Life 4 – Phantom fiction
Sometime in the middle of 2007, my agent Dot Lumley asked me if I fancied writing a crime novel for a book packager. Somewhat ignorant of what a book packager was, I said why the hell not?
The book packager turned out to be a London-based company called Working Partners. Their in-house team of writers and editors creates storylines for book series and hires authors to write the actual manuscripts. It’s a form of ghostwriting. I’d never been a ghost before so, always ready to try something new, I plunged in.
My first challenge was to enter a competitive pitch for the particular project Dot had put me up for: a 65,000-word novel about a fictional diplomatic branch of the Metropolitan Police. That meant first reading the 10,000 word outline and dramatis personae written by Working Partners, then doing a proposed chapter breakdown and writing the first three chapters of the book as a sampler. To my surprise and delight I won the pitch, which meant I was now faced with the not insignificant task of completing the first draft manuscript in just 12 weeks.
It was a steep learning curve. For a start, it took me a while to work out just where I fitted into the project. Was I just a hired gun churning out copy to order? How much opportunity was there for me to get creative with the material? Pretty soon I realised I didn’t have time to ponder such ineffables – I had a novel to write.
As I got deeper into it, I discovered there’s a great freedom in bringing someone else’s story to life. All that tedious plotting has already been worked out – it’s your job to put the flesh on the bones. Sometimes it gets tricky, especially when the plot-driven mechanics of the narrative force the characters to do something unlikely or even wholly against what you might consider to be their nature. On these occasions, it was my job to generate the right kind of motivation needed to make the scene convincing.
Whenever the plot clunked a bit (rarely) – or even didn’t work at all (very rarely) – I took it on myself to add new scenes or restructure existing ones. If I felt an action sequence needed ramping up, I ramped it up. If I needed to add a secondary character to help things along, I created one. My editor at Working Partners, Michael Ford, was very supportive of this kind of thing, just as long as it served the story.
The timescale was punishing, but it was good to get disciplined again after a few years spent drifting. And it was a real education to see how Working Partners structured their stories. Would I have written those stories the same way myself? No. But immersing myself so deeply into somebody else’s process and workflow – while at the same time merging it with my own – opened my mind to a whole raft of stylistic techniques and practical choices I would never otherwise have appreciated.
Since the publication of that first ghostwritten novel – Runaway Minister – I’ve written four more novels with Michael and his team, under two different pseudonyms. They include a fantasy trilogy that I’m not able to talk about for contractual reasons. That’s a little frustrating, but it’s the nature of the beast.
It’s a while now since I’ve done ghostly things so it’s interesting to look back and reflect on the Working Partners experience. First and foremost, I’ve learned that ghostwriting is a profession just like any other. Every hired gun must pride himself on keeping his weapon clean and shooting straight enough to hit the target every time. The biggest benefit of all was that ghostwriting, arriving as it did at a pivotal moment in my writing adventure, restored my confidence, which had been flagging significantly. I’d acquitted myself responsibly as a writing professional and delivered a little under 400,000 words of fiction on time and on brief, with the prospect of more ghostwriting assignments to come. It was therefore with a bold stride that I marched out of my fourth writing life and into my fifth, with absolutely no idea where on Earth I was going.
Next time I’ll tell you about my fifth writing life, in which I embrace diversity.