I am an American woman with a Humanities degree and a background in languages, literature, and the arts in general. My client is a naturalized German-American, retired spinal neurosurgeon. You would be correct in assuming we do not share a common voice when it comes to expressing ourselves. So, when it came to writing what eventually traveled the trajectory from life story to medical memoir, one of the most critical lessons I had to learn was how to muffle my voice and allow his to ring out.
I was reminded of this lesson today when reading a post by Nicola Krauss on Writer UnBoxed, From Bestseller to Ghostwriter. In describing the art of capturing an author’s voice, Ms. Kraus writes that:
Each person has their own natural lexicon and rhythm of speech. It’s essential to stay confined to that. I will never impose my own way of saying something when I’m editing, because it would stick out. I would advise anyone interested in doing this work to spend as much time with your client as possible so that when you sit down to edit their words you can “be” them.
Such great advice, especially for someone who is naturally a wordy writer, as I am. I tend to throw everything in at the onset and then reduce, refine, and sculpt during the edits and revisions. This is evident in passages from an early draft of my author’s book. As one writing friend pointed out, the overall tone was not only verbose and flowery (another problem to be addressed later), it also struck his particular ear as the voice of a female.
To illustrate just how important it is to develop an authentic authorial voice for your client (something that realistically requires months of collaboration), let’s look at the following passages, in particular the lines in italics. The first one is from the draft that eventually became the first book, a life story:
Sports grounded me in those years. No matter what was happening at home, once I got on the court or the field, I focused my attention and energy on the goal in front of me. And when my mother put the kibosh on football my sophomore year . . . the main thing I did was run. I ran in track and field meets. I ran cross-country. I ran at Central and at competing schools. One spring, I ran up and down the wooden bleachers until my shins burned, all the while trying to outrun dire images of falling through the open spaces between the benches and breaking my neck. I ran the mile again my junior and senior year, but only broke five minutes two or three times and never won a race again, or even came in with the top three. Before every race, I got anxious as hell. I didn’t know which was worse, the butterflies in my stomach or the sense of dread that lodged in my chest and chased all rational thoughts out of my head. The thing is, though, that once I started running, all those negative feelings disappeared. In action, they were transformed into fuel.
In the medical memoir version, the passage was reduced and, in the final line, connected to the primary theme driving the story :
I also knew, inherently, that physical fitness was essential. I had played soccer from my earliest boyhood in Germany, but sports in the US were much more organized and competitive. I went out for the usual athletics: football (my mother put the kibosh on that after my freshman year), basketball, and track. I didn’t know what I was good at in track, but I ended up running middle or long distance and eventually ran the mile. Now looking back, it seems I was running figuratively too, towards my identity as an American, towards my future in medicine.
Now, this is a mild example. I murdered many darlings in the rewrite. Consider the following lyrical waxings:
The scenery we took in on those drives never failed to affect us. When you climbed a low rise and looked out over the land, you couldn’t help but be moved by the immense landscapes, the way the mountain ranges unfolded one after another in the distance; the way they changed from a pale gold at noon to slate blue and finally deep purple in the evenings.
And this, a description of life at sea:
Each day was the same. Each day was a surrender to nausea and monotony, punctuated by brief sorties to the upper deck. My world had shrunk to a thin mattress in a sea of beds. For the others, it was waking up to an icy wind that continued all day and then finding a way to pass the time until evening brought some diversion. Except for the large day room, there was only the deck; the choice was to endure the noise of a thousand foreign tongues reverberating off the bare, damp walls, or brave the raw elements outside.
Admittedly, I was enthralled with my client’s story and the dramatic possibilities. And he enjoyed the embellishments, keeping many of my descriptions in the life story he published for family and close friends. But when it came to the more commercial version, it was clear that my love affair with language had to be reined in.
Enabling your client/author to tell their story in their words while making the text engaging and colorful involves many more elements. A sensitivity to the way your client really speaks is just the beginning. My job also entailed suggestions for changes that would not stray too far from his natural speech but that would replace commonly overused and empty words such as “interesting” and “nice” with words that were true to a particular character or experience. But that requires another post.
What about you? What has been your experience in telling another person’s story? If you write fiction, how have you arrived at an authentic voice for your characters?