by Katie King, Artwork Coordinator for jaBlog!
Ian Shircore is one of five talented speakers attending the Junior Authors Writers Conference this year in the UK. Ian will be presenting a 45-minute workshop to guests of the conference, helping young writers understand the tricks of his trade, ghostwriting.
A ghostwriter is someone who writes books, articles, reports, or other texts that are officially credited to another person. LTC’s jaBlog! has interviewed Ian to discover the ins and outs of ghostwriting and what advice he has for anyone interested in pursuing the same career.
Tell us a bit about yourself. What sort of work did you do before you became a ghostwriter?
I was a journalist—sometimes a reporter, sometimes a subeditor. I started doing general news on a local paper in Richmond, west of London, but then moved toward features, music, and business stories. I interviewed the classical guitarist John Williams for Time Out when I’d just left university, and I still seem him every few months now. I worked on The Australian for a while in Sydney, and I spent a year and a bit in Hong Kong, working on the South China Morning Post.
When I came back to London and had a family, I freelanced and then accidentally became a marketing and advertising expert, mainly, of course, doing the copywriting.
I was a senior editorial VP for a while for a big US technology research company, with 86 people in my department, which didn’t really suit me. Then it was back to marketing as marketing director at a couple of small software firms, but I found it hard to keep believing that just making profits mattered. So I bailed out and decided to sit at my desk and write for a living. Back to basics, I suppose.
What made you decide to pursue a career in ghostwriting?
I hardly ever read fiction because it often seems arbitrary and self-indulgent. But I loved Robert Harris’s book The Ghost first and foremost because he was writing lean, undecorated prose that was just like my writing would be if I wrote fiction. After I had been reading this book about a ghostwriter for three or four days, I suddenly realized ghosting was an interesting idea and decided it was something I might try. Then I just happened to be introduced to a very clever ex-Oxford mathematician who wanted to get a book written about business forecasting and could afford to pay, and it all went from there. He was a brilliant first author to work with, as he was clever, articulate, and extremely logical. We did 16 one-hour interviews, and he didn’t repeat himself once.
From your experience, what is the most important skill to have in your line of work?
You really do need to be a good editor. If you’re a good enough editor, you can draft something pretty poor on Wednesday, sort it out on Thursday, and have something that really works on Friday to show the person you’re working with.
Oh, and you also need a good bedside manner. People used to say to me, “You’re so good with people; you ought to be a doctor or a vicar.”
Well, I don’t have the brains or the stomach to be a doctor, and I don’t have the beliefs to be a vicar. So ghostwriting suits my temperament well. I still haven’t ever pulled a stinker out of the hat, though I suppose that is bound to happen sooner or later. You try to avoid it by talking and talking with someone until you are reasonably sure you can get along and work well together. On the whole, I like people, and I think that helps.
You also have a number of works published under your own name. How does that compare to writing for other people?
I’m sure you’re not supposed to say this, but writing for and with other people is often much more fun. You don’t have to take final and ultimate responsibility in quite the same way. So you can write faster, and that sometimes means it comes out better and more spontaneous.
I loved writing my JFK book John F Kennedy: The Life, The Presidency, The Assassination, which was published by Andre Deutsch late last year. I was able to follow my own lines of research into unexplored areas like JFK’s lifelong health problems and his 30-year relationship with his gay roommate from prep school, who eventually had his own room in the White House. I was able to dig deep and come up with some amazingly unexpected photographs, too, so it’s a lovely book to look at. But—and it’s a very big but—that’s not where the money is. My ten “real” books have not made me half a year’s income between the lot of them. If I relied on pure writing like that, I wouldn’t be just starving in a garret. I’d be garretless because I wouldn’t have the rent.
What is the most valuable piece of advice you can give to someone looking to start a career in ghostwriting?
You have to remember—and remind yourself 11 times a day—that it’s not your book. It really is the author’s book. I always refer to the person I’m collaborating with as “the author.” It’s good for that person to be reminded that I am not going to be able to make a book out of nothing. And it’s good for me to be reminded that this is a production where I am the actor but not the playwright or the director.
Ian will be presenting a workshop titled, “The Ghost Steps Out: You Don’t Always Have to Be You,” at the Junior Authors Writers Conference in Guildford, UK on May 18th, 2014. Early bird tickets on sale now.