What I’d Tell My Ghostwriter: Advice on Finishing My Novel

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If I were to hire a ghostwriter to write my novel, how might I instruct her?

Here is what I came up with:

  • Write a coming-of-age story that encapsulates a young Chinese American girl’s life growing up Jehovah Witness in the 80’s — her desires, her struggles — and how her life changes throughout the course of the book.
  • I’d ask this ghostwriter to remember the title and keep it in mind as she writes: THE FOREVER LIFE. (That’s a title I don’t want anyone to take, by the way, so I really need to light that fire under my ass to finish this thing, otherwise someone else will have that title. Fuck that!)
  • If I had a ghostwriter, I’d tell her to channel her memories of youth, that my character, Natalie, is only 14-years-old, struggling to belong, either in the life of forevers (the path of her mom), or a life of freedom and agency (her friend Rachel.)
  • I’d instruct my ghostwriter to come up with writing prompts before writing for each section/chapter/scene.  (E.g., What parts in the Taiwan trip can you pull out for the novel? Natalie is in the hospital post-car accident. What happens next? Knowing your outline for the closing of Act 1, how can you incorporate that into this hospital scene?)
  • I’d instruct my ghostwriter to read coming-of-age novels I love (like Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend) to get a sense of story, voice, structure, pace, tone, setting, and characterization.
  • I’d have her revisit writing-related notes on the manuscript in all its iterations, such as the ones in Carolina de Robertis’ class at Cristina Garcia’s Las Dos Brujas Writers’ Workshop. Pull out the stories she had showcased about narrative tension. How can you apply this to your own writing? I’d have her revisit April Bosshard’s Deep Story Design notes for coaching. Perhaps revisit the class notes from the past class on story structure and the technical aspects within a story (ex. midpoint, plot echo points). Revisit Elizabeth Tallent’s notes from Squaw Valley. Revisit Cristina Garcia’s feedback from that time we met up in San Francisco. Revisit Michelle Wallace‘s manuscript notes she helped me edit. Revisit third writing group’s (Brenda and Gina from Liminal) notes for novel. Revisit my second writing group (Small Vino) feedback with Mel, Sam, Kiala, Muthoni and Michelle. Revisit my notes from my first writing group with Tiff and Steve. Revisit notes from my first MFA fiction class with Gail Tsukiyama at Mills College. Revisit my notes from VONA, from ZZ Packer and Ashe Bandele. Classes I took at the Writing Salon and the SF Writing Grotto.
  • I’d create a solid writing practice for her to follow. A schedule. So she’d fall into the writing easily. I’d tell her not to be so hard on herself when the writing doesn’t flow. I’d ask her to use pomodoros and build in breaks to stretch, run to the bathroom — basically to not sit in a chair the entire time.
  • I’d ask her to build in time for research, study the craft (see above about revisiting class notes), reading both books about how-to write (e.g., Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext book I lent Lorelei when she was eager to learn about novel writing) and fiction. I’d have her build a solid literary life.
  • I’d also ask her to live her life — outside of writing — because all of life can be material in some way. (Not in a nasty capitalistic way of churning straw into gold, but in that stories can be found everywhere.)
  • I’d ask her to pair writing with music. To sometimes write with a song on repeat, a song that moves you, gives you life. Something like Max Richter. Or Helen Jane Long. And songs from the 80’s my characters — 14-year-old Natalie and Rachel  — would be listening to, like Depeche Mode, Ministry.
  • I’d ask my ghostwriter to follow the outline I’ve given her, but to feel free to deviate if it serves the story. To not be afraid to do so, but to check in with me, and we can adjust as necessary. I’d ask her to give herself permission to feel free. This is fun work. This is play. Write with lightness and spaciousness.
  • To write in this way, with ease, I’d instruct her to meditate before writing. To meditate when she gets stuck. Or to get up and move. Perhaps a walk outside in the fresh air, taking in the textures and colors of nature, marveling at the world larger than ourselves.
  • Reading is essential to writing well. I’d ask her to remember that when I read fiction or memoir, I read to find out how someone has lived, how they surmounted hardships, how I seek, often continuously, to know that I am not alone–in whatever struggles I’ve felt, or once felt, in life. I also read to be entertained. I like the excitement of cliffhangers, of what happens next. I like seeing characters in impossible or crazy situations, watching how they overcome the world they are boxed in.
  • I’d also ask her to pull up a blank page, especially in 750 words (because it’s on someone else’s server), to use as a canvas to draw on, so to speak. It’s okay to scribble, sketch. Then take that over to Scrivener to turn into a painting later.
  • I’d ask her to research Jehovah’s Witnesses. Go through my mom’s old books, the Watchtowers, the Awakes. And when writing, not to feel as if you have to explain everything to readers, in a didactic way, but to weave it into the actual story.

Yeah, if writing this novel were easy, I’d hire someone else to do it. But I’m sure I wouldn’t feel good afterwards, knowing I didn’t do it.

If writing it were easy, I’d just write. I’d look forward to writing it. I’d have a regular writing practice, sitting down each day to write. I’d tell myself to just keep going when I have doubts. I’d hire a coach/editor to keep me accountable (which I have). I’d make writing dates (which I’m doing regularly now with my friend Julie via Skype on weekday mornings).

I’d just keep showing up …

Each. Fucking. Day.

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