How I Became an Author & Ghostwriter
After completing college in the mid-1980s, I started law school and then withdrew when I realized I didn’t want a life of arguing cases or shuffling paper. I futzed around in a series of office jobs until late 1984, when a door opened to me to work in Hollywood in movie and television production.
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 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 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 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 first, 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 winter again. At last, after more than a dozen drafts, I managed to knock out one that my agent and I were pleased with. 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 the 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 reviews.
Surprised by the rave comments that poured in, I had the book reformatted to trade paper, listed it with Borders Books, Barnes and Noble, and on 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 guy named David Sacks, who had co-founded and was the 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. 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 took off from there. The book was re-released by a niche publisher, a new cover was designed, even more unexpectedly upbeat endorsements came in, and I went on the speaking circuit.
Meanwhile, I continued improving my chops as a narrative nonfiction writer, screenwriter, and script doctor. Soon, I was recruited as Managing Senior Editor at a traditional book publishing company on the other side of the country. Having become acclimated to the balmy Southern California weather, however, I moved back to L.A. a year later. And I soon began getting requests from some very interesting, incredibly accomplished, high-profile people, asking me to ghostwrite their books…and an amazing career as a ghostwriter was born. (See just a few of my book projects here.)
In the years since, my worldwide clientele has grown to include people named in Newsweek and Forbes magazines’ “Most Powerful People” lists, and I have 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 Palestine. My work has taken me to the UK, Turkey, France, Mexico, Africa, Western Europe, the West Bank, and all over the US.
I’ve worked on projects with tech billionaires, prolific movie producers, elite athletes, inventor millionaires. I’ve ghosted books for movers and shakers, kingmakers and Fortune 200 executives, business moguls and oil barons. For major book publishing companies, university presidents, celebrities, thought leaders, top neurosurgeons, vaunted law enforcement officers, mobile interactive story app developers, Ph.D.s, investors, a former leader of a notorious terrorist organization, and many others, in narrative nonfiction and fiction genres that run the gamut. (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 bank heir whose buddy was a cop–who of course parked at No Standing signs and badged us in everywhere after closing hours (and whose own brother was an NBA and Pac 12 coach). Had dinner cooked for me by a legendary FBI Special Agent in his house at the beach (guy could’ve been a chef). Sat face-to-face over a nerve-wracking lunch in a hotel room with a former Imperial Wizard of the KKK. Sat in the seat of honor next to a President’s Chief of Staff. 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. Spent a week in the 9,000 square-foot guest house of an eccentric director who lived up the hill in his 25,000 square-foot home with a jaw-droping view of the ocean and a basement movie theater that sat 30. Brought a then-unknown Australian actor to America, who went on to star in two of the biggest US network TV hits of the new millennium. 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). 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, my most memorable experience of them all was the week I spent interviewing young kids 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 before they reach their teens. The unnatural wisdom and insight of these innocent children 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 Hollywood 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.
After a wild, mad, exhausting schedule of years of 70-hour workweeks on projects with the most fascinating, accomplished people on the planet, in 2018 I completed my first book as sole author since Slipping Into Darkness launched my career and paved the way to my becoming a premier ghostwriter. The book, an international mystery thriller with supernatural undertones, will be published this Christmas, 2019. For information on this novel and on the upcoming 20th Anniversary edition of Slipping Into Darkness, click here.
On the film side, my screen adaptation of a narrative nonfiction book I co-wrote, titled In Pursuit of Jubilee (published in 2017) is in development, set in the West Cape of Africa. For information and an update on the project, click 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.
My advice to new or struggling writers and ghostwriters is simple: The best writers read a lot and write a lot. So keep writing and keep reading. 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 packed schedule of ghostwriting, traveling the globe, meeting fascinating, highly accomplished clients, and helping to get their stories ready for a world in need of great examples of what a person 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 story, I didn’t plan my career moves far in advance; I simply surfed the waves of life as they presented themselves. And hoped I had the chops to ride them well (and that I wouldn’t suffer too many wipe-outs).
To contact me about your book or film project today, click here.
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