Using Psychic Distance

Author, editor, mentor and book doctor, Debi Alper, has worked with Retreat West on two self-editing your novel retreats and one of the most important elements that she covered is using psychic distance in your writing. I’ve done the online course that this retreat is based on with Debi and I can honestly say that it, and this part of it in particular, completely transformed my writing.

Debi, can you sum up for us exactly what Psychic Distance is and how it can help writers to improve their work?

In a nutshell, Psychic Distance is about how close into the narrator’s head and voice you go and this enables you to manipulate the distance between the character and the reader. As such, it also holds the key to other writerly concepts like show and tell, POV, etc.

I read many unpublished MSs that are really good but just don’t have that crucial edge to raise them out of the slushpile. More often than not, the key is in Psychic Distance. Most nestle at around the mid-range of the author’s comfort zone. Using Psychic Distance creates variety, texture and rhythm in the prose and also enables the reader to fully invest in a character and relate to them.

Which authors do you think use PD really well?

Psychic Distance also applies to first person narratives and the best recent example I’ve read is Dark Places by Gillian Flynn. Jane Austen invented free indirect style, which directly reflects a character’s thoughts and which therefore corresponds to the close-in end of the PD spectrum.

What can writers expect from learning about Psychic Distance?

Illumination! When I’ve run creative writing courses, both in real life and online, the sessions on Psychic Distance are responsible for switching on more light bulbs than any other single session. Once you’ve grasped the concept, your writing will shoot up a level. Some people already use the spectrum from instinct, without being aware of how powerful a tool it is. Learning to analyse and recognise it enables the author to use it at will to lift a scene that needs more oomph.