Swoon Author Aiden Thomas: 5 Takeaways from Maggie Stiefvater's Writing Seminar
On Saturday, February 23rd, 2019, I had the pleasure of attending Maggie Stiefvater’s Portraits & Dreamers Seminar in Seattle, WA. My best friend—and Critique Partner!—and I got into my SUV and drove up from Portland for the weekend. As someone who got a BA in English and an MFA in Creative Writing, Stiefvater imparted wisdom not only that I hadn’t heard before, but that was accessible and a total game changer for how I thought about writing stories. While I’m not going to give all her secrets away, I wanted to share some main points that were important takeaways for me as a writer.
Sometimes folks are scared to share their ideas with people because they’re scared someone will “steal” it. The truth is, ideas, by themselves, are not unique. It’s the specifics that make a story yours.
My debut novel, Lost in the Never Woods, is a retelling of Peter Pan. I could ask all of you lovely writers to write your own retelling of Peter Pan, and every single one of you would come up with a different story. Maybe someone writes a contemporary romantic comedy, and maybe someone else turns it into a space opera. I could even narrow it down further and ask for a dark Peter Pan retelling, and folks would come up with their own versions of what that means. We would get different settings, different monsters, and even different versions of Peter Pan as a character. See what I mean? Having feedback can help you focus in on the specifics that will make your story unique, and someone’s input could help spark an entirely new layer to your plot!
Another great piece of advice is to try combining multiple ideas you have! Do you have two plot bunnies you want to chase? Multiple characters you love and can’t decide whose story you want to write? Try combining them! Folding in different plots and characters can give your story depth, dimension, and—maybe most importantly—tension. Often, if you come up with different ideas around the same time, they’ve come from the same influence and can be integrated together. When coming up with Lost in the Never Woods, it was a mix of a couple different ideas I wanted to play with, including a main character who lost her memories, what it’s like to stick out in a small town, and a forest where kids keep going missing.
Need some help coming up with ideas? I’m constantly searching “writing prompts” on Tumblr and saving ones that spark inspiration!
Get a Critique Partner
If you follow me on Twitter, you know how aggressively I champion the use of Critique Partners! A CP is someone you bounce ideas back and forth with and/or someone who reads your work and gives you meaningful feedback. I can tell you, without question, without my CPs, I would not be a successful writer.
CPs can help you with a number of different things, and I use them for every step of the writing process. When I’m first formulating my idea, I’ll word vomit onto a Google Doc. I usually call this a “Brain Dump,” and it’s somewhere I can just throw down all the ideas I have and start making connections. I’ll invite my CPs into the doc, where they can ask me questions via comments, or offer answers when I have questions of my own.
I also have my CP read as I write. I know this sounds absolutely terrible to most folks, and it’s true! It’s a scary, vulnerable thing, especially because first drafts are terrible and MEANT to be terrible! You’re just getting your ideas down and will make it better in revisions. But, having a CP to read while you write is great! Not only can they be a cheerleader by highlighting their favorite lines, they can help track consistency, flag plot-holes, and help you when you write yourself into a corner. Sometimes, the only thing getting me through writing a certain part of my book was knowing that there was a certain scene or character coming up that my CP was going to love!
All the Feels
Oftentimes, our favorite stories aren’t our favorites because of the plot or premise itself, but how the story makes us feel.
What’s that one movie you KNOW is trash, but you love it anyways? What’s that one movie you’ll watch over and over again, even though, objectively, you know it’s terrible? The one with the glaring plot-hole you happily overlook? The one with a completely unrealistic scenario? Maybe it’s even a bit problematic? We all have at least one movie we love that when someone finds out, they just throw their head back and groan loudly.
For me, that movie is Twilight: New Moon (YOU JUST GROANED AT ME, DIDN’T YOU??). Is it a good movie? Nope! Is there good acting in it? Definitely not! Is it problematic? SURE IS! But that won’t stop me from watching it every time Netflix dangles it in my face. Why do I love it? Well, there’s a few reasons. I love the setting! The Pacific Northwest is beautiful and lush and lends itself to the whole misty atmosphere I’m always drawn to. I also eat up the whole “who will she pick?!” dilemma. I loved the cheesy lines because, even though I objectively know they are terrible, they still make my stomach flutter.
What I’m saying is, it’s not always the plot or story that makes us fall in love, but how the story makes us feel. So, when you sit down to start writing your story, ask yourself how you want to make people feel when they read it. Do you want them to be happy? Sad? Feel nostalgic? Or kick them into an adrenaline-fueled rage against injustice? Figure that out and when it’s time to figure out your plot, or how a character reacts to something, think about what needs to happen for your reader to get that feeling.
Quantity Leads to Quality
Stop trying to write the perfect story, and start being a teller of stories! Writing short stories, flash fiction, and even fanfiction are great ways to become a better writer!
Try making yourself write short stories! It doesn’t have to be anything intense, maybe try just giving yourself a week to write 1,000 words, enough for just a scene.
The more you write, the better you’ll write. It’s partly practice makes perfect, but writing a lot helps you learn what writing process works best for you. Not only that, but it’ll make the task of tackling a book much more manageable when you’ve written smaller stories as practice. It will also help you generate new ideas! I’ve only written two full books in my life, but I’ve written literally thousands of pages worth of short stories. Most will never see the light of day, but many have been recycled and turned into scenes, including ones for Lost in the Never Woods!
Take Some Time Apart
If a story isn’t working, it’s okay to put it down and move on to something else for a while.
Stiefvater’s rule of thumb is if you’ve been working on something more than a year and you’re still struggling with it, it’s time to take a break. Give yourself the freedom to walk away and maybe chase another plot bunny or two for a while! When you come back to your story after, say, writing a few short stories or diving into that fanfiction you’ve been wanting to write, you can look at it with fresh eyes and maybe with some new ideas!
I wrote the first draft of Lost in the Never Woods over a span of three years. It was my thesis for grad school, and I finally finished writing the dang thing two hours before it was due. After three years of hacking away at it, I didn’t even want to look at it again. I put it aside for a couple of years, and eventually went back to it. I had some new ideas and ways to layer the plot, up the stakes, and really ground the story in a way that would evoke the feeling I wanted from the reader. After making edits, I submitted it to Swoon Reads, and now Lost in the Never Woods will be hitting bookshelves in 2020!
The best thing about Stiefvater’s seminar is that, yes, it’s for writers, but it’s also for fans of her stories. Stiefvater uses examples from her own characters and stories, so fans will also love attending the seminar for inside knowledge on all things Stiefvater-verse (like the young man who inspired Adam Parrish, and where the idea for Shiver originally came from).
Maggie Stiefvater still has some upcoming seminars, so check out the appearances page to sign up! She also drops a ton of knowledge on her tumblr, and she even has a Critique Partner Match Up on Google Groups that you can use to find yourself a CP!
Any questions? Sound off in the comments below!