Is that a ghostwriter I see before me?

Have you ever thought you’d like to write a book and then decided you didn’t have enough time? That’s when your mind may turn to hiring a ghost writer.
As a novelist, I meet many people who want to tell me about their plans to write a book – and it’s absolutely true what they say, there is a book in everyone. But sadly not everyone has the skill, resources or time to make that book a reality. Hence the need for a ghostwriter.
I’m not looking for work as a ghostwriter – quite the opposite. However I am often asked, sometimes by friends, if I’d like to help someone write their story. Not for me. Many people enjoy ghostwriting and do it very well. I have tried on two occasions and not been happy with the results on either. It takes a certain kind of temperament and a certain type of talent, neither of which I have. Just because you can write your own books doesn’t mean that you will make a good ghostwriter.
The first time I tried my hand at ghostwriting was when I was approached by a couple who wanted me to write a book about their daughter. She had been missing for five years at the time.
I won’t go into all the details of the case but would like to tell you how it affected me as a novelist. First of all, by the very nature of the subject matter, it was traumatic. The parents were, as you would imagine, distraught, frustrated, angry and heartbroken at the loss of their daughter. Given a free hand I could have created those emotions in the book, but I was restricted in what I wrote and how I wrote it by the wishes of the parents. It was after all their book and they wanted it in their words, not mine. It had to sound like they were the ones speaking. Perfectly understandable, but from my point of view not very satisfying. I would return home after each session and reach for the sherry bottle – their unhappiness had found a way of transferring itself to me. The book did get completed, and was a fair effort in the circumstances, but didn’t get published.
The next time someone approached me about helping them write a book – note the word ‘helping’ – I went along to see them, somewhat reluctantly. I was not sure exactly what was required of me and by the end of two months I still didn’t know. So I made my excuses and suggested they find someone a little more local.
The fault doesn’t lie with the people wanting to write their memoirs or some piece of family history, it lies with me. I need to be in complete control of the piece I am writing. That is the beauty of being a novelist. You create your own world, characters, locations and action. You are in charge. The only person who questions your work is your editor after you have completed it. And that’s okay. That’s what she’s paid for. But the tone and character of the work is always mine. Something a good ghostwriter has to forego.
It’s not a problem keeping to the truth; I have written biographies and true stories, where I have to keep to the facts, and that’s fine. I can deal with that as long as the way the prose is written is down to me.
Now whenever someone suggests I ‘help’ them write their book, I want to run a mile. Advice on how to self-publish a book, how to find an editor, a proof-reader, anything like that I am more than happy to provide, but please don’t ask me to write it.

Joan Fallon is a writer and novelist living in Spain.

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