Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A Morally Dubious Assignment

There are so many strange things about this new assignment, I don't know where to begin.

The writing itself is easy enough. It's a little rhetorical exercise that I'm sure dates back to Roman times. I'm supposed to take the words of several prominent politicians, and rearrange them so that they express essentially the opposite of the politicians' actual views. The resulting speech can then be read as a verbatim quote, and yet totally misrepresent the person being quoted.

This cute game provides the answer to the riddle, "How do you tell a lie using nothing but facts?" Sure, it's a morally dubious activity, but as a nameless freelancer lurking behind an unmarked door, I'm not one who shrinks from moral ambiguity. At best, I write words on behalf of other people who then pretend the words are their own. It's a flim-flam, a deception, an illusion -- but entertainment is all about illusions. In that old movie, do you remember the thunder crash in the background as they approached the vampire's castle? I happen to know it wasn't real thunder. It was a tape recording, overdubbed later. The world is filled with similar illusions -- get used to it! -- and ghostwriting is just another one of them.

Anyhow, this assignment. Rearranging people's actual words to create meanings that they didn't mean. Not difficult at all to do; it's child's play. In fact, in this case it is a child's play. And that gets around to my point. Sure, I know that parents help their children with their homework. That's not cheating, is it? If someone helps you on a test, it's cheating. With homework, it's fair game to get help -- from your friends, your teacher, your parents, even a professional tutor. But when the parent goes out to hire a ghostwriter to complete a homework assignment, isn’t that a bit extreme? (Not that I have anything against ghostwriting other people's homework assignments. After razzing my boss for turning down a similar job, I would be a hypocrite to suddenly develop a moral objection to that line of work. Especially considering how much this man was willing to pay. But -- help me out, here. Something is off about this. There’s not even any pretense of involving the student in some kind of learning process. And isn’t it slightly unfair to the other students whose fathers can’t afford to hire professional writers to complete their second-grade...)

Yes, that’s the other thing about this. This boy is in the second grade, and his class is doing some kind of political performance art? Now, I’m not a parent or an educator, so you can tell me to go buzz off and say this is none of my business, but is that really age-appropriate? I mean, aside from the question of whether it’s appropriate to involve young school children in partisan political activity. I mean, this is nasty politics even when adults do it. It should be beneath us, all the mudslinging and name-calling and distorting. It’s immature, it’s juvenile, it’s so… second grade. Damn! Okay, so maybe it is age-appropriate for second graders. My argument has been demolished by my own devastating choice of metaphor. Fine. So second graders are now being involved in petty politics as part of their school curriculum. Who am I to argue? As I pointed out in my previous post, I don’t even really exist.

I’m just a ghostwriter. A substitute ghostwriter. Doing a job for a man who...

Yes, that’s the other thing. This man who came in a little while ago... It's not my job to pass judgments on people's lifestyle choices... but he was, I thought, more than a little too old to have a young school-age son. I mean, his wife would have to be twenty years younger than... not that I'm passing judgment. No, no, this is a judgment-free zone. Not my job to sort out my customers' lives.

Actually, I'd better get started. This is a super rush job. Apparently the boy's performance is tomorrow. Nothing like putting things off until the last minute, eh? They probably got this assignment three weeks ago. They probably put it off until tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, until today arrived, and putting it off until tomorrow now longer works. Then it becomes a crisis, and you have to pull out all the stops and deal with it. Have Daddy take a pile of cash to the nice man in the alley; he can make this problem go away.

But you can't expect young children to think about the future, to keep a calendar, to prioritize their work, to have a back up plan in case their first efforts fail. That takes a certain amount of, you know, responsibility and maturity, that you don't expect from eight-year-olds. When I was eight years old, I was lucky if I kept track of when my favorite shows were on TV. I missed them at least half of the time, distracted by things like chasing dogs, flying kites, climbing trees, flying cars, talking horses -- wait, I think actually some of those things were on TV.

Update, 8 p.m.: Slight misunderstanding. I thought my customer said, "My son is in the second grade." Apparently what he actually said was, "My son is the president's aide." Another detail I missed: this job was supposed to be confidential. It seems it's particularly important not to write about it on the Internet. Hey, how am I supposed to know these things if you don't tell me? I'm a ghostwriter, not a mind reader! Anyhow, do me a big favor and forget about this particular post.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Substitute Ghostwriter

Who am I? I am the substitute for the ghostwriters' ghostwriter. I am the mere echo of a shadow of a cipher. If the ground floor of a building represents an ordinary person who has a public identity, I am two floors below the basement, a denizen of the third level of namelessness. I am so nonexistent that you could find, among the slowly decaying pages of ancient novels that decorate dusty bookshelves in forgotten libraries, fictional characters more substantial than I. Truly, I Am a Non-Person.

And yet I have to eat.

That's the terrible thing about being a writer, and they somehow forget to tell you this one detail in school. No matter how skilled you are, being a writer doesn't spare you from the ordinary necessities of life, such as job, home, clothing, and especially food. You can have all the hyperbole in the world, but after a day or two you would gladly trade it all for a sandwich.

And that is how you find me here, occupying this well-worn chair at the Ghostwritery. (As actors are wont to say, "Work is work!") Our esteemed Host is away, slapping Humbar's scrawny, ill-fed manuscript into shape in a marathon writing session worthy of a video montage soundtracked by some prefab 1980s synth-pop-rock track, by some low-budget Duran Duran knockoff perhaps, and in his absence someone has to mind this shop, the Ghostwritery, in case another desperate customer wanders in through the unmarked alley door.

It hardly seems worth paying me to occupy this space just on the chance that a customer will show up. "Why don't you just put a sign on the door: Out to Lunch -- Back in Five Days?" I asked. No sooner had I said those words than I knew the answer. But my inner realization came full two seconds too late, and I was consigned to listen to the entire five-minute lecture on the subject: With a sign, any sign, on the door, it would no longer be an unmarked door, which would utterly ruin the establishment's carefully-thought-out branding scheme.

Needless to say, I held my tongue on my followup suggestion, which was a grand neon sign above the door announcing "The Ghostwritery" in cheerfully sinister luminous script. I was prepared to argue that the proposed sign could flicker occasionally and be embellished with rust and flaking paint in order to fit into the old, uncared-for visual theme. But I kept that thought to myself. I'm not paid for design ideas. I'm paid to sit in this chair and assist the next customer who walks through the door. And given the volume of traffic at the Ghostwritery this morning, I am in effect being paid for doing nothing, which ironically is roughly the converse of my usual working experience as a writer.

Anyhow, so here I am, in this chair, and I know I tend to ramble and go off on tangents, because that's the kind of substitute ghostwriter that I am, but while sitting here I discovered the most amazing and confounding thing! The Ghostwritery now has a blog! You can call me gobsmacked!! It's like we've skipped directly from the 19th century to the 21st century! Maybe there's hope for that neon-sign proposal after all. It would look tres retro-cool.

Reading through the Ghostwritery's new blog, I was a tad dismayed to find that our dear El Scribo Spirito -- by the way, did I mention that among my many talents is the ability to write in several languages, sometimes simultaneously? -- has been turning down ghostwriting jobs left and right.

Too proud to write a college paper? Business correspondence doesn't pay well enough?? It's nice to know this operation is doing so well that you can pick and choose customers at your whim! How about a raise, then?

(Note my adroit use of sarcasm -- another of my exemplary writing skills. I know perfectly well that business is hit-or-miss, and that the main reason this room looks like it hasn't been redecorated since the 1940s is that, yes, much of the furniture has been sitting here in exactly the same place since the 1940s. It does achieve a highly sincere untouched-by-time look. But I'm sure we could maintain that timeless look while adding some more modern and fashionable touches. Just give me a modest budget and a day at Ikea! I know, this is only an idle fantasy. It will never happen. And I'm doing a lengthy tangent inside parenthesis, which my editor-self so disapproves of. --Did I mention that I can also serve, when the need arises, as a meticulous, hard-nosed, detail-oriented copy editor? I sometimes daydream of opening (on the brighter side of this dark alley) my own specialty shop, which I would call The Copyeditory. It would definitely have a neon sign, and the word Welcome on the door...)

But enough of this idle blog banter. I sense a customer in the alley outside, apprehensively, pensively, slowly approaching our unmarked door. (Did I mention that I have a sixth sense for... oh, never mind, I'll tell you later. -- Bleh! I can't believe I'm ending with a parenthetical!)

Saturday, May 12, 2007


Arrgghh! I must away for a week to finish Humbar's benighted book. (Note to self: think very very hard before taking another of Humbar's assignments. He's not worthy. Nor appreciative enough.)

While I'm away, my esteemed subcontractor will take over the blog. I do not accept any responsibility for his blog entries, but if he's not a good boy, he will pay; oh, yes, he will pay. (Consider yourself warned, GhostSub.)

Enjoy yourselves in my absence.

Friday, May 11, 2007

On a serious note

Because while being snarky is fun, sometimes you just want to help a friend with an honest query.

A reader writes:

I don't know how else to put this but I've lost faith in my writing. When I read a friend's first published book, that was one thing but when I read the examples of good and bad writing on your blog, well I suddenly realised that I was dreaming when it came to writing. I started my first book over one year ago and for a time I was well into writing but then the novelty dropped and although I still have the urge to carry on I wonder what is the point. I have written over 20,000 words of a story that I believed in for some time; I actually thought I was doing all right but I realise that I don't have the skills. Although I allowed a friend to read what I've written so far, and who replied favourably, I really think he might have been kind about it. I have no way to gauge my writing at all. He was in no way critical, just telling me he wanted to read more of it.

I don't know what I am saying here. I need some encouragement and I definitely need some criticism to help me tune my way of writing, or for someone to tell me to 'not give up the day job'.

First of all, faith has nothing to do with it. Writing (like all other art) is 10% inspiration and 90% persperation. You're just starting out. Naturally your writing won't be as good as someone who's been writing for decades. That doesn't mean you can't write, nor does it mean you don't have a story to tell. It means you need to keep practicing.

Hardly any first novels get published. Those that are published generally are massively re-written several times. There's a saying that you have to write a million words before you begin to have success. I don't know if that number is accurate, but I believe the gist of the saying is true.

The snippets I've seen of your book are very good. I'd never guess from them that you were a beginning writer. Which means you probably have the native talent, you just need more (say it with me now) practice.

Have you looked around to see if there's a critique group near you? Check that out, because I can say that I've learned more about writing from critiquing others' work than any single other thing. I'm not exaggerating. We're all naturally blind to our own work--often times both to what works and to what fails. It's easier to spot problems in others' work....and then after awhile, you gain that skill and can start finding the problems in your own.

You need to give yourself permission to learn the ropes. But if what you want is to get published, you need to keep practicing and keep working on your book. You can't get discouraged because you're not as good as your favorite writers. They once wrote just like you do now. They might even have written worse; who knows? I know I've written some real turkeys of things.

I knew from the age of about 9 or 10 that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. So why didn't I sell my first book until I was (mumble) years old? Because I didn't apply the seat of my trousers to the seat of the chair enough for many many years. There's another saying that it takes 7 (some say 10) years from the time you get really serious about writing until you can expect to sell your first book. On average, of course. Some people take less, some more.

All this to say you're just beginning, and you need to give yourself the time and space to learn how to write and how to be a writer. I believe in your work, I really do. You sometimes will, and sometimes you'll want to chuck the whole thing. We all feel that way sometimes....even the best writers. But to go back to where I started, most of writing is work, not that inspired feeling we get occasionally. If we only wrote when we felt that insipiration, there wouldn't be enough books in the world to satisfy people. If you approach it as a part-time job, something you need to do an hour a day after work and a couple hours one or both days on the weekend, you WILL get better at what you do. As with anything else: practice pays off.

Finally, a word of completely practical advice: Don't quit your day job. Most books you see on the shelves at shops are written by folks with day jobs. Very very few writers can live on their earnings. Don't focus on making money at writing; focus on writing...and practicing writing!

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

A day in the life, part the third

So I have finished reading Humbar's manuscript. But something strange is going on with it. Much of it seems to have been written by someone else. Is Humbar developing a split personality? Did he try to save money by parceling out some of the work to someone other than me? (If this is the case, a pox be upon him!) And if two people wrote this, which work is Humbar's and which is the other person's?
He took a step closer. I could back away no further, cornered as I was. I sand to the floor, hoping that--for once--he would sense my terror, would show me mercy, would turn around and walk away.

But no. His face reddened in rage, blood vessels burst in his eyes, and he struck.

The first blow blinded me for a moment, and white stars exploded inside my head. The next blow took my breath away.

And this time, somethign in me snapped. I shook the fog from my brain and rose to my own defense.
I will leave you to wonder what happens next. Because when all is said and done, I'm a bad-hearted person. But you already knew that.

I must ponder my dilemma. How to turn this cobbled together manuscript into something worthy of, well, me. I daresay I will rewrite the whole thing. Not that I couldn't match the style of the properly written material, but my heart suggests that it would be wise not to leave any of the manuscript intact; after all, what if Humbar nicked portions of someone else's manuscript? He's slimy enough, and I wouldn't put such a thing past him.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Query: a college paper

A reader writes:
Dear GWGW,

As a full time college student, its hard to find time to write all these papers. I need your help in copping with this unrealistic workload. Quite frankly, I feel like I am disappearing under a mountain of assignments that not even Mercury could hold atop his shoulders. Why, just this week I have to somehow get myself to 3 different lectures and take nots the whole time! On top of that, the one lecture is on Thursday 7:15-10 p.m., when I have 2 tickets to see Death Cab for Cutie at the Student center. I know! This treatment is totally inhumane! The stress is seriously putting my guts on fire.

Here is what I would like you to help with. My Intro to University class has a paper due about time management. It's due soon but I will need to get back to you about the actual date because my syllabus got messed up when my roommate dropped his bong on it and it broke. It was a really nice bong too that his sister got for him when she was in the Peace Corps in Japan, where they smoke tons of weed and also drink their own urine as some sort of cleansing ritual. I tried that once but I didn't like it, although my roommate said it was because I drank it out of a stainless steel travel mug, and uric acid reacts in a negative way with the metal. If I try it again I need to use either glass or nonreactive pottery, but not cast iron. It needs to be 750-1,000 words long and include at least 3 references (references from the stuff in the library too, not from wikipedia or Facebook).

For your help I am willing to part with 1 of my Death Cab tickets for Thursday, but we can't go together, in case my ex girlfriend sees me. Well, if your really good looking I guess it would be ok. If you send me a picture I will let you know if we can go together.

Luke Stork,
college student
clas of 2010

Sigh. Do your own damn homework.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A day in the life, part the second

The door closes behind the departing tech writer. I smile. This will be an easy job. Due at the end of the week or he can't take his scheduled vacation...a Carribean cruise. For singles. I daresay he fell behind on this project because of spending too much work time on the net looking at, well, "inappropriate" sites. Not the first time one of my work-at-home clients has had that problem.

He's left me with two CDs (Note: CDs!). One contains the manual he's almost completed, all his background information, and an actual project plan. The other contains recorded demos. Oh, I do love tech writers. All I have to do is finish his PowerPoint training presentations. All in a day's work. I smile in satisfaction.

Then my eye catches the floppy disk left by Humbar. My good mood dissipates. I might as well read the manuscript now; putting it off won't make it any better.

Chapter One

My mother was committed to a psychiatric hospital for a few days when she was 18.

Oh, dear god in heaven. Humbar is getting worse! Has he started drinking? What kind of first sentence is that? I read on.

But her father had her released. Something about insurance not paying for it. Then she met my dad and they ran off and got married. I was born in 1973, the oldest child. Then my brothers came along in 1975 and 1978. Mom and Dad loved them more. They were boys. Mom and Dad kept me in a cage. I don’t know why.

I sigh and wonder what it is, after all, that attracts me to this job. I should keep reading, get acquainted with the whole story, but I can't help it: I open a new file, this one formatted correctly (unlike Humbar's) and start typing.

I sat pressed against the bars of my cage, as near to the Christmas tree as I could get. Mom had just turned on the lights, and the sparkles of the bright colours from the tinsel made me smile. I hid that smile behind my hand. If Mom saw that I was happy, She would throw the cover back over the cage, and I wouldn’t be able to watch my brothers open their gifts.

They were still young enough to believe in Santa Claus, but I knew better. There couldn’t be a Santa Claus, because if there was, I wouldn’t live in this cage; I’d live in a fairy castle somewhere far, far away.

All right. Certainly not the final product, but good enough to be getting on with for now. Fearing my eyes will be bleeding long before I finish, I read on.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Query: letter writing assistance

A reader asks:

Could you help me write a letter. I'm lost for words when it comes to letter writing. (Ironically, my friends say I talk too much.) Anyway, back to the letter, I want to tell my boss what I think of him before I leave next Friday. The truth is, he knows nothing about his job, he's unfair, and thinks the company can't run without him. I know differently.....well most of the staff know diferently. So could you help me word it correctly?

Ah, yes. The useless, good-for-nothing boss. Doubtless a fine example of the Peter Principle.

Unfortunately for you, you are corresponding with someone who once queried their boss, "Who died and made you dictator?" Aloud. For real. Any wonder I am now self-employed? Employee/employer relations are not my strong suit. (Do not ask my contractor on the subcontinent about this. Do not even mention this subject came up.)

If you have a memoir to be written and are having trouble with your ghostwriter, send them to me. If you have an encroaching deadline for a documentation project, stop by for a visit. If the proposal for your next non-fiction tome is giving you fits, I'm here for you, my dear. But begone with your business letters. They don't pay enough and I have more important projects to work on.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

A day in the life, part the first

So today, I'm meeting with a client--one of my regulars--when I sense someone approaching. A tech writer. You can always tell the tech writers; something about their stride (precise) and their stance (nervous) gives them away.

Keeping only half my attention on the client before me, I watch the tech writer sidle down the alley. I can feel his heartbeat quicken; I can smell his agitation; I can see him look from side to side, hoping to find my door and not to be seen by anyone who knows him.

With a flick of a finger, a motion that goes unnoticed by the small, fat man cowering on the other side of my desk, I illuminate the door for my new customer. He puts a hesitant hand on the knob, and after a last sidelong glance in either direction, he opens the door and slips in. He jumps a little when the latch clicks behind him. I smile.

"All right, all right," I interrupt my client's tedious tirade about his current subject (who is, I daresay, twice as smart as he is), "I understand what you need this time. When's it due?"

"Five weeks from tomorrow," he says, his voice nasal and snivelling.

I stand and tower over the man. "Very well," I say, and I hold out a hand. He hands me a floppy disk. A floppy disk, for god's sake! He's had a year to get this book done, he hasn't completed it, and it's small enough to fit on a floppy. I roll my eyes. "Go now. I'll contact you when the job is finished."

With a pathetic little bow, he turns away, opens the door to the outer office, and plods out. He brushes past the tech writer, not apologizing when he bumps him, and leaves. Good riddance.

I give my new client a welcoming smile and hold out my hand. "What can I do for you today, my friend?" I ask as I gesture for him to come into my office and take a seat.

He looks back at the door, which has now closed behind my departed client. "Who's that?"

"Ah. That's Humbar Procter. You haven't heard of him?" The tech writer shakes his head. "Well, no, I suppose you wouldn't have. He's a ghostwriter. Or bills himself as such. Really, though, his writing is rubbish. In the end, he brings his projects to me to finish for him." I hold up the floppy disk, then toss it onto my desk.

I return to my antique leather chair, lean back, and examine the new client before me. He's a regular-looking chap, but then, the tech writers always are. Clean-cut, clean clothes, just basically clean. I do like getting jobs from tech writers, even if they are few and far between.

I repeat my first question. "What can I do for you today?"