The GhostWriter’s Blog

Check out The GhostWriter's Blog below for bits of wisdom and answers to questions on all matters ghostwriting and ghostwriters.

Why You Need to Write Your Autobiography

The above links to an article I wrote that is posted on Ezine dot com.

 

How Much Does a Ghostwriter Cost?

 

How Can a Ghostwriter Help You?

 

The Two Best Books on Writing. Ever.

 

Stopping the plague of bad fiction writing

It seems that 99% of the amateur fiction I have ever read is bad. And almost all 99% of those writers seem to make the same mistakes. First, they crack open the thesaurus and try to show off their vocabulary. Then, they try to supercharge every action and word their characters utter, and they don't trust the English language to do its job. No phrase, no matter how simple, goes unembellished. Light doesn't just shine through the window, it shines eerily. Their protagonist doesn't just wonder something, he ponders deeply. They pour the adverbs on with abandon. And then there are the adjectives, which they use to describe everything from the color of every character's clothing to the azure hue of the striking summer sky. You get the idea.

So whether the genre is fantasy, science fiction, or whodunnit, it all sounds pretty similar. And of course, publishers and agents can't help. Given the volume of submissions they get, they can't give out advice to individuals. Instead, they have to reject submission with vague and unhelpful statements like, "not right for our publishing house." And friends and family are no help either. They are too inexperienced or too emotionally close to the would be author to tell them what they need to hear. Surely someone, somewhere, will publish this stuff, hopes the amateur writer. But lacking any constructive criticism, she keeps churning out the same heavy prose and is stumped when no one will publish her.

Sadly, the difference between bad writing and decent writing (notice I didn't say great writing) isn't much. With a little effort, you can turn your cringe-inducing, amateur writing into decent, workmanlike prose. And maybe, just maybe, you'll get published and join the ranks of happy hack writers.

With apologies to Stephen King (who has listed the first two of these items in his great book on writing), here then are five simple techniques to improve your fiction writing:

Cross out the adjectives and adverbs. After you write your first draft, go back and do a copy edit that looks at nothing but adverbs and adjectives that have crept in. Be ruthless and kill as many as possible. You don't need to kill them all, just most of them.

Don't describe everything. Avoid the temptation to describe every little scene in agonizing detail; rather, let the reader fill in the blanks and make the story their own. When you describe too much, you bog down the flow of the narrative.

Do a friggin' spell check. Yes, pay attention to basic housekeeping. No one wants to read lazy writing, so clean it up before you send it out. And while you're at it, read a book on basic grammar and usage rules. It's not rocket science and is the least you can do to improve your writing.

Hire someone to copy edit for you. And because no good writer will ever catch everything by themselves, pay someone who is qualified to look over your writing. It's worth every penny.

Don't try too hard. Basically, keep your writing simple. Often, when we try to write beyond our natural abilities, we end up producing prose that is ponderous and gives away our amateur status. Keep your writing simple and you'll look more experienced and more professional.

In conclusion, if you follow these guidelines your plot may still be unbelievable, your characters one dimensional, and your premise ridiculous, but at least your prose will begin to be palatable. And that's more than half the battle.

Keep writing . . . .

Writing a Good Book vs. Wasting Paper: Seven Guidelines

Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that's where it should stay.
—Christopher Hitchens

Should I write a book or not?

That is the question. If you ask a professional hack like me, I will almost always say yes. And I will tell you that you should hire me to help you do it. But know this, just because you write a book doesn't mean that a publisher will want to publish it or that anyone will want to read it, once it gets published. If it gets published.

Despite what was said above by the late smart aleck Christopher Hitchens, it is true that a lot of forgettable books have been written. In fact, over one million books are published every year, so it's no shock that many of them end up being forgotten. That's a huge number, and it doesn't include all of the books written that were self-published. So, even if you somehow make it past the very high hurdle of getting published by an actual publisher in the first place, you still have still competition to stand out. Clearly, the odds are long that you, or anyone who sits down to write, will write a bestseller.

And yet, we persist. So what can you do to beat the odds? Is there a formula that will give your writing the chance to rise above the mass of mediocrity out there? I may be able to help.

First, write about something that matters to you. This is no guarantee that your book will find an audience or get published, but it is the first requirement to any kind of decent writing. If you aren't passionate about your subject, your project will fall flat.

Second, improve your writing by writing, a lot. While practice doesn't necessarily make perfect, it should help you improve. And writing is no different than any other skill.

Third, study the craft of writing. There are some good books out there about writing. Two of my favorites are Telling Writing by Ken Macrorie and The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Feel free to read some of my wonderful blog posts on writing as well!

Fourth, step outside yourself. The key to success in business and sales is said to be giving others what they want. Try to think about more than just what you want to say but also what others might want to read, or hear.

Fifth, imitate. If you're writing a book about your life, go ahead and read some other autobiographies and see what worked and what didn't. Feel free to imitate the good ideas you saw in those books.

Sixth, don't be afraid not to write. If you're having trouble finding something to say, then don't say anything. Again, you want to write a quality book, not something that wastes paper. Keep writing your daily writing exercises, blog posts, or journal entries, but don't keep writing a book that doesn't want to be written.

Seventh, if you're still having trouble, hire someone to help. It's okay, many of the smartest and most successful people have hired editors and ghostwriters to help them write their books. But again, make sure you have something compelling to say.

That's all I have for now. Again, read my other blog posts for some practical advice on how to improve your writing skills.

Keep writing . . . .

The Most Important Rule to Good Writing

According to an unnamed poll, 80% of people would like to write a book someday. And writing a book means that you, or someone you hire, will have to do some actual writing.

Are there rules to good writing? To be sure, there certainly are grammar rules, and proper grammar is always necessary, but proper grammar and good writing aren't the same thing. Today, I'm going to talk about the most important rule to follow when you're writing anything. And by anything I mean, novel, report, autobiography, history of China, anything.

So here it is:

Tell the truth, and give details.

Okay, that sounds like two rules, but they're so closely related that they're really one rule. Here's an example of a piece of writing that doesn't follow this rule:

Sometimes you feel sad, and you're not sure why. Life is hard and time passes slowly and things happen to us all that we wonder what it's all about. Life has a cosmic meaning and there is something out there, but most of us aren't sure what. People all over the world each struggle to find their way, not knowing which way to go. So sometimes when I'm thinking about life, I know I'm not the only one who wonders what it's all about, but it is hard.

And it goes on and on like that, just a stream of broad, general statements without much detail, rambling on without much form, kind of like this sentence. This kind of writing is hard to read, and it's a sign of someone who has NO idea how to write. Compare that passage to this:

I was about to eat breakfast when the phone rang. It was August 1989 and I was a student at BYU, excited to pick up my cap and gown later that afternoon because I was finally going to graduate with my Bachelor's in Political Science. My mom, who lived back east had never visited me at college and was going to fly out for the occasion. I picked up the phone and was greeted by the voice of a close family friend, Wanda Whiting, who also lived back east. Immediately, I sensed something was wrong. Her chirpy voice came through the line, telling me that my mother had taken my father to the hospital the night before with a stomach ache. "They're just going to check on him," she assured me. "Your mother is at the hospital now and asked that I call." This was before cell phones, so having a neighbor call was okay, but still, I felt a chill. And then, a long four hours later my mom did call: "They operated on your father, and they found that his small intestines have died," she said. "You need to grab the first flight you can and come home." So there it was. My father was dying and I was going to have to miss my own graduation.

Granted, the subject matter of that last sample is a bit on the heavy side, but the point should be clear: when you write details and write what happened, rather than a bunch of rambling thoughts and generalities, your writing gets better. It also helps to write about something dramatic, but that's a subject for another post.

Keep writing . . . .

Writing a Life Story that Won't Put Your Readers to Sleep

Anyone can start writing their life story. Maybe you’re in the autumn of your years, or maybe you just want to record your deeds for posterity. No matter what your age or the reason, writing your life story is an admirable task, but one that takes preparation and effort to make it readable. Write it well, and people will love it (and you). Write it poorly, and you'll put people to sleep.

On the surface, it seems that writing one's life story should be an easy task, right? You are finally writing about something you know well: yourself. And isn't that the first rule of all writing, to "write what you know?" But getting down all the details of your life and in a coherent form is no easy task, even for capable writers. What follows are some practical tips that can help you when you embark on this auspicious journey.

1. Start with an outline.

On any long journey, it helps to have a map. Before you write your life story, itself a long journey, sketch out an outline of where you want to go, what you want to cover. Unless you're going to write an exhaustive life story that covers every day and every year and every minute of your life, which I do NOT recommend, you will need to decide what you will include and what you won't.

2. Add detail.

Once you've gotten your basic structure mapped out, you will next add detail. Most times you won't be able to remember every little detail, like what you were eating for dinner when you got engaged, but that's okay. Just write what you recall and don't worry about missed details. Get the gist of the particular story down and add enough detail to make it interesting.

3. But not too much detail.

Which leads me to my next point, about adding too much detail. A famous quote by Voltaire reads: "The secret of being a bore... is to tell everything." You've met them, someone who insists on adding every detail to a story they're telling you. They stop the narrative multiple times when they're talking to you to clarify something you didn't need clarifying. They are boring. Be offensive, be controversial, be infuriating, but don't ever be boring. Have someone else read the draft of your life story and tell them to pay attention to the parts where you get boring or bogged down in detail. And don't be afraid to cut what doesn't work or goes on too long.

4. Tell the truth.

The best stories are those that let us in on the secret. The worst, as I've just said, tell us all the details we don't want to hear or skip over the interesting and juicy parts. When you write your life story, don't be afraid to get down and dirty and tell some not-so-nice truths. Was there something you did that you wish you hadn't? Have you spent a night, or more, in jail? Do you have any bad habits that have shaped your life? Are there some decisions you made that you regret? Tell us your life story, and as much as you can, tell the truth. The more honest, the more open, the more confessional you are, the better your story will be. It's that simple. The more brave you are about your warts, as well as your wins, the better your story will be.

5. Keep your story manageable.

This is mostly a housekeeping matter, and it relates to what I've said earlier about not giving too much irrelevant detail. Make sure that you keep the individual chapters or sections don't run on too long. Break your narrative up into bite-sized pieces and make sure it flows. This process isn't easy to describe, but when you read a book and you feel it is too long or is getting bogged down, then you know that the author and their editor didn't follow this basic rule of composition.

6. Try to find a theme, or themes.

I know it's your life and not a work of great fiction, but are there any themes that start to make themselves evident? What kinds of mistakes do you seem to keep making? Or what kind of events seem to keep recurring? Are you always being helped out by others? Does hard work seem to open doors for you? Or do you owe everything to your family, or friends? If there seems to be a theme or themes running throughout your life, keep these in mind as you write. The themes you uncover will help you guide the writing of your story. Remember, you can't include every detail, moment, or event in your life, so knowing what your overall themes are will help you write and trim down your story.

7. Writing is hard, hard work.

Remembering, and then writing down, all those stories, details, and impressions is not easy. It's hard work. And let's not forget the rewriting and the editing and the cutting that you'll need to do to make your life story shine. If you're happy with a dull, rambling tale that glosses over the most interesting periods or events in your life, then by all means, write a life story that no one will read, but if you want someone to read it, be prepared to do some hard work, open up the dark as well as light corners of your life, and tell us the truth about who you are and what you did. And maybe, just maybe you'll have a story that people will want to read.

Keep writing . . . .

How to Write (and Deliver) a Good Speech

Like writing, speechmaking is as much science as art. What I know about making speeches I gained from growing up in a church that requires its lay members to give talks and lessons, and from joining Toastmasters. I originally joined Toastmasters in order to network for new business. I had started a consulting firm and was looking for a way to be in front of people and tell them more about myself and what I do in the hopes that they might eventually refer me business. But once I got into the club, I ended up going mostly to improve my speechmaking. And improve I did. I got more comfortable and my speeches got better as time went on. Pretty much every time I gave a speech I won best speech (those of you in Toastmasters will know what I'm talking about).

One of the main lessons I learned in Toastmasters was also one they didn't seem overtly teach, and it was this: Eighty percent of a good speech is good writing. And writing a good speech isn't hard to do once you have a few basics down. The other lessons I learned are summarized below:

The opening

It's important to open strong. When you speak, start with an attention-getter. This can be a story, some interesting facts, or a personal recollection. Starting the speech with too much mushy, mealy-mouthed talk about how you don't like to talk, how you aren't a good speaker, or how much you enjoy coming to their fair city (assuming you traveled there), weakens your speech. Start weak and your speech never has a real chance to recover.
Your opening segment of course needs to tie into your main theme. Humorous bits that get everyone laughing but have no connection to the rest of the speech tend to weaken it. If you want to start with humor, try to find a story that is both humorous and relevant. Your audience needs to take you seriously, so take them seriously by not wasting their time with idle chit chat or idiotic, pointless, or off-color humor. When you get to the podium, start speaking and start speaking strong.

The middle

The best way to give a speech is to follow this simple formula: tell a story, make a point, tell another story, make another point, tell another story, make yet another point, etc.
This format of course can be deviated from slightly when you are giving a scientific talk that summarizes the methodology and results of research. But even there I can imagine a place for a relevant story or two. No matter what the subject, there is always a story about some part of the topic or process.

With almost every other kind of speech, the ‘tell a story/make a point' format can be followed with great success. Don't feel like you have enough stories? Borrow some from history, from literature, or from the lives of others around you. It takes work, but it's worth every effort.

The ending

The third important point to follow when giving a speech is to NEVER RUN OVER TIME. Never. Ever. Ever. In fact, running under time, just slightly, will endear you to your audience and leave them wanting more. The old saying "Better to leave early having your host wished you had stayed than to stay longer having them wished you had left" applies here. Nothing ruins a decent speech quicker than someone who ignores the clock and goes over their allotted time. When your time is up, wrap it up. You're not Jesus, so nothing you have to say can be so important you need to go over time. When you want to wrap up your speech, merely summarize the main points, thank your audience for letting you speak, and end with a quote or a story, but end it on time.

Delivery

I'm a professional writer, not a professional speaking coach, but I have given enough speeches to have learned a couple of things about good delivery.

First, the more you practice your speech, the better you will be delivering it. Time your delivery so that you know what to keep and what to cut. But practice, practice, practice. I can't say that enough.

The other point is to do what works for you. If you have a good memory, merely write the speech, condense it into notes, and then bring them if needed to keep you on track. If you must read every word of your speech, my first suggestion will still help your delivery seem more natural, and you may even find yourself not looking at the text. But the best way to go is to have your talk memorized. Not necessarily word for word, but point by point. Again, practice is the way most of us get better at speaking with just notes rather than reading a text.

The more speeches you give, the more comfortable you will be at giving them and the better you'll get. Giving a good speech takes work, but if you work hard and follow the basic principles of this short article, you can't help but improve.

Happy speechmaking!

Keep writing . . . .

Ten simple methods for treating writer's block

The imagination is a tricky thing. Force it, and it may just sit there, mute. But, like a house whose front door is almost always locked because everyone uses the side door, sometimes it's just a matter of tricking your imagination to work by accessing it from a different direction.

Writers who don't get writer's block claim there is no such thing. They think any writer who claims writer's block is just being lazy. This is akin to people who never get depressed and thus don't believe in mental illness. I think a form of writer's block does exist, but whether it's a true condition or just laziness, the following techniques can help anyone jump start their writing and get their imagination working.

One more thing: It's important to note that each exercise involves directed writing. This general technique is hardly new, but these particular suggestions have worked for me or were ones I found intriguing. Hopefully, you'll find one or more that works for you.

  1. Pick an interesting object in the room and describe it; then see if you can make up a story about it.
  2. Take out a dictionary. Open it. Write about the first word you see.
  3. Word association game. Write down the first word you think of and then what word that leads to, etc.
  4. Open the newspaper. Pick an article that's interesting to you. Write your thoughts or reaction to it.
  5. Write a simple journal entry about your day or the past few days, if you haven't been keeping a journal. Write the entry, and then see if you can expand on one of the events or ideas that came out.
  6. Take out a photo album and describe one or more of the pictures. Let your imagination go and make up a story about one of the pictures.
  7. Get a picture magazine and do the same thing as in #6.
  8. Go to a place you enjoy and bring a pad. Write about whatever you see.
  9. Take a book out of the library and rewrite the first page or two-see if you can improve on what's written. I find this exercise particularly empowering.
  10. Recall a memorable childhood experience and try to write about it. See where this leads.
  11. Bonus method: start keeping a notebook near the bed to write down your dreams. Dreams have been the source of many a great story or work or art.

Keep writing . . . .

How to Write Well: Ten Rules

I see but one rule: to be clear. If I am not clear, all my world crumbles to nothing.
—Stendhal

Good writing is an art, but it's also a science. With no further ado, I'm going to give you a few of the secrets to great writing I have picked up from reading the teachings of Strunk & White and Ken Macrorie to the literature of James Joyce and Hemingway. Feel free to steal and use.

1. "The secret of being a bore... is to tell everything." -Voltaire

Many novice writers, especially those attempting to write fiction, spread the details on thick and don't hold back. They describe exactly how every character looks, thinks, and feels to the point of exhaustion. And every interior and exterior is described in painstaking detail. And let's not forget the overuse of adverbs. Enough. Detail is important, but add only enough to paint the picture, and be sparing with adjectives and adverbs. Let your reader do most of the work--it works better that way. Read some James Joyce for a good example of this. Even his lengthy descriptions are the soul of economy. Consider the following passage from his short story Eveline: 
She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue. Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne. She was tired.

2. Show and tell

A very common piece of writing advice says "show, don't tell." But there is a time to do both. I recommend alternating between the two enough so that the action is real and engaging but doesn't get bogged down in too much expression and detail. Sometimes you do just want to say "She was tired." as Joyce does in the above-mentioned example. And other times you need to elaborate.

3. The threat of death must always be present.

This applies more to fiction than nonfiction. Behind the happy exterior in all good fiction there must lie something under the surface, stealthy and dangerous, waiting to strike and get the action going. Call it the threat of death. The lack of this element is why I find young adult fiction, particularly romance, hard to read: there just isn't enough dramatic tension for the story to be compelling. So your protagonist finally marries her boyfriend, who she almost didn't marry. Bully for her, but it's not good fiction. Many a dime store novel is entertaining because it obeys this one rule, if nothing else.

4. Always tell the truth.

All writing, fiction or nonfiction, goes off track when it tells lies. What do I mean here? Certainly, fiction is all about making up a story, but all good writing must contain truths. I don't mean religious truths, but the statements made and the action of the characters must ring true. This is the hardest principle to explain, but it is perhaps the most essential. When you write, say what you are really thinking, and when you aren't quite sure what you're thinking, then say that. To become an adult in polite Western society you must learn how to lie. Writing is not about being polite. It's about telling the truth. You once knew how to tell the truth but forgot when you grew up. Get in the habit of telling the truth now.

5. Revise. And then revise again.

Revision alone won't make you a great writer, but you won't write well without revising. Hemingway famously said that "The first draft of anything is shit." I'm not sure more needs to be said about this principle.

6. Brevity

This is similar to principle number one but deals more with the paragraph and chapter level. Kill and cut anything that slows your writing down or adds more detail than necessary. "Kill your darlings," Faulkner said. Quit crying and just do it.

7. Let your words play with each other. Just be careful they don't get hurt.

So you want to use a big word when a small one will do? Or you want to use the passive voice on purpose? Sometimes that's the right thing to do. Break a few rules, but make sure you know the rules you're breaking. Word play comes spontaneously the more you write. Let it happen; don't force it. But make sure it serves the purpose of the entire piece. And when you get more advanced you can study the various rhetorical devices (like parallelism, tricolon, etc.). Read anything by Abraham Lincoln for a good example of this.

8. Write an outline; don't write an outline.

Some famous writers swear by writing an outline. Others write from within. Do whichever works for you, but stick to it.

9. Master grammar and usage basics and don't forget to copyedit.

When you try to publish, your submission can get rejected just because you missed too many stupid errors. I strongly recommend learning grammar and usage basics as well as how to proof your own writing. Read the great essay "Will Spelling Count?" by Jack Connor to understand why paying attention to the little details will naturally make you a better writer. It's magic.

10. Write what interests YOU, not what's popular.

If you tell us something truthful, chances are it will also sound original even if it's not. If everyone else is writing fiction about vampires or fairy princesses or space aliens and you hate all of those, then write about something else. The same goes for popular nonfiction topics. Write what interests YOU, and there's a chance someone else will find it interesting too. Again, principle #4 comes to mind. If you work like hell to tell the truth, something good just might happen.

There you have it. The rest of all writing advice is just an expansion to any one of the principles listed. In fact, even these ten principles contain some overlap. But hey, I wanted to get to the magic number ten, so that's what happens.

Keep writing . . . .

Writing for a Living: How I Became a Ghostwriter in 540 words or so

Maybe it's not possible to write about writing and still be interesting, but I'm going to try. It all started when I was visiting my BNI (a networking organization) chapter last year. One of our visitors that day said he was a ghost writer. A light went off in my head. Of course, I've always loved to rewrite other people's stuff, why not get them to hire me to do it? My wife Cynthia later agreed with my idea and felt good about me making a move back to writing. I never make a major move if she doesn't feel good about it. But first a little more history is in order.

After a Master's in British and American Literature in 1994 at the University of Utah I worked for over a dozen years as a technical writer in the Washington, DC area. I moved from contract job to contract job, with my last contract there being at Fannie Mae. I was hired to somehow help with their earnings restatement. I lasted from 2004 to 2007, which was a personal record for me. They eventually ran out of work for me to do and I left there in 2007 before the bottom fell out of Fannie Mae and the mortgage industry. I moved back out to Utah that summer, getting a contract job at Morgan Stanley writing courseware. Instructional design isn't my thing, but it was a paying gig and allowed me to move and even buy a house in Salt Lake City. My next job was in Lehi, Utah and was one of my most forgettable. Again, it was in instructional design, and I could see that there wasn't going to be much paying technical writing work in Utah, so I after some searching, an opportunity arose and I took it. I became a solid waste (trash) consultant to businesses, making money by helping them save money. A year and a half into the business, I was supporting my family and working for myself. Life was grand, but I wasn't passionate about the waste business, and I wanted more. Something was missing.

Fast forward to Spring of 2013 and my lucky chance meeting of the other ghost writer. He and I met again later outside the meeting, with me bombarding him with enough questions about what he did that he sensed I was making a career move in his direction. He kept his answers vague, but I learned enough from him and others I met who had worked in the ghost writing business to know what the main markets were and how to possibly reach them. I bought my first Kindle book on ghost writing, written by a woman who fell into the profession-Kelly James-Enger-and felt ready to finally take the plunge.

Having already owned and run a fairly successful one-man business, I felt more ready than before to get into free lance writing full time. When I had been a technical writer, I was terrified by thought of marketing myself, setting up an S Corp, and sinking or swimming on my ability to find and bill clients. But not anymore.

Keep writing . . . .