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9 Secrets of Ghostwriters

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Admit it: You’ve read at least one book written by a celebrity, politician, or business tycoon in the past year, if not the past month. You’re no fool, though. You know that people like Keith Richards, Snooki, and Donald Trump often have help writing their memoirs. But what exactly does ghostwriting a book for someone else entail? How much of the book does the ghostwriter write and how much does the “author” contribute? What’s the ghostwriter-author relationship really like? We tapped a handful of professional ghostwriters to find out.

1. COACHING THE AUTHOR IS A BIG PART OF THE GIG.

Researching, outlining, writing, and revising are only part of what ghostwriters do. The job also entails a certain amount of handholding, especially when working with a first-time author who may not know how labor-intensive book writing is.

“Just because they can tell a story at the bar, doesn’t mean it’s going to look good on the page,” says Mike Edison, a New York‑based author, editor, and ghostwriter who’s worked on a number of food and music memoirs. “Some people think that sex and drugs are what’s really going to sell the book, and they push too hard on that.”

On the flip side, some authors are more circumspect, requiring the ghostwriter to draw them out lest they have no material to work with. “Some people are brash in the public light but get skittish when the writing starts,” Edison says. He’s repeatedly seen larger-than-life rock stars clam up upon realizing that their spouse and family will probably read their book.

“They might freak out about their girlfriend if they’re talking about having sex with someone who’s not their girlfriend, even if happened 25 years ago,” Edison says. Here’s where that hand-holding comes in: “When you’re writing a memoir, honesty is the currency you trade in,” Edison reminds his clients. “If you don’t have that, you don’t have anything.”

2. GAINING ACCESS TO AUTHORS CAN SUCK UP A LOT OF TIME.

It may sound counterintuitive that a public figure who’s hot to “write” a book would disappear the moment they get a publishing contract, but it happens a lot. This means ghostwriters can spend a decent chunk of their time trying to get on the schedule of the authors who’ve hired them.

“I know one writer who builds a certain number of author-access hours into each contract,” says Judy McGuire, a New York‑based author and ghostwriter. “It’s an excellent idea because your publisher doesn’t care if your author is too busy on Broadway or fulfilling her Real Housewife obligations—they still want the book on schedule.”

3. GHOSTWRITERS GET TO KNOW THEIR AUTHORS REALLY WELL.

Being a people person is a must for ghostwriters, who can spend several weeks, months, or years working with an author on their book. “People have to feel comfortable with you and they have to like you,” says Stephanie Krikorian, a New York‑based journalist and New York Times best-selling celebrity ghostwriter. “They’re trusting you with their life story or their life’s work. And most people only get one book, so I take that responsibility very seriously.”

McGuire agrees. “You get so close to someone,” she says. “You hear all their dirt. You’re like their shrink. It’s a very one-sided relationship, but it can be very intense. And then it’s over. That can be good (if they’re annoying) or a little sad.”

4. THE AUTHOR GETS THE FINAL SAY, NOT THE GHOSTWRITER.

“A lot of times when people read back their words, they say, ‘Oh, I would never say that,’ or, ‘That doesn’t sound like me,’” Krikorian says of her authors. This happens despite Krikorian recording and transcribing each conversation she has with them.

But if an author doesn’t like a turn of phrase, they don’t like a turn of phrase, and Krikorian will make a tweak. “Every author I work with signs off on every single word in their book, so I’m not putting words in anybody’s mouth,” she explains. “They’ve read it five times before it goes into print.”

5. THE PAY VARIES WILDLY.

A book’s length, complexity, and deadline all factor into the fee the ghostwriter negotiates. Ghostwriters can get paid anything from $15,000 to $150,000, even hundreds of thousands if the author is a household-name celebrity. In addition to their flat fee, some negotiate a percentage of royalties.

Take Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter behind The Art of the Deal, Donald Trump’s 1987 New York Times best-selling memoir. Schwartz earned half of Trump’s $500,000 book advance for his efforts, along with half the book’s royalties on the back end, eventually netting him millions of dollars.

6. GHOSTWRITERS TURN DOWN FAR MORE WORK THAN THEY ACCEPT.

Almost everyone has a book idea in them. Many people, upon meeting a ghostwriter at a party, will share their idea in hopes that the ghostwriter will provide feedback or even take on their project for a cut-rate fee. (“I’ll pay you on the back end if the book makes any money.”) This is not how professional ghostwriters work. Most carefully vet the books they take on, based on budget, the viability of the project, and whether they’re the right wordsmith for it. Often the projects they accept have been vetted by a literary agent, publishing company, or mutual contact first.

“Most people do have a book in them,” Krikorian says. “But the economics of publishing don’t allow for all those people to hire a writer to do their book.”

7. GHOSTWRITING IS ONE OF PUBLISHING’S WORST-KEPT SECRETS.

Many ghostwriters will tell you—sometimes even on the record—that at least 60 percent of celebrity books are ghostwritten. The most obviously ghosted books bear both the author and ghostwriter names on the cover. Sometimes the ghostwriter or “collaborator” credit is a bit more subtle: on the back cover, inside the back flap of the book, or in the acknowledgments.

Take Edison. “The books that I’ve worked on, it’s generally an open secret that I’ve worked with the authors,” he says.

8. SOME AUTHORS GHOST THEIR GHOSTWRITER POST-PUBLICATION.

Despite how close ghostwriters can get to their authors, the relationship is primarily transactional—the ghostwriter is merely a service provider easily dismissed once the transaction ends.

“Most of my clients have been generous and easy, but I know some authors won't acknowledge that they had any kind of help—it's a struggle just to get listed on the acknowledgments page—because they've built this fiction that they have actually written the book themselves,” McGuire says.

She recalls one ghostwriting project where she never met or had direct contact with the author: “He never emailed, never called—all he contributed was having his assistant send one academic journal article per chapter. These weren't even necessarily journal articles he'd written. It was very strange, but a contractor handled the whole thing. I doubt he'd even read the book before he went on 20/20 to discuss it. But as long as the check clears, who cares? You need to be ego-less in this profession. Or at least a little thick-skinned.”

9. THEY'RE OFTEN SWORN TO SECRECY.

Tony Schwartz, who shared a cover credit with Donald Trump for The Art of the Deal, infamously told The New Yorker last year how much he regrets ghostwriting the president’s book. But many ghostwriters wouldn’t dream of spilling the beans on an author or project. Plus, some are legally bound to take the secret of having written someone else’s book to their grave, no matter how well the project goes and how good their relationship is with the author.

Krikorian’s friends and family know not to ask what author she’s working with at any given moment. Instead they just ask if she has work, end of story. “I really strongly believe that my job is to keep the secret,” Krikorian says. “There’s a reason it’s called ‘ghost.’”

All photos via iStock.

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10 Terrific Facts About Stephen King
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As if being one of the world's most successful and prolific writers wasn't already reason enough to celebrate, Stephen King is ringing in his birthday as the toast of Hollywood. As It continues to break box office records, we're digging into the horror master's past. Here are 10 things you might not have known about Stephen King, who turns 70 years old today.

1. STEPHEN KING AND HIS WIFE, TABITHA, OWN A RADIO STATION.

Stephen and Tabitha King own Zone Radio, a company that serves to head their three radio stations in Maine. One of them, WKIT, is a classic rock station that goes by the tagline "Stephen King's Rock Station."

2. HE'S A HARDCORE RED SOX FAN.

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Not only did he write a story about the Boston Red Sox—The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (who was a former Red Sox pitcher)—he also had a cameo in the Jimmy Fallon/Drew Barrymore movie Fever Pitch, which is about a crazed Sox fan. He plays himself and throws out the first pitch at a game.

In 2004, King and Stewart O'Nan, another novelist, chronicled their reactions to the season that finally brought the World Series title back to Beantown. It's appropriately titled Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season.

3. HE WAS HIT BY A CAR, THEN BOUGHT THE CAR THAT HIT HIM.

You probably remember that King was hit by a van not far from his summer home in Maine in 1999. The incident left King with a collapsed lung, multiple fractures to his hip and leg, and a gash to the head. Afterward, King and his lawyer bought the van for $1500 with King announcing that, "Yes, we've got the van, and I'm going to take a sledgehammer and beat it!"

4. AS A KID, HIS FRIEND WAS STRUCK AND KILLED BY A TRAIN.

King's brain seems to be able to create chilling stories at such an amazing clip, yet he's seen his fair share of horror in real life. In addition to the aforementioned car accident, when King was just a kid his friend was struck and killed by a train (a plot line that made it into his story "The Body," which was adapted into Stand By Me). While it would be easy to assume that this incident informed much of King's writing, the author claims to have no memory of the event:

"According to Mom, I had gone off to play at a neighbor’s house—a house that was near a railroad line. About an hour after I left I came back (she said), as white as a ghost. I would not speak for the rest of the day; I would not tell her why I’d not waited to be picked up or phoned that I wanted to come home; I would not tell her why my chum’s mom hadn’t walked me back but had allowed me to come alone.

"It turned out that the kid I had been playing with had been run over by a freight train while playing on or crossing the tracks (years later, my mother told me they had picked up the pieces in a wicker basket). My mom never knew if I had been near him when it happened, if it had occurred before I even arrived, or if I had wandered away after it happened. Perhaps she had her own ideas on the subject. But as I’ve said, I have no memory of the incident at all; only of having been told about it some years after the fact."

5. HE WROTE A MUSICAL WITH JOHN MELLENCAMP.

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King, John Mellencamp, and T Bone Burnett collaborated on a musical, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, which made its debut in 2012. The story is based on a house that Mellencamp bought in Indiana that came complete with a ghost story. Legend has it that three siblings were messing around in the woods and one of the brothers accidentally got shot. The surviving brother and sister jumped in the car to go get help, and in their panic, swerved off the road right into a tree and were killed instantly. Of course, the three now haunt the woods by Mellencamp's house.

6. HE PLAYED IN A BAND WITH OTHER SUCCESSFUL AUTHORS.

King played rhythm guitar for a band made up of successful writers called The Rock Bottom Remainders. From 1992 to 2012, the band "toured" about once a year. In addition to King, Amy Tan, Dave Barry, Mitch Albom, Barbara Kingsolver, Matt Groening and Ridley Pearson were just some of its other members.

7. HE'S A NATIVE MAINER.

A photo of Stephen King's home in Bangor, Maine.
By Julia Ess - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

King writes about Maine a lot because he knows and loves The Pine Tree State: he was born there, grew up there, and still lives there (in Bangor). Castle Rock, Derry, and Jerusalem's Lot—the fictional towns he has written about in his books—are just products of King's imagination, but he can tell you exactly where in the state they would be if they were real.

8. HE HAS BATTLED DRUG AND ALCOHOL PROBLEMS.

Throughout much of the 1980s, King struggled with drug and alcohol abuse. In discussing this time, he admitted that, "There's one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing at all. I don't say that with pride or shame, only with a vague sense of sorrow and loss. I like that book. I wish I could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page."

It came to a head when his family members staged an intervention and confronted him with drug paraphernalia they had collected from his trash can. It was the eye-opener King needed; he got help and has been sober ever since.

9. THERE WAS A RUMOR THAT HE WROTE A LOST TIE-IN NOVEL.

King was an avid Lost fan and sometimes wrote about the show in his Entertainment Weekly column, "The Pop of King." The admiration was mutual. Lost's writers mentioned that King was a major influence in their work. There was a lot of speculation that he was the man behind Bad Twin, a Lost tie-in mystery, but he debunked that rumor.

10. HE IS SURROUNDED BY WRITERS.

A photo of Stephen King's son, author Joe Hill
Joe Hill
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Stephen isn't the only writer in the King family: His wife, Tabitha King, has published several novels. Joe, their oldest son, followed in his dad's footsteps and is a bestselling horror writer (he writes under the pen name Joe Hill). Youngest child Owen has written a collection of short stories and one novella and he and his dad co-wrote Sleeping Beauties, which will be released later this month (Owen also married a writer). Naomi, the only King daughter, is a minister and gay activist.

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Dedicated Middle School Teacher Transforms His Classroom Into Hogwarts
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Kyle Ely

It would be hard to dread back-to-school season with Kyle Ely as your teacher. As ABC News reports, the instructor brought a piece of Hogwarts to Evergreen Middle School in Hillsboro, Oregon by plastering his classroom with Harry Potter-themed decor.

The journey into the school's makeshift wizarding world started at his door, which was decorated with red brick wall paper and a "Platform 9 3/4" sign above the entrance. Inside, students found a convincing Hogwarts classroom complete with floating candles, a sorting hat, owl statues, and house crests. He even managed to recreate the starry night sky effect of the school’s Great Hall by covering the ceiling with black garbage bags and splattering them with white paint.

The whole project cost the teacher around $300 to $400 and took him 70 hours to build. As a long-time Harry Potter fan, he said that being able to share his love of the book series with his students made it all pay off it. He wrote in a Facebook post, "Seeing their faces light up made all the time and effort put into this totally worth it."

Inside of Harry Potter-themed classroom.

Inside of Harry Potter-themed classroom.

Inside of Harry Potter-themed classroom.

Though wildly creative, the Hogwarts-themed classroom at Evergreen Middle School isn't the first of its kind. Back in 2015, a middle school teacher in Oklahoma City outfitted her classroom with a potions station and a stuffed version of Fluffy to make the new school year a little more magical. Here are some more unique classroom themes teachers have used to transport their kids without leaving school.

[h/t ABC News]

Images courtesy of Kyle Ely.

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