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Big Writing versus Small Writing

Big writing small writing

This idea came to me a few days ago as a way of thinking of different aspects of writing. I was thinking of H.P. Lovecraft as a matter of fact and considering whether he was a good writer or not. He is considered one of the masters of early cosmic horror, continuing on from Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce and William Hope Hodgson and one of the inspirations for modern horror. He was clearly hugely influential and was a master of huge, sweeping themes. On the other hand, his writing is filled with long, baroque descriptions and almost no dialogue. So, was he a good writer?

I concluded that he was good at big writing but not as good as small writing. Here was my thinking.

Big writing relates to the story, themes, action, and the characters. All the things you would say if you were asked what the story was about, and other Wh- questions.

Small writing has to do with the actual words the writer uses. It’s the description, the dialogue, the word choice. This is what comes out when you quote something from a story.

Of course, to be successful, you need to be good at both. No one wants to read a sweeping epic that reads like Dick and Jane, nor rich, velvety prose, sumptuous and sensuous as a triple layer chocolate cake if there’s no story to it. However, some writers seem to excel at one or the other.

Some notable “big writing” greats:

  • J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings has some great dialogue and description, but it’s the epic feel of it that leaves an impression.
  • J. K. Rowling. Not that her small writing is bad, but wow, it’s the world and big story that has made her a star.
  • Michael Crichton. I really love his books and while he’s not a bad writer, it’s the stories and action that really pulls you in.

Some great “small writing” authors:

  • William Shakespeare. This one is debatable, since he is great all around, but I would argue that his stories are fairly conventional and it is his rapier-sharp dialogue and turns of phrase that have made him a legend.
  • Barbara Kingsolver. I thought of her because I’ve been reading the Poisonwood Bible lately. Just a few sentences and you feel like you are right there with the family in the Congo, breathing in the same air and all.
  • Edgar Allan Poe. It is a joy to me to read his words, like some sort of lexical opiate.

These are a few examples that I thought of off the top of my head. Which writers do you think really excel at “big writing” or “small writing”? Let me know.

Master of Darkness – William Hope Hodgson

I’m sure every reader and writer has authors who fire their imagination, who make them see the world in a different way–and for writers–those who help shape their writing’s themes and style. For me, there is a small group that really stands out in my mind: writers like J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, William Hope Hodgson, H.P. Lovecraft, and H.R. Haggard, to name a few. Interestingly, they all did most of their writing in the first half of the 20th century, although I’m not sure if that’s significant.

Today, I want to tell you about William Hope Hodgson. He was an English author who lived from 1877 to 1918 [1].  Actually, he died in battle in Ypres, in World War I.

This is the cover of the book I first bought. Notice the Volume 1 (argh)

This is the cover of the book I first bought. Notice the Volume 1 (argh)

I would not be surprised if you haven’t heard of Hodgson before. I first came across a book of his in a rummage sale in 2001. It was The Night Land, Volume 1. Volume 1, mind you, and since the book was out of print, I had to wait about 10 years before I could find the whole story online and see how the story ended. But it was worth it.

Hodgson wrote a lot of books, but the one that influenced me the most was the Night Land. It is a weird book, to be sure, but that’s part of why I like it. It takes place millions of years in the future, when the sun has gone out (hence the title). The remnant of humanity lives in a huge pyramid, over seven miles tall. Outside in the dark, there are hordes of terrible monsters, some of which are on a cosmic, Lovecraftian level of evil. The hero has to go out into the dark to rescue his beloved from another area far away (how does he know her? It’s . . . complicated. You’d better read it.)

It’s not a perfect story. For one thing, it is all written in an archaic, Shakespeare-esque language. There is a reason for it, but I can understand how some people might find it hard to get through. Also, the main character, while very brave and gallant, is also incredibly chauvinistic at times towards his beloved. (Since the book is public doman, James Stoddard has a new version of it where he has modernized the language and hopefully taken care of some of the other small problems.) There is plenty to like about it and plenty that inspires me. Such as:

1. The scale is epic. There is not much that inspires me as much as vast, vast spaces, and that is something this book has a lot of. Besides the pyramid that houses 1320 individual cities, the hero travels huge distances alone in the dark, up and down mountains, and past huge and horrible monsters. All the themes are big. It’s like a sci-fi/cosmic horror retelling of a fairy tale, but more.

2. It’s dark. You’ve probably picked up the fact that I like darkness; not, as the Bible says, because my deeds are evil, but because…I don’t really know why. I find it inspiring. I’ve written eight novels and five of them have darkness as an importaThe Last Redoubtnt theme (five also involved learning a foreign language in one way or another).

3. It’s triumphant. It’d easy to imagine how a story about a world where the sun has gone out and the last remnants of humanity are confined and surrounded by soul-eating monsters could be a little bleak. However, this book isn’t. In the story, the humans (i.e. good guys) are a shining light in the literal darkness and they overcome, or at least stand firm against it. It’s not an easy world to live in, but they keep on and keep defying the darkness. And that’s what I want in my writing too.

I realize that a lot of this has been about the book, The Night Land and not about William Hope Hodgson, but I chose that as his representative book, at least in terms of inspiring me. I would recommend this book to you. If you’re interested, you can download the e-book free here.


Post-Script: And now for something completely different.

I’d like to introduce the artwork of my blogging friend, Sorina at Chosen Voice. I found her blog about two months ago and really love her artwork. She said I could print out one of her pictures, if I took a picture of myself with it. Well, that my hand and computer, at least. Here’s her original post of it.

My copy of Colorful Soul, by Sorina M.

My copy of Colorful Soul, by Sorina M.

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