5 Things I Learned about Writing from Reading Maggie Stiefvater’s “Raven Cycle Series”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before I read “The Raven Boys” I’d been in a terrible writing slump, where I was working away at my draft in a dull monotony. I’d forgotten why I liked reading. I’d forgotten why I liked writing. And then, when I read the first page of the novel I was hooked on the entire series. Stiefvater is a master of her craft and you can learn so much about what makes a novel work by reading it.

1) The opening lines are brilliant. Stiefvater chooses to start each book with a prologue, and although there is plenty of conflicting information out there of whether to prologue or not, this choice works so well for her novels. The prologues set the mood for the novels and serve as seductive promises of the intrigue to follow.

Take the first sentence of “The Raven Boys.”
Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.

BAM. The reader needs to know more. How can someone tell Blue with certainty that she will kill her true love? And why so frequently? And will this even happen? If so, how? And more importantly, who IS her true love anyway? Does she have a true love yet?

The rest of the prologue expands this theme and by the end, the reader is committed to reading the rest of the book. The entire series answers the questions raised by the very first sentence of the book.

The first sentence of the second book in the series, “Dream Thieves” is equally as brilliant.
A secret is a strange thing.

Simple, but effective. In this prologue, Stiefvater breaks into an essay of the different kinds of secrets and how they apply to one of her characters. It. Is. Amazing. The theme of secrets immediately brings intrigue to the novel and promises that the reader will understand her characters like no one else will.

Which leads me to the next point.

2) The books are incredibly character driven. Forget about flat sucky characters that drift around aimlessly and only jump to the plot because the author tells them to. Stiefvater’s characters have so much depth they seem like real people. Gansey, Ronan, Adam, and Blue have their own hopes and fears, secrets, families, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. Although Noah isn’t as well developed, that’s for other reasons.

In each of the books, the personal motives of each of these four characters are made perfectly clear. Each of them is different. Each of them drives the plot in their own way. And the way they interact together is magical. So much yes.

By the end of the series, I felt a physical ache inside that I would be leaving the characters behind forever. It felt like losing old friends. Fortunately, Stiefvater’s writing a new book about Ronan so I won’t have to say goodbye just yet!

3) The brand of magic is distinct, unusual and kind of quirky. The magic doesn’t fall into typical YA fantasy clichés and is refreshing. Obscurely Old Welsh Kings in the Virginia Hills and Lee Lines are awesome. The novel revolves around Glendower’s burial, a king whose refreshingly not Arthur of the famous legend. There’s an arcane historical element, which I loved and the Latin never gets old.

However, the medieval historical magic doesn’t make this a dry read. In fact, Stiefvater balances this unusual topic with aspects the YA readership loves. Namely one girl hanging out with four hot private school boys in cool cars exploring the countryside. What high school girl doesn’t want to do that? If there’s some weird magic going on, why that’s just a bonus.

Basically, the reader doesn’t have to like history to like this book. The history just sort of slips in.

4) Stiefvater has a clear, concise way of writing. Nothing rambles. Every sentence has a purpose and leads to the next one. The descriptions usually highlight character or the setting and use the perfect words to do so.

I learned so much just by checking out how she starts each of her chapters. There are three main ways she does this:

a) A opening sentence telling you the character and the setting where the action will take place for the scene.
e.g.: Gansey woke in the night to find the moon full on his face and his phone ringing (“The Raven Boys,” Chapter 9).
Clearly, the character is Gansey.
The setting is at night and the reader probably can assume that he’s in his room at Monmouth since he just woke up.

b) A topic sentence that reveals an aspect about the character or setting we’re going to follow for the chapter, almost like the start of an essay.
e.g.: Mornings at 300 Fox Way were fearful, jumbled things (“The Raven Boys,” Chapter 3).
This is a topic sentence about setting.
Or
e.g.: Blue wouldn’t really describe herself as a waitress (“The Raven Boys,” Chapter 6).
This is a topic sentence about character.

c) Or she starts the chapter with Dialogue, often asking a question.
e.g: “Mom, why is Neeve here?” Blue asked (“The Raven Boys,” Chapter 13).

The first two ways demonstrate how to start a scene without ambiguity. It’s helpful to be precise and tell us who, what, where, and why as quickly as possible. Ways b and c also promote intrigue for the reader. These three ways to start a chapter work well.

5) Authentic dialogue. Each character has a way of speaking that’s uniquely their own and showcases their personality. I’ve read before that for good dialogue, the tags aren’t entirely necessary. You should be able to tell without tags that there are different people conversing. Stiefvater’s dialogue definitely meets this goal.

Also, the dialogue is humourous. This in turn, makes the characters more likeable even if they are difficult people.

 

“City of Bones” by Cassandra Clare

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve listened to Cassandra Clare’s “City of Bones” audio book three times in the past three months as I fall asleep. I’ve also awoken in the middle of the night to a scream of “JAYCE!” with the headphones still dangling from my ears. This doesn’t mean I find the book so boring that it puts me to sleep. Nothing could be farther from the case!

And the reviews on Goodreads seem to agree with me. People just can’t put this book down. I recommended it to someone a while ago, and she still can’t take it out of the public library because the demand is so high – and this book was written in 2007 peeps! That’s some serious staying power.

Although, I’ve read some scathing reviews on Goodreads about this book too. Anything from Clary being a Mary Sue character to “City of Bones” being a blatant Harry Potter rip off to the similes being too frequent. The truth is: I don’t care.

“City of Bones” works. It works so well that I am willing to listen to it time after time again. And that is testament to something that is pretty kick-ass.

So why is “City of Bones” so awesome?

This, my friends, is why:

1) The characters. You walk away from “City of Bones” thinking something along the lines of “why is Simon so annoying?” “Will Jayce and Clary ever end up together?” “Why can’t Alec just accept that he is gay and Jayce is straight?” “Could Jayce be gay? That’d be kinda hot.” “I wish I could be as badass as Isabel.” “Why isn’t Clary as badass as Isabel? Girl, get with the Shadowhunter program!!!”

2) The relationships. You become seriously invested in who ends up with who, and the betrayals, man. The betrayals.

3) The setting. Urban fantasy works on so many levels, because wouldn’t it be nice if this world right now contained magic and demons and warlocks and shadowhunters and possibilities? The reader sees themselves in Clary’s world right away. Urban fantasy takes “what if” to a level grounded in reality.

4) The action. “City of Bones” has a nice amount of fighting where the stakes are high.

5) Jayce. Is. Seriously. Hot. This books also is clearly inspired by anime with the whole demon fighting bad boys type thing. I don’t know what it is about the bad boy character, but jeez can they work the dialogue. I actually laughed more than once when listening to this book the first time. Also, the dialogue itself is excellent as a whole.

So, without trying to spoil this book too much, where does it fall flat?

The whole middle section involving a rat goes on for too long. Also, the big twist at the end that may remind you of Star Wars – you’ll know what I mean when you read it – nearly stopped me from reading the rest of this series. However, the desire to know what happened next trumped the annoyance with the plot and I did read the rest of the books.

In conclusion, I think virtues of “City of Bones” far out way its flaws and that it is worth a read for its dialogue alone.

“The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks” by E. Lockhart

E. Lockhart is known for her feminist writing, and Frankie does not disappoint as a heroine who challenges conventions on how women are expected to behave. How? Frankie takes on the old boys club in her boarding school, directing a male secret society thorough a series of pranks with a political agenda. Only problem: the boys don’t know that she is the mastermind.

The dialogue between Frankie and her boyfriend Matthew is excellent. In fact, all dialogue in this book really shines. It’s like you really hear the characters speaking in the room with you.

I grew up reading PG Wodehouse – slightly stained, yellowed copies that smelled of vanilla and glue – purchased from secondhand bookstores. My favourite was “Leave it to Psmith” where a particular fire alarm prank at a boarding school had me in stitches every time I read it.

I’m not sure how popular PG Wodehouse is with the younger crowd. It certainly wasn’t popular when I was reading it. But even if you don’t get the PG Wodehouse illusions and english boys boarding school traditions, it is not necessary to enjoy “The Disreputable History…” In fact, I was not in stitches with the “The Disreputable History…” as it is more of a social commentary.

The novel asks elite education systems if they include all religions, all cultural practices and women as well as men. It asks why we’re still holding onto a male dominated view of education? Why women can’t be devious, intelligent prankers, as well as men?

And honestly, I’m not sure exactly how important this fight is since the setting, again, was in an elite boarding school. Frankie knows that her future opportunities are pretty much guaranteed whether she runs the secret society or not. And yet… even though Frankie is incredibly privileged, “The Disreputable History…” suggests that there are still inequalities even among society’s upper crust. Will Frankie make it to the top of the world? Or will some men’s club keep her out?

Does this matter? Or is this extreme privilege in society a problem onto itself?