music post

I’ve been on a search for new music lately because I listen to music when I write. I can’t write in silence but I’m picky about what I can write to. I also like to put single mood-setting tracks on repeat. (I probably should have kept a tally of how many times I listened to Iron & Wine’s “The Trapeze Swinger” while I was working on the circus.) (There is, for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, a circus playlist over here.)

And writing music is an interesting balance, at least for me, because it can’t be distracting but it can’t be so mellow that it makes me sleepy, either.

My writing rotation changes a lot, I’ve been making playlists that are mostly jazz (Coltrane, Ellington, some Charlie Parker) and some other bits and pieces that I keep adding to whenever something reminds me of how I think the new book should feel.

I just got the soundtrack to The Great Gatsby and while I predictably adore the Florence + the Machine song the one that’s getting the constant repeat treatment is the Gotye track, “Hearts a Mess,” even though it bothers me that the title apparently does not have an apostrophe. I might put it on the writing playlist, haven’t decided yet.

But my favorite recent musical discovery is something different.

This is a band called Houses, their new album is called A Quiet Darkness.

I literally clicked on this album in iTunes because I liked the cover. I’d never heard of them, had no idea what kind of music it would be, just found the cover art aesthetically pleasing.

Most fortuitous iTunes click ever.

Only had to preview a handful of tracks before buying the album, only listened to the album once before also buying their previous album. I can’t even describe them properly, the sound is so lovely and ethereal and layered and it is perfection as writing music.

I tweeted about them and they tweeted back because Twitter is MAGIC and as a result of said magic I now have that beautiful album in LP form with nicely giant cover art, hurrah:

houses lpHighly recommended if you are looking for new music, and you never know what you might create while listening to it.

I was thinking about doing a proper post about cocktails today but it was going to involve photos of my home bar that I didn’t have time to take to best show off the pretty bottles, and I still needed something to post about.

I’m in writing mode, finally, so I have writing on the brain. Over cocktails yesterday I was discussing writing and since I am prone to making analogies I made one that involved a cocktail party and I was told it is a good one so I am going to share it with the internets.

Let’s start with the party and then we’ll get around to how it ties into writing.

You are throwing a cocktail party. You’ve invited a fair amount of people and you vacuumed and came up with a lighting concept and brought out the nice glassware and there are lots of nibbly things, possibly on sticks.

One of your guests hasn’t met any of the other people there. Hasn’t even been to your home before. Is attending solo.

You want to make sure that this guest has a good time and feels comfortable, but of course, you need to be in host mode, too.

You take their coat when they arrive. You give them a drink. You introduce them to the other guests. You show them where the nibbly things on sticks are.

You get them oriented and check in occasionally, but you don’t hover. If you notice they need a refill, you can subtly swoop in.

You trust they can take care of themselves and have a good time while your attention is elsewhere.

Your guest will pick things up from listening to the music and conversations and wandering through the rooms.

The analogy part is kind of obvious, isn’t it?

The guest is the reader. Your party (and your home) are the story.

You make them comfortable but you don’t hold their hand. Trust them to go with things but maybe warn them about your dragoncat (or just assume that the smoldering paw prints on the carpet will speak for themselves). You don’t even have to tell them what’s in their drink, but they should probably know where the bar is.

It’ll vary from party to party, but the basics of playing a good host are usually similar.

You don’t need to explain every little thing but you need to give the reader something to hold onto, make them comfortable but not overly so.

Keep them on their toes, but make sure they know what kind of surface it is they’re tiptoeing on. Especially if you’re going to pull it out from under them.

So there’s your writing as cocktail party analogy. Use it or ignore it as you see fit. I tend to avoid writing advice beyond the “keep writing” & “rules are more like guidelines” stuff but I think orienting the reader is a sometimes tricksy thing and this seemed to me to be a good way to think about it, though I am overly fond of analogies. And cocktails.

(Next cocktail post will be about actual cocktails, I promise.)


I would hope it’s not necessary but I would like to say that all statements herein are one writer’s opinion/journey/thoughts/observations (that is, mine) and I think publishing is far too vast and complicated, especially lately, to say that a single author experience speaks for an industry or a movement or anything but its own self. One thing I’ve realized from meeting lots of writers in the past few years is that every single person’s journey is different and personal. It’s not a particularly straightforward job trajectory, after all.

So the wise and lovely Chuck Wendig has been posting a lot of wise things about self-publishing lately and I’ve been following along and having Thoughts from my admittedly unusual perspective on such things and the Thought that I’d most like to get out there in response is this:

Had I self-published The Night Circus it would have been a lousy book with no plot and likely would have disappeared into the ether. I will stand by that statement, though in all honesty I probably wouldn’t have self-pubbed it and instead let it languish on my harddrive while I wrote another book.

The entire saga of manuscript-to-agented is detailed back here but the short version is I got my manuscript to the point where I didn’t know what else it needed and it seemed like the right point to start sending it out. I did. It got requests because I had a query letter that made it sound like it had a plot when it really didn’t. It also got a lot of rejections.

And then my messy, plotless manuscript reached people who politely informed me that it was messy and plotless and needed a lot of work. But they also said they would be interested if I worked on it more and basically completely rewrote it.

I could have decided they were wrong and not listened and turned around and self-published the manuscript I had because at that point I was in a bit of denial about the whole messy plotless thing.

I’m really, really glad I listened.

(I will fully admit I dragged my feet. I did two rounds of revising and the first was a “stick bells and whistles and glitter on it” attempt to not actually re-work the entire damn thing and the second was a proper re-working of the entire damn thing.)

To be clear: no one ever told me what to write. Ever. All choices were made by me, all words were written by me, all fiction-fueling tea & chocolate was consumed by me personally. But agents and later editor and my very dear critique partner all gave me lots of feedback about what wasn’t working, what was working, and what I could do better along the way. No one ever tried to alter my artistic vision, they just helped me make it clearer.

An example: The initial draft that I queried with has no competition. One suggestion was to make the circus more of a background setting and that combined with the already black and white color scheme and the fact that I didn’t want it to be just setting led to thinking of it as a chessboard, and that’s when I started playing with the competition angle.

(Then I realized I had characters that would never consent to being truly antagonistic because they’d have too much respect for each other’s work and that’s when the Romeo & Juliet flavor came in.)

Publishing professionals who get too often grr-ed at and called gatekeepers wanted to help me tell the best story I could, because all of those people at the gate and behind the gate are people who love books, people who love stories. I’ve yet to meet a person in the publishing industry who doesn’t love books. They are booklovers. Most of them are booksluts. I mean that as a compliment of the highest order.

It’s a hard thing to write a story, because you can’t read it. I can never have the experience of reading The Night Circus because I wrote it, I know all the surprises and the motivations and the backstories and I can’t watch it unfold properly. But I had to figure out how to fold it up so it could be unfolded by a reader in a coherent, entertaining, satisfying way.

I, me, myself, personally, could not have gotten this particular story to that point by taking a drastically different path to publication.

The tricksy thing about a path is that you can’t untake it, so I can only speak for my own path, my own footsteps, my own book. That’s all anyone can speak for, and one path’s success does not negate another. I can point at my path and say “this path was successful!” and so can a lot of other people who took wildly different routes. There’s an enlightenment analogy here, or possibly a Wizard of Oz reference. Something about shoes, maybe.

Different paths work. Old ones, new ones, combinations of the two. Tunnels probably work, too. I don’t think there’s a best way or a better way, I think it’s about each individual writer finding the right path for them to get the best stories possible into the hands and heads of their readers.

So Bioshock Infinite came out yesterday and I am being really good today by not playing until I get everything else on today’s to-do list checked off. I just got to “blog post” so here we go. It has a theme and some points, I promise.

I will preface this by (re)stating that I’m not much of a gamer. I am picky about games that I like and I am not widely versed in all the video game wonderment that is out there, but I have dipped my toes in and splashed around in my not-terribly-skilled way. (I remain annoyed that you can’t marry the Khajiit characters in Skyrim, do I at least get some sort of geek credit for that?)

To make everything ever somehow relate to Punchdrunk: I first became acquainted with Bioshock when I heard Sleep No More referred to as “live action Bioshock” which is a fairly apt description for something that’s almost impossible to describe. I’ve been waiting for Bioshock Infinite since 2011 when the first trailer came out, even though aesthetically the first two games are much more up my art deco alley, because floating city = swoon.

This brings me to my (first) point: I love this entire series largely because I am overly fond of architecture. The level of detail is amazing and I seriously spent about two hours playing Infinite yesterday and I’m barely past the intro because I keep stopping to look at things. (I really wish you could play in spectator mode and not have to worry about, you know, shooting things or getting shot at, which I understand is the basis of the game but it can be distracting when I’m trying to look at windows and statues and figuring out how the building docking systems work.)

It is immersive visual world building on an epic, gorgeous scale and still being somewhat in the architectural world building phase of writing a novel it is giddy-making for my storyteller brain.

Which brings me to my main point, because this post needs to have one before I am allowed to scurry off and play more, about how much I learn about storytelling in non-prose formats.

I suppose it goes without saying that I read a lot of books which are inspiring for my own writing (see this post for a recent example and also another Bioshock reference) but I also watch a lot of movies and look at a lot of art and listen to music and lately, play games.

There is some really innovative storytelling technique going on in games and I find it almost as fascinating as the architecture. How information is relayed and how plots are advanced and learning how a world works through interacting with it.

(I kind of want to do a documentary film about immersive entertainment. Need to figure out how to conjure more of that time stuff first.)

I’m a very visual person so it helps to be able to see things so I can expand my own mental treasure trove of images to include more things to build with. I suppose it is the visual equivalent of expanding your vocabulary, creating a visual media dictionary.

And a step beyond the visuals, games and movies and graphic novels and, oh, I don’t know, let’s say, puppet theatre all touch on telling stories without words which is a useful thing to study and figure out how to do, even if you end up telling your own story with nothing but various combinations of letters and punctuation.

That’s not to say that static visuals can’t be just as nuanced and layered. Take this Shaun Tan print I just had framed:

rabbits print

I know the context behind it because it’s an illustration from The Rabbits by John Marsden, but even as a separate single piece it’s full of detail and wonderment. And rabbits.

I’m losing my points here and instead of trying to pick them up I’m just going to throw them up in the air and let them fall in a visual waterfall of sketches and plush songbirds and inflatable presidents. I was going to include something more about graphic novels but maybe I’ll make that its own post some other day. I also still owe a post about cocktails (next week!) and also when my storyteller brain is in full absorption mode it gets a little weird and spongy in my train of thought.

Also, this is why it is sometimes difficult for me to describe my writing process because there’s so much stuff going on in here.

So last week the power of Twitter manifested Neil Gaiman’s upcoming The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

I said this:


Truthfully I thought maybe someone at his publisher would have a spare ARC, and if I were lucky I’d get one in a few weeks.

Before the end of the day I’d played Twitter tag with publishing types in both the US and the UK and then one lovely person led to another and then the name “Neil Gaiman” turned up in my email inbox, so a couple of days later I had these:


Top one is the US version (I love that cover) and the hardcover beneath it is a special edition proof from the UK. They are both beautiful and they are being treasured and petted and read.

I am a very, very lucky girl and I didn’t have to make out with anyone, but if any of the lovely people who led to this want to take me up on that, that’s totally cool.

I curled up with it over the weekend and I wasn’t sure what to expect because I knew nothing about it. Read it in one sitting and loved it. As I said on Twitter afterward, it is soaked in myth and memory and salt water and it is so, so lovely.

It feels as though it was always there, somewhere in the story-stuff of the universe, and I’m glad Neil captured it on paper so well.

And it made me want to write again.

I’ve been working, sorting through notes and drafts and the last of the cardboard boxes, but I haven’t really been doing much raw storytelling writing in that itchy to put things on paper way and this lit that spark again, which is impressive since it lit it with water.

And I got to email Neil Gaiman and thank him personally for that, which is delightful and yet more proof that Twitter is magic.

(I promise to only use the power of Twitter for good and books and not abuse it.)

So I have had oceans on the brain and then yesterday my teal chairs finally, finally arrived (they’d been held hostage in a warehouse and no one thought to call to arrange delivery until they were inquired about, several times) and they are even more gloriously teal and deco than I’d expected and I love them.

And they made me realize that my decorating concept is basically Bioshock.

I can think of worse decorating concepts than “underwater art deco city.” And I like it, it’s cozy. It’s a flavor I can work in.


I’d been thinking about the new novel as an air and glass sort of thing, where the circus was very much paper and fire and earth. And it has been curled up near the sea but I hadn’t thought of it as a water creature until now, and in its way it really is.

It’s very much like figuring out the soup you are cooking needs more salt. It seems too simple but it’s true.

It took oceans on the brain and teal chairs to realize it, even though I think it was there all the time.

Now that I’ve finally had the time to write I’ve been gathering up all my ideas and bits and pieces of scrawled drafts and I’ve been dipping my toes back in to get myself re-acclimated. I think I hadn’t been sure what this story was or wanted to be and over the last week I’ve had a couple of those salt water epiphany sparks and while I don’t know what it wants to be, exactly, I have a better idea.

I figured out over the last two years that while I can write little bits of things I can’t develop a whole novel-world unless I can shut everything else out and live in that world. I need that full-on imagination submersion. And for various reasons I’m only now getting to the point where I can do that.

I’m remembering how to breathe underwater so I can properly submerge myself.

I know I have something here, and I want to get it right.

I have been meaning to post this for ages, but here is a link to the beautiful music Aby Wolf did for my Talking Volumes event in Minnesota:

Isn’t it pretty? I am delighted beyond measure that the circus is inspiring such loveliness.

This post started as a random collection of things I’ve been listening to & watching lately but then it started wandering into thinky thoughts about input mode versus output mode which is something I think I’ve blogged about before, and I am still very much in input mode right now. So here’s a bit about the stuff I’ve been absorbing.

I have seen more movies this month than I did total in the previous year or so and I will tell you about them! Briefly.

First there was Cloud Atlas which I saw almost immediately after finishing the book so I was likely better prepared than most and I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. (I enjoyed the book, too, though not quite as much as I’d wanted to. Partially because I liked the middle bits more than the outside bits.) It’s pretty and I liked the choices made with the story structuring. Also the china shop dream sequence bit was worth the price of admission it made me so happy. That said, I worry it would make absolutely no sense to anyone who didn’t read the book. And I’m looking forward to watching it again on dvd because I’m almost more interested in hearing people talk about it via commentary than the actual watching part.

This past weekend I saw Life of Pi which I read ages ago when the book first came out and I thought the film was lovely, the visuals were gorgeous and I was glad they stuck so closely to the narrative of the book, particularly at the end.

In non-book adaptation movies, Skyfall was awesome. I’m not a huge Bond girl but I loved Casino Royale and I really liked this one, too. Particularly the opening credits.

(Now I’m patiently and somewhat skeptically waiting for The Hobbit.)

In other media, I’ve been playing video games. I am not much of a gamer but in the last couple weeks I got vaguely obsessed with Portal & Portal 2 and they made me happy, because they are the thinky sort of puzzles that I love and also the writing is fantastic. Also they gave me an excuse to have cake.

I find sometimes more than movies certain games get my story-brain going more, maybe it’s the decision making part or the unexpected dragons. (I may have a mild Skyrim addiction.)

I’m finally getting better about acknowledging the fact that all this is productive, even though it doesn’t seem like work. I’ve spent a lot of the last year and a half in circus promo mode and it’s hard to crawl back into the writing cave. Well, no, crawling back in the cave is easy, the difficult part is writing and not just curling up with the bats and taking a cave nap. So I need to wander around outside the cave for a bit and see what there is to see, to get my brain re-acclimated to being creative.

And I like finding those things in non-book forms, I find sometimes stories in film or tv or game or theatre or painting or song form spark ideas just as much if not better than reading other books does. They stretch the imagination in different ways.

I think it’s a Julia Cameron Artist’s Way thing about “filling the well.” About taking time to see and enjoy and absorb new stuff to get your creative brain going. That’s mostly what I’m doing at the moment when I’m not stressing about moving and catching up on life and wondering how it is tipping into December already. Absorbing things and drinking tea and letting my brain soak up the good bits. Sooner or later it’ll bubble over and then we’ll tip back into output mode, I’m sure.

Since we started with music we shall close with music, too. Things I’ve been listening to beyond the mentioned-in-Toronto Andrew Bird include the new Bat for Lashes album and the constantly-in-my-head Adele Skyfall theme, but mostly I’m totally late to the party getting into Of Monsters and Men and I cannot stop listening to this album.

two things with links

First thing: I wrote this brief, passionate yet ill-fated romance for Stylist magazine. I wrote the story and then they styled the photo shoot based on what I’d written and I love what they did with it. I tried to keep it a bit open-ended and vague so they’d have room to play with the images and I really think the end result is splendid. (I’ve seen a digital copy of the print version, which is even cooler.)

Second thing: I pulled out my tripod to get some proper photos of my very dark office in order to do this Write Place, Write Time feature on my writing space. It is extremely difficult to take photographs of a small windowless room with a lot of stuff in it, but I think you can get the general idea and also there’s a bunny in a raven mask.

I don’t really research. I was asked at a book event once how much research I did for The Night Circus and I responded “I didn’t research, I made things up.” I think people clapped.

It’s true, I mostly just make things up. For the circus I would occasionally check to make sure certain elements weren’t historically anachronistic (that’s why there’s no cotton candy, alas), though I’m sure a few anachronisms snuck in there anyway, and I relied on my own instincts from years of books read and movies seen as far as getting the tone right. And of course, my late Victorian/early Edwardian era circus exists in its own fantastical version of the past anyway.

But now that I’m back in the development stages while working on the new book I’ve been thinking about research more and I think I do research, only I view it more as digging around for inspiration than actual research-research which I mentally associate with term papers and laboratories.

I oscillate between input mode and output mode. When I’m in output mode I’m writing writing writing, usually in caffeinated marathon sessions where I rarely self-edit and accumulate lots of words. (Later there will be self-editing but we are not concerning ourselves with such matters at this stage.)

In input mode, which I’m in at the moment, I’m not writing a lot (though I will jot down random bits if they float into my head) but I am reading a lot and pondering a lot and trying to marinate in the flavors associated with what I’m working on while constantly looking for new ones to add. Unsurprisingly this mode also makes me hungry. And it is research in its way, even if it’s not all book research.

Things I have done in research/inspiration mode for the new novel have included reading lots and lots of detective novels, playing (including getting other people to play the difficult levels for me) Bioshock I & II, exploring art deco hotels in Miami, visiting cocktail bars and peering at artifacts ensconced in glass cases in art museums.

I love museums, maybe because they tend to be library-quiet and story-filled. While I was in NYC I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art which is one of my favorite museums. (I don’t know how I managed to miss the Cloud City.) I spent a lot of time wandering around the Egyptian galleries, not particularly searching for inspirations but keeping my imagination open since there’s an Egyptian mythology flavor floating around the edges of the not-yet-novel-shaped novel. I didn’t have any epiphany moment but it got some wheels turning in my head.

Where do you get your ideas? people ask. Sometimes they’re at the bottoms of cups of tea. Sometimes they’re lurking in my shower. Sometimes they’re waiting patiently in glass cases in museums.

And having peered in glass cases so recently, I was particularly delighted to see my author-friend Simon Toyne doing very much the same sort of research only on the other side of the Atlantic with a lovelier accent and a camera in tow.

Of course, his new book is all shiny and book-shaped and available in stores and mine is…

I should go back to researching now.

This post has been a long time coming and I suppose that’s fitting, since it’s mostly about not having time to write. Apparently that includes proper blog posts. Though this is not a proper blog post, this is a long rambling thing about what my life has been like lately.

I am not saying this is how it goes for every author, the more authors I meet the more I realize that it’s a strange sort of career where everyone’s experience is unique despite some overlapping elements. There’s a lot more to being a writer than writing, between book promotion and public speaking and signing things.

The Night Circus came out last September. I spent the weeks leading up to it doing interviews and Q&As and trying not to freak out about the whole thing. I’d also moved over the summer so I was still in cardboard box land.

From September until mid November I was on book tour, or doing book-related things abroad. This involved near-constant travel, I was never in any one location for more than a couple of days at most. I was on more airplanes in the first month than I’d been on in my entire life beforehand.

Here’s the thing about book tours: Yes they are fabulous and exciting and it’s wonderful to meet people in so many different cities but they are also physically and emotionally exhausting. I’m not sure it can be properly explained, it’s likely one of those situations that is near impossible to understand unless you’re the person in it. I feel like I have a better understanding of it now, having gone through it, and a better idea of how I react and what I need to do to keep myself sane, but it was a learn by doing sort of thing.

(And by “learn by doing” I mean “learn by having a near breakdown in the middle of an airport.”)

I am endlessly thankful that having a theatre background makes the whole public speaking thing easier to handle, but being a writer still involves more talking than I’d expected. And it’s hard to find a balance when I’m relating the same stories and answering similar questions, I start to feel repetitive and awkward and sometimes my social anxiety kicks in despite the actor training.

The strangest thing, for me, at least, and this might warrant a separate thoughtful post of its own, is the sudden transition between being the center of attention in a room filled with people to being alone in an unfamiliar hotel room.

(Side note: in two hotel rooms on my tour the concierge left a bottle of wine and two glasses. I still cannot decide if it would be more or less depressing to have a single glass. Which one is a harsher reminder that you’re alone?)

December should not count as a month off because it has holidays in it, and for most of January I was too tired to function.

At the end of January I was on a mini-tour, in a different city every day for a week, and then I had a few days off and then I was in Toronto in early February, which was actually lovely because I heart Canada.

But that means it was mid-February before I was really able to start properly recovering from tour mode.

And it would have been fabulous if that meant I could sit down and work on my next book that has been languishing for months but I also have long-neglected email to deal with and extra content type things to work on for various upcoming paperback editions. More Q&As, this time from more countries, and now people send me books they want me to read and say nice things about and did I mention that there are a few cardboard boxes kicking around from last summer and I’m likely going to be moving again this fall? I’m also just tired, still, and some days grocery shopping or laundry or putting on shoes takes more energy than it should.

Also, my desk chair is broken.

All these things take time. Sure, a lot of the individual things aren’t that complicated or time-consuming but once you start adding them up they eat a lot of time. And I need to allot time to blogging and tweeting and try to have a life in there somewhere, too.

It gets hard to separate work time from non-work time with this sort of job. I have an office (I ordered a new desk chair) but it’s not like I’m in there from 9 to 5 because I don’t have typical days so I end up feeling guilty at 10pm when I’m sitting around eating gelato instead of answering emails even when I’ve spent all day working. This is a mental thing I’m aware of but I still struggle with it, a lot. I’m trying to be better about taking weekends off.

And then there’s that added complication of having people actually waiting for this book. No one was waiting for the circus. I got to write the circus in a bubble, and now the bubble is gone, it will be the only bubble book, ever. I am thrilled that I already had several other stories in varying degrees of not-yet-novel-shaped because if I was staring at a blank page right now I know it would be worse.

For comparison: the circus took five years to write (and rewrite), and I wasn’t dealing with book tours and outside pressure while I was working on it. I am hoping that I will have a draft of my next novel done at some point this year, but right now I have a few months and then a fairly busy summer (my sister is getting married in August, yay!) and then I’ll be touring again in the fall and then it will be Mayan calendar end of the world time and then 2013 because when you reach the end of a calendar you get a new one.

I’m also not going to write faster just for the sake of having the next book out sooner. I want to write the best book I can despite the complications of time and the general busyness my life has taken on. If I can do that this year, that’ll be fabulous. It’ll also mean the earliest that book could possibly be available would be very late next year or more likely sometime in 2014, because once I’m done with it it’s still a long way from being a finished shiny book.

So yeah, that’s the rough idea of why I don’t have as much time to write as I’d like.  I am learning to make time for it, though, all of this is a learning process. I have a whole new life and I’m trying to get the hang of it but I’m still a toddler so I have tendencies to fall down and cry and need a cookie and a hug.

And if blog posts are few and far between and I’m slow on email replies for the next while, I’m sorry. I’m trying to write another book, because really, that part is my actual job.

If you read this whole thing I’m impressed and I feel you deserve a picture of a kitten. (If you skimmed just to get to the kitten, that’s okay, too.)


Okay, this is how we’re going to do this. This is not a real Frequently Asked Questions. Maybe it will be eventually, but for now it will be a work in progress.

This shall be Part I: On Writing. (There will be a Part II: Not On Writing soon.)

I will eventually put together a real non-blog page for this, but for now it can start here and do feel free to ask additional questions in comments and maybe they can be incorporated.

And, here we go:

Part I: On Writing

To begin… To begin… How to start? I’m hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think. But I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee. Coffee and a muffin. Okay, so I need to establish the themes. Maybe banana-nut. That’s a good muffin.

-Charlie Kaufman, Adaptation

About Writing in General


How long have you been writing?

I wrote little random things when I was in junior high and high school but never really thought of myself as a writer. I studied playwriting in college but never finished any plays. Wrote a few pretty good scenes, though. After college I thought about writing for good long while before I started actually putting pen to paper in my mid-twenties.

I do not have an MFA or any other formal writing training. I love adverbs. I still do naughty things with commas.


How did you write a bestseller/how does one write a bestseller/etc?

For any question that boils down to “how did you write a successful novel?” the answer in my case is pretty simple: I wasn’t trying to. I didn’t sit down and aim for the bestseller lists, I didn’t even know much about publishing or the book industry when I started writing, I just had a lot of stuff in my head to get down on paper. I told a story without much thought toward publication, I only wanted to tell it as best I could.

Truthfully, had I been trying to do something I thought would be successful I might not have written the book I wrote. I had a sprawling draft of The Night Circus when I started educating myself about the industry and found things that said “don’t write in present tense” and “never use second person ever” and I thought: oops. But I had written so much already that I figured it couldn’t hurt to just see what happened, and figured at most it would be publishable even if it wasn’t done “properly” and I think it goes to show that rules are more like guidelines.


How did you get an agent?

I sent query letters and sample pages and followed guidelines. I listened to feedback and I revised a lot. The long version of the “how I got a literary agent” saga is chronicled here.

I learned a lot about the querying/publishing process by spending time on the Absolute Write Forums. They’re big and busy but there’s a lot of really useful information and wonderful, smart people over there.


Will you read my manuscript/refer me to your agent/publisher, etc?

No. I’m sorry. Firstly, I don’t have time. Secondly, I am proof positive that cold querying works and you don’t need connections to get published.


Are you working on another novel? When will it be available?

I am working on something new. When I have time, which is proving more difficult to find than I’d like but I am indeed working on it. It is not circusy. It is something completely different, still fantastical but heavily rooted in reality. Probably best described at this point as a film noir-flavored Alice in Wonderland. It is still in messy, non-novel-shape and I don’t know how long it will take to get it novel-shaped.

To give you a very basic time frame: the circus took around five years from when I started working on it to when it was finished and then another year between “finished” and “published.” I don’t think this one will take quite that long to write but it will very likely take the rest of this year at least, and then it will be at least another year after that before it would be published. Also, I want to take the time and get it right, so it might be a bit longer than that.


What advice do you have for writers?

I recycle the best advice I ever heard from an author from Neil Gaiman: Keep Writing and Finish Things. The finishing part is sometimes kind of tricksy, but it’s really important.

And of course, my other best advice for writers: Read. I am also fond of books about writing, particularly Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.

On a nuts and bolts level, I recommend a software program called Scrivener. I’ve seen people complain about “writing” software but it’s really more like organizational software. A novel is long and having a program that can organize it and let me look at it in bits and pieces and move things around is something I find invaluable.


About The Night Circus


Was The Night Circus written during National Novel Writing Month?

A very sprawling, very rough draft of The Night Circus was first written in a few different Novembers of NaNoWriMo. Almost the entire book was rewritten and revised before it got from there to the finished version. To give you an idea of how much: Celia isn’t in that first sprawling draft. It is a lot of stuff about the circus but not a lot of plot, but it gave me something to work from.


Will there be a sequel to The Night Circus?

No. Maybe someday I’ll write a circus-set something but it would more likely be a collection of short pieces as there are so many stories floating around the edges. I don’t think it needs a “this is what happened next” sort of sequel. I like that it is one book with a beginning and an end. Not every book needs to be a series.


Will the circus be published in French/Chinese/Russian etc?

There are quite a few foreign editions both already published and forthcoming. I don’t have a full list or publication dates but chances are the answer is yes, and if it’s not available now it will be at some point.


Is there going to be a movie?

Maybe. This will continue to be the answer for a good long time because anything can happen in the strange and mysterious world of film production. The film rights have been optioned by Summit Entertainment, which means they have the option to make The Night Circus into a film. They are indeed working on it but I do not personally know all that much about what’s going on with it at any given point. When there are official updates, I’m sure the internet will know.

PSA: I have very little to do with the movie. Strange but true. I wrote the book, other people will adapt it into a screenplay and handle casting and designing and do all the movie-making things. I cannot tell you how to audition or anything like that, not that it’s even reached that stage yet. Summit is in charge. I’m just along for the ride.


Okay, I think that’s it for Writing/Circus questions but do please let me know if you think I missed anything. Part II will cover all sorts of miscellany, including “Where did you get those shoes?”


Addendum to Part I, Feb 23rd:

What is your writing process like?

Messy. I’m a very visual person so a lot of writing for me is translating spaces and people and scenes in my mind into words, sometimes it’s easier than others. I often have to write a lot to find the description that works best, sometimes I hit on a single word that fits the image and I build from there.

I don’t write in order. The Night Circus was written vignette by vignette and many of them were re-ordered in the revision process. I have an entire section in my Scrivener document for the new novel called “pieces without places” that includes everything from word-sketches of architecture to snippets of dialogue.

I like both books and art with lots of layers, and the best way to accomplish both for myself has been putting down a lot of paint and then refining and bringing out detail. Though with writing I don’t end up with paint in my hair. Usually. 


What did you do before you were a writer?

I sat in fluorescent-lit cubicles and made photocopies. Really. I had a string of office jobs and none of them were particularly inspiring. I had a degree in Theatre and didn’t really want to do theatre anymore so I spent most of my 20s filing things and arguing with fax machines and wondering who took my stapler while trying to figure out what to do with my life. I quit a couple of years ago to focus on writing and painting to see if either would take off and now here we are.


Are there particular books that influenced The Night Circus?

The circus had a lot of influences, some of the stronger particular ones were Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke and The Prestige by Christopher Priest (as well as the film version of the same).

The vignette format of the book was inspired by Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman, one of my favorite books of all time.

In a general flavor sense there’s a heavy dose of Shakespeare and Dickens with a sprinkling of Roald Dahl around the edges and an Edward Gorey aperitif.


May I listen to songs that inspired/remind you of The Night Circus?

Why yes, yes you may. I made a playlist for the circus, it is both on Spotify and 8tracks for countries that are not Spotify-friendly. You can also read explanations of all these songs over here via largehearted boy’s Book Notes.


Do you have discussion questions about The Night Circus for book clubs, etc?

My fabulous publisher does! There’s a great list here. I’m not even sure how I’d answer some of them.