By Stephen Jay Schwartz

And here’s yet another example of how music has influenced the way I think about writing.  There’s a musical term, called “ghosting,” that describes a particular style of jazz improvisation. Let’s say there’s a musical phrase, or “lick,” that stretches over a number of bars.  When a musician “ghosts” that phrase, he whips through the notes, punctuating certain notes while passing over others on his way to the end of the phrase.  He might not even express the notes he passes over, he might merely suggest them by fingering the corresponding keys or allowing a very small amount of air into the instrument (if it is a saxophone or trumpet) in order to give the impression that the note was sounded. 

It’s kind of hard to describe this in words, but if you take a listen to Charlie Parker playing Au Privave, you’ll get the gist.  The music starts off with the melody line, which is repeated once.  Then Charlie improvises, and you can hear how he “ghosts” the musical phrases.

Even though we don’t hear all the notes he’s playing, we sense their existence in the context of the musical phrase.  The notes are felt, even though they might not be audible.

I realized how this concept applied to writing when I was working as a development executive and a writer I knew was having trouble cutting back a long scene.  She was reluctant to let go of the back-story she had written into the scene, thinking the reader would be lost if things weren’t spelled out clearly.

“Cut it,” I said.  “All you need is a word here and there to suggest the extensive back-story you’ve written.  Your dialogue already contains subtle references to it.  The ghost of what you’ve written will remain.”

I was discovering the musical connection even as I was saying it.  Teaching works that way, you don’t know what you know until you try explaining it to others.  She liked the concept and went off to do her rewrites.  When she finished, her script was vastly improved.  It said more, with fewer words.  And she didn’t just cut the back-story, she “ghosted” it.

I started thinking about how ghosting plays a role in other aspects of our lives.  For instance, anyone who has had to deliver a hundred-word bio goes through the process of ghosting.  Take mine, for example, with its emphasis on my development work with Wolfgang Petersen.  That was over ten years ago already, yet it influenced my life in ways that the jobs I held thereafter did not.  What about the “day job” I’m currently in?  It doesn’t show up in the bio, except for the line, “Mr. Schwartz traveled the United States extensively…”  That was for the day job.  The traveling influenced the writer I would become, but the job itself…fuggedaboudit.  Ghost it.

And how many of us have written three or four completely different resumes, each in their own way accurate in their description of our work history, accomplishments and goals?  We present different images of ourselves for different purposes.  The full story of my life exists in the combination of all the resumes, but that would be too much information, and probably too confusing.  Ghost it.

And what about our memories?  Don’t we remember the big events, the things that are really significant in our lives, while letting the less significant ones disappear in a haze of gray?  You can’t tell someone the story of your life without ghosting. 

I used to keep a recording device with me so I could capture every “great” idea that came into my head.  Then one day I was having lunch with another writer and he pulled his own tape-recorder from a hidden pocket, hit the record button, and said something to the effect of, “Note to self:  the protagonist should have a bouquet of flowers in his hands when the gunmen approach.”  Click, he slipped the recording device back into his pocket while turning to me with an innocent, “I’m sorry, you were saying?”

I ditched the tape recorder after that.  I realized that the good thoughts stick around.  Recording them or instantly jotting them down seemed redundant.  If the idea was still in my head after a week I knew it was something worth using.  If I forgot it ten minutes later then it probably wasn’t that important.  Kinda like the time I did shrooms and was absolutely fascinated with a glowing filament encased in a glass capsule, I spent hours marveling at it’s unique, sleek design and the God-inspired wisdom that caused it to come into existence.  The next morning I looked at the device again and said, “Oh yeah, a light bulb.”

But I digress.  We were talking about ghosting. 

So, ghosting in writing could be described as an intentional suppression of information that allows for the seeping through of certain elements of that information in order to suggest the existence of a deeper, fuller background than what is written on the page.

Man, I want a spot on the next Webster’s Dictionary writing gig.

What about unintentional ghosting?  I was having a conversation with a friend recently and he told me about his father’s Alzheimer’s.  It’s in the early stages—the man still remembers his family members and most of the important moments in his life.  But if you ask him what he had for lunch he’ll just make shit up.  He’ll give a whole schpeil about the fictitious dining experience he didn’t have.  Brushing over the fact that he doesn’t remember a thing about it.  Unintentional ghosting?

All right, I’ve wasted too much of your precious time already.  Let’s all get back to work.

Does anyone out there in Murderati Land have any cool made-up words that almost make sense?  Or something you’ve taken from a different medium and applied it to writing?

Oh, yeah…one last plug on this…Crossing the Line, my short story prequel to Boulevard and Beat, is finally available as a free Kindle download from Amazon, as well as appearing as a free downloadable pdf from my website…


26 thoughts on “GHOSTING

  1. MJ

    Ah ha! I have had no luck with my portable recorder, and now know that it isn't just me. The thoughts that are fluid in my head come out, in the car alone when I'm holding the recorder as versions of "uh, um, uh….. uh….."

    I'm going to download that story right now….

  2. Lorena

    What a great word to describe that! Alas, I live most of my life in the world o' marketing, and the words we make up are mostly not useful to anyone.

    There is one noun I've turned into a verb so often my friends now know exactly what's going on when I tell them I'm going to "hermit up." Usually it means I'm in the midst of deadline angst (wearing my writing hat, not my marketing hat), or plotting angst, or first-draft-sucks angst, or…I hermit a lot these days (since it's the only way to get writing done with the day job lurking in the wings). Not sure it's a useful word, but it clears my schedule in a hurry!

  3. Berenmind

    Wow Stephen, this blog post is genius. "Ghosting". Such a poetic way to describe an editing process. I love what you said here and am going to steal it for an email I need to send someone about some tough times they are having right now. Actually, I'm not going to steal it. I'm going to cut and paste most of it and give you your byline. It's so perfect for the advice I have to pass along to my friend. I hope this "ghosting" analogy shows up in your next dark novel. It gives me chills. and hey, waking up to Charlie Parker on a rainy Friday morning was comfuckingpletely sublime.

  4. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Y'know, I never know if what I blog about will strike a chord with others, and it's good to see that this one has, at least to the few who have commented already. You guys make it fun to get up in the morning.

    Susanne – Thanks! I hope it helps you in your own work.

    MJ – God, how I used to depend on those tape recorders. I must have a couple dozen tapes I've saved from projects going back twenty-five years.

    Lorena – I'm going to steal that one from you…and train everyone I know to expect what's coming when I "hermit up." Good phrase.

    Berenmind – thank you, sweetie, for your heartfelt words. Makes me feel good to know I've written something that hits the mark for the message you want to send to your friend. You always make me feel appreciated. And it's great to have someone to share the jazz with.

  5. Debbie

    Websters would be honoured to have you. My only word related to writing is Lucasitis: the inability to stop editing with the aim of improving the work.

  6. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Debbie – is that a reference to George Lucas? As in, editing and re-editing the Star Wars series?

  7. Richard Maguire

    Stephen, another brilliant post on the craft of writing. You have a very fresh and interesting way of looking at it.

    Ever think of culling some of your posts for a book? You have written some wonderful stuff. Not just on craft, but on your own journey to becoming a novelist.

  8. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Thank you, Richard, very nice thoughts. I actually would like to do that someday, though I don't know if a publisher would pick it up. It might have to be a self-published sort of thing. I have a diary I kept while writing Boulevard that I thought might be a cool companion piece to the book – something like what Steven Soderbergh did with "Sex, Lies and Videotape." But my publisher didn't show any real interest in it at the time. Someday.

  9. Allison Davis

    Stephen, perfectly said — Charlie Parker was the master of hitting just the right note. Good and appropriate thoughts for me right now as I am editing — keeping just what is needed and not more, adding spice but not too much. I don't take notes in the middle of a conversation, but I do keep a tablet on my bed. Right before I got to sleep is the only time the noise in my head quiets down, so thoughts pop out that have been fermenting in there. I get some good ideas then. If only I culd turn down that volume in my head.

    My brother is the king of making up words, I think he got it from my mom. "To Munge" (pronounced like grunge) — what a cat does to a pillow or your lap. "Wankies" (describes someone in a bad way, or as a exclamatory word).

    I make up words all the time but I can never remember them when I want to. Maybe I should get out the recorder…..

    Your story will be on my Kindle asap.

  10. billie

    Love the image and the idea of ghosting when editing – thanks for sharing that technique and the word itself!

    I almost always think of archaeology when writing. Digging deep, but carefully, not always knowing what is beneath all the layers.

    Re: made up words – when very young my son made up a word (among many, he was very verbal and knew exactly what he meant even if he didn't know the bigger words for things yet – so he made them up!) that he used frequently for many years, and we as a family adopted it. Campucket. Campucketing is a sort of exuberant walk, like a joyous march, but it also represents a way of embracing life, a new adventure, etc. I hadn't thought about it, but now that I do, it actually encompasses my approach to writing. I am very much in the camp of love what you do, and use what you do as a way to deepen the experience of each day.

    Which leads me back to ghosting as a jazz musician – in a labyrinthine kind of way. 🙂 It's all the same idea, really.

  11. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Allison – I get those thoughts first thing in the morning. I suppose my brain needs the sleep to dump all the info I received during the day, so my mind is fresh with creative thought the moment I jump into the shower. Maybe that's just when I'm most relaxed during the day–the soothing warmth of water to bring me to life.
    Munge sounds great, and Wankie sounds, well, naughty.

  12. JT Ellison


    I hate that I have to change it to obstinacy to be correct. I want Obstinence.

    Beautiful post, Stephen. As always, your mind is a fascinating place to visit.

  13. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Billie – I LOVE campucketing…perfect. I want my whole life to be one, big campucket. I get some of my best word ideas from my young boys, who are now getting older, so their mish-mash form of invention is slowing down a bit. I wish I would have recorded everything they said from age two on. And I like the archeology analogy. Reminds me of Rodin's comment about sculpting – the sculpture is inside the marble, he just has to uncover it.

    JT – I like obstinence because it sounds like abstinence. And it sounds like a more bullish version of obstinacy. Come visit my mind any chance you get. There's room for all of us in here.

  14. Alafair Burke

    Great post. And your version of ghosting deserves its place in the dictionary at least as much as "refudiate."

  15. Debbie

    Yes Stephen, Lucasitis is a reference to George Lucas and the never ending edit of the Star Wars franchise. My husband is so disillusioned with the man that I've all but banned his name from our house. Going to print my MS today for the first time to give to beta readers so that I can um…edit…some more! 🙂

  16. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Alafair – "refudiate" just so happens to be a favorite word of mine. I don't know why, but I like the way it rolls off my tongue when I say it. I'd be honored to share space with it in the 2011 dictionary.

    Debbie – y'know, I couldn't agree with you more on the Lucas disillusionment. It's so hard to see how he took that Joseph Campbell mythology and buried it under a black hole of merchandizing.

  17. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Stephen

    Great post, and a great explanation of less is more.

    'Meanderthal' is one of my favourites – people who wander slowly in your path when you're late for an appointment.

    'Mesmoronic' is another nice one – something that totally claims your attention and makes you a little stupid and/or vacant. Think a TV set that's just inside your field of view, that's tuned to any reality TV programme.

    I make up lots of words – hutched, to flump, lairy, wangy, ratched. Whatever works at the time.

  18. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Zoe – your words cracked me up. Meanderthal and mesmoronic – perfect combinations whose definitions are entwined in themselves. Really, quite exceptional. There's an author named John Vorhaus who creates some ingeniuos words in his novel, "The California Roll," if you ever get the chance to read it. But yours are keepers. I'll never pass them off as mine, I'll just use them around the house until the kids have had enough of them.

    Pari – thanks for the comment and for hearing the music, too. One of the best personal jazz concerts I ever attended was Herbie Mann playing with his trio in a bar in Santa Fe. There were probably ten people there listening. This was fifteen years ago or so, and he announced to the few of us that he had cancer, and that it could not be treated. It was a wonderful gift, to hear him play.

  19. KDJames

    Excellent post, Stephen. You really do have a different way of thinking about writing that is somehow lyrical. You give words to the magic of it. Love this concept/definition of ghosting.

    I got an email from Amazon the other day, thanking me for my order. Totally freaked me out, because I hadn't bought anything recently. I thought, "OMG, now Amazon is ordering stuff for me! They've rolled out a new 'we know you'll love this so we bought it for you' feature and I must have signed up for it! " I'd completely forgotten I pre-ordered your short story.

    My kids make up words all the time. One of my favourites was when my son was maybe three and he said, "I amn't!" As in you aren't and he isn't. It makes perfect sense. Broke my heart just a little to have to explain it wasn't a proper contraction. A friend of mine says she's "flustrated" when she's feeling both flustered and frustrated. I think it works.

  20. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    KD – I do love kid-speak. Author Rachel Brady always does Facebook posts of the things her young kids say and it always makes me laugh, and makes me wish that I'd written down all the great stuff my kids said when they were younger. I thought I'd remember it, but it all slipped away. I think it keeps us on our toes as writers to listen to the way kids invent their world through a language that takes so, so many years to get right. Language at its heart is communication, and communication doesn't necessarily play by the rules.

  21. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I had an early screenwriting teacher who said that writers should never be afraid to cut because anything you cut remains in the story; the reader or audience gets it anyway. It took me a while to believe him but it's absolutely true, and "ghosting" is the perfect word to describe it. Wonderful post!

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