1 Ghostwriter Grapples with Unknowns


Last week, I received a phone call and an email inquiry from a man looking for a ghostwriter. He is 93 years old and doesn’t have a lot of time to get his memoir out of his head and onto the page, so he wants to move quickly. 

He didn’t balk when I told him how much the project might cost, so I agreed to meet him at his house, 55 miles away. If you know Los Angeles freeways, that’s a drive of between one and two hours. I decided to invest the time because I’m curious.

After I hung up with him, I thought about our 24-minute phone conversation, and I came to some conclusions. First, I don’t really know what his story is, so I’m not sure I want to work with him. Will his story speak to me? Will it move me enough to want to spend months with him?

Does he expect me to commute to his house every time we meet? He did say he isn’t great on the phone, and he found me on the computer. Does he know Zoom, FaceTime, Google Meet, or any other video communication technology?

Will he live long enough to see this story to completion? I could tell by his voice he was older, but 93? If we agree to work together how will I construct a contract? Will I demand more up front?

Then my thoughts turned to him. Does he really know what he should look for in a ghostwriter? Does he know how much professional experience I have? How long did he spend reading my website to determine that?

Who will be his target audience? When I asked him this, he initially said he thought he had a book that could sell. That told me he hadn’t thought about it. I told him that publishing is an entirely different animal, and while I have publishing contacts and would gladly introduce him at the proper time, that’s not my area of expertise.

How insistent will he be on sounding like him? A ghostwriter should know how the prospect sounds to be able to capture his words, tone, attitude, philosophy, humor, personality, and anything else. Does he realize this?

He’s old enough to be my father. Will we relate to each other? Will he be a great storyteller, keeping me riveted as he regales me about “my six lives?” (Those are his exact words.) Will we “click”?

How open will he be? Will he be the proverbial “open book,” sharing everything and anything — which could be a lot given his age — without fear? Or will be try to shape the story to place him in as positive a light as he possibly can?

Will he be excited and enthusiastic to share his life, or does he want to do this because he senses the Grim Reaper is on his block and approaching his front door?

Will he demand writing examples? Does he understand that when we meet, we should be  interviewing each other to see if we’re a fit?

Does he understand that memoirs take between 6-12 months? When I told him that, he said, “I don’t have that kind of time.” Can this project be done properly in a shorter time?

Before I finished talking to him, I gave him a homework assignment: to compile what he thinks are the best stories from his life and be ready to tell them to me. Will he complete his task? Will the stories pique my fancy?

I planned to find all of this out when I met him. But on the day this published, he called me to say he had decided to write the book himself. “It won’t as good as if you wrote it,” he told me, “but it will still be pretty good.”

Privately, I question if it will ever be written. Such is the world of the ghostwriter.

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