explanation of a technical concept, and etc.--but they lack a thoughtout idea of what the book should look like when it's finished. This can be particularly difficult because often they don't realize that they lack a detailed understanding of what they want to write. After all, they are the expert in their field and/or the one with the big idea.

Therefore, as you go out and research you lack a firm notion of what it is you specifically need to say, which leads to overdoing the research and the issues of over writing and losing focus (you didn't have a focus to begin with). Then because there is no clear understanding of how to write the book the author likely will say you have written well, but that the content and flow wtihin chapters and the flow of chapters does not work. So you go back to researching and editing and rewriting and revision and come back with another version only to be told it's close, but not quite right.

This can go on for ever and become one of the most vexing issues to fix, because at its heart is the fact that you as the writer don't fully realize that the general overarching outline you have created with the author does not accurately reflect what the author wants to see. It is more a collection of headings with no direction or purpose. This means that for a time you don't realize that as you write the author is in the process of creating a vision for the book and you are spending time and resources for this person to essentially do some high-level navel gazing, which really sucks for the writer.

It has been my experience that in order to identify when an author does not yet know how the book should be written and then get the navel gazing done quickly you should go through a process of narrowing down the elements of the book.

Step 1 -- what is the book about? This should be a broad discussion outside of the context of a manuascript (e.g. just talking) of what the subject of the book is. If it's a memoir then is it about a specific moment in the author's life such as surviving cancer, a political campaign, a relationship, and etc. If its about a technical concept: describe the concept, why is it important, what does it do, and so on (avoid getting into specifics and details as that will be fleshed out during research). Apply these principles to define in broad terms what the book is about.

Step 2 -- What does the author want the book to do? By this I mean, define what the point(s) is for writing a book on this subject. Is the book a polemic about racism designed to change minds and impel people to action? Is it to tell a story about an experience the author had simply because it is a compelling story that may help some people in a similar situation? Are you trying to take a leading role within an industry or intellectual discipline by enunciating a new theory? And so on. It is also important that if the author provides copious amounts of research material for you it is more than likely it indicates this person does not yet know what they want to write about. Usually these materials lack a coherent or consistent focus and are just a bunch of things the author thinks will be helpful. However, this only makes it harder to narrow down what you need to write and can send you off into the darkness of borderless research.

Step 3 -- Go out and do some general research on the subject so that you can have an educated discussion about. This means using the Internet to see what others have written or done on the subject, read books and articles, and develop at least a basic understanding of the subject. If you are writing a memoir, have an interview with the subject in general terms on what s/he wants to write about and then talk briefly to other sources under the pretext of saying you are working on a book and may want to interview them at a later date.

Step 4 -- broadly outline the structure of the book. Will it be in three parts or just a series of chapters. If it is done in parts what is the overall point and goal of the parts and how do they fit together to tell the story? If it is a series of chapters, what is the narrative the author wants to tell. This is where you begin the flesh out how to write the book and narrow down its focus because this should be more than simply saying "Let's try this and we'll change it as we go along." It is about pushing the author to make some decisions, albeit with the caveat that as the writing progresses changes can be made. What this will do, though, is set a context within which changes can be made so that you don't start removing and adding chapters on a piecemeal basis.

Step 5 -- once the parts and chapters have been identified that are necessary to tell the overall story you need to outline each chapter with a hierarchy of headings. I would advice going no further than two or three levels as the research and your growing understanding of the subject will help determine how to structure the discussion/explanation/narrative. What you are doing at this stage is setting the context of specific pieces of the book in order to better focus your research and interviews. It is also at this stage where you will begin to get a sense of whether the author has a developed sense for how to write the book and what the vision is for what it should ultimiately look like.

Step 6 -- go out and prepare DETAILED outlines of three key chapters of the book (depending on whether it is memoir or a research piece these can be the first three chapters or important chapters for each part, and so on). The reason why I say detailed is because you will then present this to the author and this person must have all of the information they need to understand that if you put that outline down on paper what it will add up to. You also want to go through each piece of the outline line by line to see if you are factually accurate and to be sure that each piece is as long as it needs to be (not under explained or over explained) and that the vision for what the book should look like is clearly understood by you and the author. You should also realize that this is an iterative process. You may have to take comments and then go and make changes and review with the author again, but it is important to go through this process. Why this is a critical thing to do at this stage is because in outline form it is very easy to move things around to reorder them, rewrite things, remove items, add new sections, and etc, because you have not put them in draft form. You will also be getting the navel gazing done early as opposed to late and it is much better to do this work early in the process rather than later because towards the end is where you can start plugging in graphics and photos and sidebars and other elements to sharpen the manuscript. The overall point is that by the time you have reached a point where you and the author are happy with the outlines you will have a much firmer structure to guide the rest of your research, you both will be firmly on the same page, and you will have done your brain storming (harvesting blinks) at the beginning rather than end of the process.

Step 7 -- Go out and write the chapters and send them to the author and other reviewers agreed upon by the author (this latter piece will help provide the author with peer support to say the book is good, but change here and etc). While you are waiting start outlining the rest of the book and go through a similar process as before. The difference here is that since the vision for the book and how it should be written has been firmly established it will take a lot less time.

By following the above model you will greatly reduce the need for rewrites and will have speeded up your process (sometimes by months).