Have you been thinking about ghost writing or collaborating on a writing project? Thanks to Gretchen Primack for sharing her experience of collaborating with Jenny Brown to write The Lucky Ones, My Passionate Fight for Farm Animals.
Gretchen Primack’s poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, The Massachusetts Review, FIELD, Antioch Review, Ploughshares, and other journals. Her chapbook, The Slow Creaking of Planets, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2007. An animal activist, she co-wrote the newly released memoir The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animals (Penguin Avery 2012) with Jenny Brown, director of the Woodstock Farm AnimalSanctuary.
Jenny and I met through the world of animal advocacy. We have a lot of the same values--for instance, we believe other animals are here with us on the planet, not for us, and that eating compassionately is a wonderful way to go for all involved--and we also both love to drink cocktails, blast "Don't Fear the Reaper," and laugh loudly.
Several agents approached jenny after the New York Times ran a story about her and the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary. She chose one of the agents--the wonderful Linda Lowenstein--but Jenny's not a writer and wanted help. When Linda suggested a ghost writer, Jenny suggested me.
That was a real leap of faith on both of their parts. Jenny and I were friends, so she knew that I understood her, and she had seen some of my pieces in local papers; still, she also knew I’m primarily a poet and had never written book-length prose. Meanwhile, Linda could have nixed someone with my lack of experience, but she asked me to write a few sample pages and liked what she saw enough to take the risk.
I hammered out an outline, okayed it with Jenny and Linda, and then began interviewing Jenny. I'd sit across from her with a laptop in front of me and prompt her to begin on a certain piece of her life. "Okay, you've just been diagnosed with bone cancer. Go." "Okay, you're off to Chicago for film school. Go." Then she'd talk and I'd type as fast as I could, which, thanks to the typing class my father forced me to take in high school, was fast enough.
I'd ask follow-up questions, and she'd offer tidbits she knew she wanted to be part of the story.
We also discussed which animal stories to use. Each chapter of the book begins with the story of one of the lucky ones--a farm animal who was rescued from abuse or neglect and has found peace and joy at WFAS. We were sure to include all different kinds of animals, from a "broiler" hens to a 1000-lb steer, and tell each story in detail so that folks can see these animals for the individual characters they are.
Once the interview had run its course, I'd take the raw material back to my office and start shaping, crafting, making a chapter. When I was done, I'd let it season, read it again, make some serious tweaks, and then send it to Jenny. She'd read it and put in her two cents ("Oh no, I'd never say that!" or "How about more on Coco the blind chicken here?"), then I'd revise and send it back to her. Once it was sort of in the can, we'd move on.
When a full draft was finished, I gave it all a good read to check for unity and flow. Then I sent the whole shebang back to Jenny and she did more work on it, making sure the voice was authentic and that we'd covered all she wanted to. Then off to the editor.
If you're going to do collaborative work, I'd suggest nailing some basics from the start. There are actually contracts that you can use as a blueprint. They're not binding, more like suggestions. For instance, you might set time limits on how long the author has to get back to the writer with edits on a given chunk of text.
And you want to make sure you're clear on what each role is. Communication is, of course, KEY. If a ghostwriter/co-writer is overstepping his bounds, the author should say so. If the author is disrespecting the writer, that's got to be made clear. There are ways in which the process is easier if the two know each other--the writer can capture the author's voice more easily, for instance--but there's ways in which a duo's past dynamic can work against you, too, so bear that in mind and be as open as possible.
Authors at a book party