Browsing the web this morning, I see that radio talker Glenn Beck has a new book out – this one a novel. And of course, the first thing I think about is whether or not he had a ghostwriter help him out with the process. Just because. You know.
Which brings me to my second experience with ghosting a novel – the “1/2” on my resume of “1 1/2,” even though I don’t think I actually got through half of the book – the time spent makes up for it.Some years after the first experience, I got another call from my agent. I was kind of hoping that he had some good news about a book he was trying to sell for me. Rather, he had an intriguing proposition. There was an Actor1 who needed help writing a novel. He had an idea for a movie in which he was the star, and had written a treatment for same. Seeing as how this actor was known more as a Character Actor than a Leading Man, Hollywood wasn’t exactly jumping all over themselves to get the thing produced.
Then someone in the Actor’s orbit suggested that the treatment get turned into a book. The Actor had enough of a name that it might sell, and if it did well, there would be a ready-made audience for the film version. So somebody’s agent ended up calling my agent’s agency, and my name came up again. If memory serves me, they sent a sampling of my work to the Actor, who approved, and before long he was calling me on the phone.
So I signed on. This deal was mostly the same as the one before – I’d get a third of the proceeds, only this time, I was actually going to get credit for my work. I can’t remember after all this time if my name was going to be emblazoned on the front cover in a microscopic font, but it would be listed in the book’s front matter and on the copyright page. I bought a new Apple computer with my part of the advance, named it after one of the characters the Actor had played in a well-known film, and got ready to go to work.
He was ready to get to work, too. But by the time all the contracts were signed, I was preparing to fly out to my adopted hometown in Wyoming and help my Mother move to Ohio. This didn’t faze the Actor. He said, “That’s okay. I’ll fly out to Wyoming and meet you there.” Forgive me, Gillette, but I said he didn’t have to. I was only going to be there a day or two, and would be busy the whole time I was out there. So I spent some time on the phone talking to him about the idea. It was a New Age kind of thing that kind of meandered a bit and needed some structure to it. I was the guy to do it, I was certain.
Before too long, it became evident that what we in flyover country believe is really true: they don’t think the way we do in Hollywood. Some examples:
- Once I got a copy of his treatment, the first roadblock we hit was that he didn’t have any word processing software in his brand new Mac laptop. At that point I was still a dedicated user of Microsoft Word2, so I told him just to snag a copy of the Mac version and we’d be good to go. There was a silence on the other end of the line after I made that suggestion. Then he said something like, “I’m not sure I really want to do that.” I thought, He doesn’t want to buy Microsoft because he is convinced they are evil. I assured him that things would be okay. Word was pretty universal, it was a good product, and the world wouldn’t end if he bought a copy, especially if he didn’t tell his peers. Okay, I didn’t say that last part.
- Early on in looking at his treatment, I noticed that the car the protagonist drove changed from one semi-sporty type to another. I asked the actor about this change and he said, “Oh. My son changed his mind.” It turns out that when the movie was made, he was going to ask to keep the car so he could give it to his son. He asked his son what kind of car he wanted, and wrote it into the treatment. Only then his son changed his mind about what he wanted. As a result, the first getaway vehicle I wrote into the novel was an Ice Cream Truck3. And yeah, at some point I was going to ask if I could have it when the shoot was over. As a joke, as a joke.
- As I finished chapters, I would send them off to him so he could look them over. This might have been a big mistake. While he said I had pretty much free hand to do what I needed in order to make the book commercially viable, I kept getting curveballs, mostly about minutia. Case in point, early in the book two characters meet amid earthshaking events. I’m worried about keeping them alive. The Actor says things are fine the way I’ve got them, and then the following conversation ensues:
ACTOR: Now this is where the characters can have sex if you want.
ME: Do you want them to have sex?
ACTOR: Don’t you want them to have sex?
ME: I’m thinking it’s early in the book, they just met, she’s scared, he’s shot up. It might be a little jarring to the reader.
ACTOR: They don’t have to have sex if you don’t want them to.
ME: What do YOU want them to do?
ACTOR: What’s your opinion?
ME: I generally don’t write in a sex scene unless it’s important to the plot.
ACTOR: So you don’t want them to have sex?
ME: Maybe they can have sex later.
Later I figured out that he probably wanted a sex scene in the book so there would be one in the movie. But I’ve never been able to determine if said sex was to add power to the New Age theme of the book, or because of who his female costar was going to be.
- Finally, I learned one other thing about Hollywood – that everything is fine until it’s not fine. Months passed and chapters piled up. The Actor would call the house4 to discuss the latest minutia in the book. I’d ask him if he got the latest chapter and how was it. “Perfect,” he’d say. “Just what I wanted.” Then one day, after eight or ten chapters had piled up, I got a call from my agent informing me that I’d been fired from the job. Actor didn’t like what I was doing with the book. I was baffled but not hurt, and explained the distracted praise I’d gotten for my pages.
That was when I heard the rest of the story. I was not the first person to work on this book. A woman had been working on it with him before, and he hadn’t liked her approach, either.5 My agent told me, “I don’t suppose that the Actor is ever going to find a writer who is capable of doing justice to his idea.” Which told me that there were other problems in the project that I didn’t know about, and at that juncture, didn’t want to know about.
So the project came to a crashing halt. I got a computer out of the deal, and a couple of autographed pictures for my kids, which thrilled them to no end. I kept tabs on the Actor to see if his book ever came out, but it never did. Neither did the movie. Which is too bad. It means the actor’s son never got his car. And I never got to ask for my Ice Cream Truck.
- Name withheld not because the guy was a jerk, but because I liked working with him and still I respect him, and unless I become a bestselling author again, I’m trying to maintain some professionalism in the unlikely event my ghosting services are ever needed again. And no, it wasn’t William Shatner, who has actually had many successful collaborations with ghostwriters.
- The latest version of Word did me in. I keep it around for compatibility reasons, but do all of my writing now on the Mac-centric Scrivener.
- There was a practical reason for this. There was a body that needed preserving, and an Ice Cream Truck was perfect, what with the built in freezer and all. It also added a little of that Faustian dark humor.
- The best part of these phone calls were when the phone would ring at the house and one of my kids would pick up the phone. The Actor would introduce himself by his informal nickname and ask for me. And the kids would be high as a kite after that, running around the house saying “I talked to him! I talked to him!” My wife and I still call the actor by his nickname when he pops up in a movie.
- I suspect my being jettisoned was part of the Hollywood mentality of fixing something by bringing in another writer. So I was Another Writer until he thought the book needed Another Writer. It might work for screenplays – novels, not so much, I think.