Writing the Book I Always Meant To - Maggie Stiefvater - Author
October 18, 2011

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.

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.