Confessions Of A YA Ghostwriter

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For five years of my life — from ages 24 to 29, I ghostwrote ten young adult novels connected to two wildly popular television shows. That was in addition to my day job. Approximately 600,000 words and 2,200 pages later, I’ve learned a few things. And while I can’t reveal the name of either of the series (and that is rule number one: If you’re ever asked to be part of a cool, high-profile project, make sure you’ve got some bragging rights) I can reveal these ten FYIs of how the insanely lucrative phenomenon that is serialized YA fiction gets made.
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You won’t be famous. Like I said, the contract I signed said I couldn’t tell anyone what I did for a living. After almost a year of acting totally shady around everyone — even my best friend didn’t know what I was working on! — my editor loosened up and explained that I could tell my friends and family, but that they just didn’t want the whole world to know. So, I told my family, my friends, potential employers, dates, the barista at the coffee shop … but I never allowed my name to be connected to the actual series name in print.
… But your "name" might be. For awhile, the books I wrote were credited as “created by” the real author — a woman who used to work for the publishing company and had written the first ten books — but “written” by a made-up name the editorial team had dreamed up. Not only had they created a fake name for me, but they had another ghostwriter for another series use it as well, for her books. One time, that writer and I met up for brunch, and we both discovered that we had a bad habit of giving out that name to men we’d met at bars on random nights out. Needless to say, that anonymous and made-up author had a lot more fun than either of us did!
You won’t work by yourself. A lot of the major young adult series you see on the shelves — and the ones that have been translated onto the screen — are created by a group of editors, who come up with an outline for the story. For the first few books I wrote, I called out sick from my day job (sorry, work!) so I could head to a conference room and hash out plotlines along with three editors and the “real” writer — who did exist, and who approved all the books once they were written.
You’ll learn a lot. I called my time writing the books my version of grad school … but it was even better, because I was getting paid to do the work. And the things you learn are more than just how to tell a story people will read (which is, in itself, no small thing) I learned I could, if necessary, write a book in ten days. I learned that I have a very bitchy streak I was unaware of, that came out in the form of my snarky narrator. And I learned that all work and no play — which was my M.O. when I was on deadline — could easily result in more than a few broken friendships and relationships. As a result, I’m now much better at balancing my “real” life with my work life.
You’ll be able to justify a lot of expenses to your accountant. After my editors swore me to secrecy, they told me to save all my receipts for tax purposes. Drinks downtown with friends, trying a new Upper East Side café … everything was story research as my social life became entangled with those of my characters. Today, when I re-read certain books, they’re almost like a diary of that time, reminding me which restaurants I went to and what I ordered, since those are the details I’d use if the outline called for a dinner scene.
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You’ll hold ‘casting calls’ on Facebook. While the main characters were given to me, there were always minor characters — friends, shopkeepers, demons — who needed naming. Oftentimes, I’d ask my Facebook friends who wanted to be in a book. Because of this, my friend Matt has been a vampire-hating farmer, a popular high-school basketball player, and a bitchy student from Brown University.
You’ll relive your teenage years — again and again. I was one of those teens who always wanted to be older. When I was 12, I used to look at the rental ads in the back of the newspaper and freak out about how I’d ever afford my own place. Now that I was a twenty-something, it was kind of fun to go back and relive all the drama and uncertainty that comes with being afraid you won’t get into your first-choice college or the deflating rage of spotting your best friend making out with your crush… and then head out to happy hour and be grateful for my over-21 adult status.
You’ll find inspiration in unlikely places. In one of the series I wrote, at least one crucial scene per book took place at Barneys. Because of that, I spent a ton of time at the flagship Madison Avenue store — and even though I spent quite a bit of my book paychecks there, a quick trip was all I needed to cure writers’ block. And yes, sometimes I was the weirdo eavesdropping on conversations and writing down snatches of dialogue on the Notes app in my iPhone.
… And you’ll inspire readers. Of course I set a million Google alerts to the name of the series, my fake writing name, the “real” writer’s name … and occasionally, I’d see that a quote I’d written, like, “you want to fly in jets … and I just want to fly,” had found it’s way onto some teen girl’s Tumblr. And, as cheesy as it sounds, that’s what made all the anonymity and strict deadlines worth it. Yes, the books were candy-like guilty pleasures, but they also meant something to the readers.
But, you can’t do it forever. When I realized how much of myself I’d invested in the books — all the hours, the conversations that became plot points, the fact that I honestly did see the series as more than a paycheck — I realized the job had run it’s course. While it’s gratifying to see people Tweet lines you wrote, it’s also a realization that it might be time to come out of hiding and own your work. Today, I’m working on a few projects under my name, and although they’re not nearly as high-profile, it feels pretty gratifying to be able to feel like they’re completely mine.
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