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.) 

Some notes on “A Thousand Solomons”

First, let me say that there may be spoilers below. But secondly, let me suggest that you may not want to know any of this. It always seems to me that an author diminishes his own work, by showing what it was built from, how it came to be. It’s up to you, if you want to know any of this stuff. But I would say it’s, at a minimum, worthwhile to have read the actual piece first.

I wrote several short stories in a minor frenzy, in late spring 2015, in a search for one that might be competitive for the BSFS amateur writing contest. Really, it was a huge relief, to allow myself a break from working on the novel, so initially it was a lot of fun. I felt I was suddenly off the leash I had put myself on. “Talking to Robots about Fairies”, “Emerging Grammars”, and “Superheavy” all tumbled out of me during this period. 

“A Thousand Solomons”, or ATS, was meant to have some kind of happy ending, but to be grim all along the way there. “Ruthless Valentine” was my own descriptor for the project. I had had several rejections of stories from different SF journals by this point, and in every case, it seemed unlikely to me that the editors or slush-readers could have read very far into the pieces.  I thought (perhaps erroneously) that, for a contest, the readers would be obligated at least to read the piece through once. I wanted to take advantage of that.

A Thousand Solomons is built around a question, and the piece is primarily a set-up to get the reader to that question. I’m proud that, at the end of the whole process, that question is still there, shining, confronting whatever readers reach it. 

But also, there were influences. I had been dipping into Donald Bathelme’s 60 Stories, and thinking that some very basic structure would add backbone to this piece, and alleviate some confusion about which Solomon was which. Hence the numbered passages. 

Also, I had read, when fairly young, the terrific Greg Bear novella, Hardfought. It won a Nebula award, well-deserved, and appears in his collection The Wind From A BurningWoman. There is a section in the middle, a kind of futuristic dogfight in space, where several cloned human fighters are killed by aliens. But the thing that stuck with me was that they each were killed in a unique and interesting way, the tension ratcheting up with each, until the final clone is simply translated into “sound and pure light”, which I thought then was an awesome and poetic way to die. I enjoyed giving myself the opportunity to emulate this – with a thousand Solomons, I could kill off several of them in different ways, without sacrificing the plot to do so, and underline the meager and desperate nature of his existence.

The limit of 5500 words worked both for and against me. I think every reader so far has commented that the story feels sketchy, unfinished, that they wished for more detail. I take that as an encouraging sign that what’s on the page is working, engaging readers. “No fan service,” said Michael Moorcock, and in Roger Zelazny’s collection The Last Defender of Camelot, he says something quite similar. It’s the set-piece scenes that SF authors are writing towards – minute details about the imagined technology that allows them to happen are really distractions. By omitting unnecessary detail (and particularly technical detail, in SF) an author invites the reader to become a more active participant. The story becomes our story, writer and reader together, when the reader feels compelled to imagine some details in order to make the suspension of disbelief work for her. 

But there’s a lot of other details about Solomon’s life, Eight-Colony, and the whole human history leading up to this story, that are tremendously engaging. Without the hard limit of 5500 words, I very likely would have spun out into this world indefinitely, maybe not even finding my way back to the other novel in progress, at least for a while. So I’m grateful for the limitation of the word count, and it’s a constraint I will try to impose on myself in future projects.

Project Icarus is the name of the effort to plan or design for a Helium-3 gas mine on Uranus, and use the results, potentially, for interstellar travel.

There is no asteroid named Sagan. Depending on where such an object were located, I don’t believe the current naming rules would allow for it.

When I started to write the soup scene, I was surprised at how easily I found the voice of this mysterious older woman. For a while I puzzled at this, and then I discovered where that voice arose – I had recently heard Ursula Le Guin’s scorcher of an acceptance speech, for her National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to Anerican Letters. That speech really resonated in my mind (and I had read The Lathe of Heaven and also the excellent Wave of the Mind, within the prior year, so, no surprise there.)

So why not just let that woman be Ursula Le Guin, or let her inhabit her persona? As soon as I thought it, I couldn’t not do it. I watched some videos of her speaking, re-read some passages of her writing. But the biggest aid to nailing down her speech patterns was the Paris Review interview. There’s some residual tinge of 70’s dialect in her speech – she uses “man” interjectively.

But I felt it wrong to just appropriate her name and persona – she’s a real person. So I didn’t name her in the story (though she refers to Omelas, her most widely-taught work). I did write a dedication to her, and put it after the body of the story itself. Some readers make the connection from that, and others don’t, and that’s OK.

I did write a letter to Ms. Le Guin, at some point in the process, and ask for her permission, or at least her tolerance. I tried to make the letter (enclosed with a copy of the draft story) sound engaging enough to get her attention:

Dear Ms. Le Guin, 

I wrote a story in which you appear as a character. I feel it’s only fair to give you an opportunity to say whether anything you do or say in the story feels out of character, so I’m sending you a copy.  

I knowingly took one liberty, making your eyes blue in the story. This is for artistic reasons. Also, your character is living on the planet Uranus. […]

Alas, she never replied, and I pressed on without her blessing but at least having made an honest attempt to contact her. I do hope she feels, if she ever reads A Thousand Solomons, that it was meant as an homage to someone I truly admire.

Solomon’s unusual grammar – I was desperate for a distinct voice, not just for the sake of having one, but to underline how far away, in time, in space, and in culture, Eight-Colony is from the Earth of the current time. I had been scratching though parts of Clouds & Ashes, Greer Gilman’s exquisitely-voiced Jacobian fantasy, looking for something glittery that I could steal. But every time I attempted that, it felt less like a grand heist, and more like a shameful act of petty theft. Moreso, I didn’t want something that sounded historical, nor futuristic – I wanted some third thing.

The answer came to me in the name of a certain James Bond villainess. You probably can think of the one, though I won’t repeat her name here. How she obtained or lived under such a moniker is unimaginable to me.

Tell me something interesting. The arrangement of putting the adjective after its object is called postpositive. It’s rare in English, a little more common in French(?) Once I found this, it became the defining mechanic of speech on Uri. I just had to build sentences around it – it became easy to hear sentences once I had this in my ear. Even so, I must have made fifty passes over the text, looking for and debating the ordering of adjectival phrases. Sometimes it was just easier to omit combinations of adjectives, or the adverb modifying an adjective. “Solomon read a book interesting very.” “Solomon read a book very interesting.”

Actually Solomon is illiterate – we never see him read anything. Also, though he is deeply spiritual, we never see him go to to a religious service (he was conceived as being ambiguously Muslim.) We never find out if he had parents – he’s clearly unsure about that himself. There’s a lot we don’t know about him, honestly.  The sad truth of it is, given his status as a NASA servant on Uri, I don’t know how much there actually is to know.