Background artiste from 'Better than Stars'

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

What I Learned from 'The Night Circus'

I do occasionally post reviews of books I think might interest you, but that's not really what this is: it's more like a fairly self-centred analysis of Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus from the point of view of a writer - one specific writer, i.e. me. Like I say in the title, I'm interested in what we can learn from reading other authors ... but if you read on you probably will get a flavour of the book, which might lead you to want to read more, in which case you will find a link at the end of the blog.

I picked it up because I thought it would be my kind of book. From the cover I could see it was a playful novel set in a fantastical circus, in the nineteenth century: right up my street, especially as one of the WiPs currently lurking in my head is a fantasy set in a nineteenth century theatre. To be a writer I think you must first be a reader; and to be a writer of a particular genre, you must first be an appreciative reader of that genre.

That may sound obvious, but it's an easy truth to overlook: especially if you're a novice writer beginning to take yourself seriously and looking to make your first professional choices. When I first started, I thought romantic fiction for magazines would be an undemanding place to learn my craft and earn a few pennies while wrting the Great Novel. I don't particularly like romantic fiction, and it was not a success. Now I concentrate on trying to write what I would like to read, and reading what I would like to write ... not in order to copy, of course: but the more ideas I am exposed to, the more I generate; and there is often something to be learned from the writing.

At the heart of The Night Circus is the circus itself: described with a bewitching mixture of exquisite detail and evocative allusion - so allowing every reader to create their own imagined venue for the story. This confirms an existing belief of my own about successful fantasy: the importance of specifically imagined, graphically realised place. The real star of the Harry Potter books is Hogwarts; of the Narnia books, Narnia, etc. Some fantasy writers also express themselves visually: Tolkien created pictures and decorative maps of Middle Earth; Philip Reeve is an illustrator. To have an "eye" and be able to articulate it is critical.

But then with The Night Circus everything I thought I knew falls apart, and it links to one of my own struggles as a writer. I find intriguing situations and beguiling worlds easier to dream up than stories, which is tough because it's pretty fundamental. Every one of the authors I have already referred to has created page turning adventures to inhabit the places we want to share with them, except Morgenstern.

There is a central narrative to the book, which becomes increasingly compelling as you read, but it's initially dissipated amongst multiple characters, only one of whom I felt real human sympathy for - Bailey - and he doesn't appear until p.57; and confusing timelines. It's never a good sign when you have to keep turning back to the beginning of chapters to check where and when you are. And yet, and yet ...

You'll have gathered I found much to admire in the book, and in the end I could hardly put it down. So what did I learn? That there are no such things as rules, and just as you think you've found the formula, something will come along and disprove it?

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