In March, I had special guest Marcia Layton Turner, co-founder of the Association of Ghostwriters, give us the pros and cons of ghostwriting as a form of freelancing. She wanted to give more insight and I couldn't resist hearing more. So let's let her have the floor again for part two of this series.
“How long does it take to ghostwrite a book?” I am frequently asked. The answer, of course, is, “It depends.”
It depends on how much research is already available, how much research still needs to be done, whether there is an approved outline, how many interviews are needed, how long the desired finished product is, but most of all, it depends on when the client wants it done.
I’ve found that, like most corporate meetings, book writing projects can expand to fill the time allotted. So give me four months and it will take four months. Give me six and it will take six. Give me 30 days and a large enough financial incentive and I will find a way to get it done in 30 days.
Yes, it may require the help of others, such as transcriptionists and online researchers, but you can write a book in 30 days and it can be of top quality, believe it or not. The last book I wrote in 30 days was bought by a major publisher and is expected to sell hundreds of thousands – even millions – of copies.
Here is my process for getting it done:
Line up a team of specialists to which you can outsource. Even if you clear your calendar, turn down all other work, and limit sleep to three hours a night, it’s possible you won’t finish the book in time without outside help. Identify the work to be done that does not require your involvement, where you don’t add much value. That includes research, setting interview appointments, fact checking, transcribing interviews, and editing, to name some of the most common tasks you can delegate.
Quickly wrap up any work already in-house. While you can and should turn down any new opportunities that arise in the next three weeks, or at least try and push them into next month, you can’t suddenly drop work you’re in the middle of or have committed to. So take the next few days, as you’re ramping up on the book, to focus on the work you need to finish. You’ll be much more able to focus on the big project if you’re not worried about that little project due next Thursday. Then turn your attention to the book.
Start with the end in mind. Work backward from your desired due date using your outline and a calendar as a guide. Set deadlines based on the number of chapters. If you have 15 chapters to write, that’s a chapter every two days. Ten chapters? You have three days each.
Determine where the missing information is. Talk through your outline up front and assess where you will get the background material you’ll need. Do you need to schedule interviews with individuals, scour Lexis-Nexis for old articles, flip through court records on site somewhere? Once you know where your information is you can divide up the tasks and assign them to specialists to complete, so you can stay focused on writing.
Schedule client interviews. Since your author-client is the book’s visionary, it’s up to him or her to guide your work. Schedule phone or in-person interviews according to your work schedule, so that you’re working in linear fashion through the chapters. Make sure your client is available to give you what you need information-wise. A 30-day schedule only works if everyone is devoted to the task.
Get on the phone. Following your agreed-up work schedule, interview your client to collect the information you need. What are their thoughts, observations, key points, questions, or opinions on the material shared in the introduction? If they can’t answer your questions, who can? Ask questions, push back, and agree on what the chapter should contain.
Get started. Once you have all the background information you can get your hands on, write. I always want to peruse and study all the information related to a chapter, to wrap my head around the content, and then I start to write. Once you know the point and how the client wants to get there, using the background information you’ve been given, it shouldn’t take too long to write it up.
A 45,000-word book of, say, 15 chapters, requires about 3,000 words per chapter. That’s essentially a long magazine article. Surrounded by the material – your interviews, background research, statistics, reports, and a chapter outline - it is very possible to power through a draft.
Will it be perfect? No, it’s a rough draft. The goal is to shape the material into what the client wanted to convey in that chapter in a way that sounds like they wrote it. You’ll edit and massage it later. Right now, your task is to simply get it down on paper.
Move on to the next chapter. Once you’ve completed the introduction, or chapter 1 – some writers prefer to leave the introduction to last – get on the phone to talk through chapter 2. Then write.
The process becomes very methodical, very systematic.
Once you have a rough draft of the book, it’s time to circle back around and talk through each chapter draft with your client. What do they like, what do they not like? Where is it missing a key fact from last year’s Census data? Where is it missing an anecdote? Who can be hired to get that information while you focus on the actual editing?
You may also choose to hire an editor to take a first pass at your first draft, suggesting needed revisions and pointing out obvious holes. Working in tandem with an editor – they’re editing as you’re writing - can help you arrive at a publishable manuscript faster.
Are 30-day book projects the norm? No, thank goodness. But when a client is given an opportunity to speak at a major conference next quarter and wants to sell books at the back of the room, or would like to hand out a book as a client gift at the end of the year, you may need to figure out how to get it done in time for them.
While devoting yourself 24/7 to a book for 30 days can be stressful, painful, and tiring, the upside is that you can earn a sizeable fee in little more than four weeks. Tacking on a surcharge of between 20-50% of the total project value isn’t unheard of.
For many ghostwriters, that’s reason enough to write a book in 30 days.
Marcia Layton Turner is a ghostwriter and freelancer who focuses mainly on business topics. She has authored, co-authored, or ghosted more than 30 non-fiction books. She is also founder and executive director of the Association of Ghostwriters. Connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.
Thank you so much Marcia for sharing your wisdom with us again today. I'll be rounding out this series next week with some tidbits of experience I have from ghostwriting projects of my own. See you then!