I was searching for a market for one of my stories today, when I came across “Strange Horizons”‘s list of stories they see too often (http://www.strangehorizons.com/guidelines/fiction-common.shtml). This is an interesting and entertaining article on (in my humble opinion) not only the types of fiction that “Strange Horizons” prefers not to see, but also the types of stories not to submit to any quality magazine: the tired, the clichéd, the preaching, the didactic, the sugary-sweet, the unprofessional, the polemic, the ranting, and the diatribes among a host of others. The list is so extensive, one could almost create a list of the characteristics of good literature by simply listing the antitheses of the types listed here. Yes, this list is oriented toward sci-fi writers, but if one were to replace the sci-fi specific terms with those of another genre, one would have a list of examples of mediocre to poor writing for that genre. Of course, neither this list nor any other can be completely exhaustive of all examples of either good or bad writing, but it would be an interesting mental exercise.
Someone once said that poetry is the “illumination of the particular”.
In 1992, when I was enamored of poetry and was striving to become a serious poet, I took that advice to heart and wrote the poem “Faust“, which describes the thoughts of the infamous Dr. Faust immediately after signing over his soul to Mephistopholes in exchange for all knowledge. What I describe there is everything that is going through Faust’s mind in a few seconds, the amount of time it takes to actually read the poem. The hardest part for me was to choose the right moment to illuminate. I could have chosen the moment before signing or a moment a year later or the moment when he first met Mephistopholes or an infinite amount of others. But that second seemed the most pregnant with meaning, because it is the moment realizes that what he has done can never be undone and that he has lost everything meaningful as a result. After that I just had to work out the details of what he had lost, the sensations he was experiencing, the future consequences, and the wording, all of which took about a solid eight hours. Choosing the particular moment to illuminate was the critical decision in construction of the poem.
Good prose is often compared to poetry. When Ray Bradbury was introduced to Aldous Huxley at tea after publication of The Martian Chronicles in 1950, Huxley leaned forward and asked Bradbury, “do you know what you are? You are a poet.” “I’ll be damned,” responded Bradbury.
I believe that good writing (both prose and poetry) is like good photography: it illuminates the particulars in the subject so that the viewer sees them in their abundant wonder for the first time, though he may have seen that scene a thousand times before. Take the photo at the top of the page for example. I happened to see a scorpion crawling across a floor one day (when I was heavy into nature and wildlife photography), grabbed the nearest camera, lined up the shot as best I could, and snapped it. To my surprise, the focus and lighting came off better than I had planned, and thousands of details popped out in the photo that I had never anticipated. I had walked across that floor tile I do not know how many thousands of times previously and I had never noticed the texture in its surface. I had never been as close to a scorpion before either and I was amazed at the details that popped out in it.
Great writers seem to have an innate sense for the proper amount of details and how to use them. Among writers of horror, Poe springs to mind immediately as a master of detail with “The Tell-Tale Heart” as a prime example of how he used details. Poe seems to string together a series of moments (describing the old man’s eye, creeping through the door to the old man’s bed, killing him, listening to the heart as it beats beneath his floorboards) and illuminates the details in each to produce a story of tremendous power. But among all these, is there a single, superfluous detail that does not heighten the drama? No. Poe knew which details to illuminate and how to illuminate the details in each of those.
Several years ago, I saw a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte on A&E. One of the speakers was an instructor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He said that one thing Bonaparte recognized was that “while details are important, not all details are important.” I found this a fascinating point as the speaker went on to point out that Bonaparte had a incredible memory for details. For example, every two weeks he had the roster of the entire French army (about 200,000 troops) read out to him. He could remember from sitting to sitting who was sick, dead, missing, and so forth. He could ask detailed questions about the state of repair of equipment such as “last time the second gun of the third battery at Cherbourg had broken spokes in its left wheel, has that been fixed yet?”
I try to remember that these days as I write, so that I weed out the important details from the unimportant ones.
“But which details are important?” you ask. I wish I could give a quick and easy answer on that. At this point in my development as a writer (I may give a completely different answer years from now when my learning has progressed further), I would say: (1) details that help the reader live the story vicariously, such as sensations, (2) details that help the reader understand the current situation and its implications, and (3) details to help the reader understand the characters, their thoughts, their perspectives, and their reactions, (4) details that tie the parts of the story together, such as a motif, and create unity, and (5) details that point toward a denouement.
Details can be critical in writing, but as with all other things, there must be a balance. Drown the reader in details and the story becomes tedious. Provide too few details, and the story becomes monotonous. Choose the wrong details, and the story is boring. Choose the right details and the reader can step into another world.
Some time back I was writing a story, thinking about how to be more mysterious in my writing, how to be less direct, yet provide more details in my narrative, when it occurred to me that (probably because I am a “dog person”) writing is often like talking about a dog without saying that you are talking about a dog.
Often, I have an idea or a feeling that I want to express, but if I try to express it directly and concisely, the reader will probably not apprehend the nuances I see in the idea. At the same time, much of the enjoyment in reading is trying to perceive the meaning behind the author’s words while experiencing the world of the work’s narrator vicariously. Therefore, as a writer, I want to get my ideas across without being so direct that the reader loses much of the fun of reading. For example, look at the first chapter of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway was known for his lean, muscular style, so you know he isn’t going to use any more words than necessary to express his ideas.
In the first chapter, he describes soldiers marching off to the front over the course of several months as he views them from a nearby house. As he watches the soldiers, the leaves fall from the trees, the vineyards dry up, the mountains turn brown and bare, and the dust the soldiers kick up turn everything bare and white–the color of bone. All these hint at death. Hemingway could have said simply, “Frederic Henry [the main character] watched the soldiers march off to their deaths”, but the reader would have lost the experience of living that time with Frederic and he would have lost sharing Frederic’s experience of witnessing an event and puzzling out its greater meaning for himself. All the artistic beauty of that chapter would have been lost.
I recall reading somewhere several years ago this idea described as the principle of contraction and expansion. That is no doubt true. Yet, to describe it so unemotionally as “contraction and expansion” seems aesthetically too clinical, too sterile, too confining a term for an idea concerning the breadth and depth of literary intellectual and emotional perception.
I think I prefer to think of this idea in terms of a dog, a living, breathing being full of warmth, love, loyalty, joy, anger, fear, tenderness, intelligence, stupidity, pain, and all the other abstract qualities sentient creatures have. Yes, I can simply say “dog” and hope my readers see all the nuances of a dog’s existence that I do, but they might not and I would be depriving them of the experience of sharing my perception and all the intimated nuances and emotions that come with it. So sometimes it is best just to describe the nuances of a dog’s life and let my readers enjoy drawing their own conclusions and along with these conclusions enjoy the subsequent discussions and debates among them as to who was right, who was wrong, who knew what he was talking about, who did not, and so on.
There are times when it is necessary to be concise, to pick a single word you hope is as pregnant with meaning for the reader as it is for you, but those times must be balanced against the times when the reader needs to experience an event and all its nuances. The writer, as artist, must decide how to balance out those moments. The writer strives to achieve a balance of ideas and perceptions. Balance is part of the art of writing. Balance is part of the Tao of writing.
Sometimes it is best to simply say “dog.” At other times it is best to talk about a dog without actually saying that you are talking about a dog.
Writing horror is a grim pastime. One spends many hours delving into the darkest aspects of the human soul. One’s mind is filled with murder, torture, violence, hatred, as well as characters, places, and situations that belong in the deepest pits of Dante’s Inferno. Granted, out of these depths often arise heroes who triumph over the evil surrounding them and thus bring out the highest and noblest aspects of the human spirit, which may provide psychological comfort and spiritual salvation to the author, but journeying into darkness periodically will take its toll on anyone to some degree. I have to ask myself how many authors of horror fall victim to depression and other maladies of the spirit.
But now, let us take this scenario and turn it about into something positive, something uplifting. Let me pose this question to you, my readership, in hopes that the answers I receive will benefit not only myself, but everyone else who reads them: how do you, writers of horror, find relief from the psychological toll encountered during your sojourns into darkness? How do you balance out your lives so that you continue to see the beauty of the world around you and do no not stay imprisoned in the worlds of evil you create? Do you watch comedies at the movies? Do you take long walks along a tranquil coast? Do you cuddle with your children and pets? Do you collect the artworks of Thomas Kinkade or someone else who paints idyllic scenes of light and earthly paradise? Please let me and my readers know so that we can find new avenues out of our horror-filled ruts and blood-stained dungeons.