Commitment, Saidisms, and Ghostwriting


bookdoctorby Bobbie Christmas

Q: I have lots of ideas for books, but I get started on one book and stop to work on another. How can I stay focused on one book at a time until completion?

A: The creative mind can run wild at times, but completing a novel or a nonfiction book requires commitment and focus. The only way you can get focus is through self-discipline, and self-discipline requires goal setting.

To keep myself committed to a project, I spurn vague goals, such as “I want to write a novel about a werewolf that volunteers at a hospital,” and instead write down a specific goal with a set deadline. My goals do not float around in my head as ideas. Once a goal is written down, it becomes a concrete thing on which I can focus.

I then break down my goal into smaller goals, by chapters, pages, or word count. Let’s say today is December 31, and I set my deadline for completion as October 31. My written goal may look like this:

New Ask the book doctor logoI complete Volunteer Werewolf by October 31.
January 30 – finish chapter one
February 28 – finish chapter two
March 31 – finish chapter three

Once I have listed each minor goal and its deadline, I have deadlines for each chapter as well as the final book. I post my schedule near the computer where I work each day, so I see the note and know what I have to do to meet my minor deadlines that will lead to my major accomplishment.

When I was writing my textbook on creative writing, Write In Style, my publisher gave me what I feared was an unrealistic deadline to complete a 50,000-word book. I had written 10,000 words for the proposal and had 40,000 words left to write before the deadline, which was only three months away. I deleted one week from the number of weeks remaining, because I would need a week at the end to read over the full manuscript and make the final revisions. I had only about eleven weeks, then, to write 40,000 words. I did the math and knew I had to write 3,637 words every week, or only about 600 words a day, if I wrote six days a week out of seven. Suddenly the task sounded much easier. I used 3,700 words as a weekly goal and 600 words as a daily goal.

Knowing my daily and weekly goals as well as my deadline kept me focused and committed. When I had an idea for another book, I jotted down a few words to remind me of the idea later, when I had the time to pursue it. In the end I met the deadline with ease and without stress or last-minute hurrying.

Q: Lately I’ve seen people use really odd attributions in fiction and I have been told that it is fine. My question is, are they examples of writer’s voice or is it bordering on purple prose?

Here are some examples:
“I never loved your father,” she wanted me to know.
“I left when he beat me up,” she told me.
“I just don’t believe it, but I guess it’s true,” I acknowledged.
“Get me the can of green paint before your sister sees it,” I instructed.
“She is in the driveway,” he pointed out.

Those examples are far removed from “he said” or “she said.” If attributions other than “said” are in a piece that is rich with the author’s voice, are they acceptable, or is it just garbage?

A: I would say your examples indicate overwriting and perhaps garbage, for sure, but they are not quite purple prose. Purple prose refers to overwriting that also involves a far-fetched idea. A prime example of purple prose might be this: His reaction made the bare-bones truth a walking, breathing dragon that burned a hole in their friendship.

Occasionally replacing or avoiding “said” can be a good literary stroke, but any overused literary device weakens the writing. For example, sometimes it is fine to use an alternate attribution such as “responded,” “replied,” or the attributions you relayed in your examples. Overstretching to avoid using “said,” however, results in what editors call “saidisms.” In addition to advising writers to use only an occasional replacement for “said,” I tell them to use action for attribution occasionally. For example: “Mary, come closer.” Tom crooked his finger at his date.

In addition, when only two characters are in a scene, not every statement needs attribution, as long as the original speaker is clear to readers. When the dialogue format and punctuation are handled correctly, readers inherently see that the dialogue switches between the two characters in the scene.

Q: I’m sure I can add ghostwriting more articles to my existing freelance business with no problem, but is it possible for someone like me to also ghostwrite nonfiction books? I don’t see a way to add a long-term project such as a book to my existing workload without becoming overloaded.

A: I cannot speak for you, of course, without knowing how much of your week is already scheduled. The benefit of being independent, however, is that we have more control over our schedules than do those who work for others. If you have regular clients who take up twenty hours of your work week, you still have twenty hours to devote to ghostwriting, if you so desire. The key is to find clients who aren’t in a mad dash to complete a book, so you can work on more than one project at a time.

I have worked on full-time projects and part-time projects and have also worked with one client who was in a mad rush. In his case, he assigned portions of the book to several people who worked simultaneously. Each writer interviewed the necessary people and wrote resulting chapters. In the end, the so-called author reworded our writing where necessary to bring it into his style, so the book had consistency, even though it had been written by four or five people.
If you want to add ghostwriting to your repertoire, it doesn’t have to overwhelm your schedule. You can take on projects when you have the time, spread out the deadlines to accommodate your schedule, or take on portions of projects. For freelancers, almost anything is possible.

Send your questions to Bobbie Christmas, book editor and owner of Zebra Communications, will answer your questions quickly. Read more Ask the Book Doctor questions and answers at


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