HOW I BECAME A WRITER, GHOSTWRITER, AND SCREENWRITER…
As it does in many of life’s great adventures, it was curiosity that lured me to become a writer. After I finished college in 1984, a door opened to me to work in Hollywood on movie production crews (but not as a writer—not yet)…
For a few years, I worked in the production offices on motion pictures at Warner Bros. Studios, Walt Disney Studios, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Paramount Pictures, Universal Studios, 20th Century Fox Films, and others. (See a list of a few movies I worked on here.)
One evening in late 1990, a news report about a drive-by shooting by a street gang in South Central Los Angeles caught my attention. It was a year that had been experiencing an alarming spike in gang violence on the streets of the inner city and, having been born and raised in the idyllic foothills of the Rocky Mountains, curiosity drove me to find out what was behind the big-city mayhem. So I decided to investigate.
But it proved to be far more challenging than I had assumed for a naïve, blue-eyed blond guy from Colorado to get anywhere near such a story. So I improvised. And by early 1991, I had managed to make close connections with a few up-and-coming gang members in the Bloodstone Pirus (one of the largest Black gangs in South Central), as well as with leaders of a Latino gang called the Street Villains.
During my first couple of months in the ‘hood, I had to constantly ask myself one question: How far am I willing to go to get the story? After spending months in gang turf on a regular basis, sufficient mutual trust and respect grew between gang members and me that they allowed me to be involved in every aspect of their lives. To go where they went, to see what they saw, to do what they did. And I saw it all—from crimes committed by gang members on the innocent and on one another, to crimes committed by police officers on the gangsters themselves. I witnessed firsthand the path that leads six-year-old boys to become 16-year-old killers, and society’s role in helping create and foster the violence in one of America’s big-city ghettos.
It’s surprising how quickly a man can get sucked into the maw of dark worlds he has no right to be anywhere near in the first place. By early 1992, during a period when L.A. gang members were sending bullet-riddled corpses to the county morgue at the rate of one every 11 and a half hours, on average, I had become a fixture in South Central, which was then the most violent ghetto in America…
On April 29, 1992, with the announcement of the not guilty verdicts of the LAPD officers accused of beating motorist Rodney King, rioting broke out across South Los Angeles, causing billions of dollars worth of damage and putting 52 people in graves in a three-day spree of bloody violence. And I was there through it all, in the company of gang members, with a camera in one hand and a Mossberg 12-gauge in the other…
In the wake of the riot, I was interviewed on television shows including “NBC Today,” BBC News, PBS, CNN News, KNBC News “Nightside Cover Story,” PBS/KCET’s “Life And Times: Thinkers, Shakers and Newsmakers,” “Larry King Live,” ABC News 9 Australia, as well as numerous national and international radio programs about my experience (see some interviews about this project here)…
I had been in South Central for 16 months. I now had my story. It was time to hunker down and write the account of the first Caucasian outsider ever allowed to move freely among the gangbangers of South Central L.A., leading right up to the bloodiest riot in the history of modern America.
But I had never written a book in my life. So, to get the gang mentality out of my system enough to settle down and get to work, I moved to Canada, set myself up in the motor home of a friend in the Okanogans, and spent a long, snowy winter banging out a first draft. Taking 4,500 pages of raw transcripts of secretly recorded meetings and get-togethers and research and notes and details of my gang-related activities spanning a year and a half, and turning it all into a gripping narrative, proved to be a daunting task for a first-timer.
I steeled myself to it and hammered the keys till the letters were worn off and my fingers were calloused and my eyes bleary from soaking in tattered copies of Kerouac, Vonnegut, Steinbeck, Thompson, Toole, Turrow and other literary greats, and winter turned to summer and back to another shivering winter. At last, after more than a dozen drafts, I managed to knock out one that my agent and I were reasonably pleased with, for a beginner. Yet, the 455-page manuscript, titled Slipping Into Darkness: A True Story from the American Ghetto, didn’t excite publishers. Most pointed out that I had written it in a raw, first-person style that today is known as narrative nonfiction, which in the early 1990s, publishers weren’t as enamored with in a sociological treatise that was also part true crime and part autobiography. (Read the prologue here.)
Needing to earn a living, back to Hollywood I went, getting work in the writers departments as the assistant to Head Writers, Show Runners, and Executive Producers on one-hour network TV dramas for NBC, Warner Bros., ABC, BBC, Tribune Television, and others, as well as a couple more movies (see a list of a few of the TV shows I worked on here)…
By 2000, after returning home from a season as the assistant to the head writer/show runner on an American TV series shot on the Gold Coast in Australia, I had wrangled enough cash together to have a few hardcover sample copies of my book printed, and gave them to some of the movers and shakers I had worked with in the film and TV business, asking them for comments.
Surprised by the rave responses that poured in, I had the book reformatted to trade paper, listed it at Borders Books, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon, and sent it out to even more high profile people for review and comment. One serendipitous thing led to the next, and one day I received word that a tech mogul named David Sacks, co-founder and former Chief Operating Officer of PayPal, had taken his share of the proceeds of the sale of PayPal to E-Bay and started a movie production company. Mr. Sacks bought a two-year film option on my book at a five-figure annual sum that would enable me to write full time for a couple of years. (See the demo Sacks’ film company Room 9 Entertainment made of the book here.)
Things skyrocketed from there. The book was re-released by a niche publisher, a new cover was designed, and even more upbeat endorsements and comments gushed in. After some time on the lecture circuit, I was recruited as Managing Senior Editor at a traditional book publishing company on the East coast.
Having become acclimated to the balmy Southern California weather, and with no knack for button-down office jobs, I moved back to Los Angeles a year later. With two years of income in my pocket, thanks to Mr. Sacks, I worked on improving my chops as a narrative nonfiction writer, screenwriter/script doctor, and novelist. Soon, I began getting requests from some fascinating, incredibly accomplished, high-profile people, asking me to advise them on book publishing issues, to ghostwrite or substantively edit their memoirs, nonfictions and novels, and do screen adaptations of their works… and an amazing career was born. (See a few of my ghostwritten books here, and some of my adaptation writing samples here.)
In the years since, my worldwide clientele has blown up to include people named in Newsweek and Forbes magazines’ “Most Powerful People” lists. I’ve worked with authors whose books have appeared on the best-selling lists of the New York Times, USA Today, Publishers Weekly, the Wall Street Journal, and Amazon.com. I have traveled the world, writing books for and with clients from nations as far flung as New Zealand and Colombia, Canada and Argentina, Israel and Australia. My work has taken me to the UK, Turkey, France, Mexico, Africa, Western Europe, Palestine, and all over the US. (Read a few high-profile endorsements of my writing here.)
When I take time to recall the incredible clients I’ve been privileged to work with over the years, I am amazed. By word of mouth, through various ghostwriting agencies, for major traditional book publishers, and film companies, I’ve had the pleasure of working on book and screenplay projects with…
- Tech Billionaires
- Quirky Inventors
- Prolific Movie Producers
- Elite Professional Athletes
- Prodigious singer-songwriters
- World-Renowned Professors and Theologians
- Vaunted Former Members of the FBI, Delta Force, SEALs, and the Agency
I’ve ghostwritten books for…
- Oil Barons
- Fashion Models
- Business Moguls
- Top Neurosurgeons
- University Presidents
- Fortune 200 Executives
- Interactive Story App Developers
- Finance and Investment Advisors
- Former Leader of a Notorious Terrorist Organization
…and many other riveting clients, in genres that run the gamut—narrative nonfiction, memoirs, novels, and screen adaptations. I am truly humbled and astounded by the experiences I have been blessed to enjoy during my unforeseeable ghostwriting career (read about a few of them here). And it all started in those burned-out South Los Angeles streets, navigating a deadly riot with major gang leaders, camera in one hand and Mossberg pump in the other.
Yet, one of my most memorable experiences of them all was the week I spent interviewing children who were suffering from a bizarre medical mystery, a genetic disorder called ataxia-teleangiectasia, which slowly steals all physical function from their body until they die—usually well before they finish their teens. The unnatural wisdom and insight of these innocent young kids made me feel I was truly in the presence of angels unawares.
Always stretching out into new creative endeavors, in 2016 I wrote, produced and was Showrunner on a competition reality TV series pilot with prolific independent film producer Morris Ruskin. And I hired iconic blockbuster movies screenwriter W. Peter Iliff to co-host the show (read about the show here)…
Even during my wild, exhilarating schedule of years of 72-hour workweeks on projects with the most fascinating and accomplished people, I completed my first novel as sole author since my nonfiction book Slipping Into Darkness launched my writing career and paved my way to becoming a ghostwriter. The novel, published in the fall of 2020, is an international mystery thriller set in the Middle East about the discovery of a wooden box said to have been made by Jesus Christ as a young carpenter in Galilee, and efforts by nefarious politicians and billionaires vying to take it from its owner (read the prologue here). And Slipping Into Darkness has weathered the years well, selling steadily, with an updated 20th Anniversary edition published in January of 2020.
My latest novel, a military-political thriller that parallels the dangerously divisive politics raging across America today and imagines where things could lead, was published in December of 2020 (read the prologue here). To close out 2020, I completed co-writing the pilot and first two episodes of a one-hour action-drama series inspired by true stories of an elite Special Forces unit operating in the Middle East from the mid-1990s through 2018.
After having written millions of words, writing, ghostwriting, and developmentally editing nearly 130 books and screen adaptations, doctoring and writing several scripts, and working on dozens of TV shows and movies during my more than three decades in the entertainment business, the work still thrills me. To this day I maintain a busy writing schedule, traveling the globe to meet new clients, and helping to get their books and screenplays ready for a world in need of enjoyable and meaningful entertainment. And none of it could happen without my clients and agents choosing to work with me, my beautiful and brilliant wife putting up with her tireless workaholic husband, and my utterly fantastic assistants keeping things humming along on schedule—and without whom I could never keep up my relentless pace.
Hard work and long hours come easy when you love what you do. But I have been very blessed to have worked with so many brilliant people who guided me, gave me a shot, opened doors. Who showed me how to write story—TV scripts, film screenplays, narrative storytelling. Longtime pros like TV writers/showrunners/producers George Geiger, Charles D. Holland, William Finkelstein, Elody Keene, Michael M. Robin, Steve Feke and many others, who took me under their wing (and some, literally around the world). Director/screenwriters Cameron Crowe, W. Peter Iliff and F. Gary Gray, who treated me as a fellow creative. Studio executives Johnny Levin and agent Michael Levine, who counseled me. Filmmakers who partnered with me, like tech double-unicorn/film producer David O. Sacks, film studio chief/screenwriter Frank Yablans, film producers Cindy Bond and Morris Ruskin, and production designer/art director Stewart Burnside. Print, television, and radio journalists, like Warren Olney, Neheda Barakat, Bob Beckel and countless others who thought I had something important to impart to their audiences. The list is endless. Their belief in me made me. (And I humbly thank you each, and will forever appreciate, admire, and look up to you all.)
My advice to new or struggling creative writers is simple: Legends are not built by following the pack; they’re made by blazing a trail…so get out of your comfort zone and get busy building your legacy. My personal code in life is equally basic: Stay curious, be enthused, encourage others, be kind, don’t whine, think things through, and live by a solid moral compass you have thoroughly vetted (mine happens to be the Bible; I’ve edited a couple dozen books for theologians, pastors, and seminary professors around the world). And my business code is just as simple: Honor and respect your clients, and never—ever—break your nondisclosure agreements, because your word is your entire career.
Thank you for taking the time to read how I became an author, ghostwriter, and screenwriter. As you may have observed in this brief history of my professional life, I didn’t plan my career moves far in advance; I simply surfed the waves of opportunity as they presented themselves. And hoped I had the chops to ride them well (and that I wouldn’t suffer too many wipe-outs!).
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“Creating legends.” …Why not work with the best?