Book Review: The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

[Image: Big Top, a photograph (!) by user “*Trippy4U” at the deviantART site. More in the note
at the foot of this
(looooong) post.]

On the planet of Literature of the Fantastic (considered separately from its sister worlds, for horror and science fiction), you will find three major continents, inhabited (with a great deal of crossover) by generally three types of being.

You will find, for starters, the land of ancient and often supernatural beings: gods and lesser immortals of myth (dryads, cyclopes, and such); fairies, elves, pixies, and leprechauns; unicorns, dragons, and mermaids; any or all of the Four Horsemen (especially Death).

Across the ocean in one direction lies the land of latter-day heroics. (“Latter-day” refers to the time of this continent’s creation, although many of its denizens are centuries or even millennia of age.) Aside from humans, the most common inhabitants may be horses. Swords and other weapons are commonly brandished here, occasionally in the vicinity of immigrants and tourists from the first land, often in the direction of wild creatures invented specifically (because convenient) for the tale at hand: ents and orcs, sand worms, Frankenstein’s monster, the Jabberwock, blast-ended skrewts…

On the face of it, on the third continent we’d feel most at home. The populace here is all familiar to us, just from looking around at the (present or past) “real” world: donkeys and dogs and other domestic animals; lions and swans, friendly brontosauri; and, well, the people next door. But then we dig a little deeper and the “reality” drops away: the animals talk, not just among themselves but to us, they argue and scheme, some of them have jobs; and when we visit the people next door, we find them mixing potions in the kitchen, the surfaces of their bedroom furniture writhing with living ivy, their homes’ very walls sided not with vinyl or clapboard but with gingerbread and treacle.

Many of the Grimm “fairy” tales — which feature no fairies — fall into the latter category, and so do Aesop’s fables. Also here you’ll find whole shelves full of one-off, sui generis works with (nearly or in fact) no counterpart elsewhere.

And on one of those shelves, you’ll find Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.

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What We Owe Our Characters

In about four hours’ work today on Seems to Fit, I wrote just about two thousand words. Which was neither bad nor exceptional, and just fine — not least, because it brings me within perhaps a thousand words (but probably less) of The End.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the structure of this last portion of the book:

  • It departs from the structure of earlier drafts. For most of their length, they had consisted of a rotation of chapters, each from the point of view of a single character. But what I have always thought of as The Climactic Scene filled one enormous chapter, broken up into sections — one character per section, with some characters getting more than one section apiece. The Climactic Scene was followed by a chapter of denouement.
  • Here in this draft, The Climactic Scene has been blown apart into — I don’t know — maybe ten or a dozen fragments: very very short chapters with (I hope) a sort of rising urgency. The action is much the same (and also much different, because I’ve now got an additional character in the mix: an active antagonist). But also, some of these short chapters are broken into sections: one character’s POV apiece. I’m hoping the effect will be that of, well, not chaos exactly, but of (y’know) Jesus Mary and Joseph there’s a lot going on…! We’ll see about that.
  • But also in this draft there is not a denouement. More precisely, there are two of the things. The first (which I just completed) draws things to a close for every character but one. The second (coming up) will tie up the loose ends for the remaining character, as well as for the book as a whole.

This last-bulleted feature of the book’s construction feels unconventional to me. And — who knows? — I mean, on the one hand perhaps messing with convention just gives Agent X, Editor Y, and/or Reader Z one more potential reason not to bother committing to Seems to Fit. Which could even be the fatal reason, right?

So shouldn’t I play it safe, follow the “rules” (at least as I imagine them) and combine the two denouements into one?

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Review: Shades of Grey, by Jasper Fforde

My review of Jasper Fforde’s newest novel, Shades of Grey, is online over at The Book Book blog.

Maybe I’m just lucky to have read and savored everything else which Fforde has written. His work is without peer, I think — not necessarily in the sense of “none better,” more in the vein of “nothing else like it.” He’s endlessly inventive, does not take himself too seriously, always takes the story seriously, and somehow — despite his literally fantastic plots and alternate-universe settings and characters — escapes categorization as a writer of fantasy and/or science fiction. He probably belongs the “Pantheon” list in the right sidebar here. I desperately want his job.

In any event: Shades of Grey is highly recommended for readers who don’t mind being challenged by strange, even slightly loopy ideas, and who can recognize tongue-in-cheekery when they see it.

For more on the plot and so on, check the Book Book review. And of course, feel free to ask questions here (or over there) if you’d like.


On another note…

You may notice signs of some construction here for a little while. From time to time I think about messing with the overall “look” of the blog, but that’s not likely to happen; I’ve invested too much time in customizing what I’ve already got.

So far, two changes:

  • I replaced the ever-expanding list of month-by-month archives, in the left sidebar, with a little calendar doo-dad which lets you move around among the stacks here. Once you’ve got a particular month displayed, you can see the titles of posts from that month by clicking on the little «-» link below the calendar proper.
  • At the bottom of the left sidebar, there’s now a list of my five most recent Google Buzz entries. I keep finding these little Webly tidbits which are hard for me to justify turning over to a whole blog post, but which I think might be interesting to what passes as my “readership” at Running After My Hat. At the same time, this obviates the need for you to “follow my Buzz!” or whatever the hell cheerful thing Google is calling it in Gmail.

Not sure what else I might fool with. The list of categories bugs me a little, but I haven’t really given much thought what (if anything) to do with it. In the meantime, as someone or other has been saying around the Web since the early 1990s, I’ll try to keep the sawdust to a minimum.

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Beating Yourself to Death?

[Image above: Peter Kubik’s UFO shaped electronic drums, as featured at the Yanko Design site. The Yanko site says, “This electronic drum produces lighted impressions of your hand in psychedelic colors as it strikes the surface.”]

When it comes to storytelling, are you a mechanic or a gardener? A little of both? Or something else entirely? Does it depend, for you, whether the story in question is a first draft or not? Do you draft the thing in a huge undisciplined rush, and go back over it with a scalpel and yardstick? Or vice-versa?

All these questions beset me now that I’ve read Roz Morris’s latest post at her Nail Your Novel blog. In it, she shows an example of a technique she’s described before, something called a “beat sheet” — applied to the first four chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosophers [USA: Sorcerer’s] Stone:

I’ve had a number of requests for close-up examples of a beat sheet — my method for assessing an entire manuscript in summarised form to analyse its strengths and weaknesses, and make a detailed plan for revising — and you can find full instructions here and here.

In rough outline, I’d describe a beat sheet as a page or more of highly condensed, color-coded annotations on the structure and rhythms of your novel’s scenes. As such, it’s not a tool for mapping out a story before you start it (although, hmm, I guess it might be…?). It’s a retrospective tool: something like one of those ultra-photogenic blacklights used in CSI-style television shows — when you flick the switch, the signs of life in your story will either glow noticeably or, well, not. (Only here, of course, that’s a good thing!)

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Paying Attention to Voice

I may never have to master anything more difficult than thinking, and thinking convincingly, like multiple characters. It’s not just a matter of the word choices and rhythms of their dialogue (although it includes that). And it’s not just a matter of the outward manifestations of their natures — gender, style of dress, and so on (although it includes that, too). It’s a matter of looking at the world in a way shared by no other characters in the same scene and/or book.

This makes sense, right? People born at different times, to different families, subject to different economic pressures, attending different schools — all that: they can’t possibly regard and respond to a given event in exactly the same way, from events small (a single question, even a single word like Why?) to enormous (the impending end of the universe).

All these considerations — not just the way someone talks but his/her psychological/emotional stance in relationship to events and other characters — constitute what I think of when I think of voice. And it’s damned hard for me to understand, let alone work with.

So when I set out on the work-in-progress now called Seems to Fit, well, naturally I’d give it a half-dozen main characters and a gaggle of lesser ones. (Ha. Joke’s on me, isn’t it?)

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Mapping the WIP

I once read advice from a… novelist? playwright? not sure — anyhow, someone who said something like, “The hardest job in writing a story is getting a character from one room to another.” This stuck in my head because at the time I was struggling with just this difficulty. I kept trying to account for the characters’ every movement: He walked to the door and reached for the doorknob. He turned it. He pulled the door open, hesitated, and then stepped over the threshold onto the bathroom tile… or whatever it was.

Even after I [knock on wood] grew out of that clumsiness, though — it’s a wonder more of my characters didn’t break their necks as I drove them past furniture, pets, fireplaces — I’ve always liked to have a sense of where characters are, relative to their landscapes and to one another. Of all the fears I have of a critic, somewhere, sometime, taking potshots at my stories, one of the biggest is that s/he will be able to sneer, y’know, something like the following:

Simpson can’t even keep his geography straight. In one chapter he refers to a character walking three blocks and turning right; four pages later, the same character — taking the same route — is said to count five traffic signals and then turn left. Well, which is it, Mr. Simpson? Which is it?


Anyhow, when I started on Grail Seems to Fit, I knew I’d be making up a locale from scratch. This seemed clever at the time, because no one would be able to trip me up on mismatches with the real world.

Alas, it also meant that I occasionally got confused when navigating the action around the fictional world.

So then I went back through what I had written to that point, and laid out the town in question, in pencil, on a sheet of lined notebook paper: block by block, labeled with store names, residents’ names, and so on.

I found that map this morning. On one hand, the discovery annoyed me; I’d just typed the words “Chapter 1, Caerleon, Pennsylvania: 1991” at the top of page 1, when I suddenly thought Gee — didn’t I do a map of the town once…? I even knew right where I could find a copy of it. And once I found it, I spent the rest of my morning writing session inspecting it, trying to recall all the details I’d labeled (more or less legibly) 17-18 years ago and why I’d thought they were important.

So there went today’s writing down the drain. Tomorrow ought to go smoother. (Or at least, I’ll have one less excuse for not being productive.)

[For more information about the map in question, including what details I remembered and a larger, more legible copy, see here.]

Fellow writers, how about you? Do you make maps of your world(s) — not just maps in your head, but on paper? Do you draw floor plans? Or is this just some highly localized form of obsessive-compulsive disorder on my part?

Edit to add: Although I never did a map of any of the locations in the Welsh backstory, I do know exactly where the (fictional) village was where the main character lived in the 1700s. It was a village named Cymer Bach (roughly, “Little Confluence”); if you look at the Google Maps “terrain view” of Cymer Bach you can see why.

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Per the Speak Coffee to Me blog (great name, that), this Family Guy moment:


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“What Kind of Book Is It?”

Pigeons in holes (thanks, Wikimedia!)

One of the hardest — yet most important — questions an author often has to answer about his work is the one asked by this entry’s title.

Now, it’s not hard at all to answer, for many authors and even more books. When you walk into Borders or Barnes & Noble, when you browse Amazon, it’s all organized by “type”: romance along this aisle, SF over there, “literature” along the walls, and so on. The problem is that it’s these classifications which determine “what kind of book” a given title is — not the other way around.

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