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Doing your exercises

One thing I very often find, when I'm working on an aspiring writer's novel, is that the narrator, or the main character, disappears from the event. I'm not talking about an omniscient narrator simply moving their focus to a different part of the story. Nor am I talking about true incompetence in a writer who doesn't actually know what the story should be focussing on. What I mean is something like the following:

He rattled the doorhandle, and when there was no answer, let himself quietly in. Time was ticking past: there wasn't long left. Bags and boxes were strewn over the floor; the remains of a hastily-eaten pizza lay by the window. A hand touched something cold and wet and blood thumped in ears. It was only a pile of soggy washing heaped on the table, several days old by the smell of it. Sand crunched underfoot, eyes were dazzled by light from round the edges of a crooked blind and over it all there seemed to lie a pall of grey dust. The doorhandle rattled, which was totally unexpected; who could it possibly be? No one could have seen the stealthy approach, the cautious glance round, the quiet move round the side of the house. Could they?

The first time that I tried to work out why a passage in this style was so unengaging, despite being full of action and even suspense, I accused it of being full of passive verbs, because it has exactly that distancing effect. But, actually, there aren't very many passive verbs in the above, the physical detail is quite vivid, the image of the man checking out a suspect room is quite strong, so what's going on?

The answer, I realised, was that the character isn't there. After 'let himself in', he vanishes. Even 'his hand' has become 'a hand', and the subject of just about everything other sentence is not him. In a commendable effort to ring the changes on 'He went in... He saw... He looked... He thought' the writer has lost track of the actor in the drama. And in doing so, we've lost our place in it too. Of course there's no reason to make him the subject of every sentence. But to a greater or lesser degree in all novels, the characters are our representatives: it's through their physical presence in the events that we experience them, whether it's Mrs Dalloway's London, or the Big Bad Wolf's teeth. So to break our connection with our representative is a risk. It's necessary, of course, if, for example, you're shifting point of view, moving away from one character and towards another. But you need to know what you're doing, and why, and how to do it.

The post springs from an incident which I can't resist adding. On the writing forum The Word Cloud, I'd pinpointed exactly this problem, and the next day, the writer got in touch with me. He'd seen what I meant, and realised that he'd written it all as a distant observer, even though the whole story was of this young man's growing up: his experiences are the novel. So the writer set out to re-imagine the scene with himself, as the character, in the centre of it. And he saw and felt all sorts of things which he hadn't known had happened, all sorts of sensations that hadn't occurred to him. It's a close-reading version of the overarching idea which I was discussing in Ask your talent. So much of the time we assume that the process of writing is a matter of having an idea, a feeling, a vision, and then using technique to express it as effectively as possible. And yet here was an entirely technical idea and problem, the solving of which in a small way led to inspiration. Which is another reason to buy into the Showing up for the genie principle: imagination, inspiration doesn't have to come first. Like a singer before the curtain goes up, sometimes it starts with doing your exercises.

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