Thursday, February 18, 2010

Literary Ghosts

If you're like me, then you were pretty disillusioned when you learned that many (prolific and) famous bestselling authors don't write their own books.  Instead, they are corporate-managed brands.  But what was once an open secret (acknowledged but not advertised, easy to miss if you weren't looking) is now just open without the secret part:
Literary Ghosts
by Miriam

The subject of ghostwriting seems to be in the air right now. The recent New York Times profile of James Patterson pulled back the curtains on something that was a fairly open secret within the industry: Of the 620 books (give or take) that Mr. Patterson publishes every year, most are collaborations in the loosest term of the word. As Andrew Crofts points out in his rather passionate defense of the practice, if it’s not the oldest profession, ghostwriting has certainly been around since writing utensils began to be used to make literature instead of just grocery lists.

So let's talk about it. On one hand, I see how secretly ghost-written novels are good for the people involved: editors, agents, and authors.  An author might not earn a lot of money from a novel, especially if the author is new, with a small press, just building a fan base, or otherwise not writing best-sellers.  (Even best selling novels don't always make the authors rich.)  The average advance for a novel is something like $3000, I believe.  And there's no guarantee of earning out the advance and racking up significant income via royalties.  With a ghost writer's contract, an author earns a flat fee for service.  S/he might not become wealthy, but has some guaranteed income.  Sweet.

The author whose name is on the cover but didn't do the writing probably receives something, too.  Even sweeter.

And the editors get to deal with a vetted, professional ghost writer who's used to turning in a specific product at a specific time and who won't require a lot of hand-holding.  Fabulous.

But . . .

Don't you feel a little tricked?  Cheated?  I think putting "James Patterson" (and no other name) on the cover of a novel written by someone other than James Patterson (Or Dick Francis or Nora Roberts, or whomever) hurts the publishing industry.  I think it trains readers to shop by brand, to seek out templated reading material, to be risk averse.  Wouldn't it be nicer if we readers were willing to pick up books by authors we'd never heard of but were published by reputable houses and blurbed by authors whose work we enjoy?

Of course, Patterson is a special case in many ways.  He works very hard to be and stay where he is, even if his hard work is more executive than literary.  From the NYT article (link above):
"TO MAINTAIN HIS frenetic pace of production, Patterson now uses co-authors for nearly all of his books. He is part executive producer, part head writer, setting out the vision for each book or series and then ensuring that his writers stay the course."

"The way it usually works, Patterson will write a detailed outline — sometimes as long as 50 pages, triple-spaced — and one of his co-authors will draft the chapters for him to read, revise and, when necessary, rewrite. When he’s first starting to work with a new collaborator, a book will typically require numerous drafts. Over time, the process invariably becomes more efficient. Patterson pays his co-authors out of his own pocket. On the adult side, his collaborators work directly and exclusively with Patterson. On the Y.A. side, they sometimes work with Patterson’s young-adult editor, who decides when pages are ready to be passed along to Patterson."
I once met a ghost writer who told a story of a talk he gave to school children.  "Do you know R.L Stein?" one young fan asked.

"One of them," the author replied.  The child was crushed.  Later I heard a story of a ghost writer sitting on his couch watching on TV as an author was awarded for a novel he - the ghost-writer - had written.

So, what do you think?  Does this practice bother you?  Or is all fair in love, war, and best-seller lists?  And is it different if the "co-author" is acknowledged on the book jacket (e.g. Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark)?

Edited to add: What about authors who write using pen names (Mark Twain)?  Co-authors who use a single pen name or use a mishmash of their real names (P.J. Tracy)?  Are those instances fine but would feel weird if not acknowledged on the dust jacket with an author photo?  And what about "authors" who are pure corporate inventions to unite a series of related books by different ghost writers (Carolyn Keene of Nancy Drew fame, Franklin W. Dixon of The Hardy Boys, etc.)?

Is all of this different now than it was thirty years ago?  Today we live in a world where celebrity is the most valuable commodity and we feel entitled to know nearly everything about the lives and work of the people who move and entertain us.

Monday, February 15, 2010


These are the 4th Olympic Games since I started blogging. And as usual, I can't wait to get back to watching!

We ate dinner at a restaurant tonight. (After what we spent to "fix" Paul's car, a few extra dollars and calories seemed inconsequential.) Adjoining the dining room was a bar area with several large televisions, all tuned to sports channels. And none tuned to The Olympics! All over the blogosphere people are complaining about how exceedingly boring the opening ceremonies are.

So jaded!

Or maybe it's just me; I'm a mutant freak.

But, man, I love the Olympics. I watch every moment I can, every two years.

Today I watched the U.S. Women's Hockey Team batter China while jogging "four miles" on my trampoline.  (The Wii grossly overestimates distance, but makes me feel good at the same time.)  The girls were so inspired that they jumped on for two quick sprints each after my workout.  They love to see their faces on the leader board (they're each other's only competition at the "3 minute" level) and to call out the names of the Miis they recognize along the course.  "There's Grandma! I'm gonna catch up to Grandpa!"

And it's not an Olympic sport, but the girls have really been having fun Wii bowling lately, too.  Who says video games are bad for children?!  Not a parent cooped up inside with two young children on a snowy day, methinks.

A friend called yesterday.  "Are you watching short track?"

Of course I was.

"I bet you really got choked up at Celski's story, huh?"

Not really.  She knows that I get emotional about the Olympics and she likes to poke at me.  I appreciate that.  But it's not the human interest stories that get me all verklempt, it's the sport, baby.  It's the competition, the pushing at the boundaries of endurance, the successes and failures on the track, the slope, the ice, the mat, the course, the pool.

The Canadian women's hockey team decimated Slovakia 18-0 in their first day of competition.  The hometown crowd cheered mightily for their beloved champions.  Then the Slovakians skated off the ice and the stadium gave them a standing ovationThat made me teary.

The Chinese team the American women clobbered 12-1 yesterday?  Sure, they suffered a decisive defeat.  But it wasn't a rout.  Toward the end of the match, one of the Chinese athletes scored the team's first goal.  She pumped her stick in the air and they all screamed in triumph.  All the way to the last bell, the entire team worked hard.  They didn't give up.  They were competing at the Olympics! and that is, in itself, a victory.

On the other end of the spectrum, I could watch Apollo Ono's first 1500 heat over and over and over all day.  (The semi-final and A final not so much.)  He's cool, he's relaxed, and then, BAM, out of nowhere he's going twice as fast as everyone else.

As for the Opening Ceremony, sure the parade drags a bit sometimes but it's fun with good company.  ("Good company" does not include Bob Costas being sarcastic and giving unqualified fashion commentary. Sidenote: I'm a huge Mary Carillo fan!)  And the show itself - thoughtfully included after the parade so the athletes could sit and watch - was breathtaking.  If I started every day of my life listening to kd lang sing Hallelujah, I think I'd be a better, happier person.  (Seriously, go listen. Tell me if you don't feel inspired to go run, write, invent, hug, love, give, be. And while you're there, check out the Define Canada slam. Brilliant.)

I love Canada.  I love Canadians!  Thanks to all the organizers, volunteers, athletes, and sponsors for a great show.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Writer's To Do List

Within the next few weeks I'll complete a freelance project I've been working on for a long time. I'm looking forward to spending more time with my own writing!

I also get to spend two nights away next month at a spiritual retreat with no children, no husband, no television, no internet, and enforced silence.  I won't even bring a book to read.  (For me, books are a bigger distraction than family, television, and the internet combined.)  But I'll have my laptop.

In preparation I listed all of my current projects so that I can begin to prioritize them.  Please excuse the working titles:

Writer’s To Do List 2010
  1. finish Poirot excerpts and assemble Blue Screen of Death
  2. re-read Blue Screen of Death, add tension to each page (remove remaining “just” and “was” excesses)
  3. finish Sands Through the Hourglass (two scenes)
  4. read and tidy Sands Through the Hourglass
  5. read Wyoming the Witch
  6. revise and edit “A Date in the Life of Gillian MacCrae”
  7. submit “A Date in the Life of Gillian MacCrae” 
  8. draft essay for the Becoming anthology 
  9. polish “Camp Fires
  10. submit “Camp Fires
  11. edit “Mountain View
  12. write “Stranger”
  13. rerewrite “Party” 
  14. work on picture books for kids (flesh out current drafts)
  15. read The Really Good Guy
  16. finish, revise, edit The Really Good Guy
  17. edit “Wonder Woman”
  18. Outline Flowers (my exciting new project for this year's NaNoWriMo)

Essays, short stories, novels.  Outlines, notes, first drafts, second drafts, nearly-final drafts.  Various genres.  Various styles.  No matter what I feel like working on each day, I've got a project that matches!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Writer Mama by Christina Katz

This month for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club I'm discussing Writer Mama: How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids by Christina Katz.

My sister sent me this book for my birthday last fall, and I was appropriately grateful.  Such a cool-sounding book.  And such a thoughtful gift!  In fact, it's exactly the kind of book I want to have but never get around to reading.

Indeed, this was the case.  For four months, the book gathered dust on my bedside table.  It was on top, right near the front, impossible to miss.  I reached over it to select a new novel from the stack behind.

Then I decided to take the plunge.  I'll review it!  I thought.  I have a deadline!  Now I have to read it, and fast.

In this, too, I failed.  I could not read the book quickly.  But that's because I'm learning so much on every page.  I've always wanted to be a writer.  I've struggled to build a professional identity in the in-between spaces I can scrounge together with very young children at home.  I've wanted to do so much more.  But I didn't know what exactly, and I didn't know how.  Until now.

I was concerned at the beginning of the book, when the author explained how to use a search engine to find things on the internet.  But the pace immediately picked up and soon I knew the difference between "fillers" and "articles," when to query with an idea and when to submit a completed piece, how to take manageable little steps right now to meet long term goals later.

And the truth is that basic stuff is important.  Sure, most people know how to use Google.  And I already know how to read and follow submission guidelines.  But it wasn't so long ago that I didn't know anything about submission guidelines (that they existed, where to find them, what certain code phrases indicate).  Writer Mama makes the industry accessible to a newbie without spending too much time on the basics for the more experienced writer.

The author does a good job addressing moms of kids of all ages, not just napping infants or older, independent players.  And her advice is realistic.  She doesn't recommend plopping kids in front of the TV all morning, but she does acknowledge that a video can be a special treat for a child when her work-at-home mama faces a tight deadline.  She acknowledges - and suggests coping strategies for - the inevitability that some people won't see a writing mama's job as being a "real" job requiring disicpline, professionalism, and regular hours.  And she points out that we're often hardest on ourselves in this regard.

I had a hard time starting this book.  I had a hard time reading as quickly as I wanted to read.  And I had a hard time finishing in time.  (I like to finish a book a few days before I review it to allow time for the sediment to settle in my brain.)  In fact, I didn't finish at all.  But I'm almost done; I'll finish tomorrow.  With this book, I can't skim quickly over the surface of the text; I'm learning something new on almost every page.  I'm highlighting; I'm making notes.

And it's taking a lot of will power to keep reading and learning at a steady pace.  Writer Mama is broken up into 23 chapters, each of which ends with an "Exercise."  Every time I come to an Exercise, I want to stop and do it immediately.  Not yet!  I remind myself, sticking a flag on the page and pushing on, knowing that the minute I read the last page I'll be starting over at the beginning with the first exercise.

And once I've completed the exercises - each of which seems totally manageable, non-overwhelming, fun and exciting, actually - I'll have several pieces written and queries sent off to editors.  I'll be well on my way from wanting to be a professional writer to actually being a professional writer.

This book is teaching me how to do something I've always wanted to do, but never knew if I could do, let alone how to get started, how to build a business, how to make it work.

Motivational.  Educational.  Interesting.  Useful.  And, did I mention, motivational?

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