As part of my ongoing series of interviews about different book-related jobs, careers, and hobbies (catch-up blog posts coming soon), I talked to a ghost writer about her life as the ghost behind the name.
Katy worked as a features writers for national newspapers and independently before beginning to work on creating books for people who couldn’t, or didn’t want to, write their own. You can watch the interview in the video or scroll on down for a transcription.
EJ: Hello lovely humans and welcome to another bookish jobs interview. I’m here today with Katy Weitz who is a ghostwriter. She has worked on eight books for some of the UK’s biggest publishers, and runs her own press agency First Features. So, Katy, thank you for joining me. I’ve given you a basic introduction but would you like to introduce yourself and tell us a bit about what it is you do?
KW: Thanks for having me here today. Well, I writer other people’s real life stories for them. So if somebody has had a very distressing, or shocking, or interesting life story and they can’t necessarily put it into words, I’m the person who does that for them.
We have many hours of interviewing and then I go away and I write it in the book form. And it’s done as a collaborative effort. So everything I write goes to the person whose story this is, the author, they edit it, make any changes, make any suggested alterations, and then it comes back to me. We go through the chapters that way until we have a finished book.
EJ: That’s a really interesting job to have in general but I know this isn’t something you’ve always done. You worked as a features writer in newspapers. So writing in general is something you’ve done for a long time?
KW: I always wanted to write, yeah, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do necessarily, or how I wanted to write. I suppose I was always quite interested in current affairs and when I got to university I decided I’d just try student journalism. And I went into the student newspaper offices and I was just knocked out by the newsroom. The energy, the adrenaline, the excitement of it. I know it was only a student newspaper but still it was just thrilling. And I fell in love with journalism and writing stories and chasing stories. Just feeling at the cutting edge of things.
After university I studied with Trinity Mirror group so they trained me up as a journalist and I went and worked at all their titles for a few months as an intern and then I got my first job on the People newspaper as a feature writer and it just went on from there. I think feature writing came very naturally for me because even though I love stories it was the writing that I always really enjoyed the most.
EJ: So you did the student newspaper, was your degree an English degree or something completely different?
KW: No, no. I studied politics, philosophy and economics. Like I said I was interested in current affairs, I was always very politically minded. I quite liked English but I didn’t like studying it. I was quite energised by politics and I suppose journalism brought those two things together.
EJ: I suppose, journalism into ghostwriting, there’s actual a logical progression there in terms of writing stories.
KW: Absolutely, there’s a very natural path. I never thought I would write books, I mean it’s complete truism that as soon as you become a journalist everyone says ‘when are you going to write your first book?’ and my response was always ‘Never!’. Because it seemed like an awful lot of work! I was used to writing 500 words at a time, 1500 words tops. You know, I thought that’s about as much as I can do.
But then I guess I came across stories. And once I left national newspapers, and I was selling stories with my features agency to magazines, I came across these stories that just couldn’t be told in 1500 words and, I thought, I’m not doing them justice.
And then it was entirely coincidental, a friend had left the magazine to go into publishing and she said let me know if you come across any stories. And i came across this lady, Tina Davis, whose story was so extraordinary. It became my first book – Daddy’s Little Secret. I just told her all about it, I showed her the magazine article I wrote, and she took a punt on me which I thought was very brave because I didn’t know how to write a book (and I’d never tried). And once they’d offered me the advance I sort of panicked and though ‘Oh god what am I going to do?’ 75,000 words is a lot when you’ve only ever written 1500. But once I’d calmed down and worked it out in my head I thought okay, I’ll give it shot, and it was really good, I really enjoyed it!
EJ: It’s really interesting hearing how you got your first book but how does the process of ghostwriting start in other cases?
KW: There’s no set way that you get a story. I think in the same way that any journalist gets a story. You just have to keep your ears to the ground. I’ve had a lot of years as a journalist so my sense of what makes a good story has been honed. So they come to me different ways. Some stories come to me now directly because somebody has seen that I’m a ghostwriter, or they’ve read a book that I’ve written, and they want to know if I want to do their story. Some come through my agent, and others come through journalism contacts; people who are still working in the journalism business who don’t necessarily want to write books themselves but have handled stories that are very interesting to the public and they know would make good books.
EJ: So once you’ve got a story, what’s the day to day work of a ghostwriter like? What are the different processes that you have to do? Because it’s not like an ordinary writer just working on your ideas, there’s way more things that you’re getting on with.
KW: Yeah I suppose so. I think there are just two very distinct parts. There’s the interviewing and then there’s the writing bit. Every ghost is different, I don’t purport to be the voice of all ghosts, but the way I do it is that I interview intensely for 4 or 5 days. And I lock myself in a room with the person and we go through the whole story chronologically, we just start at the beginning and we power through. It’s a very intense process but it’s amazing because usually by the end you’ve learned things about this person that nobody has every learned before.
It’s very important, obviously, that I am writing things that are true, that come from somebody’s memory. So I have to make sure that they stay in that memory and that they can tell me everything. Like what colour the curtains were, what the smell was, what time of year it was. And all these little details are really important.
And then I go away, I transcribe all the interviews, which usually takes a couple of weeks. And then I sit back and I think where does everything go, how does it all fit together, and start putting it all in chapters. And that’s where the more creative part comes for me, because I have to tell a story that the reader wants to join in with, not just that somebody is telling. I have to create a narrative.
EJ: It sounds like you need some different skills to do this job. You’re going to need really good people skills to do something as intense as that!
KW: I think, like with a lot of journalism, it starts with interest. If you are interested in people, and if you are curious about people then everything else can flow from there. I think most journalism can be learned, I don’t think I do anything totally different from any other writer, but if you’re interested in people everything flows. But you need empathy, you need warmth, you need people to want to talk to you, and want to open up to you. And you need to be able to listen, and when to shut up and let somebody just empty their mind, their heart and their soul out! But I think it starts with just being curious.
EJ: How does it work between you and the publishers? Do you write the story and then shop it, or do they approach you and ask you to write something for someone they’ve found?
KW: Well now I’ve got an agent it’s a bit different. I got an agent three books in because I really needed someone who was batting on my side and knew about the contracts and stuff. But now if I think there’s a story that’s got legs i will work with the author on putting together a proposal. This is a really detailed outline of what’s in the book. It’s got a synopsis, chapter by chapter detail of what’s in it, as well as my theories of where this is placed in the market and what the chances are of it doing really well. And then my agent will give me a lot of feedback on that to make sure it’s the best proposal it can be and he puts that round to different publishers.
Occasionally a publisher approaches you saying ‘would you like to meet this author with a view to working on their book together’. I mean that hasn’t happened to me very often but I know there are plenty of other ghosts out there who are a bit more called upon. I think it depends on your speciality, I haven’t done a lot of celebrities. Celebrity memoirs it can be ‘ah well we’ll use that person because they’re good with celebrities’.
EJ: How does the self-promotion work with being a ghostwriter? Can you get your name out there or does it have to be a trade secret?
KW: It’s becoming less a trade secret. For example my sixth book, Tressa: The 12 Year Old Mum, has my name is on the front cover and the spine as well. I think it’s generally accepted now that ghostwriting is a common thing. I think we’re all a bit less coy and secretive about it. Especially since Zoella got her book ghostwritten and there was this big outcry because everyone was shocked she didn’t write it herself. But everyone in publishing was like ‘of course she didn’t write it herself, it’s really hard to write books!’. So I think it’s gradually becoming more accepted that you can put your name out there and that you can have your name up there with the author’s.
EJ: What are the things that make you excited to be a ghostwriter, to keep doing it? And what are the worst things?
KW: I think the bets is when somebody tells you something and you know nobody else has heard this before and it’s a real privilege that somebody has shared this with you. Obviously when you get a deal that’s really exciting and filled with adrenaline. And the worst thing? Well writing is a slog! It can be hard.
EJ: I know you do a lot of other things besides writing so how do you fit that into your day?
KW: Well there is no typical ghostwriter so I’m going to just have to give you a day in my life because I also own a campsite. So the first thing I do is I get up and I answer all the campsite enquiries! I feed the chickens, and I feed my children and get them off to nursery and school. And then if I’m in the middle of a book I’ll take myself off somewhere. I just wake up that day and decide where I’m going tot go and write. And I write for four or five hours. I try to do one chapter a day which is about 3000 words, as well as check back over the previous chapter that I wrote the day before to edit it and get myself back into it.
If the muse isn’t there, if you’re not feeling it, well you don’t have any choice, you just keep going! But if it’s working it’s feeling nice then that’s it. I don’t write at night, it’s a job. So I do 10am-4pm and that’s my writing day and I try not to do any more. In the evenings I might talk to people on the phone and do a bit of admin but I don’t write any more.
EJ: If people are interested in knowing more about you or contacting you then where can they find you or what can they find?
My twitter is @ghostwriterbook
My website is ghostwriter4hire.org
And they could also pick up my latest book! Sins of the Mother by Irene Kelly. It’s really interesting. It’s a story told from three perspectives: a mother, a father, and a daughter. And I’m really proud of this one. It’s one where structurally I did something very different and it’s quite exciting for me.
Thank you to Katy for answering all my questions and I hope you all enjoyed reading her answers!
And I’ll return to the science fiction and fantasy programming in the next post, I promise!
Much love and sparkly rockets.