I'm sitting in a small windowless room. It's just the two of us. He has my 80,000 word manuscript on the table in front of him. I know he's read it because it is dog-eared , stained, and marked with copious amounts of editorial ink. He leans forward, looks me hard in the eyes and says, "Stephen, what you've written here is very good."
He pauses. I hold my breath. He says, "But you have a fatal flaw." My heart thunders against my chest. I can't swallow. Then I think back to 1978. Saint Albans, Vermont. My grandmother's kitchen. She was short, Italian, square as a bedpost but she cooked a mean lasagna bolognaise. She used to say to me, "Be strong, work hard, and the good will come!"
So I tell him, "Give it to me straight. Can I be cured?"
While the above passage is loaded with clichés and hackneyed phrases, they are easily fixed and therefore non-fatal. My affliction was more subtle, nuanced, easily missed. The term for my fatal flaw is "Psychic Distance", meaning the distance the reader feels between himself and the story. In the passage I wrote, the first-person narrator (and the reader, presumably) are in the room, at the table. Then, just as the tension really starts to crank, the author (me) yanks the reader out of the room and into the past. Tension bleeds away and, if it happens enough and at the wrong times, the reader will lose interest and look elsewhere to be entertained.
John Gardner explains Psychic Distance with this example from his book, The Art of Fiction:
2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
3. Henry hated snowstorms.
4. (Man) how he hated these (blasted) snowstorms.
5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul...
In each case the author moves us progressively closer, from a Gods-eye view, down to the snow in the man's shoes. The analogy Gardner uses is to write like a skilled cinematographer. Zoom in or out depending on where the action is and where you want your reader to be: knee-deep in it, somewhere close-by, or up in the clouds looking down on it all. When done with care, the effect is seamless and the reader feels and stays emotionally vested. In my case, the author assigned to me had taken the liberty of highlighting all my instances of psychic distance. My manuscript looked like one of those CSI episodes where they use a chemical to make all the blood glow under a black light. What I had written looked like a mafia crime scene.
So now I am constantly on the lookout for psychic distance. I recognize the warning signs and for the most part resist the urge to ignore them. But that doesn't mean I am home-free. I recently attended an excellent workshop on voice by Matt de la Pena. Now I'm disturbingly certain that he exposed another symptom that, if untreated, will morph into another fatal flaw: excessive narration. So bust out the syringe and shoot me up with anti venom. Here we go again.