Friday 14 July 2023

Amy E. Weldon, "Advanced Fiction: A Writer's Guide and Anthology"


Amy E. Weldon is Professor of English at Luther College, USA. She is the author of The Hands-On Life: How to Wake Yourself Up and Save the World (2018), The Writer’s Eye: Observation and Inspiration for Creative Writers (Bloomsbury, 2018), and Eldorado, Iowa: A Novel (2019). Her website is here.

About Advanced Fiction: A Writer's Guide and Anthology, by Amy E. Weldon

After the publication of The Writer’s Eye, I’m thrilled to be returning with Bloomsbury to a conversation about the next level of the fiction-writing process, starting with the place many of our craft questions really start – in our minds. What do we know, or not? Feel uncertain about, or not? In my own and my students’ and friends’ experience, readjusting our internal sense of our projects can unlock difficulties that “craft instruction” alone can't quite do, because our mental approach to the project shapes the words we bring to the page.

The concept of psychic distance is a great example. Essentially, it means “the degree to which you are pretending to be your character, seeing through her eyes to render reality as she understands it, including what she sees and hears around her, while still giving readers the information we need to be able to understand your story.” Students tell me often that understanding psychic distance is one of their most important breakthroughs as advanced writers, since establishing your psychic distance – your relationship to your character and the depth of your immersion in her reality – determines how your point-of-view apparatus and your sentences work. If your psychic distance is too far, readers can feel stranded at an unchanging distance from characters, and the story can feel impersonal because we can’t quite get into anyone’s head. (Sentences can get boring, too, because, eager to close that distance, you may start telling readers what we need to know from your point of view, not a character’s). Too short, and readers feel trapped within the character’s sensibility, with insufficient information about the world beyond her head. But if you can establish and move through a range of psychic distance that works for you (like a film director moving from a long or medium shot to a close-up), you can build a convincing world around your character and signal to readers that this character is the fully developed person we’re meant to be following as she moves through that world.

You can read more about Advanced Fiction: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology on the publisher's website here. Below is an excerpt from the book, in which I describe how dialogue and psychic distance can interact.

From Advanced Fiction: A Writer's Guide and Anthology

Surprisingly, dialogue can be a psychic-distance block too. Dialogue can feel intimate and fun when you’re writing it, because you can “hear” it from inside the story’s world – you’re the writer. But readers are already external to the story’s world – we’re not you, remember?  And overusing dialogue can distance us even further, because dialogue is external to a character; spoken into the world beyond their heads and limited by what would be believable in that situation, it’s therefore limited in what it can tell us about a character’s interior life (unlike italicized “voiceover” thoughts, for example, or sensory detail about what a character’s noticing around her). And without access to that interior life, the psychic distance between the reader and the character grows .... Overreliance on dialogue may also signal that you don’t know enough about your fictional world yet to animate it through action, sensory detail, and other, non-dialogue modes of characterization. What you don’t know, readers can’t know. 

This is why dialogue, especially if it isn’t ballasted with actions and sensory detail, can feel so much like disembodied voices in space. Plus, long stretches of dialogue can give the feeling that the writer is impressed with the characters’ cleverness and wants readers to be as well. (We feel shoved into sitcom studio-audience chairs, watching the characters on stage, invited to applaud at conversations that go on just a little too long). “I want my readers to view this character as X” – without imagining that character as X to write the character being X in reality as they understand it – can be a recipe for psychic-distance weirdness.

Take a look at your paragraphs and your major scenes: where does dialogue appear, and for how long? In many student stories, paragraphs begin with lines of dialogue, then move to exposition kind of grudgingly, then get back to dialogue as quickly as they can. Some also revert to dialogue (or long speeches by characters) to reveal important plot or backstory information. For a first notes-to-self draft, this is OK. In revision, try something else. (Unless you’re James Baldwin writing “Sonny’s Blues”). If your paragraphs fall into a dialogue-then-exposition pattern, reverse that order. If using dialogue, keep it short and interwoven with external and internal detail. If writing a longer scene (like an argument), keep your stakes high (and obvious to the reader), keep the external world present (someone’s gripping that paperweight, ready to throw it), and be sure the characters’ words could believably emerge from an actual, non-televised human’s mouth in that situation. (Remember: high emotion often makes people less, not more, articulate). All these things will help keep your psychic distance on track.

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