Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Voices Made Me Do It

Last week I had the good fortune to be on the panel that Deborah Heiligman wrote about Tuesday. Preplanning conversations and postmortem drinks at the very literary Algonquin Hotel gave Deb, Marfe’ Ferguson Delano, and me plenty of time to talk about the writing process. These conversations got me thinking about “voice.” Finding the right voice for a nonfiction book fits somewhere in the scheme of things between the research and final draft.
            You know how writers of fiction and deranged people – that may be an oxymoron – say, “It’s the voices … it’s the voices that made me do it?” That makes perfect sense to me. My books, primarily based on interviews with young people, absolutely must be true to the people featured. So after an interview, I transcribe and replay their tapes over and over again as a way to get their voices into my ears. My journey to understanding “voice” in writing began as an act of embarrassment and humility.

My Confession:
Once upon a time, long, long ago, after photographing four children’s books, I decided to try my hand at writing as well as illustrating. My first, full book contract was about a thirteen-year-old foster boy who spent a year socializing and loving a puppy that would later become a guide dog for the blind. What made the boy unusual was that he himself was slowly going blind. The book was called Mine for a Year.

After the usual gazillion drafts, the manuscript was ready to meet its editor. At that time I knew very few children’s authors and needed a critical read. A magazine editor-cum-good friend, a brilliant writer himself, said he’d take a look at it. Before he could change his mind I was sitting in his office with my beautiful, perfect, gorgeously written first book. He turned to the first page. “WHAT IS THIS CRAP?” He didn’t say crap. “I’m not going to read this! There’s nothing happening here. There’s no voice! It’s not you. It’s not the kid.” I grabbed the pages and flew out of the office. I was devastated, furious, and very embarrassed.

Once home I spent weeks trying to figure out how to make this boy read real. What could I do differently? Why didn’t the photographs alone create the boy’s character? And what is this thing called “voice” anyway? A week or so later an Aha moment arrived. Since it was the boy’s story, why not let him tell it?

I rewrote everything in the first person, and interviewed the boy again to add material and to make sure what was written matched the way he spoke. We collaborated. We made changes together.
After more than a few drafts, it was back to the mag editor for round two. With one eyebrow raised - he never once looked up - he opened to the first page, and read it. Think long, horrible pregnant pause here. “Okay, now you have voice. Now I want to read this.” For the most part, I’ve been writing in first person ever since.

A number of INK writers have said how hard it is to come up with a topic each month. I for one would love to know how you treat voice in your books.


Anonymous said...

I learned a lot about voice from INKer Melissa Stewart when I took a class with her last year. I never thought of voice as something you had to "get into" like an actor getting into a character. For some reason, I thought voice was something that was fixed and came naturally. Once I was liberated from that notion, writing and getting into the right voice became a lot easier. I mostly write magazine pieces and picture books, so I don't have to carry voice as long. Listening to recordings of interviews would definitely help me get into voice. Rereading pieces I've written where I felt I got the voice right helps too.

Vicki Cobb said...

This is a very interesting discussion. I think that a writer's voice evolves over time and a LOT of writing. In many respects it is finding ways to incorporate your own personality into the craft of writing. It means knowing yourself very well. How do you communicate? Are you witty? Sardonic? Humorous? Intense? Enthusiastic? Finding ways to incorporate personality traits into printed language is the secret to an authentic personal voice, which is different from developing a voice for someone else.

Marfe Ferguson Delano said...

This is a thought-provoking post, Susan. Sometimes I worry that my voice seems a bit too distant and impersonal, a holdover perhaps from my days as a staff writer at Time-Life Books, where the goal was to be lively and approachable and informative and entertaining, but personal style took a backseat or was edited out altogether to create a cohesive voice for every book.(Every volume was written by several different authors.)

I notice this narrative distance, almost a clinical coldness, in my early drafts particularly. Maybe it's because I'm so anxious to get the facts straight. But as I move through revisions I try to loosen up, to trust my instincts, to let my own storytelling skills come through, to be myself. And if I'm lucky my voice eventually emerges.

Gretchen Woelfle said...

I need to find a different voice for each book, based on the character of the protagonist - whether it's a biography or fiction, or narrative nonfiction. It takes many drafts to find out 1) what I'm trying to say and 2) the right voice in which to say it.

Susan Kuklin said...

Thank you all for writing such interesting, insightful comments. It's clear to me that an author's road to finding a "voice" is long, winding, and varied. Somehow we manage to marry our own voices with those of our subjects. Is that what makes us nonfiction writers? I should think, in part, yes.