The Complete Ten Step Guide to Ghostwriting Fiction

by Joe Bunting, @JoeBuntingPen-Logo-WITH-margin-(300px)

I’ve ghostwritten five books and these projects were some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. Before I started ghostwriting, my writing career was progressing slowly, but afterward, it took off. Since then, I’ve come to believe that ghostwriting is the best way to apprentice yourself to the craft of writing. It doesn’t hurt that you get paid for it, either.

What is Ghostwriting in Fiction?

It’s no secret that many of the non-fiction NYT Bestsellers are actually ghostwritten or co-written, but it’s not as commonly known that a lot of fiction authors use ghostwriters as well.

This is actually great news for creative writers, because it means that there really are opportunities to practice your fiction writing while getting paid for it.

How to Become a Ghostwriter

How, though, do you break into the ghostwriting world? In this ten step guide, I’m going to show you how to get paid to practice your writing.

  1. Get a client

You can try talking to authors you would like to work with directly, or even to publishers, but the best people to talk to if you want to find a novelist to ghostwrite for are editors.

Editors are the best to talk to because they often have closer relationships with authors than publishers but they aren’t as hard to get in contact with.

How do you find editors? Look in the books that you love and check the acknowledgements. Almost always, a writer will mention their editor there and it’s a good way to find them. After that the process looks similar to how you would reach out to a blogger or podcaster. Google them. Find out where they are and how you can contact them.

When you reach out, be human. Don’t be human spam.

The best way to connect with editors is to let them know how you heard of them (which book) and then offering help. Don’t immediately ask for something from them. Create these relationships with editors and you’ll be surprised how often you might get asked to help with side projects that open doors to full book projects.

Remember, ghostwriting is about relationships.

  1. Initial Book Brainstorm Session

When you first meet with your client you need to agree to write a treatment, not a full book.

A treatment is something generally used in film, but is extremely helpful in planning a novel as well. It’s a short, one-page, map for the book. It includes elements like: working title, genre, length, target audience, outline, and character breakdown.

The first meeting is about getting enough information from your client so you can write a treatment for your future novel. Together, you decide a beginning, middle, and end, create the characters, and all the major events.

Sometimes, a ghostwriter will present ideas or even the whole premise of a novel to an author, but often, the author will have an idea that he or she wants the ghostwriter to pursue.

It’s best to create a list of questions beforehand and send them to your client a few days in advance.

Important Note: Always record your meetings with clients so you can refer back to the information and write in their voice better. (Don’t forget to get their permission.)

  1. Write the Treatment

After your initial interview, write a one-page treatment of your novel. A treatment allows you to get on the same page with your client about their book (literally and figuratively).

For an example of exactly what a treatment looks like, check out this.

Sometimes after developing a treatment, you might realize there isn’t enough content for a book, and you need to explore subplots, new conflicts, or even a full reconception of the plot. This is why I always recommend writing a treatment before committing to a full novel.

  1. Commit to a Full Book

If after the treatment, you both decide it’s a good partnership and you want to continue writing the book, you will need to come up with a book contract and an expected completion schedule.

To determine your rates and pricing, estimate the hours you will spend on the project (depending on the length of the book and your own writing speed, this can be anywhere between 400 and 800 hours) and multiply by your hourly rate (check out this chart for hourly rates). You can bill however you feel works best for you and your client, but I recommend billing in thirds. The first third up front, second third after the first draft, and the last third when you send the final draft.

  1. Research

Read everything your client has written, if you haven’t already.

After the treatment is finished and you have a sense of the overall structure and content of the book, it’s time to get writing.

You may need more feedback from your client as you develop the characters and story. Above all, make sure that you get as many ideas from your client so that the book really feels like theirs.

  1. Draft 1

It’s hard to put this as one step, because I’m basically telling you to write a book. Thankfully, all the brainstorming and planning has been done, but it’s still writing a book which is never easy. I recommend that you give yourself serious deadlines. (For the last book I worked on, I wrote two chapters a week.)

During this time, I also recommend communicating with your client frequently. Try to send them an email update weekly or biweekly so that they know what is going on and feel involved in the writing process.

When you pen the final word of the first draft, send the draft to your client (and then celebrate!). Your client will almost always ask you to rewrite large sections and whole chapters. One friend  had to rewrite one chapter six times. Be ready to rewrite and receive hard feedback.

  1. Draft 2

Take a few days off. You just wrote a book! When you’re feeling rested and ready to get writing again, begin the second draft of the book. Here are a few tips to create a solid second draft:

  • Read the entire book before you edit. Plot holes, repetition, confusing scenes, character flaws, unnecessary scenes/characters, overall structure
  • Rewrite premise, outline (because it’s almost always different from the first draft)
  • POV / Tense audit
  • Write in missing scenes, delete unnecessary scenes/characters, fix tenses and pov issues but don’t worry about grammar/typos (unless they’re annoying you)

By the end of draft two you should have read the book another 6-8 times. Send this to your client again to develop a final draft.

  1. Feedback      

A great way to collaborate is to put the draft in Google Docs and share it with your client, giving them access to comment.

Ghostwriting is a collaborative effort, especially when you are telling someone else’s story, and the feedback step is the most crucial to successful ghostwriting. Your client needs to be able to give their honest thoughts about the book.

Don’t be afraid to ask them, “What didn’t you like about the book?” or “Is there anything you want to change?” You are both working together to improve the book.

This meeting is best done in person or over the phone to discuss the potential revisions.

Also a good time to hire an editor for critiquing, send to your writer’s critique group, or if you’re working with a publisher, to get feedback from your editor.

  1. Final Draft

After getting the feedback it’s time to edit and create the final draft. Apply all of the suggestions that you got from your client. Make sure that if you change wording or facts in one place, you change it everywhere. It’s easy to overlook or miss these changes, but they are vital to the flow and consistency of the book as a whole.

  • Read out loud out loud. (This is the #1 way to find awkward writing, repetitive wording, and most other mistakes you need to fix.)
  • Specifically read the book checking for grammar.
  • Skim the book to check for overall flow.
  • Fact check

After compiling and fixing all the changes it’s good to read through the book once or twice more. You most likely will feel like you could read the book fifty more times and still find mistakes you could fix, but you eventually need to stop editing and send the final draft to your client.

  1. Feedback

I always offer another round of revisions after the final draft. It’s good to tie up loose ends and to make sure your client puts the finishing touches on the project. This will really help them feel like the book is theirs.

After this final revision, I will happily do further revision but charge an hourly fee. This is important to make clear up front so that you’re not stuck in an endless cycle of revisions.

Bonus Step: Cash the Check and Celebrate

I believe that ghostwriting can change your writing career and life, and now you have enough to take your first steps as a ghostwriter. So go get writing!

What is stopping you from getting paid to practice your writing today?Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a ghostwriter and founder of The Write Practice, an organization that helps people get inspired to write, provides technical training, and then helps to market their books. Joe is currently offering a special course called Apprenticeship, which helps writers a get paid to practice. Learn more about Apprenticeship here.

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12 thoughts on “The Complete Ten Step Guide to Ghostwriting Fiction

    1. Yep, especially for fiction. I hadn’t thought about ghostwriting novels at all (and I’ve been a ghostwriter for years) until I became friends with a writer who had done it and gone on to pen a bestselling book. It’s a strange, fascinating world!

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