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Writers are driven to write, even when there's no guarantee that anyone will publish, much less read, their masterpiece. That means they have to find a way to make money. For the latest in our series on how artists earn a living, NPR's Lynn Neary explores one source of income that often goes unacknowledged: ghostwriting.
LYNN NEARY: When Grant Blackwood got out of the Navy in 1987, he decided he wanted to write thrillers. He knew it might be a while before he could support himself by writing. In the meantime, he was willing to chop wood, drive a limousine, whatever it took.
Mr. GRANT BLACKWOOD (Author): I did anything to put ramen noodles in my bowl and a roof over my head.
MOORE: Twelve years later, Blackwood had his first novel published and figured he was home free. But Blackwood says becoming a successful novelist is like a series of little graduations, with no guarantee of what happens afterwards.
Mr. BLACKWOOD: You decide to sit down and write the book, and you do it -that's a little graduation. You finish the book - that's a little graduation. You find an agent, you find a publisher - that's another one. And so, after going through all those hurdles, you kind of feel like, okay, I've made it. I've broken that last wall. But the sad truth is that you've only kind of come up against a bigger wall.
NEARY: That bigger wall is getting your book sold and then selling the next one. Jenny Siler, who also writes thrillers, got her career off to a great start when her first novel brought in a comfortable advance.
Ms. JENNY SILER (Author): My North American advance for that book was $150,000. And so that enabled me to start writing professionally and support myself through my writing. And as time went on, my books became more literary and my advances became smaller.
NEARY: Siler's most recent advance: $20,000. And though her husband also brings in money and they live modestly, that still isn't enough to support her.
Ms. SILER: I mean, it takes me between 12 and 18 months to write a book. So I can't live on $12,000 for a year and a half.
NEARY: For very long.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SILER: Yeah.
NEARY: Both Siler and Blackwood have turned to ghostwriting. For Blackwood, the decision came when the sales of his novels started dwindling. When his publisher turned down his fourth novel, Blackwood's editor promised he'd help him find work.
Mr. BLACKWOOD: It wasn't more than six months later when he called and he said, I have this book. It's perfect for you. It's right up your alley. And we want to pay you for it. And, you know, for a writer who loves to write, being paid for something you love is a bonus.
NEARY: Blackwood writes for popular thriller franchises he can't name. They give me the characters and the world they live and work in, and I do the rest, he says. But much as he likes being paid to write, he admits there are some drawbacks to being a ghostwriter.
Mr. BLACKWOOD: You know, you don't get credit on the cover. You don't get royalties. It's kind of a contract deal. You write it, you give it to them, and your attachment from there financially ends. And you're not your sole master.
NEARY: Blackwood has ghostwritten five books. Jenny Siler is working on her first ghostwriting assignment. She got into it after she co-authored a book with art thief Myles Connor. The two worked well together, and Siler got credit for her work. She didn't expect to do that kind of work again. But then she was offered an interesting and lucrative ghostwriting project, and she felt she couldn't turn it down.
Although Siler's own books are fiction, both these projects are nonfiction. And because she's writing about someone else's life, Siler feels she has to put aside her own way of doing things.
Ms. SILER: I really feel like it's important to honor that person's story. I mean, I'm there to question the facts and to make sure that everything is factual. But I'm not there to comment. I'm there to portray them as they want to be portrayed.
NEARY: For now, Siler has put her own writing on hold, but she plans to get back to it once this book is done. She figures she's buying herself some time in the future.
Ms. SILER: The way I look at these ghostwriting and co-writing projects is that the more financial freedom I can have to take my time with my own projects, the better off I'll be as a writer and as an artist.
NEARY: Blackwood isn't working on his own writing, either. This September, he has a new book coming out, a Clive Cussler novel called "Spartan Gold." He's getting a co-writing credit for that, and he's pretty happy about that. Blackwood finds ghostwriting satisfying, but he knows a lot of writers wouldn't.
Mr. BLACKWOOD: Because you do have to sacrifice complete control. You do have to be willing to answer to a number of different masters who are sometimes giving you contradictory input. And you have to find that middle ground, and you have to do it in a diplomatic way. And that can be tough for someone who lives their life in a creative way.
NEARY: Both Blackwood and Siler say ghostwriting may not be perfect, but getting paid to write is a pretty good life.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.