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.

And I Am Free

The view from my childhood home

The view from my childhood home

Did you ever run away from home, as a child? My childhood memories are sketchy at best. I recall the hullabaloo when my sister ran away, and was subsequently discovered hiding out in the neighbour’s garden.

I seem to remember a similar ruckus to do with me walking to or from Brownies by myself (it was several miles away along a deserted road) because Mum couldn’t take me.

My childhood comes back in vague flashes that I’ve learned not to rely on as the truth. But I do know that I was often away from the house. I roamed the fields, climbed trees, waded through rivers, either with friends or alone. Home was not a happy place and I avoided it when I could. (When a psychiatrist asked me to name a significant adult I remembered from childhood, I couldn’t, settling eventually on a neighbour who used to breed rabbits and whose house I used to haunt.)

The other place I escaped to was inside a book. No friends outside school? No matter. I had the Sweet Valley High twins, Nancy Drew and the Famous Five. No boyfriend? Never mind. I had a hundred romance stories, from Georgette Heyer and Mills and Boon, to Jane Austen and Emily Bronte. All the happy ever afters you could desire (what they did to my expectations of love and marriage is another post entirely.)

Roaming the fields near home

Roaming the fields near home

As an adult little changed. My roaming got further afield, to the Lake District and Scotland, Morocco and New Zealand. My reading switched, unfortunately, to Nineteenth Century Russian History, to be rescued by Shakespeare and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

And now? Now I long to run away. To roam the fields unfettered without rushing for the school run. I long to drive more than ten miles from home, to be by myself with wide open skies and roaring rivers. To not be ruled by the clock and the routine and the responsibilities. To get through a night without drawing on compassion that doesn’t come naturally or survive a day with no need for patience.

So I escape, into books, and discover that writing has become my salvation. Many writers I know have always been writers. They’ve known from the beginning that that is what they were meant to be. Not me. I wanted to an academic and control words, as I couldn’t control life. I had all the freedom I needed in the mountains I climbed and the books I read.

Escaping to the Lakes

Escaping to the Lakes

Then I became a mother, and my world contracted to a tiny point of endless worry. Even reading wasn’t always an escape (husbands and children don’t understand “this is a good bit” and are sure to interrupt at the climax, never mind my new inability to read anything where people suffer.)

I couldn’t find the books I needed, so I wrote them. I write of all I’ve learned, all the things I’ve done, the people I’ve been, to remind myself. I write of painting huge canvasses or taking photographs, hiking mountains and travelling far from home. I write to remember and I write to forget.

And I read, with my fingers in my ears. I hoard the last chapter until I know I can enjoy it uninterrupted. I read fantasy books by brilliant authors who let me live other lives for a while and make me want to be a better writer. I read at the school gate, and write in the supermarket, and plot and plan in the dark hours of coughing and crying and complaining and cuddles.

And I am free.

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.