Handclasps, explosions, and ribbons and bows
Showing and Telling

A rare insight

I'm in what's for me a rare state: I'm not writing a novel. But the other day I needed something to take to my writer's circle, the Clink Street Writers, for the likes of Sarah Salway, Pam Johnson, Ros Asquith and Michelle Lovric to sink their teeth into. So I did something else which is rare for me: dug out a short story which I wrote about five years ago, and which I never really got right but still think could be got right.

It's a story that started as an exercise in a third thing which is rare for me: a third person narrative, with a moving point of view and therefore a neutral but implied omniscient narrator. I'd had an interesting time doing this with my two viewpoint characters in my story Russian Tea so I decided to try working with three. Point of view becomes a much more interesting affair if each viewpoint character has reasons to feel strongly about the others, so I set up a newly-married couple, and sent the man's best friend to visit them. And since it was set around 1830, I wanted a narrative voice which had a feel of the period.

But in reading it after so long a gap, I found it curiously distanced. I can't remember if that's what I felt didn't work before, but it certainly is now. Mostly the PoV switches are okay, and the real story - which is in the subtext - I think comes across, though my fellow Clink Streeters may say it doesn't to them. The narrative voice is deliberately evoking early-19th-century, like Stephen Fairhurst's in The Mathematics of Love, but that seemed to be part of the trouble, I thought, stomping up the hill behind my house in the sun yesterday and watching big clouds moving above London: crags of dazzling ice and granite above Battersea Power Station, the London Eye, the Gherkin, Big Ben, Canary Wharf, the O2 Arena...

Was it really the period voice? It worked for Stephen, after all... But TMOL is in first person: Stephen's own, maimed consciousness colours his period voice with feeling and urgency, as he operates as his own narrator in the way I was exploring in 'Keeping up with the Jameses'. And I was considering more recently in 'Its own self' how an external narrator can take on even more colours - be as compelling - as you choose to make it. And the answer hit me, almost between the eyes: the psychic distance of this story remains, stubbornly, stuck in the middle range; thoughts and feelings are shown, not told, but they're not evoked, and it never goes into the full free-indirect evocation of any character's consciousness and experience, as it's happening. When I wrote that story I hadn't heard of psychic distance, although it's present in any piece of writing, and for the hundredth time I'm thankful for the understanding that John Gardener offers of what otherwise we can only sense. So I looked at the story and found where it went into each character's head, and just... went further. Found the voice of their thinking, their feelings, their fears.

I may not have done enough: if so then Clink will tell me as unequivocally as they always do, and I'll try to work out what more it needs. But I do know that digging out this story, which will never be anything I can sell or bother a competition judge with, has taught me something which will be immensely useful in both my own work, and in teaching others. As ever, nothing you write is ever wasted.