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Creating Mood

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on August 23, 2013

Word choices are important when creating mood. Next time you read a scary story, look at the particular descriptive words the author uses. It takes work to get these right. Now let’s see how I put this to work for me. Here is my original paragraph:

Outside, I locked up and then turned toward the street. My shoes clicked on the pavement as I strolled down the sidewalk toward the parking lot. Overhanging branches shadowed the walls like skeletal limbs, blocking the light from street lamps. Crickets chirped their nightly chorus, nearly drowning the muted traffic sounds from Lake Avenue. Even that thoroughfare had quieted for the weekend.

streetlights

What’s wrong with this? “Crickets chirped” brightens the mood when I want this to description to raise tension. So here is version number two:

Outside, I locked up and then turned toward the street. My shoes clicked on the pavement as I strolled down the sidewalk toward the parking lot. Overhanging branches shadowed the walls like skeletal limbs, blocking the light from street lamps. The low, steady thrum of crickets nearly drowned the muted traffic sounds from Lake Avenue. Even that thoroughfare had quieted for the weekend.

tree branches

Oops. Lake Avenue is a bustling town center with restaurants that would be lively on a weekend evening, so it wouldn’t be quiet on a Sunday. Better delete that line. I don’t quite like the muted traffic sounds, either. This line should add to the suspense. Here is my final version along with the next couple of lines. Tell me what you think:

woman alone

Outside, I locked up and then turned toward the street. My shoes clicked on the pavement as I strolled down the sidewalk toward the parking lot. Overhanging branches shadowed the walls like skeletal limbs and blocked the light from street lamps. The low, steady thrum of crickets pulsed in the autumn air like a single-minded creature hidden in the shrubs.

A car engine idled nearby. I glanced over my shoulder, my nape prickling.

None of the cars parked along the curb had any lights on. I didn’t see anyone sitting in them, but somebody had started a motor within hearing distance.

The sensation grew that I was being watched, and goose bumps rose on my arms. My breath came short as my pulse rate rocketed.

I picked up speed, eager to reach my car. My foot banged against an uneven edge of pavement. I stumbled but regained my balance and hurried on. I’d just passed Elhambra’s Mystical Emporium when a roar sounded in my ears.

I whipped around. A pair of headlights lunged at me.

headlights

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This is a work in progress, so your suggestions are welcome. My advice is to write the story as it comes out and worry about nitpicking the word choices later. It’s easier to fix what’s already on the page. If you get too hung up with your pages being perfect, you’ll never progress. Write that first draft and then go back to polish.

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16 Responses to “Creating Mood”

  1. Marcia said

    Very interesting post, Nancy. I think your comments on being careful with word selection are spot on. Your last version creates a sinister mood, all right. I would have one suggestion. The phrase “headlights lunged at me,” made me instantly picture two headlights actually lunging, like right off of the car, and broke the mood for me. You might want to reword that slightly. Headlights can’t lunge or move on their own, though I know what you mean. But I think there are better ways of describing the onrush of lights in her direction. Hey, maybe even something with “bright lights from an onrushing car,” or the like. Just one possible suggestion. I do like all the other changes you made very much, especially the rewording of the line with the crickets. Much more ominous.

    • Good suggestion, Marcia. Thanks for the feedback!

      • Marcia said

        You’re welcome. Personally, I really like the line about the crickets, especially the first bit, “the low, steady thrum of crickets pulsed in the autumn air.” I can take or leave the last bit. But that’s a subjective thing. We each have our own tastes, and what one man considers overwriting, the next considers lush prose. :D I’ve always been fond of very descriptive writers, like Daphne du Maurier, who can engage all of my senses. I long to write like her, but in today’s more action-oriented market, I’m trying to learn to tone it down a bit. But beautifully descriptive phrases…and thrumming crickets is beautiful…please me every time.

        One day I hope you’ll do a post on some of the sticky issues involved in uploading work to Kindle. Ellipses and emdashes come to mind. GAH! I can’t believe I’ve lost an entire day to them, but once I figure out how to do it right, I’ll never compose another manuscript with them the way I did this time. I’m taking very good notes! :D

        Love your blog, Nancy, and now that I’m almost finished with this project, I intend to get back to check out all of my favorite bloggers more frequently.

        • Have you checked out this post I did a while back on ebook conversion: http://nancyjcohen.wordpress.com/2011/07/27/ebook-conversion-tips/ Those tips worked for me when I uploaded my backlist scifi romance, Keeper of the Rings. Some of the mechanics have probably changed since I wrote that piece. You may have more updated notes when you’ve finished the process.

          • Marcia said

            Thank you so much, Nancy. I’m going to check the link out right now. My frustration level has gotten quite high in the last four hours. :( But I’ll get there. I’m just telling myself I’ve put ten months into this project, and I’m not going to rush at this point, and make big mistakes. I appreciate the link!!

          • Marcia said

            HI, Nancy! Just wanted you to know your tips were very helpful to me as I finished up the conversion of my manuscript into Kindle form. My book (Wake-Robin Ridge) is up and running now, and I’m very excited about it. I have learned a lot from following your blog and those of other Kindle authors. There’s a wealth of information being shared out there. I have to confess, trying to figure out how to “market” my book so that it gets discovered (and moves up from the upload ranking of 78,160th place, hahaha) is a bit daunting, but I’m working on it. I’d like to know how it felt to you when you first started listing your books on Kindle? Have I missed a post on that somewhere, or might you start a new one about your experiences?

  2. robakers said

    Since you are asking for comments. Here are some thoughts. The first sentence doesn’t make sense to me but I don’t know what it connects with so no worries.

    You used the word strolled to describe the walk. That makes me feel like the walk is for fun, Paced marched fled escaped trudged hiked might be a better word choices.

    The sentence about the trees blocking the light seemed like over writing. Maybe “The skeletal limbs from the tree line made eerie shadows on the ground.” That is a simple suggestion, use it if you like or trash it. I like the crickets but that sentence also feels like it is over writing.

    I like the pacing that the short sentences brings to the section. That amps up the tension.

    Overall, nice job. I like how you try to work in the different sensations. You have sight, hearing, touch/feel. If you could work in smell and taste you would have it all. Maybe a waft of the sewer and the taste of a humid night.

    Also, I like how you describe your writing process. Writing is easy, great writing is hard. You make it seem so easy. That is very helpful especially to someone like me. Thank You.

  3. Thanks, these are all great comments! We’re never finished polishing, are we?

  4. Ah, editing. Word choices, sentence structure, sentence length all play a part in setting the mood. You asked for suggestions–here are some impressions:

    Outside, I locked up and then turned toward the street.
    …. I’d lose the “then” — it’s technically correct, but tighter with out it. My Brit crit partner insists this is “proper” but I think in American genre prose, you can break the rule. Readers will understand the time flow.
    My shoes clicked on the pavement as I strolled down the sidewalk toward the parking lot.
    …. Agree that strolled is very casual, but I’d accept it if the character hasn’t felt the threat yet.

    Overhanging branches shadowed the walls like skeletal limbs and blocked the light from street lamps. The low, steady thrum of crickets pulsed in the autumn air like a single-minded creature hidden in the shrubs.
    …. agreed that this is a bit overwritten for tension raising, although the word choices are fitting.

    A car engine idled nearby. I glanced over my shoulder, my nape prickling.

    None of the cars parked along the curb had any lights on. I didn’t see anyone sitting in them, but somebody had started a motor within hearing distance.
    ….. ‘any’ and ‘anyone’ echo, and I’d lose the first ‘any’. Also, it’s not quite clear whether the idling engine is the same one the protagonist hears… and if she (assuming it’s female from the shoes clicking) can hear it, it’s within hearing distance. Telling what you’ve shown.

    The sensation grew that I was being watched, and goose bumps rose on my arms. My breath came short as my pulse rate rocketed.
    …. I’d do this in short sentences. Also, I think “The sensation I was being watched grew” is stronger (and you don’t need the ‘that’). Goose bumps rose on my arms. (My breath came short bothers me for some reason, although I always laugh when breath comes in short pants, because I see the clothing, not the breathing). My pulse rocketed. (Don’t think rate is needed.)

    I picked up speed, eager to reach my car. My foot banged against an uneven edge of pavement. I stumbled but regained my balance and hurried on. I’d just passed Elhambra’s Mystical Emporium when a roar sounded in my ears.
    …. “eager” is too ‘happy’ a word for me. “Frantic” to reach my car? or “anxious” depending on how scared she is. I’m also a fragment lover, so I’d say, “I stumbled. Caught myself. Hurried on”

    I whipped around. A pair of headlights lunged at me.
    …. I agree that headlights lunging paints the wrong picture for me.

    All that being said, your original is good–but you asked, so I got as picky as I possibly could. :-)

    • These are great, too, Terry. Wow, I should run my whole book by you guys! These are amazing critiques. You’re all right on the mark.

      • Sometimes I think editing is more fun than writing–especially when it’s someone else’s story! I’ve sorely neglected my own WIP today, but this was great fun. And I knew I didn’t have to wear kid gloves for this exercise.

  5. Marcia, congrats on your book’s release. Discoverability is a big problem these days. I’ve only put one book online myself and I don’t really promote this book since it’s a backlist title. Otherwise being active on the social nets, blogging, running contests, and joining genre discussion groups all help to get your name out there. It requires constant and tiring effort. But this is a good topic, especially since I have a book now that I am considering for self-publishing–an original mystery. I should keep a record of this journey to share with readers.

    • Marcia said

      Thank you, Nancy. It was a labor of love and I’m very happy I finally did it. Yes, PLEASE. I would love to follow you along on your journey of self-publication. It is definitely the way of the future, and learning more about the joys (and pitfalls) can only help anyone who wants to write these days. I hope you’ll do a whole series on it. I’ll be reading, for sure. I’m working on novel #2, and a chapbook of poems that should come out by October. Everything you experience would certainly be relevant to me, and I’m sure to many others. And at my age, I don’t have decades ahead to perfect this stuff, so I’m all ears now. Looking forward to reading more from you.

      • I’m with you on the age, stuff. Plus readers are more impatient. They want writers “to write more and to write faster”. That’s what someone said to me anyway. And the only way to get books to them faster is to upload them myself, otherwise they’ll be waiting until 2015 or beyond.

        • Marcia said

          Oh, dahling…you are but a babe! I will be 70 before long. See? I don’t have decades ahead of me any more. On the plus side, I’ve got a ton of life experience generating plot lines in my head. :D (You have to look at the bright side!) And publishing the books will get them out there on your own timeline, which is a great thing. Since you already have a following, you’ll have a jump-start, too. But then marketing becomes a second job. However, it’s the only real option for me, and I plan to learn how to do it, and do it well. I think you can, too, in order to reach those readers you haven’t already gotten on board. It just requires some decent time management tricks. But. We are AWESOME women! We can do this!!!

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