The Sharp End: Life as a ghostwriter

Extracting a gnarled old CEO's thoughts for his memoirs was a challenge for Dave Waller, who spends the day working as a ghostwriter.

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

The Sharp End goes up against the blank page this month, as I'm sent to sample the life of a ghostwriter penning a CEO's memoir. The working title came easily enough: The Old Man and the C-suite. I suspect the rest could be trickier.

Writing is a task that famously requires isolation, boredom even. While I get plenty of that in my flat in Stockwell, it's too easy to stave off the tedium with other distractions - like local oddballs, or the endless outpourings of rappers on Twitter. Hence I decide to squirrel myself away in the Lake District, in a stone cottage in Eskdale Green, to attain the requisite focus.

I'd been informed that the easiest way to reach the village is by steam train, which seems a suitably grand gesture, but I arrive to find the old puffer is a miniaturised novelty ridden by waving tourists. That's actually not a bad metaphor for the modern writing game, I muse, chugging through the fields with luggage up to my chin. Not only has the profession lost much of its financial clout for all but the chosen few (the average advance for a first novel, for example, has slipped to a measly £5,000), but the e-book revolution has made it a bandwagon on which even day-trippers can jump. The upshot: royalties have leapt from around 10% to 20% under the traditional publishing model to between 30% and 70%. Yet 70% of nothing is still nothing. And, these days, the crowd is so big it can take a lot of work to be heard.

Try telling that to the locals here. Edith, the owner of the cottage, keeps telling me to enjoy my holiday. I insist on clarifying that it's a work trip. She hands over the keys. 'Enjoy your holiday,' she says again. This leaves me in a foul mood. I'm sat at the bureau, staring at the screen. I think I'm annoyed that I'd allowed myself to believe all the hard work had been done - all those hours of research meetings, interminable anecdotes, and molly-coddling a fragile septuagenarian ego to weed out all his hard-to-reach memories. It's only now I realise just what a task I have ahead of me, wading through stacks of notes and tape transcripts and trying to pull some semblance of a story together.

Making coffee is far easier. As I go to work on cup number four, Hemingway's solution for writer's block twitches its way into my mind. His advice was to 'stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next'. That way, you can switch off and let the subconscious quietly chip away at the task, to later benefit from all its hard graft when you return to the desk.

My question: how do you get to that 'going good' bit? Unlike journalism, which requires an informed detachment, ghostwriting is about silencing your own ego and opening yourself up to someone else's thought processes. Instead, my ego insists on an unprecedented hankering for Cuban cigarillos. I'm not sure that's really helping. I reassure myself that at least I'm not the unlucky sod who has to submit to the ramblings of Peter Andre, or an East End gangster, or, surely worst of all, a professional footballer. Imagine going through that and not even getting your name on the dust jacket.

There are other problems. Aside from working his way up from the postroom to the boardroom and making a ton of loot along the way, the old chap I'm supposed to write about has done very little that's worthy of committing to the page. He did have one genuinely compelling story - about once getting into a lift and stumbling on a passionate encounter between a FTSE CEO and a regional TV news anchor. Trouble is, he's told me that same tale on at least five separate tape transcripts, and followed it up each time with the phrase ' ... but of course you can't put that in the book'. Maybe that should be the title ...

By the end of day one, I'm starting to wonder whether all this isolation was such a good idea after all. As I trudge off to the shop on the off-chance that it stocks Cuban cigarillos, I can't help thinking I'd be better off waiting till I get back to London to write this - there's nothing like the buzz of a city to get those words flowing.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

The CEO's guide to switching off

Too much hard work is counterproductive. Here four leaders share how they ease the pressure....

What Lego robots can teach us about motivating teams

People crave meaningful work, yet managers can so easily make it all seem futile.

What went wrong at Debenhams?

There are lessons in the high street store's sorry story.

How to find the right mentor or executive coach

One minute briefing: McDonald’s UK CEO Paul Pomroy.

What you don't want to copy from Silicon Valley

Workplace Evolution podcast: Twitter's former EMEA chief Bruce Daisley on Saturday emails, biased recruitment and...

Research: How the most effective CEOs spend their time

Do you prefer the big, cross-functional meeting or the one-to-one catch-up?