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.

Wednesday 12 July 2023

Tim Hannigan, "The Granite Kingdom: A Cornish Journey"

Congratulations to UoL PhD English and Creative Writing graduate, Tim Hannigan, whose book The Granite Kingdom has recently been published by Head of Zeus!

Tim Hannigan was born and brought up in the far west of Cornwall. After starting his working life as a chef, he eventually made it to the University of Gloucestershire to study Journalism, after which he moved to Indonesia where he began his writing career as a travel journalist. His first book, Murder in the Hindu Kush, was published in 2011, and he subsequently wrote several books on Indonesian history. In 2016 he started work on a critical-creative PhD at the University of Leicester, supported by the Midlands4Cities DTP. This project produced his book The Travel Writing Tribe, published by Hurst in 2021. He lives in the west of Ireland and combines his writing with part-time teaching roles at the Technological University of the Shannon and the University of Hull. His website is here

About The Granite Kingdom

From Daphne du Maurier to Doc Martin, and from the romantic melodrama of Poldark to gritty TV depictions of the modern fishing industry, Cornwall is densely laden with images, projections and tropes. But how does all this intersect with the real place, its landscapes, histories, communities and sense of identity? In The Granite Kingdom, Tim Hannigan sets out on a meandering, 300-mile journey to find out, travelling on foot from the banks of the River Tamar to his childhood home near Land’s End. 

Combining travel writing, memoir, history and literary criticism, the book explores the varied landscapes of Britain’s westernmost region and grapples with the complex idea of Cornwall itself – a cosy English seaside destination for some, a fiercely independent Celtic nation for others and one of Britain’s most impoverished post-industrial regions for others still. It considers the way literary narratives from without have sometimes informed identities from within – including the author’s own – and asks awkward questions about what it means to be “Cornish” in the twenty-first century.

Below, you can read an excerpt from The Granite Kingdom.

From The Granite Kingdom, by Tim Hannigan

Chapter One: Bordering

If you stand at the threshold of Number 2 Cyprus Well, you have a choice. It is the middle cottage of three in a little terrace facing a bank of sycamore saplings on a steep lane called Ridgegrove Hill. Above the single ground-floor window, a plaque records that ‘Charles Causley, Poet’ lived here from 1952 to 2003. They might have added the word ‘Cornish’ to the description, for that is the adjective most commonly associated with Causley. And indeed, he lived in Cornwall – right here in Launceston, in fact – not just for fifty-one years, but for almost his whole life. 

But if you stand at the threshold of Cyprus Well and turn left, you can see Devon. 

It shows beyond the point where the lane bends downhill: a gathering groundswell of trees and pasture. From the doorstep of Causley’s cottage, it seems natural to turn that way, to go with the flow. At the bottom of Ridgegrove Hill you’ll meet the little River Kensey. Within a mile, the Kensey will carry you to the Tamar, and the Tamar will bear you away south, between dark woods to the grey docks and end-of-terrace pubs of Plymouth, with the busy waters of the English Channel beyond. But if it’s Cornwall that you want, then you have to turn against gravity, against nature, pull steeply up Ridgegrove Hill then on up Angel Hill to pass, breathless, beneath the fortified arch on Southgate Street. And if it’s a decent prospect to the westward that you’re after, you’ll need to cross to the other side of Launceston and climb the motte of the castle. 

On a midsummer morning, I stood on the pavement outside Number 2 Cyprus Well. It was early, and up the hill Launceston gave off the faint hum of a small town readying itself for the working day. To the east, the valleys were liquid with yellow mist. A few intersecting ridges rose above the flood, trees and hedges in dark profile. But it wasn’t clear to whom they belonged. I glanced left and right, fiddled with the straps of my backpack, looked at the map. Then I turned downhill, into the mist ....