Here I am then; a York Festival of Writing alumna! And what a weekend it was. I knew it was going to be good when the Keynote Address featured best-selling authors Nicci Gerrard and Sean French. I attended workshops with irresistible titles; There Be Dragons, Slushpile Hell to Slushpile Heaven, Psychic Distance, the Arc and the Impetus, Writing Sex, Hold Back the Monster and the rather more down-to-earth Should I Self-publish. Besides all this I had a rare chance to don my glad rags and socialise with other writers, agents and book doctors during a Gala Dinner and also mingled more informally during breakfast, lunch and numerous coffee breaks. I was a newbie to the festival so had no idea what to expect or what the scale would be. Around four hundred writers attended the weekend!
A chance to have one-on-ones with agents or book doctors was part of the weekend package. These sessions had the atmosphere of X-Factor auditions; we were all asked to be ten minutes early for our one-on-ones, then wait in a chair until the bell went and only then were we allowed to hurry towards our chosen book doctor/agent and pitch our work or pick their brains for ten minutes. Something akin to speed dating I imagine and even more nerve-racking. On the up side it is encouraging to know that agents are looking for new writers. They don’t know what the next big thing in publishing will be and for all they know, as one agent said, ‘one of you could be It.’
Of the vast amount of useful information I absorbed, I would like to share the technique I learned from book doctors, Emma Darwin and Debi Alper about Psychic Distance. It is also sometimes called Narrative Distance because it describes where the narrative (and also the reader) stands in relation to the main character.
Another way of looking at it is how deep the reader penetrates the character’s mind. The closest psychic distance would describe thoughts, feelings and physical sensations experienced by the MC and the furthest psychic distance would describe the era or the setting in which the MC lives. The trick is to focus in slowly on your protagonist. Going from the furthest psychic distance to the closest in one step alienates the reader and so these stages have to be covered incrementally. Imagine you are holding a camera and are closing in on your subject very gradually from wide-angle to close-up and finally getting inside the character’s head as shown in the film stills below.
The film version of ‘The Shining’ is a perfect example of the incremental approach of psychic distance. First, we are introduced to the setting and the family as they drive up to the remote hotel. Then we slowly, slowly get inside Jack Torrance’s head as he becomes more and more estranged from reality and his family. As the story reaches its climax we share Jack’s skewed vision but we’re never quite sure if the malignant spirits emanate from Overlook Hotel or exist primarily in Jack’s head as he battles social isolation, alcoholism and madness.
How do you use psychic distance in your writing? Perhaps you are a reader and have found yourself shivering while reading about a character battling through a snow storm which means the writer has done a great job!