Monday, September 14, 2015

Creating Mood in Fiction with Dr. Scott Dalrymple

Dr. Scott Dalrymple, President of Columbia College, spoke enthusiastically during his presentation at CCMWG's September meeting about creating mood in fiction.

Although presiding over a college is his profession, writing, especially short fantasy/science fiction pieces, is his passion.

His talk was casual, but his remarks were practical, thoughtful, and, at times -- deep.

Here are some notes/quotes I jotted down:
* The slush pile does get read, usually by an intern or an assistant. That's how his first short story got discovered.
* Having a good plot, especially in short stories, is not as important as having a good command of the language.
* If a story gets rejected, hold on to it for a while and revise and resubmit either that piece or a new piece to the same publication. (Editors move on -- or the same one might forget he/she read your story before.)
* He compared novelists and short story writers to carpenters.
  - Novelists are like framing carpenters with big elaborate structures (plots).
  - Short story writers are like finish carpenters (not to be confused with carpenters from Finland) who work on the smaller details (mood, language).
* He prefers to write shorter works -- but he enjoys reading novels.
* Editing is his favorite phase of the writing process.
* You've got to write something before you can edit.
* The "sound" of writing is crucial -- the cadence and rhythm (musicality, syllables, stresses).
* The rule of three is powerful (like the Holy Trinity). Dickens used it.
* Adjectives and adverbs are overused.
* The "reluctant hero" in modern fiction is annoying.
* Experiment writing in different persons; second person is tricky and some readers don't like it.
* Pick the one word that works; it can be an off-kilter word. (He prefers darker, bordering on horror).
* Think of  a stranger way to say it.
* "Not all good ideas turn out to be true."
* Great poets stun him (in a good way).
* In his opinion, Gene Wolfe is the greatest living writer and the "master of the casual revelation."
* Flash fiction pieces can convey a mood, and writing them is a good way to learn the craft.
* Huck Finn is the great American novel.
* "Endings are hard to write." (Dickens reportedly changed his for Great Expectations.)
* One of his advisors in college commented that "Real life doesn't have an ending -- it's unsatisfying."
* If others weren't there, what would we be?

How's that for heady stuff?

Although I typically don't read fantasy or science fiction, I'm going to check out Gene Wolfe, and I might even try writing something in second person.


  1. Thanks for sharing your notes. This was a great list to read through. Loved the "write something before the edit" line.

  2. He should charge by the pound! That's a hefty bit of advice. And not a tuft of fluff included.

    1. Very true. He said a lot more but I didn't get it all down.

  3. Donna--Down...fluff. I see what you did there. Very clever.

    It sounds like it was a wonderful presentation. And now I am also tempted to check out Gene Wolf.

    1. Hi Sioux,
      It was purely an accident. But a great presentation.

  4. Thanks for sharing, Donna. Great stuff, and like you and others, I'm going to check out Gene Wolf... yet another to add to my list.

  5. Thx for sharing this. He sounds like a top notch speaker. Lots of good things to say.

  6. Hi Lynn,
    It was worth the trip to COMO.

    Hi Marcia,
    He was impressive.

  7. Sounds like he gave you a lot to summarize! I especially love the line, "Think of a stranger way to say it." That really does sum up a lot.

  8. Great notes, Donna. I love his distinction between framing carpenters and finish carpenters. My favorite phase of the writing process is editing as well, but so true that you must write something first before you can edit it. Wonderful list of tips and information. Thanks so much!

  9. Thanks for the summary, Donna. He sounds like a terrific presenter.

    Critter Alley

  10. Thanks for the summary, Donna. He sounds like a terrific presenter.

    Critter Alley

  11. Thanks for the post, Donna. Very good advice. I especially liked -- The "sound" of writing is crucial -- the cadence and rhythm (musicality, syllables, stresses),
    the rule of three is powerful (like the Holy Trinity). Dickens used it, think of a stranger way to say it and endings are hard to write. I hate reading a story to be let down by the ending.


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