A ghostwriter's No. 1 job: nailing the voice

In ghostwriting and collaborating on five books in the past several years, the biggest challenge by far was coming up with a voice the author was happy with. It may sound like a simple proposition, but nailing it can be as hard as catching an eel.

It comes down to how much or how little the author gives you to work with. In one case, the author (unpublished) took a crack at a first draft himself, and while it was a long way from the final draft, he provided a usable voice to build on—half the battle was over and I hadn’t written a word. In another case, the author had written other books and had had his own TV series. A veritable cacophony of voices to work with, right? Actually, for his new book, he wanted a new voice, one with a more serious tone than his past voices. OK, I thought, so I’ll interview him and he’ll speak in the voice he’s going for, right? Actually, he wasn’t much for talking. Ninety-five percent of the information we would cover in the book was to come from research. It soon became clear that I was to fabricate a voice for him. Hoo boy.

Wait—shouldn’t that actually be easy? Writing without parameters? Creating the voice I want to use? So you want to sound intelligent and authoritative—have I got a voice for you.

Of course, he had plenty to say until I came up with the voice he knew he wanted but hadn’t been able to describe for me. When we’d almost nailed it, he even said, “You’re 90 percent of the way there. Now if we could just figure out how to get the last 10 percent …” Yeah, he was pretty hands-off.

In collaborating, the amount of actual collaboration runs the gamut from close to zero to a true fifty-fifty partnership where both parties sign off on every phrase after discussing its benefits and drawbacks—the perfect balance of give and take. As a collaborator for hire, I need to be ready for either scenario and everything in between. The only rules are those that the two of us agree on. And it never fails that before long, we create a process that’s new to both of us. Whatever works.

If you’re considering bringing in a collaborator, a few general rules apply. For one, the clearer your vision for the end product, the smoother the collaboration will be. That isn’t to say a smooth ride is the Holy Grail of collaboration—we all know great art comes from struggle of one sort or another—but if you’re paying for someone’s time, efficiency has its advantages. If you know exactly how you want your voice to sound, the ideal way to get it into your book is to write the first draft yourself. If you don’t have time, at least write a section, one that takes you through a range of emotions (if appropriate), giving your collaborator all the colors he needs to paint your story with.

If you don’t know how you want your voice to sound, think about authors who seem to take the words right out of your mouth. There’s nothing wrong with modeling yourself after a master. If that doesn’t do the trick, approach it the same way you approach just about everything in life: as a process of trial and error. Pick a chapter to go back and forth on with your writer till you’re 100 percent of the way there. (You may need a sample chapter for your book proposal anyway.) And be prepared for the possibility that you won’t get there. Just like patients don’t always click with the first therapist they meet with—or the second or third—your first collaborator may not be the right fit for you. If getting inside your head were that easy, who’d need therapists?

How to know if the fit is right? There are general rules for that, too. One states that if your writer simply takes notes while you speak, he’s a bad fit. If he isn’t asking you questions that indicate an appreciation and enthusiasm for the material, he doesn’t have the appropriate interest in learning what you have to teach—an interest that will be critical to your project. On the other hand, beware of the writer who’s too enthusiastic and spends as much time talking as you do during interviews—chances are he’ll want to insert too much of himself into your book’s content, too.

Simply put, your writer needs to “get you.” And just as important, he needs to get the market. After all, his job is to grasp the information you provide and shape it into something that readers will grasp just as readily. If he isn’t connecting some dots for readers that even you haven’t connected because you’re too close to the subject, you have the wrong writer.

That said, even if your writer passes all the tests, don’t expect him to get everything right on the first draft. If the author who wanted me to create a new voice for him hadn’t given me a third chance, the book would have gone to someone else even though I was the right writer for it.

Remember that the error part of trial and error isn’t something somebody came up with to waste your time—it’s a learning tool. You both need to use it. Knowledge is power, and this is how you get it. Whether you use it to perfect the process you’ve begun or to create a new process with a new collaborator, you’re moving closer to your goal.

In the end, you’re both explorers, neither of you certain where you’re going, and that’s exactly what you want. There’s a difference between looking for the same thing and figuring out how to find it. And being receptive to your fellow explorer’s ideas about your shared vision may be the most important part of the collaborative process.

OK, that sounds pretty fuzzy. Maybe all of this comes down to whether your collaborator gets you. If he doesn’t, it will become clear soon enough. If he does, that will be clear, too, and that’s the point where the line between giving and taking becomes a beautiful blur.

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