My long strange trip to ghostwriting.

Jenna Brett -- GhostwriterYou know that ‘resume check’ question that always comes up whenever you meet someone new? You might be at a cocktail party, your kid’s birthday party, or exchanging casual conversation with your Uber driver. No matter where you are or who you’re talking to, if the conversation lasts more than three minutes, the question is going to rear its ugly head.

Twenty years ago my answer was “art director at an ad agency”. Response: Yawn. Move on.

Ten years ago my answer was “marketing and PR director for a software company”. Response: Yawn. Move on.

Two years ago my answer was “antiquarian bookseller”. Response: Brow furrowed in confusion, followed by a request for the definition of ‘antiquarian’, then… Yawn. Move on.

But now things are different. Now my response is “I’m a ghostwriter for steamy romance novels.”

The response is almost always instantaneous, over-the-top fascination, followed by a barrage of questions. Usually my answers send my inquisitor into fits of giggles and awkward blushes. To a person, they leave my company grinning from ear-to-ear, remembering my name, and wishing they could do what I do to earn a living.

I have to admit, it’s pretty cool being me on those days.

I was never the popular kid in school. In my previous professional life I was miserable, doing work I mostly hated, for people I did not respect (and who certainly didn’t respect me one bit). When I left that professional world to become a bookseller, I struggled financially – painfully so – to the point that I almost became homeless a couple of times, and probably would have were it not for the support of family and friends who were there for me when things got rough. It goes without saying that I’m still not used to all the positive reactions to my new ‘career’. I hardly know what to do with it. That said, it’s been a welcome, and long awaited turn in my fortunes that has me viewing my ‘contribution to the world’ through an entirely different lens than the one I was sold when I was a young person, first choosing my path forward.

Growing up, most of my influences were pretty high-brow, intellectual types. They were judgy too. They scoffed at soap operas, pop music, blockbuster movies, representative art, and – especially – trashy novels.

Both of my parents were fine artists; painters and sculptors. They were bohemian types who smoked cigarettes, discussed Jackson Pollack’s alcoholism, and debated the merits of Andy Warhol’s most popular work. They listened to Dylan and Chet Baker, preferred noir films with subtitles, and when they read novels (rarely), they read Hemingway, Faulkner, and Ayn Rand.

My first husband (who was also my first real boyfriend), was also a sculptor. He wanted to be an avante-garde type too. He read Kafka and Sartre, Nietzsche and (pretended to read) Proust. His musical taste tended toward an essentially unlistenable fringe of death-punk. His favorite film – ever – was Barton Fink (look it up).

The fact that I was never going to be a fine artist was bad enough, but that I chose Graphic Design and a career in advertising and marketing was a little much for all of them to endure. What really caused my parents (and later my husband) the most head-scratching bewilderment was the fact that I love pop music (the cheesier the better); that my favorite movie – ever – is Fried Green Tomatoes; and that I love romance stories just about any way they are served up.

Of course, to maintain the peace, I always had to keep my preferences on the down-low. I became a closet writer of trashy romance along the way. It was my dirty little secret; my guilty pleasure. It was something I did for me, and me only.

But then one day when I was scrambling to pick-up copy-writing gigs on a freelance website (something I have done for decades on and off when I need ready cash), I stumbled upon a job posting for a ghostwriter.

The ad was quite specific about the work; describing essentially what I already did, almost every day, without any compensation at all. The poster of the ad was clear that my name would/could never be associated with any title I wrote that was published, and that I would have to sign a contract and non-disclosure agreement to that effect. It went on to detail what the compensation for my efforts would be, and that if the first project went well, there would be more (a lot more) where that came from.

To make a long story short, on a total whim I applied for the job by completing a detailed questionnaire describing my experience as a writer (extensive, I’m a published non-fiction author), and by providing three samples of original work in the romance genre (one of which had to include a graphic sex scene). After that, I really didn’t expect to hear anything back. It was a long shot, after all, and I knew that the ad poster would get a ton of applicants.

I was shocked (as shit!) when, the very next day, I got a reply from (we’ll just call her) “Deborah” (the author), telling me that she loved my stuff. She sent me an outline for two chapters of a novel she was working on and asked me to write the chapters. She agreed to pay for my work and further agreed that she would not publish the work unless I was hired for the project.

That was a hoop I was happy to jump through. 6000 words and twenty-for hours later, I was a ghostwriter.

Sounds easy, right? Well, it really was, kind of. Except for the fact that I’ve spent an entire lifetime reading good books, not so good books, living my own life on the extremes (so I have a lot of personal experience to draw upon when I have to imagine a particularly challenging scene), and I’ve completed at least seven book-length works in both fiction and non-fiction. On top of that, I cannot account for the thousands of pages of fiction prose I’ve written just for the hell of it; stuff that will never see the light of day.

So, yeah. Maybe it was easy to get this gig and make it last. But it took me twenty-five years of foundation work to get here. On top of that, it took me being able to get past my own judgy, literary snobbery, and embrace the fact that my ‘contribution’ to this little slice of the literary world makes people happy. It gives them an escape. It’s pure, guileless entertainment. It’s fun to read and it’s more fun to write.

How many people get to say – honestly – that their day job is to make people giggle, grin, and squirm in their seat just a little bit? Not many at all, I’ll wager. And I get to do all that, and do it in my pajamas.

It’s good to be me!

1 thought on “My long strange trip to ghostwriting.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *