At a recent party, I was chatting with another guest when the conversation turned to our careers.
“I’m a writer,” I said, but I wanted to make it clear I was a real writer, not someone who used the term as a euphemism for hanging out in a coffee shop all day or living off her parents. So I mentioned a few of the projects I had worked on, including a book series I ghostwrote.
He furrowed his brow. “Oh, so like, you write fan fiction?”
I felt my stomach twist in anger and annoyance. No, I don’t write fan fiction. As a ghostwriter for an entertainment company that produced book and television series for teens and young adults, I wrote 10 YA novels during a five-year period. My books have been translated into 13 languages, shown up on bestseller lists, and spawned mega-successful television shows (that were already in production before I came on and have little to do with the novels themselves). Because of an ironclad contract, I can’t reveal the actual names of the series, but trust me when I say you’ve heard of them.
And yes, I use the phrase my books, even though it’s not correct. But I can’t help feeling proprietary. After all, I spent years with these characters, waking up in the middle of the night with a string of dialogue or a plot twist, giving them back stories and passions and dislikes. But at the end of the day, it’s like being a nanny — you can’t get too close. Because when all is said and done, your work belongs to the publisher, the packaging company, the “real” writer. Anyone but you.
I’d never heard of either series when all this began. I don’t think I even knew what a ghostwriter was. I’d studied English and creative writing at Barnard College and was working as an editorial assistant at a consumer magazine when I received an email from a friend of a friend. This entertainment company was looking for new writers for a few of their properties. I sent in a 50-page sample of a “novel” I had saved on my hard drive, a chick-lit-style romance that I’d written during winter break when I was a bored freshman. Less than 12 hours later, I was asked to write another sample, this time using characters and a plotline they provided. I wrote 15 pages in an afternoon. It was easy, fun and nothing like the “literary” fiction I’d been toiling to write in college workshops. And then, I got the official acceptance: I was hired as the brand-new ghostwriter of a series so popular it was already a bestseller.
I was excited — and dubious. It would change the direction of my fledgling writing career. Was that a good or bad thing?
I called my mom to talk it through. “If I take the job ghostwriting the series, then I wouldn’t be able to write cultural criticism about the series,” I said. “That’s the type of thing I want to write in the long run.”
“Right. And how much would this potential piece of cultural criticism pay?” my mother asked.
The point was clear: Go for the paycheck. As a 20-something navigating my way in an increasingly unstable industry, I didn’t have the luxury of turning down assignments.
The next week, I told work I had a dentist appointment and met the two editors at Pastis, a trendy cafe in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. Over drinks, they explained how it would work: They would develop the plot in-house. Then, I would take the conference-room-created outline and shuttle the characters from exposition to ending. “Plus,” one editor said, raising an eyebrow, “if we like you, then the possibilities are endless.” She explained how some of their past ghostwriters had gone on to work on their own series, how they split royalties, how this could translate into television and movie deals. It sounded glamorous and exciting, a far cry from my job as an editorial assistant, where I responded to reader letters and wrote the monthly page about pet care. Success seemed so simple: Work hard, get them to like you, and they’d take care of the rest.
For two years and four books, I embraced the role. In fact, I thrilled to the anonymity. In my real-life writing life, I’d stupidly used my name on a risque sex story for an online publication just a few months before that had caused a small scandal at the magazine where I worked.
“Did you consider your reputation? Writing something like this is the same as doing something inappropriate at an office party. It’s not OK,” my boss said, as tears streamed down my face. It was the first time it had occurred to me that a published piece could have personal and professional repercussions. So I took a lesson from my professional life: I started writing under a pseudonym. It was perfect. When Gawker called “me” a weirdo for a piece I wrote about loving parenting blogs, I could enjoy the attention and infamy, without the sting of a public attack.
It was the same with the books: I didn’t care that no one knew I wrote the books, because I knew — and that’s what mattered. It was my dirty little secret. I put details of my own life into the text, aware no one would catch them but me. I’d dress characters in my favorite outfits and pull dialogue from email exchanges with friends. Ex-boyfriends, ex-teachers and ex-bosses all made cameos. I’d also mention a chinchilla or a sloth in every book as a subtle way to prove that I’d been there. My trademark.
But books were a lot more time-consuming than personal essays. I spent countless weekends holed up in my studio apartment on deadline. The “serious, grown-up” book I’d been trying to write languished on my hard drive. I came to work in the mornings exhausted because I’d been up late working on a draft. I told myself it didn’t matter. Sure, burning the creative candle at both ends had caused a promotion or two, but how many books were my co-workers writing? Of course, it occurs to me only now that they could be ghosting as well.
But three years and five books later, keeping the secret was becoming less exciting and more exhausting. One time, for my magazine job, I had to interview an actress from the television adaptation of the series. I had a list of questions prepared, but there was only one that mattered to me: Have you read the books I’ve written? I asked several times, in various roundabout ways, and emerged from the conversation with little for the magazine and her thinking I was an obsessive fan.
Another time, my magazine editor boss invited me to come with her to watch a panel discussion that included the “real” author of the book series. I couldn’t resist accepting. When we arrived at the venue, my heart hammered. I was simultaneously terrified and hopeful that the “real” writer would spot me in the crowd and call me out.
That didn’t happen. But something even more revealing did. As we were waiting for the event to begin, my boss began making small talk. “You know, I’ve heard that X Writer doesn’t even write the series. A ghostwriter does. I think I have a friend who knows who it is, let me see if I can figure it out.” She pulled her iPhone from her purse to text her friend as I sat in breathless anticipation. She didn’t get a response, but it didn’t matter. Most likely, the email wouldn’t have named me at all, it would have been some girl who works at a magazine. I was hazy, replaceable — a ghost.
At this point, I was also no longer an aspiring writer; I was a real one. I’d dropped the pen name and was using my own byline for personal essays, even controversial ones. I had just started a new job as an associate editor at a major women’s magazine.
And yet, I still hadn’t gotten any closer to writing a series under my own name. Instead, the company had another ghostwriting project, this time about vampires, offered to me in an email filled with mwahs, xoxoxo’s and sooooos, the shorthand we — my editors, myself and our characters — communicated in. I said yes. At the time, I convinced myself that this would be the final step before my own book. Deep down, I was afraid that if I said no, I’d have to face the truth: that none of the ghostwriting gigs mattered very much, not in the long run.
One vampire book turned into two turned into five. My mom died. I was drinking too much. I barely had any friends. But I still believed in my future series, imagining that it would somehow be enough to balance everything going wrong in my life.
“So, I was thinking I should get an agent, so the company sees just how serious I am.” It was the weekend of my mother’s funeral, and my dad and I were in the car on the way to meet the minister to plan the service.
“Anna!” My father braked so hard the car skidded on an angle in the church parking lot. “Stop talking about the books. Please.”
I burst into tears, the type that causes your whole body to shake and makes you think you’re going to throw up or faint. It was the first time I’d broken down since my mom died a week earlier. I saw what anyone else could have noticed years ago: The books had become a cheap substitute for everything in my life that should have mattered. The books had taken center stage during relationships, job searches and friendships. Whenever anything scary, overwhelming or annoying happened, I would lose myself in whatever book I was working on. Ironically, it was this habit that kept my editors from ever seeing me as a “real” writer. That was made clear to me when one finally explained why I kept getting passed over for projects.
“You write well, but nothing has heart.”
Of course nothing did. I’d given it to them. I’d given them my time, my talent, my 20s. And that was the lesson that had somehow gotten buried as I learned to create characters, set scenes and turn around a revise in three days: Never give more than you’re prepared to lose. In the course of five years and approximately 600,000 words, I’d become so good at mimicking the voice of another author that I’d lost my own, and I’d failed to nurture my own career, not to mention well-being, as carefully as I had the lives of the characters that had never belonged to me.
I don’t blame them. I have nothing but admiration for their brilliant business strategy. Why not hire an eager, naive young woman driven equally by insecurity and ego and motivate her with the promise of potential publication? After all, it was that — not the money, not the job title — that made me push myself to the limit for so long.
I know it wasn’t a total loss. To be honest, I say that because a tiny part of me still believes there’s a chance an xoxo-filled email from a former editor will land in my inbox, asking me to partner for a book deal under my own name. But even when I viewed the gig through my bitchiest, most jaded lens, the benefits were clear: The fact that I’ve had ghostwriting experience on high-profile titles ensures any manuscripts I write don’t get lost in the slush pile. The money gave me stability and freedom. Bottom line: It was an OK job for someone my age. And that was what it was, a job. Not a career. Definitely not an identity.
Since my last ghostwriting assignment, I’ve written a few young adult novels under my own name, and even though I’m proud of them, it took me a long time to find any sort of narrative voice that remotely felt like mine. At first, everything seemed like a watered-down story line copped from past projects. It reminded me of the first few times my high school friends and I would take the train from New Jersey to New York City unaccompanied by our parents. It was thrilling to be unsupervised in Manhattan, but once we got there, we’d stick close to Penn Station, browsing the racks at H&M, splitting a plate of fries in a random midtown diner.
“This is what you want us to do?” I could almost imagine my characters saying.
Recently, Amazon announced the creation of the Kindle Worlds platform, where would-be writers can upload their own fan fiction to sell on Amazon.com. The line between fan fiction and ghostwriting will become even more blurry. Will entertainment companies in the future even need to go searching to find a young unknown? No one knows if Kindle Worlds will be lucrative or even popular, but I hope would-be writers realize how much can be lost when you invest all your time and energy in someone else’s narrative.