The Scorpio Races review

The Scorpio Races review

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater is an absolutely beautiful book masquerading as young adult literature.  I mean that as a compliment.  Her arrangement of words is a thing of beauty.  As a writer, it can both inspire and irritate as you envy over the simple ways she paints the watercolor scene in black and white (or sepia if you have chosen to set your e-reader that way).

For the purpose of this blog, I’m not going to focus so much on the things like word choice, sentence structure, or syntax.  These are style issues that are personal and develop over time and with practice.  Instead, I’m going to focus on particulars within the book that I believe every writer can incorporate to improve his/her writing and chances of getting published.

Structure

The book is written in first person present tense (fpp).  Common in many YA books, and I really like this  as it removes all the barriers.  Third person POV places a narrator in the way.  Past tense can create distance since the reader feels like someone is telling what already happened.  With fpp, you are the character and you are there now.  Whatever the character is experiencing the reader does too–as it’s happening.

The all critical first line sets the mood and sucks the reader in:

It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die. 

Right away, the reader wants to know:  What happens in November that kills people?  As a writer you might be able to get away with that meandering chapter that paints the scenery and builds suspense along the way, but I think the truth of it is:

  1. You can only get away with it if you are a proven author who the publisher believes the readers will trust enough to put up with your meandering.

    –and–

  2. The readers do in fact trust you to get wherever “there” is.

Bottom line for me is: I’m not a published well known author.  I should probably stick close to convention.  I’m not saying it can’t be done, but there are simply too many agents/publishers who preach this concept to ignore.

Characters

She establishes the character’s voices right away, doing what I think is quite difficult to do—she creates a “loner” character that readers want to know more about in Sean Kendrick.

I am wretchedly attached to creating loner characters—orphaned, isolated, wall flowers.  These are hard to pull off as many times they come across as self-pitying, self-loathing, eeyore-types that make it hard for the reader to care about.  I had to learn through numerous failures and beta readers pointing it out.  A basic rule for me is based on Pixar’s rule number one:  #1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.  In my case, a character must care about someone or something OR someone or something must care about him or the readers won’t care about him either.  It’s a weird proxy thing I think.  In the beginning of a new book, we, as readers, are acclimating ourselves to being the main character—each main character—other characters can help us decide how we feel about ourselves as the mc.  Even the “friend” character’s traits help us connect with the mc.  For example, if we don’t like the traits exhibited by mc’s friend, we might be less likely to connect with mc.  (Why would he be friends with her?)  Even though Sean Kendrick is a loner, Ms. Stiefvater accomplishes the reader connection by substituting a physical connection to another character with several equally strong qualities: bravery and determination.

Even though he is a loner, she doesn’t let him be alone, surrounding him with characters who give us insight into who he is.  She gives us sympathy (he lost his father.)  She gives us admiration (he is the best rider.)  She gives us strength (he loves a horse who can kill).  And she gives us Pixar’s rule (he cares desperately for that horse).  Not by telling but through interaction and dialogue we learn the leathery covering of Sean Kendrick has been earned. But like the horses he cares for, while difficult to tame–he can be won with enough care and attention.

She uses the tried and true method of connection with Kate “Puck” Connolly.  Right away, we know Puck loves her brothers.  She is the matronly persona–the glue that holds the family together.  And by her nickname alone, we know she will fight for them and sacrifice her own wants to do so: selfless, headstrong, determined, proud–all bridge traits able to establish the connection between reader and mc.

Making readers connect with characters is a weakness of mine.  But what I do to learn, and what I think other writer’s can do, is study common traits and ask simple questions.  Why do I like/dislike this character?  Always a good exercise if you can get other readers to participate.  Give a reader, the chapter that introduces a respective character and ask him/her what makes a particular character likable   Strong characters can be created through the commonalities and their respective connections.

The villain is clear and focused.  He/his family are a common thorn for both mc’s–good to have when you have a story from split point of views as this one is (half the book is from Puck’s perspective, the other from Sean’s).  He is a controlling, ruthless driven man, and his son is the same only with an inflated sense of self-worth which makes him even more detestable.  He owns half the island, so there is the struggle against “the man” that all characters feel.

 Minor characters are real.  Not cardboard cutouts, but people you might run into real life.  Again, this is so much easier said than done.  Every character has a voice–so, so, so important.  She doesn’t waste words on people that mean nothing and are nothing.  My favorite line from the book involves a minor character, Peg Gratton.  Upon arriving at Puck’s house, Peg is described as such:

Her feet are armored in dark green rubber boots that are unimpressed by our mud. 

For me, that line was almost too good as it made me stop and re-read it several times just for how awesome it was.  In one line of description, the author defined Puck’s position and her struggle with the world around her.

Plot

The story is told effectively through scenes.  Experienced writes will know how this works.  I, being slow, stumbled onto it.  By using scenes, the author can most effectively craft a story according to Hitchcock’s famous premise:  “Drama is life with the boring bits cut out.”  Maggie has been very selective on what she portrays, and the reader gets the feeling that their is nothing on display that did not need to be displayed.  Travel scenes, eating scenes, random talking scenes–none of these are here unless it needs to be–unless it moves the character or the story forward.

Right away the reader is presented with the conflict that will provide fuel to the story’s vehicle.

  1. The races are dangerous because the water horses are dangerous.
  2. Sean Kendrick needs to race for both his and his horse’s freedom.
  3. Puck needs to race for her family.

Boom.  How awesome is that.  Two characters, coming together, who desperately need the same thing while needing each other.  Conflict!

Another vitally important element that I won’t spend too much time on is her continual ratcheting up of stakes.  Puck’s brother plans to leave the island, so she plans to race to woo him to stay.  A good reason…BUT now the villain shows up and stakes claim to the family home by way of the mortgage he possesses.  Now she has to race.

Setting

It’s often said that your setting is just another character.  Thisby is that and then some.  From the windy hilltops, to the rocky shoreline, the home in need of repair, and the village not lacking in personality–this place has personality.  And that’s in addition to the onset of November when comes the capaill uisce from their watery home.  Though it’s described as such:

Thisby is an island well populated by sons disappointing their fathers.

It’s a place that has other tales to tell–a place where you feel at home even though a point of the story is how some characters want only to get as far away from it as possible.

Final

I may go back and revisit some of these areas just to provide specifics as I’m afraid I’ve been to general in many areas, but I can only say Ms. Stiefvater’s writing is beautiful and haunting sure to invoke pleasure for the reader and jealousy for fellow writers.

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