A young prince named Guatama Sakyamuni slips through the guarded gate of his family palace on horseback. He cuts his hair, spends several years roaming as a beggar, then sits beneath a tree where he reaches the plane of enlightenment; a gift he then brings to the people of the world.
After three months wandering the Sinai wilderness with 3500 orphaned Israelites, Moses is called by God to climb a great mountain near his camp. He braves trembling earth and lightening before receiving two stone tablets, which he is told to share with his people. He returns to camp and brings with him a code to live by; a guide to righteous survival.
Luke Skywalker returns to his Aunt and Uncle’s humble hut on Tatooine to find it burnt to the ground. Then, with the help of a few friends, he learns to harness the all-powerful “force” and uses it to defeat his enemies, thereby restoring the balance of light and dark in the galaxy.
A young princess falls in love with a boy named Theseus, who is unfortunately doomed to serve as the main course for an evil man-bull hybrid called the minotaur. The beast lives in an inescapable labyrinth, but the princess gives the boy a thread before he enters and, upon slaying the beast, Theseus is able to escape and receive his hero’s welcome.
Clearly each of these stories will present with a unique context to each and every reader on earth. Still, there is an undeniable similarity between them that, if understood, can help shape—and even increase—the emotional impact of your personal memoir or autobiography. That similarity, it can be argued, spans the very breadth of human history. Every myth and legend, every sit-com and Super Bowl ad, every religious text; indeed, every narrative ever written can be defined by this commonality, which exists in the basic architecture of the story.
Perhaps the greatest comparative mythologist in history, Joseph Campbell traveled the globe collecting and analyzing stories. He read folklore and myths from the ancient Greeks and Romans, heard the tales of shamans, witchdoctors, and elders from isolated tribes, and scoured the religious and historical texts of just about every civilization known to exist throughout recorded history.
And, though Campbell admits that racial and cultural differences might affect the dynamic of these stories in some small way, he saw more similarities between the stories of various cultures than he saw differences. In his 1949 book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell explains how he began to see that almost every story he had ever seen or heard in his life was unified by a single structure.
He called it the “Hero’s Journey,” and he broke it down into three basic parts—separation, initiation, and return. The idea is this: the hero(ine) begins in a state of normalcy which is disrupted in some way (separation). Perhaps they begin to question the order of society, as in the young adult novels The Giver and The Hunger Games. Or, like Snow White and Cinderella, they are thrust out of their royal existence by an evil stepparent. Or maybe there is simply a spiritual stirring inside them; one which requires them to wander, as in the case of the Buddha.
Whatever the reason, with normalcy disrupted, thus begins the period of trials (initiation). Spiritual or physical, these trials are obstacles that the hero must face in order to gain the knowledge or elixir that had been missing or taken from them before their “call to action”. Maybe it’s a mental illness, the harshness of nature or the business world, or even a physical monster such as a dragon or a minotaur (though Campbell would likely have argued that even those monsters are but metaphors for
the “dragons” in our own subconscious). The monster slain and the trial conquered, the hero can then return to their community stronger and with something to share, even if that something is simply the story of their adventure, itself.
Being Your Own Hero
If you find yourself at an impasse while writing or editing your own story, it might behoove you to check how it measures up against the structure of the “Hero’s Journey.” Campbell breaks down each of the three parts of the framework into subsections that essentially cover every deviation and variation possible in the narrative—from “magical helpers” in the form of fairy godmothers, doctors, or anyone with advice that helps you find your course, to “the freedom to live,” which can only be realized once all of your “dragons” lay dead—and many very successful storytellers have used the framework to their advantage while shaping their own narratives.
George Lucas, for instance, was said to have used Campbell as a direct reference while writing the story for Star Wars, and a memo on the “Hero’s Journey” by Christopher Vogler that circulated through the Disney ranks in the mid-1980s landed him a position working on the story for The Lion King.
Throughout time, the stories that have captivated us are the ones that offer this common format. Hero sets out, hero struggles, hero returns. But most important in that return is the offering, be it physical, spiritual, or metaphorical. Ultimately, the journey is not the story of the hero, but rather that of what the hero brings back with him or her to share with the rest of humanity. As you weave together the details of your own life in hopes of crafting a story with universal appeal, start by asking yourself,
“Who’s the hero of this story?” Then set out to prove it.
In the world of freelancing, one of the often-cited cardinal rules is
“Never turn down a job.” This mind-set is a necessity for some writers; jobs
can be few and far between, but bills and your mortgage are not. Staying busy
and taking on projects seem like surefire ways to make a freelance career work.
But quantity does not always mean quality.
Let’s start with ghostwriting projects. How many should you have going
at one time? Most writers prefer to work on only one or two; this helps them
focus on the book at hand and not spread themselves too thin. Sticking to one
or two projects means you can devote the appropriate amount of time to your
manuscripts without having to pull all-nighters. Furthermore, being selective
about your work means you can pick the projects that interest you instead of
saying yes to every subpar proposal that comes your way.
Clients also like to be the center of your writing universe during a
project and often feel more at ease when they know you aren’t too busy to meet
their needs. Some potential clients will also wait until you are available if
they know you are good and come well recommended. The best way to ensure you’re
on the good side of word of mouth? Do excellent work that isn’t rushed or
cheapened by a too-packed schedule.
Of course, some writers can juggle three, four, or even five books at a
time. Each project is different and will require a certain amount of time and
effort. If you already have two books on your plate and are approached by
another potential client, be sure your schedule can support the added work. How
soon would you need to have a manuscript ready? How much will the author be
doing or providing? Biting off more than you can chew may mean you don’t have the
time to do your best.
Now, if you have one ghostwriting project in the works, that doesn’t
mean you can’t do anything else. Many ghostwriters also work as freelance
copyeditors or proofreaders or serve in other writing or editorial roles. For
anyone, the key to loving what you do and never being bored is diversity.
Having a few small side projects can help you gain new clients, earn some extra
cash, and stay sane during the (sometimes tedious) ghostwriting process.
Each writer will have a different threshold for how much is too much,
but maintaining a full schedule will help maximize your career. Find your own
balance of ghostwriting and other projects by trial and error. Start slow and
add projects as you become more comfortable and confident in your ability to
plan your time and work. Contact the Jenkins Group and tell us about your project.
If you’re looking at publishing a
digital-first or digital-only book, do you still need a ghostwriter? Well, ask
yourself this: if you were publishing a print book, would you want to hire a
These days, we shouldn’t
differentiate between print and electronic as “better” or “worse.” Some
statistics say as many as one in four Americans owns and uses an e-reader, so
don’t think that your e-book doesn’t have to be just as good as a print edition,
because it does have to be as good—if
not better. Thanks to the ease of self-publishing, the e-market is more heavily
saturated than print, and you and your ghostwriter will need to work even
harder to make a splash. Luckily, many writers are familiar with publishing
digitally, and all you two will need to do is work together to come up with a
plan to make your book work.
Before you even hire a
ghostwriter, decide what kind of e-book you will want to create and thus what e-reader
platforms you’ll reach. Using things such as color or interactivity can limit
the types of devices on which your e-book will run. You’ll also want to talk to
potential ghostwriters about their experience with e-books to see how much they
can help you in the process.
If you are creating a standard, or
“vanilla,” e-book (no bells and whistles such as video or audio), then there
are few if any differences in the ghostwriting process. No matter how you skin
it, you’ll need a solidly researched, well-written manuscript. And for a straight-text
e-book, you don’t need much else.
Should you decide to add the
aforementioned bells and whistles, you and your ghostwriter will need to come
up with a plan. How will you denote where a specific image, video, or sound
clip will go? Will your writer help you in the conversion process? You will
also need to get the rights and proper permissions for any extra materials you
use, and you will probably want to have some kind of QA process to make sure
the hyperlinks land on the proper webpages and your videos don’t cut out in the
middle. Of course, many of those items can be handled by professional e-book
conversion companies, so you may need to involve multiple resources in the
creation of your book.
To return to our original question,
should you hire a ghostwriter for an e-book project? My answer is yes. If you’re
thinking about working with a ghostwriter, odds are you need or want one, and
the format of your book shouldn’t influence your
decision. Contact the Jenkins Group and tell us about your project
On this blog, we’ve talked about what a writer should look
for when hiring a ghostwriter. But what should you—the ghostwriter—look for
when you’re being interviewed? We’ve made a list of some of the hot-button
items that will help you get the most out of your projects.
1. Is the project interesting? Obvious as it seems, this question is sometimes overlooked by writers,
especially those new to the field. Is the subject matter something you feel
passionate about, are knowledgeable in, or want to share with the world? Is the
material or spin fresh and innovative? If you are bored by the pitch, you’ll
probably be bored by the project. And while we can’t always have the books of
our dreams, it is important to be interested and invested in any project you
2. What’s the time table like? Scheduling a ghostwriting project goes both ways. If your potential
client wants to have a book written in 90 days and will be out of the country
and out of touch for 80 of those days, you may want to let this project pass.
Some clients will have an urgent deadline or unreasonable expectations and you
won’t be able to talk them into a more practical schedule. On the other hand,
many clients are flexible and willing to meet you halfway. Look for those that
fall into the latter category, and be sure your schedule and theirs will be
3. How much work needs to be done? Are you going to be starting from scratch, an
outline, or a set of case studies, or will you be working off prepared
materials? You’ll need to factor in the amount of work in order to decide how
much time you’ll need to complete the project. See whether your client expects
to have materials ready for you or whether he or she will be giving you pieces
along the way. In some cases, you may be expected to do everything on your own.
4. How will your client contribute? Some clients are very hands-off during the
ghostwriting process while others want to be there every step of the way. Try
to get an idea of how much this particular client will want to do, and also
gauge how much you will need from him or her. The two of you should be able to
find a happy medium.
5. Are you two a good match? Managing your client is just as important as managing your writing.
The project will go smoothly if you two have compatible working styles (or can
compensate for your differences), each go in with similar expectations, and
genuinely respect each other. There’s no sense in working for a belligerent
client or someone who is perfectly nice but won’t help you get the job done.
6. How will the client handle the delicate points of your
collaboration? This last question is
especially relevant if you are working as a freelancer with a total stranger.
How do you know the client will pay and pay on time? Will you get any kind of
attribution for your work? Can you use the client as a reference? The best way
to ensure that you get yeses to all of those questions is to have a plan in
mind before you even talk to the client. Tell him or her about your standard
operating procedure—perhaps you get paid an advance and then collect the rest
at the end of the project or you want to use this project as a résumé builder.
Be upfront and honest with your writer in the early stages to be sure you get
what you need. Contact the Jenkins Group and tell us about your project
Creating a book can be tricky at
the best of times, but what if your job required lots of time and travel? How
will you be able to fit in reviewing chapters, coordinating with your
ghostwriter, and supplying materials? As always, the secret to success is organization.
This means organization of your projects, your priorities, and your personal
When you first hire your
ghostwriter, let him or her know that you travel frequently and will sometimes
be in and out of communication. Provide your known travel plans for the
foreseeable future and note when you will be completely off the grid. This will
give your ghostwriter a good idea of when and how you can be reached.
Next, try to create a schedule
with your writer based on your travels. If you know you'll have some downtime
or a long plane ride in a few weeks, that would be a good time for your writer
to send you the first couple of chapters. And once your writer gets started on
the project, you two can nail down the schedule on the basis of your availability
and the ghostwriter's need for feedback. You should be prepared to set aside a
good chunk of time at the beginning and end of the ghostwriting process, but be
sure to stay involved during the middle portion to ensure a great final
Try to set aside some time each
week to check in with your writer via phone or e-mail. Give your writer advance
notice, saying, "On Thursday afternoon, I will be devoting several hours
to the book. You can expect a call/e-mail from me, and I will complete X
task." Tasks can be anything from catching up on ghostwriter queries to
sending edits. Even if you've hired an autonomous ghostwriter who can handle
the bulk of the project without your input, you'll still want to keep in touch.
For many execs, publishing a book is
a very time-sensitive matter. You may be creating a corporate anniversary
project, an in-demand memoir, or a groundbreaking business book. Your
ghostwriter will understand these time constraints. However, you should also be
able to take some time out of your schedule for this book. Your involvement, no
matter the subject of the book, is key to creating a finished product that you
and your readers will enjoy.
Each project is different, so my
best advice is simply to be organized and stay in touch with your writer. You
two will create a schedule and a system that works well for both of you. Check
out some of the other entries on this site for tips on how to communicate with
ghostwriters, prepare your materials, and make a realistic timetable for your
project. Contact the Jenkins Group and tell us about your project
You’ve found a few promising ghostwriters, and now you’re up
against the task of weeding through their writing samples. How do you know what
to look for, especially if they haven’t written a book quite like yours? Below
are a few obvious and not-so-obvious elements to keep an eye out for when
reviewing ghostwriter samples.
Correct Spelling and Grammar
This one is a no-brainer. But also look for certain trends
(e.g., serial commas) that you like, as well as competency with your chosen
style, whether that’s CMS, AP, or something different.
Word Choice and Phrasing
Keeping in mind that the ghostwriter was likely trying to
reproduce the style of the author, look for certain turns of phrase, sentence
structures, and other elements that you find appealing. Although most
ghostwriters will do their best to mimic the voice of the author, their own
personal voices will come through in the writing as well.
Use of Jargon, Stats, and Other Info
Does the writer make even the most technical information
clear and interesting for readers of various levels? If so, that’s a good sign.
No matter the subject of your book, it should appeal to the broadest possible
audience—after all, the whole point of writing a book is that someone else will
read it! Good ghostwriters can tackle complex subjects and create text that
accurately and clearly represents data and pertinent information.
Familiarity with the Topic
This is especially important if you get a chance to review a
sample from a book in your field. You’ll want evidence that the writer is
comfortable with the topic and uses the necessary terms properly. Even brief
samples can give you an idea of how much a writer knows (or has learned) about
a particular subject.
Tone and Talent
Does the sample make you want to read more, despite less
than thrilling subject matter? Is the writing presented in a straightforward
and interesting manner? I often encourage authors to go with a writer who
writes well rather than one who is
simply well educated. Part of the
ghostwriting process is the mutual exchange of information, and it is very rare
that a ghostwriter is an expert or professional in the same field as the
author. Ghostwriters are smart people, and even if you choose a writer with
little experience in, say, business books, that doesn’t mean he or she won’t
turn out a beautifully written book. Go with your gut—if you think a writer is
talented and you are willing to give direction, you two can be a good match.
Finally, remember that ghostwriters are only as good as
their authors. Even the greatest writer can do only so much with an author who
is not fully committed to the project or who supplies only minimal material and
direction, and sometimes this shows in the finished product. Feel free to ask
writers for details on their projects—in some cases that info will be
confidential, but they can always tell you what helps them work best. Use that
new knowledge to be the best author you can be and to choose the ghostwriter
who is best suited to you.