Publish Your Stuff Interview: Esme Symes-Smith on Ghostwriting and Editing
Esme Symes-Smith is a English-born, Welsh-educated writer currently
living in America. She spends most of her time on NaNoWriMo and in
Starbucks where she can be found drowning in tea and bashing her way
through her first novel. She can be found at her blog and over at The Writers’ Helpers!
- Can you give us a brief explanation of what you do?
I worked through oDesk when it was going, up until a few months ago, doing editing and ghostwriting. Ghostwriting is fictional, mostly romances – supernatural, sci-fi/fantasy/contemporary NA. I wish I worked through a publication, it would certainly be a lot more stable, but I applied on a case-by-case basis through that website, and once the work’s complete it’s completely out of my hands. In the beginning I asked my clients what they did with the stories, but was told very firmly that it was none of my business.
Since oDesk closed down (note: oDesk is now Upwork), I’ve just been finishing up work. I get editing clients through my blog sometimes, but mostly I’ve been concentrating on my own novel and starting to look at applying for in-house work (I nearly have my greencard, and I’m itching to get away from my computer screen 24/7)
So, it’s definitely not a career for me, but I can talk about what I’ve learned and how it’s great experience to have, just as a writer. I joined on a whim after my first NaNo (because if you can write a novel in a month, you can do anything!!) never really think it would go anywhere, so it was pretty amazing when it actually went somewhere!
It’s still fundamentally the same, it seems. It seemed like a good time to drop away, that’s why I haven’t looked into it too much. Elance.com is pretty much the same, as well. I’ve heard good things about it.
- What made you decide to try ghostwriting?
I started in January of 2014, six months after graduating with my degree in Literature and Creative Writing, and I had just won my first NaNoWriMo. I was high-as-a-kite on success, and felt as though I could do anything. Everyone had always told me that the only thing I could do with a degree is teach; fiction could never be anything more than a silly hobby. But I had just written a novel (yes, a rough first draft, but a novel nonetheless) in 30 days. I felt like Superwoman, and writing stories had been the only thing I’d ever been good at. So I did a bit of googling and discovered a market for ghostwriters. Ghostwriting is basically where you write other people’s stories. It’s a partnership – they have the ideas and the marketing know-how, and you have the skills to bring it to life. For me it was perfect; I got to try my hand at experimenting with different genres I wouldn’t normally bother with (werewolf romances aren’t usually my cup-of-tea, but they’re very profitable these days!) AND get paid for the experience. Plus, you know, the kudos of being able to genuinely say ‘I am a professional fiction writer’. For a young graduate jumping between England and America, it was ideal.
- Where did you get your start in ghostwriting, and how easy was it to do?
The hardest part was realising that it was possible. As I said, no-one wants you to believe that writing stories could possibly bring in any money, and I had very much been conditioned to believe that. So I started at the very beginning, with google, and that brought me to oDesk (now Upwork) Elance is pretty much the same thing, but I didn’t know that back then, so I concentrated on oDesk.
The most important thing is your portfolio, which you need to be as polished and as varied as it can be. This is what you’re going to use to sell yourself and prove that you are the best writer for the job. I included an extract from my NaNo novel, a film review that won an award at university, a romance fanfiction (because the highest demand is in romance) and part of my Creative Writing dissertation.
Once that was done, I set about creating my profile. Now, this is like a cover letter – it’s the first thing people see. My biggest tip is to relax and not worry. You’re selling yourself as a creative writer, so be creative and be honest. And check check CHECK for typos and grammatical errors. Seriously.
Verifying my identity was a bit of a fuss, but not as bad as I thought it was going to be. You just need identification and a scanner, and you’re set. You can start work before that, but you’re more likely to be hired if you’ve been verified.
Once you’re set up, just start searching for jobs that might interest you and get applying! I think I applied for five jobs before I landed my first, and that was only a week after joining. It was very unexpected, but very reassuring! You hear horror stories of people who’ve been there for months but with no bites.
As long as you can prove you’re good, you should have no problem.
- What kind of ghostwriting work have you done?
I have done a two-part zombie high-school romance (16,000 words) A contemporary NA romance (30,000 words) A shape-shifter/werewolf romance (12,000 words) A science-fiction/fantasy/werewolf romance (60,000) Amongst other things. The emphasis is definitely on romance, which I don’t usually touch in my own work, but it’s been really exciting to explore different parts of the genre. It’s fun to push yourself out of your comfort zone, and I think it’s very valuable experience for any writer.
- Can you tell us a bit about how you go about doing ghostwriting?
Ghostwriting is very much being in a partnership with your client. They are the ones with the idea, and the ones who will take the work onwards once it’s complete. How closely you work with them varies from job to job. Sometimes that give you a basic premise and you pretty much create the whole thing. Other times, they’ll send a detailed scene-by-scene outline that you’ll work from. Personally, I like to keep daily contact with my clients, and I expect them to fulfill their duties to me just as I do for them. I ask for regular feedback because, without it, there’s a danger that you’re going to have to go back and re-do parts that could’ve easily been avoided. I very much dislike working with clients who are absent as they are very often the ones who ‘forget’ to pay you at the end.
Creatively, I found it the same as when working on my own work. You sit down, glue your butt to the chair, and just type. I’m quite fortunate in that my first-drafts are generally pretty reasonable. Before sending, I go over and check it through, but when I"m writing I don’t worry about things too much. Deadlines, in ghostwriting, are as important if not more soy high-quality. Remember: You’re not writing great literature; you’re writing stories that can be marketed easily. Clients want a quick turn-around, not lyrical prose. I learnt this the hard way.
- Would you say it’s the same as any other kind of work?
I really can’t say. I don’t think so? It’s pretty unique in that it’s an opportunity to practise your craft whilst being paid for it.
- What advice would you give to people who want to enter into ghostwriting?
Be confident. Be the best you can be. Know your worth. It’s better to over-sell than under-sell. Don’t take any nonsense from your clients; the reason people hire ghostwriters is because they don’t have the skills to do it themselves, and they very often have no idea of what it takes to write fiction. YOU are the professional in the ghostwriter/client relationship. They are paying for your services and expertise, so don’t let them bully you.
- Is there anything you would advise people avoid doing?
Don’t undercharge yourself. Be aware of how much time it takes to complete a job, and make sure you’re charging what you’re worth. The biggest mistake I’ve seen in new writers to charge peanuts, but it’s like selling your e-book for 99 cents – clients and readers see that and judge your worth by it. I’ve found that the higher you charge, the more respect the client will treat you with.
And don’t get too attached to the work. This is something I struggled with the most – You pour your heart and soul into the stories, just as you do for your own, but then you have to give them up and have no idea where they’ve gone… It can be very sad. There’ve been more than a few times when I’ve wanted to bundle the story under my coat and make a run for it!
- Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Have fun with it. It’s great experience for fiction writers and, though it’s not something I want to do as a career, it can certainly lead places. I’d recommend it to anyone who has the drive and the skills.