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Saturday, December 4, 2010

My Sarah Palin dream: how to ghostwrite for celebrities

Sarah Palin doesn't speak to me, even though I have been hired to write her next book. Without communication, the project fails. She must know this, but she just stares warily at me and makes sure I don't hear her secret discussions with others.
Yes, this was a dream, but it made me recall a ghostwriting experience I had years ago. I was hired by a PTB publisher to ghostwrite the autobiography of a famous celebrity. In accordance with the ghostwriter's code, I won't mention names.

Now I've been able to forgive low down dirty men who hurt me, but not this celebrity. The thought of what I went through still pisses me off. Get over it? Maybe writing about my horror story of a ghostwriting job will prove a cautionary tale for writers who are interested in this line of work -- and help me send this ghost into the Light.

This celebrity has a life people gossip about, but what excited the PTB publisher was this person's awesome brand and marketing platform. In addition to an outline, my proposal for the book included a scheme of metaphors and symbols that would play off the celebrity's brand. (See, I was thinking about branding even before I knew what it was!) I got the job.

I flew to Los Angeles to meet and interview this star. Contractually we were obligated to meet 10 times. I'd call the assistant every morning to try and get on the celebrity's calendar, but every time there was an excuse. Ultimately we met 2 or 3 times in all. So instead of interviewing this person, I went shopping, hung out with my cousin, and drove to Mexico. At every stage I let my agent and publisher know what was going on. 

At the end of the 3 weeks all I had to show was a bad case of food poisoning and a lot of miles on my rental car.

I was mad. The publisher was mad. My agent was mad. With no access to the celebrity, there was no communication. With no communication, there was no information. With no information, there was no book -- at least not by me.

The book was eventually written by someone who had access, someone in the celebrity's inner circle. I went on to ghostwrite several books for stars you may never have heard about but who are respected in their fields.

Ghostwriting can be a lucrative way to earn a living, and good writers are always in demand. Self-publishing and the public's fascination with celebrities have opened up many opportunities for writers. If you're interested in this line of work, here are some things to keep in mind.

1. Don't be star struck. Celebrities are people too. If you go into a project goo goo eyed, you lose respect. Come to the project as a peer, an equal. 

2. Expect ego explosions. 

3. Make your ego invisible.

4. Respect the client's creative input. You're the expert, but still, clients will have ideas, and rightfully so. It's their book. Your job is to shape their ideas if good. If the ideas are not workable, you'll have to be straight with them, but be respectful. Ultimately however, if they insist, you'll have to make it work.

5. Insist on open, honest, and ongoing communication. If information is not forthcoming, consider exiting the project. It's your reputation on the line.

6. Creatively incorporate the client's brand into the book.

7. Keep secrets, and honor the celebrity's privacy.

UPDATE: I'm happy to report that I've finally sent this ghost into the Light. In writing this post I realized I learned what I needed to learn from the experience. R.I.P.!

Donna Marie


  1. This is a very informative cautionary tale too. I didn't realize access could be a challenge, especially in in the age of access. I understand though if someone doesn't want to be reached s/he won't be. :|

  2. Right, except when there's a contract that obligates access.