Friday, July 23, 2010

The League of Phantom Authors

Would it surprise you to learn that half the best selling authors in the country aren’t writers? It seems absurd, but I recently read that as many as 50 percent of all New York Times bestsellers are ghostwritten. I’ve also heard that there is great demand for ghostwriters for other types of books and in businesses of all sizes.

This legion of behind-the-scenes writers has been scattered and isolated until now. But an enterprising author has now launched a new trade association designed to help professional writers and authors interested in finding and landing more ghostwriting work. Bestselling author and experienced ghostwriter Marcia Layton Turner ( has founded the Association of Ghostwriters ( to help us all tap into the growing demand for ghostwriting services.

Why are talented ghostwriters in such demand? For one thing, professional speakers, consultants, business executives and coaches want the credibility that comes from having a book published. They know a book will give their business a boost, but either don’t have the time or the skills to write one.

In addition, business people have learned that sharing their knowledge online through blogs and articles helps highlight their expertise and they need help from professional writers. The growth in self-publishing also presents opportunities for subject matter experts to reach a wider audience, if they can present their expertise in a well-written book.

And don’t overlook fiction possibilities. Do you really think James Patterson can write half a dozen novels a year in 7 or 8 different genres? Not by himself he can’t. He employs five full-time collaborators that he pays out of his own pocket. He provides the elaborate outlines and story editing but they provide the actual text. I sure wouldn’t mind being on that team, even if I only got to write the manga version of the next Maximum Ride book.

The Association of Ghostwriters helps members tap into this expanding market for their services. Members get access to monthly teleseminars on marketing, project management, outsourcing, time management and other relevant subjects. There’s also a newsletter, a private forum and most valuable, job postings for ghostwriters. So if you’re more concerned with getting paid for writing than seeing your name in big letters on the cover, this might be the group for you.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Writing Guide Only an Idiot would Pass Up

It has happened to all of us. You’ve read hundreds of thrillers and finally you decide you could write one as good as that last one. You’re ready to try your hand at creating a bestseller, but you don’t know where to start. The answer may be to pick up a copy of the newly-published second edition of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing a Novel by Tom Monteleone.

This book is perfect for the first time novelist because it covers all the basic elements of the novel, plus the various tactics and processes to make it happen. And when it comes to writing what sells, Monteleone knows what he’s talking about. He’s published more than 100 short stories and 25 novels, including The Blood of the Lamb which was both a bestseller and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

“Regardless of how many novels writers produce, the real barometer is whether people like reading them,” Monteleone says. “As far as that goes, I’ve had my share of rave reviews and dedicated fans over the years so, yeah, I’d say I’ve been doing the job well enough to qualify to write an Idiot’s Guide.”

Clearly one of the acquisition editors for the Complete Idiot’s Guide series agreed, because he asked Monteleone’s agent to put him on the case. And the first edition was a hit, remaining one of the ten most popular Idiot’s Guides for the last five years. Despite that success, Monteleone felt the need to freshen the book for a second edition.

“I had to go through the entire book and do a lot of updating—economically and culturally, and even technologically,” he says. “That part of the job makes you realize how fast things can change. I added a section to examine the new arena of e-publishing. And I included more interviews with some of today’s best-selling writers - Dean Koontz, Lee Child, Heather Graham, and a few others.”

The book also includes tons of advice on agents and editors, illustrated by clever stories and anecdotes with an informal approach that seems perfect for beginners.

“I wrote the book in a very informal, conversational style so it would be accessible and easy to read,” Monteleone says. “I wanted it to sound like the reader was sitting with me on the steps of the front porch just talking writing. And I get letters and email every week from people who’ve bought the book—from high school kids to doctors and lawyers to retirees - who claim to have gotten tons of great advice, info, and encouragement from my Guide.”

But Monteleone is quick to add that this book’s value is not restricted to rank beginners.

“I honestly feel that writers who have never written anything longer than a vignette to those who’ve pounded out several novel-length manuscripts are all going to get something out of my book, because I cover a lot more than just the essential mechanics. Lots of people who want to write have little understanding of how the publishing industry works, or things like time-management, subsidiary rights, trade shows and literary agents.”

This book is filled with the wisdom of those who have been there and done that, like Thriller Master David Morrell who said he believed he could teach you how to write clean, grammatical, stylish sentences, but he could never teach you WHAT to write well—that has to come from that dark well of imagination and need.

However, Monteleone says that the single most important thing anyone should derive from his book is that writing a novel has to be fun.

“The need to write may come from any number of magical psychological sources,” he says, “fired by engines of fear or love or even a simple sense of wonder about the world. But I honestly believe you can’t really be a successful writer if you do it out of obligation. If you approach it like that, it becomes a job, rather than a joy. And your lack of enjoyment will show up in your prose.”

While interviewing Monteleone about The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing a Novel I couldn’t resist asking (with tongue in cheek) if his guide to writing a novel was actually written for the complete idiot. He replied that in fact the opposite was true.

“Even though I’ve written my book in a most easy-going style, I think it’s for people who have intelligence, wit, and imagination. Even the clumsiest of novels were written by people with an earnest belief in their abilities, a determination that remained undaunted, and one more thing: a mind fueled by curiosity and the need to create the same in others.

Nothing idiotic about that.”

Monday, July 5, 2010

Stretching Exercise

Elizabeth Flaherty is a rarity in my experience. When I critique manuscripts I often end up teaching new writers the very basics of pace, structure, voice, and dialog. When I read Elizabeth's writing sample at the Bay to Ocean writers' conference I had to dig a bit to find things to correct. Her prose was strong, fresh and stylish. I did make some recommendations and she took them well. Recently she wrote to me about her active response to one of my suggestions, and agreed to let me share it. Writers who are stuck on one form take note!

I met Austin this past February at a writers’ conference and he made a strange suggestion. Or at least it seemed strange to me at the time. He asked me if I’d written any short stories. My memory may be wrong about this, but I’m pretty sure I laughed at him. I write thrillers and mysteries, typically with a psychologically damaged protagonist. How, I wondered, was I supposed to wedge that into 15 pages?

But, there I was, talking to another writer in a similar genre and he was suggesting I do just that. I was skeptical, but I’m also pretty competitive. He’d laid the gauntlet – told me I’d be a better writer for it – I had no intention of backing down.

The result was surprising.

For me, the process of writing a short story wasn’t really any different than my usual process. I’m not an outliner; so when I first start writing, this is all I typically know: Who is the main character or characters? What’s their internal conflict? What’s the twist we’re heading toward? Where’s the end of the story? To be clear, I don’t always know what the end of the story will be, just what issue needs to be resolved.

In this case, after a couple weeks of kicking ideas around in my head, I’d come up with this: Our hero would be a female detective; she was an alcoholic; her partner had just died. As for the twist, I knew that I wanted to introduce a man on the first page, who was a shadowy figure and I knew that his identity would be a primary “mystery” for the reader. And I knew the end would have to be the revelation of what happened to Stella’s partner.

Armed with my basics, I booted up the laptop and settled in. My personal rule is two pages a night; don’t think; just write. I began - Detective Stella Ortiz sat alone in her car, a cold cup of coffee untouched by her side.

Within two weeks, I had a story. It needed work, of course, a good amount of it, but it had a beginning, a middle and an end. On top of all that – and this was the big part – I’d managed to cram it all into less than 15 pages.

The lesson I learned in all this was unexpectedly simple. Writing a short story isn’t any different than writing a “long” story. Every writer has a different process, a different way to organize and prepare to write their book. My thought, for what it’s worth, hold your process steady and just write. The only change, simplify the story. Typically, when I write I’m looking for new conflicts to beef up that original list. With the short story the challenge was to make sure there were no new conflicts, to just focus on the original list, resolve, write to the end. Actually, it’s not all that different than the mindset I have when I’m hitting those last couple chapters and pushing to the finish line in a full length novel.

Oh, and I should mention, Austin was right. It was a good exercise - kind of like yoga. In some ways it’s nothing more than simple stretching, but when you’re done you realize you just got a really awesome workout.