Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Novel as a Platonic Ideal.

The philosophy of Plato, especially insofar as it asserts ideal forms as an absolute and eternal reality of which the phenomena of the world are an imperfect and transitory reflection.

Before I start writing a novel, I have a chance to direct it. Maybe my last chance. I can decide what genre it will be, the tone I want to take, the themes I want to explore. I can figure out whether there might be an audience for it. I can think about how much research it will need.

But once I start writing, the novel tells me what it wants.

I have a theory that there is a Platonic Ideal of the novel--the novel in its perfect form, and my job is to try to find that form as much as possible. The closer I get to the Platonic version, the more I feel like I've done my job.

By then, it doesn't matter if it's commercial, or if anyone else will ever read it or like it. The book is the thing, and I'm in that world trying to figure out what the novel wants me to say.

Obviously, I don't do outlines. The story tells me where it wants to go. My job is to coax it out of the ether.

At this point in my writing, I'm not listening to anyone else about what I should write or how I should write it. (I do seek out critique that will help me reach the Platonic Ideal of the novel.) The idea that there is a mechanistic formula that makes a book better is anathema to me.

I've told this story before, but someone joined writer's group for awhile who was a convert to a certain book about how to write. To him, there was a right way to do it and a wrong way, and if you weren't planning out every detail, weren't following the dictates of the first act, the second act, the third act and the final act, then you just weren't doing it right.

Wow. I couldn't have disagreed more.

Thing is, commercially he may be right. There probably is an technique to gain the most followers. I'm sure Micheal Bay follows it religiously. Ugh.

What I've noticed in my own business career and now in writing is that I follow a certain path. First, I seek out as much information as I can. I'm open to all ideas, I read how-to books, I seek out advice.

The second step, which is much longer, is trying out all these different ideas. I'm no longer seeking new information, (such as taking classes or reading how-to books) but I gather it as it passes by. I see which of the advice is good and which is bad. It's a process of trial and error.

The third phase, is I simply go my own way. I've figured out to my own satisfaction what works and what doesn't work, and I quit paying attention to everyone else. I try to leave the door open for paradigm shifts, but other than that, I'm pretty self-contained.

This is when my business finally became profitable. I learned through study and experience what worked, and then followed my knowledge and instincts.

I'd like to think I'm that way with my writing. I've done the first two stages, now it's a matter of pursuing the Platonic Ideal, of applying what I know. When I'm writing a novel, I'm not thinking about who else may read it, whether it is commercial or literary or whatever. I'm just trying to envision the best form of that story.

Not saying I know everything. Not saying I'm succeeding. But this is the path that helps me create the novels that are closest to what I envision the ideal to be.

This may come across as naive or idealistic, but all I'm saying is, when I'm in the middle of writing, I'm trying to get the story that is coming to me down on paper as best I can. I've run into very hard headed writers, and I admire them. Maybe I'm just an amateur playing with mystical ideas.

I can and often do have all the doubts in the world after I'm finished. I can chastise myself for not coming up with a more commercial idea. I can try to do better the next time.

But I gauge the success of the story on how close I perceive it to be the Platonic Ideal of that story.

1 comment:

Dave Cline said...

I get it.

There's a statue in that marble, somewhere. What it is and what it looks like is a discovery process.

Someone at the peak (or near peak) of their craft could coax it from the rock.

Someone, like me, would just hack away at it ending up with a lumpy, misshapen thing.

Guidelines, patterns, formulas, recipes, outlines, traps and tricks -- in my opinion, all help to teach the craft. I'm so far down in my craft level, that to write to an envisioned ideal would be to produce a scattered meander of shallow characters and empty plot.

For a craftsman, I can see your process taking its natural path to produce the intentional yet unintended work of art.