Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Words Are the Voice of the Heart (Confucius)

 One of my all-time favorite authors is Mark Twain. He speaks a language I recognize, relish and actually "feel" in my soul. I grew up on the river, and still live near a river as an adult. So when he says something like this:
"The face of the river, in time, became a wonderful book . . . which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it had uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day."
Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

...I hear it with my whole heart, as if it were my own heartbeat.  There are some authors who do that for me.

I'm often asked about "voice." When I'm working for an agent or editor, they will ask me about the author's voice. It is an elusive thing. How do you define voice? Sometimes that voice really stands out, but sometimes the author hasn't really discovered his voice. Recently, a fellow reader/critiquer and I both recognized when a crit partner hit upon her "voice." It was exciting for all of us! She still is hesitant, but I think she is beginning to hear it, too. She has written a lot in order to find that place.

One of the main reasons I started my own blog was to rediscover my own voice. I lost it each time I would have to go undercover into someone else's manuscript, because we all know a good critic does not change the voice of that author. One of my favorite books about voice is Ft. Wayne native/author Les Edgerton's book, Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your Writing.(Writer's Digest Books.) If you are struggling with your voice, do get this book. I like it when he slams "da rules" right off the bat. At the end of each chapter he has exercises designed to help you get into your own voice (instead of mimicking someone else's voice.)

But maybe lately you've been saying, "I'm Nobody here with barely a voice squeaking through the rich, full sopranos,tenors, basses, rock stars." (Maybe that's my voice saying this.) On my desk is a piece of rose marble with these words etched on the surface: "Words are the voice of the heart." Confucius said this, though I don’t follow him, he did have some interesting things to say and had a strong voice. This quote speaks to the passions that are in our hearts. As Christians we're often told to follow the voice of our master, Jesus. The sheep follow the voice of the shepherd. Samuel didn't know that it was the voice of God, not Eli, who called him in the night, but Eli helped him to recognize His Voice.

But what is that voice in your heart? Whatever you find buried in your heart eventually will come out passionately as words. So,words, which come from your heart, are part of your voice. To find your voice is to find what's in your heart, your very lifeblood. Figure this out first. What hits your hot buttons? I have to listen quietly to hear the voice I have. I also listen what others say about my voice.

Here are some tips to get your ears on (this is old CB radio talk--"Ya got your ears on?")

1. Listen. Listen by reading. A lot. Read in the genre you wish to speak. Read books which "sound" like you want to sound like.

2. Write. A lot. Let people hear your voice, and if they like your voice, take note. Get your crit partners to point out to you each time they think your voice is coming through the story. Mark it in RED.

3. Listen to your heart as you write. If it says "thump, thud, swish-swish" then you might want to see a book doctor-type or mentor, and get your heart healthy. Get someone who is good at helping you with the writing without touching your voice. It's a fine art. You have to be careful with this one because I've seen crit partners flush the voice right out of a piece, or worse, put their own voice into a piece. Sometimes you have to listen the small, still voice which is telling you, "don't listen to this person, no matter how well-intentioned they are." (Just saying. )But if someone is really good at it, DO listen to what that person is saying about the writing. Phew. Tough call.

4. Get voice lessons and practice because eventually the voice and heart join together. Go to conferences, workshops, get together with fellow writers read your work out loud. Doc Hensley used to make us get into a circle and then read a piece out loud. Then the rest would make comments. Diann Hunt used to HATE this exercise, but it was so great to hear the voice of others. That is where I first heard Diann's great voice in writing.

5. Read your stuff to your dog or cat or horse. Your dog (or cat or horse) loves your voice no matter what you say. While you're listening for how you tell your story, you might just start recognizing your own heart-voice.

6. Let God hear your voice each time you begin a writing session. He knows what your voice is and will help you find the way to speaking out.

Write your heart...

Do you have insights on voice?
Do you have questions about your voice?
Whose voice (an author) do you feel is close to your voice?
Which author would you WANT to have a voice like? 

(Anyone have a clue as to which author my writing sounds like??? What genre could you hear me speaking in? LOL.)

~Crystal Laine Miller


  1. Great post on voice! And YES, the venerable Confucius certainly has had and still has a strong VOICE. . . as there are more than THREE MILLION Confucius descendants alive in the world today. The Confucius father-to-son linage is in its 83rd generation. And recently, female descendants started being recognized too. And Crystal, as your voice is part of a choir in this piece, I can't really guess who you might sound like. When you go solo, then maybe I'll guess. . . :-)

  2. I was told right off the bat that I have found my voice, but I have no idea what it is. I think what would help me is a list of a dozen to two dozen excerpts of different voices, with an explanation of why and how each is a voice. For instance, is Rachael's humor her voice? Well, then, how does it differ from other authors' humorous writing? I'd like to see it illustrated and explained. Hmmm, does one of those books you mentioned do this, Crystal--i.e., have a list of illustrations? Thanks for a helpful post!

  3. Thank you for the reminder Crystal. I have found and pulled Les Edgerton's book from my book shelf for another read. I see I have tons of bookmarks from the last time I read through it.

    Great post. Thanks.

  4. Crystal, I love this post! Sometimes I am worried that my writing doesn't sound as melodious as others, but that's not my voice. And I have never forgotten what the great Colleen Coble said to me at an ACFW get-together. She most likely doesn't even remember telling me. But she warned me to always be true to my voice when in a crit group, to take what they had to say with wisdom and loyalty to my own voice. That is such good advice! But I'm still learning to balance it. Maybe someday I'll have it all figured out, but for now, I'm just still learning!

  5. Colleen Coble is GREAT example on voice. I love that Karla shared what she said to her, but she's said to so many.

    Her early writing was in historical romance. Straight, sweet Heartsong romance. Still, you can see her voice there and it continues to be strong into her newest stuff.

    One of my favorite games to play is to read Girls Write Out (a blog with Kristin Billerbeck, Diann Hunt, Colleen Coble, Denise Hunter and now Cheryl Hodde/Hannah Alexander) and then guess who wrote it without looking first (I get it on email.) It's amazing how each voice is different. And those girls crit each other, brainstorm together.

    Millie, my own writing is on my blog, but I haven't settled on anything in particular. :) I think your voice comes through your nonfiction as well as your fiction.

  6. Steph, that's a good point. It would help to have illustrations. Les has illustrations, but it would be good to have more illustrations from the Christian market. (Les is not a Christian writer.)

    What the Wind Picked Up is a short story compilation book where various Christian authors took the beginning line and wrote their own story from that. It is a great example of a variety of voices.

  7. Thanks, Crystal, for affirming such great truths about the importance of voice, that elusive but essential quality God has given all of us.

    Steph, I'm still exploring mine. In fact, I didn't even recognize my humorous side for a long time(I was a grim nerd in high school, not a class clown). It was Wendy Lawton, my agent, who really convinced me of its possible place in writing and markets. What makes mine different from other humorists'? As in any genre, we share similar techniques, etc. But nobody in history has viewed my little world from my strange POV or communicated it with exactly my style. And nobody has viewed your unique story from your special POV with your communication style, either. Aren't we glad God made no cookie-cutter writers!