Book ghostwriting CAN’T work without some sort of interview process. Without getting on the phone and discussing book structure, goals, and content with your client, how are you ever going to deliver a final product that captures the client’s voice and vision? You’re not. Period. But interviewing strategies are not something everyone learns in school or everyday life. It’s intimidating, even for people like me who took journalism courses. A large majority of writers are introverts who’d rather keep their nose in a book than interact with strangers, and phone conversations are even more intimidating because you can’t get a read on the other person’s face. Even when you do work up the courage (because this is your chosen livelihood after all; what else are you gonna do?), if you’re unfamiliar with the interview process, it’s easy to talk for an hour and still not have sufficient material to work up some solid chapters.
Never fear, though, because thanks to my Communications minor, I have a few tricks up my sleeve for making interviews a little less intimidating and a whole lot more productive.
Putting You and the Client at Ease
Chances are you already had some sort of back and forth with this client about the project before taking it on. If you didn’t, you ought to make that a habit. You can’t give an accurate quote that’s fair to the client and will adequately compensate you for all the work needed if you don’t have some form of interview beforehand (whether over the phone or via email).
You’ve already established a professional rapport, but in the first interview after the contracts have been signed and the first payment made, warm that up even further. The best way to do that is to get the client talking about him or herself. Don’t get super personal, like “What are your kids’ names?” That’s creepy. Ask things like, “What inspired you to create this book?” “Why do you love [insert the topic of the book]?” That still keeps things professional, but shows interest in the clients’ interests and gets them opening up about their passions.
You can also ask generic things like, “Where are you from?” “How’s it going today?” The key here is to calm both of your jitters with casual conversation. Asking familiar questions like these makes people feel more comfortable. Start generic and get more personal, and by then, you’ll have significantly warmed the client to you, and you’ve hardly had to do any talking.
The Types of Questions to Ask
When things get down to business, the questions need to be more targeted. Always, always, always go into a client interview with well-thought-out, prepared questions. I always aim for at least ten, at least in the beginning. Once you become familiar with the project, your questions will become even more specific and you won’t need as many, but in the beginning, get as many solid questions as possible.
So how do you come up with those questions?
1) You should already know the target audience for the book and the client’s big-picture vision for the content. Now, ask yourself, what does the audience want from this sort of book? Make sure you ask those questions for the audience.
2) Do you still have some unanswered questions about what the client wants this book to be? Do you still need to know more about the client’s goals for the project? Ask those questions.
3) You’ve got the big picture in your head (or you should from preliminary interviews), but you’re going to have to structure this book into a cohesive and immersive ride for the reader. Come up with a few ideas on how to do that and ask your client what he/she thinks of them. Which one does the client prefer? Does the client have any other ideas for structure?
4) Think about the content itself. What is the scope of this project? What research has been done and what still needs compiling? Do you personally have any questions to help you better understand the content?
Once you have those larger questions out of the way, you can get started on the writing, and as you write, you’ll come across new questions you think readers might have, places where there are holes in the structure, or facts that your client needs to fill in. Those will be very content-specific, so there is really no generic direction I can give you. My advice is not to be afraid to ask the client questions, whether because they’re personal or you’re afraid you’ll be coming across as ignorant of the topic. Anyone who hires a ghost has to be willing to get a little personal or they won’t find themselves at the root of their book. And it’s far better to ask a “dumb” question than to deliver incomplete or incorrect material. Besides, asking your client a question about the topic makes them feel like an expert and makes sure you’re inserting the client’s views and expertise into the book.
I start by asking the larger questions about the book as a whole, then I have an interview before writing each chapter where we hash out the content, and then once I’ve got a rough draft of that chapter read, I hold another call to get those little details that tie it all together before delivering the chapter for review.
When Things Get Personal
Personal anecdotes liven up any nonfiction book. In fiction, the whole thing is a story, but in nonfiction, you’ll be looking for ways to personalize the text and keep readers engaged, and anecdotes are the prime way to do that. If you’re writing a memoir, the whole book is a personal anecdote.
Asking questions like this can be difficult. Sometimes the subject matter is sensitive, and other times, your client just isn’t giving you much to work with due to a lack of memory or inadequate prompting. So how do you extract personal experiences from clients?
1) Always Ask Open-Ended Questions: When you’re trying to get lots of information out of a client rather than a yes or no answer, you need to get them talking freely. The best way to do this is to properly phrase your questions so that a yes or no answer is not sufficient. Instead of asking something like, “Did that make you angry?” ask something like, “When you got that first rejection, what was your initial gut reaction? How did you feel? What did you do?” But you also don’t want to get too general, as clients usually need a bit of direction. So rather than, “What happened next?” ask, “What did you decide to do about it?” or “What led you from that rejection to your current success?”
2) Rephrase the Question: If your client is remaining tight-lipped, rephrasing the same question in different ways can open up the memory gates. The more your client hears that question in some variation, the more familiar he/she becomes with it and the more time he/she has to think of an answer. Not getting a response to “How did that make you feel when she said that?” Try, “Did her words make you angry, sad, confused?” If that only gets you a short, impersonal answer like “sad,” you can prompt again with “Why?” If that still isn’t getting you enough to write a scene, try rewording one more time with, “So, it upset you a good deal, understandably. After she said it, how did you react? Did you scream at her? Did you cry? Or did you keep silent?” I have found that giving your clients options like this opens up their memories more because their brains will say, “No, it didn’t really go like that … I did this,” or “Yeah, yeah, I did that, and then this happened.”
Dealing with Overly Talkative Clients
This really isn’t a bad thing at all. In fact, it’s far preferred over the next sort of client we’re going to talk about. However, it can still cause problems. If you charge by the hour for your interviews (I personally don’t; I simply factor that time into my per word or fixed fee rate), this is okay for you, but your client may not be too happy about that bill. If you’re not, you definitely don’t want this happening.
Why? Well, a talkative client is great only if they are talking about the right things. If you have a client who spends the first ten minutes of the interview telling you about this great new spot he just ate at for lunch, you’re not getting anywhere.
The key to working with overly talkative clients is mastering the art of corralling. You have to shove that social anxiety aside and interrupt the client if they go off on an unrelated tangent. In between breathes, say the client’s name to get their attention, and then say something like, “Could you tell me a little more about _____? That section needs beefing up a little.” Or, “Could you explain ____ a little more? I think we need a few more concrete examples so we don’t lose any of the readers.” You’ll see that in both those examples, you explain why you need to discuss this topic rather than what they were rambling on about.
I promise you, overly talkative clients aren’t going to be offended by the interruption if you give them something else to chat about, and they will have no problem telling you everything you need to know if you just take the initiative to point them in the right direction.
Dealing with Reserved Clients
This is the real doozy. These are the shy clients, the clients who clam up easily due to sensitive feelings, or the clients who know so much about their topic that they just think most of it is self-explanatory and don’t feel the need to give lots of detail. These are the clients you have to pry answers out of, like pulling gum off your shoe or using a crowbar to open an old, rusted steel door.
Luckily, I haven’t come across any in my book ghostwriting work, but I definitely found a few of them while working on assignments for my communications classes.
If you’re dealing with one, first, make sure you’ve done everything you can to make the client feel comfortable with you. Chat casually for a few minutes before getting to the real work, and try to find some common ground. If they are hesitant to talk about themselves, talk a little about yourself. Show you trust them, too. If you’re dealing with a shy client, this can really help them feel comfortable.
If the subject is personal, and that’s causing the client to clam up, use the rephrasing technique I talked about in the “When Things Get Personal” section. Also, if it’s a really rough situation like a past drug habit, childhood abuse, or the loss of a loved one, take a moment to say something like, “I know this is tough, but you wanted to get this out there to help people in similar situations, right? I think this story is really important, and I think many of your readers will relate to it. If you start to feel too uncomfortable, we can take a break, but let’s give it a try, all right?”
If you’re dealing with the expert who isn’t giving you enough detail because they think it’s self-evident, you’d better come into that interview with a long list of questions that you can whip out in rapid-fire succession. Even if the book is to be written for other experts, not beginners, you still need to fully understand the topic. If you’ve taken on a project like that, you probably have some sort of understanding of the topic, so compile some educated questions that will provide you with all the answers you need to write that book with authority. As long as that expert can see you’ve done your homework and you just need some clarification, they should have no issues answering if your targeted questions.
If you come to realize you’re dealing with an amateur on the topic who just thought this book could make him or her some money … sorry, but you’re in a gross situation. The only solution is to switch from regular interviews to lots of research; that client can’t help you no matter how you phrase the question. I hope you’ve charged accordingly. Another reason why preliminary interviews are so vital.
Interviews aren’t as scary as that twisting feeling in your gut or the nagging voice in your head make it seem. I still get butterflies when first interviewing a brand new client, but I have found that as long as I go in with questions prepared, I soon fall into a groove. If you have the questions, you’re in charge of the interview. After the first few interviews, all nerves go away. Ghostwriting clients quickly become something like friends because you wrestle over ideas together, share personal anecdotes, and work toward a goal together as part of the process. It’s hard not to form some sort of bond.
Use these tips to get over any humps, and develop your own tactics based on your clients and your preferences so that you feel at ease and in charge during the interview process.
One thought on “Client Interview Strategies for Ghostwriters”