Envying the Extraordinary

Raven.jpgI have just finished The Raven King, the last in The Raven Cycle, by Maggie Stiefvater.

Oh. My. Lord.

Mind. Blown.

I loved the first book in the series, The Raven Boys, when I read it way back when (three years ago, apparently), and was bereft at how it just ended dead (well, bloomin furious is probably closer).

Then I read Dream Thieves and darn me if it didn’t happen again, although the beautiful organic prose made it almost okay. So, when Blue Lily, Lily Blue came out, I was still a little resentful, and not quite ready to re-read the first two and catch up.

I’m glad I waited because it meant I could consume all four books inside a month.

I’m trying to describe how I feel, without giving anything away: it’s a series that has to be appreciated without anything resembling a spoiler. The reveal, the experiencing alongside the characters, is the heart and soul of it.

To borrow a shadow of Maggie Stiefvater’s masterful imagery, I feel like I have hiked up an impossible mountain, thinking the view couldn’t get any better, certain I’ll be disappointed. And then the top is a panoramic view of a magical world. And then – and then – there’s a crystal ice-clear lake, and I jump in, and I’m shocked and shaking and tingling and alive all at once.

That.

I want to hold the book, the characters, the story, the journey, hold it to my face, like I do the guinea pigs, and sink into the warmth and comfort and escapism of it.

And yet.

I also want to write like that. And I know I can’t. And it’s okay.

Sort of.

It’s like at school, when I didn’t do A Level Art, because I was never going to get an A, and I wanted to go to Cambridge University (or other people thought I should want to, I can’t really remember) and because the other kids were just so amazing at all sorts of artistry I couldn’t even dream of, and I was never going to produce something like that out of my mundane and stubborn imagination.

So I did History and Maths and English Literature, and quietly slowly smothered my creativity and turned myself into an academic and then a number-cruncher.

*Shudder*

I can’t let my awe-ful (in the full-of-awe sense) admiration, hunger and desire for these books, this writing, this powerful imagery and incredible world-building, I can’t let it stop me being the writer I am. Just because I can’t get an A, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t continue to create.

But oh my. To write like that. To be able to give ten years to a set of books – ten years! To persist and dream and create and build and then – let go! How hard must it have been to finish? Just finishing reading them was hard enough. The only thing I admire more than the talent and vision is the sheer dedication and determination. I get bored writing a book after ten weeks.

Anyway, I’m still rather swept up in the Raven Cycle , the hyperbolic, dreamy, electrically charged world. So, sorry for the slightly dreamy hyperbolic post.

I’m not quite ready to come back to earth.

Normal service will resume when I tear myself away from the mountain top. Just a little bit longer.

Defining the Climb

My Latest Read

My Latest Read

I finally started reading Twin Curse by Rinelle Grey this evening, having decided I’m ready to go back to kindle reading after a month of library paperbacks. And I realised, after my self-deprecating discussion of my own writing recently, that there is a place for all types of reads.

Not to suggest that Rinelle’s writing is anything other than great, because I love her work (I feel I’m digging a hole here. Bear with me!)  but, after the flowery dense descriptions of Maggie Stiefvater, it’s refreshing to get to grips with a standard format book, with clear limited third-person perspective, relatable characters and a promising storyline.

I started it for five minutes before bed (after mooching Facebook all evening because I’m between books and feeling poorly) and I’m already 14% through. I might never write the awe-inspiring prose I admired in The Dream Thieves, but if I can learn to spin a riveting yarn, then that’s good enough for me. (Again, I feel I’m unintentionally comparing Rinelle’s books unfavourably to Maggie’s. It’s not my aim. Sigh. Moving on.)

As I just got another low rating on Goodreads for one of my books (without a text review to explain why) I clearly still have some way to go. But a mountain is climbed one step at a time, and maybe sometimes it’s worth accepting that Ben Nevis is fine, and we can’t all conquer Everest.

And maybe sometime soon we’ll all stop being ill and I’ll be able to get back to climbing my mountains without poorly husband and child in tow!

Descriptions That Breathe – Bringing Writing to Life

The Dream Thieves

The Dream Thieves

When I write, both in my blog and my novels, I know that my language is straightforward – no deviation between signifier and signified. No real stretch of the imagination necessary to obtain meaning. I gently lead the reader by the hand as they wander through my stories without minimal effort required on their part.

Thinking about it this morning, I’ve decided this is due to three things: My inexperience as a writer of fiction, my background as an analyst and academic, and my constant lack of sleep. Taking those in order, this is how I see it:

1. My inexperience as a writer means I lack confidence and bravery. I over-explain to make sure the reader understands my story, knows what my characters are thinking and feeling. I dread “I don’t get it” and as a result probably get “I don’t feel it.”  Any tendency towards being different is slashed so that I can find acceptance. Any flowery description is deleted as ‘purple prose.’ (The person who edited Baby Blues crossed-out half the similes, saying, for example, “Or just ‘he slept'”)

2. Similarly, my business and academic background have kept my language uncomplex. Actually, that isn’t true of the academic writing: what that did for me was ingrain the passive tense as an acceptable form of language usage. “One could argue that …” is a historian’s stock phrase.

But marketing was all about saying what you meant in easy words. There’s a phrase in marketing, summarised as the acronym KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid. One of my jobs working in Internal Comms was to take complex business documents and ‘translate’ them into briefings for the staff. I was good at seeing through difficult ideas and getting to the essence of the message.

It’s a useful skill as a parent of young children. I am constantly trying to break abstract ideas down into basic language. Unfortunately, nothing kills vocabulary quicker than not using it. Oh, apart from lack of sleep.

3. I can barely remember the colours of the rainbow on fewer than six hours’ continuous sleep and I hardly ever get anything near that these days. I remember at university, when I would pull all-nighters to complete essays: I’d stumble into the communal kitchen at 7 a.m., bleary eyed, and ask my housemates, “What’s another way to say Stalin was pissed off?”

Bereft that I've finished it!

Bereft that I’ve finished it!

Why am I writing this defence of my unsophisticated prose? I finished The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater last night, and was as blown away as I was by The Raven Boys (and slightly less put out at the ending, having braced myself with the knowledge that it’s a quartet of books.)

Maggie Stiefvater’s writing is beautifully rich. Meanings have to be wrestled from the often dense and opaque prose. Motivations, character’s feelings, and even the basic plot, are often hard to fathom, despite the novel being written in omnipotent third person. It is not a passive read.

What I love most is the way the language is mixed up. I’m struggling to describe it (for all the reasons listed above!) but the closest I can come is to say the descriptions are alive. Just as Death is anthropomorphised in the Terry Pratchett novels, so is everything in The Dream Thieves. It seems appropriate, in a novel where the trees speak Latin and half the characters are psychics, that you can have an “ardently yellow” polo shirt or a “desolate” washing line (pp 7 and 57 respectively. All references taken from the paperback version, UK, 2013.)

Some of the language reminds me of my favourite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was known for stringing words together, like “dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding | Of the rolling level underneath him steady air” (from The Windhover.”). Compare Maggie’s description of one of the characters visiting the family house:

“When Ronan opened the door, the car was immediately filled with the damp-earth, green-walled, mould-stone scent of home.” (p147)

All the senses invoked in one description, without apparent effort. You don’t have to analyse what the character feels, smells, sees, because it’s all there.

For the first time I wish I’d read the book in e-form, as I’m struggling to locate some of my favourite phrases. But here are a few (none of which, I hope, give any story away):

“Adam’s hand glided over her bare elbow. The touch was a whisper in a language she didn’t speak very well.” (p9)

“Gansey’s furiously orange-red ancient Camaro.” (p21)

“Blue Sargent was pretty in a way that was physically painful to him. He was attracted to her like a heart attack.” (p60)

“Then the engine expired … The engine ticked like a dying man’s foot.” (p122)

“Declan looked shocked and poisonous. He was always so alarmed by the truth.” (p411)

“The past was something that had happened to another version of himself, a version that could be lit and hurled away.” (p221)

“Cicadas sang madly from the trees. It was so impossibly summer.” (p340)

“She smiled at him. It was a tiny, secretive thing, like a bird peering from branches.” (p360)

“The crowd, drunk and high and gullible and desirous of wonders, screamed their support.” (p432)

“It was deadly like a cancer. Like radiation.” (p434)

It would be disingenuous to write in Maggie Stiefvater’s style. It is so clearly and unequivocally hers. But reading books like this stretch my vocabulary muscles and build up their strength. They encourage me to be braver and self-censor slightly less. Above all, they transport me to a place where words are everything, reminding me of their power. A place where emotions aren’t described as “her heart thumped like a hammer” (there are a lot of thumping hearts in my prose!)

To read is to learn and to learn is to grow. Bring it on.

Revisions and The Raven Boys

My new workstation - the kids' homework desk!

My new workstation – the kids’ homework desk!

I finally managed to get back to some work today, having packed my almost-better children off to school and nursery. I felt guilty about it, because they probably should have been at home, but I needed the space and silence and absence of sick to start feeling human again.

It felt good to work on my manuscript for the first time in ten days, even though I failed at the numbers game. That’s the thing with revision: you write and write and cut and edit and, at the end of several hours, you have 200 words fewer than you started with.

It’s disheartening.

I’m editing and expanding with this novel, so there are still thousands of words to write to fill the gaps. It’s not uncommon for me. When I write my first drafts I tend to write the highlights; something like an extended synopsis. I write for the romantic ending, the big scenes, the turning points. Then, fifty thousand words later, I look through what I have written and think what?! How did I get from there to there? How did she go from hating to loving him? Why have I given all the secrets away in the first chapter? How much backstory? Then I have to go through and unpick the mess. Fill in the motivations, flesh out the hundred-word paragraphs that really should be two-thousand word chapters. It’s tiresome work, because I write to discover the ending. Once I’ve reached the end, I’m not that interested in filling in the spaces.

I read that way, too. I usually have to read a book twice because, the first time through, (if the book’s any good at story pace or suspense) I skim-read whole chapters to get to the essence, the plot point, the drama. I miss all the great language, the unfolding of characters and personalities, the subplots, the themes. I devour the book, barely tasting it, and then have to go back through and vacuum up the crumbs.

Revision leaves me feeling like this

Revision leaves me feeling like this

I’m reading the sequel to The Raven Boys – The Dream Thieves – at the moment (despite my rant about the abrupt and unsatisfying ending of the first one) and I’m utterly hooked. Now that I know it’s a four-parter, I’m not worrying too much about story resolution (although I’m still skimming ahead for the drama, of which there is plenty). I feel that I’m reading the book in a language other than my native tongue, as if it’s in Old English or something, because the writing is dense and complex and poetically beautiful, but for some reason that’s okay.

But it hasn’t helped my revision. Because, when I put the book down and reluctantly get back to work, I read through my oh-so-obvious story line, with my two-dimensional, unintriguing characters, and I want to chuck the lot in the bin. My Alex and Rebecca are pale imitations (not imitations, because I wrote them before I read Maggie Stiefvater, but you know what I mean), pale shadows of Gansey and Ronan, Adam and Blue. And I want them to shine and live, like Maggie’s characters do. It’s exhausting.

No one says writing a novel is easy. Actually, writing it is the easy part. Making it make sense, making it shine: that’s the impossible task. Reading the words of a master is at once both inspiring and crushing. Never mind. I shall slog on, ignoring the expert sprinting past to the finish, and climb my own climb, one step at a time. It’s worked before. I have faith. I’ll see you at the summit!

Not Cool, Maggie…

Amazing book, disappointing ending

Amazing book, disappointing ending

Speechless, I am utterly speechless. After a week of living on my nerves, pouring adrenalin into my reading of Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys, of dealing with the dreams and the nightmares and stealing moments to read when I should be parenting or sleeping, I snuck upstairs to read the last chapter this afternoon and WTF?

I have no words.

The damn book just stops. It’s like there are four chapters missing. No explanation, no nothing. Even the tagline “If you kiss your true love, he will die” isn’t remotely or vaguely explained. What a crock of poo.

I’ve never been so distressed at the end of the book. It took me so long to get into the story, to get around the complicated viewpoints, the multiple lead protagonists, the magic and the history and the different cultures. The writing is deep and opaque and quotable and the characters so real I feel like they’re following me around. I couldn’t guess the ending and that excited me. I didn’t know how it was going to resolve itself, how the tagline would be answered, but I knew it would be good.

And then it just ended. Nothing. The last time I felt remotely this bad was at the end of The Knife of Never Letting Go, although at least there was some resolution before it went straight into the next drama. At least I knew there was a sequel, when I read Patrick Ness’s book. With The Raven Boys there is nothing on my copy to indicate that it is part of a series, so my expectation was for a resolution.

The sequel

The sequel

As my ire cools, I have managed to discover that there is a sequel. The Dream Thieves was thankfully released in September last year, so I can try and get hold of a copy this week. Except I probably won’t. Because, here’s the thing, if the first book in a series doesn’t have some sort of cathartic resolution, I don’t have the energy to read the sequel straightaway.

I will probably never read The Ask and the Answer – the sequel to The Knife of Never Letting Go. I was too exhausted from the first book to read the second one immediately, and knowing that the story follows on continuously I would have to re-read the first book before reading the second to remind myself of the story. And I don’t have the energy to do that.

It may be the same with The Raven Boys. Except I liked Blue and Adam and Gansey, Ronan and Noah far too much to abandon them. I’m not even bothered about resolving the tagline anymore, I just want to hang out with them some more. Only the next book is about my least favourite character, Ronan, and as a result I’m not drawn in as I would have been if it had been someone else.

So, Maggie, you might be forgiven, because your writing is just awesome. I feel like I can learn so much from you about characterisation, setting, story, plot, mood and use of language. But maybe not how to write a satisfying ending.

Because ending a story without resolving the tagline? Not cool.

Research and The Raven Boys

What Alex's London flat might look like

What Alex’s London flat might look like

I miss Claire. There, I’ve said it. I miss writing an installment of her journey each day, with a reasonable idea of where she was in the world, at least, and where her story was going. I miss guaranteed word count.

I’m in redrafting hell at present, trying to rescue two characters I love from a badly plotted and planned novel awash with backstory. The problem with loading a first draft with backstory is that changing one thing has a rippling effect across the entire manuscript, especially if you’re trying to rewrite two lines of throwaway history into a whole chapter or even two.

My lead man Alex has a friend called Philip who is essential to the story. Starting In Media Res I didn’t have to worry too much about their relationship before; where they first met, how they met, considering they’re so different. Now, though, we first see them catching up down the pub, setting up the rest of the story’s action, and I have to understand all these things. How do people from different backgrounds meet? How do their different careers and incomes affect their friendship? What’s the age difference? I managed 700 words of stilted dialogue today and gave up in disgust.

I’m also trying not to be overly influenced by the book I’m reading – The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater – as her novel contains a character that could be, or at least have known, Alex as a public school boy. Maggie Stiefvater’s character is so convincing I’m finding parts of him creeping into my prose: except Raven Boys is set in America, whereas Alex would have gone to an English boarding school (which I know very little about, another fact that wasn’t especially important before.)

As each of these random strands of research crop up, I keep losing the flow of writing because I need to research the role of a stage hand or investigate pubs in North London or apartments in Chelsea. I might even have to watch an episode of Made in Chelsea – *shudder* – to try and understand Alex’s present girlfriend Paige more, as again she has moved from a paragraph of explanation to a speaking part.

I swear this is the last time I rescue an old manuscript by moving the timeline back a few months. Next time it starts where it starts and that’s that!