I always take an interest in books that are a collaborative effort, and that’s one of the reasons I picked up Lean In. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote this book with TV and magazine writer Nell Scovell. I can’t rightly call Scovell a ghostwriter because she has been publicly credited, though well in the background behind Sandberg. ‘Phantom writer’ perhaps? That appeals to me, being a long-time fan of The Ghost Who Walks.

Maureen Corrigan on the NPR website called Lean In tepid: ‘the book has that ironed-out quality of a collaborative project.’ I disagree. I found it funny and human, certainly more than I expected from a businessperson haling from the world of economics and corporate management. I wasn’t expecting Germaine Greer, and I didn’t get it either, but I did get an engaging blend of the personal and the political.

Kudos to Scovell: my guess is that without her in the mix, Lean In might have been considerably less lively and likeable. My guess is that she has done what a great ghostwriter or editor should do: bringing out the ‘best voice’ of her writing partner without imposing her own voice.

I’ll have a chance to find out whether that’s the case when I go to hear Sheryl Sandberg speak at an event in a few weeks’ time. The spoken and written word are different beasts, of course, which is why turning a collection of speeches or interviews into a book takes a great deal more than a transcription service. But I’m hoping to catch turns of phrase and ways of putting a thought together that come through in the way Sheryl speaks as well as in her book.

Have you read Lean In yet? How do you think it stands up as a piece of collaborative writing?

leaninWe need to get over the idea that one book can do it all – lead a revolution, fix your life, explain the universe. Unless the author is Marx or God (who clearly had a lot of help from co-writers).

Lean In is written by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg with Nell Scovell. It has been greeted by a bunch of hate. Here are the two main criticisms.

1. Sandberg is rich, powerful and privileged and therefore has no right to tell the rest of us anything. Right, so we’re not going to be reading the next book from Barak Obama or Richard Branson, are we? Be honest, would you say that about a man?

2. Lean In focuses on individual behavior rather than corporate accountability, and puts the onus on women to change how they behave. Sandberg heads up a corporation, so she knows corporations are made up of people; maybe that’s why she fails to demand that a shadowy figure called ‘they’ should behave differently. For Sandberg, ‘they’ equals ‘us’. In Lean In she recommends that we all change the way we work together. Yes, men too.

This book is not the whole conversation, far from it, but it’s a welcome addition.

I always take an interest in books that are a collaborative effort, and that’s one of the reasons I picked up Lean In. Sheryl Sandberg wrote this book with TV and magazine writer Nell Scovell. Maureen Corrigan on the NPR website called the writing tepid: ‘the book has that ironed-out quality of a collaborative project.’ I disagree. I found it funny and human, certainly more than I expected from a businessperson haling from the world of economics and corporate management. I wasn’t expecting Germaine Greer, and I didn’t get it, but I did get an engaging blend of the personal and the political.

Kudos to Scovell: my guess is that without her in the mix, Lean In might have been considerably less lively and likeable.

Hugh* is an actor best known for his comic work: a sharp improviser, a gifted storyteller, a talented singer and dancer who has won awards for his theatre work. Now a leading book publisher has invited Hugh to write a memoir. But when Hugh puts his stories on the page, they die: the technicolored images turn dull and gray and the anecdotes sputter and crash before his eyes.

Seth*, a motivational speaker and business coach, rang me last week in a state of frustration. He was working on an idea for an inspirational book, but as he put it, ‘My writing skills are the opposite of my speaking skills.’

Hugh and Seth are smart guys with great stories to tell, but they can’t write anywhere near as well as they speak. Yet both of them want to commit their ideas and stories to book form (paper or digital). What can they do?

They can work with me. Or someone like me. A ghostwriter, or a writing coach, or a great editor who will dig into the slag heap and pluck out the gold.

With Hugh, I did a series of interviews face-to-face, then he went away and recorded a series of narratives, all based on the plan we had worked out beforehand. Often Hugh would ask his manager to sit with him while he recorded his stories: he works better if there is someone listening.

I am the opposite of Hugh and Seth. I communicate better in writing than verbally. After a conversation I often think, ‘I should have said that differently – I didn’t really get my point across.’ My brain seems to go at the wrong speed or it wanders off in another direction: I gabble, I ramble, I take too long to formulate a response.

But then, I am a writer. It’s not so surprising that the written word is where I feel most comfortable. But I love working with people who are the opposite of me: I get a kick out of listening to their stories (it’s like story time for grownups!) and developing a manuscript that captures their voice and their essence.

Hugh and I have just completed an 80,000-word manuscript and sent it off to the publisher. Next week I’ll be doing a Skype session with Seth to work through a plan to get his book written. Teamwork is a beautiful thing.

* Hugh and Seth are pseudonymsMan using megaphone

Some people hate the idea of working with a ghostwriter. Chris O’Brien was a head and neck surgeon who had become well-known through the TV series RPA, set in the hospital where he worked. Chris became even better known through a set of tragic events: around the time he was working hard to establish Australia’s first integrated cancer treatment center, he himself was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.Chris O'Brien
Despite the best efforts of his physicians, Chris’s tumor grew. Three surgeries and radiotherapy failed to remove it entirely. Through his treatment Chris had days when he was lucid and on top of his game, and other days when he struggled to remember the names of familiar people around him.
Chris was a man who loved books. He had hoped he might write one himself one day. So when a publisher approached him wanting to publish the story of his life, it was a dream come true. At that point, though, his health was intermittent and the future uncertain. His prognosis suggested that he might only have a year to live. Perhaps we could team you up with a writer to help you? His publisher offered. They knew the perfect person.
Chris and I talked on the phone and we clicked immediately. I enjoyed his good humor, warmth and sharp mind, and I got a sense he was happy to deal with me. All the same, he went back to his publishers and said, ‘I don’t want to work with a ghostwriter. I want to write my book myself. It’s always been my dream to do it, and I think I can.’
Part of Chris’s objection was that he didn’t want people thinking, ‘poor Chris, he’s so far gone he can’t even write any more.’ Or that he was like supermodels and celebrity footballers who bring in a ghost because they can’t string a sentence together themselves.
So instead of being Chris’ ghost, I became his writing partner and editor. Chris went away and wrote the manuscript himself. He worked like lightning, producing around 60,000 words in just over three months. I then came in as a ‘book doctor’, reviewing what Chris had written and providing a detailed prescription for how it could be improved. Depending on how Chris was travelling with his health and energy levels, sometimes he would do the rewrites, other times I would re-shape what he had written, matching his style and phrasing.
Mostly what the manuscript needed was an injection of life, a sense of heart and motivation. Like so many people writing their life story, Chris had produced a chronological description of events but said little about his inner life or the characters of the people around him – his wife, children, colleagues. Together we wove a sense of heart and a strong narrative into his story.
The result was Never Say Die, shortlisted for the ABIA Biography of the Year in 2009.
That same year, Chris O’Brien passed away. As then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd described him, Chris was ‘a truly exceptional Australian’. It was a privilege to be his writing partner.

Most of my writing work these days is about helping other people to write their stories. Oh all right, I might as well admit it: I do a lot of ghostwriting. I don’t like the term, though, because most people think that what I do is deceitful.

It’s hard to get around that preconception, but fellow ghostwriter John Kador has written a great blog post that nails what ghostwriting is all about, the many forms it can take, and why it’s more prevalent than most people would think.

Ghostwriting comes with a load of baggage. I can predict the questions that come at me when people learn that I’m a professional ghostwriter.

Occasionally the questions come out of genuine curiosity, but more often than not I pick up a certain judgment, as if the practice was deceptive.

Most people have a very personal relationship with reading and the idea of a ghostwriter does not easily fit into the picture they have sometimes constructed. Most readers develop an idealized  relationship with the author, or the person they think is the author, so who am I, this interloper, and what am I doing in the middle of their fantasy?

I get it.  Writing is an intimate act. The craft of ghostwriting presents certain ethical difficulties.  But no more than any other profession. Here are some of the most common questions I get and my responses.

Read the rest of John’s excellent post here.

I have to come clean — I am no domestic goddess. There are days when I get caught up in the consumer frenzy: I succumb to over-packaged frivolities in the supermarket aisles; I call for takeaway because I can’t bear cooking dinner; and I rack up a new pair of shoes on a credit card that is already steaming at the edges. Tragically, I also suffer from ‘Singerphobia’: an extreme aversion to sewing machines.

But I know that I am at my best on the days when I slow things down a notch, bake a batch of biscuits with the kids, plant out some herb seeds, or recycle an empty wine bottle to hold a trail of jasmine from the garden.

Simplicity solves a whole lot of things. It is the answer to your time-management problems: do less, learn to say no. Choose, select, cut back. It’s the solution to your financial crisis: spend less, try doing without or re-using. It solves your storage dilemmas: instead of stuffing your cupboards full of more stuff or buying new cupboards (or a new house), explore the option of simply having less stuff. Want to lose weight? Simplify your diet. Eat more fresh foods and less processed products. As Paul Arnott suggests in his book Live the Moment, ‘the only way to live simpler lives is to want less’.

If the idea of creating an organised home, a happy family and a life worth living appeals to you, please check out my new book with Antonia Kidman: The Simple Things. It’s out now and available from all good book retailers, both bricks and mortar and online.

Go to Booktopia

Go to Dymocks

We all blog for different reasons.

For some, it’s an outlet. For others, it’s about making an income. And for another group, it’s about catching the eye of a publisher. Hopefully.

But are book publishers looking at your blog?

We’ve all heard about the Blog To Book success stories. Gretchen RubinJulie Powell (Julie & Julia), and others. But how likely is it? Are publishers even reading your blog?

The lovely and clever Allison Tait invited me to join a panel of publishers for a Q&A session on that very subject, as a guest post for Styling You with Nikki Parkinson. Read the full story here.