A whole mood
What kind of book do you want to write? What kind of mood are you in?
The book I just finished writing contains 85,300 words. That’s 285 pages, double-spaced. A substantial stack of paper, to be sure, but it wasn’t always that way. In the beginning, it was something far more nebulous.
I remember the very first thing I jotted down about the book, a few months before I even considered an outline. “A woman drives down a highway and thinks about her debts.” I pictured her younger, in her mid-20s, maybe, with a serious chip on her shoulder. Worried about the people she loves and frustrated with her inability to help them. Willing to do almost anything to change her circumstances.
You may notice there’s very little plot in that sketch. There’s the very beginning of a character. There’s conflict, kind of. I didn’t yet know the size of the woman’s debts, what she owed and to whom. I didn’t know where was going, if she was running away or toward something. I didn’t know who was in the car with her, literally or metaphorically. But none of that mattered yet, because this is how I begin: a single image, a general feeling, a mood.
Everyone approaches beginnings differently. Some writers dream up a complicated plot full of twists, and then have to inhabit that plot with compelling characters. Other writers start with a voice, the kind of narrator who can make washing dishes fascinating, and plot comes later. A few writers settle first on form—a book in poems, a three-act mystery, a story told through letters—and that leads the way. And some of us focus on mood, which is perhaps the most inefficient way to write a book, but we don’t get to choose our muse.
Then again, maybe there’s more to mood than meets the eye.
Too often, writing advice focuses on the audience. Imagine your ideal reader, the experts tell us, and write for that person. But the writer matters, too—every relationship is a two-way street. So think about the reader, yes, but not at the expense of yourself. Do you want to spend the next 2-3 years entrenched in a dark thriller, or would you prefer a romantic comedy? What kind of character are you willing to fully inhabit? Do you need to figure out a big idea, exorcise a demon, or embrace a part of yourself you’ve been hiding? What is the story you need right now? What kind of mood am you in?
For my last project, written during the pandemic, I needed something fast-paced. I needed a complicated anti-hero who could keep me guessing. I needed a problematic love interest and a competitive best friend and a sick mother. I needed to vent about capitalism and student loan debt. I needed to have some fun. That was my mood, the book’s beginning. It grew beyond that, of course. Now, it also contains characters, plot, prose—all the things that transform a stack of pages into a story. But it has to start somewhere, and “mood” has always been my launching pad. It’s worth taking a moment and figuring out yours.
Well, we finally got Covid. I was struck down two Fridays ago and Nathan tested positive a few days later. We’re both vaccinated and boosted, which seemed to help—our cases were mild, all things considered. I felt like I had a really bad head cold all weekend, but by the fourth day I was reorganizing my kitchen cabinets and counting down the days until quarantine ended. (Which is… today! See you soon, world!!) The only good part of getting Covid (besides having mild cases, getting it over with at the same time, and playing darts and Wingspan) was the tofu bahn mi delivered by two very dear friends. Could I taste the bahn mi? No, I could not. Did I appreciate it anyway? Yes, very much. I may have lost my ability to taste, but my love and gratitude for our friends remains intact. 💛
“Life in early adulthood is like filling up an empty canvas. By midlife, however, that canvas is pretty full, and more brushstrokes make the painting worse, not better… Midlife is the point at which your medium of choice should change from a canvas to a sculpture, in which the work of art appears as a result of chipping away, not adding.”
I’m not quite at midlife yet (I hope not, anyway!) but nevertheless, I appreciated these tips for aging happily and gracefully. 👵🏼
“If you take enough photographs, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll eventually get an extraordinary one, for reasons you might not understand… Chance is pretty much always in play. Sometimes everything comes together before the lens, and the visual world sorts itself within the frame, and you get a little gift. None of us really knows for sure if or when the magic’s going to happen.”
This was a surprisingly beautiful meditation on the drive to create, the serendipity of art, and what we bring to the things we do. Excuse me while I “scroll my roll” to find my latest masterpiece. 🎨
“[I]f you want something to be different in your life, you have to change either duration, intensity, or frequency.”
This is about writing but also about everything—my favorite kind of piece! ⏰
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