If I gave you a piece of paper with a yellow spot of paint on it and asked you to tell me what it was, you might respond in a number of ways. You might say “it’s a yellow splodge of paint”; or perhaps “a yellow tennis ball?”; or maybe “a faceless emoji”; or “a sunshiney sun.” Alternatively, you might just say “I haven’t the foggiest.”
In my view, the best fiction writing gives just enough information for the reader to discern a shape, but artfully allows the reader to fill in the rest. For me, the joy of reading is about escaping into my imagination, inhabiting the world an author has created, meeting their characters, immersing myself in their story. It’s about seeking solace away from my own reality, and drunkenly losing myself in the libations of beautifully written words.
But when I read, I bring with me everything that makes me me. So my responses and the way I visualise Anna Karenina or Amazing Amy in my head may be different to yours. And that, for me, is the beauty of it.
Of course it’s important to bring to life character, setting, mood, action… that’s our job, as writers. The merest spot of a painter’s brush, or a gorgeously daubed tableau with forensic detail. It’s up to you to judge the ambiance you are seeking to create and embellish accordingly. But trust your readers, because between you, you are co-creating the experience of your story. The sun they see will be as much what they bring as what you offer.
Pablo Picasso said “There are painters who transform the sun to a yellow spot, but there are others who with the help of their art and their intelligence, transform a yellow spot into sun”.
As writers, we paint word pictures for our readers. We choose our medium, and we create our art. Our pages are our canvas, and what matters is our readers. We each of us strive to create that yellow spot that glows with warmth and veracity as if the sun itself were radiating off the page. It’s up to us whether we want that to be abstract, literal, surreal or magical.
I had this in mind when formulating the plan for my psychological thriller, Seas of Snow, and was inevitably influenced by a number of important texts.
Lionel Shriver’s work We Need To Talk About Kevin was a major influence structurally. Her sublimely plotted narrative wove its way to the most extraordinary outcome. I similarly wanted to create an ending that would make the time invested reading my book worth doing.
So much contemporary fiction I read leaves me disappointed or let down at the end… I have lost track the numbers of books I have read in the last few years where the drama merely peters out at the end. I wanted to structure Seas of Snow with enough muscularity that the reader would feel guided, but yet free to roam in their own moral conscience. The ending is designed to force the reader to re-evaluate perception, assumption and truth. The sun is there, but are you looking at it through the reflection of a mirror or through a window?
Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita was extremely influential to me both thematically and stylistically. There is a visceral vividness to some of the early descriptions of Humbert Humbert’s fantasies and how he behaves. But as the book progresses, the early salaciousness that might have baited a reader in search of eroticism, is slowly displaced with sketches and nuances and hints. Intimacies are as florid as the reader’s conjecture.
I wanted to do something similar with Seas of Snow with respect to placing ‘what happens’ into the imagination of the reader. The novel centres around a truly dreadful story of domestic abuse. But when it comes to the antagonist’s monstrous acts towards little Gracie, much of what actually happens is left unsaid. The narrative unflinchingly penetrates the depths of Joe’s evil… and the reader bears witnesses to a series of his horrific deeds throughout the book… which means I was able to rely on the imagination of my reader rather than make explicit on the page, when it comes to the interactions between the two main characters.
Vladimir Nabakov had the highest respect for readers: “A work of art has no importance whatever to society. It is only important to the individual, and only the individual reader is important to me…. Although I do not care for the slogan “art for art’s sake”… there can be no question that what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art.”
And if you think about it, only your readers can breathe life into your stories. Without your readers, your stories are just words on a page, unread and unheard. Lionel Shriver talks about the sheer relief of at last finishing a novel and being able to share it – which after all, is what we are writing for: “It’s a relief to get out. It makes you feel more sane. Finally other people have access to that world too. It’s real to them too. I find it fantastically gratifying to have people speak to me about my characters as if they were real people, people who have complexities. And about whom you can disagree and have different feelings.”
The best literature allows the reader to play in the sandpit of the mind, with excruciating proximity to reality. It’s like a parallel universe where you have created dialogue that is real, people who exist, places that can be visited. It’s the plausibility of emotion and connection that gives it credibility, even in the most chimerical of scenarios.
Vladimir Nabakov again: “Our imagination flies — we are its shadow on the earth.”
I want my yellow spots of paint to be suns, and with the help of my readers, perhaps they might shine.
(c) Kerensa Jennings
About Seas of Snow:
1950s England. Five-year-old Gracie Scott lives with her Mam and next door to her best friend Billy. An only child, she has never known her Da. When her Uncle Joe moves in, his physical abuse of Gracie’s mother starts almost immediately. But when his attentions wander to Gracie, an even more sinister pattern of behaviour begins.
As Gracie grows older, she finds solace and liberation in books, poetry and her enduring friendship with Billy. Together they escape into the poetic fairy-tale worlds of their imaginations.
But will fairy tales be enough to save Gracie from Uncle Joe’s psychopathic behaviour – and how far will it go?
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