Thursday, 21 October 2010

Now you see it, now you don't

Yes, it’s proofreading time again. This time it’s the proofs of Brilliant Essay. The strange thing is that it and Brilliant Dissertation have been listed on Amazon for several weeks but the proofs for the first have just arrived and I won’t get the ones for Brilliant Dissertation until next month. Anyway, it means that, for a few days, I can just settle into the semi-automatic state of re-reading and checking my stuff and feeling the satisfaction that it’ll soon be on the shelves.

It’s a process as absorbing as actually writing a book. My mind seems to switch into the necessary mode and obliterate everything else. Phone calls and knocks on the door are intrusions, bringing irrelevant things into whichever cosy writer’s world – researching, writing, editing, proofreading – I’m in at the time. But, of course, being so absorbing, it gets in the way of other activities, such as writing blogs.

I’ve been meaning to have a go at writing about a remark Linda made in her comment on my bit on rhythm. She wrote ‘As an auditory learner/communicator, I tend to overlook the visual in favor of rhythms. So next time around, if you don't mind, tell me how to create visual images for my readers!’ It’s an interesting challenge and one I hadn’t thought of before. I write DVDs and other commercial scenarios for training, safety and promotional purposes and the actual visuals there are obviously very important. But I don’t think that’s what Linda’s talking about. In those scripts, I call for real images and sequences – it’s not a question of conjuring them up in the text.

I don't think I've ever read stuff about this, so I can’t offer theories – all I can do is stop and think of how I use visuals and what dictates the way I describe or convey them. And I think the answer to that is that I work backwards, starting from the reaction I have or a character has to what’s being seen. If it’s a beautiful scene, a sunset, the look of a lover’s hair or eyes – things like that – I try to imagine how I’d feel as I looked at it, then isolate and describe the aspects of it that provoked that particular response. The same applies if I want to scare or horrify the reader. I imagine the horror, then think of what sights might provoke it.

In other words, the visual isn’t just a scene or setting, it has a function, it impacts on the characters or story. If I write ‘The sky was blue’ readers are justified in thinking ‘It usually is,’ ‘So what?’ and other less polite things. On the other hand, ‘The sky was a limitless, translucent dome, stretching its porcelain fragility over them, inviting them to dream’ would make the reader slam the book shut and throw it as far away as possible. So I prefer linking what’s seen with what’s experienced, as in ‘The blue of the sky was an insult, made a mockery of the darkness within him’. I’m not suggesting that’s any good, just trying to work out my approach to visuals.

I remember writing in The Darkness about the experience of being in total blackness – not just the lack of images when you close your eyes, because you still sense light through your lids, but the almost tangible absence of all light. I actually sat in a cupboard to experience it. (Am I, like Dinsdale, a Method writer?) It makes you redefine yourself, rethink just about everything. In The Figurehead, the visuals were part of my attempt to convey early 19th century Aberdeen, with its horses, square riggers, items of tradesmen’s equipment, stalls laden with slippery fish, and the general busy-ness around the harbour. But they all had to be linked with sounds and smells to create a textured experience. I suppose I’m saying that visuals, rather than being objective elements in a context, are inseparable from the story’s or the characters’ impulses.

I’m probably remembering this wrongly, but I seem to think I read that Stendhal didn’t know the colour of Julien Sorel’s eyes because, as he said, ‘If you see the colour it means you’re looking at them, not through them’. My sister-in-law once told me that what she missed in my books were indications of what the characters looked like. Since then, I’ve deliberately tried to include little asides about clothing or appearance, but it obviously doesn’t come naturally to me. I sort of feel that a straightforward description of something implies that there's both the thing and an observer, so it interferes with the narrative, where there is no observer, simply the characters doing what they do.

And the more I try to examine how I use visuals, the less clear it is for me. So anyone else got any ideas about it?


  1. Huh, that's a really good question and I imagine every writer comes at it differently, both from the perspective of the demands of the particular story and the characters, and then from the personal perspective of how that author experiences and filters the sensual elements [by this I mean, sight, sound, taste, feel, etc].

    The page is a blank canvass. Our choices - the brushes, the medium [oils, acrylics], the colors and the infinite variations presented, the brush strokes used - all selected at both a conscious and unconscious level. These things exist outside of, independent of, the actual image the artist wishes to create, yet they are bound inextricably with the image. Tools, yet not, as they are indeed extensions of the artist's mind ... and unique skills.

    It is difficult enough to analyze the 'how', orders of magnitude harder to understand the 'why', is it not?

  2. Indeed, but I like your comparison with the artist and her materials. In our case, it's word selection (and combination) that creates the picture and I bet my tendency is to use as many non-pictorial as pictorial words. In other words, I'm an impressionist - so my books should be worth millions. Where did I go wrong?

  3. Bill, I'm flattered that I said something so thought-provoking. Nice to know drivel isn't my only area of expertise!

    Seriously, now... As an instructor (and even when I'm writing my non-fiction), I'm able to paint word-pictures for my students by giving examples. For instance, when I explain an insurance theory such as negligence, I'll talk about a car going through a stop sign, hitting another vehicle, and then discuss the four elements of negligence as they pertain to the accident. Depending upon my students, and their thirst for blood and guts, people may get hurt in the accident or they may not. The examples and word-pictures change with each room of students, thus changing the visuals the students receive.

    On the other hand, when I write fiction, I find it much more difficult to visualize. I like your idea of sitting in a cupboard to experience total darkness. My first fiction novel was written from a first-person point of view, and I found it easier to create visuals than I'm finding it as I write my current novel, from a third-person perspective. Perhaps your suggestion of acting out certain segments of the novel (like sitting in the cupboard) will help me "see" better and, as a result, provide better visuals for my readers.

    I was only half-serious when I made my comment about you helping me create visuals for my readers, but you pulled through. Thank you!

  4. Um, they were mostly dead when they got 'famous' though perchance Miracle Max would intone [shamelessly lifted from 'Princess Bride Favorite Quotes':

    Miracle Max: See, there's a big difference between mostly dead, and all dead. Now, mostly dead: he's slightly alive. All dead: well, with all dead, there's usually only one thing that you can do.

    Inigo: What's that?

    Miracle Max: Go through his clothes and look for loose change.

  5. Don't worry, Linda, I don't flatter myself by thinking someone of your experience would ask my advice, but I did find your question (as you've seen) interesting, and it did make me wonder what I did.

    I'm slightly puzzled, though, to hear that you create the necessary visuals with ease (and gore if necessary) for your students and yet struggle when it comes to fiction. I suppose the difference may be that, in the example you give, you have the guiding stimuli of the 4 elements of negligence, so you simply find things to illustrate them specifically. Why not try the same things with your characters' moods? If someone's in a temper is it because they're hot, because the colour of the wall is irritating, the chair is uncomfortable? Etc., etc. Just idle musings. Still no real theory.

    Diane, perfect.

  6. Bill, first off, that's another major entry in the blog. Visuals are so hard to do that I usually put them away and try to let my subconscious mull over them, so as to be able to pop them in like so many Lego bricks at suitable intervals.

    Still, I admire the raw power of visualisation some people have. I used to work at a campsite for two summers, and I had a colleague who was tasked with poking the foundations of rental cottages and report upon same. He did this with a massive screwdriver during night shifts, and one morning we found the following in the supervisors' log book:

    "Cabin 20: foundation bad, screwdriver enters as if pushed into a rotten rooster."

    I never found a better image for that.

  7. Readers form their own visual conceptions of characters and settings, comparing them to people and places they've known. I vaguely describe my own, adding a few visual insights now and then when the plot calls for it. I dislike paragraphs of description that slow down the action. I think a few well placed visual clues go a long way, but that's just my own reading preference.

    I thought your basement scenes in The Darkness were brilliant, Bill, as well as chilling. No need for paragraphs of character or environmenal descriptions. The reader easily furnishes her own.

  8. You’re right Heikki, it’s one of those images that are perfect when you see them but somehow you’d never think of creating them.

    And Jean, absolutely right. I’d meant to say that the fewer the descriptive clues, the more leeway you give the reader to supply the picture, and readers are very accommodating collaborators.
    (And thanks for the comments on The Darkness.)

  9. Bill, excellent idea about using characters' moods. I'll be trying that.

    And Jean, I think you're right on. I dislike detailed description, especially physical descriptions of people. I prefer my fictional characters to look the way I want them to look! The fewer details provided by the author, the more leeway I have. I'll keep that in mind, too!

    All in all, this has been a very educational blog post for me, Bill and fans.

    Thank you!

  10. Excellent stuff, Bill. Much thought was provoked.

  11. Thanks folks. In fact, I keep on going back to this and having other thoughts about it. It's really a very complex issue. All your fault, Linda.

  12. A good example of too much description is Lee Child's novel, One Shot, which crawls at a snail's pace for pages at the beginning of the book because his sniper is crawling over concrete and under steel pipes before he positions himself to shoot at innoncent people leaving work. I nearly set the book aside because of excessive description, although I'm a Lee Child fan.

  13. I feel the same about the Stieg Larsson trilogy, Jean. There's no doubting his talent or the wealth of research behind it all, and they're deservedly best-sellers, but I did skip huge chunks when I was reading them - and I don't think my enjoyment was lessened as a result. Quite the reverse, in fact. It wasn't the details of financial, political, corporate and other things (although I skipped lots of those, too), but rather the 'she went to the fridge, couldn't decide whether to have salami or pate, so she made a cheese sandwich and ate it before she sat at the computer' type of aside.

  14. FYI, Thought you might like to know there is another Blog Jog Day scheduled for Nov 21st. If you're interested, go to to learn more.
    Have a great day!!!

  15. It's an interesting question, and I like Bill's comment. Maybe different readers skip different bits, and we just have to be sure we don't insert so much skippable material that they all stop reading.

    I'm proofreading Black Widow now, and dreaming of when it will come out (soon, I think. Gypsy Shadow are really prompt with their releases.)

  16. The tenth of Elmore Leonard's rules for writers, Sheila, is 'Try to leave out the part that readers skip'.

    Great news about Black Widow. Let us know when it appears please.

  17. I quite agree about Stieg Larsson's books. So often less is more.

    When I'm trying to get visuals - I guess this is like the cupboard - but I'll close my eyes and physically become the character I'm writing. In one scene the hero was naked and sleep walking, pointing his finger pistol in secret agent mode. I became the naked character weaving left to right, looking for threats. It also helped me figure out what the character coming up on him would see.

  18. 'Becoming the character' is an interesting idea, Marley. I've often thought of writing about the comparison between acting and writing. I think there are lots of overlaps and 'becoming the character' is definitely the main one.