Becoming a Career Writer: Combining Magic with Reality, Re-reading The Raven Cycle and Learning From Stephen King

in #writinglast year (edited)

I have long loved The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater. I've read the original quartet a number of times in its entirety, and the continuing books in the series are the only books I actively pre-order. When I first read this series, I was 14/15 and my writing was mostly just scribbling in hidden journals and hoping no one would ask me what I was working on. Now, with two poetry collections and a chapbook, numerous short story and poetry publications, and a novella in the works under my belt, I'm re-reading the series with two goals in mind:

  1. To rediscover the sense of the weird, wild, and strange in the ordinary that has influenced so much of my own writing over the years, which I feel I've lost touch with in the course of a huge, life-changing move to a new city and a subsequent pandemic. Survival mode hasn't realized it can leave, yet, and it's been very hard to get my head centered back in my writing in the way that I feel it used to be.

  2. To read with a critical, author's eye in order to understand what about the series compels my love for it, and what it is about Stiefvater's writing that draws me to it, so that I can better understand and utilize these techniques in my own writing.

As a teenager — who am I kidding, I'm still like this — I had a hard time conceptualizing my sense of self. This touches so many aspects of my life, from my decision-making skills to my ability to stand up for myself, but it also affects my writing. I have a terrible habit of trying to mimic, generally unconsciously, whoever I've been reading lately, with varying degrees of success. With The Raven Cycle being such a huge staple in my literary tastes, and with having just worked my way through Maggie Stiefvater's writing course (which you can find for yourself on Etsy), it's so tempting as an author to look at Stiefvater's incredible work and think: That. I want to write like that.

But one of those pesky things I've learned as I travel in the opposite direction of an upcoming 22nd birthday is that it's time I stopped writing when inspiration strikes and hoping for the best. Perfectionism is another of those things that has haunted me for a long time, and it's like climbing a strictly vertical mountain to try to get me to work on writing something I feel isn't "up to par" from the first draft. Which, if you know anything about anything, you know that "firsts" are not often synonymous with "good". I'm also currently reading On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King, and he emphasizes, in his very recognizable way, the importance of setting a goal and writing, no matter what. In his words:

 “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” Likewise "You need the room, you need the door, and you need the determination to shut the door. You need a concrete goal, as well. The longer you keep to these basics, the easier the act of writing will become. Don't wait for the muse. As I've said, he's a hardheaded guy who's not susceptible to a lot of creative fluttering. This isn't the Ouija board of the spirit-world we're talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you're going to be every day from nine 'til noon or seven 'til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he'll start showing up, chomping his cigar and making his magic."

If you know me, you know that I'm in love with the idea of the wild poet, the tortured author scribbling away in a notebook at a coffee shop, on a park bench, in the grocery check-out line, etc. I love the fanciful nature of artists and authors, the trope of wandering dream-like with a story in your head. And I would like to think that I am all of that every now and again. The problem with all of that is that it's inconsistent. I often wait for ideas as wonderful to me as, say, The Raven Cycle for instance, to fall into place. Sometimes they do! I read often and dream often, and the gratification of fulfillment garnered by what I surround myself with keeps me going, with the knowledge that I'm creating a decent amount of writing and doing well, all things considered.

Yet, it's rarely enough. My fear of imperfection is constantly battling the inherent need to write, until I'm existing in a perpetual state of unfulfillment and anxiety. Stephen King also said, "When you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening (or reading, or watching), every outing is a bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy." In some strange way, I need to write. There's a noticeable shift in my moods if I don't, more anger, more frustration. The hard part is acknowledging that it doesn't need to be good. It just needs to exist; editing will come later. Even bad writing is words written, and that's really the essential first step.

This brings me to the thought that originally had me sitting down to write this piece: taking what I read and using it to establish my own sense of self as a writer. One of my biggest struggles with writing is dialogue. As a self-described "poet who also writes spec fic", dialogue is one of those things that I've been able to avoid for the most part, and I despise how stilted my dialogue sounds when I do write it. In many cases, the rest of the piece will have a flow and an ambience that draws the reader in, only to be jerked back to reality as soon as a character opens their mouth. Re-reading The Raven Cycle had me re-thinking the way I approach dialogue, as I've always loved how the characters interact with one another.

Stephen King maintains that the key to good dialogue is honesty. This seems like sound enough advice, but I started stumbling over the concept as I realized that so much of what I love about The Raven Cycle, the dialogue, is far from what you might expect to come from mouths of a gaggle of high school kids. Here is where I discovered the intersection of two styles: novels renowned for their ability to place the reader in the immediate action because the characters have such an aura of reality about them, and novels that that set reality and unreality side-by-side so seamlessly that you don't notice that the dialogue is somewhat unrealistic though not dishonest, while the overhead effect is crucial to the narrative and just as necessary. I've never met high school guy who speaks like Gansey, although maybe I just knew the wrong sort of guys in my very rural high school. I'll leave this one open for debate.

Regardless, there are definitely aspects of the dialogue throughout the series that would ring strange and perhaps a tad unsettling if said aloud by a real person. Sometimes, these characters seem to me as we want people to be, as we want to perceive people. And yet, they are honest. In a world of magical forests and rampant dreamers set up against the realities of the world we know, the dialogue fits. It knows the constraints of the world of the series, not the world outside of it. It is accurate to each character and contains some of the brutal truth-telling that I wish I found in real life.

Take, for instance, (some slight spoilers ahead), this scene from the first book. Gansey asks Ronan to be "straight" with him, in the sense of being straightforward. Ronan replies, "I'm always straight." and Adam pipes in with, "Oh, man, that's the biggest lie you've ever told.” At that point in the book, this seems to be an exchange about Ronan as a character lying frequently. It's only much, much later in the series that the reader learns that Ronan is gay, which suddenly gives this small piece of a dialogue a double meaning.

Another example of this brutal honesty disguised as a flippant and incredulous statement also happens in the first book. Upon meeting Ronan's brother Declan's girlfriend and shaking her hand, she exclaims that Noah's hands are very cold. Noah responds, “I’ve been dead for seven years, that’s as warm as they get.” For what we've learned about Noah up until this point, someone who is anti-social and hates gatherings or eating around people, this seems like a sarcastic brush off, so incredulous in the midst of the ordinary living space the group is meeting in that you assume he's joking. It's only about 3/4 of the way through the book that you realize Noah is in fact dead, and suddenly a thousand different little hints add up. I've always thought this line was memorable and extremely clever in its application.

The last example I'd like to bring up occurs at the end of the first book. This one is not so much a truth disguised as a lie, but a truth that sounds so impossible it might as well be a lie. Ronan tells the group: “I guess now would be a good time to tell you. I took Chainsaw (his pet raven) out of my dreams.” The absolute truth in this very impossible statement, and the fact that it's used to end the first book, makes it a particularly compelling use of this style of dialogue.

This re-read has been wonderful for a number of reasons, but this new observation about the power and varied uses of dialogue has been a great help in my own writing, as has Stephen King's On Writing. I'm not usually one for "how-to" writing books or writers memoirs, but this is a definite must-read on my very small exception list.

Happy writing!

To purchase any of the books mentioned, consider using my Bookshop affiliate link! I as well as Harriett's Bookshop (a black woman-owned bookstore local to Philadelphia) will receive a small commission.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
The Raven Boys: Book 1 of the Raven Cycle
The Dream Thieves: Book 2 of the Raven Cycle
Blue Lily, Lily Blue: Book 3 of the Raven Cycle
The Raven King: Book 4 of the Raven Cycle

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