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Wednesday, 25 December 2013
Author interview with non-fiction ghostwriter and publisher Teena Lyons
Back in December 2013, I interviewed ghostwriter Teena Lyons for my WordPress blog. I hope you enjoy it...
Welcome to the six hundred and ninety-seventh of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with ghostwriter and publisher Teena Lyons. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Teena. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Teena: Hi Morgen, I am Teena Lyons and I am one of a select, yet steadily growing, group of ghostwriters. I run my own company, called Professional Ghost and I’ve been ghosting books for seven years. Before I became a ghost, I was a journalist and worked on national papers such as Mail on Sunday, The Guardian and The Sunday Times.
Morgen: It must be really interesting working with someone else on their project. How do you decide what to write about?
Teena: I get approached by a lot of people who want me to help them write their books and I do have quite strict criteria about the projects I take on. First and foremost, the subject matter has to grab my attention. If I am not interested in the content, it is a bit of a tall order to write it in such a way that will carry the reader along too. It is also really important to get along with the main, named, author of the book. You’re not embarking on a life-long relationship (although I have made some great friends with the people I have ghosted for) but writing a book together can be a pretty intense experience. If you rub each other up the wrong way, it can be a really torturous process all round.
Morgen: I can imagine, especially that it must take a while from start to finish. What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Teena: Technically, being a ghost, I don’t really exist in the eyes of the book-buying public. I’ve written around twenty books, but not all named authors want it known they’ve used a ghost. That’s fine by me. It is the job I do and I really don’t have a huge ego when it comes to having my name in lights. Perhaps it does have some impact on my subconscious though. I’m forever flicking through the acknowledgements section of books to see whether I can detect an oblique reference to someone who ‘helped’ get the book written. That’s usually the ghost!
Some of the people I have worked with are fine about my involvement and have given me full credit too. So, I can tell you I’ve written books for former Asda and Royal Mail chief executive Allan Leighton, and Dragon’s Den star Deborah Meaden.
Morgen: I would have thought it a shame that you’ve done so much work to not get recognised but it is, after all, their story. Have you self-published anything? If so, what lead to you going your own way?
Teena: I set up my own self-publishing imprint last year to help some of the authors I work with get their books into print. It is called PG Press and it’s produced a handful of books so far. I did it because the whole self-publishing side of things can be a bit confusing if you are new to the industry.
Morgen: A lot of people are going that way. Are the books you’ve collaborated on available as eBooks? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Teena: Oh, this has been a bit of a touchy subject in my household. I resisted for so long but then shared a book with my husband on the iPad. It transformed my reading habits. I am a prolific reader and just love browsing for, and buying, new books in the dead of the night. It makes packing for holidays a whole lot easier too.
I’d say around half the books I have written are available as eBooks, although that number seems to be on the increase.
Morgen: It does make sense and really, an eBook is just a Word document (or in Amazon’s case an html version of a Word document). Do you get any say in the titles / covers of the books you’re involved in?
Teena: Sometimes, but not always. It is such an art getting an eye-catching title. I often tie myself in knots trying to come up with one, because I know it doesn’t matter how good the 80,000 words in the middle are, it's the dozen or so on the front that will sell a book.
Morgen: Absolutely, although the cover (including the title) has to catch a reader’s attention but it depends who the book is about and if a reader has an interest in that person already then that surely helps. Which authors did you read when you were younger and did they shape you as a writer?
Teena: In my early teens I was given a list of the 250 Greatest Books of All Time. It was torn out of The Telegraph and I can’t even remember now who gave it to me. I resolved to work my way through the list and it opened up the most incredible literary world to me. I ‘travelled’ to the heart of Africa with Chinua Achebe, to Russia with Mikhail Bulgakov and the Deep South with John Steinbeck. The list introduced me to my favourite writer Alexandre Dumas. Occasionally, when I find an author I really like, like Dumas, I go off piste and work my way through everything they’ve written, but I always return to my list.
It’s still in my bag now. I had to get it laminated, because it started to fall apart, but it is still a very important part of my life. And, no, I’ve not finished working my way through it yet.
Morgen: Wow, what a wonderful idea. It’s like joining a reading group; it gets you (one) reading something they may not normally have chosen. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Teena: I’m not really at liberty to say, other than that I am taking a slight departure from my usual fare and am working with another writer on a fictional novel. I am really enjoying the experience.
Morgen: I’m fiction through and through so I think I’d enjoy that the most, especially seeing it develop from nothing / a plan. Do you write every day, or ever suffer from (ghost)writer’s block?
Teena: I do write every day because it is my day job, but occasionally I do find things just don’t flow. I’ve learned to walk away and go and spend an hour or so in the garden and then come back to it feeling refreshed. That usually does the trick.
Morgen: It works for me (having a dog is handy in that respect). Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Teena: The way I like to write is to get everything down on the page in a first draft and then go back and really tighten it up. I like to leave a day or so gap between those two processes, so I can come to it with a fresh perspective. I can be quite ruthless with my edits.
Morgen: It’s the best way. I have that tip on my http://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/writing-101 page. Given that you’re working with the subject, do you have to do much research?
Teena: It really depends on who I am working with. Some named authors give me huge amounts of supporting material, while others leave it entirely up to me. The most important part of my research is the interviews I do with the named authors because I have to prise the information I need out of their heads.
Morgen: Now there’s an image. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Teena: Yes, my novel! I never get time to write it.
Morgen: Oh what a shame. Maybe you’ll find an hour or two over the festive period… although if you’re anything like me, work doesn’t stop just because the world does. Have laptop / paper and pen, will travel. Do you pitch for submissions and / or are you commissioned to write?
Teena: I do have to pitch for some commissions and work with my agent Andrew Lownie to produce book proposals for certain projects. Other times, it is just a straight agreement with the main author, who then goes on to self publish.
Morgen: Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Teena: Lots. When I first started out, I used to be in wretched mood for days if I received a rejection. As time goes on, I am able to handle them better. I usually have a number of potential projects in hand, so I force myself to look forward to something else. It is a difficult aspect to the job though.
Morgen: You mentioned your agent, Andrew Lownie, do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Teena: He has been a huge help to me and, in the early days especially, he helped me a lot to find my way around the whole book proposal / pitching process. He is very well connected in the publishing industry and that can make things a whole lot easier for an author.
Morgen: Anything that (anyone who) can do that, is certainly an asset. Do you do much marketing for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Teena: As I ghost, I differ from most authors, in that my involvement pretty much ends when I deliver the manuscript. I don’t have to get involved with any marketing, book tours, interviews or any sort of book plugging whatsoever.
That said, I do need to promote myself and Professional Ghost as a credible ghostwriting brand, so I do try to get and about to spread the word. I have spoken at a few conferences and events, including one in the House of Commons, and am always happy to do more.
Morgen: Marketing is usually the answer to the second part of my next question… What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Teena: I love days when there is nothing else to do but write. No meetings, no interruptions, just me, my computer and a large pot of tea. Bliss. My least favourite aspect is probably the rejection side, but then who likes that?
Morgen: Not me, although I rarely submit so that helps. What advice would you give aspiring ghostwriters?
Teena: One of the best routes into ghosting is through journalism. Journalists have exactly the same skill set as ghostwriters. They are used to getting to know people, gaining their trust and then asking the right questions to get the best possible story out of them. My view is spending a few years getting a good grounding in newspapers or magazines would be an excellent foundation for a subsequent career as a ghostwriter.
I would also advise any would-be ghost to read. All the time. As well as my 250 greatest books, I try to read books from all sorts of different genres. I think it really helps me to frame my own styles, particularly since I have to find so many different voices in my career writing for other people.
Morgen: I’ve been to loads of writing events and whenever asked for advice, many established authors have said to read; apart from being so enjoyable (on the whole), it helps with seeing how books ‘work’. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Teena: My idea of heaven would be to have Alexandre Dumas, Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins for dinner. I think the menu would have to be ridiculously flamboyant, but I would hide my lack of prowess in the kitchen with some very fine wines.
Morgen: :) Do you plan your books or do you just get an idea / thread and run with it?
Teena: I know there are many established authors who would argue planning stifles the creative process, but I would argue that it is essential in ghost writing. Writing a book is not an easy process and most of the authors I work with have never done one before. Setting out a detailed chapter-by-chapter plan at the outset can make it all a whole lot les gruelling. The plan can, and usually does change a little as we go along, but it really does make things more straightforward and makes for a better end result.
Morgen: I can imagine it’s more practical that way, especially being non-fiction – I find with fiction that the characters take over so my planning changes more often than not. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Teena: I do still do the odd bit of freelance journalism, but less and less so these days.
Morgen: Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Teena: Professional Ghost can be found on a fair few networking sites, such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, but I confess my involvement goes in fits and starts. I come up with great one liners in the morning before I get to my desk and then fail to get them down because I get so immersed in whatever I am writing.
Morgen: Oh dear. I used to be the same when out with my dog but I soon learned to have a mini notebook and pens (at least two in case one fails) in every coat and bag. I’d lost some brilliant (I’m pretty sure they were brilliant at the time) ideas and was so frustrating. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Teena: The future is very bright for ghosting. The fragmentation of the publishing industry and the increasing amount of self publishing means that more and more people will seek out ghosts. Someone much cleverer than me said it is all about the democratisation of book writing. Readers want more real life stories from ordinary people. Ghosts can help get those stories written.
Morgen: Yes, I think readers are getting fed up with a certain slice of celebrity culture, especially with multiple books from someone who doesn’t seem old enough to have much life experience. Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Teena: My website is www.professionalghost.org. There is a lot of general information about ghosting there too, as well as a blog about various aspects of my profession.
Morgen: Thank you very much, Teena, for joining me today. It’s been really interesting.
Teena Lyons spent ten years as a news reporter and feature writer on national newspapers and consumer magazines before leaving Fleet Street in May 2006 to pursue a career as a ghostwriter.
Teena’s first project, in collaboration with ex-Asda chief executive Allan Leighton was a business book bestseller. On Leadership was called ‘immensely readable’ by Management Today; and World Business wrote: “the book barrels along at such a pace, with such enthusiasm, that we are breathlessly carried along…On Leadership is a profoundly hopeful read – informed by the almost palpable joy Leighton feels in inspiring and leading others.”
Since then, Teena has collaborated on up to twenty ghostwriting projects, ranging from business ‘how to’ books, to true life stories, to straight autobiographies. Previous work includes Common Sense Rules, by Deborah Meaden, of Dragons Den fame, Sold Out by Bill Grimsey and Diary of a Fortune Hunter by Lyndon Wood.
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