I was recently giving a book talk in New York when I mentioned that I wasn’t a visual reader. By this I mean: I don’t imagine what characters and places look like when I read; I focus on the story.
A member of the audience was stunned: How could I write stories, he asked, if I didn’t visualize them?
It got me thinking: How do I do that?
The fact that I’m not a visual person isn’t new to me, of course. I also have a terrible time with names; I remember faces, dialogue (sometimes too well) and emotions (also sometimes too well). I’m sure there’s a medical name for this (like that condition where people can’t remember faces, but the opposite), but if so, I’m not aware of it. It’s something that I had to compensate for early on in my writing career when I realized that most initial drafts of any chapter were coming out as 95% dialogue. I knew that this is not what a page from a book was supposed to look like, so I devised what I call the “360-method” to compensate for it.
Here’s how it works: I draft a chapter, as I said, based mostly on dialogue (or if I’m doing backstory, on prose but still remembering conversations and action and emotion). As I’m writing I “hear” the voices of the characters conversing—the inflections, the emotion—and I try to imbue that into the dialogue without a lot of dialogue tags (She exclaimed! She explained. She said). Then, I go back to the beginning when my character first enters the room or space that they are occupying for the scene. If I haven’t described it (or the person they’re speaking to yet), then I literally turn my character around in a circle (in my mind) and have them describe a few elements in the room and a few things about the person they’re talking to.
Here’s an example from my forthcoming novel, I’ll Never Tell (releasing in April 2019). A character named Margaux has just arrived at her family’s summer camp in her car and parked it.
Someone rapped on her windshield. She shrieked and dropped her phone to the floor.
“Sean! Goddammit, you scared the living daylights out of me.”
He cupped his hand around his right ear, then made a motion for her to roll down her window. She pressed the button. Her window descended neatly into its slot.
“You shouldn’t creep up on people like that.”
“No creeping. I walked right through the parking lot. Didn’t you see me?”
“I was checking something on my phone.”
She reached down and picked it up, wiping the muck from the floor off the screen. She needed to get her car cleaned out, as Mark often, and annoyingly, reminded her. But there she was making him sound as if he was her enemy. She didn’t know why she did that. She loved him.
“Those don’t work up here,” Sean said. His hands were shoved into the pockets of his cargo pants. His hair was still as red as ever, like a ripe orange, though he wore it close-cropped now. When he was younger, it was long and curly, and the kids would call him Clowney when they thought he wasn’t listening.
Can you see the 360 here? Here we learn a few things about both Margaux and Sean. Margaux’s car is messy and she has someone in her life named Mark who nags her about it. Sean has red, close-cropped hair, though he used to wear it long, which made him look like a clown. He’s wearing cargo pants. These two have a history. Cell phones don’t work in this location. All of that from a few lines of dialogue and a bit of prose… Can you “see” the scene?
Another thing I learned to do was to base my scenes and novels in places that were real to me—although I often don’t mention where a book is set, I still pick a real place in my mind. That way I’m describing something real when I drop in my 360. Interestingly, I don’t tend to do this with people—I don’t want to describe someone I know—so sometimes I find an image on the Internet to pull from and describe that.
Here’s another short example from The Good Liar. The main character, Cecily, is meeting with Teo Jackson for the first time.
Teo Jackson’s waiting for me in a boardroom lined with corkboards. They’re covered in multi-colored cue cards arranged in columns. Above each one is a white card with one word on it. Street, reads one. Unidentified, reads another.
“Cecily,” Teo says. “Great to see you again.”
Teo rubs at his close-cut beard. His skin is a dark amber, and he’s wearing his trademark grey-blue T-shirt under a well-cut corduroy jacket. Inky jeans. Converse shoes. He’s worn some variation of this outfit everyday I’ve known him. I imagine his closet divided into four neat sections, his day eased by a lack of decisions.
Here, I’ve gone one step closer and described someone who wears the same thing every day! I’ll never need to say anything about what he wears again other than to say he’s wearing his standard uniform.
So, as I seem to ask myself in everyone of these pieces: Where am I going with this? Here: To answer the person who questioned me closely about my ability to write without visuals, obviously, I do have them. It’s simply not my focus when I write. I have to remember to add them, just like I sometimes have to remember to ask someone how they’re doing in an email after I’ve written straight to the point. Descriptions may be a natural weak point that I have, but being conscious of it, I think I’ve turned it into a strength because, as always with writing, less is often more. As Anne from Anne of Green Gables would say: It leaves more scope for the imagination.
What do you think? Are you a visual reader or writer? What tricks do you have for overcoming your own literary shortcomings?
As always, write on.
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