Category Archives: Writers

You might be a writer

I must be a big fan of Jeff Foxworthy.  Either that or he is innately spoofable.  This is the second time I find myself spoofing his hilarious “You might be a redneck” jokes.  Except this time it’s “you might be a writer”.  I am sure this list is far from exhaustive, so please feel free to add your own thoughts to the comments, and feel free to share with your friends on FaceBook and Twitter so they can add theirs to the comments, too.

HINT: These are a lot more fun if you imagine them being delivered in Jeff Foxworthy’s voice.  Here is an example.


If your thank-you notes typically run on for 14 pages, you might be a writer.

If you edit the ingredients list on cracker boxes at the grocery store, you might be a writer.

If you fight insomnia by counting typos, you might be a writer.

If you ask your child whether the new kid in school is the protagonist or the antagonist, you might be a writer.

If you feel that your life is dull because it lacks flashbacks, you might be a writer.

If your-hate list includes Wordless Wednesday blogs and music CDs with no lyrics, you might be a writer.

If you’ve ever stood up in church to correct the preacher’s grammar, you might be a writer.

If you said “But the book was so much better!” after seeing The Matrix, you might be a writer. (Look it up for yourself!)

If you prefer closed caption TV because they broadcast the screenplay, you might be a writer.

If you tell your child to redo his math homework to make it more compelling to the audience, you might be a writer.

If you avoid drinking milk because yogurt has more culture, you might be a writer.

NOTE: The following video is part of the post.  “Read” it next.


If you buy a jacket only when there is a “blurb” on the back, you might be a writer.

If you’ve ever staged a sit-in over the inappropriate use of a comma, you might be a writer.

If you autograph the magazines in the rack at the checkout counter, you might be a writer.

If a whole shelf on your bookcase is dedicated to books with your name on them, you might be a writer.

If your reaction to a designer dress at the mall is “Who wrote that?”, you might be a writer.

If you prepare an outline before telling your spouse about your day, you might be a writer.

If you’ve ever called out the President of Honda for misspelling “Infiniti”, you might be a writer.

If you hold back crucial scheduling details from your family to keep them in suspense, you might be a writer.

If you fantasize about typewriters, you might be a writer.


If you even know what a typewriter is, you might be a writer.

If your favorite part of vacation is “booking” the flight, you might be a writer.

If you can’t wait for them to make a movie out of Roget’s Thesaurus, you might be a writer.

And if you are still reading this long-winded post, you are obviously a writer.

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Wreck-It Ralph and Character Jobs, Part I

Although I haven’t watched “Wreck-It Ralph,” I have read the (highly recommended) screenplay, and it sparked some musings about characters and their jobs.

“I gotta say, it becomes kinda hard to love your job… when no one else seems to like you for doing it.”

–Wreck-It Ralph

Wreck-It Ralph, as an anti-hero and video-game villain in his day job, is in fine company. In his book What Foreigners Need To Know About America From A To Z, Lance Johnson provides surveys that list some of the service industries and related jobs Americans rank as lowest and complain about the most:

  • Oil companies
  • Real estate agents
  • HMOs
  • Tobacco companies
  • Auto dealers
  • Cell phone companies (contracts)
  • Collection agencies
  • Banks
  • Auto repair
  • Mortgage brokers

If your characters hold a profession everybody hates, that makes your job as a writer more challenging, but in the case of Wreck-It Ralph, it can also be a rewarding journey.  Everyone (including, ahem, writers) can relate to days in which no one appreciates what you do. Yes, Wreck-It Ralph is about Generation X, the video game and most maligned recent generation, but it is also about our jobs and our livelihoods.

Does the job define the character? 

Does the job define the person? In our society, yes, it does.

Does the job define the character?  In the case of cop dramas, legal dramas, political dramas, hard-boiled police procedurals, stories about sex workers, stories set in the entertainment industry, stories about teachers, even family dramas in which Mom and Dad are the (toughest of all) job titles (what parent hasn’t felt unappreciated at some point?), the answer is yes.

Whether it’s Detective Olivia Benson on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” who lives for the job, Sherlock Holmes, Captain Kirk (when the movies prompted him to admiral and took him away from the Enterprise, that sparked major character conflict and a four-movie arc), there are many examples in which the job defines the character. But it’s also the character’s relationship to the job that creates drama and conflict.

FREE help to describe your characters!

In Wreck-It-Ralphs’s case, he just wants to be a part of society and be valued. His external goal is to get a medal, but in the course of “going turbo” and leaving his game, he develops other relationships.

This works for true stories, too: If your client has a job that the public has preconceptions, especially negative, about, such as the mortgage industry (Confessions of a Subprime Lender), IRS agents, Hollywood agents (sorry), salespeople, or politicians (if you land such a gig), your job is to make the case as to why the reader should care:  Is it a tell-all?  A personal struggle with illness?  A friendship or love story that changes lives? A how-to book on consumer advice?  A cause that’s bigger than the job?

Yes, it is hard to separate people from their jobs, because one of the first questions we ask is, “What do you do?” Why would your characters, including in nonfiction, be any different?  Also, other than their stated job title, characters have different jobs to do in your story.  Hero, comic relief, best friend, messenger, shapeshifter, mentor, sidekick…

Don’t knock the villains (even though we all love to). In my follow-up post, I’ll give some love to the antagonist/villain’s job and why, in Ralph’s words, “I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be than me.”

Back to the job!

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How to Describe Characters in Children’s Books

It seems like just yesterday (but it was actually in December) that I announced the Character Description Cheat Sheet in a post about how to describe hair. Of course that post was about how to describe hair to an adult audience, which is not the same thing as describing to a young reader audience (who are much less interested in the smell of the hair, and much more interested in whether there are ribbons in it, for example).

And the Character Description Cheat Sheet I announced then was, not surprisingly, also aimed at an adult audience.

But what about if you are preparing a manuscript for a children’s book?

No problem – we have now developed the (equally free) Character Description Cheat Sheet for Children’s Books.  Here is a snapshot of what it looks like, and you can download it for free (well, for the price of a tweet or a share on FaceBook).

The two tools are really quite similar in most ways, but there are some important distinctions, and this special shortcut just for children’s writers should help you more easily prepare your manuscript.  One example of a distinction is that a child’s life often revolves around school, so everything the reader sees through the main characters’ eyes is colored by the school experience: things that happen in the schoolyard and the classroom, homework schedule, teachers they like or that give them a hard time, etc.

Pick up our free cheat sheet to help describe children’s book characters.
Pick up our free cheat sheet to help describe your characters for adults.

I would like to thank children’s author Janet Smart for assisting with this special edition for children’s authors.  She was helpful in reminding me of a number of points that I had overlooked.

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Merry Christmas

To every writer and aspiring writer

Whatever your age
Whatever your faith
Wherever you are

I wish you the very best in life

In love
In self
In 2013

But most of all, may your tree be jam-packed with books!

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What is a ghostwriter?

This question pretty much tops the questions people have about ghostwriting, so let me give a very complete explanation, which I will break down into three parts.

  • Definition of ghostwriter/ghostwriting.
  • What a ghostwriter does – and doesn’t do.
  • Who needs a ghostwriter – and who does not (in what situations is a ghostwriter your best option?)

 Definition of ghostwriter

What is a ghostwriter?  Simply put, it is a writer who is not seen.  A writer who is not credited or acknowledged.  A writer who is invisible – like a ghost.  You read a book or an article and you never know who the real writer was, because it was ghostwritten.

You would be surprised at how much is ghostwritten.

Almost any autobiography of famous people is written by a ghostwriter. Think about it; it makes sense.  Somebody might be a great statesman, or a great scientist or a successful businessman.  But that does not mean he is a good writer and more than a good plumber or a good teacher.  For teaching, he sends his kids to school and lets a professional handle the job.  For plumbing, he calls a plumber to fix his leaky pipes – a professional who knows what he is doing.  For writing, he calls a professional ghostwriter.

Most speeches you hear have been ghostwritten.  Busy political and industrial leaders have neither the time nor skill to write their own speeches, so they hire speech writers.  For important addresses, very often they will edit and send back for several drafts; but most of the writing is done by a ghost.

What does a ghostwriter do?

A ghostwriter does the writing.  The ideas come from the “author” or the speaker – the client.  Done properly, the writer picks the words that best express how the client would write or speak if he had the time and ability to pick his own words.  This is not always easy and sometimes not completely possible.  But it is the ideal goal.

The ghostwriter does not make things up.  OK, sometimes a ghostwriter and/or PR department and/or political handlers do make a lot up.  When I worked for a politician, there was a fair amount of material that I wrote on my own initiative, guessing what my boss would have said.  But in such cases, the ghostwriter has a “regular” client and can make such guesses based on previous experience.

  • The ghostwriter might do research.
  • The ghostwriter does keep in the shadows.
  • The ghostwriter does not reveal her identity.
  • The ghostwriter does not take credit.
  • The ghostwriter does not (usually) get royalties.

When do you need a ghostwriter?

There are three factors that you need to factor in when deciding whether to hire a ghostwriter or to choose some other alternative (which you can probably guess without even looking at the list):

  • Skill
  • Time
  • Money

Skill is the biggest show-stopper.  If you can’t write well, you need to outsource, the same as you probably need to do with plumbing and teaching and growing wheat for your bread.

Skill is not a black and white factor.  It is pretty complex.  There are many people who simply can’t write.  I could show you reams of partially legible emails I receive. And there are many people who write quite well. And there are many people who write passably – they can communicate their ideas, but they do not inspire or pull the reader along.

But one’s skill at writing depends also on what one is writing.  I write good quality blog posts.  I write great how-to and self-help material, and I can write excellent humor.  But if I wanted to write a novel, I would outsource the project.  Yes, a writer hiring a ghostwriter.  I simply do not have the skills required to write convincing fiction.

And then there is speaking.  You might be surprised how many people have difficulty with highly personal speeches, such as for accepting an award of some sort or  best man or other wedding speeches.  They often call on a speech writer.

Time is also a big deal.  Many of our clients are hard-pressed business leaders who simply do not have the time to put all other things out of their heads and focus on writing their business book or autobiography.  Some have the skill, many do not, but none have the time.

Time is money, so if you don’t have the time to spend, it might even be less costly to spend the money.  Better to spend $12,000 in ghostwriting fees than $100,000 in lost time.

Speaking of money, ghostwriting does cost money.  Here is a list of some “typical” pricing.  In real life, plenty of high end ghostwriters charge more, and plenty of low end writers charge less.  But you have to be careful, because you will discover that at the bottom end the quality really suffers.  We try to keep our prices below average, at least to the extent that it does not sacrifice quality.

If you can’t afford the cost of writing your book, your screenplay, your letter or your speech, you might have to spend more time and write it yourself.  You might have enough money to hire a writer to edit your writing, which costs much, much less.

But a word of caution: if your writing skills are not fairly strong, your manuscript might not be good enough to edit.  You won’t save much money if the writer has to rewrite your material from scratch.  So, as I said above, skill is the show-stopper.

If you don’t have the money, you might be able to inspire some wealthy relations.  Maybe they will hire a ghostwriter for you.


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Win a free copy of The Frugal Book Promoter

So you’ve written that masterpiece.  Perhaps you wrote it yourself, or perhaps you hired a ghostwriter.  It is destined to become a best seller.  Now all you have to do is get the word out.

But, wait!  What’s this? There is a hole in your pocket?  You have very little money to spend on promotion?

Fear not.  It is not how much you spend that counts, but how cleverly you spend it.  And that is why you need…

…the Frugal Book Promoter, by Carolyn Howard-Johnson.

Whether you have a publisher or whether you are self-published, whether you are trucking around crates of paperbacks or trying to pull in clicks to a website, the Frugal Book Promoter is full of tips on how you can spread the word without breaking the bank.

Read Kristin’s review
of the Frugal Book Promoter,
which we published earlier.

And now, to make things even more frugal for you (in case that hole in the pocket is really getting out of hand), we are giving away three free copies of the Frugal Book Promoter to three lucky contest winners.  The contest runs all through November, and there are four ways you can win:

1. Tweet this contest.  You can tweet once a day, and each tweet is another entry in the contest.

2. Follow us on Twitter. We do blab a lot about everything from website promotion to health, business to entertainment, finance to …well…pretty much whatever. But it’s all good stuff.

3. Follow Carolyn Howard-Johnson on Twitter.  She is somewhat less of a blabbermouth than we are.

4. Blog about this contest.  This is the big one, worth ten points, giving you a much better chance of winning one of the three prizes.

Three winners will be chosen in the first week of December based on the number of entry points they rack up.  The Rafflecopter widget below makes it easy for you to enter and easy for us to tabulate.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Are Ghostwriters Really the Slimebuckets of the Planet?

Somebody has written a sales page that most cruelly slanders ghostwriters.  I will not post the URL and give him the benefit of a link, but the challenge cannot go unanswered. My comments are in RED below. Once you have read his sales pitch below, it’s your call whether he is:

  • A demagogue, lying about ghostwriters to make a quick buck
  • The most incompetent person you will ever have the misfortune to meet
  • Stark, raving mad


What do you do if you have a story or expertise to share, but are not a writer yourself or simply don’t think you have the time to write a book? The typical belief is that you need to hire a ghostwriter. You Don’t!

I’ve managed dozens of ghostwriters for clients over the years and now work with best-selling authors and writers at the highest level. Let me share with you what I have learned, and the reasons I no longer hire ghostwriters for my clients. Let me save you from the aggravation, unhappiness and wasted money (Read on to find out why this guy wasted so much of his client’s money!) that I’ve seen too many endure. Then, once you’ve heard the reasons why you should not hire a ghostwriter, stick around and I’ll share with you what I believe to not only be the better approach for your voice and your message, but also the less expensive option!

Remember the movie where the guy hired a hitman to kill his wife? A ghostwriter is kind of like the hitman: they both walk away when the job is over. And they both want the money up front.
Remember when you wanted someone to build an addition on your house?  Remember when you needed someone to sell you a car?  Remember when you wanted someone to fly you across the ocean?  Remember when you wanted someone to provide you with a TV or a computer or a sound system?  Remember when you wanted someone to rent you a hall for a wedding or a baby shower or a 50th anniversary? They also wanted to be paid.  And they all walked away when their job was done, to serve their next clients – the way they are supposed to.
When was the last time you saw a ghostwriter touting his new book in a local newspaper? Never, because he’s a ghostwriter. It’s not his book. He has been paid and has moved on to another project. Where do you think that ghostwriter will be when it comes to marketing, branding, packaging, and publishing your book?
Probably the same place as the marketers, branders, packagers and publishers were when the ghostwriter was writing your book. (I was advised by one of our writers, to resist the temptation to say “Du-uh” here.)

Although some of our ghostwriters do help with publicity and occasionally we do, too, but it is not a service we market. In many cases, our clients don’t want us to be further involved. That’s why they seek out a ghostwriter. In the words of Kristin, one of our top writers, “There’s such a thing as privacy and anonymity that the clients themselves insist in. Some are downright paranoid.”

Ghostwriters don’t need to make nice with publishers or literary agents, but they like to pretend they have a proverbial foot in the door to gain your business. You may be dazzled by their so-called industry connections, but you’ll be sorely disappointed when you discover these connections are nothing more than cousins, friends, and college roommates.
Industry connections? Ha!  We are ever-so-forthright with potential clients that we don’t have many contacts with publishers and even the ones we do are irrelevant, because publishers have in mind what they are looking for, and they do NOT base that on who they know.  And most ghostwriters who contact me to work with us are just as candid.  It makes me wonder under what rock he found the “dozens of ghostwriters” he managed for clients.
Are you a good manager? We hope so. Because that’s part of the role you’ll play when it comes to hiring most ghostwriters. With their “You are not the boss of me attitude”, ghostwriters aren’t particularly motivated by your looming deadlines, pleas for urgency, or even whip-cracking threats.
So…just exactly what rock did he find those “dozens of ghostwriters” he managed for clients. I have yet to meet a ghostwriter that fits any of those descriptions.
Excuses. Tantrums. Drama. Personal problems. You’ll foot the bill for all these little extras when you work with many ghostwriters. Shouldn’t the drama remain in the writing?
OK, I admit – now I am totally baffled. Not only have I never met a ghostwriter with this description, but how would a ghostwriter’s personal issues cost a client more money? Certainly at The Happy Guy Marketing, the price is the price. You don’t pay a penny more, nor a penny less, than what was quoted…unless you change the specifications of what you want us to do. (Are you sure I can’t say “Du-uh”?)
Pull out around $30 grand from your savings. Wait, you don’t have that much expendable cash? How about your 401k? Wherever you get it, you’ll need a boatload of cash just to finish your book using a ghostwriter, leaving you little for your marketing.
Ah, OK. Now we get to something that at least we can reasonably talk about. There are some high-end ghostwriters, such as those who write for sports celebrities and elder statesmen who are used to being paid $30,000 per book. Some much, much more, in fact. Occasionally one of those approaches me, and I just have to tell them that we don’t have work for them. We have regular clients for the most part, and the typical manuscript is written for $8000-$15,000.
Did you grow up dreaming of writing a book that sounds like it was done by someone else? Probably not. But what sometimes happens is the words that end up on the page read like they came from a ghostwriter’s pen not yours.
That is true. If you hire a crappy ghostwriter, the words won’t sound like yours. So again I find myself wondering…if he managed “dozens of ghostwriters”, did he not vet any of them before he hired them for his clients?
When you make a huge life decision, you only ask the opinion of one person you barely know, right? Of course not! So why would you trust your manuscript, the one you’ve labored over forever, to a lone stranger, hoping he can make the words from your soul sing?
So… you go to court without an attorney, because you hardly know him? Smart move. Perhaps you remove a tumour on your own without asking the opinion of a cancer surgeon you barely know? Oh, yeah. Well, this bright chap seems to do things that way (which might explain why he hired dozens of over-priced, tantrum-throwing, attitude wielding writers incapable of adapting to the client’s voice).


At this point, you might be asking whether I have ever had any problem with ghostwriters – whether there ever was a situation where somebody was getting ripped off by ghostwriters.  The short answer is “yes”.

The long answer is that three times ghostwriters we worked with showed gross ethical lapses.  You see, we can easily screen writers for the quality of their writing, and make a reasonable guess as to how well they will attend to our clients….but we do not have a means to know ahead of time if a writer is likely to reveal herself to be two-faced.

In one case, the ghostwriter tried to make a private arrangement with the potential client, cutting us out of the deal – against both the word of our contract and all manner of ethics.  The potential client informed us, and we immediately stopped using that writer.  Pity, because she wrote well.

In two other cases, the writer tried to extort money from the client.  In both cases, once a contract had been signed and work had begun, the writer asked for more money.  A myriad of excuses were given, but the bottom line was greed.  Unfortunately, the entranced clients would not let us replace them with ethical writers.  So the clients paid the extortion money, the writers finished the job (and did an excellent job, I must say), and we simply stopped dealing with those writers.  Good writers or not, we don’t cheat our clients.  Period.

So, back to the original question…

  • A demagogue, lying about ghostwriters to make a quick buck
  • The most incompetent person you will ever have the misfortune to meet
  • Stark, raving mad

Which is it?  What do you think of ghostwriters?  Have a story to share in the comments below?

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So you want to be a freelance writer…

Last July, one of our writers was featured on PT Money Blog.  Philip interviewed Miranda Marquit, who happens to be one of our freelance writers.  Miranda writes mostly on financial matters, helping our clients with online content and also having written a number of finance-related books for business clients.

The podcast, which I am running below with permission, asks Miranda about the business of freelance writing and what it takes to become a freelance writer. As an aside, when you work from home, you are not working in some antiseptic office environment, where almost everything is artificially controlled. At home, office life and real life collide ion the most unpredictable of ways, especially when there are children running around. In the case of this podcast, you hear the doorbell ring at one point. My comment to Miranda after I had listened to the interview was, “Next time instead of a doorbell, maybe you could have a motorcycle followed by a scream and a crash.” That would be much more entertaining.

Here is the podcast, as it was first published.

Miranda offers much more incredible advice for budding freelance writers, so take a few minutes to listen to the full podcast.

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Of Vampires and Writers

It is always exciting when one of our client books gets media coverage, but when both the client and our writer are mentioned at the same time, it is an extra special event. That is just what happened a couple weeks ago in the Canton Repository.


The article is about H.P. Stephenson’s new work of fiction, in which he gave our writer Kathryn Tedrick co-authorship (usually our authors remain ghost writers).  Appropriately enough, this book straddles the realms of science fiction and fantasy, Kathryn’s two specialty genres.

It’s the third item in this round-up article. Here is what it says:

Buy on AmazonAkron author Kathryn Tedrick, along with co-author H.P. Stephenson, has put a new modern twist on a popular subject — vampires — while “returning to the roots of sci-fi,” says the publisher of “War of the Staffs: Quest for the Staff of Adaman.”

The novel is the first book in the proposed “War of the Staffs” trilogy about “a myriad of mythical creatures.”

“ ‘War of the Staffs’ is a fresh new series for all those who love dragons, wizards, elves, dwarves, and mayhem,” said Tedrick in publicity material for the book.

Tedrick, who writes articles for magazines and websites, also has ghost written several books.

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In teaching a virtual seminar for the Muse Online Writers’ Conference about “Writing the Short Screenplay from Concept to ‘Fade Out,’” I’ve read the following comment in online forums: “I wrote this as a short story/novel, but I think it would be better as a screenplay.”

I’ll talk about adaptations of books to movies in another blog post. Everyone out there has an opinion of books on film. Sometimes the movie actually improves on the book, or at least offers a true translation–by that I mean it keeps to the essence of the book without reproducing it word for word (the “Harry Potter” films, especially the last one, “Order of the Phoenix, accomplished this magic.)

What about the reverse—the novelization of a screenplay? It’s a growing business. “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry himself wrote the novelization (with curious academic-like footnotes) of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” from 1979, the one every critic has panned. Studios hire writers to novelize popular movies such as the “Batman” franchise. Then there are all those kids’ adaptations of kids’ movies such as “The Incredibles,” “Cars,” “Underdog” and ”Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” the movie that launched the new animated series on Cartoon Network.

 It’s difficult enough to transmute a publicly beloved property into fiction. For a ghostwriter, the pay may be great and the challenge satisfying, especially if you happen to be a fan of the franchise, because after all, the characters are the stars. Nobody cares who transcribes the words of Anakin Skywalker (or his feisty female apprentice Ahsoka Tano), Lightning McQueen or Captain Kirk.

However, when the script in question is personal, when a ghostwriting client hopes to have both a book and movie based on characters he or she has created, the challenge is greater, and in many respects even more rewarding despite the long hours at the computer.

David Leonhardt made the announcement last week about our client Alan Truax’s novel Mercedes being published. Alan has been a delight to work with. I rarely meet ghostwriting clients, but I had the privilege of dining with Alan and his wife last December. It was a wonderful evening. Alan is a remarkable man who believed in his story enough to condense a 300-page screenplay trilogy to a two-hour movie and to transform it into a novel.

As both a screenwriter and a novel writer who has adapted my own novel to a screenplay (and award-winning short story to a play), I understood the specific demands of the project. I understood that:

  1.  Not everyone enjoys reading screenplays—especially not producers and agents. This is because they usually have a stack of scripts to read and each year 50,000 scripts are registered with the WGA (Writers’ Guild of America). I do enjoy reading screenplays.
  2. Screenplays have to be minimalistic. Emotion has to be conveyed through dialogue and action, unless you have voiceover. Plot is sometimes conveyed through details—a sign, a phone call, a UFO suddenly descending. In that respect, writing a screenplay teaches you how to write fiction: show, don’t tell. However, novels can have diversions, side trips, and moments that, because of tiem constraints, wouldn’t make the cut.
  3. There are many times when telling/painting what a character is feeling and thinking is important. Example: Carrie Bradshaw from “Sex and the City”. What would the TV show and movie be without Carrie’s voiceover columns dishing about her friends’ adventures? In a novel, you can be Carrie Bradshaw. Nicholas Sparks and J.K. Rowling convey characters’ interior emotions and thoughts—in J.K. Rowling’s case, usually all Harry Potter’s.
  4. A novel gives you the opportunity to explore characters beyond the confines of a movie frame. In the case of MERCEDES, we could explore the thoughts and motives of some unsympathetic characters such as the title heroine’s first husband Dirk or another character named Helga, a Nazi supporter in 1930s Germany. We could add chapters and scenes in a point of view other than the heroine’s. A screenplay is told chiefly through the protagonist’s POV. By that I mean everything revolves around the protagonist. The screenplay is about the main character wanting something and achieving or failing to achieve it. The antagonist (not necessarily a villain) or group of antagonists (in Mercedes’ case, her ex-husband and the Nazis) acts against the protagonist, but is not the star of the story—even though the antagonist must be compelling, such as the shark in “Jaws” or Major Strasser in “Casablanca” (although you could argue Rick Blaine is his own antagonist), or even, in a comedic sense, Robert De Niro in “Meet the Parents”. Robert De Niro, as the father of the woman Ben Stiller loves, is the antagonist who threatens to keep them apart. In a novel, you can explore other POVs. Fantasy epics such as the Wheel of Time series by the late Robert Jordan excel at this.
  5. A novel allows you to “connect the dots” and talk about what a screenplay doesn’t express—within reason. After all, “Chinatown” says plenty when Jake Gittes confronts Evelyn Mulwray and produces the explosive revelation, “She’s my sister and my daughter!” However, many people get frustrated and think, “What was he thinking? Why did she do that? They never explored this, they never explained that,” and so on. Having sat through many movies with some of my friends, these are the questions I frequently have asked and heard. We don’t need to be spoon-fed, but some movies just defy understanding. Much of that may not be the scriptwriter’s fault. The editing and directing play a huge role. The studio certainly plays a role. In a novel, you are the producer and director—even though you may have to answer to a publisher and certainly you follow the client’s wishes. In MERCEDES, we could explore the relationship between the heroine’s father and his best friend. We could get into the head of Rick Willson, the man who wants to interview Mercedes for (surprise) a screenplay, and learn why he is doing what he’s doing.
  6. With freedom comes challenges. For example, we decided against a passage I had written regarding one of the characters’ experiences as a driver in post-WWII London. I spent too much time on incidental background that didn’t ehance character or story. It’s easy to get sidetracked, although explorations can sometimes yield different possibilities that a ghostwriter might pose to the client. However, the client is, as always, the one who has final say.

In a future blog post I’ll talk about “Identity Crisis: Helping the Client Decide If It’s a Novel or a Screenplay”.

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Mercedes – another ghostwriting success

We are celebrating another ghostwritten book off to the publishers: Mercedes, by Alan Truax.  This one is a thriller epic set in the…oh, why not just read the official synopsis below.  Kristin, one of our best ghostwriters and a frequent blogger here, helped Alan bring this novel to life.

MERCEDES is a multi-generational epic which begins in Germany at the brink of WWII and ends seven decades later in the California Napa Valley wine region. Several memorable characters contribute to this intriguing saga of the human spirit, but the primary protagonist is Mercedes Steinberg, who is born in the backseat of a new 1934 Mercedes Benz Tourenwagon.  The life of this resilient woman, and the car in which she is born, become entwined as she escapes Nazi Germany for a life in London, Paris and California, all the while pursuing her unrelenting quest  to love a daughter the way she was once loved by her parents.  Her dream is simple, but its achievement is not.  But despite many challenges such as living as a Jew in Nazi Germany, a failed marriage, and the deaths of loved ones, Mercedes Steinberg never gives up her dream.  While her story involves the drama of life’s injustices, it also presents the joy that comes from being with those you love, and confirms that the love of family and friends is the best cure to healing the wounds of life’s hardships. And it reminds us that it is never too late to realize one’s dream.

If you wish to pre-order a copy and be one of the first to read Mercedes, just complete the form below and send it to Alan Truax at allynntruax [a]  (replace the [a] with @, of course).








E-mail Address: 

Order Quantity
Please send me _____  copy/copies of MERCEDES 

Bill me a total of $_______ for the quantity of books above at $20 each (includes shipping)

Referral Acknowledgement.
Mercedes was recommended to me by ___________________________
Signing Option

No author’s autograph___

Author’s autograph only___

Please address signing to (person’s name):___

Please include specific message (1-3 sentences):
[Example:  Your good friend Mary thought you would enjoy this story.  She and I both wish you a very happy 45th birthday!]

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Yes, Even Warren Buffett Can Be Boring for a Writer

I was reading BARRON’S over the weekend and came across a book review of a Warren Buffett business biography, to which the book’s author was apparently assigned.

Buffett’s Great, This Book Isn’t

What? How could a book about the philanthropist Oracle of Omaha, who saves companies, advises Barack Obama, and refused to get sucked into buying bad mortgage CDOs, be boring?

First off, I am a book reviewer as well as a writer and ghostwriter. Like Andrew Bary, I have struggled in the past to like some books that should have been good. An example of this is BAD BOY BALLMER, an exploration of Microsoft CEO Stev Ballmer. The anti-Microsoft bias damaged the book in my opinion. The author took exception to my review even though I attempted to be positive—because I’ve been in the trenches. I know what a feat it is to complete a book, especially one with a complex subject. One memorable line from the book “Ballmer is large. Ballmer contains multitudes.” I also know what an even bigger coup it is to get a book published, by a major publishing house at that.

And when the subject, such as Buffett, has been extensively written about, and by his own admission doesn’t have any outside interests or juicy stories (the article by Bary admits this), writing an 838-page book (an even more Herculean achievement) is bound to be an uphill task. You are going to annoy some people with the way that you do it and never mind the hours of wishing that you’d never chirpily agreed to take it on, because after all, how hard could it be with a famous subject?

What, you may be asking, does this have to do with ghostwriting? As ghostwriters, we often start out with a subject we think is going to be fabulous, phenomenal, the stuff of dreams and blockbusters. David Leonhardt notes in his post “Ghost writers need to eat, too” that clients often come to us with an idea they think will make a bestseller even though there’s no money now.

I’ve taken on pro bono work because I believed in the cause.

I rarely do it now. 

It’s all too easy to spend hours getting carpal tunnel syndrome and backaches and ignore the outside world, then lose the fire and stubbornly continue because you’re stuck. It happens in our own projects, except we can usually set those aside without guilt. When there are other people involved, it’s harder to clear all moorings and push off from the desert isle of No Name where all once-glittering novels and screenplays languish. I’ve had a few clients/friends realize on their own that they weren’t ready for prime time.

Was the Buffett book this author was commissioned to write ready for prime time? I’m going to reserve judgment, as I haven’t read the book.

I can speak in defense of the author from a purely practical standpoint, however. Once again, I have been there.

I have written about subjects I had no attachment to and could care less about (coin collecting, for example), but had fun with them at times. I have done writing jobs that were so obscure only five people who knew about the subject would be interested. This does not describe any current THGM clients.

Word to ghOStwriters and ghostwriting clients: The most exciting and glamorous subject or personality in the world can become as difficult a project as, to use David’s example, ditchdigging. There are several reasons for this.

  1. The subject is already completely well-known, as with Warren Buffett, Elvis, “Star Trek” (with its legions of love-to-argue fans), Bill Gates, Martha Stewart, Marilyn Monroe, Eleanor Roosevelt, or Marie Antoinette (Antonia Fraser’s book, which inspired a movie, is reputed to have broken new ground). An essay of mine, “Abraham Lincoln, YouTube and History Reconsidered,” excerpedt in a forthcoming Lincoln Bicentennial anthology (NLAPW), reexamines Honest Abe in the context of modern politics. But chances are that your subject has been so well-covered that you might have difficulty finding something new to say–unless you’re interviewing Abe’s ghost.
  2. The subject is completely controversial, or the angle is opposite to the accpeted view, and you are certain to risk offending people, to the point of death threats, government interference and, even worse, media/publisher ostracism. My dear friend Joyce Spizer Foy and Claude Rogers wrote THE CROSS-COUNTRY KILLER about serial killer Glen Rogers, Jr–Claude’s brother. I won’t go into the eye-opening experiences Joyce had in writing and promoting this book that she calls “a blueprint for how to raise a serial killer”.  Joyce and Claude didn’t pull any punches, but many people, faced with a controversial subject, may water down the book or shrink from revealing details that would ruffle feathers. The ghostwriter may be forced to fill pages with regurgitated facts, unless the contract and the personal rapport (and the publisher and/or agent, if applicable) allow the ghostwriter to push for more flexibility.
  3. The subject or the subject’s representatives won’t tell certain facts, or try to impose their own ideas about a book, which may not always be interesting to write, let alone read, and therefore may not be marketable. I’m aware that some poorly written and ho-hum books  have been marketed and sold to publishers and the public because of successful promotion and a sexy subject. However, as ghostwriters and clients we want to aim above that. Right?
  4. The people bankrolling the project or producing/publishing the project have their own agendas, and by the time they’re through designing a horse by committee, the writers are completely burned out and just want to move on to the next gig (or do their own writing on a tropical beach with no cell phones). This is why so many movies start out with a dream cast and a great story and end up boring you to death and/or being panned by the critics (these are not always connected).

I’m not saying that the above apply to the process of writing the new Buffett book.  The BARRON’S article simply struck a chord in me. I hope it’s of some help to my fellow ghostwriters and their current and prospective clients.

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Beware self-help authors

Sorry, but this will be just a little humorous.  I am a self help author, among other things, and I think I received a backhanded complement recently, which I just blogged about at my happiness blog.

Just because I feel like it, I will reproduce that blog post, “Happiness books versus real books“, here:

Lloyd Garver of the Norwich Bulletin is obviously not a big fan of happiness books, but at least he refers to mine as… ”Some of these popular happy books include, ‘Climb your Stairway to Heaven: The 9 Habits of Maximum Happiness’“.

The problem with Mr. Garver is probably not so much his grumpiness, but his poor sense of direction.  See what else he says, “The reason you can’t find the kind of book you’re looking for is that all the self-help books about how to be happy fill up the shelves. Ironically, this makes some of us quite unhappy.”

Fortunately for us and for the sake of clarity, he does specify what kind of book you’re looking for.  A real book.  Hey, those are his words, not mine.

If books about happiness and self-help are not what he is looking for, why is he looking in the self-help section?  I have to assume he is simply lost, because obviously he won’t find any real books there.  Either that, or he is a very grumpy man with a great sense of theatrics (not to mention irony).  And nothing makes a grumpy person grumpier than a happy person saying to him, “Smile!”  (Yes, grumpy people really, really hate happy photographers!)

If the bookstores would kindly provide visitors with maps when they enter the store, people who don’t want to be happy can avoid accidentally finding themselves surrounded by all those threatening smiley faces.  And they can get on with the business of finding “real books”, which apparently bookstores don’t seem to stock anymore.

That oughta solve the problem.

Hmm…I wonder what he would think of a happiness blog.  

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What’s your story?

You want to write a book and you have a great story running around your head, but writing it is not as easy as you thought. You need a professional to prepare your manuscript. So what’s your story?

For any book to be interesting, it needs a good plot. Plot is what gets the reader’s attention … what’s it all about? And plot is what keeps it … what happens next?

The following is true, unbelievable but true. I once had a would-be client contact me with an idea for a children’s book – and that was all he had.

“What is your book about?” I asked him.

“These children run away and save the world from itself.” He replied.

“Okay, so what’s the plot?”

“They run away and save the world from itself.”

“That’s your idea. Why do they run away? Why do they need to save the world? What do they do?”

“Er … what do you think?” He asked.

“There a few things you have to before you employ a writer.” We chatted for a while of his need to think about the action he wanted in his book. I gave him a few tips about how to proceed and added,

“ … and while you’re at it, you also need to think about the children’s characters.”

“Character? What character?”

So we went through the notion of character.

“Well what do you think they should be?” He asked.

“This is your book. Therefore you have to know what you want in it.” I added as gently as I could. “If I conceive of and develop your plot, characters, location and everything you wish me to, it would be my book. Now why would I write a book of my own and give it to you?”

Finally we agreed that while he would think of some of the children’s characteristics (one of whom was the son of the king), I would help him to develop them as the plot itself developed.

“So where does this action take place?” I asked.

“Erm … they run away to the snowfields so it has to be somewhere with lots of snow.”

I suggested a few countries.

“It has to be a republic and the …”

I interrupted him. “This country is a republic with a monarchy?”

“Yes, and I have an idea for one of the children who all go to the same private school. He is the hero of the book. He is the white adopted son of a black woman, who works at someplace like McDonalds.”

Needless to say, this story had no chance for I was left with a group of children who have to save the world from some unknown calamity. In addition, a black waitress at a fast food outlet, whose son was white could afford to send him to an expensive private school attended by royalty. This boy and a group of his chums, including a prince used only to the lap of luxury, run away to the ‘snowfields’ in a republican monarchy, where they presumably manage not to freeze to death while finding nourishment in all the snow and ice around them. Perhaps they might find a polar bear to hunt and eat, or catch a whale through a hole in the ice. (I didn’t suggest that to the young man).

He had no idea of how to move his vague idea forward. He couldn’t develop his characters or his story because he had no plot. The very least a ghostwriter needs is an idea of the nature of the book (for example is it a mystery, comedy, etc.), a believable plot written in outlines (starting from the beginning of the story and proceeding in an orderly fashion to the end), some idea of the characters, and location. This applies whether you wish to write fiction or non-fiction. It is then up to the ghostwriter to craft the manuscript, moving the reader fluidly from one chapter to the next.

So what your story?

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Ghost writers need to eat, too!

Every week or so, a potential client asks me whether one of our writers would be willing to work on spec, to accept payment when the book gets published, to work as a partner, or some other euphemism for assuming the risk of the client’s project.

For anyone considering asking me this question, here are my top reasons why this makes about as much sense as investing in the moat-digging business:

  1. The writer is your supplier.   Would you ask a plumber, landscape architect and roofer to accept payment on when — and if — your house sells?
  2. Asking a supplier to forego payment in the hopes of making a bigger ROI when you publish is essentially asking them to invest in your idea for a book.  These are writers we are talking about.  They have dozens of their own ideas they would rather invest in.
  3. It takes time for a book to get published.  Unless you happen to be a former president or major league MVP, your writer could starve while waiting for you to publish.
  4. The reality is that most books will never see the light of day.  What?  Does the writing suck?  Not with our writers!  Does the idea suck?  Actually, almost everybody who comes through the door with the greatest idea ever…has a pretty good idea for a book.  Maybe not the greatest idea ever, because the Bible and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy have already been written, but nevertheless the ideas are pretty good.  But it takes perseverance to keep knocking on doors, like the folks at Chicken Soup for the Soul did, year after year until finally a publisher agrees to give it a go.  And our writers don’t feel like gambling a couple months of pay that a client might just be the rare gem able and willing to do that.
  5. Believe it or not, life gets in the way.  Clients disappear all the time.  Seemingly reliable clients.  It’s really amazing how often people who decide to write a book get stricken by disease, get surprised by divorce, lose a very close relative or simple vanish without a trace (Yes, this has happened several times!).*  In fact,  if the insurance companies had access to my statistics, it would be justifiable cause for them to cancel your insurance right now on the spot, as well as the insurance of everybody related to you.  Your writer doesn’t want to do a month of work for you and hope you’ll stick around, ignoring everything else in your life.
  6. If you are writing a book hoping to sell it, you are undertaking a business venture.  Every business venture requires start-up capital.  Even a hot dog stand.  What makes this business venture so attractive is that $10,000 or $20,000 is peanuts.  You won’t get a fast food franchise for those pennies.
  7. Our writers are professionals, not part-time college students looking to puff up their CVs.  Please treat them like professionals.

There probably are many other reasons why our writers don’t want to work for free, hoping that at some point in the future they might get paid.  I fact, I suspect that when they read this post, I might get a few more ideas.  And I might add them here. 

* One client who vanished into thin air, a really nice gentleman, popped up again eight months later.  A car crash, a marital breakdown, a move to a new city…and he was ready to start up again.  But most MIA clients never turn up again.

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Should You Self-Publish?

You have a great idea for a book—or a book you and rewritten/polished by a ghostwriter. You have the visions of touching people’s lives, of being mobbed with adoring fans (or people who care passionately enough about your book to argue the inconsistencies endlessly in online forums), of being on “Oprah”.

However, the idea of dealing with submissions, agents and publishers may make you think twice. You don’t want a cast of thousands involved with your book. You want the final say, you want the control over marketing, publicity, book covers and, of course, profits. Yet self-publishing has a stigma attached to it, based on the faulty thought, “Well, if a book is any good, surely a publisher will buy it.”

The stigma persists and ignores the story of a man who wrote a book for his daughters, submitted it to agents and publishers, got the brush-off and self-published it. When he persuaded local bookstores to take the book, the booksellers found that the book became a local bestseller. Simon and Schuster snapped up the book we now know as The Christmas Box by Richard Paul Evans. The book is good, and a publisher did buy it—but only because Richard Paul Evans persisted and believed in his book.

You might want to self-publish your book for a variety of reasons, even though you’ve hired a ghostwriter to make the book perfect. As good as the best ghostwriter is, the publishers, even the small presses, and the market dictate what gets bought. It’s selelection, not rejection.

The ghostwriter’s job is to make sure people want to read your book once it’s in their hands and they’ve opened the cover to look at Page One. The ghostwriter may or may not, depending on your contract and the agreement you’ve reached, help you with publishing or self-publishing advice. As a ghostwriter, however, my potential reasons for self-publishing are:

  1.  You want a greater share of the profits, bearing in mind that you’ll also assume all the costs (including the ghostwriter fees).
  2. You only want to pay for the books you plan to print.
  3. You want to “test the waters” and see how much demand there is for your book—a limited-release rollout beta-test, as it were.
  4. You want total control over which groups you speak to and what publicity you do (bear in mind that if you want to sell books, 100 percent of the responsibility for publicity is on you, as it usually is for everyone but the big-name authors).
  5. You want total control over the content of the book, right down to whatever proofreader you hire (a proofreader is different than a ghostwriter or editor, and is essential to the finished product). You also assume the risks there, even if you publish under a pseudonym.
  6. It’s your family history or other material so niche-oriented that a publisher wouldn’t accept it.
  7. You can’t wait for a publisher because the material is time-sensitive. For example, if you or someone you love have a life-threatening condition and you want to tell your story to ask for help or to help someone else, you might not want to go through the delays of submitting the book to a publisher or agent. Or the material is about some personal nightmare you’re suffering—for example, medical malpractice (documented) and you want to win public sympathy. (Be certain to check with an attorney.)
  8. You intend to start your own publishing company.

You are probably asking yourself, will a ghostwriter take me on if I announce firmly and decidedly that I want to self-publish? That depends on the ghostwriter. In my case, it’s a firm yes. Other than the satisfaction of completing a job that you’re happy with, I have no ego stake in your book.

In fact, a ghostwriter will probably be pleased to help you prove that old chestnut about self-publishing somehow being inferior wrong, wrong, wrong. To quote screenwriter William Goldman on the movie industry, “Nobody knows anything.” Today’s self-published book may well be tomorrow’s hit or life-changing vehicle.

Don’t assume that a ghostwriter won’t work just as hard to get your book right if you’re self-publishing as if you’re submitting to the William Morris Agency or HarperCollins. Ghostwriters will ask the same of you in return. If you’re determined enough to publish your book yourself, to get an ISBN number, to obtain distribution, to file for copyright and to incorporate your own publishing company, the odds are good that you’re determined to make your book the best it can be by working with us and getting at least three separate people to proofread it. You can be a success.

 And we’ll even coach you the night before you appear on “Oprah”.

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What’s in a Character?

Character development is a critical part of any story. When a book is being written by a ghostwriter, it is especially important for the client to transmit a clear and concise picture of those individuals they have worked so hard to develop in their mind. Otherwise when the ghost writes the story, the characters may not quite measure up to what the author has envisioned. As the originator of the manuscript, a client usually has a picture in mind of the various people for the story, what they do for a living, what type of person they are, and what is going to happen along the way.  

One of the best ways to transmit this to the ghost is to write a couple of paragraphs about each of the main characters that will be featured in the book. These should include physical characteristics like eye color, hair color, length, and style, height, build, any scars or deformities, and style of clothing worn. This is especially critical in period and fantasy or science fiction manuscripts. 

But don’t stop there. Now that the ghost writer knows what a character looks like physically, he or she is going to need to know some facts about other attributes. Smart or dumb? Brilliant, genius, average intellect, clever, street smart, stupid, dumb-witted, or lacking in common sense? Mean, nice, good natured, funny, stubborn, or evil? What is the relationship to other characters? What about social status? Is the person rich, poor, middle-class? Sometimes it is also important to include where the person is from, birthplace, or connections to other locales. Race, ethnicity, gender, and religious beliefs are more considerations to keep in mind, as these are traits that fascinate many readers.  

 In the case of science fiction/fantasy or horror, the writer also needs to know if the person is human. Various individuals can be anything from a demon, god, or an angel to an alien, elf, dwarf, dragon, gryphon, orc, or even a ghost. An author also has been known to make up an entirely new species previously unknown to any reader. In that case, the writer is going to need a lot more information that not only describes this new species but also gives an excellent frame of reference about how the species accomplishes the tasks set before it and how it thinks and acts. For example, if the new species does not have ears, how does it hear or determine sounds? Does it pick up vibrations that can be translated into meaning? Or maybe it has a squiggly little appendage on top of its head that enables its brain to receive the information and process it into words and actions.  

A ghostwriter needs to know what makes the character unique. Armed with this information, the writer has a much better chance of making the client happy when reading the finished manuscript. Added to that is the goal of catching and holding a readers’ undivided attention in meeting “people of the book.” 

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The Ghost Writers Blog is Ready

We have been planning this for some time.  It just made no sense to occasionally post about writing on the SEO blog, so now we have a dedicated ghost writers blog, which will be run by some of the writers we have been working with the longest.  This is an opportunity for them to dazzle you with their brilliance, provide tips on how to make the most of your ghostwriting project and give some insight into the life of a ghost writer.

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