People are so talented these days. A gifted cardiologist not only pioneers life-saving medical interventions, she also writes a memoir.
A couple raises autistic triplets and finds time to pen an inspirational book.
The son of a world-famous scientist travels the world, runs a non-profit organization and—in his spare time—writes a book that tells his life story.
And their tales are told with such narrative flair, you’d think these people were professional writers.
But they’re not. Lynn Lauber, their ghostwriter, is.
Lynn Lauber: author and ghostwriter
A fiction and non-fiction author in her own right, Lynn has written three critically acclaimed books. Her work appears in The New York Times and in anthologies that include Eye of My Heart and Wanting a Child. Lynn is also the publishing world’s go-to book abridger: She’s created over 500 abridged audiobook scripts for authors ranging from Alan Alda to Elie Weisel.
More recently, Lynn has turned her hand to book collaboration—what most of us know as “ghostwriting.” In the last several years, Lynn has collaborated on more than 15 books.
Last week, I caught up with Lynn, a friend and neighbor, in her cozy home in the Hudson Valley. She agreed to let me interview her for MarketCopywriter Blog and to share with us her process of book collaborating.*
Lorraine: Lynn, how did you get started as a writer? Can you give us an overview?
Lynn: I started writing in college and I wrote autobiographical short stories, fiction for a long time—probably over a 15-year period.
I started abridging books when I worked at a little publisher that used to abridge romance novels. I just had a feeling that this was something that I could do—take out the extraneous stuff and figure out what subplots and characters could be deleted and still preserve the integrity of the book—and it was. It’s a strange skill and I found that I had it, who knows why. I ended up abridging romances for several years, which I quickly found boring, because they were so formulaic then—they all ended with the heroine saying yes, despite whatever fight she put up early on in the plot.
Then I moved to Random House, where I probably did 600 or so books in 20 years—fiction and nonfiction—great authors like Oliver Sacks and John Updike and Alice Munro.
This kind of work—dismantling a book and putting it back together again—turned out to be very good training. It’s like working on an engine, and seeing how the parts go together and what’s essential and what isn’t.
Abridgments aren’t as popular anymore because of the ease of downloading eBooks—I saw the writing on the wall, which is why I began looking into ghostwriting.
Because of personal things in my life, I had stopped writing fiction and was more interested in non-fiction. But I still had a feeling for fiction—it’ s hard to describe. Collaborations are personal stories. You give someone a voice. And you kind of spin what they give you into something more—it’s almost like you do with fiction. You turn it into something else.
The collaborations were something that appealed to me and something I did with pleasure.
So someone gave me the chance to do one. And it was awful. It was extremely hard. It was for a businesswoman, a real go-getter. She was very tough on me. She kept saying I didn’t have her voice. That first collaboration didn’t work well and I didn’t think I could do them. But then another one came along that was very successful. After that I started doing a couple a year.
Ghostwriter’s collaborative process
Lorraine: Can you describe the process of collaboration? Do you work on a manuscript the author has already written or do you write it from scratch?
Lynn: It works differently each time. Sometimes I’ll say, “Send me everything you’ve ever written.” Other times, I’ll talk with them on the phone. If it’s a memoir and they don’t have anything written, I’ll start like this (indicating my tape recorder). One woman, a doctor who wanted a memoir of her life, sent me rough drafts. They weren’t much use, but at least it was a core and I could ask her about it.
You almost always have to write a proposal—unless the book is already sold when you get it, which is rare. Usually you write the proposal first. So you’ve had to come up with a rough table-of-contents—that means that you’ve already sat down and talked on the phone.
Lorraine: What do you like most about collaborations?
Lynn: I like writing freely when it’s not me. Though I don’t write fiction any more, I still have this fiction-writing desire. And usually if you’re not producing something of your own, you don’t get to use it anymore. You’re not using it. You’re feeling bad. But this feels… like I’m using something that’s my talent, even though it’s not my own story.
I’m glad that I can make a living with this thing. Because the truth is, I couldn’t make a living with my fiction. I’m not under any illusion. I never came near to it and I don’t think I would now.
(Apropos of fiction) I’ve written a lot of what I wanted to say… and it’s much more fraught and slow. And collaboration—I have a deadline; I have to pay my mortgage. I do it. I sit down and do it.
Lorraine: Is there anything you dislike about working on collaborations?
Lynn: What I don’t like about it? When it doesn’t work out: I’ve had two instances where it didn’t work out. One was a book by the son of a famous scientist… a real celebrity type. It turned out that he didn’t know what he wanted. And I kept trying to give him stuff and I got this feeling right away—I’ve had it twice—that nothing was going to work. It was this horrible feeling.
So I gave him the work and he was like, “Well…” He couldn’t say what he wanted. It was horrible. And then I rewrote it. And he still didn’t know what it was that bothered him.
And then he didn’t call when he said he would. When I called him, he wouldn’t be there. So I wrote 5 or 6 chapters—and I never heard from him. In months. So I kept writing—because I knew what I had to fulfill to get paid. I got the first payment and I said, “This isn’t going to work.” He didn’t argue.
And this person was important. My agent didn’t want to back out. Nobody stood up for me. I had to keep writing…
I had the same thing happen with another person. So when someone is ambivalent about it, or doesn’t know what they want to say and won’t let you help them, that can be terrible. You could spend a whole year.
That’s when I really don’t like it.
Is every story worth telling—and publishing?
Lorraine: How involved are you in shaping the subject/author’s narrative? Is your goal to tell a good story—or to tell the person’s story, as they want to tell it?
Lynn: Usually I want to tell a good story. I just did a book for the daughter of a famous poet… I tried to find things that interested and excited me. In this case it was the father’s poetry. And I thought how can I get in something about this father… The fact is, he died when the woman was a baby, so there’s not that much about the two of them. But I tried to think what is it about this girl’s life and her father’s life? Isn’t there some kind of parallel? Some cord between them, other than a blood cord, that’s interesting? And there was. And he’s so fantastic that frankly, I dragged him in all the time. So I tried to do that. Because I do want it to be a story. The thing that people hire me for is “the way you tell stories.” That’s what I bring to it. So that’s always what I’m looking for.
Lorraine: How do you slip inside another’s skin and sublimate your own narrative voice for that of the author/subject?
Lynn: It’s the same as fiction—where you imagine so much being someone else that you start to sound like that person.
Lorraine: Ghostwriter Barbara Feinman Todd (ghost for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s It Takes a Village) notes, “There is rarely a taproot in a ghostwriting project. Like the assassin, you are a hired gun, with no true connection to your subject.” Do you agree or disagree?
Lynn: I’ve had that happen. I’ve turned down celebrity things where I thought, “I don’t think I can find the taproot.”
That’s when you don’t want to do it any more. I’ve had people say, you’re prostituting your talent, giving away your soul. But I don’t feel that way. I can almost always find the taproot.
Lorraine: Does everyone’s story deserve a book? Is a story always worth telling—and worthy of publication?
Lynn: I’m a proponent of telling your story. I teach a class on it at UCLA, a workshop. (Lynn also explores personal narrative in her critically praised book, Listen to Me: Writing Life into Meaning.) Publishing completely aside, I see the benefit of telling stories. I think for people, especially older people, it can be very revealing and healthy, not to use the word “healthy” so loosely. But it’s a very therapeutic thing to just write down the stories you remember. And kind of see how life events add up. How this stage goes with that one.
Publishing is something I’ve always—it’s hard to separate that. If it’s important to tell your story, then why isn’t it good enough to be published? But now publishing is so severely tough it’s barely worth talking about. It’s so hard to get published.
With the book I wrote for the poet’s daughter, I felt not only would it not get published but I couldn’t throw myself behind it and say, “I’ll try everybody I know to help you.” Because there was some personal agenda she had. She had a bone to pick. And I was willing for a certain amount…to help her pick it. I thought there was enough interesting stuff in it…but it skewed the whole thing in a way.
Ghostwriting: art, craft, business
Lorraine: Writing in 2001, another successful ghostwriter claimed that 50% of all published books use a ghost, book doctor or line editor. At the time she noted there were, at most, 10,000 ghostwriters to write 25,000-50,000 books a year. This seemed to her a bonanza for book collaborators. Is the climate still so favorable?
Lynn: I think that’s changed. Because everyone in publishing over age 50 has been laid off—almost across the board. Some become agents. And some become writers, freelancers. Everybody wants to do this now because everyone’s out of work. So I think her information is out of date.
Lorraine: What does it take to become a ghostwriter—in terms of art, craft and business sense?
Lynn: They’re all equal. You really do need a good agent. Just for payment issues which are vexing and hard. Things like, usually you get paid when things are finished and approved. If you don’t have an agent, somebody can say, “I don’t approve. I don’t like the last chapter and I’m just going to sit on it. For a year.” Because approval is vague, if you don’t have a contract. I wouldn’t want to do many without some kind of agent.
Then craft—you have to understand the whole idea of form. Let’s say you don’t want to present a life in a linear way. Well, you’ve got to know what it is to do it in that linear way and then change it around. It’s just like learning grammar. You can’t really write—you have to know what the rules are before you write in a distinctive way that you know doesn’t follow the rules.
So many people who want to write didn’t read much when they were young and they don’t read much now. So there’s this hole and you can’t fill it—as far as I’m concerned—unless you’ve read for years and years and years. And really love to read.
Lorraine: That’s a masterful skill, writing something as big as a life story. To be able to craft that is a tremendous skill.
Lynn: I think it’s because I read so much when I was young. And all that abridging really did help me. Just think day after day, week after week, that’s all you do. You don’t analyze it consciously—you do it quickly from instinct. It was very good for me.
To learn more about Lynn’s fiction and non-fiction work and her writing workshops, visit Lynn’s website, LynnLauber.com.
*Some details changed to protect anonymity of Lynn’s subjects.