Writing a story in first person; where to find literary journals
Published: January 11, 2011
Q: I know it’s important to give a character a unique voice in dialogue, but what about the story itself? When writing in first person, does the whole story have to sound like the main character?
A: When you write in first person, a character is telling the story. So, yes, the narrative should be written in the voice of that character. (The first-person narrator is often the main character, but not always.) A narrator can have a formal voice, as William Hundert does in “The Palace Thief,” a short story by Ethan Canin:
My classroom was in fact a tribute to the lofty ideals of man, which I hoped would inspire my boys, and at the same time to the fleeting nature of human accomplishment, which I hoped would temper their ambition with humility. It was a dual tactic, with which Mr. Woodridge heartily agreed. Above the door frame hung a tablet, made as a term project by Henry L. Stimson when he was a boy here, that I hoped would teach my students of the irony that history bestows upon ambition.
A narrator’s voice can be casual and colloquial, as Dulcie’s voice is in “Crazy Life” by Lou Mathews:
Chuey is in this big cell, all by himself except for one other guy. When I see who that is, I know why Chuey’s in trouble. Sleepy Chavez is sitting next to him. I don’t know why they call him Sleepy. He’s wired most of the time. I think he might have been a red freak once. Sleepy is one vato loco. The craziest I know. Everything bad that happens on 42nd Avenue starts with Sleepy Chavez.
Some writers use the distance of time to give themselves more latitude with their narrator’s voice. ZZ Packer’s short story “Brownies” tells of an event that happened while Laurel, the narrator, was a child at camp with her Brownie troop. The sophistication of Laurel’s voice, however, makes it clear she’s telling this story as an adult:
When you lived in the south suburbs of Atlanta, it was easy to forget about whites. Whites were like those baby pigeons: real and existing, but rarely seen or thought about. Everyone had been to Rich’s to go clothes shopping; everyone had seen white girls and their mothers coo-cooing over dresses; everyone had gone to the downtown library and seen white businessmen swish by importantly, wrists flexed in front of them to check the time as though they would change from Clark Kent into Superman at any second.
Though Packer uses the more sophisticated voice, she doesn’t include much of the insight Laurel must have gained about this childhood incident over the years. This keeps the attention on Laurel’s youthful experience without limiting the voice to a child’s language.
A distinctive voice is an integral part of first person; use it to create a rich and engaging narrative.
Note: The short stories mentioned above, “The Palace Thief,” “Crazy Life,” and “Brownies,” can be found in Fiction Gallery, Gotham Writers’ Workshop’s anthology of exceptional short fiction.
Q: I hear about literary magazines, but I never actually see them for sale. Where do I find them?
A: Some bookstores carry literary magazines and journals at their newsstands. Depending upon the bookstore, you may find them shelved in any category from “literature” to “hobby.” Some libraries also subscribe to a selection of these journals. If you have access to a university library, start there. Don’t be disappointed if you don’t see any on the shelves. Some libraries have subscriptions to digital databases that include literary journals.
Still, even if you do find some literary journals locally, you may find the pickings are slim. If you already know what journal you’re interested in, your best bet is to contact the publication and order a sample copy or a subscription. If you don’t have a title in mind, start browsing websites. The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) features a list of member publications with links at CLMP.org/directory. And many journals have at least some content online, which can help you decide which titles to order.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She
was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for
Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University,
University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a
visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.
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