Featured Writer of the Week: Kay Diehl
This week's featured writer is Kay Diehl, who has been a literary collaborator for over two decades. She has written, co-written, rewritten, researched, and edited more than 25 books, including Rather Outspoken, the memoir of veteran journalist Dan Rather; The Million Dollar Mermaid, the autobiography of actress Esther Williams; Truth Be Told, a memoir of success, suicide, and survival by anxiety expert Lucinda Bassett; and Angel on My Shoulder, the autobiography of singer Natalie Cole. Ms. Diehl holds a bachelor’s degree from Pomona College and a master’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley. A native New Yorker, she lives in Pasadena, California.
Tell us about your writing journey. How did you begin writing, and how did you break into the industry?
I started my career as an urban planner, writing environmental impact reports. I translated scientific and engineering jargon—seismic risk assessment, noise and air quality analysis, hydrology and sewer capacity — into CliffsNotes summaries that could be understood by the average elected city official. Within the office, it was the task no one else wanted, and I soon became the go-to person for dumbing it down — whatever the “it” happened to be.
At the time, I was absolutely oblivious that this was a marketable skill, but as I segued into freelance writing, the ability to convert STEM-speak into simple English became my first niche of expertise. It was indispensable when I was called on to ghost rewrite a book about a neurosurgeon, and turned into a real win-win about eighteen months later, when the same doctor removed a tumor from my brain.
Tell us what you can about your ghostwriting career. How did you get into that practice?
I married into the book business. My husband was the founding editor of the Los Angeles Times book review, and had been editor-in-chief at Harry N. Abrams. He later became the on-air book and movie critic for CBS and ABC. Shortly after our daughter was born, he began collaborating on celebrity memoirs. At the same time, I was discovering that marathon nighttime city council meetings were a rotten fit with motherhood. When he took on an “as told to” ghosting assignment with a tough deadline, I volunteered to pitch in. From then on, the two of us were a writing partnership until he passed away.
How do you know if an idea — yours or someone else’s — is strong enough to develop into a book?
With prospective clients, if the narrative keeps getting better as we talk — dramatic situations, interesting characters, wider implications beyond the personal story itself — there’s a book there for sure. For my own ideas, if I find myself asking that question, I already know the answer, or at least I should.
What special considerations are required for collaborating on a book?
Complete hibernation of your own ego. I think of myself as a chameleon, vanishing into the personae of my authors to help them present their authentic selves on paper.
Their books need to sound like them, not like me. Because I specialize in memoir, getting the voice right is everything. I listen to my authors a lot. Our interactions are always conversations, never interviews. I encourage them to ramble off topic and talk about friends and family, and even about the mundane events of the day. It puts them at ease, and sometimes it’s the offhand remarks that are the most revealing. Meanwhile, I’m picking up cadence, and getting a feel for their speech pattern.
Active listening is crucial. I’ve learned to listen between the lines, not just to what people say, but to how they say it. I take in whatever else is going on as they’re talking. Do they look away as they speak? Have they shrunk down in the chair? Do they fidget?
Some clients become oddly detached. They recite dates and times in a monotone — they might as well be describing an event that happened to somebody else. This probably started as a defense mechanism, especially if what they are describing is a traumatic incident from childhood. They may have been wearing this psychological body armor ever since, but for the book, I have to tap into the emotional truth of that experience. As a writer, my job is to put the reader in the room, but I can’t do that if the author isn’t there, either. I have to help clients become less focused on what happened than on what it felt like to be them while it was happening. There’s almost always a time when I make someone cry.
What does your writing routine look like?
I do the hardest stuff when my mind is clearest. For me, that’s structure and outlining, which I tackle early — very early — when I am well rested and freshly caffeinated. Mornings are for writing and rewriting. Rewriting — call it editing, if you prefer — is where the real work gets done. Afternoons are for communicating, and for other chores related to running a business.
How do you stay productive and overcome blocks?
I think it was Ernest Hemingway who said that a writer’s most important accessory is a seatbelt. If you find yourself spinning your wheels, buckle in, buckle down, and figure out why. Whatever the problem is, it’s not going to fix itself.
I can usually trace the issue back to the outline. Either I’m trying to shoehorn content into a place where it really doesn’t belong, or I need to reconfigure the chapter structure to better accommodate this piece of orphan prose.
If you write for a living, writer’s block is a nonstarter — as with any vocation, the pros are the ones who show up for work, no matter what. When the sink is stopped up and you call a plumber, nobody wants to hear, “I’m sorry, I can’t come today. I’ve got plumber’s block.”
What’s your best piece of advice for someone looking to be a full-time writer?
Start where you’re at. Almost any job entails some writing — get good at whatever writing your job requires you to do, then branch out from there. Ask people whose writing you respect to give you a critique, and take their assessments to heart.
Meanwhile, read your brains out — both fiction and nonfiction. Dissect what you read to get a grasp of the mechanics that make good writers excel. The best authors make it seem effortless. The way J. K. Rowling lures readers into the fully-imagined world of Hogwarts is as magical as anything else in her books.
Be your own grammar Nazi — sloppy grammar pegs you as an amateur. Use an online checker to fix your mistakes — better yet, learn how not to make them. Grammar is one of the essential tools of the profession. Even if your prose exhibits great flair and creativity, editors have neither the time nor the inclination to clean up your stuff. They’re overworked and underpaid. If you make their lives easier by turning in clean copy, next time one of their authors needs a collaborator, they’ll remember your name.
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