Lightning In A Bottle

Before nearly every ghostwriting client signs on to do a book with me, they have one question they really want answered. They’re awkward about it, anxious both about asking and about not asking.

I’ve learned that I’d better not hang up the call without pulling this question out into the open. I don’t wait for them to screw up the courage anymore.

“Let’s talk about voice, and how I’m going to make sure this book sounds exactly like you.”

It sounds technical, and there is a technical aspect to it. But it’s really an identity question.

See, each of us has a unique voice. Entrepreneurs are particularly aware of this, having been immersed in marketing long enough to know that a consistent brand experience is very important to customer retention.

They’re also very aware that readers are going to spend a long time immersed in this book, hopefully with a view to starting a professional partnership afterwards.

And if the voice on the phone doesn’t match the voice in the book, it’s going to be hellishly jarring.

Molly Pittman, in the book we worked on together, calls this ‘ad scent.’ The scent needs to be appealing, and consistent enough that people can follow their nose in your direction — without being thrown off the scent by inconsistencies.

This is where the technical aspect of voice comes in (and I have to give credit to Abbey Woodcock for actually quantifying this in her ‘Codex Persona’ material).

There are 3 components to voice. You can triangulate anyone’s voice using these points to pull off a near-perfect reproduction.

The first component is tone.

Tone is about someone’s style. Are they academic, very erudite and wordy? Are they casual, making jokes and abbreviating every other word?

If you had to put a word on their style, what would it be? Elegant? Mouthy? Careful? Relentless?

Think about how you experience their tone. What impression does it give you? How does your internal dialogue respond to it? What does it imply about their background and personality?

The second component is vocabulary.

Vocabulary is about the words they use. Everybody — and I mean everybody — has go-to words that feature frequently in their speech.

It’s more efficient for the brain to have favourites, and it’s also a marker of identity (and we’ll get into the identity aspect of voice in a minute).

The words we choose say a lot about us.

The slang we use can point to our roots, where we come from, what we find amusing. The choice between a five-dollar word and a fifty-cent word says a lot about what we think about our topic, and ourselves.

Vocabulary can highlight tics, affiliations, interests. It can get you in the room, or it can give you away.

The third component is cadence.

Cadence is about pacing — the physical dimension of how they speak.

Are they a million miles a minute, or so paced that you have to bite the inside of your cheek not to constantly fill the pauses?

Do they speak in fully formed sentences, finishing each distinct thought before moving onto the next? Or do they interrupt themselves so often that you lose track of what they were talking about in the first place?

Do they run on their sentences, rambling on and covering every possible angle of an argument? Or does their speech come in clipped, staccato-short sentences that leave you in no doubt of their opinion?

Voice is the critical component of any piece of writing.

It humanises the speaker, makes them unique and memorable, and connects them to the reader. It reveals more about them than any other feature.

Being so important, it stuns me how little time voice is given in most writing material.

I think it’s because it feels nebulous, and that even having a technical framework, like the 3-step process above, sometimes doesn’t capture the ‘je ne sais quois,’ the essence of someone’s identity.

And that brings me to the final component of voice that, over the course of working on over 20 books and hundreds of content projects, I believe I’ve pinned down.

It’s finding the moment where the speaker burnt the boats.

The moment they changed, irrevocably. The moment when their last illusion snapped, and at the core of their essence something screamed ENOUGH.

Elizabeth Gilbert put it thus:

“I’ve never seen any life transformation that didn’t begin with the person in question finally getting sick of their own bullshit.”

Now, it’s a gentle excavation that reveals this moment. You can’t go charging in and demand someone share this cataclysm with you unprepared. They might not have even realised what this moment was at the time. They still might not have realised it.

But finding this moment is critical — whether you’re writing someone’s life story, dialog in a novel, or stripping off the detritus of your own life on the page of a journal.

And you’ll know this moment when it arrives. It’s the moment they get sober, quit the job, break up with the bad apple.

Pay attention at that moment.

What happens to their voice? Do they get loud, or do they get quiet? What happens on their face? What does their mouth do, and their eyes?

Does jubilation roll off them in waves, or does the air around them crackle with anger?

Are they relieved, or apprehensive? Equanimous, or electrified?

These physical cues are the embodiment of the most powerful emotion that person has ever experienced — something more primal than most people can put into words.

But you can feel in your own body, what that moment meant, and what it needs to feel like for the reader to understand as well as you now do.

If you can seize on these cues, and study them, imprint in your mind the feeling of them, then something magical happens to their voice as it flows through you. It becomes vividly alive, some living part of them captured on the page.

So when voice comes up with clients, I tell them about the 3 technical components, and that I’ll be going over their life like an archeologist with a fine paintbrush and something to prove.

But I don’t tell them, in so many words, that I’m looking for this moment. I don’t want to make them self-conscious, or give them an opportunity to self-censor at that critical junction.

Instead, I put all my energy into being a safe pair of hands, someone who deserves to hear that story.

It doesn’t matter if it’s your voice, or a character’s, or a client’s: you don’t get that stuff for free. It takes trust and rapport and work, and you’ve gotta be patient.

But when you get it, good god damn. It’s lightning in a bottle, electric and illuminating.

So take your time. Be watchful. Discard nothing. Listen deeply, letting your mind reach beyond the words to hear that primal roar. The voice is there, waiting for you to hear it.