Confessions Of A Ghostwriter: 'It Makes Sense That Someone In Zoella's Position Would Work With One'
The Debrief: I know I'm a good ghostwriter, I do quite a good impression of Dappy from N-Dubz
Not out loud, you understand. There is no rapping. But I’m a bit of a pro. Years ago, I had a job on a beloved, now defunct, teen mag. I wrote features about having no mates, having mean mates, drugs, dangerous dogs, boys, Beyonce, and once, Guantanamo Bay. I interviewed pop stars in LA and Kensington High Street and, usually, on the phone in a tiny boardroom where all the chairs had broken. And every month I would have to turn a few interviews into a set of columns. We might have used a ‘handwriting font’, but the content was written by us, after a PR sign off.
So I’m a bit sad that, post Zoella, everyone is shouting for a ban on ghostwriters and ghostwriting. It’s good fun.
I can understand why fans are upset. Being a fan is intense and addictive. You devour everything you can in order to get something approaching a direct line to your idol. If a book ‘written’ by Leo DiCaprio came out in 1998, 11-year-old me would sooner stick scissors in her ears than listen to anyone claiming he had help. But as a writer, I believe we ghosts serve an important function when it comes to getting a story out.
When you ghost, you learn how to probe brains. You discover that most people probably do have a book inside them, but when they’re speaking about their lives, they assume that you already know everything they do. You have to keep pushing and prompting for the hilarious anecdote about the jelly they fell into when they were four, because they’ve heard their own story so many times, they’re bored of it. More seriously, you have to help them find the words to match their emotions, and you’re sometimes asking them to experience feelings they have locked away. Ghosts work very closely with their subjects and they have to be trusted.
It’s fairly unusual that a ghost is asked to write a novel, rather than a column or an autobiography. But it makes sense that someone in Zoella’s position would work with one. Most debut novelists have the luxury of anonymity. You write your book, which might take months, or more often years. You find an agent who wants to represent it, which, again, takes time. By the time it goes out on submission you’ve been through hundreds of edits and rewrites, and you have time to polish and perfect your work. Then you get to work with an editor, who gives you even more time and space to get it right. And you’re new. Not having a massive reputation means you can make mistakes, and make it as good as you can while you’re still growing and learning. You might be a megastar by the time your second or third book comes out, and then you’ve got the experience to withstand the pressure you’re going to be under.
Now imagine you have seven million fans who are clamouring to read your debut novel when you’ve never written one before. Imagine that you’ve always dreamed of writing a book and say, ‘Yes please,’ when a publisher offers you the chance, and an insane paycheck, only to then hear that you have seven weeks to write the thing, and if it isn’t a hit, no-one at the company gets their Christmas bonus. Wouldn’t you want all the help you could get? And do you think that even if you didn’t want help, the people around you would strongly advise you to take it anyway?
Ghostwriters know that they’re not going to become well known for their ghosting. I know a few (I can’t out them) and they all see it the same way I do. If you’re serious about writing, it’s a very useful experience. Using your own voice can be hard enough, but it’s even tougher when you’re adopting someone else’s, and sounding so convincing within it that they’re happy to sign off on it. If you can do that, you’ll never struggle to create a character. Most ghostwriters also like the work because it pays well. But then, ordinarily, there’s a much more generous split between writer and ghost. I’d be very happy to get paid £7,000 for just under two months of work – less so if the work involved writing the fastest selling debut novel of all time.
As a vlogger, Zoella has become famous fast for her ordinariness and relatability. But it’s a little like watching reality TV. She shows us a sliver of ‘normal’ life, doing her eyeliner and having pillow fights with Alfie, and we forget that she’s a proper celebrity now, popping up on the red carpet, or the Band Aid 30 vid. If she was a ‘traditional’ celebrity, we wouldn’t notice if she had help to write her book – even if it is problematic from a PR perspective, as authenticity is such a big part of her brand. Yet no-one cares whether Joey Essex wrote his book or not, even if his fame has followed a similar trajectory – he became a celebrity after being filmed hanging out at home on the sofa with his sister. So many ‘normal’ people have been turned into brands that we can’t expect anything any more – or rather, we have to be broader in our expectations.
If Zoella had the time and the inclination, I’d love to see her write a great book on her own. But when you start off with a video in your bedroom and end up being tasked to write a Christmas bestseller in two months, you’re going to need some friendly ghosts. I can’t resent celebrity ‘writers’ when market demand for them is so great, and they’re bringing people into book shops and onto Amazon and hopefully getting readers to try some other writers while they’re there. And people will always want to help celebs tell their stories, as long as they’re getting paid properly.
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