“Ghoulish but sentimental” — an interview with Socar Myles, Ghostwriter

BIO: Socar Myles is a Vancouver-based former illustrator and full-time ghostwriter, whose illustration work can be found at www.gorblimey.com.

KJ: Socar Myles and I first met years ago through the old Elfwood notice boards, and Socar gave me a great deal of thoughtful, professional advice on my early efforts. Her art enchanted me — ethereal creatures, and strange, soft, dense, spooky imagery with hints of Beardsley and Klimt and sly laughter — and recently she made a remark on Twitter that suggested she was writing seriously, only I couldn’t find anything under her name or any open pseudonym! So I sent her a message to find out more, which turned into this interview.

KJ: You’re known more as an illustrator, but you’ve moved into ghostwriting and I am fascinated. How did you get from illustration to writing full-time?

Socar: Many years ago, I wrote and illustrated a short comic, “The Zombie Ball,” which appeared in the Fleshrot Hallowe’en special. I posted an excerpt on my blog, and a book packager reached out and asked if I’d be interested in writing middle-grade fiction. I thought writing middle-grade fiction could be a quick route to children’s illustration gigs, so I said yes.

As it turned out, I never wrote any middle-grade fiction (or illustrated any). I didn’t understand the market at all. Instead, I spent years writing “for fans of” books (something popular would come out, and I’d dash off something in the same vein). It wasn’t glamorous work, but it taught me to write fast in a variety of genres, and to identify what would sell.

As my illustration career took off, I focused mainly on that, and let the writing fall by the wayside. But when my vision failed, I decided to pursue ghostwriting more seriously. By that time, my original publisher had gone out of business, and I wasn’t sure how to break back in. I Googled “ghostwriting jobs,” which led nowhere—mostly, I found Upwork gigs and content mills paying pennies a word. Then, I researched book packagers, and found a few that felt right.

At the moment, I’m doing contract work for two packagers, one of which produces mainly romance, the other YA fiction.

KJ: How does being, or having been, an illustrator feed into your writing?

Socar: Much as I enjoyed it, drawing never came naturally to me. It was always an act of translation, more than visualisation—converting language to imagery. I’ve heard artists describe seeing whole pictures in their heads and scrambling to get them on paper. I’ve never done that. I’d work from short phrases, rather than sketches. “A glimpse of my crush through a curtain of beads” became this:

A largely pointillist ink drawing of a (woman?) in a collared shirt and pearls, face hidden from the nose up by a curtain of lace and beads.

“Birds at the feeder; starry sky” got me here, somehow:

A black-and-white image. An ornate frame of (possibly) jewels surrounds three sparrrows landing on ghostly negative branches against a starry sky.

I’ve always had poor colour vision, and next to no depth perception. The world I see is dim, flat, and blurry. That’s fine for illustration (at least, I thought it was), but it’s not what I want in my fiction. I want to deliver an in-your-face world, something you’d feel on a visceral level. Something you’d read and think “I’ve been there. I know that place.” To that end, I ground every scene in physical sensation, and keep the visual information to a minimum. When reviewers say things like “I felt everything the characters were feeling. It’s like I was there,” I know I’ve done my job.

KJ: Obviously you’re still working creatively — it’s all images and stories and structure… How does it affect your creative community, when you make a change like this?

Socar: For more than twenty years, the illustration community was my world. Having a strong portfolio was like having concert tickets. I could flash my work and join the party—and for me, it was a great party. I made friends. I made contacts. I built my life around work, to the point that when I moved from Canada to Sweden, the first thing I did was walk three miles through the snow to an Internet café, so my friends on the illustration forums would know I’d arrived.

With the writing community, I’m at the door with no ticket. I haven’t published any fiction under my own name. A few months ago, I saw another romance writer praising one of my books. I wanted to thank her. More than that, I wanted to talk to her. I know her work. I know her activism. I’d love to know her. But I’m NOT the author she was praising. I’m just her ghostwriter. What could I say?

I love the freedom that comes with writing under other people’s names, but I don’t love the isolation.

KJ: You do still have strong connections in the illustration community, of course! And a surprising number of us secretly or not so secretly write. What lessons have you learned that you think might be useful to illustrators who’d like to write more?

Socar: The best advice I can give is something I learned from illustration—more specifically, from entry-level illustration gigs where volume made up for low pay: they can’t all be masterpieces, but they must all get done. Get your book done, and get it out there. It might bomb, but that’s fine. There’s always your next book, and the one after that.

Also, don’t save your best ideas till you’ve mastered your craft. Ideas aren’t condoms. You can use them more than once.

KJ: What kinds of things do you ghostwrite?

Socar: I’ve ghostwritten a lot of things, from romance to nonfiction, but these days, I’m doing mostly sci-fi. Sci-fi’s a good fit for me. It lets me blither on about the loneliness of the cosmos, all that sort of nonsense, then turn on a dime and get in some ultraviolence. Ghoulish but sentimental. That’s me.

Romance work’s been the easiest to get, but the most difficult to write. I can’t stand all the bickering, the endless push and pull. It makes me nervous, uncomfortable, even a little ill. One day, I’d like to write a chirpy, exuberant romance where nobody breaks up with anybody, and the tension all comes from…oh, I don’t know. A zombie apocalypse in the background. A vendetta with the neighbours. Anything but this endless pick-pick-pick, this tearing each other to bits. Why can’t all romance be “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”?

KJ: Can you talk a bit about your process? Whether it’s your daily work, or how you approach getting from the initial brief to the final book? Does being a ghostwriter affect how you work, versus if you were publishing under your own name?

That varies from project to project, and from packager to packager. Sometimes, I get a chapter-by-chapter outline, and I fill in the blanks. Other times, I’m given something to read and told “We want something like this.” But there’s always an element of design-by-committee involved. I’m writing to market, often targeting a specific niche. Hitting the right notes is key, and there’s always a team around to make sure that happens—marketing and editorial, focus groups and beta readers. And meetings. So many meetings. And WHO came up with Zoom? I hate when I’ve done something daft, and instead of a discreet redline from my editor, I get five heads nodding in unison as my project manager lays out my goof.

Fortunately, most of the job is the writing. I deal mainly in series, and once the first book comes out, the meetings dry up. That’s what I live for, those long, gentle months tapping away at some story, exchanging pandemic stories with my editor—no Zoom, no disapproving heads. Just words on the screen.

Even when I’m writing something I’d hate to read—anything with space marines, a bickery romance—I like that tapping phase. I like putting words together. I like chatting with my editor. It’s cosy. Nice. I could do that every day.

KJ: So many writers write “for themselves” first, or for an audience that they have some known relationship with. How do frame what you are writing, when it isn’t publicly ‘your’ book? What standards do you hold yourself to?

I suppose I hold myself to the same standard I did as an illustrator, which is to say, I do my best on every project. When I say they can’t all be masterpieces, that’s true, but not because I don’t take my best swing. I do, but even, uh, Babe Ruth didn’t hit a grand slam every inning. (Or maybe he did. I don’t know. Me, though, I’m human. I hit it out of the park every few games. The rest of the time, I’m solid bullpen material. And rubbish with sports metaphors.)

The books I write aren’t mine, but apart from the disconnect with the writing community, ghostwriting isn’t so different from writing as myself. I did write one book under my own name. It was a how-to-draw book, and just like my ghostwritten books, it followed a formula I didn’t come up with, and was intended for an audience unfamiliar with my work. (Libraries, mostly. It sold to libraries.)

Writing for myself would be something else entirely, but I’ve done it so rarely I don’t have much to say on the subject.

KJ: The authors who cut their teeth in franchise work always have this incredible competence and professionalism. Those standards — external & internal — mean great skills.

I hope that’s true of me. I’m a hard worker, no doubt. I meet all my deadlines and turn in clean copy. But I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and I’m never quite sure if that’s perceived as professional or annoying. One of my editors recently confessed that he used to block me between projects, so I couldn’t keep sending revisions after our manuscripts had gone to press. (I wasn’t aware I’d done that. I wasn’t privy to press schedules.)

I wish people would tell me when I’m being a bore. I’d rather hear “Go away, Socar” than a strained “Thanks for the feedback.”

KJ: How do people find and approach you as a ghostwriter? And how do you show them what you do?

Socar: It’s tricky. I blundered into my first ghostwriting job, and these days, I just Google for work. I don’t have many contacts in the industry, or a website advertising my services. I belong to the Association of Ghostwriters, but because I don’t use my real name, I’m not listed on their website. When I find a packager I want to work for, I read a few of their books and write some samples to match. I can’t use my published work in job applications, as I can’t legally own up to it. (But I can get previous employers to attest to my reliability. That helps.)

Finding new clients is a nuisance, so I do it as infrequently as possible. When I find someone good to work with, I stay as long as I can.

KJ: Would you/could you write your own books in a similar field, even as just a portfolio? Do you know what you’d write, if only for yourself?

Left to myself, I’d write horror, but not the supernatural kind. I’d write something familiar, rooted in day-to-day terrors. Something as sentimental as Stephen King, but not as rambling—as visceral as Irvine Welsh, but not as Scottish. (It’d still be a bit Scottish, me beingfrom Scotland, but not aggressively Scottish. I’d drop the American act, but I wouldn’t start saying “jings.” My mother says “jings.” I’m too young for “jings.”)

The problem with writing my own books is mainly a financial one. I’m used to a “write book, get money” arrangement. I’m comfortable with that. I’ve got a friend going the traditional publishing route, and he’s written five or six novels with no payday in sight. Doing that feels too risky. I’ve got condo fees, utility bills—and I’m not sure how, but I eat about a thousand dollars a month.

I think, if I could find something between ghostwriting and taking my chances—a situation where I could write without the committee, but with the guaranteed payday—I’d jump at it. But as things stand, I’m happy. I work from home, in peace. The pandemic has hardly touched me. I’m fortunate by any standard.

BIO: Socar Myles is a Vancouver-based former illustrator and full-time ghostwriter, whose illustration work can be found at www.gorblimey.com. Some of her prints are available at Society6. Her book on fantasy art is Fantasy Art Drawing Skills.

Previous interviews:

3 thoughts on ““Ghoulish but sentimental” — an interview with Socar Myles, Ghostwriter

  1. Pingback: February 2021 — round-up of posts | Kathleen Jennings

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