How to make a newish author happy, part two
Conditional validation

Scenes from a life

Even if I don't write another word of the new novel for a week, to have got six longhand pages down - even in my big, sprawly writing, every other line - does feel very different from all the weeks and months when it's been in my head and not on the page. And suddenly the reading, all the accumulating ideas, the streets and gardens, the scents and sounds, the clear and immediate vision of people in a place, are alive. Until now they've been like ghosts: not ghosts of the past (though they're set in the past) but of the yet-to-be. Almost nothing - as a proportion of the whole - is on the page, but now it's as iff everything's at the far end of a long room from me, rather than just over the hill. And it all happened because I realised that I knew the end of the story: I decided/recognised/understood/worked out (what writer could swear which these moments are?) where, in relation to the events she tells, one of my narrators is standing. That was all I was waiting for, though I didn't know it, and immediately I knew the tone and subject of her first line. Because I have a strong, if not clear, idea of how different she and the other narrator are from each other, I then knew where he is, and how he speaks and how he acts. And I sat down and wrote.

John Gardner talks of the psychic distance of a narrator and narrative from the characters and action he/she/it narrates. In my PhD I've extended that concept to discuss the psychic range of a piece, as measured by the nearest and furthest point the narrator inhabits, relative to the characters. But I'm surprised how rarely, in among all the agonising and tub-thumping and 'rule'-making that goes on over voice and point-of-view, that they're discussed in these terms. And yet if you think in terms of a narrator (however neutral in attitude and neuter in pronoun, however implied) standing somewhere in relation to the events they narrate, it can make many puzzlements much less puzzling, and many choices self evident. Tense, structure, point-of-view (in the technical as well as the colloquial sense), voice, and that slippery, essential business of tone, all get easier to pin down, once you know where the narrator's standing. And though the main body of what I've decided to working-call Kindred and Affinity is made up of two characterised narratives (another term I've coined because no one had a phrase for it that I could find), I think it applies to un-characterised, neutral and omniscient narrators too.

In the end, fiction is what the critic Margaronis calls 'memory that we don't have': it engages our story-telling nature by taking the form which we use to understand our own past lives and project our futures, and using it on imagined ones. And because of that, fictional stories, like our own lives, also have a sense of existing beyond the boundaries of today's tale. One not-bad beginner's tip for learning to write short stories is 'start as near the end as possible.' (It's not nearly as simple as that really, of course, but it's one of those tips that it's worth understanding before you ignore it.) And that idea crystallises the sense that a piece of fiction is only a chunk of the continuum of the events it retells: scenes from a life. So: who's telling those scenes, and which scenes would they tell, and when are they telling us? Work those out, and you're up and running.

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