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 Other Things Sentences Can Do (Part 1)

“They are, he thought, the hardest in the world; the hardest, the cruelest, the most predatory and the most attractive and their men have softened or gone to pieces nervously as they have hardened.” Ernest Hemingway, in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.

He’s talking about “American women”, and it seemed pretty clear to me, when I first read it, that the author is speaking ‘over the story’  here, and directly to the reader. He’s flattering a group of his readers. OK honestly, he’s buttering up his readers. When I read it, I felt like this cheapened the whole enterprise, but it’s hard to argue with success.

But this is something a sentence can do — something other than describe a scene, describe a character, advance a plot.  There’s lots of these other things, I’m coming to recognize.  I’m doing a whole different kind of reading now, trying to identify the purposes of even individual sentences. I am going to try to list several of these here, and illustrate each with a quote from an established writer.  Here we go!

“Penguins. Flightless and clumsy on land. You know the feeling.” Jay McInterney, BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY

The sentence I’m pointing at here is the third one, but I wanted you to have the other two, for context. (The bit doesn’t work otherwise.)  This is the opposite of the prior example.  Here, the sentence isn’t flattering the reader, it’s identifying with and commiserating with her.   

“How could they know he swallowed glassful after glassful to comprehend a harsh and private beauty?” E. Annie Proulx, in THE SHIPPING NEWS

This single sentence illustrates the humanity of what is otherwise unlikeable cipher of a character. It reifies him for us. I think it’s fair that even the very minor characters in a novel have names, a line or two of direct quotes, and a few words that confirm their inner lives and make them real. 

“Here we are, Shank thought (or maybe said) outside the hotel, waiting out yet another john delayed by his guilt and his doubts and the time it takes to check his morality at the door, driving north, praying for forgiveness, taking a rain check on his deeper principles while the dull fields fly eagerly past the bug-speckled windows.” David Means, in short story The Spot, in the book of the same name.

I love this sentence because it’s so encompassing, it’s amost a story in itself. Here, this sentence is describing the character, the setting, the situation (really the whole shmear) but this sentence is in no way a neutral observer.  What Shank is doing, and by extension what the sentence is doing, is implicity judging him (the john) and his actions. 

“With so many other forces at work in the world, brutal, sly, deceiving, unstoppable forces, what could be more foolish than staking your life on an ephemeral feeling, no more than an idea really, a fancy, the culmination of which is a clumsy bit of nakedness, a few minutes of animal grunting and bumping, a momentary obliteration of thought, of conscience?” Alice McDermott, in CHARMING BILLY

This sentence is kind of a head fake for the readers.  It’s very passive-aggressive. It’s enunciating exactly the opposite of what we want the character to feel. Love, romantic love, is a fabulous thing to stake your life on, of course — in fact, there’d be no story here without it. 

“As for herself, she felt that she had driven to a grave and gotten out of the car but left the engine running.” Joy Williams, from the short story Congress, in HONORED GUEST

I love this. I just love this. This sentence is describing a feeling for which there is no existing name. It’s scratching an itch I wasn’t aware I’d had, up until the moment I’d read it. Joy Williams rules, by the way.    

“Undressing her was an act of recklessness, a kind of vandalism, like releasing a zoo full of animals, or blowing up a dam.” Michael Chabon, in THE WONDER BOYS

This is one of my favorite sentences ever.  I’d highlighted it in the book many years ago (like several of the sentences here) and never forgotten it.  In a single sentence, he’s defined the character of the speaker and the subject and described their relationship in a unique, thrilling fashion.  This sentence is a killer. 

“As if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. […] Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.” J.R.R. Tolkien, THE RETURN OF THE KING

Horns, horns, horns.  That’s not a sentence at all; it’s a fragment. And then there’s another one, almost immediately after. Tolkien is the consummate grammarian.  Here we are, eight-hundred-some pages into his trilogy, and suddenly he writes a fragment?  But it’s intentional, we realize, and it’s perfect. The narrator is overwhelmed, and we are too, when we get to this point. Sentences can break the rules, if they do so artfully, and in the service of story.  

“Marley was dead: to begin with.” Charles Dickens, beginning A CHRISTMAS CAROL.

I don’t even know what that is.  I’m still parsing that, after all these years. But it seems correct for the narrator, and  it’s hard to forget once you’ve read it.  

“Good deeds are ever-bearing fruit.”  (?)

For completeness, here is an example of a sentence as mnemonic device. Not sure I have ever seen it used in a work of literature, but that just means it’s a tool waiting for the right hand.  (This sentence is used by musicians to remember the order of major scales as one goes around the circle of fifths.  One sharp = key of Gmajor, two sharps = Dmajor, etc.)

Please, readers, feel free to add your favorite sentences in the comments. 

the A-word

I want to say a word that I haven’t heard much since I started writing genre fiction: art. Literary writers aren’t afraid to cast their own writing tropisms and sensibilities in terms of their service to art. In my experience, this is never done among SF or fantasy authors or aspiring writers. 

I’ve listened to podcasts interviewing Ted Chiang, Kelly Link, Margaret Atwood, Neal Stephenson, Jeff VanderMeer, Jo Walton, China Miéville, William Gibson, and plenty of others.  But I’d be hard-pressed to cite a single instance where any of these used that A-word in reference to their own or others’ works. I’ve heard Gibson talk of Naturalism (though in speaking, he may not have capitalized it.)  Ursula Le Guin often writes about Craft, as does Stephen King. Most SF authors talk very specifically of Story, which is the closest and most hardworking surrogate I’ve found.

There are author interviews written every month, in Locus, Uncanny, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere. Some of the SF greats (though far too few) are interviewed in Paris Review – and those interviews are all available online at no cost

Here is something that really stood out for me: an essay in the SFWA bulletin entitled Ten Reasons to Write Short Stories Even Though the Pay is Peanuts, by Daniel H. Williams and John Joseph Adams.  It’s declared intention is to list reasons why – why you should do it, why you should stay up late nights, or rise before your family does, just to bang away at the keyboard.  The word ‘art’ is used exactly zero times in the entire essay. (Neither do the authors say that ‘short’ is the natural and correct size for many stories – that’s a separate question.)

This incensed me – and I’m a pretty easy-going guy. Maybe the authors thought it was obvious, yeah, sure, “art”, or maybe that it was assumed by all thereaders already, but I felt the essay and the list were incomplete. 

What is art, and why could it be valuable to think of your own work in such terms? I don’t have the answers here, and it’s clear that any set of them would be incomplete.  It has something to do with struggle, it’s clear by the necessarily open-ended nature of it. It has something do with glimpsing or capturing in some way the relationships between people, between a person and the world.  It has something to do with aesthetics, about making judgements about what is beautiful or pleasing, and this brings us around again to what is common between people.  What has been ringing for me lately is this DFW quote: “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.”

Maybe saying it out loud, “I’m making art,” is a step towards clarifying goals, and opens up a richer toolbox for thinking about the qualities of your work.  What its intended effects are, how it should address the reader, what emotions its meant to evoke, or could, if that’s part of it. What it says about the world.

I get the sense that this is too specific, too emotionally open or touchy-feely for some writers to just blat out. “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.” That’s Stephen King, and he wasn’t talking about zombies (probably). SF writers want to tell you about the goblin invasion, or the armada from Rigel, and not think too much about what it all means, or how it might make you feel.  

Entertainment, you’re thinking, what about the entertainment? Even a Matisse water-lillies painting has to have some power to entertain viewers, at least for the duration of a glance. Art could also have something to do with getting to the root of understanding what is entertaining, and why. Readers want to be surprised, they want to be amused. They want something new to think about.

Contra to that, they want to solve mysteries or anticipate answers that the characters will come to in the text — in some sense they want the text to flatter them, for them to be able to encompass and navigate it. They want the stuff they read early to have some value or meaning later on. They want the world they are reading about to have some coherence, some rules, to be believable. They want those worlds to transport them away from their own. Fictions have to be more believable than real life, for some meanings of the word believable. And on and on. Some of this bleeds over from art to craft.

At every level from selecting individual words right up to the choice of whether to write at all, art is the underlying current, the sea itself we float on, in selecting among courses (it’s really hard to escape Le Guin’s boat metaphors.) 

Maybe contending that art is being made is useful to the genre vs. lit arguments that will continue grinding on for far longer than this blog will exist. Maybe if you were writing earnestly in SF, you could apply for an get an art grant, maybe even a MacArthur Genius Grant! Probably not – there have been, as of this writing, something like fifty writers who have won that award (exclusive of poets) and none of them has written science fiction, by my reckoning. These maybes lie outside of my interest in writing this. 

Saying what we are doing approaches art gives it the dignity it is due, it makes clear what our goals are, and that they no less honorable than those of realist writers and artists of other media. It shows we are engaged with the larger world as well as what is going on in our own heads. Ultimately, when we say that what we do is art, we are telling a truth, maybe one that is not so obvious or widely agreed to. A writer should strive to unveil the truths hidden in their own experience. 

Edit: I discovered later that Octavia Butler was awarded a MacArthur Foundation grant, in 1995. I’m embarrassed at this oversight. Her work is surely worthy of that level of recognition. 

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?