Seeing Your Scenes

by Mark Alpert

I started having eye problems a few months ago. My eyes got dry and irritated while I slept, and my vision was blurry when I awoke. My ophthalmologist said this was a common, age-related problem. He recommended eye drops and a humidifier. It’s not a big deal, just annoying. I hate the fact that my body doesn’t work as well as it used to.

And it made me think about the importance of eyesight to a writer. Most writers are also voracious readers, so we ruin our eyes on novels and newspapers, not to mention all the hours spent rereading our own manuscripts. What’s more, so much of our memory and imagination is visual, at least for writers with normal eyesight. For better or worse, I rely on my eyes more than my other senses, blithely ignoring entire universes of sound, smell and touch. When I think of my childhood, I see mental snapshots of my family’s old apartment in Queens, along with a half-remembered collage of classrooms, playgrounds and birthday parties. And when I use my imagination to construct fictional scenes, the building blocks are mostly visual: what the setting looks like, what the characters look like, how their expressions change, and so on.

In my latest novel, which will come out in a couple of months, I take this idea to its logical extreme: you are what you see. One of the characters in the book, a brilliant bioengineer, figures out how to build brain implants that can copy and download a person’s visual memories. The technology has great commercial potential; millions of people would surely pay for the implants so they could archive their lives or share their favorite memories on Facebook. But the bioengineer has an ulterior motive. He’s dying of cancer, and he believes he can resurrect himself by downloading all his visual memories to a powerful computer that can mimic the functions of the human brain. The computer would be programmed to generate new thoughts and emotions based on his memories, and because memories are the building blocks of personality and identity, the intelligence inside the computer would be identical to the bioengineer’s intelligence (in theory at least).

This idea, I hasten to add, isn’t my own invention. It’s the Holy Grail of the Singularity movement, which has been inspired by the writings of futurist Ray Kurzweil (The Singularity is Near) and others. My twist on the notion is to focus on visual memories. Scientists understand the visual cortex better than other brain regions, because it’s relatively easy to do experiments that involve visual stimuli. Researchers have constructed elaborate, spaghetti-like maps showing how visual information moves from one part of the brain to another, traveling to the regions that store memories (so you can recognize the objects you’re looking at) as well as the regions that control muscle movements (so you can catch the baseball that’s speeding toward you). Because we already know a lot about the visual cortex, the prospect of building a computer that mimics this brain region seemed somewhat believable to me — more like a thriller, and less like science fiction.

In my novel, the bioengineer’s technology goes awry, of course. (I won’t say any more, because I want you to read the book!) But while I was writing the novel I became convinced that the underlying premise — you are what you see — may have some truth to it. I don’t believe there’s any need to assume the existence of some intangible, unobservable entity (soul, spirit, whatever) to explain the mysteries of consciousness and personality. The brain can assemble an identity out of the memories of early childhood, because the interconnected whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Strictly speaking, some of the parts aren’t really memories — they’re instincts genetically hard-wired into the brain, which govern an infant’s life until learned behaviors can take over. And memories of sound, smell, taste and touch also have powerful influences, particularly on the development of language and emotions. But for someone like me, who relies so much on eyesight, life is like a long, meandering movie, a film that’s being constantly re-edited as I watch it.

And this brings me back to fiction. When I’m working on a novel, I see the scenes in my mind’s eye before I put them down on paper. I can’t start writing until I can see, at least blurrily, where the characters are and what they look like. As I write the scene, the setting and characters usually come into better focus, and when I’m finished I can go back to the blurry parts at the beginning and sharpen them by adding more detail. I also add sounds and smells if they’re relevant and compelling; it’s a good idea to describe taste sensations when the characters are eating, and tactile sensations are vital to any description of sex or violence. But for me, the process starts with images. I have to see it to believe it.

I’m not alone on this one, am I? Do most authors visualize their scenes before writing them? And does anyone else have this nighttime dry-eye problem? I’d appreciate any advice, because it’s driving me crazy.

11 thoughts on “Seeing Your Scenes

  1. Great post, Mark. I love the application of science with fiction in a tangible “what if” scenario. I’m writing a YA series where one of my teens is a psychic with implications on memory. She doesn’t realize that when she fills her mind with other people’s memories, she loses who she is and can’t find what’s real. It gets more complicated, but I love the idea of creating ramifications from the manipulation of science. Thought provoking stuff. I’m a big fan of watching NOVA & science programs to stir book ideas.

    On the dry eye thing, I had that for a while & used eye drops with lubricant eye drops. Soothe by Bausch & Lomb. I found that my eyes got better with more sleep. I only need drops once in awhile now, not every day. You might even try thin slices of cool cucumber over your eyes to rest them for a few minutes during the day. That’s a spa thing, but it feels great.

    Good luck with your eyes & happy holidays.

  2. I approach scenes similar to you, Mark. I call it “snapshots”–like looking at a photo and building the scene around it. Sometimes the snapshot is at the beginning, but more often, it’s in the middle of the scene. But I’m like you in that I have to see something first.

    Your new book sound terrific. Looking forward to reading it.

  3. Excellent post!

    I usually imagine my scenes before I write them too. It’s my preferred method, because if I have enough time, I can run through possible scenarios, cool dialogue, and possible twists.

    I’ve done this long enough, that my subconscious usually chimes in and connects some part of the story to the scene that I didn’t know how to do previously.

    The only bad thing about this is sometimes it’s hard to remember all that witty dialogue I thought up, even if I get up right away and jot it down.

    Your book sounds interesting. I read a near future science fiction called Shelter by Susan Palwick that allowed people to imprint themselves onto a computer program. It’s a good book if you’re at the place where you can read books similar to your idea.

  4. I will often run through a scenario while falling asleep. I just keep pushing it as far as I can. Fortunately, I do end up falling asleep. I’ve found that this “process” sends everything downstairs to the “boys in the woodshop.” Then I wait for them to get back to me, which they usually do. However, it’s not like waking up in the morning to find the book already completed, tied with a red ribbon and big fat check on top. But I’m working on it.

  5. Interesting post, Mark. Your book sounds like a fascinating read. I too am currently struggling with eye problems. I have another appt. with the doctor next week. I run high ocular pressures and have to use drops for that, but I’m having the dry eye thing too which prevents me from wearing contact lenses and getting laser surgery. Bummer. One of my problems is using products that “get the red out.” Here’s a link that might help from Mayo Clinic.

    I like to envision my book like a movie and do that scene to scene but before I start writing I try to see the beginning and end. The middle parts take a little more work.

    May all our eye problems resolve and our vision be clear for our writing endeavors.


  6. Your discussion of this book’s premise sounds so intriguing. What’s the title? I just checked Amazon and found Extinction, due for release in February. But it doesn’t sound anything like the story you tell here.
    My eyes dry at night, but worse is my mouth. Especially in winter. Humidifier on the furnace helps some. There’ve been times when I slept with a damp washcloth over my face.

    • The book referred to in the post is indeed Extinction. The description on the Amazon page has to be pretty short, so it couldn’t include all the things I threw into the novel.

  7. Definitely I visualize a scene before writing it, especially an action scene. As for dry eyes, I feel a lot today can be attributed to staring at the computer. Remember to blink often and to exercise your eye muscles by looking into the distance every now and then. I hope the eye drops help.

  8. I second the blinking more often advice. I use the Bausch & Lomb like the first poster does (I only suffer from dry eyes during the day, not at night). Maybe you should read more sad books? Kidding!

    Your upcoming book sounds fascinating; I’m intrigued by Kurzweil’s Singularity idea and like to see how other writers make it play out with different premises.

    And, yes, I do visualize scenes before writing them. Sometimes I feel like I’m a transcriptionist instead of a writer.

  9. My dry eye was later diagnosed as macular degeneration. I felt sorry for myself about 15 seconds, until the guy next to me told the receptionist he had melanoma in both eyes. I am learning Dragon software, and am grateful for it.

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