Recommendation: “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern

It’s World Book Day. I hope you’re all revelling in your favourite reads, or throwing yourself into a book you’ve never read before. Because if there’s one thing that’s just as good as – or perhaps even better than – the joy of rereading an old favourite its that feeling of realisation that the book you’ve just begun is going to be wonderful. That deep happiness of knowing that you will never again get to experience this novel for the first time.

This is what I just encountered with Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.

I wish I could remember exactly who recommend this to me last year, because then I could thank them to directing me to the experience of this read. Sometimes, when you’re trying to describe something, you don’t need fancy words. On these occasions the simple ones will fit better, as they can portray the essentialness of something.

The words that best describe The Night Circus? “Soft” and “Beautiful”.

Le Cirque de Reves moves around the world. It appears in one place as if by magic, opens only between sunset and sunrise, and then after a few days disappears just as suddenly. Decorated solely in black and white, populated by performers and attractions so otherworldly and imaginative that you can barely believe they are real, the experience of walking through the gate is akin to stepping into a dream. And behind all this are Celia and Marcus, two young magicians engaged in a contest to which neither understand the rules or know how or when a winner will be chosen.

Morgenstern’s writing is comforting without feeling worn, and elegant without being pretentious. It has the feel of something new that’s been expertly hand crafted to feel old and comfortable. She doesn’t rush a single word. If you require fast paced action, this isn’t the book for you. The story takes its time, letting the characters and the world grow at their own pace. Without wanting to sound to pretentious, the experience of reading the book has the feeling of exploring the circus itself; leisurely admiring every aspect as it comes until you complete your circuit and finally understand the full layout.

While I was reading The Night Circus I never felt rushed. I never looked at the number of pages remaining to guess how much I had left. I felt completely immersed, to the point where I actually felt sad when I reached the end. If you allow it, Morgenstern’s writing will sweep you up and carry you off out of this world and into its own.

Review: Stick and Stones

Imogen has lived her life under the control of her husband, Phillip, from the first day she met him. Even after her left her and their son for a younger woman, their shared past has meant she’s never been able to be truly free of him. But when he suddenly demands she move out her house in two weeks, it start of a series of events that brings Imogen together with Phillip’s first wife and new girlfriend. Together they learn that through Phillip they share a bond no one else can understand, and decide that they will finally no longer allow him to control them.

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Sticks and Stones (Or Exes Revenge in America) is an amazing debut novel, and an astounding piece of domestic noir. Opening with the Phillip’s funeral, we’re then taken back over the previous two weeks – and the years preceding –  to discover exactly what happened that led to his death.

The story is expertly put together. It manages to twist and turn without ever feeling gimmicky or predictable. At no point do you get bored or feel anything is being padded out. Jakeman’s writing is lean and slick, leaving in nothing unnecessary. She perfectly keeps the mystery going without resorting to cheap tricks or cliches, throwing in red herrings and distractions that made it impossible to guess where we’re heading. At times I thought I’d guessed incoming reveals onto to discover I was completely wrong.

But as good as the story is, it’s the characters that really make this book. The concept of the mentally abusive husband and dominated wife finally seeking revenge is one that could easily become two dimensional, but Jakeman has created a cast of characters who all feel fleshed out and real. You really feel for Imogen, who never comes across as either comically weak or impossibly resolved. When she changes it’s because her character development brought here there, not because the plot required it to move forward. She comes across as a real person doing her best to avoid conflict with an ex-husband she knows can control her but can do nothing about, all the while fighting to protect her son over everything else. Phillip, too, is never a pantomime villain. He may be a monster, but he’s a monster of the type we all know is so very real. The kind who hides behind a reputation and knows exactly what they are doing.

Sticks and Stones isn’t any easy read. There are trigger warnings for all aspects of domestic abuse here. But all of it is packaged in an impossibly hard to put down story of one woman discovering how far she is prepared to go to defend her child and get revenge on a man determined to ruin her life.

On a break, or “I hate downtime”

When looking for tips on writing on a book, one of the big ones you’ll be given is that once you finish each draft you should put it away in a drawer for x amount of time. This gives you a break, letting you relax your brain and come back to it fresh.

What they don’t say is how hard this is!

Writing is, by its nature, something that totally engrosses your mind. You’re crafting something by putting yourself in the middle of an imaginary world, creating, destroying and rearranging every little piece one by one. First you work in broad sweeps, then slowly dig deeper and deeper until you’re swapping words and punctuation back and forward as you try and find the perfect configuration of language. By the time you’ve finished a draft you’ve thought and rethought over ever bit of it so many times it becomes impossible to see the wood for the trees. You can remember every change and option not chosen to the point where you honestly can’t tell whether or not you made the right choice.

This is why giving yourself that space is important. You need to be able to clear out your mind and come back to it later with a new perspective. It’s a simple thing, really. Often, problems you couldn’t get through for love nor money suddenly give up obvious solutions you just couldn’t see before. The mistakes that need correcting become clearer, as does the realisation of which bits work and no longer need as much attention.

The problem is how suddenly having nothing to work on is something I’m not good at.

After so long trying to cram as much writing into what free time you have – especially when you have a day-job or family – suddenly having that time free just feels wrong. Today on my lunch break I’ve gone through some messages, organised some photos from the holidays on my phone, browsed social media a little, and written this blog post. And there’s still ten minutes left to kill.

But all I want to is get on with my book!

I think a large part of this is down to the fact that when you’re still looking for your big break its hard to fight the feeling you’re not moving forward. I can’t get an agent without sending them my work. I can’t send them my work until it’s finished. It’s not finished until its good enough. It won’t get good enough without my putting time and effort into it.

And when I’m not actively writing, then it doesn’t feel like I’m trying.I want, more than anything, to get my writing career off the ground. I have a – relatively – organised mind and I know each of the steps I need to follow. But the main step – the process of actually writing the book – takes so long that it can feel like I’m not moving forward at all. I hate the people who say they want something and then don’t try as hard as they can to make it happen. I don’t want to be one of those people, but I can’t help the fact that’s how I feel between drafts.

And so here I am, not working on my WIP, and forcing myself to believe that’s okay.

Luckily I have the fact that there is no point in my working on my WIP until I get notes back from my Alpha Readers. Currently I’m waiting on two more people to give me their notes, and until then it’s pointless my doing any work. And so I’m forced to stay away from my manuscript until they’re done.

I often wonder if this feels different for established authors. I know they have a entirely different set of worries, but when you have a agent and a publisher, when your work has been published before and you have a solid book deal in place, and when you can know that whenever you finish your WIP it will almost certainly get published, is this need to keep writing to get to the point where you can actively push forward with the “real” steps towards getting published still such a big thing? Or are you able to step away when you need to without feeling guilty?

Maybe one day I’ll be able to look back at this post and answer my own question. I can but hope.

Happy New Year

I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas!

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The fact that my jumper, Frankie’s top, and Frankie’s hair all match is a complete coincidence. Please ignore.

So, let’s have a look back at 2017 shall we?

The Year in General

People seem to have mixed feelings with this past year. Some focus on all the unsettled, worrying things that have been happening, while other seem determined to list everything good that’s gone unreported. I think I find myself more in the latter group. While there is certainly a lot of shit going on out there – shit that we certainly need to be paying attention too and using to wake everyone up to deal with – I believe that the general consensus of “It’s Been A Shit Year” is one of those things that people are buying into because people are buying into it. In the same way people go obsessed with the idea that 2016 was “The Year All the Celebrities Died”, I don’t think 2018 has been that bad. Overall, at least. 

It’s just that the bad stuff is so prominent that you can’t ignore it. People like to ignore the bad stuff. We don’t want to deal with it. But it’s important that while fighting the bad we don’t forget the good (in the same way we shouldn’t allow the good to distract us from the bad).

Life is always a mess, is what I’m saying. Make of it what you will, I suppose.

So. What about me? Specifically about me. This is my blog, after all. I think I can allow myself a little vanity and assume you’re interested

New House

We’ve moved house. We’d been in out last one for just over seven years, and decided it was time for an upgrade. So we’ve moved another step out into the fringes of London and found ourselves something a little bigger.

The actual date was in late November, but the months prior were filled with planning, paperwork, house-hunting, packing, mortgage agreements, and – above all of that – that stress that permeates all house moves that comes from knowing that at any point the whole thing could fall apart and dump you back at square one. And the month since then has been an ongoing attempt to unpack boxes, tracking payments, and trying to turn out new house into our new home.

Overall, I have to admit the whole thing was relatively straightforward. We had one house fall through, but found a better one straight away and had a chain of just three, all of whom desperately wanted to have moved by Christmas. Apparently our estate agent couldn’t remember another time when there had been no more than three weeks between the offer being accepted and the completion date. So, go us! 

The problem was that all of this corresponded with the busiest month of the year at work. Yep, no big chunk of annual leave for me. No solid week taken to get everything done in a concentrated block. Just solid work all day followed by sorting out all the details of a house move in the evening. Which lead to exhaustion, and a month spent fighting off anxiety and depression. Just what you need in the run up to Christmas. 

But we’re here now, and slowly getting everything sorted. And as soon as I find my drill bits I’ll be able to get on with that. 

Work in Progress

As you will have seen back in July, I finally wrapped up the first draft of my WIP; provisionally titled New Perceptions. Just before Christmas I managed to wrestle the second draft in place as well. This has been greatly helped that my commute now involved a half hour on the tube which allows me additional writing time.

I’m handling my editing on this one a little differently that my previous works. In the past I’ve usually simply gone through the document from start to finish, moving things around as I find them and adding/removing as I go, with each new “Draft” completed as I reach the end of the document. This time I’ve tried something different and have spent more time analysing the structure and pace. I’ve gone through and broken the whole thing done and built it up again from scratch. I actually found an online course that serendipitously began just after I finished the first draft, which helped a lot working on my second.

So, currently I’m on draft two, which on my previous numbering would probably be around four or maybe five. I think this method is going to be better, as a problem I have is a reluctance to break my drafts up too much and give myself more work to do. This one has a more academic, structural approach. Let’s see where it takes me.

But now it’s with my Alpha Readers, giving me a nice break away from it while I await their notes. Although – literally which writing this post – one of them has come back to me already. All of them are this fast I may need to give myself more time.

2018

So what are my plans for the coming year. At this point the only real goal I’m setting myself is to finish New Perceptions. Hopefully the day job will settle down in the New Year, and as I get everything sorted with the house I’ll have my lunch breaks back. Also, as I mentioned above my commute now includes at leat half an hour on the tube, which means more writing/reading time. I’m planning on reading on one journey, writing on the other.

Thank God for Scrivener on the iPad.

I have contact details for a couple of agents who have said they’re happy to see an early draft, so hopefully I’ll have it in a good enough state to send it to these ones in the spring. Otherwise, I want to have an agent ready version done for September and the Festival of Writing.

But, as always, I know it will take far longer than I’m planning. So who knows.

I do have a couple of other goals for this year, but as of the time of writing they are something I’m keeping secret. Hopefully by the time 2019 rolls around I’ll have already revealed these, but we’ll see.

That’s kind of it, for now. I’d really wanted to to do much more on here for the New Year, repeating my review of the year from last year. Unfortunately I was simply too burned out by the time Christmas came around. Combine that with falling ill once we were back from seeing the family, I’ve just not had the time or the energy.

So now I’ll leave you, and wish you all a wonderful New Year. And hopefully I’ll manage to stay in touch a little better in the future.

Bad 1970s designers. Shame on you.

I’ve been doing some research for my WIP, and has unfortunately meant I’ve needed to look up images of home decoration from the 1970s.
 
Is there any career more tainted, disgusting, or embarrassing to admit than to know you were once an interior designer in the 1970s? To have people know that you were one of those… creatures… who decided the world needed something like this to exist?
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I know that every generation and era has a different style and aesthetic, and following generations will move on to something new and consider the style of the past laughable and old. But seriously, there’s a difference between people looking stupid in old photos and people making the conscious decision to make their homes as ugly as physically possible.
 
Seriously, anyone who lived through the 1970s has forfeited their right to ever comment on design of any nature. Ever.

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So I managed to get The Æther Collection into a Book Bubs deal this weekend. It was expensive, but was it worth it?

It may not last long, but I’ll take being #1 across all horror short story collections on Amazon for however long it lasts.

The cat is staying, because of Quantums

It’s funny how the brain works when you’re writing.

In my current manuscript, I’ve had a cat appear throughout. There’s nothing particularly special about it. It’s not a magic cat or anything like that. It doesn’t talk, or lead my protagonist to hidden treasure.

But the thing is, I’ve not known why it’s been there. The idea came to be during the initial vomit draft, just one of many ideas I threw out during that messy initial version of the story. And when I eventually got past that draft and started considering why I’d put it there, I couldn’t work it out. I knew it worked, but not why.

And if there is something in your story that you like but doesn’t actually add anything to it, then in most cases it has to go. “Kill your Babies” is one of the universal mantras you’ll hear in any writing course. If it’s unnecessary, lose it.

But I didn’t want to lose the cat. I just felt that, somehow, it made sense.

And yesterday, while I was working on the first big edit of my first draft, it suddenly clicked. I knew what the cat represented, why it fits into the story where I’d put it, and why it should stay.

I love moments like this, when something suddenly makes sense and you get a fleeting moment of realisation that maybe you actually know what you’re doing.

it’s funny how the brain can work sometimes, isn’t it? These bursts of intuition. That it can throw out an idea, but then take literal months before it can work out why that idea worked. When you get these ideas, I wonder if the full thinking behind them is there in your mind and it just takes a while for it to put it together. Or do these intuitive leaps have something deeper behind them?

Maybe it’s a temporal thing. Where somehow in the brain can get a glimpse of a solution you’ll have reached in the future. Maybe “Intuition” it’s something we’ve evolved to show us that we’re on the right track and not to give up.

It would be cool if the brain had some ability to see glimpses of the future. I bet it would involve Quantums, somehow.  I’m not a scientist, but it feels to me like Quantums must have something to do with it.

Anyway, the cat is named Scrat, and he’s staying.

Quantum Cat

 

Okay, so I’ve not posted in a while. Sorry about that. Mainly I’ve been spending all my writing time battling to get the first full draft of my next novel done. But’s that’s something I’ll go into more detail in a future post.

But I’ve been meaning to share this article on representation for a while now, and finally have the chance (meaning I’ve remembered it when I’ve been at my computer).

Representation is important, and this post explains why in a way I’d not thought of in such details before.

 

Make the effort, branch out, discover more

So once again International Women’s Day has snuck up on me. I always mean to plan ahead for days like this so I have something profound, interesting or inspirational to put up here. Luckily for me, I just happen to be in the middle of reading something from an author who is all three of those things. One who just happens to be a woman, and someone I discovered by purposefully going outside my comfort zone.

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A while ago, I released most of the books on my shelves were from white, male writers and that keeping my reading so restricted was going to be limiting my own growth as a writer.

My first step to rectify this was a simple internet search for women writing in horror. From just a quick browse, the name Shirley Jackson kept popping up. And so I picked up her horror story The Haunting of Hill House.

And, as anyone else who has read this book will understand, I was instantly smitten.

I’d don’t know any writer who can so expertly craft stories that remain so intimately personal the more the action unfolds. Her protagonists – at least in what I’ve read so far – feel fleshed out and real beyond most writers. Usually, when we read we don’t think about how the characters are just that; characters. As good as they are, we know deep down they are not, and our willing suspension of disbelief allows us to ignore this as long as they fit the story world. But Jackson creates entire characters that you feel you know and understand intimately. The action of the plot may be happening all around them, but all of it is shown through such a focused point of view that it’s hard not to feel that we are not literally watching through the character’s eyes. Her grasp of the isolation felt only while in the midst of other people is pitch perfect. I don’t know any other authors can so deftly express so much about how our lives are constrained by the world and the people around us like Shirley Jackson. If you know of any, please recommend them to me.

I’ve re-read The Haunting on Hill House several times now. It’s a massive influence on my current project. Every time I’ve been stuck I’ve used as an opportunity to read it once again, and every time I leave it with fresh ideas and inspiration. It’s one of those books that instantly leapt into my all time favourites. I could easily read it over and over without it ever getting dull.

I’m now reading this collection of her short fiction, and with each story I love her work all the more. I’ve heard so many things about how good The Lottery is, only the quality of the stories before it is stopping me skipping forward and reading it first (it’s the last one in the collection). Each story is a snapshot into a world reflected through the eyes of her protagonist. The theme of each one is both simple and complex, a stream running deeper than it appears.

So if you want to mark International Women’s Day by reading a kick-ass female writer, and you haven’t discovered her already, I can’t recommend Shirley Jackson enough.

And so let this be a lesson in the benefits of branching out and trying something outside of your comfort zone. I discovered one of my favourite authors through by recognising that my reading wasn’t diverse enough and making the effort to do something about it. Let’s ignore the underlying problem of why it wasn’t diverse for now, shall we – That’s an issue for a different post – and imagine what I still have to discover by just making an effort to try something different?

My 2016 TV Show of the Year

This year, I’ve decided to post a few of the highlights I’ve come across in 2016 to share with you all. They won’t necessarily be things published or released this year, but will all be relatively recent works that I – at least – discovered in 2016.

 

This one gave me a little difficulty. We all know that we’re in a so-called “Golden Age of Television”, and as much as that phrase is tired and overused I can’t deny that with subscriptions to Netflix and Amazon Prime I’ve had copious excellent television to get through. By rather than one of the series that everyone’s already raved about online, I’m going to pick one that we started watching on a whim without knowing anything about it and turned out to the be one of the cleverest TV shows I’ve seen in a long time.

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On the day Rebecca Bunch is finally about to reach her lifelong goal of being made a Partner in a prestigious New York legal firm, she is suddenly struck by just how miserable she truly is. Then, mid-breakdown – she runs into an old boyfriend. Releasing that the time she dated him – for just 3 months one summer over a decade ago – was the last time she was truly happy, Rebecca drops everything and follows him across the country to win him back.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is one of the smartest pieces of television writing I’ve watched in years. While the premise could be one of a thousand bland rom-coms or generic sitcoms, writer and star Rachel Bloom instead created something that’s both a fun musical show and a deep look into the divide between what society has taught us to think we want and what we actually need.

Rebecca drops a high-flying legal career to be with the boy of her dreams. Why wouldn’t that be the right thing to do? They had a Meet-Cute on the day she needed it the most. That’s what television and movies have taught us; that our fairytale will come true if we just believe enough to fight through all obstacles. Why should it matter that she’s stalked him across the country? Or that he’s been with the same girlfriend for fifteen years? Or that her actions throw the lives of so many people into chaos? It’s meant to be!

Ultimately, this show is about the delusions we build for ourselves to hide from the truths we don’t want to face.

While also being a light-hearted musical.

Did I say the writing on this show was really clever?ceg1cast3_0509ra-max-620x600

It’s the layers to the characters and the plots that make this show unmissable. They’ve managed to avoid or subvert every trope in their path, without a single lazy path taken. If two characters have an ‘amusing misunderstanding’, rather than stretching that out for an entire episode they will talk it out and focus instead on the underlying issues. We’re introduced to characters such as “the boss who wants to be everyone’s friend”, or “the controlling bitch girlfriend”, or “the love interest”, but as the series progresses you see how none of them are solely defined by these labels. You also see why they are this way. Why does the boss so desperately want people to like him? Why is the love interest’s girlfriend such a controlling bitch? Why does the love interest stay with his girlfriend even though she’s so unpleasant and demanding? And, most impressively, all of them change and grow in a way that suit the character rather than the longevity of the show. Or getting preachy.

Basically, if you’ve not caught this show I cannot recommend strongly enough that you do. It’s currently half way through its second season, and you won’t find many shows so that subvert television character tropes so well.