Friday, October 24, 2014

Rewrites and Conjuring Tricks

25th October 2014

When you write a book of fiction, when, like God, you create this world populated by projections of your own psyche, it takes over your life. That seventh day of rest doesn't come for you, though, because you're too absorbed with your fictional world and too disengaged from your real one: the days just keep on passing, from five pages on this day to ten on the next, to a day when you are forced to go out and attend to other aspects of your life but keep chewing over what you have written and what you are going to write next. It's a socially sanctioned obsessive compulsive disorder.

I have to say this is where I am right now, recreating this book that I created once before but so long ago now the initial impulse has become hazy. So I get to be god all over again, and it is a heady business, a piece of psychotherapy, if truth be told. The craft of the writer is to make this journey of self-discovery compelling also to the reader.  Funny thing - I thought I knew these characters of old (Lord knows I have been carrying them around for long enough!) but they are surprising me all over again.  They are saying different things and are reacting in different ways, and my main character, Hazel, has much more of an internal struggle going on. Sometimes I wonder from where in the dark pool of my own soul I am pulling this stuff. I thought her attraction to the love-interest was obvious, a
fait accompli, but now I don't know if he isn't just too aggravating, that in the end she might not, as she did before, end up with him.
Stephen King says in his fantastic little book "On Writing," that stories consist of 3 things: Narration, Description and Dialogue.  Where is plot in this? - nowhere, and that's the way it should be (he says, and I agree!)
So re-writing becomes a new voyage of discovery. You have the same characters, but this time around you're not in the same place you were the last time around. This time the story begins to list in different directions, because the characters have come out of their sleep and are not the same.
If the writer of "The Three Bears," had picked it up a few decades later and messed with it again, it might have come out differently: Goldilocks might look up at the three bears crowding her bed and, instead of fleeing, might begin to explain her predicament. The bears, being reasonable bears, might probe more deeply and find out that this little girl is truly lost, and not just in the forest. In this version, they might adopt her, and then the point of the story would be entirely different.

So don't carve characters out of stone. As you do your own children, let your characters blossom into their own persons. Stephen King says, "I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances the outcome is what I visualized. In most, however, it something I never expected."

Friday, October 17, 2014

Ye Of Little Faith

17th October 2014

There are people, some of them my friends, who balk at the idea of being seen with a time travel book like mine in their hands. They think it reflects badly on them: REAL literature is not taken to such flights of fancy - it deals, if somewhat poetically, with REAL life or with Quirky life or with an Aberration of life, but always with tangible life, thank you very much.  The REAL reader of fiction is a no-nonsense sort of reader, and time travel, they think, is precisely that: nonsense.
I was giving a reading earlier this year and found myself saying, "Time travel isn't as far-fetched as it used to be." This caused a wave of titters to move across the room. But I am right, you know. Our whole notion of both space and time is dissolving about our ears, and neither one is that solid entity we once mistook it for. Reality, science is beginning to concede, is what you make it. Reality, as it turns out, might be the best case of mass hallucination there is.
At another reading, I came to the conclusion (with the audience) that my book really falls into the genre of Magical Realism. Why does Gabriel Garcia Marquez get to put the tail of a pig on babies and have people floating about, while when I have people floating about, it is deemed low brow supermarket nonsense? I take umbrage at this. All books ask the reader to take a leap of faith. It's just that I am asking them to jump a bit further. So is Marquez.

Jump, and you will be vindicated when the first contraption makes it possible to send your collection of atoms through space and time to another spot. Scientists are already teleporting photons, for god's sake. So, don't go scoffing at my time travel book! If you want reality as Newton saw it, I have a whole backlog of unpublished books with people up to their ears in the quagmire of hard reality.  Maggie, the protagonist of "Veil Of Time," is actually doing the same, trying to find her life, and in the process digging up some questions about what we lost when the pagans were ousted.

These ancestors of ours would have had less of a hard time with the idea of time travel. It was the Christians who made time look like a long line because they needed to put God at the beginning and heaven at the end. The pagans knew that time doesn't really exist. They were masters of magical realism, and not only Marquez but McDougall would have been up there on their bronze-age shelves. Right next to Hawking's A Brief History of Time. You see, they wouldn't have been able to tell the difference.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Unlocking the Story

10th October 2014

This last week I turned the final (for now) rewrite of the sequel to my published book over to my agent who is currently in Frankfurt for the international book fair. Unfortunately, he will not be able to flog my published book, because in the initial contract with the publisher we gave up all rights but the motion picture rights. This is fairly common - when you are an unknown writer trying to find a buyer in that great unknown sea of big publishing, you would practically sell your body, and don't think twice about foreign rights. Brazil did step forward early on and bought the rights for translation into Brazilian Portugese (what they will do with the Gaelic is anybody's guess!)
I've been wondering how the various translations of the title might look: Le Voile du Temps? Der Schleier der Zeit? El Velo del Tiempo? Den Sloja av Tid? My vote goes for the French, which lends it a certain mystique. But only the languages with an archaic indigenous precursor are going to be able to handle the Gaelic. Spanish could use Latin, I suppose, though that might conjure pictures of Roman legions marching through Scotland in squads - a little different from the druidesses and stone circles the early Gaelic suggests.

So, with my sequel out of the way and with no immediate plans for Book 3 in the series, I am more than excited to be beginning a new book. This isn't exactly new, but one of my first. This is "Hazel and the Chessmen," about a young American woman who gets caught up in the plan of a Scottish nationalist (a surly but attractive Scottish nationalist!) to steal back the Lewis Chess pieces from the British Museum in London. It has long been in my plans to rewrite this story in the first person, because I think readers were having a hard time getting into my protagonist Hazel's head as long as the narration was in the third person.
But now I am back from Scotland after the failed referendum for independence, with all this disappointment and even anger.  All that energy has to go somewhere, and now I see I can recast the story in the times of the referendum, giving the plot a whole new level of intensity. I am fired up and working long hours (for me.)

That's what writing is all about anyway - not about politics in the first instance, but about harnessing those rivers that are moving and move you. I wouldn't have set out to write a book around the referendum, but since I had already written the story, it's just about angling it differently. Paul Harding said at the seminar I took from him, that sometimes just the addition of one word or one sentence can alter the cast of the whole story, so that you unlock something you hadn't seen before and you can literally hear the tumblers turning and everything just falling into place. Here's the writer with a Kaleidoscope of words, just turning the instrument round one more notch.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Twisted Sister

3rd October 2014

I had never actually gone off by myself on a research trip until this last month when in Scotland for the referendum I drove my miniscule rental car far up the A9 to a very small town called Portmahomack on the edges of the Moray Firth. This was an ancient stronghold of the Picts, and I am toying with the idea of setting my third book in the Time series here. I checked into a B&B right on the shore and was the only guest, sitting there each morning for my breakfast of "jugged kipper," and "brose porridge," reading the table mat which happened to contain quite a bit of information about times past in Portmahomack, for instance that the early Picts here lived right on the shore in their wattle round houses and ran a kind of trade market, presumably served by travellers along the eastern sea board.

The Picts left a few of these amazingly intricately carved stones around Portmahomack erected by master Pictish stonemasons. This one, the Hilton of Cadboll stone, is my favourite, although as so often happens, it got wheeked away to the National Museum in Edinburgh (not before making a detour to the British Museum in London, of course!)  At the top of the stone is a crescent and V-rod Pictish symbol (which I happen to have tattooed on my arm and which I learned on this trip might have connoted woman - cf. the crescent moon, and the broken arrow, which let's hope will be woman's final contribution to our race's story!) Below is a hunting scene featuring a woman riding side-saddle, drawing one to the conclusion that the status of women in this pagan culture was significantly higher than it was to become under Christendom.

This building is what I found on the site of a Pictish settlement just up the hill from the shore. A church, of course, because I have come across this endlessly now in my research: The monks would come in and plonk a church right on an ancient pagan site. By a nice twist of fate, this church has now been turned into a museum to house some of the Pictish finds from the area. One thing the monks didn't count on was that bones speak and have their own dark energy (which is what I plan to call Book 3, Dark Energy.) Now the pagans are speaking to us through the ages in a place where hymns were once sung and misguided monks fought with that other kind of dark energy that lurks beneath the cassock. Oh, I love the irony of it! Perhaps it's just my twisted mind and perhaps the reason I am a writer in the first place.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Waiting it out with Robert Burns

Why is patience so hard to come by?
The Scottish referendum which came down on the wrong side of independence through fear and indecision teaches me about patience: The majority of under 55 year olds voted Yes and 75% of young people voted for independence - so patience is in order. The debate won't go away. We just have to bide our time (we might have to wait until JK Rowling is out of the picture so she can't fund the unionist campaign!) Robert Burns was fighting the unionists for Scottish independence 250 years ago,  and so he had to have had even more patience, a patience that would outlast him.

For the second time this summer I sat through an eight hour flight from Scotland to America's east coast, only to run for a connection for another four hour flight to Denver. The airlines have figured out the absolute minimal space a person can endure for twelve hours of flying without going completely bonkers, but only just. You're on the verge of screaming for more leg room, more centimeters on the arm rest, more space between you and the seat-back screen in front of you. Inhuman patience is required.

Same goes for my writing career. It would have been silly for me to hover over sales figures in the first month or so after publication. I am not a known entity - as my agent forecasted, it was going to take time for the book to percolate up. And that's what it is doing. I got a letter lately from a reader in Australia who had bought my book at a local book store - I didn't even know it was available in Australia! (I should add that she called it a "work of art." Can't argue with that from down under or anywhere else!) Then, while I was in Scotland, I went into the big Waterston's book shop in Oban, the biggest town in Argyll, where I went to school. Being a Scot and having been taught not to toot my own horn, I was extremely uncomfortable going up to the man at the cash register and introducing myself and my book. Especially when he went to his computer and tried to bring it up. He shook his head. "Not in the system." I located a kernel of growing panic in the area of the chest. But he had been entering "Vale of Time," instead of "Veil," and suddenly he found it. "Already on order," he said. It's not a big place, Oban, but the news made my heart sing an ode to joy -  it is  a home town for me in many ways, and I felt like Sally Field: "You love me right now! You really love me!"
But such an outburst wouldn't have gone down well, not in Scotland. There is still something subdued and cowed about the Scottish people. I think that is why I left. And it is why, given the offer of independence, the people of Scotland chose not to take it.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Sailing to Byzantium

12th September 2014

At the end of the day, in my book, the laurel wreath of literature goes to the poets.

An aged man is but a paltry thing
A tattered coat upon a stick unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress.

If I were to be reincarnated, or if I were already a reincarnation of someone, who would I want that person to be? The poets spring to mind - Godlike WB Yeats? But he spent most of his days longing after Maude Gonne.

Oh, the misery - and I did too much of that kind of longing myself in my youth! Or how about the wordsmith himself, Dylan Thomas? Mmmm - he spent most of his life worshipping the bottom of the glass.

Emily Bronte - er, no thanks. Dying of TB in a draughty manse (well, I grew up in a draughty manse - but let's hope I don't cough my way into the grave.) Ugggh. DH Lawrence, an author I have much affinity for? Yes, but he was such a wanderer, always searching for but never finding a place he felt comfortable in. Mmm, that's a bit too close already for comfort on the day of my departure for my own country from my adopted country, neither of which place makes me feel completely at ease.
Point is, Peter Schaffer has it right in his play "Amadeus:" The vessel is tarnished when it comes to the transmission of art.  The gods and goddesses see fit to pour their elixir into any old cup, which is a good thing for you and me, because they might choose us! The one who holds the art is practically irrelevant: the art stands alone. Even for the poets.
My next blog will come from Scotland the day after our vote for independence from the manic grips of imperialism. As in all strikes for freedom, may the heart win out, because, as William Wallace says in Braveheart, "They can take our lives, but they'll never take our Freeeeeeedom!!"

Thursday, September 11, 2014


19th September 2014

I am in Scotland researching my third book in the time travel series, and this was one of my first stops on Loch Tay. These amazing constructions called Crannogs were built starting in the iron age, and it isn't that easy to build them, let me tell you. Those iron age ancestors of mine knew a thing or two. For instance, these houses are built on stilts, and the way you secure all the many stilts it takes to support a house on the loch bed is you take a very long tree trunk out into the water and then you put a cross piece over the top of it. Next, you start to wiggle the trunk and because the floor of loch is sand over clay, you start to create a quick-sand effect, and the trunk becomes lodged in there witha vice-like grip. Another thing they did, which was very crafty and not so far from what we do today is that they built the walls of the crannog in two parallel layers, and in between they stuffed insulation made up of wool and bracken. I enjoyed poking around the crannog, and was especially pleased to leave a copy of my book with the lady in the gift shop, who was quite excited about it and promised to order more.

After the crannog, I drove up to the tiny village of Portmahomack, which is on a finger-like peninsula of Ross-shire and where a long time ago there was a Pictish settlement and lots of fantastically carved monoliths. One of the stones bears the symbol that is (not by coincidence) tattooed on the inside of my arm! It's called a crescent and V-Rod, and no one knows what it means, except for some who think it intimates that Scotland will gain her independence like any other rich and self-sufficient country should. (Well, I am the only one who thinks this!)  
It is lovely here, quite unspoiled, as you can tell below. Last night in the closing dark, I sat on a       and watched the sky fade. A heron flew up and flapped magestically, as Herons do, across the surface of the water.

As for the fog. Sometimes people vote for fog. Sometimes the smoke screen gets taken for daylight, And that's what happened to my country on September 18th 2014.