Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The York Festival of Writing

The Writers' Workshop York Festival of Writing

Two things stand out.
They are not the only two things, there are plenty more, but these are two things I know I learnt something about over the weekend at York.
  • The literary novel
  • The closeness and distance of point of view

The literary novel

I have been suffering from genre confusion and it shows. I could not get my head around what made a literary novel literary. Two sessions helped to clear my confusion. The first was Alan Mahar, the Publishing Director at Tindal Street Press, an independent publisher of regional literary fiction based in Birmingham. Here's an snatch from their website which tells us something about who they are:
Tindal Street Press has always aimed high with its distinctive, regional, literary fiction
Alan's session on Saturday morning was entitled 'How to win a Costa Prize'. Who could resist that? The reason for the title, it turned out, was that two of the authors published by Tindal Street Press have won the Costa First Novel Award
Alan attempted to define literary fiction as having some degree of nuanced awareness of language, something original in the storytelling, something new, edge, surprise.
Later that same morning, I was at the Genre Panel on Literary Fiction and so was Alan Mahar. He was on the panel along with Sam Mills, Shelley Harris, Sam Copeland, Charlie Brotherstone and Susan Armstrong.
The defining characteristics of literary fiction were thought to be:
not commercial, not genre
style over plot
resolution of conflict not obvious
beautiful sentences
love of language
something you want to read again

complexity and challenge
challenging what fiction can do

the writing is king (not plot)
good prose, simple prose
not showy or self-conscious
So, there you have it. That's what literary fiction is all about. 

Closeness and distance in point of view

This was Debi Alper in her Prose Workshop on Sunday afternoon. 
It was only a passing comment.
If you are aware of, and using effectively, psychic or narrative distance you won't need to use italics and the present tense to indicate to the reader what one of the characters is thinking. 
Italics. Warning Bells.
That's all I have in my notes but the warning bells had started ringing in my head and red lights were flashing. I had exactly this problem only a few weeks before. Two readers on my readers' panel picked it up. See previous post The Readers of the Lost Ark. They commented:
... there are three points which I think are the inner monologue of the girl:
She was going to die. Mum would murder her.
What the hell did he think she was doing?
The last of these in particular I had to read a couple of times to work out that this was the case.  Perhaps italicising these bits so that they stand out separately will make it clearer that it's not part of the general narrative?
 My only other comment as far as substance goes is about the line just on the top of page 2 – after ““Swim!” he said” – where the narrative then says “Great!” as one line.  I don’t know if my comment will make any sense…. and I contradict myself in a minute, but…
I just wondered that since other sensory narratives are given an owner in the third person, – “she heard an outboard motor” etc – this emotion is left hanging without an owner?  This probably isn’t an issue, but this was the only thought I had!  I wondered if you could add “she thought” after it, or to run this sentence straight into the next sentence, “She splashed..”, so that the emotion is joined up to her actions, and gives it ownership that way?
But, just to contradict my own comment in the same breath, I think the “Answered prayer.” Sentence works without any more ownership because it follows the line “She wished it would stop..” so fits with that to me! 
 I.e. it wasn't clear. It wasn't working and this was why. You can gradate your narrative distance, Debi said, so that the reader is always aware of what is happening, who is speaking and thinking. Distant, closer, close, very close, right inside their head - it is possible to do this without resorting to italics. This, I needed to know.

Unfortunately, I had not gone to Debi's workshop on Psychic Distance and in retrospect that seems like a shame. But you can't win 'em all and it is something I shall have to catch up with and practise myself so that I learn to handle point of view properly before the next time comes around. The next York Festival of Writing, that is. Because I'm going to need to be there.


  1. Psychic Distance is very powerful literary magic. It holds the key, not just to POV, but also to show, not tell and character. I think that workshop should be on the list for next year too as it's hard to cover in a workshop that also deals with other aspects of writing. Glad you seem to have grasped it though.

  2. Lovely post - so true about lit fic. Although what the trade callse "not plot" doesn't mean you can't have one...

    May I link to the post on my blog about Psychic Distance? As Debi says, it's powerful stuff (I don't think I gave a workshop at York which didn't mention it) No substitute for the flame-haired goddess explaining it in real life, of course, but the post does its poor e-best...

    1. Thanks, Emma.
      Yes, of course, do link to it. That's fine.
      Your blog post is very helpful. All I need to do now is practice... (Only 10k hours to go!)