Tuesday, September 7, 2010

More Wind, Less Snow: Revising for Mood

A little while ago, I posted about how I threw out the entire draft of FOREVER and rewrote it from scratch, which made some people get a little . . . concerned for my health. A lot of readers asked me why I threw it out and what I was fixing. My answer? Mood and tone. I had most of the correct events in the first version, but the mood and tone were entirely wrong for what I wanted for the book (I always tell people the mood is the first thing that makes me want to write a novel, everything else comes after that)(for SHIVER, it was merely: bittersweet).

The bad thing about mood is that it’s not something you can change with a word here or there. Mood is something that steeps into a scene and changes your choice of narrator, scene, the way you tell an event. When I asked for reader questions last week, one of the questions that immediately stuck out was one that asked me what that looked like -- revising for mood. Soooo I’m going to go all pedagogical today (non-writers, avert your eyes) and demonstrate.

Okay, so, revising for mood. It's like a soundtrack. I’m a terrific soundtrack junkie and one of the things that I love to do while watching a movie is see how the soundtrack is used to change our perception of a scene. Fanciful music can make a terrible event seem comical instead of tragic. Dire music can turn an innocent action into a foreshadowed tragedy. Sinister music can make a flower scary. Lovely music can make a tragic scene meaningful instead of senseless.

That’s what we do with our words, when we play with tone. I’m going to see if I can possibly hope to demonstrate this in a few short paragraphs. Bear with me. I’ve not tried to show my process like this before, and, like when I write in third person, it feels as if I'm trying to walking Jell-O on a leash. It may possibly look impressive to an onlooker, if I pull it off for a few seconds, but ultimately, it requires all of my attention and may result in a mess.

I'm hoping I can still demonstrate mood when I don’t have the emotional weight of a novel behind it. I think to do this properly, we’ll have to start out with an immutable event. Let’s do a car crash. I’m not going to change the details of what causes the crash, just the mood. Let’s put two people in the car, Kay and Noah. And we'll go through a few different versions, tweaking the mood each time. And ... go.

version 1

KAY. No one ever crashes a car first thing in the morning. When you see the reports on the news, it’s always, tragedy strikes after midnight for two local teens. Or rain-soaked conditions on Friday evening took the lives of two Richmond citizens. Or occasionally even hit-and-run driver mows down teens in the early hours of the morning; officials demand a crosswalk. I figured car crashes and vampires basically ceased when the sun came up.

But our crash happened at 9:23 a.m. It was bright enough to see everything before it happened: the freckle on Noah’s right cheekbone, the dusty-colored horses in the road-side pasture, the open glove compartment with the tiny box inside it, my white knuckles. I even saw the car we hit: it was a red Ford F-250, newer model. The guy driving it had a handlebar mustache and a totally blank expression.

I must have forgotten to put on my seat belt, because I found myself outside of the car. I don’t remember the flight, just the landing, hard, fast, breathless. I felt as if we were in an alternate reality where I became weightless and the air became a crushing, heavy thing instead, smashing me to the ground. I couldn’t move, but because it was so damn sunny, I could still see. I was facing the pasture. They were cows, after all, not horses.

version 2

KAY. When you stay up to see the sun rise, the morning lasts forever. It had been so long since I’d gotten out of bed early that I’d forgotten just how beautiful it was. My brother once said that there wasn’t any difference between a sunset and a sunrise; that you’d only be able to tell the difference if you were familiar enough with the place to know which direction the sun was traveling. But I didn’t think that was true. Even if I hadn’t seen the sun rising on this particular morning, I couldn’t have interpreted the gloriously pink sky as anything but a sunrise. It was a beginning, a freshly-washed, undeniable rebellion to everything that came before it. I felt it burning inside me.
“Open the glovebox,” Noah said. His face, too, was made new by the morning light. I saw none of his old scarring and all of his freckles. Maybe, I thought, just maybe, we can be friends now.

I let the glove compartment fall open. There was a little box in it. I knew what was inside that box. It was a beginning too, sure as that pink sky.

Trust Noah to make this hard for me.

He looked over to read my expression, and he saw that fire inside me, I guess, giving him my answer.

The sun exploded across the windshield.

version 3

NOAH. I felt like I could hear that little box rattling every time we hit a bump in the road -- and it was Richmond, so there were plenty of opportunities. It felt like my bones were rattling, too. I had to hold onto the steering wheel, tight, like a dead man’s grip, and press my jaw closed. The morning was stark and unfriendly and endless; I was so tired that the sun on my eyes felt like a physical touch.

Kay sat in the passenger seat, her legs Indian-style -- my legs would’ve never fit Indian-style on that seat -- her elbow leaning on the door. She was gazing out into the morning like she was already gone.

It was the wrong timing. I knew it was.

But I said, “Kay, open the glovebox.”

I knew it was the wrong timing. I kept looking at her, waiting for her face to soften. I was still rattling inside, like my bones were about to walk away without me.

Her knuckles were white. Like her fingers might get away.

I didn’t cause the crash. I just didn’t stop it.

Does that . . . make any sense at all? Those are the sort of decisions I make when I write, especially with first person, especially with multiple narrators. The events -- the plot -- they're important, yes, as a spine of sorts, but really, it's the way you tell the event that makes the difference in the long run. That's what carries emotional impact to the reader. So when I say that I rewrote FOREVER, the plot stayed the same, but . . . the filter that the reader got to see those events through changed wildly. My soundtracks shifted.


KT said...

I love this. Mood is so tough to pull off sometimes, but your examples are brilliant. I got a different feeling while reading each one. I totally understand what you're saying about the plot not really mattering, but the word choices and style that make the mood. The "filter". Definitely helped me out! (And by the way, the third one was my favorite) :]

Anonymous said...

Very cool! You, Ms. Maggie, are a generous and talented writer. Generous to share your thoughts and time, and talented to give such a quick clean example of how to change the mood within a scene. This series does a lovely job of showing mood, and you managed to show that mood is not dependent on narrator or POV specifically, but is something else related but different. I am in the process of writing my second novel and polishing my first, and the moods are so very different between the two that I usually have to change playlists and listen to a few songs before I can make the shift. Mood is often what I am most trying to capture. Many thanks for this snapshot into your world..

Eric W. Trant said...

Oh, Lord, tone and mood and setting... if that's what you're worried about, you're home-free, because it means you're worried about things on the deepest level, rather than the plot and characters and whether you're using adverbs and other such suchy-such.

Perhaps that's the thing I re-write the most as well. The story has to ~feel~ right before I'm ready to call it done.

- Eric

Kristy said...

Awesome! Thanks for sharing this!

hi. i'm callie said...

oh yes. tone and mood. how many revisions of the same chapter have i written to capture tone and mood. i use music for it, and i try to listen to the same music for the entire project so that i can stay in step. it's tough, though - especially since artistic folk seem to be quite moody. not that i'd know anything about that. *clears throat*

Frankie Diane Mallis said...

Oooh this was fabulous and now Im SO curious about Kay and Noah!

Anonymous said...

Is this the Secret Novel? You know, something about beaches and blood and kissing? Haha I hope it is cuz I am so interested in Kay and Noah!!! :)

Zoƫ Marriott said...

Huh. This is very interesting. Quite often when I revise I end up throwing out whole chapters and re-writing from scratch, and I can't exactly say why. I make myself post-its that say 'First meeting scene needs to be faster/more chaotic, more sensory impressions', but the events to be depicted are exactly the same. I've never thought of it as a mood thing - more as a shape thing. As in 'that chapter was the wrong shape' for this book. But it seems my 'shape' is nearly the same as your 'mood'. And 'mood' kind of makes more sense as a writing term to use. This is something I need to think about.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

You may have Kay and Noah, Frankie, I'm done with them. ;)

And nope, @itsmefaith, secret novel is not this! But thanks!

Michele said...

Thank you for providing insight into your writing processes, Maggie! As readers, we don't really get all that is involved in putting an awesome story into our hands (and minds)... that illustration was just really cool!

LOL... I too was wondering if these little scenarios were glimpses into your secret project, as well! ;) I'm sure you could make an awesome tale out of this too... you left us wondering what would follow...

Angie said...

This is great Maggie, thanks for posting it. I love the way you look at things and how you say them. I've read books about writing, but noone explains it as well as you! Please keep writing these "How I Write" blog posts, they are great!!

This concept of mood reminds me of a line in a Fiona Apple song (Window):
"Because the fact being that
Whatever's in front of me
Is covering my view
So I can't see what I'm seeing in fact
I only see what I'm looking through"

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