5 Writing Lessons I Learned Ghostwriting for New York Times Bestsellers

I’m a bestselling author you’ve never heard of, an invisible man. While ghostwriting, I’ve collaborated with New York Times bestsellers, concepting and writing stories that have reached audiences worldwide and topped sales charts.

It’s been a unique gig, and some of my friends don’t understand why anyone would work in the shadows. But in a culture where traditional apprenticeships are rare, ghostwriting has been the best learning experience I’ve ever had.

Ever.

Not only has it given me a chance to hone my craft but, more importantly, it’s offered me a firsthand, on-the-ground perspective on how top-performing writers work differently from everyone else. The lessons have transformed my writing life, and they’ll do the same for anyone else who applies them. Best of all, there’s nothing magic about any of them.

1. A Deadline Is All the Writing Inspiration You Need

Inspiration is nice but unnecessary. In the end, writers win the war of art because they set a specific goal and move toward it with relentless focus and commitment.

Their weapon of choice is a deadline.

Deadlines are essential because commitment is never proven by what we believe or think. Where creativity is concerned, ideas are a dime a truckload and talk is cheap. All that matters is what we consistently do. Commitment is measured in completed projects.

Every successful author forms the habit of working on deadline long before he signs his first contract. If you hope to find time to write, there will never be enough time. Having a publishing contract doesn’t change that.

Only what is scheduled gets done, and deadlines are the only inspiration you need to turn pro. They keep you honest, they never lie, and you can’t hide from them. Ever.

2. Writer’s Block Is a Choice

Google “writer’s block” and you’ll get close to four million results, mostly articles on hacks and cures to the dreaded disease.

Yet, most professional authors don’t believe in writer’s block. They see it for what it is: fear. And fear, ultimately, is a choice. It’s choosing worry over action and doubt over faith in the creative process. It’s turning away from the resistance instead of leaning into it.

Really, we’re afraid we won’t write something worth reading. We fear the barbed question, Do I really have what it takes?

Whether you think you do or don’t, you’re right. If you want to be successful, though, you must get words down as quickly as possible without judging their worth. All that matters is the writing, getting the raw material down. You can always go back and edit, but you can never fix words that don’t exist.

It’s quite simple, and once you defeat fear a few times, you’ll surprise yourself at what you can do. After a while you might stop believing in writer’s block too.

3. Don’t Forget to Play

Something tends to happen to us as we grow up. In the rush to pay bills and keep up with our busy lifestyle, it’s easy to lose our sense of play and wonder. Children are wiser in that way than we are. They know how to play because they don’t know what’s impossible.

That’s why people read books and watch movies. They want to experience what it’s like to marvel at the world. Most people stumble through life numb, and writers offer them an escape into wonder once again so they can see things anew.

If you want readers to have an emotional experience, you must first have it yourself. You must first go where you want readers to go. The audience will forgive a lesser craftsman if she touches their hearts and reminds them what it is to play and grow young.

But first, you have to play. You have connect with and enjoy your work. Approach it with lightness and playfulness and that will shine through your words.

4. Selling Millions Doesn’t Make You Feel Secure

What is it like to finally “make it” and achieve your dreams? Over the years I’ve asked dozens of authors who, collectively, have sold hundreds of millions of books worldwide. What does it feel like to be at the top of your game?

The answer: It doesn’t feel much different.

I’ve been surprised at how many bestsellers feel like beginners. Every time they sit down, they wonder if this will the book that proves them a fraud. They wonder when it will get easier, or when they’ll stop doubting themselves.

Even heroes are human, and most wrestle with crushing doubts and insecurities. Selling millions and hitting various bestseller lists doesn’t take that away. Sometimes it worsens it.

Achieving a certain level of success magnifies the comparison game. There’s always someone farther ahead than you, or selling more books. The temptation to compare yourself never goes away, which is why the most important lesson I’ve learned is…

5. The Work Is the Point

On some level, we’ve all bought into our culture’s definition of success. Yet, those who set out to write for money, fame, or validation will be disappointed. Your job is to tell the best story possible, and to share that experience with others.

Fault in Our Stars John GreenJohn Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars offers up some of the best advice I’ve read on the doing the work for the sake of it.

Don’t make stuff because you want to make money—it will never make you enough money. And don’t make stuff because you want to get famous—because you will never feel famous enough. Make gifts for people—and work hard on making those gifts in the hope that those people will notice and like the gifts.

Maybe they will notice how hard you worked, and maybe they won’t—and if they don’t notice, I know it’s frustrating. But, ultimately, that doesn’t change anything—because your responsibility is not to the people you’re making the gift for, but to the gift itself.

I once attended a book signing for an author for whom I had ghostwritten. Standing off to the side, where I could quietly watch the long line of readers as they met the author, I had an experience that I’ll never forget.

A woman stepped up to the signing table, tears in her eyes, and a book in her hands. It was a book I had written. Even from where I stood I could hear her say how much the story meant to her. It was the strangest mix of emotions I’d ever felt–equal parts joy, pride, and disappointment that I couldn’t talk to her about it.

It reminded me like nothing else could that storytelling is a co-creative process, and we must release our work into the world once it’s finished. After that, it belongs to the world.

If your dream is to write to entertain or move other people, the only way to find joy and be free is to give your gift to others with no strings attached. Take the journey and then let it go. The work, in many ways, must be our reward.

The work is everything. If you can learn that early in the process, you’ll find more freedom than you believed imaginable, and your work will reflect that creative freedom.

The End and the Beginning

Being invisible is a mixed bag, I’ll be the first to admit. Yet it has been my greatest pleasure, and it has shaped me as an artist.

More importantly, it’s reminded me that anyone can make it. Bestsellers aren’t necessarily the best writers. They’re simply the most tenacious. They persevere a little longer than everyone else. And they acted like bestsellers long before they sold their first book.

There’s a lesson in that.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Have you ever considered ghostwriting? What lessons do you think you might take away from such an experience? Tell me in the comments!

5 Writing Lessons I Learned Ghostwriting for New York Times Bestsellers

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Kevin Kaiser has helped authors and publishers reach over 20 million fans worldwide. His online community, 1KTrueFans, helps writers find their voice, build an audience from scratch and create for a living.

Comments

  1. This post is beautiful and inspiring. Thank you, Kevin, for so eloquently sharing your wisdom.

  2. Wow, what a fantastic and encouraging post! I’ve been in a slight writing slump over the last few weeks and you’ve really made my day and provided just the encouragement I needed to keep diligently at it and get back in fighting. 😉 Thanks so much for sharing!!

  3. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Kevin!

  4. Thanks so much Kevin! Your words are very relevant and inspiring, especially since you tackle this topic from such a unique position. If you don’t mind me asking, I’m curious to know more about your profession. How did you become a ghost writer and why did you choose to be one instead of an official novelist? How much of your efforts can impact a novel’s final outcome? What’s the job like in general? Also, would you mind sharing some relevant novels you have been part of writing?

    • I’m also curious about ghostwriting, but from a different point of view. I have a character who wants to write, but is so timid about her own writing that she’s chosen to be a ghostwriter. This is the most informative post on the subject I’ve read so far, so I’m curious as a matter of research.

      • Kevin Kaiser says:

        If you have any specific questions, please fire away. I’m happy to help however I can.

        • Why do so many people think that ghostwriting is unethical or some have even said that it means that you should not be writing in the first place ? It’s seems more like collaboration to me. I don’t see what the big deal is.

    • Kevin Kaiser says:

      Hey P.S.,

      Contractually, I’m not able to talk about specific books I’ve worked on. That’s part of the deal.

      How I got into ghosting…Honestly, it just kind of happened. I was managing an author at the time who wanted to experiment with some serialized fiction, but didn’t have the time to do it. And I was in a place where I wanted a successful author to mentor me. So we struck a deal. Luckily I was just good enough to live up to my part of the bargain. We both got a lot out of it.

      As far as why…The first reason was to learn. It’s not every day bestselling authors mentor lesser skilled writers. It was a great learning experience.

      On your question about how it works…I’ve concepted and written 100% of some books and co-concepted and partially written others. Always, I was key to the storyboarding, execution, and editing.

      • Thanks so much for responding! Its very cool that you’ve been able to learn and do so much by being a ghost writer.

  5. Garrett says:

    Thanks Kevin for that much needed point of view!

    I think all of us ‘creative’ types yearn for words of wisdom now and again (more often now).

    The brilliant message of your article transcends writing and really meets us on anything we are passionate to do. I’m definitely saving this article! 🙂

  6. great article and some healthy reality checks that writers
    block is just fear and even very successful authors worry
    if their next book will expose them as frauds.

    K M Weiland delivers every time .

  7. I came *this* close to work-for-hire writing for a book producer, about ten years ago. It was the same producer behind the “Warrior Cats” series (I never read that series, for the record). I learned then that outlines help the writing go faster. For one thing, certain things you might not realize until the second draft can go in the first–you *know* what needs foreshadowing, you know where to put Chekhov’s gun. I also discovered I love deadlines, they keep my imagination firing on all cylinders.

    I had a teacher say once that writer’s block is a sign of insufficient planning. I always thought he was right about that, because I’m a hybrid planner/pantser and the blocks only come when I’m not sure what will happen next. I generally know the beginning, the middle, and the end of the story, plus a set-piece or two, but I have no idea how to get from point A to M to Z. That’s why outlining has always been right out for me. I generally can’t do any real concrete outlining until I’ve reached point M.

    Enter the deadline, my saving grace: I do not get writer’s block when I have a deadline. I might approach a scene where I think “I’m not sure how they’re going to get out of this,” or “how will I bring them together?” but when I start writing the problem solves itself. I just slip into the character and think of what that character would do, given what she knows and what she has on hand.

    I agree that money isn’t the point. The highest compliment I’ve ever been paid happened early in life. In middle school I wrote a play, and let one person read it. In high school she tracked me down and asked if I would let her read it again. It told me that my story had stayed with her, she’d thought about it, and she *liked* it and wanted to experience it all over again. I think of her from time to time whenever I’m having a crisis of confidence.

  8. To answer your question, I have never considered ghost writing because I don’t think I could watch someone else take credit for my work. Using your example, I would want to hug that woman in line and chat with her about the book. When I read your story it struck me in the gut, and then I wanted to hug you, too. See? I’m not cut out for ghostwriting, but I admire those who do.

    • Kevin Kaiser says:

      Hey Sue! Yep, everyone’s different. In hindsight, being “backstage” has been a real blessing.

      • Ann Jones says:

        Being a ghostwriter would be wonderful! All of the rewards of the work plus being published – but none of the pressures of living up to the expectations of the last book.

        Thanks for your wonderful article.

  9. This is great from a ghostwriter’s point of view. I’d like to look at this a different way and point out what ghostwriter’s mean to authors.

    I’m happy and willing to admit that I write 90%+ of my own stuff but that I’ve contracted with two different, excellent ghostwriter’s to write 6 specific scenes/chapters out of my four books for me. As a result of using these two people, my last two books specifically got out faster and I could stick to writing the stuff I’m great at when I left the writing of those scenes to folks who were great at those. Writer’s block wasn’t a problem because I wasn’t stuck trying to figure out how not to suck at something that needed to be spot on.

    Did I consider slogging through and writing the scenes myself? I absolutely did. Would they have been my best writing? Even though I did my research (and you can look at my book purchases on Goodreads or Shelfari) and gave it some thought, in the end, I realized I wasn’t playing to my strengths. I focused on what I do best instead and contracted out the rest. When the work came back, of course I had to tweak it and prod it a little to fit the story I’d already built around it and to give it my voice but that was oh so much easier than doing them myself and not giving my best effort.

  10. I love the simplicity and truth in this article, thank you. I will share at hoyecomova.com

  11. This is an amazing post! These lessons are so important and are not discussed as much as they should be (I especially enjoyed lesson 1). I love the point of view as well. I can’t imagine how frustrating and exhilarating being a ghostwriter must be. Thank you for sharing what you know. Great article!

  12. This was such an inspiring post. Thanks so much for sharing.

    I think when we write – whether we know it or not – we place a lot in the ‘recognition’ of our work, or better in the recognition that we are the crafter of that work. But it’s ture, the work is the most important part. It’s our reward when it’s done at the best of our skill, and the gift for other when it touches their hearts.
    I think this is the very essence of storytelling. There should be some kind of selflessness, that’s how we make a gift, I suppose.
    Once upon a time, the story was always the most important part, the storyteller could only add to it with his heart and his skills. We should always remember that. I think this would make us better storytellers… and possibly better persons 😉

    So, you know, I think writer’s block relates to this. When we think to ‘us’ first of all and not to the ‘story’; when we are concerned with what will happen to us, rather then think what the story can offer, that’ when the so-called writer’s block strike you.
    When I come to a stale point, I always think: what’s best for the story? That has always un-stuck me. It may take som etime (months, on occasions) but it has always worked 🙂

  13. Lovely post. Thank you for the solid advice and sharing your feelings.

    I know a ghost writer but he doesn’t have your experience, he is at the beginning of his career. He has zero constraints, like kids, just writing and a deadline.

    I’m a painter. The deadline is the most inspiring thing in my work. If a show is not looming, I paint slower.

    Painter’s block does exist. It happened to me once in my 30 year career. It happened because I had stagnated into a genre, created my own cliché, repeated it. It wasn’t an individual painting but a period of upheaval and digging. I could have remained in the cliché. I had to play my way out.

    That’s great advice, to remember to play.

  14. Yes, I have considered ghost writing. I actually do some for a blog already. Would love to do some longer pieces. For me, it’s a way to help others communicate their ideas. I enjoy doing that and feel great satisfaction when the other person feels good about that happening for them. Ghostwriting has taught me to love writing for the act of doing it and also for how it can help others. I’ve also learned to be able to research & write on quite a variety of topics. Your points are solid ones, and I look forward to experiencing the process more as I receive opportunities to ghost write more.

  15. Kevin,

    Thank you so much for a meaningful, insightful, and enlightening post. I’ve frequently considered ghostwriting, but have never taken that first step. Mostly, I suppose, because I didn’t know what the first step was.

    But there is also a grain of fear there. What if I can’t make it as a ghostwriter?

    You deftly handled that, too.

    Thank you!

    And CT is right. This blog always delivers! It’s among my favorites!

  16. Kevin,

    Love that you shared all this. I’ve been writing for several years, and I’ve ghostwritten some novellas and screenplays. Nothing as big as a New York Times bestseller. But I really want to write my own stuff, although it’s hard to build an audience. It’s really frustrating sometimes, but I know I have to keep plugging away at it. Ghostwriting has at least helped me to improve my craft while also getting paid a little as well.

    Couple questions:
    * How much should a ghostwriter be charging for writing a novel? I’ve always struggled with this because the jobs I’ve taken haven’t really felt like the pay justified the amount of time I spent on them.
    * When will we get to read a Kevin Kaiser novel? I’ve been looking forward to that day for awhile. Really enjoyed a short story you put on your blog a few years ago. I can’t remember the title, but it was about artists filling a lake with their tears. It’s always stuck with me.

    Great post. Thanks again!

  17. Deadlines! Took off this year to write, and I’ve learned the hard way that deadlines are my key. Thanks for the reinforcement. I can see how ghostwriting would help you hone your skills. Deadlines and styles must be constantly managed. I will be using your tips.

    Thanks.

  18. Kevin, your insightful words on deadlines, inspiration, and commitment are spot on – because the trio is truly inseparable. In my ghostwriting work on behalf of my memoir clients, I use a weekly appointment schedule to review already-written copy and interview for new copy. They have shared how keeping to a deadline schedule has actually force-fed their inspiration – meaning that they had to be prepared to continue relating their story, and finding and communicating the distinctiveness of their story, in time for our meeting. As I worked on the manuscript, the strict deadline had the same effect on me. I looked forward to the segments of each week I set aside to dive into their stories – and their heads – and keep writing. The satisfaction we shared when we met to review the work was so fulfilling. Deadlines are their own reward.

    Thank you for your reminder that discipline to deadlines is a good thing. A very good thing.

  19. I agree that writer’s block is a choice. The cure is to write. Write and keep writing. You can come back and edit later.

  20. Kevin: Thank you for sharing so much wisdom with such clarity.

    If ever there was an “evergreen” post for authors, this is it.

    There’s a lifetime of wisdom in your words.

    Earlier this week, BTW, I was reading the sample chapters to Thomas L. Friedman’s Thanks for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, marveling at how masterfully he wrote. I actually read a few sentences out loud to my wife.

    My point: what you wrote above is at the same level of engagement and relevance.

    Best wishes–Roger

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  1. […] Deadlines are essential because commitment is never proven by what we believe or think. Where creativity is concerned, ideas are a dime a truckload and talk …read more […]

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  3. […] A lot of writing craft is instinctive and subjective. Jordan Dane explains how to stay true to your writer voice across genres, Scott Myers explores Ray Bradbury’s advice about writing: don’t think…feel, and Kevin Kaiser shares 5 lessons he learned while ghostwriting for New York Times best-selling authors. […]

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