Thursday, November 3, 2011

Dissecting Pages for Mood

I'm madly getting ready for my Long Island event tomorrow and my UK tour right after that, but I got an e-mail last night that made me want to do a quick blog post. It was a really lovely e-mail and also had a really good question in it, which is this:

"Although I am going to desperately try to stop this from sounding like a tedious English essay in the hopes that you don't get so bored that you stop reading half way through, I just have to say that I find your use of metaphorical language and your character development beautiful. It seems to flow so naturally through the books and as someone who finds writing the most entertaining and frustrating hobby, I am not ashamed to say I am more than marginally jealous.

If, by some strange miracle Maggie (or anyone affiliated to her/you for that matter) could answer my question as to whether this is just something that comes naturally or had to be worked on?"

First of all, if I could please convince anyone affiliated with me to go through my e-mails, they'd get answered a lot faster. I have over 1,400 legitimate non-spam e-mails sitting in my inbox right now. If I had a trusty manservant or homicidal robot or trained penguin or something . . .

I digress.

I really like this question because metaphor and character development is something I work at, a lot, and also because, for me, it is in fact the most important thing for me to work at. Other writers might have different priorities, but for me, the chief goal of my novels is not plot or premise or pacing, but to evoke a certain feeling. I will sacrifice most anything in order to change someone's mood in a certain way. I can't do that without careful navigation of metaphor and character development.

Here's the thing: when you're toying with people's emotions, they can't notice that you're doing it, or the effect is ruined. You have to be a sneaky puppet master, working in between the lines, never telling the reader how they are supposed to feel but nonetheless getting them there in the end. It's really hard for me to describe how I think about this, but maybe if I take apart two pages of The Scorpio Races, I can show you. And maybe you can ask questions in the comments if you have any? I'll be traveling but I'm trying to catch up.

Okay, so here are the pages just as they are, from the middle of the book, shortly after Puck (Kate) and Sean meet. If you click on it, it'll open in a bigger window.


untaken apart


Okay, and here is the marked up version. Yellow lines are everything I put in for character development. Blue lines are setting — in this case, Thomas Gratton is part of the setting, establishing the mood and the backdrop for this Sean/ Puck interaction. The red lines are mood and pacing sections that are not . . . I don't want to say strictly necessary, because obviously I think they are or they wouldn't be in there. They aren't necessary for a factual retelling of these events, how's that? Because when it comes down to it, this is what happens in these pages: Sean gets into the truck with Puck, the dog goes in the back, and Sean and Puck sit in awkward silence. There's all that happens in the plot. (That's also what the un-underlined lines accomplish in this scene.) But does that do anything towards toying with reader emotions? No! I say, double NO!

Again, click to make it larger.


taken apart


For me, writing is reverse engineering. It's why I listen to music while I'm writing; because I have to have the mood for the scene and the book set firmly in my head before I begin. Then it becomes a problem-solving session of finding out what, exactly, I have to do to make that mood happen. It's like those writing exercises where you have to describe someone as tall without ever saying the word "tall." Found knowledge is always more valuable than given knowledge; the reader needs to draw their own conclusions.

So remember, it's not that the parking lot is lonely. It's that it's empty, and there's one seagull picking at an abandoned bag of cold French Fries next to an old Escort with a dent in the door and a dirty, crumpled battle of the bands poster.

Wow, that sounds like a destination.

I . . . should pack.
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