Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Fatal Flaw Part Deux

Previously on this channel I introduced my experience with the concept of "fatal flaw" --that special thing writer's do (or don't do) that puts a wall between them and publishing success.  I stated that I would reveal my fatal flaw and hang it out there in the digital wind for the world to see.  But before I go any further, let me set the stage. I met with a highly successful YA author in a one-week intensive novel writing workshop.  It was there, under his discerning editorial eye, that everything changed for me.  Since I prefer writing in the first person present POV, that's how this tale begins:

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 clich├ęs 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:
1.  It was winter of the year 1853.  A large man stepped out of a doorway.
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.

7 comments:

Jordan Dane said...

Interesting concept, Stephen. Never heard it expressed quite this way. You've given me something to think about...and read for in my edits. Nice.

Stephen Wallenfels said...

Thanks, Jordan. Good luck with those edits. For me, that's like hand washing old socks. Steve

Jordan Dane said...

Ha! Man, ain't that the truth. Amen, brother.

Maureen McQuerry said...

No wonder my hands are always so chapped. I spend a lot of time at the sink with those smelly socks!

Can you think of an author who uses PD really well, zooming in and out at critical moments?

Maureen McQuerry said...

No wonder my hands are always so chapped. I spend a lot of time at the sink with those smelly socks!

Can you think of an author who uses PD really well, zooming in and out at critical moments?

Lexi Loopsy said...

Oh! I just loved this post, that is something I have to work really hard on!

Stephen Wallenfels said...

Maureen, to answer your question...I think Stephen King does a great job giving the God's eye view, then zooming in at the just the right moment when the ice axe is about to enter the skin just below the left eye socket. Yeah, Stephen King. he really knows how to zoom. s