Ideal Readers

Woman read book seat on the plaid near windowWhen I ghostwrite a book, the first question I ask is nearly always, “Who is your ideal reader? Who do you want to read this book?”

This is often a hard question for my clients to answer, especially if he or she is a newbie author. They have not thought about it. Most of them will say something like, “My book will appeal to just about everyone,” and they act puzzled that I am even asking this stupid question.

So I explain to my client that no, not everyone will want to read their book, and that an exercise in defining their ideal readers is well worth their time. It is true that no one can definitively know who will be reading any book, but an author can know two things: they can know who is most likely to read a book like theirs, and they can know who they want to read the book. Will the readers be mostly men, or women? Are they over sixty or under thirty? Are they Americans only? Are they sports fanatics or fans of reality TV?  Knowing who the target readers are is important to me as the ghostwriter because this will clue me as to how to tailor the writing to appeal to particular types of people, by varying my use of metaphors, slang, industry jargon, and so on. Writing for grandmothers is different than writing for teenagers. Writing for financially savvy people is different than writing for people who can’t figure out how to read their bank statement.

Writing is an exercise in communication with the reader. Effective communication is always two-way.

Trigger: I Remember

When Writer's Block words on a barricade or road construction sign stopping you from making progress writing a novel, article essay or other form of communication you're unable to composeI come down with a case of Writer’s Block (not if, unfortunately), I sometimes use the device of the trigger sentence to get me going again. This is a sentence starting with an easy noun-verb phrase, such as “I am” or “I want” or “She saw”, etc. Then I write a bunch of sentences starting with this phrase, trying not to stop or even think, just the phrase and whatever comes into my head next. One of my favorite phrases to use is “I remember” – so here is a short piece I wrote using this phrase:

I remember hiding on top of the garage roof to escape the interested eyes of my mother. I remember doing my homework in the living room. I remember the times I hoped I would forget. I remember the color of the hospital curtains the morning my son died, a sickly turquoise. I remember the crows flying through an orange sky the morning of my daughter’s birth. I remember dancing in a smoky nightclub with a boy I despised, but boy could he dance.

Try this yourself if you get blocked. It really does work.


Ghostwriting: Ghost Lessons

Ten Reasons to be a GhostwriterI have lived many lives in addition to my own. I have heard the best stories, been influenced by the best wisdom, learned life-giving lessons, laughed at the best jokes, had the most fascinating experiences. This is because I have been a ghost for over sixteen years, and have ghostwritten, rewritten, or developmentally edited over sixty books. Wow. Sixty! (And that doesn’t count the books I’ve written for me – fourteen of those. And even that doesn’t count the blogs and the tweets.) So I guess you could say I’ve been hauntingly busy.

I often counsel my clients to write their life story, telling them that what they feel, think, say, and do matters. To them, their families, their communities, to history itself. So now I am taking my own advice and will be writing a new book, tentatively titled My Life As a Ghost, which will share what I’ve learned from all these lives that are not my own. I can’t share the actual stories because they don’t belong to me, but what I’ve learned does.

My method of writing this book will be to write it piecemeal, a chapter at a time, right here in my blog. A couple times a month I’ll share one of those valuable lessons. If you read along, maybe you will learn something too.

Ghostwriting Tip: Expertise?

Ghostwrite ad imageIf you are a writer seeking to learn how to write for others, as others, my online program Learn to Ghost will help you get started and succeed as a ghostwriter. Here is a free excerpt from the ebook Doing the Work, which is part of the Learn to Ghost program.

Unless the subject of the book is highly technical or written for readers with specialized knowledge, it isn’t necessary to use a ghostwriter with expertise in the topic. A ghostwriter may know little or nothing about the subject, and this can actually be a good thing, and work to the book’s advantage. This is because the ghostwriter will be coming from the same place as the readers. She or he will want to know the same things.

Ghostwriting Tip: What It Takes

Ghostwrite ad imageIf you are a writer seeking to learn how to write for others, as others, my online program Learn to Ghost will help you get started and succeed as a ghostwriter. Here is a free excerpt from the ebook Doing the Work, which is part of the Learn to Ghost program.

What does it take to be a ghost? First, you must be aware that writing for yourself is different than ghostwriting. A ghost needs to write compelling prose that is close to another person’s voice, not their own. You need to put your ego in the background and write what is important to your client, in a way he or she might say it – only better. This skill involves more than writing ability. You must be able to ask penetrating questions that elicit sparkling stories and deep emotions. You must be able to listen compassionately to the answers, and then delve even deeper. You must be able to translate what you find in someone else’s head into written words that convey someone else’s truth. You must be fiercely dedicated to producing an excellent work of art, yet recognize that this work does not belong to you. A ghost is a different kind of writer. Not all good writers make good ghosts.

Writing Tip: Focus

oponed book on a wooden garden tableWhen I begin a ghostwriting job, one of the first things I ask the author is: What is the focus of your book? One of the most common mistakes I run into as a ghostwriter is the author wants to write too much. They know all the ins and outs and exceptions and nuances about their subject, and they try to cram it all into one book. This is not only unnecessary; it makes for a bad book. The readers don’t need to know everything the author knows – only what applies to them, and what they care about. If you try to cram too much in, your important points will get lost. My job as a ghostwriter to help my client find the right focus for their book. I look for the story arc, or the common themes running through the story.

I once had a client who I met at a book fair where I had a table. He came up to me and said, “Oh, I want to write a book – I need to talk to you.” I said, “Great – what do you want to write a book about?” And he goes, “I don’t know.”

Now there was a challenge. He just felt that he had a book inside him somewhere, but he’d never written anything, or really thought much about what he wanted in his book, until that moment. And he actually hired me to find out if he had a book inside him somewhere. I charged him a consulting fee to spend some hours talking about why he wanted to write a book, what his passions were, who he wanted to reach, and so on, while I recorded our conversation. And you know what? Eventually a focus for the book did emerge, and he then hired me to ghostwrite it for him.

The book was about psychic hunches and how to follow them through.

If you are a writer seeking to learn how to write for others, as others, my online program Learn to Ghost will help you get started and succeed as a ghostwriter. Learn more here.


Writing Tip: Learn to Ghost: Getting the Work

If you are a writer seeking to learn how to write for others, as others, my online program Learn to Ghost will help you get started and succeed as a ghostwriter.

Here’s one of the many tips from this program, about something many writers dislike: marketing. The problem with marketing ghostwriting services is that ghosts are supposed to be invisible. You’re not supposed to tell people who you’ve worked for. But if you’re invisible, how do people know you’re here?

The marketing section of Learn to Ghost covers subjects such as Freebies, Diversification, Identifying your Niche, Networking, Promoting, Referrals, Teaching & Speaking, Persistence, and more. Here’s an excerpt for free:

Identify Your Niche

It is important to identify your ideal clients for marketing purposes, of course. But it’s also important because you will not fit with everyone. What kinds of books do you like to read, and write? What is your passion? Your best clients will come from those who share it.

Your niche will be unique to you, and it is worthwhile to spend some time identifying who you want to write for, and why. For example, the two niches on which I focus my marketing efforts are:

  1. People wanting to write their memoirs, either because they feel their stories will resonate with people with common issues, so the books will have commercial potential; or because they want to leave a legacy for their descendants.
  2. Small business owners or service professionals, who wish to enhance their credibility and prestige, and build their businesses by establishing themselves as industry authorities. These small business professionals also have another advantage as a target market – they often need writers for website content, blog posts, articles, or e-books.

Another good idea is to identify who you don’t want to write for, and why. I don’t write medical books (unless written for laymen), high-tech books, financial books (unless written for laymen), or fiction. There are ghostwriters who do, of course. I don’t write books, articles, or blog posts that require scholarly research, multi-sourced references, numerous footnotes, and the like. Scholarly ghostwriting is a whole other animal.

You might notice that my targets are often excellent candidates for self-publishing. I don’t focus on books that need to be published by well-known publishers in order to be successful. (Although many of my clients have been published by traditional publishers.) So a facet of my niche is specializing in writing for people who will likely be self-published authors. It is one of my missions to combat the poor-writing stigma attached to self-published books. Two stigmas at once – I am brave.

I have written many different kinds of books, covering a huge array of subjects, but even though I’ve written about hypnotherapy, psychic horses, generational differences, trans-cultural adoption, shamanism, combating constipation and diarrhea, prostitution, living with cancer, remodeling houses, company histories, financial systems – I could go on – but these all have something in common. They all fit my “niche.”

What I’m best known for are books that are rich in storytelling, especially if they contain historical elements. Often the books I write combine storytelling or history with promoting a business, service, or cause. I think storytelling sells. And it’s what I am all about. I am a historian by education, yet I spent twenty years as a marketing professional; so my educational and business background have come together in my ghostwriting niche, and married my passion for storytelling.

A Limber Mind

Eating Mythos Soup - trimmedHere’s a writing tip to use every time your writing feels staid, stale, and stuck. Write a paragraph and make every sentence start with the same simple phrase, usually an “I + Verb” phrase, written very fast with no pauses between sentences to think. Be careful with this one, because if you do this correctly your mind might show you things you didn’t want to acknowledge. I’ll be brave today and share one of my own exercises, using the phrase “I don’t want”. As you will see, it is pretty darn scary but handy to know. (BTW, this shows up in my book Eating Mythos Soup (amazon link). Sometimes your exercises might even get published.

I don’t want to cry, for my eyes redden and my nose runs, and I must avert my face from those who might regard me with pity. I don’t want to be alone at the end of my life, with no one to hold my hand when I die. I don’t want to sit at a table with a plastic tablecloth, eating dinner alone in front of the TV. I don’t want the deep holes of loneliness to appear like zit craters in my skin, into which I might free fall forever.

I don’t want to dream, for then the black petaled flowers of fear bloom in the night, and their noxious rotting perfume eddies in a swirling cloud about me. I don’t want to make mistakes, for the red sand ants imprisoned in my belly will sting me to humiliating acts of grovel and apology. I don’t want to be angry, for then the self-loathing that lurks like an orange cancerous clown in the hidden lobes of my brain will dance in the center ring to the crack of the ringmaster’s whip.

I don’t want knowledge, for then I might find out that God is just a joke and there is no meaning to whatever we are doing here. I don’t want to know that no one sees me as their one true love. ©Eating Mythos Soup, 2000

Writing Tip: Black Sheep and Other Forbidden Topics

lammThere are always topics we can’t talk about. Sometimes these forbidden topics are societal – in some societies talk about sex is taboo, or death, or money (when’s the last time you asked an acquaintance, “So how much money do you make a year?”) And there are familial taboos, like Dad’s drinking or Mom’s pills, or an older brother in prison, or any family member you have been taught to be ashamed of. Even ancestors.

But what you can’t talk about you can’t write about either. Your beliefs about what is forbidden can stifle your creativity. A good exercise to free up your mind is write about the black sheep in your family anyway. (You don’t have to publish it.) You can start with an ancestor, since it may conjure up less pain. Here’s an exercise I often give when teaching memoir writing:

Write the story of an ancestor who is spoken of in whispers, if at all. Perhaps he or she went to prison, or drank heavily, or stole, or was a womanizer, or betrayed his/her country, or was a coward, or a cheat, or a slaveholder, etc. etc. etc. What do you know about this person? How did this story get handed down in your family? Is this person now admired or despised?

I wrote a few pieces about some of these sheep in my own family, although I couldn’t find any truly bad ones, only gray ones. (Most people are gray.) But there was one ancestor who no one seemed willing to talk about. The only thing I knew about him was that his name was Frank and he was my mother’s grandfather, her father’s father. But one day about fifteen years ago I did learn some things about Frank, and found that we did indeed have one of those black sheep in my family. It’s taken this long for me to take my own advice and write about what I learned, but here goes. Finally.

My mother used to have lunch with her cousins every year. Often her mother, my grandmother, also attended these luncheons. Fifteen years ago I went with my mother and grandmother to a gathering of these cousins, who were by then women in their seventies and early eighties. (All the male cousins were dead by then.) My grandmother was the only representative of her generation, in her nineties at the time.

About midway through lunch, the name Frank was mentioned, and suddenly, as if someone had thrown a switch, stories started tumbling out. (There had been quite a lot of wine consumed by this time.) I listened open-mouthed at the tales these elderly women told, from the fairly innocuous like how Frank told filthy jokes and laughed at their embarrassment, to the upsetting like how he pinched their budding breasts or bottoms, to the appalling like Frank telling my great-aunt Tessie, then 11, to “touch me here” as he pulled his “privates” (her word) out of his stained pants. It was even worse listening to the women tell how their fathers and mothers did nothing to stop him. “Oh that Frank,” they’d say indulgently, while they chuckled at Frank’s cute liking for little girls.

My own mother told of how Frank scared her badly when she was nine. He had come up behind her, pulled up her dress, and tried to pull down her underwear. She tore herself away from his searching hands and ran crying to her mother, Frank’s daughter-in-law, who said, “Oh that silly Frank, just ignore him.”

My grandmother, whose advice this had been, at this point got up and left the table. She spent the rest of the luncheon visit in the bathroom. When we drove home, she sat stony-faced in the back seat of the car and refused to look at my mother.

Later I asked my mother to tell me more about Frank, but she refused. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “He’s dead now.”

I beg to differ. It does matter. What Frank did to my mother, and her girl cousins, shaped their lives. My mother shaped mine. There is quote by Emile Zola, which sums up why it matters:

“If you shut up truth and bury it under the ground, it will but grow, and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through it will blow up everything in its way.”

Writing Tip: Topic Switching

iStock_000004854936SmallI’m pretty sure most writers have weird minds. This writing tip from Natalie Goldberg convinced me that I qualify. Writing fast, without stopping, write a page in which each sentence has a different subject than the one before it. Here is a page I wrote when I tried this tip:

Half of a bean is still a bean. Over the trees are flying birds without home wings. Pay no attention to your nose, for smell will only take you where you’ve already been. Fear is like an itchy sweater; perhaps I should put it away in a dark cupboard and let the mice poison themselves. In the meadow the cows munch and neither know nor care that I’m watching them. The internal life of ants is unknown to us. I hear the voice of an ancestor calling me to prayer. The bells ring and the smoke curls toward the sound. I watch the clouds for answers. Tomorrow the day is old again. Inside any orange is a dirt-brown heart beating slowly to the rhythm of the earth. (copyright 2000, Eating Mythos Soup: poemstories for Laura)

You should try this. Your mind will always surprise you.