Ghosts and Characters

My ghostwriting client is returning to New York this week and I’ll be spending a great deal of time with her, working on her memoir. It’s a big project that was begun a couple of years ago and is now in its final phase. I’m very excited.

Ghostwriting is a fabulous exercise for a writer. In fiction, the writer creates the universe and the characters. Often, the characters surprise the writer taking the story in an unexpected direction. Ghostwriting this very real story put me in a new position. My role was to facilitate the narrative while not directing it. Hovering in the background, shaping the story while not imposing my own esthetic. I was a ghost, a behind-the-scenes storyteller with a real-life character talking to me along the way.

As I’ve said before, my own creations have, on occasion, said or done something that wasn’t part of my original plan for the story. I’ve tried, but it’s hard to argue with a character you’ve created. They can be stubborn.

Working with a real character — the protagonist of her own story with a selection of real people in the roles of lovers, teachers, villains, supporters, detractors… — I’m able to TALK to my character. We text, email, Skype and have face time via iPhones too. We’ve haggled and wrangled and worried our way through different ways of telling her story.

It’s hard work.

I think it’s been worthwhile. The most interesting part for me has been the creation of her voice on the page. In person, her humor shines through even the saddest and most distressful parts of her story, but our first draft replicating her actual words was simply too depressing. The words on the page were her words but her heart was missing, so I tried to capture her light touch in a second version that emphasized the funny parts of her story with an ironic voice that was, frankly, more mine than hers. We went back to the drawing board and collaborated closely on a literary version of her actual persona. I think we’ve nailed it!

It’s her, but I’m there too! I’m haunting the book, helping the reader navigate through an unusual life story. I’m looking forward to ghosting it toward those magic words: THE END.


  1. I just can’t imagine being a ghost writer. You make it sound almost easy yet I /can/ imagine how hard negotiating the necessary changes must have been in order to create in words the reality of someone else. I’m very, very impressed Candy.

    • Candy

      It’s a lot of work!
      I learned so much about collaborating and about telling someone else’s story in a long form. I “ghost” a lot of short articles and present other people in interview pieces for my newsletter clients, but this was different. This was living inside her head and her world, but not quite… It really was like being a ghost hovering, observing, learning and writing, but not participating. We spent a lot of time together. And that was no easy trick as she was in Argentina most of the last two years.

      She arrives tomorrow and we’ll start going through our final draft!

        • Candy

          We met for a little while today to make our plan.
          I think it’s going to be an interesting couple of weeks working face-to-face.

  2. Best of luck with the final draft and with working with the person you’ve had to recreate in your head. Hopefully she’ll be very happy and the book can go to print soon.
    It’s a phenomenally hard thing to create a person in your head that’s standing before you telling you her thoughts and expecting you to see them but it sounds like you’ve done a wonderful job. Very well done.

    • Candy

      This is so NOT my life that the memoir process was almost like fiction, but….

      Fingers are crossed on multiple continents for getting this one out ASAP.

  3. Thank you, Candy, for a behind-the-scenes look at something most of us know nothing about–ghostwriting. I can’t even imagine how hard it must be to write as someone else and not let your own self get in the way. Kudos to you.

    • Candy

      Thanks so much.

      It’s been a roller coaster. Right now, I’m looking forward to finishing it up and sending it off into the world. It’s her story and she’s in charge of it — and responsible for the marketing and promotion. (What a relief, as I have enough of that on my plate with my fiction.)

      Of course, we’re already talking about doing another book together. Now that we understand the process, the learning curve won’t be as steep a second time around.

  4. Metan

    It was really interesting to read about ghost writing from the writers point of view. I can imagine that it would be very hard to weed out the important or funny points in a persons story without making them feel like you are dismissing some of the bits they feel are important.

    • Candy

      In this case, the challenge was more often in the bad experience category and the issue of blame. At different junctures she was reluctant to blame abusive people and wanted, as she had as a child, to take responsibility for situations that truly were not her choices. We struggled and landed on a voice that does not presuppose the motives of others, while examining what happened to the memoirist.

      Now that we’re in the final stages, she’s been careful to change names and to never say “He thought this” or “She decided that.” It’s more a case of “He may have thought this” or “She should have known, it was obvious, but she told me….” It’s a fine line. In the arena of child abuse and willful ignorance when there’s a history of abuse in a family, the memoirist can only tell her side of the story.

      Tricky stuff for the writer.