I think that by now, my writing group is probably sick of hearing me profess my undying, let’s-go-steady-and-make-out-by-my-locker-like-we’re-in-11th-grade love for The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater. So I thought I’d do a post about it to see if that would get it out of my system (it won’t – the book is that good, you guys). But this won’t be a review, because 1, there are hundreds of reviews by people whose opinions you should take more seriously than mine, and 2, I’d rather talk about how reading this book made me reevaluate the way I write.
This is going to sound incredibly silly, but the first thing I noticed while reading (aside from the fact that I want to bake with Finn, and have a sleepover with Puck, and Sean Kendrick, let me love you!) was that Stiefvater can write smells like nobody’s business. That’s a funny thing to grab onto, but it’s true. Whether on a cliff overlooking a salt-soaked sea, or in Palsson’s bakery with its walls lined with flour sacks, it feels like you’re there. The bakery scene was the one that got me.
Flour. Everyone knows what that smells like, even if they think they don’t. Flour is a lovely mix of dry and slightly sweet, a rich, grassy, wheaty, just barely earthy scent that makes baking smell like baking. A cake might smell like chocolate and sugar and butter, but flour just smells like flour.
Why is this crazy lady rambling about flour? Give me a minute. I’m almost there.
I’d argue that I’m not rambling about flour as much as I’m trying to say that sometimes the best trick a writer has up their sleeve is minutiae. It’s the fine little details that can move you, make you swoon or think oh god, that’s disgusting. Once Stiefvater knocked my socks off clear into another zip code, I realized that nowhere in my manuscript did I describe what something smelled like. No. Where. And that was a problem.
After that, I started to think more critically about everything. Where can I put in detail without bogging down this sentence? Because balance is the trick. Too much, and suddenly your novel’s 700 pages long, and unless your main character’s last name is either Potter or Stark, umm, no. Too little and your novel is the blah-est paperback in Blahtown. I bet the cover is beige, even.
So when I met Maggie Stiefvater (name dropping in the first week of blogging – that’s how I roll) a few weeks ago at a book signing, I confessed that I’d been neglectful of smells, sure that she was going to think I was a complete weirdo. She laughed and said that she thought that was one of the best kinds of research you could do – read something you love and look for the tricks, the sleights of hand that the author magics into existence, and find a way to bring that into your own work. It’s excellent advice, and for that, I thank her.
So. The Scorpio Races. Go forth, and read it. And if when you’re done, you don’t want to live in the bakery among the flour sacks, well, read it again and we’ll talk.