If there’s one skill a ghostwriter – or any writer – should develop, it is the art of listening. Knowing when to remain quiet, and simply observe and absorb what you’re hearing, is a way of gathering information that can be used in your work in both a conscious and sub-conscious way.
Yet, many of us are terrible listeners. We might not admit it, but we are. In the era of social media, even once-reclusive and observant writers are all too ready to do their little verbal dance. How do we row back from this, and once again learn how to use silence to fire our imagination?
The movie star Charlie Chaplin once gave a budding actor a lesson in the craft of acting that he would never forget. “Don’t just stand around waiting for your chance to speak,” he said. “Learn to listen…”
The rookie actor was David Niven, who became one of the greatest screen actors of his generation. He also proved to be an equally good – if not better – writer, as his books of Hollywood anecdotes and observations attest.
It was – and is – an excellent piece of advice, and one equally applicable today, especially for those working in the realm of non-fiction and ghostwriting. The problem is that too many of us are way to keen to interject and chip in, adding our own thoughts and observations into the flow. I don’t mean the asking of relevant questions; I’m talking about extended speeches made by the interviewer, during which they take little notice of what they’re being told – because they’re too busy talking about themselves.
Inevitably, this comes out in the work we’re creating. When we’re ghostwriting, we’re aiming to create a narrative in which our subject’s voice stands out loud and clear. That’s the subject’s voice, not that of the ghostwriter. The ghost who hasn’t listened much, or at all, will almost inevitably revert to their own style, stamping their mark on the story being narrated by someone else.
This, of course, is a fault of the ego, and while a big ego is often a feature of what we might call ‘regular’ writers, it shouldn’t allow itself to creep into ghostwriting. If it does, you know you’re working with the wrong person.
Once, I worked with a client who’d already had a ghostwriter assigned to her story. It hadn’t worked out. “She just doesn’t get me,” the client said. I’d been asked to help her out of the mess, so first I took a look at the text. Even though I’d only met the client for an hour or so, I could immediately tell by what had been written that the ghostwriter had got it badly wrong.
The writing was rushed and muddled. Not only that, but the ghost had tried to write in the way she thought the client spoke, as opposed to how she really did speak. It was like watching an embarrassingly bad impersonation of someone. We scrapped the lot and started again. The result? A Sunday Times bestseller.
A good ghostwriter listens, prompts, reflects, pauses, observes and considers. We take away what we’ve been told, and we mould and shape it into a narrative that both reflects and enhances our client’s voice. We use our writing skills not to push our own view of the story, but to craft what is already there, emphasising some areas and downplaying others in order to bring the very best out of the narrative.
That’s the theory, anyway. Now, when there are more ghostwriters around than ever, it can be a hard job finding one whose ego isn’t jostling with that of the client’s, making for a rocky and painful road ahead. And if this ghostwriter demands their name on the front of the book – then buyer beware!!
I take my cues in this area from Native American culture. It is said that unlike many peoples, the Native Americans put a cultural emphasis on listening as opposed to speaking. They don’t talk for the sake of talking, and they’re not big on small talk. In their first encounters with the white man, the latter were puzzled by the lack of conversation. According to legend, someone asked an Indian chief why they didn’t chat. “Oh, we’re listening,” came the reply, “and the more closely we listen to you, the more you reveal your truth…”