Nefarious Narrative Distance

My name is Bluestocking and I have a problem with narrative distance.

Or at least that’s one of my problems. As I polish my historical romance novel, I keep finding sentences that just fall flat, DOA. Nothing’s wrong with them grammatically, but they simply aren’t doing enough work for my story. They are missed opportunities for character and voice, and as such, they keep reminding readers that yes, you are reading a story. Hence the narrative distance.

I’ve known for some time that this was an issue with my writing, particularly with this book, since it’s my first novel. I kept getting the agent equivalent of “I’m just not feeling it” and had to work out what that meant. Because I’ve been toiling away on this story over a period of years, it’s been subjected to the full range of my writing abilities — the good and the bad — and I’m at the point where I can finally see the bad and get rid of it.

This difficulty with narrative distance, especially in third person, is what led to my resolve to write in first person for any new writing projects (even those that will ultimately be in third person), and I’ve seen a tremendous improvement in my ability to capture my character’s voices and deepen the story’s immediacy. And while all that is great, it doesn’t help me go back and revise stories I wrote before I attained enlightenment on this issue.

So let’s hash out narrative distance.

Dave King (who co-authored Self-Editing for Fiction Writers) says narrative distance is “a more advanced use of point of view” particular to third person and “a continuum that measures how close your narrative voice is to your viewpoint character’s voice” (from Decoding Narrative Distance). Essentially, when handled poorly, it’s can be a more subtle, or shall we say nefarious, type of author intrusion (and Roni Loren has a great roundup in her recent post Author Intrusion: 12 Pitfalls To Avoid).

King also says:

When you describe details that aren’t appropriate to your character’s state of mind or history, you’re putting more narrative distance between your character and your readers. Another stylistic technique that controls narrative distance is how you handle your interior monologue. The more intimate your writing, the more the interior monologue starts to blend into the descriptions. The more distant your writing, the more you set your interior monologue apart through separate paragraphs, italics or even thinker attributions (“he wondered,” “she thought”).” (also from Decoding Narrative Distance)

Some stories will work more naturally with close, medium, or far distance. But as Jennifer R. Hubbard (author of The Secret Year) says in her post on Narrative Distance: “In general, a story with very close narrative distance must stay consistently close, or risk disorienting its reader.” In Character, Emotion, Viewpoint, author Nancy Kress suggests when using close third person, “start chapters with the more distant narrative you want to include, then move in closer to the character’s mind and stay there. This duplicates the movement of a camera in film as it glides from a set-up shot to a close-up” (2005, p. 187)

Like everything else in writing, the level of narrative distance must be balanced with other elements of craft. As Janice Hardy (author of the Healing Wars trilogy) points out in Keeping Your Distance, far narrative distance can make it feel like you are telling instead of showing your story, whereas close narrative distance can drag your story down with too much detail and reaction to every single thing.

Because narrative distance goes hand-in-hand with POV, it is important you understand those conventions, which are covered in any halfway decent book on writing. But if you are looking for a more technical examination of POV, check out Juliette Wade’s article on Point of View.

So what am I actually doing to remove the distance from my manuscript (and tightening POV by extension)?

  1. Making sentences as active and immediate as possible, except when passive is appropriate (ex. when something is being done to my viewpoint character).
  2. Which brings me to mimetic writing, where sentences mimic the action they are describing. This is especially important for action scenes or emotionally charged moments. Be sure to read Mary Kole’s post on this for a great overview of the concept.
  3. Removing filter words and (if necessary) recasting the intent of the sentence – things like “he felt/heard/smelled/tasted” or “she thought/knew/believed.” Chuck Palahniuk has a great essay on “Thought” verbs that is a must read.
  4. Ensuring worldbuilding, backstory, or other “infodumps” are incorporated as seamlessly and naturally as possible from my character’s perspective. This is hard to do in historicals and in speculative works (and I write both), where worldbuilding is so crucial to a convincing narrative. Anytime you stop the story to explain something to the reader, automatic narrative distance. Author Beth Revis recently pointed out the difference between “the door opened” and “the door zipped open” in her post My Best Tips with regards to seamless worldbuilding.

I’m sure there are more ways to improve things, but this is what I’m focused on during this pass through my MS.

What are your tricks?
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Getting Back on the Horse

It’s time.

Time for me to dust myself off and get back on the horse. What am I talking about? Why submitting, of course.

I started by submitting two flash pieces yesterday. I’m also reworking one short story and finishing up another one with the goal of having them submission-ready by the end of the month.

And then there’s that elephant in the room. My completed historical romance. There’s a voice in the back of my head that grows louder and more insistent every day to start querying. I’ve queried before – much too early – but this time it’s different (doesn’t everyone say that?). I’ve revised the story since the last round of queries. Had my critique partners look it over and I’m in the midst of revising again. I can see the difference in the writing in my story. Everything inside me is just screaming to send it off into the world. Now.

Author Jody Hedlund wrote a post earlier this week about the three stages of querying: the naïve beginner, the rejected optimist, and the seasoned realist. I’m definitely somewhere in these last two stages, and my next batch of queries will tell me if my work is ready. I already know I’m querying a tough time period, so it will come down to my writing and the fates.

Writer Sarah Fine also had a set of interesting posts on the querying process this week (Should You Send That Query? What We Can Learn From The Marshmallow Test & Step Away From The Marshmallow. And The SEND Button.). She relates how a psychology experiment measuring one’s ability to delay gratification ties into the querying process. Fascinating stuff!

So querying will happen. Very soon. And if nothing pans out, the process will galvanize me into tacking my next project with renewed fervor. In theory…
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Voice Matters Blogfest Challenge

Two characters. Three genres. Each scene with an appropriate voice.

It’s the Voice Matters Blogfest Challenge, hosted by my critique partner Lori M. Lee.

I took my characters from my historical romance and put them in a contemporary romance and a science fiction scene. Tricky stuff!

Historical Romance:

“I want to thank you for taking the time to show me the area, my lady. However, I would ask in the future that you do not venture out on your own, even if you plan on remaining on your family’s lands.”

The pretty color he had noticed in her cheeks earlier began to darken. She pushed aside her trencher. He steeled himself for yet another fight. But before Isobel could respond, the innkeeper came bustling over with a jug of wine and two mugs. Her eyes flashed with anger but she didn’t stir until the innkeeper moved a discreet distance away.

“I wonder how long you have been waiting to recite your little speech, Sir Alexandre,” she said before taking a deliberate sip of wine.

He watched her lips close over the cup, the column of her throat working as she swallowed. He raised his own mug to her in mock-salute. “For quite some time, I can assure you. And please, call me Alex.”

Contemporary Romance:

Even though he was still a respectful distance away, Isobel could see his knowing grin flash in the afternoon sun. “I didn’t believe it when Daniel said that you’d be here so I came to make sure.”

She relaxed her stance and let go of Rufus. “Alex Johanson?” Her mouth curled bitterly as she took in his thick, dark hair and proud yet even features. “I didn’t realize it was you without the suit.”

The dog bounded over to Alex, and she let her eyes feast on him for only a moment before she tried to calm her furiously beating heart. She had nothing to be ashamed of, she reminded herself. Rufus, the little traitor, pranced happily around Alex’s feet as he strode towards her.

A maroon flannel shirt peeped out from underneath his unbuttoned lambswool-lined jacket, a sharp contrast to the three-piece suit and tie he wore when she saw him last. He seemed completely at ease, which annoyed her even more.

“I’m not the only one who has changed.”

Science Fiction:

Alex saw her, of course, before she had even decided to seek refuge in the café. One did not often see the senator’s daughter out and about unescorted. She must have run into the rally he heard rumors of all week. Stupid girl.

Alex turned back to the stack of books he’d gotten from the library, determined not to get involved. No good would come from that. He pulled the volume on design theory he had special ordered towards him. Diagrams animated with electronic ink winked up at him.

“I’m sorry I’m late. I’m glad you didn’t wait for me,” a female voice announced, before the owner of the voice took the seat opposite of him. Alex blinked, taking in Isobel’s face, for once unencumbered by her trademark glasses, her hair unbound and framing her dusky features.

Surely she wasn’t so desperate she’d use a stranger to get out of the trouble she’d found herself in. But when he saw the determined glint of her gray eyes, the strict way she held herself as if she was prepared to bolt the second he made things difficult for her, he supposed she was.

This was a hard challenge — to establish the characters’ relation to one another, establish setting and other genre conventions, and still make it clear which character’s voice was narrating the scene.

Be sure to check out other participants in the blogfest here.

And remember: Voice matters!
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Did I Do That?

My workflow on my historical romance novel has been ridiculously complicated. Tons of revision passes over several years. Scenes cut and rewritten and moved and combined. Version upon version taking up space on my hard drive. It’s a lot to keep track of.

Part of the reason for all this chaos is ignorance (at worse) and inexperience (at best). The other part is that novels are large and complex undertakings to begin with. And regardless of which end of the word count spectrum you are on (50k to 150k), that’s a lot of words, sentences, scenes, characters, you name it, to keep a handle on.

For years, I had only three-quarters of a story. I had an ending in mind, but I didn’t write it out until a couple of years ago, when I started taking my writing seriously. With a complete draft, I could track the improvements in my writing. Scenes became more focused, narrative threads started to come together, and I finally knew what my story was about as I got closer and closer to The End.

Then I flipped back to the beginning and wanted to tear my hair out.

Clumsy prose…
Confusing opening scene…
Infodumps all over the place…

Yep, I did it all. And so I took all the things I learned in completing my story and applied it to the beginning. Writing and rewriting my opener, refining sentences, tightening scenes. Then I started sharing the story with my critique partners.

After they reached about the midway point, something funny happened. My CPs starting flagging things like rampant adverbs, dialogue tags, and other things I Knew Better than to do. But I hadn’t really looked at the second half of the book with my editor cap on for some time – I remembered it being fine, better than the first half. And I had read through it since then, but sometimes it’s hard to pick out what’s wrong with a passage, especially when it not only reads ok, but also how you expected it to.

Writing skills aren’t static – they are constantly growing and evolving just as you are as a person. So in working on my beginning the second time around, my writing ability continued to improve, resulting in a mismatch between the first and second half of the novel. I realized I needed to devote the same revision energy that I applied to my beginning to the rest of the book in order to take it to the next level.

It can be discouraging to realize something I’ve written isn’t as awesome as I remembered it to be. However, my writing skills are improving – I’m better able to recognize what works and what doesn’t. I’m becoming a better writer every day.

I’ll take it, even if it means constant vigilance on my part to ensure all aspects of my work are indicative of my abilities as a writer today as opposed to a year ago, six months ago, even as of yesterday.

Nothing else will do.
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With a Little Help from My CPs…

I reached one of those writing milestones a while back – finding a critique partner (or, in my case, partners) to help me navigate the ins and outs of whatever manuscript I’m working on.

I joined some local writing groups but hadn’t run across anyone I felt comfortable sharking my novel-length work with. In some cases it was a mismatch between what we wrote (genre versus literary; novels versus short stories) or work ethic (I’m Type A all the way).

Then last October Adventures in Children’s Publishing had a post on Alpha and Beta Reader Exchange with the option to post a critique profile in the comments.

So I did. What could it hurt? I wasn’t quite sure what to expect – after all, I write a mix of speculative fiction, YA, and historical romance. But to my surprise and delight, someone contacted me within a week.

That person was Anonymeet (rockin’ her anonymity just like me!) who blogs at By Anonymous Writer about reading and writing.

Months later, writer Lori M. Lee contacted me thanks to the same Adventures in Children’s Publishing post. She recently started blogging about her writing journey at You Are the Unicorn of My Dreams and has a short story published at Daily Science Fiction.

Both of them have been brave enough to tackle my historical romance, while I work through their respective YA projects. It’s been a hugely rewarding and educational experience, so please check these wonderful ladies out!

It’s amazing what another reader can spot – whether it’s a lingering typo or some plot element you thought was logical but doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Sometimes you just need your CP to say “You can do better than this.” Or say “You are awesome,” when you are feeling distinctly… not.

Having CPs can make the writing path less lonely. It gives you validation that, yes, you are taking your writing seriously and taking the steps necessary to succeed.

And I hope everyone finds the right CP for them!

Here are some resources to find a critique partner for your work:

Jean Oram’s post How to Choose a Writing Critique Partner includes links to places to find other like-minded writers.

Author Jody Hedlund offers 4 Ways to Find Critique Partners and her CP Keli Gyn talks about Six Steps for Approaching Potential Critique Partner.

Agent Mary Kole occasionally has Critique Connection posts to help YA/MG writers find one another on her blog

Lynda R. Young recently posted How to Find a Good Critique Partner with some great tips as well.

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