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Red = Rage. Ocean = Longing. Literary =

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Every so often I have this conversation at a school visit.



After my presentation, a student drags a beleaguered English teacher  to my side.

STUDENT (always with a rather mocking tone): So, Maggie, when you put red curtains in a scene, does that mean that the characters are angry and stuff?
ENGLISH TEACHER: That’s not quite—
STUDENT: —Because we are supposed to analyze all of these books and I don’t think any of the writers actually put in an ocean in the scene just so that two hundred years later we could read it and think the ocean stands for longing.
ENGLISH TEACHER: Sometimes a literary device—
STUDENT: I think we’re just looking for stuff that isn’t there. The writer just put in an ocean because the book TAKES PLACE BY THE BEACH. And the rest was invented by evil English teachers.
ENGLISH TEACHER: If I were evil, I’d—
STUDENT: —So, you’re the writer: do red curtains mean anger?
ME: Curtains do make me angry.

And then I was at LeakyCon, sitting in on a panel called “Is YA Literature?” to find out if I was writing literature, and this (summarized) conversation happened:


The panelists have just been asked to define what is meant by literary fiction.

SMART ADULT WRITER: All I know is, I know literary fiction when I see it.
SMART YA WRITER: I got a look at the guidelines for assigned school reading and they suggested it be a book with enough content to be analyzed. Enough depth to support multiple interpretations.
ANOTHER SMART YA WRITER: I think literary is a ridiculous term and value is assigned by our readers, right here, right now: do they like it or not? There’s no such thing as a good book or a bad book. There’s a book that matters to a reader.

I think you can talk in endless circles about what constitutes “literary” fiction and whether it’s good or bad or has no value or can be traded for a gallon of milk. And I also think you can talk in endless circles about whether or not there are “good” books and “bad” books and who gets to decide which is which. And if you do ever find an end to these circles, you can finish up with a indefatigable dessert course of the literary writing versus commercial writing debate.

So I’m instead going to talk about the one thing that interests me about fiction: getting into your head and moving stuff around. I am in the business of changing people’s moods and making them see scenes the way that I see them and feel things the way I want them to be felt. You may consider me Very Interested in learning everything I can about doing all that more effectively.

Sometimes, dear reader, this is going to mean making the curtains red.

Please know that I’m not much for literary writing for the sake of literary writing. I enjoy a nice turn of the phrase, sure. I do enjoy picking apart novels to see what makes them tick. But my academic pleasure runs out very quickly (now there is the least sexy sentence I’ve ever written). As a writer, I am delighted to be given literary prizes, but they aren’t on my list of goals. I’m chiefly interested literary devices insofar as they allow me to more effectively get inside your head and move around the furniture.

And they do. Allow me to demonstrate. Here are two paragraphs from one of my favorite sequences from The Dream Thieves*:

*these are not spoilery, although they are from the middle of the book, so if you want to be totally uninformed on the action of Book 2, I suggest you wander to another corner of the Internet.
bits and bobs from The Dream Thieves

Oh, I had such plans for this party scene. I wanted the reader to see it just like I did. The all-encompassing luxury, warm and old and unquestioned. The complexity of the political world, the beauty of wealth, and the stagnation and corruption of old, unchallenged value systems. Adam, as my point-of-view character, is feeling and thinking about all of these things, and I wanted the reader to experience it with him.

I could have told the reader all of those things. Point blank. I could have gone with a barebones description of the driveway:

The circular driveway was packed with so many elegant vehicles that the valets had to turn cars away.

And then just had Adam muse in italics about his feelings on being there. But then you would only know it. You wouldn’t have experienced it. I wouldn’t really be getting into your head and moving things around unannounced. I’d be walking in, hanging up a mirror, then pointing and saying “there’s a mirror. It’s yours now.”

Here’s another snippet from later:
bits and bobs from The Dream Thieves

Okay, the curtains aren’t red. But the runner is purple. How noble!

Man, I was working hard in this little section. In reality, the hallway of the house is lush and content and established. But inside our two protagonists, trouble brews — you can see it in the mirror. The side table, on the outside of the glass, is docile. But the mirror-image of the tidy hallway is crazed and twisted and rakish.

Again, I could’ve just told you: on the outside, the boys look foxy and orderly in suits, but on the inside, they are hot messes.

But I don’t want you to know. I want you to feel. And our old friends, those countless literary devices of simile, metaphor, allusion, figurative language . . . that’s the way in. It’s not about fancy literary prizes. It’s not about seeming impenetrable or smart or high fallutin. I’m not trying to impress anyone. I am trying to make you feel a story, that’s all.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t believe in the literary/ commercial divide. And I don’t believe that literary is good or bad. I believe that good novel makes readers feel, and the more readers I can make feel, the more successful I will consider that book.

I also believe that sometimes that means making the curtains red.




  • Something I have discovered in my new Higher English class is that the teacher always asks me to go to the ROOT of the metaphor and the ROOT of the image. She spoke to the class saying ‘MP3 cocoon relates to insects which are unlike humans and cocoons are used for protection’ (etc) and so I wrote that in my essay, not that exactly, I used my own words but I 100% included cocoon, insects, protective etc in my essay and I was told ‘No, you have to go to the ROOT of the image, y’know? The thing with the insects and protectiveness’
    – You see, I thought I had done that. Quite well.
    So I was wondering if you could help by telling me what the root of the image is to you? I adore your writing! I write too, some of my basic stories are on my blog and I know you are very very very busy but I would love you to read one or two (there’s only two, 1000 words each).
    Sorry for the massive comment and asking so much of you Maggie!

    • The blog is I thought it would come up, apprently it didn’t.

  • Nicole

    Whenever someone asks me who is my hero, I say without hesitation, Maggie Stiefvater. And this post is exactly why. I cannot WAIT for Dream Thieves.

  • MandiB

    Um. Love. And you move the furniture in my head. That is all.

  • Elizabeth

    Thank you! Sometimes, I feel w/ steal the joy and pleasure of reading by going on these literary scavenger hunts.

  • You said all I think about literature. I don’t think that there’s a division between comercial books and literary books. Here in Brazil, people aren’t yet ready to think this way. Paulo Coelho, our word-wide best-seller, and the Brazilian author most known in the world, is considered comercial only. Our critics can’t see his work as good, or that it has literary content. Maybe they have to read this post!

  • Jessica

    Love your work, Maggie. You inspire me.

  • Sandra

    I agree with you Maggie. I’m saddened to say that students are often driven away from reading the classics because of being forced to over-analyze it in class. I know because I was one of those students. Fortunately, although I avoided taking English in college, I have the best career in education, I’m a school librarian. I read children’s and young adult books and recommend them to my students for their reading pleasure. Thank you for giving me great books to read and promote.

  • I absolutely agree Maggie. I hated spending time in english classes dissecting writing. Writing is not mean to be dissected. It is meant to be enjoyed, felt, and lived through the eyes of the characters. You can’t dissect something without killing it first, so when you break down writing (any writing) into the smallest minute details, you miss out on the point the author is trying to get across. That is, to tell a good story, and for you, the reader, to enjoy it.

  • Sherie

    My 12 year old daughter’s curtains are red, and she is no more angry than any 12 year old girl. Usually she is quite happy, except when I tell her to clean her room (or do anything else she doesn’t want too.) And by this statement, I mean that a lot of that analysis stuff is rather superficial. And cultural. In China, red is a happy color. Although making someone think about what they are reading is at times helpful (I guess if you are an English teacher), I would have to agree with you that how a person feels or experiences the writing when reading that is most important, the movie that plays in their head while reading. So thank you.

  • Great post. There’s (unfortunately) no shortage of pedantic English teachers who get caught up in the details and don’t manage to convey why the redness of the curtains is really relevant, but there’s also just as many (maybe more) snotty kids who try to write off any marginally critical thought as “over-analysis”. Whenever I go to define “literature”, I usually come up with mostly insulting descriptors… Mainly because I don’t see why we should be wasting time on the ridiculous & arbitrary high art/low art divisions when we can share the fun and over-analyze everything.

  • Angelica

    I’m taking a course on Fantasy in literature in August. I will be printing out every single one of your blog entries and then I’ll reference to them when I start disagreeing with the teacher. No, I won’t. That was exaggerating. But it would be very satisfying.

    Also, I think it’s quite scary to have your writing picked apart like that. I mean, for one thing, I think it’s sort of an analysis of the writer’s mind. I think that sometimes you put certain things in fictional writing and in reality it’s some screwed-up mind-thing you’ve got going on that can be analysed and suddenly you could be diagnosed a sociopath. No, now I’m exaggerating again. But I hope you get what I’m saying.

    Even though I’m not entirely sure I get what I’m saying. It’s very early where I live…

  • oh wow. this makes me despair. I do not have the kind of knowledge required to make my writing as good as yours. I’m going to need to do some learning. I think certain elements can come through subconsciously if you’re a good writer, like some people can naturally paint a picture with words. I never knew there was so much sneakiness going on in the background though! I need to raise my knowledge and become a word witch!

  • Emily

    Very well put.

    The analysis we were forced to do in junior high and high school English classes was very difficult for a dyslexic. I had taught myself to read in a way that allowed me to feel the story and become part of it without being bogged down by missing words and letters. I could analyze and knew what the book was about very well. But why the bird flew across the sky on page 98 was not something my dyslexic mind could always pick up. Some of the details would be missing from my reading.

    I have shelves full of books and read constantly, but you will only find one or two of the books I read for school classes because I was unable to feel them and become part of the story

  • I agree and appreciate your excellent explanation of good writing vs. so-called “literary fiction.” As a school librarian I too have had countless discussions with students who would rather “just read the thing!” The over-analyzation of novels can kill a book real fast. I think if you just let them read the book then discuss and write what they feel more students would appreciate reading in general. I was an English teacher and I would never give out those chapter questions again. A good teacher can guide a book discussion so that students who might not have picked some interesting devices will become enlightened.
    Maggie, you are outstanding in your writing, your art and inspire both teens and adults!

  • Anita Booth

    Thank standards based learning. I am old. My goals for students used to be for them to love literature, be able to write to be understood, to write descriptively, to write academically for college. My goal now is to ensure they can use literary terms correctly, write argumentative essays, synthesize information. Not horrible, but notice what is missing. We are great because we are creative. Reading and enjoying literature, writing imaginatively foster this.

  • The furniture is in constant movement when I read your writing. Constant. 🙂 I think the mark of a great writer is one who can not only tell us, but make us feel it, smell it, hear it… BE in that moment in the story. I agree, *that’s* what makes a novel successful. I can read all the award winning books in the world, but if I’m not in it, if the furniture isn’t moving around, as you say, I’m not going to recommend it to everyone I know.

  • Becky

    What I like most about this post is how wonderfully it fits into your ‘textbook’ post, about making a book into a textbook. (Which I’ve actually printed out and saved in my writing notebook). It’s just simply amazing.

  • I love your ability to call things as they are, just as you did in this post. I agree with your sentiments actually. When I write, I want to encourage my readers to experience and feel things for themselves!

  • I just totally agree. I get annoyed when I read a book that it just telling me everything instead of letting me feel it and my favorites are when I feel it all through the characters. There have been some that literally have had pages of descriptions or summaries of what is going on with a few sentences of the characters’ actual thoughts or conversations, or where they keep repeating the exact same wording over and over to describe things, and I think that is just terrible writing. In that case, and when there is terrible grammar and editing, I would say that there are bad books. Outside of those cases, it is all relative to the reader and their experience. 🙂 I’m glad you believe in having readers who feel, since I have enjoyed your books and each one seems to get better and better.

  • Amy

    Great post and good reminders for my own writing! I just discovered The Raven Boys a few weeks ago, but struck gold – or chocolate (explanation ahead)! I have read the typical Y/A books for the sake of studying the writing styles of best-sellers – possible vainly hoping amateur that I am – and while I appreciate Twilight and The Hunger Games and their kind, and there are elements in each that I like, I’m not really a huge fan, preferring weightier books. So I call them candy reads, because you blow through them so fast, and while they are entertaining, there isn’t generally a whole lot of meat to them (as in, life lessons or character studies). I would probably classify Twilight and The Hunger Games as jelly beans and skittles- which I like. The Raven Boys however, is like rich dark chocolate with nuts in it, and, to quote a friend, I love chocolate like Pooh loves honey! So thanks for a more in-depth book with thoroughly engrossing characters that don’t annoy in any way with their choices good or bad and have amazingly funny and realistic dialogue and move and think and act like humans and sometimes run-ons are just too fun!

  • Katie

    Before I go back to teaching 7th graders, I will be reading your books. Your description of the driveway caught me before I finished the first sentence. I love to visualize what I read, and I could see the cars and the smoke rings. I had to read every word, including all comments.

  • Ashleigh

    Hi Maggie
    I’m fifteen. My head is filled with stories and characters and plots, and I’ve started to write many of these. However, I always seem to run into a problem, and that is that whenever I write about grief or love, it always feels cliché or like I’m not adequately conveying these feelings.
    This is probably because all I know comes from books. I’ve never even had a significant crush, let alone a relationship, and I’ve never lost anyone, so no grief. My life has been fairly idyllic-no trauma-so how can I write about trauma? Everyone seems to be telling me that I should write what I know. What do you think? Is it possible to fake these emotions, and I just need to work on my writing, or do I personally need to feel these things before I write about them. Thank you for any feedback.

    P.S. I come across as a bit of an ungrateful brat, so let me just say that I am very thankful for my idyllic life.

    • David Engeman

      hello ashleigh. i may not be maggie but i have some advice for you. you say your head is filled with these stories and characters and plots, well it is my personal belief that you don’t need to have experienced these emotions to write about them

      first picture the characters and situations in your head and let your mind wander. think about this. how would your character react in this situation? how would you? let your imagination take over and brainstorm. love and grief are complicated feelings but when you let your mind take over you can get close enough to put it into words.

      from what you say you haven’t felt these emotions yet but life will throw them at you eventually

      keep working at it


  • Olivia

    Maggie, I often get irritated when one of my favorite books is made into a movie. I have a tendency to visualize things in a very specific way, and then I want to throw things when other people don’t visualize the same things. Your writing seems like it wouldn’t have this problem, however. You describe things in such a way that the emotions seem almost tangible, and I feel like I could be Rachel or Sean or Deidre or Noah, even. You write with such a precise imagery that I can smell the November Cakes in the air.

  • Sofia James

    Thanks for shring such a nice information on literary terms as it helps me lot while reading or writing anything thing which contains literary terms.
    literary terms

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Maggie Stiefvater
Hi, I'm Maggie Stiefvater

Professional novelist by day and artist by night. I live an eccentric life in the middle of nowhere, Virginia with my charmingly straight-laced husband, two kids, and neurotic dogs. I’m the author of the Books of Faerie (LAMENT and BALLAD); the bestselling SHIVER trilogy (SHIVER, LINGER, FOREVER), and THE SCORPIO RACES.

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Maggie Stiefvater Novels

Copyright 2012