Saturday, 8 November 2014

The Industry View - The Ghostwriter

Teena Lyons
Teena Lyons talks to JJ Marsh
After ten years as a news reporter and feature writer on national newspapers and consumer magazines, Teena left Fleet Street in 2006 to pursue a career as a ghostwriter.

Her first project, a collaboration with ex-Asda chief executive and Royal Mail chairman Allan Leighton, was a business book bestseller.
On Leadership, published by Random House in 2008 was called ‘immensely readable’ by Management Today; and World Business wrote: “the book barrels along at such a pace, with such enthusiasm, that we are breathlessly carried along... a profoundly hopeful read – informed by the almost palpable joy Leighton feels in inspiring and leading others.”

Following this success, Teena collaborated with Deborah Meaden of TV’s Dragons Den on her book
Common Sense Rules – another bestseller. 'A refreshingly sensible look at an area plagued by hype and mythology': Management Today. ‘Inspiring’: Daily Express.‘Extensive practical advice’: The Independent.

 Since then, Teena has written more than twenty books, including the follow-up to On Leadership, Tough Calls. Her work ranges from straight, ‘how I made it’ style biographies, to broader analysis of contemporary issues, to what it takes to run a successful business, from global corporations to entrepreneurial start-ups. She has also written a number of ‘real life’ autobiographies for ordinary people who have lived extraordinary lives.

Having read your book, I can see you have a very pragmatic approach to writing – ‘don’t care if my name isn’t on the book as long as it’s on the cheque’. I find this a very refreshing angle in a field full of towering egos.

I genuinely feel this way, which I know most people find very hard to believe, particularly close family and friends who often get quite miffed that all my hard work is not publicly recognized. I say: I do a job I love, get paid for it and learn at the feet of some amazing experts along the way. That is reward enough.

I suspect it also helps that I had a background in National papers. I have seen my name ‘in lights’ many times before. Perhaps I have got it out of my system.

One observation that stuck with me – you mention the variety of skills a ghost must employ. Being a good writer is not enough. Which professions would you chuck into the blender to create the perfect ghostwriter?

I would zizz-up a winning blend of journalist, actor, politician and entrepreneur. That would be perfect. Journalistic skills are used throughout the process, from structuring the interviews, to quickly reacting to new, hitherto unexplored angles and then, of course, interpreting it all on the page. The acting side of this hypothetical ‘super ghost’ would be able to really get under the skin of a character, which is crucial. Meanwhile a bit of political acumen is frequently required to steer a way through certain, perhaps more sensitive, subject matter. Finally, sound business skills are essential. Running a profitable ghostwriting service depends on picking the right projects, charging the correct going rate and being quite firm about terms and conditions. It doesn’t fit well with the clich├ęd image of a tortured-author-in-a-garret, but a ghost can never lose sight of the fact they are a writer-for-hire.

You quote many other people in the same line of work, such as Andrew Crofts (a favourite at Words with JAM). Is there a sense of fellowship and community in the ghostwriting world or are you all elbowing each other out the way to get the best gigs?

It’s funny you mention Andrew. He was the first person I turned to for advice when I decided to become a full-time ghost. He was amazing and spent a long time on the phone giving me tips and useful pointers. Since then, I have met lots of other ghosts and always try to be just as helpful, deadlines notwithstanding.

My agent Andrew Lownie has many ghosts on his books and frequently gets us all together at his fantastic Halloween parties (Halloween – ghosts – geddit?). I have also run into other ghosts at speaking engagements and been put in touch with some through various contacts. I can honestly say they are a great, very friendly, bunch. Sometimes we even swap the odd ‘war stories’ about tricky clients – with due (no names) discretion, of course.

We do occasionally find ourselves up against one another for some jobs, but it is never ink-pens-at-dawn. I think we all accept that ghostwriting is a people-based business. Authors choose ghosts as much on personal chemistry as on track record and that goes the other way round too. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.

What kind of books do you read for pleasure, as opposed to research/work?

I have to say 90 per cent of the books I read are to do with work. I always ask the people I collaborate with to tell me the books they like most, as part of the getting to know them process and then read the books they cite. I’ll also look at similar books in the genre I’ll be writing about. The good thing is this introduces me to a huge variety of topics. I’ll be reading a gritty misery memoir one week and then an inspirational biography of an international business tycoon the next.

As for the remaining 10 per cent, well my reading list goes back a long way. I clipped one of those ‘250 books you must read before you die’ rundowns from a newspaper more than a decade ago and have been slowly working my way through them ever since. The clipping has long since disintegrated because I carried it around in my handbag for so long, but fortunately my husband laminated a copy, so I still have that. It has introduced me to an incredible list of classics. I am also a sucker for anything by Wilkie Collins, Alexandre Dumas and John Updike.

Some authors bemoan the ‘celeb’ biographies/cookbooks/party planning advice which dominate the shelves and bestseller charts as evidence of general dumbing-down. Others say there is a demand to be met and it should be met by the most skilled. What’s your view?

I have always been a great believer in market forces. If there is a demand to be met, it should be serviced and it is really not helpful to be sneering about what makes it onto bookshelves. If books get over-looked in this scrabble to sign the ‘next big thing’ (and of course many do), there are ample opportunities to get them to market in other ways thanks to self publishing. The good ones will find a way and I know that for a fact. A couple of the authors I have worked with really struggled to find a publisher, but have done really well under their own steam. If anything, there is a far greater democracy in the market today and that is a good thing.

You offer publishing assistance for authors via your website. Why did you choose to provide such a service? And how do you balance the demands of such a varied career?

I hadn’t intended to do this when I started out, but one of the authors I worked with had a dreadful experience with a self-publishing company and it really annoyed me. He paid a lot of money and received a really poor service. Part of the problem was he had no idea how to publish his own book. I thought I owed it to him, and others that followed, to find out how it all worked. Before I knew it, I was helping authors on a regular basis. I’ve assembled a great team of freelance editors and designers, and a good range of reliable printers. At the moment I only work with authors who I have ghosted for (who haven’t got a mainstream publishing deal), so it is not the major part of my business. It does give ‘my’ authors peace of mind when they are setting out on a book project. They know that their book will be professionally published by a reliable company.

What would you say were the key journalistic disciplines you apply to the skill of ghosting?

Many people would anticipate that I would answer ‘writing well’, but there is a lot more to it than that. I vividly remember when I started-out as a journalist and was doing my NCTJ industry qualifications, the tutor on my course said something along the lines that ‘being a good journalist is barely anything to do with writing well’. I was profoundly shocked by that because at the time I really believed that was the be all and end all! He was right though. Being a good journalist – and ghost for that matter – is about digging out the story in the first place and exploring all the angles. Quite often people come to me with a very fixed idea of what their ‘story’ is. I’ll spend an hour or so with them and realize that is not the real story at all. Very often, the real humdinger of a tale might be something they have never considered would be of interest to anyone else, but to me it is screaming out to be told. I can’t express what a great moment it is when you spot that angle. It gets me every time!

I should also mention that other journalistic discipline I can never ignore – deadlines. I am still very disciplined about deadlines, both from a publishing point of view and also from my own business angle. I can’t afford to spend months and months agonizing over a paragraph. I set myself a tight word limit per day (which varies depending upon the complexity of the book in hand) and stick to it religiously, even if it means I have to creep back to my office after the family has gone to bed.

Obviously none of us can predict where publishing is going, but are you optimistic that you’ll continue to get commissions and attract readers to interesting stories?

I wish I could say yes but, even though I am optimistic about my industry, I am still plagued by that freelancers’ anxiety that each job will be my last. I have tried every trick in the book to make myself relax during ‘quiet’ weeks, knowing the next job is never far away. I just can’t do it though. The next job does always come along though (at least it always has so far…) and then I kick myself for not spending more time in the garden when I had the opportunity!

The morality question - you mention ghosts should not judge their subjects. Is there anyone you could not countenance writing with? (Mine would be Robert Mugabe / Jeremy Clarkson.)

Funnily enough, this reared its head quite recently. A rather extreme politician was touting around, trying to find a ghost and approached a number of us. As I have said, it is quite a tight knit community, so it did get discussed. One of my colleagues in the profession summed it up quite neatly when he said: wow, I thought I had no scruples left, but it turns out I do. Most of the time I am not that judgmental, but experience has shown me that there are some subjects that just don’t ‘feel’ right to get immersed in.

Last question, what are you up to next?

I am just finishing a fascinating book on leadership by a nuclear submarine commander. It’s the type of inspirational memoir which has left me questioning what I have done with my life. Still, by working with him, I have come as close as possible to get in ‘experiencing’ some extremely gripping events.

The next big project is a memoir for a well-known elder statesman of stage and screen. I’ve done a few interviews already and have to admit to being ever so slightly star-struck by all the gossip about some of my favourite film, theatre and TV stars. As you can see, there is never a dull moment in ghosting.


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