Boo! (Scott Westerfeld on the spooky art of ghostwriting)

This week several people sent me links to this excellent article, "On Ghostwriting" by Scott Westerfeld, author of a popular YA Uglies series.

"I am a ghost writer, a literary doppleganger," says Westerfeld. "I write books that other people take credit for. People more famous than I, or busier, or who simply can't be trusted with a pen." He goes on to outline ghost parameters and protocol and addresses some of the pressing questions that haunt the field: "What are the implications of such duplicity? Is ghost-writing a case of false advertising? Is it simply bad manners, like bringing take-out to a potluck supper?"

Since Westerfeld ghosted fiction back when he was doing this sort of work, his perspective is a bit different from mine. As a celeb memoir ghost, I do for my clients what the Ghost of Christmas Past does in “A Christmas Carol” — I take them by the hand, lead them past their life experiences from the perspective of an observer, help them find peace with the characters who people their memories, and then excavate a language that expresses how they feel about it all. These stories are not mine to tell, so I’ve never felt that my words were being taken from me.

Quoth Westerfeld:
Reading reviews of one's ghosted works is an equally ambivalent experience. One is partially immunized from negative comments, but any high praise is half pleasure, half pain. For the ghost, the only real satisfaction comes from the phrase "competent prose." Some ghosts I know are haunted by their lost kudos...

Not me. I don’t writhe even a little when the book gets a great review, and I prefer that the reviews not mention me, because I want to do what a good ghost does: disappear. I can’t say how I’d feel about ghosting fiction, but I can say that the invisibility has become addictive. I never fight for cover credit; on a recent project, the client was the one who insisted my name be on the cover. She didn’t want people to think she was pretending to have written the book.

Ghosting forced me to examine the essence of why I write. I love living a creative life — and actually making a good living. I love the endlessly entertaining puzzle play of setting words in rows. I genuinely love listening to people -- my clients, airplane seatmates, random people on park benches and subways; I've never met a human being who was not fascinating and beautiful in some unique way. I love learning daily through research on everything from theatre history to bicycle racing to monoclonal antibody therapy. Public applause is a really pale reward compared to all that. I have a lot of love in my life; I’m not missing anything if strangers don’t love me.

I ghost memoirs for the same purely selfish reason I write novels: I love writing. Fame was never my objective. And candidly, I’ve hung around famous people enough to know that fame exacts a price I’m not willing to pony up. I’d rather be the piano player who does my thing and provides the ways and means for the jazz diva to do hers.


I really love your perspective on ghosting, Joni. Your attitude, respect, and pride in the process make it easy to see why you've become so sought after in this arena.

I've known a few people who've ghosted novels, sometimes for longstanding series where the named author has retired or died and, in another case, for a celeb who was supposedly penning his own mysteries. At one time, I looked into doing this for some quick cash, but I was too bothered by A. the terms, which reduced the novelist to a slave-wage hack working doing as he/she is told B. the idea of a novelist/publisher farming out a series to poorly-paid drones with ridiculously-short deadlines. (And I absolutely think it's poor form for an author/publisher to try to fool readers into thinking a trusted author wrote a book s/he didn't.)

I still think the majority of novel ghosting gigs are sweatshop deals (esp. the children's/YA series). But I'm betting there are some (James Patterson's cowriters, for example) at the higher end who are very fairly compensated and have enough leeway to make the project creatively satisfying.
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