Writing Small: The Devil Is in the Details, by Clay Sanger

Clay Sanger has been writing fantasy on the darker side for some time now. I’ve had the pleasure of publishing a couple of his short stories in my anthologies, including the upcoming Knaves. His long-awaited debut novel, Endsville, is now available from Crossroad Press. It's a dark fantasy novel featuring occult gangsters operating out of Los Angeles who, in order to recover a huge amount of money stolen by a hostile sorcerer, go through an adventure rife with betrayal, violence, and black magic. Be sure to check it out!

Clay joins us today to talk about how the devil is in the details of a story, and how to hone in on those small details to make the book have a big impact. —Melanie

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Cut the stuff readers tend to skim. Keep everything else. Sounds simple, right? But deciding what the key details are in any story versus all the other the stuff that tumbled out of your brain and onto the keyboard isn't a simple magic trick. In fact, it's downright painful, and more than a little slippery.

Which details truly matter? The answers to questions like that always sound so simple at face value. It's the details that make the reader engage with the story. The ones that make the reader feel and connect.

So which ones are those? Well, there are the explosive, awesome moments in any story that stick with us. But no matter how big the story, there are only so many of those. So what keeps the reader reading? Invariably, it's the small things. And writing small is the real magic trick.  

You can hit me with 3 pages of narrative describing, in wide-angle shots, the apocalypse visited upon your fictional city, and I might hang with you for a paragraph or two. But my eyes will soon glaze over, and I'll have to fight the urge to skim. But give me a one-liner about a little girl's half-burnt red shoe laying on the side of the road as your lost city blazes in a storm cloud of ash and brimstone in the background, and I'll likely remember that little red shoe forever. That half-burnt, discarded shoe will tell me more about what's happening in your world in one or two sentences than paragraphs of wide-angle shots of crumbling buildings and falling skies ever will.

It's the small that gives readers the emotional connection to the story. It's the bite-sized details that are properly scaled for us to wrap our brains around that stick with us and make us feel. For most of us, we don't feel the big. We feel the small. The burnt red shoe. The hastily spray-painted words Here There Be Dragons scrawled across the side of an abandoned car. The dog-eared paperback book the lost old man is clutching in his hand as if it were his last possession while the world burns behind him. 

Not to say a grand sweep of the narrative camera can't raise the hair on the reader's arms if used sparingly and timed well – because, oh boy, it sure can – but paragraph to paragraph, page to page, what resonates with most readers, what gives them the feel of the moment, is the small.

Step one of the magic trick is write the small. Step two is knowing when to repeat it and when to quit. 

Ten small details heaped on top of one another are not ten times better than one small diamond. In fact, it's probably the inverse. It's likely to be about one-tenth as effective. You might certainly write those ten little smalls into the draft. But when you're going back through and making your editing passes, you need to decide which one or two to keep. Then kill the others along with the rest of the darlings. Writing small is incredibly powerful, but it's quickly diluted by misuse.  There are endless details you can write into your story. But which ones stick? Which ones really ring and chime? Do those. Skip the rest.  

Fantasy and science fiction are especially rife with avalanches of smalls. For me as a reader, that's usually not for the better. If obsessing over every button on every vest and every platter at every feast is what draws you in, so be it. But my entire face goes numb and I start skimming until one of those buttons or one of those platters becomes meaningful in some way. There's a real disconnect between quantity of detail and quality of detail. Quality detail is meaningful. Engaging. For me, anything less probably belongs on the cutting room floor.

One of the most useful questions I ask my beta readers is "Please tell me whenever you start to feel the urge to skim." Why? Because they're a better judge of that than the keyboard monkey who wrote it (me). I pay special attention to any points in the story that made my readers feel impatient about moving ahead. Then, with any luck, I go fix them.

So why do readers start to skim? Let's discard the more common causes like clunky, poorly written narrative. That's its own problem, and it's not really relevant to the matter at hand. Artfully written prose can induce the urge to skim just like trash on the page can.

Readers feel that urge to skim because they've become disconnected from the story. Essentially, they're bored. Their mind is starting to wander because it's been too long since the author gave them some kind of hook.  Generally speaking, those hooks are tied to emotion – some strategically placed detail that caused the reader to feel something meaningful. Something that caused a spark in their brain or struck an emotional chord of some kind. When done successfully, those hooks tend to be small and well-paced. Frequent without being piled on top of each other.

You can lay down an awful lot of words without resetting the hook if you're not careful. A knack for writing small helps you avoid that. What is the little thing that made the reader feel? Focus on that and turn a scrutinizing eye to the rest. Can't find one in the last few paragraphs? If it's not there, then it's as critically absent as the wheels missing from a car.  

Holding a reader's interest is an exercise in writing small, doing it well, and doing it repeatedly. Their engagement in your story is a like passing a helium balloon down a line of people from hand to hand. It will float away if someone in the chain loses their grip. 

Your story only has a handful of big things to drop on the reader, no matter its length or complexity. Crowning moments of awesome can't carry a story all by themselves. The big things might have been great. But if the author neglected to write small along the way, they probably failed to keep the reader engaged. 

It's the meaningful smalls that lead your reader from big thing to big thing in your story. Like stepping stones across a river, they allow the reader to happily navigate between your highlights. Skip them, and the reader's attention is going to fall into the drink and get swept away. And once you lose it, it takes more than a magic trick to get it back – it takes a miracle. 

Clay Sanger is a professional technogeek by day and a writer of fiction and whatever else strikes his fancy the rest of the time. A life-long lover of all things wild, Clay spent much of his early adulthood wandering the four corners of the country in search of the weird and wonderful, the dark and the light. As chance would have it, he found them. The rest is a tale yet to be told. After meandering far and wide he returned to his native Ozarks where he lives with his dazzling wife, their sons, and a menagerie of mythical creatures both real and imagined. You can learn more at www.claysanger.com

A Little Mythology Goes a Long Way, by Dan Rabarts

Please welcome author Dan Rabarts to the blog today! He is going to tell us a little about using mythology in our fiction, and why mythology continues to resonate with us even in this age of science. Be sure to check out the new book Teeth of the Wolf, which he co-authored with Lee Murray! It the second book in the Path of Ra series, which started with Hounds of the Underworld.

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Down here in New Zealand, we live on an unlikely strip of land between an ocean and a sea, on a planet which exists in a tiny fraction of a void between eternal heat and eternal cold, where life has taken hold and refuses to let go. It is little wonder that our ancestors looked up at the stars, the sun, the moon, and wove the mystery of those lights in the sky into folklore. They put names and stories to the celestial faces, just as they named the rage of the ocean, the howl of the wind, and the black embrace of the beyond. 

Ra, the sun. Marama, the moon. 

Tangaroa, god of the sea. Tāwhirimātea, god of the winds. 

Hine-nui-te-pō, goddess of night and death.  

Mythology predates science by thousands of years. It has been with us since we first heard the rumble of thunder and imagined gods roaring at each other among the clouds. Fear of the unknown has been part of our collective subconscious for longer than civilisation has stood, and will be with us long after it has fallen.

 So even when science, that inevitable and inexorable juggernaut, continues to reveal the workings of the universe one quark at a time, we cling to our myths like we cling to life in this fragile strip of the solar system. Our mythologies were our explanations for all the forces at work around us which we did not understand. Now, as we learn how vast the universe truly is and how alone we are in it, those mythologies remain our security blankets, the persisting hope that something greater watches over us. That the fact of our existence is not so unlikely, and that we are not so very, very alone in the dark. 

This idea, the persistence of mythology and how humanity has an innate power to give a sort of life to that in which we are willing to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, is a key element in The Path of Ra, a supernatural crime-noir thriller series co-authored by myself and Lee Murray. In Hounds of the Underworld, scientific consult Penny Yee refuses to buy into her brother Matiu’s insistence that there is a dark force at work behind the murders she is investigating. As long as she can explain the bodies piling up as the doings of a criminal mind, she can accept any atrocity with scientific clarity. But in Teeth of the Wolf, the second book in the series, when the evidence starts to mount that not everything can be rationalised away, and that the shadows Matiu is always jumping at may indeed be something that all Penny’s science and logic cannot explain, Penny tastes doubt for the first time.

In the writing of The Path of Ra series, I’m very lucky to work with Lee Murray, who brings a sense of rationale and reason to the story through Penny Yee. Lee works hard to drive the science in our science fiction/dark fantasy/crime-noir mash-up, while Matiu insists that the things scratching at the inside of the walls are not rats, nothing that can be so easily explained away. This conflict between the logical and the weight of the mythological lends the books a constant tension, between the need to make sense of the madness the world is falling into, and the need to hold back the faceless, inexplicable dark. It’s a powerful dynamic, and a testament to the success of the co-author relationship that this tension sustains both the story and the characters. Matiu brings the monsters; Penny explains why they simply can’t actually be there.

Science will keep on solving the riddles of our existence. It will continue to drive the changes we are making to this world, for better or worse. Science has given us, in equal measures,  space travel and space junk. Global travel and global pollution. A knowledge economy and the age of internet trolling. Nuclear energy and nuclear weaponry. Climate change and the means to combat it, if we have the will. 

Science will, in time, become our new mythology, the making and the breaking of civilisation. 

But as long as we hear voices in the dark when there is no-one there to speak, we will cling to our deeply-ingrained beliefs in the unknown, the unknowable. As long as we can cast a light into the shadows and the shadows swallow that light, we will continue to fear and revere our gods and monsters.

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Dan Rabarts is a New Zealand author, editor and podcast narrator, winner of four Sir Julius Vogel Awards and two Australian Shadows Awards, occasional sailor of sailing things, part-time metalhead and father of two wee miracles in a house on a hill under the southern sun. His science fiction, dark fantasy and horror short stories have been published in venues such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies and The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk. Together with Lee Murray, he co-edited the award-winning anthologies Baby Teeth - Bite-sized Tales of Terror and At The Edge, and co-writes the Path of Ra series. His first solo novel, Brothers of the Knife, kicks off the grimdark-yet-madcap Children of Bane fantasy series (Omnium Gatherum). Find out more at dan.rabarts.com.

Do We Belong Dead? A Guest Article by Dan Stout

On page and on screen, we love to see monsters wreak havoc. They rampage and destroy, tear and rend. Their simple existence threatens our lives, our worlds, even our sense of self. But for makers of monsters, it can be a trick to strike the right note with our creations. To get there, it may help to ask: do these terrifying figures see themselves as monsters?

Imagine a spectrum with Dracula, Hannibal Lector, and the cenobites from Hellraiser on one side, embracing their nature and delighting in preying on the weak. On the other is the Wolfman and the Hulk, humans fighting to keep their darker side constrained. And in the middle is the place where monsters deny their monstrous nature: the realm of the misunderstood and misunderstanding. 

This middle is where we find Frankenstein’s monster, Edward Scissorhands, Bad Ronald, and Michael Douglas’s character from FALLING DOWN (1993). (Think of his scene on the pier, looking befuddled and asking Robert Duvall’s policeman, “I’m the bad guy?”)

Sometimes, the monster is only monstrous when perceived through human eyes. The Amphibian Man in THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017), for example, is gallant and charming, and it's clear that the real villains are his human captors. Guillermo del Toro’s work often embraces the monstrous, as does the work of Tim Burton. Edward Scissorhands and the Amphibian have a great deal in common in the way they address the status and soul of the outsider. This is true of both the physically different characters and the “normal” people who embrace them. 

But while Edward Scissorhands is self-aware, other monsters are self-deluded. BAD RONALD (1974) is an example of a monstrous character who believes himself to be the victim, unable to accept responsibility for his own actions. Ronald conflates an imaginary narrative to justify his series of progressively violent assaults (in the book, Ronald is far less sympathetic, and his actions significantly more malevolent than in the televised film.) 

Some works, such as 30 DAYS OF NIGHT (2007), feature both soulless monsters and relatable, human characters who harness the strength of the monstrous but turn their back upon the destructive nature that power brings, showing us that all hope is not lost. In other works, the monster’s self-image changes or shifts. In THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) the monster believes that his hopes of finding happiness were delusional, uttering his famous line, “We belong dead.”

Wondering how audiences perceive these figures, I reached out to other lovers of the monstrous and horrific, and the members of the TV Terror Facebook group [https://www.facebook.com/groups/tvterror/] responded with a collection of monsters and their preferences in specific monstrous flavor. One interesting point that came out was that there are also monsters that exist wholly separate from our imaginary spectrum. Godzilla and his kaiju breather are forces of nature, similar to their dark reflections: the other-worldly Lovecraftian entities. All of them exist and go about their business, indifferent to our world and our conception of them as monsters. Natural monsters and mythological creatures tend to fall into this range as well. (For a look at drawing monstrous inspiration from facts, check out Lee Murray’s entry on the Once and Future Blog: Monster Fiction. )

All this comes together in multiple stories that I've been working on. In my contribution to the ONCE UPON THE LONGEST NIGHT anthology, I was able to explore the archetypal roles of Vampire and Hunter and ask what the concepts of right and wrong mean when both sides believe they're doing the right thing? Similarly, my novel TITANSHADE explores what sets people apart physically, culturally, and economically. Each of us exists on many axes, and we all see ourselves as outsiders on at least one of them. Not that this self-examination takes away from the action and romance of the stories—rather, if done well, it adds a depth an nuance that makes the rest of the story that much more enjoyable.

I believe that this is the great calling of Story. Well-told fiction blurs the line between “The Other” and the “Us”, strengthening understanding and pushing back against hate and paranoia. Whether our monsters are sympathetic or villainous, a successful story hinges on an act of empathy between the reader and at least one character. And when characters we empathize with make bad decisions, it causes us to reflect.

If we look at monsters and see our own beliefs and behavior, we’re forced to ask: Are we the monster? Is it us that belongs dead?

ONCE UPON THE LONGEST NIGHT is now on Kickstarter! A collection of novelettes that combine vampire mythos and romance with sacred symbolism and magic of the winter solstice. 

Dan Stout lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he writes about fever dreams and half-glimpsed shapes in the shadows. Dan's stories have appeared in publications such as The Saturday Evening Post, Nature, and Mad Scientist Journal. His debut novel Titanshade is available for pre-order from DAW Books. To say hello, visit him at www.danstout.com.

The Elusive, Inspirational Soul – by S.E. Lindberg

Please welcome guest author S.E. Lindberg to the blog this week!

For most artists, including writers, the act of creating attempts to capture and share some emotion, or conversely, evoke an emotional response from an audience. Often, we draw inspiration from our past experiences, traumatic or enjoyable, to deepen the impact. As a scientist, I find the entire transaction of emotions oddly inspirational and terrifying. Feelings are ubiquitous, but cannot be measured objectively; they do not seem to adhere to any law of conservation like energy or mass obey (is there any limit to sorrow or joy?).

Could we better our craft if we knew how emotions flowed from an object (fine art or prose) to a person (or vice versa)? Let us examine the sources and sinks of emotion: our souls. In playful art, this is quite easy to simulate; heck, consider the soul-currency for crafting in From Software’s Dark Souls videogame series—if only we could see as the undead do! In real life, studying the soul is harder.

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Many ‘Renaissance Men’ were inspired to find the soul while the art of anatomy flourished. The prevailing Church did not permit the dissection of innocent believers, so criminals or ‘sinners’ were often studied. Bodies were considered divinely sacred and were thus difficult to obtain; acceptable corpses could not be refrigerated, so one had to work fast. Nor were there cameras or video to capture the observations, so artists and alchemists convened in the dissection theaters to document the microcosms of life.  Leonardo Da Vinci provided detailed notes along with his drawings (from The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci. Oxford World's Classics, 1998):

 "I have dissected more than ten human bodies, destroying all the various members and removing the minutest particles of flesh which surrounded these veins, without causing any effusion of blood other than the imperceptible bleeding of the capillary veins. And as one single body did not suffice for so long a time, it was necessary to proceed in stages with so many bodies as would render my knowledge complete; this I repeated twice in order to discover the differences. And though you should have a love for such things you may perhaps be deterred by natural repugnance, and if this does not prevent you, you may perhaps be deterred by fear of passing the night hours in the company of these corpses, quartered and flayed and horrible to behold; and if this does not deter you, then perhaps you may lack the skill in drawing, essential for such representation..." p151

 Da Vinci determined that the senses were linked to a ‘common sense’ that led to the brain. But no actual soul was discovered. He yielded the goal of managing the soul to religion.  Below, from his treatise on painting, he spoke how the artist must deal with this and impart the soul into its subjects otherwise: 

"A good painter has two chief objects to paint, man and the intention of his soul; the former is easy, the later hard because he has to represent it by the attitudes and movements of the limbs.” p178 

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Anatomical artists had to grapple with documenting macabre scenes of opened bodies while remaining 'artistic'.  For the dignity of the specimens and to satisfy the surgeons' needs, artists often found harmony by posing their subjects. Perhaps most famous are Johannes de Ketham's Fasiculo de Medicina (1491), Andreas Vesalius's De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543), and Leonardo Da Vinci's notebooks (1500). The contemporary Bodies: The Exhibition continues this controversial tradition of displaying the dead artistically.

 With the most promising connection to our souls being the senses, it follows that the next great promise of discovery came when optical technology allowed scientists to see new worlds. Pioneering microscopists had to draw their observations. In 1664, Robert Hooke published a large treatise entitled Micrographia or Some Physiological Description of Minute Bodies, containing an encyclopedia of detailed drawings of his microscopic views. In his preface, he explains to the reader that optics have enabled a spiritual quest: 

“… by the help of microscopes, there is nothing so small, as to escape our inquiry; hence there is a new visible world discovered to the understanding.  By this means the heavens are opened, and a vast number of new stars, and new motions, and new productions appear in them, to which all the ancient astronomers were utterly strangers.”

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The soul has never found, however.  Despite ‘the opening of heaven’ with microscopes, the soul still eludes us.

 Ernest Haeckel (1834-1919) was another famous artist-scientist fascinated with the aesthetics of nature and the elusiveness of the soul. His 1904 set of lithographs Art Forms in Nature brilliantly exhibit his obsession with the symmetrical beauty of biological microstructures, and his extensions into comparative embryology brought him controversy. He argued this in his support of his own monistic religion that scientific adventures continually uncovered the beautiful designs inherent in nature (monism generally supports that ‘body and soul’ are one connected entity, not separate as many dualistic religions profess): 

“The remarkable expansion of our knowledge of nature, and the discovery of countless beautiful forms of life, which it includes, have awakened quite a new aesthetic sense in our generation, and thus given a new tone to painting and sculpture. Numerous scientific voyages and expeditions for the exploration of unknown lands and seas, partly in earlier centuries, but more especially in the nineteenth, have brought to light an undreamed abundance of new organic forms... affording an entirely new inspiration for painting, sculpture, architecture, and technical art.”

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In 1900, Haeckel published his scientific, spiritual book Riddle of the Universe at the Close of the Nineteenth Century in which he explains his monistic philosophies.  He shares elegant philosophy on the soul's lack of participation in the "Laws of Substance" (conservation of mass and energy); below, he discusses how many related the nonexistent soul to that which is tangible:

“Thus invisibility comes to be regarded as a most important attribute of the soul.  Some, in fact, compare the soul with ether, and regard it, like ether, as an extremely subtle, light, and highly elastic material, an imponderable agency, that fills the intervals between the ponderable particles in the living organism, other compare the soul with the wind, and so give it a gaseous nature; and it is this simile which first found favor with the primitive peoples, and led in time to the familiar dualistic conception.  When a man died, the body remained as a lifeless corpse, but the immortal soul ‘flew out of it with the last breath.’”

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 Indeed, the many myths of preserving a dead man’s soul, or gaining its powers, is pervasive. The notion of relics is common across cultures and time. It assumes that the soul is a contagion remaining attached to the body postmortem. Hence, the power of a Saint could be absorbed if one obtained his or her bones; this gave rise to the theft and desecration of many crypts and catacombs. Many crypts remain with the bodily relics on display. The crypt of Saint Munditia of Munich and the Vienna Imperial Crypts are fine examples. Other famous examples include the shrines of Capuchin monks in Rome and Palermo, Sicily (>6,000 bodies) and the Kostnice 'Church of Bones, Kutna Hora, Sedlec Ossuary, Prague (~40,000 remains).

Alas, we cannot study the soul directly yet, but the journey is inspirational. H.P. Lovecraft summarized our human condition best in his opening to “The Call of Cthulhu” (Weird Tales, 1928):

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age…”


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S.E. Lindberg resides near Cincinnati, Ohio working as a microscopist, employing scientific and artistic skills to understand the manufacturing of products analogous to medieval paints. Two decades of practicing chemistry, combined with a passion for dark fantasy, spurs him to write graphic adventure fictionalizing the alchemical humors (primarily under the banner “Dyscrasia Fiction”). With Perseid Press, he writes weird tales infused with history and alchemy (Heroika: Dragon Eaters, Pirates in Hell). He co-moderates the Sword & Sorcery group on Goodreads.com, and invites all to participate, and regularly interviews authors on the topic of Beauty in Weird Fiction.