How I Became an Author & Ghostwriter…
I was born and raised in the foothills of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. After graduating from college in the early 1980s, I started law school, intending to follow in my father’s footsteps. Yet, in the wake of his unexpected death, I began to feel a vague dissatisfaction at the prospect of a career of arguing cases and shuffling paper. I had always longed to see the ocean, and Los Angeles, in my young mind, was Camelot, a mighty city of wonder and adventure. And warm weather. The world lay ahead, and California lay west. It was time to leave Colorado behind.
Against the anxious pleadings of my mom, I hit the road, headed for the fabled land of my childhood dreams, hitchhiking the entire 1,100 miles from Denver to L.A. Along the way, I encountered a dazzling coterie of exotic characters. Castoffs and misfits, happy hippies, drug entrepreneurs, would-be child molesters, earth mamas, spliff-puffing New Yorkers, vacationing families, and earnest travelers searching for someplace to belong in this great, big, beautiful country of ours.
Sixty-three hours later, I arrived in Los Angeles, well fed, rested up, and with $10 in my pocket. Not bad after leaving Denver with $7 in my pocket and a hunger for adventure and a new life out west.
After futzing around in a series of office jobs, in late 1984 a door opened to me to work in Hollywood, on feature film production crews…
For several years, I worked on major motion pictures at 20th Century Fox Films, Warner Bros. Studios, Walt Disney Studios, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Paramount Pictures, and Universal Studios. (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 L.A. 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 I was curious to know what was causing the mayhem. Sensing there could be a story there somewhere the Los Angeles Times might be interested in, I decided to investigate.
But it proved to be far more challenging than I had assumed for a naïve, blue-eyed blond guy from the Rocky Mountains 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 Piru Bloodstones, 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. (See some of the interviews 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 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 pleased with (read the prologue here). 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 1990’s, publishers weren’t as enamored with in a sociological treatise that was also part true crime and part autobiography.
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 just a few of my book and screen adaptation projects 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.
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 projects with tech billionaires, prolific movie producers, elite professional athletes, quirky inventors, members of US Special Forces, and law enforcement officers. I’ve ghosted books for movers and shakers, Fortune 200 executives, business moguls, and oil barons. For university presidents, celebrities, thought leaders, top neurosurgeons, vaunted law enforcement officers, interactive story app developers, Ph.D.s, investors, philanthropists, a 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. (See a few endorsements of my writing here.)
To this day, my career humbles and astounds me. I’ve spent time in the home of a nation’s President. Broken bread with tech CEOs and movie producers at restaurants so elite there’s no name out front. Treaded with white Bengal tigers on set in eastern Australia. Pub crawled Manhattan with a banking heir and his cop pal (who, of course, parked only at No Standing signs and badged us in everywhere after hours—and whose own brother is an NBA and former Pac 12 coach). Had dinners cooked for me by a legendary FBI Special Agent and his FBI agent wife in their house at the beach (they could’ve hosted a top chef show). Sat face-to-face over a nerve-wracking lunch in a hotel room with a former Imperial Wizard of the KKK. Spent a couple of days in the mansion of an African tribal chief and oil multimillionaire. Shared lunch in the sprawling hillside home of an NFL star/action movie star/reality TV star with his brilliant wife. Had sushi and saké with a low-key San Francisco double unicorn in a place you can’t leave without a tab under half a grand, then walked back to his office to sign our contract. Sat in the seat of honor next to a President’s Chief of Staff. Spent a week in the 9,000 square-feet guest house of an eccentric director who lived up the hill in his 25,000 square-feet home with a stunning view of the ocean and a basement movie theater that sat 30. Brought an unknown Australian actor to America who went on to star in two of the biggest US network TV hits of the early 2000’s. Guided an Israeli cybersecurity expert in the protocols of self-presentation in the analog world (and was rewarded with two boxes of her aunt’s addictive homemade sugar cookies). Ate sandwiches in the kitchen of a major video game company top exec (whose wife was a member of the longest-performing, international, all-girl music group and co-host of a hit American variety TV series), with him and a producer of several blockbuster movies. Drank ouzo with Greek writers at the water’s edge on the island of Hydra from late afternoon till the cherry sunrise matched our eyes and it was time to start writing again. Ate chickpea falafel balls in a hookah bar in the West Bank, playing Basra into the night with cooks, Internet entrepreneurs, and furniture makers. Had a tad too many margaritas at a back corner table with the writer of two iconic modern American movies who wanted to write a screenplay about me.
…The list of my career experiences goes on and on. And it all started in those burned-out south L.A. 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 produced a half-hour reality TV pilot with a prolific independent film producer, on which I was also Showrunner/Head Writer—and hired that iconic American movies screenwriter to co-host the show. (See the pilot demo 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 book as sole author since Slipping Into Darkness launched my writing career and paved the way to my becoming a ghostwriter. The book, an international mystery thriller, will be published in the early fall of 2020 (read the prologue of this novel here). Even Slipping Into Darkness has weathered the years well, selling steadily, with its 20th Anniversary edition published in January of 2020.
By the summer of 2020, I’ll be three-fourths finished co-authoring a book with a former City University of New York professor about the most notorious crime in modern US history; two-thirds done co-writing a memoir with a former FBI Special Agent who investigated some of the most infamous crimes of the 20th and 21st centuries; working as a staff writer on a one-hour action/drama series based on true stories of a US Special Forces unit operating in the Middle East; scheduled to commence ghostwriting a sweeping futuristic sci-fi epic novel; and will have another novel, a political thriller that parallels the dangerously divisive politics raging across America today, ready for release in late fall of 2020 (read the prologue of this novel here).
After having written probably five million words, writing, ghostwriting and developmentally editing well over 100 books, writing several screen adaptations, and working on dozens of TV shows and movies during more than three decades in the entertainment business, the work still thrills me. And none of it could happen without my clients and agents choosing to work with me, my beautiful wife putting up with her tireless workaholic husband, and my assistants keeping things humming along on schedule—and without whom I could never keep up this pace.
My advice to new or struggling writers and ghostwriters 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: Be enthused, 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). 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.
I am a member of the Authors Guild-New York, and still have a busy schedule of ghostwriting, traveling the globe to meet new clients and help them get their books ready for a world in need of great examples of what people can achieve when they get out of their comfort zone and blaze a trail.
Thank you for taking the time to read how I became a professional ghostwriter. As you may have observed about my 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).
“Creating legends.” …Why not work with the best?
Comments & Reviews of McCall’s Writing