Whose Story Is it Anyway?
I was asked to write an article for my Literary Agent Andrew Lownie's website about the nature of storytelling with regards to ghostwriting. Here is the finished article as it appears on andrewlownie.com.
So, true story... I was asked once during a Q&A session whether I would use a ghostwriter to write my own memoir. Ha ha ha, everyone in the room laughed. Funny question.
‘But really… would you?’ my questioner insisted.
I thought for a moment and then came up with a surprising answer: ‘Yes!’
And the reason is that if I wanted to make it a damn good read, I would need another person’s perspective on my life story. The ghostwriter and their subject are two different people and, as the old saying goes, two heads are better than one. You may be blessed with immoderate levels of self-awareness and an uncanny ability to see the cause and effect of your behavior, but we are all utterly incapable of stepping outside our own heads. And that is why, perhaps inevitably, there is always a tension between what an author believes is relevant to their story and what the ghostwriter sees as the crux of the matter. Indeed, pick three ghostwriters and they may come up with three different stories for the same memoirist.
Of course, giving an honest account is the most important part of the job for any decent chronicler. If this is a story about a wretched childhood, for example, that’s the story we’re going to tell. But is every fact of equal importance? Do I need to tell the story about the brother’s wretched childhood too? What about his parents’ upbringings - is that relevant? How important is the environment my subject grew up in? The community at large? How do I even start to tell this story? The ‘truth’ can be told so many different ways, depending on where one chooses to put the emphasis. And there, right there, is the pivotal word: choice. There is no such thing as an objective author. Every ‘fact’ is a subjective judgment call. Our lives are made up of a myriad interweaving threads; of events, of relationships and of time recalled in different ways. We experience dozens of thoughts and actions every day that we may or may not consider important, but how far do any of them help shape or tell a story? To me, the answer lies in the reader. When I am writing a story is I am imagining those words being read by another person. This book is meant for an audience and that is something I never lose sight of. In every choice I make, I imagine how this story is unfolding in another person’s mind and thus, I try to make it as accessible and compelling as possible.
So there is a real difference between the story an author brings me and the one I end up writing for an audience, particularly a commercial one. I’ve experienced this with almost every book I’ve written. For example, recently I ghostwrote I Own You by Dawn McConnell about her brother’s sexual abuse and the further abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband. Dawn had originally written her own manuscript and in it, there was a lot of emphasis on her relationships with her other siblings. Indeed, whole chapters were devoted to them. And yet, this really wasn’t the story. As a ‘reader’, I found myself following her down these narrow, narrative cul de sacs without really knowing where we were going. Or why, for that matter. So, after we had completed around 20 hours of interviewing, I wrote my own chapter outline for the book that hardly mentioned the siblings at all, focusing instead on the main relationships in the story. This gave the book a tighter and clearer structure.
It is hard to get a perspective on your own life. For example, nobody themes their life story, but books do have themes. The blurbs tell us so…. This is an extraordinary story of survival, they promise, or love, or courage in the face of adversity. So a ghostwriter has to think about what the overriding theme of a book might be and then keep that in mind throughout the writing process. For Little Drifters by Kathleen O’Shea, for instance, I went through several drafts of the chapter outline, becoming increasingly frustrated that it wasn’t quite working before my agent Andrew Lownie directed me to: ‘Think about the underlying theme.’ He asked me: ‘What is this story all about?’ It proved invaluable advice and allowed me to identify the real ‘heart’ of the story. Suddenly, everything slotted into place. He made me realise that I wasn’t simply regurgitating a story onto the page, I was crafting it into something entirely new. That was one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received and one I have since carried through to all my subsequent projects. Today, before I sit down and write a word of any book, I’ll ask myself: What is this all about? Why am I telling this story? Because if I can’t answer that question I don’t even know where to begin.
And, as the appointed storyteller, one really has to know where to begin. And end. Beginnings and endings - every book has one of each, something you might not really consider for your own story. I mean, for most people the beginning of their story starts with their earliest memory, doesn’t it? They will inevitably tell you everything they can recall in chronological order and then stop when they arrive at the present day. But this might not be the best way to start or end your book. Consider it from the reader’s perspective. They want to be grabbed by the scruff of their necks – they want immediate and full immersion. So I might start a story in the middle of a dramatic showdown, or on a cliffhanger, or during a mysterious scene that becomes relevant as we get further into the book. And I’m usually keen, as are many commercial publishers, to end stories in an upbeat way. Love and redemption – they make us all feel good, don't they? So I might choose to end the story at the moment my subject gets married, or when they have their first child. The truth of what is going on in their lives at that exact point in time might be different but then life doesn’t end with The End, does it? So I have to pick a place. I choose. I never lie but then, I am also aware of not ‘disrupting’ the theme by taking the reader on irrelevant detours.
The truth is that real lives aren’t simple. Not in the slightest. Our lives are messy; we make mistakes. We frequently make the same mistakes over and over again. And here too, the ghostwriter needs to exercise restraint when it comes to what one writes and what one chooses not to write. After all, I’m not a diarist, I’m creating a story. In one book, for example, the author left their partner several times before they found the courage to leave them for good. Now it was worth mentioning that leaving her partner was not easy, and took time and perseverance, but I couldn’t keep writing the same scene over and over, could I? It gets repetitive. So this was a case of picking one or two of the most memorable occasions that she tried to leave and focusing on those.
One particularly interesting aspect of ghostwriting a book is that you get to ask questions the author may never have considered asking themselves. These questions might be obvious to the reader and not so obvious to the author. For example, whatever happened to that abusive boyfriend? Or how was the murder reported in the local press? There might be very good reasons why your subject hasn’t tried to find the answers until now, other than not being interested. Perhaps they don’t know how to find out, or they don’t want to upset a loved one by asking difficult questions. But now, the story demands answers and your role becomes one of investigative journalist. Frequently, by asking certain questions, and making enquires, your efforts can actually alter the course of the book itself. For example, when I was writing Without a Mother’s Love with Amanda Wright, I knew it was important to give the reader an account of what happened to her mother’s murderer when he was brought to trial. Since Amanda had only been a child at the time, she had only a hazy idea of what happened. So I did some digging around at the local library and found the original local paper cuttings covering the trial, the verdict and everything that came after. It proved revelatory, even to Amanda, and it felt like the act of writing the book itself had become part of her journey towards healing. Indeed, further astonishing revelations came after the book was published.
One of the most common questions I find myself asking authors in the course of interviewing for a book is: how did you feel? It may seem strange but many people, especially ones who go through quite serious trauma, will be able to tell you what happened, but not how it made them feel at the time. It could in some circumstances be a coping mechanism, a way to disassociate oneself with something awful, to establish a certain distance between yourself and the horror of the event. Or, they just might not be the type of person who talks about their feelings much. But from a reader’s perspective, it’s crucial. A reader wants to be there in that moment with you, to experience what you experience, to see what you see and feel how you feel.
Another part of unlocking that perspective is also to find out: what were you thinking at the time? Sometimes, you have to write unflattering facts about your author. You cannot flinch from this job but you will do your damnedest to explain their thoughts or actions, to give as great an insight into their minds as possible. For example, when I worked with Tressa Middleton on her memoir Tressa: The 12-year-old Mum, I could feel myself wanting to shake Tressa as she recounted how she started taking heroin, despite the fact that the drug had more or less destroyed her family. What on earth were you thinking? I had to know! For the reader’s sake.
So has this tension I’ve described ever ended badly? Have any of the authors I’ve worked with taken issue with my perspective on their lives? To answer your question, dear reader, the answer is yes! One time, an author was so appalled with what I had written that the whole process came to a very abrupt end. But that was one bad experience in 12 years. Mostly, my perspective is welcomed. I work closely and collaboratively with my authors, discussing at every stage what I plan to write. I am always prepared to justify my perspective and approach, but if an author truly objects, of course I will find a way to accommodate their wishes. I am not in the business of annoying people. But this is rare - on the whole, my authors are grateful for my insight. They find that in the retelling and sharing of their story, a greater meaning behind their individual experience is revealed and they are able, in some way, to put the past behind them. After all, what am I doing this for if not to gain a greater understanding about the human condition and to share that with the world?
Well, that’s my story. What’s yours?