Saturday, August 30, 2008

Rhetorical stance in narrative

I have the brilliant members of my critique group to thank for a helpful new way of thinking about narrators. Rhetorical stance, or simply stance, refers to where your narrator stands in relation to its audience, its own authority, and what it is saying. Reading your draft with an eye to stance can help you diagnose and fix a range of problems. For example:
  • Your narrator speaks over your audience's heads. That indicates a problem with stance in relation to audience. To fix it, you would seek to tone down the bluster or jargon, and build a better rapport with your readers. What do they know? What are they not expected to know? Where might they get lost?
  • Sentimentality. A sentimental narrator is working too hard to appeal to the audience. As a result, readers feel manipulated and the writing sounds forced. To fix it, give your audience some breathing room, and see if you can engage our minds instead by focusing on detail and action (i.e., simple information), and using plainer language.
  • Inconsistent narrator. If your readers begin to lose their suspension of disbelief--or if for some subtle reason they just aren't buying your story anymore--then you may need to get a clearer grasp of your narrator. I'm not sure how to best describe the problem other than that things start getting muddy. I see it in a lot of drafts. A supposedly ingenious character's point of view reads as though a fifteen-year-old wrote it. A historical novel is told in the easygoing language of a Christmas letter. The tone of one section is solemn and the next is breezy, for no apparent reason.
Remember that your storyteller is a character, too. It's worth your while to develop a consistent voice appropriate to the subject matter, and make sure that any deviation from it happens for a good reason. When you reach a well-balanced rhetorical stance, your narrator is believable, inviting, and has a thorough knowledge of the story--even the parts that don't make it on the page.

Wayne C. Booth wrote about the subject fifty years ago. Read more examples in his seven-page essay here:

Monday, August 25, 2008

The tonic chord

In music theory, songs start with a "tonic" chord and venture far away from it, and then in later returning, give the listener pleasure and satisfaction. Ursula K. LeGuin is my tonic chord. From a list of inspirational quotes about writing:
“Writers have to get used to launching something beautiful and watching it crash and burn. They also have to learn when to let go control, when the work takes off on its own and flies, farther than they ever planned or imagined, to places they didn’t know they knew. All makers must leave room for the acts of the spirit. But they have to work hard and carefully, and wait patiently, to deserve them.”
Enjoy others quotes by Hemingway, Whitman, White--and in the same breath, Atwood, Lamott, and Goldman--here.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Essential research

Orthodox advice to writers is to query only agents who represent your genre. The best way to do this is to read Publishers Weekly for six months in advance of querying and note who reps what you write.

The magazine is online, and recent deals are posted every Monday. Use the search function if you want to find any article or review in your subject area. For example, if I search for "magical realism," "Palestine," and "folklore," I will come up with dozens of options. Then I'd go to or to follow up on the information--and finally to the library to make sure that my book really is similar to the ones I've found.

Good hunting.

On the other side of the Internet curtain

When a writer sends me an e-mail for the first time, asking for a free sample edit, I am delighted. One of the things I love about my job is the unpredictability. Writers find me from the other side of the Internet curtain, and one day, while I'm hip-deep in a novel about Amsterdam, a memoir about modeling shows up in my inbox.

That's to say, the Internet curtain unveils many good surprises. But like many editors who offer sample edits, I have a pet peeve: writers who disappear behind the curtain with their sample edit never to be heard from again. Part of my job is the hour-plus time investment of a sample edit--getting into a new voice, thinking about a writer's strengths and weaknesses, line-editing the sample, and making predictions about a 300+ page draft I haven't yet seen. In return, I don't expect that every writer will hire me, but I do expect the courtesy of a thank-you. Hey, it's an hour that I give to you whenever you ask, no matter what day of the week, no matter how many projects are due in three days. I am a professional, and like most book professionals, I can take the bad news in stride and wish you luck with another editor. Easy.

I will edge farther out on this limb for a moment, and say that most of the editing, publishing (traditional or POD), and publicity work for a book happens online. Developing better habits of online communication can't be a bad thing for a writer. Even though e-mail is in many ways an anonymous medium, certain absences do speak louder than words.