How to ghostwrite a memoir in 7 steps (and 7 years)

Regular readers of this blog will have known that Scattered Pearls, a memoir of Sohila Zanjani, co-written with myself was due to hit the bookshelves in Australasia in early April this year. And indeed it did – on April 1, no less. It's incredibly satisfying to have the book out there, especially as it's taken a long time to get to this point.

So how did we get to this point? It's a question I've been asked a few times, and I think it's a good tale that I hope provides some insight into the writing and publication process. (Please forgive the longer than normal post.)

1. Find your subject

Sohila and I had known each other a few years before we started on this project. I had done some work for her as a consultant, and kept in touch via an occasional (paper) newsletter. As I moved the focus of my work to writing, I added the word 'Ghostwriting' to my list of services on said newsletter. Sohila noticed that and gave me a call.

2. Take a punt; make a commitment

We met. I knew something of Sohila's story but not a lot. What I did know was that she was passionate about sharing where she had come from, warts and all, including the details of her abusive marriage. She asked me if I would help her write her book. It was a punt because unlike my commercial work there would be no payment unless we were able to sell the story, but in the end the story was just too interesting to pass up.

3. Extract the background

Ghostwriting a memoir is different from writing one of your own because, of course, it 'ain't your memories that are going into the story. This means you have to extract the information from your subject, which can be done via interviews and the collection of archives. In Sohila's case, she had an early version of her story already written, along with over 2,500 pages of journals and diaries, so there was plenty of material to work with. There was only one problem: most of these were written in Persian ... and I can't read Persian.

In the end we slowly worked through that early version of the story together, Sohila translating while I recorded, on audio and in writing, what she was telling me. Subsequently Sohila worked through all her other notes, making voice recordings of the English translations along the way and sending those recordings to me. I listened and transcribed the over 500 voice memos in the end.

All of this took a good while, as both of us could only work on it part time – very part time at times – due to other commitments. In the end the task was probably spread over three years at least.

4. Structure and write

As the information started to come together we began to think about how it might be structured. I started some tenuous attempts at writing. Around this time I was studying a course in professional writing and editing at Melbourne's RMIT University. Thankfully one of the subjects involved non-fiction writing which gave me some impetus to write, along with the opportunity to get some feedback on what I was writing.

That said, writing was in some ways the easy part. Sohila had provided me with such a huge amount of information that trying to sort it all out and identify the most interesting parts of her story was a very significant and time-consuming (but enjoyable) part of the exercise. In addition, as I drafted sections I would send them to Sohila for review, which mostly prompted more memories for her and more information to sift and sort.

5. Find an agent/publisher

With three chapters written and reworked to a point that we were happy with, along with outlines of the other chapters, it was time to try and find a publisher. We had committed to finishing the book regardless, and self-publishing if we had to, but that was probably going to take a very long time without a deadline. Not to mention the extra cost.

At RMIT I learnt the finer points of writing a book proposal. I also approached Jacinta di Mase, a literary agent who I knew, and asked her to have a look at our proposal. Thankfully she was very enthusiastic about what we had done and where the story was going and agreed to represent us. She help us refine our proposal, which involved a bit more writing, and then she approached a number of major publishers. We were very grateful and excited when Simon & Schuster Australia enthusiastically took the project on.

From final proposal to agreement to proceed only took a few months, which is not long in this industry. It demonstrates the great benefit of having an agent on your side.

6. Write and re-write

At the time we signed our contract with Simon & Schuster, we had three complete chapters written. Now we had to write the rest – another 14 chapters and what turned out to be nearly 80,000 words of the final word count of 95,000. We had seven months to do it.

Needless to say the next few months were head down and bum up. I still have a gantt chart on my wall on which I had planned out the work. To cut this long story short: I drafted; Sohila commented, fact checked and edited; I polished ... and we continued this cycle until the middle of February 2015 when finally we submitted a full manuscript to the publisher. Along the way Sohila and I met regularly to nut out the details in certain areas. (I look at my chart now and wonder how it actually happened.)

But that wasn't the end of it. Once the publisher's editor had been through the text with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, they came back with a number of suggestions, most of which involved a desire for more information in certain areas. So over the following June and July there was more drafting, re-drafting and polishing, and a lot more discussion, as we created what would be very close to the final manuscript.

7. Wait

Now it was up to our wonderful publishers to do their thing. As the book is a memoir with references to people who are still alive, they had their lawyers look it over. The text was laid out and a really wonderful cover developed. There was a bit of to-ing and fro-ing over minor things here and there, including a last round of minor changes to the text. We were invited to meet the Simon & Schuster team and the pre-publicity machine started to wind up.

About two weeks before release a box of publicity copies of the book was delivered. Now it felt real! But then when we finally had the chance to see it in bookshops on April 1, 2016 and it felt really real.

Of course there are many other authors who have been through, or are going through, a process like this right now. Many will be longer in gestation than Scattered Pearls. And for them, like us, how successful their book will be only time will tell. Regardless, Sohila and I are incredibly proud of what we've achieved ... not to mention relieved to have got it done.

As usual, if you have any questions or comments, please add a comment below, contact me, or visit the 'Scattered Pearls' Facebook page.

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