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More Wind, Less Snow: Revising for Mood

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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.

Maggie Stiefvater
Hi, I'm Maggie Stiefvater

Professional novelist by day and artist by night. I live an eccentric life in the middle of nowhere, Virginia with my charmingly straight-laced husband, two kids, and neurotic dogs. I’m the author of the Books of Faerie (LAMENT and BALLAD); the bestselling SHIVER trilogy (SHIVER, LINGER, FOREVER), and THE SCORPIO RACES.

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