No, Really, it’s Platonic

© 2009 by Jef Safi

sεrεndıpıtıng dıffεrAncε catabolısm © 2009 by Jef Safi

I was listening to the Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing podcast today, and their interview was author Sherrilyn Kenyon, who is wildly successful in the genre of paranormal romance. She had something like 14 best-selling books in the last 18 months and dozens of published novels.

One thing she said resonated with me, because once again, I think it’s something I don’t always do well, and it’s something I need to keep in mind when I’m writing.

She mentioned Plato’s Theory of Forms. Essentially, Plato hypothesized that objects in our reality exist as mere shadows of their perfect, ideal Forms which exist outside of reality. Thus, a table is merely a representation of a Table, which is the purest, most perfect representation of “tableness.”

I’m probably doing a horrible job of explaining it, but it’s really a tangent to her real point. You can read the Wikipedia entry if you want to know more than you ever thought possible about it.

Sherrilyn’s point was that when an author writes, “He picked up a pencil and began to write,” you don’t have to explain that a pencil is seven and a half inches long, wooden, painted yellow, hexagonal in cross-section, with one end sharpened to a point of compressed graphite/clay composite, and the other a soft, rubber nub fastened to the shaft of the pencil by a crimped, aluminum sheath.

Why? Because when a reader reads the word “pencil,” they already have almost a Platonic ‘form’ of it in their mind. They know what a pencil is. Some of them will picture it as I’ve described. Others may picture one that’s red, or one of those big, fat ones we used to use in Kindergarten that weren’t faceted. Still others might picture a carpenter’s pencil or a mechanical pencil. Some might see it as sharpened, while others unsharpened.

And her point was that all we, as writers, have to do is use the least number of words possible to describe something and let the reader’s own experience fill in the rest.

“He picked up a sharpened pencil and began to write.” That’s all we need. We don’t need to mention which hand he wrote with, either (unless it’s important to the story). How many of you who just read that pictured him picking it up in his right hand, and how many his left? I’m betting about 89% of you pictured right and 11% left, because that’s about the distribution of handedness.

You probably also pictured him leaning over and kind of “hunkering down” over the paper. Because that’s what you do when you write. So unless he’s doing something different, don’t bring it up. Let the reader fill in those gaps.

Ms. Kenyon says it amuses her when she reads a review about how descriptive her writing is, because she tries to keep it as bare as possible. Sometimes, she says she has to force herself to add a little detail here and there. It’s kind of like that old trick ‘psychics’ do with cold reading: say as little as possible and let the client fill in the rest. Later, they’ll remember that you told them everything when all you did was suggest, and let them do the hard work.

I get a little wordy from time to time, and not just during NaNoWriMo when every word counts. One of the most common things I see on works of mine after they’ve been critiqued is words and phrases crossed out, often with the notation “not needed” or “too wordy.” I tend to forget that the reader brings a lot to the table. Or the pencil, as it were.

Now I just have to figure out how to get the reader to picture a 12-tentacled, multi-eyed, trilaterally symmetrical, purple and green alien trying to pet a cat.

Made ya!


It’s a Small, Small World

"Fire on the Street" © 2010 by M. V. Jantzen

"Fire on the Street" © 2010 by M. V. Jantzen

I subscribe to Holly Lisle’s email newsletter. Ms. Lisle is the author of what I think can politely be called a cubic assload of books (Is that too technical a term?). She also has a number of courses on how to write—and not just the mechanics of writing (commas, semi-colons, paragraphs, scene structure), but plotting and character development and more. (All of which she sells on her web site.)

She recently sent out a newsletter with advice that really hit home for me and underscored something I’ve been struggling with in my own writing.

She said that instead of building a huge world and then showing it to your readers in every sentence, we should build big . . . but only give the reader as much as they need to know to tell the story we want to tell. With her permission, I’m quoting a little bit of her newsletter here because this is the part that really struck me.

We humans do not live in the world. We live in whatever three square feet of space we’re occupying at the moment, and in order to care about the things going on in the larger world, first the world has to reach into our three square feet of space and touch us.

Think about some of the books you have read and enjoyed that had huge world-building. The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit spring to mind easily. Tolkien had built an astounding world, rich with mythology, with a history, races of people, languages, and a gigantic, overarching arc of the world itself.

Yet, when he wrote The Hobbit, virtually none of this mountain of world-building was seen. He told a lovely story about a single, unimportant man (well, a Hobbit) who had adventure thrust upon him. The world did, indeed, reach into his space and touch him.

LotR begins the same way, focused on a small band of seemingly unimportant people who have the world impose itself into their lives. It’s only over the larger arc of the story that we learn what’s going on in the outside world. And even though there was a pile of other information Tolkien developed, he left it out of the story, because it would have been too much. That, of course, later became The Silmarillion, which took me years to get through. Probably precisely because it wasn’t about people but Peoples (elves, men, dwarves, orcs, ainur, etc.)

But even though he didn’t tell us all about Eru and the creation of the Ainur and of all the mythology, he knew it, and it informed everything he wrote. And so when the elves sang A Elbereth Gilthoniel, you caught a glimpse of something much deeper.

The Chronicles of Narnia has much the same feel. So much else was woven through these stories than I was even capable of realizing at age thirteen when I first read them and fell in love with them. But virtually none of it was there in those first couple of books. Later, of course, he wove in some of the universe(s) he developed.

Another that jumped quickly to mind was Babylon 5. The TV show. If you’ve never heard of it, go to NetFlix and watch them. All. The series’ creator, Joe Michael Straczynzski (JMS to fans) created a million-year history of the Universe and set the show into a particularly interesting five-year part. Hints of the whole history were dribbled and drabbled to us over the five-year run of the show, until we knew enough to glimpse the depth of his world-building. But he only revealed that which we needed to know to tell the story.

But when I look at the books that are being published, today . . . <sigh> It feels one of two ways, a lot.

Sometimes, it feels as though the writer has gone through all the pain and suffering of developing a world for his characters to inhabit, and he will by God tell you every word of that pile of world-building. Some people call these “map-quest” or “map exploration” stories. You know, ones where the author gives you a map of his world, and you end up exploring every square centimeter of it.

Other times, it feels as though there simply is no more there than the writer has chosen to show you. As though they simply made stuff up as they went along, or added something because it seemed like a good idea at the time. And I suppose if you’re writing a short story or a stand-alone novel, that’s okay. But if you want to sell more in that universe, you should probably have, you know . . . a universe. :)

I know of one author who pretty much did just that. I was reading her books and very much enjoying them, and I wrote her an email to tell her that, and asked how she came up with one of the most intriguing aspects of the world she had built. In her reply, she admitted to me with a winking smily that she had only tossed it in there because it seemed like a neat kind of thing to add, and then later had to go back and come up with a backstory to explain it.

Another couple of authors that do this kind of thing very well (in my humble opinion) are Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files series) and Terry Goodkind (The Sword of Truth series). The worlds they have developed are deep and wide, and full of rich histories and interesting people(s). Goodkind’s first book, Wizard’s First Rule, gave almost nothing of the depth of the world that he had created, focusing only on Richard and the immediate problems presented to him. Likewise, in Butcher’s first book, Storm Front, there are only glimpses of the huge amount of information that he will gradually give us over the course of the next dozen or so books.

This is one of the problem I have. I have done a decent amount of world-building, but I tend to want to sprinkle a bit too much of it into the story. Because I think it’s fascinating, I figure you will, as well. You want to know about the inner workings of time travel, right? Or how the tentacled alien species discovered space travel? Right?

And then I think of The Silmarillion and my ten-year struggle to read it. :)

So that’s what I’m struggling with right now. What to say and what not to say. How much detail to give, and how much to withhold. Ms. Lisle concluded her newsletter thusly, and it will be what I try to keep in mind as I am writing.

All the world you give your reader when you start your story is one moment. One place. And something that matters to pull us in.


Into the Sunset

© 2007 by Andrew E. Larsen

"Finished" © 2007 by Andrew E. Larsen

Moments ago, I typed THE END. Clichéd as it is, it seemed fitting.

Yes, I’m finally, finally done with the first draft of Killing Time.

And there was much rejoicing. <insert half-hearted ‘yays’ here>

I wrote 4,423 words yesterday and today. Not all of them are good words, mind you, but at least I got the last of the big reveals revealed, the good guys and the bad guys reconciled and group-hugging, and all the time-travel loose threads re-raveled and/or knotted together into some semblance of coherency.

Then, of course, there are the 3,000+ words of notes I wrote to myself, like “Go back and add a couple of scenes from Breda’s point of view to explain why she does this here.”

I am now officially ignoring the thing until at least April. I will not look at it. I will not obsessively read it. I will not…well, okay, I probably will continue to make notes to myself, both written and with my handy-dandy voice recorder. But that’s all I’ll do is make notes.

So anyway…yay. And stuff. That was grueling. But I’m so glad I finished it. I can now say I’ve completed a novel.


Project working title: Killing Time (First Draft)
New words: 6,747
Current total words: 92,561
Goal: 100,000

Reason for stopping: BECAUSE IT’S FINISHED. :)


  1. I finished!
  2. I’m done!
  3. It’s over!
  4. Complete!
  5. Well, draft 1, anyway.

An Anti-Valentine’s Day Poem

©2009 by Zen Sutherland

"Stabbed Heart" © 2009 by Zen Sutherland

The Quillians, my writing group that meets each Monday on Second Life, were given a challenge by the group leader/moderator last week.

“Just for fun, and for those of you battling writer’s blockages of various sorts: Write an ANTI-Valentine’s Day poem (that is, not a typical romantic poem). Any length, any style. Have it ready to share at our Feb 14th meeting!

Have fun!”

Well, I ask you: how could I pass that up?

Now, there’s a reason I don’t usually write poetry…

The first thing I thought was, “Valentine’s Day. Love. What are some of the clichés about love that I can think of to parody?” I asked a friend to help me think of a few, and we came up with “can’t live without the other person,” “my other half,” “consumed by love,” “love is blind,” and “you stole my heart,” among others.

Then I thought about the format the poem would have to take. Well, Shakespeare wrote one of the most enduring ones, and it was a sonnet. And would therefore have to be in iambic pentameter, 14 lines long, and with a very strict rhyming scheme.

I could do that.

For several days I’ve been working on it. I now share with you my anti-Valentine’s Day sonnet “Mine eyes were ne’er to roving so inclined.” (In keeping with Shakespeare, the title is just the first line.)

Mine eyes were ne’er to roving so inclined,
But each contingency you sought to cull.
You quoth to me, “’Tis said that love is blind,”
Then left two empty sockets in my skull.

My love, you stole my heart away from me!
Our lives together destined to be blessed.
My lonely heart, you vowed to set it free,
And left a gaping wound within my chest.

Consumed by love I said was my desire,
Our souls entwined forever; two as one.
You tossed my lifeless corpse into a fire,
And then consumed my flesh upon a bun.

My death turned you into a necrovore,
And now we’ll be as one forevermore.

Did…I mention that there’s a reason I don’t normally write poetry? :)

Keep in mind that this is intended to be funny. It’s also written for a Fantasy and Science Fiction audience. And the sing-song rhythm is intentional and is intended to mimic the sound of a beating heart. Lub-DUB. Lub-DUB. Lub-DUB… (You know…an iamb?)

So…yeah. Happy Valentine’s Day to all of you from all of me. :)

Other entries from the same challenge: Nancy S.M. Waldman


It’s Not a Train!

"Light at the End of the Tunnel" © 2007 by John Bragg

"Light at the End of the Tunnel" © 2007 by John Bragg

The light! At the end of that tunnel! It’s…it’s…not a train!

I have just (during lunch) finished the penultimate scene of Killing Time! I’m mostly happy with how it came out, but I am going to have to go back and tweak a few things here and there. I made copious notes. I’ll bet, in fact, that if I were to count all the copious notes I have made along with all the words in the story, I’m a lot closer to 90,000 words.

That being said, my word count now is 87,164. Maybe just another 3000 to 3500 words, and this sucker will be done.


Then I can work on those short stories I have waiting.

Project working title: Killing Time
New words: 1,350
Current total words: 87,164
Goal: 100,000

Reason for stopping: I completed the scene and lunch hour was over. Very over. It was lunch hour-and-a-half or so.


The End Is Nigh

The End Is Nigh

© 2009 by Butch Bicer

OK, so I didn’t quite make my goal of having the novel done by the end of January. But I’m still writing it, and I’m still happy with what I’m writing.

The problem is that I keep coming up with just one more idea. “Oooh, I can…” or “Oooh, what if…” or “Oooh, maybe instead of…” My hope is that the novel will be stronger in the end. I also have a pretty good concept of the size of the editing task ahead of me. I have to plant seeds of all this stuff I’m adding at the end in the beginning so it’s not something I just sort of pull out of my butt at the last second. I won’t name titles, but we all know books like that. And we all hate them. I don’t want to be That Author™.

I’ve worked in all the disparate (as opposed to desperate, of which there might be an element, as well) pieces and am just about to wrap up the events that are happening in my hero’s future, but most of the novel’s present. Or past. Or…

Tenses are so weird when time travel is involved.

I expect I’ll finish it in another 3000 or so words. I’m at just under 86,000, now, which is close to where I thought it might end, so that wasn’t a bad guesstimate. I started writing the scene where all the “good” guys and the “bad” guys (they’ve all done questionable things, really, which is one of my Themes™, I think; no black or white, but shades of gray) are about to have their Group Hug™.

Well, not really, but that’s as good an explanation as I’ll give right now. :)

The end is actually in sight. I can almost smell the sweet, sweet aroma of “completed novel” wafting my way on the breeze. It smells like … victory. And nutmeg. But mostly victory.

Now, I’ll restate my associated writing goal, but with a little firmer date. Once this is done (probably in a few more days), I’m going to put it aside until April. I will then edit it with all my copious notes laid out before me. I don’t know how long it will take, because there’s quite a bit of…

You know how, when there’s an earthquake, you sometimes see pictures of roads that used to be one, contiguous path, but are now shifted anywhere from inches to yards out of alignment? That’s this story. I mean, even in places where I don’t want that to happen. (Time travel. Oy.) There are many places where the ends don’t meet, and I have to go back through, find them, and wrench them back into alignment.

So maybe April and May? Part of June? I don’t know: I’ve never edited a complete novel before. :)

I’mma say that one more time because I like the sound: complete novel.

Project working title: Killing Time
New words: 4,259
Current total words: 85,814
Goal: 100,000

Reason for stopping: Various, over the course of several days. Usually because lunch was over. :)

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