It’s the scenario every writer dreams of: #1 New York Times Bestsellers. Movie deals. Book deals for 10 novels, one after the next.
Who could ask for more? Yet in the crazy world of publishing, even this stellar trajectory does not necessarily translate into the professional or financial stability most people need.
That’s why Nicola Kraus, whose novels, co-authored with Emma McLaughlin, include blockbusters such as The Nanny Diaries, So Close, The Real Real and Nanny Returns, turned a page in her own career a few years back to add professional ghostwriting and editing into the mix. Ever fascinated by how writers leverage their unique creative skills into satisfying, sustainable careers, I caught up with Nicola recently to hear about her path. Her work has been a great source of inspiration to me, so I’m all the more honored to speak with her here today. Let’s dive in.
Q: You’ve written and co-authored 10 wildly successful novels, including the New York Times bestseller The Nanny Diaries — which was made into a movie starring none other than Scarlett Johansson. How did you make the jump from crafting fiction to editing and ghostwriting nonfiction?
NK: Well, it wasn’t so much a jump as an evolution with so many factors :) When my co-author Emma McLaughlin and I started publishing fiction in 2002 it was easier to sell enough primary and foreign rights that two people could split the revenue from one book and live in New York City. But after 2008 foreign sales became increasingly rare. Magazines stopped serializing fiction, and six-figure film sales were phased out in favor of four-figure film options.
If we had been one person living outside the city we would have been in great shape, but after we had children we were forced to make some tough decisions about what we wanted to be getting out of our time away from them. At that point our responses diverged. She decided to go back to corporate life and I decided to immerse myself in what I loved about writing in the first place: not just the craft, but the art and magic of it. I did that by starting to teach, or ‘coach,’ aspiring authors, giving myself the financial freedom to go back to making art for the creative pleasure of it.
Q: There are all sorts of misconceptions about what “ghostwriting” really means, and there seems to be a stereotypical notion that it involves sitting down and writing somebody else’s book from scratch. But I’ve seen all sorts of permutations, from helping authors get their first drafts into final shape to polishing already-solid manuscripts. Tell us how you work.
NK: Lol! No, I don’t put words in anyone’s mouths! I have manifold ways of working with clients. And they all stem from one fact: as publishers merged and were bought out in the oughts, houses started employing fewer and fewer editors, but published more and more titles. Meaning authors now need people like me to help them do what they could once have found within an in-house author/editor relationship. In an ideal world editors make significant changes, improvements and overhauls to manuscripts. Now I do so instead. For fiction clients seeking an, agent I line-edit and make plot suggestions. What separates me from most freelance editors, who are former editors, not authors, is that I don’t just identify what’s not working, I give viable options for how to solve the problem. Nothing makes me happier than editing a manuscript, then watching it get picked up by a major house.
But I’m also used by a lot of established authors whose editors have gone MIA when they need someone to come in and give them notes before they go to print.
For nonfiction clients, I help identify what part of their expertise should be the focus of the book, and teach them how to package it so it can sell. I help them write every part of the proposal, which is the 60 page marketing document editors use to decide to make an offer, and edit them as needed. Primarily I’m inside it with them. They can call me at night, on the weekends, as ideas come to them, and I’ll hash it out with them. And hold them accountable to their deadlines.
I know there are a lot of ghostwriters who turn people’s ideas into books. I’ve been lucky enough to be very choosy about my clients and I prefer to work with people who have the content and could write their non-fiction book if they had time, but they don’t. So they give me their curriculum, their lectures, the essays they’ve published, their blog and I help assemble it. I strongly believe that if an editor or ghostwriter is helping someone beyond that, actually stepping in and doing the bulk of the writing, they should be credited on the cover as a “with.”
Q: Is the creative process involved similar at all to the fiction-writing process? How?
NK: First off, story is story. Non-fiction books are successful when they’re compelling. It’s not enough to be an expert in your field, you still have to craft a narrative, you still have to communicate effectively. So I don’t see any distinction in terms of my goals when I’m in the chair every day.
Q: What has writing fiction taught you about helping others write?
NK: Writing fiction doesn’t make you a good fiction-writing mentor. What does is having a partner for 15 years, which forced us both to be extremely explicit about every step of a process most authors do on instinct. I’ve also written for Paramount and Sony, I’ve written musical librettos, and now I have a comic book series coming out. I know story structure. Also, I’m naturally a pedagogical person. I really was a nanny for many years, I taught 5th and 6th grade drama, now I teach a small elective at my daughter’s school. I love to teach. I love seeing my clients get better and better at what they do. I love seeing that joy spread across their faces when they figure out how to fix something.
Q: I imagine that capturing an author’s voice is central to your craft. Can you walk us through that process?
NK: It is. And that is something I get from having been an actress for many years. I was a natural mimic from childhood–any accent, any intonation. Each person has their own natural lexicon and rhythm of speech. It’s essential to stay confined to that. I will never impose my own way of saying something when I’m editing, because it would stick out. I would advise anyone interested in doing this work to spend as much time with your client as possible so that when you sit down to edit their words you can “be” them.
Q: What about your own voice? Is it a struggle to keep it off the page? How do you manage?
NK: I can’t explain it any better to than to say it would be inappropriate. And I have my own writing to do every day–I don’t need to insert myself into someone else’s work!
Q: You also consider yourself a “personal trainer for the creative process.” Tell us about that.
NK: Writing can be terrifying. And the kind of people who can afford to pay for my help are successful in some other arena of their lives. They’re uncomfortable with going back to square one. Simultaneously they have enormous hopes and dreams about this project–which can be paralyzing. As a novelist I co-wrote 10 books in 15 years, plus countless other projects. I know how to vanquish the gremlins and create an efficient writing schedule to keep even the most over-committed person on track. I really do feel like I am standing beside my clients with my stopwatch and my whistle, creating their program, cheering them on, cooling them down. The only thing I don’t do is rub shoulders. Well, no one’s asked yet. I probably would.
Q: Amazingly enough, you’re also still writing fiction – comic books, to be exact. What are you working on, and how to you juggle these two word-intensive endeavors?
NK: My sci-fi comic book series, The 29ers, debuts this month. I’m very excited about it. It’s about a group of survivors, lead by a 16 year-old boy, Akio, who try to re-start the world after 99% of the population suddenly freezes. And I’m writing my first solo novel, which is a huge joy. It’s called No One To Take You Back and it’s about how the after-effects of sexual abuse ricochet through a family for generations.
So…two very different sides of my brain that I had to put on the back-burner for so long are finally fully juiced. And a production company is trying to shoot a thriller my former co-author and I wrote next year. So I’ve been immersed in re-writes on that all year.
I know it sounds insane, but I’m someone who gets more done the more I have to get done. Also, each project is a break from the others–none of them are drawing down on the same part of my brain.
As far as productivity I try not to give my client work more than four hours a day, which gives me two for my projects. And, you know, I still like to check YouTube and Facebook. I’m human.
Q: Finally, what lessons from writing fiction do you bring into the ghostwriting process — and vice versa?
Writing my first solo project this year humbled me in a great way. It allowed me to get back in touch with how scary writing can be, and reminded me how to engage productively with that fear. I’m able to take those lessons to my clients and have much more empathy for their jitters. It’s so easy to sit across from someone and say, “Just write it!” It’s another to be staring at that cursor.
Thanks for joining us, Nicola!