Several years ago at a party it came up in conversation that I was a professional ghostwriter.
“Oh, I’d be much too scared to try something like that,” one of the guests exclaimed.
I assured her that although it had its challenges, it wasn’t much different from any other writing I do for my novels, plays and articles.
She asked me how I found my clients. I told her that many times they came to me via referral from colleagues or from people who read my work and appreciated that I had a good understanding of today’s publishing industry.
“Oh,” she replied. “I just assumed you went to a lot of séances.”
And that was when I realized she assumed the role of a ghostwriter was to hang out with dead people and pen their stories for them.
Nope. It’s nothing like that at all. A ghostwriter is the “silent partner” of individuals who are very much alive but have neither the time nor the talent to write articles, blogs, novels or scripts of their own. Thus, they essentially pay someone else—the ghostwriter—to do their homework for them, which they then turn in as their own work. While this is certainly frowned upon when it comes to homework, it’s done quite a lot in the business world. Celebrities, for example, often hire ghostwriters to write their memoirs because otherwise they would be unable to write themselves out of a paper bag.
This month’s lesson plans are all about the various scenarios a ghostwriter could encounter … including with a real ghost.
In 1992, a TV show premiered in which a gaggle of New York teenagers get unexpected help in their amateur sleuthing from a ghost who can only communicate via the written word.
Your assignment: Fast forward to the 21st century. What if the “helpful” spirit weren’t a ghost at all but, instead, a super-smart geek who just wants to be one of the cool kids in this secret club? One of the members of the club accidentally discovers his secret. Write a scene in which s/he confronts the “ghost” and either decides to help maintain the charade or encourage him to come forward and share his sleuthing skills for real.
GHOST OF A CHANCE
The names Ann M. Martin and Francine Pascal graced many a cover of The Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High, but did you know these series were actually the undercover ghostwriting of … guys?! Fans were none the wiser, especially since the male authors wisely tapped the expertise of their female relatives and friends on topics such as fashion, hair, makeup and the angst of whether a prom date was in the offing.
Your assignment: It’s the 1930s. Bored with her job as Girl Friday to a detective who doesn’t give her the time of day, your protagonist writes a gritty memoir under a male pseudonym. When it soars to the top of the best-seller list, everyone is suddenly clamoring to meet this “man” of mystery. Does she recruit her boss (and allow him to take the credit)? Does she find an actor she can coach? Or is there a third option? Write a short film treatment that reflects your choice.
THAT’S NOT THE WAY IT HAPPENED!
Clients often hire ghostwriters to write their memoirs for them. The biggest problem, though, is when clients fail to realize that something which is cathartic for the soul isn’t necessarily commercial at the cash register. The intensity with which they want to stay “true to the facts” can easily lose sight of the reality that, frankly, not all of those facts are particularly riveting.
Your assignment: The ghostwriter in your scene is wildly creative. The client is woefully dull. The two of them are sitting back to back—the client in a comfortable chair reflecting on the past, the ghostwriter at his/her laptop. Each time the client utters a reminiscence, the ghostwriter spins it into something more compelling.
Client: It was raining and I missed my bus.
Ghostwriter: The Potomac had spilled its banks that morning, sending a cascade of muddy rivulets down King Street. As I sloshed through water that was now up to my ankles, I could see the bus starting to pull away from the curb. I gave a guttural scream for the driver to stop but no one could hear me above the roar of an ominous wind.
HERE THERE BE PIRATES
Back in the 1980s, The Hamlett Players (yes, that name is no coincidence) produced a comedy called St. Scarlett’s Ghost in which a struggling writer moves into a mansion on the Eastern Seaboard that just happens to be haunted by a pirate. The writer is desperate for a blockbuster idea; the pirate agrees to furnish him with no shortage of swashbuckling adventures on the condition that the writer find out what happened to his body over a century ago so that he can finally have a proper burial. (Spoiler alert: it’s the writer’s fiancée who is ultimately instrumental in bringing the pirate back to life.)
Your assignment: Using this same premise, what type of bargain could a storytelling ghost strike with a living writer in order for both of them to get what they want? (i.e., recovering a treasure, solving a murder, reuniting an estranged family.) Write a three-page scene in which the rules of this curious bargain are set forth.
Extra credit: Rewrite the scene but have the writer in your story someone famous (i.e., Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain) who is currently suffering from writer’s block and prepared to try virtually anything to snap out of it.
As part of my ongoing commitment to supply great lesson plans for today’s classrooms, I always enjoy getting feedback on how the material is used and what kind of new content you’d like to see in future columns. I’m also happy to answer any questions related to specific problems your students may be struggling with. Just drop me a note at or through my website at http://www.authorhamlett.com.
Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author, professional script consultant, and ghostwriter. Her credits to date include 31 books, 157 plays for young actors, and 5 optioned feature films.