Saturday, 28 March 2015

Have you got the sense to be a writer?

We're all different. We all know that. But sometimes I need reminding, and some recent discussions about how we write have done just that.

A thread on reddit posed this question:

This is quite an embarrassing question, as i don't think anyone cares about this.
As a context : there are about 3-5% people in the world who cannot picture any image mentally (some of them never dreamt !). While you could think of it as a flaw, some of them perform very well on visual tasks, as graphic artists for example.
The last time i asked this question a writer, she answered me that every bit she wrote was crystal clear in her mind, with motion, vivid colors, etc.
I was wondering if it was a prerequisite to be a successful writer, or to at least be able to write at a good pace ?

I'm not quite in the 3-5% but I certainly never 'see' crystal clear images in my mind. I glimpse aspects of images among a shifting mix of associations and changing/connected forms.

When I write I think in terms of the words, the language, how it makes me feel - I'm not seeing a TV image in my head and trying to describe it to you - I'm trying to find the language that evokes what I'm thinking about, and what I'm thinking about isn't a picture - it's a complex, shifting mass of associations, sprinkled with flashes of different views and images.

Perhaps it's because my imagination is resident in the language - rather than an image that I then need language to translate - that people seem to like my prose...

Continuing the theme of sensory integration/experience and how it relates to writing and consuming writing: I can't listen to my audiobooks. It makes me uncomfortable. In general I find when I listen to writing read aloud, even by experts, it has far less impact on me than when I read it from the page. Highly emotional passages fall flat for me - excitement fails to build. Perhaps it's not being in charge of the pacing, not being able to linger or to race... but either way just as vision is not the core of my imagination - my ears are not the gateway to my reading soul.

I know the reverse is true for many people - they love audiobooks, a narrator brings to life a text that if they read it on the page might do little for them.

I know people who say (& I have no reason to doubt them) that, if I ask them to visualise a horse see a horse, where I see manes, fields, hooves, horseshoes, a muscular flank beneath a glossy hide ... nothing static, glimpses, flux.

My wonder is whether if you take a sub-group like, say, 'highly praised' writers, or writers 'known for their prose' or some such ... whether you would find more commonality in their sensory experience and the way it integrates with their writing, than in the larger group of 'anyone who writes' or just 'anyone'? Or whether they would be every bit as diverse as the population as a whole.

I have no idea.

... but if you think about it ... having a crystal clear mental image of say 'a tower' doesn't help you describe it any more than say ... a crystal clear photograph of a tower does. Unless your goal is an accurate mechanical accounting of the tower's features then a clear and singular image really has very little to do with the art of writing.

You might say that the tower stood, dark against the sky, defying the years with the arrogance of stone. You might say that the door opened onto a room cobwebbed with memory, where the shadows scuttled away into the corners as if frightened by the daylight... none of those words come to you from a photo perfect image - they come from an interlocked complexity of imagery and mood, presenting the feel of a place.


  1. I really liked reading this, because I think that's how I work too.
    You said "I can't listen to my audiobooks. It makes me uncomfortable. In general I find when I listen to writing read aloud, even by experts, it has far less impact on me than when I read it from the page. ". I am this. Maybe even more, because I simply disconnect - it's not a question of not having impact, I don't really hear them, words stop meaning anything and simply become background noise.
    And not just with audiobooks, it's anything written down that other people try reading aloud to me (articles from newspapers, old letters, book blurbs, etc). I have to pick up the piece and read it myself for things to make sense.
    That's why I don't get it when people say they 'read a book', when in reality they listened to the audiobook: the two activities sit in such complete opposite ends of the spectrum, that I see zero connection between them.

    And your ideas about why people like your prose are very interesting, because whenever I talk about your books to others, the way I describe the way you write is "Mark makes art with words" :)

  2. "I know people who say (& I have no reason to doubt them) that, if I ask them to visualise a horse see a horse, where I see manes, fields, hooves, horseshoes, a muscular flank beneath a glossy hide ... nothing static, glimpses, flux." Ah, but you are seeing probably the very same thing the other person is seeing, but you have the facility of words to describe the attendant images that make the horse, while others process them together and call it "horse".

    In other words, you've the soul of a poet.

  3. I'm totally with you about audiobooks. They don't work for me.

    For me it varies. Some scenes I see very clearly in my imagination (and then have a bloody damn time to find the right words to get them onto the page), in other cases I have a vague idea which comes alive in the actual writing of the scene. One should think these scenes are easier to write, but they tend to maeander and I have to take the scissors to them in the revision. And then there are the scenes some sneaky character snatches up and runs away with in an unplanned direction. Or down the memory lane, and I'll have to deal with infodumpy musings / flashbacks. In short, it's never easy. :-)

    I write historical fiction and I do like to visit places about which I write; it helps with both sort of scenes to have an image or at least an impression of a place. Sometimes I get images - rarely scenes, more like flashes - when I visit a place, and I know I'll need to use the setting in one of my NiPs. One novel even started out that way, though mostly my inspiration is triggered by historical events. Having a history blog is not good for keeping plotbunnies away. ;-)

    I take a lot of photographs and while it is more important to me to create an atmosphere on the page than a list of features, they sometimes help with a description.

  4. I can't say I don't like audio books as I've never tried them. They just don't appeal to me - sometimes I wish they did because it would be great to use some of the time I use doing things like gardening - listening to a book - two birds with one stone, etc, but, I think I would find it slightly annoying having somebody else's voice in my head with their slant on things instead of mine. I also think my attention would wander. I don't think of myself as being unable to concentrate but for me if I put my earphones in it's to listen to music - where I don't have to concentrate - and just chill out.
    Plus, there's something about the written word and the composition in front of you on the page - I don't know but it just doesn't feel the same.
    Lynn :D

  5. I for one don't just dictate a mental movie when I write. I'm constantly shuttling between some tangible imagining, be it an image or a sound or what have you, a character's reactions or ruminations, the editorial portion of my brain that is scrambling for the proper vocabulary to express the image or action, and the meta-editor that is keeping an eye on where the writing task at hand fits in the greater whole of the project.

    I've never really thought about the process in quite that way before, actually. It sort of makes me feel exhausted to contemplate :)

  6. This is so interesting. I have a vivid imagination so I do write things as I picture them in my mind's eye. So for me, describing characters and places are straightforward, but describing action scenes are more of a chore - because I spend so much time writing every expression and gesture as I see it in my mind, that it becomes slow-paced and boring.

    I don't think it's necessary to be able to 'see' it in your minds eye to be able to write well about it.

  7. An interesting post!

    When I read a novel, I 'see' the events of the story in my minds eyes. It's not like a movie exactly but an accompanying series of images - not the 'complex, shifting mass of associations, sprinkled with flashes of different views and images' - but if I am being told the character is on a white mare, I see in my minds eye a white horse.

    It's the same when I write. I build the words and the image (if I am describing a stage or a character) in my mind at the same time. Never is there one without the other and the image is usually exactly what I am describing (at least I hope I am describing well enough that the reader will see it - if after there own fashion).

    Listening to audio books is different. I can only listen to them if I am 'doing' something. Walking, driving, playing a pc game that doesn't require a lot concentration. I can't just sit there and listen. My eyes need to be occupied too (and if I close them I will fall asleep).

    My experience listening to an audio book is very different to reading. The same types of images my mind builds when seeing words on a page doesn't happen, but I often pick up nuances in characterisation and interaction that I might have missed in the reading. For example, I can't read Peter F. Hamilton, but I love his books on audio. LOVE them.

    I love Robert Jordan's 'Wheel of Time' but have rarely laughed in amusement when reading dialogue between characters. Listening to it on audio find I am laughing out loud at parts and 'seeing' things very differently.

  8. Hi Mark,

    If you know, how looks czech cover ..
    ( )

    Is it Robin Hobb?


  9. Hello, I just came here from another user's comment of this, on Wattpad. I was curious to see what this was about.

    I often wonder, at what point in any writer's life, a television appeared, or what part it has played in their life as I myself, did a lot of reading growing up but also a lot of movie watching. I read my works aloud, all the time. I feel I have a screenwriter sense. I'm not sure how that compares to what you do.

    I just read a large chunk of Anne Rice's "Interview with the Vampire" last night. I was curious as to what it was about. And though I love Anne's descriptions--I don't know what you would call them as writing, perhaps lyrical prose--I was mainly struck by the voice of Louis and his emotional journey. I seem to find the people in a room when I write and write down their emotional exchange, as it arrives.

    Thank you.