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!

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