Maggie
Stiefvater

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Writing the Book I Always Meant To

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I realized that I spent so long being cleverly quiet about The Scorpio Races that I never did a post about why I wrote it. I think, since today is its release day, I shall, especially since the story of it ties into a piece of advice that I really like to give to writers just starting out (I should mention that it still feels really odd giving out writing advice, even though book #6 is coming out today. I wonder when that will internalize?)

The reason why I wrote The Scorpio Races is because of a piece of advice I was given or read or found when I was a teen. I wish I could remember where it came from, but it was this: write the book you've always wanted to read, but can't find on the shelf.

Well, the book I always wanted to read had water horses in it. It's a tiny corner of Scottish and Irish and Manx mythology: swift and beautiful horses that jump out of the ocean and attack people or cattle. The legend was more complicated than that, though — the horses had their own kind of magic. Some of them turned into young men and attempted to lure women into the ocean with them. Some of them appeared as cute little ponies and tried to lure children onto their back. My particular favorite part of this legend was the line that said that as more children climbed onto the pony, its back would lengthen to accommodate them. Later, the victims' lungs and livers would wash up on the shore. 

I tried to write about them when I was in my teens. They weren't the focus of the novel, merely one of the many faerie creatures in it, and the novel failed disastrously. There are a lot of reasons why that book didn't work, but it can basically be boiled down to this: it wasn't Maggie enough yet. It was fun, but anybody could've written those versions of faeries.

Then, after I finished the mammoth draft of a faerie book that was eventually rewritten entirely under the guidance of Editor Yoda (becoming LAMENT), I started on a sort of standalone sequel to this giant novel. It was called THE HORSES OF ROAN and it was yet another attempt at writing about water horses. I was closer this time. I was chiseling away with my writing, becoming a writer that only I could be, instead of the writer I thought I ought to be, or the writer the manuals recommended. It really was closer. There are still parts of that book that I'll cannibalize for others.

Here's photographic proof of my obsession. Back then, as part of my quest to become a better artist, I was doing monthly artist studies, eventually creating a piece in the style of whoever I was studying. That month I was studying my long-dead artist boyfriend, John Singer Sargent. The subject I chose? Water horses. This painting, "The Horses of Roan," (which is giant — 40" wide) is still in my living room. It was closer to the Maggie-Idea of water horses than any of my novels had been, but I wasn’t sure why.

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THE HORSES OF ROAN was set in the marshes of Virginia and used the man-to-horse shape-shifting element and it was close, like I said, but still, someone else still could have written it.

Fast forward five books later. By now, I've been to the UK several times, enough times to know that a sizable piece of my soul is somehow lodged there in one of the rainier corners. I've also written the Shiver trilogy and watched more hours of carnivores pulling apart prey animals than I care to mention and I'm well aware that I have a fascination with the beauty and the horror of nature. And I'm also sort of kind of house-hunting, and I realize that my desire to get as far away into the country as possible is not one shared by absolutely everyone on the planet. I find myself explaining why I'd sacrifice convenience to live out in the middle of nowhere, and explaining my childhood growing up with cottonmouth snakes under the porch and no neighbors that I could see and grocery stores one hour away and sitting on the deck listening only to crickets, and further away, more crickets. And, finally, I have four siblings, two of them ten and twelve years my junior, and they're going through late teenhood, and all our conversations are at once familiar, funny, and aggravating.

And now I was ready to write the book that only I could write. Because if it was about these things that were eating at me, it would have emotional truth, and no matter how great your plot or your hook or your legend is, if you don't have the emotional hook, it's just not going to mean anything to anybody else. It might be fun. But it will also be forgettable.

So I wrote a book that was about siblings and how it looks when they are your best friends and entire social network and what happens when one leaves. And I wrote about Thisby, a tiny island in the middle of nowhere, a rocky little bit of a place that looked a lot like where my soul was lodged 3,000 miles away. I wrote about why some people left and why some people stayed, the hardship and the beauty of it. I wrote about deadly carnivores that weren't villains and humans who were.

Oh, and it had other Maggie things in it: I adore race movies and I'll watch absolutely any one of them that comes on. Days of Thunder, Herbie, The Black Stallion. I love reading about descriptions of food, so in that went. I love old magic that looks like superstition until suddenly, in the dark, it's real. I loved the horses that I had growing up and in college, though I remember just how much work they were too, in the frosty mornings when your fingers are too cold to work. And, of course, the ocean, too. As a child we used to vacation in North Carolina and I would sit for hours just watching the ocean, making up stories about horses springing from the foam, watching each wave curl in differently. I nearly drowned as a kid and so I both loved it and feared it. It's hard to forget that sensation of warring emotions, equally matched.

And of course, finally, in chapter 46 of The Scorpio Races, I wrote the scene I'd been imagining since I was my daughter's age: a herd of water horses tearing in from an angry sea. Chapter 46 isn't a very long one, and it wasn't late when I wrote it, but after I finished the last sentence of it, I closed my computer and had to stop writing for the night. It's a weird feeling to finally do something right after doing it wrong for so many years. I knew before that that The Scorpio Races was the best thing I'd written so far, but that was when I really realized I'd written the book I'd wanted to find on the shelf all those years ago.

I can't believe it's finally out.

In retrospect, this blog entry seems so maudlin and earnest. But I’m going to hit “post” now before I change my mind.

  • Jane

    I keep reading your posts on writing (I think this is the third), and I’m a little shocked that no one has posted, so I’m posting!

    I just want to say that what you’re talking about in this post, that I get it. That I understand. And not just that what you said makes sense or I can see your point. No, I’m there, I feel that too. An empathetic, not sympathetic sort of thing.

    When I was thirteen I was terribly depressed and made a deal with my mother that if she let me be home schooled than I would see a therapist. I have absolutely no memory of those sessions other than crying and talking about Drew Barrymore and feeling that this woman really didn’t understand what I was trying to say.

    But alone, at home, between evading math homework and writing papers on hobbit lines and my grandmother’s house I found Reathenege. It’s my own Middle Earth and I’ve been hacking away at the story for almost ten years now. (The anniversary is actually in six days.)

    In November I made a goal to be done by April 10th. Or at least have a version done where I could begin butchering it, as I call it. Due to moving and cars failing , a full time job, and a two year old I not only am not done but I didn’t get in my annual reading of Little Women either.

    But I’m close. Close enough to think I could be finished with it by my twenty-fourth birthday at the end of May.

    Last April I started re-writing the whole thing. Taking the bones and really listening to the characters (even when I didn’t understand what the hell they were doing. My characters like to bug me…well, some of them.) I can go back over what I wrote when I was thirteen and when I was in high school and read what I have now and it’s close; trembling in the tube up to the Hunger Games arena kind of close.

    So to me, you don’t sound maudlin and earnest in this post. To me you sound like…well, me.

    Happy Writing 🙂

    • Ah, Jane, I’m sorry that I didn’t see this comment until now. The reason why there’s so many quiet comment sections is because I moved my entire blog back in March! So the old comments didn’t come with (they’re still at m-stiefvater.livejournal.com). I really appreciated this one. I very much hope that you’ve finished that novel by now!

    • Abby

      Did you finish it?

  • Anonymous

    Um, hello. I LIKE earnest Maggie. Earnest Maggie is real, even if only one fragment of the whole Maggie. And I liked finding out how Scorpio Races came to be. My favourite of your books so far.

  • Wow! that’s all I have to say, wow! It’s amazing to hear about all you put in to The Scorpio Races. It makes me want to read it again so I can appreciate it even more than when I read it the first time! (I guest I had more to say than wow).

  • Anna

    Love this! So well put. I agree completely – write from the heart and make it personal.

  • Heidi Coles

    Hi,

    I’ on Twitter as Mummy In High Heels and asked Maggie where she got her inspiration from.. I love Maggie’s writing and think The Scorpio Races is her best by far. I’ve grown up with horses, keeping them on a cliff top farm in the North East of England. A bitterly cold place full of superstition, biting wind and beauty. This novel has spoken to my teenage years and to my adult self.

    This blog post makes me admire Maggie even more, writing the book you’ve always wanted to read has to be a massive challenge and requires throwing your soul wide open to others.

    The Scorpio Races is one of those reads where you don’t want to put it down but you don’t want it to end either. Can’t wait for your next book to come out.

  • This is such a lovely story about an amazing story. It says so much about your growth as a writer, but also your fundamental desire to write the book you wanted to read. That is a kernel that stays within in us even as we, and our writing, grow around it. Thanks for sharing!

  • Abbie

    Dear Maggie,

    I loved your books The Scorpio Races and the Shiver Trilogy. I love the way you write. It is very unique, and I’ve never read anything like it. Your characters seem so real and maybe that’s why I find that when I read your books I have to set them aside for a few minutes to brace myself for what will happen. I really grow to love your characters and hate to see bad things happen to them.

    The Scorpio Races was an interesting read. I’d never heard of water horses until I read it, and was really intrigued by it. Thank you so much for the wonderful books you write.

    I want to be a writer, and I’m working on a novel right now. It’s hard but fun and whenever I write, my heart races. I hope to one day be as good as you and other authors I admire.

    I’m really looking forward to your next book. I know I won’t be disappointed.

  • Thank you for writing this post. Thank you for writing.

  • Grace

    Ok yes my name is grace like from Shiver and surprisingly I am the only one named Grace on these Blogs since I have cheaked so go me I have wrote on the Raven boys blog in Oct 2012.

    I just wanted to say I loved the scorpio races and another cowincedence (sorry for inncorect spellng) my birthday is in….wait for it…. NOVEMBER!!! Oh and I also have dark blonde hair like Grace (just so you know that fells really weird saying that) Back to the point. I LOVE THE SCORPIO RACES!!!! IT IS FANTASTIC!!! AND I HAVE GOT IT!!! *crawls away stroking The Scorpio Races muttering “my presious”*

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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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Copyright 2012