Writing Q&A 12: Voice; manuscript formatting
Published: December 19, 2006
|What is voice?|
Voice is the unique way we use and put words together to communicate. If two people were delivering the same bad news--that an employee's mother is in the hospital with pneumonia, for example--each would communicate that differently. One might say, "You should know, you're mother was taken to the hospital earlier this morning." Another might say, "Honey, there's no easy way to do this, so I'll just say it: Your mom's laid up in the hospital." Voice is much like a fingerprint; each person has one that is distinctive and identifying.
In fiction, voice comes through each character's dialogue and, when using first person, the narration itself is in a character's voice. (In third-person point of view, it's the voice of the narrator, someone who is not a character in the story.) There's no single way to create voice. Instead, it is a result of all the tiny stylistic choices, like sentence structure and word choice, that you make along the way.
For instance, in Raymond Carver's "Cathedral," the narrator is waiting for his wife to return home from picking up a friend she hasn't seen in years, a blind man named Robert. He thinks about his wife's past and her relationship with the blind man:
Anyway, this man who'd first enjoyed her favors, the officer-to-be, he'd been her childhood sweetheart. So okay. I'm saying that at the end of the summer she let the blind man run his hands over her face, said good-bye to him, married her childhood etc., who was now a commissioned officer, and she moved away from Seattle. But they'd kept in touch, she and the blind man. She made the first contact after a year or so. She called him up one night from an Air Force base in Alabama. She wanted to talk.
The voice is casual, which is apparent in the phrases "So okay" and "I'm saying," and the use of "etc." The sentence structure also betrays the casual nature of the voice: "But they'd kept in touch, she and the blind man." First, he uses "they" and then clarifies exactly whom he's referring to at the end of the sentence, something we often do in conversation when we're thinking on our feet.
Contrast this with the narrator in Ethan Canin's "The Palace Thief," who is a history teacher at a prestigious boy's school:
I tell this story not for my own honor, for there is little of that here, and not as a warning, for a man of my calling learns quickly that all warnings are in vain. Nor do I tell it in apology for St. Benedict's School, for St. Benedict's School needs no apologies. I tell it only to record certain foretellable incidents in the life of a well-known man, in the event that the brief candle of his days may sometime come under the scrutiny of another student of history. That is all. This is a story without surprises.
Word choices like "foretellable" give this character's voice more polish, and the deliberate and complete sentences convey formality. We could "listen" to both characters--from "Cathedral" and "The Palace Thief"--and know, without being told, who is speaking. And that is precisely what makes a voice distinctive.
("Cathedral" is included in Gotham's book Writing Fiction, and "The Palace Thief" is included in Gotham's short story anthology Fiction Gallery.)
|What should a manuscript look like|
Submitting a manuscript that conforms to what publishers and editors expect shows that you are professional and serious about your writing. First, before getting to the nitty-gritty of manuscript format, make sure that the content you're planning to submit is as strong as possible. You want to send out only your best work. Be sure to proofread, too, for spelling, grammar, typos and clarity.
Manuscript format is designed so that your work is easy to read and you are easy to track down should an editor or publisher want to contact you. Prose manuscripts should be double-spaced with margins of an inch to an inch and a quarter. (Poetry can be single-spaced.) Stay away from fancy fonts. Use one that is easily readable, such as Times, and a size that is comfortable, such as 12 points. The first page of the manuscript should include your name and relevant contact information on the upper-left-hand side of the page. (This information should be single-spaced.) Skip several lines, and then center the title of the story. Skip another two lines, and then begin the story. Some writers will include a total word count on the first page as well. If you do this, put it in the upper-right corner.
Here's a sample of what a first page would look like for fiction author Whitney Lider's story "All Our Houses." |
Whitney Lider Word Count: 3450
470 Super Lane
Visitorville, IL 60000
All Our Houses
When we decided to move to Cherry Creek, my husband spent the night in his car just outside the gated community. ...
While you don't need to number the first page, subsequent pages should be numbered in the upper-right-hand corner. It's helpful to include some identifying information before the page number, like your last name (Lider, 2) or the title (All Our Houses, 2). If the title is long, you can use an abbreviated version. Editors are dealing with a lot of paper, so if the pages of your story accidentally get out of order or get mixed with another writer's story, they can easily be set right. 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 and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.
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