And how it got me the first in a series of book deals
I started out my long-form writing career with a kind of sad story, with a happy ending (in hindsight). In the early nineties I was writing ad copy for anyone who would hire me, including a lot of mom and pop businesses in my hometown. I was pretty sure working in an ad agency wasn’t for me (I was proven right many years later when I was tasked with ‘changing the culture of the agency’. That’s another story), though agencies did throw me some small jobs, mostly boring capability brochures or sellsheets. But then I got a chance to do long form content, ghostwriting a book on an unusual subject. And there was a budget!
In this case, the named writer was a grief counselor who had a grant to write about death and dying, and the developmentally disabled (the correct terminology back then). He wasn’t a writer and saw the project as a career development move. So he brought me in to write it. I honestly don’t remember how much it paid but it was in the low $1000s, which was real money for me back then.
The process, which we cobbled together, is that I would do background research on grieving, then we would interview a number of his adult clients and agency staffers on the subject. I went to work reading up on Kubler-Ross et al and the five stages of grieving: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Btw, they’re not sequential stages in the literature- grieving people may experience any of them at a given time.
Watch Homer Simpson experience all five in under a minute here.
We interviewed five or six adult clients, all of whom were in group homes with a high degree of independence, and several staffers from these homes. The process was fascinating as they had varying degrees of communication skills and many different diagnoses. Two stood out. One was a large autistic man who had many physical mannerisms that seemed potentially threatening and who was incapable of verbalizing. He worked with a facilitator who steadied a small communication device and helped him type in his responses letter by letter*. This device had liberated him as he was considered to be severely mentally disabled because of his inability to speak. As a result he had grown up under some pretty terrible conditions in mental institutions. The facilitated communication revealed he had normal to high intelligence. This was discovered in his mid-thirties and he went on to rapidly get his GED. He explained that when people died, they were disappeared and never referred to again, as though they had never existed. This was done because it was thought the death would upset the population. As you might expect, it was even more devastating to have someone you may have grown up with simply cease to exist without explanation.
*This facilitated communication process was very controversial back then as it was believed, by some, that the facilitator was actually doing the typing and answering the questions. However, I found it believable in that situation.
A lost twin
The other interview was very different, another adult male who had been forced to mourn the loss of his family because he had been placed into an institution as a child and abandoned by his family (those were different times). He was relatively high functioning, with a full time job. His story had a happy ending as it turned out he had a twin brother who was ‘normal’, that he had never met. A worker (my ex-wife) who learned this, found the brother and they met. It was a pretty teary moment as they immediately bonded, and eventually the family became involved in his life.
The net discovery, and the basic theory of the book was that, big surprise, they grieve just like the rest of us! I wrote the book and got paid. The book was titled Death Is A Dinosaur (the title came up in an interview with a Down Syndrome man). Now the sad part. The counselor got a job offer and left the agency where he got the grant, and the project was relegated to a drawer somewhere. But it got me my first real book credit and that proved to be a door opener when I sought a ‘real’ publishing deal. Book editors need to know a first time author can actually finish a book! And it gave me invaluable experience. But perhaps the best thing I learned was not to get upset when something good doesn’t end up seeing the light of day.
Note about copyright
I did not retain copyright of the work, under a work for hire agreement. This is common with ghostwriting projects that often pay a straight fee without any royalty agreement. Certain large how-to series, who shall remain nameless, do all their deals this way. You get an author credit but may be paid a few thousand dollars for a full length book requiring a lot of research. I do not recommend doing this unless you are really desperate to be published. Try not to be that desperate!