Tag Archives: Writing

How to create mood with words

I recently finished Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher and was astonished and amazed at the flowery prose. At first I thought well, yeah, he wrote it in 1839 so that explains it. But I’ve read other Poe stories and none of it was so over the top. So I reread it and realized that Poe had used this type of prose to create the mood — and that was the only goal. There is no moral to the story, no position (social or political), simply words that, combined, create this feeling of horror that spreads throughout. Here is an example:

I looked upon the scene before me–upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain–upon the bleak walls–upon the vacant eye-like windows–upon a few rank sedges–and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees–with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium–the bitter lapse into everyday life–the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart–an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.

With this introduction to the House of Usher, Poe continues to heap words onto the mood:

The vault in which we placed it (and which had been so long unopened that our torches, half smothered in its oppressive atmosphere, gave us little opportunity for investigation) was small, damp, and entirely without means of admission for light; lying, at great depth, immediately beneath that portion of the building in which was my own sleeping apartment. It had been used, apparently, in remote feudal times, for the worst purposes of a donjon-keep, and, in later days, as a place of deposit for powder, or some other highly combustible substance, as a portion of its floor, and the whole interior of a long archway through which we reached it, were carefully sheathed with copper. The door, of massive iron, had been, also, similarly protected. Its immense weight caused an unusually sharp grating sound, as it moved upon its hinges.

There is no real point to this story, except for placing a protagonist in a surreal situation and make him experience terror. No writer could get away with this kind of “arabesque” today but there is something to say about studying the master of the mood.

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Jacket Copy Sells Books

I’ve been musing, intermittently, on this blog and in polls, on the value of a good book cover. What is a good book cover and does it sell book? Who is influenced by a book cover? Many authors, when asked, will tell you they hate the book covers of their novels, most of the time because they’re not representative of their story/content. Same thing for the title. How compelling does it have to be? Does the title influence book buying?

It turns out that both do, but only in conjunction with how compelling the jacket copy (or back copy) –the blurb that tells you what the book’s about– is even more important. In a commissioned study of over 3600 readers, Publishing Trends noted that “The job of writing jacket copy shouldn’t be foisted off on editorial assistants—it is the second most important book purchase factor (after favorite author).”

It seems that most reader want real information about the book and a prosaic representation of the message the book cover and title send. Interestingly enough, reviewers such as The New York Times have less than a 13% influence on book buying. In addition,

The importance of various elements of jacket copy also varies by age. Younger book shoppers are more interested in character detail and brief promotional statements or quotes—31% of readers under 18, for instance, said they’d be most influenced by a statement like “Sometimes what happens in Vegas follows you home.” And even though they might have little else in common, the under-18 crowd shares the preference for a snappy promotional statement with readers over 65, 25% of whom are most influenced by these statements. Younger and older shoppers don’t want to work hard to figure out what a book is about, so flap copy aimed at them should cut to the chase.

This means that, for an author and publisher, knowing your audience is crucial in how you write jacket copy. Still, the article concludes that there is no magic bullet. As we say, to each his own, even when it comes to blurbs.

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Fiction Friday >> Las Vegas

[Fiction] Friday Challenge for April 24, 2009:
During her first trip to Las Vegas, a woman experiences the luckiest night of her life. (It’s not from gambling).

“Shhhh.” Sandra rocked the baby as she looked around her, at all the blinking lights, the people frantically putting coins into the slot machines, chewing gum or drinking. The noise was deafening, but it would provide cover for the baby’s cries.
She’d seen her and knew it was hers. She’d been waiting for a moment like this, to find her baby, the one, the only. She was dressed in a pink pinafore with pink booties, just the way she would have dressed her if… Well. She looked down at the girl as she rushed out of the casino.
“We’ll just have to pretend you’re a boy for a while, sweetie, but don’t worry. Once we’re far from here, I’ll buy you all the pink dresses you want.”
She hadn’t wanted to come to Las Vegas, but her sister had insisted she needed a change of pace after she’d lost Frannie. But she’d found her again, with these other people. They might miss her for a while, but they’d get over it. The baby was hers.
Coming to Vegas had been a good thing. This was the luckiest night of her life. She rushed away from the casino as she heard a woman screaming for her child.

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Fiction Friday >> Doing what?

[Fiction] Friday Challenge for April 17th, 2009:
Include this line somewhere in your story: “I’m never doing that again.”

“Well. I’m never doing that again.”


“You know. That.”


“It’s kinda gross. Sticky and salty and smooth all at the same time. And once you got the taste in your mouth, it won’t go away.”

“Really? I never tried it.”

“I should never let Peter convince me to try it. But, you know, I’m always game for anything.”

“He’s adventurous, that one.”

“At least, I didn’t try it in public. Can you imagine what it would look like?”

“Embarrassing, to say the least.”


“I would have paid to see your face when you swallowed.”

“I nearly puked. Peter was laughing his head off.”

“Such a gentleman.”

“I know. I’m sort of thinking maybe we shouldn’t go out together anymore. He’s weirding me out.”

“Anyone who would convince me to eat a peanut butter and sardines sandwich is a kook in my books.”

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The difficulty of English language

I’ve said before that I learned to speak English when I was twenty-one. Learning the language is not only about grammar, vocabulary, or spelling, but also about pronunciation. Dessert and desert: why are they pronounced the same, yet spelled differently? Walk and salmon. Both have a useless “l” in the middle and you’d think that they’d be pronounced in the same way. Noooo. Dough and cough have only one letter difference. Excuse me?

I found this poem, The Chaos, by Gerard Nolst Trenité that exemplifies exactly what I mean. Continue reading

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