Congratulations to Esther Saxey for this fantastic post, which has won her First Prize in the This Itch of Writing 500th Postiversary Competition. Esther wins a free Quick read of 5,000 words, synopsis and covering letter, from Writer's Workshop.
What I love about Esther's piece is how she's thinking about craft, in the sense that I use the term: the business of what's going at the interface between imagination and technique. It's craft that makes what you want to say into something the reader can and will and will want to read. And Esther made me laugh, which I'm always grateful for, and you can always get me with a reference to psychic distance... Enjoy!
SEEMING AND THINKING
On my last long project, Ctrl+F showed me that seems cropped up every 600 words. Swarms of seems created moments of ludicrous uncertainty: 'It seemed to be a piece of white paper' - what was it really? A flat seagull? (In Spencer’s Fairy Queen seems means someone's in disguise or lying - Sober he seemde - a likely story.) I followed Hamlet's advice (‘Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not 'seems.') and chopped 4/5ths (some replaced by looked, felt, sounded, appeared).
Why so many? The seems were, appropriately enough, an attempt at stitching. They were suturing a bit of information to the character observing it. So a building 'seemed to loom' over the character beneath it. The 'seem' was my shoddy attempt at emphasizing the character's perspective. (This would be better done by saying 'Jane thought: Blimey, it looms a lot, doesn't it?' Or better yet, rewriting the whole paragraph so that what is perceived is so textured and idiosyncratic it can't be anyone except Jane perceiving.) In terms of psychic distance, it was a half-hearted ineffectual crash zoom.
I enjoyed changing to a first person narrator for my current project – at least I'd stop seeming. However, now I can’t stop thinking.
My first person narrator can say: ‘Tim made a sandwich using the wrong cheese. What an idiot!’.
So why do I sometimes add ‘…I thought’?
Is it about tense? Does ‘I thought’ show the narrator’s opinion in the moment itself, as opposed to their thoughts when ‘retelling’ the story (as the past tense implies)? (To take it to an extreme: ‘What an idiot, I thought; but three weeks later, when he died of e-coli, I regretted my harshness.’)
That sense of a slight distance also applies to a distance within the narrator herself. My narrator often isn't reacting coherently, and is sometimes drunk. ‘I thought: I should put the knife down, now’ implies, I hope, that she's watching herself thinking it. It’s all a bit stilted and woozy. Or maybe she’s shocked by her thought - she's only just noticed Tim is an idiot. ‘I thought’ attempts to mark the distance between my character and her own thoughts.
And it's about psychic distance, again. I’d become used, in the third person, to zooming in and out of character’s point-of-views (seem being a clumsy tool to attempt that). When I switched to narrating from inside one character’s head, I needed new ways to draw back from her or squidging up close. My initial tools are crude: physical perceptions and swearing get me closer. Framing the character’s instinctive responses with a more formal 'I thought' looked like a way of holding her at arm’s length. It's not a great tool, though. It works better as a note of intent to myself. Now I know what I'm attempting, as with seems, I'll find replacements.
Esther Saxey pokes at fiction with academic and creative implements. Currently working in speculative fiction, including a short story in The Lowest Heaven http://www.pandemonium-fiction.com/lowest-heaven.html