Category Archives: Ghostwriting

Who’s That Writer…

…who hadn’t released a new novel in seven years… and then as of December 13th of this year, will have released his third novel in twelve months? Each with a different ghostwriter?

The answer, with some possible excuses for his behavior, can be found in this old post of mine from June of last year.

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Disenfranchised

Coming off of a trilogy about Ghostwriting, it’s only appropriate that I address the issue of franchises. After all writing for a franchise is a lot like ghosting – there’s more money involved than the average writer bags for his/er own work, and while your name is on the cover, it’s somebody else’s sandbox you’re playing in and you have to follow their rules.

And as it happens, I’ve had a couple of chances to do franchise work.

The first time was after Desperate Measures was published. My agent at the time was Kurt Busiek, who was on hiatus from the Comic Book industry. As my agent, Kurt worked at an agency that also happened to represent the estate of James H. Schmitz, author of the cult favorite The Witches of Karres.

Kurt saw a resemblance between the witty, rollicking space opera I had written and Schmitz’s witty, rollicking space opera. He said that the agency was always looking for ways to further monetize their clients’ properties1. They’d been talking at the agency about what they could do to get The Witches of Karress back into print, and one of their ideas was to have somebody write a sequel to it. Thing was, they hadn’t found the right person yet, but in yours truly Kurt was confident he’d found a match.

When he called me with his proposal, I had two thoughts. First, wow, I can’t wait to tell my wife. She was a huge fan of Karres, and was the one responsible for my reading it. Second was, how do I explain this to Jerry Oltion? I’d met Jerry a year or two earlier at a science fiction convention. His first novel was a rollicking space opera of sorts, and in our writer’s bull sessions he mentioned that he was working on a proposal for a sequel to… guess what? I didn’t want him thinking that I had stolen his idea, although in retrospect, it was apparent that a lot of people were thinking about sequelizing the book.

I decided not to do anything about Jerry. He was going to the agency with his idea, and the agency was coming to me for my idea, so I figured I could avoid any potential conflict. And who knows? Maybe Jerry’s proposal was what made the agency think about doing a sequel. I don’t know.

So over the next couple of weeks I reread the book and then slowly put together my proposal for the novel. Because I wanted to make sure it advanced the Karres universe while staying true to the original book, I kept running it past my wife and bouncing ideas off of her. Once I had something that met with her approval, I sent it to Kurt and company. Then the verdict came back. They loved it. They thought it advanced the Karres universe while staying true to the original book.2 It was all looking like blue skies and green lights as they sent it off to the publisher.

And the publisher said “No.” Their reasoning? It was too much of a cult novel to justify republishing it, let alone a sequel. I moved on to other things.

A decade or so later, this cult novel was picked up by Baen, and in 2004 they issued a sequel, The Wizard of Karres, by Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint, and Dave Freer.3 Then in January of this year, Flint and Freer’s name appeared on The Sorceress of Karres. What is curious is that the original and the first sequel are seemingly out of print. New hardcovers of the Schmitz book are going between $50 and $80, while paperbacks run about $30. Of more interest to me is the fact that the first sequel is going for $60 for a new hardcover. Hmmm, I guess somebody wants to read them.

My second brush with a franchise was much briefer. Kurt had returned to comicdom and I had another agent, who called me up out of the blue one day, again not with news of an update on one of my own manuscripts. Instead, he asked me if I’d be interested in writing a Star Wars novel.

Because I once promised my wife that I would listen to any offer with an open mind instead of laughing and hanging up the phone, I asked my agent, “Why me?”

Here’s how he explained it. The Star Wars franchise had started with Del Rey books many moons ago. Over the years, it left Del Rey for, I think, Bantam. Even more years passed, and, as is the manner of all things, Star Wars returned to Del Rey, under the editorship of Shelly Shapiro. Shelly, it turns out, was the editor of my five Del Rey novels, so my agent knew that she knew that I was capable of turning a good phrase and getting a clean manuscript in on deadline.

Impressive. My agent had done his homework.

I asked, “Would my name have to be on the cover?” Meaning, I might do it for money, but let me salvage my personal pride, since I loathe Star Wars.

He said, “Well, I think the whole idea is to have a name author on the cover.” Nice gambit there, appealing to my writer’s ego.

But I ultimately said no, and for the most part was glad. I found out later that the Star Wars franchise paid the author a Big Advance up front for writing the book, and then paid no royalties after that. That’s not something I would have liked.

Do I have any regrets about saying no?

Only one. A year or two later, there was a lot of hoo-hah in the press that Vector Prime, the new Del Rey Star Wars novel by R.A. Salvatore was about to be released, and Chewbacca was killed off in the book. Yeah. you’re thinking what I thought when I heard that. If I had known that I would’ve had the chance to kill off Chewbacca, I would have been all over it, lack of royalties notwithstanding.

Oh, well. Maybe someday the wheel will turn full circle and I will be offered the chance to kill off Captain Pausert of Nikkeldepain in something called The Last Sequel of Karres.

But I really doubt it.

  1. Okay, but not in those words. Monetize seems to be more a modern term, used a lot with the way people make money off of their blogs. Me excepted.
  2. Or words to that effect.
  3. Hmmm, let me figure out who wrote the outline, who tweaked it, and who did the actual writing on that one.

Ghostwriters in Disguise, Part III

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.
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  • 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.
    ACTOR: Okay.

    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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Ghostwriters in Disguise, Part II

So if you’re often deprived of glory on the cover of a book, why ghostwrite at all? I think that’s all explained in this excellent article on NPR. But I can see from the look on your face that you won’t click the link and read the article. You want me to tell about my experiences as a ghostwriter.

Okay, here we go. But let me say that the number one reason, and the entire raison de etre of the NPR article has to do with financial stability, especially when one’s own projects aren’t selling well.

That was part of what was on my mind when my agent called me up way back in the mists of time ago – what’s it been, twenty years? He told me that the person whom I will refer to as Client #1 was writing a new novel with a science fiction flavor, and needed an actual SF practitioner to make sure it all hung together. When he told me the Client’s name, I was taken aback. I definitely knew the name, and was surprised that this person needed help writing anything at all, their backlist being full of all sorts of writing, including other novels.

Nevertheless, I agreed to the project. I am always interested in new experiences, and I saw it as being more of a book doctor or maybe a midwife to the project. Terms of the deal were disclosed to me. My name would not appear on the cover. I would get one-third of the proceeds. And I was never, ever, ever, ever, to say what I had done for the Client.

So I flew to New York and took a meeting with Client #1, his agent, my agent (the two agents worked in the same agency, which is how my name came up in an earlier meeting) and the Editor. Client #1 brought an outline of the book, some seven typewritten single spaced pages, and read it to us, giving us some asides about the direction the book should take.

And I had an epiphany. I don’t read people at all, to the point where if it’s not obvious, I don’t have a clue, making me wonder if there are a few Asperger’s genes in my makeup. But as Client #1 read the outline, I suddenly understood something: Client wants to be the main character in the book. Badly.

Then I had another epiphany as I looked at the outline: I have an incredible amount of freedom in what this book is to be. Imagine if your client gave you the outline to the book, and when you took out the manifesto part (which made up some 5 pages of Client’s outline), the basic plot of the novel looked something like this:

Two friends sneak into an orchard to pick apples. While picking and stuffing themselves with apples, the two get into an argument. One kills the other with a shovel and buries the body under one of the trees, then tries to live life normally. But then things go wrong. There’s a police investigation, and the family of the deceased wants to know what’s going on. Finally, the murderer’s guilt turns into insanity, everything comes to a head, and the book concludes with an inevitable, yet shocking twist ending. The book’s thesis is that murder is a bad thing.

Can you feel the wheels turning in your head? There are a handful, a dozen, a million ways you can tell this story. Add to that your insight that this book is, say, an allegory for your client’s very public and messy divorce. Writer, you’ve just been given the keys to the playground. All the equipment is there, but you and you alone decide what you play on and when.

I went to town on the book. I wrote about some things I’d wanted to write about but could never fit into my own books. I tried methods and tricks of writing that I would never, ever use in one of my novels. I easter egged some things into it so if I ever had to defend myself as the ghost, I could prove it was my work. I had long phone conversations with… the Editor, one of the last of the hard-drinkin’ literary editors, about where the book was going and things we could do to move it along. I had a lot of fun with the project, even if at the end of things there was some creative dithering at the publishing house, and I kept having to rewrite passages so they would appeal to this or that demographic.

Most importantly, Client #1 loved the book. My insight had paid off. I took the two pages of vague idea that was given me and run with it. As for the manifesto, I took that five pages almost verbatim and turned it into a speech that one of the characters makes in the third act. It was all about the Client, and the client was happy indeed.

And then the roof caved in.

Late in the publication process, the book became orphaned. That means that the Editor behind the book leaves the publishing house for whatever reason, and there is no longer someone there to Champion it. After I had cleaned up the Client’s final edit, and after I had gone over the galleys of the book, a new editor came in with a blue pencil and decided to clean house. I didn’t know about this until a copy of the finished book came to me in the mail. If the editor had only called or asked, I could have helped… but he or she was dealing with an orphan, and so what?

It was a nightmare. I had done things like written A, B, and C – and then later came D, and it was a payoff of some kind. The editor had cut A, B, and C. Clues and characterization disappeared, and the end result was a messy potboiler. I’m not saying I had written some kind of literary masterpiece, but a lot of the structure was butchered, and, well, the critics picked up on it, and they weren’t kind. They especially picked up on the “D’s”, which sorely needed their respective A’s, B’s and C’s to work.

But God Bless Client #1, who soldiered on and promoted the book, and for all I know, it was treated as lovingly as that original outline I had been given in New York months before.

After all the hoo-hah had passed over the book being a bust, I asked my agent something that had been on my mind for some time. “Did Client #1 actually write those other novels that I see on the bibliography?”

There was a pregnant pause. And then, “It is the expressed position of this literary agency that the Client’s books are all self-written.”

So there’s that story. Like everything I write, it has run long – so it’ll be another day for my remaining adventures in Ghostland.

But I still think about that book and what a great time I had in its creation. I still feel bad for Client #1, who so badly wanted it to be something special, but lost control of the whole thing. Then I think in this era of DVD’s with author’s commentaries, why couldn’t the publisher go back and do a restored version without all of the butchery, with A, B, and C put back in. Then I go back to my own writing, and vow to fight to the death if one of my own books is ever orphaned.

Next Episode: The Movie Star. And no, it’s not Shatner.

Ghostwriters in Disguise, Part I

So in a stray moment today, Tom Clancy came to mind. It has been years since his last novel, and in the light of Jean Auel emerging with the lastest in her Earth’s Children series, I wondered if Clancy might be up to something.

Turns out, he is. A couple minutes of Googling came up with a title, Dead or Alive, coming to us on (oh, the irony) December 7th of this year.

Next stop was the Amazon page for the book. And in casually scrolling down the page, my eye caught this interesting line, just below Clancy’s author bio:

Grant Blackwood is the author of the Briggs Tanner books and the co-author along with Clive Cussler of Spartan Gold. Blackwood is a U.S. Navy veteran who lives in Colorado.

Grant Blackwood? Who is Grant Blackwood?

I scrolled to the top of the page to look at the cover of the book again. Then I clicked into the bigger version. And sure enough, there below the title, in a microscopic grey font, all but invisible against the white billboard of Clancy’s name were the words

with GRANT BLACKWOOD

More Googling led me to this Wikipedia page. From there it was a short hop to this interesting article on NPR, all about the lives of ghostwriters.

So what’s the deal? Why is Clancy using a ghostwriter? This may actually posit the question Has Tom Clancy ever NOT used a ghostwriter?. After all, his friend and fellow wargamer (yeah, apparently at one time Clancy was a wargame geek like me) Larry Bond collaborated with him on Red Storm Rising, and he seems to have some connection to The Hunt For Red October.

Then there are those franchise novels (i.e., Clancy does the outline, ghost does the rest): Op-Center, NetForce, EndWar – but what’s this? Both the EndWar and H.A.W.K. franchises were written by David Michaels, which is a pen name for… Grant Blackwood. The last time I peeled away something with this many layers, I had tears in my eyes.

At this point, the question is no longer Has Tom Clancy ever NOT used a ghostwriter?, but rather Why aren’t more authors using ghostwriters – or for that matter, how many are?

First we have Clancy here, obvious busy with his part-ownership of the Baltimore Orioles. He had an early history of having a writing partner, and as the military-techo thriller (a genre he pretty much invented) exploded, there was a need for product on the shelves, and it might as well have his name on them. So the franchises were born. And hey, if it turned out that that Grant guy was a great person to work with, and well, the last novel came out in 2003… why not get a little help?

In recent years this has been happening more and more, especially with late-career authors: Arthur C. Clarke, Anne McCafferey, and Clive Cussler all brought in ghosts to do the workhorse writing, and even gave them credit on the cover (although, like the Clancy, that credit size was diminuative in appearance). Dick Francis has recruited his son to help write his mysteries, although since they’re blood that may be considered “co-author” status (but to me that’s only when both author names are the same size on the cover). William Shatner even put his ego aside and gave credit to some of his literary “helpers.”

In some areas, ghosting has gone a little out of control. Robert Ludlum must have left lots of outlines laying around when he died, because he continues to publish – only these novels appear as “Robert Ludlum’s The (proper name as adjective) (noun)“.

While ghostwriting has probably been around since quills were dipped in dye, the recenty ghosty madness may have started with gothic horrorist V.C. Andrews, who published eight titles before joining the choir invisible in 1986. Death seemed to be a great career move for Ms. Andrews, because in the years since her death, 71 more novels have come out under her name, not counting omnibus editions and e-book only releases. All these were done by the skilled hands of ghost Andrew Neiderman (whose Wikipedia Page claims he’s penned 91 novels, so my count (and way of counting) may have been off.

But why would a writer put themselves through something like that – taking someone else’s outline and doing the work of turning it into a novel, probably without the prospect of getting mentioned on the cover while setting aside your own work at the same time?

Well, if you read the NPR article above, you’ll get a good idea. But if you don’t want to do that, stay tuned. In our next exciting episode, you’ll get the inside story from someone who ghosted 1 1/2 novels… namely me.

UPDATE 5/10/2011: It looks like after 7 years of inactivity, Tom Clancy is turning back into a lean, mean book writing machine. Or at least his ghostwriter is. I just saw news of Clancy’s new novel, Against All Enemies, scheduled for release on June 14th of this year. And featured in a thin, microscopic font on the cover is an almost familiar legend: With Peter Telep.

UPDATE 10/28/2011: Okay, now it’s getting crazy. Amazon announces preorders for another new Clancy book this year, Locked On, this one written with a gent named Mark Greaney. With a release date of December 13th of this year, it means that Clancy will have released three new novels in 12 months, each by a different ghostwriter. He is either trying to save the economy by putting writers to work or else his alimony payments have gone up.

UPDATE 4/20/2012: Okay, the pattern is set. Clancy is now releasing a new novel every six months. The forthcoming Search and Destroy will be his fourth new novel in two years. They’re dropping every June and December. Peter Telep returns to do the co-writing, ghostwriting, or whatever you want to call it writing honors on this one. Those alimony payments must be incredible.