Friday 5 March 2021

Charis Buckingham, "What Ghostwriting Taught Me"

After graduating Leicester University with my MA in Creative Writing, it took me two years to actively pursue a career in writing. While lockdown did a number on us all, the time and space it enforced helped me articulate my dissatisfaction with my career. Finding a way forward wasn’t easy, but I transitioned from teacher to ghostwriter and it was without question the best decision I’ve ever made. Not only does it allow me to spend all day every day doing what I love, it’s also taught me a lot about writing and how to manage a consistent creative schedule.

Perhaps the first thing I learnt to do was re-evaluate my perception of productivity. There once was a time when I considered writing 2000 words a day impressive. I was proud of myself for completing NaNoWriMo during my MA. Now, I’m not detracting from that achievement, but when I’m being paid for the words I produce not the time I put in, it shifts the goalposts somewhat. I’m currently producing over 30,000 words a week. To help manage this, I work on at least two projects per day and adhere to a strict timetable. Writing consistently is more about willpower than divine intervention’s fickle hand. It’s about getting up and punching those words out, whether you’re on fire for your novel or you’re ready to toss it into the fire. Determination counts for more than creativity.

The writing world is loosely divided into ‘pantzers’ and ‘planners.’ The pantzers write into the void. We thrive off inspiration. We discover the unfolding of our novels as we write them, with many twists and turns coming as a surprise. We wrestle with stubborn and wilful characters, and often allow the protagonists to carve their own path through the world we’ve created. It’s a spontaneous process, and one I recommend for the sheer fun of not knowing what’s going to happen next. 

Planners, however, do as you’d expect: they plan. They take a germinating idea and flesh it out long before they put figurative pencil to paper. They create an outline, character plans. Instead of forgetting the colour of a character’s eyes, they note this important detail in advance. I’m naturally a pantzer, and previously wrote all my novels with only a vague idea of their conclusion and perhaps a few major events on the way (these novels all later required substantial rewriting). As a ghostwriter, though, whose detailed outlines need to be created in advance for approval, I was forced to adhere to the planner’s way of life. And it changed everything. No longer do I wait for inspiration to light the darkened path before me: I bring my own torches. The exciting feeling of discovery is traded for the sensation of knowing where I’m going, and it’s perhaps my biggest piece of advice for those struggling to get through a full-length novel.

The final lesson took the longest to learn. In fact, it took years of steadfast denial for me to confess that writer’s block doesn’t exist. I used to swear by it. By invoking writer’s block, I could absolve responsibility because it wasn’t my fault. It was the perfect excuse. 

The problem is, ghostwriting doesn’t let you get away with excuses. Deadlines don’t go away because you’re having a bad day, or because the stars aren’t aligned, or because you’re stuck on a particular phrase. The blank page can’t stay blank for long; if you don’t write, you don’t get paid. And let me tell you, there’s no better motivator than financial necessity.

(NB: Writer’s block is not the same as a burn-out, which can happen in any profession. My writing schedule gives me plenty of breaks, and I always take time off after finishing a particular project. Part of managing my productivity includes ensuring I’m never working past my limit.)

In short, ghostwriting has, conversely, taught me to write. I could ramble forever about the more technical things ghostwriting has taught me about my craft, but these would not have come if I hadn’t learnt to discard my ideas of writer’s block and embrace discipline. To be a good writer, first we must be a writer. I’ve mastered the first; now I’m working on the second.

About the author
Charis is a Creative Writing graduate turned full-time ghostwriter. She mostly specialises in romance and fantasy, though she's editing a thriller novel and would one day love to write a cosy mystery. When she's not singing or reading, she's walking and gaming - though not at the same time! She lives in Leicestershire with her partner and dog, and dreams of life in the country.

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