On being a hired gun…

Pop quiz: Nancy Drew, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Sweet Valley High, The Warriors… what do these have in common?

Yes, they are all wildly popular middle grade and young adult series — but that’s not all. They were also penned by “ghostwriters.” Wait… What? my inner 11-year-old asks? Carolyn Keene was not an actual person?!?

Well, my grown-up writer self asks — then how do *I* become Carolyn Keene?

The answer: writing work-for-hire.

Recently, I signed on to write a 3-book MG work-for-hire project with the fantastic London-based book packager Working Partners Ltd. So in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’d like to share what I’ve learned so far about WFH with my fellow writers and readers:

  1. Not all work-for-hire is created equal:  You don’t have to look much farther than the whole James Frey “fiction-factory” thing to recognize this. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t good opportunities out there. Work-for-hire projects run the gamut — some pay only a flat fee, others offer royalties; some give credit, others don’t. It’s important to weigh your options and make sure any project you take on is worth your time and effort (whether financially or as an experience to grow as a writer). I really like Working Partners because they do offer advances, royalties and credit. Plus, I am working with an incredibly talented team of editors who are all published children’s authors in their own right.
  2. Work-for-hire is not for everyone:  Just as not every job is the same, it takes a certain type of writer to succeed at (and enjoy!) writing work-for-hire. You need to like working collaboratively. You also have to enjoy working within the confines of someone else’s idea/plot/characters. While some writers find this limiting, for me, it’s actually kind of freeing. Instead of worrying about what is going to happen, I get to think about how it happens and focus on voice, character development and dialogue, which I love. Also, if you are a fast writer, work-for-hire is a great way to fill the gaps between your own projects (and get paid for it!).

So how do I sign up, you ask? Well, there are a few different ways to break in to WFH. My agent connected me with my current job; however, there are packagers and publishers who work with unagented writers, as well (Working Partners is one). The process usually looks something like this:

  1. The sample:  Typically, book packagers or publishers will ask interested authors to provide a writing sample to see if you are a fit with any current or future projects. This is the Working Partners sample submission page. Capstone Books also does MG and other work-for-hire. And here’s a great round-up of WFH links from blogger/writer Chandler Marie Craig.
  2. The audition:  If the packager or publisher decides you might be a good fit for a project, they will ask you to “audition.” This generally consists of writing a portion of the proposed project (for my current MG work I was asked to write the first three chapters of the first book). Typically, other authors will be asked to try out as well. The packager and/or publisher then selects the author they think captures the story best.
  3. Writing the project:  If you win the audition (yay!), now it’s time to get writing. Generally you’ll be given a story line, complete with characters and often with a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of how the action should play out. Turnaround times on work-for-hire projects are typically short. My latest project, a 20,000 word MG novel, was due in seven weeks. I now have a two-week window to edit and revise. Once that’s turned in, I’ll get the story line for the next book in the series — and another seven weeks to crank that out.
  4. Publication! (double-yay!)

As with all things in the publishing world, there are ups and downs writing work-for-hire. But all in all, I have found it a great way to gain writing experience, work with some amazingly talented people, and do what I love to do — write.

If you have any work-for-hire experiences, suggestions or links you’d like to share, please do so in the comments below. Or, if you have any questions about the process, feel free to post them and I will answer as best I can. And Happy Thanksgiving, everyone — hope this year has given you much to be thankful for!

Jan Gangsei is in the process of revising her second book for a really cool new MG series from Working Partners, Ltd., but she will be taking some time off tomorrow to stuff her face with turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy :).

Jan Gangsei
  1. I have to wonder how the gentleman who wrote most of the Nancy Drew series, enjoyed getting letters to “Carolyn Keene”. :-0 . Seriously, I enjoyed this post and am considering how to become a ghost writer—but only for books that do not feature fantasy, terribly meanspirited people, or violence. Surely there are many categories left that I could fit into……?

  2. Thanks Jan. I plan to checkout Capstone.

    • @Linda Andersen, That’s great! Wishing you all the best with your writing :).

  3. Thank you for this fantastic information!!! I am interested in pursuing work-for-hire opportunities and you’ve just saved me tons of research time:)
    Happy Thanksgiving!!

    • @Marilee Haynes, You’re welcome! I definitely recommend doing WFH — it’s been a fantastic experience so far. Wishing you great success!

  4. Wow, what a great post. I did not know that “Carolyn Keene” is a fabricated name…so rght back to “The Secret of the Old Clock”? I figured the newer Nancy Drew’s were mass-written, but always thought there was an original Keene!
    Congratulations on your fantastic partnership with Working Partners. I am so intrigued and actually would love to “try out”. But I”m so new to things (really really new) that I think they would laugh at me at this stage 🙂
    I noticed though at Working Partners, the iniitial application does not require a writing sample. Anyway, thanks for the post. I want to ask you a bunch of questions 🙂
    Happy Thanksgiving…I’m not American, but anyway…

    • @Jill, Yes, I was also surprised that Carolyn Keene was not a real person. I lived on those books as a kid… probably even wrote Carolyn a fan letter or two :). And an interesting little tidbit about Carolyn Keene… was chatting with my cousin-in-law recently and her grandmother was one of the early Carolyn Keenes. Apparently at the time, she wasn’t allowed to tell anyone she wrote the book (don’t know which one) — she just got a check and that was that!

      Also, feel free to post any questions if you have them — I’m definitely no expert, but I’m happy to answer what I can!

      • @Jan Gangsei,

        Thanks Jan…and wow …your grandma 🙂

        I’d love to talk more about this actually…do you have a contact address or maybe you can contact me? Thanks.

  5. And don’t forget Beacon Street Girls. One of the characters is a real person who is now the literacy coach at Newton North High School. Same person in books who wants to be the fashion designer. She is not thrilled to be part of a ghost written series but I think the original author is a friend of hers.

    I think if it’s well done, you can’t tell. Nancy Drew and Warriors … can’t really tell it’s not the same person. But Beacon Street Girls jumps around too much with new characters and plot shifts that it’s not a smooth transition from book to book.

    • @PragmaticMom, Interesting little tidbit about Beacon Street Girls — guess one of the hazards of being friends with a writer is you might end up in a book ;).

      Also agree that when done well it’s very hard to tell if different writers have worked on a series, likely because each book is very much a team effort.

  6. I didn’t know much about WFH, thanks for the post. Very imformative!

    • @Jennifer Rumberger, You’re welcome! Glad it was useful!