Libba Bray and Maggie Stiefvater. They are the Bray-Stiefvater Effect.
I read them and I think, oh, there it is. There's the definition of the difference between Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time writing and The Real Thing. The standard of excellence.
Because each has a talent for drawing me into the guts of a sensation, for dissecting feeling. Their observations of these moments can be vibrant or hushed or somewhere in between, but they always pack a physical wallop.
For example, there's Bray's description of the wind - the wind! - in her opening scenes of The Diviners. She devotes several pages to the wind and its travels out of the house where the careless socialite awakens Naughty John. It's lyrical, stunning, a song in itself, the kind of prose that, if someone were reading it to you out loud, might cause you to sway without even knowing it.
If I had written that much about the wind, it would likely have been clumsy and drawn well-deserved admonitions to not be so "internal". The wind, of course, is not internal, but our feelings about it are. Our observations of it are. But Bray makes the wind an actual character, whose movement is action and capriciousness is palpable, just like Evie's and Theta's. She makes the wind matter, which only a skillful writer can do.
And then there's Stiefvater. Her characters' needs and wants and internal voices are so vivid and so well entwined in dramatic, fast-paced narrative, you hardly know she actually had to design them, build them piece by piece. They each seem carved of one branch of driftwood, with no wood glue or nails.
I actually think I KNOW Gansey from The Raven Boys! I have said the same things as he - when he and Adam fight, and he defends his comfort in using big words naturally, and he tells Adam he's sorry his father didn't use three-syllable words around him. I too have grappled with the guilt of privilege. (Let's be clear - my privilege is that I was raised by intelligent, thoughtful people. I am comfortable, but not rich. Rich would be nice. I think.)
Also from Steifvater's The Raven Boys:
Of Blue, "...something behind her lungs felt icy. A dangerous, sucking sadness seemed to be opening up inside her: grief or regret."
And of a terrible moment between Whelk and Gansey: "For a moment, there was no time: just the space between when one breath escaped and another rushed in."
These sentences by themselves are not the drama. The drama, the story, is Death, Ghosts, Redemption, Pain, Loss, Abuse, Guns, Psychics,and Supernatural Earth. It's amazing stuff. But the most well-crafted moments describe what's inside and how her people process all of that.
THAT'S what I go back to when I edit. I ask myself whether I have met the bar of the process, or rather, can my reader feel the silent moments - the ones between the external, dramatic plot movements?
And I ask myself. do I have the equivalent of the lyrical not-character like the wind, that quite literally take my breath and stand a chance of taking someone else's as well?
So far the answer is not yet. Which is why I keep going back to the drawing board. I am confident I will one day, but I'm still working.
There are, of course, other authors whose work I look up to, but these are two I wanted to talk about today.
Who are the authors that make up your literary bar of excellence? What do they do that you use to measure your own writing?