1 Missed Chance to Ghostwrite a Story Better


To ghostwrite is to have tact. Early in my ghostwriting career, I was not as tactful as I should have been with people I needed to interview to flesh out the story. This stemmed from my newspaper journalism days when I often strong-armed and aggressively got people to talk to me. This earned me several meetings with editors who urged me to go easier on the people because it was possible I would lose them as sources.

It bothered me tremendously that these editors were asking me to change something about me that clearly was working. I always got the story. Why didn’t they defend me to the complainers?

Fortunately, tact comes with time, experience, and a bit of wisdom. In future posts, I will be writing about how ghostwriters often act like therapists—and that requires a great deal of tact.

But early on, I didn’t always demonstrate discretion, I didn’t always think before I spoke, and I didn’t always use the right tone of voice or the best words for the situation.

Case in point: An episode while working on the first book I ever ghostwrote, between 2015-18, before ghostwriting was a full-time occupation and I was still copywriting.

Schoolteacher Marc Lieberson had a compelling story of awakening from a 16-day coma caused by a faulty heart valve, only to recover quick enough to start the next school year in September (he had fallen into a coma in May). He, his friends, his brother, his daughter, and his doctors were very open, honest and thorough in talking to me.

His wife, however, was not, and this proved problematic because it was she who resisted the medical staff’s urging her to pull the plug. She was the true hero, but the experience proved too traumatic, and she wouldn’t consent to participate.

I emailed her numerous times, and spoke to her through Marc, urging her to get involved and talk to me. Eventually, my emails became more and more angry; one could argue I was bullying her into cooperating. I even left a few unfriendly phone messages. I made it abundantly clear that if she didn’t participate, her husband’s story wouldn’t be the best it could be, and it could hinder his publishing prospects.

Finally, I wore her down, but I was promised exactly one interview. There would be no second chance. I decided to have her verify that which I had already written and a few other points that I knew I’d write about later.

Because this was 2016, and because she was in a Philadelphia suburb and I was in Los Angeles, the interview took place over the phone. I was polite, courteous, and appreciative, She sounded uncomfortable and emotionless, and I suspected two things: She was compartmentalizing her emotions, and she was talking to me unwillingly like someone testifying under subpoena.

When I hung up with her—after thanking her as profusely as I possibly could—I took stock of what I had.

We had covered the day Marc went into the hospital, before he went into a coma; what the doctor told her was Marc’s prognosis, and some of her thoughts and rationale for not ending her husband’s life. But the emotion and depth of her struggle was missing. What few quotes she gave me were perfunctory and shallow.

I didn’t get much from her about the days Marc was comatose, family dynamics, dealing with friends, or the ultimate question: to pull the plug or not? Friends, fellow teachers, and Marc filled those gaps. I quoted them quoting her more than I quoted her.

I felt unsatisfied. I wish I could have had another conversation with her. Perhaps she would have become more desensitized to the feelings and been able to discuss them with me. Or perhaps not. What I knew for sure was my emails and phone calls leading up to the interview did not help.

Despite her reticence, her name appeared 127 times in the manuscript, so she’s well represented, and the story was still told in a very compelling manner. But I still feel like this was a missed opportunity.

I vowed not to make such mistakes in the future. I’d like to think I haven’t.

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