What ghostwriting is really like - Authors A.I.

Alessandra Torre
June 26, 2023

I have a confession. I’ve always hated the idea of being a ghostwriter. The thought of not being able to put my name on a title just filled my chest with pain. But I have to say … that trepidation turned to envy after I sat down and chatted with Daniel Paisner, New York Times bestselling author and ghostwriter.

Daniel has worked with so many incredible people and brought their stories and histories to life, and our conversation on an episode of First Draft Friday showed me how unique and interesting that side of the creative process can be.

It was a fascinating discussion, one you won’t want to miss! Click below to watch our 30-minute recording and hear the questions we answered from the live audience. Keep scrolling if you’d prefer to read the transcript.

More info:

Try out Marlowe, our A.I., which can critique your novel: authors.ai/marlowe/

Explore Daniel’s website: www.danielpaisner.com/

Enjoy the show? Check out our upcoming and past First Draft Friday episodes.


Alessandra: Hello, everyone. Welcome to First Draft Friday. I am excited to be joined today by Daniel Paisner. And we’re going to be talking all about ghostwriting along with how you can find inspiration everyday life for books. I did a horrible job of setting that up, but don’t worry. We’ll take good care of you for the next half hour. Welcome Daniel. Do you want to introduce yourself to the group and talk a little bit about you?

Daniel: Thanks for having me. It’s good to be here. I’m a ghostwriter by principal trade. However, my side hustle is I’m a novelist. Most of the ghostwriters I know and collaborators, who help other people write their life stories didn’t set out to walk that path. It’s kind of a writing life of second resort. I wouldn’t call it a last resort, but it was not our chosen path, and yet we landed there in a way that helped to support us while we tried to get some traction in our own work as a writer. And now here I am 35, 40, who knows how many years later, and that’s my principal line of work. And it’s really hard to find time to carve out free days where I can work on my own material.

Alessandra: I have so many questions. I cannot believe that this is our 47th first draft Friday, and I have talked to hundreds of authors over the last, you know, if not thousands of authors, and I can’t believe this is the first time; I’ve actually had a chance to sit down and talk to a ghostwriter. So, I am full of questions, I’m sure our audience will be. Don’t be shy. Any questions you have, guys, any comments, pop them in the comments box and we’ll try to answer them as we go, but talking about.

Daniel: I’m surprised you haven’t spoken to a ghostwriter yet because don’t you have a book in your canon called Ghostwriter?

Alessandra: I do. Yeah. And a lot of people think that it’s… yeah, I get a lot of questions about that. So real quickly, you have a release. Congratulations! You just had a book release. Can you just tell us a little bit about that?

Daniel: I have a book that came out a couple weeks ago. It’s called Balloon Dog. There’s a copy right on my shelf. I can’t really figure it out, but you see it up there above my head with an actual balloon dog. It’s an art heist kind of caper novel about the imagined theft of a Jeff Koons sculpture, which is lifted in plain sight from the side of a mountain in Park City, Utah. And I use that theft as an opportunity for my character to kind of weigh in on the meaning of art on who gets to decide what art has what kind of value and to what people and it’s an opportunity for me to explore some of the things that I think about as a struggling mid-list author, who can’t really make a primary living as a novelist. And all of these frustrations and thoughts and concerns are kind of manifested in one of these balloon dog sculptures, which are wildly popular, and I just don’t understand them.

Alessandra: I love that. And it’s interesting because you are still writing, which is great, you know, and I know that’s… so let’s talk a little bit about that career path. You have been ghostwriting or being a novelist for, you said 30 to 40 years, so when you first got in, the plan was to become a novelist, or how did you get into ghostwriting to begin with?

Daniel: The plan was really to be sort of a swashbuckling reporter. I wanted to work in a newsroom. I wanted to be Woodward and Bernstein all rolled into one. I came of age, you know, in that post-Watergate era. So I was, you know, reading hungrily everything those two put out into the world and every exciting development that sort of happened in their wake. I wasn’t really the ink-stained wretch I thought I would be. I wasn’t wired to be in a newsroom or to punch a clock and have a day job or pound the pavement. And I stumbled into this line of work by a happy accident.

The very first ghostwriting gig I ever caught was with Willard Scott. Perhaps some of our participants are old enough to remember Willard as the happy, jolly weatherman on the Today Show before Al Roker became a happy, jolly weatherman on the Today Show. And I worked with Willard on a book of his, that I thought at the time would be a one off. It would just be a freelance gig. It would sort of bridge, you know, pay the bills for the next while, until I figured out what was next. I’m sure you’ve had many freelance writers on the show.

Lo and behold, it turns out to be a lifelong gig for me. And the deal I made for myself early on was that I would write one of theirs while I was writing one of mine. And over the years I’ve written, this is my fourth novel. I’ve written four or five non-fiction books of my own. These books all get published. They get some nice review attention, but they really don’t fly off the shelves in a way that would allow me to live the kind of life that I want to live, so these collaborations fill in some of those blanks. The sad piece of that, or the happy sad piece of that is that I’ve become so busy doing that kind of work, it’s often very hard to find the time to work on things that I’ve used …

Alessandra: Oh, sorry.

Daniel: That’s OK. There’s a soundtrack. I love it.

Alessandra: Sorry about that. I was just looking for my phone to put on silent. I couldn’t find it, I thought I didn’t have it. So how does someone find a ghostwriter; someone’s interested in hiring you? Do you have an agent that just handles ghostwriting gigs? Is there a website that everyone finds ghostwriters on? What is that industry like?

Daniel: There are a couple of ways. I mean, it’s very hard to get started in that business primarily because of the chicken and egg kind of syndrome. You know, you need clips, you need to show somebody that you’ve done this before, but alas, if you haven’t done this before, you have nothing to show for it, so it’s very hard to get your first gig. Once you get your first gig, there aren’t a whole lot of people that traffic in this type of writing over time. Many people, many journalists, many very successful and established novelists sort of lean into this work in a one-off way maybe to sort of bridge the gap between projects to help them get past a patch of writer’s block. In my case, I was represented early on by what was then known as the William Morris Agency, these days, it’s William Morris Endeavor.

And my thinking then, in addition to the fact that I had a terrific agent who I thought really had my back and was advocating for me, it seemed like a smart place to position myself as somebody who was looking to help bring the life stories of their celebrated clientele into print. So a great many projects came over the transom at William Morris, and I was one of the few writers in there, stable that did this kind of work. So that’s how I got a good deal of my work early on. Over time, I had a list of credits and I’ve been able to, you know, build work on the back of that resume. People who want to hire a ghostwriter, want to hire an established ghostwriter. They don’t want to work with a rookie who’s never done this before.

Alessandra: Yeah. Especially because they’ve never done it before, typically I would think. What percentage is fiction versus nonfiction of the stuff that you ghostwrite?

Daniel: So I’ve never, and this is really only a line in the sand I’ve drawn for myself. I’ve never worked with somebody else on a piece of fiction. I always thought that there was a… I had limited bandwidth and that part of my brain, I wanted to reserve for Balloon Dog or whatever else I was cooking up on my own. If it was their life story, if it was a lived experience, if it was their thought, if it was a think piece kind of book or an entrepreneurial ‘how to’ sort of book, I was happy to let them download the stuff of their days into my brain so I can write on their behalf, but I kind of drew the line at helping them concoct stories out of whole cloth. There are ghostwriters that do that, I’m sure you’ve come across. You know, there are many celebrity-driven ghostwritten novels and some of them are actually very good and they are very successful. Look at all the James Patterson books that are now coming out that he’s writing in collaboration with others. I just have never gone there, so all of my books have been nonfiction.

Alessandra: That’s really interesting, and it’s a mix I know you said. Do you have memoir stuff as well?

Daniel: Yes, I do memoir, I write books with sort of name above the title, celebrities, household names. And I also write books with people who are unknown before they come to publishing. They are ordinary folks who’ve seen something extraordinary, done something extraordinary, or have an extraordinary take on the world around. And actually, I sort of prefer those books to the famous folks because you know, when you work with somebody like Serena Williams, not a knock on Serena who I adored, we had a good time working together on her book which I thought turned out great, but somebody who’s grown up with a camera and a microphone in their face from the age of 6, 7, 8 years old, they’ve told the same stories over and over again. And it’s very hard to pull something fresh and new and real from the recesses of their memory. I can only write what they share. And if what they’re sharing has been rehearsed into the ground, the book will feel…

Alessandra: Filtered and polished.

Daniel: Right. So if I’m dealing with somebody who’s never done this before, and they’re telling these stories as if for the first time, then the book feels a little bit more vibrant, and so I enjoy working on those projects.

Alessandra: The other thing is, I’m assuming a lot of the books you’re writing are in first person, is that correct? So you have to capture their tone.

Daniel: Right.

Alessandra: And speak in it. And how do you do that? Is it lots of just conversations with that person? How do you do…?

Daniel: It’s exactly that. I mean, you sort of need to be a good mimic. You need to be like Dana Carvey on SNL. You need to be able to impersonate somebody else on the page. And that happens, you know, you ask most what you can, you hang with these people, you live with — many times I’ll go and stay in their homes. I’ll have dinner with their family. I’ll shadow them as they go to work and you learn how they look at the world and you learn to phrase things the way they do. You think like them and soon you start to speak like them.

Alessandra: Oh, that’s so interesting. We have a great question from Elaine on Facebook she said, what do you do if you find their take on something offensive?

Daniel: Ah, that’s a good question, Elaine. The first thing I can do, if I discover that before I take on the work is I can stiff-arm the assignment and not work with them. If it’s somebody who in the doing, presents himself or herself, to me as somebody I don’t really agree with, I can, A, always take my name off the project and continue to work as a true dose. I’m very often credited on these projects. So I can step aside and work in a behind-the-scenes way. And I can also take the opportunity to maybe present my views to them and be a sort of devil’s advocate and say, Hey, are you sure this is the view you want to put out to the world? It doesn’t reflect well on you or your brand for this or that reason. And I can maybe talk them down from that objectionable position. But I think, you know, it’s ultimately their book, it’s their first person voice, it’s their call. So my only real option, other than not working on the book at all is to take my name off of the project.

Alessandra: I can’t imagine… I’m imagining if I hired a ghostwriter, you know, to tell my story, and it’s a little different because I’m a writer, obviously, so I’m going to have a lot of opinions about word choices and this and that sort of thing. But how hard is it when you… are you submitting chapters as you go? Do you write the entire thing and then they read it all at once? Is it different with every project? And how much editorial feedback are you having to deal with?

Daniel: You know, it varies with every project. You’re exactly right. My ideal way of working is to hang with people, to be in sort of that hunter-gatherer phase for as long as possible so that I can present to them 50 pages on a first pass instead of five or 10 pages. And I feel like if they, you know, that’s almost like an audition piece, even though I already have the gig; here, take a look at these 50 pages, see if you’re comfortable with the tone of voice, with the sensibility, with the sort of rhythm of the storytelling. And if you like this, I can keep going. If you don’t like this, this is a good time to pivot and you could tell me what doesn’t work for you, what you would like more of.

You know, a lot of people I’ve worked with are not educated. They’re not writers. They don’t present themselves or think of themselves as writers. Their books really have more of a feel of sitting around a campfire telling stories, or sitting down with somebody over a couple of beers. I worked with a guy who’s become a good friend of mine. Very often my clients or my partners become lifelong friends. I worked with a guy named Izzy Paskowitz who was a world champion long board surfer. And he came from a very famous California surf family. And he never went to school. He and his eight siblings grew up in a camper, and they just drove all up and down the California coast and soon up and down the east coast. And they surfed all day. They weren’t even homeschooled. They were surf schooled. So this guy has a certain way of speaking. And it’s not that he’s not intelligent. He’s one of the brightest people I know, but it would’ve rang false to readers if you know, the sentence structure was proper. It read like it came out of some ivory towers somewhere. It had to sort of feel genuine to him.

Alessandra: I was wondering like syntax. We talked about that on, I think two episodes ago with trying to establish voice and characters. So you do use their speaking patterns or I don’t want to say you dumbed down or increase your word choices and stuff, but you do, I guess, make decisions.

Daniel: Right. And it’s not really about dumbing down. It’s about matching the voice to their persona and to their brand, to who they are. You know, the people who knew this guy and he was well known in the surf community; they would’ve dismissed this book if it sounded like it came filtered through some hack like me, you know, through professional writer. It had to be genuine. So the goal really is to make it sound genuine. And that varies from subject to subject. Sometimes that means shorter, more staccato sentence fragments. It could mean, you know, certain word choices that are more particular to that lifestyle. So, there are many different ways to skin a cat, that the end result needs to be that they can stand behind this book, in front of this book, alongside this book and feel as if they kind of owned it and if they wrote it, even if they never lifted a pen.

Alessandra: David from YouTube said it sounds like working with someone remotely would be more difficult than working face to face. Is that true? And how did COVID change like your kind of working dynamic?

Daniel: Yeah. Welcome to COVID David. Ideally, you do want to be in the same room with somebody. You give up a lot in terms of body language and nuance. What I found though with COVID, it’s liberating in a number of ways. If I’m not in the same zip code or area code, or even time zone as someone I’m working with and I’m traveling to see them, there’s a pressure on both of us to make the most use of my time visiting them. And we tend to spend too much time together. Ideally, the sweet spot is about a two or three-hour conversation for the day and that’s it. People get tired. You flag after two hours talking about yourself. And I found over the years that the stuff I get in hour three, four, and six winds up on the cutting room floor and the rich material lives early on. So with COVID, we’re able to flip in each out of each other’s lives in a much more seamless way that doesn’t involve travel. And it doesn’t take me six hours just to get to them to sit down for that conversation. But David, your question is exactly right. I think the best way to do this is face-to-face and in person. And as a fallback now, because of COVID, what I love to do is start face-to-face until we establish a certain way of working together, a certain level of trust. There’s an intimacy in this type of work. Once we get that down and we get past that, then Zoom or even a straight-up phone call is fine.

Alessandra: I can see that because, you know, you think about when you visit someone at their home, certain people might point out all of the really nice… You can tell, there are people that are proud of certain possessions, or it’s just a different feel than if it’s just me at my desk and talking to you about something and you see how they interact with their family, like you said, and other things. Let’s talk a little bit about editors because I’m traditionally published as well as independently published, so I’m used to having a boss that that is an editor and throwing back-and-forth questions and feedback. So, how does it fit in with, especially if this is a traditionally published book that has been bought, it has normally the book been bought, are they working with a ghostwriter first creating the book, and then they’re pitching it to a publisher?

Daniel: For the most part, the books are under contract. So there is a publisher, they’re looking over our shoulders. There are deadlines, you know, very often because of the size of some of the celebrities I’ve worked with, there are large advances involved. So they have a, a substantial investment in the project and they want to make sure that it happens on time in a selling way. But again, every editor is different, you know. I’m sure you’ve worked with many different editors. Some are hands off, some are hands on, some want to be involved in the doing and some want to wait until the very end. So I kind of try to work with what they’re looking for, because, A, it serves that project and B, I want to work with these people again. I’m not able to sustain a livelihood if I just do these one and done sorts of projects, you need to build and cultivate these relationships. So, if someone at Simon Schuster wants to see 30-page chunks every month, I’ll send them 30-page chunks every month.

Alessandra: So who trumps? Who has final say? Is it the celebrity or is it the editor?

Daniel: It’s a tough call. I think ultimately it’s the celebrity, especially if it’s a big celebrity who can push his or her weight around. An editor can push back and say, I really need to see more of you in this moment or this doesn’t serve you, or maybe this is going to alienate some of your readers. I would think that the final say in most cases comes down to the celebrity. The last person in that pecking order is me. You know, I have no agenda. My only agenda really is to – I always tell people I’m working with that I’m writing for an audience of one. So if I can make that person happy with the book I present to him or her, I feel like my work is done. If the publisher is on board, that’s great. And then if we can bring in a couple hundred thousand readers, that’s great, but my work is really satisfying that one client.

Alessandra: That is so – so you don’t typically get pulled in the middle where the editor’s telling you to go one direction, the celebrity’s telling you to go another and you’re having to…?

Daniel: I might. I might have to broker some sort of booth and be a peacemaker between them if they are wholly at odds. But now think about it, Alessandra, if these guys are paying all this money, they know what they’re getting before they see the book, and the celebrity knows what he or she is delivering before they sit down to write. So, there’s kind of a tacit understanding about what’s going to be on the page. So most of these differences are subtle and they have to do maybe with tone, maybe with voice, maybe with length, you know, it’s not unreasonable. And it’s not uncommon for us to get comments that this is just too long.

Alessandra: Yeah.

Daniel: So those kinds of things do happen.

Alessandra: Kit from YouTube said, do you try to find a theme or arc in a memoir or is it mainly chronological?

Daniel: Again, a good question. I think chronological is always there as the spine. That’s always an option for you. I find it’s the best way for me to build a book. When I work with somebody, I try to work chronologically as I extract their story from them. But that doesn’t mean we present it chronologically in book form. Many memoirs, maybe many of the celebrity memoirs begin this kind of a funny conceit. If you start to read a lot of these books, many of them open with a present-day sort of tipping point moment. And then they say, well – and then I wondered how I got here. And then we flash back and go chronologically. Some of the books are theme-driven. And in that case, you do kind of bounce around and cherry pick from the stories of their lives and you don’t need to work chronologically. I did one book with an athlete with a former pitcher for the New York Mets, Ron Darling. And the conceit of that book was we looked at the structure of a nine-inning game. We have nine chapters with the idea that he…

Alessandra: I really love that. Wow.

Daniel: This inning would tell the story of the pitcher’s mindset at different points in different games. And these were real games. And what we would do between the lines of those chapters, we sort of inadvertently told his story. So even though the games that we chose to cover were not themselves chronologically ordered; the story we told between the lines of each anecdote, we tried to tell the arc of Ron Darling’s career. So it was a little bit of both.

Alessandra: That’s so creative. I really love that. What about, especially in first person, you know, in fiction we have unreliable narrators, and I’m sure in memoirs there’s also unreliable narrators. So what do you do if you have your person and it’s obvious that they’re not telling the truth about their recollection of something? Do you just tell the story as they’re telling it?

Daniel: You know, I kind of have a pretty good bullshit detector. I don’t know if we’re allowed to say that.

Alessandra: We can say bullshit.

Daniel: However, as we were talking about earlier, it is ultimately their call. So my job there is to say, “Look, you know, this seems like a transparent falsehood or a likely falsehood. You’re going to be found out, you know, this is going to live in book form and you’re going to be called on it. So let’s really think long and hard about whether this is the version of the story you want to tell, or the way that you want to tell it.” I have though had many instances in my career where there were, you know, sort of blow – I’m working with like a blow hearty individual, who’s full of bluster who has a fuller sense of himself than maybe he or she deserves.

Alessandra: The fish was this big, you know?

Daniel: And sometimes, you know, you kind of let it go. And I’m not a journalist, I’m not here as a journalist. It’s not my job to sort of catch somebody in a lie. It is my job, however, to point out a lie that’s going to be noticed by their readers. And then we deal with it. And sometimes if it is a phish story and it’s not going to hurt anybody if they embellish a little, you let them embellish, and the reader can determine what the truth is and which elements are larger than life and which are life itself.

Alessandra: And in that same kind of vein, I’m not trying to ask you all these hard questions. I don’t know if they’re hard questions, but do you, sometimes I just don’t care for someone, like their personality maybe is abrasive. So do you soften those personalities or do you just deliver them on the page the way that they come across in real life?

Daniel: I try to make them as likable as I can. Some people are… they’re just unlikable sports, and no amount of spit and polish or ghostwriting expertise is going to change that, so you do the best you can. But if you think about the memoirs that you read and the books that stay with you, it’s people that you care about, people that you root for, people that you want to spend time with. So I think it’s part of my job to make them accessible and agreeable. Maybe that doesn’t always mean likable, but it has to be somebody they will enjoy spending time with in this intimate way over the next eight, 10 or 12 hours.

Alessandra: Yeah. I love that. So how long have your projects normally been from start to finish?

Daniel: You know, some of them have taken me two weeks. I did a book with Whoopi Goldberg and we did it in two weeks because she thought she could write it herself. She’s a talented creative person. She’d written her own material when she was doing her One Woman shows, and she was working on it for a long time. And then the book was finally due and she said, OK, I need a little bit of help with this.

Alessandra: We have two weeks.

Daniel: We have two weeks. And then sometimes I have a year and a half for two years, so it really varies. A lot of what gets built into the schedule is, is the calendar of the celebrity person I’m working with. So if you have two years, it doesn’t mean we’re working on this in a nine to five, all-consuming way for two years. It means we put a pin in it from time to time when they have to go off and shoot a movie, or if it’s an athlete, there in the middle of their season, so it all kind of varies. Typically it takes as long as I have, so my deadline is that’s how long it takes.

Alessandra: I know that you would love to have a career where you write novels full-time, but I have to say, it sounds like such an interesting life being a ghostwriter. In part, part of my jealousy is that you do really get to see like a fly on the wall view of so many different people in their lives it sounds like, you know, and really get inside their head. And I just think of all of the ideas and characters in your fiction writing that you could create out of that. Do you have just a big stack of ideas from things that you’ve gotten out of your…?

Daniel: I do. I mean, a lot of this stuff, as you can imagine, there are NDAs. I can’t, you know, if it doesn’t get in the book, it really can’t live anywhere else. But there are sort of odd moments that I’ve collected and they do find their way into my fictions. There is trace evidence of encounters I’ve had with some of my colleagues in Balloon Dog, for example, but you have to kind of conceal them so that the identifying party can’t recognize himself or herself, but you’re right. It constantly informs my days and the work that I do for myself, but you’ve built a career working, writing your own material, and you’ve found a way to mine that for a living, which is great, so I’m kind of jealous of what you’re able to do.

Alessandra: We can just swap writing lives for a year.

Daniel: Yeah, you’re kind of beholden to these other people, whereas you’re free to do your own thing. You know, I need to sort of wait for the next celeb or the next great story to come knocking at my door. It only rarely works out that I chase people who aren’t thinking of doing a book and convince them to do a book.

Alessandra: Oh, but that has happened before?

Daniel: It has happened a couple of times. But you know, it’s a very big undertaking for somebody, especially, you know, a celebrity, movies or politician, it’s sort of a team decision. You know, their people decide that a book is called for, and for some, you know, schmo from the outside coming up and knocking on the door saying, Hey, let me write your book. You know, there’s a certain level of mistrust because it looks like I’m an outsider trying to get something from them. I work at their pleasure when these books work well, and I don’t want to come off as an adversarial journalist who’s trying to…

Alessandra: Dig for the dirt of – right.

Daniel: So it doesn’t always work out that way, but I think the real goal for me would be to find a balance between what I do and what you do. I want people to read my own stuff. I want to publisher sitting and waiting to publish my next book traditionally. But it might only sell, you know, maybe more people are going to be at my daughter’s wedding than will come and buy my book, you know, but that’s how it works.

Alessandra: Well, I really appreciate you sharing all of your wisdom. We are out of time. Thank you everyone who joined us live. So if they’re interested in reading Balloon Dog, where can they find it?

Daniel: You can find it wherever books are sold – the big boys at Amazon or the Indie bound folks or your local bookstore. If you don’t see it on the shelf, they’ll be happy to order it for you. And if you do read it and you find something to like about it, if you can post a review, that’s really helpful as Alessandra will tell you those reviews really add up and kind of move the algorithms in our favor, so let the world know.

Alessandra: Let everyone know. And there is Daniel’s website, in the chat.

Daniel: Thank you for having me and thank you to your participants for their great questions.

Alessandra: And everyone. We will be back in two weeks for another First Draft Friday.

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