E. Mark Windle 4 May 2023.
It goes without saying that compatibility between ghostwriter and client is a key factor in facilitating the production of a high quality biography. The writer’s remit is to relate a life story that is authentic, believable, and engaging, and reflective of a world according to their client’s perspective. In theory, a match in personal attributes of both parties will foster empathy and understanding of character, as well as help to pin down ‘voice’.
Establishing a good working relationship as early as possible in the process is crucial. The author who operates autonomously can establish whether there’s likely to be a solid writer-client match at the enquiry stage, through an appropriate line of questioning while the brief is being refined. In writing pool scenarios, such as those managed by biographical services, matching may be the responsibility of an agency representative. A writer, or a sample of writers, is presented by the representative to the client based on potentially relatable factors; perhaps age, gender, interests, values and beliefs; or past life, work and cultural experiences pertinent to the brief.
In practice not all boxes are ticked, but that’s not necessarily a prerequisite. The relative importance of these factors should be considered on a case-by-case basis, with particular focus given to strengths likely to be priority requirements for the job rather than on the sum of attributes. Be wary of assumptions: age matching could optimise insight to era-related issues, events or context. But a much younger or older writer may possess special expertise in core themes (as identified in the brief), which have been gained through personal experience, social status or specific nuances of their school, life or university education where they have had one.
Disagreements and professional relationship breakdowns do occur, and ‘matching failure’ can be one contributory cause, but conflict may also arise as the project rolls out. Issues are often minor; peripheral research undertaken by the writer in the course of inquiry may contradict the client’s recollection of dates, events, timelines based on as supplied from memory, or assumed information about characters or events that appear in their life story. These discrepancies may not always be friction-causing, and with sensitive handling, diplomacy and gentle probing, they can usually be handled efficiently, and the process moved on. One school of thought – probably held more by memoirists than biographers – is that it is not the role of the ghost to overly challenge the storyteller’s version of events, as the writer is in danger of presenting something other than the client perspective, and of working against brief. However, the downside of accepting client recall sicut veritas is not just the loss of historical accuracy – it also allows potentially libellous content to slip into the narrative. There are a few clients who have an axe to grind with individuals, groups or institutions through their storytelling, though the writer can often spot the red flag early on in the process.
Some areas of disagreement between client and writer occur insidiously, particularly if not directly related to central themes. They may lie relatively dormant until a certain stage in the inquiry is reached, or a new anecdote or life event explored. Moral conflict has a particular sting and can be awkward to handle, especially if the polarised opinion only becomes apparent after the project has made significant headway. Consider differences in ethical stance, or other emotive issues including misogynistic, racist or non-inclusive viewpoints. There’s a moral (and often legal) responsibility not to allow these kinds of negative perspectives to go unchecked, or to present them in the manuscript. The ghostwriter’s moral compass will sway action: submissiveness is no option for any writer worth their salt. Usual conflict resolution interventions apply – the concern shouldn’t be ignored but clearly defined with the client, and both parties should come together to discuss the problem and identify a way forward. Easier than said done perhaps – calling a client out and explaining why certain opinions would be considered inflammatory or derogatory may be uncomfortable, but without it the project is harmed and legal repercussions can become a genuine possibility.
Divergence in opinion of how and what content should be presented at the draft manuscript stage is not unusual, and to a certain extent, to be expected. After all it’s the very reason why revision rounds are part of any sensible project plan. For the vast majority of clients, collaboration with a ghostwriter in research, interviewing and writing activities is a completely novel / alien concept, and an on-going learning experience. Despite best efforts to orientate the client from the outset, their personal vision and expectations of the end product might remain blurred to some degree, even at surprisingly late stages. The negotiation and refinement of a structural outline during or after the interview phase helps to minimise the risk of nasty surprises for either side later on in the process, as does the provision of sample content (before committing to the full first write) which informs the client of intended writing style and the capturing of voice.
Resolution of conflict requires avoidance of blame. It’s easy for the ghost to be defensive, but when structural outlay or approach to specific themes in the manuscript are way off the mark in hitting client expectations, this may reflect the writer’s lack of attention to the brief, or that it wasn’t adequately refined. The writer has as much responsibility for clarifying brief as his subject does. On the other hand, tensions at the draft stage can be a consequence of the client shifting the goalpost. This goes back to process naivety, where the experience is so immersive that enthusiasm conjures up thirteenth-hour memories, events, anecdotes, life-reflections and even plot twists: all of which can skew the direction of the original brief and introduce a headache in manuscript re-structuring, balance and word count.
When incompatibility, disagreement, straying from brief or out-and-out conflict are such that resolution is unrealistic even with mediation, project termination starts to look like the only exit (or at least writer reassignment if in a pool). For complete transparency, the right for either party to withdraw from a project with good cause, notice and conditions should always be stipulated in the contract. This protects both writer and client, though in the writer’s interests an appropriate financial arrangement must also be incorporated in the fine detail, whether it’s a kill fee to reflect the point of exit and to (adequately) compensate for the projected loss of writer income; or payment milestones connected to intermediate deliverables to ensure payment is received for all work done to date. With good matching, communication and editorial support, there’s little reason for relationships to deteriorate to the point of no return. Sadly, it does sometimes happen.
(Copyright 2023) E. Mark Windle is a freelance writer and biographer, working independently, as a senior writer with Story Terrace (London, UK), and for Sheridan Hill / Real Life Stories LLC (North Carolina, USA). Contact him via https://windlefreelance.com/contact/