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A community of ghosts

The writer’s life can be a lonely, isolating one.

There’s an up side, though, as my fellow ghostwriter John Kador describes in his latest blog post. John and I are both members of a “community of ghostwriters”, that cuts through the isolation. Read more about the writing life and community here.

I’d love to hear your stories of community in the midst of isolation – whether you’re a writer or not.

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That’s what I said, but it’s not what I meant

Sometimes the words that come out of my mouth don’t exactly match the meaning I had in mind. Pretty often, if I’m honest.
When you see a literal, accurate transcription of what someone said, it can be surprising how little sense it makes. Even when it is said by an extraordinarily wise person with a gift for articulating ideas.
In his blog The Actual Pastor, Steve Wiens includes a direct quote from Irish poet John O’Donohue taken from an interview shortly before his death in 2008:

And I love what my old friend Meister Eckhart, 14th-century German mystic wrote. One day I read in him and he said, “There is a place in the soul — there is a place in the soul that neither time, nor space, nor no created thing can touch.” And I really thought that was amazing, and if you cash it out, what it means is, that in — that your identity is not equivalent to your biography. And that there is a place in you where you have never been wounded, where there’s still a sureness in you, where there’s a seamlessness in you, and where there is a confidence and tranquility in you. And I think the intention of prayer and spirituality and love is now and again to visit that inner kind of sanctuary.

All those spare “and”s, the backtracking and reframing – it’s typical of how we all speak. On the page, it’s not pretty. That’s why the sensitive editing of spoken words when they are to be used in written form is so important.
Many journalists would be horrified by the idea of tampering with a direct quote. As a book editor, I’ve had numerous battles about that. My view is that when you write a book (as opposed to an ephemeral news report), there is an expectation from your interview subject and your reader that the words will be polished to render them both clear and pleasant to read, without altering substance or style.
What’s your take on it?

Taking Grammarly for a test drive

Some days I need a pedantic friend with a touch of obsessive behavior to read through my work.

Most times I don’t have one to hand, though, and that’s where a program like Grammarly can come in handy. This week I took it for a spin to see whether it would be a useful tool for me to use – either as a final check on the manuscripts I edit, or as a second pair of eyes to help polish my writing before I hand it off to a publisher.

Grammarly is like Microsoft Office’s spelling and grammar check on steroids: it will be very strict with you, sometimes too much so, but you might be surprised how many flaws it finds. If you’re at all wobbly on aspects of grammar, word choice or punctuation, Grammarly might be the pedantic friend you need.

I tried out Grammarly on extracts from manuscripts in various stages of polishing. The first obstacle I encountered was that when you use Grammarly online you can only check 20 pages at a time, though if you use the Microsoft Office plug-in there is no limitation.  So I broke my manuscript into chunks and fed it through bit by bit.

Grammarly offers different modes: general, business, academic, technical creative, casual, depending on the style of writing you are aiming for. It is important to master these modes, though you will need to do that by trial and error as Grammarly refuses to explain what the types mean.  In their FAQ section, they say, “Each review style is based on a specific set of checks. (We can’t disclose what those are because it’s intellectual property.)” That seems a mite neurotic and not terribly helpful.

The first extract I fed into Grammarly was full of direct quotes that could not be changed, so many of its suggestions were less than useful. Once I shifted from general mode to casual mode, though, we got along better. There were some good pick-ups on run-on sentences and comma use. Overall, only about 10 or 20 percent of the queries and suggestions were useful: most were overly pedantic or not appropriate in the context. It’s easy to ignore the suggestions you don’t want to apply, though.

Casual mode was so super-casual it didn’t query a two-word non-sentence like “Every time.” It also turned a blind eye to the use of double hyphens for dashes (“just like all her recipes–wet ingredients and dry ingredients”). I was surprised that those two things didn’t ring alarm bells.

The robotic nature of a program like Grammarly comes through when it tries to correct use of a singular verb with any noun ending with “s”, such as “Childs was a leading investor…” It also dislikes the use of “could” without a verb following it. Grammarly is not a fan of foreign phrases, either: über and maître d’ were both stumbling blocks.

Some of the suggestions to replace often-misused words seemed off-key. “Seated” was offered as a replacement for “sweated”, “while” instead of “whale”, and “to late” for “too late”.

You can select to check through only one category of queries at a time: subject and verb agreement, for instance, or capitalization. That could be handy if you have a particular area that you need help with. For me, the most useful checks were split infinitives (I don’t mind the occasional one, but Grammarly caught some nasties), redundancies (“exact same”) and passive voice.

Would I keep using Grammarly on a regular basis? Yes, I probably would. I ran the program on this blog post, and found two out of its nine suggestions useful (remembering that this article does include words such as über that I know will ring Grammarly’s alarm bells). It took just a minute or two, so I’d count that as a worthwhile check.

Can Grammarly take the place of an intelligent copy editor or proofreading? Not on your life. Think of it as the literary equivalent of feeding some coins into a massage chair versus booking a session with a good massage therapist. The chair’s going to pummel out some knots, but the therapist will deliver that deep healing experience.

 

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Permission to publish – who needs it?

There is no better time to be writing and publishing books than now. We’ve had the funeral when everyone thought books were dead, and now we’re in publishing paradise, where there are innumerable ways to write a book and to get it into the hands (five-fingered or digital) of your readers.

So what has changed?

Read the whole article on the Advance website here.

permission

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What makes a bestseller?

Towards the end of this year’s San Francisco Writers Conference, a first-time author cornered me over coffee. “So what exactly makes a book a bestseller?”

He was asking the million-dollar question. It comes up somewhere along the line at most writers’ events, and I wish I could give a straightforward answer. Then again, if I could, I probably wouldn’t be sharing the key to that particular goldmine.

I can say there’s an ‘X factor’ that makes people respond to a particular idea at a particular time. That quality is easiest to define by what it’s not: it’s not jumping on the bandwagon of recent bestselling books, it’s not a ‘formula book’ created to meet the market. So if you’re asking the ‘bestseller’ question, most likely you’re looking in the wrong place.

I work in non-fiction, particularly life stories and ‘ideas books’ with a strong storyline. In that area, here is as close as I can get to the five ingredients that make – if not a bestseller, certainly a great book.

  1. Passion – the difference between the casual idea ‘that would make a great book’ and ‘this is the thing that makes the blood flow through my body’.
  2. Clarity – a vision for what this book is, what it does for the reader.
  3. Story – even if you’re writing a business book or the history of your company, think of it as telling a story – where are the turning points, the defining moments, the highs and lows? Where are you taking the reader?
  4. Commitment – once the book is written, your job is done, right? Wrong. You need to ‘own’ that book long term, being ready to talk about it, write about it, at the drop of a hat.
  5. Voice – the ability to capture a breathtaking ‘voice’ on the page. Cormac McCarthy has it, Geraldine Brooks has it. It takes work and some writers never get it.

When all five of those factors come together, it’s a beautiful thing. On top of that you need the complete package of a well-produced book (be it print or digital) with a standout cover and knockout marketing.

One thing that jumps out from this bunch of five is that a great book has as much to do with the author and their temperament, determination and motivation as with what they write.

The kind of work I do these days is about injecting ingredients 2, 3 and 5. If someone is struggling to pinpoint their vision for the book, or figure out where their story is going, or lacks the literary chops to come up with the goods, that’s where someone like me can add value. Sometimes – most times, really – a bestseller is a team effort rather than a solo achievement.

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Are you the perfect client?

One of the questions I get asked most is, “how can I find the best ghostwriter for me?” An excellent question, and one that I addressed in a previous post here.

But what about you – are you ready to launch into the writing process? Have you got all your ducks in a row? Are you ready to be the perfect client for your ideal ghostwriter?

Over at the Jenkins Group’s book ghostwriting blog, you can read an excellent post that sums up what makes the perfect client. It lists six qualities of the ideal client:

  1. A clear vision
  2. Organization
  3. A realistic schedule
  4. Availability
  5. Good feedback
  6. Compatibility

As part of your vision for your book, you could put together a sample chapter, as this post suggests. Or you could assemble a mood board. Include books, writers, articles, magazines, and films that capture an element of the voice you want to convey, or an attitude or style that you feel aligned with. Mood boards are traditionally visual, but you could write your ideas in a brainstorm-style list.

In your schedule for the book-writing process, build in time up front for the writer to digest your ideas and materials, and time at the end for the manuscript to “percolate”. Don’t expect a first chapter to hit your in-tray days after you start working together. I always recommend that writers put their manuscript in a drawer for a month before reviewing it one last time and submitting it to a publisher. I try to abide by that principle myself: sometimes my month shrinks to a week, but even that much “percolating time” makes a huge difference to the maturity of the final work.

When you give feedback to your writer, avoid the temptation to be ironic or sarcastic. Questions and suggestions work well: “I think this paragraph would read better if it started with xxx, what do you think?” is constructive and collaborative. “This section is boring” doesn’t give your writer much to go on.

When you consider your working style, think about your weaknesses. In choosing your ghostwriter, you have an opportunity to balance those flaws. Are you unable to let go of a project? Find someone who is clear and decisive. Do you have a tendency to rush things? Look for a writer who is meticulous and careful. Polar opposites can be uncomfortable, so make sure there is enough common ground between you to make the partnership work.

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Your perfect (writing) partner

This week a motivational speaker asked me, “How do I find a ghostwriter who can capture my voice?”

She went on to explain that she had worked with writers before who seemed hellbent on cleaning her up. “I’m very opinionated and sometimes my language is pretty colorful. I don’t want anyone to change that – it’s who I am.”

Here are three tips for finding a writer who will catch your voice on the page.

  1. Don’t look for a writer who is your mirror image. A natural tendency is to look for a writer who is similar to you. If you’re a male sports coach from Michigan, you might think your perfect match will also be an athletic male from the Midwest. Not necessarily so. A good ghostwriter will be able to catch your voice regardless of how similar it is to their own “natural” voice. They will do it by being an attentive listener, working with transcripts or videos of your talks or your own writing pieces. I’d even go so far as to say that you may be better off with a writer whose background and style is quite different to your own. That way, you’re going to know pretty quickly whether it’s your voice or theirs coming through in the draft chapters.
  2. Check your writer’s track record. Can they show you some writing samples that demonstrate a range of styles, so that you can be confident of their ability to switch it up?
  3. Make sure that you agree on what your writing voice should sound like. Most of the people I work with don’t have a writing voice at all. They have a speaking voice, which is what they use when they act, or do public speaking, or give interviews. From that speaking voice I synthesize a written voice, and part of my process for working with a client is agreeing up front what that written voice is. Some people want their style tightened up and made more formal, while others – like my motivational speaker friend – want to keep a lively, loose style in their written work.

I’d love to hear about your experiences of working with a writing partner – has it been easy to get the voice right, or has it been a struggle?