Ghostwriting – yes or no?

For the past few months I have been proud to guest write for the great Phileas Dogg website – it’s all about travelling with your dog in the UK and is written for dogs – by dogs.  I guess you could call it a form of ghostwriting.  I have to really get into the character of the narrating dog (they are, incidentally, all dogs I know well!) and decide what sort of personality that dog would have were it telling the story.  There’s the cheeky terrier cross from Essex, the aloof and beautiful Tibetan Terrier show dog and the patient German Shepherd from Northern Ireland in charge of a home with 12 cats.  It’s a great opportunity to combine my two passions – writing and dogs.

I have actually met one of the great contemporary ghostwriters through a friend.  A very modest guy, he is responsible for writing many of the official bestselling biographies on footballers, TV personalities, oligarchs and celebrities on the bookshelves today. The chances are, you’ll have read some of his work, yet you will have never heard of him and unlike his famous subjects, you will certainly never recognise him in the street.  He’s in the process of writing the biography of an incredibly famous pop star at the moment, but although I’m dying to tell, confidentiality means I can’t breathe a word!

Many writers turn up their nose at ghostwriting. It is definitely not a place for the inflated ego. There is no recognition and little glory: you won’t even be acknowledged for the hard graft that you put into that bestselling celebrity biography that is at number two in the charts. Ghostwriters are the unsung heroes of the writing world, shadowy figures that lurk in the background and take none of the credit for their work.  A friend ghostwrites a celebrity column in a women’s magazine. The celeb in question can barely string a sentence together.  So why do it?

Ghostwriting takes immense skill.  It needs a very special type of writer to get under the skin of a famous person and make them open up about all the intimate and painful details of their lives. You will need to completely gain their trust, before you tell the world their story: in building a close rapport with your subject, you will become their confidante. For those interested in human nature and the psychology of fame, unrestricted access to the private lives of the super famous and wealthy can be fascinating.  Of course, confidentiality agreements are always signed so the chances are you can never breathe a word of the really mind-blowing stuff!

Celebrity ghostwriting is, on the whole, very well paid. (The dogs I write for sadly aren’t able to keep me in the manner to which I am accustomed; it’s a labour of love.  But it does combine two of my favourite ways to spend my time!) Writing for the rich and famous is excellent bread and butter work which pays the bills and in the writing world, that is an opportunity not to be missed. In my day job I’m a legal proofreader, which enables me to spend the rest of my time pursuing my writing until such time when my writing pays for itself.  I read somewhere on Twitter that the average writer’s salary is £11,000, so another form of steady income is needed for those of us without a trust fund or wealthy partner.  As well as being lucrative, ghostwriting can also be very interesting, good for your writing portfolio and although you will likely not be acknowledged, your work may be read by millions.

Jane Wenham-Jones’ excellent Wanna Be A Writer series examines ghostwriting and its pros and cons.  My advice would be to consider it as an option. The ghostwriter I know is, as I write, likely sitting on a private jet with the pop star, or by the pool at his Caribbean home as they work on the book.  Like writing a column, ghostwriting is an avenue every writer would do well to explore.

http://www.phileasdogg.com

Is it OK to use people you know as your characters?

IMAG0156“Am I in it?” friends and colleagues have often asked of my Work In Progress.  Is it ever OK to use someone you know as a ‘fictional’ character in your novel or short story?  Some bestselling authors auction off their characters for charity: if you are the winning bidder then a character in their next novel is named after you, or you at least get a small ‘walk-on’ part. Marian Keyes and Jojo Moyes have both done this and it’s a great idea: who wouldn’t want to star in a top ten bestseller?

But what of us mere writing mortals?  Can we use real people without getting sued?  My WIP novel is set in the legal profession so I am going to have to be doubly – if not trebly – careful that nobody in my book bears the faintest of resemblance to anyone in real life!

My answer, though, is of course you can use real people for inspiration.   Observing people is one of my great passions in life.  How we interact, our relationships, the complicated dynamics of family and friendships, our character quirks, even office politics: people just fascinate me.  In another life I perhaps would have been a social worker or a psychologist; I even have the sociology degree gathering dust.  In fact, I spent years wanting to retrain as a prison psychiatrist.  The depths of evil in the human psyche amaze me, but that’s another blog post.

The trick is not to copy wholesale but to use snippets and observations from here and there, stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster to create the whole character.  Borrow a single character trait from a colleague by all means, but change their appearance, job, age and even sex.  The chances are most people won’t recognise themselves anyway but be extra vigilant that none of your fictional characters instantly bring to mind a real person – especially if the character is an evil one. When people ask if they’re in your novel or story, they always envision themselves as the romantic hero: nobody wants to appear as the vile mass murderer who skins puppies alive! Tempting as it is to take revenge on those I don’t like by casting them as the villain of the piece,  I try not to offend.

What about family?  Three years ago when I had a short story published featuring a woman at the end of her tether who stabs her evil mother-in-law to death, (Mother-in-law’s Revenge, Best, January 10 2012 issue) I had to hurry round to my in-laws to reassure them it wasn’t based on real life!  Luckily, my late mother-in-law had a great sense of humour (we joked about her not coming near me when I was wielding a potato peeler!) and I can state here with confidence she was nothing like Maggie.  Was Maggie, the mother-in-law character of my story, someone I actually knew?  No, she was a hybrid of several mother-in-laws about whom friends and colleagues lamented , with a dash of two women I once met thrown in.

For my novel which is based in the courtroom, I am thinking about little bits and pieces of the people I’ve met over the last 18 years. Like tiny glittering jewels, these characteristics will be strung on the necklace of my story to make what I hope is a dazzling whole.  Some of those I’ve encountered are wonderful, some are hideous, with just about everything in between.   Take judges, for instance. We all think of the stereotypical out-of-touch, dust and crabby old man in a wig, but in my experience many are charming, warm, friendly, compassionate and very switched on to the modern world. And maybe I’m getting older but a lot of judges are looking younger!

Another rich seam of material for characters is those who own, show or work with dogs.  Since becoming the owner of a rescue dog four years ago I have been plunged into a whole new world: groomers, vets, behaviourists, dogsitters, breeders and other dog owners.  I also volunteer at an animal shelter.  Although I maintain that dog lovers are the nicest people ever, and I have made some great friends, there are also some very unusual characters out there and it could definitely be the subject of a book!

Good luck with your characters and if you have a tricky mother-in-law, bite your tongue and stay away from the potato peeler!

 

 

 

 

The Woman Who Stole My Life (or the writer’s inspiration)

IMAG0153Inspiration for my writing can spring from the weirdest of places and as a writer, you need to constantly be asking ‘what if?’

Over Christmas I ordered a personalised iPad cover.  That’s the one on the left. Instead, the one on the right arrived  – for the wrong Rebecca.   A simple mix-up, but I was immediately intrigued (after recoiling at the unforgiveable spelling of karaoke!)  Who exactly was this Other Rebecca? It felt a bit like I’d stolen her life.  What if we were to swap lives?  Gin and fish are two things I loathe and my karaoke days died along with my job as a holiday rep.  What about the mysterious Mr Webster?  Is he a partner, a man worshipped from afar or even a dog?  Is there a story there? The Other Rebecca would doubtless hate my life too. Presumably she was sent my iPad cover in error: dogs, tea, Coronation Street, writing … (it really is as boring as it looks and she probably thought: bloody hell, at least my life isn’t as bad as hers is!) We are both creative but what brand is her creativity?  Does she knit or paint or is she just creative with the truth?

There was definitely enough material here for a short story and possibly a novel. The idea of life-swap isn’t a new one but the idea of stepping into someone else’s ready made life always fascinates.  What if I tracked Other Rebecca down?  Is she really a gin-soaked, fish-eating box set fanatic extrovert?  Would we be friends or would the hackles rise on sight?  And I do really want to know who Mr Webster is. Eventually the correct iPad case was sent but the mystery lived on in my imagination.

There are so many elements of everyday life that can light of touchpaper of a writer’s inspiration.  Overheard conversations, newspaper articles, chance meetings, something on the TV.  Life is a very rich seam to be mined.  On my dreadful commute to the Day Job I often scrutinise the weary faces of my fellow travellers and wonder about their lives, hopes, regrets and secrets.  And the Day Job itself is a great source of material, soon to be a book if I can finally make 2015 the year I turn my work in progress into a physical novel rather than a rough draft.  Watch this space!

 

 

A Very Belated Happy New Year …

… even though it’s way too late now for new year greetings, but apologies for the delay in posting: I’ve been on my annual holiday. January is always much easier welcomed in with a bit of sunshine and as it’s my birthday on New Year’s Day the new year always brings the promise of fresh starts, a bit like opening a brand new notebook and anticipating the endless possibilities on each blank page. (Like many writers, I love stationery and regularly need a Paperchase fix).

Everyone’s resolutions are nearly all broken by now.  I always begin January with the same writerly resolutions: finish my book, a work in progress since 2009; pitch more articles; and care less what others think.   It was so easy to make plans from my sunbed and feel inspired and fired up, but back in the January gloom with jetlag and a mountain of laundry to do, feeling broke and depressed (and having to return to the Day Job) it’s a real struggle to recapture that optimism.

Quiet determination and sticking power are the key.  It’s a bit like exercise: writing needs to be done every day until it becomes a habit, to keep those writing muscles honed and the brain lean.  Little but often is the secret.  A friend wrote her book on her daily commute and as I have previously commented, successful writers use the magic formula of “bum on seat, fingers on keyboard” every single working day.    Similar to weight loss, there’s no quick fix, just discipline.  Knowing all this doesn’t make it any easier though, especially as my personal resolutions also involve diet and exercise!

Wish me luck as I embark upon 2015 and I wish you all a happy and productive 2015!

We all love a compliment …. don’t we?

At a Christmas party earlier this week my appearance was complimented very enthusiastically by two male acquaintances.  It transpired that one had been in the pub since lunchtime and I know the other is sight impaired.   Did this make the compliments any lesser?  “I’d take it anyway” said a friend when I told her.   In fact, earlier this year I had a small piece published in Reader’s Digest about a similar thing which happened to me years ago at a funeral. I remember a colleague of mine being distraught after her favourite skirt was admired by a woman with very bad fashion sense.  When is a compliment not a compliment?  Or could it be that some people are useless at being praised?

As a nation we are completely rubbish with accepting compliments: it’s just not British at all.  I’ve found women of my generation in particular have been raised to be self-deprecating and modest: “Oh, this old thing, I’ve had it years”.  Being thought to be conceited is horrifying. Not so with others.  The best show of blatant immodesty I have come across was in my ex, raised by an adoring Turkish mother. After we split up he sent me a photo (this was twenty years ago before technology) of himself, with these wonderful words inscribed on the back: “Look how lovely I am.  Look what big mistake you make.”  I’ve kept it for when I need a laugh.  Part of me though would just love to have one-fifth of his self-belief.

But what about having our writing complimented?  I’m thrilled when someone has enjoyed something I have written, probably because, like most writers, I put my heart and soul into my work; it is my biggest passion.    (Apologies to my husband and the dog).  Who was it who once said “Writing is easy.  You just sit at a typewriter and open a vein”?  Very true. Nothing lifts the sensitive writer’s spirits more than being told how great your latest blog or article is.  Even the biggest bestselling novelist loves a compliment, be it a tweet, a great review or seeing someone on a beach or train enjoying their novel.  I’ve never once waved away a compliment about my writing, enquired if the complimentor is under the influence of alcohol or insisted that it was “rubbish, really”.  I try to be gracious and modest whilst saving the little dance of victory for later.

To end on a lighthearted note, the muddling of the words “complimentary” and “complementary” always tickles me. I quite expect a shelf of books labelled “complimentary medicine” to spring forth and admire my new dress.  (Oh, this old thing? I just threw it on!”)

Merry Christmas to all my readers!

 

 

The Curse of Twitter

Last week at the Day Job,  I heard a new announcement being made in court.  Following the usual warning to switch off all mobile devices just before proceedings commenced, a rider was added: “Twitter is strictly forbidden in court”. Indeed, whilst recently working in Singapore I observed a notice was attached to every courtroom door banning the use of social media sites.

Twitter in particular is a very powerful and potentially dangerous tool which should come with a “Warning – Highly Flammable’ label.  I am a fairly recent tweeter, having previously declared I would “never, never, never, never” sign up, a bit in the emphatic style of the late Reverend Paisley.  (From what I remember he backed down too, but I don’t do politics on my blog so that’s another story)  But sadly, Twitter is a necessary evil for anyone trying to promote a business, and for writers it is invaluable when building an author platform, a fact I quickly learned from reading Catherine Ryan Howard’s book ‘Self Printed’.  All my favourite writers are out there on Twitter.  It’s what you have to do. Writing can be a lonely old business and being connected up to others in the same predicament provides a great feeling of solidarity when up against a deadline, hopelessly blocked or dealing with family who think you should get a ‘proper’ job.

Accurately described by a friend of a friend as ‘shouting in the dark’, Twitter has a dark side as well as being a great place to reunite lost dogs with owners, promote your latest book or just look at pictures of  adorable puppies. When I was at school, bullying took place in the playground; today there is the whole evil world of the troll.  Also, good news spreads like lightning, as does bad.   I will never forget the awful story a friend relayed of a colleague learning of her depressed husband’s suicide via a careless social media site remark; by the time the police knocked on the door to impart the news, it had been all over the internet.   Not illegal in an way of course, but for that lady and her family absolutely devastating.

Twitter is hopelessly addictive.  The fabulous Grace Dent’s book,  ‘How To Leave Twitter’, sums it up perfectly and introduced me to such delightful vocabulary as ‘twunking’ and being pursued by an ‘angry twitchfork mob’.  Neither has happened to me personally yet, the latter probably as I can’t get over my near phobia of the hated hashtag.

Having said all that, I enjoy anything that limits the public to a small and succinct amount of words rather than a long, rambling soliloquy.  I like being in touch with my two main groups of Twitter friends, writers and dog lovers. Particularly writers who have dogs, surely the best people in the world.

I’m over on @RRidgwayWriter just in case you want to tweet me.

 

 

The Writer’s Fan Base

I was totally awestruck when I met romantic novelist Rowan Coleman at a literary event two years ago.  I’m a huge fan of her wonderful books. (She was really lovely and modest too – most bestselling writers are) There’s quite a lot of Rowan fans about, it would appear, given her novels are frequently in the Top 10 fiction charts and she has thousands of Twitter followers.

I can only dream of having a following like Rowan’s but I have two huge fans: my mother and my husband who automatically love everything I write, plus a whole gaggle of friends who loyally support my writing dreams.  A support network is vital for those many hours (days, months) of self-doubt, dry spells, bad feedback or reviews, writer’s block et cetera, but for me the real validation comes from complete strangers.  Strangers have no emotional investment in your work and the general public is a very harsh critic.  In modern society we constantly judge. So to win a stranger’s approval is the highest form of praise indeed.

For the fledgling writer it is so thrilling to have someone tell you they enjoyed your book, column or article.  A cousin I hadn’t seen for years, a friend’s sister-in-law at a 40th party and a colleague’s wife recently enthused about my ebook and I was delighted to have their feedback.  But just last week a complete stranger approached me and said how much she loved my column: although I was incognito at a writers’ event she had recognised me from my tiny photo in the paper.  (Quite a feat when you consider that I am wearing dark glasses and I write under my rarely used married name lest I offend anyone and attract an angry twitchfork mob).  This was another great milestone for me in my writing career.  Although I bet this happens to the mighty Grace Dent all the time, even she had to start somewhere.

The same with Twitter and blog followers: they are following because they have chosen to and that is an achievement in a world with so much information overload and where most of us have so little free time.

So what are the other milestones in my writing timeline thus far?  I suppose for me the defining moments are: winning a short story competition aged 13; gaining my journalism degree (unused until my late thirties);  joining a writers’ group; having my first work published; my first blog; publishing my ebook; getting a phone call one winter’s morning from the editor of a woman’s magazine asking if they could use one of my short stories; writing my column; being chosen to write for a travel anthology; and this year being asked to contribute to a popular website. Along the way there are smaller triumphs such as building my writer platform, encouragement from some really fabulous (and famous) friends and fellow writers, and seeing my name in print time and again, which never loses its thrill.  (As does a royalty or payment cheque plopping through the letterbox although for now, I’d starve if it wasn’t for my day job).    For me, it is my ambition to always be able to walk into WHSmith and know that my work is somewhere in there.  So far this year I’ve nearly achieved that.

Next I’d like a three book deal with a hefty advance, but one can dream.  And that’s what we writers deal in: dreams.

Don’t Rain On My Parade!

No statue has ever been put up in honour of a critic, as the saying goes. But is it just me or do those critics seem extra tough on us writers, especially aspiring scribes? Particularly when the subject of the negativity is striving for their lifelong dream of becoming published or winning a book deal.

Some people enjoy nothing more than shooting others down in flames. If you have ever dieted you will be acutely aware of the diet saboteur, always keen to offer a tempting slice of forbidden cake. I was recently all dressed up for a night out only to be told by a ‘friend’ on arrival at the venue that I ‘looked tired’. I wonder what was the point of that? It just made me feel terrible. And grand public events involving an element of celebration such as the Olympics or the Royal Wedding seem to attract a particular type of naysayer: those who are intent on moaning and pontificating and spoiling it for everyone else. I’m not a huge fan of Kate and Wills but I loved the feelgood factor that the celebrations brought to the UK so I kept my mouth shut. Who cares what I think? When is constant negativity a good thing?

As an aspiring writer, it is common to hear other people utter the following gems:

“Nobody is publishing books any more” (Not true, the market is buoyant thanks to epublishing)

“You’ll never get anywhere” (JK Rowling was told this many times)

“I’ve always thought I should write a book. I could do much better than the rubbish out there” (Well, you haven’t, did you?)

“That’s not a proper job” (Not even worth dignifying with a response)

“I thought that your latest article/column/book wasn’t very good/was full of errors” (And how many books have you written? None, I suspect)

I once read a dreadful book called ‘How Not to be a Writer’ where the author spent the duration of the book advising the readers ‘Don’t Do It’. No doubt he thought he was being witty but it fell flat. It was the most pointless book ever and just made the reader feel depressed.

So why do people love to put down those who are pursuing their dreams? Well, partly jealousy: you are doing something you love when they are not. In the UK we almost seem embarrassed about following our heart and trying to make something of our lives unlike our American cousins.  And it is just in some people’s nature to put others down, so I would advise you steer clear of this kind of toxic person, often appearing in the guise of a friend. You might not make it but what if you do? You won’t if you listen to negativity and don’t even try. And even if you don’t become the next John Grisham, the journey can be hugely enjoyable. Surround yourself with those who believe in you and champion your dreams.

The successful writers I have had the pleasure of meeting have one thing in common: they are modest, hard working and hugely encouraging to newer writers just starting out, recognising the need to nurture emerging talent and be generous with their time.

So join a writers’ group, follow your favourite writer on Twitter and above all remember: nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.

The Writer’s Aura

My AuraGiven Singapore’s worship of food and its obsession with shopping,  my day job bringing me here for a few weeks is no real hardship, although I have enjoyed a good middle-class moan about jetlag, homesickness and the hotel (which could star in a movie called ‘Fifty Shades of Brown’ – and not in a good way).

During my first visit here in 2006, serendipity led me to a shabby Chinese shopping centre hidden away in a very run-down part of the city where for S$20 (around £10} I had my aura read.    Every visit since I have returned for this — except the time in early 2010 where I had severe gastroenteritis and therefore didn’t have much of anything left, let alone an aura.   The spiritual realm has always held a stramge fascination for me and, of course, being a creative soul, I wonder whether this is reflected in my aura.  My husband would just describe me as gullible and mutter about fools being easily parted with their cash.

The process is very simple: you sit on a bench and place your hands on pressure sensors while a camera photographs your head and the auric  field around you.  Then a huge ancient computer-like contraption whirrs and purrs and spits out a very detailed report along with the photo.  It looks and feels hugely scientific and mysterious even if some are quick to shoot the whole concept down in flames.

The above photo is my aura as of last Monday, 6 October and it quite clearly shows I am a truly creative and compassionate individual.   I am also due a time of change ahead of me (that’ll be my three-book deal, then!) but I care more about fulfillment than money. (Definitely a writer).

Here’s a quick summary:

My right centre shows depth and compassion, and a sense of fun with idealism.  (Correct)

The left side indicates the future and it is creative, yet intellectually stimulating.  Inspired ideas are already unfolding in front of me, apparently.  (My friend and I had the very inspired idea of trying to get us an upgrade to Singapore’s Grand Dame, The Fullerton Hotel, on Monday and it didn’t go well as we were swiftly and politely ejected.)

The throat, the centre of communication, is violet indicating I am either (a) ill or (b) I have an intense desire to communicate startling and incredible visions.   I think it could be (a) in this case.  The last time I tried communicating startling visions and ideas at home it didn’t go down too well.  And  my frequent startling idea of a pay rise at work is always received with incredulity.

The heart shows I am a natural and compassionate healer.

My root is blue and white, indicating an ability to communicate on a deep and meaningful level.   Presumably that doesn’t include the number of times I have bellowed at people to f*** off  in the last few weeks.

The solar plexus, or the ‘money pot’,  says I will never be rich.

Overall,  my aura shows I may be a gifted artist or writer with my life expanding in exciting new directions.  The first part is correct.  The only thing expanding out here is my waistline and credit card bill at present, but ever the optimist I like to think that exciting new directions will come.

So is aura reading a load of old rubbish, a bit of harmless fun or is there something in it?  I’d like to think so!