A Ghost’s Tale

Leigh Ferrani is a ghostwriter, one of whose projects grew out of a commission that came to her via the Writers’ Workshop. Here’s her story of how that commission grew into co-scripting a possible Hollywood film. Oh, and the book in question is Lord of the Wedding Rings, the true story of Ron Sheppard – Britain’s most married man.

[The WW’s commentary on ghostwriting can be found here and also here if you’re interested.]

Lord of the Wedding RingsIt’s possible to make a living out of writing if you’re versatile. I’m not in it just for the art – I always intended writing to be my day job, so I figured out a way of doing it. I kept a stubborn head and learnt to work in as many professional writing fields as I could, but my most interesting challenge has to be ghost-writing.

I first got into it through working for a literary consultancy, assessing manuscripts, and after my first project it went from there. I then had a call from the Writers’ Workshop introducing me to Ron Sheppard, who is Britain’s most married man. This was six years ago and we’ve just landed a book deal. It’s a bit of a saga but I’ll get there in as few words as I can manage.

With any ghosting proposal you have to first decide if the book will be marketable, so I worked out what the angle was and if his story would interest publishers and the public. I agreed with the Writers’ Workshop – Ron’s project had something. I then needed to go away and figure out how it could all fit together as a manuscript.

A big part of my job is to ask a tonne of questions and this always has to be explained to the client before I embark on any ghosting project. I gauged Ron’s character as being open and honest during an interview with him in a hotel bar in Bath in 2007, along with his eighth wife Weng. They have now been married ten years and are still smitten.

I returned home with a pad full of notes, a heap of Dictaphone tapes which I had used to record our conversation and an undisciplined manuscript Ron had drafted and sent in to the WW for assessment. I then started on the first three chapters and book proposal of his memoir The Lord of the Wedding Rings. We hoped that three chapters might be enough to catch the eye of a literary agent.

Ron was up for being gently grilled about his personal life which was hard for him because there are some harrowing scenes in the book which dredged up bad memories. Hundreds of emails flew back and forth between us throughout the time it took for me to write Ron’s autobiography.

To write someone’s memoir you have to delve deeply into their lives and psyche – and the client must be completely open with the writer from start to finish otherwise a story will be too flimsy and then fall flat on its face. It also helps if the writer and client get on. Ron and I hit it off, not being too uptight about the process. You have to have some banter to keep the momentum going. If ghost-writing wasn’t fun I’d give it up and do something else. Cliché alert – life is too short to do a job that doesn’t excite me.

To write Ron I had to get to know him and understand him – much like an actor would get into a character. My background in acting often comes in handy with my job. A ghost-writer has to really listen, be patient, sensitive and rather tenacious when it comes to getting the interesting facts, character/relationship nuances and little details from a client. Sometimes I feel a bit like a counsellor. Or maybe I’m just plain nosy.

I also had to think about the tone of the story which had sad and comic sides so I worked out a way in which I could meld both together believably without it sounding disjointed or wooden. I decided that the book should have an old school British quirky/end of the pier feel to it, though it has some dark elements which are at the foundation as to why Ron got hitched almost as much as Zsa Zsa Gabor. But there is legion of lighter moments with him on stage and such people as Norman Wisdom and Shane Richie bring some silliness into the mix. [Bringing facts to life, by the way, is a central task for any novelist or creative non-fiction writer. Key links to look at would be our guide on showing and telling; how to develop character; and how to create a sense of place – Ed.]

There is a lot to take on board when writing someone else’s life but that’s what I love about being a ghost. I enjoy the challenge of getting into the character/s of the piece. It’s like I’m an actor – but on paper. And I don’t have to go to auditions or learn lines. The two crafts are very similar though.

It takes a couple of months to write three chapters and a book proposal or six months to pen a full-length manuscript but this project took longer because it was accepted by several agents, who preferred different styles. It also became clear that every agent or publisher who read it wanted to see the finished script before making a decision. “Damn and blast,” I thought; well, something along those lines.

However, this was stupendous news because people liked my writing but it meant that I had to decide whether I was prepared to take a risk and write a 75,000 word book for nothing. Yes, zilch. Ron wasn’t in a position to pay me, so in the end I agreed that I’d do it for 50 percent of all future royalties. Ron said “OK” and off we toddled. Eventually we landed a deal with Olympia Publishers.

This all came about simply because Ron is the most persistent client I have ever worked with – in any medium of creative writing. It isn’t my job to scout for agents and publishers; I’m way too busy writing the material. Ron didn’t give up plugging the project which has now hit the bookshops and has been taken on by a film company called Breezeblock Productions. Full funding will hopefully be secured after a scriptwriter in LA has finished the script, with me as co-writer.

The project has pushed my patience levels to the max at times, but it’s been a rewarding experience too. I get a film credit and maybe I’ll land some more ghost-writing projects. Who knows what’s ahead? But that’s what I like about this mad business.

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