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?