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Writing a Memoir: Do It Yourself or Hire a Ghostwriter?

Some time ago, I was hired by a woman with a harrowing family story to tell. She desperately wanted to share her tale, believing that it would expose truths and help other people, but she recognized that her writing was not at a professional book authorís level. So I agreed to ghostwrite the manuscript.

I had never done such a job before--editing books was my thing, not writing them--and I soon came to regret it. The woman lived far from me, so I never met her, and she had a difficult time understanding the level of detail I needed from her to effectively turn the events of her life into a potential book. The experience led me to ask: Can a deeply personal story be told in a deeply personal, affecting, true way--by someone who didnít live it?

A recent poll showed that 81 percent of Americans believe they have a book in them. Iíd bet that at least half those people have a memoir in mind. The genre has exploded over the past decade or so (though Iím still not sure how it differs from a good old-fashioned autobiographyÖ Does anyone write those anymore?). But, of course, not everyone with a poignant story to tell has the writing skills to tell it effectively. So many turn to a ghostwriter for help.

If you fall into this category of aspiring author, keep this wisdom in mind that I gleaned from my own experience:

  • Shop around. Make sure your prospective ghostwriter understands your story, not just knowing the events, but really getting what you want to say on a deeper level. To achieve such a connection, you must be completely honest and open with him/her. Hire someone in your geographical area if possible, so you can meet in person.

  • Draw up a contract. Essential every time you work with another writer, even if itís your best friend. Especially if itís your best friend. Avoid any future conflicts about credit on the book jacket, whether the ghostwriter gets royalties or a flat fee, what happens if you decide itís not working out, etc. Then you can focus on telling your story together.

  • Tell your ghostwriter everything--and I mean everything. Reveal even things you donít want to reveal in the book. Just as a character needs a backstory, the ghostwriter needs context to make the story feel true. Trust is essential between you. Think of your ghostwriter as your therapist. Nothing leaves the room (except what goes in the book).

  • Distance yourself from your story. Get into your ghostwriterís head and realize that he/she doesnít know what you know. Details are essential to effective writing, so while your daughter may not be a major character in your memoir, and while you may know every detail about your daugher, the ghostwriter doesnít. Every character in a good book is richly drawn. So even if sheís in only one scene of the book, talking on the phone, tell your ghostwriter the color exactly how she acts when sheís on the phone--not to mention the color of her eyes, her best friendís nameÖ you get the idea.

  • The bottom line is that Brechtian, emotionally distanced memoirs donít sell, unless youíre a literary genius on the level of Brecht. So if you decide to seek ghostwriting help to create your manuscript, make sure your ghostwriter can feel close and connected to you and your story. Make sure the book in your head can be channeled through them onto the page.

    About the Author: Lisa Silverman is a freelance book editor and works in the copyediting department at one of New York's most prestigious literary publishing houses. She has also worked as a ghostwriter and a literary agent representing both book authors and screenwriters. She founded in order to provide writers with free advice on both writing and the publishing business.

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