Finding Your Voice as a Writer

In writing, your voice is the unique way that you sound. It changes, and it can often be hard to grasp. I've heard the famous fantasy writer Brandon Mull talk about voice in one of his classes. He said that you need certain technical skills, but in the end you get paid for your voice. Here's one way to find that voice hidden within.


I picked a small selection to work with. It's a weird piece in the second person. And, it's not great. I'm going to make it better. Here's the original.

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Version 0

You have traveled far, entering a territory of mountains and hills, forests, and ancient paths. As you near your destination, an oppressive veil descends as the sky becomes dim. The stagecoach you hired approaches an old stone building with a belfry and enormous arched wooden front doors, whose scrollwork tells tales of horror and redemption. The coach rolls to a stop and you exit to stand before the Church of the Crossroads. The church is an age-old monument and gateway to this ancient mountainous territory. As you near the wooden doors to head inside, you hear the sounds of a struggle from within.

Entering the church, you see an old curator cowering at the hands of highwaymen. The highwaymen are ragged and filthy. With the dangerous edge of the desperate, they demand food and valuables.

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My first plan was to take it sentence by sentence. Staying close to the original at first, and then expanding from there. But, I didn't like the writing enough to stay close to it. So, I just started writing in a way that feels good to me.

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Version 1

The stagecoach you’ve hired rattles along the path. You should be getting close now. Outside you see that the landscape has started to change, from here on there will be only ancient paths that wind through the forests, cut through the mountains, and roll along with the hills. The coach stops and you step outside. Dusk has just begun its descent, as a mist rises. The belfry towers over you. You can still see the details in the enormous wooden front doors before you. Scenes of slaughter and destruction, mixed with images of redemption, intended to awe, inspire, and instruct members and visitors alike. This monument, the Church of the Crossroads, this is the gateway to the territory you are now entering.

As you approach the doors you hear harsh voices raised in anger and frustration. You spread the doors open to reveal the old curator on his knees quivering before a group of disheveled men, aggressive men, highwaymen. Now, they turn their attention to you and demand all of your food and valuables.

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Then, I wrote a few more versions. Just playing around with how the same idea can be made to sound different.

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Version 2

The sky is beginning to darken, and a mist is rising, as your stagecoach bounces along on its way toward the Church of the Crossroads. The bell tower juts into the sky. This ancient monument marks the territory boundary. After this the roads will be narrower, rougher, cutting winding paths through the thick forests, slicing jagged trails through the steep mountains.

Your stagecoach pulls up to the front of the church and lets you out. Enormous arched doors stand as a barrier between the world within and the world without. There are images carved deep into the wood. Scenes of destruction, of death and slaughter, but also of redemption and salvation. The cruel mix of virtue and vice that inhabits the world.

You walk up to the doors admiring these stories without words, these stories frozen in time. There’s a crash that echoes from inside the church, and its muffled sound distracts you from your thoughts, pulling you back from dreams of glory. You put your shoulder into the door and it crashes open. There’s a group of men standing over the old curator. He’s on his side on the floor, shaking. The men turn towards you. Missing teeth, ragged and dirty clothes, the look of desperate aggression etched into each face. These are highwaymen, and they just want two things: all of your food and all of your valuables.

Version 3

You step out of the stagecoach and look around. This is the boundary between territories. You look at the front doors of the Church of the Crossroads. Enormous wooden front doors. Dusk is falling but you can still make out some of the images carved into the doors. Scenes of death and destruction interspersed with moments of redemption. As you walk towards the doors your eyes scan up the building to the bell tower above you jutting into the sky. From up there you could look out at what you are about to enter; a land of dark forests and jagged mountains.

You take a deep breath as you reach out and place your hands on the doors, the light mist tingling your nostrils and filling your lungs. But, on the other side of the door you hear an angry yell, and then a whimper. You slowly pull the door open and look in.

There, on the ground, is an old man. The small group of men standing around him all look at you, except one, the one with his boot pressed against the old man’s chest. He slowly looks up and you lock eyes. This is a hungry man, hungry for food, hungry for power, hungry for wealth, hungry to be feared. He speaks, “Welcome my friend. I’m glad you could join us. Now there are just two more things you need to do: 1) give my men your food and valuables, and 2) be on your way.”

Version 4

The Church of the Crossroads is an ancient monument that stands at the threshold of the territory. From there on the roads are rougher, mostly through dark forests and desolate mountains. It was supposed to be brilliant, a large bell tower standing over the landscape, and gigantic wooden doors with magnificent images carved into them that told stories of desolation and salvation. With the mist coming on and dusk approaching you might not get a chance to admire the sights today.

Your coach stops in front of the doors and you step out. You open the door at the same moment that a loud crash comes from inside. A handful of men are scattered around the room, they are ripping things apart. An old man is yelling at one of these ruffians, “You can’t touch that!” He gets slapped.

Your entrance doesn’t go unnoticed. The men start walking toward you. The one who slapped the old man steps in front of you, “We’ll be taking your food and valuables now.”

Version 5

You stick your head out of the window of the stagecoach that you’ve hired. It’s almost dusk, and a mist is coming on, but you can still clearly make out the bell tower rising into the sky.

Your coach rabbles up to the front of the building and lets you out. The doors are magnificent, adorned with carvings depicting scenes of battles and slaughters, triumphs and defeats. All possibilities in your near future as well. From here on your journey into the territory will be through deep forests and sharp mountains.

As you open the door you notice something is wrong. There’s an old man on the floor in front of you. You kneel beside him before you’re even aware of the other men in the room. They’re ransacking the place. One of them approaches you and you stand to face him. This scraggly and cruel highwayman tells you that you’ll be allowed to leave, if, and only if, you give him your food and your valuables.

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I like the idea of moving the timeframe around. I could keep going with this exercise, but I think I've gotten what I wanted out of it.

My style will keep changing and evolving. It will do that on its own, but at the beginning of this journey in writing I knew that I would have to push it a little. I've read dozens of books on writing over the last few years, and taken more than a handful of courses. This is my three-hundredth article, and I've definitely changed my writing voice over that time. I'm not sure when it happened, but at some point I started liking how I sound, and other people started complimenting not just on my ideas, they started complimenting me on the writing itself. That's a good feeling.

Ps. The photo is from 1945. It's Linda Christian, the first Bond girl.

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Read more of Jeff's thoughts at: http://www.jeffreyalexandermartin.com/

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