Mood is the Story-Killer

Couldn’t hear the brass,

Couldn’t hear the drum,

He was in a class 

By himself, by gum! 

I read a set of submission guidelines the other day that included this: “We want stories with atmosphere, where mood is an important element.” I bet they do. Everybody since Lord Dunsany has wanted stories with atmosphere.

But I did a little critique the other day, of a friend’s short story.  The story was all a single scene: a death scene in a hospital room. I’m sure the setting and the content of the scene circumscribed what could be done there, with regard to mood. 

But in the vast majority of stories, we readers should be rewarded with (this is just my theory, other will dispute) several different flavors or experiences in reading it. It shouldn’t all be rendered in a single emotional shade. If you open up a New Yorker fiction piece, this is often true (I read “Papayas” by Thomas McGuane in a recent issue, for instance. It’s pretty good!) You find a bunch of different stuff, some sad, some funny, etc. And I feel like this is most often true to our own life experiences – in every day, we get something funny, something weird, something beautiful, something scary. So I think we should make this a goal we are explicitly working towards in our fiction, in the name of naturalism, to whatever limited degree we can, that doesn’t make the piece feel mechanical or predictable, and that doesn’t undermine the believability of the piece. Here’s a list I’ve been assembling, of some basic ‘flavors’, that are all pleasurable, or at least memorable, to read:

Funny 

Sexy

Whimsical

Surprising

Repulsive

Sentimental

Beautiful

Informing

Clever (different from funny)

Scary

Sense of wonder-y

You can remember this, just by memorizing the handy acronym “FSWSRSBICSS”. I’m sure we could all add additional flavors to the list.

Maybe all of these don’t fit into that one deathbed story, but if the nurse cracked a good joke, or if the dying man’s wife of children said something whimsical or sentimental about his past, those might become assets of the piece. 

We as SF writers most often write with ‘the whole thing’ in mind, the overarching idea, the concept of the story. (A soon-to-come blog post will address SF short stories that are ‘big metaphor’ pieces.) But I think that a reader should be able to consider the work on almost any scale —a paragraph, a couple paragraphs, a couple or even a single sentence — and find something to admire or enjoy or find memorable in the work. Something with some versimilitude. 

I don’t know, these are just my random thoughts that the deathbed piece prompted — these clearly veered pretty far away from standard critique. I think, conventionally, SF writers reach for naturalism and a breadth of moods in their novels, but in short stories, they are more likely to try to make something all-of-a-piece, something that asserts and sustains a single mood.  And often, they are counseled or encouraged to do so. But this seems akin, to me, to writing a piece of music using a single pitch or note. 

Couldn’t hear the flute

Or the big trombone

Ev’ry one was mute

Johnny stood alone.

I get that those big mood pieces work like freight trains – they build up momentum as they’re going, and, if they work, they just crash through all the barriers of composition, pacing, believability, even cause-and-effect. They seem unstoppable, if they’re successful.  The reader doesn’t ask questions, doesn’t  hold the author responsible for anything else, because the mood obtains. 

But I want to underline that the author is giving a lot away — a lot, all those other colors in the paint-box — by driving towards one sustained mood. If you’re going to attempt it, you’d better be sure your story is going to arrive where you intend it to.

Cats and dogs stopped yapping

Lions in the zoo

All were jealous of Johnny’s big trill

Thunder claps stopped clapping,

Traffic ceased its roar,

And they tell us Niag’ra stood still.

(Lyrics from “Johnny One Note”, by Ella Fitzgerald.  Used with reverence but without permission.) 

writing lessons from second grade

Believe me, I’ve read a fair lot of books about writing fiction – writing novels specifically. Moseley’s book is a fair example, as is Stephen King’s, as are Le Guin’s. Most of them talk about

– character

– setting

– plot

– voice

– point of view

– pacing

These kinds of things constitute an anatomy of the novel, and are surely useful to consider in writing one.

But I was really taken aback when I read a handout that was sent home with my daughter Rachel, who was then in second grade. The handout didn’t mention any of these. It instead discussed things we parents should be doing with our children as they improve as readers, and the kinds of intellectual or cognitive tasks that readers learn to perform as they grow. They called these ‘strategies’ for reading, but I feel like this is a misnomer.

It was a real revelation to me that we could enunciate or classify different mental tasks that readers of story perform. How is it that the cognitive or behavioral side of reading a story is ignored (largely) or de-emphasized when teaching fiction writing? Shouldn’t it be the primary focus?

It has become a goal of mine to try to exercise readers in this way – to hold their attention by pushing or encouraging them to perform these kinds of tasks as they read my stories.

Here below is the list of ‘strategies’. I may have edited a few. I hope I still have the original handout,somewhere, but moreso hope I remember to keep these in mind while writing. The quoted sections below are directly lifted from the xeroxed pages my daughter brought home to me. At the bottom, at least one of these pages says “(c) L. Malorino, 2012”.  (I contacted Lauren Malorino, and she very graciously allowed me to quote from her work.)

1.) Making Predictions. “Making predictions motivates readers to find out what happens in the story.”

2.) Inferring. “Clues to Prompt Inferences – characters’ behavior, picture clues, facial expressions on characters in pictures, cause-effect situations, unanswered questions, reader’s own experiences, reader’s background knowledge of a topic.”

3.) Asking Questions.

4.) Visualizing. My own strategy is to describe something that I cannot visualize myself, and to not provide excessive specificity. Invite the reader to fill in details, add something of themselves to the mental images they’re assembling.

5.) Synthesizing. “Synthesizing is when a reader’s thoughts evolve throughout the course of a book or text.” This I would say should be a goal of nearly any good writing.

6.) Making Connections. “There are three types of connections that your reader is learning about and practicing.

– Text-to-self

– Text-to-world

– Text-to-text.” I think this is great to explicitly state!

7.) Determining Importance

To this list I can add one item of my own:

8.) Assessing Moral Choices.  Surely all kids, and to some degree most adults, read what characters think and do, and cannot help but make comparisons to the characters’ own avowed moral system, that of the larger culture surrounding them, and the reader’s own.

I invite readers to contribute to and comment on this list.  Does this make any sense to you? Are there big obvious omissions to this list? Is it wrong (or maybe just insufficient) for the writer to be explicitly concerned about how the reader is thinking as he is reading her work?

bad idea file – a good idea

I got no chops.  No special going-in talents or tricks, nothing more than the average careful reader’s intuition of what might work on the page.  No mantic procedures to generate astonishing, beatific text.  Never been to Iowa.  Never been to Clarion.

I stole a lot, in terms of writing advice.  If you saw my secret “how to write” files, they would be boringly predictable and familiar (though, the one thing that might be interesting is the set of common-sense advice that I’ve discarded.)

“Everything belongs to the creative and resourceful thief.” – William Burroughs

I think the one trick I have that’s good, and perhaps novel, is this:

Make a Bad Ideas file, and use it. 

Often I produce some great thought (or so it seems), or sentence or paragraph in an ongoing work, and I’m conscious that it’s good, but also that it doesn’t fit – that it has no business being where it is, perhaps doesn’t belong in this piece, at all.

My urge is to not discard any useable material – I get so little time to actually write.  Some might argue that that has been an essential part of my process – more on that in a later entry – but the painful and correct thing to do is cut it out of the piece that it just appeared in.

If you have a Bad Ideas file, you’ve immediately got a place for those fragments to go. Killer sentences like “The banjo is the loneliest instrument,” that you can’t bear to throw out, immediately have some other place to go.   You don’t have to stop and think what file they might usefully belong in – in fact, performing that calculation can be a big distraction, it can drop you right out of the head-space you were in when you produced such a gem. Just dump it into the Bad Ideas file and move on, and reassess later.

In editing, using a Bad Ideas file might seem like a kinder and thus easier solution, rather than just deleting your stuff wholesale.

And then, later, you can look back at all the Bad Ideas there, and confirm that the filtering and editing that is essential to any piece of good writing has actually happened for this piece.  If you work on something for a while, and at the end, you still have nothing that qualifies as a Bad Idea, you’re probably not being honest with yourelf.

I told my wife about this, and quipped that I wished I also had a Good Ideas file, full of stuff I could pull from. She wryly said that then I could just make a link between the two files (Good –> Bad, I’m guessing) and save myself a lot of time.  My wife.  That’s why I married her.

Now you’ll be curious what’s in that giant Bad Ideas file I keep adding to every day.  Or maybe you won’t.  But either way, I’m not showing it.